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Cloudy, Chance of Rage

29 Jun

Without wanting to give away too much about my age, I remember computers before Windows. If you don’t remember that, it’s hard to even imagine it. I know that there are all sorts of interfaces now, and many people are critical of Windows as an inferior system, but whenever people complain about I wish I could sit them down in front of a black screen with a green flashing > and say to them, “Go on, make it work. Oh, you don’t know the commands? TOUGH!”

Now, I’m not in the pay of Microsoft, and I don’t know a huge amount about computers. I just “mmm” vaguely when people talk about the superiority of Linux, because I really wouldn’t know (although I’m very much not a fan of Apple, albeit for reasons that generally don’t have much to do with their software). The point I’m trying to make, though, is how amazing the modern interface is. You click on the wordprocessing icon with your mouse, the word processor opens on your screen, you click somewhere in the text and start typing. Let’s break that down a little:

You use your mouse to move an arrow that isn’t really there (it’s just different pixels on the screen changing colour giving the impression of movement). You use it to click on an icon that is also just some differently coloured pixels on a screen. From this your computer is able to tell which program you are trying to open, even if you moved that icon halfway across the screen only seconds before. When you open the menu (which conveniently has little words like “open” instead of requiring you to input the computing commands you don’t know) and request a file it will trawl its digital depths to retrieve reams of data which it then presents on-screen in the form of a typed document. But it’s not a typed document, it’s lots of incomprehensible binary data just pretending to be a sheet of paper and some ink. Then, when you move your non-existent cursor over the imaginary document it is able to tell where amongst the words that are not really there you have selected, and when you type it updates its confusing string of data in such a way that more pictures of typed letters appear on the screen exactly where you want them. 

I do it every day – I’m doing it now – but when I stop to think about it, it’s still amazing.

However, all this not-really-there-ness has a downside. You can lose a paper document, of course. You can rip it, spill coffee on it, accidentally set fire to it. The ink may even fade over time until it’s impossible to read. But it won’t disappear in a puff of smoke. That’s exactly what can happen to digital files, though, and it happened to me today.

Now before anyone starts to wag a finger at me and talk about backing things up, I did, and that was what caused the problem. I backed up the completed manuscript of my children’s biography of St Augustine in a cloud-based storage facility. That takes not-really-there-ness to a whole new level. I can open files on my computer now, that not only aren’t really words on paper, but aren’t even complicated data on my computer pretending to be words, because they’re not on my computer at all, they’re only hovering there in an insubstantial, wraith-like way, while the actual data is on a server far, far away. Too far away to kick when it manages to eat the last hour of work you’ve produced.

All was not lost, however, as I eventually managed to restore a “conflicted” file that turned out to be the proper file, but there was much ranting and raging up to that point. It makes you feel so helpless. I searched for different versions of the file, I searched for words that I knew were only in the completed version, but the computer kept telling me it did not exist. It also makes you question your sanity. “But I saw it!” I kept saying to the computer. “It was there! I typed it! I did!” If it hadn’t been for the presence of a friend who saw the finished version, I might have started to doubt it myself. After all, there’s no evidence, no inky marks on your thumb, no impression of the words on a writing surface or another piece of paper. There’s just the computer telling you that the collection of data you spent hours tapping away at does not exist. And if it says so, it’s right, because these things only exist by the grace of the computer. I may have made this point before, but digital documents are not real. It takes you right back to that feeling of helplessness facing the flashing green > without the proper commands.

At some point in the next six months, that errant electronic manuscript will become a real, paper-and-ink book, and then it will be a lot harder to make it vanish. Until then, perhaps I should just try the form of paper-based storage known as printing.

A Plague of Dogs

21 May

no dogsWhen I rule the world, private dog ownership will be banned. This is not some kind of communist measure applying to all private property, it’s just dogs. (And cars, but that’s a different story.) Obviously, exceptions will be made for guide dogs, dogs for the deaf etc. People on farms can have dogs to do useful things. Keeping dogs as pets, however, will be right out.

In case I ever do rule the world, and bring in this regulation, let me explain the reasoning behind this prohibition.

