The UK EU referendum debacle …

I don’t consider myself political. I don’t like clubs as I have  blogged before, and no clubs are more abhorrent to me than political parties.  I admire those that proudly wear their politics on their sleeve, but I personally struggle to understand how anyone could ever constrain all their thoughts and beliefs to the inside of a blue or red box of thinking and ideology.

I have beliefs. I believe passionately in the NHS and the welfare state, I want those unable to help themselves to be supported by a caring society, and I support controlled immigration. I also believe in incentivising companies to establish themselves in the UK to bolster our workforce, and I believe in meritocracy. However I know by saying all those things that doesn’t place me in either a blue, yellow or red box, for all parties will claim all these beliefs too.  Even UKIP will claim controlled immigration, whilst Labour will claim to be the party of business and finance and the Tories the protectors (and creators) of the NHS. In summary, everyone is in favour of everything nice and against everything nasty.

And so in an attempt to try and pin ones colours to any mast at election or referendum time, one has to dig deeper into the subtle, twisty-turny definitions and sub-texts, and more often than not you come out of that process more confused than ever before.

And all this is perfectly exemplified by the current EU Referendum here in the UK.

Let me lay out my beliefs. I am a passionate Europhile. My family and I have been immigrants in Germany (’95-’97) and although not the EU, we were also immigrants in USA (’98-’00), so I strongly support immigration too.  Those two family adventures where we lived overseas in other cultures are possibly the richest, fondest and most positive experiences of my life. My wife and I travel to continental Europe whenever time and money permits because we love to eat, drink and walk through the streets of our continental neighbours, absorbing their culture and history and always leaving feeling richer as a result.

Yet I am also deeply, deeply frustrated by the EU. It feels like a victim of its own success. In trying to serve 28 masters it serves none. It feels horrendously complex, probably because it has to be with 28 masters where compromise means no-one gets what they want. And it appears to be so overly bureaucratic as to be almost stagnant. I don’t understand who elects these people, I don’t know who these people are and I couldn’t name any of them either (shame on me). What I do see are largely facile rulings and decisions – who can call their cheese ‘Cheddar’, Cadbury’s chocolate can’t be called chocolate, bananas that are too curved, bread toasters to be banned, children under 8 not allowed to blow up balloons, etc. And then we have the Common Agricultural Policy subsidising farmers to produce goods nobody wants or needs.

And so here I am, I want to be in Europe, I want to be part of Europe, but I am deeply frustrated by the EU. Do we stay and fight for change from within? Haven’t we been trying to do that since the inception of the common market, and if anything things seem to be getting worse? Or do we Brexit and start afresh doing everything ourselves? At least we would then have accountability, we would have decisions made by people we can vote in or out. But what about rulings that don’t respect borders – what about terrorism? air pollution? environmental issues? These issues clearly don’t respect our nationalistic borders, and yet impact us significantly and surely benefit best from common purpose and cross European debate? And if we leave what model should we adopt? The Norwegian model? the Swiss model? Canadian model? No-one seems to know and the Brexit strategy does feel rather uncertain.

And the more one reads, the more confused one gets.  The hyperbole, misdirection and spurious lies from both sides is horrendous and completely unhelpful. Claims that holidays will cost £250 more if we Brexit are nonsense, as are claims from the Brexit side that we will sign trade deals with 28 countries in a matter of months. And everyday the claims and counter claims become ever more insidious and ridiculous. Surely they see this don’t they? So is that their intent? To aim to confuse, to obfuscate the truth through a smokescreen of lies and deception?

Once again I find myself struggling to join any club, staring balefully through the EU debating playground railings, seeing others joyously pinning their rosettes to their EU referendum jackets.

I feel slightly envious, yet the harder I try, the more I listen, the more I read, the more I search and research, the more confused I become.

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What do you do?

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29 years ago today on 1st September 1986, I entered The Angel Centre – 403 St John Street, Islington, London – and nervously made my way to the 4th floor to start my first ever full-time job at British Telecom.  My boss wasn’t there, he was in a meeting, but on my desk was a hard-backed book describing the ‘fundamentals of digital data transmission’, and so I sat down, opened the book and started reading about Nyquist sampling, Pulse Code Modulation, Frequency Shift Keying and other such alien concepts (many of which I never really got to grips with).  A few people introduced themselves and someone offered me my first ever cup of coffee. I was aged 21 and unbeknownst to me I was on the road to becoming a “network planner”, a job description that would broadly define me for a further 21 years.

In 2007 I embarked on a different career track in a different sector of industry, this time working in the field of “mobile contactless payments”, an area I still work in to this day.

Andy the ‘network planner’ was pretty much the same person as Andy the ‘guy that works in mobile contactless payments’. Neither job tells anyone anything whatsoever about me – my fears, desires, passions, guilty pleasures, weaknesses, regrets, aspirations – all the things that actually define me as a unique individual.

And yet, look at the world we live in and what a strange model we have adopted.  Quite often, when people meet us for the first time, in a vain attempt to get to know us, they often ask: “What do you do?” to which most of us automatically reply with a brief description of our job.  We bizarrely allow our occupation to define us above and beyond everything else.

“What do you do?”
“I’m an engineer/accountant/librarian/chemist”

Imagine how life would be different, and more meaningful, if we stripped away these western, corporate focussed conventions and instead talked about us?

