Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Fun & games

Feeling that my skin was as tight as was decently safe, I rose from the Boxing Day dining-room table (a task taking some minutes), poured myself another glass of my excellent father-in-law's excellent Rioja, leered at the exquisite miniature that is my mother-in-law (who's used to it, so no harm done there) and lurched unsteadily into the lounge. Mrs QO was sitting placidly in the chair by the fire, working on her latest tapestry. Three nephews and one goddaughter-niece (all young in years but old in mischief) immediately and vociferously required my participation in a game which appeared to involve moving a small plastic token or familiar from square to square of a board, performing various animal-related tasks on the way, depending on the fall of the die and the cards one was required to draw thereupon. I good-naturedly slumped to the floor to join in.

"Uncle QO, you're the green snake and you have to bray like a donkey!"
"Ex-squeeze me?"
"You have to bray like a donkey and move one space. But not before you've brayed like a donkey."

Oh gods. I took a deep breath, then emitted a noise resembling the final expiration of a long-tortured walrus. There was a moment of awed hush, during which I thought I might just have got away with it. Then uprose a damnatory chorus.

"That was rubbish!"
"Uncle QO, have you ever even like seen a donkey?"
"Haaaaaaaa." (Nephew B isn't very old at all.)

I delivered some cutting remarks about respect for their elders, whereupon (I am saddened to record) I was the subject of an unlawful assault. In fact, I think we could establish "affray", given the group nature of the disorderly behaviour which then ensued.

I rose majestically, albeit with some difficulty, with small relatives hanging off my person, like a wildebeest beset by hyaenas, only considerably better-looking, of course. Shaking off the smaller of the ruffians, I dealt with Nephew F with a perfectly executed Osoto Gari, leaving him giggling on the sofa. I was immediately required to demonstrate this move on my goddaughter; I did so with good will, despite the distraction and unbalance caused by Nephew J's ascent with extreme prejudice of my left leg, but the young madam was at least satisfactorily floored.

"Let me do it on you, Uncle QO!" went up the cry from the pack.

I draw a veil over the undignified and distinctly uncomfortable few minutes that I was then required to endure but let it suffice that, two days later, I am still having some difficulty walking. Indeed, I suspect that without the intervention of my dear Mrs QO, I would not be able to place these matters on record. You may recall Bagheera's desperate cry for help, and in like vein I appealed to my wife in extremis. Never has she failed me. Putting down her tapestry and adjusting her glasses to extreme aunt she uttered perhaps the one phrase that could have penetrated the young rapscallions' awareness.

"Right, you lot, leave your uncle alone. Who wants a go on the Wii?"

Like startled vultures leaving the kill, they abandoned me for more interesting prey, and I was able to drag myself back into the dining-room for a restorative draught of wine. My rather dishevelled condition raised a few eyebrows but no pejorative comment. Well, we're British, you see.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

'Tis the season...

... to leave a perfectly comfortable house, pack a bare minimum of
possessions into a bag, get into a cold motor-car and embark on a
220-mile journey to the snow-bound north of England. Actually, this is good. We are spending Christmas with Mrs QO's parents and siblings (and siblings' spouses and siblings' children and assorted dogs), a lively bunch of rugged individualists whose exuberant good-nature warms the heart at the same time that it leaves one wishing that Kanga was around to pick one up and dust one off. The hospitality will run at an average of around 35%, which may on the face of it seem a little less than ideal, but I'm quoting 'degrees proof'. There will be open fires, winter walks, small persons in feverish excitement and much rejoicing.

Mrs QO finished dressing the eight-foot tree this evening and by happy chance we were able to view it against a backdrop through the window of big, fat snowflakes falling. We feel very Christmassy.

So I send you mellow and festive wishes. Be kind to each other, be at peace, and I can surely offer no greater gift than the chance to enjoy the sublime sound of Scunthorpe Salvation Army band.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Trials and tribulations

You will recall the basic premise of my new theory. Time, I thought, to put some evidential weight behind it.

Lacking a well-equipped laboratory for detailed cytological and histological work, I pondered what I could achieve within the limitations of a three-bed semi. Perhaps a good first step would be to do some groundwork on the gross physical structures of the meaculpa oblongata and the male genitalia - we could start with the comparative masses of the two, I thought. Elementary stuff, yes, but necessary to a rigorous analysis.

I wandered into the study, where Mrs QO was browsing contentedly on the computer, and asked her if I could borrow her meaculpa oblongata for some tests. Well, I hesitate to say this, but her reaction was far from scholarly, and I draw a benevolent curtain over the detail of her remarks. Perhaps she was using the organ in question at the time.