1) Dogs defecate. All over the pavement in fact. This is something that is brought to my attention when I walk the obstacle course of dog dirt that is the route from Shawlands to Pollokshields, in Glasgow. The sheer quantity makes the mind boggle and the shoe sole quail. I once counted it. (Yes I know, that’s weird, but I was thinking that if I’m going to rant about it on the internet I should have some semi-statistical evidence.) I passed twenty-seven separate ‘incidences’ of dog poo.

It’s not just the disgusting smell (cleaning dog dirt off my shoes makes me heave because of the smell), it’s also the danger. Some dogs carry toxocara which, when it infects humans, can leave them partially blind. Lovely. Dozens of people, mainly children, come down with toxocariasis each year, because dogs have uncivilised toilet habits, and their owners have an antisocial attitude to clearing up after the dog.

And don’t get me started on people who think that if their dog defecates on grass the poo will magically disappear so they don’t have to deal with it. I don’t have a garden. We have communal “gardens” (read: car park) with a little strip of grass around the edge. In sunny weather I would like to succumb to the almost overwhelming Scottish impulse to throw myself down on the nearest piece of grass, but sadly it would mean settling myself upon a bed of dried dog-doo.

2) Dogs smell. Especially when wet, but even when they’re not. Houses that have dogs in them smell of dog. Cars that have dogs in them smell of dog. Buses with dogs on them… well, you get the idea. Perhaps there are people who relish the smell of dog. I am not one of them.

3) Dogs bite. Yes, they do. Not all of them, not even most of them, but plenty. There were six and a half thousand hospital admissions between April 2011 and 2012 caused by dog bites or other forms of attack. Attacks are also becoming more common. The RSPCA recommends that:

Children should not be left alone with dogs and warned not to approach them when the dog was eating, had a toy or possession, was sleeping, sick, injured, in pain, tired or had hearing or vision impairment. (RSPCA guidelines)

My solution is much simpler – no dogs.

4) I am scared of dogs. Related to 3, naturally. Some people call this a phobia, but I don’t think a fear of an animal that may maul you is irrational. My tiny niece has no fear of dogs, and I don’t want to instill one in her unless its necessary, but it does mean that every time we see a lovely wee doggy that she wants to stroke, my brain is whirring with thoughts like “Is this one a face biter?”, “Could I protect her from both of them at once?” and “Where is the nearest hospital?”

5) Dogs are an insult to wolves. I’m actually quite fond of wolves. (I probably wouldn’t be if people kept them in their tiny flats, let them poo all over the outdoor space, and left them free to attack people, but fortunately they don’t.) Some dogs show their relationship to wolves, and you can sort of see the point of them. Alsatians, Border Collies and other working dogs at least bear a passing resemblance. Chihuahuas don’t, and neither do Pugs or Shih Tzus or any other form of snub-nosed, silly-haired, shrunken bodied curs. I can only assume that when wolves see the ridiculous specimens their descendents have become, they turn bright red under their fur. Or try to eat them.

I appreciate that many people are fond of dogs, and will not share my views on keeping dogs as pets. Don’t worry, when in power I will be a magnanimous and reasonable leader, and I am in favour of the free movement of persons. When I rule the world, you will be allowed to emigrate to whatever planet you wish, and take your dogs with you.

Letter to Policy Exchange

18 Feb

The Policy Exchange, a think tank looking at the Government’s unpaid labour programme, has called for evidence about the current system of getting people into work. My friend Kerry decided to take them (semi-) seriously, and has written a very entertaining letter “sticking it to the man”. Enjoy!

My Letter to Policy Exchange.

Give Keynes a Chance!

19 Jan

george osborne dartboard Wicked as those extortionate loan companies are, they are right when they say in their adverts that it’s always when you’ve got no money that something breaks. My electric shower has just gone caput, in the middle of the skintest month of the year.

At times like this I find myself wailing, “Will this recession ever end?” Not if George Osborne had his way, it wouldn’t. Of course, it will end eventually, but it will be in spite of him, not thanks to him (although I expect that is what he will say at the time, if he’s still in goverment). Why is this? Because it is basic economic theory that you don’t make cuts in a recession – it only makes things worse, and prolongs the recession.

