Wednesday, 29 December 2010

A New Home in the Sky - As Good As It Gets

A work request arrives into the Klueless Support team’s queue with an apologetic little ping. The boss reads the summary - and then re-reads it aloud for our benefit.

“User is requesting that the number 7 be removed from a report”


Does the user want us simply to open the report in MS Word and delete the offending figure?

We could do this, obviously, but that would kind of invalidate the report, wouldn’t it? Imagine if people were suddenly to start going around changing figures in reports that they just didn’t like the look of? Where would it all end? Whole wars might be started, for pity’s sake! Surely our user can’t be suggesting that we behave in such an anarchistic fashion?

It must be something else then.

Maybe the user wants us to alter the fundamental properties of the universe such that the number seven no longer exists? Technically, this is more of a challenge, obviously, and could have far-reaching effects. How many days would there be in a week? How many ages of man? How many ancient wonders of the world? How would we refer to the film we currently know as The Magnificent Seven? The Magnificent 6a just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

Turns out that all the user wants is for us to remove seven erroneous data records from the database so they don’t show up in the report. Boring, but makes a bit more sense and, more importantly, is within our power to accomplish (although I was willing to give the removal of sevenness a shot if there was some overtime in it).

Numbers are weird things, though, aren’t they? I myself was a total duffer at maths in school but always really really wanted to be good at it. Alas, the principles of mathematics slipped through my desperately grasping fingers like so many greased eels on Speed. I’ve always admired people who ‘get’ maths.

We were discussing this very topic recently in an idle moment at Throwback Towers. There had been a documentary on TV about the chap that finally solved Fermat’s Last Theorem. This fellow spent something like seven (or 6a, if you will) whole years closeted away with just a pencil and paper, working on this problem (no computers, note, which is probably why he was able to solve it – just sayin’). He shared his work with very few people and then only when he was finally getting ready to reveal it to the world. It was the crowning achievement of his life – by his own admission, he is never again likely to accomplish anything like as important as that piece of work.

You have to admire the dedication, the patience and sheer singlemindedness needed to work like that.

You have to feel sorry for a man who knows that he will never be able to equal that one shining moment in his career.

For him, that was as good as it gets.

After some discussion (and an umbrella-fight – don’t ask!), we agreed that the rivers of our lives would most likely flow on serenely, happily untroubled by having to come up with something to ‘top’ what we had already achieved.

This means one of two things:

a) We are a bunch of unprincipled slackers whose capacity to under-achieve is matched only by our dedication to the same.

b) We still have our crowning moment ahead of us somewhere.

I’d really like to think it was the latter.

Monday, 27 December 2010

The Poetry Bus looks a gift-horse in the mouth

I'm finally back at the bus stop after a several-week absence. My word-hoard has been as empty as my wallet after Christmas. Today, however, I managed to scrape together enough poor coins for the fare.

This week, Muse Swings has set us the task of writing about the worst gift we ever received.

This poem, although written in the present tense, describes a gifting of many years ago.

Click on Muse Swing's link above for the original prompt and the links to other bus passengers. Have a go yourself, there's still time.

The Gift

America, America, home of the brave and free
Land of milk and honey, and of opportunitee.
A land o'erflowing with good things, to see, to eat, to wear.
So what d'you think my mum-in-law has brought me back from there?

Has she brought me Wranglers, or Nikes at cost price?
Has she got a camera?  A Walkman would be nice!
Perhaps some Hershey's Kisses, or some other candy sweet.
Just some little trinket, just some little treat.

Now, I know she's tried her hardest and this gift is kindly meant.
There are no hidden messages - to please is her intent.
So can anybody tell me, can someone make it clear
Why she's brought me back a dishcloth, when we HAVE THEM OVER HERE!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Sum - My Take on the Afterlife

Some time ago, a book was published called Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, by David Eagleman.  This delightful, imaginative, moving, thought-provoking book is a collection of short imaginings of what the afterlife might be like.

I thought I'd have a go at writing one myself....

You will wake up in what appears to be a reasonably good quality hotel room – clean, comfortable and completely characterless. There will be the usual tea and coffee making facilities, TV, en-suite bathroom and so on. The thing that will be missing is the door to the outside. The view from the window (which does not open, by the way) will appear to be a generic cityscape – nowhere you recognise.

