Thursday, December 29, 2011

If you can keep your head

when all about you
are losing theirs and blaming it on you ...
In a desperate attempt to get Sprog4 into the habit of writing, I am nagging him mercilessly to post a blog entry, however small, each day. So it's only fair that I should do the same. Sadly, I have got out of the habit of collecting nuggets through the day to tease out into some words of wisdom later in the week. And I never got into the habit of dashing off a Deep Insight in five minutes. So I find myself casting around for inspiration. It occurs to me that "If" covers just about everything a human being can aspire to: I should be able to hang a cogent observation or two off each couplet.

We begin with the memorable lines on grace under pressure. A mother needs to get the children to school on time: one has lost a shoe; one is wearing odd socks and the dog has diarrhea. A middle manager is struggling to pull together a dysfunctional process while his burnt out staff abandon him faster than he can replace them. An accounting manager is looking at implausible results on the last day of the monthly accounting close while the systems are crashing around him and the Board are questioning what is going on.

Of course good planning might have avoided the crisis. Which is one of the reasons why you can legitimately be blamed. But that is not the point. The point is, can you handle it when you have to?

What does it take to keep your head?

In the first place, you have to have a clear head to keep. That is, you need to know what you are trying to achieve and how you are trying to do that even before things go wrong. Like a sailing ship, you can only manoeuvre if you are moving forward. If you are simply reacting to whatever comes along, you will lose control when the pressure mounts.

Linked to this, you need to take responsibility rather than joining the chorus of people simply seeking to avoid the blame. This gives you a mandate and inspires the troops. Though of course, it also opens up the possibility of highly visible failure. Nevertheless, the failure is rarely as visible or as catastrophic as it seems at the time.

Finally, you have to make a decision and follow it through. Making the wrong decision is forgivable (if you don't make a habit of it). Making no decision is not.

So you grab a handful of bananas, dig out the lost shoe from behind the umbrella stand, accept the odd socks and bundle the children into the car while calling the cleaner to tell her to stay out of the kitchen today. And on the way to school, you make it very clear that everyone will be hounded mercilessly out of bed at 6:30 tomorrow.

You explain to your internal customers that the process is broken and they won't be able to get any more fixed assets until it is fixed.

You make your best assessment of the potential errors in the results and that this is acceptable for now. You tell the Board the position and commit to a full analysis in the next two weeks.

And your children weep bitterly, but they know that they are in safe hands.

And your internal customers bitch and moan, but they know they are in safe hands

And the Board is officially unimpressed, though they know unofficially that they are in safe hands.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A propos the cat litter tray

My Love, may I express the hope
That we invest in Simple Soap?
Perfume's divine, but masks the fact
You've missed a spot of Derriere de Chat.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

This Caught Mum's Bedey Eye

I've just spent a week with my ageing mum in Stornoway. The quality of care for the elderly is impressive, and it is clear that the community has a deeply ingrained respect for those of pension  age. However I wouldn't say that it goes as far as veneration. Whatever this flyer about help with heating bills for vulnerable groups might suggest.

Remember, Remember

Remember, remember
The fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot
What is going on here?

When the nation comes together for its great Winter festival of light in the night, are we really still remembering that our state lives under the Damoclean threat of Roman Catholic insurrection? Or celebrating the horrid just deserts meted out to a freedom fighter black villain? 400 years ago?

Or are we coming together in good fellowship to share hearty food and mulled wine and to gaze upwards in simple shared delight at the balletic confections of fire and motion?

Just asking.

Seeing Wrong

I had an interesting conversation with +Xabier Ostale, who was arguing from painful personal experience that all religions are both wrong and evil. Furthermore, that if we do not actively fight them, then we are complicit in their mass crimes against humanity.

