Monday, January 31, 2011

Fraternal Optimist

Irritatingly, a friend of mine has written a book.

This is mostly irritating because, like a lot of egocentric bloggetteers, I would like to write one myself.

I could say that the only reason I haven't written one is patently because I haven't possibly got the time, so if you do write one then you're obviously very lucky to have such a surfeit of the stuff to scribe it in. Hard work, talent and some sort of organisational ability don't come into it at all, deary me no.

So we can conclude that my friend, whom we shall call Mark because that's on his birth certificate, must have had nothing better to do. Possibly sits around in his pants all day, playing fightin' on a games console and eating cake.

Unfortunately not. He's got a full time consultancy job, and he's a part time stand-up comedian as well as being a musician and songwriter.


So, I got hold of a copy of his book, which is essentially about what might happen to human society in the near future, should advancements in technology continue apace, and proceeded to read it.

I was all ready to have a quick snigger at what I presumed would most likely be a hastily cut-and-pasted effort, maybe filled with photocopied pages out of the phone book to pad it out, some drawings his nephew did of a robot , and an interview with some old dear at a bus stop on whether she knew if the 'i' in iPad didn't stand for incontinence.

And, even more irritatingly, it's really good.

This is it:

It's so good I even wrote a review of it on Amazon, which is a successful online shop that sells books and trinkets for about the same price as a real shop.

Of course, the main thing about Mark's book is that it is a thought provoker. I mean a proper, deep, profound provoker of thoughts on society, your place in it, and what might happen to you and/or your offspring in the not-too-distant future.

Stuff like whether or not it will be possible to put off death for a half decent amount of time? Will we be able to make any material thing we want in the comfort of our own homes? Will we be able to generate energy independently of any infrastructure and it's associated hassles? Will machines have human rights? Will anyone discover what's actually in a Pepperami?

The big ones.

He also got to travel the world, interview a plethora of leading experts in their fields, drink some booze and do some diving in the Maldives with the President.

I, in comparison, went to Sainsbury's a lot. Also the library.

Mark obviously enjoyed talking to a large number of geniuses (Genii? Geniusies? Genies?), and revelled in picking their bulbous brains about what they thought would happen to the rest of us as a result of advancements in their chosen fields. Their answers are quite fascinating.

I wonder what the collective term for a group of genii is?

Maybe a cortex? Or an academy? Maybe a perspicacity? Ooh, a flange.

I hope it's a flange of genii.

Anyway I thought I would, in the hope of getting a free pint, drop a shameless plug for his book here. If you're thinking of purchasing something which discusses nanotechnology, robotics, genetics and environmental concerns in a well-written, understandable and light-hearted manner, as well as having an educated guess at what comes next, then this could be just what you're looking for.

Mark also informed  me that if I bought it from the official website, he would get an extra 30p as the author.

I got mine from Amazon.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Build 'em high,

I was passing a building site the other day and it reminded me of my long past childhood, when we had a different name for them;


Even today, that ferrous tang of dust at the back of the throat you get as you pass a construction site flips me back thirty years to the excitement of sneaking in after school, exploring a maze of corridors lined with naked breeze blocks, each gaping doorway a porthole into another dimension of possibilities.

Of course, War (with a capital wuh) was the game of choice, if one had a willing cadre of tiny Nazis (nine year-olds), and the latest in offensive hardware (sticks). Occasionally you might turn up on your own, but the chances were some other like-minded individuals intent on having an adventure of their own would quickly arrive, and everyone would happily get caught up in everybody else's games..

You couldn't go past a building site after 5.30 pm without the echoey sounds of "DAGGADAGGADAGGA-EEEEOOOOOWWWWW-BOOSH-AIEEEEEE-SCHNELL-DAGGADAGGADAGGA!" rebounding off the brickwork, patiently ignored by nearby adults everywhere.

If you were on your own, there was a simple joy to be had in wandering around, seeing what a house looked like before it was fleshed out by bricks and plasterboard, exploring the labyrinthine intestines of wall spaces and airing cupboards without boilers in, no-one to tell you what to do, or what not to do, the master of all you could survey. You can forget Narnia. This was real magic.