You will wander around for a while, as all hotel guests do on their first day in a new room, peering in the various drawers and cupboards and checking out the quality of the biscuits/soaps/shampoos/towels, etc. The cupboards and drawers will all be empty apart from the usual hotel paraphernalia of leaflets about laundry arrangements, the Room Service menu, Do Not Disturb signs and those strange detachable coat-hangers. On none of these items will the name of the hotel be found.

There will be a phone beside the bed, but it will have only one button marked ‘Room Service’.

Eventually, you will be bored enough to turn on the TV. There will be only the one channel, however, and after watching it for a short time, you will realise that it is showing your life.

After watching some more, you will realise that what is being shown is not simply a replay of your whole life, rather it is a collection of selected events - all ones where you have behaved badly, have made mistakes or been embarrassed. Not one instance of you letting yourself or others down has been omitted from this montage and it makes excruciating viewing.

You could, of course, turn off the TV at any time, but then there would be nothing else to do.

Puzzled, ashamed and intrigued by turns, you will continue to watch. From time to time, you will take a break to sleep or to order food and drink from Room Service – which will appear almost immediately out of thin air.

Days will pass, the bed will somehow be made, the room will be cleaned, and the tea and coffee, and the little soaps, shampoos and towels will all be replenished as if by magic.

Eventually, the TV will get to the end of your life and then the programme will begin again from the beginning.

At this point, it will come to you that you are probably meant to do more than just passively watch the programme, so this time around, you will try to work out why you are being shown only the bad parts of your life.

As each scene unfolds, you will study it more closely than you have previously. You will try to divine some meaning in it, but no other meaning will become apparent and the programme will repeat again when it reaches the end. This will happen several times and the lack of any apparent progress will reduce you to despair, you will imagine that this is some kind of punishment for your sins.

If only I could be granted forgiveness, you will think.

The thing is, there will be no one else here but you.

It is only when you finally realise that you are the only one who can forgive the lapses and sins being shown on the TV, that the missing door will finally appear and you will be able to leave.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Cutlery Drawer Morning Briefing Session

Location: Cutlery drawer

Chair: Tate O'Peeler

Apologies: C. Knife (detained in washing-up bowl), Canaugh Pener (unavoidably delayed on counter-top)

Good morning everyone, glad you could make it. I know how difficult it can be to make it back here from the sink or the drainer sometimes, what with transport being so unreliable these days. Please be assured that we have made this problem known to management and they have said they will look into it.

Anyway, this morning is all about good news. As you can see, management has refitted our drawer with a shiny new white plastic tray for us, which is much nicer and more hygienic than the old one we had to slum it in for so long.

I should point out that management has asked me to remind you knives not to punch holes in this one like you did with the last. Yes, I know it wasn't your fault - management kept slamming the drawer and throwing you to the back, I know. Nevertheless...just try your best, please.  Thanks.

The second bit of good news I have for you today is that our brother Spoon has returned from his 15-year secondment as Head of Tumble Dryer Portal Activity Facilitation.

Some of you older ones may just about remember when they chose Spoon - shiny young thing that he was back then - because he had exactly the qualities they were looking for. Though all the spoons back then were given the chance to prove themselves, only this spoon was found to be capable of performing the difficult job of levering open the door of the tumble dryer after its own handle broke, thereby saving the management the considerable expense of replacing it.

Now this work was well outside Spoon's normal remit. It was not what he has made for, but I'm happy to say that he performed his duties all that time faithfully and without complaint.

Management has now replaced the tumble dryer with a model that has a fully-functioning door-catch, and Spoon has at last been re-assigned to our department. He will, of course, undergo a short course of re-orientation – it's been a long time since he's been allowed to scoop or stir, after all, and we don't want any accidents, do we?

Now, I know some of you are worried that Spoon's time away from us may have affected him, and I know there have been rumours floating about the kitchen of him attempting suicide by repeatedly throwing himself down the back of the tumbler.

Let me make it clear, here and now, that those rumours are false. Spoon did once fall down the back of the tumbler to remain undiscovered for three weeks, but he has assured me that it was an accident brought about by a bit too much New Year's Eve drinking, nothing more.

When he starts back tomorrow, I want you all to make him feel welcome, OK?

Well, that's about it for today, folks. Thanks for coming and keep up the good work.