It was John Maynard Keynes who first explained this, a long time ago. I know it sounds a bit paradoxical, but it does actually make sense. I’ve explained it in more detail on Suite101 but in a nutshell, when times are tight, everyone sits on their money, and the economy stagnates. (That includes banks, by the way – the reason why they’re not lending.) If the government cuts, everyone clings on to their money tighter, and businesses close, and people lose their jobs. If the government uses monetary policy (giving banks money, or reducing interest rates) then the banks sit on the money, and everything is awful. However, if they increase people’s income by increasing benefits and, most importantly of all, creating jobs, money starts flowing around the economy again, and everything gradually gets back to tickety-boo status.

George Osborne should know this. If he doesn’t, he shouldn’t be Chancellor of the Exchequer. I suspect that he does know, and that he is just pretending not to for his own nasty ideological aims. The Conservatives believe in small goverment – not much taxation, not much spending – and if the easiest way to get there is to demonise the poor, blow smoke in the public’s eyes and, yes, extend the recession, that is what they will do. At least, that’s what they appear to be doing. (They are also picking on the disabled in a nefarious manner – another example of why the Tories are sometimes known as “the nasty party”.)

It doesn’t have to be like this. Iceland, which was hit particularly badly by the global crunch, is now doing quite nicely, thanks to keeping welfare, education and health spending high, and writing off ordinary people’s debt rather than banks’. Meanwhile, in Greece, austerity continues to wreck the economy so that there seems to be no prospect of it ever paying off its bail-out loans.

Mr Osborne says that we are in a “debt crisis” and the most important thing is to pay off our debts as quickly as possible. He thinks that borrowing in order to invest in the economy would be ridiculous, downright criminal, when we are in such a “debt crisis”. But we are not in a debt crisis, we are in a recession. Borrowing to stimulate the economy would be exactly the right approach. Avoiding borrowing through austerity measures has actually led to us, ahem, borrowing more – but without doing anything useful with the money, like creating jobs.

Take this analogy: A woman has a lot of credit card debt but she is managing to meet the repayments. George Osborne would have her sell her car, which she needs for her work, so that she can pay off the debt quicker, since that’s the most important thing. She will then have no way of working and have to borrow money just in order to live, but hey, you need to make tough choices in a “debt crisis”.

Yes, Mr Osborne, you do, but the ones you are making aren’t just tough. They’re wrong.

(Economics rant over. Normal service will be resumed in the next blog post, which will hopefully be about something much lighter and fluffier.)

Adverse Advertisements

12 Nov

There are some deeply irritating adverts on (British) TV at the moment. The wee tip-off that alerted me to the fact is that I find myself shouting at the TV. Admittedly I’ve been under a bit of stress lately, but my flatmate confirms that it’s not just me, there really are some stupid adverts around at the moment. So here is our top five:

5) Chanel Number 5 (with Brad Pitt)

So much has been said about this ad that it seems unnecessary to offer further criticism. One commentator said that it sounds like it’s been Google-translated through 12 different languages and back to English. It does. Another said, “It’s not a commercial, every commercial ends but we go on. The stomach turns and we turn with it. Truth disappears, fakes take over. But wherever I go, there you are…my bad luck, my fate, my torture.” I think that about sums it up.

4) Find My Past sponsorship ads

These appear at the start and end of history / antiques themed programmes. They involve a woman with a laptop, lots of ‘actors’ playing dress-up with stereotypical period costumes and mannerisms, and occasionally a weak joke (“Use the dishwasher.” “But ma’am, I am the dishwasher!”) Lazy, boring, pointless. Grr.

3) Vaseline Essential Moisturiser

This is the one that says something along the lines of “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a moisturiser that feels good and does good?” What a unique selling point! My current moisturiser, for instance, feels great but is made out of asbestos, while the one before that was deeply nourishing, but sadly contained pieces of shrapnel. Silly, pointless, patronising.

2) Muller Greek-Style Yoghurt

The two [spoiler alert!] centaur women discussing yoghurt on a Greek island. Leaving aside that fact that it probably does contain fat (“fat-free” doesn’t mean “does not contain fat”, strictly speaking), once again it’s the acting that makes it terrible. The fake little laugh in “It’s a myth” makes me want to chew nails, and I have to change the channel immediately.

