Sunday, 23 February 2014

Cutting class for a Pot Noodle

I may be mistaken, but I've always thought that my family was brought up by parents who were basically working class with middle class aspirations. Determined not to be part of the lowest social groups, but to do better for ourselves even if the financial situation wasn't up to it.
A few weeks ago I read an article about the class system in Britain. It basically said that historically a persons social class was dictated pretty much by their wealth, but now it's more about ones attitudes and the way we choose to live our lives - consequently the divisions have become decidedly indistinct.
This makes it harder to define oneself in terms of class, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.
For my own part, if asked, I would probably pigeon hole myself as lower-middle-class. I have middle class attitudes but lack the funding for the big detached house and the new Mercedes.
But it really isn't as simple as that, and here's a few reasons why.

Yesterday I bought a couple of clothing items from Peacocks in Ely, and upon leaving the shop my overwhelming concern was that nobody should see the shop name on the bag because I was worried that any number of complete strangers might see that I'd shopped there rather than somewhere a bit more upmarket.
It's the same thing with supermarkets - as though there's a kind of hierarchy and you only feel comfortable using the ones at your own perceived social level. Indeed, as grocery shopping is without doubt one of the most awful tasks that has to be endured, it's surprising that as yet nobody has rewritten Dante's Inferno with each circle of hell assigned to a particular supermarket.
I suppose somewhere like Harrods would be pretty near the top, but as we descended through Waitrose, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Asda etc, where would we end up? I suspect it would be a tie between Iceland and Netto, because they're both places I've been in the past and now refuse to go in no matter what. I worry that if I went in I might come out wearing a baggy tracksuit, chain smoking cheap cigarettes, and swearing loudly and indiscriminately whilst scraping away frantically at a lottery scratchcard.
The supermarket may be chosen on the basis of where you feel comfortable, but that still leaves the question of which products find their way into the trolley. Most of the time I don't give it much thought beyond a subtle combination of value for money and how much I like a particular brand. Occasionally there's something that goes beyond that. If Pot Noodles are on offer, I might put a couple in the trolley because despite being full of rubbish I have to admit I do enjoy one as a snack once in a while. The trouble then is finding other things to pile on top of them so that the casual observer won't spot them in my trolley peeking out between the Chablis and the oyster mushrooms.
I have no idea why I think this way in these situations, as most of the time I believe that I feel comfortable just being who I am and not really caring what others think, but on reflection I wonder if I'm just lying to myself.
It's entirely possible that the worst aspect of having a broken leg was being out in public wearing baggy tracksuit bottoms because they were the only thing that would go over the leg brace. Oh, the shame and embarrassment... I know I spend most of my life living in jeans and T-shirt but there are limits.
I have this idea that if I was to wear whatever clothes I wanted, I'd be going around in a long black leather coat, white laced front shirt, black trousers and a pair of New Rock boots. Very much along the lines of the average 90's Goth I suppose, but however much I tell myself how cool it would be to look that way, there's that nagging little voice at the back of my head telling me "Don't be daft - you're a middle aged bloke with no hair, you'd look a total tit and people will point and laugh", and it's probably true. If I really didn't care what people thought I'd do it anyway, but in reality I'm just a boring old conformist.
Maybe when I retire I'll move to Whitby (the goth capital of England) and finally take my intended place as the eccentric old bloke who really DOESN'T care what others think any more. A walking blend of Gothic culture and Victor Meldrew.

New Rock M1471. One day.....

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Dazed and confused (and slightly squiffy)