“Tell me about you?”
“I like nothing more than being outside in nature – gardening, hiking, running. I like the smell after it’s rained heavily and I love watching thunderstorms play out. I enjoy travelling overseas and sampling local foods and wines. I find words and language fascinating and I read as often as I can. I also like the smell of new-born baby’s heads”.

isn’t that more interesting and revealing than saying you work in contactless payments? Such human beliefs and values are neither right, nor wrong, yet they help us see the individual instead of the suit he/she is wearing. Telling me you’re an accountant tells me nothing about you, only about your career choice (probably made many years ago). For many people, a job is just that, something that enables them to pay the bills and further enable them to do the things they REALLY love. For such people, work enables life, and hence work is everything but life itself.

Two librarians at a party – one likes naked mud wrestling, drinking wine and bungee jumping whilst the other likes needlework, morris dancing and re-enacting military battles. Meeting these two librarians and discovering this information is extremely helpful and interesting, and I am sure most of us would naturally gravitate more towards the one who interests us most. We can actually start to make genuine, informed choices about people and who we would like to engage with – and surely that’s to everyones benefit, including both librarians, if we can all more readily identify mutual points of interest and avoid that dreaded small talk which just further exposes how very little we have in common?

Deep down, what we all want to know about others is what makes them ‘them’ – what makes their heart skip a beat, what makes them jump out of bed in a morning, what dreams they might dream at night, what makes them laugh, what makes them cry – human attributes that paint an accurate picture of the person and not their business ‘facade’.

Telling me you got a 2:1 at Warwick University in Stochastic Sales Development before going on to do an MBA and buying a 4×4 Range Rover just tells me you’re an ambitious status seeking bore, which is all rather tiresome, mundane and pointless, unless of course you are also an ambitious status seeking bore seeking a like minded individual.

Of course there is a time and a place for everything and a party isn’t quite the same as a corporate trade show.  At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona my boss would certainly want me to engage with prospects by talking about mobile contactless payments rather than my penchant for eating cheesy wotsits in the bath with a glass of wine.  Come to think of it my wife might also prefer me to talk about mobile contactless payments at a dinner party with friends too, but hopefully you get my point – most of us have two parts to our life and sometimes we mix them, often to the detriment of ourselves and everyone around us.

My cheesy wotsit fetish isn’t going to close the Barcelona deal, and my views on the pro’s and cons of secure element vs cloud based mobile payments isn’t going to win me many friends at the weekend dinner party, but perhaps there is a middle ground to be sought.

As with all my blogs I have drifted completely from my original intent and ended up in a place with little/no conclusion, but there you have it, that’s me, a cheesy wotsit loving wine drinker celebrating his 29th work birthday, cheers!

Wotsits_infestation

Ch-ch-ch-changes …

I would argue that the most common, most fundamental attribute that underpins life, and society as a whole, is change. George Bernard Shaw said many years ago that “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”.  Charles Darwin is quoted as saying “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change”, whereas Ghandi (who always seems to have a quote up his raggedy sleeve) said “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”.

These are all very inspirational quotes, designed to fire us up, to spur us on. Such quotes are emblazoned on t-shirts, made into posters, and proudly displayed behind glass frames on the walls of boardrooms of power-hungry CEOs. Even schools and universities use such quotes to inspire students. Life coaches build their businesses around them, and many of us reach for Google in times of need, to find a nourishing quote upon which to feed ourselves, to give us strength whenever we’re feeling weak or vulnerable.

All of which suggests change is good, and embracing change is best of all. But what about those in society who are frightened by change? To some, change paralyses and stifles, and rather than thriving they in fact withdraw. Such people see danger in change, not opportunity. For them, change means uncertainty, and with uncertainty comes fear and foreboding. There are no stylised, inspirational quotes for such people.  You won’t find:
“Change is shit, run away from it”, Socrates – adorning any clothing or hung in any hallway.
“Change sucks, turn your back”, Stephen R Covey” – I don’t think so.
“Resist change! Stay in thy bed!”, Pontius Pilot, Psalm 16 verses 3-4 – hardly.

Regardless of age, gender or social standing, the times they are-a-changing. Political uncertainty, religion, economics, politics, climate change, overpopulation, technology – the reasons are many fold and omnipresent, and whatever life we choose for ourselves, change is difficult to escape.

For Embracers, this is all exciting, this is what makes life worth living. Not knowing what’s around the corner makes such people feel edgy, adrenaline fuelled. They seem to feed on life’s natural uncertainty and thrive, growing stronger, often becoming leaders themselves, further driving through and effecting even more change.

For others, Escapers, they find it all rather daunting and spend much of their time hiding, withdrawing and moving as far away from change as is humanly possible. Unfortunately, change is endemic and stitched into the very fabric of our society, and so whilst hiding and running may bring temporary relief, it usually catches up with us eventually.

Like sexual preference, your default state and tolerance to change, the thing which makes you either an Embracer or an Escaper is, I would argue, in-built, it’s not something you can alter.  As an Escaper, you can work hard at being more Embracing, but you’re always fighting from the position of being an Escaper.  You can wear the t-shirt, rehearse the quotes in a mirror, even preach them from a pedestal, but deep down, you are what you are, facing a constant, daily battle fighting against what comes naturally to you.

And if you’re a natural Embracer? Just be nice and try and find time in your dynamic, ever so busy, thrusting lives to think about those less fortunate.

The con that is ‘Infinity’

The “infinite monkey theorem” states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard  for an infinite amount of time will almost certainly write the complete works of William Shakespeare.

