Category Archives: drollery

It’s over there, it’s over there

I’m slightly long-sighted; I prefer to have the screen a good long way away from me when I’m working. Flat screens and compact keyboards make this more feasible than ever before. Unfortunately this also opens up large expanses of empty desk space, and you know what they say – nature abhors empty desk space.

I was looking for my library card just now – not my work library card or my main library card, but the card for the libraries in the next council area along, and not the actual card but a little dog-tag thing they gave me with my number printed on it; I’m sure I last saw it on my desk. (I wanted it because I’d cleared my browser history a week or so ago, in a vain attempt to get my bank’s online system to do what they said it should be doing, and it wiped my login for the OED online. Did you know you can log in to the OED online with a library card? The actual OED, online – check it out.)

Anyway, I can’t see the dog-tag thing. What I can see, working roughly from right to left, is:

seven ink cartridges (various colours)
a 1 TB external drive, sitting on top of a seemingly identical 500 GB drive
two identical beany cats, sitting on top of the 1 TB drive
a camera (my son’s)
a watch (my wife’s)
a rubber (my daughter’s)
two cork-backed coasters promoting Caraca Cane Beer
a small cube of blu-tack
a pencil
four pens
a wireless mouse
a keyboard (viz. the one I’m using)
a two-level desk tray (don’t ask me what’s in it, we’d be here all day)
a beermat promoting a local beer festival
a Woodbine and Ivy Band badge
an onyx egg
an E-topup card for my phone (never used, no idea what it’s doing on my desk)
the security code for my wireless network, printed out in case I ever need to key it in again
a friend’s address
a screen (the one I’m looking at)
the stylish black screen cloth supplied with the Mac, draped over the iSight lens (I’m assured by those who know that there is no possibility of the iSight activating without me knowing about it, but I still prefer to keep it covered)
a small papier-mache capybara, perched on the screen cloth
a wired mouse, kept handy for when the batteries in the wireless ditto run down
a post-it note with some indecipherable notes in my son’s writing
an ornamental dragon and a pair of chopsticks, brought back by my son from his trip to China
a fortune-cookie motto (“When winter comes Heaven will rain success on you”), acquired in January 2011 and subsequently disproved
a headphone adaptor
two watch batteries
an MP3 player
a sandstone cat (bought many years ago, originally intended as a present for my mother but never given to her)
a papier-mache ornament consisting of two human-looking cats sitting on a sofa (a present from my daughter)
two different USB leads
three memory sticks
the screw-on handle for a digital recorder
another pencil
two pairs of in-ear headphones
two paperclips
a card-reader (from the bank)
a page-a-day Countdown calendar
several old pages from page-a-day Countdown calendars, for when I feel the need of a nine-letter anagram to solve (this rarely happens)
two rubber bands
a ‘medal’ awarded to my team for coming second in a local treasure hunt
a handwritten copy of the code for my wireless network
most of a bar of ‘espresso chocolate’ which tasted like it had chilli in (put to one side until I worked out whether this was normal)
a wireless router (with, may I stress this, nothing on top of it)
a tin of paperclips
an SD card (unused)
one of those little plastic bags with two buttons in that you get with a new jacket (jacket unidentified)
some very small post-it notes
a six-inch ruler (not mine)
four more beermats (awaiting conversion to two double-sided coasters)
a round wooden pot with a perpetual calendar set into the lid
a digital recorder
a recorder (the instrument)
a high G whistle
a D whistle and a C whistle, in a cloth bag
three more D whistles (on loan from a friend); there’s usually another one as well, which is the one I actually play
two plastic rods for cleaning recorders
another pen
a small plastic bag containing a zither tuning key, a length of wire and two plectrums
a printer
a box full of assorted software and PC games, sitting on top of the printer
several more PC games, sitting on top of the box
an AAA battery
another paperclip
an Arctic Monkeys badge
a pile of books and papers (mostly either work- or folk-related, although for some reason the book at the bottom of the pile is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)
a book of folk songs
a CAMRA membership pack (wonder what’s actually in there? I’ve spent all the JDW’s tokens, I do know that)
an Olympics brochure
another pile of books and papers (almost all work-related, although for some reason the book at the top of the pile is Tom Phillips’ A Humument)

My desk, in short, has every convenience; it’s going to make life easy for me. Hardly any clutter at all.

Wish I knew what I’d done with that library card, though.

Update 18th May
Obviously(?) there’s no great significance to this post, which I wrote mainly so as to get posting here again (and partly to shame myself into tidying my desk a bit). But there is one odd fact to report. There’s one object which I didn’t include on the list, even when I read it through after publishing it and made a couple of additions for the sake of completeness (they were “another pencil” and “another paperclip”, just to illustrate the level of completeness we’re talking about). It wasn’t lurking in a corner, either; it was sitting straight ahead of me, front and centre, between the Countdown calendar and the two USB leads.

It’s a wristwatch; it’s stopped working, which is why it’s on the desk (along with the two watch batteries, one of which I’d bought as a replacement). It’s not just any wristwatch, either; it’s my father’s old watch, handed down to me after he died. My father was bedridden for several months at the end; in fact he was in a hospital bed, which my mother had installed in their bedroom so that she could carry on looking after him. Apart from books, my father didn’t have that many personal possessions when he died; most of his clothes had already been given away, partly because he didn’t need to get dressed any more but mainly because the bed took up so much space that the wardrobe in the bedroom had to go. The books, for their part, stayed where they were until my mother died a few years later. So this watch is one of the few things that I (or anyone) can point to and say, that was his. (Another is his desk – which is an old-style drop-front bureau, and for that reason alone was never cluttered; my son uses it for his homework now.) I wasn’t particularly fond of my Dad’s watch; it’s got a metal bracelet, which I don’t like, and my father had only got it relatively recently, so it didn’t have any history for me. I had to be persuaded to take it when he died; I’m glad I did, though.

This was only my third watch; the second, which I’d had since I was 15, was a mechanical watch (they all were then) which I’d bought from an offer on a box of cornflakes, of all places. It was my father who brought it to my attention and lent me the money – it was about £7, as I remember, which was quite a lot for the mid-70s but well worth it. (I’ve still got it, but after two big repairs, several new glasses and uncountable replacement straps it reached a point where the next repair would cost more than it was worth.) All of which means that the watch I’m wearing – bought at the age of 51 – is the first I’ve ever owned which hasn’t had strong associations with my father.

I’ve been wondering what to do with my father’s watch now that it’s packed up; it’s not going out with the rubbish, for obvious reasons, but it can’t sit on my desk forever (despite some evidence to the contrary). I’ll probably find where I’ve put my (maternal) grandfather’s fob-watch – which was also informally handed down by my mother – and put it with that.

It was an odd thing to leave out, really.

Someone else will come along and move it

Ten reasons why the AV referendum was lost, courtesy of Tom Clark (via).

1. Some of the Labour Party was against it.

2. All of the Tory Party was against it.

3. The Yes campaign said things that weren’t entirely true, and people didn’t believe them.

4. The No campaign told outright lies, but people did believe them, which isn’t fair.

5. The Electoral Commission said things about AV that were true, but made it seem unattractive. This was also unfair, because if you can’t say something nice about a voting system, you shouldn’t say anything at all.

6. People don’t like coalitions, and they thought AV would make coalition governments more likely (which it probably would).

7. People don’t like the Lib Dems, and the No campaign said that AV would put them in power permanently. (Which, again, it probably would, but that’s not the point.)

8. People don’t like David Cameron either, and the Yes campaign didn’t say that AV would keep him out of power. (Which it wouldn’t, necessarily, but it would have been a good thing to campaign on.)

9. People don’t prefer AV to the status quo.

10. People don’t want AV.

I’ve renumbered Clark’s points and edited them down a bit, but I think I’ve got the gist.

