Friday, 29 January 2010

Why BAA Should Apologise For Making You Take Your Shoes Off

When you pass through those pointless security checks at the airport, do you think you're owed an apology when they find out that, no, in fact, you weren't carrying explosives? Probably not, but you are and here's why. Let's start with a less emotional example. Suppose your house is carpeted throughout in white. Naturally, when guests visit, you ask them to take their shoes off to save the carpet, and you've got a couple of little phrases to make a joke or a little ritual of it. What you don't do is say "Remove your shoes immediately, I know you have deliberately walked through smelly mud before you got here and intend to make my carpet filthy." That would be rude beyond belief. But that's exactly what British Airports Authority are saying to you. They are searching you because they think you are carrying a bomb - just as you are asking people to remove their shoes because, intentionally or not, outdoor shoes will make your carpet dirty. But whereas my outdoor shoes do have dirt and so you are making a reasonable request, neither you nor I are carrying a bomb and no reasonable person could suppose we were, so BAA are not making a reasonable request. You're itching to make excuses for them, aren't you? Like how they can't take a chance with safety (they aren't, you're not a bomber, remember?), or that they have to be seen to be doing something (for your benefit? not for mine), or that if they didn't there would be bombers going through for every flight. Well, let's take that last point first: the only two forms of transport on which people have been killed are the Tube and London Buses. Strangely, no-one asks you to remove your shoes before boarding a bus or entering the London Underground, and by some miracle there hasn't been another bombing on either since 2005. There are no excuses.  Either their checks are sincere and so they think we're all bombers, or they don't think we're all bombers and their checks are an empty gesture. What the checks are really about is liability protection - it's for BAA's financial benefit, not our safety. Uh-huh.  It's corporate arrogance of the highest order. They owe us an apology.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Two Views at the Side of the Thames

It's not that I don't have anything to say, it's just that I haven't had the time to settle down and say it. I'm still wading through Solomon's book on Hegel's Phenomenology and there's a whole mass of stuff I want to talk about round that. So here are two more shots from last summer, both taken on the South Bank of the Thames.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Lazing on a Summer Afternoon

Was it only in October I was here? It's January, it's cold. Let's daydream.

Friday, 22 January 2010

The Virtue of Faith

There's a phrase I use: "I wound up learning more than I really wanted to know about ....". Recently I have had to write some code in VBA for Powerpoint. I regard all presentation programs as if not abominations then certainly not something a Real Man would use. Real Men speak clearly, from memory, without visual aids and for no more than three minutes. But here I was this week, searching the Internet for some code that would break links between a workbook and a presentation. My excuse is that I didn't have time to read about the Powerpoint object model and work it out for myself. I know I can record a macro, but macros have a habit of referring to "ActiveWhatever" and what you really need is the name of the object and it collection so you can loop through all the text boxes on all the slides - or whatever.

The real point isn't about Powerpoint, it's about the manager who told everyone I could automate a presentation with about fifty links to different graphs and tables in a workbook. So that someone else could just press a couple of buttons and what used to take two guys two weeks would now take one guy a couple of days (there's some unavoidable manual fiddling involved). I had a rough idea it could be done, but with Office you never know if you're going to be tripped up by some arcane detail in the object model, forcing you to a complete re-design. I didn't know it could be done. The manager believed that if it could be done, I could do it. When someone has that kind of faith in you, it's very motivating. And it's the first time that's happened at The Bank.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Movies about Music - Part 2

You can point out that Sex and Drugs and Rock 'N Roll isn't a movie about music, it's a movie about a pop star - after all, why else would we be watching it? But why would we watch a film about a pop star? Because they made love to more and better-looking women than we did, or that they took more and better drugs, or that they had rows in big houses with swimming pools? Because we didn't already know they were screw-ups? Uh-huh. Their lives are interesting because they wrote Reasons To Be Cheerful, or Like A Rolling Stone or Love Will Tear Us Apart or even, for that matter, Always On Time.

I understand how philosophers can philosophise, mathematicians can produce creative mathematics, how J S Bach wrote his music and John Coltrane improvised. I know what it's like to have stories appear in my head from a sudden burst of sunshine. I get how painters can paint, though I can't do it, and I get how photographers can see a photograph. I can "pick up my guitar and play" in a kind of baroque-y improvisational style.