It will never happen

What utter rubbish.  Let’s put aside for one moment the facts that the monkey won’t be able to insert the paper, remember to hit carriage return, sit still, not crap on the keyboard, etc, etc.  Let’s assume the monkey is well behaved, let’s further assume someone takes care of adding paper when needed, feeding the monkey … let’s assume all the flaws in this ill thought out theorem are taken care of and let’s assume we have a perfectly behaved monkey who lives forever, who constantly types keys at random to a perfectly maintained typewriter, who never needs a poo … and this theorem is still rubbish.  Even if someone hit carriage return at the end of each line (which is simplifying the problem for the monkey immensely).

If there are 50 keys on a typewriter, the probability of a monkey typing a Shakespearean word like “Forsooth” is 1.024E-17 = 0.000000000000000001024 which is really, really tiny. Don’t forget they need spaces either side of the word too. You can imagine the probability of a monkey writing a full sentence of say 150 characters and the probability plummets to 1.4272E-255 which is:

0.0000 … (insert 247 more zeros)… 00014272

To write a page of 20 such sentences and the probability becomes, well, zero.  And so to write a complete novel, and then write several more books and poems and plays is so ridiculous it doesn’t bear analysing.

Mathematician: “But wait a minute – over an infinite period of time it might happen”
Me: “No it won’t.”

Assume Hamlet is 400 pages long and imagine if a monkey actually wrote the first 399 pages, and then got to the last paragraph of page 400, finally reaching the last sentence, and then the last 7 letter word and there would still be a 99.99999999999999999998976% probability of screwing the whole thing up.  In other words it will inevitably fail, even then.  Of course it won’t ever get that close.

It’s lazy science, it’s a cop out.  By adding “over an infinite amount of time” you can suggest anything and hide behind the word infinite, when in fact infinity doesn’t exist, it’s just a concept that’s been introduced to put bounds on something we don’t really understand.

“Tomorrow, 17 cheerleaders from Boise, Idaho will knock at my door and take me out dancing”.

It’s not very likely, in fact it almost certainly won’t happen.  No, it won’t ever happen, never mind tomorrow.  But hang on a minute …

Idiot Mathematician: “Over an infinite period of time 17 cheerleaders from Boise, Idaho will knock on your door and take you out dancing”
Me: “Idiot”

I bet 16 cheerleaders won’t even turn up.  Not tomorrow. Not ever.

#mathematiciansaremorons

Isn’t it ironic …

As I get older, I find it even more frustrating that the precious, and increasingly scarce time I have left on this planet, is taken up being a corporate drone for someone else.

When you break it down to basics, being an employee is basically trading your free time for money.  Here’s how it works – I give you my time 9-5, five days a week, and in return you pay for my house, utility bills and a few treats, deal?  That’s 21.9% of your life incidentally (taking holidays into account).

Except it’s not quite that simple.  I don’t know many people that only work 40 hours a week. Most people in my industry work at least 8-6 (and many work more, but let’s be conservative here), and you can probably add 2 hrs a day commuting to/from work (1hr each way). For many that’s much higher and for some much lower, but let’s stick with the average here again. We are now up to 32.9%.

And if, like me, you worry about work, plan for work, check emails in the evening, send things over the weekend in readiness for the following week etc, let’s assume 1 additional hour a day given over to work and we find ourselves up to 39.8%. That’s over a third of our lives given over to our jobs in reality.

Hopefully you sleep well and get the average 8 hours sleep, but even if you sleep badly you probably at least try to get to sleep, and therefore we all spend somewhere in the region of 8 hours each night sleeping or trying to sleep.  That’s exactly 33.3% of our lives then, bringing the total time dedicated to working and sleeping to around 73%.

So for an average of 40 years, the best, most healthiest, most sociable, most family intensive years of your life, you have around 27% to yourself.  Except it’s not to yourself because much of that 27% is taken up with other jobs that have been neglected during the 73% of stolen time. You still have to clean the house, do the washing, vacuum, wash the dishes, empty the rubbish, inflate car tyres, fix leaky taps, clear up dog shit, etc. So let’s say we spend a very conservative 1.5hrs a day doing all those routine DIY/maintenance things – that’s another 6% stolen, taking our genuine free time down to a rather sorry looking 21%.

But of course for much of that 21% you are tired, or sick, or distracted, largely because of that 39.8% that insidiously creeps into other parts of your life, affecting your health, affecting your sleep (which further affects your health), further affecting your relationships with your spouse, your kids, your friends (how many times have you felt too knackered to go out?), and so that 21% ‘quality time’ is actually pretty poor quality after all.

If you’re like me, genuine free time is so valued that you waste much of it trying to work out what to do with it.  I immediately feel guilty and feel I have to fill it with more of those DIY/maintenance tasks (making that figure of 6% even bigger in truth).  So instead of watching the replay of Match Of The Day on that spare hour on Sunday morning, I do paperwork, bills that need paying usually.  So that 21% is actually less than 15% of genuine quality time.

And after all that, I really want to savour that quality time, and therefore I fill it with treats. I want to drink fine wines, I want expensive foods, I deserve those things after a hectic day don’t I? I want to eat in fancy restaurants on the weekend, I want to holiday with my family in sunnier climes thousands of miles away, flying on a big silver aeroplane to get there really quickly – after all, time is money.

I’m getting really prickly and defensive now. Fcuk you, I deserve it, I work hard. I want gadgets too. I deserve them, they’re my treats and hey I earn the money (said in an increasingly hostile and defensive tone). I’m also going to treat the kids because I feel guilty I haven’t really been there for them. I know, I’ll get them all an iPhone at Xmas too, they’ll be chuffed to bits. I noticed that family over there are going skiing because they just posted on Facebook, bastards, sod it, we’re going skiing too, you only live once! And in the summer I want some bloody sun. I deserve that. Yes, a villa in Spain with a private pool, that sounds awesome. I’ll post my pictures on Facebook so everyone can see how great and happy we are. I’ll upload photos from the airport, and then again when we land, and then again from the villa, and then from the poolside, and then from the restaurant, and then from the beach (remember to wear a t-shirt, do not show your belly and man-boobs, ffs).

