Wednesday, 30 November 2016

University of life

As Michaelmas term draws to an end, and I begin to feel a sense of relief that the worst bit of the academic year is behind me, I look around at the stupids and realise that although the faces and names change from year to year, the characters are always the same.
I've been doing this job for over twenty years now and seen all sorts from 'normal' everyday people, through shy retiring types too afraid to speak up or look you in the eye, to arrogant loud-mouthed wankers whose very presence puts me on edge and makes me start looking around the workshop to see which tools would make the most effective weapons.

My direct involvement with most is fleeting, but it's surprising how quickly you can form a first impression that turns out to be right on the money.
I have nothing to do with first or second year students beyond trying to avoid moving around the department between lectures when there's the risk of being caught up in a tide of smelly bodies clutching rucksacks and cycle helmets, all talking at once while staring at their phones.
Those who I have more to do with are in the third year of their bachelors degree, when they carry out a series of lab experiments as part of their coursework.
At this point I start to notice those that stand out - the late and disorganised, the lame excuse inventors, the keen but misguided, those who don't really want to be here but also don't know what else to do with their lives, and of course the obligatory in-your-face fuckwit. Every year has one.

As soon as the year's arrogant tosser has been identified, he's a marked man (not had a female pain-in-the-arse yet), and the whole team keeps a careful eye on him.
We try our best to be professional and treat everyone the same, but as with life in general, you tend to treat others the way they treat you. So when some 21-year-old upstart struts in and starts talking to you like you're something nasty they've found stuck to the sole of their shoe, it should come as no surprise when their attitude comes back to haunt them.

Every year we have a few students doing projects for their Masters degree, by which time most of the unpleasant troublemakers have been carefully weeded out to avoid the risk of getting blood up the wall. The occasional one slips through but thankfully it's a rarity, with most of them being the best that the previous year had to offer. There's still the odd one who doesn't know their arse from their elbow, but we do our best to guide them through the process.
By the time we get to those doing their PhD, we generally find ourselves dealing with pretty good people. Most are hard working, determined individuals who quickly achieve a rapport with the technicians.
Some need a bit of firm house-training in terms of their understanding of what is involved in making things; the physical processes and the time they take. Most things they need are prototypes that need to be designed and built from scratch, and as the average engineering student doesn't even know which end of a hammer to hold, it can all come as a bit of a shock to them.
By the time they've done their three year stint and been 'doctored', the majority leave here with a good job in industry. Over the years I've seen them go on to research jobs with companies including Rolls Royce, Lockheed Martin, and Renault and Ferrari F1 teams, and it's a good feeling to know that I've been a part of enabling them to achieve that.
I've also witnessed them develop as people and got to know them reasonably well, so by the time they leave I'm sorry to see them go.

Of course there have been one or two that it was a relief to see the back of, but it's impossible to avoid every over-confident dickhead with all the social skills of a honey badger on crack.
If it was, the world would be a better place.
It would also be a better place if members of the 'Cambridge University Engineering Society' refrained from wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the phrase 'Trust me, I'm an engineer'.
No you're not, you're just good at maths.

Schlieren image of a Mach 1.5 shockwave
taken during the 3rd year teaching lab.


Sunday, 27 November 2016

Bright light, dark room

After last weekend's disastrous trip into Cambridge we vowed never to do it again unless we absolutely have to.
It's just not us. We derive no pleasure whatsoever from battling crowds of people to wander aimlessly around shops that have nothing of interest to offer us.
The wife pointed out that we'd be better off killing time by going off some place where I could take my camera and try to get some good photos.
I enjoy photography immensely but recently it seems to have taken a back seat, so perhaps this wasn't such a bad idea.

Yesterday we needed to go to Ely early, and having awoken to a world under a blanket of fog, I decided to take my camera - fog can produce some quite atmospheric pictures.
As we walked towards the town centre, the sun was just starting to cut through the fog, shooting rays of light around the silhouette of the Cathedral, so while the wife went to get her hair cut, I wandered around taking photos.





