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Sunday, 29 June 2008

Another "Counselling Centre" story

Jeff looked round the meeting cautiously. "Any Other Business?"
"Yes" said Wendy "Staff are still forgetting to switch the illuminated 'Open' sign on and off at the right time."
Bruce rolled his eyes and murmured "Oh no, not again!"
"It's dreadful!" announced Wendy, "think what it's doing to our carbon footprint!"
"And clients hammering on the door when we're closed but the sign suggests we're open" said Bruce, wearily.
"Staff really ought to just do the right thing!" said Wendy.
"What are we going to do about it?" asked Jeff.

"I could fit a time switch and make it automatic." suggested Bruce in a hopeless tone.
"Oh Bruce!" said Wendy, "trust you to propose some complicated technical solution! I'll draw some penguins sitting on an ice floe for the Newsletter to illustrate the Climate Change aspect."
Jeff said he though more was needed, "I'll put up a notice reminding staff to switch on and off at the correct times."
"Jeff", said Bruce gently, "there already is a notice. It's been there for about 15 years"
"Thank you Bruce" said the Jeff tersely, "I'll send out a reminder memo to everyone"
"If you look in the files for January 2002" said Bruce in a helpful tone, "you'll find a copy of the memo we used last time this was a problem"
"That's more like it Bruce" said Wendy, "see, you can be positive when you put your mind to it!"
Bruce forced his face into a smile and waited to see if it had placated Wendy. Although she wasn't very bright in some ways, she could detect opposition at 50 paces.

Just to make sure, he winked at her.

Take your partners...

As I surveyed the dance floor, I began to wonder if my 90-mile journey had been worth it. On the plus side, The Committee Band were on stage - one of the finest dance bands around (and I don't often get an opportunity to use "committee" and "finest" in the same sentence).

On the minus side, who was I going to dance with? I couldn't see any of the "usual suspects". Loads of unfamiliar faces.

Then I remembered - I knew how to crack this!

I lowered my eyes and started watching the feet.

There was a lot of fast walking going on. Not good. Other feet were dancing but to a different beat. Then I saw her feet. Dancing right on every beat.

Without hesitation, I moved forward….

Friday, 27 June 2008


For several years, the UK media have painted a consistent picture of Robert Mugabe as a pretty bad egg. And our government and the usual allies agree. So, it must be true?

I'm not so sure and more inclined to ask quite why it's so important to convince us. There are precedents of course - the lead up to the Iraq invasion was similar. Mind you, Mugabe doesn't have any oil. So why bother? Could it be that our lords and masters are just telling it like it is with no hidden agenda?

Trouble is, I'm a bit of a cynic….

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Dancing: so simple, yet so complicated

Dancing with a woman you've never partnered before is often interesting and the local Ceroc venue attracts a wide and ever changing variety of people. Some are complete beginners who have never done any sort of dancing before. Others may be experienced in a number of dance forms - but not this one.

The complete beginners are a bit of a lottery. Some learn incredibly quickly. Others don't get beyond a very basic level even after years. Perhaps the most interesting are those who get the idea of "following" really early. If a woman will follow, there's loads of moves possible even though she doesn't know them.

The women from other dance genres are often great because they know about following although their response to a lead may be coloured by their background. So something totally unexpected may result. I don't worry too much - just watch what she does with interest and pick up at some suitable point. Often her interpretation of the move will "work" well enough. I know some men like to stop and show how to do it "right" but she will pick that up soon enough in the class and if the dance is flowing, why stop?

As for the experienced women, some of them know all the moves but this is less useful than you might think. To over-simplify the problem there are more moves than there are different leads. So the initial lead doesn't reliably telegraph the whole move. What works better is if they expect the man to lead all the way through a move. They make no assumptions about what the complete move is going to turn out to be.

Then there are some moves that simply cannot be led in an unambiguous way. They may be taught in the classes but hardly anyone uses them out on the dance floor without prior agreement.

However, the best dances are when you don't have to think about any of this. When I dance with "Annie" she instinctively knows about a dozen different moves that will fit any particular lead. And will very subtly steal the lead so you hardly notice. Doubtless, she's dangerously effective in Real Life!

Or "Karen" who some men might describe as being built for comfort rather than speed. They're so wrong about the speed! There's nothing like a really fast number such as "Rock Around the Clock" to show how she can move!

And sometimes you share something nearer the edge. I'm thinking now of "Cathy", a beautiful woman who definitely wants firm handling. I've never tried to find her limits but the more roughly you dance with her, the happier she is. As she seeks me out and asks for dances I think I'm reading it right.


Thursday, 19 June 2008

High-Risk Gardening

South Africa has given us some amazing flowers for the garden. Like this chap, the Livingston Daisy. It's a very risky plant though, like a lot of the "daisies" from the same country. Are they Poisonous? Or Invasive? Neither of those. Give it a dull day and it closes up and looks rubbish. That's a risk? Well, it's not like the death and destruction risks we get threatened with by the media or Health and Safety. So my usage of "risk" is unusual, perhaps a little dated - but not wrong.