Phew, that was good!  Damn, I’m skint, overdrawn again.  Life is such a chore.  I need a better job, one that pays more.  Yes it might mean more hours but think of the upside?  Ok, ok, so my 15% of spare time falls down to 5% because it’s a really stressful job, but what a 5% I will have!

That’s 72 minutes every day.  Awesome.  Now I really must make the most of that ever so increasingly precious time.  I need more treats.  Perhaps I should try drugs, they say the buzz is really quick and truly amazing.

And drugs is where the materialistic avalanche usually ends, for this is where people with too much money, usually the rich and famous, the celebrities to whom we most aspire, the people whose lives fill our TV screens, our magazines, our social media newsfeeds.  These are the people who become immune and hardened to treats, people who raise the stakes to such dangerous levels that it actually kills them.

And what differentiates ‘us’ from ‘them’ is poverty.  Not real poverty, but western poverty.  We have to run the hamster wheel constantly, we can’t stop, whereas they can.  Apparently sharks have to keep moving or else they die, and humans are no different, for when they stop, when there is no chase left, when they have everything, the real irony is that they lose everything.

Only humans could lead such messed up lives.  Kurt Cobain, Keith Moon, Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, River Phoenix, Jim Morrison, George Best – the list is endless.  Humans with immense, prodigious talent, people who had it all – fame, sex, money, mansions, fast cars, all those things to which we all aspire.

But of course that’s the nub of it all, because as much as we may whinge and moan, as much as we might stare in awe at the rich and famous, it’s the aspiration that keeps us alive, and not the acquisition.

The etiquette and pitfalls of airport and aeroplane toilets

I’ll get straight to the point, the only people who should poo on an aeroplane are children under 10, the elderly and the infirm, and I maintain it should be a criminal offence (or at least grounds for an ASBO), for a normal, healthy human being to do one.

I also believe that no healthy human being wants to use an aeroplane toilet ever, at all, for anything, and you have to be pretty ill or sick in the head to actually take a crap in one, for doing so has to be the most selfish, most anti-social action anyone can ever knowingly undertake.

I feel self conscious just getting up to use the aeroplane loo because I know it’s clear to everyone where I am going.  If you’re not a member of staff and you’re walking down towards the back of the plane you’re going to the toilet.  Fact.  So don’t try and pretend you’re just stretching your legs, no-one buys that ‘well being’ nonsense any more.

And to make things worse, as if to bring even more attention to myself, I epically fail, time and time again, to walk in a straight line as I crash from aisle seat to aisle seat, zigzagging my way like a drunk towards the rear of the economy cabin.

I want to shout “It’s OK, I’m only going for a wee!“. I like to get in there, do my thing, and get back out, always remembering to wash my hands of course, and I set myself an internal target to do it all in under 150 seconds, that way people can be sure I only went in for a wee.  Any shorter and they think you didn’t practice full hygiene, any longer and they think you’ve done the unmentionable and actually done the dirty deed.

The worst thing is when a queue forms.  You feel self conscious for standing by someone’s seat, your crotch ominously close to their face as they try to ignore you and watch their tiny TV, and you try your damnedest not to sway and thrust your genitals even closer than they already are, due to that damned turbulence again.   And as the queue moves forward, you start to work out which toilet will become yours and, most importantly of all, who you will have to follow in there.

Now this might appear a little sexist but if I ever have to follow someone into the loo, I prefer it to be a female. Generally speaking, if the worst does happen, they are, on average, more fragrant than your average male.  Sorry lads but its true and if you’re honest you know it as well. The worst thing, the Dante’s Inferno scenario of airport toilet attendance, is when you arrive at the cluster of WCs only to find them all occupied, and then from nowhere a queue forms behind you.

Now you are trapped.  You are now committed to enter the first toilet that becomes available. On occasion the nightmare scenario actually happens and out walks a very large, hairy, meat eating, beer drinking bloke, all 110kg of him, looking rather shame faced as he opens the door gingerly and begins his walk of shame back to his seat.  You’re not even in there yet and the smell hits the back of your throat.  You look at the person in the queue behind you and try to express, nay, plead, a sentiment in your eyes that says ‘Please be aware I didn’t create that smell, please pass word down the line that it is not I that did this’.

But it’s too late, you are obliged to enter and close the door behind you, and as you slide the lock on the door, the light comes on and illuminates the disgracefully soiled pan.  The dirty b.astard. You feel like leaving and calling him back but he was big, very big.  And as you lift the seat (for you only want a wee) the seat feels warm to the touch. You recoil in horror as you realise from whence that warmth comes, and you feel sick and light-headed with anxiety.  You want to wee, wash and get out in under the critical 150 seconds, but if you do that. the next person in will think YOU are the filthy beast that created this cesspit.  But if you take too long and exceed the 150 second limit, the red lights will flash and the “He is taking a crap!!” klaxon will start to sound.  And when you leave they will DEFINITELY think it’s you!!

Of course the only sensible course of action is to do your stuff, wash thoroughly and get the hell out. And upon exiting the toilet you really want to shout at the top of your voice:

“It’s not me!, I didn’t make that smell! I didn’t make that mess! It was that burly bloke in seat 33F!”

