Saturday, 27 February 2010

Some work to do

I've got a guitar made by Steve Hicks, the guy playing in this video. It looks very similar to the one he's using here, and I'm deeply in love with it.

I have to admit that I'm not quite up to his standard, though. And I'd never have thought of moving from Led Zeppelin to Mozart, but then perhaps that's why people pay to listen to him. Anyway, enjoy.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Human knowledge: its scope and limits

The title of this post is the title of an important book by Bertrand Russell. I wonder what he would have made of my ISP's front page and the list of the most searched items on their site at the moment.

I bet he'd have had to revise a few chapters.

But I'm quite chuffed with myself. Generally I have to research half the entries, but tonight it's only one. Kanye West: apparently he's a rapper. Not, for my English folkie readers, the kind that dances with bendy swords in Northern pubs, but the kind that makes lots of money and gets onto MTV.

A Kanye West quote for y'all: “I don't know what's better, gettin laid or gettin paid.”

Well, quite.

Thursday, 25 February 2010


Honestly, I really do intend to put up a post about risk. Well, to be more precise, about risk and our perception of risk. Between the two is a great gulf fixed. It's linked to that 'woolly thinking' theme I've aired once or twice. The media exploit this disconnect, I will argue, and we end up more worried than we should be about all kinds of things that are very unlikely to happen to us. Meanwhile, we also get all excited and hopeful about other things that are similarly very unlikely to happen to us.

Just as a quick example, let's take the National Lottery. Suppose you write down a number between 1 and 14,000,000. Any number you like. Let's say you choose... oh, I don't know... how about 6,345,139. (One of my lucky numbers, which is why I propose it. And a prime, in case you're interested.) Now, without revealing your number, ask a friend, colleague or compliant passer-by to choose a number between 1 and 14,000,000. How confident are you that they will write down the same number? Welcome to the odds (roughly) of getting the big six in the Lottery.

The post I have in mind will be chock-full of thoroughly analysed data from impeccable sources, will tear down some of your existing preconceptions, and will in all likelihood improve your judgement on just how unlikely unlikely events are.

Yeah, okay, that could have been more stylishly expressed. But let's move on.

While I'm putting the final touches to my thesis, let me whet your appetites (please note the use of 'whet' and if it looks odd or wrong, please go away and look it up immediately) with an arguably crudely but indisputably robustly expressed opinion on much the same subject matter. (NSFW if you have the sound on, btw.)

Tip of the hat to The Salted Slug for introducing me to Doug Stanhope. I won't put any hotlinks in to other work by Mr Stanhope; suffice it to say I laughed myself almost unconscious, but most people will be deeply.... deeply... offended. I willingly acknowledge what this says about me and most people. On your own heads be it if you go a-Googling.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Time for some quiet contemplation

This painting, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, by Paul Delaroche, hangs in the National Gallery in London. I was, I think, 14 when I first went there and saw this, and will never forget the impression it made on me.

Lady Jane Grey was Queen of England for less than a fortnight in 1553. The precise length of her reign depends on your interpretation of when she became Queen - on the day of her proclamation or on the day that her predecessor, Edward VI, died. Either way, it was only days later that Mary Tudor took her place on the throne and had Lady Jane imprisoned. She was executed the following year, having been found guilty of high treason.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The stars in their courses

I was leafing through the prospectus of a local college of further education this evening when I noticed a course offered on Astrology. "Tell me this is a misprint," I thought. No, it's Astrology. Stars, celestial houses, and all that.

Actually, there are two courses: 'beginners' and 'improvers', for which read 'feeble-minded' and 'braindead'. At eighty quid a pop. Oy.

I suppose it's no worse a fraud than many. Fortunately the prospectus noted that these courses were not eligible for reduced fees for the unwaged, the unfortunate and so on, otherwise I might have had to firebomb the place for wasting taxpayers' money.

