Sunday, 25 August 2013

Life's great mysteries Part 1

I'm compiling a list of the great questions that life leaves us with.
I'm not talking about silly stuff like "what is dark matter", or "how do we mine precious metals from asteroids", I'm talking about the questions that arise in everyday life. I'm keen to get comments on these things so just go nuts, right? Maybe between us we can compile the ultimate guide to surviving life!

1. If moths love light so much, why don't we see them during the day rather than when they're annoying us by headbutting the TV at night?

2. What makes a person wear socks with sandals?

3. If you remove a teenager's earphones, will they cease to function?

4. If God is good why are so many killed in his name?

5. Why won't magazines be honest about what people REALLY look like?

6. At what point did newspaper stop being a valid wrapping for fish & chips?

7. Why was it necessary to rename 'Marathon' to 'Snickers'?

8a. What exactly is in kebab meat?
8b. Do I really want to know?

9. Why did The A-Team never manage to hit anyone they shot at despite being trained soldiers?

10. Why do so many people obsess about so-called 'celebrities'.

11. What are the words to any song by Dexy's Midnight Runners?

12. What is it about an Audi that turns the most mild-mannered individual into an arrogant tosser?

13. What is Top Gear actually about these days?

14. Why does Coca-Cola still need to spend millions on advertising?

15. Is that rusty old Ford Fiesta really 'powered by fairy dust'?

16. Chris Evans. Why?

17. What makes some women think that boob implants, collagen lips, tattoos and botox look good?

18. Was Skrillex the result of a drunken bet?

19. Did 'Captain Pugwash' really contain characters called 'Seaman Stains' and 'Master Bates'?

20. What are wasps actually for?

To be continued...........later.........maybe.........

Sex and drugs and sausage rolls

Life and peoples attitudes are always changing. I now consider myself middle-aged and the changes I've seen through my years have been considerable, so what the elderly must have seen over their lifetime must be amazing.
Since the industrial revolution it has been as though someone lit the afterburner on life, propelling mankind forward at ever-increasing speed towards some unfathomable goal. The trouble is, the faster you make something go, eventually it will reach a point where the stresses become too great and it will disintegrate.
So how far will we go before life as we know it comes apart? Not a happy prospect perhaps, but food for thought.

Indeed, food is an area that has seen immense change over the years.
Not only the mind-blowing variety of food products, but the sheer volume of the stuff.
But this quantity and availability has come at a price, with obesity now a major problem in the so-called developed world. So many people, no matter how much nutritional information is provided, see no problem in stuffing their fat faces with as much mass-produced, processed and (above all) cheap food as possible, while blaming their vast proportions on their 'glands' and trying to convince themselves that they don't really eat much at all as they sit in their creaking chair with a KFC family bucket.
This is the most irritating bit - fruit, vegetables and decent meat, etc cost more in the shops than the crappy foods. It's cheaper to live on pizza and Coke than fresh salmon, new potatoes and broccoli, and that's just wrong. Why should a multipack of chocolate bars be cheaper than a bag of oranges?
Indeed, if you were to see beyond the pretty packaging filling the supermarket shelves and peek under the covers of the modern food industry there's a good chance you might reconsider your shopping habits.
The kind of diet that our current elderly generation had in their younger days was far heathier.
A walk around your local farmer's market shows you that you don't have to succumb to the industrial machine of the food industry, but can enjoy good wholesome food that hasn't been shipped half way round the planet. Granted it might seem a bit pricier than the local supermarket, but at least the veg is locally grown and the meat had a chance to run around a field before becoming part of the food chain.