And then there was scaffolding.

Oh man, how great was scaffolding?

Such was our monkey-like climbing ability at that age, we could scale the outside of a half-built three-storey edifice in about the same time we could walk a similar distance on the ground. A wet day made the slippery planks all the more exciting.

Even in the seventies though, society had noticed the youthful penchant for invading building sites, and dutifully put on safety videos at school.

These were invariably made by someone who believed the only way children would learn was by using realistic special effects, so cue scenes of unlucky children being absorbed by silage, the camera lingering on their (worryingly well-acted) looks of terror as the gloop closed over their faces. Then the kid would be shown as a ghost saying he wished he hadn't gone into the silage pit on the farm*.

Or there would be one warning of the dangers of playing on railway tracks, with a once sporty kid getting his leg trapped in a set of points, before an unconcerned Intercity 125 zoomed past, it's engine drowning out  a high pitched scream. The next scene would involve the boy looking wistfully at his football boots, before the camera pulled back to show him in a wheelchair, stubby legs ending at the ankles, and therefore revealing the reason he was looking at his football boots, and also why he was a bit sad, was because now HE HAD NO FEET!


The building site film contained walls of mortarless bricks falling without warning onto pint-sized dummies, discarded hammers on scaffolding being dislodged  by a wayward child and landing on the head of his friend down below, or the whole shoddily fastened scaffolding giving way and collapsing in a heap of Meccano-like death on a gawping crowd of interlopers. It was all done with appropriate realness, including after shots of children lying in pools of blood, or in hospital with drips and casts in situ, or looking horror-stricken at the mangled remains of their friends.

It was practically an advert.

Any nine year old who hadn't previously thought of going before definitely wanted to now, especially if there was the chance of finding randomly discarded hammers or walls that toppled like cards at the merest touch.

So, after a seventies tea of fish fingers and proper chips done in a deep fat fryer like the one that destroyed that house near the park that time, we would set off from our various homes with the express intention of meeting up at the new estate, breaking in using the time honoured technique of stepping over the foot-high single strand of wire that demarcated the boundary between boring reality and our adventure playground.

Things are a Little different these days:

Six-foot fences, metal gates, padlocks, floodlights, warning signs and orange flashing strobes mean that anyone caught inside the perimeter is properly trespassing and not simply out for a wander, like in my day, when it was perfectly possible to find yourself in a construction site without realising you'd walked in.

So, the health and safety brigade denies an entire generation of children the imaginary delights of adventure, the stimulating process of exploration, and the bonding camaraderie that running around an unattended building site can give, but at what price?

Oh, yeah, all those child injuries and deaths.


* Splashing about in a silage pit was obviously something all children were desperate to do in the seventies, judging by the effort displayed by the authorities in preventing us diving head first into them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Hi kids, I'm Mr Shiny Face!

It seems like a geological Ian since I last wrote a blog post. An epoch. An age. A bit of a while.

Well, fifteen days.

That's a half a lifetime if you're a housefly.

I suppose keeping a blog must come second to ensuring my children don't do all that diseased starving they seem to go for with just the merest hint of a couple of months neglect.


The point is, I have less time to myself than Big Ben. It takes me about a month to read a paperback at the moment, and I have to pencil in visits to the toilet on the calendar.

The only telly I get to watch these days is children's TV, and like most parents I appear to have absorbed every song and dance routine via some sort of mental osmosis, where information goes from a strong concentration (television) to a very weak one (my brain).

There are certain things my kid likes which I don't actually mind watching as well, such as anything with computer generated trains in it, or Zingzillas which has the universally acknowledged winning combination of monkeys, coconuts and the occasional ukulele.

Then there's the stuff  I can't stand. This includes just about anything with the word "green" in the title, or that purports to campaign for the environment with monotonic children prancing woodenly around city parks telling you to recycle and not eat dog poo.

Also, old stuff that used to be stop motion animation but is now all CG. Lay-zee!

Yeah, I'm looking at you Noddy.

And finally there's the stuff I would probably watch instead of most adult telly programmes. Essentially, Timmy Time, which is ace.