It always amazes me that people believe in this garbage. Even my dear Mrs QO, whose Mensa-administered IQ test placed her in the top one percent of the UK population, has a tendency to claim that her favourite people share the same birthsign. A moment's reflection shows that it plain ain't so. Some of her favourite people do, but not all. The theory therefore falls, according to any rational thinking. But not to hers.

Mind you, Pisceans will believe any old nonsense.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

It all makes work for the working man to do

Once again a nice man from the gas company comes to check all the appliances. This happens every year. I pay them a fixed amount each month, and in return I get this annual check and they will also come out and fix stuff if it doesn't work. They also cover the plumbing. There's a fixed ritual; it's a little like the changing of the seasons. I heard chaffinches singing for the first time this year at the weekend, and sure enough, that heralds the arrival of Mr Gas Man and the Newly Changed Rules. That's nice. It'll soon be summer and we can turn the boiler off. No, don't ask me why they always come this time of year.

In fact, it was a very young Mr Gas Man. I doubted at first whether he was sufficiently mature to play the game with a properly straight face, but he did remarkably well, in fact. I commend his training. He was polite, put his empty tea mug carefully into the sink, cleared up after himself, all that kind of thing. And he delivered his lines with great credibility.

"Blimey, this boiler's quite old, isn't it? Had any trouble with it?"
"None whatsoever, which is why I've kept it."
"You know you could save quite a bit of money with a new condensing boiler?"

I smiled. The 'new boiler' gambit already.

"Oh, yes, I believe so. In fact, nearly everyone I know who's had a condensing boiler has saved a great deal of money. They certainly haven't burned any gas, though I think you do have to set against that the loss of earnings as you spend another day in waiting for the engineers to come and replace it again."

The young man blushed slightly. Ah, bless...

"Well, I just have to let you know... they are more efficient. Up to 60% more efficient."
"Compared with? A dead beaver? A pot of bouillabaise? Several species of wildflower?"

He blinked.

"Yeeerrrsss, well, I'll just get on with checking this one over."
"Excellent. Just give me a shout when you want to tell me it's insufficiently vented. On account of it having been installed in a cupboard."
"Ah, no, I have to clean it first, check the flue and all that. Then we'll do the insufficiently vented bit."
"As you please."

I returned to my study and became engrossed in Walter Bagehot's analysis of the English constitution. (Admirable in many ways, but he didn't fully grasp, I suggest, the essential distinction to be made between authority and power in the eyes of the English voter.)

"Errr... 'scuse me..."
"Yes, my young fellow."
"Have you got five minutes? I have to inform you that it's insufficiently vented. On account of how it's in a cupboard."
"I know. You chaps tell me that two years out of every three, and you're quite right, I am due to be told. Consider me fully apprised."

He nodded.

"Only it's what we call..."

I chorused with him.

"... Not Up To Current Standards".

I grinned.

"Never has been, the little tinker. But, and this is just a wild stab, of course, the appliance is actually safe and operating correctly?"
"Yes, it is."
"Flueing safe and satisfactory?"
"Ho yes."
"Emission/combustion test passed?"
"With flying colours, except a condenser..."
"...would be more efficient. So noted. Burner settings are..."
"System controls checked and working correctly?"

I ran through my mental checklist.

"Don't you need to warn me about now that you can't get parts for it any more?"

He looked confused.

"But you can, I checked online. It's not that old."

I smiled inwardly. Now there was a mistake none of his more experienced predecessors would have made. He'd learn.

"Excellent, so now if you could just get the gas fire sorted for me. It won't stay lit properly. It's covered under the contract."

I must admit, he did this bit well for such a beardless youth.

"Ah, sorry, can't touch the fire. Unless you have an installer's manual which clearly shows the exact positioning of the fake coals."
"A manual? Er... no, it's years old."
"Well, unfortunately I can't work on it without that information. It wouldn't burn properly."
"But every year... for years and years... you guys have just come in, cleaned it down and plonked the fake coals back on."
"Sorry, no can do. If a supervisor happened to drop in to inspect..."

