Sunday, 31 July 2005

Watcher of the skies

It seems a new planet has swum into our ken, and with admirable restraint the ever-imaginative Sunday Times today refrains from quoting Keats and actually publishes a stunning picure of it, or possibly of some other planet.
It is captioned: How the planet might look, with the sun in the distance.

Friday, 29 July 2005

Get you're free druggs at our pharmercy!

My local superstore (Sainsbury’s) was today setting up a new display stand which announced in huge letters that they offer complimentary medicines, so I told the girl behind the counter that I thought this was a most generous gesture absolutely in line with their price-cutting policy. I don’t think she quite understood me but she looked pleased so had obviously taken what I said as a complement.

Wednesday, 27 July 2005

It’s all Tim’s fault

The Public Institute for the Stringent Suppression of Unnecessary Polysyllablicity has been carrying out valuable work in its field since it was created as a sub-group of the Fabian Society soon after the latter’s foundation in 1884, though I sometimes feel that those who devised its title lacked both a sense of irony and any awareness of the desirability of avoiding unfortunate acronyms.

It is clear, however, that this venerable organisation is lagging behind the times: it has no website of its own or even an email address. Most shameful of all, it seems to be taking no action whatsoever to discourage the use of the most appalling example of the sort of thing it was founded to attack: all over the world people are using nine syllables for a very common expression where three ought to serve. The invaluable Wikipedia sums up the situation like this:
Most English-speaking people pronounce the 9-syllable letter sequence www used in some domain names for websites as "double U, double U, double U", but many shorter pronunciations can be heard: "triple double U", "double U, double U" (omitting one W), "dub, dub, dub", "hex u", etc. Some speakers, mostly those with southern accents, pronounce the sequence "dubya, dubya, dubya." Some languages do not have the letter w in their alphabet (for example, Italian), which leads some people to pronounce www as "vou, vou, vou." Perhaps a shorter pronunciation will become standard usage in the future. Several other languages (e.g. German, Czech, Dutch etc.) pronounce the letter W as a single syllable, so this problem doesn't occur….
In English pronunciation, saying the full words "World Wide Web" takes one-third as many syllables as saying the initialism "WWW". According to Berners-Lee, others mentioned this fact as a reason to choose a different name, but he persisted.

It’s particularly galling that German-speakers, not noted for syllabic parsimony, have no problem with it.
I don’t much like any of the shorter variations mentioned by Wikipedia, logical though some of them are. My own coinage, which I have found to be instantly grasped without misunderstanding by almost everyone, though it may confuse francophones and small children, is Wee Wee Wee, and I invite all my readers to join me in promoting this obviously sensible usage.

Monday, 25 July 2005

Sacred Worker

"…and what is the use of a blog", thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"

I haven’t put many of either in recent posts. Here for no particular reason is a nice digital image (i.e. messed-about photo), taken in Delhi in 1990 by the great photographer and writer Goswell Frand and reproduced here with his permission. It is called "Sacred Worker"

Saturday, 23 July 2005

Poll dancing

More than once while waiting at an airport I have agreed to give five minutes of my time to some nice girl who approaches me with a clipboard, even though I know her questions will be extremely boring ones about where I’m going and why and how often I do it (travel by air, that is). I’m an inveterate early inchecker so often have some time to kill after doing everything it is possible to do in a departure lounge.

I give a polite refusal to other requests for polling interviews – in the street or on the phone – because in those situations there is always something better to do than trying to formulate opinions on matters to which I am totally indifferent.

However, although I resent being asked to spend my time in this way without being offered so much as a little sticker for my lapel, I am always willing to turn an honest – or for that matter a dishonest – penny, and for some months now I have been submitting myself to regular internet polls in return for a small honorarium. For one thing, each one takes only a few minutes, and I can choose times to do them when I am waiting for something else – for the kettle to boil, or while I listen to some unpleasant music-on-hold. And 50p a go is not to be sneezed at, although I won’t get a cheque until I am due £50, which will be in mid-2006.

A huge range of subjects is covered, sometimes more than one in a single poll; some are matters of vital importance to the country or the world and others are unutterably trivial. Oddly, the former kind are easier than the latter: when asked my opinion of Tony Blair’s premiership on a scale of 1 (Outstandingly brilliant) to 10 (Disastrous), my mouse hand moves like lightning. Some of the political themes, though, are more difficult: given a list of policies and asked to arrange them in the order in which you think they are prioritised by the Liberal Democrats calls for a great deal of deep thought.