It has been an odd day in the scheme of things, what with a male student shaving his legs in the lab (allegedly in the name of science) and his female counterpart on an urgent mission to acquire a large tub of Vaseline. Sometimes you're better off not asking...
With the knee pain resulting from working longer hours now somewhat dulled by a combination of pain killers, anti-inflamatories and a rather pleasant 2009 Rioja (an inadvisable mixture perhaps, but fuck it...) I'm now sitting here with a post-hot-bath glow of serenity contemplating my apparent inability to learn new things, and maybe it's thanks to the drugs and alcohol that I'm able to try and assemble my rampaging thoughts into some sort of coherent internal dialogue.
You see, today we took delivery of a brand new CNC milling machine. About thirty grand's worth of up-to-date manufacturing hardware in a workshop normally populated with pre-war vintage cast-offs from places that saw fit to replace it decades earlier.
Compared to the old knackered mill which suffered terribly from worn out bedways and bearings, this new machine is a gleaming testament to the advances made since Noah took up boat building.
It's a modern marvel of precision engineering with computerised control, pneumatic tool changer, and all sorts of up-to-date bells and whistles and it scares the shit out of me.
It's weird. The old manual one was a cantankerous old bastard that needed an experienced hand to ensure that the workpiece wasn't turned from a close-tolerance component to a piece of mangled scrap metal, but in a strange way I'm going to miss it. I knew it, understood its wayward tendencies and was able to tame it to produce decent results.
The new one is a mystical combination of modern engineering, electronic wizardry and black magic. I don't understand it and I have an odd habit of convincing myself that if I don't understand something, I never will. My colleague's explanations of how easy these things are to operate do little to temper my fears, and I know that until it has been commissioned, we've had the training course, and I get my hands on it and have a go, I'll be eyeing it with the sort of suspicion usually reserved for an abandoned package at an airport.
I'm getting worse about this kind of thing the older I get. I can make a smartphone do what I need it to do, but the cordless phone at home is as mystical to me as calculus. If I can't pick up something and just use it intuitively without having to resort to sitting with a manual, going through it step by step to achieve the simplest operation then my first reaction is to give up and run away.
This is a really difficult situation to come to terms with and find a solution to.
Since school I've had no problem at all reading and producing engineering drawings to international standards, but computer-aided-design (CAD) software just doesn't want to happen for me. I'm generally able to pick and poke my way around a new piece of software and eventually make it do what I want. However, I've yet to be able to achieve anything at all with any design software beyond Google Sketchup.
I think I'm beginning to understand my father's aversion to technology. When I have to read my car's owners manual to figure out how to set the clock, I know something's amiss. When I have a pang of regret about ditching my turntable and all my vinyl records years ago, I begin to worry. And when the prospect of learning how to use a new machine tool strikes me with with a similar level of fear to looking down the wrong end of a shotgun, it makes me realise it's time to give myself a damn good shake and stop being such an irrational wimp.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The roads have been carpet bombed - time for a 4x4?

We've all been noticing the progressive degradation of the country's roads over the past few years, and there's no sign of it getting any better. Everywhere you go the road surface is breaking up, leaving potholes that get completely ignored until someone sues the local council for damage to their vehicle, at which point a couple of men in hi-viz jackets will come along and pour a bit of tar into the offending crater in a half-arsed attempt at a repair. Absolutely useless of course, but with the government cutting the funding for road repairs every year it's not entirely surprising.
A classic example I see every day on the way home from work is on the exit of a certain roundabout on the outskirts of Cambridge which really does look as though the RAF have carried out a carpet-bombing mission on it. Why they'd do such a thing is a mystery - it's not exactly Port Stanley airfield after all, but it's just one of many areas that have suffered from the lamentable lack of maintenance we're seeing all across the road network.
If things don't improve we may see a reversal of the trend of equipping cars with enormous alloy wheels with tyres that resemble a thin rubbery veneer. They may be stylish and give certain handling improvements, but they're seriously detrimental to ride comfort and all too easy to damage on one of the millions of the UK's potholes.
By way of clawing back a bit of the fun I've previously had with motorcycles, I've been giving consideration to treating myself to some sort of hot hatch. The kind of pocket-rocket that puts a silly grin on your face, such as a Polo GTi or a Fiat 500 Abarth. But is that really such a good idea?
As appealing as they may be, I suspect that they may be a bit fragile for roads that increasingly resemble third world dirt tracks. This brings me to the rather worrying conclusion that the most sensible vehicle to be driving in the future is an SUV.
Now these cumbersome road-going leviathans have always been something I've had issues with. There's the whole mummy-wagon thing of course, with so many of them being inconsiderately driven and badly parked by stereotypical bottle-blonde five foot tall women. Or macho alpha-males who may or may not be compensating for a very small penis, especially if their ride of choice is one of those ridiculous Dodge Rams. Then there's the issue of fuel consumption. It's all very well having a commanding view of the road and enough physical presence to intimidate drivers of small cars by sitting six inches off their back bumper at sixty miles an hour, but these small-minded bragging rights disappear when it costs over a hundred quid whenever you have to stop for fuel.
Curiosity got the better of me the other day though, and a quick trawl through a few of the manufacturers websites revealed a new breed of SUV. Surprisingly, there are a number of them out there that buck the established trends by actually being economical. The new Toyota RAV4, Honda CRV, and even the Range Rover Evoque are available with diesel engines that return an average of almost 60mpg. If they're also available with compliant tyres and suspension rather than the usual hard setup used to stop them falling over at the slightest whiff of a bend, then this may truly be the way forward. A vehicle with soft suspension, sensible tyre sidewall height, good ground clearance and city car economy. What's needed is for Land Rover to put their nice 150bhp diesel from the Evoque into a Defender 90.With the possible exception of a hovercraft, this sort of vehicle is pretty much the only option for our roads now, unless the government decide to stop being so damn tight-fisted and use some money to fix the roads properly.