Attitudes to sex is another area where there have been big changes - something of a revolution really.
In years gone by, sex was something that was never discussed in polite conversation which must have led to a lot of confusion, misunderstandings, guilt, and unfulfilled sex lives, and clearly it's good that we've moved past this era to become more open and enlightened.
However, although I'm far from being prudish, I still can't help feeling that the prevalence of sexualised images in the media these days has a lot to answer for with sex being pretty much in your face wherever you turn, and it's particularly worrying the way sexuality is used in things like music videos which youngsters see and often think are something to emulate.
I think it's good for sex to be demystified; for parents to be open with their children about the subject, but the material in assorted teen magazines goes a bit far considering the age of their audience, and with online porn being so easily available many teens gain a distorted view of what sex is like in the real world.
The morality of sex and the concept of it being part of a relationship is being lost to a generation who just want the feel-good factor with no consideration of the consequences. Obviously this is very much a generalisation and there are plenty of kids who do know right from wrong, but the proportion of those who are becoming sexually active at a young age seems to be increasing, and with the risk of pregnancy and STDs this is a very worrying trend.
When I was at school I didn't know of anyone who was getting laid, and I think it was only in the final year that there were discrete mutterings about a couple of girls who were of dubious morality.
Fast forward from 1987 to 2013, and my son who is only fifteen knows of girls his age at school who are already slutting their way towards their aspiration to be the next generation of unemployed teenage mums, making a career out of popping out sprogs and living off state benefits. I'm so proud of him that he has such a good head on his shoulders that he wants nothing to do with these girls even though the prospect of an easy shag has many teenage boys hanging around these tramps like flies round shit.
I only hope that he manages to avoid contact with drugs, because he does have a somewhat obsessive personality. I didn't discover the pleasure of weed (trivial compared with the other shit that's out there) until my early twenties, but even then it has only been a very occasional indulgence - never regular and I haven't had any at all for about five years. No problem. But although I managed to deal with the boy's persistent questioning over what cigars were like by buying a packet and making him try one - it worked because he found it vile and has been anti-smoking ever since - I don't think I'll push my luck by trying the same thing with the herb.
Leaving aside the cost issue, if he applied the same level of obsession to that as he does to the bloody XBox he'd be permanently stoned.

Factory reared VS free range chicken. Which does your conscience tell you you should be eating?

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Us and them

Back when I started riding motorcycles it was the done thing to give a friendly nod to anyone else on a bike.
Yet over the years this tradition has been eroded. As in so many areas of life it appears that motorcycling is being gradually broken down into cliques.
It seems to have got to the stage where every type of bike has it's own little club giving so many riders the attitude of "You're not in my club so I'm not going to acknowledge you".
You have sports bike riders - often with matching one-piece leathers and who wouldn't dream of taking their pride and joy out unless the sun has got it's hat on, and then there's the cruisers - usually mid-life crisis victims who think that riding a Harley very slowly at the weekend will give their libido a new lease of life.
Next up are the BMW riders - seriously sad when you won't acknowledge the presence of another biker unless they're riding a bike that came out of the same factory. The Honda Goldwing riders go around looking like they've got a nasty smell under their nose but I'n not sure they count as bikers anyway when what they're riding is more of a two-wheeled car than a motorcycle; really, why subject yourself to all the downsides of riding a bike when you're too big to exploit the upsides like filtering which is actually a legal manoeuvre not matter what the occasional self-righteous car driver might believe - moving out to prevent you slipping past a queue of traffic because "I'm stuck in a traffic jam and so should you be" - bitter and twisted, small-minded, ill-informed wankers that they are.
The assorted groups seem to be almost endless - scooters, mopeds, small lightweights, muscle bikes, tourers all have their own little clique.

I ride two bikes, one a Suzuki Bandit 1200 which I love with it's big engine that makes overtaking so effortless, and the other is a little Yamaha YBR125 which is my super-frugal commuter that despite only having a tenth of the power of the Bandit is still fun to ride in it's own way. I thoroughly enjoy my time spent in the seat of either of them, yet they each give a different perspective of the biker nod and illustrate the point I'm making rather well.
When riding the 1200 I'll generally be ignored by BMWs, scooters, cruisers, and Power Ranger style sports bike riders, but on the whole everyone else on two wheels is happy to acknowledge my existence.
The wee 125 is a different matter entirely. On that I get ignored by pretty much everyone apart from the occasional similar lightweight 125. Even though I've been riding for twenty five years, I don't have L-plates,  and I'm wearing a Shoei helmet, most seem to assume that I'm an inexperienced numpty and therefore invisible.
Car drivers behave differently too depending on which bike I'm on. The Bandit has muscular and imposing proportions so there's a noticeable level of respect from the majority of other road users, whereas on the 125 I feel treated like something of an underclass.
And still I'm happier than if I was in a car. Part of that is probably due to a feeling of sticking two fingers up at the rest of the motoring world - knowing that it's costing you so little to be out there on a little bike. The priceless smug feeling I get slipping past the traffic jam on the way home, especially the stupidly expensive cars driven by those who normally treat me with disdain is so rewarding even if it is cold and wet.