I pondered.

"Well, look. Let's not touch the coals. Let's assume they're OK from last year. Can't you just blow the pipes through and clean the jets? That's all it needs, it happens every year."

He shuffled uneasily.

"Erm... no... see, if the coals weren't right last time, it'd be left wrong, wouldn't it? Sorry."
"Well, why didn't Mr Gas Man last year say something?"
"Oh, well, I expect the rules have changed."

I sighed.

"So, I'm paying sixty-odd quid a year for maintenance of the fire, and from now on, it will be maintained on the strict basis that it will never be lit and you won't ever attempt to fix it."
"Pretty much, yes."
"Rather an expensive hole in the wall, then, wouldn't you say?"
"Nothing I can do, I'm 'fraid. Give the office a ring, see what they say."

I sighed again in anticipation of a tiresome discussion.

"OK, not your fault. So, that's it then, is it?"
"Not quite. I have to put this notice on the fire."

I looked at the bright yellow tag which read, more or less: Not Up To Current Standards Use At Your Own Peril Don't Blame Us Look Out The World's About To End.

"What's that for?"
"Insufficient air supply."
"What? It's got its own little air vent in the floor. You guys insisted on it some years ago. Gives us a bloody cold draught up from the cellar."
"Ah, yes, I've seen the vent. But that's the trouble. It's Not Up To Current Standards. Vent-slot-width wise."
"Ex-squeeze me?"
"The slots on the air vent... they're too close together."
"But we bought it from you. When you insisted on us having one."
"Sorry about that. But I have to inform you."
"And in any case, the fire's not working. And you won't fix it. So it's possibly the safest gas fire in the entire universe, regardless of its state of ventilation."

He looked a little troubled.

"Well, there it is, I'll just have to fill out the paperwork and leave you with this safety notice. Well, several of them. Due to the boiler being in the cupboard an' all."

Ah well, he played it well, and I certainly hadn't seen the vent width coming. Smooth. Wonder what it will be next year?

"Sorry sir, gas hob Not Up To Current Standards on account of it's not as flashy as Her Next Door with the six burners. Here's an Inadequacy Notice, sign here, thanks for the tea, have a nice day."

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

All kinds of wrong

And now we have... for no adequately explored reason...

'Computer engineer Barbie'.

What on earth? How long do we think Barbie would last in the world of techie dweebs, looking like that? OK, the glasses are pleasantly nerdy, and we kinda like the binary code on the clingy top... but a pink laptop? In fact, pink anything? For a techie? Anyone who's ever worked with computers knows that you have to wear black. Even a Linux server will fall over if approached by anyone wearing bright colours, and pink will take down Exchange at 50 paces.

And the hair. Now, a male techie can get away with long hair, though preferably in a pony-tail. But a female techie can't. Obviously.

Another problem area. The smile. The only people who "work in IT" who smile are trainers. They don't really work in IT, of course, they work in education. So that's another strike, right there.

And the clingy leggings. Oh yeah, those are going to be so suitable for crawling round the office under desks and over partitions, tracing the cat5 back to the switch.

Above all, she's way too attractive. It's part of the deal that IT people aren't attractive. God knows Lusers are bad enough at disturbing the IT department when the support person that eventually and grudgingly arrives looks like a bag of spanners dressed in famine relief offcasts. Just imagine the flood of work tickets if the punters could summon her to attend to their issues?

Back to the drawing board for someone.

Now, this seemed more realistic.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Mrs QO thinks this looks quite odd bouncing round as a screensaver. I quite like it.

What do you mean, have I been drinking? Of course I have.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Officers of the Order of the British Empire

Let us salute Mr Rick Parfitt and Mr Francis Rossi, aka Status Quo - or at least the original members thereof - who have today had sparkly stuff dangled off them by Her Maj, bless 'em all.

