All Posts Filed in ‘Rant

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Worst. Summer. Ever.

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Another cloudy dayI know it’s a British preoccupation to talk about the weather but I generally try to steer clear of the topic. If you get obsessed with the weather you forget about the fact that you shouldn’t let the weather dictate what you do with your time. Just because it’s raining and isn’t sunny doesn’t mean you can’t go hiking or biking. And just because it’s baking sunshine doesn’t mean you should sit indoors all day watching TV or waste the day sunbathing.

However this summer in particular is worth a mention because in Britain it’s been (so far) the worst summer of the past 30 years or so. Since I can only remember the last 30 years of summers I wouldn’t like to say it’s the worst for a longer period – even though I expect it is.

Every day is that same. I get into my car to drive to work, it’s 9-11C, it’s cloudy and it’s raining. Every day. Every time I look out the window it’s cloudy and raining, or cloudy and has just been raining, or it’s cloudy and it’s just about to start raining. When I drive home there are rain clouds overhead. When I play football it’s cloudy and almost inevitably will rain at some point. The point here is that there are no blue skies. Rain is never more than an hour away. And the average temperature is about what it is in autumn. It’s pathetic.

My stringent measure of a nice day, a John Conners Nice Day seems like a relic from a long gone era of four seasons in the UK. The chances of experiencing a full day with not a cloud in the sky where I live is completely zero.

With clouds constantly overhead it’s like living in a monochromatic world (that’s black and white) since with all the light from the sun filtered out by low lying clouds, everything is painted with a grey tinge. It’s terrible for photography, which is why my Flickr site hasn’t had a lot posted to it lately. My grass is a grey shade of green, the trees are grey and even the blue tits nesting in my garden look like grey tits (if such a bird exists).

When I was a kid the summers seemed to go on forever. We had hose pipe bans simply because it didn’t rain for 2 months. There were weeks of John Conners nice days and if I wasn’t careful I’d get sunburned. Nowadays the only risk I get in the UK is if I make a sliding tackle at football and get burned by the AstroTurf!

A friend of mine is convinced that global warming is a government conspiracy and that while its existence is completely unproven it’s being used as a vehicle to shape policy and squeeze more money out of Joe Public for a seemingly worthy cause. Such as “let’s tax cars more because of global warming”. While I laughed him off as being paranoid and a member of the tinfoil hat brigade, I’m starting to think that maybe he’s got a point. Or maybe I’m just bitter and twisted because my considerable collection of shorts and t-shirts are remaining unworn and sitting in my wardrobe. Like the title says – worst summer ever.

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The Ultimate Left-Handed Pen

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One of the most annoying aspects of being left-handed is the simple act of writing with a pen. You see, the pen – and more specifically the ball point pen – has a fatal flaw. They were designed by right-handed people. Let me explain with a picture and some arrows:

As you can see from the picture, I’m writing from left to right and I’m left-handed. The problem is that a ball point pen is designed to allow ink to flow out of the nib while it’s being moved across a page. This principle works well if you’re right handed since you spent 99% of your time with the nib facing away from the direction of travel. But write left-handed and most of the time is spent with the nib pushing directly into the paper itself, preventing the free-flow of ink to the page. Write a paragraph or two and the ball point pen will often dry up, you’ll need to scribble a bit and you’ll be able to carry on.

It’s like stroking a cat. If you stroke it from head to tail (and it’s a friendly cat) it will most likely purr and be nice to you since that’s the direction its fur grows. Stroke it from tail to head on the other hand and – unless it’s one of those mad cats that likes it – the moggie will look at you in a particularly unimpressed fashion before hissing at you / biting you / scratching you / walking away and ignoring you for a while / hissing at you then biting you / hissing at you, biting you then scratching you and so on…

Don’t even get me started on fountain pens. I don’t care what you say, it is physically impossible to write with a fountain pen when you’re left-handed unless you adopt some wrist-straining style of holding a pen. But the risk of arthritis in later life makes it a non-option for me. There are myriad other types of pen that have their own particular problems but there is one that turns out – completely by accident – to be the ultimate left-handed pen.

I am talking about the amazing fisher space pen. The incredible technological advances in the modern world are truly remarkable and none more so than the space pen. It was designed so that astronauts – whose pencils had broken and were stranded without a pencil sharpener in space – were still able to write shopping lists in a zero gravity situation. (At least, that’s what I’m assuming the design goals were).

