Thursday, December 20, 2007

Knock 'Em Dead

Yesterday, I popped along briefly to The Magic Cave in Covent Garden, a magic stall owned and run by my fellow homosexualist magician, Lee Hathaway, and his business partner, Neil Henry. Lee told me a story that I just had to share.

Often in magic catalogues, an effect will be described as "This will fry them", or "This will floor them". Actually, one particular magic shop in London has a web site which claims many of their tricks will "flaw" the audience ("This will flaw them"). I suspect that's due to the odd way people in England can't pronounce the letter "r" correctly (unlike Scottish folks such as myself), and so they have confused "floor" with "flaw".

Another claim that is sometimes made is "This will kill them!". Or "This will knock 'em dead". Or some similar turn of phrase. Obviously, we don't mean that to be taken literally.

But here's the twist. Neil was performing last week for a bishop (or an arch-bishop, which is a bishop with a bow and arrow). He was doing an effect where the spectator holds a pack of cards, and while it is in their hands, it turns into a solid block of perspex. The moment when the magician asks the spectator to check in their hands, and they discover that the transformation has taken place is usually something of a highlight. It gets a good reaction. It kills them! On this occasion, alas, it did. The bishop looked, gasped, clutched at his heart, and had a stroke.

Well, okay, I don't know for sure whether the poor man actually did survive. I suspect he probably did, but what an awfully embarrassing situation to find oneself in as a performer - accidentally shocking the audience to death or close to it, rather than merely entertaining them.

I suspect Neil might not get a repeat booking at that particular establishment. Not through any fault of his own, but because from now on they'll probably stick to nothing racier than Daniel O'Donnell tribute bands.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas Present

My Christmas present to myself this year is that I can remove from my little motorbike anything that looks like this 'ere picture.

This morning, I sat and passed my motorbike test. Yay!

Only a few days ago it was looking like it wasn't going to happen. Following a fall on Friday (caused by a dickhead pulling out right in front of me quite deliberately - and then driving off after causing an accident), when I got on the bike on Saturday for some training, I only lasted a couple of minutes before realising that my nerve had gone and I just couldn't do it. I threw in the towel. However, on the way home, I decided to go back the next day and try again, but on a smaller bike, with a view to doing the test on a small bike. I felt more comfortable on a 125cc machine, and I thought I might as well give it a go, take advantage of the training I had already paid for, and be in with a chance of passing the test. The down side would be that if I passed on a 125cc machine, I would have two years of being on a restricted licence, limiting the power of the bikes I'm allowed to ride.

Quite frankly, my experience over the last few weeks has taught me that I don't mind being limited on the power front. I'm not yet comfortable on bigger bikes, and I won't be comfortable on them until I've spent quite a bit more time just getting used to general, everyday things to do with riding.

So, on that footage, I did the training on Sunday, and then did an hour or so this morning before heading out of the test centre. You fail if you commit a single major fault, and I was worried that the u-turn would give me a fail. I got through it, though, just. You can also commit up to 14 minor faults and still pass. I committed 7, so it was an okay pass. My steering was a bit wobbly from time to time, and I missed a signal on double-turn (right immediately followed by left), but that was about it.

I am now officially a big, hairy biker. So I'd better cancel my monthly order of Veet.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Recovery Discovery

Yesterday morning I was barely able to put any weight on my left foot as a result of my recent motorbike-related injury. This morning, and all of today, it has been easier and easier to get about on. So, I'm still all systems go for more training this weekend, followed by my test on Tuesday. I hope I'll pass it, and get to join the ranks of folks like Tickersoid, who passed his test a couple of weeks ago. And if you should happen to read this, Tickers, let me offer my most heartfelt congratulations. They might sour and turn to envy if I fail my own test, but for now ...


Monday, December 10, 2007

Take the sprain

I spent this weekend learning how to ride a motorbike. I'm doing Direct Access, so if I pass the test (a week tomorrow), I will be legally entitled to ride any motorcycle. Unfortunately, that is looking a little less likely this morning that it did yesterday morning. Or even mid-afternoon yesterday.

On Saturday, I arrived a little late at the place I was being trained. The satnav got me a bit lost, although it's possible that if I had trusted it when it started going a bit funny, things would have worked out alright in the end. I was being trained by a chap called Paul, and my fellow trainee was a chap called Dave. The weather was awful, but we had a good few hours out on the road on little 125cc machines. I even managed to do quite well with the u-turn, which had been a real struggle for me when I did the CBT.

On Sunday, Dave and I had a different trainer, a fellow called Lea. The weather wasn't nearly as bad, the training was really good, and after half on hour on the little bikes, he moved us up on to 500cc machines. God, those things are heavy!

All went well. After a couple of hours on the road, a break for lunch, and a bit more riding, we went to a playground to practice u-turns and slow-riding, prior to trying it out on the road. One of the bikes developed a problem with its clutch, so we were heading back to swap bikes before attempting the u-turn in the road. On that occasion, Dave was leading Lea was in the middle, and I was following. Alas, metres away from the entrance to the school where we had been practising, I lost control at a corner (almost certainly because of a patch of oil on the road, combined with a wee squeeze on the front breaks). The front wheel slipped forward and to the right, sending me toppling to the road, the bike forcing my ankle around at an awkward angle, and pinning my leg for a few very uncomfortable seconds.

Oh, the pain!

I took a few minutes to recover myself, and after a while, Lea returned to find out where I had disappeared to. I hobbled back in to the school where we had been practising u-turns, and decided to sit out the rest of the day (which was only about 45 minutes). Then I got back on the bike, rode back to where my car was parked, and drove home. The ankle wasn't too bad last night, but it became more uncomfortable overnight, so I asked my Lovely Husband™ to drive me in to the local A&E this morning before he went to work. (Bless his little cotton sox, he went back home tidied up the place, and went shopping for me whilst I was busy getting x-rays and waiting around a lot for people to push my wheelchair.)

Fortunately, the ankle isn't broken, and there isn't anything seriously wrong with the knee or the calf (both of which suffered a bit). I got some crutches, and I'm trying to put as much weight on the bad foot as I can, because it seems that the more I try to walk on it, the more I can.

I just hope it's okay for next weekend, otherwise I'll have paid all this money for the bike training, but won't be able to go. That would not be a good thing.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Mission accomplished!

It took quite a bit of doing, but as of about 20:45 last night, my lovely, shiny new motorcycle is safely parked outside the flat.

I say it took quite a bit of doing - I meant it!

The weather yesterday was dreadful. After waiting a few hours for it to clear, filling the idle hours by getting boring but necessary administrative tasks out of the way, I decided I had to go for it or risk having the bike sit on a street in south London for another night and day.

I got to where it was parked around 14:30, stood at the side of the road and kitted myself up - the jacket, the balaclava, the helmet, the waterproof trousers, the boots, the gloves. Obviously, if I were a superhero and there had been a phone box nearby, this phase of the operation would have been over very quickly. As it was, it took me ... some time.

I wonder if the rise in mobile phone usage, and consequent decline in numbers of phone booths, has made life harder for superheroes. If any such people read this blog, do let me know.

So, a mere half hour after getting there, I jumped on and tried to start her up. Nothing. The engine was turning, but wouldn't start properly. Eventually (after another half-hour), I walked her into a side street, and tried pushing her and starting her at the same time. Still nothing. I tried using the choke. Still nothing.

I had resigned myself to walking the bike all the way home - a distance of at least 15 km, probably more. However, after the first km or so, I happened across a bike shop. My lucky day, I thought! I went in and asked if they could have a look at it. The owner came out and spent a long time telling me how he couldn't really do anything, and was really busy, I would be better checking it in for a service, blah blah. Eventually, he took pity on my and agreed to try jump-starting it. It started up very easily. He asked me for a fiver. I have him a tenner, and my gratitude.

However, although he had returned the bike to a working condition, he hadn't been able to magic up some confidence for me. That was a pity, because I needed some, having lost quite a lot over the preceding 24 hours. I walked the bike some more, with the engine idling.
All through Westminster. Past the houses of Parliament. Past Downing Street. Somewhere along Victoria Embankment, I tried to get on and ride it, but wasn't feeling very confident. I continued to walk it. Past St Paul's, through the city (by now it was rush hour).

Before I'd ridden a bike, I had no idea how heavy they are. I suspect most people don't realise this. Walking through the city, stopping and starting to allow for the behaviour of other pedestrians, was really exhausting! When the bike is moving, to have to stop quickly is a strain. To get it going again is an effort. Yet both were necessary to avoid bumping into people.