My position is markedly different. I see the issue as the ghetto. As soon as we allow ourselves to think of a group as "them" rather than "us", we are at risk. I recommend writing a sentence or two on a particularly gruesome outrage in the first person plural. And then reflecting on how this feels. Why are we shooting rockets at our fellow inhabitants of Israel? How can we tolerate generations of our fellow Israelis living in the squalor of Gaza and the West Bank? How could we bomb a funeral of fellow Irishmen in Omagh? What drove us to blow up a plane-load of innocent civilians over Lockerbie? How could we allow tens of thousands to live and die in misery in the Concentration camps of South Africa in the Boer War? Or millions in the camps of Germany, Poland and the Ukraine later in that woeful, warful century? Or hack our neighbours to death in Rwanda?

Did you try it? How did it feel? Bit of an unreal twinge?

Of course, historically organised religion has often been a major force for setting up ghettos. But this extends to any system of morality and government. (Though some people extend "religion" to include a belief in Democracy, Communism or Capitalism.)

On the other hand, individuals need a strong ethical framework to see when the system is turning toward evil and to resist this. And this framework is transmitted by the very systems which present such a threat. So if you live in Europe or America, even if you are not a practicing Christian, you live in the context of the values transmitted by the Christian Church, and these values equip you to resist its excesses.

Philip Pullman believes that the evils of organised religion outweigh the value of its payload. Rowan Williams, perhaps unsurprisingly, feels otherwise.

Now, here's the mashup.

+Robert Scoble points out that the front line of the tech war for 2011 and the foreseeable future is the battle to capture users' identities so that the internet marketing operations (Google, Salesforce and Facebook - he calls them advertising, but it will be broader than that - this will be about identifying what the market wants as well as facilitating the sale of product) can tailor what each individual sees to what they are most interested in- in the broadest sense. He calls this the Game of all Games .

So we are all to be lovingly and securely wrapped in an opaque yet invisible bubble woven from our own needs, fears and desires. Let's take care that our new internet overlords are well aware of our need to understand people whose bubbles are very different.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Night Comes On

A lovely, lilting waltz that chugs gently towards the terminus bearing its world weary freight, for all his attempts to get off early. I'm listening to this in Stornoway, the day before I head back to the world from a visit to my mum. Whilst it is tempting to make parallels, loose talk of marble and snow would, I hope, be premature.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Wrong Question

From what I can make out, everyone is asking "what sort of person would take part in a riot?"

It seems to be a huge surprise to find that some people like to let their hair down and some people like free stuff.

The government line seems to be: watch out for people like this:

A solid scoop of ice cream sits in its scoop awaiting its fate with compliant resignation. But when it melts, it runs riot down your chin and clothes, causing both damage and distress.

Most of the time, most of the people do what they know they ought to.. But occasionally, some flashpoint is reached and the populace switches into a different state, where people do what they like.

How did that switch happen?

Friday, August 12, 2011

In short, you have a ghastly mess

In the 60s (and the 30s, when PL Travers wrote the book), we were pushing back against the deadening grey tyranny of the staid banker.
If they MUST go on outings, these outings ought to be
Fraught with purpose, yes, and practicality

As we sweep away the purposefully shattered glass from the streets of our major cities, it occurs to us that we may have been a little hard on him. (If only he had lived up to his values and not committed the ultimate parental crime of siding with his children, all might have been well.)

As bumbling (yeah, right!), toffee-nosed Mayor of London St Boris Johnson said in the last ten seconds of this radio joust, agreeing with lefty firebrand MP Diane Abbott, it's all about boundaries. If we don't give kids boundaries, they'll find someone who will. Gangs were a large part of the problem.

But possibly not as large a part as the ordinary citizens who, presented with free stuff, gleefully grabbed their opportunity. Carpe Cacem indeed!

Now this is of course reprehensible. They have fallen from the path of righteousness and now must take the consequences. And they are not alone.

George Banks not only released his children into a world without boundaries: he allowed himself to be reduced from a leader of the community to an irrelevance. He ran from the field of battle almost without a fight, leaving it to the wide boys and chancers who looted for years. And, to be fair to them, they didn't understand the boundaries either. Very few people did.

