May 2009 Archives

The cusp

Which side of it you are on matters a great deal.

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

It’s 9:40pm, and it’s still light. The train has just passed Carluke, and, before that, fields full of cows and horses happily eating grass. I’m now gazing out at a field full of sheep and lambs.

Just a couple of months ago, on pretty much the same train journey, I’d have had nothing to look at but darkness and the occasional cluster of lights. This time, though, as the train slows, getting into the Greater Glasgow area, I get to look at Hawthorns in flower. Oh look, there’s a couple of swans.

Two months ago, coming up from a London in the throes of spring towards a Glasgow still shrugging off winter, barely North of Watford suddenly all the lights went out. This time around, thanks to a change in season, I got a double-whammy.

In a summer-ish time of year, getting on a train at London and travelling North, the passage of time is nothing compared to the change of latitude. The remaining length of the day locally increases significantly faster than the total amount of time spent in the train. Thus, almost four hours since the train left London in mid-afternoon, it’s barely twilight.

If only the nice steward guy had refilled my glass, this would be a perfect night.

A reminder that you should read Wondermark

Don't miss the mouseover jokes.

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

The smoke clears. The economy is saved! ROLL CREDITS The Bechdel Test: Does she talk to another woman about something other than a man? YES she talks to the ROBOT QUEEN about EXPLOSIONS

I keep on meaning to buy some of the guy’s greeting cards.

Marking time

It's stupendously easier than it used to be.

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

Vali is back. She’s sitting on my lap, and from my current angle you wouldn’t know that anything had happened. In a bit she’ll shift herself and lie on the other side, at which point I’ll see the vast expanse of shaved skin, and the ugly stitches that are an unfortunate but necessary result of having a leg amputated.

She gets around fine on three legs; indeed, as per the vet’s suggestion, she’s probably doing better on three whole legs than on three legs plus a useless leg that hurt. A couple of days ago she was sleeping on the bed close to me as I read, and had what I at first thought was a fit but I think was just epic annoyance (I imagine those stitches itch); otherwise she behaves as it nothing happened, other than I took her to the vet’s for a few days and they lopped her entire front-right leg off. She was back at the vet’s for a check-up, and everything’s fine; no unusual swelling or complications. Even better, she’s quite happy for me to grind up her antibiotics and mix them with her normal food, so I don’t have to worry about forcing it down her throat.

At the vet’s, they asked me how old she was, and I couldn’t tell them. I know that we got her mother Helen in the summer of 1994, but that’s because we used to name cats with date-sensitive names. I know Vali was born shortly afterwards, but when exactly? I have no idea.

What’s fascinating is how this is no longer a problem that we have these days. People tweet, blog, or post to Facebook this sort of thing (e.g. Habibi or, at most, some months after the fact, Taji). I found a shoe box of old photos in the attic here at Merlhiot; a fair few of the photos meant nothing to me because I had no idea who some of the people in them were, and in a generation’s time even more of them will be unfathomable because the only people who could have told you will be dead or significantly difficult to get in contact with. Hell, for the vast majority of them, my family hadn’t mastered the fiendish art of writing names, places and dates on the back of the prints. These days, all photos are automatically dated, and probably tagged, either by the author or by nosy busybodies on Facebook.

With a few rare exceptions, incidentally, the photos in the shoe box do not include any that I took myself. This is almost certainly a good thing, as when I was a teenager I decided that taking photos of people was cheesy and a waste of time, so decided to take photos of interesting things instead. In retrospect, this was a bad idea, as a) I’m not a good photographer (and was an ever worse one then), but b) I’d quite like to remember what people looked like back then. Bah. Stupid spotty self-centred teenage me.

These days, of course, it would all be on Facebook or Twitter, and even if you didn’t take photos of people, other people would, and you’d end up linked to them. I love living in the future.

Everything you know about demographics is wrong

"Russia is suffering a demographic decline on a scale that is normally associated with the effects of a major war."

