October 2007 Archives

I'm home

Cleodhna and I flew out from Edinburgh to Bergerac on Saturday (a summer-only flight that was promptly cancelled the day after) and after an eye-watering €130 taxi fare, we're now at Merlhiot. Vali, our remaining cat, was there when we arrived, wandered away and then came back, and today has spent the entire day on her favourite chair in the house. We've thrown wood into the stoves until the house heated up (it helped that it's been a beautiful sunny day today), and we've started on what I suspect will be our project for the coming week or two, while we wait for people to get back to us, for paperwork to get filed, and so on: clean up the house.

The inside is perfectly fine, and as I remember it; the outside was always magnificently jungly, but has perhaps got a bit too jungly. Cleodhna cleared away a gratifyingly large amount of ivy invading the terrasse before deciding that a simple pair of secateurs wasn't up to the job; I tried scrubbing away some of the random black grut, and made some leeway, but little enough to make us realise that there, surely, has to be a better way than brute force. (We're dealing with terracotta tiles, which are notoriously porous, so you've got to be careful about what cleaning products you use. We're going shopping for a steamer tomorrow.)

Tomorrow is the day where we phone everyone and drive to everyone else: notaires (equivalent of solicitors; think "notary public", I believe), funeral directors, Jack who has keys and has been dealing with my mother's affairs for the last umpteen years, the Palais de Justice if we need things to be translated (like Margaret's death notice), supermarkets and garden centres. I need to get all sorts of banking details sorted out. I need to get the piano tuned.

When Margaret died, and we went over to her flat in Edinburgh to sort everything out, two particular factors helped us immensely. First of all, Margaret was tremendously well-organised: all that we needed, we found pretty quickly. We turned up at about 1pm, and by 4pm we were done.

Secondly, we got the important questions answered quickly. We found a fantastic photo of Margaret, and before the first day was over, we had the idea of having a Humanist memorial service in the Botanic Gardens. Having established so early on how we'd do the most difficult things, the rest of the organisation was a snap, just a matter of doing a few things every day until it was all done.

I still have to confirm this, but it looks like we should be able to have a similarly low-key, upbeat service in France, with a big photo of Margaret and a much smaller casket (the kerfuffle that shipping a body in a coffin from one country to another would involve, compared to the comparative ease in sending a casket of ashes, eventually made this a no-brainer). She'll be buried next to Bruce (we need to get a headstone; my requirements will simply be "make it look exactly like his"), Cleodhna will grow plants on her grave, and we'll move on.

And we've already found an answer to the important question: how do we pay lasting affection to Margaret, and what do we do with the large A2-sized blown-up framed photo? We've found a perfect place in the kitchen where we can hang the photo, where it will look like Margaret was giving a slightly mischievous, cheerful blessing to the people clustered in her kitchen, drinking wine and eating good food, and in all likeliness having a damned interesting conversation (bonus points if it doesn't involve her - Margaret was never mawkish).

Tomorrow's shopping list is long, and encompasses food and DIY and a host of other things, but nothing is, perhaps, more important in the long-term than the picture hooks and other related DIY stuff. Because once we have all of that, and we've hung the framed photo, we'll have done the hard bit; and, once again, the rest will just be a matter of organising things.

It helps immensely that we're not selling the place. It was hard enough clearing out Margaret's flat in Edinburgh, getting rid of whatever was left in her fridge and taking her plants to ours in Glasgow. But that was just a momentary flat; Merlhiot is the family home. In various guises, it's what I've called home since 1983.

And, given that there's no danger whatsoever that we'll have to sell it (Margaret's flat in Edinburgh should cover any bills), it makes everything much easier. I'm not intruding in my dead mother's house; rather, I'm home. I don't just see memories of Margaret, I see memories of Bruce, and my childhood; I see my own house, that I now have the duty to do something about. Cleodhna and I have already been talking about how we'd spend a couple of months in the summer, how we'd bring the dogs to Merlhiot, how we'd do all sorts of things.

We just have to deal with the French paperwork.

Margaret's memorial service

My mother's memorial service was held on Saturday 20th October at 11am, and it was a near-perfect success.