At Aldgate East, I stopped outside a corner shop that I used to frequent when I lived in Number One Prescott Street. By this time, I had walked at least 5 km, gone up and down a few little hills - which seem a lot bigger when you're pushing a motorbike, hadn't taken any food or drink for a few hours, and had sweated at least a litre into my clothing. I popped into the shop to get some Irn Bru to keep me going, and then decided that it might be wise to remove the waterproof trousers, since it wasn't actually raining any more. When I took them off, it became apparent that I'd been sweating so much that they were completely drenched - it was as if I've been swimming whilst wearing them.

And back on the road again. I was now walking through some very quiet streets, so I decided to try getting on the bike again. I struggled a bit. I'd been walking for so long that my legs were cramping when I tried to ride. But I got going, after a few false starts. And then I rode for about three streets. Then I got towards busy streets again, so I got off and started pushing. Again.

Twenty minutes or so later found me in a street near Stepney Green, within 50 metres of Charlie's Bar, the pub where I used to perform every week. And in which I have shared a drink with Tickersoid and Jungle Jane, no less. I got on the bike again. And got going. And my confidence returned. And I found I was riding with reasonable comfort, despite the missing foot peg.

Along Roman Road. Past Victoria Park. Up into Hackney (awful traffic). Through to Dalston. Right onto Lea Bridge Road. Whizzing along past the turn-offs for Walthamstow and Leytonstone. Past the Whipps Cross roundabout. And then I was home. Exhausted, but exhilarated, very much in one piece, and delighted that once I got going, it got a whole lot easier. And in that whole time, I only stalled twice, and that was in the awful traffic mess in Hackney.

Now I can pop out and have a go on the bike any time, can ride it near home without fear of facing a great big journey that I don't feel ready for, and can begin to experiment with useful things like getting to the gym by bike, or popping onto an A-road or two. It's the beginning of an exciting new chapter.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Not so easy rider

Beginners luck isn't always good.

After a recent exchange about motorbikes with Nick over at Unnatural Vision, I realised that what I had been planning with regard to my future existence as a big, butch biker was madness. Insanity.

My original intention was to complete some lessons (two this weekend, two the following weekend), pass the exam (hopefully), and then buy myself a big, powerful bike.

Reality check.

Five and half days of riding would leave me ill-prepared to handle a big bike. They are powerful. And dangerous. And one little slip of the hand and you find yourself halfway up a building. Or a tree.

I decided, therefore, that a much more sensible approach would be to buy a trainer bike, a modest 125cc job, such as I am currently entitled to ride, following my recent success with the CBT (for any SM aficionados who happen to be reading, this is Compulsory Basic Training, rather than cock and ball torture). Getting such a bike would mean that I would be able to get much more practice in before the test, because I'll be able to go out on my own during the week rather than only getting to ride when I'm being trained. After the test, I can take as long as I like before deciding that the time has come to get something a big more grunty between my legs. I won't go for a big bike until I'm happy that I am completely in control of it at all times. I'm thinking at least a year, possibly longer, because I might end up liking the little bike enough to stick with it.

So convinced was I that this was a good idea, I decided to have a look yesterday on that there interweb. And lo! I found a treasure - a seven month old SkyJet 125. (Alas, I don't have a picture of the self-same bike yet, but I found a snap of the same model in the same colour, so you get to see what it looks like.) It was going for a song, because the owner is emigrating. I high-tailed it over to take a look, stopping off at a cash machine to withdraw the appropriate amount of funds, and now I am the proud owner of this beautiful machine.

Alas, since I had only been on a bike for one day (when I did the CBT), I ended up feeling a bit lost when it came to actually riding it home. The guy selling it had started it, but once he'd gone, when I tried to move off, I stalled straight away. Could I get it started again? Not for love nor money. And here's where the bad beginner's luck kicked in. I got off to try and work out why it wasn't starting. I experimented with gears and the clutch and the throttle. And then it kicked into life, and took off. Out of my hands. Falling over as it did so. Taking me with it. Ouch! And upon righting everything again, I discovered that I had broken off the left foot peg.

Fortunately, the owner had popped out for something, and passed me on his way back in. He asked if everything was okay (since we had parted company ten minutes earlier). I explained that I was having some problems remembering all the stuff I did on CBT, and confessed about the broken peg. I felt quite guilty, because the guy had taken really good care of the bike, and here was me damaging it within minutes of getting my hands on it. He checked it out, started it up, and then walked it to a place where it could be parked overnight, so that I could come back and ride it home in daylight, when it will be a bit easier, and I'll feel a bit more comfortable doing it. So, today I'm going back to South London to pick it up.

I've been sent information about where to get a replacement left foot peg. The company that does them has promised next day delivery. Getting it home today will be something of a chore, but I won't have to wait long before I can ride it properly without having to keep my foot at a funny angle.

I had a couple of unfortunate incidents when I started driving, too, so I'm chalking this one up to experience. And at least I didn't sustain any injury, apart from wounded pride and a slightly bruised shin.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

This product is not available in the shops

High in Andes, in the remote region of Aixud, a small collection of farmers grow the beans that go into the world's finest chocolate. This has been their livelihood for the last two hundred years, and their produce has been bought up entirely by the world's finest chocolatiers, going to make the most exclusive and expensive chocolates in the world, enjoyed by only those small numbers of very wealthy people who can afford them. A secret known only to the super-rich. A privilege.

But now those farmers have decided that the time has come for the rest of the world to enjoy their delicious produce, and so they have created their own chocolate drink, and made it available in quality stores throughout the world.

So, next time someone asks, "Would you like a hot drink?" , you'll know what to say ...

Aixud Cocoa

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Job That Wasn't

For the last couple of days, I have been happy and secure in the knowledge that I'll soon be back in gainful employment. I have been cheerily turning down offers of interviews.

Then last night, I got a call to tell me that the job I thought I had was no longer available, largely because the person who had offered it to me had been summarily dismissed from their role in the company, and everything else had been put on ice. And that situation isn't likely to change any time soon.

So, back to JobServe to get on with the hunting, I guess. Doh!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Many's a true word ...

... spoken in jest. Not ingest. That's eating.

And indeed, many's a true word spoken or sung in lyric form. Sometimes only hinting at a subtext that, from time to time I just yearn to tease out.

I have no idea why today is going to be the day that I do this, but here goes.

Oasis. I was never a big fan. I hear them sing:
There are many things that I would like to say to you, but I don't know how
My brain automatically adds, sotto voce:
because I'm an inarticulate oaf
Call me judgemental. (He used to hang out with Judge Dredd, so he gets to wear that rather sexy uniform. Sexy in a fascist bully-boy sort of way, alas, but sexy nonetheless.) Oh, and feel free to swap "boor" for "oaf" if you'd rather.

Oasis. A pair of walking Klein bottles.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Jerry In The Linen*

In many respects, I think the normal, everyday people of the UK have much more in common with the normal, everyday people of Germany than with any of our other European neighbours. We aren't haw-hee-haw-hee-hawn like the French. We're not all ai-yay-yay-yay-yay! like the Spanish. And I won't even try for a crude Italian stereotype because I'm not sure how to spell it convincingly. No, if anything, we're much closer to slightly plodding but jovial hurdy-burdy-hurr of the lovely German volk.

This was brought home to me with some force at the weekend when our trip to Manchesterford threw up a totally unexpected delight. There is a huge - did I say huge? I meant huge! - Christmas market in the middle of the city that runs from mid-November all the way up to the festive season. The preponderance of the stalls seem to be German, although Holland and the Scandinavian countries are also well-represented.

Lots of stalls serving hot mulled wine, great big wursts in a bun (and we all like a nice big sausage in between the buns, innit?), sweets, cakes, candle-powered glockenspeils ... marvellous.

In addition to a couple of big sausages, plates of lovely, warming stew (and heaven knows, the warming was much needed - it was perishing cold!), and the odd tumbler of hot, spiced wine, we also picked up some marvellous spongiform puppets as presents.


I saw an ad for Borders, who are giving away a seasons greetings card to everyone who buys a copy of Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion. The card reads "O come, all ye faithless". I like it a lot - I know a few people who would probably appreciate them, too. But as I was writing this, it struck me that I want a word to use instead of "the festive season", "yuletide", "xmas" (which isn't really fooling anyway, and besides, the x is just shorthand), or worst of all, "the holiday season". So, here it is ... (drum roll) ...
I like it, although I have to admit that if you use it, you might just sound like you have a speech impediment.