Links to similar plants

Dianthus Deltoides (from Europe)

Friday, 13 June 2008

Easy Luxury Vegetable

Mark Twain said that a cauliflower is nothing more than a cabbage with a college education but there's another, little known member of the family with inherited wealth as well!

I'm being a little coy about its name because it's shared with a lowly imposter from the beetroot family - Beta Vulgaris if you please otherwise known as "Sea Kale Beet". No, I'm talking about Crambe Maritima or "Sea Kale" to its friends.

A fairly tough character, it still survives wild on some British beaches but the Victorians did rather molly-coddle it so it got a reputation for being "difficult". Let's look at a calendar and consider the reality:

December: Up end a black plastic bucket where the plant was last summer. Put a brick on top to hold it down.
April-May: Lift up the bucket, snap off the white Sea Kale shoots, Replace bucket. Repeat twice
June: Find a summer use for the bucket and brick.

You'll notice that there's no annual ritual of sowing seed. It's a perennial that you start off by planting bits of root known in the trade as "thongs" (I kid you not). Give it a couple of Springs without the bucket and you'll get lovely honey scented flowers. Then put it to work.

It tastes of… well, Sea Kale! It's slightly cabbage-like but much nicer. Use it raw in salads or steam it. Cheese-based sauces are good but don't cook the Sea Kale for more than 10 minutes - it goes tough and bitter.

If you get bored with the bucket routine, just let the plant grow. It's fairly good looking. Or dig up the roots. You can eat them too.

Wikipedia on Sea Kale
"Plants For A Future" article on Crambe Maritima

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Why computers don't get faster

"Bill" and I were talking today about Windows V7. Bill reckoned that all you need these days is a web browser and the platform you choose to support it isn't that important. He's sort of right - people are installing fewer and fewer things onto their PCs and using more and more web things.

Ironically, the reason we were having the conversation in the first place was because a web-based system we were working with had slowed to a crawl. Web applications can be really good but most of them crash or go slow from time to time.

Then I remembered another time when I used a computer system that was slower than a slug on valium. That was in 1976 and it was slow for exactly the same reason - too many users on a remote machine.

It's those experiences that made the "Personal Computer" such an easy sell in the 1980s. The machine on your desk was all yours and because you were not sharing it with anyone else, it really motored.

Even when the Internet started to get seriously useful in the mid-90s most of the processing got done on your desktop machine. Things like WWW and Email were add-ons and if they were slow, they were still a heck a lot faster than snail mail and sending off for catalogues.

As the new millennium approached, there was a gradual shift off of desktops to web-based systems with central computers. Initially, it went well because most of the systems were not overloaded and there were really useful tools that hadn't been possible before.

In the 2000s, broadband and other high speed communications technologies encouraged the idea that just about everything should be web-based. Which led to Bill and I having time to for our talk.

So what's the answer? One part is to focus hard on what you are trying to achieve and give less attention to the currently fashionable technology. Another part is to recognise that technology doesn't change as much as you and the salesmen think. And we have that hardy perennial idea that "if you don’t understand history, you’re going to be compelled to repeat it"

Don't take these ideas too seriously and change anything though. It's nice to have time to chat with Bill.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Of Chocolate Mice (Warning: Some "Adult" content)

His name wasn't Pete but let's say it was in order to protect the guilty. He was on the same course as me at Uni. Pete's famous catch phrase was "Have a chocolate mouse for effort!" which he deployed anytime something impressed him favourably or otherwise. It's a good phrase and a quick Google suggests it has fallen out of use. It needs revival!

Anyway, one of the occasions Pete used "his" phrase was during the little difficulty encountered the year he decided there ought to be a departmental float for the Rag Week procession. These days, the float design might be described approvingly as an "installation" - but it wasn't at the time. Such is the lot of an artist.

The core of the installation was a tower about 6' high made out of large tins. At the base were two footballs in hessian sacks. The top was a slotted hemispherical drain cover he nicked from somewhere. He sprayed the whole thing pink, let the paint dry and put it on a bed of dark horsehair scavenged from an old mattress. Finally, he bought an aerosol of shaving foam, ready for the "big" day.

As this took shape under the bridge that led to the library block, our interest in accompanying him on the float waned totally. Everyone claimed prior engagements, which in my case was true so I missed out on seeing the installation meet its grateful public.

