Monday, 25 July 2011

Flying Ant Day 2011

We interrrupt this blog break to bring you breaking blog news: today is Flying Ant Day in Highfield, Southampton. It's hot, quite humid, with a slight breeze and bright sunshine.

I only mention this because the previous post "Flying Ant Day" has attracted a vast number of hits. I've inspected it quite closely for unintended filth and double entendre, and can see nothing untoward. My conclusion is that an awful lot of people are interested in logging when Flying Ant Day happens. Perhaps the Chinese are betting on it this year?

Combine thousands of flying ants and a breeze with a graduation ceremony and you have an entertaining spectacle, by any standards.

Just thought you'd want to know. Now, back to that break.

Update: here are the weather conditions at the time (15:20 BST):

dew point: 6°
humidity: 35%
visibility: 10km
pressure: 1,009.14 mb (steady)
wind: WNW 13 kmph

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Summer Break

This year, I've decided to give the blog a holiday over the summer, as of tomorrow. I should be back, Blogger and other capricious deities willing, sometime in late September. By all means comment on the existing posts, but don't expect any replies.

These three months are -- popular perception aside -- the busiest of all for us. The university financial year ends in July, so a lot of last minute spending and accounting gets done. Plus everyone expects all upgrades, improvements, building works, stock moves, etc., etc., to be finished by the start of the new session in October. Coordinating all that Stuff with people taking summer leave all over the place is always a bit fraught, and this year is no exception.

Plus the summer "vacation" is the main window of opportunity for most academic staff to do the research they're paid to do, not to mention hosting the conferences where they get to show off last year's research. And the huge numbers of overseas students start to arrive right now for their pre-Sessional English As She Is Spoke, Innit courses. If "vacation" means "emptying the place of people" then it's time we thought of another name. If it means "holiday" then we should definitely think of another name.

But my main reason for having a blog-break is that I want to use my own time to attend to a number of neglected personal projects, not least of which is getting my webpage back up and running -- it's been years since I updated it properly. Webpages are not really where the action is, these days, but it's good to have a reference site where people can see the full range of what you get up to. I also fancy doing a bit of "proper" writing.

So, have a good summer in the Northern Hemisphere, a good winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and good luck to all you people in the permanently hot bit in the middle.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Right Town, Wrong Depot

A well-known international delivery (sorry, logistics) service tried to deliver a parcel earlier this week. No-one was home. They left a card.

The card didn't say much about my options, so I tried phoning. After 15 minutes of being passed from one automated queue to another, and irritated by various pieces of soothing music, I gave up. So, I went to the website, which is pretty much where both the card and the recorded messages wanted me to go, anyway.

"Find your nearest Customer Centre" it said. Fine. I entered my postcode, and got an address in Eastleigh, a neighbouring town. I tried ringing to establish (a) whether they had my parcel, and (b) what hours they were open. Same automatic queues, same music. I gave up again and went back to the website. My options appeared to be either to schedule a re-delivery, or collect it myself from the Customer Centre. I could see my parcel had started its journey in Eastleigh, and concluded that's where it would be now. I opted to collect.

Next day, I drove over to Eastleigh, to the address given on the website. It was one of those little industrial estates, not much more than a loop of one-way road, with "units" and yards of varying sizes on either side. I drove slowly round, trying to spot the company logo. No luck. I drove round again. And again. So I parked, and walked round the one-way.

I eventually glimpsed a liveried truck through a tall hedge. I walked round the one-way again, trying to find an entrance. It was quite a run-down place -- the road and pavements were cracked and uncared for, with weeds and overgrown hedges everywhere, and beat-up, oil-stained yards behind tall fences topped with razor wire. I felt sorry for anyone who had to work there, although my photographic antennae were twitching like mad.

Eventually, I asked a guy having a fag by the roadside. He said to go round the corner, and press the buzzer by the locked gate. I did, and a woman's voice came over the speaker, asking me what I wanted.