Oh, dearie me. I was listening to these guys before I left primary school. My first encounter with the Quo was on a 'portable gramophone'. (For our younger readers, this was a device which rotated a disk of vinyl on which a sound signal was embedded in a very fine groove on the surface; a needle was gently dropped into this groove and the vibrations thus captured were turned into electrical signals to drive an amplifier. Fantastic stuff, eh?) I spent a fair bit of my youth listening to the Quo in various ways, including live at Sheffield City Hall, after which I was effectively deaf for 24 hours. In the late 1970s some old buddies and I went to a fancy dress party dressed as Quo on the rather sensible basis that this didn't involve doing anything other than dressing the way we always did. I have no idea how many discos and parties were spent headbanging and 'spreading' to those plangent chords - of which, contrary to uninformed received wisdom, there were many more than three. Sometimes.

It was a sad day when the Quo announced that they were packing it all in, certainly as far as touring was concerned. But they'd have one last almighty thrash, they said.

It was the year Mrs QO and I graduated. Milton Keynes Bowl, 1984. We were there.

Of course, that wasn't the End of the Road, despite the billing. And now, all these years on, they're The Establishment. Fantastic. Mind, check out the schmutter they're wearing these days - where did the denim go? Still, I suppose if you're meeting the Queen...

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Stuff you never knew you wanted...

... until you found it.

Ladeez and gennelmen, I give you....

Lightsabre chopsticks!!!

I'm sorry. I swore a terrible oath, at midnight, at the crossroads (you know, THE crossroads, had me guitar and everything), on everything I hold dear and sacred (oh well, there goes my pristine copy of Time Enough for Love) that I would never, under any circumstances whatsoever, use three exclamation marks. Even a single one is generally deplorable; using two marks one out as a candidate for secure accommodation, visitors Thursday afternoons only, no sharp objects. But three?

Still, flesh and blood can only stand so much. Sorry. Deal with it.

Mrs QO says I should put in a link to the lightsabre chopsticks. Otherwise, some of you may suspect I'm winding you up with a clever bit of Photoshoppery. But I think it's more fun to leave you in some suspense... will you check it out, or will you take my word for it?

All I'm saying is, the first person to find a restaurant in town that uses them may take me out for dinner.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Friday night - down the pub

Now, down our way (with a nod to Sid Kipper), we have a fine old tradition. That is, Friday night is 'Ladies' Quiet Night In Night'. Just once in the week, the ladies insist on a bit of peace and quiet, a time when they can do their own thing without the men cluttering up the place and wanting to be fed or have their laundry done. "Out you go!" cry the ladies, pushing the men out of the door.

Thus it is that wandering round the darkened streets are the men of the parish, lonely, bewildered and lost. Is it not entirely natural that, spying a glimmer of light through the murky darkness, they should make their way towards it? And congregate at its source?

And thus it was that I found myself at the Yob & Asbo, enjoying a pint of Scrotum's Old Trepanner. Mrs QO, being no lady, was in her usual spot in the corner, beating all comers at arm-wrestling, while I leant nonchalantly at the bar, chatting to my old mates Jacques Derrida, Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and Spock.

"Jacques, mon vieux. How is it that you are going, isn't it?" I enquired.

Jacques looked gloomy.

"As soon as we cease to believe in such an engineer and in a discourse which breaks with the received historical discourse, and as soon as we admit that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage and that the engineer and the scientist are also species of bricoleurs, then the very idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning breaks down."

Spock raised an eyebrow and sipped his Bunnhabhain. Penny giggled deliciously.

"Oh, Jacques, darling, there you go with your silly deconstructionism again. Have another Pernod, you silly thing."

I nodded at Abdul behind the bar.

"Same again, old boy. And have one for yourself. Now, Spock, tell us how you got on with putting the new roof on your shed."
"The task took the time I had allocated to it. Everything proceeded... logically."

Penny winked at me as she rummaged through her handbag for her cigarettes.