When everyone around you accepts a certain behaviour, it takes a special sort of stubbornness to maintain that it is wrong. So people drive too fast; take days off sick when they are fine; accept mistakes in their change; travel on the train without a ticket; steal beer glasses;... the list is endless.

Oh, and fiddle their expenses.

 Matthew Connolly 

Which makes it a bit problematic for Parliament to take a high moral tone here.

So has the country gone to the dogs over the past decade or two? And must Something be Done?

No and Yes.

The was a rare disaster, like a tsunami or earthquake. A sudden release of pressures which have built up over decades. We have had riots before and no doubt we will have them again. Tidy up; learn the lessons; move on. Nothing to see here.

There are those who see this as an opportunity to grab a few steps towards an agenda of control. This morning I saw a Blackshirt staring out of the TV screen, telling me that he has my face and he is coming for me. (Fortunately, the innocent have nothing to fear.)

Does the colour of the shirt really matter? Of course it does. What colour is George's shirt? Well then!

Of course people must be punished and made to work on putting things right.

And of course we must make it a real priority to build a new generation of decent parents. Not just in the sink estates, either. We should not forget the parents who abdicate their responsibility to the boarding school, leaving the hapless inadequate child to wreak havoc in the Bullingdon Club. Another data point that complicates our leaders' response.

I'm not sure how the wreckers fit in. Could anyone fall for the wild joy of lashing out or would most people, though tempted by free stuff, stop short of wanton destruction?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

You can go elsewhere for your unrestrained mob wickedness

Swimming against the current tonight, a light meditation on individual goodness and restraint in the villages of the Isle of Lewis. (Another guest post from the Usual Suspect.)

There was a young woman in Tong
Who never did anything wrong
She moved out to Gress
Where she sinned even less
That virtuous lady of Tong

London calling

From Croydon to Clapham and Ealing
The mob has the Capital reeling
As they let down their hair
Twitter lets us all share
The pain that Mubarak is feeling

Monday, August 8, 2011

Guest post phoned in by mum

There was an old woman in Stornoway
Whose ancient incisors were wornaway
It took her a while
To recover her smile
'Cos the dental technician had gornaway

(I wish I'd looked after mine)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

New Old Music (NOM)

I missed Thomas Dolby the first time around. But there are many routes to every destination. So, thanks to chirpy San Francisco tech podcast Buzz Out Loud and the addictive noir Bakelite punk puzzle game advertising his latest offering A Map of the Floating City, here is a jaunty ballad from Our Hero, unable to accept that his childhood sweetheart (or is that the EU? Or France?) has moved on.
Europa and the Pirate Twins.

Regrets? I've had a few...

Ladies, ladies

The excellent  Fairy Blogmother gave some simple hints on search engine optimisation recently. So on yesterday's post, I added some keywords and so on. More in hope than expectation, really.

Imagine my surprise and delight to see a comment this morning!

But it isn't just about quantity, sadly.
Whilst I'm sure that Candice is as charming and dynamic as all the other Rumanians I have ever met, something tells me that her blog might have some additional features that the Beloved might not approve of. Or worse.

Oh well: if you will shine a light in the darkness, you must expect to attract a few blood suckers, I suppose.

If I've jumped to the wrong conclusion about you, Candice, then I'm really, really sorry.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Think of the kittens!

A tweet:
 Cory Doctorow Dear : Every time a newsreader says "Internet website," the  kills a kitten. PLEASE THINK OF THE KITTENS!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Ring the Bells

I've come across a couple of references to this

in the past few days. 

Oliver Burkeman's "Help!" (a fine antidote to self help books) quotes it in his chapter on the dangers of perfectionism.
And on Start the Week, Andrew Marr; picked up the reference in the title to a philosophy and music festival currently running in Hay-on-Wye.