Nearly all of us who ride bikes do so because we choose to. We love many aspects of motorcycling, whether it's slipping past traffic, the acceleration, not being tied in with the whole car-based conformity thing, or simply the sense of freedom that can only be achieved on two wheels. We deal with the downsides like painful fingers when it's really cold, diesel spills, slicks of mud left by tractors, blind or arrogant car drivers, a very real vulnerability, and waterproofs that leak at the crotch in a downpour.
Whether you're riding a sports bike, cruiser, scooter or tourer; whether it's a 125cc lightweight or a 2300cc muscle machine - we're all in it together for the love of it, so why divide ourselves into groups?
We're all motorcyclists, we're in a minority as road users and we should all stick together and not let the "I'm better than you because....." attitude of the rest of the world infiltrate the camaraderie of motorcycling.
We're all in it together no matter what our individual opinions about the sort of bike someone else chooses to ride, so that's why I'll give the nod to anyone on a motorcycle regardless of style, engine capacity or manufacturer.
Unless they're riding in shorts and t-shirt in which case they're obviously a complete fucking idiot.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Format Wars

Last week I mentioned some old camera film formats, and I thought it might be worth taking a little trip down memory lane to pay a visit to some of the numerous media formats that have come and gone over the years.
The other day I read an article describing a replacement for Bluray with 300Gb worth of storage, and I cast my eyes heavenward. I've only been buying Blurays for about two or three years and already they're talking about the next thing. Seriously, is there any point now in trying to keep up?
My first experience with video outside of a cinema was the Philips N1500 video recorders we had at school. These machines were roughly the same size and weight as the Isle of Man and took a cassette that was something like six inches square and about two inches thick. More info here.
Then came the brief but bloody war between VHS and Betamax, with the technically superior Beta being beaten to the punch by VHS with its superior advertising campaign. A brief mention should perhaps be made here of Video 2000 which was doomed to failure because nobody wanted to have to turn the tape over half way through the film, and a bit later there was LaserDisc which was a sort of early CD roughly the size of a vinyl LP.
Since then the DVD quickly replaced VHS, with everyone keen to adopt a system that didn't need to be rewound when you'd finished your film, took up half the space on the shelf, and had a perfectly still freeze frame for those little Kleenex moments.
Now we also have Bluray which has been rather slow to be adopted even though most people now have high definition TVs that can make proper use of its benefits.
TVs themselves have undergone major changes too, and I for one was glad to see the back of cathode ray tube sets as, having dog ears, I can easily hear the high frequency whistle they generate which always drove me mad. Changing to an LCD TV was a revelation.
Alongside these developments we've had similar improvements in video cameras. From cine cameras and full size VHS machines that needed to be propped on the shoulder, we saw a steady reduction in the size of cameras as their media formats and the electronics surrounding them shrunk until we can now take high def video with something that fits discreetly in the palm of your hand, which is great because few things can make you look a complete nob quite as efficiently as walking around with a camcorder.

Recorded music has undergone dramatic changes since the wax cylinder was invented and quickly usurped by the gramophone. But it wasn't until the vinyl record arrived that music sales really hit the big time, and the humble record remained king of the hill for a very long time in the world of the format wars.
We've also seen magnetic tape come and go in various guises, from big open reel machines to the compact cassette. This format had a considerable following (helped by the invention of the Walkman) and I have many memories of sitting with a portable tape recorder next to the radio as a kid, trying to record the charts on a Sunday without catching the DJ's waffle between songs. Usually with limited success.
I also remember having an 8-track machine that I'd inherited from my brother, along with just one tape (Blue Jays by Justin Hayward & John Lodge - bought again a couple of years ago on CD), and I always smile to myself when I spot an 8-track in an old film. Awful things.
When CDs first arrived they were prohibitively expensive and by that point most people owned considerable collections of vinyl, so the uptake was a bit on the slow side to begin with - hard to believe now when you see the size of the average music enthusiast's CD collection.
Those who have read previous posts will be aware of my reservations about the shift to non-physical formats that has occurred in more recent years, even though the later uncompressed formats are (I'm told) just as good as a CD.