Pete survived though and was there at the entrance to our final exam. He'd bought a gross of chocolate mice and was handing them out.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Heavy Plant Crossing

Being a bloke, my garden isn't full of nice flowers and nutritious vegetables. Well it has some of those but it isn't full of them. No, in that typical male competitive way, I grow WOW plants which mainly means tall. Or possibly fat. Or just weird.
Kohl Rabi
Right, this thing glories under the name Kohl Rabi. It's a member of the cabbage family. The spherical bit is known as a "globe" in the trade and is actually a modified stem. The seed packet for this particular variety "Superschmelz" claims it can get to 10Kg without being woody. Of course I had to grow it. I harvested the one in the picture when it reached about twice the size, took it to a festival and cooked it for a group of friends using a large pressure cooker. Just before it went in the pot, a woman came by and said she'd never seen one that size before. I thanked her.
Jersey KaleAnother cabbage giant is "Jersey Kale". The record height is 18 feet and on Jersey they make them into walking sticks, Mine only got to 7 feet. Still a lot of cabbage though. The young leaves and flower buds were nice steamed. When it finally "bolted" and put on masses of bright yellow flowers, a brown haze of tiny insects surrounded it for weeks.

Echium Pininana x Wildpretii hybridI haven't grown an Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) but I'd like to. It's a very tall, very slim "pine". You can see them in any good tree museum. Instead, I've grown something similar in spirit if not in biology - a giant Echium. In a little over a year, it goes from seed to over 13 feet tall. It's frighteningly easy to grow although it doesn't like hard frosts. I first saw Echium Pininana in the Connaught Garden in Sidmouth and just had to have a go. So for a couple of years, I've gown Echium Pininana x Wildpretii hybrid each season. They delight the local bees and people alike.


Kohl Rabi "Superschmelz" seeds
Jersey Kale seeds
Echium Pininana x Wildpretii hybrid seeds

Thursday, 5 June 2008

H & C running women

H & C are two mad ex-teenagers I know from festivals. No matter how muddy the campsite, they are always "dressed to impress" and no dirt dares touch them.

I'm not sure of their complete list of hobbies but encouraging men to wear skimpy clothing ("skimps") is certainly near the top of the list. No festival would be complete without their cheery cry of "Where are your skimps, Steve?"

Despite the interest in men, they nearly always dance together. The only way I've got a turn on the floor with them is where the dance actually requires a man and two "ladies". Occasionally, I subvert a more conventional dance to accommodate a threesome.

One day they were queued up behind me at a venue with a numbers limit. The staff were enforcing one out - one in. Someone came out and the staff beckoned me to come in.

Immediately, H & C kicked up a dreadful fuss.

"That's our Dad, you can't split us up!"
I slipped into the heavy parent role.
"Now girls, stop that shouting and wait quietly until the nice man says you can come in!"
"Ok Dad! Sorry Dad!"

The guy on the door bought it, "Oh, go on then!" he said and waved all three of us through.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Electronic Candle (Warning: Geeky!)

Many years ago when I was so high and much nicer I saw a circuit for an electronic candle in a magazine. There's quite a lot available ready-made these days but this design needed a match to light it!

The light from the match fell on a photocell and the resultant current triggered a thyristor that latched in the on state completing the circuit from battery to bulb. So I made one housed in a toilet roll centre with woodworking glue dripped down the side to look like wax.

Quite cool but I wasn't satisfied. A real candle would have the "blowing out" function so I added a slip of aluminium foil that shorted out the thyristor with the wind in the right direction. This was really good because when you blew the candle out, it momentarily shone brighter - just like old-fashioned wax and wick technology. I did wonder about adding a smoke generator. Not difficult - I already knew that if you broke the glass on a bulb and gave it power there was a lot of smoke but it only lasted about 5 seconds.

When I showed the "candle" to my friends and family, I made an interesting discovery. If you apply a lighted match to something that isn't a real candle or a cigarette, a lot of people get rattled and dive for cover. Very odd!

Apprentice Geek Ruth talks about BCD clocks
An electronic candle that is said to flicker realistically
About Thyristors

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Whatever happened to Erin Pizzey?

From time to time, my life has touched on issues of Domestic Abuse (which is the interesting new name for Domestic Violence) and I recently turned up the name of Erin Pizzey. If you were around in the 1970s, you may remember that she started one of the first Women's Refuges. Wrote a book too "Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear"

So, you'd expect her to be a elder stateswoman of the women's movement and feature in the "History" section of appropriate websites. You'd be wrong. Bizarrely, counter-intuitively even, she's a heroine of the men's movement.

So what went "wrong"?

In her time working in refuges, Erin came across many violent men (which you'd expect) but also many violent women (which surprised her). Women who attacked other women in the refuge. So she started to challenge the "nasty men hitting nice women" image. Worse still she wrote another book about it "Prone to Violence" which suggested that some women are not only violent, they seek out violent men.

So that's why you don't hear much about Erin these days - especially from the women's movement.

It's interesting.

Text of Prone to Violence
Erin's blog
Wikipedia article about Erin
How feminists tried to destroy the family Erin in the Daily Mail