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

Via Hilzoy at the Washington Monthly, The World’s New Numbers talks about current demographic trends and how they’ve suddenly changed. For instance, Britain and France are both seeing their birth rates skyrocket - in part thanks to 30- and 40-year-old mothers belatedly deciding to have children - and should catch up Germany by the mid-21st century (a situation that should be familiar to everyone who was aware of population statistics before Germany cheated by annexing East Germany). And this isn’t because of immigration, recent or semi-recent: “Broadly speaking, birthrates among immigrants tend to rise or fall to the local statistical norm within two generations.”

Meanwhile, though, Italy is still screwed.

And Russia is even worse off: an unholy trifecta of HIV, alcoholism and bad health care mean “a very large question mark must be placed on the economic prospects of a country whose young male work force looks set to decrease by half.”

Meanwhile, the epicentre of the population explosion is shifting from asia to sub-Saharan Africa, and China’s one-child policy may result in India overtaking it by mid-century. And here’s your grim meathook future moment:

There is another development that could affect future Indian and Chinese birthrates: the use of sonograms to ascertain the sex of a fetus. Wider availability of this technology has permitted an increase in gender- specific abortions. The official Chinese figures suggest that 118 boys are now being born in China for every 100 girls. As a result, millions of Chinese males may never find a mate with whom to raise a conventional family. The Chinese call such lonely males “bare branches.” The social and political implications of having such a large population of unattached men are unclear, but they are not likely to be happy.


In a recent paper Hudson and den Boer asked, “Will it matter to India and China that by the year 2020, 12 to 15 percent of their young adult males will not be able to ‘settle down’ because the girls that would have grown up to be their wives were disposed of by their societies instead?” They answered, “The rate of criminal behavior of unmarried men is many times higher than that of married men; marriage is a reliable predictor of a downturn in reckless, antisocial, illegal, and violent behavior by young adult males.” Resulting cross- border “bridal raids,” rising crime rates, and widespread prostitution may come to define what could be called the geopolitics of sexual frustration.

On a more positive note, the article posits one justifiable reason for putting back the retirement age (and thus saving money on paying for people’s pensions): people are living longer because of better diets, general health, and medical technology, but that also means that people aren’t as decrepit as they used to be when they reached 60, 65, or whatever the retirement age is in your country. So, rather than this being an attempt by corporate-friendly governments to claw back your hard-earned pension, it’s merely a reasonable correction to policies established in days where people died much younger. i.e. this isn’t just “Oh fuck, the Baby Boomers are all retiring at once”, it’s a far more interesting “hey, 60 isn’t when you punch out for the last time and expect to die soon any more” problem.

Which is not to say that evil corporate lobbyist scum whores aren’t out to get our pensions, of course. Of course they are. But consider this: many retirees look for new things to do after they retire (or adamantly refuse to retire), because they feel that if they stopped trying to do new things with their brain, they’d wither away and die. Is it so wrong to say “maybe you should carry on working, given that you can”?

And failing that, perhaps should we consider the flip-side of things like AmeriCorps and other schemes where we get young people to volunteer. I expect that when I’m 64 whoever was previously employing me may no longer need me around, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t have anything to give back to society; and after years of the rat race where Gordon Gecko-style levels of greed are only mildly condemned, rather than pilloried from a great moral height, perhaps some gentle nudging along the lines of “Why don’t you help this worthy project with their web site, rather than sitting at home ranting at bloggers?” would be a useful thing to attempt.

In praise of tabby cats

They've been a fixture at Merlhiot for the last 15-odd years.

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

People from the generation before mine have a flashbulb memory: they remember where they were when they heard JFK was shot. For (then-) Labour voters of my age, it’s John Smith. I remember walking down Kirklee Road on a bright sunny day in Glasgow and seeing a newspaper headline saying John Smith was dead. I don’t have any memories like that for e.g. Princess Diana (but then, while England went to pieces, Scots didn’t care). It’s just John Smith.

