Monday, January 21, 2008

Movin' on

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Random blogage

Newsflash: Marshmallows don't flush.

Burniture is furniture for the bedroom.

There is a particularly useful kind of delicatessen, where you can buy nuts and bolts and fuse wire. 

We have a milkman.  (Is that a gender specific term?).  He is about 85.  Our semi-skimmed comes in glass bottles.  He drives a little red van and he can't reverse.  I fear Ms M will snaffle him in one of these days and adopt him.

The postman brings the papers.  He says you can tell a lot about people from their post.  Ms M says that all postmen (and women) have a secret identity.  He is probably a spy novelist world record breaking unicyclist.

It is still possible in our village of 51 people to have a paper delivered on a Sunday.   It is arranged through the post office 3 villages away, who used to run a Sunday paper service.  A man from the next village past ours goes down sometime on Sunday morning and collects them from that post office.  Then he leaves them under the carport of our postoffice.  The far-away post office produces a bill monthly.  This is paid at our post office, along with an extra 50p for each delivery.  They give nice-man-in-next-village-up the 50ps and then pay our bill for us.  Of course.

I don't have time for blogging.  I am trying to write a book whilst simultaneously finishing a piece of software.  2 pieces.  I am doing something very clever in a language I don't feel really comfortable in.  It is like trying to argue philosophy in Italian, when really I only speak Spanish and did a bit of Latin at school.

I leave you with this ... 

Ms M: I just don't think I have the energy to do a jigsaw ...

Apparently, I am a high-pressure jigsaw dooer.  Some sort of "Hurry Up Driver" or something.

I'm sure there are worse things to be.


Friday, December 21, 2007

'twas the night before Christmas and all through the house,
not a creature was stirring not even a mouse,
because Badger's cat Frank had enjoyed them for his tea,
which is what Ms M and her boy are teaching Badger and Stray to call dinner ...


Contrary to reports, it's not even slightly grim up north.

The move went ... well, actually the whole boxes bit was fine.  BT of course pissed us about for week after week before finally admitting that they can't actually provide broadband in our village because we share 5 phone lines between 20 houses.  

We were offline for a little while, and I held in mind the wonderful words of Douglas Adams:
I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

We are now on broadband thanks to a huge satellite dish in our back garden (please phone to make a booking if you would like to borrow it for your alien landing).

The village is gorgeous.  The weather ranges from swirling mist to inch-thick ice crunching under boot beneath bright blue skies.  We have a river and waterfalls which are fed almost entirely by rain running off the hills.  After 3 wet days the ford disappears, and after 3 dry days you can cross at almost any point.  We haven't had a full thaw for a fortnight, and as the water level dropped away huge sheets of ice split and tipped, now pointing skywards. Proper ice sculptures.

The drive to the supermarket is 12 miles on a 'road' that only got promoted from the status of farm-track fairly recently.  Older maps still show a dead end at the next village.  I have forgotten what traffic is but now allow extra time for stubborn livestock in the middle of the road or a flock of sheep being moved from field to field.  It takes 40 minutes round-trip to get a pint of milk, but I've yet to feel anything except really really really bloody lucky - people drive for miles to see this view of Pen-y-ghent:

I can't wait for people to visit me.  I think Badger, Ms M and I may have lucked upon the most beautiful place in the world.  Our neighbours have been really welcoming and I really do feel as though this is where I am meant to be, in all 4 dimensions.

To all who I owe emails, cards, phone calls, blog comments etc - please forgive me, I have been in a whirlwind of unpacking and DIY and catching up on work for neglected clients.  My Orange phone has no reception at all in this valley so I'm currently moving to Vodafone.  BT managed to cut off my main email address for a while because they'd moved it to the broadband service that they couldn't provide ... so if you've sent mail and not received a reply please do send again!

Hoping you're all as happy as I am this christmas ...


Monday, October 29, 2007

A meandering ...

I recently posted about this short exchange that I had with BT.

