Saturday, 27 November 2010

My arse

I used the last of my vacation allowance to take this week off, but it hasn't been what you might call a successful holiday.

There have been too many weekends where I've been required to work, which has left me tired and run down.

I had a cold nine weeks ago, but the cough is still with me. At times my chest is so tight I can't speak, while at other times I feel I'm drowning. I've been told its time to get that checked out - find out if I'm becoming asthmatic, have allergies, a chest or sinus infection, or something altogether worse. A sore has developed between my buttocks, which makes standing up, sitting down and walking all ghastly painful. I'm on antibiotics for that, but to be truthful it seems it is the painkillers that are having the biggest effect.

To cap it all, I'm due to see my consultant on Monday for the results of all the cancer follow-up tests I had last week.

All of this has left me a bit fed up.

Meanwhile the big bad world outside my window has gone white. The snow arrived in Leeds last night, laying an inch within an hour. Leeds Council is replacing all the orange sodium vapour street lamps, putting in new lamp posts which have white Philips CosmoPolis bulbs. The streets around here have all been done. It was suddenly apparent to me when I looked out at midnight that the night time orange glow I grew up with is gone. With the white light from the new street lamps reflecting off snow and clouds it simply wasn't dark outside last night.

It is unclear what the weather has in store over the next couple of days, but I'm hoping the Leeds/London trains will be running ok on Monday. I really want to get my test results. Having said that, the nice people of the RMT and TSSA unions have decided to press ahead with their planned strikes, so there'll be no tube service in London on Monday. With my chest, and my arse, and this weather, I really am not looking forward to the walk from Kings Cross to Harley Street, and then over to St Pauls.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The spirit of panic buying

It has been a very trying afternoon, being prodded, poked, and scanned by the medical community. My appointments were scattered at various addresses around Harley Street. I lived in Marylebone for several years, so visits there are always tinged with a slew of memories - some good, some not so bright.

I'm released from diagnostic purgatory at 5pm, and a little wound up I decide to walk and wend my way back to Cannon Street. I head down Marylebone Lane, taking a wander around Daunts the Bookshop. Here the books the store chooses to stock are picked entirely by their covers - and truthfully each is an artfully crafted design statement. Books for the fashion conscious, although who knows if they’re necessarily a good read?

On to St. Christopher’s Place, a little alley full of boutiques. Overhead the Christmas lights create an illuminated ceiling. Every shop front is awash with garish Christmas decorations temptingly arranged around whatever goods the store is selling. Look, say these displays, this could be the perfect present for Aunt Flo, full in the knowledge folks are beginning to get a little rattled by the proximity of Christmas and the necessity to buy something, anything, for everyone on the Christmas list.

Out onto Oxford Street, where half the pavement is dug up, and shoppers squeeze past. The Oxford Street lights are lit, three dimensional umbrellas and parcels delicately traced out in light, floating between the buildings. They are a vast improvement on the Harry Potter themed decorations from a few years ago. Witchcraft versus the most celebrated Christian festival? Deliciously ironic.

Crossing over I head down South Molton Street. This street will be lit with crossing arches, which are in place but not yet illuminated. Singers fill the air with religious carols, quite at odds with the secular interpretations of the festive season on display in the commercial establishments all around. There are people handing out what looks to be a newspaper. I'm about to reach out and take one when I hear 'Gift ideas, full of gift ideas.' Er, perhaps not. I'm not filled with the spirit of panic buying just yet. The shops are posh, minimalist, and staffed with precious types who ooze supercilious attitude, unless of course you waltz in all blinged up in this seasons high fashion, then suddenly they're fawning. There is no temptation to browse here.

At the bottom I turn left then right onto New Bond Street. A sign states the road will be closed next week for the turning on of the Christmas lights, which, it would appear, have not yet been erected. The upmarket boutiques I've passed on the preceding streets are quite ordinary compared with the top design houses and galleries that make their home here. My entire wardrobe probably costs less than the sole of a solitary Jimmy Choo shoe. The chip on my shoulder becomes heavier as I take in the shops dedicated to conspicuous consumption. I'm mollified a little when I notice that almost without exception all these stores are completely empty except for the staff, who look bored, and in some cases a little anxious.