Don't laugh. In 10 years time we'll all be driving something like this.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Oh, the shame....

Occasionally we all do things that go against our better judgement. We set certain standards for ourselves and strive to live up to them to the best of our ability but once in a while, despite our best efforts, we falter.
What I did today makes me feel shameful and dirty, as I've violated my own code of ethics and now feel as though all that I believe and hold dear has been shat on from a great height.
It pains me to admit here and now that today I gave in to pressure from the other members of the household and installed a TV aerial and paid up for a TV license.
I'm not sure if I'm ever going to be able to look at myself in the mirror again and be in the least bit happy with what I see because I caved in on something and all I'll ever see looking back at me is someone who didn't stand up for their beliefs.
In the same way that Christians believed that rock and roll was the work of the devil, I still firmly believe that advertising comes from the very same source, and nowhere else is it so prevalent than in the land of television. The last year or more with no broadcast TV and only watching streaming programmes and DVDs has been absolute bliss for me. It's like being able to buy an electrical product without being asked if you want to buy an extended warranty. It's like a Big Mac without a pickle. Or like riding a motorcycle without ending up in hospital with an exploded knee, which by the way has now healed completely leaving me with just the physiotherapy to deal with. No more crutches, but still in need of a little support from a walking stick which is sort of OK as it gives a little bit of 'House MD' cool.
As for the TV thing, I'm at least thankful that nobody in the house is in the least bit interested in soap operas or reality TV shows. It's hard enough to avoid looking at a TV even when it's showing something you're not interested in, so the idea of actually giving a toss about who's being voted off the latest programme featuring forgotten celebrities in a last ditch attempt at media exposure before sinking in the eternal pit of UK Gold forevermore, leaves me with shivers running down my spine.
This is a point that is beautifully demonstrated by the phenomenon of putting TVs in pubs. Now let's get this straight once and for all. A television does not belong in pub. A pub is a place to sit with friends putting the world to rights over numerous beers. I believe it's known as conversation, which is an ancient art form that is being lost to the modern world, like suppressing farts whilst in company. There is nothing quite as effective at killing a conversation as a mute television showing a wildlife documentary or sports event. We have TVs at home, and we can even watch stuff on our phones so why the hell does the last retreat of man need one stuck on the wall interfering with the essential process of resolving important issues such as world debt, immigration, and who can drink the most pints before needing a piss.
My only conclusion is that pub landlords figure that customers will spend more if they're not having to stop drinking in order to enthusiastically inform their peers why a Ferrari is better than a Porsche even though they haven't ever driven either of them.
Television is evil and the world would be a better place if nobody was being brainwashed by the constant stream of mental pollution it throws at you.
Although having said that it does appear that the Superbowl is on tomorrow night.....