Cats we have known, and misnamed

There’s perhaps another reason. In 1991 our cat at Merlhiot died (I think this was Big Tiny, short for Big Tiny Sister, because of the two Tiny Sisters he - yes, he - was the largest, and this was a generation after Little Sister, who was in turn a generation after Sister, who was named because she was the sister of our first cat whose name I can’t mention here because it’s an answer to a number of bank security questions). I think I put my foot down at that point and said “enough already with the stupid names”, or words to that effect. So we got two kittens from this Brit couple who ran a camp-site, and not only did we give them distinctive names, we gave them names that would remind us when we’d got them. We named them after the two new prime ministers at the time, being John Major and Edith Cresson.

Edith was the first to go; she was run over by the postman, I think, within a month of Edith Cresson getting the sack. John was a fantastic cat; he was your basic moggy, mostly white but with tabby-ish blotches, satisfyingly fluffy, and if you shoved him off your lap he’d immediately run beneath the chair and jump back on. He’d keep this up as often as you wanted, like a warm furry perpetual motion machine. Sadly he ate something or got poisoned by something and died, within a day of John Smith dying.

Ten years into their stay in France, Brit household gets their first tabby cat

We booked a couple of replacement kittens from the Brit campsite people. (They’d attempted to put their cat on the pill, but the tomcat kept on eating it.) Margaret came over to Glasgow to pick me up, and barely minutes after we’d arrived back in France, up popped Mme Renaud, our sort-of housekeeper, with a small tabby cat in her arms, with words to the effect of: This is your cat.

We named her Helen, after Helen Liddell who had just been elected to John Smith’s old seat in Monklands. We then picked up the two other kittens, decided to jettison the newsworthy theme, and called them Hector and Cassandra; and in a fit of serendipitous rightfulness, Cassandra turned out to be the sort of cat who would miaow all the time but everyone ignored her. Having decided that cats needed to be named after gods or demons, we named one of Helen’s kittens Lilith; brilliantly, having been given to a new home, they brought her back and we had to try again.

Helen had a few other memorable kittens, but male cats don’t tend to stick around in rural areas. The one lasting result of Helen’s brief fertile period was her daughter Vali (at this point we were reduced to giving gender-inappropriate names), who was for a very long time in Helen’s shadow; Helen was the star, and Vali was just some other cat, who merely happened to look almost exactly like her mother.

Then Helen died (she had some sort of tumour on her tongue and couldn’t eat, so had to be put down), and suddenly Vali was free to play the Helen role. She started purring on-demand, inheriting her mother’s title of Mrs Switch-On; she started sitting on people’s laps. She would appear within minutes of you arriving at Merlhiot, and sit herself happily on a chair. (Well, apart from last summer, when Habibi treed her; it took her a day or two to venture back to the house, and a few more days to work out a tacit truce with the dogs.) She became the excellent cat Helen had always been.

In praise, and memory, of Vali

Vali is sitting on my lap as I type this, purring like the friendliest pneumatic drill you’d ever meet. Within a day of me coming back to Merlhiot this week, she was helping me read in bed, by helpfully lying on the spot on my pillow where I’d otherwise rest my book. Earlier today I sat on a bench on the terrasse, drinking a most excellent Belgian beer, listening to the cuckoos call, with a laptop on the table and Vali by my side. Occasionally I’d reach out and stroke her belly, and she’d roll onto her back with an expression of furry trust and luxuriance that perfume manufacturers wish they could bottle.

But Vali is 13, give or take a few years, and it was a shock but no real surprise when the vet told me earlier today that she had cancer. She was limping when she first greeted me at the house on Monday when I arrived, and the X-Rays say that it’s a tumour. She’s going to the vet on Saturday, for only the third time in her life, to have the leg she’s not really using anyway amputated, in the hope that the virulent bone cancer hasn’t already spread, and failing that to relieve the pain that the tumour must be causing her.

We left a number of interesting pastas in the drawers of the sideboard in the kitchen; when I arrived this week, I found them all gone, and sufficient evidence of small rodent activity that one of the my as-yet unresolved action items on the blackboard in the kitchen is “mouse shit maelstrom”. That was a sign that Vali wasn’t as active as she couldn’t be. We’re due back in the summer, all of us, including the dogs, and I hope Vali is there to greet us. But soon, far too soon, the era of cats at Merlhiot will be over.