"I want to collect my parcel," I said.
"What's your postcode?" she said. I told her.
"You've come to the wrong depot," she said. "We have two depots in Eastleigh, and you want the other one." Well, of course. She said to come in, unbuzzed the gate, met me at the door, and handed me a photocopied map. This happens all the time, she said. Oh, really? I went back to the car, and drove to the location of the other depot.

Except I couldn't find it, either. The instructions on the map were very like those instructions you get for a rented cottage: "Drive out of town until you see the burned-out phone box, turn left, then after a mile and a half take the unmarked track on the right, until you see the giant wicker man, etc." I had got to the right street without problem, and found a place to park. It was right next to the railway, and on the face of it was a simple residential street of terraced houses. But behind the houses was an alternative universe, a warren of alleyways, fences, yards, workshops and warehouses that made the previous place look utopian in its cleanliness and workmanlike simplicity.

Again, I wandered around looking for the elusive company colours. Again, I asked a man with a fag. Again, I ended up pressing a buzzer on an anonymous gate in a wire-mesh fence.

After a bit, a frail-looking security man with a clipboard and some bits of uniform appeared. He tried to raise some attention from the parcel depot for me, but nothing happened. In the end, he let me through the gate, saying, "See that building over there with the plants growing out of the roof? Go over there and press the buzzer next to the door round the side."

I found a peculiar situation developing there. Various drivers, clearly wearing the uniform of the company in question, were unable to gain admittance to their own depot, and were shouting through the glass door at a woman inside. Something about new codes on the door. The woman looked drunk or stoned to me -- she was swaying slightly, and had that look of vague concern that wasted people affect when they haven't a clue why everyone is shouting at them. The drivers were unphased, however; they clearly expected obstacles to be put in their way, and were taking a resigned pleasure in having their expectations fulfilled. An intoxicated receptionist and changed entry codes was par for the course. Typical, innit?

Anyway. I eventually got my parcel, after a wait of about 20 minutes in a grubby lobby with a couple of chairs that looked like they'd been rescued from a skip. The whole thing was a very depressing experience: what I'd imagined as a 30 minute round trip took me 2 hours. But what was particularly striking was the contrast between the chirpy, "can do!" optimism of the company website, and the dreary, "couldn't give a toss!" inefficiency of the operation on the ground.

Now, I'm still close enough to my roots to understand the bitter truth of that Soviet-era joke: they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work. My uncles' stories of the goings-on in a car-manufacturing plant and the print room of a newspaper in the 1960s were both hilarious and jaw-dropping (mandatory "snooze shifts" and the like). The sheer bloody-minded unco-operativeness of the British worker has been truly heroic in its scope. Although it never did quite match the awe-inspiring incompetence of the British manager. But, put the two together, and you have the industry that gave the world the Austin Allegro. Makes you proud, doesn't it?

But I also know that pretending to work is demoralising. It's like staying in bed all day; it starts out well, but ends in a headache and a depressing feeling of aimlessness. No-one wants to waste their life, of course, but if a job is pointless enough and badly-paid enough, it can seem preferable. It has a certain self-harming dignity, like a hunger strike. But I admit I thought that world had passed away, and that service industries like "logistics" were run by a flip-chart corporatism that requires ant-like subservience, backed up by the very real threat of unemployment. Surely surly blokes with their feet up in a back room, contemplating the finer points of Sam Fox and Linda Lusardi all morning over serial cups of tea, would never nowadays get through their annual appraisal?

It was a salutary glimpse of a world that could easily have been mine. A little less brain power, a little more "attitude" and less tolerance for school, and I would have been a poorly-qualified school leaver in 1970, just in time for the collapse of the 1960s job boom. A life of limited expectations would have awaited me, with alternating stretches of McJobs and unemployment, in a world that seems to have increasingly little use for young men and none at all for old ones. I discovered recently that one of my primary school chums who had gone to secondary modern school ended up emigrating to South Africa in the 1970s. That was one answer, I suppose.

It also reminded me that my father had been made redundant in 1972, when the engineering factory he had worked in since 1946 was closed down. I was "too busy being free" to notice, at the time, or to think much about what this meant for him. But I realise, to my amazement and shame, that he was younger then than I am now. He never really worked again.