Oh, just one thing before you all go. Management is looking for volunteers to act as Brachial Extenders in their High Kitchen Window Closure Project. Spud Masher, you'd be suitable for that role, I reckon. Let me know if you're interested.....

Alright, that really is it for today.  See you tomorrow.

Monday, 6 December 2010

A New Home in the Sky - You Could Not Make This Stuff Up

Old Bessie isn't well.

Various grim-faced Men in Overalls (some with Canvas Tool Bags) have visited her down in the basement of Throwback Towers, scratched their heads and gone away again. Bessie is very old, you see, forty years old, in fact and for a boiler, that's pretty ancient.

The Scotsman, who is the caretaker and living embodiment of Throwback Towers (having himself been installed when the building was first put up, and who will, I think, simply fade away into thin air when TT is torn down to make way for yet more 'vibrant' Cafes, Shops and Bars - a baffling obsession of our City Planners) tells us sadly that she's never given a minute's trouble in all that time. The thing is, though, forty-year-old parts are not easy to come by.

So, it's extra layers of fleeces, jackets, hats and gloves up on the seventh, oh and, endless cups of really hot tea – not to drink, mind you, just to hold .

From our window, nothing is visible again today because of the fog. We could be in a kind of chilly limbo. Perhaps this is some kind of afterlife. We often joke that we must have all been killed in a plane crash or some such and have each somehow ended up here, doomed to tend Klueless, its servers and databases, for all eternity. On a day like today, when there is nothing but a blank whiteness outside the windows, you could almost believe it.

A Business analyst comes wandering in, complaining that her computer cannot seem to connect to the corporate network for some reason. She's not technical (they seldom are, bless!), so one of our number trots over to see if he can help.

A while later, he returns with a cat-that-has-not-only-got-the-cream-but-has-just-acquired-a-controlling-interest-in-Associated-Dairies look on his face.

"Fixed it!" he announces, smugly.

"Oh, yes?" we cry, "What was was it then? IP Address conflict, proxy settings not set properly?" Techies ALWAYS want to know how stuff got fixed.

"Well," he says, absently breaking the ice on his tea with a spoon, "When I unplugged the network cable, you'll never guess what I found."

"What did you find?" we chorus, playing the part alloted to us in this little drama, and expecting some blether about broken connectors, loose wires and so on.

"There was a dead ladybird wedged into the network port."

"A dead - ?"

" - Ladybird.  Yes, an actual dead ladybird."

He looks at us expectantly. 

And there it is.  It's hanging in the air like a cloud of Sarin gas, but nobody wants to go there.  Nobody wants to, but somebody is going to have to Do The Decent Thing.  Sooner or later, somebody is going to have to say....

"So, you're saying there was a bug in the network?" says the Boss.

We breathe a sigh of relief, glad to get that out of the way.

You really couldn't make this stuff up, and I promise I didn't (although I may have exaggerated about the cold - a bit).

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Exam Time with Dominic Rivron

On his blog, the erudite Dominic Rivron has challenged the blogosphere to write an essay answer to one of the exam questions from the paper that would-be students at All Soul's College are required to sit.

Not having written (or thought) anything of much substance of late, I thought I'd give it a go.

Dominic's post is here, where you can read his essay and also get to the list of questions.  My effort is below.

How would you explain the current strength of religious fundamentalism?

Almost daily, the media bombards us with news of some new and/or important scientific or technological advance, be it a step on the road to a cure for cancer or the invention of a new type of portable music player.

The internet allows us to access ideas, philosophies, knowledge and ways of thinking far different from our own at the simple click of a mouse.

Fashions, cultures and mores are changing quickly – the rate of change fuelled, no doubt, by the ease with which ideas can be spread around the globe, and by the sheer number of minds it is now possible to pollinate with any new idea along with the speed at which this can be accomplished.

So it's a changing world, an uncertain, unequal world and, for many people, a very threatening world. Religious fundamentalism offers certain advantages to the true believer, certain comforts.

If it were a product, it would be marketed like this:

You have a place in the grand scheme of things. You may be insignificant to your government, to your employer, to your neighbours even, in this age of dissolving communities, but there is always a place for you among the true believers, where you are valued and where you can find like minds. You are in the ultimate 'in' crowd.