Nothing daunted, it seemed that progress could be made by ascertaining the mass of my... um... well, my side of the equation, as it were. I considered how to do this. The kitchen scales were clearly out of the question, as all the weights are imperial, and that's so like, you know, yesterday? I pondered the hand-held luggage scale we have, but didn't like the look of the hook. Fortunately it then occurred to me that the human body is mostly water, apart from a few crunchy bits. It therefore followed that if I immersed the... er... test subjects in water, and noted the volume of water thus displaced, a good approximate value would easily be obtained. Simples. Yes, yes, the density of water is non-linear relative to temperature, but that can be allowed for with a bit of appropriate adjustment.

No more than ten minutes later I had a satisfactory test rig in the kitchen, comprised of a couple of chairs, the table, and a bowl of warm water. I removed the appropriate clothing, assumed a position not unlike one doing press-ups over the bowl, and commenced my observations. The thought crossed my mind that Archimedes would be proud (if, perhaps, a little startled).

It remains unclear whether the physical position or the temperature of the water were the important factors, but I very quickly became aware, once the test subjects were fully immersed, of a major increasing variable becoming apparent. While not unpleasant, I was conscious that my data would have to allow for this, and it occurred to me that perhaps the temperature of the water was more of an issue than I had first thought.

I therefore re-rigged the experiment with a bowl of iced water. (Fortunately Mrs QO takes all her drinks 'on the rocks' apart from her bedtime absinthe, so there is always plenty of ice to hand.)

I lowered my test subjects into the bowl. My surprise was overwhelming! Not only did the previous major increasing variable reverse rapidly in magnitude, but I noted two new variables, both diminishing equally rapidly, and indeed in both cases tending to zero!!

I admit it was deeply unscientific, but I uttered a stifled yelp at the thought of the adjustments I was going to have to make to my results to allow for the variables going in opposite directions. There was also a reflexive physical reaction which - if I recall - involved the bowl getting off the table, but I took no further notes on that point.

Later on, while I was towelling vigorously and writing up my notes, I decided that I would have to express the results as a range, even if the higher values seemed somewhat unlikely (he said modestly). It was at that point that Mrs QO came in, evidently in a somewhat agitated state. She enquired (in rather sharp language) whether I was not the tiniest bit worried that the kitchen had been two inches deep in water, and was I not at all guilty that she'd had to clear it all up. I'm still not clear what she was driving at, but when she's calmed down I will gently point out that we don't use 'inches' any more.

I must apologise for publishing such incomplete results, but I assure you of my desire for intellectual rigour (I look at Google and Wikipedia) and will keep you abreast of my further investigations.

My theory...

... well, my latest theory, is one that has emerged after many years' study across a range of subjects including human physiology, behavioural psychology and Sex in the City.

As I'm sure you know, we all start as females. More precisely, the human ovum contains the complete genome, including an X-chromosome; only if a Y-chromosome is contributed by the spermatazoon at fertilization will the SRY gene contained within the Y-chromosome switch on the production of androgen, leading to the production of a male.

Now, going on from that, my ground-breaking insight is that another hitherto unsuspected gene, or complex of genes, is the cause of a further stage of that development. Viz: certain cells in the zygote that would have developed into the 'guilt and worry' gland (the meaculpa oblongata) in the adult female are genetically repurposed in the male and become the external genitalia.

Some of you may find this theory a little startling at first. Certainly, when I first expounded it to a group of Mrs QO's work colleagues after their Christmas party, there were one or two confused expressions. However, the enraptured silence and incredulous stares convinced me that this was an insight of the first magnitude, and that further work (and, hopefully, some major funding) were of crucial importance.

Consider for yourselves how many observable gender-based behavioural phenomena this theory explains. For example, when we say that women can multi-task, we are essentially saying that they're worrying and feeling guilty about several unfinished tasks simultaneously. Men, on the other hand, seldom worry about anything and, if they do, it's only about one thing.

In a future post I will bring you up to date on my latest phase of work which will, I hope, add some valuable experimental data to the research. In the meantime, you are very welcome to contribute your own examples, and all will be carefully acknowledged when I publish my paper.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Praise be to the distant sister sun

Pork loin steaks make an excellent, quick supper. But don't just grab them from the fridge and drop them straight onto the grill-tray. As Nigel Slater so wisely observes, we can do better than that. Take two or three stems of fresh rosemary and chop the leaves finely. Take a clove of garlic and crush. Black pepper; salt. Lemon juice and good olive oil in 1-3 proportion. Mix it all up well (a pestle and mortar will help and give you a feeling of really doing something advanced). Marinate your steaks in this for at least an hour, ideally more, and you will find that when you do cook them (as it might be after you've been goofing off on the blog), they will be immeasurably improved. Very good, perhaps.

