The cleanliness or otherwise of boots

English: Excel Cross Country Runner

English: Excel Cross Country Runner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone had a bogey subject at school. The subject that made them reluctant to get out of bed of a morning. Mine was Physical Education. I don’t know why they called it that because in the whole of my school career, I don’t think I learned anything. Unless you can count such valuable lessons in life such as not going outside in shorts and a T-shirt if there’s snow on the ground. Or maybe the fact that if someone twice your size tackles you, it’s going to hurt. A lot.

Childline wasn’t around back then otherwise the first thing on my to-do list of a Tuesday morning would be to ring them. It all seemed so illogical to me. Why do we play outside when it’s cold and inside when it’s warm? Why did the school swimming pool have no roof? Either masochism or economics. They swore blind it was a heated pool. I chose my sports day event based on brevity rather than talent.

It didn’t help that I was the youngest in the year, and therefore the smallest by some considerable margin. It also didn’t help that school rules said no spectacles on the sports field. It’s kind of hard to concentrate when someone’s throwing a rock hard cricket ball at you when you can’t see a thing.

But my nemesis of nemeses was the cross-country run.

I don’t like playing football or rugby, but I at least understand why people do. But why oh why would you want to pick a particularly cold day, especially if it’s raining to go and run 5 miles in a big circle. To add insult to injury, our cross-country route passed through a pig farm. For those who have never had the opportunity to visit one, they stink. Not only do they stink, but they collect mud. Sometimes it came up to our knees.

After 5 freezing cold, rain-sodden miles of traipsing through mud dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, you are cold, wet, tired and most of all miserable. And they had a special punishment for the ungifted cross-country runner. Muddy boots were not allowed in the changing room, so they were left outside for the bloke who came last to clean. And I always came last.

One day I refused. The sports master couldn’t believe his ears. I was a well-behaved, compliant student by reputation.

“If you don’t clean them – you’ll have to go and see Mr Foskett”

Mr Foskett couldn’t believe it either. Neither could the deputy head and nor could the headmaster. I stood in his office still in my muddy sports kit. He threatened to call my parents and when I still refused to clean the boots, he summoned my mother to the school.

She duly arrived and they explained my heinous crime to her. She looked at me somewhat incredulously before turning to the headmaster and saying;

“Clean your own *&£$ing boots!” and she took me home.

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Arthur C. Clarke

Book cover for The City and the Stars by Arthu...

Book cover for The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. This was published by Harcourt in June 1956 and was the first release of this novel. The image is used to illustrate the article The City and the Stars. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Up until relatively recently, the only way I knew of Arthur C. Clarke was as the host of some interesting documentaries about cool stuff that no-one could explain.

He was a bald guy who lived in Sri Lanka who posed questions about crystal skulls and markings in ancient Peru that only made sense when viewed from altitude. I knew he wrote 2001, A Space Odyssey and the follow-up 2010, but it never occurred to me just how prolific he was as a science fiction author.

It was only when I came across his books in the science fiction masterworks series that I realised just how many books he penned. Unlike many great science fiction authors, Arthur C. Clarke has the distinction of having two books released under the banner; Rendezvous With Rama and The City and the Stars. From reading the back covers, Rendezvous sounded more interesting, so that’s the one I read first.

Arthur C. Clarke has a great way of describing technical and physical things in a way that they make sense to the reader. He can bring them to life in the space of a few short sentences. In Rendezvous with Rama, the story revolves around a gigantic spaceship that visits our future Solar System so he has plenty of opportunity to exercise his craft.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, I couldn’t help feeling cheated when I reached the end. If I were unkind, I might summarise the plot as: a huge alien spaceship turns up; humans explore it; it buggers off taking all its secrets with it. At the end of the book, he explained little or nothing about the culture that built the spacecraft. Were they alive or dead? Were they benevolent or malicious? All we know is that they build cool spaceships populated with robots.

In all my disappointment about the first book, I felt reluctant to read the second. It was only when a friend recommended The City and the Stars that I picked up the book. I have to say – what a difference. If not much happens in the first book, the whole universe changes in the second book.

The action starts off in the sterile city of Diaspar. Everything is safe within the city’s dome. People are reproduced as necessary from within  the central computer’s memory banks and have to live according to preset conditioning. The central character, Alvin, is born with something no-one else seems to have; curiosity. He wants to know what’s out there and boy does he find out and changes the city, the world and the universe in the process. It’s a great novel and I was staggered to find out that he wrote it in the 50s. I was doubly staggered to find out that it was a rewrite of the first story he ever penned.

It’s hard to believe that Arthur C. Clarke wrote both books. The second is a masterpiece. The only criticism I have is that I don’t find his descriptions of people to be particularly evocative. But who am I to judge?

Scunthorpe – where else would you find a naked man running down the high street wielding a machete?

English: A car park from above.

English: A car park from above. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I wouldn’t park there if I were you” said the shifty looking youth in the hooded top.

We looked at each other puzzled; “But it’s a car park.”

“Fridges.” he replied in his thick Northern accent.

Must be something in the water round here; “Sorry – what do you mean?”

“Off top” he said, gesturing to the large tower block overlooking the car park.

“They like using cars for target practise – wit’ fridges.”

Blimey – we could see why this was the home of our shiny new software. It was a town centre monitoring system, hooking up CCTV cameras with alarms, door locks and radio systems across the town centre. After swiftly moving the car to a safer looking parking spot, we headed towards the control centre which looked like a hardened bunker at the nexus of the three tower blocks. Security was very tight and neither of us thought to bring any photo ID.

