Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Be careful what you say

I always try to be careful what I say.  I don't always succeed, and from time to time I do say things I wish I hadn't, but generally I try to think of how what I say - and how I say it - may affect someone else.

I was thinking the other day of my time back at Symbian, many years ago.  Back in the day, I moved down to London for work, and was just settling into a new job, a new flat and the idea that I now lived in London rather than just visited.  I was young, excited and eager.  All of those things have worn off with the years, but back then I was keen.  Back at Symbian we used Lotus Notes for email.  Yes, really.  It had this peculiar habit that whenever you set an Out Of Office message, it would retrospectively send a message to all the people who had emailed you during the day.  I'd never used it before working at Symbian, so I wasn't to know this.  A few months into working there, I had a week off and so set an Out Of Office, as did everyone else.  Unbeknownst to me, it sent a message to everyone who'd mailed me that day to say I was on holiday. This included the few people who'd sent emails all around the team.  Most people probably just knew what was going on, and so deleted my email.  One person didn't.  They sent me a single line reply "I don't care if you're going on holiday!".  No smiley. No joke.

Now my point isn't that I'm still smarting from it.  I'm not, by the way.  My point is that to someone who's just started at a company that makes an impression.  Maybe you've had a bad day. Maybe you are trying to tell someone they've done something wrong.  To me, at the time, it just made me think "people here aren't very welcoming are they?".  I never consciously held against against the guy, but must admit I could never warm to him from that day onwards.

When you join a new company, you can only judge what you find and how you see it.

Of course, in these days of Twitter and Facebook and Google and Blogs, it's hard to take back anything you say.  The same is true on TV.  Now that we have UKTV GOLD and Drama and Yesterday and Watch you keep getting glimpses back into attitudes not that long ago.  I had a bit of a shock this evening.  I was watching Harry Hill's TV Burp on GOLD earlier.  I actually quite like it.  Yes, seriously.  I've always thought it's silly but never offensive.

This episode was obviously from a little while back, just after Hayley joined Coronation St.  I know Harry Hill takes a swipe at everything, but a couple of the things he said about Hayley made me sit up.  He jokes about people's characters and funny things they say, and things which happen in the background.  But I could've done without the comments about the fact that Hayley used to be a man.  Specifically jokes with the punchline suggesting Hayley is "a fella".  I'm not prudish about making jokes which are very close to the line.  You should hear some of the things I say.  But I just felt this was over the line, and for Harry Hill I was actually quite disappointed.  I expected better.

So as I say - be careful what you say - you never know when it may come back to haunt you.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Laying my insecurities burr

I have an accent.  We all do.  Even those without a “regional” accent in England, for instance, have a way of pronouncing words which is different to other people’s way of pronouncing the same words.    I’ve recently decided to pick up French lessons again after a few years away from it.

French is the only language other than my native English which I can use to any degree beyond “stringing a few nouns together”.  I am very self-conscious speaking French, though.  In French lessons over the years, I’ve spent quite a long time working on pronunciation.  French vowels are – in the main – very different to English vowels and the key to making what you’re saying “sound French” is largely about getting the vowels to sound French.

But doing so exposes the accent I have in English.  I have a Liverpudlian accent when speaking English.  It’s really mellowed over the years, but it’s still there and one of the places where it comes across most strongly is in the vowel sounds.  When I’m speaking there’s no difference between “her”, “hare” and “hair”.  They all come out “hurr”.  I’m not ashamed of my accent, but it does make me self-conscious as it’s something people tend to notice.

Learning to speak French tends to make these things seem more pronounced (no pun intended) – or at least in my mind.

Fortunately, consonants are (pretty much) similar in French and English, so you’d think that’d be safe, but there’s one particular consonant I have trouble with in English.  It’s bothered me for years, so much so that I avoid saying words which start with this letter if I’m speaking formally although I can pronounce it quite well at the end of a word.  And it’s a consonant which is the same in French as in English.  I’m not going to say which one it is, because I don’t want people to be listening out for it and making me more self-conscious about it, but it just sounds weird to me.  I’ve mentioned it to people in the past and they tell me all is fine, and they don’t notice – but I can hear a weird noise whenever I start a word with this consonant.