Anyway, moving right along. It is the Winter Solstice. Actually, it was a bit over an hour ago, but I was up to my elbows in oily pork; and it's not every day you say that. The solstice is very much welcomed here at QOHQ, since Mrs QO suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The thought that the year has turned and the days will (albeit very slowly to begin with) now be getting longer, is a good one.

SAD is a bugger, let me tell you. The US National Library of Medicine, as quoted on Wiki, says:

"Some people experience a serious mood change when the seasons change. They may sleep too much, have little energy, and crave sweets and starchy foods. They may also feel depressed."

Yup. Mind you, the Wiki page also calls it a disorder in which:

"...people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter."

There's a pretty large assumption in there, and another pretty large assumption is that I will survive the night if Mrs QO happens to check the blog.

The pork steaks call, so I leave you with best wishes for the turning of the real year. I also offer a small but pungent prize for anyone who correctly identifies the source of this post's title without recourse to a search engine.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

How journalism works

You're a bored journo scratching around for something to fill some space. You're slightly buzzed on coffee and nicotine, under deadline pressure and the editor (like any other ruthless predator) is not safe to annoy. Deep in the pile of 'desperation stakes' material that totters at the side of the desk, you find a document that summarises recently published academic papers from your local university.

An item catches your eye. It seems some white-coated nutters in the lab have been feeding mice on various vegetables and checking for cancer rates. "The observed incidence of neoplasm in the group fed on parsnips was 0.00002% compared with 0.00001% in the control group."

Your antennae twitch. We're in business. Fire up InDesign. Let's get a good, eye-opening heading.

Parsnips cause cancer, scientists admit today

Nice. "Admit" is always a good one (especially when nobody's ever denied anything). OK, for the body copy, get the important stuff in early on. Obviously the absolute risk is tiny but we can work with the relative risk. Fear sells, and most people can't count past three anyway. "Cancer rates soared by 100% for the parsnip-eaters.... mothers worried... local chefs rewriting menus..." This is easy, you can spool this off by the yard. We'll get some quotes from MOPs (members of the public), and make sure we get the answers we can use by careful phrasing of the question. How about: "How fearful would you be to know that your child is at twice the risk of cancer if you feed them parsnips?" It won't make the editor smile (nothing has since 9/11) but you might get out of the building alive before 9 tonight.

Obviously one thing you don't want to do is contact the scientists who carried out the study. They'll only drone on with all their usual stuff about quoting stats out of context, correlation not being causation and all that. They'll also point out that the feeding rates for the mice were equivalent to a human eating 20 kilos of parsnips a day for 20 years. They have not Idea One about what makes a story.

Once you've submitted your piece, clearly the next thing to do is fire off an e-mail to the Root Vegetable Growers Association asking them for comment. You BCC the e-mail to the ad sales wonks, since clearly the RVGA will be desperate to rescue plunging sales, so they should be good for at least a half-page if not a full. You also have a word with Deirdre, the chain-smoking, alcoholic old tart who writes the 'Auntie Barbara' column. She can start thinking about a nice, commonsense, soothing piece: "no need to panic... importance of a balanced diet... just to be on safe side, perhaps switch your kids to leafy green vegetables". She's a safe pair of hands on that kind of thing.

There'll also be mileage in contacting the local branch of animal welfare activists. Those poor mice...

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Aim high

I've been reading this story about a proposal to launch a probe to reach and study Ligeia Mare, a sea of liquid methane on Titan. It's hard to see how this will get past the beancounters, particularly given the state of public finances, but full marks to the study team making the bid. What is a little sad is that the plan isn't more ambitious. Let's send people to Titan!

I'm old enough to remember watching the first moon landing. Yes, the endeavour to put men there was politically driven, rather than in a spirit of adventure for adventure's sake, but nevertheless plans were made, problems solved, ambition achieved. If that endeavour had been continued, we could by now quite realistically have had a well established colony on the Moon. I can't say it would be entirely self-sufficient, but it could have been well on the way.

So what, you may say? What benefit would we enjoy from the existence of Moonbase One? How could we justify the enormous expenditure of taxpayers' money that could otherwise be dedicated to more obvious necessities such as quango chairmens' remuneration, large-scale government IT projects and the war in Afghanistan?

[More on 'loaded questions' in a future posting but, hey, it's my blog.]