I am well beyond the end of my tether with them, after the 'Engineering Team' refused to install a new phone line into my new house 'because there is already one there'. I happened to already know that the 'phone line' already there is infact just an extension from a house next door. In essence my house has borrowed a couple of the unused wires out of their phone cable. This means that neither house has a line suitable for broadband ADSL.

I had (increasingly im-)patiently explained this to several 'customer misinformation service' representatives over the past few weeks. I explained that I didn't have time for them to activate and test the current line and then begin a new order from scratch.

In the end, they activated the line but they cancelled the broadband order because there was no line active at the precise moment earlier in the day when the line test was run. I rang them up, I was baffled yet again by the difficulties they seem to have in getting their systems to talk to each other (being a communications company and all that) and I started the broadband order again.

Sorry madam, I can't place that order - this line is a DAX line - it's not suitable for broadband.

I didn't know whether to laugh, cry, scream, swear or simply go to their offices with a weapon.

It was then explained to me that 'The Engineering Team' would need to do a 'Site survey' to establish the cost of installing a new line, which would then probably be passed on to me.

In theory BT have a flat rate of £107 for installing a new line. I did point out that I have ordered several new lines previously whilst living in London, and that the point of the flat rate is that the profit they made on doing those ten minute installations is supposed to ensure that rural communities aren't left without services, but I may as well have been explaining the exact meaning of the term 'attenuation'.

For the non-geeks, attenuation is the opposite of amplification. As the signal is transmitted through the system it becomes less strong and less clear. Whilst there is no doubt that BT's entire sales / orders / installations / service system is essentially one huge attenuator, it strikes me that this is a problem much more widely experienced in the UK.

I am working on a book at the moment about ... well, it's kind of hard to sum up here, but essentially it's a journey which takes in human biology, consciousness, anthropology, sociology, politics and the science of global warming. It seeks (rather ambitiously) to answer the question "Who are we, why have we screwed up the planet and what can we do about it?"

The book is the baby of an amazing Australian thinker who I am very very fortunate to be working with. In writing it, and making an interactive documentary, I am having to really examine my own beliefs to ensure they don't get in the way of the truth / facts / science.

In particular I am having to look again at my core reaction to the concept of Nuclear Power. It brings my hackles right up.

I have several negative responses to NP. Some of those are valid, if perhaps exaggerated or out-dated, concerns about safety. However, I have an additional and even stronger barrier which is proving to be really difficult to overcome.

I am scared that if I change my beliefs about Nuclear Power then I will not be acceptable to my peers, my friends, my family.

On a biological level, human beings are pretty useless on their own. We need others, need their love and approval as well as their tangible help and support. Our limbic system drives us to belong, to find people with whom we resonate, and shared "felt truths", such as "Nuclear Power is completely unacceptable" are the scaffolding we use to hold ourselves in place within the group.

And yet increasingly I am coming to wonder whether there is any alternative. It seems likely that in order to avoid either the catastrophic kind of climate change that will cause massive death and misery, or the escalation of tension over oil into the levels of war that will cause massive death and misery, we might have to consider how best to use Nuclear Power to generate energy that can meet the needs of every human being on the planet.

I am nervous writing this, and yet I know that were I writing in French I would be much less concerned. As a population France have accepted, and even embraced, Nuclear Power. As I began to look at the reasons why, I was drawn back to a paper I wrote when I was 19 about the challenges facing the UK as a result of a lack of scientific and engineering literacy within the population. (If you really wanted to you could order it here but it basically boils down to dumping the current education system which creates an arbitrary arts / science divide at 16 and adopting the international baccalaureate or similar).

To make informed decisions about issues such as Nuclear Power, we need a population who can comprehend and grapple with risk. To understand risk you need a sound relationship with numbers as expressed through statistics. We need an electorate who understand why it is ridiculous to sit in the crazy chair on Deal or No Deal and say 'Well, the quarter million hasn't been in box 17 for the last 54 shows, so I figure the chances it's in there have gotta be quite high'.