A few people congratulated me on organising the ceremony, as if I'd done it all myself - which I hadn't; I had gate-keepers like Pat and Madeleine for the Edinburgh people, Tim for the family, and Cleodhna dealt with the funeral directors (not part of the ceremony - it was just a memorial service - but it was grisly work that needed doing). And by the end of the first day, Pat had had the idea of having a service in the Botanics, which was so perfect a solution that everything else became easy by comparison. It ended up just like organising a wedding - you start off with a daunting list of things that need to be done, and you do a few each day, and before you know it you're down to a manageable level.

Saturday was a gorgeous sunny day, and well ahead of time we shepherded Margaret's most gorgeous plants from her flat to the Botanics - a large rubber-tree plant and an only slightly smaller umbrella plant, both poking out of the sunroof of our car, driven at something like 10 mph (with Cleodhna in the back seats holding on to the plants). So rather than a dreary coffin, we had a large photo of Margaret on an easel, and a couple of vivid plants next to it. Nearly everyone had managed to find a way of abiding by our wishes to send pot plants rather than cut flowers - i.e. plants that could be re-used, rather than cut flowers that we'd throw away after a few days - and the combination of Margaret's plants, plants from well-wishers, prints on the wall and sunlight in from the windows made the hall a vibrant, living place.

Pat had also mentioned having a humanist service, so I googled and then emailed the first name on the list, which turned out to be Ivan Middleton, exactly the sort of person you'd want to officiate at any ceremony. His basic service was spot on, and after I'd spoken to him and exchanged emails, the part that was about Margaret was pretty much perfect also. The problem with your mother dying is that, unless she was an inveterate nostalgic gossip, you don't actually know much about her early years, but thankfully Angela (who had known her since they were 14; she couldn't make it up to Scotland so Ivan read our her tribute on her behalf), Pat (knew her since Birmingham Manchester University) and Madeleine (a close friend since she moved to Edinburgh 10+ years ago) contributed moving tributes that filled in the gaps for many of us.

The one slightly hairy moment was when Ivan went into his "we're done with speeches, let's reflect on Margaret's life" bit, which I knew from his standard spiel meant that he either had forgotten or I hadn't told him (doesn't matter which one) that I wanted to say something. I eventually managed to attract his attention just before the end of the service and got up to say my bit; given that my send-off was to tell people to honour my mother's traditions with a glass of wine at the forthcoming reception, this wasn't too bad a mistake to make.

Then we all trouped out, and Cleodhna and I did the obligatory reception line, dealing with commiserations from each guest in turn, while our mates took all the plants, giant photos, easels etc. to the car. From there on it was easy: we strolled up the road to the reception, Jamie handed me a glass of wine, and I spent most of the rest of the afternoon talking to friends of Margaret's telling me how wonderful my mother was. We had a folder full of photos of Margaret that we thought meant something, and space underneath the photos for people to write things; I think nearly everyone flipped through the folder, and a fair few wrote something, and that's much better than a generic book of condolences where everyone feels obliged to say "I'll miss her so much" or "I was devastated when I heard the news", as if it helps that your guests feel that they need to one-up the others in a Monty Python's Yorkshireman sketch sort of way.

(For similar reasons, when compiling a list of things that well-wishers had said, I ignored all of the "I'll miss her terribly" comments, and concentrated on the fond memories that people had. I don't see the point in wallowing in grief; the point of a memorial service is for people to get together and honour the memory of the dearly departed, and it does nobody any good to incessantly remind the audience that, dammit, she's dead.)

People paid their regards, those of us that were left (mostly family) went back to Margaret's flat (and Jamie, who was an absolute trouper all throughout, drove the car - now full of plants again - back to Canonmills), we relaxed a bit more, chatted, had some random chinese food, and then the family went off to the airport for their flights down South and I phoned the people who couldn't make it to tell them how wonderful a day it had been.

Eventually, we'll take all of the speeches, and all of the comments on photos, and assemble them into one big web page; and we'll print it out and mail it to those people who couldn't make it.