I was thinking of dropping it into the Facebook group for Abenet and Toby(Sprog2)'s wedding. After all, the rather downbeat opening matches the mood when their beautiful venue burned to the ground.  A week before The Day.

And so they had to start again, forgetting that particular perfect offering. Of course, everyone rallied round and the cracks in the Perfect Plan really did let the light in to a perfect, luminous day.

But when you add up the parts of the song, the sum is desperate hope arising from despair. Which is absolutely not the right message here. We come back to an earlier sage, Chesterton: "An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered."

Abi & Toby head off to their adventure

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Pipers at the Gates of Dawn

Poor Twisted has been a little tired and depressed of late. Even the wit and wisdom of the web has not drawn him from his despond. But this, too, has passed. As he emerges from is almost subterranean gloom, what should he see but this?

This opening passage fitted Twisted's mood perfectly. Kenneth Grahame's evocation of the golden England of the Edwardian summer starts innocently enough with this homely anthropomorphism. Soon enough it takes a turn for the dark and then the downright mystical. 

I still remember the jolt I got reading it to my children when I got to the title of chapter 7. Not only was  Pink Floyd's early album self indulgent and almost unlistenable as they groped towards their later mastery, but they pinched the title (its only redeeming feature). Later released with the equally awful and beautifully named "A Saucerful of Secrets" as "A Nice Pair". Oh, the wit!

But I digress.

The point of this is that Kenneth Grahame was a very senior banker - secretary to the Bank of England. On the same day that Twisted saw Execupundit's piece, the papers were full of another banker: Fred "the Shred" Goodwin. An aggressive corporate raider who built up the Royal Bank of Scotland to a serious global player before It collapsed with the UK's largest ever corporate loss when the credit crisis hit.

One is tempted to compare and contrast the two bankers: one who produced a string of books culminating in one of the greats (though he never went to university) and one (the first of his family to go to university) who sacked thousands before crashing his bank, bringing misery to tens of millions.

But no-one is beyond redemption. Until his disgrace, Sir Fred chaired The Prince's Trust. This fine organisation works with the young who have not found their way: who got little from school, jobless and hopeless. Young volunteers from the police and fire service take small groups through a twelve week crash course to give them the skills and confidence they need to make their own way. 

As he chose to help many thousands of new dawns, I am inclined to give Sir Fred the benefit of the doubt.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Take flight, my beauty!



Go forth my book into the open day;
Happy, if made so by its garish eye.
O'er earth's wide surface take thy vagrant way,
To imitate thy master's genius try.
The Graces three, the Muses nine salute,
Should those who love them try to con thy lore.
The country, city seek, grand thrones to boot,
With gentle courtesy humbly bow before.
Should nobles gallant, soldiers frank and brave
Seek thy acquaintance, hail their first advance:
From twitch of care thy pleasant vein may save,
May laughter cause or wisdom give perchance.

Neatly put, Robert!
(Ooh, I do like a nice paraphrastic metrical translation: it's the best sort, don't you think?) 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I fought the wife and…

Poor Twisted has been promoted to Horny Handed Son of Toil. His holiday last week coincided miraculously with a week of glorious weather. After a fallow year, the ancestral allotment was waiting for a keen volunteer to unleash its inner Eden. Time to break some sods in the hot sun.

And time for a semi relevant musical interlude.

I get assigned the digging, clearing and moving heavy weights: simple, healthful and manly work. But not intellectually stimulating. So I plug in my podcasts. And now the bean patch carries memories of a discussion of Medieval Universities with Melvyn Bragg (the BBC's weekly history and science magazine, In Our Time). All washed down with liberal light, fizzy draughts of CNET's Buzz Out Loud.