"Oooh, Spock, you're fibbing again, you naughty Vulcan. You must have hit your thumb at least once with the hammer."
"OK, you got me, Penz. It was a frigging disaster from start to finish. Bloody roof-felt wouldn't fit, sodding nails kept falling out, it was raining... I tell you, I was ready to nerve-pinch the cat by the time I'd finished."

We all grinned. Except Jacques, of course, who muttered: "The end of man (as a factual anthropological limit) is announced to thought from the vantage of the end of man (as a determined opening or the infinity of a telos). Man is that which is in relation to his end, in the fundamentally equivocal sense of the word. Since always."

Penny sighed.

"Oh, Jacques, you always say that, but you must admit that you haven't got the least idea what you mean, have you, darling?"

Abdul chuckled quietly as he put our fresh drinks down before us. I passed him a £50 note, recent winnings from my dear Mrs QO.

Jacques looked a little hurt. "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte," he said, helping himself to some peanuts from the dish on the bar and gazing in an obfuscatory manner at the dartboard.

I took a firm hold of the bar, braced myself, and sank a couple of inches of the Scrotum's. Apart from the world wheeling round a couple of times, and one of my ears falling off, it didn't go too badly.

"Penny," I enquired. "How's old Jeff Tracy? Seen him much recently?"

She gazed at me with an unfathomable expression and the merest hint of a smile playing around the corners of her exquisite mouth.

"Oh, you know, occasionally the old compact blinks and I have to go and see what the boys are up to on the island. You should come with me sometime."
"What, and trust old Parker's driving? No thank you. Unless perhaps Mr Spock here would take me in one of the spare shuttles?"
"No problem. I wouldn't mind a few days in the sun. That would be... enjoyable."

Penny smiled at us.

"It's a date. I'll tell Jeff to drop the palm trees. Oh, and Jacques, darling, do try and be nice, won't you? Those Tracy boys are so sweet, even if they aren't the sharpest knives in the world-rescuing lark. Oooops, must dash, poppets, time for a ciggy."

She was gone, leaving an elusive hint of very expensive perfume in the air.

Jacques looked a little morose, even for him. He's always had a soft spot for Penny.

"Deconstruction is inventive or it is nothing at all; it does not settle for methodological procedures, it opens up a passageway, it marches ahead and marks a trail; its writing is not only performative, it produces rules -- other conventions -- for new performativities and never installs itself in the theoretical assurance of a simple opposition between performative and constative. Its process involves an affirmation, this latter being linked to the coming in event, advent, invention."

Spock shook his head in exasperation, put a hand on Jacques' shoulder, and put him out of his misery with the old Vulcan nerve-pinch. The daft old philosopher slumped to the floor. He'd sleep it off as usual.

I drained my glass and fell over. I always know when to stop. Fortunately, Mrs QO had just finished her latest bout (I later found out that Big Mad Tom wasn't right for a month) so was available to pick me up and assist me homewards.

I like Friday nights. Good conversation, a bit of mindless philosophy, companionable insensibility... what more could an Observer wish for?

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L

The statement slightly north of here is, as any fule kno, the Drake Equation. The great man himself was on the radio the other day and listening to him sparked off some Quizzical thoughts. Possibly the biggest thoughts any Observer can have.

The Drake Equation suggests a solution for the number of communicating intelligences in our galaxy. As I understand it, the solution on our current estimates for all the variables in the equation gives a pretty small number. But it's greater than zero. Now, since our galaxy is only one of quite a lot in the universe (we don't know, but estimates go from 100 billion upwards), that's potentially a lot of communicating intelligences.

Tell you what, let's boil this back down to the kitchen table, slightly drunk on a Friday night. (And why would a table be slightly drunk, you ask? If you saw the amount of spilled liquor in the Observer household, you'd know. But moving along.)

To what seems to me to be one of the Big Two questions - are we alone in the universe? - there can be only two answers. Yes. Or, of course... No.

Eeeek. Now there's a thought. Either way, there's a thought.

The other of the Big Two questions is of course to do with God - does She exist? Again, we would appear to have a pretty simple set of possible outcomes to this one but, again, with huge consequences either way.