When we got home I reviewed what I'd taken, saving the good ones and deleting the rubbish, before uploading a couple of favourites to Instagram.
Having managed to drag himself out of his festering pit of doom with the lure of a cooked breakfast, the boy looked at the pictures I'd taken that morning.
He then shocked me by saying he was considering buying himself a good camera and taking up photography himself. Having been tempted by recent deals, he is after an entry-level Canon DSLR.
This is wonderful news - that he might actually find something more constructive to do with his leisure time than swearing loudly at the Playstation and drinking vodka.
His job is giving him sufficient income to afford such toys, so no problem there, but given the fact that he hasn't yet grasped the basics of shutter speed / aperture / ISO etc, I can see that it will take a fair bit of guidance before he achieves the sort of images he wants.
I'm tempted by an SLR myself, but every time I get close to going for it I get put off by the idea of lugging a bag of bulky gear around with me.
I currently use an Olympus XZ-1 which has served me well for the past few years. It has all the functionality of an SLR apart from the interchangeable lenses, and it fits in a jacket pocket. On the down side, some of that functionality is difficult to access due to a fiddly menu system.
There are a few things I would like to be able to do that only an SLR can achieve, such as a usefully shallow depth of field and use of graduated and polarising filters, so I'm sure I'll make the move to an SLR eventually - it's inevitable.
In the meantime, I'll carry on with what I've got, while doing what I can to encourage my son to pursue his own enthusiasm.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Ooer, missus!

My original intention for this post was to delve into the world of euphemisms, but then I hit a snag.
I couldn't see a way of writing it without it turning into just another list of words and phrases that most of us know already.
We often use euphemisms when we're talking about subjects we might be slightly uncomfortable with, and using alternative words that inject a little humour into the proceedings makes us feel happier and more relaxed.
For example, other than the medical profession and parents trying to do the right thing, few people refer to sexual organs by their correct names because they're such horrible sounding words. For this reason alone we now have more words for vagina than Eskimos have for snow.
So whether it's about 'kicking the bucket', 'driving the porcelain truck', or 'bashing the bishop', we all have our own collection of preferred euphemisms that we use on a regular basis, and for the most part everybody knows what we mean.

An extension of the euphemism which does deserve a bit more discussion is the double entendre.
This is where an ordinary statement can be twisted around in such a way that it acquires a smutty alternative meaning.
For examples of this we need look no further than episodes of 'Bottom' or 'Up Pompeii', or better yet, Viz comic's 'Finbarr Saunders'.



The beauty of these double meanings is that with an appropriately inappropriate mind, even the most innocent statement can be reshaped into something to inspire amusement - usually accompanied by a barely-suppressed snigger or a blatant "ooer!".
Yes, I know it's all very immature and nothing more than schoolboy humour, but provided you don't have your head up your own arse it can be very funny indeed. Much like farts really - some people get all holier-than-thou about them whereas others find them a constant source of hilarity from the cradle to the grave. Including me.
In our house we'll all well practiced in the art of the double entendre, and when the mood strikes it can turn into a sort of competition to deliberately create them and see how long it takes the others to catch on.
The same thing happens at work. Myself and a couple of the other chaps can have each other in fits when we plunge into the murky pool of double meanings.

It's all just a way of injecting a bit of fun into the drudgery of everyday existence, and when you have a strong inclination towards depression like I do, it's important to hang on to the things that amuse you in some way.
I avoid watching the news because it's always about bad shit that's going on in the world, and I'm happier being at home than out in the big wide world where I can be subjected to the levels of aggression and self-interest that pervade society.
Finding entertainment in the little things is what keeps me going, and if they happen to be a bit simplistic then so be it. If I'm out, I like to sit by the window of the coffee shop watching the world go by and passing judgement - "What the hell is she wearing?" or "Jesus, look at the size of that!".
I find fun in farting competitions after a particularly effective dinner, I like to arrange the fruit in the bowl in such a way that a banana and a couple of plums are in pride of place, and I like finding unintentional dirty meanings for things people say.
It's not big, it's not clever, but at least it doesn't hurt anyone.