I was particularly struck by Clark’s point 9:

the alternative vote system itself posed particular problems. Infamously dismissed by Nick Clegg as “a miserable little compromise”, it is loved by no one, with most of the yes camp hankering for reform that links a party’s tally of votes to its tally of seats, something AV fails to deliver. Few Labourites, and no Lib Dems, regard AV as an end itself. It scarcely mattered that from the reformist point of view it is unambiguously better than the system we start out with. What did matter was that the reformists could not muster the energy to market something that they did not truly believe in.

Clark stops berating the stupid British public for rejecting a kind of platonic Plea For Electoral Reform, for just long enough to acknowledge that the form it took on the physical plane was a question about an electoral system that nobody actually wants – not Ed Miliband, not Nick Clegg, not Caroline Lucas, not Nigel Farage. (Although apparently Eddie Izzard does prefer AV to PR, and I suspect Stephen Fry may do as well.) This isn’t metropolitan elitism – just well-intentioned self-delusion.

Le retour de la colonne Taafe

The complacent bourgeois academy’s recuperation of the challenge of the Situationist International reached a new height last night, culminating in a feeble attempt to commoditise what must surely appear to the cadres of the reactionary media as the most radical (and hence most marketable) gesture of all, selling it to a jaded public in the debased spectacular guise of entertainment.

To put it another way, the Sits were on Uni: the kind of thing I could never have imagined at the time I started writing my biography of Debord – and here it is happening, and I never even finished the damn thing. (Get me William Morris.) Even more embarrassingly, I missed the first question, which was something of a gimme – I was concentrating on something else at the time, resulting in this:

PAXMAN: “blah blah drone drone… the last edition of its influential journal carrying an analysis of the student riots in Paris in 1968?”
My wife: “You ought to get this one.”
Me [baffled but trying to look knowledgeable]: “Not sure, sounds like it might be Annales…”
STUDENT: “No idea, sorry.”
PAXMAN: “That was the Situationist International.”

Damn!

For any other pro-situ nostalgics out there, the questions (and answers) were as follows:

PAXMAN: Your bonuses are on a radical philosophy. Firstly for five, which radical group was founded in Coscio d’Arroscia [sic] in northwest Italy in 1957, and was dissolved in 1972, the last edition of its influential journal carrying an analysis of the student riots in Paris in 1968?
STUDENT: No idea, sorry.
PAXMAN: That was the Situationist International. Secondly for five: the 1967 book Society of the Spectacle was by which French political activist who, together with Raoul Venegeim [sic], was one of the principal theorists of the Situationist International?
STUDENT: Don’t know, sorry.
PAXMAN: That was Guy Debord. And finally, the 1953 situationist work Formulary for a new urbanism gave rise to the name of which Manchester institution which operated from 1982 to 1997?
STUDENT: The Militant Tendency.
PAXMAN: No, it’s the Haçienda nightclub.

So that’s the situationists for you: it all started in 1957 or possibly 1953, it was a radical philosophy (ouch!) put forward by a political activist (ouch!) called Debord and someone else with a weird name, and, hey, Madchester. Got to love the answer to question three, too. One of the things that was so powerful about the Sits – and one of the reasons why dreamers like poor old Chtcheglov loom so large in its history – was precisely that they didn’t use words like ‘militant’; not positively, anyway. But I have to admit that “Militant Tendency” would have been a great name for a club night.

Paint the words upon the wall

Quick quiz, aimed particularly at any readers who are outside the UK (or who don’t go past phone boxes very often).

Each of the following slogans has been used in street advertising by one of the main political parties contesting this election (by which I mean, one of the parties standing candidates across the country – Labour, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, UKIP and the BNP). But can you match the slogan to the party?

1. GET BRITAIN WORKING

2. BYE BYE, BUREAUCRACY

3. WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER

4. PEOPLE POWER

5. SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY NOT STATE CONTROL

6. BIG GOVERNMENT = BIG PROBLEMS

Answers after the jump. No peeping!

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Grodunkley Sprunkley rides again

Breaking news from LinkedIn:

Apparently writing these isn't as easy as it looks on xkcd

Congratulations, Jamie!

(Apologies to Charlie and Campbell.)

From a great height

Those New Year music lists, in brief.

TWENTY ALBUMS OF 2008

  1. The What?
  2. Yeah, Right.
  3. Oh, That… I Remember That Coming Out…
  4. No, They’re Making These Up.
  5. Ah, Now I Was Actually Thinking Of Getting This One.
  6. They Were On Later, Weren’t They? Didn’t Think Much Of Them.
  7. Bloody Hell, Are They Still Going?
  8. Ah, No, These Are The Ones Who Were On Later. Don’t Know Who The Other Lot Are.
  9. Don’t Know What This Is Doing Here.
  10. I Got This, Didn’t I? Oh, Apparently Not.
  11. No, No Idea.
  12. Or This One.
  13. Or This One Either.
  14. Might Look In The Sales For This One.
  15. I Did Actually Get The Single. It Was Rubbish.
  16. Their Fourth Album? How Can It Possibly Be Their Fourth Album?
  17. Ah, These Are The Ones Who… No. No, That’s Someone Else.
  18. They‘re Hip Now, Are They?
  19. That Really Is A Made-Up Name. It Has To Be.
  20. Rediscovered? What Do You Mean, Rediscovered?

…AND TEN TO LOOK OUT FOR IN 2009

  1. Already Been In The Guardian
  2. Already Been On Later
  3. Already Been On Newsnight Review
  4. Already Been Interviewed In The Metro
  5. Already Been On The Front Of The NME
  6. Possibly The Next Klaxons!
  7. Possibly The Next Corinne Bailey-Rae!
  8. Possibly The Next Kate Nash!
  9. Possibly The Next Test Icicles!
  10. A Band You Actually Quite Like, Strategically Positioned At The Bottom Of The List So As To Make You Feel Terminally Unhip

Me, at the moment I’m mostly listening to Tony Capstick, James Yorkston, National Health and in particular Radiohead; thanks to Zavvi’s Looming Bankruptcy Sale, I recently acquired a copy of OK Computer, which I somehow missed out on in 1997, and which (although this probably isn’t news to anyone but me) is rather fine. In particular, I’m feeling the need to play “Paranoid Android” several times a day; what this says about my psychological state I’m not sure, but it’s probably nothing good. (In my defence, I do like a good bit of 7/4.) When that’s worn off I’ll probably move on to the rest of my bargain-bin gap-fillers, which are by Captain Beefheart, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Jim Moray and Scott Walker. Or I might see if I can get the Last Shadow Puppets album cheap (the lads can’t actually sing, which is a real drawback for going up against those kinds of arrangement, but that single that sounded a bit like Love worked OK, so maybe they can bring it off).

So no, I’m not in the market for anything by Little Boots, thanks very much.

The fourth, the fifth

Here’s a new song. I was feeling particularly low the other day, and felt like getting a song out of it. A proper, serious, song is on the way (it’ll be called Come to grief, probably) but this will do to be going on with; I find its sheer callousness quite cheering. Really sad songs are hard – they’re great when they work, but a near miss tends to come out sentimental and well-meaning. If you play it for laughs the target’s a bit broader.

Miserable tonight

I’m going to sit right down and listen to the blues
And if a tree don’t fall on me I’ll live till the will to live I lose
When I woke up this morning I felt quite bright
But I’m going to be miserable tonight

I’m going to sit right down and listen to Nick Drake
Will it be Pink Moon or Bryter Layter – tell me now, which will I take?
Come on Nick, I know you know the way to blue
So help me to be miserable like you

I’m going to sit right down and listen to Leonard Cohen
And if I can find the tune I’ll sing along, although I know it could be heavy goin’*
You don’t really care for music, do you, Len?
But you can make me miserable again

Regrets, you say you’ve had a few,
Well, I’ve had more than you -
Am I right or am I right?
Misfortune has played its part
But failing is quite an art
And it’s an art I’ve mastered
And that’s what’s made me… miserable tonight

I’m going to stand right up and sing till I feel sick
Or until I’ve worn your patience thin – another couple of verses should do the trick
But if you play your part and don’t put up a fight
I can make you miserable too, tonight

I’m going to sit right down and listen to the blues
Then I’ll have a drink and I’ll sing a song, and I’ll probably end up standing by the side of the road with the rain falling on my shoes…
And when I get home and my wife turns off the light
I’ll say, Darling… it was miserable tonight.