Data storage for computers has seen miraculous rates of evolution. Back when I owned a Sinclair Spectrum a 48KB game would take about ten minutes to load from a cassette. At secondary school with BBC Micros we were impressed by the five and a quarter inch floppy (ooer!) that held 360KB. Wind the clock forward to today and and 64GB fits in a Micro SD card that's about half the size of a postage stamp. When hard drives got to 1GB capacity we thought "What the hell are we going to fill all this space with?". Now we're miffed if we don't have at least 500GB.

Whether it's music, video, photos or whatever, there's a constant evolution of formats; a cunning ploy by manufacturers to ensure that every few years you'll be coerced into buying yet another piece of over-complicated electronic gubbins you never knew you needed that comes with an inch-thick user manual written by a dyslexic baboon.

"Guess I'll have to buy the White Album again"

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Snap snap grin grin wink wink, say no more.

These days we're all taking photos left right and centre. Since digital photography took off and we no longer had to worry about processing costs or the capacity limitations of a 24 exposure film roll we've become a nation of prolific snappers.
But what becomes of all these pictures?
A great many get deleted straight away of course, either because they're crap or to make room on the memory card, but what of the rest?
If we discount professional photographers we're left with two or three distinct groups of individuals with their particular photographic tendencies.

There's the keen amateur photographer who aspires to be able to take fantastic pictures like the professionals, but doesn't have all the seriously expensive gear and a studio to make it happen. This is a generalisation of course, because some so-called professionals leave a lot to be desired and some amateurs manage to achieve fabulous results with modest equipment. With an understanding of aspects of photography such as aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, lighting and composition, a keen amateur will be well placed to take professional quality pictures that they can be proud of.

At the other end of the spectrum we find the 'Happy Snapper'. We all know someone like this, don't we? Usually distinguishable by the mobile phone in the hand being pointed at the least interesting subjects like a drunken friend pulling a silly face. The resulting images will most likely find their way on to a social networking website (read my little tirade on this subject here if you haven't already) for the consumption of other like-minded individuals. These pictures tend to lack any kind of thought towards composition, with the Happy Snapper in question too intent on 'capturing the moment' to worry about whether you'll be able to tell what the picture is actually of.

Not everyone falls into these categories and the vast majority probably own a reasonable compact camera that gets taken out to the odd wedding or holiday, and they take a little time to make sure the picture they take is one that they'll enjoy looking at and that can be shared with others without embarrassment at their own photographic inadequacy.

Whoever takes the pictures, and regardless of their artistic merit, the question is about what happens after they've been taken.
There's an astounding array of viewing methods for digital photographs from the home PC, through digital photo frames to a slideshow on a TV from a USB memory stick. But a lot of people still enjoy having a collection of physical photographs in an album that they can just leaf through when they fancy it. Not a bad idea as most people's attitude to electronic backups is lax in the extreme.
Back in the days of film cameras (yes I know many enthusiasts still prefer film to digital and I do understand the appeal) photo albums were the only choice apart from the odd individual who liked to have slides so they could bore unsuspecting visitors rigid with a slideshow of their latest holiday pictures.
People gained collections of albums that would take up huge amounts of bookshelf space, but rarely would the average person ever take them out to have a look through.

One of the benefits of digital photography is our increased ability to be selective about our photos. We don't mind hitting the delete button on a crappy image, whereas back in the days when we all had film cameras things were a little different. It might have taken a couple of months to fill up a roll of film, by which time we'd have forgotten what we'd taken pictures of. We'd send the film off for processing, wait in anticipation for the photos to arrive, and then been disappointed when less than half of them turned out to be any good. But, hands up - who still couldn't bring themselves to throw away the crap ones and still shoved them in the album with the rest? That's just it, it was harder to part with rubbish photos because of all the arse-ache you'd gone through to get them.
The other evening we went through a big box full of photos from the last thirty years or so, and despite having had a major cull a couple of years back, the amount of useless pictures was ridiculous. Some were so faded or blurry, anyone who didn't know would have trouble working out what they were of. The worst offenders were the ones taken on 110 or 126 format film - anyone under 40 probably doesn't remember these which were at the distinctly budget end of the camera market along with the best-forgotten 'disc' format which as I recall only held about 15 piss-poor quality pictures. And let's not forget the Polaroid - for many years the best friend of broad-minded couples everywhere who have no doubt been thankful no end for the digital camera revolution, know what I mean nudge nudge...