So not only am I hoping that a very pronunciation-based approach to learning French will help me to get back some level of fluency in French, but may even help me to become more confident speaking in English…

Saturday, 11 January 2014

It wasn't a ghost...

... in fact it wasn't really anything at all.

A few days ago, I wrote about hearing a voice in the middle of the night.  I had a few ideas at the time what I may actually be hearing, but it was only a couple of nights ago when I had the chance to try out my theory and see whether it was what I suspected.  And it was.

I actually found it quite an interesting puzzle.  It's a bit like watching a magic trick and trying to work out how it's done.  The first thing you have to do is draw the line on the things you're not going to consider as answers.  So when trying to work out how a trick is done, this is the point at which you'd say "the magician did not really make the rabbit appear from nowhere".  You have to disconnect what you actual saw from what you think you saw.  And so I had to stop thinking about what I think I heard, and think about what it was that I actually heard.

I've written in the past about pareidolia.  It's the thing which causes people to believe they've seen Jesus in a cupcake or a human face on the moon. It's also the thing which causes people to "hear" satanic rantings when playing 70s rock songs backwards.

The answer to the problem was - rather disappointingly - very simple.  Where I was lying in bed, noise drifts up from the street.  Noise from the station right next door and the normal rumblings and humming of a modern home filled with machines and electronic equipment.  Silence is never totally silent anymore.  I had surmised that what I was actually hearing was a combination of background noise of about the right frequency and rhythm to suggest speech.  In the same way that once you've seen one of those autostereogram pictures you can persuade your eyes and brain to let the picture go, or can easily bring it back again - my brain had started to hear something which sounded like a voice and so was interpreting any sounds it heard of about the right type to be a voice - just too unclear to be made out.

So the other night I was in the flat on my own and it was quite late and as quiet as it was going to get.  I lay in bed with the light off and forced myself to listen for voices.  I stopped listening explicitly to the sounds I could hear, and tried to tune out and search for the sound of a voice.  And I heard one.  Well I didn't, but I did manage to trick my brain into being convinced that there was a indistinct male human voice just out of clear earshot.  It was also pretty easy to snap back out of it into hearing just the sounds for what they were too.  It felt exactly like forcing yourself to see and then unsee one of those pictures.

So there you have it. No ghosts, just an artefect of the human brain's love for finding patterns where there aren't any.

Of course, this isn't truly scientific.  I had a theory about what may have caused me to hear what I heard, and I manage to recreate the same result using this theory.  But I know the pedants will (quite rightly) say that doesn't prove what caused it on the original night.  But given that the theory fits the evidence, and gives reproducible results I'm quite happy to live with it as the explanation.

However, unlike people who would dogmatically say this genuinely was a ghostly voice, I'm quite happy to change my view if a better answer should come along.  You tend to find that those people who report these things as genuinely supernatural spend more time trying to discredit any explanation other than their preferred one than investigating alternatives.  A true scientist would never have a preferred answer in the absence of evidence, and that preference would only have a lifetime which matched the lifetime of the supporting evidence.  But then again, how many scientists believe in ghosts..?

Monday, 6 January 2014

Ghostly voices in the night

So this is an absolutely true story.  

The other night, I woke up at 3.14am - the mathematician in me wouldn't forget that time.  Everything was quiet and dark, but I could hear a male voice.  It sounded like a distant radio.  Only one word every now and then was actually discernible, but it was a male voice talking slowly and deliberately as though talking on radio.  It was a calm voice.

I lay in bed trying to make out the words, but couldn't make it out. It was - annoyingly - just too quiet to be made into sentences and understand what it was saying, but it definitely sounded like a male voice.  Almost insistent like a DJ on talk show making a point.  Rising and falling, and the odd word being discernible amongst the mumble.