Sunday, 13 November 2016

I've started so I'll finish

I find cooking one of the most enjoyable things in life, and as long as I'm not being subjected to the restrictions imposed by whatever diet the wife is currently enslaved by, I can spend hours creating something that will be wolfed down in ten minutes flat without feeling like I've wasted my time.
This evening I was allowed the freedom to create my signature lasagne in all its waistline-expanding glory, so I set myself up with the usual things necessary for a session in the kitchen - namely a large glass of red wine (major abstinence fail, but I've resigned myself to it) and the iPod and Bose bluetooth speaker to provide the musical accompaniment.

Having started off with a Madonna compilation to satisfy the eighties urge, I switched to INXS's fantastic 'X' album. Once it started, I was along for the ride. With no loss of enthusiasm and no desire to change to something different until the last track had finished, I lost myself singing along and dancing around the kitchen leaving assorted splodges of ragu and bechamel sauce in my wake.
While everyone has their own particular favourites, that album has to be one of my personal all-time greats.
One of the things I love about it is the fact that it's one of those albums I can listen to from start to finish without getting bored, and that's something that seems to be pretty hard to come by these days.

Back in the days of vinyl records, an artist was restricted to around 45 to 50 minutes within which to fit an album, which meant they had to be fairly picky about the tracks to be included.
As a result, it was generally pretty easy to listen through the whole album without wanting to miss out anything. Okay, there might be one duff track from time to time that spoiled the experience, but on the whole you could put on an album and listen from start to finish with no interruption apart from turning the LP over halfway through.

When CDs came along we were blessed with a far cleaner sound, free from the characteristic hisses and pops associated with vinyl. Purists still argue to this day that vinyl is superior to CD, and they may have a point, although the hardware required to provide that level of reproduction is beyond the pockets of most people.
The CD also gave artists 80 minutes of potential play time, which although useful for compilations, meant that they felt obliged (or the record companies pushed them into doing so) to fill the available space. What this meant was that instead of putting out an album with seven or eight great tracks, they were padding it out with sub-standard stuff just so they had the requisite twelve to fifteen tracks.
What this means is that the most important function that CD players provided us with over and above turntables became the 'forward skip' button.
Now, instead of sitting down with your eyes closed and immersing yourself in an album for three quarters of an hour, you sit with your thumb hovering over the remote, poised to jump past the next crappy infill track.

Listening to that INXS album got me thinking. How many albums can you truly sit through from start to finish and enjoy every single track without skipping a single one?
And how many of those were released since the late eighties when CDs were becoming the dominant format?
Apart from the album mentioned above, such albums in my own collection include the following:

Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon
Led Zeppelin - Houses of the Holy
Supertramp - Breakfast in America
Marillion - Misplaced Childhood
Enigma - MCMXC AD
Dire Straits - Love Over Gold
Depeche Mode - Violator
Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
U2 - The Joshua Tree
Roxy Music - Avalon
Michael Jackson - Thriller

While some of these were released since the rise of the CD, the rest come from the days when vinyl was king.
I also have many albums that came out before the CD, but have been re-released with 'bonus extra tracks', which without fail roughly translates as 'stuff that was too crappy to make it on to any album, but we can't resist filling that bit of empty space on the disc'.
These include Ultravox's 'Vienna' and 'The Pleasure Principle' by Gary Numan.
It's hardly surprising then, that younger generations have grown up without the pleasure of listening to a whole album to the exclusion of all other distractions.
They're living in a world where music has become nothing more than aural wallpaper; a disposable commodity that's here today and gone tomorrow, or as soon as something newer and just as mundane and uninspiring arrives on Spotify.
That's not to say that good music is no longer being made - it's just harder to find, and harder still to find an entire album you like rather than just picking out a couple of decent tracks and ignoring the rest.