But I guess I would have paid more attention if I, too, had wanted a job making useful things out of steel, but could only get minimum-wage work stacking parcels in a warehouse, forced to wear some corporate polo shirt, like the disposable footman of a multinational overlord.

Friday, 15 July 2011


Woke up this mornin' (dum dah, dah dum)... Began to suspect I was dead...

Dead, or transported back in time to around 1973. It was weird. The radio came on, and in place of the Today Programme's bickering politicos and harumphing presenters, some guy was telling me all about Kronstadt and the NEP. "Lenin vsegda s nami!" (Lenin is always with us), someone sang. WTF?? Maybe there had been a revolution. Whatever, it was still time to get up.

It turned out that BBC journalists were on strike, over cuts and job losses at the World Service. The Today Programme finally came on at 7:00, hustled through the ethereal picket lines by a crew of scab journos (Sarah Montague, you disappoint me; Justin Webb, well, I might have known). But my head had well and truly been returned to a previous epoch, when the word "Kronstadt!" signalled a lively discussion, possibly ending in a fist-fight.

I have mentioned my political past a few times before (e.g. Turning Up) but rarely has it seemed quite so long ago as it did this morning. The early history of the Soviet Union once seemed rather like the Big Bang -- it was thought to be crucial to understand the sub-atomic political manoeuverings and betrayals of that time, to stand any chance of understanding the subsequent history of the universe. In March 1921, were the sailors of Kronstadt deluded counter-revolutionaries or heroes of anarchism and freedom from Bolshevik oppression? Was Trotsky a ruthless, murdering oppressor or a clear-eyed revolutionary strategist? Revolutionary politics could often seem like a series of complex, overlapping blood feuds. Or a long-running soap opera.

Nobody cares much now. It's all sitting in the archives somewhere -- all the books, magazines, newspapers, flyers, posters, handouts, minutes, membership lists -- and is gradually acquiring the status of the once-urgent theological disputes of the Middle Ages. History. In retrospect, it is hilarious, and a little tragic, that so many bright young people once wasted so much time trying to turn the crank of a machine that had already had all its fuel stolen (the last of it chucked about as Molotovs in Paris 1968).

Where are they now, our old comrades? A very few have kept the faith, patiently awaiting a change in the political weather. Some have disappeared without trace. Most, like me, have ended up as middle-ranking public servants with self-limited careers, propping up local trades union branches, and eternally skeptical of "management". But some are now household names: prominent academics, journalists, broadcasters, politicians and lawyers, including a former Director of Public Prosecutions, senior members of the Labour Party, and a current Coalition minister. The Establishment, in a word.

I wonder, did any of them wake up this morning, too, and have a flashback to the days when they sat in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms, plotting the downfall of capitalism? And I wonder if any of them then crossed the picket lines at the BBC, too busy and too senior, now, to lose a day's work to "workerist tokenism"?

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Special Offer!

OK, people, here's the deal.

For a limited time (more than a week, less than a month, something like that) I am making available a smaller, 8"x10" version of the Curriculum book, which is "invitation only"; that is, it is not yet publicly-available on the Blurb site, and the only way anyone can see (or buy) it is via the link on this blog. It is offered at cost price i.e. I have added no profit (for me) to the price. You get it at the same price I get it.

I have made these copies available on standard paper, from the softcover at £17.95 to the imagewrap hardcover at £24.95. When the book goes public, I will be selling it as a softcover and an imagewrap hardcover, on premium paper only, with a little profit for me added on, at a price of £23.50 and £30.00 respectively. I can't figure out just yet how to give you the choice to upgrade to premium paper: it's worth the increase in price, as it gives a noticeable improvement in image quality. When I do, I'll turn it on.

If you are surprised by these prices, remember that "print on demand" is publishing for fun, but not for profit; it's "pretend publishing", if you like. Bulk discounts are available from Blurb, but any crazy optimist who buys 100 or more copies of their own book (which will probably sell ten copies, max) simply in order to reduce the cover price by a few pounds is in need of professional help (either from an accountant or a psychotherapist, probably both).