This might happen while we're in France; we're heading over to Bergerac this coming Saturday, mostly because a) it's the only direct flight from Scotland to Dordogne there is, and b) we have no idea whether there'll ever be another one, because airlines introduce their new winter timetable in late October, and don't tell anybody about it in advance. (No, not even the airlines whose business model is built around selling cheap tickets to people who buy weeks or months in advance.)

We had an almost perfect service in Scotland, mostly because we were confident that a humanist service in the Botanic Gardens would both work, and would be acceptable. I'm much less confident about the French service - and in a sense I don't think it matters too much. The main reason for a French service is so the French (and similar - we have Spanish and Danish people coming too because it's easier) can come to it and grieve, and that means a pretty traditional Catholic service. Which is fine - I'll try and make sure the Savignac curé knows that he should keep the religion to a minimum, but to my mind, the service that matters is the one in Edinburgh.

Laszlo is fine

He was eating and drinking yesterday evening, and it was only a few hours after they took him in the dog ambulance from the emergency vets to our normal vets this morning that we got a call saying he could come home. He's bounced back like an absolute trouper, despite having lost 3 litres of blood and suffered some pretty major internal bruising. We're taking it gently - his heart starts beating very quickly if he takes any exercise at all, on the basis that he's got a lot less blood than he should, so it needs to go faster to cover the same ground. But he made an excellent recovery, and all signs are that he'll be fine.

While we were waiting for the vets to call yesterday, I made myself busy by uploading a bunch of Laszlo photos to the Internet, just in case. Go look at them here.

It never rains, but it showers intermittently

What could have been an absolutely horrendous day has turned out pretty well, all things considered.

Consider the baseline: yesterday afternoon, when the emergency vet surgeons sewed Laszlo up, 2 hours after he went under, they'd removed his spleen, 3 litres of blood, and a potentially very malignant tumour the size of an orange. This evening, when we went to see him at the surgery, he was awake and up, and seemed his normal self, apart from the drip attached to him. By 11pm when Cleodhna phoned, he'd been eating and drinking, which is a stunning rate of recovery.

The cancer Laszlo had is a sort of blood blister cancer, where the tumour fills up with blood and is comparatively benign - until it bursts, in which case you're in major trouble. It can be filling up for years and you'd never notice it - it's between internal organs, and it doesn't affect anything else.

The first tumour burst yesterday, and Laszlo immediately stopped, started walking a bit strangely, and wanted to go back home rather than carry on with the walk. The second burst today (Sunday), we think, and is probably what stopped Laszlo from walking normally, and made him refuse to go upstairs. (3 litres of blood sloshing around your abdomen will make anyone walk funny.) We phoned the emergency vet, and within an hour the vet checked out Laszlo and pretty soon reckoned he needed surgery.

And all we could do was go home, wait for the phone call, and hope that it wasn't the vet saying that the cancer had spread, and that it would be unfair to wake Laszlo up.

It appears, though, that we've dodged a bullet, and the Laszlo should make a full recovery.

The moral? Get your pets insured, and insured with petplan. By all accounts they don't dick people or animals about, and may even be close to having a soul.

Margaret Isabel Kington

3rd Nov 1936 - 10th Oct 2007

My mother is dead.

She went out hill-walking on Wednesday morning in Edinburgh's Pentlands (not unusual for her - she loved the place, and was in the habit of hill-walking by herself). And she fell.

This wasn't the first time; she'd had a fall a few months ago, and her elder brothers are also prone to occasional falls. And while I hope that it was quick and merciful - that she blanked out, fell, and never regained consciousness - I know it could have been much worse.

In the last few months she'd had the occasional memory loss, and feared that she'd end up perfectly healthy (she survived bowel cancer five years ago, and was still hill-walking at nearly 71!), but with an ever-dwindling mind. For a conversationalist like my mother, whose objection to people's opinions was usually that they didn't defend them with a decent enough argument, dementia was a particular terror.

On the other hand, maybe she wasn't all that healthy - some friends had noticed that she'd almost stopped eating, and maybe the bowel cancer was on its way back. She had a living will that refused anything but palliative treatment, but still: a relapse of bowel cancer, by popular consensus, isn't pretty.