*** End of NEOLOGISM FLASH ***

Anyhow, to get back on topic, the markets were great, and the German people who come over to get involved in them seem friendly, jovial, and lovely, and just keen to get along with everyone. It was really lovely. This kind of thing is when the whole European experience works well.

Incidentally, we hadn't heard of this market thing at all before, but apparently it has been going on for a few years now. If they had such a thing in London, we'd know all about it. As it is, we're going to the Winter Wonderland, as previously mentioned, and we're now expecting to be a bit underwhelmed after our Manchesterford experience. But we'll see.

Watch this space (as the gynaecology lecturer said to her students).

*One of the curious things about New Zealand is that they refer to bed sheets, towels, and things of that ilk collectively as "Manchester". I imagine it's a reference back to the days when such products were made in that city, although I would have thought Birmingham would have been a more obvious choice. It also makes me wonder why they don't refer to cutlery as "Sheffield". An ex of mine had a grandmother who insisted on referring to the crockery as "Delft". Even when none of it had come from there.

Monday, November 19, 2007

How Not To Save Money

We went to Manchesterford this weekend, mainly because I was performing at The Gay Wedding Show. Unfortunately, I made a major error in booking accommodation. I looked for gay-friendly hotels and B&Bs. I ignored some of the results - the places actually on Canal Street (too noisy!) and the big chains, and went instead for a B&B that claimed to be a couple of miles away from the Gay Village, but not very far.

It turned out to be further away than the proprietors made out. Much further. And it was horrible! The room looked like it had last been decorated in the 70s, and I suspect that was when the mattress was last replaced. What furniture there was seemed to have been reclaimed from skips, or possibly auctioned off when an old folks home was closed down. And for the distance from town, and the low quality, it wasn't that cheap either. The couple whose place it is were very friendly, although I don't think they have a great grasp of English. For example, their web site explains how the prices are charged on a per-room basis rather than per-person. It then goes on to explain that a double room is £x per night, but if two people are staying in it, it's £x each. Breakfast is extra.

It was so bad that, after popping back into town and spending some time enjoying Manchester, we checked ourselves in to a lovely, fancy and very expensive hotel, went back to the B&B, picked up our stuff, dropped off the keys, and fled. I had paid in advance, so we weren't doing them out of any money or anything.

Given the cost of taxi fares between the city centre and the B&B, and how much we would have shelled out if we had stayed there (which would have required another two cab rides), the total cost would have been not very far off what we paid for the posh place we ended up in. As it happened, we ended up spending most of what it would have cost us, plus the fancy place on top of that. But at least we got to stay somewhere pleasant, and didn't feel like we were spending the night in a borstal.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Getting In To Gear

When he arrived home from work last night, my Lovely Husband™ was immediately put on the spot as I demanded that he stroke my hard, shiny helmet. For I'd been to a motorbicycling shop and bought myself some accoutrements for use in a new and rather exciting part of my life: being a biker.

I don't think I'll go for the long hair and skull tattoos look, although my experience to date is that most of them aren't like that anyway. And they're all very encouraging. They like people to take an interest in their bikes. There's a very strong community spirit.

Anyway, I am now the proud owner of an Airoh helmet (which I got for a little over half price, and which doesn't really look anything like the Optimus Prime helmet in the picture), some Oxtar boots and a rather marvellous pair of Halvarssons gloves. The Lovely Husband™ tried them all on, and was most taken with the boots, which made him feel like Spiderman. (I had wondered about the sticky white goo on his hands :) And somewhat ironic, given his arachnophobia.

Actually, the way he wore them reminded me of how he is when he's wearing the fluffy white boots I got him a few years ago. He loves them - he gets to recreate S-Club 7 videos as often as he likes. And I believe he's planning to wear them when a crowd of us go along to the Winter Wonderland in Jekyll Park.

So, now I have to sign up for a few lessons on the bike, and hopefully I'll get my full licence within a few weeks. Then I'll be able to get a bike as big and as powerful as I like. Can't wait!

I don't know why this has come upon me, although I have fancied the idea for quite a few years. My Lovely Husband™, my dad and my mother in law have all expressed doubt, concern, fear, and worry at the thought of me going around on a bike. However, I have stressed to them that, for one thing, I am a very careful driver. I am routinely mocked by members of my family for driving like an old woman. That would be an old woman who doesn't have any points on her licence, isn't prone to speeding, and has an impeccable no claims bonus. I'm quite happy to continue in the old lady mould, thank you very much. Another thing that I point out is that I'm not some wild and wicked teenager who is out to prove what an enormous manhood he has by driving into a tree at high speed. I'll be 40 in a couple of years, for goodness sakes! I don't feel the need to prove anything by going too fast, showing off or riding dangerously. However, I do find riding a bike really quite exhilarating.

It's also true that, having spent some time on a bike, I know that it will take a while before I feel fully confident and in control of the thing. There is zero risk at the moment of me being anything other than completely focussed on riding safely any time I'm in the saddle.

My dad tried to persuade me to consider a scooter instead. My lesbian sister has one, and although I'm not convinced that it qualifies her for Dykes On Bikes, she loves it so much that she's hardly been off it since she got it (last month).

When that persuasive attempt failed, my dad pointed out that if he didn't want me to do it, and my Lovely Husband™ didn't want me to do it, and my mother in law didn't want me to do it, but I was going ahead and doing it anyway, then that was really selfish of me. It was a clever route to go down, but it didn't cut any ice with me. I agreed. It is a selfish thing, but dammit, I work hard, I bring in a good income, and it really isn't very often that I do something just for me. So yes, it's selfish, but I don't feel bad about that.

Besides, although my Lovely Husband™ has expressed concern that I might end up in some horrible accident, he does acknowledge that I am very safe driver, and I think there is a part of him that finds the whole idea quite sexy. I'm sure it will only take one or two turns around the block on the pillion to convince him. Or perhaps a sidecar, which is what my mum would like.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Interpretation And A Mare's Cock

Increasingly, I see situations in my own life or in the lives of others, when much pain, outrage, indignance (if there is such a word), anger, hostility - I could go on, but I can't be bothered reaching for my word dinosaur (thesaurus) - could have been avoided if someone first stated their intention before going on to say (or write) whatever they were going to say (or write).

So many times, I have seen people respond badly because they misunderstood the intent, and reacted in ignorance of the fact that the person who was communicating was actually trying to help, wasn't looking to undermine, had put much thought in before opening mouth or putting finger to keyboard.

Unfortunately, it isn't always possible to second-guess where the dialogue is going to go once the emotional brain-stem takes over and everything starts being filtered and distorted through instantaneously created barriers of prejudice and assumption. It would be great to be able to say up front: "In saying this I don't mean ..." But that's a bit like trying to disprove a negative. You can't possibly cover all the things that you don't mean. You might be able to head off a few possible routes, but the chances of covering even a fraction of the likely candidates is slim, unless you are prepared to spend more time apologising in advance than you spend actually delivering your message.

The fault is usually with the receiver rather than the sender. If you hear or read something that causes you to respond in a strongly negative way, the sensible thing to do is to check with the sender whether you have understood them and their intentions correctly. That way, you can avoid misunderstandings before they arise. Few people are socially skilled enough to do this, though. Admittedly, it isn't always necessary. I could have started this blog entry by stating what my intention was, but that would have been more than a little facetious. Although on the plus side, it gave me an excuse to use one of only two words in the English language that features all five of the vowels, making one appearance each, in order. (The other is abstemious, in case you were wondering.)

Making my intentions clear is one of those things that I want to become better at. Then I can be smug, and look down on all those people who don't or can't do it :-)

There are other things I want to change about my own use of language, in particular, swearing, and using expressions originating from the west coast of the US. They are both things I want to stop doing, but it's just so frighteningly easy to slip into it. I was discussing this on Sunday with the ever-lovely Tickersoid, one of the easiest people on the planet to have a really good conversation with, and a man blessed with more charm than seven series of an Aaron Spelling show. He tells me he has given up worrying about the creeping west coastisms. I'm just not fond of how it sounds when I over-use the word "like".

On a tangentially related note, I was in a taxi this morning between Southampton train station and the office in which I can currently working. On the radio was what sounded like a standard talk-radio show. Interestingly, however, although the callers seemed to be the standard knee-jerk reactionaries, the host of the show seemed to be a very well-informed, liberal, thoughtful but practical type. The kind of person who can come up with really useful, good, workable solutions to social problems without dissolving into PC wrist-waving self-incriminatory ineffectiveness, and whilst avoiding anything that is genuinely discriminatory, mindless, misguided or based on prejudice.