But I have no idea, not the slightest glimpse of an insight, into how someone can sit down and write Please Please Me, or Summertime, or Big Yellow Taxi, or Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again, let alone how Jam and Lewis wrote those songs for the SOS Band. I have never, ever had a tune and a lyric drift through my head. Not once. I don't even understand how it's possible. And neither, I'm guessing, do you. I bet there are respected composers who have never had a possible chart-topper pass through their heads. Don't you want to know how Stepping Out happened?

Songwriters often don't do anything else, as if it is such a different use of the mind and personality that it won't let them be programmers or advertising creatives or tax inspectors before or afterwards. With a handful of exceptions they don't write songs for long either: they are more like athletes than, say, physicists. Like Auden said about poets, they burn bright and not for long, unlike novelists or conventional composers.

In a similar vein, The Damned United wasn't only nothing like the real life of Brian Clough, it was also a bad film about football - at the end of it you had no idea why or how he could take two medium-level sides to the very top of the game. The best film about football I've seen was Zidane, eighty minutes during which the camera just follows Zidane and you barely see the rest of the match. It was utterly riveting and informative.

The best movie about music (that isn't a straightforward bio) is Godard's Sympathy For The Devil, which is about equal amounts of the Rolling Stones trying out the song in the studio and classic Godardian agit-prop. What's surprising the first time you see this movie is that the song started its life as a blues jam going nowhere: it's only half-way through that we return to the studio to find the congas going and Nicky Hopkins going full-bore on the piano, in the arrangement that made it a classic. The moment that happens is not on film, but there's the sense of work, of trial-and-error, that even the greatest rock 'n roll band sometimes goes for a stretch with no clue of what a song needs.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Movies About Music - Part 1

I saw Sex And Drugs And Rock 'N Roll yesterday: it's supposed to be about Ian Dury. You can look up the details of his life here. You'd better do, because you won't learn anything about it from the film. It opens with him rehearsing while Olivia Williams is giving birth upstairs - that's to let you know he's a self-obsessed screw-up and it pretty much carries on from there in the same vein. You will not find out that he studied at the Royal College of Art under Peter Blake (there's a scene where his bullied son asks if they are "posh", Dury says "we're Arts and Crafts". Not from the RCA he isn't - he's posh.) He was an art teacher married with a young daughter who decides to get into rock 'n roll. Way too late in life. There's no attempt to explain that, it's just a given, and the man remains therefore a total mystery or a bag of bad behaviour.

The Blockheads are appallingly treated by the film - depicted as a bunch of no-hopers when they were in fact one of the tightest British bands that ever performed (right up there with the Average White Band) and they performed music that was closer to jazz-funk than rock 'n roll. Check this out.

Where did these guys come from and how did they stay in such good musical shape? Chas Jankel, who is a songwriter good enough to have Quincy Jones cover one of his songs and get an international hit with it (Ai No Corrida), appears from nowhere, gets hired and disappears into a back room to churn out hit after hit to Dury's lyrics. Like they didn't already know who he was before they hired him. To see the movie, you'd think no-one ever rehearsed or discussed arrangements - and yet they must have done. A song as good as Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick does nto appear like Venus from the head of Jupiter.

The movie addresses none of this. Instead we get a decent forty minutes or so of Andy Serkis with a band performing Dury's songs - and doing a damn good job of it - and the usual tales of, well, sex and drugs and rock 'n roll. It's a good a way of passing Sunday afternoon at the movies, but it ain't about the life of a musician.

Friday, 15 January 2010

I Can't Live Without... Lunch

Some people in the office bring in sandwiches and fruit, some fly the nest of the office for just long enough to scavenge a baked potato or a Subway, some aim a little higher with a baguette from Paul or a hand-made sandwich from a local cafe. Over the week, I do: sushi from Yoshino or Itsu, baguette from Paul or sandwich from Eat, chicken salad from La Torre.... Friday is generally a decent steak from one of the brasseries. But every now and then, there is no substitute for sitting up at the bar at Ed's on Old Compton Street and munching through the burger, a bowl of fries and a vanilla shakes...

... unless, that is, it's sitting at the counter at Fernandez and Wells on Lexington Street with one of their wonderful meat stews and some bread. James the chef there says it's all down to the ingredients, and fine ingredients they are too, but he's being modest about his own considerable skills.