Anyway, here it is: [link removed]

Now do the right thing. Or don't; I really don't mind, as I make nothing either way.

Note that the new book is not an exact, reduced facsimile of the original 13"x11" version. It contains the same pictures and texts in the same sequence, but some of them -- which could be rendered quite small on the large 13"x11" pages -- would have become unintelligible at 8"x10", so I have enlarged them. This has affected the flow of the sequence, so some other relative sizes have been changed, too, so that this version now has its own, slightly different dynamic. I doubt anyone but me would ever notice or care about this.

[And, no, I won't be signing copies of this version. Sorry.]

Monday, 11 July 2011

Curriculum: Final Version

Here is the final version of the Curriculum book, as submitted to Photography Book Now 2011.

It's hardly a crowd-pleaser, but
it's something I'm happy to stand behind as my best effort. I think it's coherent, rhythmic, pleasingly varied, and above all good to look at. Some of the photographs, if I say so myself, are amongst my best work to date.

What more do you want? Yes, I know, a cheaper version... It's coming, soon.

[original Blurb BookShow replaced with current public version]

Thanks to those of you who commented, on and off blog. You wouldn't expect me to agree with or act upon everything suggested by everyone, but it really is an enormous help to have ideas and criticisms to bounce off. As my work colleagues would probably attest, I am not someone who thrives on consensus, but I do love having good people to argue with.

I have already picked up one comment on Blurb. It says, "Outstanding work! Every single shot is brilliantly composed and all together a masterwork. Congratulations". No, really! I swear I have no idea who this person is, and no money has changed hands. However, having seen the list of this year's judges, I know that there's no question of coming even within a mile of the "winners". But, as we all know, it's the taking part that matters...

Not to mention the usefulness of a deadline -- any deadline -- in actually getting things done, instead of daydreaming about them. Not that I have ever had anything against daydreaming; it's something in which I have World Class expertise.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

All Growed Up & Saving China

I was surprised to discover this morning that my daughter is reading Kafka. On her own time, that is, not as part of a course or anything. Well, she is 17 and, as she reminds us from time time, she is our daughter. All the same, I was impressed. The Trial is a long way from Harry Potter. At least, I assume it is, as I've never read any J.K. Rowling (no disrespect, J.K., I've never read any Jane Austen, either). How quickly they grow up and develop a taste for the stronger flavours in life.

Of course, I was her age myself when I first read Kafka, and I've already written about the way getting older has changed my appreciation of his writing (The Next Village). As someone once said, I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now. Actually, I think a lot of us were older then; we seemed to be so much more independent and anxious to fly the nest than kids seem to be today. I read somewhere that the average age, these days, for a young man to leave home is 34. Thirty four!

Earlier this week, she went to Nottingham on the train, meeting her brother halfway in Oxford, as they wanted to catch the Death Cab for Cutie tour (a pop group, m'lud). Apart from catching various trains and buses, and finding a venue in a strange town in time to pick up tickets and eat, this also involved booking and staying in a hotel. This all caused me some anxiety, as I realised that neither of them really knew what they were doing.

I am often appalled, for example, at their geographical ignorance -- despite having spent time in both places many times, neither of them can tell the difference between Norfolk and Dorset. It seemed inevitable to me that they'd stand on the wrong platform and end up in Glasgow. They didn't, of course. But in my anxious Kafkan dreams they are still tiny tots, not young adults, lost and in danger in dark streets, and I awake at 3 a.m. in a panic. I'm told this is a permanent and incurable condition for parents.

But I also think of the many narrow scrapes I survived at their age, mainly out of misplaced confidence and boundless ignorance, and how sweet life is when you first taste your independence. I'm pleased they're shifting up a gear. And as I watch them driving away, slightly too fast around the corner, I think of the days just a decade or so ago, when we would be on holiday and the big adventure was taking them to odd little cinemas in Lyme Regis or Swaffham to see the latest Disney summer blockbuster.