1) Windows Tablet (with annoying dancing woman)

Pride of place is reserved for the Windows Tablet ad. There are a few of them, and some are ok, but this is the one with the awful song to which an awful black and white woman is doing an awful dance. So irritating that sparks fly from my ears, and it makes the product look clunky, busy and hard to use. An utter failure.
Next time, to lighten to mood somewhat, I think we might do a run down of some adverts that are actually good.

Who Cares?

3 Nov

There are places in the world that matter, and places that don’t. There are people who matter, and people who don’t. That, at least, is the attitude of our media. I was reminded of this by Hurricane Sandy, which devastated large parts of the Caribbean, then hit New York and other parts of the USA. While the hurricane was sweeping through the (poor, black) islands, the BBC and most other news outlets just talked at great length about what was likely to happen when it hit the States, and then about what did happen, and then about the clear-up. This is because Americans (rich, culturally similar to us) matter, whereas Caribbeans do not. The 69 dead in the Caribbean managed a princely one sentence out of a thousand-word BBC web article on the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

Of course, there was some coverage. There is a blog post on the Guardian site all about this skewing of the media, and another BBC web article about the effect on Haiti, where 54 people were killed out a population of 10 million (compared to 90 out of the USA population of 300 million).

This isn’t an isolated incident. In one of those strange co-incidences that life seems made up of, there were a number of bus crashes over the space of a few months, most of them involving students or young people. The one in Surrey in September, returning from Bestival, you’ve probably heard of. Three people were killed, others received horrific injuries. The ones in Iran (26 dead) and India (11 dead, not students) in October, you may or may not have done, but I can pretty much guarantee that you heard not a peep about the terrible crash in Albania in May. Thirteen students were killed and another twenty badly injured when a bus plunged over a cliff. One girl was left in a coma and had to be told, upon recovery, that her fiancé had died in the crash.

I know about it because I get an Albanian newsfeed through Facebook, and have a lot of Albanian friends and family, too. Over the years I have been annoyed, although I’m no longer surprised, whenever there have been wildfires or floods or droughts or violence around the elections in Albania, and there has been not even a one-sentence mention of it on the TV news. Albania is a place that does not matter, as far as our media (and, I suppose, most people) are concerned. The country would have to sink into the sea like Atlantis or (more realistically) help or threaten one of our allies or enemies before it would warrant a mention. (Although I should say that, once again, there is a BBC web article. Some Albanian news is there if you go looking for it, but if you’re looking for it then you probably know about it already.)

Now I understand why the Bestival crash received more attention. It’s natural to be interested in things that happen in your own country to your own people, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s also understandable that we get more news about our allies or, in the case of Iran, or enemies, since these things have a more direct effect on us. Human nature means that we’re probably more interested in the two Brits who died in an (hypothetical) air crash than the 70 non-Brits.

The amount that news is skewed towards us and our allies is out of proportion, though. OK, Albania is a special interest of mine, but how can it possibly be right that the 6 o’ clock news can fail to mention the trail of death and devastation Sandy left in Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, the Bahamas etc., but can give 5-10 minutes (of a half-hour programme) to speculation about how the hurricane will affect the election of the leader of a foreign country? Of course, the main TV news is not the only information out there. I should probably listen more to the world news programmes, and it’s a failing on my part if I’m not interested enough to do so. But I just wanted to express my conviction that the dichotomy in the mainstream media between the “matters” and the “don’t matters” is unfair, morally pernicious, and makes things worse for the suffering areas of the world that we should care about more.

Are you Average?

19 Sep

While doing the washing up this morning I became aware of the warm, damp, clammy sensation that tells me that another rubber glove has sprung a leak. It was the right-hand glove, of course; it’s always the right glove. (I’m right-handed.) This time it was sort of my own fault since I had bought a very cheap variety. It lasted about three days and then split between the thumb and index finger because it was cheap and nasty, and if it had come in a pack of 50 instead of a pack of two you would have assumed it was disposable. It is now.