*Sorry. It’s the best I could do – you try finding a rhyme for ‘Smiths’.

Wrapped in paper (10)

One last column, from right back in 1998. I had actually worked in IT until a couple of years before; I think my sympathies are clear.

BUSINESS MANAGERS are never short of advice these days. Any large bookshop has several yards of books devoted to Self Help for Managers: Feel the Stress and Do it Anyway; Meditations for Women who Manage Too Much; Men Are From Mars, the One-Minute Manager is from Venus… However, managers haven’t had any advice from the best source of all: the IT department. Not, that is, until now. I will shortly be bringing out a compendium of tricky real-life management problems with IT-friendly solutions, Just Don’t, All Right? Here’s a selection.

PROBLEM: You are the national sales manager for a major distributor of synthetic insoles. You wish to rationalise the structure of the sales force by cutting out a level of management. There are four levels; the top level consists of two meaningless jobs with grand-sounding titles, created specially for the previous MD’s wastrel half-brother and his friend Simon. However, Simon’s wife is currently expecting their third child; moreover, she is an old friend of the receptionist at the office next door, who often lets you use their car park when your space gets taken. What do you do?

SOLUTION: Remove a level in the reporting structure? Are you mad? Have you any idea how many systems that will affect? Dedicated IT professionals worked long hours to design systems around the current management structure, with all the job titles and reporting relationships carefully hard-coded. Are you going to throw that work back in their faces? Besides, redeveloping all those systems would take approximately… let’s see… eighteen months, and that’s with everyone working flat out… factor in development work, allow for holidays and you’re talking three years easily. Maybe four. And by that time you’d probably want the old structure back, so it’s actually quicker this way.

PROBLEM: Your company has merged with Acme Insoles, previously your biggest rival. Acme management wants the new company to standardise on the Acme IT system, which offers a thin-client VR interface to a Web-enabled object-based next-generation system running on a wide-area network-centric protocol-independent massively-parallel cluster array. Your operations people argue strongly against this, on the grounds that your own system is ‘loads better’. Acme management took you out to lunch the other day, which was nice. On the other hand, they did insist on going to that posh Italian restaurant, and you missed out on a session down the pub with the ops. Who should you believe?

SOLUTION: The ops, every time. They should know, it’s their job. Besides, all that wide-object massively-independent stuff is all very well, but who’s going to get out of bed when it falls over at 2 a.m. on a Sunday? The ops, that’s who. Antagonise them at your peril.

PROBLEM: The year 2000 is fifteen months away. When you asked your IT director, he told you that all your systems were millennium-compliant; however, immediately afterwards he took early retirement and opened a greengrocer’s. When you went past the other day there was a sign in the window saying

All ‘Fruit’ Is ‘Guaranteed’ Millenium-Bug ‘Free’!

Should you be worried?

SOLUTION: The use of bad English on a greengrocer’s sign is not in itself worrying, or indeed surprising. You may even be able to turn it to your advantage: is there a gap in the market for an scrupulously literate greengrocer? If on the other hand you are not expecting a sizeable lump sum from your current employer, you may wish to consider bar work. (Note: avoid pubs with computerised tills).

PROBLEM: You are having trouble motivating your IT staff. You have tried departmental meetings, informal group chats, fun events after work, lunchtime quizzes, motivational posters, Dress Down days, Dress Up days, Tidy Desk days and Work Normally days. Nothing works. What should you do?

SOLUTION: Try money. Or holidays. Or, no, wait, money and holidays. And shorter hours. Let’s see… more money, more holidays, shorter hours and paid overtime. And free beer. That ought to do it.

Wrapped in paper (9)

Another from 1999, this time from Ned Ludd’s column in NTexplorer. Bill Gates’s book Business @ the speed of thought had just come out. (No, I don’t remember anything about it either.)

SINCE THE SUCCESS of my first book, the Superhighway Less Travelled, rumours of a sequel have been rife. I’m happy to say that ‘Ludd 2.0’ is finally available. It’s called Thinking at the speed of business, and your local bookstore may still have some signed copies. (They certainly had a few left when I went.)

It’s a 300-page book, so I can’t do justice to the full complexity of the ideas I presented in it here – not unless I had a double page at least. (No chance – Ed.) Here, by way of a taster, are some of the key concepts from the book they’re already calling a paradigm-busting block-shifter.

Digital nervous system. Not everyone realises this, but the information which is held on computers is actually encoded in the form of digits – that’s numbers to you and me. One and zero are the numbers most commonly used, but that’s just down to programming tradition. Many people are unhappy about computers having all that information, and so they try and beat the system – they spell their names different ways, they leave the ‘optional information’ boxes blank, sometimes they don’t even register their software! What I say is, computers already have so much information about you, what does it hurt to give them a bit more? Besides, the computers don’t care about your information – to them it’s just ones and zeroes, remember? There really is no need to get nervous about the digital system.

Working Web-style. Go into any large company, ask twenty different knowledge workers what they’ve found on the Web recently, and you’ll probably get thrown out by Security. Not only that, but you’ll have wasted the best part of a morning. And they’d all lie to you anyway, so what would be the point? Give people Web access, and you’ll find that from then on they’re working in a different way – a more secretive way, very often. Take their Web access away, on the other hand, and they’ll leave. The Web, in today’s business world, is a chaotic strange attractor; in other words, it’s a quantum leap which will transform the working environment for generations yet unborn, probably. I expect it’ll work out all right.

Information on your fingers. From the teletype to the keyboard; from the keyboard to the mouse; from the mouse to those funny-shaped mice with the little wheely thing in the middle – a whole series of quantum-busting paradigm-leaps, and every one of them has depended on the human finger. Several fingers, in fact. Developments in VR technology which are already being written about will take this process a revolutionary step further, with the advent of a tactile user interface or TUI. Imagine being able to reach out and use your hand to smooth the curve of a graph, align a heading, massage the data. No, I can’t imagine it either, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.

The speed of business. Go into any large company – you shouldn’t have so many problems with Security this time round – and see how quickly things are getting done. That’s right: not very quickly at all. Most office workers spend significant amounts of time doing what time and motion experts classify as ‘chatting’. Approaches to chatting differ, but the overall chat quotient (OCQ) is thought to be remarkably constant as between the three main sociological categories of office worker: the Infuriatingly Calm Slacker (ICS), the Crisis-Driven Maniac (CDM), and the Manager (BOF). The moral is clear. The true speed of business is a leisurely speed, and there’s really no call to speed it up – I mean, who wants to work around the clock anyway? Let the computers sort it out – we’ve got homes to go to.

Thought-provoking stuff, I think you’ll agree. In all modesty, I think this book could get me recognised as the most influential business author since Tom Peters, or possibly Napoleon. Already I’m hotly tipped for this year’s award for the business writer who makes the most use of scientific terms without knowing what they mean. That’s what I call a paradigm shift!

Wrapped in paper (8)

After all those columns from 1999, here’s one from last month. (And then I’ll get back to proper blogging, probably.) They say you should write about what you know; what I knew, that particular weekend, was beer. ‘Dave Bitzer’ doesn’t represent anyone in particular. Years ago I invented a consultancy called Gargle Bitzer Helipad, and I’ve used various Gargles and Bitzers ever since then to stand in for different talking heads and company spokespeople. Usually I make them talk rubbish, for obvious reasons, but in this one I think Dave talks a lot of sense.