“We wrote your software. We’re here to see it.”

“Righto sunshine, pull the other one.” said a disembodied voice behind a grille.

We were eager to see the software in action. Although we carried out extensive testing in the lab’, we could only run the system at a small-scale because there were only so many cameras and monitors we could fit on the premises. Eventually, we managed to persuade our vigilant friend that we weren’t fully paid up members of the hooded fridge throwers club and he let us in.

This was back in the late nineties, and the system was advanced for the time. Each operator had a touch screen with which they could navigate over a map of the city. All of the cameras were shown together with their fields of view.

By tapping on a camera, the operator could move it around using a touch screen joypad. Each camera could be made to appear either picture in picture on the operator’s monitor or on a wall of monitors. We even had multiplexer support so that the operator could have many camera pictures showing up in a grid on his monitor.

Built into the system were alarms. When anything triggered an alarm, cameras would go to predetermined positions and appear on predetermined monitors to bring whatever triggered the alarm to the operator’s attention. Right in front of us, an alarm went off and the system sprang into action. It was a real thrill to see the software we created working in anger.

We didn’t have long to admire our handiwork as our vigilant friend ushered us out of the room.

Eventually, the police turned up and we overheard the source of all the excitement. A naked man rampaged down Scunthorpe high street wielding a machete.

Unconscious probability manipulation

English: London Midland Desiro EMU 350125 call...

English: London Midland Desiro EMU 350125 calls at Watford Junction with a service to London Euston. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone who has received any kind of instruction in writing will tell you that the most heinous crime you can commit is to open your piece with something as clichéd as “It was a dark and stormy night“.

So I won’t.

But it was.

I was on the way home from work. One day a week, I trek down to our London office. Partly because some of my team work there, but also because it’s good to catch up with the other people who work there. The office in which I’m based is solely a development shop. The London office houses sales, marketing, HR among other things. It’s a trek because it involves planes, trains and automobiles.

A slight exaggeration – it doesn’t involve planes, but it does involve a walk, a taxi, a train, a walk, a tube and a final walk. It’s exhausting, and it adds roughly half a day to my normal work regime.

I was on the tube home. I normally get off close to the London terminus where I can catch a train to my home town. It occurred to me that the final destination of this tube was half way home and I wondered whether going all the way might be an option for when the trains home are stuffed. Every once in a while, signals fail, drivers strike or someone chooses the day I go into London to end it all by inconveniently jumping in front of a train.

The notion was fresh in my mind even as I alighted the train. At street level, the aforementioned dark and stormy night rendered everything wet. Me, my clothes, the pavement, everything. I hurried towards the terminus to catch my train. As I approached the station, I noticed the newly painted thick white lines in a perimeter around the station. Painted in the centre of each line was a no smoking sign. A notion crossed my mind that with all the rain, they might be slippery.

In the split second that the thought crossed my mind, I felt my feet slip out from under me. I saw the sky and the tall buildings around me spin as I went through a dramatic unintended backflip. Through some miracle, I landed unharmed. My pirouette through the sky softened through the willing compliance of my thick coat and my backpack. Several people rushed to my aid, proving the milk of human kindness has not yet gone off.

I’m not a superstitious man, but I thought about the trains being stuffed and verily, they were so. I thought that the new white lines, slick with rain, might be slippery and verily I was upon my posterior. I’m getting paranoid. I think I may have unconscious probability manipulation.

Why are babies so rubbish?

Inglesina 3-in-1 stroller without the chassis

Inglesina 3-in-1 stroller without the chassis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not like babies are new. They’ve been around for a very long time. It seems to me that whilst other creatures were busy evolving the ability to be born walking or swimming, we hardly evolved at all. Slightly less hairy perhaps with a larger brain cavity, but still utterly unable to communicate or move under our own power at birth.

We’re not even very good at producing them in the first place. If childbirth gets a bit difficult, we reach for a vacuüm as if we’re trying to remove a stubborn bit of fluff from the carpet. Or we reach for a pair of tongs that look like something Herr Flick would use at weekends. Failing that, we slice the unfortunate mother from stem to stern to deliver the baby through the sunroof.

But childbirth looks like the pinnacle of human achievement compared to the progress we’ve made on baby accessories. We don’t have children ourselves, but we spend enough time with young relatives to know our way round a car seat or a pushchair. Why are they so poorly designed?

The wheels on supermarket trolleys are universally derided for being unpredictable at the best of times, so who on earth came up with the idea of basing the front wheels of pushchairs on the same design? Who thought it would be a good idea to have a separate brake for each of the rear wheels? The whole point of having brakes is that you want the thing to stay in one place; not in fact to slowly pivot around the locked wheel.

If the people who made my car can design seats that fold in a zillion different utterly intuitive ways, why do manufacturers come up with such unfathomably enigmatic ways to fold pushchairs? Whoever designs pushchairs should have to test them themselves under simulated real life conditions. First of all, they should have to fold and unfold them in the rain. Then they should have to do it one-handed whilst holding something loud, heavy and wriggling, like a bag of cats maybe. Then they need to repeat the test laden with shopping.

There are many hostile environments in the world, but few can compare to the rigours a baby seat has to go through. Even the nicest design will look disgusting after exposure to a child. You will want to clean it, which means removing the cover. This will prove impossible without putting your fingers into every single nook and cranny. Pray that you put your fingers into something hard and dry. Unfortunately, you are likely to put your fingers into something soft, wet and gooey and pray that it’s undigested.

The ideal baby accessory should be easy to get out, easy to put down and completely jet washable, not unlike the perfect baby.