My dad and I regularly joke that it's quite safe for me to travel by any mode of transport because he has been in a serious train crash and an emergency landing of a plane.

So, how is NP acceptable in France when it is so feared and demonised in the UK? Obviously the French have a strong motivator, having no significant fossil fuel reserves of their own, but in addition general level of trust in and respect for scientists and engineers is much higher in France than it is in the UK. This is primarily because they have a higher rate of scientific literacy. In an age where we have lost the blind faith in authority that once underpinned our trust, they are able to maintain trust because they can ask questions and resonate with the answers in a way that we aren't able to in the UK. The vicious circle in this experience is obvious. (The circulation of the Daily Mail is a terrifying confirmation.)

The UK's level of respect for science and engineering has fallen to a level where we allow people to refer to themselves as 'Washing Machine Engineers'. A good mechanic / plumber / technician has incredibly valuable skills, and I'm not questioning the value of the work, so I lay in the bath last night wondering why it irks me so much that BT keep referring to 'The Engineering Team' when I am confident that the 'Engineer' who does my installation will probably not be an Engineer in the BEng sense at all.

It occurred to me that it is because I do have faith in Engineers. I did my (manufacturing) degree in the fairly massive 'Mech Eng' department of Birmingham University, and I would honestly say that 99% of my fellow students are people I would trust to make decisions that impact on my safety. The bread and butter of an Engineer is the process of assessing factors, discarding unimportant ones, distilling the problem to the lowest practical level, identifying risks, imagining consequences and choosing a first line solution. The area of engineering is less important than the natural alignment with the process. True Engineers don't think "Oh, yes, I should start my process ... " they are doing it constantly - they can't do anything else. (This makes us quite irritating when you really just want a cup of tea and a cuddle and not a fully spec'd pareto-analysed solution matrix).

Air travel is the current whipping boy of the global warming debate. For those of you dreaming of heading off to sunshine rather than slitting your wrists in the drizzle of a British winter let me give you a number to ease your conscience.


Specifically 1 percent. This is the carbon contribution of the air travel industry to the global carbon footprint. (Actually I have figures that say about 1.2 %, and these things are estimated, but suffice it to say that whilst power generation for homes and business make up 60%, not taking your winter break is not going to save an icecap).

In the UK at the moment we're talking a lot about recycling. Pay as you throw. Green taxes on air travel. Taxing carrier bags. I suspect that these conversations are mostly the noise in the system. We need to be having a bigger conversation about our education system, so that we introduce into the electorate a generation of citizens who are scientifically and statistically literate enough to hold our leaders to account. They need to be emotionally and socially literate too - able to rise above marketing messages, to know which buttons are being pushed, to question themselves as well as authority.

What are the chances?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Fairly satisfying conversational moment

BT customer service rep: The thing is madam, I'm not an engineer ...

Me: I am.

BT customer service rep: Oh.

Politically incorrect observation

Alan Johnson has made the ridiculous statement that within 25 years obesity will be a problem on a similar scale to climate change.

Am I the only person who sees a potentially symbiotic solution in syphoning the fat off of humans and using it to produce bio-fuels?

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I am going to explode. Unless Ms Melancholy can give me some anger therapy pronto.

Today I rang BT again.

They have not actioned my order.

For the exact same reason as before.

They were very sorry. I shall tell this to my customers when they can't get hold of me, and my bank manager when I can't invoice people because I haven't finished the work because I can't get online. It's ok ... BT are very sorry.

Apparently there is a seven hour delay between the computers in their different departments. A request logged by BT person number 1 will not arrive with BT department 2 for seven hours.

As hundreds of millions of people all over the globe are currently passing information in almost real time by phone and internet, I can only conclude that BT themselves have no phones and no broadband.

Perhaps they've not been able to get it installed because they can't find their own address?

The irony is that this morning they sent me, as a new business customer, a link to a range of services they would like to sell me to help me use communications to serve my customers more efficiently and more effectively.

Maybe I should forward it on to them?