Until then, though, here’s to Vali. Who has just resumed quietly purring on my lap.

Fun things you can get wrong while travelling

When you make an assumption, you make an ass out of you and umption.

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

I did a lot of travelling around as a teenager (I lived in France and my best friend Tom still lived in London), and I made a lot of mistakes. I missed trains, lost my wallet, ended up in the wrong station (Margaret and Bruce drove down to Toulouse station to pick me up, only to find me happily asleep in a parked train after a railway worker took pity on me). Fair enough; it’s only by making mistakes that you learn anything, and I think my parents reckoned that me making them early was a decent investment; once I started travelling around as an adult, I’d know a lot about how things work, what to look out for, and what to never, ever do.

1: Trust the train company

For instance, I was travelling back from London to Dordogne one day, and I had a really long wait between trains. So I arrived in Gare du Nord, got on the Métro for the quick trip to Austerlitz, and then had an hour or two’s wait for my train. While I was waiting for my train’s platform to pop up on the departures board, I noticed that the incoming train from Limoges was arriving at platform 5 (say), so I hopped on it and made myself comfortable.

It pulled out, and I slowly realised there was nobody else in my compartment; for that matter, there was nobody else in the rest of the entire carriage. (Also, the train was stopping an unusual amount.) Nor, having grabbed my bags and gone through carriage after carriage, was there anyone else on the entire train. I made my way to the front carriage, waited until the train stopped, opened the doors, jumped down onto the track, and had a brief unsatisfactory conversation with the train driver along the lines of “Why is this train empty?” vs “What are you doing on the train that’s going to the depot?”

Anyway, it happened that we’d stopped just after a suburban train station, so I nipped across the lines, jumped the turnstile (I think I reckoned that because I’d been hijacked by a rogue train I didn’t owe the train company anything), and made my way back into Austerlitz.

And given that I had a long wait ahead of me, I studied the arrivals board, and worked out which train my train down to Limoges was going to be. It pulls off, hey this train is pretty empty, oh shit I’ve done it again

So you might think that I’d discovered all the ways you could get travelling wrong. Ha! I fooled my parents, I did. I turned into an adult and found all sorts of adult ways to get travelling wrong. You can tell that they’re adult ways because they’re much, much more expensive.

2. Trust technology

For instance, there was the time that B. and J. were coming down to France with us, with a flight leaving Prestwick early in the morning, and our alarm didn’t go off, and we missed the flight, and ended up faffing about traipsing from Prestwick to Glasgow and back, multiple times, trying to shift flights, considering going down to London later on the day and staying at an airport hotel, booking the hotel then realising that it was cheaper to just fly down on the next day’s early morning flight, doing so but forgetting to cancel the hotel so they charged us anyway, etc.

(The biggest mistake there? Refusing B’s offer to put us up in his parents’ house in Ayr the day before we left. I remember some tit on an Edinburgh newsgroup - yes, yes, I’m old - ranting about how Glasgow airport should be called Paisley airport instead, because that’s where it is; Prestwick is about 5 minutes away from Ayr by train.)

3. Trust yourself

Well, this week I flew down to France again, just for a fortnight, to fix various tenant and paperwork things, and because Ryanair like to fuck you over, the flight times to Limoges during the winter season are horrendous if you’re not leaving directly from London. Many of the flights from Limoges get you in at such a late time that there are no flights back up to Glasgow left that day; all of the flights involve hefty layovers at Stansted. The best combination of flights I could find left at 6:50am, which meant a 4am alarm, so I made a list of all I needed, I packed as much as I could the day before, got up on time, packed everything else, called a taxi to Glasgow airport, caught it, arrived at the airport with plenty of time, scanned the departure board… scanned the departure board…

Sorry. Make that “arrived at the wrong airport”.