It's been too damn cold and depressing to go out recently, but it looks like the weather has turned back from snow to mere rain and it may just be possible to consider going home at 21:00 hours after an early evening movie again.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

How Commuting Leads To Insignificance

Looking at people around my Tuesday meeting, I was caused to wonder about significance. What significance did the glances, smiles and meetings of eye have? Back in the day, a smile from a pretty girl was the second most significant thing in the world, exceeded only by a steady, measured, eye-to-eye gaze that could mean only one thing. By contrast I knew that the little contacts in the Room had no significance at all. Why not? Because I was going to get on my train home and they were going to get on theirs. We were not going to share so much as a cup of coffee, let alone a bed and a night. It's the same as interviewing with an potential employer: the moment they say the don't want to take it further, that's it. They forget you, you forget them. They become something less than strangers, because now you know they hold no possibilities for you. Significance is about consequences and consequentials: if nothing follows from it, nothing about it matters. This is why our interactions with culture can be as meaningful than our interactions with people: reading a book can change the way I act, think and feel, as can talking to someone. This doesn't mean those polite, short exchanges with strangers to whom we give directions, or from whom we buy our lunch, aren't pleasant and neither are they meaningless, on the contrary, they mean that we are pleasant, well-mannered members of society. It means that they lead nowhere. They are a contact between us in our roles, not between us as people. It does not matter what they think of me, what they might hope of me, nor me of them. It isn't going to happen. The trains are leaving to take us back to our dormitory suburbs. This is why life at a residential university is more intense: because you are always within walking distance. There is nothing pulling you apart. Separation is not built into the very reason you are there, whereas it is when I sit in a Room in central London. We meet by train and we will be separated by train, on the same day. We have no choice: the train with the flat or house at the other end awaits.

Monday, 11 January 2010

What Were You Doing at 03:45 on Sunday?

I was making an application for a £15,000, 60 month loan via my Internet banking facility. I was offered a rate of 8.5% - as befits my stellar credit rating - and told the guys on the other end of the phone that I'd got an acceptable rate. They thanked me and we all went back to bed, happy in the knowledge that the deployment of the latest price change was okay. One of the largest financial institutions in the world needs to have a member of staff make a test over the Internet to see if the pricing engine for one of its product lines works properly. As in, doesn't fall over because it couldn't find a file, not as in, gave the right price. We already knew it did that. You would expect that the IT department of one the largest financial institutions in the world would have the ability to make tests on the live system, but no. In fact, nobody can make tests on the live system and they don't have a demonstrator in the office either. I asked about this and was given all the usual evasive answers: fraud, cost, fraud, security and fraud. In other words, there wasn't a good reason, someone in IT just didn't want to do it.

But then I one worked for the biggest name in telecoms and they had no systematic way of testing routes either. At least they could make test calls from their switch, but only one or two. I had to source a fax directory for them so they had test numbers for Kazakhstan and places like that. You can't always get what you want on the Internet.

And yet they will send mystery shoppers into their branches. Go figure.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Doing The Samizdat Software Waltz

For the last couple of days I've been scrappling around my little bit of The Bank for expertise in installing SAS and Business Objects. Think about that for a moment. This is one of the largest financial institutions in the world and there is no-one who can do a simple install of two of the most commonly-used data analysis and reporting packages in the business. Why would this be? Because neither is on the list of officially-supported software - there are installs of both around, and while paid-for, they are samizdat software. Think about that one. One of the largest financial institutions in the world doesn't think its analysts need two of the most commonly-used data analysis and reporting packages in the business. The only analysis it thinks it needs is what you can get with Excel and a basic SQL editor. Now you can get whatever you want with Excel if you're inventive enough, but that level of invention is neither paid for nor bought by The Bank. I'm only doing this scrappling because the Smaller Bank that The Bank bought had those tools and now I can get them in and working.

But. If there's one thing that people with no technical skills love to talk about, it's which tools those of us with technical skills should be using. People are already asking "Do we want to use SAS / Business Objects / whatever", like it's a decision they are informed enough to make. I keep saying "get the tools installed, since you've paid for them already and we have all these licenses spare now that all those people are leaving, get the tools working and start using them. Then you'll know which to use when we come to do the Big Strategic Project of building integrated systems."