I could explain to you exactly how it works by quoting the instructions but you wouldn’t understand it – I surely don’t – it’s just far too advanced for our human brains! But the bottom line is that the ink cartridge is pressurised so that even if you try writing upside down, or underwater, or… eh… upside down and under water, the ink will still flow. And of course, if you just happen to be left-handed writing from left-to-right (or right-handed writing right-to-left) then you’ll be thrilled to discover that the space pen won’t dry up on you mid-sentence! I bought one on impulse a few years ago and discovered this left-handed miracle and meant to spread the word but I’ve been too busy finishing all those sentences I’d half-written when the ink had dried up.

Even better, you don’t have to be left-handed to own one! Apparently (as you can see in the picture at right – click for the full version) if you dress like the Village People, then you can own one too!

[As an aside, the people who designed this brochure have the best job in the world. Imagine you’ve been given the brief along the lines of: “We want this flyer to show tough, rugged people that normal Joe’s aspire to doing tough, rugged things with their space pens. Oh, and if you can make it a bit camp too then even better!”. Must have been a real laugh.]

But on a more serious note (and being left-handed is a serious business), if you’re left handed and you’ve been left frustrated and let-down by pens in the past, then your choice is clear. You can either use a frikin’ pencil or buy a space pen! If you go for the latter (the right choice) then be prepared for other left-handed people demanding to know how you can keep writing paragraph after paragraph without pausing for breath. Just point them at this article and I’m sure they’ll make the right choice too!

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The London Eye

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The London EyeI meant to mention that I had the pleasure of going on the London Eye (pictured right) the other weekend while I was down seeing Mamma Mia with friends.

One of the things I find sad about 21st century humans is how short-term their outlook is. The Egyptians built the pyramids which have stood for millenia and took generations to construct. The Romans left amazing temples and buildings throughout their empire that often took decades to build. I could go on with examples but the point is that nowadays if a building isn’t showing a return on investment within about 10 years it won’t get built. It’s sad and limits human achievements generally to those that bring financial rewards in the short term rather than something worthwhile for generations to come.

And so it brings me to the London Eye. I must say, it’s a pretty impressive piece of engineering. Anyone who found the industrial revolution interesting – with heavy machinery, precision engineering and so much power under control (you know, huge pistons moving effortlessly requiring enormous amounts of energy – that kind of thing) can’t help but be impressed by the London Eye. It’s like a giant, souped-up Ferris wheel that’s constantly in motion.

The views really are impressive (particularly on a clear day) and once you’re up top it is particularly high. As a bit of a techie and and an engineer I’m not sure if I was paying more attention to the view or the wheel itself as it slowly circled around with all its computer-controlled wizardry.

A view down the Thames from the London Eye

If you’re in the area it’s definitely something well worth checking out. I wouldn’t bother with a season ticket, but it’s something you should do once. I’m not convinced it’ll still be there in a thousand years time (unlike the Pyramids), but it’s a pretty impressive piece of kit nonetheless and showcases some of the technical capability of these near-sighted 21st century humans! They’re not all bad!

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This Throw-Away Society In Which We Live

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Whenever I see someone driving along a road, open their window and throw some litter out, I could quite easily drive them off the road, drag them out of their car and beat them unconscious. Without any hesitation. Setting their car on fire would just be the next natural step.

Trouble is, it wouldn’t do any good. There are far too many people out there with the attitude “out of sight, out of mind” who simply don’t care. Like a baby who throws a toy out of the pram, once someone throws an empty crisp packet out the window, it ceases to exist in their mind. It’s no longer their problem. “Someone else will sort it out”.

Now I see a great deal more of the countryside than most as I spend a lot of time walking around taking photographs and have had many a summer’s day covering miles on my mountain bike. So when people throw out plastic bottles, crisp packets or plastic bags full of rubbish out, I know that it eventually finds its way all over the place. Stuck in ditches, up against walls or fences, wrapped in tree roots, it ends up anywhere and everywhere. It looks terrible and I can only guess what these synthetic products do the the environment. It makes me sick.