At the risk of destroying what might otherwise have been an elegant narrative flow, I'm going to jump back a bit and explain how I came to be having drinks with Tickersoid. I was in Cardiff for the Gay Wedding Show. I'd arranged it some months ago. My reason for being there was to provide part of the entertainment, to walk around and perform magic to those visiting the show. In the event, I ended up having a table upon which I made a little display of some magic props and business cards. Although there was a steady trickle of people through the show, it never really got to the point where I could properly mingle and work the crowd, so I contented myself largely with nabbing people as they went past and performing for them. It was fun, but tiring,. One or two couples seemed very interested in hiring me, so that made it all worthwhile.

Shortly before the thing kicked off, the organiser (Gino) made a short, introductory speech, and then introduced the Mayor of Cardiff. She gave her speech (which I think was intended for visitors to the show rather than for the exhibitors, but hey), and then wandered around for a while. Now, at an event like this, where I was expected to mingle and entertain, one of the things that I like to do is having something that makes me stand out a bit so that people look, stare, or do a double-take, and I can use that as a way of breaking the ice and getting a performance starting. With that in mind, I was wearing a long piece of thin chain (actual chain rather than jewellery) around my neck, which had a very large cock ring on it. This allowed me on a few occasions to get the ball rolling by going up to people and saying "I noticed that you can hardly take your eyes off my enormous cock ... ring." I like to set the tone up front. I didn't notice the mayor had made her way around to my table until too late, so suddenly I find Gino introducing me to the Mayor of Cardiff whilst I'm sporting a very large cock ring. It only made matters worse when I apologised for the naughtiness of my accessory, because she didn't know what it was, but was angling for an explanation. I declined to oblige.

Incidentally, once or twice folks who read this blog have asked where they can see me perform. The Gay Wedding Show in Cardiff was one such rare opportunity. Another is coming up soon. I'll be doing the same thing for the Gay Wedding Show in Manchester, which is on Sunday the 18th of November.

Weighty Issues
I heard a parent saying this to a toddler today in Southampton:
You can have a doughnut if you eat this sausage roll first.
If it had been an apple rather than a sausage roll that the little nipper had been refusing to chow down on, I probably wouldn't have noticed.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Left Or Right?

My Lovely Husband™ sent me through a link to an article in an online newspaper based in Perth, Australia. It featured this animated GIF. Click on it to go to the original article if you like. I love it. To most people, the dancer appears to be turning anti-clockwise. To some, she appears to be turning clockwise. And if you go about it the correct way, you should be able to get her to change direction. It took me a while, and it was really frustrating, but I have finally learned how to change her direction at will, and my life feels a little more complete as a result.


What is really bizarre is that this is meant to indicate the relative strength of your left brain vs right brain, and I have found that if I look up and to the left, then look back at the picture, she will be rotating anti-clockwise; if I look up and to the right then look at the picture, she will be rotating clockwise.

Marvellous things, brains.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Spam Chicago A Lot

Okay, I'm not suggesting either that we should send lots of junk email to people in Chicago (either the city or the musical that bears its name). Nor tinned meat products from Hornell. (Did I get that name right?) The subject of this particular blog is merely an ugly squishing together of a couple of musical titles, viz. Spamalot and Chicago, as a way of appearing to bring together two topics that are completely unrelated other than by the fact that both have had some of my attention over the last couple of days.

First, the spam thing. Actually, I don't mean to talk about the musical at all. However, I wonder if anyone other than me has noticed a significant (four- or five-fold) increased in the amount of junk mail they are receiving? This has happened to me in the last few days. I first noticed it on Saturday morning. Instead of the usual 5 - 10 messages in gmail junk folder, there were 40 or 50. And thus has it continued for the last few days. I've also had a few instances recently of emails I send not reaching their destinations, or emails sent to me that fail to materialise. I wonder whether the global email system is finally melting down under pressure from the low-life scum who send unsolicited commercial email. And the various scam things.

So, now to the other topic, which this time does concern a musical: Chicago. My cousin and his wife visited us at the weekend, and one of the main things we had planned was to go and see a big west end show. We agreed in advance that Chicago was the best option, mostly because it enjoyed the most popular appeal amongst the four of us. Admittedly, my cousin being a rugby-playing chap, seeing musicals isn't high on his list of priorities, bless 'im. The one thing that made me slightly worried was that the part of Mama Morton is currently being played by Kelly Osbourne. This doesn't strike me as the most inspired bit of casting, nor a decision in which consideration of talent was a factor.
However, the reviews had been surprisingly favourable, and having now seen her performance, I have to admit that the reviewers were probably bribed. Whilst she did manage, most - but not all - of the time, to hit the notes relatively well, she could only do so by maintaining a singular focus on that task to the detriment of anything else. Such as moving. Or acting. Or putting any emotion, comedy, life or spark into the performance. Thus, I was witness to a performance of a hugely funny song (When You're Good To Mama) made to sound dull and lifeless. The young Osbourne was also pretty useless when it came to speaking parts. She delivered the lines, but someone might have considered that an ability to speak isn't quite enough to pull off a decent performance in a show.

In fairness, she wasn't the only disappointment. The guy playing Amos was wrong, wrong, wrong. If only Kelly Osbourne could have played him. At least his character is meant to be dull, dull, dull. And he was, but not in an entertaining and moving way. Just dull.

Billy Flynn was also a disappointment, and couldn't carry his lines above the chorus, so ended up spending most of his best numbers being drowned out by the backing singers.

The two leads, though, were great. Highlights in an otherwise disappointing evening. Well, them and the hot bodies of the male chorus line girls. Wow! Those were worth seeing.

I think the most entertaining part of the evening was when my cousin's chair broke about 5 minutes before the interval. Completely. The cast iron supports just snapped right through. One of the staff (or perhaps they're colleagues these days) tried to find us different seats together, but couldn't. They did find two spare ones in the stalls. I suggested that my Lovely Husband™ (who is scared of heights, and was struggling being in the Upper Circle) and cousin's wife (who was most keen to see a musical) should take them. A good move all round, I reckon.

From their better, and much more expensive seats, those two enjoyed the second half much more than we did, and came away much happier with the experience as a whole. I suspect that even a better seat wouldn't have created a better impression for me. The film was great. The stage show ... it's some songs very loosely strung together, with a minimal set, and none of the glitz that one might reasonably expect, given the cost of the tickets.

I know - I'm a Grumpy Old Man!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Misjudged Jargon

Sainsbury's staff have clearly been instructed that these days, they are colleagues.

I don't have a problem with that. For decades I've referred to the people I work with as colleagues. I find it has a more pleasant, inclusive overtone than co-worker. The latter seems a bit disdainful, and suggests that you wouldn't be seen dead hanging out with those people if it weren't for the fact that you have an employer in common.

Also, some people are prone to leaving out the hyphen, and "coworker" has always suggested to me something like an updated version of "cow poke". You know, like how firemen became fire fighters. And actresses became actors, for the most part without the need for surgery (to effect the change of job title, at any rate). I could see how the cow pokes of this world might want a job title that was a little bit less open to misunderstanding.

However, I think the staff at Sainsbury's may need a little bit more training. For the segment of the job market we're looking at here, when I say a little bit more training, I probably mean they should have paid attention a bit more in school, because we're talking about a fundamental lack of comprehension of a fairly standard English word.

The reason I think this is that I was in our local Sainsbury's, trying something new today*. A fellow shopper wanted to ask a question, so he approached someone who looked like they might work there, and asked, "Are you a member of staff?"

Rather than say "Yes", and getting on with it, the response was,

Um, I'm a colleague, yes.

The best of it was that this "correction" was delivered in really rather a condescending voice. You could almost hear the accompanying slightly smug internal monologue:

Oh, you little, little, ignorant, ignorant person. You understand almost nothing of the glamorous world of fast moving consumer goods. We haven't been 'staff' for such a long time. Your quaint term of address is so last millennium! We're now colleagues. Yes, we're all colleagues. Sainsbury's doesn't have staff any more. Just colleagues.

Someone needs to sit that chap (and probably many others like him) down and explain that whilst the people who work with him are his colleagues, and he is theirs, it doesn't actually stop him from being a member of staff; and for the most part, he is not the colleague of the people who shop in his store, so it makes no sense for him to describe himself to them as "a colleague".

So. Try something new today. Try teaching English to Sainsbury's staff.