Or you might look at it like this. When those managers ask "do we want to use X?" maybe they are not asking about tools. Maybe they are asking about questions. They are asking: "do we want to ask the kinds of questions X is really good at answering?"

Or maybe they are saying "I don't understand this package and I don't know anyone in my department with any skills in it, but I might get stuck with supporting it. So let's make that not happen."

Think about that. One of the largest financial institutions in the world. And it is scared of using two all-industry-standard software products. Now do you understand why they loaned all that money to people with no jobs?

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

On The Idea of Personal Identity

Triggered by my current reading of Robert C Solomon's In The Spirit of Hegel I was prompted to think about the concept of personal identity. In philosophy, this is the answer to the question: how do I know (or what do I mean by saying) I am the same person I was a year ago? What does that idea of “same” mean?

The first point is so obvious everyone misses it. It's that there would be no point to asking how we can be thought of as being the same person we were five years ago if there wasn't a very obvious sense in which we aren't. It's because we feel we do change, that we ask how we can yet be the same.

The second point is that there are two distinct answers: one to establish liability or benefit; the other to deal with the rest of daily life. Let's do the legal one first. The law needs to be able to identify that it was you who, ten years ago, committed a murder, so that it can arrest, try and jail you now. The family solicitor needs to identify you as the proper beneficiary of the will: that you are your father's son, even though you've been out of the country for twenty years. Here we are unequivocally identified with our bodies: what gets used here is an idea of physical continuity throughout changing appearances. This isn't a complex idea, but it is difficult to propose a fraud-proof set of criteria, let alone one proof against the wilder imaginings of philosophers. However, just because we can't produce a flawless operational definition of a concept doesn't mean we don't have a workable concept. Indeed, we couldn't produce any kind of operational definition if we didn't have a working concept.
In daily life we use a different concept: one far more contextual and purposive. To say someone has changed seems to mean that what we used to know about them leads us to make inaccurate predictions of how they now react, think and behave in given situations: friends might say that you have changed, you are now much calmer, but the sales analysts of a major bookseller might see you as the crime-fiction fan you always were. At work you seem as professional and motivated as ever: only your wife sees your emotional collapse at the weekends from the strain of your pretence.

This does not mean we have many “identities”, it means that no other person sees us playing all our roles. Nor does that fact that as an uncle we are affable and competent, while as an amateur handyman we are tense and irritable, mean we harbour contradictions: it means we like being an uncle, while our lack of manual dexterity and practice means we dislike having to put up the shelves. Someone who knows us as an uncle may say “you're totally different when you have to fix the shelves” but what they mean is “you're not as affable and competent now as I've seen you with your nephews”. They aren't making deep claims about you having been taken over by a different soul, or aliens, when you have to wield an electric drill. Indeed, if they didn't think you really were the same person, there would be no point in them saying you were “totally different”.

When we ask of ourselves or other people “who are you?” we are asking many questions, but none of them particularly philosophical. We may be asking how they could behave like that, or what they want to do with their lives, or what they value most, or what they would choose to wear or where they would choose to vacation (“Who are you? Someone who spends a week on a beach? I don't think so.”)

When we say “we don't know who we are”, we're not thereby expressing any great sense of a splintered soul hidden in darkness. We're saying we're uncertain about a number of decisions that are important to us now. It makes our indecision sound much more romantic and profound, whereas to others of a more practical turn it may seem simply weak and self-indulgent.
So do we have an “identity”? We do, just as we have an “appearance”. It's our ambitions, choices, tastes, decisions, the way we talk and the words we use, the clothes we wear from role to role, our craft skills and anything else you can think of. As time goes by, some of these things will change. Let's say that if we add something new to all these items, our identity remains the same (or “grows”, if you prefer); whereas if we drop some things and take up others, it changes, but with this qualification, that as long as the great majority of our identity-items stay the same, we say we haven't changed.

This, I think, gets it about right. Children grow, adolescents “change” because they adopt and discard a lot in a short space of time, adults “don't change” because they modify themselves gradually. Adolescent change is unstable, adult change is stable. It makes our concept of “sameness” temporally local, rather than long-term, which also fits in with the our recognition that over a long time, we aren't in any sense the same people we were at eighteen. The world would be a pretty awful place if we were.

