Wednesday, October 31, 2007

McGonnigal Is Alive And Well And Living In Tampa

Yesterday I read the Tampa Tribune for the same reason that people climb Everest - because it was there. That particular excuse for doing something has been watered down somewhat by the internet - practically everything is "there" as long as you are prepared to look carefully enough. However, yesterday I decided to read the Tampa Tribune and like all apprentice-served time-wasters I will now set about justifying the activity.

Local newspapers provide a splendid insight into the workings of any community. The obituaries, the crime reports, the adverts, the lost and founds : all of these contribute to a powerful picture of the ordinary lives of ordinary people. I usually find that the advice columns provide a good seam of sociological data reflecting, as they do, the problems that dominate the waking hours of readers. They normally cover subjects such as marital infidelity, teenage pregnancy, loneliness, disease and death. In the Tampa Tribune yesterday, there was only one topic under discussion : what is the best hour for a pastor to call on his (or her) parishioners. There were several responses to a letter by someone - who wanted to be known only as "polite visitor" - who was searching for the correct etiquette involved in pastoral visiting. "Get to know your flock before you barge in through their front door", advised Gregg Sealy. "Use a random system such as anyone wearing green at Sunday service", advised Rivka L. "Have cards on the pews for people to fill out requesting a visit" advised Abbey. It was gripping stuff. I read the whole piece searching for the gag-line at the end. But the gag was there was none - it was deadly serious.

A few pages later, an advert caught my eye. It was part of a feature called "Focus On Health". Entitled "Mirror Mirror On The Wall, Who Is The Doctor You Should Call?", it is worthy of a wider circulation than just the good folk of Tampa.

The type is a little too small and too cursive, so let me reprint just a short section :

"Whether you need a lift or "a gift";
Through his before & after pics do sift.
He has all the gadgets and skill
When he's done, "The sights a thrill!"
Mirror Mirror on the wall,
If you don't like your reflection at all;
He is the doctor that you should call.
It has been a pleasure to author this rhyme;
In honour of a talent so sublime.
To look younger do you yearn?
Then get in line and wait your turn.
Who is this ONE that did my youth return?
His name is Dr. Jushua A. Halpern!
Isn't it your time too?
The results will thrill you!
Mirror Mirror on the wall,
Here is the number you should call;
As he is the BEST of them all!
813-872-2696"


McGonnigal is alive and well and living in Tampa. Let us only hope that he got a suitable discount on his face-lift.

Monday, October 29, 2007

There's An Awful Lot Of Pixels In Milan

I am never sure about billions : never sure if it is a thousand million or a million million. I think it depends where you are. Not that it has ever been a practical problem because I don't think I have ever had a billion of anything (other than boring things like cells or hair follicles and the like). I am driven to ponder such things by an announcement by the authorities in Milan that a new digital image of Leonardo Da Vinci's masterpiece "The Last Supper" with an astonishing resolution of 16 billion pixels is now available online. The new on-line image is 1,600 times stronger than the images taken with the typical 10 million pixel digital camera. That's some detail. To illustrate my last remark - as the song says - here is a typical digital image of the painting.



And here is an extract from the new image of the left eyebrow taken from the spot marked on the first image.


And as you can see this is just at 60% of the magnification available. Wow indeed.

It could be argued that this new offering neatly illustrates not only the potential power of the internet but also its futile pointlessness. Until now I have lived my life quite happily without being able to inspect in microscopic detail the cracks in the paintwork. Images made up of 16 billion pixels are, perhaps, an information stream too far. My own view is that there is no such thing as information overload : only inadequate storage and retrieval systems.

I discovered the story about the Last Supper whilst playing around with del.icio.us. del.icio.us is a social bookmarking website, which means it is designed to allow you to store and share bookmarks on the web, instead of inside your browser. Such lists can be made available to others and shared with friends and colleagues. Like many others, I spend many happy hours trawling through the web. Sometimes I pick up interesting things sometimes its just the internet equivalent of garbage fish which are thrown back overboard. My del.icio.us account allows me to share the more interesting stuff from the bottom of my net with others. If you want to check it out, there is now a link to my del.icio.us homepage in the sidebar of this blog. If you would rather look at the cracks on the surface of the Last Supper it can be found in all its glory on the haltadefinizione website.