But you can’t, and inevitably your eyes make contact with the poor sod who has to now follow you in, and you guiltily make your own walk of shame back down the aisle, looking angrily across at Caveman Kev in seat 33F as you bounce by.

Of course to avoid all this, the chivalrous thing to do is to go BEFORE you board the plane. That’s what I try to do. It’s much more civilised and far more sociable for everyone. But this isn’t without its pitfalls either, as you may not be alone in having this thought, especially so if you wait until you reach your departure gate, because rest assured the loo nearest the point of departure will be busy with like minded passengers also wishing to have one final ‘evacuation’ before boarding.  Before boarding YOUR plane, for these people aren’t strangers any more, they are your fellow passengers.  So my advice is always try to go in the main lounge WC where you have a much lower risk of meeting your plane buddies.

Queuing for a trap in a Gents toilet is more than slightly awkward. I know women often have horrendous problems with queues at public conveniences because they have no choice but to use the cubicle, whereas us men, we have a choice.  99% of us use the urinals for a quick wee and we’re out, simple as that. Simple that is, until you need a poo.

Whereas a woman in a loo queue can look her fellow queuers in the eye and suggest she is only going in for a wee, us blokes queuing for a trap are there for one thing and one thing only – to do a poo.  And it is awkward, and it is embarrassing – the bloke in front of you needs a poo, the bloke behind you needs a poo and the bloke leaving the trap has just done a poo.  It’s awful.

I was once in such a situation, caught in the line of shame, at the airport prior to flying and I had made the fatal mistake of leaving it until I reached the departure gate toilets where it was very busy.  And to make things worse, the design of the Gents was such that the queue that formed for the traps, blocked access to the urinals from the entrance (see attached schematic), so as us ‘offloaders’ queued, a man entered and only wanted a wee.  He chirpily tried to make his way to the urinals only to find his way blocked, and as I was the nearest person to him, he turned to me and cheerily said:

“Sorry mate, are you wanting to use that?” (pointing to the empty urinal), to which I replied, and this phrase is etched in my memory:

“No it’s OK, I’m waiting to do a poo”.

You could have a heard a pin drop.  FFS why oh why oh why did I say that?

All I had to say was “No, go ahead“.  Three. Simple. Words.

 

But no, not content with standing in the line of shame, I had to then tell this stranger, this happy-go-lucky, ever so chipper fellow who only wanted a quick wee, I had to tell him that I, a total stranger, was “waiting to do a poo“.

Had I been 4 yrs old I might have got away with it, but I was 47.

I stared at my shoes.  Other people in line stared at their shoes.  I contemplated leaving. Leaving the queue, leaving the airport, driving to the seaside, leaving my clothes on the beach and drowning myself in shame.

No it’s OK, I’m waiting to do a poo“.  You idiot.

And of course, inevitably, that man did board my plane.  He sat in seat 33F.

 

Halloween and dangerous bridges

I realised I haven’t written in my blog for the whole month of October, and it’s now 31st October, so if I don’t write one today, I will have missed a whole calendar month and that’s like stepping on the cracks or walking under ladders or something.

So here I am writing my October blog.  I am feeling quite gloomy today.  Not sure if it’s the weather or because it’s Halloween, or because it’s half term, perhaps it’s all three.

I’m not very good at dealing with half term.  Part of the problem is I work from home.  That is when I’m not travelling, and I have to say that working from home is pretty good most of the time.  A bad daily commute usually amounts to me tripping over the dog who has taken to laying outside the bedroom door.  It’s a dark corridor at the best of times and he’s a black dog, so you can probably imagine the potential hazards I have to face, but I’m really not complaining.  My previous commute was to Slough.

It took 2hrs to Slough, 2hrs each way, a 2 hr white knuckle drive through the back roads of SE England, trying to avoid traffic jams, but regularly bumping into other commuters using the same SatNav program as I.  I feel sorry for villages like Weston Turville that must have been quiet Hamlets back in the day, long before SatNavs told all and sundry that the quickest way from Leighton Buzzard to High Wycombe was to miss out Aylesbury and cut along Broughton Lane, past the inviting Dog House Pub http://www.doghouseinn.co.uk/, and over the narrow humped back bridge, so narrow in fact that there is only room for one car, and on account of the hump you can’t see what’s coming towards you.

I always used to shout “Wooooooahhhhhhhh!!” as I went over that bridge, using my finest rollercoaster voice.  It was an adrenalin fuelled shout if I’m honest.  Dangerous isn’t the word.  Actually dangerous is a very good word for that bridge on Broughton Lane nr the Dog House Pub nr Aylesbury, because you simply can’t see what’s coming towards you on account of the hump.  That wouldn’t be too bad if it wasn’t single lane.

The best tactic, therefore, one adopted by many seasoned SatNav commuters, is to try and get behind another car along Broughton Lane.  You have to be right up their arse by the time you reach the pub, so that they led the charge over the top and acted like a shield, taking all the impacts from any oncoming collision.

It was akin to Wacky races some days, with a snake of 7 or 8 cars all adopting the same tactic, less than 10mm between each other, all racing towards the bridge, and of course if the first one went for it you simply had to follow.  If you delayed, you risked an oncoming waiting car starting to sneak through and ruining all the good work the car in front had created.  You also incurred the wrath of the cars on your tail for failing to take the charge.  It wasn’t uncommon for commuters who had suffered such a humiliation, to sell their car and get a new one, different colour, different model, on account of the shame and loss of honour from breaking the code.  Woe betide the driver who broke the chain and dared return to Broughton Lane bridge.