Regardless of any inconvenience factors though, most people will still enjoy having some of their photos printed. There's something far more satisfying about an actual photograph you can hold in your hand, in the same way that it's always nicer to have a CD than a download from iTunes.
In 1982, 'A Flock Of Seagulls' sang "If I had a photograph of you, something to remind me". Chances are, they did have one, but it was probably blurry, poorly lit, and stuffed in an overcrowded album and forgotten about, along with the rest of the pictures that should have been binned.

Kodak Disc. Seriously - what were they thinking?

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Exorcism of the useless

After a bit of a false start earlier in the year, plans are afoot yet again to move house, and this time we're determined to not throw in the towel and give up on the idea because it's frankly too daunting a process to have to go through. If only buying a house was as simple as buying a car. You could browse, make a few calls, view the property, get the bank to transfer the funds and send off the log book. Easy.
But no, the whole thing is tied up with estate agents, solicitors, and any number of bastards who want to make their bit out of your confusion and distress, while making the entire process take far longer than it really should. And because the whole procedure is such an arse-ache too few people want to move house to allow you a decent choice of purchase. You'll never find the perfect house at the right price because someone else lives there and they don't want the aggro of moving.
Consequently we're potentially faced with a long wait for a buyer, and then another long wait to find somewhere we want to live and can afford to buy. Fabulous....

On the up side however, this is the perfect opportunity to have a damn good clear out of all the accumulated crap of the last ten years. Now theoretically there shouldn't be too much of this as I generally work on a five year rule. If it hasn't been used or looked at for five years, it goes.
There are always things that manage to slip through the net though. Things tucked away in drawers that rarely get opened, things that hide in plain sight (just spotted the lava lamp that sits in the corner and NEVER get's switched on), and of course there are those objects that we use frequently even though we hate them but we never get around to replacing with something decent.
No room in the house is this more common than the kitchen. Now I'm happy to say that I've never fallen foul of the dreaded 'Betterware' catalogue with it's thousand and one solutions to problems you never knew you had, although the wife did once and quickly discovered that although the amazing rotary vegetable chopping device failed to revolutionize her life, it did revolutionize the speed at which a brand new product can find it's way into the bin.
Unfortunately, I still end up with crap that doesn't work as it should but I never get around to replacing because as soon as I've tried using the thing, got frustrated with it and shouted at it in the vain hope that that might make it cooperate, it gets washed, dried and put away until the next time I decide to torment myself with it.
The most obvious item that springs to mind here is the garlic press. First there was one that squashed half of the garlic up the side of the plunger so it was wasteful and also unbelievably hard to clean. Then one day I found one that had a removable holey bit that made it easy to clean, but that one had a habit of chucking half-crushed chunks of garlic out the side. The current one is very efficient, but takes half an hour's prodding with a pointy knife to coax all the little bits out when you've finished with it.
I've now given up and just use a sharp knife to finely chop the garlic instead, but I still haven't thrown out the press because you just never know....
Then we have the set of pastry cutters whose sole purpose is to jam the drawer shut whenever I try to open it, and haven't been used since I last made scones about a year ago. Why don't I chuck them out?
Then there's the spaghetti spoon which is about as much use as tits on a fish, and yet every set of kitchen utensils seems to come with one. And let's not forget the enormous collection of plastic containers in a special selection of sizes that prevent them being able to fit inside each other properly, ensuring that they take up the maximum space in the cupboard and fall on your head every time you dare to open the door.
There's also the collection of random crockery which is fine when it's just you, but on those rare occasions when someone comes over for dinner and you don't have enough plates of the same style for everyone it does become faintly embarrassing even though you know it doesn't really matter.

The useless stuff is everywhere, including the conservatory (already there when we moved in) which only stays put because I can't be bothered to take it down and build a nice patio area instead. Why the hell are conservatories so popular? They're too hot in summer, too cold in winter, and on the days when you are able to make use of them, they're full of stupid hoverflies headbutting the roof because they're too stupid to fly out the way they came in. Conservatories are bought by people who want more indoor space but can't afford a proper brick-built extension or to move to a bigger house.
Which brings me back to the latest development of putting the house on the market which I know will involve increasing the mortgage a bit, but that's a small price to pay if we can get away from all the bastard pigeons with their persistent brainless cooing because I can't shoot them all however much I try, and it would be nice if we can find somewhere that isn't built on a giant ant farm.