I've also got to know who all the children's TV presenters are now. They invariably portray perky, smiley, intensely annoying caricatures designed to appeal to their target audience, and they do it well.

After a while, though, you start to see aspects of their real personalities shine through, like a thundercloud behind the sun.

Er . . .

Anyway, inaccurate meteorological similes notwithstanding, I used to think the hardest part of the job must be pretending to get all excited over the next episode of some hastily cobbled together art programme where a bloke tries to craft a crown out of twigs without making a four-year-old look like Jesus, when in reality you've just split up with your other half, have a tequila hangover and feel grumpier than a hippo with hemorrhoids.

Which, I have on good authority, is pretty bloody grumpy.

They still have to appear upbeat at a moments notice (TV presenters, not anally challenged hippos).

But then I remembered, parents do that all the time.

"Daddy! Daddy! Daddy"

"Yes son?"

"You know bananas?"

"Yes son?"

"They are yellow!"

"Fascinating son."

"And do you know something else about bananas?"

"What's that son?"

"They are yellow!"

"Fancy that."

So, presumably, anyone with a child could be a kids TV presenter. And why wouldn't you want to? It looks like great fun.

It'd be even better if you could do it partially drunk.

"Hi Kids! Know what time it is? Yay! Ooh." 

Shake head.Close eyes, then force them back open.

"See that . . . pretty colours, jus' there? No there . . ." 

Swipe at rainbow midges in front of face.

"S'nice, is that. S'ver' nice  . . . ver', ver' nice  . . . zzz . . ." 

Prod from director.

"WHOA! Greeeaaat! That's a lovely show, that is, that . . . er . . . " 

Squint at autocue.

"And now, it's time!" 

Nod sagely; scratch chin and then look at hand.

"Oh, for . . . er . . . cartoons yay!" 

Sit down on floor and stare at camera.

"Why can't I see them? Quentin! Why can't I see the cartoons?" 

Put hand to ear, listen intently.

"Oh, right. Sorry kids! My mistake. It's not cartoon time yet. Let's go over to my good friend Cokey the Clown! Yay! Look at his funny white nose!"

I'd watch it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Phone socks.

This year, I resolve to be more frugal!

Having just had a credit card bill for, and this is approximate, a lot of pounds, it occurred to me that maybe I could be a little more restrained.

Sure, that bat-detector will be useful, at dusk, and who in this day and age can really do without a goose-peeler, but perhaps there were alternatives to some of the luxuries I have treated myself to in the past year.

I don't mean to deny myself, for I deserve lovely things, but why should I spend hard-earned moolah on goodies just so some fat cat in a corner office can have more fizzy wine and another extra large Ferrero Rocher?

Instead, I intend to use my considerably phat skillz to construct things I need, like a chap of yore.

This is not as fanciful as it at first seems, for I do have previous. Apart from my spoon, which is still talked about in hushed awe-laden tones in the fields of carpentry, ergonomics and aesthetics, I have also made other useful things.

For instance, I made a stylish and practical holder for my Blackberry mobile telephone.Thus saving myself a substantial amount of money yet still ending up with a phone cover.

Below is a pic. One of these is a "genuine" professionally made and marketed  cover, soullessly gouged from the back of a cow, machine stitched together and implanted with a harsh magnet, then labelled before being sold on the internet like the symbol of capitalism it so obviously is.

The other was lovingly, tenderly crafted from materials originally used as something else, finding new life, a new purpose, in another guise, the epitome of cyclical regeneration, environmental responsibility and fiscal thrift.

I'll leave it to you to decide which one is better, but I think we all know the answer:

The one I made is . . . wait for it . . .  on the right!

I know!

One might argue that I did  not simply make a phone cover out of an old sock, but I took away all of the sock that was not phone cover.

Of course, I did have to buy an official leather Blackberry case so I could take a photo of it next to my homemade one, but this is a philosophical point rather than a economic one.

I now have to consider what items, luxury or otherwise, I can make myself. I have a load of spare nails, coat hangers and squirrel tails so the children are going to be okay for homemade toys, but if you have any other suggestions then I'd be happy to hear them.

Unless, of course, it's for homemade bagpipes, because I'm still wanted in Scotland for assaulting that caber tosser.