Usually, however, it’s at the tips of the fingers that rubber gloves break, because that’s where there’s a loose bit, and it is about this that I wish to moan: why do rubber gloves only come in medium?

I understand, of course, that not all products can be produced in a variety of shapes and sizes to suit every customer. It wouldn’t make economic sense. So, you would think medium was a fairly sensible size to bring rubber gloves out in, if limited to one size. Not so. “Medium” seems to refer to the size that fits the average human hand – not the average female human hand. Call me sexist, but in my experience women do the vast majority of work that calls for rubber gloves, from washing dishes to scrubbing floors to cleaning toilets. So why bring the gloves out only in a size that is too large for most women? I do not have petite little mitts, but I am left with quarter of an inch of useless rubber at the end, preventing me from picking small things up and getting itself caught when I try to clean things. And then breaking, so I have to buy more medium-sized rubber gloves.

Now, it is not strictly true that rubber gloves only come in medium. I have also seen them in large. Large! Why large? A size that doesn’t fit most women complemented by a size that fits no women. I have no objection to men wearing rubber gloves (especially if it means they’re doing the housework) but why can’t rubber gloves come in small and medium, or small and large if need be? Why can’t I have a pair of rubber gloves that fits me, and therefore won’t break at the fingertips after a few days or, at most, weeks of wear?

Admittedly there must be places that you can get small rubber gloves. I haven’t explored all avenues. But frankly I don’t want to go to specialist shops or pay postage just so I can do the washing up in comfort. As I see it, barring specialists, I have three alternatives. The first is to buy those latex, single-use gloves that come in a variety of sizes, making life easier but costing more money and helping to destroy the environment. The second is to grow very long finger nails. This would mean that my fingers would reach to the end of the medium-sized gloves, although I don’t really think that having long, sharp tips to my fingers would help with the problem of rubber gloves splitting. Thirdly, I can just buy another pair of medium gloves that don’t fit and will soon break, while muttering under my breath, and relieve my feelings by writing a blog post about it.

Can you guess which I will choose?

The Price of Everything

1 Aug

Last week I visited Chatsworth, a well-known stately home in Derbyshire. Unfortunately I wasn’t an invited guest (despite having once been present at the Duke of Devonshire’s birthday party, but that’s another story) so I had to pay to get in. There was no indication of the price on the information leaflets, nor on the various notices we passed as we queued. That should have been a clue. Once you were at the entrance and it would be embarrassing to turn back, it was revealed that the price was £15, or £16.50 if you wanted to Gift Aid it. (I’ve never heard of Gift Aid making anything more expensive before.) That made £30 for Burri and me.

Bear in mind, this was not London, this was the north of England. The entry price also didn’t include anything like a guide book. No, that was £5 extra. You could save money by viewing just the gardens, not the house. That would be £11, please. There were wee buggies to help the elderly and disabled around the gardens. They were extra, too. A stately house would be wasted on children, so they could go to the farmyard and adventure playground – £5. Of course, you can’t leave small children unsupervised so a responsible adult could enter to watch – another £5.

It’s not that Chatsworth isn’t worth seeing. The paintings, statues and other works of art are stunning, especially the painted ceilings. The gardens are magnificent, especially the staircase fountain that stretches the whole length of a hill and which you can walk up and down in your bare feet on a hot day – and this was a scorcher. My problem was with the way the air of money-grabbing seemed to permeate your whole visit, leaving a bad taste in your mouth and to some extent spoiling your pleasure.

By contrast, when I left the north of England to return to my well-watered homeland, I was able to spend a pleasant fifteen minutes, not waiting on a dingy platform or drinking an overpriced coffee (not that I’m knocking all overpriced coffee – I do love my Costa), but playing a bit of table tennis. Sturdy, weatherproof tables had been set up outside Sheffield station. The bats were scruffy, some of the balls were dented and the tables may well disappear after the Olympics, but it was an unexpected treat. And it was free. We were perfectly prepared to pay for the table, indeed we expected to, but there was no need.