This is an easy one to answer. During the high point of the Apollo series, around 400,000 people worked for NASA or their contractors. OK, great for employment, then. The 'space race' is what drove miniaturisation in electronics, so you have it to thank for your computers, sat navs (don't start me), MP3 players... well, anything that's small, clever and hi-tech has Moon all over it. I have no idea what the total economic yield of all that development has been, but fortunately neither have you. Could we just agree that it must have paid back many times the investment?

Over and above all that, if we'd established a colony on the Moon - or, by this time perhaps, on Mars – then if things go entirely tits-up down here on Earth for whatever reason, we would have a toe-hold somewhere else.

One of the things that has made our species successful (in its admittedly short existence) is that we're inquisitive, adaptable, restless dreamers. Our ancestors set off on journeys around the world in sailing ships, often with no maps, no real idea where they were going or what they would face, and ready to spend months or years in the endeavour. It would be sad to think we'd lost that spirit of adventure. The developed world has had the charge of decadence laid against it many times, and seldom has the developed world taken that at all seriously. Perhaps it should.


Since drafting the above, I came across a much more authoritative and cogent analysis here. I think I'll do a post sometime soon on the notion that research on a subject is most usefully done before issuing an opinion on it. I can't see it catching on, but one never knows.

Friday, 18 December 2009


On the train to London.

'Tickets please.'
'Ah, you'd be the senior guard, I expect.'
'No, sir, I'm your train manager today.'
'I see. What will you be tomorrow?'
'Tomorrow's clients' train manager, sir. Was there something I could do to enrich your journey?'
'Well, yes, as it happens. That lady opposite...'

He gazed at me rather severely.

'Sir, I'm afraid we don't use the term 'lady' any more, as it's clearly redolent of an outmoded class structure.'
'Of course, forgive me. Well then, Doris there...'
'Yes, sir?'
'Well, she has two electronic devices in front of her. One of them is plugged into her ears, making a tinny, high-pitched noise. It sounds like an illegal rave for gnats. Meanwhile, she's playing some brain-dead game on the other device, which is continually making one or more of three noises.'
'Noises, sir?'
'Yes, one is kind of like weeeee-oooo, another is along the lines of nipnipnip and another goes tsziptszipbing! It's driving me mad, I tell you.'
'I see, sir. Have you remonstrated with the la... with Doris?'

I bridled.

'Of course not. I'm British. But I did give her The Look. You know, the one over one's newspaper.'
'And that had no effect, sir?'
'None whatsoever.'

He gave me a look of sympathy blended with adamantine unhelpfulness.

'I'm afraid there isn't much I can do, sir.'
'There must be something. How about bringing a charge under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 - action likely to cause harrassment, alarm or distress? I'm feeling all of those. I had a late night blogging and drinking red wine, I have an important meeting to go to, and I could do with some sleep!'
'Not within my jurisdiction, sir.'
'Well, damnit, man, how about the European Convention on Human Rights? Article 3 prohibits torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Surely we could do something there?'
'Article 4, sir, prohibits slavery, servitude and forced labour. But I was at work at 6.30 this morning.'

We gazed at each other in mutual understanding and frustration.

'Surely I have some rights to the quiet enjoyment of my seat?'
'I see you have a reserved seat, sir, which suggests you bought your ticket online in advance of your journey.'
'Indeed I did - buying a ticket on the day one wants to travel involves spending enough to purchase a goodly proportion of the entire train.'
'Quite so, sir. So sir will have ticked the box marked "I have read and accept the Terms and Conditions", and sir will doubtless recall paragraph 194.3(b), which states "I hereby release, relinquish and abjure all rights of remedy, appeal or restitution for any fault, failing or variation of advertised service, whether alleged, imagined or actual, such release, relinquishment and abjuration to extend to spouse, partner, significant other, child (natural, adopted or fostered), friend, acquaintance, colleague, anyone who's ever read your blog and the cat from no 37."
'Well, yes, I rather admired that one. What would you say it means in English?'
'You have a problem? Tough titty. Enjoy your journey.'

I leaned back and thought for a moment.

'Well, listen here. What if I said there was a serious breach of health and safety imminent?'

He looked serious.

'Well, that would be a serious matter, sir. We take health and safety very seriously indeed.'

I looked him straight in the eye.

'If - just hypothetically, you understand - Doris here was to be dragged down the carriage, kicking and screaming, hauled into the toilet and shoved head first down the porcelain, would you say that there was a potential health and safety issue to address?'

He looked down for a moment, then met my eye again.

'Well sir, there would indeed. Of course, our responsibility would end at the point at which she left the train.'