The dangers of fly tipping

Although to be fair sometimes they make for interesting photos (as above). But if you take a long term view of it, I wonder what the countryside will look like in 50 years time. The throw-away society we seem to be a part of is still relatively new, but I don’t see it disappearing any time soon. It’s not going to be pretty if things carry on the way they are. I just wish people would take pride in the planet on which they live – it’s my planet too.

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The Kind Of Cloning That Doesn’t Help Anybody

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I was idly flicking through the recent transactions on my bank account the other night when I saw a few items I didn't recognise. It seemed that I'd been to Tesco four times over the previous 2 days and had spent around £60 on each occasion. Since I haven't actually stepped foot inside any Tesco store for about a year, this was clearly wrong.

I then realised that in fact someone had managed to clone my card and was spending my money! The fact that it was my debit card and therefore taking money directly out of my current account meant that, unlike a credit card where there's a few weeks delay where you can sort these things out, the money had already gone from my account!

Naturally I called my bank and told them what happened. In fact, they were really good, told me they'd pass the details to their fraud department, stop my card and send me a new one. The next day I looked at my statement again and spotted another 2 transactions (at the same Tesco and each for around £60) that must have gone through before they stopped the card. Another phone call to the bank and they were added to the fraud list. So effectively I was out of pocket by £360 by someone who'd managed to copy my debit card details.

Thing is, I'm ultra-cautious with my debit card. If I'm not sure about it I'll use my credit card (for the time delay effect I mentioned above) so it's a mystery to me how they managed to skim it (which I'm assuming is what they did). Plus, I thought Chip & Pin was supposed to stop all this sort of thing. So much for that.

Luckily, my bank refunded me the money with no questions a couple of days later, so kudos to them! But for all those nay-sayers who say worrying about card skimming is just a lie spread by the banks to make you scared and that it can never happen to you, it most certainly can. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.

I wonder if they bought anything nice from Tesco. Maybe some of those tasty flapjacks. Flapjacks are nice! 

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Save The Planet From Us

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A great white shark attacking a sealThe best TV program I’ve seen in years is without a doubt ‘Planet Earth‘ by the BBC. As far as I’m concerned programs like this are worth the license fee alone (to be honest it’s one of the very few things I regularly watch).

It’s a nature program narrated by David Attenborough showing the wonders of the planet on which we live. It’s years in the making and contains some of the most incredible footage of the natural world you’re ever likely to see. This week showed great white sharks (above) attacking fur seals off the coast of South Africa in super-slow motion. You just can’t believe how quick, aggressive and powerful these sharks are – weighing over a ton and yet exploding completely out of the water without warning like lightening. Truly amazing.

But at the end of each episode I always feel a bit sad, almost emotional. Watching programs like this shows what an incredibly diverse, beautiful and awe-inspiring planet we live on. But it’s fragile. And the sad fact is that in a matter of generations – the mere blink of an eye geologically – a great deal of these wonders will be gone.

No amount of reducing greenhouse gasses, cutting down on the usage of fossil fuels, recycling or any other initiative will change the fact that this planet is on dodgy ground thanks to us. You can forget some Star Trek Utopian world where everybody does what’s in the best interests of humanity rather than themselves suddenly appearing because in the last 5000 years human nature hasn’t changed at all. We may have nice technology but we’re still barbarians at heart.

You can also drop that idea of space colonisation. Even if there were a planet in the solar system or within easy reach that could support life, we wouldn’t be able to survive there. We’ve had millions of years of evolution that have allowed us to cope with the bacteria and viruses that are ever-present on Earth. The same won’t be said for another planet with a different set of bacteria – think War Of The Worlds only we’re the aliens – same result. You reckon we could be inoculated? Ha! You’ve been watching too much Star Trek: The Next Generation – I’m afraid 21st century medicine is little more effective than that of the 19th century.

And even colonising the moon or Mars is a bit far-fetched. You wonder why manned missions to Mars have been put off for so long? One of the big problems is cosmic rays that are un-stoppable and long term exposure is little understood, but irreversible damage to human DNA is one of the known side-effects. We’re okay on Earth since the atmosphere soaks up most of it, but these rays cut through metal and space suits like a hot knife through butter.

So we’re stuck here. And unfortunately as long as we’re here the natural wonders on this planet are under threat. I’ve been saying for years the best thing that can happen to the Earth is if all the people are removed from it. And that’s why I’m always a bit sad after watching nature programs – we started out as one of the most wonderful creations on this planet and now we’re destroying the lot for our own selfish, short-term gains. Shame on us all.