I RAN INTO my old friend and commenting partner Dave Bitzer the other day at local beer tasting event Pale And Bitter (And Slightly Sour). I’d worked my way through the milds by this point and started on the fruit beers. In retrospect I think the second blackcurrant flavoured porter may have been a mistake.

“Dave!” I put it to him. “How’s it going! How is it going? How’s life in the… well, you know.”

I could see that my incisive style of questioning had caught Dave unprepared. For a moment, in fact, he got so confused that he said “Hello” and then turned his back on me – very much as if he had said “Goodbye”! Pausing only to sample the ginger-flavoured pale ale, I hastened to set his mind at rest.

“Dave,” I put it to him, placing a friendly arm around his shoulders. “David, David, Davey Davey Dave. It’s like this. I mean, is it like this? That’s the thing, you see – is it like this or not? I mean, if you spend your time reading about Web 2.0 on blogs and podcasts… and, and blogcasts…”

Dave said that people who did that should probably get out more, although in my case he’d make an exception. I thought that was a very good point.

“That’s a very good point,” I put it to him. “Thing is, if you read the Webby, Web things, lots of stuff. Lots of stuff happening. Reminds me of the dot boom. Is this another dot boom boom, Dave? Wait a minute, that’s not right. Is this… another… dot dot boom, de-boom boom boom. That’s what I say.”

Dave gave a heavy sigh, clearly impressed with the cogency of my argument. OK, he said, look at it this way. He tore the top layer of paper from a beermat and drew a cross on the exposed surface. So here’s your basic quadrant, he said. You can call this one -

“I’ll call it Henry,” I put it to him.

Dave sighed again, obviously deeply impressed. OK, he said, here’s Henry the Quadrant. Left to right we’ve got usefulness – is an application idea actually useful or not? Top to bottom, marketability, or whether or not you can get people worked up about it. We can rule out a couple of combinations straight away. ‘Dull but useful’ is an uphill battle for any company (apart from companies that have a large installed base they can sell to), and ‘dull and useless’ is best avoided. Clearly, ‘useful and exciting’ is what most developers are aiming for. But here’s the problem. How can developers actually come up with something that’s both exciting and useful? Look at the way we live already – we wear clothes, we drive cars, we synchronise calendars, we download MP3s, we shop around to get the best price for DVDs and don’t worry too much about the Hong Kong customs stamp when they arrive. It all works, basically. So people end up going for “exciting but useless”, and you get applications like Twitter – sounds great, if you like the idea of reading other people’s diaries in real time, but it’s not much use if you’ve actually got a life. Speaking of which, he added cryptically, then turned to look around the room, avoiding my gaze completely. I was touched by this mark of respect and put my arm round his shoulders again.

“So… So, so, so, Dave,” I put it to him. “Tell me, Dave. Is this another dot boom boom?”

Dave made a strange respectful growling noise. Not really, he said, because… oh, never mind. Look, it’s as if a brewery had to keep coming up with something new, and after a while they found they’d done every kind of beer that was actually drinkable, but they just kept going anyway and turned out, I don’t know, ginger-flavoured pale ale or blackcurrant-flavoured porter. There’s just not a lot going on, and the stuff that gets the hype isn’t really worth it. That’s why I’m here, actually.

“What, to check out the brewing… trendy… trendy trends?” I put it to him.

No, Dave said – to get drunk. What do you recommend?

Wrapped in paper (7)

More from the last century. This one had a wider audience than many of my columns, as it appeared in Computing. I wrote five of these columns for the paper in the first half of 1999, working on a rota with four or five other writers, after which they had a big reorganisation and dropped the column. It’s nice to feel one’s made a difference.

This column’s dated surprisingly well, although the obvious anachronisms are now harder to spot. The only bits that have a really odd ring are the bit about ‘free Internet services’ and, ironically, the reference to dialup access ‘costing you money the whole time’. The economics are different these days.

THE CURRENT explosion in free Internet services is sure to create a whole new generation of users: keen, enthusiastic, ignorant. With these lucky people in mind, I’ve put together a brief Guide to the Net.

What is the Internet?

The World Wide Internet (or ‘Web’ for short) was originally set up as a means for American military commanders to communicate with one another following a nuclear holocaust. It was thought vital to national security to assure the continuing availability of chat rooms, games of noughts and crosses and, of course, ‘adult’ material. Although the Cold War ended some time ago in a no-score draw, by some oversight the authorities failed to dismantle the International Net (or ‘w.w.w.’ for short). Many new technologies have sprung up to threaten the continuing viability of the ‘Web’ – the Sega Megadrive, Rabbit phones, the Microsoft Network – but it continues to hold its own. Indeed, some experts believe that it has grown within the last three to five years – and that this upward trend may continue!

Why is it so popular?

The popularity of the ‘Net’ is undoubtedly due to the unparallelled range of information and services which it can offer: the latest news from Kosovo, hardware specifications for everything from a Furby to a Happy Fun Ball, and, of course, material for ‘adult’ eyes. And that’s without mentioning the vast communications possibilities opened up by the electronic ‘news’ and ‘mail’ services which form an integral part of the ‘Interweb’, although it’s a different part from the part that we’ve been talking about up to now. Mail (or ‘email’ for short) quite literally shrinks the world – when you first got an email address, who would have thought you’d soon be getting business propositions from people in Taiwan? Not you, I’ll bet. As for ‘news’, don’t get hung up on that stale old idea of new information presented in an unbiased manner – most of the ‘news groups’ are full of ancient gossip and incomprehensible insults. And they’re all the better for it!

What about the…

Many news groups are entirely dedicated to the provision of material designed for an ‘adult’ audience.

Just checking. So, what are the drawbacks of ‘Net life’?

Net life is a lot like real life: you meet people, you talk about things, you make friends, you fall out, you insult them in public, they refuse to speak to you, you realise you’ve gone too far and try to apologise, it’s too late, nobody ever writes to you again except people in Taiwan with business propositions. The main difference is that when you’re on the Net it’s costing you money the whole time. On the other hand, how many people do you know from Taiwan?

What about the dangers of addiction?

Net addiction – or ‘Web addiction’ for short – is a real danger for today’s ‘knowledge workers’ (people who really have to work at it to acquire knowledge). Sufferers become distracted and irritable when they’ve been ‘off the line’ for too bloody long – often they can’t even complete a simple English, oh, what’s the point anyway? Look, I’ll just check my mail, all right? I won’t be on for long.

Does the Net interfere with users’ social lives?

What was that? Sorry, I wasn’t listening.

What are the major growth areas in Web use?

The Web is international – hence the name! This means that the only laws which apply on the Web are laws which apply all over the world. This is good news for casinos, which have expanded far beyond their original base in the North of England, as well as for providers of material intended for customers who can be described as ‘adults’. Another recent growth area, also taking advantage of the Net’s ‘offshore’ existence in ‘cyberspace’, has been drug trafficking (or ‘e-commerce’).

What is the significance of encryption?

Nfx n fvyyl dhrfgvba…

Wrapped in paper (6)

As a sort of companion-piece to the last one, here’s a column from September 1999.

THIS MONTH this page is given over to an interview with a pioneering futurologist: Michel de Nostredame. De Nostredame – more widely known as ‘Nostradamus’ – has had a huge influence on the very course of life on this planet itself, and on the development of the computer industry. I was particularly curious to hear Nostradamus’ interpretation of recent events, which have damaged his reputation in some quarters.

So we’re still here, then.

Can I make one thing very clear right at the outset? When soldiers cross the burning river, only a young Pope can hold the jam.

Do you think you could make that even clearer?

Sorry – force of habit. What I meant to say was, I never actually said the world was going to end on the fourth of July 1999.

What about “a creature with two heads will be born the day the eagle celebrates his festival”?