Fortunately, I'm an atheist, so I only have to fret about Question One.

Monday, 1 February 2010

God, I needed that

"Well done, sir."
"Thank you, sarn't major."
"Yes, well done, sir. I was really starting to think it couldn't be done."
"Well, Sister Diana, you know me. Stubborn sort of chap."
"Oh, yes, sir. Networking two Macs, with different operating systems, and two PCs, again both with different OS's. Jolly well done, sir."

I leaned back, and promptly fell over, since I was on a bar stool with no back, and had just consumed several pints of ice-cold lager. With great dignity I picked myself up, picked up the stool as well, and resumed my position.

"I'm sorry, sir?"
"Pardon me. I meant to say, well, God knows it wasn't easy, but we British rise to a challenge, don't we, chaps?"
"Oh, indeed we do, sir."
"Erm... actually, Herr Kapitan Observer, I'm German."
"Shut up, you fool, the MPs might hear."

I waved vaguely at the barman. He seemed blurred. He must have been drinking.

"You know, at one point I thought we'd had it. You know what those Macs are like. Nearly everything happens automatically, but if it doesn't, well, you're up a gumtree and no mistake. They don't give anything away, the inscrutable little buggers. All you'll get out of them is 'Error -36' over and over again. You almost have to admire them, really."

Sister Diana's eyes really seemed like the most huge, limpid pools...

"So how did you manage it, sir? Was there anyone to help?"
"God, no. One's on one's own on this sort of junket, you know. Fortunately, old Wizzer Wilkins from the Signallers had once given me some of the gen."
"Really, sir?"

I nodded. And fell off the stool again. Picked myself up. Get a grip, man, I thought. There are ladies present.

"Yes, well I knew all their IPs, you see. Much like knowing which club a chap will be in at a certain time of day. So I could do some ping tests."
"Ping, sir?"
"Yes, it's rather like giving a wave and shouting 'hello, old boy', and with a bit of luck, you get a reply. So I got the Macs to do some of this pinging lark, but not a dickie-bird back. Silence of the grave."
"Gosh, sir. What a pickle!"
"Well, yes, I must admit I was wafting the bat outside the off-stump for a few moments there."

I waved again at Abdul the barman.

"Four more Carlings, old boy, quick as you like. And four more each for these chaps. And the mem-sahib, of course."

"Good health, sir."
"Chin chin."
"Ach, ja. Vielen Dank."
"Shut up you fool, the MPs might hear."

I lowered the level in my glass by a strategic few inches and put a hand carelessly on Sister Diana's thigh.

"Yes, things seemed pretty bleak for a while. But of course we officers are trained for every situation, and one never gives up."
"Gosh, sir. Never?"
"Never, Sister. I say, do you mind if I just call you 'Diana'? I don't really think of you as a Sister, I must say."
"That's quite all right, sir."

The sergeant-major emptied his glass and looked keenly my way.

"So what did you do, sir?"
"Well, sarn't major, I thought back to the last time I'd put a new machine on the network, and it came to me in a blinding flash."
"Oooh, my word, sir."
"Yes, Diana. It was obvious once one had thought it through. The firewall on the old XP machine was set only to accept traffic from specific IP numbers. Because of the changes on the network, the Macs' IP numbers weren't on the list. I just had to give them their papers, as it were, for the firewall, and Bob's your uncle, all tickety-boo."
"Oh, sir. How marvellous."

She put her hand on mine, which was still resting on her warm thigh. I looked into her eyes. All four of them. I read the message therein. I pulled some notes from my pocket and spoke to the other two men.

"I say, chaps, how about if you two shuffle off and leave us here debrief... word to the wise, nod's as good, and all that, what?"

They glanced at each other, caused the notes to disappear, stood, saluted, grinned hugely, and shimmered off into the heat haze.

Diana gazed at me adoringly.

"Oh, Captain Observer... of all the bars, in all the war films..."