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It Isn’t Easy Being A Teenager These Days

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It isn't easy being a teenager these days. For starters, your body hasn't finished developing yet. You're probably suffering from acne and no matter what products you see advertised on TV, none of them work. Your weak and puny body probably makes you feel inferior compared to Hollywood hunks like Brad Pitt (but you'd never admit it to your mates). If you're a girl you probably hate what you see in the mirror and wish you looked like the girls in glossy magazines. Oh and you think you're fat even though you are literally skin and bones (the bad news is you most likely won't ever grow out of the negative self-delusion).

Worse than the physical aspects is the fact that your brain hasn't finished developing either. This means you have no empathy – you are incapable of appreciating other people's points of view. It's not a deliberate thing, it's just the part of your brain that figures these things out doesn't work yet. This is why your parents keep telling you you're "selfish and don't think of anybody but yourself" when you don't think you are. Hint: they're right, you just don't have the capacity to see it (and some people sadly never do). You're also barely in control of your emotions, that's why you have mood swings and temper tantrums. These emotions are all new to you and you haven't had much chance to understand and come to terms with them.

You hate school, you hate the teachers and you feel like everybody is telling you what to do and what to think. And worst of all, you think you know it all and it should all be up to you. Your only respite is being out with your mates. Perhaps there's a comfy bench on the corner of your high street you like to hang around on. Maybe you'll down the odd bottle of cider or do something harder so your mates think you're tough. It's all just a laugh really and there's no harm in it, you're just letting off steam.

Except when you're hanging around with your mates, everybody you see looks at you like you're a criminal. Just because you're wearing a hooded top (so you can hide your embarrassing acne from the world) doesn't mean you're about to rob someone. But people don't give you a chance, they treat you with no respect, like you're scum, like the real trouble makers who wear hooded tops. And after a while you start to act that way, if they're going to treat you like dirt, you might as well treat them the same way.

You see, what bugs me is that I used to be a teenager. When I see a bunch of them hanging around making a bit of noise, I remember doing exactly the same thing. But apparently Britain is in danger of becoming a nation fearful of its young people. Since adults spend so little time with teenagers in the UK (as opposed to countries like Germany and Italy) they see them as a threat and are unlikely to intervene if they cross the line instead of remembering that teenagers are in fact still just children pushing their boundaries (as children do), instinctively trying to find their identity by breaking out of their parents mould. The thing is, if you just let children do what they want as they grow up, never giving them limits, then they'll really turn into everything you fear.

Sort of a vicious circle really. I guess life doesn't get any easier once you've grown out of the acne and stopped being a teenager! 

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Bang Bang Yawn

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Tonight is the 5th of November and every kid who grew up in the UK had the line "remember, remember the 5th of November" drilled into their heads from an early age. Each year on this night, in true British style, we celebrate a failure. We celebrate the failure of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot he was involved in which was a fiendish plan to blow up the houses of parliament in 1605. Mwa ha ha ha! [Rubbing hands together in an evil, super-villain way].

What happens each year is a human shaped effigy is created called the 'Guy' (usually by children from a local school). It's sat atop a large pile of wood, often tens of feet high. This whole ensemble is set alight while children stand around with sparklers in hand (responsibly) waving them around. And then of course there's the fireworks display.

I remember going along to many a Guy Fawkes night as a child and I never really enjoyed them. Sure, the fire part was nice – everybody likes fire, it's warm, colourful and everything looks good by firelight. But fireworks on the other hand do nothing for me. My brother and I have a strange affliction that if you sneak up behind either one of us and shout 'Boo!', then nothing will happen. We'll just turn around and look at you. We don't jump out of our skin – for some reason our panic response has just been turned off. It's quite bizarre. And it's probably one reason why fireworks do nothing for me – they don't make me jump.

Fireworks go bang and so I hear a bang. Big deal. A rocket flies up in the air, explodes, some colours fly out in a spherical pattern and fall to the ground. Marvellous. Now the Northern Lights (which I've seen twice in my life – once in Yorkshire bizarrely) are amazing, awe-inspiring and just plain jaw-dropping. Fireworks by comparison are just irritating.