I'm not down on Disney, the way some people are. Indeed, I think there was a period in the 1990s when Disney animations took quite a progressive turn. Pocahontas, for example, is stuffed with equal-opps, green, and anti-imperialist messages, not to mention a slightly tripped-out earth mysticism, and was clearly made by indian-friendly hippies. Best of all, Disney made the wonderful Recess cartoon series, one of the best and wisest things that has ever appeared on TV. And any parent who has numbed their arse sitting through interminable kids' films will have welcomed that thread of adult-oriented humour that Disney (and later Pixar) always carefully stitches through the fabric of its products.

In particular, I think of Mushu, the fast-talking ancestral guardian lizard (dragon, DRAGON!) voiced by Eddie Murphy in Mulan -- still my favourite -- watching as Mulan single-handedly saves the Empire and the Emperor from the invading Huns.

"My little baby's all growed up, and... and... (gulp) savin' China!"

Well, readin' Kafka, at any rate. Which will do for now.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Wasting My Time

I'm not normally a violent man; that is to say, one who reacts to setbacks and frustrations by lashing out physically. But if I could find a way to get next to one (or preferably a whole roomful) of those utter shits who distribute viruses and malware over the Web I would cheerfully beat them to a pulp with an iron bar. Care to join me? No jury in the land would convict us. We'd be public heroes.

At around 5:00 this afternoon, it became apparent that my daughter had acquired a particularly evil piece of malware, merely by visiting an innocuous-looking website. She hadn't downloaded anything, she had merely looked at some maps of Seattle. Masquerading as anti-virus software, the malware then blocked every attempt to run any legitimate program, including the installed anti-malware and anti-virus programs. It was like having your path blocked repeatedly by some grinning bully.

The only remedy I could think of was to restart the laptop in "safe mode", use System Restore to roll back to a "restore point" dated before today, and then update and run a full scan with anti-malware software (I use Malwarebytes). After an eternity of multiple attempts (ever tried getting a Windows Vista laptop into safe mode?) and protracted waits, it seemed to have worked by 9:30 pm.

Of course, the frustration was compounded by having to roll back to a restore point. Every piece of software on the computer is now jostling to be first in the queue to be updated. Windows alone wanted to download and install 43 updates. It's not as if I'd back-dated the computer to 1995. If there's one thing that annoys me almost as much as evil, bullying, pointless malware it's the high-handedly casual attitude of software companies -- from Microsoft down -- to rolling out software updates, now that we're all connected to the internet.*

Barely a day goes by without some "important" updates to something downloading themselves, at length, which then require the computer to be restarted, and then install themselves, at length. It took Windows 7 forty minutes to download a Service Pack onto my laptop last week, which then took another forty minutes to install. I'd only turned the thing on to check my email! I have learned not to anger Windows by pulling the power plug on its interminable updates, though: the last time I did this a computer was rendered completely unusable.

I think it was Heidegger who said that "the modern world is revealed at the horizon of machines that are out-of-order". What did he know? The modern world is revealed at the horizon of machines that promise to be useful but just waste our bloody time.

Can anyone out there understand or explain the mentality of the writers and distributors of computer viruses? How anyone can devote so much intelligence and ingenuity to causing so much random, purposeless harm to ordinary people is beyond me.

* Run a close third by smug Apple Mac users who never get viruses. Don't go there, just don't...

Sunday, 3 July 2011

July Is Too Green

A sultry, overcast July day -- not much fun to be walking around in, but just the thing if subtle gradations of tone are your thing.

I'm never quite sure whether or not I feel like a counterfeiter when I go down the digital monochrome route, but ten minutes mucking about with the controls on Photoshop certainly beats an afternoon breathing noxious fumes in a darkroom. Besides, July is way too green for my taste.

Back in the world of colour, I saw this today:

I'm not sure who's meant to see it, or how, but it's the thought that counts, I suppose. As that witty fellow David Malki puts it in one of his Wondermark cartoons, "Free Tibet! (plus $8.95 shipping and handling)".