I pass Opera Gallery, and am stopped in my tracks by a fabulous oil abstract, all waves and swirls of colour. I'm tempted to go in and ask 'How much is that daub in the window?' but I doubt they'd appreciate the humour, and I've no wish to sell my house to buy a painting. Next to it is a giant gorilla sculpted from coat hangers, its dangling family jewels keep grabbing my attention.

The road segues into Bond Street proper, famous for Tiffany and De Beers. Christmas decorations here are subtle, carefully chosen not to outshine the diamonds. Each store has a burly chap standing at the door, and you can take it for granted that these doors don't open unless they decide to let you in. Diamonds they would have you believe are a seriously expensive business. In reality, apart from a few specific industrial applications, diamonds are entirely useless. Their only value stems from the carefully constructed myth that you have to have a diamond ring to become engaged to be married, the bigger the better. The mythical pricing of diamonds can only be maintained as long as there is no second hand market for the rocks. After all - it is true what they say - diamonds are forever. They don't rot, degrade, or go off, so the De Beers of the world can only stay in business if there is a demand for newly mined diamonds. Have you ever tried to sell a diamond?

Passing De Beers I find myself on Piccadilly, and crossing over I find myself gazing at the window displays of Fortnum and Mason. Here is truly a Christmas treat. Festive displays like those of yesteryear. No products for sale in these windows, just artistry. Each window contains a three dimensional model of a well known painting from the National Gallery. Landscapes, still lifes, street scenes. People stop and point. I hear a faint jingle jingle of Christmas past.

I wander down Princes Arcade, and turn onto Jermyn Street, the Savile Row of Shirtmakers. The worst of mercantile hell is behind me now, and as I turn onto Waterloo Place the streets become more formal. I soon reach The Mall. Looking right, I wonder whether the Queen is in Buckingham Palace, and how she feels about the forthcoming nuptials of her grandson, given past experiences. Frankly I couldn't give a monkeys, but no doubt the media will whip themselves into a frenzy in the mistaken belief we want to hear every last little detail.

I cross the Mall, and start down Horse Guards Road, turning left I cross the parade ground. As my footfalls disturb the gravel, the pungent odour of horse piss wafts up. Going through the arch onto Whitehall I eyeball the Horse Guard on sentry duty with some sympathy, having had to remain completely motionless myself for an extended period earlier in the day. I'm pleased to see him sway ever so slightly back and forth. Human after all.

Turning right onto Whitehall, I'm now in the heart of central government territory. A popular point on the tourist trail, but singularly un-touristy. There are no ice cream vans, or tourist stalls here. Police officers patrol in force, arms nonchalantly folded over their semi-automatic rifles. I'm careful to appear the casual by passer that I am. Don't take too much interest in the police patrols, or gaze around taking in the placement of the CCTV cameras. Just walk quietly, heck even think quietly. I'm sure the spooks at MI5 take an interest in anyone who lingers too long hereabouts. As I pass the end of Downing street, I see the spooks have their work cut out tonight. A queue of guests wait for admission to an event being held at No 10, all upstanding members of the Asian community, here for dinner with the PM. One man in military uniform has his jacket in his hands, as his friend helps him re-pin his medals so they line up perfectly.

Spotting the London Eye, I reorient myself, and crossing Whitehall I cut through Richmond Terrace to get to The Embankment. This section of the Thames is always a glorious sight at night. Now I'm in a somewhat less sensitive area, I'm tempted to touch my ear and whisper into my lapel "Sparrowhawk to Kestrel, target acquired, repeat, we have the mole in sight, over."

Having walked two miles, it is here that I decide to listen to my weary feet and catch a bus to cover the last two miles to Cannon Street. It must have been contagious all that paranoia floating on the air in the high security zone I'd just traversed. Gazing round the bus I notice it has 5 CCTV cameras. I realise it would be an easy task for some MI5 operative to correlate the CCTV image of me boarding with the oyster card I'd swiped, thus identifying me from the details registered in Transport for London's database. I was rather glad then that I'd kept my sparrowhawk fancies unvocalised. Who'd want to end up in some dingy windowless basement in Thames House, trying to explain the concept of a "joke" to a humourless spook?