The dreariest polls are those, presumably being carried out on behalf of retailers or manufacturers, which ask you to state your preferences in, or attitudes to, a great number of products with most of which you are unfamiliar. Happily, there is always an option which covers several answers you might want to give, such as “Absolutely no view”, “Don’t understand what you mean”, “Never heard of it”, “Can’t be bothered to answer this one” and, particularly, “Oh, for goodness’ sake!”. They allow you to say simply “Don’t know”.

Wednesday, 20 July 2005

Kasant’s 30p each

Writing a post the other day, I wanted to avoid the cliché credit where credit’s due and thought of fair dos instead. But this looked odd – I was tempted to put in an apostrophe or even an e – so I looked it up. The OED told me that it does indeed mean fair treatment and that the first recorded use was in 1859.

Fine. But what’s this? In the quotations it appears variously as [fair] doos, dew, do’s, dos and do, but in the heading to the entry it appears as fair do’s. Why did they select the spelling with the greengrocer's (or florist's) apostrophe?

Monday, 18 July 2005

For once, a helpful response

Anyone who has used one of these computer things is aware that suppliers of software, not mentioning any names, are generally arrogant, incompetent, avaricious, and contemptuous of their customers; to excoriate* them publicly is always a pleasure as well as a duty. Encountering a modicum of courtesy and efficiency in dealings with one of them is therefore an experience worth recording:
A program which I had been using happily for eighteen months suddenly stopped working, possibly due to the excessive zeal of Data Execution Prevention or some other arcane Windows function. Since I am advanced in years I knew I did not have enough time left to get some help from Microsoft**, so without much hope I emailed the manufacturers of the program.

Within twenty-four hours the problem had been solved by three exchanges of emails, the final one from them being a thankyou to me for thanking them.

So take a bow the manufacturers of Pivot Pro®. (I would have said fair do’s for them, but I have realised that this phrase raises a question which I must take up with the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary, and I shall report on this in a later post.)

[*The sole purpose of this uninteresting post, of course, was to enable me to fulfil a long-standing ambition to use the word excoriate.]

[**Note: The name Microsoft and lots and lots of other words (though not excoriate) belong entirely to the Microsoft Corporation and are registered, copyrighted, etc., in the US and lots of other places. Misusers will be prosecuted with the utmost rigour of the law and may God have mercy on your soul. This note is ©Microsoft Corporation®.]

Friday, 15 July 2005

London, 14th July 2005

My son lives and works in Central London. I had this from him this morning:

I thought some of you with connections here might be interested in what it was like today in London. I'm not a HUGE fan of group letters or necessarily of mass public outpourings of anything. However, my email won't send to more than 25 people at a time so at least you know you're in the top 25 of People I Know Who Might Be Interested.

Orchestrated public displays of grief can so easily be empty but I was affected by today's in a way I wasn't expecting and in fact wasn't connected with grief and that's what I wanted to write down before the feeling was forgotten. When I was growing up I remember having it explained that one of the great intractables about terrorism was that it could not be ignored but the greater the response, the greater the fuel for the perpetrator. It was with the second half of that in mind that I viewed today's occasion with ill-ease - what greater response could there be than one in which EVERYONE participated and so what further fuel would that mean? It was what actually happened that made me feel differently.

Picture the scene. A small street in Soho in central London. Restaurants, cafés, bars, hairdressers, a post office, a FEDEX office, a pub, small apartments and LOTS of offices all squeezed together on top of each other. A place which hums all day every day and where the working hours are late for everyone and a lunch break is still not very fashionable. Also a place where racial and religious harmony doesn't even need to be discussed because everyone is in the minority. You can walk twenty paces and hear as many languages. And all morning it was just like that. Life entirely as normal. Delivery drivers and traffic wardens yelling at each other, road works, a different mobile phone ring tone for every hour of the day. At 11.45 it seemed that everyone doing anything in the street started to move outside. Then at five to midday it was as though some sound operator in the sky began slowly fading the levels until just on midday the quiet arrived and we could hear (only just) two miles away the bells of Westminster ring. A van stopped. Another van came swinging round, the driver realising and coasting to a halt just before the bells chimed the hour. And looking around there were suddenly what must have been a thousand people in this small insignificant street just standing. Just being.