* I've never been a huge fan of this kind of catchphrase, tagline, or whatever other marketing jargon gets applied to such sloganeering these days. Sainsbury's - try something new today. I've never tried shoplifting. I suspect they would argue that they aren't encouraging me to do so, but there's very little else in their shop that would fit the bill, with the possible exception of feminine hygiene products. And to some extent, those aren't unexplored territory to me, either.

I feel I ought to explain that last bit. When I was young (about 5, I think), I found an intimate hygiene product belonging to my mum, and asked her what it was for. She said it was for cleaning one's bum. So, next time I happened to be dropping one off and ran out of loo roll, I scampered off to where they were kept and used one. It didn't seem to be the most effective way of wiping. And it wouldn't flush, either. That's how I got myself caught.

Missing Inaction

I know that I haven't been blogging much at all of late. I think this corresponds to the period last year where I shut my virtual gob for a while. For some reason August - October seems to be a non-blogging time for me, and I noticed that it seems to be for quite a few other folks, too.

In truth, work has been taking me away quite a lot in the last few months, and I have much less time for such diversions as social notworking sites. I don't know how facebookers cope. (I still get regular emails telling me I've been added to facebook as someone's friend, but I continue to resist the temptation to sign up.)

Poison Ivy

On Sunday, I quietly acknowledged that I have now been gracing this planet with my presence for 37 years. Clad in a lovely, warm coat - a gift from my Lovely Husband™ - we made our way to The Ivy to meet up with the ever charming A&B for dinner. As it happens, I have had a long-standing self-imposed obligation to treat A&B to dinner there, so it was my shout. And just as well, I think, because it put me in the position to do something about an injustice that might otherwise have obtained.

The food was lovely. The service was pretty poor. Here is one example of the level of poverty. I ordered a side of vegetables to go with my main course. It didn't arrive along with everything else. By the time I caught the attention of a waiter (their attention was not easy to attract, and I wasn't in a good position for attracting it), I had finished my main course. Only then did I get the chance to ask where the side dish was, and only then (after another few minutes) did it turn up. By which time it more or less constituted a separate course, albeit on the same plate.

In between receiving dessert menus and actually being able to place an order we waited about 20 minutes. In between placing dessert orders and having the things turned up, we waited about another 20. Then again trying to get some attention so that we could ask for the bill. The place wasn't especially busy, and they didn't look in the least bit short-staffed.

So, when the bill arrived (£300 for four of us), the service charge was somewhere in the region of £36, and had already been added. They had also added an additional cover charge of £2 per person. I asked to have the service charge removed, so the woman sorting out the bill (who was about the fifth or sixth member of staff who had dealt with our table that night) went away and got the head waiter, who asked what the problem was with the bill. I just said I wasn't happy to pay the service charge because the service had been quite poor. He promptly took it off, and the world improved just a little bit.

I've been to quite a few good restaurants in my time. In every place I've been that charges the kind of prices we were paying, the service has been exemplary. In The Ivy, it was not so. Sadly, I think they are now relying on their name to continue to bring them customers, despite not offering good value for money any more. I feel particularly sorry for the chefs, who send out excellent food, only to have the overall dining experience undermined by the serving staff. And I feel sorry for the serving staff who individually can be attentive, friendly and helpful, but collectively are not organised well enough to run the restaurant properly or efficiently. But there you have it.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Stupid users!

I'm very sympathetic to people who complain, rightly, when a piece of technology (software or hardware) is difficult to use, and/or the documentation does not do a good job of explaining how to use it properly.

However, I have very little sympathy for users who get stuck, or make a mess, because they haven't bothered to look, listen or learn.

Last year, I dealt with a case of this so acute that it passed beyond frustrating and actually became funny. I had written a little DOS script (I know - how last millennium!) to do a lot of tedious work for the users rather than obliging them to do it all. The script relied on a number of steps, and attempted to elicit information from the users at least once in the process. If the user hit return before actually providing the information, the process abended. Unfortunately, the limitations of the environment meant that I couldn't loop them back and say "Oi! You were meant to type something there!"

To get around this, I made sure that the script put up information clearly explaining what was going to happen, and explicitly telling people that they should read each screen as they worked through the script. They shouldn't just hit "Any Key" without thinking. I pointed out to the users that the script did this, and emphasised that they really ought to read everything on the screen before proceeding, since this was a process they hadn't performed before. They all nodded and agreed. Then proceeded to ignore the warning, ignore the information on the screen, rush through the process, and waste their own time by stuffing it up. This was whilst I was sitting in front of them, immediately after I had told them to read everything and they had said they would!

The second and third groups faired no better, despite the fact that, having stressed the importance of reading everything on the screen before proceeding, I then went on to mock their colleagues, who had done exactly what I told them not to do. The second and third groups laughed at their colleagues stupidity - then went on to do exactly the same things themselves!

It beggared belief.

I was going to explain how this is similar to the situation I find myself in now, but as I started typing it, I realised that the process is much more complex, and explaining just how the users are getting it wrong - beyond the simple and obvious fact that they clearly haven't read my beautifully crafted, crystal clear instructions - would be even more tedious to read than it would be to write.

Let me short-cut that mutually unpleasant process by just writing: "Users? Thick eejits, more like."

Thank you all (or few - that might be more accurate) for bearing with me over the last few weeks. I've been really, really, really busy. And travelling a lot. Normal service will resume soon, I think.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Out Conjured

I was delighted to read in yesterday's Independent On Sunday that Derren Brown is now officially, openly gay.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies and Couriers

I worked at home today (yay!) because I needed to catch up on a load of stuff after being on the rail* for the first couple of days of the week. Actually, I worked at home on Tuesday, too, because I had other stuff to catch up on then. It's an endless cycle of going out and talking to people, and then trying to find time to process what I've gleaned from them into something I can work with. I could tell you more, but a) it would be boring, and b) it would probably be in breach of my non-disclosure agreement. However, the fact that I was at home on Tuesday is relevant to this tale of woe and poor service. Oh yes. Another one. And so hot on the heels of the last one.

For it came to pass that I did find myself browsing on Amazon not too long ago. And yeah, was their selection vast and their delivery promises appealing to the eyes of the Lord. So submitted me my order unto them, and selecteth me the delivery option which involveth not the incurrence of additional charges.

Then didst I wait with patience, sure in the knowledge that my goods would arrive at the appointed hour.

On the 11th day, curiosity didst burn within me, and loggeth me on to their site once more, therein to track my package. Behold my astonishment at the revelation vouchsafed to me by the tracking application. For not only had the courier come unto me and attempted to deliver the bountiful produce of the Amazon, but they had come on more than one occasion.

They had knocketh on the door, quoth the tracking application, and had ringeth the bell until their very fingers grew weak with the strain. And tho their supplications had gone unnoticed, left they a calling card that I might arrange a redelivery at my earliest convenience. And left they a calling card on both occasions, lest the first contrived to turn itself from the true path between letterbox and doormat, and lose itself in the darkness of the cupboard under the stairs.

And vexed was I at these revelations, for I had remained within my chambers from the first hour unto the last on at least one of the days when they had knocketh on the door and ringeth the bell, yet heard I nothing. And vexed was I, for meticulously did I check for signs of a calling card, verily unto the darkest depths of the cupboard under the stairs.

So, ringeth I the people of the Amazon, and after much wailing and grinding of teeth did I learn that pretty fucking useless are they at getting their courier to do a decent job, and pretty fucking useless are they at providing people with the necessary information to remedy the situation themselves.

The fool hath said in his heart, "They'll sort it all out, it will be alright." But I say this to you, "Trust not the providers of service. Trust not their words of promise. Trust not their claim to put the customer first. For see, a courier company puts their customer first, but their customer is the company that uses them to deliver goods, not the poor bastard waiting for the bloody package to turn up."

And to drop out of the increasingly difficulty biblical mode and wrap up, I spent a bit of time digging around on the "Say No To 0870" site, got a phone number for the local delivery branch, drove down there, and picked up my package. I didn't mention anything about their drivers being liars. But they are.

*I could have said on the road, but I went by train. Pernickety? Moi? Not at all. I think you'll find I'm being pedantic.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Blue In The Face

No, that subject isn't the cue for a naughty double-entendre.

It describes me trying to get sense out of Demon, the company that I use for home Internet access. My account was recently restricted, following a bit of an orgy of downloading, mostly of episodes of Babylon 5, my DVDs of which are in New Zealand. (I have legit copies, so I don't feel too bad about downloading for the purposes of watching it whilst I'm in the UK.)