The Ying and Yang in all of this though, is that it was rubbish if you were coming the other way and the Wacky Races entourage was coming towards you and had beaten you to the bridge, as you then had to wait ages whilst Penelope Pitstop, Peter Perfect, Professor Pat Pending and the entire Ant Hill Mob snaked their way over the brow, smugly smiling at you as they passed, leaving you helplessly drumming your fingers on the steering wheel, wondering, always wondering, if that was the end of the snake, or whether there was one more to come.  That’s it .. here we go … Wooooooahhhhhhhh!!!!!

I don’t like Halloween either and my family knows it.  They’re quite good, they say I don’t have to go trick-or-treating, but that means I get to stay at home and answer the bloody door all night, having to act all surprised when local kids ring the bell, demanding sweets or they’ll kick the shit out of our house and slash the car tyres.

Of course the house is all decked out as my family like the spectacle of Halloween, so word gets out that No.4 is worth a visit. They think we’re “up for it”, what with all the decorations and all that, and they also expect to be greeted by a jolly ghoul.  Instead they get me, a rather grumpy, middle aged bloke on a Skype call to the USA, answering the door.

“Trick or treeeeaaaat!”
“Oh.  You look nice.  Very scary.  Is that an MK council recycling bin bag you’re wearing? Here, have a sweet.  Just take one FFS!!!!”

Kids grabbing handfuls of bloody sweets that undoubtedly cost me a small fortune.  But the worst kind are the teenagers  – the 15/16/17yrs old in torn clothes.

“Hi, we’re trick or treating”
“Oh. Right.  Here, have a sweetie”

And there I am, all alone, handing sweets to a bunch of 16yr old girls on my own bloody doorstep, girls wearing make-up and a skimpy skirt with torn black stockings and I’m trying to entice them with a Haribo chew from my pumpkin container of condiments.

Now then now then boys and girls, goodness gracious.  As it happens …

 

You’ve got mail …

I find mail stressful, it’s generally bad news, unrelenting demands for money, tax returns, numerous guilt trips that expose my chronic lack of organisational wherewithall.  Paper mail (snail mail) is the worst as it’s harder to ignore than electronic mail.

My pile of unread mail is like a window into my soul.   It’s Dante’s Inferno down there.  It’s a view I try to keep buried deep within, not just from others, but from myself too.  I know I need to do a tax return, I worry about it every night.  I know I need to renew my insurance, I worry about that too, and so these rude, stark reminders in raw print thrust in front of me each morning just raise my levels of anxiety even further.   If I wore a heart rate monitor when I opened mail I am certain I would see a 20% increase in heart rate.  I don’t need to exercise.  No climbing stairs or joining gyms for me, no siree, to raise my heart rate I just need a pile of unopened post and I know I will soon be sweating like a 10K runner crossing the finish line on a hot summer’s day in July.

Sometimes it feels good to at least open the mail, like the act of merely opening the envelope was all I needed to do, and in a genie ‘puff’ of smoke, all my worries will be gone.  The next step is to file the letter, yes that feels good too.  But not file properly, in a ring binder, or scanned electronically into a folder on my laptop which is then backed up every 24hrs to a secure vault in the sky (I’m laughing as I type at just how far I am away from such an organised approach).  No, for me, merely placing the letter on a pile of other letters marked ‘to be filed’ is the best I can ever expect.  The pile isn’t actually marked ‘to be filed’ as that would require some modicum of order and planning, no, mine is just a wobbly pile of papers teetering on the cormer of my desk that is now so high, so tall, so wobbly, that if I were a company I would have been closed down on the grounds of health & safety.

And once the offensive letter is placed atop the Everest pile in my office, I can then go back to ignoring all those unpleasant duties and return to procrastinating my way through life, an art I have honed to perfection over the past 40+ years.

It’s ridiculous, I know that.  I’m a grown man, I am university edukayted for goodness sake, and I know that placing a piece of paper on a pile doesn’t actually do anything – forms still need filling, cheques still need writing, standing orders need setting up and so on and so forth, but it’s enough, just barely enough, to allow me to forget the Devil’s work for a little while longer at least.

That is, until something happens, something like we need to get the car MOT’d, but we can’t get it MOT’d unless we have a valid insurance.  I’m sure I have insurance cover – fcuk – surely – and so I make my way to my wobbly pile of papers, don my crash helmet and safety goggles and rifle through the pile like a cartoon villain, arms whirling like a dervish, A4 paper flying everywhere.  Even the dog hides.

Sometimes I find the insurance and yelp and roar like a US fan at The Ryder Cup after seeing Tiger Woods finally sink a fcuking putt for once, and I am full of goodwill and cheer as I make my way to the car garage proudly waving my insurance vowing NEVER to let this happen again.

But sometimes I’m not so lucky.  I once advised a close friend who had been through difficult times and found themselves on their own after a break-up.  She asked me for advice on home insurance as her partner always dealt with such matters in the past, so I talked her though the process over the phone as she logged on to a well known and immensely annoying comparison website, and after an hour or so she was the proud owner of cheap home insurance.

I was relaying the story to my wife when she said “who is our home insurance with?”.  I think I blushed, went to my office, donned my helmet and goggles and in a Fred Flinstone like manner I scurried my way through my mountainous labyrinthine pile of papers, only to find our policy had expired 10 weeks ago – we had been without home insurance for over 2 months.

So this morning I said to my wife that it’s time to tackle the office paperwork.  One hour later, the pile remains, but at least I have a new blog entry.  And it’s less than 4 hrs until the Ryder Cup starts.