But the real discovery was in the rhubarb and strawberry patch, which will forever taste of Laurie Taylor's Thinking Aloud. A new addition to the podlist - why was I not told that so much Good Stuff would be broadcast under the banner of Sociology? So the rhubarb is delicately flavoured with an analysis of the uprising in Egypt (I hadn't realised the role played by Wael Ghonim), while the redcurrant netting carries a comparative study of successful and unsuccessful attempts by mafias to occupy new territories and the patch by the compost bin has a study of Facebook compared to village life in Trinidad.

Where "friend" has long been a verb. Though it carries a rather earthier and more authentic meaning than the anaemic imposture currently infecting the dubdubdub.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


I have now had two attempts at building a blog post using Inglorious Apps' very pretty Notes App for webOS. Both drafts are nowhere to be found.

Now I see where I went wrong. There is no autosave until you back swipe. It's the little things...

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Enemy

Today I began putting together some thoughts on The Problem with Communication in my workplace. Looking for a quote to grab the interest of my lucky audience, I Googled a dimly remembered "we have seen the enemy and he is us".

And discovered Pogo. While I head off to Wikipedia to try and catch up with American culture (I seem to be at least sixty years behind: Why Was I Not Told?), I'll leave this amuse bouche for anyone who shares my ignorance:

"There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.
That's fighting talk. (Just love those tiny trumpets.)

I am grateful to Marilyn White for her wonderful site, "I Go Pogo",where Google sent me for the quote. And, of course, to the witty, wise and courageous Walt Kelly, the Creator.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

DON'T help!

Here's a nice thought from Michael Neill.

If you saw a young bird pushed from the nest, you might instinctively reach out and catch it while it's still falling. And you might think you've saved it from almost certain death.

Whereas in fact you'd be saving it from almost certain life.

He isn't quite so plonkingly neat about it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Song of Love and Hate

I can't help wondering whether DBYW223 (which, as the judge said, I strongly suspect to be an assumed name) really understood Leonard Cohen's exquisite warts and all love song to the USA when he posted these clips.

In the first, delirious and fizzy rapture you may be blind to any faults in the Desired Object. But as true love grows, you recognise the less attractive parts of the Beloved. And this doesn't matter, because what you really love is the soul that lies within.

So yes, America may have a journey still to travel, but surely its history is much more than the series of war crimes suggested by the work of the very angry young man (some guesses here) who tacked the video together. Here is something a little more considered.

So much depends on context. It’s OK to be aware of the flaws in your own country, and right to be angry about them: this is certainly better and safer than the mindless jingoism that takes over the tabloids at times of stress. But knocking another country that you don’t know or love is generally foolish, reducing any conversation to an exhilarating trade in insults.

Even this can be quite fun.

It’s hard to know what to say about this, though. I used to think that the tragedy of “Democracy” was that only an American could sing it properly. Once again, the Quo have confirmed my prejudices. Having grown old disgracefully into everlasting dad rockers, they have lost none of the chutzpah that endeared them to the nation. I am appalled. Though you have to admire their cheerful cheek.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


A week ago I called out Penelope Trunk as an example of the poetic non-fiction that David Shields is calling for. (Yes, OK: I finished a sentence with a preposition. Sue me. This is the sort of language up with which we will not put, as Churchill said.)

Right on cue, she has come out with another fine essay, this time on mastery. Her position is that she won't get into anything that she can't dedicate herself to, in order to achieve mastery. The examples she gives are heroic: she wouldn't take up dancing until she could pay for three lessons a day, with three different teachers, for example.

For these examples, or serious competitive sport, this is the level of commitment required, over an extended period, for real proficiency. A master tradesman would originally have had seven years' apprenticeship before he produced his masterpiece and was judged worthy of admission to the guild. This was not exceptional: it was the usual career.

La Trunk's point is, I think, that mastery is becoming a less common experience. Literature has long enabled us to slip into the imagined life of a master, and this has only increased with film and, in particular, video games. Why learn to draw when you can point your camera? Why learn to photograph when you can grab an image and tart it up in Photoshop? Why learn Photoshop when you can grab an image, ready made, off the dubdubdub?