Our eyes met once more. An understanding was born. I nodded slowly, handed him my ticket for checking, and folded a ten-shilling note into his hand.

Majestically, he moved down the carriage, ticket-stamping machine at the ready. Then... he turned.

'One last thing, sir. Please remember.... don't flush while the train is in the station.'


The reason I mention all this: should you happen to be walking your dog in the crisp, cold December night, along the railway line between Market Harborough and Wellingborough, and hear a faint tsziptszipbing! among the trackside vegetation - just walk on. Justice has been done.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Life and London

I have to go to London tomorrow for a client meeting and a working lunch. You may have heard Samuel Johnson's dictum "... when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" but I bet old Sam didn't have to travel in on East Midlands Trains then get onto the Northern line. Plus which, he was born in Lichfield. A man can be tired of Lichfield without being tired of anything else.

Check out this picture of the good Doctor. I suspect he'd had a dubious couple of dozen oysters.

My enthusiasm for the day's outing is not deepened by the Met Office's warning of snowfall and 'travel disruption' for tomorrow. Whoop-de-do.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Bad chemicals... naughty chemicals...

Supper in front of the TV. Beef casserole (long, slow cooking in stock with red wine, mushrooms, herbs), creamed potatoes with olive oil, cabbage blanched in boiling water then tossed with crisp-fried bacon, and steamed carrots. A glass of red wine.

Not that interesting for you, granted. So anyway, on TV there's a well-meaning if hyperactive young man showing us how to make 'natural' massage oil using 'natural' products like oranges, cloves, beeswax and so on. Unlike, he said, those shop-bought ones 'full of chemicals'. I bridled, to use a fine old word, and muttered. And muttered again, until Mrs QO told me rather sharply to leave off.

This is one of my many soapboxes. Over the last three to four decades, the word 'chemical' has acquired an aura of bad. 'Chemicals' are bad, 'natural' is good. 'Chemicals', wrapped in this aura, are man-made, carcinogenic, toxic, ozone-destroying little buggers that are only produced by huge multinationals who prefer profit to the survival of the species. 'Chemicals' lurk everywhere, ready to pounce on us, stunt our children, destroy our environment, vote Conservative and in all sorts of other ways fail to be socially acceptable. Meanwhile, 'natural' is fine, wonderful, makes our hair and eyes shine, our children happy, and doesn't leave any polar bears wondering where the bloody icecap went to.

This is woolly thinking. Water is a chemical, FFS, and one that will kill you within hours if you drink too much. Oxygen is an insanely reactive chemical that would probably be banned if we didn't happen to need it to breathe. (I await with keen eagerness your suggestions for a 'natural alternative'.) Cooking that tasty beef casserole was a tour de force of chemistry. Meanwhile, one of the most toxic substances known to man is entirely natural - a protein called botulinum toxin. You may know it under its trade name of Botox (and that gives us a whole world of irony to explore at some later stage).

I pause at this point to calm down, aided by a draught of a liquid produced by the chemical action of yeasts upon fruit juice producing various compounds including ethyl alcohol (C2H5OH) and carbon dioxide (CO2) as waste products. I'm helping to recycle one of those waste products. Well done me.

Joking apart, woolly thinking is one of the biggest obstacles to our dealing with the very real problems the world faces. More on this later, but now I'm going to do some more recycling.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Here we go again

It seems like everyone and their cat has a blog these days. It's not so much that I've been resisting trying it out, more a case of 'couldn't be bothered'. I first dipped my mouse into the internet back in 1996 and fairly promptly became a signed-up member at Bianca. (For those who don't know about Bianca, let's just say it was the internet Wild West.) I was also at the pre-Beeb h2g2 for quite a while. And other places, under various names (including this one, which I resurrect out of nostalgia). I spent some considerable time 'missing, believed on the internet', grabbing odd hours of sleep and generally neglecting my long-suffering wife. And racking up some enormous phone bills. We didn't have broadband back in the day...

So in some sense I'd got things out of my system, and have watched the blogging and social networking explosion with a somewhat jaundiced eye and little urge to join in. However, I've decided to have a go. Partly because it's a rather enjoyable and cheap form of intellectual onanism, and also because it may be that my wife starts a blog to showcase her considerable talents in textiles. As the joke IT consultant of the family, I may be called upon to help, and incompetence is not a good thing in a husband. Even a joke one.

Monday, 14 December 2009

In the beginning

It's good to be challenged, to force ourselves to learn and to adapt. That said, late in the evening, after a glass or two of red wine, may not be the best time to face the new challenge of learning how to blog.

Still, one has to start somewhere.