A blink reveals

A heavy frost makes every surface glitter under the sodium street lights. As the sun's warm tangerine glow invades the inky sky, silhouetted trees are revealed in winter nakedness. Their three dimensional fractal structure becomes apparent as we move and they seem to turn.

An apple tree stripped of all its leaves still bears its fruit, dangling golden globes, a natural rendition of our Christmas trees artifice.

The early birds take wing, flocks of crows rising from their rookeries. Below lights appear as households rise from slumber, shower, and break their night fast.

The sky is now baby blue, tinged pink at the horizon. The sun's appearance immanent. Frost lays thickly white on roofs and fields. Every scene begs a photographer to brace the icy dawn and capture the image in sepia tones.

The clouds at the horizon herald the rising of the sun, illuminated by its glow. Soon now it will bathe us in its rays, casting shadows where its light does not reach. The cloud colour intensifies, brilliant oranges, dramatic reds, a horizon on fire. After the long slow build-up the sun is suddenly there, its shape only visible when a blink reveals its lingering imprint on the retina.

A mist rises, then falls heavier as rain. The sun breaks through the fog, its colour leached to an icy white.

Winter's day is here.

No particular reason

I was woken at 4am by the radiator, whistling like a kettle. Despite being on the frost setting the radiator was red hot. No amount of twiddling the dial would get it to shut up or shut off. The heat was stifling so I opened the blind and window to let in some cool air.

Starlight flooded in along with the draft of cold air. The sky was incredibly clear, a myriad of stars were visible, uncommon in light polluted London. Staring down at me was the constellation of Orion.

I learnt to read at a young age due to my mum’s efforts with flash cards. She was an avid reader, and when relaxing could often be found deep a book. She would take me to the library with her, but despite this I didn't read much. At home I'd read comics, and in the library I'd look at the Asterix books. Basically reading was an effort, and I was far too lazy.

Perhaps it was the influence of Dr Who and Blake’s 7, but I was about 11 years old when I talked to mum about maybe reading some science fiction. She told me of a book she'd read and enjoyed when she was younger which I might like: Starman Jones, a novel about a boy who wants to go to the stars, by Robert A. Heinlein. Within a year I was reading voraciously, a habit I've never been able to shake.

It must have been around then that I'd looked at the night sky, and decided that one day I would travel to the middle star of Orion’s belt. It was picked for no particular reason except it was easy to find in the winter night sky. Alnilam is a blue-white supergiant. Within the next million years it may turn into a red supergiant and explode as a supernova.

Visiting Alnilam is still on the to do list, and while unlikely to be achieved given our slow progression into space, when I see Orion I always remember my childish pledge.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The wrod as a wlohe

I stumbled upon the following text the other day whilst reading a BBC "Have Your Say" discussion on the topic "What is the best way to teach child literacy?":

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

The idea was interesting enough that I was curious to track down the alleged research. Trawling the internet, I realised this text has been doing the rounds for years. Eventually my Googling paid dividends (unlike Google shares) and I discovered the concept was derived from a PhD thesis by Graham Rawlinson.

I found several examples of scrabbled text which I was able to read without trouble. Curiously it became easier to read the more I accelerated my reading speed, presumably because I was relying more on word shape.

Crucial to word shape are ascenders and descenders - the letters which poke above or below the median: b d f g h j k l p q t y. An easy test of this is to put a big thick line through some words and see whether you can make anything of the result:

Scrabbled text may reveal that once we are proficient readers we rely on shapes of words, but it probably doesn't help in teaching children to read. In any event, if you’re interested in generating your own scrabbled text try this link.

I do read a lot of books for pleasure, but I don't often consciously employ speed reading for fiction, unless I’m driven to it by excessive Tolkien-like descriptions that span pages and drag out the narrative. I’m not fond of reading technical material, so this is when I employ my own home grown method of speed reading.