Berlin

Last week I was fortunate enough to visit Berlin.  Initially I didn’t want to go, particularly not for an outside-of-my-comfort-zone corporate event held at 7-10pm on a Friday night surrounded by ‘luvvies’ and other press/media types.

Nevertheless, I went, and due to the flight timings and late finish of the meeting, I had no choice but to stay overnight.  Luckily, my meeting was in the heart of the city and so I booked a cheap hotel walking distance from the event and within striking distance of historic, downtown Berlin.

Why didn’t I just stay the weekend, I hear you cry?  Well, I’m a married man with kids.  If I were single I almost certainly would have stayed longer, but the trip was short notice and we had things planned and I needed to get back.  We had considered my wife flying out to join me, but cripplingly high last minute, (summer holiday), air fares put a dampener on that idea, and so I flew alone and was due to return back just after lunch on the Saturday.

I should point out that my default setting when travelling alone is ‘recluse’.  I hate eating out on my own.  I feel desperately self conscious and tend to wolf down my food just to get out of the place as soon as I can, which I feel is a terrible waste of money and a real wasted opportunity, as eating out is one of the best bits of travelling, but I do need company.

Ergo, my initial plan for Berlin was to get back to my hotel at midnight, and use the late start to sleep in and catch up on some much needed rest before heading to the airport.

Thankfully, I didn’t sleep well and was up and about by 9am.  The sun was shining and I had three hours to kill before I needed to be at the airport, so I set off on foot to explore. I should perhaps explain at this point that I have only been to Berlin twice before in my life:

1989
I first went there in 1989 when I was inter-railing with my then girlfriend, now wife.  Donna and I stayed a few days in Berlin during a very special part of its history.  I remember there was a real buzz about the place.  I had heard people talk about the “Berliner Luft”, which literally means “Berlin air”, but is a reference to the special atmosphere that seemingly permeates everything in Berlin.  In the summer of ’89 there was a lot of political unrest in Eastern Europe, especially the Eastern Bloc.

I’m no historian and I won’t waste my time googling events but it was around the time the Soviet Union unravelled and geographical and political boundaries were being redrawn.  Berlin was politically tense, there were suggestions of reunification and although that didn’t happen until the following year, the “Berliner Luft” was in overdrive, pumping a heady aroma of anarchy, freedom and electricity throughout the streets of the old city.

We visited Potzdamer Platz and stared at the wall.  Like many others during that time, we anarchically chipped some pieces off the crumbling relic, so maybe the transition was already underway, I’m slightly ashamed I don’t quite remember.  But I do remember the atmosphere.  I remember visiting Checkpoint Charlie and reading about the heroic attempts at escape.  I remember the stunning black and white photographs of men, women, children and even soldiers like Conrad Schumann trying to break through the barbed wire to escape to the west.  Amazing stories of people hiding in car seats and suitcases to try and cross the border.

1998
The second time I went to Berlin was around 1998.  I was living in Munich at the time and went to Berlin for someone’s birthday or stag do, I forget which, but I will never forget the weekend as it was quite possibly one of the best weekends of my life. There were around eight of us.  We did the sights again by day – museums, buildings, parks.  In the evening we visited bars and drank a lot.  We were seven English and one Austrian.  I’m not sure why I mention that but it might help explain the drinking part.

On the main night, probably the Saturday, we went to a huge nightclub where I seemingly danced all night.  Yes you read that right family and friends, I danced all night.  The night club was like a vast aircraft hanger, there was lots of acidy house, trance, dance, I-have-no-clue-what-I’m-talking-about kind of music, great lightshows and what seemed like thousands of people all dancing their own dances.  And there I was, dancing.  I hate night clubs.  I detest night clubs.  I hated them as a kid growing up, they blighted my teenage and university years, those godforsaken places that always left me feeling miserable, alone and skint.  Expensive, low quality booze, pretentious poseurs, the whiff of violence as the night wore on as testosterone mixed with sweat, I hated them then and I hate them now, but I loved that night in Berlin.  The “Luft” was everywhere.  It crept under my skin.  I don’t know what it was.  I wasn’t overly drunk, in fact I recall I drank water that night as I wanted to keep dancing, I wanted my senses to remain alive, my receptors on full alert.  I wanted to savour everything.  This was nothing to do with romance, but everything to do with deep friendships, the few of us who stayed there until the early hours didn’t need to talk, we remained connected by the ‘Luft’, that made Berlin feel so very special.

It also felt safe, full of people that just wanted to have a good time.  There wasn’t that sense of violence that I usually associated with nightclubs.  No packs of lads on the prowl looking for a fight or a vulnerable bit of skirt.  This evening felt like humanity stripped bare, love reigned supreme, a love for life, love for humanity, love for the world.

2012
Back to last week, and within 30 minutes of leaving my hotel I had reached Potzdamer Platz for the 3rd time in my life, 14 years on from my last trip.  There were pieces of wall still, kept as tourist memorabilia, watched over by a fake touristy guard who would put fake touristy stamps in your passport (for a tourist fee).  Kind of tacky, but still very poignant.  To see the 12ft high segments of wall plastered in graffiti really did bring back memories.  To think I was now stood on the border, literally with one leg either side of what was the wall.  It still felt bizarre.  To see the buildings on that side of the street that now looked identical to the ones on the other side of the street, yet just 20 years ago they would have looked so architecturally different, the wealthy side – the poor side, the capitalist side – the socialist side, the open side – the closed side, a street separated by feet and inches, yet impossibly kept apart by a 12ft high, 96 mile wide concrete wall.