The effect on people was noticable. Strangers smiled at each other, and tossed back stray balls. British people laughed and even exerted themselves in public. It was an uplifting episode. Chatsworth no doubt could not afford to support itself if visits were free, but if they care at all about leaving visitors with a positive impression of the place, they should probably try being a little less mercenary. And maybe introduce free ping pong tables.

Something else free: Running for Cover by K C Murdarasi

Nefarious: Merchant of Souls

7 Jul

Last night I saw the multi-award winning documentary Nefarious: Merchant of Souls. Hard-hitting doesn’t cover it. I thought I knew quite a lot about prostitution and people trafficking (I even touch on it in my novel Leda), but this was an eye-opener. The statistics were truly horrifying, although of course statistics can be endlessly debated. What really got to me, though, and to the rest of the audience, was the stories of real life victims of the sex trade, in their own words. That, and the footage of happy, smiling children in South East Asia at a rescue centre – this was them leaving the sex industry at the age of ten or twelve. It’s the kind of thing that makes you shake with rage.

At times during the film I felt really hopeless, the problem seems so huge. Fortunately, as the film makes clear, there is hope. People do escape. It is even possible to combat sex trafficking as a nation. If Sweden can do it, so can we – and in fact MSP Rhoda Grant is trying to. (This fact is not in the documentary, but was mentioned afterwards by representatives of Exodus Cry.)

Exodus Cry is the organisation behind Nefarious, and they are unashamedly a Christian organisation who are doing what they do (combatting slavery) because of their Christian beliefs. They get some stick for that from people who think that if you’re doing anything because you’re a Christian then you’re insincere or have an ulterior motive. I would say, instead, that if your Christian faith doesn’t move you to help others (to “love your neighbour”, as Jesus put it) then there’s something deeply wrong.

So if you do care about sex slavery, what can you do?

1) Try and see the film Nefarious, if you can. You can buy the DVD from their website or even arrange a showing near you.

2) Write to your MSP (if in Scotland) to support Rhoda Grant’s campaign, or to your MP/ local politician to ask them to support something similar in your country.

3) Pray. I know, lots of people reading this will not be Christians and will think that praying is about as much use as thinking happy thoughts about fairies and unicorns. However, I am still going to recommend it as a course of action because in my experience, and the experience of many people I know, it’s the most useful thing you can do, especially when faced with such an overwhelming problem.

“We don’t do half sizes”

9 Jun

Two pairs of shoes recently died, in that irritating way they do, so I had the chance to experience the joy that is British shoe sizing not once, but twice. I had been looking about vaguely for replacements, as I knew they were on their way out, but it wasn’t until things reached a drastic stage that I actually had to march myself into a shoe shop with instructions not to come out until I had some new footwear. (The problem, you see, was that both dead pairs were staples of my shoe wardrobe – my only pair of trainers / plimsoles, and black flats.)

The shop I went to was Deichmans, but the problem I experienced there was not confined to them. My grave crime, you see, is that my feet are size six and a half. Ah, the half! I didn’t choose my shoe size, nor did I ask Britain to size shoes in such a way that fractions are necessary, but still when I ask for a pair of shoes in my size I get that look, as if I’m a kid who thinks ‘seven and three quarters’ is a legitimate age, and the words “we don’t do half sizes”.

This used to annoy me even before I lived on the Continent. If there’s enough of a difference in size for some shops to do half sizes, why can’t I ask for my size without scorn? It’s not as if everything that’s half is a failure to reach a whole; ask a musician what would happen if we abolished semitones.

Since living in Europe, though, and encountering European sizes, I get even more annoyed by half-sizedness prejudice. I take a size 40, for goodness sake – isn’t that a round enough number for you?

Even that comforting knowledge didn’t help me in Deichmans, though. Admittedly, I sometimes take a 39, and I’ve seen both 39 and 40 marked as the equivalent of 6.5. However, in Deichmans British sizes seemed to bear no relation to European ones, and in fact British sizes didn’t seem to bear much relation to British sizes, leaving me trying on sizes more or less as random – which, coincidentally, is what I had to do in Albania at first.

The end result is that I’ve got one pair in a 37 and the other in a 35 (!) – but not a 35 and a half, of course. That would just be silly.