There is a powerful meme as old as literature. The humble student is like a caterpillar, slaving away at apparently meaningless tasks under an inscrutable master. He finally emerges from the pupa into a bright new world of mastery. This is fine for an hour or two in Karate Kid, but doesn't seem to be able to compete with the short cut offered by Call of Duty.

So we have lost our respect for craftsmanship, for what it takes to master a trade. We genuinely believe that if we take a little longer and follow a manual, we can do anything ourselves. Master tradesmen make a good living fixing the mistakes of those of us who thought we could Do It Ourselves. And every bank holiday, the Accident and Emergency Departments fill up with those of us who underestimated what it takes to master the building and decorating trades.

And yet...

There are two routes still open.

One is to find somthing you love doing. I'm afraid, Penelope, that this means trying things out. And then when you find that something, just keep on doing it. Ideally in the teeth of mild opposition.

For example, all my children have had music lessons for a few years. Like reading and writing, making music is a basic ability that you need to work on before you know whether you'll like it. One made it all the way through her grades before leaving school, and could have taken it further, but had no time for it in a very full life. No problem: it's still there for her to pick up again if she wants to. One got to the stage where he can be heard picking at his guitar for his own pleasure when he isn't doing schoolwork or socialising. One dropped it as soon as he could. And one lives for heavy metal, gigging around the local towns as often as is legal at his age. We try to obstruct his more outrageous demands for band practices and have starved him of kit, but he thrives on any problems we throw at him. Drums. What were we thinking?

The point is that you have to love everything about your new craft. In particular, you have to love the training itself, however apparently boring and physically painful. You need to be addicted to the gratification of the next small improvement, day after day and week after week. Your craft has to graduate from something you do to something you are. (This is not without risk.)

The other is to find the mastery of small things. This is just as real. So for an hour or two you can lose yourself as a Master Polisher of Shoes.

Kurt has mastered shoe polishing, ironing shirts, yard work, blogging and much more. What about you?

Sunday, February 20, 2011


I like to save general discussion programmes as podcasts to beguile some tedious task later in the week. Yes, I know I should delight in every moment of every task I am granted by a generous providence. But hoovering? Really?

So the excellent (if mildly ignorant in the ways of the web) Andrew Marr’s flagship Monday morning salon “Start the Week” is often picked up a little later. Last Monday’s edition had a fine attack by David Shields on the literary novel. His contention, starting at 10:58 is that notions of coherent plot, setting and character no longer reflect modern life. He argues for a poeticised non fiction. Quoting from Dr Johnson,“A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure existence.”, he feels that most literary novels do the first but not the second. He points to a handful of current writers “not writing novelly novels”.

He seeks to free non-fiction from the shackles of citations of source and proofs of truth, delivering an exciting dubiety where the reader cannot be sure what is stolen from whom, and what is original. “The best books make how the writer solved the problem of being alive the very centre of the work.”

The key word here is “books”. Andrew Marr is renowned for a careless remark that exposed his disdain for the blogosphere.

My first response was to think of writing a database of partially (in both senses of the word) mediated factoids. This could be one person’s life work or a social enterprise. A Trickipedia.

But isn’t this exactly what the blogosphere is?

The best bloggers construct collages around their chosen themes. Some, like Cultural Offering, are solidly reliable. They make their impact with the breadth and eclecticism of topic and the quality of writing. Others, like Penelope Trunk, offer a deliriously one sided view of their struggles with life. Whilst most link furiously, the reader is always aware that the Internet is a very unreliable witness.

The challenge is to sort out the illuminating few from the preachy many. The easiest approach is to pick out recommendations from the blogrolls of blogs you already like. I’m always open to suggestions. You can find some of my suggestions on the Andrew Marr link above. All of these give insights into some aspects of modern life.

What about yours? Where do you go for excitement and “how to endure existence”?