I remember planning our wedding (well okay, that wasn't me, it was my good lady) and I recall being asked if we wanted fireworks after the ceremony. I just shrugged my shoulders and like the spoilsport that I am said "why would we want to do that?". In retrospect perhaps I should have been a bit more positive, but still, it was £500 saved in the end! So please forgive me if I type up a rant on how annoying fireworks night is for me instead of going out, standing in the cold and hearing people say "wow!" and "weeeee!" as some things go bang and flash.

Bah humbug! Roll on December (which I'll be mostly spending in Australia)! 

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They’ll Be Putting Chips In Our Heads Next

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Passport 10 years ago and nowMy passport finally expired and I was forced to get a new one. After much time spent meaning to fill out the form and apply for one I got around to it last weekend and incredibly my new one turned up this weekend. The first thing I noticed was that it now sports a much more up to date photo of me in it – you can see right what ten years does to you!

However, that wasn’t the most interesting thing I found about my passport. It turns out that I have one of these new-fangled biometric passports I’ve been hearing all about on the news. Apparently my photograph and the details on the photo page (my name, date of birth and so on) are written onto the chip so that you can wave the passport across a scanner and that information will just magically appear on a screen. The chip looks like this:

A biometric passport chip

As an anti-fraud device it’s probably pretty good. The data is stored in an encrypted format (according to the leaflet) and can’t be written to again, so no changing the details. This means if someone steals your passport, while they may be able to put another photo on it, they won’t be able to change the details on the chip. Sounds cool.

But then I read the leaflet some more and came across the following section:

“From autumn 2006, we will interview all adults (people over 16) applying for a passport for the first time. In line with new European Union standards, we are also considering including fingerprints in biometric passports in the future.”

Now the first part is interesting as it’s likely to be an administrative nightmare and increase the time and cost of getting a passport. However, the second part unsettled me a little. If you want to live in some futuristic world where there’s no crime and everybody wears spandex, then you probably need the authorities to have everybody’s details: fingerprints, DNA samples and so on. This means that if a fingerprint is found at a crime scene, they can immediately tell who it comes from (since everybody’s prints are stored when they apply for a passport), then arrest them and freeze them in some high-tech prison facility. If you’ve got nothing to hide then you shouldn’t have a problem with it so the argument goes.

But for that the authorities would really need to have people’s best interests at heart, and as anybody who studies history knows, that is very seldom the case. All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But hey, I’ve got nothing to hide so maybe I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Until it’s too late!

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A Night Off Line

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Thanks to BT cocking things up and turning off my broadband connection I spent last night completely disconnected from the internet. It was an interesting experience and made me think about how the march of web-based software is making me change where I store my data.

Take Gmail. I love Gmail. Aside from John’s Background Switcher it’s my favourite piece of software and being a heavy emailer I use it extensively. I also store contact details, recipes and all sorts of things on there knowing no matter where I am I can always get at my information. Contrast this with a couple of years ago where I’d have my inbox stored on my computer at home – my contacts in there too, maybe I’d copy them to my work machine or onto a flash drive so I could get to them elsewhere. Hell, maybe I’d print them out and put them in my wallet!

But now Google hosts all this information. A software company. If I’d thought about this possibility a few years ago I’d have been a bit concerned at what they might do with it, whether they’d decide to delete it all on a whim or release all my dodgy conversations with other women to my girlfriend – or blackmail me with that threat. But now it comes to it, I’m strangely indifferent. I don’t subscribe to the “Google can do no wrong” mentality, but by the same token I don’t have a problem with them storing so much personal information. And now I think about it, that’s quite unsettling.

When I read 1984 at school I dreaded the thought of a world where your every action, every move is tracked and scrutinised. I couldn’t imagine how people could live like that. And yet here I am in 2006 in a world much like the one imagined by Orwell. On any given day I’m filmed around 30 times, my every movement is tracked and logged through the mobile phone in my pocket, every call I make is logged and potentially monitored, every credit card transaction I make is recorded. Every email I send, every web page I visit is logged. With access to all that information and more any government agency could virtually get inside my head. And yet none of that bothers me, I just accept it and carry on my life.

Have I been brainwashed into accepting such a scrutinised life? Have I become an automaton who just accept the erosion of his freedom in the name of technological progress and a safer world? Or should I try not to get so paranoid when my net connection is down and enjoy the World Cup instead? I think I should, but maybe that’s what they want me to do… Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you! 😉