Well, there you go – that could mean just about anything. The Yanks aren’t the only people who make a fuss about eagles, are they? Besides, I didn’t specify a year. I didn’t specify a century, for that matter.

Elsewhere you did refer to July 1999, though. ‘Year 1999, seven months, from the sky will come a great king of terror to revive the king of the Mongols.’

For a start, it’s not the king of the Mongols: it’s the king of Angoulême, which is a region in France. People keep assuming I wrote in anagrams – as if my verses weren’t incomprehensible enough to start with! If I’d meant ‘Mongols’ I would have written ‘Mongols’, I can assure you.

But Angoulême doesn’t have a king.

That’s easy for you to say. I was writing four hundred years ago, remember? Anything could have happened in that time. Then there’s this ‘great king of terror’. What I actually wrote was deffraieur, which means someone who pays the bill – the kind of person who’ll get the drinks in and pick up the tab.

So it should be translated as ‘a great entertaining King’?

Uh-huh.

That gives us: ‘Year 1999, seven months, from the sky will come a great entertaining king to revive the king of Angoulême’. It’s not a great improvement in terms of accuracy, is it?

You realise that the seventh month of the astrological calendar only starts in mid-September? No, you’re right, it’s not very likely. Chalk it up to experience.

What influence do you believe your work has had on the computer industry?

It’s had a huge influence. Bill Gates himself is known to have studied my writing extensively. He even used one of my verses as justification for one of his major campaigns. As it happens that verse was a fake – it was planted by the British government, which had learnt about his superstitions following the defection of Rudolf Hess – but it shows how seriously he took my writing.

I think you’re thinking of Adolf Hitler.

You may be right – these twentieth-century leaders all look alike to me.

How do you think your writing will fare in the next millennium?

I’m optimistic. That reference to 1999 was the last specific date I used – I wish I hadn’t bothered, it was asking for trouble. There are plenty of verses still left to interpret, and some of them are so weird that they’ll be almost impossible to prove or disprove. “They will come to deliver the prince of Denmark, a shameful ransom to the temple of Artemis” – what’s that about? People will be trying to make sense of my prophecies for a long time to come.

Can I quote you on that?

I’d rather you didn’t – you never know what might happen.

Wrapped in paper (5)

This one’s from March 2000. I should say that I took Y2K very seriously indeed; we even stockpiled. (Well, we had a box.) I vividly remembered being a programmer in 1987, and having to argue long and hard before my project leader would allow me to use eight-digit dates. Multiply that out across the country, I thought, and who knew what would happen? Ironically, I was one of those posters to comp.software.year-2000 who were regarded as sunny optimists, on the grounds that we anticipated large-scale disruption but not actually the end of the world as we knew it, as such. At one stage I formulated a rough 5-point scale for measuring the severity of our predictions, and pegged myself at around 4 (where 5 was, well, TEOTWAWKI). There were plenty of no-nonsense 5s; somebody even extended the scale up to 10, to incorporate vaguely Nostradamus-like predictions of exactly how the WAWKI would E.

So I have every sympathy with people like Peter de Jager and Ed Yourdon, who did a great deal of what I still believe was good and worthwhile work in raising awareness of Y2K, and with Ed Yourdon’s afterthoughts in particular. Just thought I’d establish that.

I CAUGHT UP with my old friend Ed Gargle at his remote farmhouse recently. Ed was widely regarded as one of the leading authorities on the Millennium Bug in 1998 and 1999, although more recently he has been less in demand. I began by asking Ed the obvious question: what went right?

“What went right? Precious little, as far as I could see. Oh, there were a few failures – I believe the trains in Mali are still up the spout – but by and large Y2K was a bit of a washout..”

Remediation had been successful, in other words?

“Absolutely – and nobody’s happier about that than I am. Y2K could have been a major disaster. There was a real risk of an economic slowdown, caused by nothing more than the ever-mounting expense of last-minute fixes and the spiralling fees which would have been charged by Y2K consultants. We could have seen supply chain disruptions, leading to shortages in basic supplies; that would have caused untold hardship for everyone, except for those farsighted individuals who prepared by buying a year’s supply of rice, drinking water and toilet paper. (That’s a lot of toilet paper, incidentally – particularly if you got some extra for barter purposes.) At worst, we could have seen society decline into lawless, bloodstained chaos, in which civilisation itself would only be kept alive by a few hardy pioneers in isolated farmhouses. Instead, everything just went on working. I’m glad about that. Really very, very glad.”

I wondered how Ed would account for the success of remediation.

“Mali, for God’s sake. Talk about adding insult to injury. New Zealand: OK. Australia: OK. Japan: OK. China: OK. Russia: OK – Russia, would you believe! Europe: OK. The US: OK. Mali: problems on the railways. Oh, big deal. Who in their right mind is going to get on a train in Mali at the best of times, let alone on the day before the end of the world as we know it?”

Quite. However, I also wondered how Ed would account for the success of -

“People are blaming me now. Can you believe that? All I did was state how it looked to me – people have got to draw their own conclusions. So what if a world-renowned Y2K consultant says there’s a 79% probability of one or two major disruptions to essential services during the first quarter of 2000, each lasting between two and three weeks – it’s just one person’s opinion. People are even blaming me for the money they spent on preparing for the rollover. All I said was that I’d sold up, moved to the country and bought a year’s supply of rice, bottled water and toilet paper (which is a lot of toilet paper, incidentally) – I never said that anybody else should do the same. There wouldn’t be much point if everyone did it.”

Indeed. I wondered how Ed would account for -

“I’ve got no bookings, you know. My diary’s empty. Correction, I’ve got a few of these gigs in the first quarter – ‘Ed Gargle Explains Why He Got It Wrong’ – but after that, nada. I’m hoping I’ll be able to fall back on the stuff I was doing before Y2K. I don’t know, you tell me – is C++ still making headlines? Thought not. Still, look on the bright side – I won’t need to buy rice any time soon.”

Clearly. I wondered how -

“And then there’s all that toilet paper – it’s taking up space apart from anything else. I put a note in the last edition of my subscribers-only Y2K newsletter asking what I could do with 144 rolls of toilet paper, but I haven’t had any suggestions. Well, I haven’t had any practical suggestions.”

Ed sighed and poured us both another slug of ‘Sloe Poison’ (a locally-produced fruit brandy).

“As for why remediation succeeded, God only knows. Dedicated programmers, I suppose. Well-written applications. Stable, reliable, robust platforms, if there is such a thing. Still, mustn’t grumble – never know what’s going to happen at the end of this year.”

At the end of this year?

Ed smiled.

“Can I interest you in a seminar?”

Wrapped in paper (3)

One more back number. This one is a bit older than the other two and requires some introduction.

For three years, I edited a magazine called NEWS/400.uk; it’s still going, albeit under another name, and I’ve gone on writing a regular column for it ever since. The mag’s appeal is and always has been fairly specialised, as it’s aimed exclusively at users of IBM’s System i midrange platform (formerly known as the AS/400). There was a brief period – 20 monthly issues, to be precise – when the company I worked for also produced a magazine for users of Windows NT and Windows 2000. I was the launch editor – I left after eight issues – and I’m still convinced it could have been big. For various reasons, it didn’t happen.

Anyway, I had a column in NT explorer as well; it was called “NTWA” and it was written, for reasons I don’t now remember, under the name of Ned Ludd. This is the column from March 1999.

“AH, MR LUDD – I’ve been expecting you.”

A familiar, bespectacled figure greeted me. He was sitting in a swivel chair, which he turned to face me as I entered the room. At first sight I thought he was stroking a Persian cat; after a moment I realised it was a stuffed purple dinosaur. As I watched, he dashed the toy to the floor; it bounced once, squeaked “Say Hi to Barney!” and lay still.

“We meet at last,” he said. “And for you, it really is the last time. I mean, it’s the last time you’ll meet anyone, because I’m, like, going to kill you. I know, it kind of sucks, but what else can I do?”