According to the Demon Fair Usage Policy, my download activity is monitored, and if it exceeds 60GB on a 30-day rolling basis, the download speed during peak hours is restricted to 128Kbps. I fell foul of the policy last week, and consequently have had to endure some painful days when even the Google home page was failing to appear in anything like an acceptable time. It was like the bad old days of dial-up.

This prompted me to find out when the restriction would be lifted, because quite frankly, it was making my life a misery. The first person I spoke to implied that once the restriction is put in place, it stays there for 30 days. He then offered some drivellous crap about what "30-day rolling basis" meant in that context, and his definition, such as it was, would have been more accurately replaced with the phrase "on a monthly basis" rather than "on a 30-day rolling basis". So, I had a look at the Fair Usage Policy on-line. It pretty clearly defined what a 30-day rolling basis is, and it is exactly what I expected it to be. It also explicitly stated that the restriction would be lifted based on usage over a 30-day rolling period.

Here's an example just to make it clear what my understanding of the situation was.
  • Day 1 - I download 30GB of data
  • Day 2 - I download 30 GB of data
  • Days 3 to 29 - I don't download anything
  • Day 30 - I download 1GB of data
On day 31, my account will be restricted because, on a 30-day rolling basis, I have downloaded 61GB of data, exceeding my download limit. However, on day 32, the total for the preceding 30 days is only 31GB, so the speed restriction should be removed.

So, I call them again and take them to task over the differences between what they claim they do in their Fair Usage Policy, and what they claim to do when you speak to them on the phone. I didn't get anywhere. Even though, after much convincing, I finally got one call centre bod to put me through to his supervisor, the supervisor was no more able to understand that what he was telling me was completely at odds with the concept of a "rolling 30-day period".

I tried to get put through to a group within the company that I have successfully dealt with in the past, to no avail. At least they have sense, understand English, and don't try to contort pretty standard phrases to fit their (poor) understanding.

Just before I cancelled my account, I asked the last woman I spoke to to tell me what my usage was over the last 30 days. She told me, and then pointed out that the restriction on my account would be lifted in 9 days, when the rolling 30-day total no longer exceeded the download limit. That was exactly what I wanted to hear! So, my reading of the Fair Usage Policy is correct, the policy is implemented correctly, it's just the cretins in the call centre who had made it seem like there was a mismatch, because in fact, they don't know what they are talking about.


I know there are some lovely people who work in call centres, and having done a fair bit of process design specifically for call centres myself, I know how tricky it can be when you get a customer who ends up going off the stuff that's covered in the standard scripts. But this crowd were just a joke! Maybe I should pitch for some business from them, to come in and fix their munted processes, and get them some better scripts.

So, I'll put up with the restriction for the next 9 days, and then I'll get proper connectivity back again. In the meantime, I don't think the Skype phone is going to be doing a lot of work.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Spice Of Life

There are encouraging signs that variety is making a big come-back, along with a resurgent, modernised form of burlesque.

A few times in recent weeks, I've been enjoying the delights of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern's Brouhaha, their Wednesday night comedy thang. Of course, the RVT has been the womb from which sprang many an act, of whom Lily Savage is probably the most well-known. And of course, the roost is still ruled by the hugely talented Dame Edna Experience, who, on a good day, outclasses just about everyone. Ducky has been such an amazing hotbed of talent and creativity for years, and now it looks like it's catching on elsewhere.

My recent visits to the RVT have been during the Summer School, with Topping and Butch at the helm. They're great - the entry price is worth it just to hear whatever topical material they have put into this week's version of "Never Mind". The acts I've seen them introduce have included Lorraine Bowen, Ursula Martinez and Andy Parsons, among others. Huge diversity, quirky, odd, fabulous.

However, more recently I've noticed that all sorts of places are having Ducky-like variety nights. There are several such things happening in Soho during the week, in straight and gay venues. Further afield, there's the Bethnal Green Working Mens Club, proud home of some beautifully modern burlesque. And this evening, we're off to the St Aloysius Social Club near Euston to see a bizarre mixture of things brought together by Dr Dimaglio.

Perhaps it's a reaction against too much "reality" television (which was subjected to an interesting attack last night on Judge John Deed). Why bother sitting on your arse watching talentless no-hopers being boring together, when for the price of a couple of drinks, you can be entertained by people who actually make an effort to put a decent show together? I'm loving it.


Some time after creating this blog entry, I remembered the reason that it had occurred to me to write it at all. I happened to catch a bit of The Sorcerer's Apprentice this morning. This is a CBBC show which has been running over the school holidays, and apparently has done very well with the target demographic. This is good news to several of my magical friends and and acquaintances, not least Max Somerset, who plays the eponymous sorcerer, and Angelo Carbone who is the magic advisor for the show. The show that was on immediately after this one, though, was also very interesting, because it was based around a collection of performers with different styles of act who had to compete against each other to escape from a prison. The whole thing was basically variety, with a bit of a theme. Aunty is priming the next generation of variety lovers. Excellent!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sin & The Law

It seems to me that a lot of people at what most consider to the be extremes of religious zeal devote a lot of time and effort to the goal of making it illegal to sin.

Sin has been a very useful concept to the monotheistic religions. It's vagueness means that it can be liberally applied so that everyone is a sinner, and with a bit more twisted thinking, even an innocent, new-born baby has been "tainted". This gives some religions the opportunity to claim that we all really need them in order to secure redemption for ourselves, and guarantee ourselves a happy afterlife, featuring 72 white raisins, or choirs of cherubim and seraphim, depending on the flavour of the Judaic derivitive being peddled. (Both options sound like hell to me!)

This vagueness cuts the other way, though, when it comes to trying to make it illegal to sin, because for laws to work, you have to be pretty tight on your definitions, and have an agreed definition of what a sin is. And of course, if we are all born tainted by original sin, we might as well incarcerate new-born babies as soon as the cord is cut.

There is a deeper problem with the whole sin = lawbreaking approach. If we are not legally free to do things that are considered (by some) to be sinful, then we might spend our entire lives free from sin, but only because we feared prosecution. If I were god - and I'm glad I'm not, because I recently grew a beard, and I don't think it suited me - I would find it very unsatisfying to welcome people into my kingdom because they didn't break the law (i.e. they didn't sin), even though I would know how much they might have wanted to.

Of course, the argument would then run "Yes, but god sees what is in your heart, and judges you on that". In that case, what difference does it make if sinning is illegal? Not being allowed to sin by law isn't going to save me if I still want to break that law. So, making sin illegal isn't going to save any more souls than leaving us all alone to judge for ourselves what we consider to be sinful or not.

I'm very much with John Stuart Mill on this one. We should all have the maximum amount of liberty that is compatible with other people having the same amount of liberty.

I've had a couple of discussions recently about theism, atheism and agnosticism. I've heard from a couple of places an argument that tries to reclassify most atheism as agnosticism. As a professed atheist myself, I'm not keen on this downgrading of my position.

As far as I can tell, there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate the existence of a deity, and I'm pretty convinced that there will never be enough evidence. The fact that this does leave a gap for me to be proved wrong shows that I not close-minded, just as I am open to the laws of physics being refined and modified as we approach a better and better understanding of the universe. However, unlike the possible existence of Higgs Boson, the discovery of which will go a long way towards providing solid evidence in support of the Standard Model of physics, in the case of a deity, I really don't expect that evidence will ever arise.

There is some "belief" involved in atheism. On the basis of the evidence to date, I am not convinced that there is a god. I proceed on the basis of the belief or assumption that there is no god. My "leap of faith" in this case takes me from an observation that there isn't much evidence that supports the god hypothesis, to a conclusion that this probably means there isn't a god. As leaps of faith go, it's not a very big one. More of a small step, really.

It has been argued that my position is one of agnosticism, because I am still open to the possibility of being proved wrong. Nonsense, I say. To purloin an example from Bertram Russell and abuse it for my own ends, someone might claim there is a teapot orbiting the earth. I might not accept their claim, and can express strong scepticism about it, but the fact that I remain open to being proved wrong doesn't make me agnostic about the teapot. For all intents and purposes, if it comes to a question of belief rather than fact, I do not believe. When it comes to a question of fact, the answer is a little greyer, but not much. I very strongly doubt it, to the point that I would be very, very surprised if presented with evidence that proved me wrong.