I’d been comparing Easyjet to Ryanair, and only reached the decision to fly down from Glasgow to Stansted with Ryanair fairly late, but I don’t think that was the entire reason. Rather, I think I subconsciously thought “OK, my flight leaves at 6:50, so say arrive at 5:50 in case I need to have an argument with Ryanair” and therefore, logically, “you get to Prestwick via a train from Glasgow central, but they don’t run this early, so I can’t be going to Prestwick, I must be going to Glasgow airport”.

Anyway, having considered then quickly discounted the idea of getting a taxi and haring it from Paisley to Prestwick (rightly so, in retrospect - Google says it’s about an hour’s drive, an hour which I didn’t have), I then needed to decide which of the upcoming London flights I was going to try and get on. Easyjet’s Stansted flight had already left, BA and British Midland were flying to Heathrow and Gatwick which are both a) bloody far away from London and b) on the wrong side of it anyway, so that left Luton. Easyjet’s website quite reasonably assumes that if you’re booking a flight, you’re at home or at work, and only shows you flights that leave in 2 hours’ time or more, so I don’t know how much the ticket desk in terminal 2 added on as an emergency fee, but £100 later I was sat in the departure lounge waiting for my flight, and desperately trying to work out how the hell I was going to get from Luton to Stansted.

It’s at this point that I have to thank my work for getting me a 3G modem, and reflect gratefully that I’d decided to pack it so I could have something to do during the interminably-long wait at Stansted; a wait which, I rapidly realised, wasn’t actually as long as I would now like. A combination of Stansted and Luton’s “travelling to the airport” pages, National Rail, Transport for London and National Express revealed a rather worrying and perplexing array of subtly different timetables, but one thing was clear: if I was lucky, I’d only miss check-in closing by 10-15 minutes.

Only a few years ago, without any form of mobile internet, I think I’d have dashed to the Luton Express, run around on the Underground, hopped on the Stansted Express, got off the train, waited frustratingly for the shuttle bus from the airport to appear, and arrived comprehensively, and in a manner that could lead to no appeal whatsoever, too late.

As it was, I knew enough that when my plane landed 20 minutes earlier than I expected, I went to the National Express counter, checked whether there was in fact a bus that went to Luton (there was, contra their website), agreed with them that I wouldn’t want to chance it, given that the bus stopped quite a while away from the terminal; the nice woman at the counter gave me a number for a taxi firm, and told me to get a quote before agreeing. They quoted me £50, which was exactly what I’d budgeted for this; the taxi arrived, I got in, I explained to the driver why I needed a taxi, he proclaimed me his best ever story and then proceeded to tell me a number of other (inherently, by his own reckoning, less good) stories of people who had achieved Airport Epic Fail until he thankfully Shut The Fuck Up, we arrived and I gave him £50 rather than the £50 + 50% because of a bank holiday that he was angling for (thanks, National Express counter woman).

I checked in without Ryanair arguing with me in the slightest, and the only remaining problem - other than I was £150 in the hole because of my stupid mistake - was that I didn’t have time to stop at the Stansted Wetherspoon for a pint. (I had my first ever pint of Banana Bread Beer there; it’s a most excellent summer beer.)

So what have we learned?

Don’t get on a train until you’ve been absolutely told that it’s the train you want, make sure you know the difference between front train and back train etc., and if nobody else turns up on your train you’re probably doing something wrong.

If leaving early, set two alarms, at least one of which won’t stop by itself, and you can’t stop without getting out of bed. Test them.

Learn where different airports are, how you get to them, and how you get from one to another. (Or have tools that can do this for you.)

Write everything down on your list, and double-check it. (I had “French phone” on my list, and crossed it out, but then put it back in the drawer and didn’t write it down on the list again, which is why I don’t have it with me.)

And while it’s pissing it down, and blowing a gale, in Glasgow, it’s been t-shirt and shorts weather here, my rental car has air conditioning even though it can’t overtake a truck going up a hill, the fridge is now full of excellent French cheese, ham and sausages, and Vali is purring on the landing.