“You could tell me your master plan,” I suggested.

“Ha!” he riposted. “Tell you my master plan? Ha! And, uh… Ha! And stuff. Oh, what the hell, let’s do it. I mean, I’m going to throw you to the piranhas anyway, right?”

He gestured towards what I had thought to be an ornamental water feature. Then he reached down, picked up the purple dinosaur at his feet and flung it across the room. It gave out a plaintive “I wuv you, Billy!” as it flew, then disappeared into the tank. The water boiled up around it. I shuddered.

He gave a sinister giggle. “So, you want to know my master plan. I guess you know about Y2K?”

“The Millennium Bug? But… your software implements different fixes for the bug in different packages – even in different releases of the same package! You’re on record as saying that the Millennium Bug isn’t a big deal! You’ve even said it can be fixed by subtracting thirty years from all dates, and everyone knows it should be twenty-eight – I thought…”

“You thought I was just like totally clueless, yes?” His accent was changing as he spoke. “And now you are realising, like, nobody is that clueless? And if I am not clueless… Hmm?”

“Incompatible fixes, fixes that don’t work, misleading advice – you’re trying to make things worse!”

“Ha! Correct. And after the Millennium Bug, what happens? When the date rolls over, when the computers of the world are crashing and burning, what then? I’ll tell you – it will be the end of computing as we know it! And, as the cloak of anarchy falls over the smouldering ruins of Western civilisation, only one system will survive. One light in the darkness, one beacon of hope, one operating system which will be fully compatible with the emerging requirements of the new millennium!”

“You mean – “

“Yes. Windows 2000! Oh, they used to laugh at Windows. They laughed at my dancing paperclip; they laughed at the repeated shipping delays for NT 5.0; they even” – his voice trembled – “they even laughed at my talking Barney. But no more! There was Windows, now there is Windows NT; soon there will only be Windows 2000. The third Windows will last a thousand years! Give or take a few Service Packs.”

“That’s fiendish!”

“I thought it was kind of cool, actually. But enough of this idle chit-chat. There is a second piranha tank beneath your feet: when I press this button the floor will open up beneath you and you will suffer the fate of Barney. I’m clicking on ‘OK’… now. Now I’m doing it again, because the system has not responded. And once more. And now I am being told an illegal operation has been committed, and I am exiting the program to try again. And now the system is hanging, and – hey, where are you going?”

As I made my escape he shouted after me:

“Go, Ludd! Tell the world! They will never believe you! Ha! No one will listen to your ridiculous story, and that’s just like so uncool. Ha! And stuff.”

I think he needs to work on the accent.

Wrapped in paper (2)

More about blogging from iSeries NEWS UK (or System i News UK as it now is), this time from April this year. (Reverse chronological order?)

SINCE BLOGGING exploded onto the national consciousness about a year ago, around the time that I first wrote about it, the phenomenon has grown exponentially. It is now estimated that, out of any given class of fifteen-year-olds, half have a MySpace account, a third have a personal blog and one in ten are using Facebook, while the other two haven’t been online since they got the ASBO. But what are the perils and pitfalls of this new medium? Can we safely entrust our deepest personal secrets to the Web, blithely trusting in the good intentions of everyone who reads our uncensored outpourings? Or not?

Here are some tips for would-be voyagers in the blogosphere. Careful now.

Q: I’m writing a blog. Should I be worried?

A: Very probably. Let’s face it, writing about whatever comes into your head for the benefit of a few dozen readers is no kind of occupation for an adult – not like being a columnist, for example! Perhaps you should get out more. Unless you’re one of those fifteen-year-olds, in which case you probably get out quite enough. Isn’t there some homework you should be doing?

Q: No, I mean, should I be worried about getting sacked?

A: There have been a couple of high-profile cases recently of bloggers being sacked or suspended, on the general grounds that holding a responsible position in society is incompatible with writing about whatever comes into your head for the benefit of a few dozen readers – particularly if you’re doing it in work time. But let’s keep it in proportion. Before blogging, it was not unknown for employees occasionally to use the Web for personal purposes at work, particularly when Big Brother was on. Before the Web, work computer facilities could be used for employees’ personal ends just as easily, if not quite so entertainingly. Even before PCs, employees sometimes used work facilities for their own purposes, generally by having long telephone conversations with friends, lovers or relatives, often with little or no work content. Where this was not possible, employees often had workplace affairs. Blogging is just one form of workplace timewasting, and by no means the most prevalent (or the most messy).

Q: Good heavens! Can people really be so irresponsible?

A: Yes, I’m afraid so. (You are one of those fifteen-year-olds, aren’t you?)

Q: Any tips for safe blogging?

A: Think about who’s going to be reading your blog. Once it’s up there on the Web, anyone at all could read it – and it’ll stay there for years to come! On the other hand, in practice hardly anyone will read your blog, and most of those who do won’t look beyond the front page, so it’s probably not worth getting too worked up about. But do think about first impressions, and about the effect you’re having on casual visitors, and about printouts and employment tribunals. Don’t call your blog “Notes from a wage slave” or “My boss is a crook”, even if the title accurately describes its content.

Q: Shouldn’t employers actually embrace blogging, along with other forms of social networking software such as tagging, podcasts, vodcasts, wikis and mashups?

A: OK, you’ve had your fun. I’ll answer this one question, but after that I’m going to insist on talking to a grown-up. The answer is, no, they shouldn’t. The factor you’re overlooking here is that blogs are only partly to do with social networking. What they’re very largely to do with is writing about whatever comes into your head for the benefit of a few dozen readers. Which is fine if you’ve got a workforce consisting of egotistical narcissists who only want to hear the sound of their own voice and don’t understand the concept of dialogue.

Q: Many bloggers have gone on to land book contracts and TV appearances.

A: Wait a minute, I hadn’t finished. Encouraging workplace blogging is fine if your employees are all egotistical narcissists, but – let me stress this – not otherwise. What were you saying?

Q: Many bloggers have gone on to land book contracts and TV appearances. Will my blog change my life?

A: Call it “My boss is a crook” and you’ll soon find out.

Wrapped in paper (1)

A propos of not very much, here’s a magazine column about blogging. Regular readers of iSeries NEWS UK may recognise it, as it appeared in that estimable magazine last year.

BLOGGING – it’s the new thing! Everyone’s blogging these days – at least, everyone except you! But what is blogging all about? What are the do’s and don’ts of this new medium – what does it take to be a good citizen of the blogosphere? And that MySpace thing that the kids are doing – what’s that all about? Let’s find out.

Q: Reverse chronological order?

A: That’s right – you’ll see the latest posts at the top and earlier ones lower down. It’s easy to get used to – just imagine that you’re living life backwards, perhaps as the result of exposure to a top-secret military experiment that warped the very fabric of reality itself. Or that you’re reading one of those chain emails where people add their replies at the top.

Q: What about developing a coherent argument?

A: Many blogs have a continuing theme or an argument to which they frequently return. Bloggers whose writing has a particularly clear focus are sometimes referred to as ‘subject experts’, and sometimes as ‘nutters’. You may prefer to avoid being regarded as a nutter; in this case, your best strategy is to have opinions which people agree with. Otherwise, building an extended argument on a blog is no different from doing it in any other situation: cross-examining defence witnesses in a fraud trial, say, or ascertaining whether that bloke in the taxi queue did in fact want some. The only difference with blogging is that you write it all down – that, and the fact that what you write appears in reverse chronological order.

Q: But what would I write about?

A: Whatever you like – the sky is quite literally your oyster. To get some ideas, try browsing some IT blogs. The tech blogosphere is a happy hunting ground for lovers of rare, obscure and historic technology – from the LEO to the One Per Desk, from the Osborne to the Sinclair QL… The iSeries hasn’t been neglected, either – at last count there are as many as two dedicated iSeries blogs, which sometimes feature code! But it’s up to you: you can write about whatever crosses your mind, and goodness knows most people do.