Another argument I've had in this area goes something like this: to define yourself as atheist is to define yourself in terms of something that you are not (a believer) or in terms of something that you do not do (believe). Why would anyone make such an effort to deny something, unless there was something at the root of that refusal to believe. Hmm. Let me think about that. Yes, there is something at the root of my refusal to believe. It's that so many people do believe, and as an atheist, I feel I have to stand up and be counted as one of those who actually says "You know what? I don't." If belief is the norm, then I have to define myself in terms that indicate that the normal assumption (most people believe) does not apply in my case.

I'd rather do that than be one of the masses (sic) who are assumed to be believers, and often are "lazy" believers. They've never really thought about it, so they just go along with whatever they've been told.

So, yes, it is defining myself in terms of something that I don't do, but that is only necessary because a contrast has to be made between the majority, who, in however half-hearted a manner, do believe.

That said, a lot of lazy belief in god is similar to the lazy beliefs about how the positions of the planets at the moment of your birth (according to an innaccurate astronomical calendar) affect your personality; that you can influence the outcome of a roulette wheel; that you might be pyschic because just as you went to phone your friend, he or she phoned you; that homeopathy works because it works on animals and children, and they are not susceptible to the placebo effect.

On that last subject, I feel obliged to note that when an animal is treated with a homeopathic remedy, more effort is made to ensure that the creature is looked after, gets rest, attention, etc. It is this care of the creature, not the shaken-up water, that does the trick. And kids? Puleez! My mum used to give us butter rolled in sugar to soothe us when we had a cold. And it worked. Kids, trusting little things that they are, are more susceptible to the placebo effect than adults.

Incidentally, there's loads of this stuff in Derren Brown's book, and it's an excellent read, and sometimes quite naughty. I've always liked his writing, having bought his first two books, which were aimed at magicians. The most recent one is aimed at the general public, and it's terrific.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

It's the one that's best of all

We're just back from a longish weekend in Edinburgh, during which we caught up with family and old friends, and watched a few shows, including Son Of A Preacher Man (funny), Four On The Floor (marvellous), Shoo Shoo Baby (excellent), Poof Loose (dull), Phil Kay (genius), Hatty Heyridge (great).

Oh. I've run of of things to say now. Damn. This was going to be a long one, too.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Ho Chew Ing

A few nights ago, myself and the Lovely Husband™ were on our way home, a little bit tipsy, but not in a bad way. We were unable to get a seat, so were obliged to stand for most of the journey, as did a youngish (well, maybe early 30s) Chinese* woman. After a while, I noticed that she must have something caught in her teeth, because she was gurning and grimacing, and contorting her face in all manner of amusing ways.

Where I was standing relative to her allowed me to see just enough of her face to have an idea of which way she was screwing it up, but didn't afford her a similar view of me. So I'm rather afraid I took complete advantage of that situation and started mimicking her. After not very long, the Lovely Husband™ cottoned on to what was afoot, and starting laughing. The longer it went on (and it did go on for quite some time), the harder he had to fight to keep from losing it completely. And of course, that only spurred me on. A man at the far end of the carriage also realised what was happening, and he ended up in fits of the giggles, too. He was far enough away from the action that his laughter wouldn't necessarily have raised the suspicions of the target of this comedy effort. If only with we'd filmed it!

I do like making people laugh on trains. I've reduced my brother and sister to tears on busy commuter trains from Glasgow to our home town, simply by staring in a slightly odd manner, or allowing one of my eyes to wander a bit but keeping the other completely still. The number of times they ended up being tutted and scolded made it all worthwhile :)

* This isn't a guess. The Lovely Husband™, having taught English as a foreign language for several years, had an uncanny ability to identify peoples' nationality. I've never known him to be wrong. He said Chinese, I believe him.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Had Its Day: The Bathtub

For many years, I have had a very strong preference for proper shower units rather than a shower-over-bath (SOB) setup. This morning, when I almost slipped whilst drying myself post-shower, that strength of feeling was redoubled, and I found myself thinking that bath tubs have had their day.

Estate agents (which I think are called realtors in some countries) are quick to dissuade us from removing the bath from a property. To do so will lower the resale value significantly, we are informed. I think, or perhaps I merely like to hope, that this will change as people come to see the wisdom of only having a shower. Let me count the ways in which proper showers are better than SOBs:
  • They are easier and safer to use.
  • The proportions of the space are generally better.
  • They better lend themselves to sexual shenanigans.

And how showers are better than baths in general:
  • They take up less room.
  • They are most cost-efficient.
  • They are better for the environment, using less water and less electricity.
  • It's quicker to have a shower than a bath.
  • You're not swirling around in your own filth.

In fairness, I should now consider the advantages that a SOB has over a proper shower:
  • You get the choice of shower or bath without needing space for both.
  • Only one area to clean, and (in some cases) one of set plumbing to go wrong.

My counter-argument to the first of these is that I have to compromise the quality of one of the facilities (the shower) in order to gain the option of the other (the bath). But I use a shower every day, and almost never use a bath, so the compromise isn't worth it. As for the other point, if I only had a shower, I wouldn't need to worry about cleaning the bath anyway, and showers are often plumbed separately from the bath, even with a SOB.

To complete the picture, here are the advantages of baths over showers in general, as I see it:
  • You can more readily relax and unwind in a bath.
  • They're better, and may be essential, if you have kids.
  • They tend to be better for people with impaired mobility.
Personally, as an able-bodied person who doesn't have kids, I don't find these reasons especially compelling. We have a bath in our house in Auckland, and I've used once. I would rather get rid of it and get a really good shower. Babies are usually bathed in little tubs until they're a certain age, and when they hit that certain age, they can have a shower rather than a bath. I suspect - and I'll look for any lesbian readers to confirm or deny - that a romantic, candle-lit bath may feature more prominently in the lives of ladies who lick. I don't think I've ever done one of those - not least because we probably wouldn't both fit comfortably in the tub.

I'm hoping that over the next few years, the environmental argument will change public opinion, and the perception that estate agents have - that to remove the bath is to reduce the value of the property - will change accordingly. Then I can rip out the bath when we get back to Auckland, and turn the entire bathroom into a much more luxurious affair with a really good shower, and decent storage space - rather than squandering a load of space on a facility - the bath - that we simply don't use, and that deprives us of a lot of room.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Preacher Screecher Kreature

Last week, Thursday I think, I found myself on the Central Line around 10 in the morning, heading in to Liverpool Street from the delightfully leafy slice of green loveliness wherein my Lovely Husband™ and I make our current abode.

There was an old woman sitting a couple of seats along from me. Not very long after she got on, she started "preaching". I think she had some medical problem with her throat, because if she wanted to be heard at all, she had to raise her voice, and when she did, it became a really grating screech. My initial thought was, "poor thing". Then, alas, I began to make out the kind of things she was saying. Not talking to anyone in particular, most people being wary of catching her eye in case she took it as a sign of encouragement, she started spouting all sorts of religious claptrap of the xtian variety, with very few references to anything approaching or resembling orthodox xtian theology. Interspersed with references to god and jeebus were guttural condemnations of lesbians and gay men. It became hard to tell whether she was more interested in letting the world know about her love of god or about her complete and utter hatred and contempt for anyone who doesn't happen to be straight.

Needless to say, this very quickly damped any thoughts of feeling sorry for her. The things she was saying were so vile, so distasteful and so pointlessly offensive, that sympathy dried up and shrivelled on the vine. I feel angry towards whoever brainwashed her into being like that, but that doesn't make me feel sorry for her for being that way; in much the same way that I can still condemn a serial killer whilst also feeling anger towards the people whose abuse or neglect made the killer that way.

We went to Brighton Pride on Saturday, and had a wonderful time. At the entrance to the park, there was a motley group of placard-waving god-botherers, there to tell every attendee about how the wages of sin are death. I wanted to stop and tell them that actually, death is the wage that you get for having lived, regardless of how you did it, but why bother. Surprisingly, at least one of the placard-wavers looked really, really gay himself. The kind who probably just needs a nice big cock up his arse to reset his perspective to something a bit more sensible.

The event itself was great. I caught up with an old work chum with whom I have passed many a tipply evening in a hotel bar. We then met up with other friends and wandered around, enjoying the sunshine (finally), having a bit of a boogie, and eventually heading off to catch a chuff-chuff back to London. I ended up doing some magic for a lesbian couple we met on the train, and I suspect I might be getting a booking out of that, so yay.