Cleodhna and I went over to her flat yesterday and started cleaning things up, watering the plants, checking the fridge, working out what we needed to do. Happily she was organised and had all her bank statements and insurance certificates neatly filed away, every bill on direct debit, accounts set to top up other accounts up automatically if they ever looked like emptying. We found the will. We went over to a close friend of hers, joined later by a third, and had a meal and a healthy amount of wine, shared our memories of her but then ended up talking about a whole load of other things as well, which was exactly the sort of conversation she would have loved.

I've gradually been calling up people from her old beaten up address book that she'd had as long as I can ever remember, which is the worst part of it - phoning people you haven't spoken to for years, and certainly weren't in the habit of phoning out of the blue. It's particularly hard when I have to introduce myself, and they respond with a note of pleasant surprise.

We're back in Glasgow, and I've been going through her email, filtering out the obvious spam, and then trying to guess, without looking at a message, if it's a genuine email from soneone whose name I never knew, or an impersonation trying to sell me Viagra or penny stocks.

I expect I'll have to go through the mailing lists she's on and unsubscribe. Welcome to the 21st century. At least I knew her password.

There is a very rare bug in Apple's Mail that causes it to mis-date some emails, so they appear as if they were sent today (or when Mail most recently opened). There are four such emails from Margaret, constantly right at the bottom of the list where new mail would be.

Statistics vs the Internet, part 2

Bayesian filtering is a wonderful thing. Early spam filtering used a hard-coded list of spam phrases and features, which worked fine as long as the spammers didn't know about said list. In 2002, Paul Graham proposed using statistics rather than human-originated lists to fight spam, and chances are these days that your ISP and/or your mail client uses Bayesian spam filtering to trap spam. When you train Apple's Mail client to look for spam, this is what it's doing: building up a list of words and phrases that occur in spam messages, and words and phrases that occur in genuine mail that you want to read, and slowly building up a huge corpus of words and associated scores, so eventually it can look at an incoming email, total up the score of each individual word, and decide whether it's likely to be spam or not. When spammers start writing spams a bit differently the first few will slip through the filter, but as you train it with the new spams, any further spams of a similar ilk will get caught.

Barring the occasional blip, statistical analysis has effectively solved the spam problem. My email address has been on web pages on the Internet since about 1998 or thereabouts (so I'm on every single spammer's list), and any email to illuminated.co.uk goes straight to my inbox (so if anyone tries to send random email to xyiagr@illuminated.co.uk, I'll get it too). But because I've got a bloody good client-side spam filter, maybe 2 or 3 of the 2,000-odd spams I get every day ever gets through to my inbox.

So the question now becomes: if we can use statistics to effectively neutralise spam, can we apply statistics to other annoyances on the web? We already have popup-blockers and ad blockers; is there a way of streamlining the Internet experience even more?

These guys think so (via Ben Hammersley). They're trying to build up a corpus of stupidity, so eventually you'll be able to check web pages - and parts of web pages - against the stupidity corpus, and silently remove the ones that don't pass the shambling moron test.

So far, so good. What takes this beyond "fun idea, might work" and into "exceptionally brilliant" territory is the corpus they're using to train the stupid filter. They're using Youtube comments.

Missing a trick

So I'm sitting in my hotel room watching the football (I go down to London for work for three days every month), and an ad comes up for Carlsberg's Draughtmaster. I'm sitting in front of the laptop, so I have a look at the website. The thin is basically a Kegerator, and it's a fair enough concept. My beef is with the website, though; more specifically, with the website's progress indicator.

C filling up badly, as in not like with beer

Here's what you see while you wait for the Flash website to load. It's the 'C' part of the Carlsberg logo, which is cute, and it fills up with beer-coloured stuff, starting at the tip of the C and going around the C until it reaches the top.

And it fills up radially - it's like a pie chart filling up, rather than an animation of someone pouring beer into a Carlsberg logo C. It doesn't start with the bottom of the C filling up, then both sides of the C until the tip is full, then filling up the left hand side until it reaches the top.

More importantly, there's no head on that pint. What were they thinking? If you're going to have a website about how you can have a perfect pint in the comfort of your living room, and you're going to animate your logo filling up with beer-coloured stuff, then make that animation look like beer!