Sunday, 4 February 2007

Table Manners

Matters deteriorated at dinner last night, after Oz said that we should see what happens if you sneeze with your tongue out. Of course, no one felt like sneezing, and when our hostess produced a saucer of white pepper one of those present took an incapacitating pinch and had to leave the room. We did eventually find out, and no, I'm not going to tell you. What I'd like to know now is why he tried this in the first place. It's not a good sign.

Saturday, 3 February 2007

Talking Horse

This afternoon I was on all fours on the lawn, prising up thistles, when a horse and rider passed by up the lane. Clip clop, clip clop went the horse. Then it must have seen me through the hedge, because it went, clip scrape clipperty-cloppartycloppa. I heard a girl say, "It's only a man," and the horse, which clearly understood english, went back to going clip clop, clip clop.

I suppose, in the presence of an english-speaking horse, 'it's only a man' was fair comment. Trouble is, it's almost become a mantra for our times. And I was really trying to dominate those thistles, which will never take me seriously now.

In Praise of Silver Surfers

Today's perennially resurrected shock-horror reports that pensioners are using the Internet are as patronising as ever. Admittedly I'm not a pensioner yet, but nor do I wear a beanie and spout urban patois.

In the mid 1970's, when computers occupied entire basement floors, I worked with a fellow student on testing and developing the practical application of a computer model named DOT...the Decision Optimising Technique. I can't pretend we were exactly fundamental to the project, but at least it involved a need for creative lateral thinking and the ability to write routines in FORTRAN and dabble with machine code. And who knows, maybe our work fed back a little into the development of the model.

We were steered in this by the model's creator, a post-grad named Stan Openshaw. Stan was cheerful, self-effacing, and came over as an ordinary, very nice guy with an unusual amount of logical insight. It wasn't until about two decades later that I happened to mention Stan to a computer tweak; his jaw dropped, and he exclaimed, "Not the Stan Openshaw?" When he'd finished kissing my feet, it turned out that in the meantime Professor Stan Openshaw had become a world expert in artificial intelligence, author of 11 books and umpteen papers, and a god in the world of computer modelling and data analysis.

My point is that Stan is now retired, and that it was people like him and his contemporaries who, in an explosion of creativity that consistently outran the development of hardware to support it, created the foundations for the use of computers today. Even the people who cut their teeth on the Sinclair ZX81 had more experience of programming than the average IT employee now, who is practised at lubricating our use of operating systems and software packages, but probably has very limited understanding about what is actually going on within them. When everyone was worrying about the millennium bug, you may recall, it was the greying programmers of the 1960s and 70s who were called back to sort it.

So next time you come across someone chuckling about 'silver surfers' managing to send emails, pause and pay homage to the "innovative and iconoclastic" minds of Stan and the generations which paved the way for the rest of us.

Friday, 2 February 2007

Hairy Love

What is it about dogs that enables them to be cute even in old age? The 'seven-dog-years-to every-human-year' yardstick puts ours at about 75, but we are all happy to nuzzle her, have our faces licked, etc. Why doesn't it work like this for people? I can't imagine enjoying being licked by a 75 year old of any sex. Bob suggests it might be because she is hairy, but I'm not so sure. A hairy 75 year old? With eight nipples? I don't think so.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Big Guns, Little Richards

The story this week about the duck that survived being shot and kept for two days in a fridge reminded me of Percy. Our late neighbour was an elderly widower who had no remaining family. He lived for his garden and the wildlife that frequented it, including a pheasant which became so domesticated that it would come into his kitchen and feed from his hand. When the guns were out, Percy simply lay low in the garden. As a result, he survived long past his expected life span - much to the frustration of the local gamekeeper.

When our neighbour died, we had little choice but to go on feeding Percy, who was by now too old to fend for himself. Until one day a convoy of four-by-fours formed a great horseshoe round the garden. Out of them clambered a lot of short, round men in shiny green gum boots and state-of-the-art mail-order country wear, all zippers and leather patches and unnecessary pockets. The sort of men who are taller on a bar stool than off it. Who have labradors named 'Bramble', and guns whose size is in inverse proportion to their...well, you get the idea. For the next few minutes all hell broke loose, as dogs crashed about in the neighbouring shaw, beaters whistled, shotguns banged, pellets rained down on the roof, and our own dog had a nervous breakdown under the sofa. Then the little fat men waddled the two or three feet back to their Range Rovers and drove away.

Of course that was the last we saw of Percy, although it was a consolation that he would have been completely inedible. I wonder sometimes about this noisy sport, which seems a tad lacking in the elements of courage and endurance that most decent sports possess. Although, satisfyingly, two local shooters were injured recently whilst 'lamping', when the truck they were sitting in set off too quickly, and they fell off the back.

How to make a peg doll from a roll-on deodorant, and other ways to save the planet

I laid carpet tiles in the room we use as a study the other day. Being a parsimonious Scot, the thought of throwing away the offcuts hurt, and I spent some time thinking of a use for them. We now have a lifetime supply of quite funky drinks mats which, unsurprisingly, match the decor.

Who hasn't blown up the bag from an empty wine box and mused on its potential as a travel pillow? Or prised the ball out of an old roll-on deodorant and wondered what it could be used for (Table-top football? Insert LEDs and use them as Christmas lights?) My father, being an engineer from the age when everyone saved string and wrapping paper and the gummed paper around sheets of stamps, was a natural recycler long before the term was invented. Things got mended, not replaced, and when we took a trailer-load up to the dump we sometimes returned with other people's cast-outs, rescued for construction and restoration projects.

One of the neatest bits of recycling I've come across was the report some years ago of a man who was being prosecuted by a distillery. He had collected industrial filters used in the whisky-making process, which the distillery had been in the habit of dumping on a local waste site. By wringing them out through his wife's mangle, he had apparently extracted seriously useful quantities of duty-free scotch for his own consumption. As I recall he got off, and quite right too.