Q: So who writes this stuff?

A: According to popular stereotypes, the typical blogger is a twenty-something American Unix enthusiast who lives with his parents and compensates for his lack of a social life by hunching over a keyboard for hour after lonely hour, conducting tediously pointless contests of geek one-upmanship and exchanging incomprehensibly elaborate in-jokes, pausing only for a swig of Mountain Dew or a bite of cold pizza. This stereotype is far removed from reality – Mountain Dew’s more of a skater thing, apart from anything else. In reality, the range of bloggers is as broad as the range of blogs – and that’s pretty broad. There are blogs out there devoted to every topic under the sun – computing, cult films, Dungeons and Dragons, beer, you name it! It is believed that there are also blogs written by women, although the subject matter of these has yet to be ascertained. That’s the great thing about blogging: anyone can do it. You could be a blogger, if you put your mind to it.

Q: OK, so what is blogging?

A: Blogging is the activity of keeping a blog. A blog is a personal Website, updated regularly by the user; you can think of it as a kind of online journal or commonplace book or advertisement for oneself. The word ‘blog’ may derive from ‘Web log’, a type of Web site consisting of a ‘log’ of other interesting sites. It may also derive from ‘backlog’, a term for the mass of blog-worthy material which dedicated bloggers tend to build up, and the mass of work which doesn’t get done while they’re blogging about it. Alternatively, it may be a cross between ‘brag’ and ‘slog’, encapsulating the experience of reading a blog for (a) the author and (b) everyone else.

Q: Blogs – are they something to do with that MySpace thing that the kids seem to be doing these days? What’s that all about?

A: God knows. Shall we talk about blogging?

Hello, I’m a reject

I got my first PC in 1986; it was the upmarket model with the colour screen and the 40 MB hard disk (which I could only access as a single drive by running a non-standard version of DOS). I couldn’t get a PC that took the old floppies as well as the 3.5″ kind, but not for want of asking. I like backward compatibility.

I got my second PC in 1996, mainly to get online with. A 1 GB hard drive and a 100 MHz Pentium seemed pretty whizzy at the time, but by 2005 it was creaking badly. So I upgraded, this time to a Mac.

I’d never used a Mac before, but I found the switch surprisingly easy. I got used to a single-button mouse – and to pressing the splat key when I wanted a right-click – quite quickly. Not being able to Alt- to the menu bar was more irritating, and I couldn’t work out why I couldn’t delete files with the key labelled ‘delete’. Mostly good, though.

Some time later: the file-deleting thing was still bugging me, so I poked around a bit. OS X Help says you delete files by dragging them to Trash. Cheers. Some page somewhere suggested splat-delete. I tried it. It didn’t work. I asked around among Mac-using friends. Everyone told me it did work. Oh well, maybe I’ve got a duff keyboard.

Last month, the bottom row of the numeric keypad stopped working, probably owing to coffee, toast crumbs etc. I was pleasantly surprised to find my AppleCare cover entitles me to get a new one delivered (and maybe splat-delete will work on the new one!).

The new keyboard arrived two days ago. The numeric keypad works perfectly. Splat-delete doesn’t.

I do some serious poking around. (Maybe Apple are so keen on getting people to drag files to Trash that they’ve disabled splat-delete in the latest release?)

I notice that the Finder’s ‘File’ menu shows a key combination with a hollow arrow with an X in it. I’ve only got one key with a hollow arrow with an X in it; it’s the one labelled ‘delete’. The arrow points the other way, though. Funny.

I’m mystified by a page which advises newbies to use command+delete to delete files, then adds ‘the delete key, NOT the del key’. I’ve got a key labelled ‘delete’ – it’s the one I’ve been trying to use all this time – but there is no ‘del’ key.

I find an Apple page which makes a similar distinction, only this one refers to the ‘delete’ key and the ‘delfwd’ key. It further explains that the ‘delete’ key deletes the character to the left of the cursor. Light dawns.

So: the key labelled with the word ‘delete’, which is in a similar position to and acts exactly the same way as the ‘delete’ key on a PC keyboard, is not the ‘delete’ key. The ‘delete’ key is the big key with the long left-pointing arrow, which looks the same, is in the same position and has exactly the same function as the BACKSPACE key on a PC keyboard.

I don’t know why I didn’t realise that before.

Eat y’self fitter

Inconsequentially: it occurred to me the other day that I’m firmly convinced that some kinds of food and drink are good for you. In most cases this belief doesn’t appear to have any rational basis – although in some cases it’s probably based on experience, which is almost as good. Anyone else have a similar list at the back of their mind, or is it just me?

Healthy Food

Ginger
Anything with ginger is good for you. Fact. A friend once advocated ginger tea to me as a cold remedy so persuasively that I was genuinely disappointed still to have the cold when I finished the pot. (It did do me good, obviously, just not quite that much good.) Chopped ginger in cooking is good, or sliced ginger. Crystallised ginger, even (lots of sugar is generally bad for you, but the ginger makes up for it). I’ll reluctantly concede that chocolate ginger probably isn’t very good for you. (Better than chocolate without ginger, mind.) Gingerbread. Ginger cake. Lebkuchen (although not the ones with jam in). It’s all good.

Lemon
Anything with lemon is good for you, apart from sweet things. Apart apart from hot lemon with honey. Bizarrely, hot lemon with honey and whiskey is even healthier.

Chinese soups
Those clear broth ones. They’re good for you. It’s true. Not so much the ones with all the egg in or those crabstick ones. Hot and sour I’m not sure about, either. But the clear ones, they’re great. Same goes for any of those Chinese main courses which are basically a slightly drier version of one of those soups, with noodles or boiled rice (not fried, sadly).

Goat’s cheese
Not just goat, though. Blue Stilton, that’s got to be good for you. And white’s even better, if you can get it without the fruit salad stuck in it. Goes off in no time, mind you. So that’s white Stilton before it goes off. Careful now.

Fruit and stuff
Yeah, I suppose.

Healthy Drink

Anything fizzy
Well, OK, not anything. But mineral water, certainly, and basically anything non-alcoholic. And a nice gin and tonic, that’s got to be good for you.

Beer with yeast in the bottom
Bound to be healthy, isn’t it? (As long as you drink the yeast. Whether you do this by swirling it up and drinking it out of the bottle or swirling it up and pouring it into the glass depends entirely on the type of beer. But you knew that.)

Beer
Not all beer, obviously. Not stout, and only some porters. And not keg beer, obviously. A nice well-kept bitter, that’s what you want. Mild’s even better.

So there you have it. Of course, you wouldn’t want to let your life be governed by a list like this. Variety is important; custard, Guinness and curry are fine in moderation. But if you really want to pig out, go for Stilton, Hefe Weizen and a nice Chinese.

And ginger. Anything with ginger is good for you.

Becoming more like Alfie

It seems to be compulsory for reviewers of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s 5.55 to get in a couple of references to her father. This is unfortunate; the fact that the singer is the daughter of the more famous Serge is certainly an angle, but it’s not one that tells us a lot about this album.

So forget Serge; forget Charlotte, even. Consider 5.55 for what it (mostly) is: a set of songs composed and played by Air, with lyrics by Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon. Godin and Dunckel, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon, together at last. And a French actress supplying the vocals.

No, it’s not as good as that sounds. But it’s not far short.

Air never were particularly spiky, and over the years they’ve lost a lot of the rough edges and homed in on a lush, lounge-friendly sound; played after “Cherry blossom girl” or “Alone in Kyoto”, Premiers symptomes sounds positively avant-garde. The instrumentation of 5.55 is very lounge; most tracks are dominated by Dunckel’s grand piano, backed by a string section. What redeems it and makes it interesting is a couple of oddly spare, pared-down elements amid the general lushness. One is the composition itself, which centres on simple, repeated patterns of five or six notes on the right hand; not so much Air, more Beta Band. The other – and the really unique feature about the album – is Gainsbourg’s singing voice, which is quiet, light, delicate and frankly rather weak. But the contrast between that voice and that accompaniment – the sweeping strings and the lush, circling piano figures – is arresting; it makes you listen.