There may have been some tears but I didn't see or hear any. There may have been some anger, but I didn't sense any. For me what it made it so powerful and is why I am writing it down before I forget is the absence of emotion. In this I found an answer to the question of how to respond without responding. We did nothing. 1,000 blank faces saying "Whatever you do to us means nothing". Nothing whatsoever. I can imagine those who threaten us hearing the rhetoric of political leaders and being stoked in their feelings. But I cannot imagine anyone seeing such a mass outpouring of dispassionate unimpressedness feeling the same effect.

Perhaps you will have seen today's footage of the Queen - the gold standard in British blankness. On this one day it so happens I think her famously vacant visage really did both lead and reflect the nation's position.

Someone knew when the two minutes had passed and there was a small round of applause and then we melted slowly away. And the day continued exactly as usual. I cannot think of a better message. You may hit us as hard as your powers allow and still the "best" you will ever get will be limited to two minutes of utter nothingness.

This in no way of course negates the anguish of those more directly caught up. And I am not going trot out some rhetoric about a greater sense of community or how we are changed forever. Today I felt overwhelmingly that as a city we are not changed one little bit. When the media tell you that London is changed forever, question that. Because I think today was actually all they'll ever get from us. We're not blasé. We just won't play by their rules. We need only two minutes to make that perfectly clear.

Monday, 11 July 2005

Skipping the exposition

There are several ways of starting a story which avoid the tedium of setting a scene, introducing characters and generally footling about with a prologue before cracking on with the action. You can choose to tell a yarn which has absolutely no scene to be set and practically no characters (“In the beginning God created the heaven and earth...”), or you can, if you are a really great writer, coin an opening sentence which seizes the reader’s attention immediately and sets the tone of what follows (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that…”).

Harriet Wilson (1789-1846) kicked off her memoirs in medias res, making it clear that she was not going to waste her time on background information: “I shall not say how or why I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven”.

This seems to me to be an admirably crisp non-introduction and I shall start the same way in telling a story of tribulation nobly borne and an agonising dilemma resolved by an entirely satisfactory compromise.

I shall not say why it was that last Friday Anne and I decided to drive to Manchester to a performance by a music school orchestra and choir. Nor will I explain in detail why what is normally a five-hour journey took nine hours (A22/M3/M25/M1/M6 says it all).

We arrived at the concert hall, hungry and exhausted and an hour late, just as the first half ended. The performance was being recorded and we would not be allowed in after the interval was over, so we ran to a nearby Italian restaurant and asked for two gins-and-tonics and something – anything – they could give us to eat in fifteen minutes.

They did their best and the gin came at once, but by the time a plateful of spaghetti carbonara and one of linguine alla salmone landed in front of us there were five minutes to go before the doors would be shut. For me the decision was easy: the second half was to be Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time and, admirable a work though this is, after a day’s driving and on an empty stomach I was sure I would not be able to give it the attention it deserved. But Anne is of sterner stuff and we agreed amicably that she would run off to the concert after a couple of forkfuls.

Now in relaxed mood, I chomped my way through my spaghetti and the rest of Anne's linguine, with a glass of a modest Pinot Bianco. The waiters clustered around me solicitously, clearly believing that they had witnessed a major domestic upset or perhaps even the tragic end of a relationship, an impression no doubt reinforced when I called for a cognac to round off my lonely meal. When leaving I felt obliged to try to explain to them that all was well and that we were both having happy though regrettably separate evenings, but they did not really understand and clearly felt I was putting a brave face on some great sorrow. So later, on our way back to our hotel, we made sure they saw us chatting merrily as we walked past the restaurant.

Wednesday, 6 July 2005

Absolutely secure

I rather wish I'd booked a room at Gleneagles for this week, though I suppose they wouldn't have let me stay. Not that I would have wanted to rub shoulders with any of the G8 leaders, but it must be wonderfully relaxing to be cocooned there in such safety.

A 5½ mile steel fence, 11,000 police, 200 dogs, 60 horses, 2500 vehicles, a heat-seeking inflatable and Chinooks clattering overhead. Sounds to me like very good value for the £100 million that it's costing us.

It seems there is much sympathy for the proprietor of Auchterardy's celebrated pie shop, who had some special G8 pies baking when there was a bomb scare and he had to get out and leave the oven doors open. Let us hope that he has made another batch and that they will sell like, well, hot pies.