And I think that's probably enough stream of consciousness for now.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Been a while

I haven't blogged for a while, and for some reason that feels like admitting to a serious bout of constipation. I did try to squeeze one out whilst on a train last week, but something went wrong with my phone's 3G connection thingy, and it got lost. Boy was I mad! I'd been at it for ages, because doing it on a phone meant lots of thumb work and predictive text. I thought that Blogger would have saved the draft, as it claims to do automagically these days, but alas, 'twas not to be.

Blairs College

My Lovely Husband™ and I popped up to the north of Scotland last weekend. We had a day or so in Aberdeen, which afforded us the opportunity to visit my old school (Blairs College), one of my favourite castles (Dunnottar). Dunnottar CastleWe also managed to fit in a mince around the city centre, a wee trip down to the beach, and a wander around Old Aberdeen. The city centre bit turned out to be really rather important, because EasyJet, in their finite wisdom, had decided it would be best not to send our checked-in luggage on the flight that we took. ServisAir promised to get it to us early the next morning. Which they failed to do. And failed again the next morning. In the end, we had to intercept the courier on our way back from Inverness on Sunday afternoon, when we were on our way back to the airport and our flight home. So, a lovely weekend, but a slightly whiffy one.

But I get ahead of myself. After Aberdeen, we headed off to Inverness, stopping in at Fyvie Castle - it's something of a corker. Then we made our way via Elgin to Inverness, where I had a quick 10 minute massage in a shopping centre - we only had the car insured for one driver, so I was spending a lot of time behind the wheel. Then it was on to Loch Ness, and Castle Urquhart, and from there a quick trip up to Glen Affrick, stopping at the Dog Falls on the way. I had to take some of these sites in on my own, or partly on my own, because my Lovely Husband™ suffers from vertigo, bless 'im, and couldn't get close enough to get the full effect. Dunnottar was particularly bad on that front, even though they have made the approach much easier than it used to be.

We spent the Saturday night in Kinneskie House, a gay guest house on The Black Isle. The hosts were very friendly, the place was lovely, and it was more like staying with friends than being in a guest house.

After the courier-interception thing on the way back the next day, Castle Fraser was our final stopping point, although by that time we were kind of castled out. And very few castles can hold a candle to Fyvie.

Fast-forward one week, almost. Friday night, I queued outside Waterstones from about 21:30, and got my grubby little paws on the new Harry Potter book around 00:15. I got through the first three chapters on the tube journey home, and then stayed up until about 05:30 reading it. I had to turn in eventually because I was starting to fall asleep, but I woke up a couple of hours later and resumed the story; then with a couple of little naps in between chapters, I finished it in the middle of the afternoon. I loved it. I was concerned that Jo Rowling would struggle to pull everything together without making it a massive, unwieldy tome of a book; in the event, it was done rather elegantly and efficiently, I thought, even despite the introduction of a new concept (the Deathly Hallows of the title). It was a bit like watching the final moments of the manufacture of a ship in a bottle, where it's creator pulls the string that lifts everything into place and suddenly it all makes sense. Nice one.

Saturday, July 07, 2007


Matthew Parris had a piece in The Times which I really liked. It basically says that so-called terrorists are a bunch of sad, drop-out, misfit losers; and portraying them that way is key to making the whole thing go away. Being a member of a group of people who are perceived as sad, misfit drop-outs isn't something that disaffected youths would aspire to, whereas the idea of a criminal, intelligent evil, shadowy powerful organisation, well that has a lot more appeal.

So, international terrorism will shrivel up and die if we respond to them by letting them know how sad, pathetic, futile and silly they are, rather than according them status as evil, baldycat-stroking, scar-eyed, Bond villains.

Okay, so the cat in this picture isn't baldy, but I'm sure you get the point. I couldn't find a picture of Doctor Evil.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Spiders, fish, and pussy

I'd venture to proclaim that most people are unaware that spiders moult. But they all do, leaving behind exuviae as they do. I have often seen an exuvia in a cupboard or something, and wrongly assumed that I was looking at a dead and dessicated spider corpse, when actually what I was looking at is more akin to a pupa from which a lovely butterfly has flown. Or summat.

Most of the spiders that we have in the UK don't leave very exciting exuviae behind. Tarantula spiders, on the other hand, oh boy, theirs are something else. As I'm sure this picture ably demonstrates.

You might be wondering why all this talk of spiders, and is it just an excuse to put a photo on my blog that might give some visitors the willies. I have to confess, I have recently been trying to get my hands on some tarantula exuviae, but having failed in that endeavour, I've decided to come clean about what I was planning to do. But not entirely.

There is a magic effect that I used to do, and have been thinking of re-introducing to my act. Without giving too much away, at an unexpected moment, the chap for whom I am performing the effect (I almost always pick a man for this, for various reasons) suddenly finds himself with a spider on him. Except it's plastic, and not very convincing. How much better, thought I, if I were to replace it with a tarantula exuvia. Much more effective. But there are none to be had for love nor money. I've tried pet shops. I've tried GumTree. I've tried contacting tarantula enthusiasts directly. No joy. So I'm sharing it here as a story of what might have been.

That brings me to another foray into the world of pets: fish. I bought a goldfish yesterday, and over the next few weeks, we'll be rehearsing a goldfish production effect together. In theory, there's no reason why I couldn't leave every table at a function with their own goldfish. Nice touch. Anyway, I'll be trying it out for the first time properly this weekend, and if it flies (perhaps "swims" would be more appropriate), then it's a big green light to The Goldfish Trick.

And finally, the third of the creatures mentioned in the subject of this blog entry, which is neither a reference to cats, nor to ladybits, but rather to me. When did I become such a big pussy? I remember as a child I would happily get dirty, eat sweets that had fallen on the ground, and so on and so on. I'm usually not too bad for the whole excessive hygiene thing. Sensible, but not absurd. However, I find myself really paranoid about getting any sort of contamination from the little fishy. So, when I change its water, I've been making sure the sink is disinfected before anything else goes near it. I've been rigorously scrubbing my hands after feeding the wee thing, or if the smallest part of my finger should even touch its water. What on earth is all that about? It's a bloody goldfish! It's not going to kill me. Yet somehow, somewhere along the line, I've become much more paranoid about interacting with a little bit of wildlife. This is despite having spent some quality time within the last few years fishing for snapper, and wading into a river to catch koura (fresh water crayfish), and then eating them. it makes no sense.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Shaping Up

I'm delighted to be able to report that my recent spurt of dedication to reclaiming a more svelt and becoming body shape is beginning to pay off.

Folks who move from the Anitpodes to the UK joke about an injection that is administered at Heathrow on the way in that makes your arse get bigger. There is some truth in this. I can't speak for Australia (although the bodies of Sydney scene queens speak for themselves), but certainly in New Zealand, it is much, much easier to have and maintain a healthy lifestyle. It's easier to eat out without piling on the pounds. It's easier to eat in without piling on the pounds. It's easier to make visiting the gym a standard part of the daily routine. It's easier to escape to the great outdoors and burn a few calories that way. And more people do it, so it's socially easier, too. You are less likely to find that friends and colleagues scoff at your healthy living choices, and attempt to undermine your resolve and lure your sorry ass down to the nearest pub.

It's getting on for two years since I got back. After about one year, I had gained about 15 kg*. As I approach the second anniversary of my return, I am happy to be able to report that I have now lost all of that extra weight, and the belly is starting to disappear. There's a ways to go yet, but if the next few weeks go as well as the last few, then strides will be made. On Saturday, my Lovely Husband™ and I did a Hulaerobics class at 09:15, immediately followed by a Body Attack class. The hula hoop class is fun, quite tiring, and can hit your abs with surprising effectiveness. Body Attack is really quite intense, and to me delight, much more fun to do as part of a couple. We were both a bit bushed after all that, but felt great for it.

My body was buzzing all day on Saturday, giving me hope that I'll get back to that marvellous state when I'm drinking little (if any) alcohol and no caffeine (which I gave up about 6 weeks ago), getting lots of quality sleep, and fitting loads of exercise into my day. When it all comes together like that, it takes about a week or two, and then I feel really switched on every minute of the day: sharp, buzzing, feeling great, full of energy, and very positive and happy. Okay, so last night was my weekly pilgrimage to The Magic Circle, and I find it difficult to keep that night completely tee-total. Even still, I imbibed much less than usual.

*Anyone who doesn't like metric can do the conversion themselves. Personally, having adjusted to using it all the time, I'm loath to return to a system that I never really understood, and wasn't taught at school. I mean, how many feet are there in a mile? And how many pounds in a stone? And do you know the correct times table to be able to multiply these figures easily?