And there’s a lot here to listen to. There are three songs which slide back and forth between English and French. The Godin and Dunckel composition “Tel que tu es”, beautifully sung – and beautifully enunciated – by Gainsbourg, had me struggling for a translation: “such as you are”? “how you are”? “just the way you are”? The last verse is in English; the line is “Come as you are”. Very nice. “Jamais” similarly plays with the different expressive qualities of the two languages. Each verse sets up a rejoinder of “Never”, which is delivered in French:

You think you know me, that’s your trouble
Never fall in love with a body double
Jamais

The word ‘never’ is an undramatic trochee – one stressed syllable and one ‘uh’; ‘jamais’ is much more satisfactory, with two good vowels and a stress on both syllables. Lyrically it’s fine stuff:

I can act like I’m dumb, I can act like I’m clever
You thought that was me? Well I never!
Jamais

And then there’s the title track, a fragile, bruised meditation on insomnia, which gets a lot of its effect from the sound of that pre-dawn time-check in English and French: ‘five fifty-five’, resigned, hopeless, here I still am; ‘cinq heures cinquante-cinq’, nagging, insistent, isn’t it morning yet?

A cinq heures cinquante-cinq
Nothing will ever change
On the altar of my thought
I sacrifice myself again
And again and again
Five fifty-five

Two songs are co-written by Neil Hannon, who even plays guitar on one of them; I suppose he must have been passing. “Beauty mark”, I’m sorry to say, stinks. I’ve never really understood – or believed – the classic film reviewer’s dismissal of porn as ‘boring’, but I must admit that this track’s attempt to conjure a certain kind of atmosphere rapidly gets tedious. “This darling bud… this little death…” Yes, yes. Put it away now.

Hannon’s other song, “The songs that we sing”, is one of the album’s highlights.

I saw a photograph:
A woman in a bath of hundred-dollar bills
If the cold doesn’t kill her the money will

I read a magazine
That said, by seventeen your life is at an end
Well, I’m dead and I’m perfectly content

What really lifts this track is the animation in Gainsbourg’s voice; it’s a perfect match with the lyrics.

And these songs that we sing,
Do they mean anything
To the people we’re singing them to?
Tonight they do

The vocal on this track is particularly powerful precisely because of the contrast with the previous track and the next track; it’s certainly not that strong in itself. (Charlotte Gainsbourg sings Ethel Merman will not be appearing any time soon.) It’s a trick that can be pulled perhaps twice in the space of an album. The second time, and the album’s other highlight, is the penultimate track, “Everything I cannot see”. By the standards of this album it’s a big production number. Gainsbourg pushes her voice to the limit: she peaks with a kind of petulant mew, bizarrely affecting in the emotion it doesn’t quite convey. Dunckel’s piano-playing similarly lets rip, sprouting flourishes and curlicues of melody in all directions. Even Jarvis’s lyrics jettison all traces of irony and pitch for heartfelt without worrying about overshooting:

You’re my friend, you’re my foe
You’re the miles left to go
You are everything I ever wanted
And you are my lover

After that, the album closes with “Morning song”, whose lyrics (in English) are by Gainsbourg herself; it’s either about falling in love with a ghost or about spending the night with an ex-lover, it doesn’t really matter which. All that matters at this point in the album is the still, trembling presence of Dunckel’s vibraphone and Gainsbourg’s half-whispering voice, gently promising or warning:

Ah, but to get to the morning, first you have to get through the night…


On the subject of Serge Gainsbourg, I’m pleased to report that What I wrote is now hosting the first in a series of extracts from the recollections of Sir Frederick William Jefferson Bodine, a man equally at home in theatreland, Hollywoodland and the Land of Green Ginger. In part 1 of his showbusiness memoir Remembering Judy Garland, Sir Frederick brings to life the Serge Gainsbourg he knew:
the uke had to go, for a start. The songs got a lot slower, and of course their lyrics had to be translated into French, pretty much in their entirety. Even then, they didn’t really take to him. Eventually I realised the name was giving us problems: we’d changed everything else, but Alfie was still going out with an English name. So out went ‘Khaki’ Gainsborough and in came ‘Serge’ Gainsbourg.

And more, much more than this.

Remembering Judy Garland [1]

From the memoirs of Sir Frederick William Jefferson Bodine.

I’ll never forget Judy Garland. So few artistes have the compassion that she so often showed. That poor man, I remember she said to me once – he’s been cleaning all those windows and now he’s leaning on a lamp post at the corner of the street, doesn’t he ever get to sit down? She actually sought out George Formby and sent him a note, with a signed photograph and a rather nice armchair. I don’t know what became of it, though, I never actually worked with George.

Our paths did cross once, now I think of it, over a matter of pastiche and travesty rights. Remember young Alfie Gainsborough? Much the finest ex-Services George Formby impressionist of his day, on the Wirral circuit at least. To begin with he didn’t have the clothes for the part, you see, and after a time we made a feature of it – we got him billed as ‘Khaki’ Gainsborough. Worked like a charm – they loved him in Heswall, I can tell you. (Well, they clapped.)

Anyway, Alfie lugged his ukulele up and down the A540 for a couple of years, but after a while he decided to look further afield. So we relaunched him in France. He had to make a few changes, obviously: the uke had to go, for a start. The songs got a lot slower, and of course their lyrics had to be translated into French, pretty much in their entirety. Even then, they didn’t really take to him. Eventually I realised the name was giving us problems: we’d changed everything else, but Alfie was still going out with an English name. So out went ‘Khaki’ Gainsborough and in came ‘Serge’ Gainsbourg.

The rest of course is history: where Heswall led, the Left Bank could only follow. As time went by Alfie had more and more difficulties adapting the old George Formby material; he often told me he was working on a new version of ‘the window song’, but nothing ever came of it. That said, one of Alfie’s biggest hits was adapted from an old Formby number, albeit one that George’s people would never let him release – it was called “When I’m Between Your Kidneys”. Racy little number, as I recall.

That was with the Birkin girl, of course. Lovely girl – daughter of a judge, I believe. She’d known Alfie back home, you see, and quite by chance she ran into him in Paris one day. She was quite taken aback by his appearance, apparently, and she blurted out, “Qu’est-ce que c’est donc de quoi il s’agit dans l’ensemble, Alfie?” She was concerned that he’d become a little too French, you see; she wanted him to lose the strings of onions, you know, and the stripey jumper, and the red wine and the Gauloises and the womanising. I suppose one out of five isn’t too bad.

Marvellous career, he had, Alfie – influential in all sorts of ways. Take young Whitney Houston – she’d never have had that big hit of hers if not for Alfie. She actually jotted down the first draft straight after their meeting; it was originally called “I Will Always Love You (If You’ll Get This Ghastly Frenchman Out Of My Face)”. But do you know, ‘the window song’ evaded Alfie to the last. In the end he handed it over to an old Forces friend who’d also set up on the Continent – Jack ‘Clanger’ Bell (or ‘Clanger’ Brel as he preferred to be known by that time). Old Clanger turned it round in no time:

Les oiseaux noirs du désespoir
Ne chantent pas seulement pour toi -
Ils chantent doucement pour moi,
Quand je lave les fenêtres!

“The black birds of despair sing sweetly for me, when I’m cleaning windows” – rather nice in its way. They wouldn’t have it in Hoylake, mind you. Funny thing, years later little Dirk McCartney got hold of that song and tried to translate it back into English. Missed the whole point, though – lost the windows for one thing. No professionalism, these youngsters.

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