Elimination of uncertainty. If you are confused by the fluid morals and ephemeral fashions and lifestyles of the modern world, you can replace them with a set of principles and codes of conduct which are unchanging, uncompromising and absolute. You need not puzzle out for yourself what to do in a given situation – it's all been worked out for you, and you can rest assured that this way is the right way.

Elimination of injustice. In this life or the next, you will be rewarded for your sufferings in this vale of tears. You may be dirt-poor and ignorant, but rest assured, those infidels who now live in the lap of luxury and decadence will pay for it later. Even if you are not poverty-stricken or uneducated, you can help out those who are, by struggling against the same forces of immorality and secularism that they do. This life is but a gateway to the next – which is the more important one.

Everybody needs an enemy. In medieval times, people feared devils and evil spirits. Witches were at one time the favoured bogey-man. Later on, we had communists and aliens. There has not been an age in our history where a society has not felt the need of a common enemy of some sort. The true believer will certainly have one as well, and it feels good to strive with your fellows against a common foe.

Is it any wonder that religious fundamentalism is so strong?

But surely, it might be argued, people are more educated these days and wouldn't 'fall for' all this kind of rigid thinking. As mentioned above, many people have access to thoughts and ideas – to knowledge - which should set their minds free from what most liberally-educated people might regard as the 'shackles' of dogmatism? Surely, no rational person would cleave to these outmoded and legalistic modes of belief and conduct?

If only people were rational beings.

They are not, as we can see from the continued popularity of such things as astrology and general superstition on the part of otherwise sensible people.

They are not, as evidenced by the prevalence of addiction to substances which harm the mind and body.

They are not, as shown by a tendency by many people to purchase a product simply because it bears someone's name at ten time the price of a similar quality item without.

Given the general level of irrational behaviour on this planet, opting for something which appears to offer certainty, significance, satisfaction and stability seems like a sensible choice.

No wonder religious fundamentalism is flourishing.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Not a Wordzzle

New to Harold? Catch up here

It was the smell of coffee that finally snapped everything back into focus for Harold. Prada had just brought a pot into the living room to refill the cups of India and Mr Teeth, who had been watching Harold's recovery.

"Welcome back, old shoe," murmured Teatime, "Glad you could join us at last."

Ignoring the little monkey's sarcasm, Harold looked around the well-appointed room in some surprise. "How'd I get here?" he asked, "Last thing I remember was being near Box's friend's house – with you." he pointed at India. "Then everything went very strange."

"Strange, how?" asked India, pen poised over notebook. Othello would never forgive her if she didn't get all this down. He and Mercury had taken the car and headed off to the hospital to see Box.

"One minute everything was normal, then all of a sudden, everything just went dark and I couldn't move or see or anything, and I became really slow."


"Yeah, I imagine it would be like what you humans call tiredness, but magnified – very peculiar. I couldn't gather my thoughts or focus on anything. Anyway, what happened? How did we end up back here?"

Between them, India and Teatime filled him in on what had happened.

"So, I must have just wandered into this field thing that Box was talking about." he shook his head, "No wonder they were able to capture Baron Samedi and the others – with a thing like that it would be so easy."

"They must have been expecting to find a demon at the house," said Mr Teeth, who had kept quiet up till that moment, "else why would they have switched on their field when they got there?"

"How did they even know to go to that house?" asked Prada, "We've haven't told anybody about it. In point of fact we didn't know it existed ourselves until today."

"Maybe they found you the same way I did," replied Mr Teeth, "or at least the company I hired did, at any rate. Maybe they just followed your car and watched the house for a while."

"Let's hope it was something like that," said India, "because otherwise it means our traitor is a bit closer to home than we thought."


RolexBoy's computer pinged softly, alerting him to incoming email. He glanced casually around the room to ensure that nobody was watching him. Nobody was, so he opened the message and read quickly:

No specimen found at the address. Appears that the specimen and the OGS agents were in process of clearing out of there. Only Box was still present. He is now at Mercy Hospital. Flowers is there on damage limitation.

RolexBoy deleted the message with an irritated click of his mouse.

This was not good news: if Agent Mercury and his merry band were still on the loose, there was still a chance they could find out what was really going on. Find out and interfere. RolexBoy had no doubt that they would never understand in a million years what critical and ground-breaking work was being done.  No, they'd shut down the project before it was properly finished, thereby unwittingly depriving the world of the most beneficial scientific advance in its entire history.