After listening to it for a few minutes, I decided to investigate.  My first thought was that my bedside radio had turned into on (or I had knocked it and turned it on) with the volume very low.  But no. It was turned off.  As was the radio the other side of the bed.  I then thought of the spare room - maybe the radio  in the spare room was on.  So I got out of bed and walked into the hall.  The voice got quieter as I walked out into the hall.  No noise from the spare room.  I walked through into the living room and all was silent.  I looked out into the gardens in case there was anyone in the communal gardens just over the fence talk.  Nobody around and absolute silence.  I walked back into the bedroom and got back into bed.  The noise was there again - a mumbled voice just too quiet to make out.

I fell back asleep pretty soon afterwards.

This has bugged me for a couple of days.  Was it a ghost..?

More to come on this one, I'm sure...

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Overly helpful - but totally useless

I quite often pop into Holland and Barrett in Chiswick.  It's a shop I love and loathe in equal measure.  They very often have great offers which make ingredients such as cashews, almonds and other bits really cheap - but equally they do stock a lot of new-age pseudo-medical homeopathic-herbal bollocks too.

The staff are very friendly.  So friendly, that it makes it hard to dislike the sheer amount of time they take just to put something in a bag.  They ask for your reward card and then try to push an over-priced and (probably, although I've never read it) content free magazine on your for a couple of quid.  I know they probably have a little sticky label inside the till drawer telling them how many they must shift per week per person, but it still grates.  

The worst thing of all is the way the passive aggressive way they have been told (obviously, as they all do the same in every branch) to ask for your reward card by saying "do you have your reward card with you?".  The tacit assumption in the phrasing is that you do already have a reward card, but may not have it with you.  It's designed to make you feel as though you should have one.  The psychology behind it isn't hard to discern - in fact it's so obvious (yet masquerading as "subtle") that I find it very annoying.  I have succeeded in one way in which I've previously failed though.  A few years ago, I pitted my wits against the staff at a stall in Paddington Station (War Of Words) and failed.  I have never been rude, or even uncivil, to the staff at Holland and Barrett - though somehow I have managed to get myself known as someone who neither has (nor wants) a loyalty card.  I count that as a small personal victory.

I don't have many loyalty cards at all.  It's not through any mistrust of my shopping habits being run through a pattern-analysing supercomputer by Tesco - simply a lack of space in my wallet.  By the time you have membership cards, and driving licence and debit cards and credit cards in there, where would you put all the loyalty cards you get offered?  Having said that, I do have a MyWaitrose card.  Obviously.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

I don't like 2014 so far

2014 seems to be quite a wet year.  It's not stopped raining and it's quite windy too. I don't like 2014.  It's too wet.

Of course, that's nonsense.  But it's not a million miles away from the response you get if you ask for advice on holiday destinations.

"How was ?"

"It was terrible, the people are all very rude the whole time!"

"How many times have you been?"

"Oh, just the once"

And it turns out that someone was just slightly brusque with them in a supermarket on the second day and suddenly the whole population of is decried as rude.

We're currently in the process of trying to find somewhere to go for a few days to get a bit of warmth in the winter this year.  It seems that whatever destination you mention, someone has something bad to say and it's generally based on a sample size so small as to be meaningless.

Of course, people are made to be good at deducing things from tiny simple sets.  Evolution conveys such judgement a huge advantage.  But whilst that's generally been good at deciding whether a previously unencountered animal is going to eat us or not, it's not that great at judging holiday destinations.

The UK isn't brilliantly place for holidays to "warm but interesting" places.  You can get to the Costa Del Sol or somewhere in a few hours, but I can't say that really appeals to me.  I've never been one for sitting on a beach doing nothing, and given that I'm fast approaching middle age, I don't intend to spend time doing that whilst I still have the energy to walk around and explore.  I just wish there were more "slightly warmer" cities close to the UK and worth a week's holiday!