When I speed read I don't start at the top and scan left to right down the page. Instead I'll glance at paragraphs to see if they contain interesting words. Often I'll read backwards from an interesting word, or scan up the page. It's my own home brew technique, rather than something I've learnt from "how to speed read" guides. I'm left handed, and I wonder whether this why I reverse polarity: right to left, bottom to top. Perhaps I should have been born Chinese?

Meanwhile the whole topic has reminded me of something that really horrified me during the last US and UK elections. It seems it has become fashionable to analyse politician's speeches by counting the number of times words get repeated.

I suppose the “Word Cloud” concept originally gained popularity in blogland. This is the Wordle generated from The Barnum Effect (you can click on it to see it full size):

Word Clouds are great for blogs and T-Shirts but should they be used to decide which candidate or party runs the country? I jolly well hope not.

Getting what you pay for

During the summer months gazing out of train window often inspired me to write. With the winter darkness upon us there is nothing to be seen but passing street lights and the reflections of fellow passengers. Denied my muse, instead I turn my attention to the plethora of free newspapers to fill my travelling hours.

It soon becomes apparent that, in the same way the paper is recycled for the following day's newsprint, so are the actual pieces of news. One morning's article in the Metro will appear practically word for word in the Evening Standard, and both articles will bear an uncanny resemblance to what is written in the online BBC News piece. In all likelihood the same piece of news will be served cold for breakfast the following morning.

I guess this highlights the death of traditional investigative journalism which, with more background and exclusive detail, would once have differentiated articles from one another. Like many of my generation I'm used to getting free news online, and find the idea of parting with cash for hardcopy news somewhat archaic. Perhaps there are no grounds for complaint when you're getting what you pay for.

Since distribution is free the papers are funded by advertisements, making every second page a full spread advert. My eyes to skip over adverts, deliberately out of focus. I resent their intrusive nature and the underlying premise that, given the right stimulus, I will trot obediently down to the shops to buy whatever twaddle they're selling, like one of Pavlov's dogs. No thanks. Cognitive intelligence at work here. Look elsewhere for mindless consumerist drones. As it happens I'm not alone in my response to adverts, research shows we're collectively developing Ad Blindness.

Whichever free paper I happen to be reading, I typically only get half way through before abandoning ship. After a dozen pages of news, the articles deteriorate into a hodgepodge of Z-List gossip. Pretty people, ugly lives. It certainly isn't news, and definitely isn't anything I want to sully my mind with.

Having said that, a few months ago when George Michael crashed into the Snappy Snaps store, I did roar out loud at the picture of the accident site, where some wit had inked 'WHAM' on the wall at the point of impact.

Talk about nominative determinism at work. Priceless.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Remembering the fallen

Heads bowed, quiet we stand,

Remembering the fallen.

White swans fly over.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Like a muppet

All good things seem to come flying at you at once. All Hallow's Eve is barely done and dusted and here comes Guy Fawkes Night. As it fortuitously fell on a Friday I was able to go to the Roundhay Park bonfire and firework display.

I'd usually aim to get there after the bonfire is lit and in time to get a good spot for watching the fireworks, but as it was a clement evening I got there earlier and watched the whole caboodle.

The bonfire was beautifully constructed in a beehive shape from shipping pallets. It took a while to get properly lit, but once it did - wow!

A great column of roiling black cloud climbed into the air, lit from within by flame, twisting and curling into the sky. As the heat from the flames grew more intense the black cloud dissipated, and steam started rising from the ground all around. A steam twister developed off to one side, spinning and dancing. The flames rose in great fluid curtains, climbing far higher than the pallets, in an inverted parody of a waterfall.

As the crowds chanted the countdown for the fireworks I turned my back on the bonfire and looked directly up. I'd chosen a place at the top of Soldiers Field by Hill 60, knowing that was where the fireworks were likely to be set up.

My position was so good, it felt like the whole display was being laid on just for me, with all the low altitude fireworks directly in front of me, and the biggies going off overhead.

As usual the display was brilliant. Fifteen minutes flew by while I grinned like a muppet.