Aren't some changes more important than others? Isn't a woman who turns up asking for a divorce undergoing a greater change than one who suddenly starts listening to Monteverdi? If this is an an implicit appeal to common values (“Marriage matters, music doesn't”) then it's harmlessly undeniable. If this is pointing out that some changes are more costly or beneficial than others, while others are treated with more or less censure by family, parish, friends, employers and the bridge club, and so some are likely to have more consequence than others, this is also harmlessly undeniable. What is deniable is that the divorcee's life will necessarily change as common values and likelihoods would predict. She might weather the divorce with dignity and goodwill, but find Monteverdi tips her into the giddy world of choral singing, from which few have emerged unscathed.

So when we ask others about their ambitions, tastes, abilities, preferences and favoured ways of passing a Sunday afternoon, we are not asking profound philosophico-psychologico-moral questions but merely interviewing them to see if they are the kind of company we want to keep. We can even do that to ourselves, and confuse ourselves with the answers. I suggest that the puzzlement we may feel about our own identity is caused partly because of the distorting mirrors (cynical and manipulative “appraisals” at work, pop-culture quizzes, shallow comments from friends, answers that are polite rather than honest, barely interested parents, teacher forced to “find something positive to say”, and “feedback” given to manage rather than inform) in which we are reflected to ourselves, and partly by a mis-match between what we do in fact and what we think we should be doing. And this is how we can surprise and puzzle ourselves.

Monday, 4 January 2010

The Friends Quiz

I feel the need for something light-hearted. So here's a little quiz around the word “friends”.

1.Who are “friends of Dorothy's”?
2.What is a “friend of Bill and Bob”?
3.If a man with a vowel at the end of his surname introduces you as “a friend of mine”, what's he saying about you, who to and what status does he have?
4.If the same man introduces you as a “a friend of ours”, what status do you have?
5.In the British Foreign Office, who are “the friends”?
6.What is a “Friend of (insert name of prestigious cultural organisation here)?
7.What is the exact status of “a friend of the family”?
8.If someone tells you that he and her are “just friends”, what does this mean?
9.How many series did “Friends” go on for?
10.Why is it “friendly fire” even if someone gets killed?
11.If a restaurant is “child-friendly”, what is it telling single young adults?
12.In programming, when are two objects “friends”?

Friday, 1 January 2010

Have A Prosperous 2010

I hope this finds you well, flourishing and closer to your dreams.

There goes another decade. The best thing I can say about it is that I got the first four volumes of Proust off and finally read Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Philosophy of History and Phenomenology of Spirit. You can avoid these things and still have lived a full and happy life. Which is kinda they way I felt about 2009.

I spent the first six months thinking I'd be out of work in July when the Lloyds / HBoS reorganisation finally worked its way down to my grades. In July I went on two weeks' Jury service at Isleworth Crown Court (Guilty! Guilty! All of them!) and came back with a confirmed job. Oddly, this made me feel better than almost everyone else, as few got their first choice of role in an empty six-week "preferencing" exercise: most people are in their second or third choice or even 'huh? where was that on my list?".

I lost 10 kgs between February and about June after my doctor read me the riot act about blood sugar levels and how he would prescribe drugs that have the most appalling side-effects on your digestive system if I didn't improve. (Look up "metformin" on Wikipedia to see what I mean.) So I went home, threw away all the biscuits, chocolates, sugar, pasta and other carbs and did a low-carb, low-sugar, no-eggs, no-cakes diet. It worked. The free biennial medical I get pronounced me a walking miracle of health and fitness for a man my age (fifty-five).

My nephew is preparing to go to university to read History and is reading Cesaer, Herodotus, books on the Crusades and Machiavelli on Livy - I felt uneducated until I remembered that he doesn't know what a function field on an affine variety is. I've joined the rest of the world as the possessor of an LCD television and the house is just about finished. The quote from Wickes for re-kitting my tiny kitchen had me in howls of outraged laughter, so that project is on hold and it's the last room I have to do.

I leave you with this useful hint. To carry one mobile phone is to be a righteous citizen; carrying two means you're keeping work and personal life separate; carry three and you're a drug dealer, end of story. So ditch that third phone in the bottom of your briefcase / handbag / whatever now, or should you appear on a charge at Isleworth Crown Court, you will be sent down without the slightest hesitation by the good people of its catchment area, who appeared to me alarmingly knowledgeable about street life.

Have a prosperous 2010!