I then walked on to Brandenburger Tor, the Brandenburg Gate, probably the most well known landmark of Berlin.  During the partition access through the gate was blocked for this was where the wall went.  I took a photo.  I had to.  Ever had that feeling?

I continued my walk to the Reichstag.  The very word sounds scary, immediately bringing to mind thoughts of Hitler, the Nazis, WWII.  In fact it’s been there since the 19th century and is now once again home to the German Parliament.  It’s so fcuking historical you can only stop, look up and stare in credulity.  It’s a truly incredible building.  You try and soak up all that history but you can’t, you just can’t, it’s too vast.  So I took another photo.

At this point I had timed out and needed to head to the airport so I hunted down a taxi and was gone, but I vowed to come back again soon.

I love Berlin in a way that I also love Munich, but for very different reasons.  I lived two years in Munich with my young family and it will always hold a special fondness and affinity for my wife and I.  I think we could easily live in Munich again, but I love Berlin for very different reasons that I have found hard to communicate in this blog.  I love its historical significance, I love the stories, I love the atmosphere.  It really does feel special and unique.  I know you can make that case for any city in the world, they all have their own stories, but Berlin’s history is so far reaching, so dramatic, so close in time, and that seems to make it something truly unique.

At the weekend I told my mum about my trip to Berlin and she said my Dad had always felt the same.  Apparently he had been several times on business trips and had always promised to take Mum one day.  Dad must have bloody loved the place, all those museums and history.  He never did take Mum before he passed away, but I like to think that, somehow, accidentally, I have stumbled across the same city, unknowingly falling in love with the same places he did.

I want to go back again one day.  Perhaps I’ll take my family next time, and maybe Mum might even come too.

Seat 55E

 

Choosing your seat on a plane is a science.  As a fairly frequent traveller I take this job seriously as I tend to fly the cheapest, nastiest, most inflexible ticket available.  This is particularly important on long haul flights, and in case you’re interested and ever find yourself booking a seat in World Traveller (Cattle) on a BA 747-400, Seats 52B/J are the seats to go for. 
You have a window seat so are undisturbed, you have space to your left/right for bags and extra legroom into the row 51A/K space in front of you.  I had seat 52B on the way out to Dallas, unfortunately on the return leg I was late selecting and ended up with seat 55G – that’s the right hand yellow coloured aisle seat on row 55 (see link below).
Hang on, you said you booked 55G Andy, but this blog is titled 55E?
Let me explain … 
Upon arrival at 55G, the air stewardess asked me if the elderly lady in 55F could have my seat as she would need to ‘use the toilet frequently’ (she whispered this for full effect).  The elderly lady was Indian and didn’t speak English so her son interpreted for her.  Her son was in 55E, so they had the two middle seats on the back row.  She looked sad and a little scared, rather frail looking too.  I couldn’t say no, so I offered to swap with her, only to find the son took 55G, whilst elderly lady remained in 55F and I was left with 55E.  Needless to say 55D was also occupied (by a middle aged lady).
The son of the elderly lady then proceeded to drink 7 (seven) cans of Heineken before the plane had even left American airspace, and was refused an 8th by the senior steward in charge.  
It turns out the elderly lady didn’t need the loo but her son certainly did!!  What a stroke of luck for him!! One minute consigned to a middle seat with a serious drinking habit and a slack bladder, only to find he had duped the English guy on the aisle into a swap!! 
Being the back row, there is very little seat recline due to the wall of the toilets (for there are 4 of them) located directly behind, and in flight, there is a constant queue in the aisles on both sides of row 55 as rows 40-55 (3+4+3 = 10 x 15 = 150 – 10 = 140) stand in line to empty their bladders. 
I calculated.  If a passenger needed the toilet on average every 3 hrs then on a 9hr journey that’s 3 trips to the traps situated by row 55.  Multiply that by the 140 passengers in that section of the plane and that equates to 3 x 140 = 420 toilet door openings, 420 toilet door closings and 420 associated chemical scented toilet flushes plus assorted peripheral odours *cough*. 
And if, of those 420 trips, every 10th one was for a poo, that’s an additional 42 headily scented aromas thrown into the aromatic mix and ambience now permeating row 55. 
Also, whenever anyone uses toilet L1 (upper left quadrant), the wall of said toilet wall at the back of seat 55E rattles each time the door opens and closes, and it judders/bangs the back of seat 55E.  
If the four toilets are used evenly throughout the journey, that’s approximately 105 bangs x 2 (1 on way in and 1 on way out) = 210 on a 9hr flight from Dallas to London, so that’s 1 bang to the back of seat 55E every 2.5 minutes, for 9 hours.
If 55E and row 55 were for sale in an estate agents window it would say something like this: 
“Adjacent to 55D and F, 55E has to be seen to be believed, and is within close proximity of the toilets which are ideally suited for the elderly, the insecure, the alcoholic and the infirm.
On row 55 you NEVER need waste another journey waiting in line for the loo.  That’s because there are no less than 4 (FOUR!) toilets within easy reach, and should your eyesight be problematic, worry not because your nose and ears will tell you every time the toilet doors are opened and closed!! 
And as well as neighbours on both sides, you are also treated to an endless stream of (bladder filled and gas ladened) visitors who form a permanent queue right by your row!  Don’t be a stranger! Move to row 55 NOW and make many NEW friends!!!” 
Incidentally, the yellow colour of row 55 on the seatguru site link above indicates there are “some drawbacks”.  You have been warned.