Lifestyle Change : The Knockout Blow

It was a bit like one of those epic battles between dinosaurs that the films of Ray Harryhausen used to specialise in : two mighty creatures locked together in a life-or-death struggle. In fact, it was me and the Practice Nurse at the GP's this morning as I went for my follow-up check after the "funny turn" I had a few weeks ago. Despite avoiding all disasters on the way to the surgery, my blood pressure was still alarmingly high. Dipping my head to expose my horny carapace, I went into battle. "I have one of those blood-pressure machines at home and when I take my own reading it is perfectly normal". I know how much healthcare people hate such attacks : what I was really saying was that either you are no good at taking blood pressure readings or your equipment is old-hat compared to the dinky little machine I bought from ASDA for £12.50.

"I think we will go with my reading rather than yours", she countered, rather lamely I thought. "Well I looked it up on the internet and it suggests I have the heart of a man half my age", I went on. This was a beautiful lunge on my part - self diagnosis via the internet is loathed in the profession and statements which imply that the patient will live forever goes against all the things such people learn at doctor and nurse school.

I was feeling quite pleased with myself. She was no match for me. Contest over. I began to roll down my sleeve with a self-satisfied smile on my face. "Unfortunately, what we're looking at is lifestyle change", she said. Bastard! I was on the floor, rolling around in agony. These two simple words - "lifestyle change - were a knock-out blow. In a short sentence she had condemned the whole 59 years of my life. I had got it wrong. I had to change. It's goodbye to the bags of chips, the occasional cigar, the pints of beer, the football in front of the telly, the late nights and the hours spent in front of the computer. It's hello to salad, exercise, yoga, and organic carrots. Otherwise I will finish up dead - as dead as a dinosaur in fact.

I limped off to lick my wounds. I have to go back on Thursday to have a 24 hour blood pressure monitor fitted. I have to go back on Friday to have my blood taken. I have to go back and have a flu jab. I have to go to slimming classes. But us dinosaurs don't give up easily : remember, we ruled the world for a good few million years. I am working on my counter attack. I am just nipping down to the chip shop first, but then I will start preparing for the coming battle. My lifestyle may be pretty rotten according to the new ideology, but it is my lifestyle. And I'm rather fond of it.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Judging A Book By Its Cover

Call me daft if you want, but I think I am on to something. The Alan Coren approach to successful book sales was based on his research of the most popular book titles in the early 1970s. He identified the three most popular categories as being books about golf, books about cats and books about the Third Reich. Recognising that most books are sold by the illustration on the cover he came up with a sure-fire recipe for a best-seller. "Golfing For Cats" became a classic and has sold millions of copies since.

I have always thought that the clever chap is the one who steals someone elses idea and brings it up to date. What is important today is not what book categories are selling well, but what subjects people are searching for on the internet. Identify them, incorporate them and you are on your way to your first million in the time it takes to say Tyson Beckford (who's he you ask, just be patient I reply).

Now those wonderful people at Google (Note to Google people, remember me, I once asked you to give me a job, that was nine months ago and I haven't heard anything yet) make life easy for you by providing a list of all the most popular search phrases used on the Google search engine. These are published and constantly updated on a site called Google Trends. When I checked the list earlier today the top seven were as follows :

1. People Magazine Sexiest Fan Contest
2. Tyson Beckford
3. Fernan Leger, Cubist Painter
4. Pituitary Adenoma
5. Capistrano School District
6. 200 Cigarettes
7. HIV Cure.

I acknowledge that this is a somewhat strange mixture, but if those nice people from Google tell us this is the list, this is the list. All that is then needed is to get images from these themes and incorporate them into your book cover. So take images of the shortlisted candidates from People Magazine's competition, add Tyson Beckford (who appears to be an actor), blend in a picture of a school in Capistrano, a poster for the film 200 Cigarettes, a painting by Leger, an HIV virus and a diagram of the pituitary gland, and add in some old text you might have composed ten years ago and forgot about because it was so boring.

What you get is my latest book. Now available exclusively from this site. Only £20 for a signed copy. Now, you see, I'm not quite as daft as you thought I was.




Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Simple Little Sketch Of My Angelic Features

That great humorist Alan Coren died last week and several of his obituaries described how he came to write his biggest-selling book. He claimed that a little research in bookshops revealed that the three most popular subjects of books at the time were golf, cats and the Third Reich. Thus he wrote a book called "Golfing for Cats" which prominently featured a swastika on the front cover. Instant success. I was in the local Waterstones at the weekend and I decided to conduct a similar piece of research. As Waterstones has a weakness for categories the task was made easier than expected. Before entering the shop my expectation was that "Mind, Body and Spirit" would win hands down and I had been mentally plotting something which would tick all the boxes in such a discrepant grouping. The secret fantasies of a one-legged Scottish whiskey distiller came to mind. But no, I was wrong. A new Waterstones category is in the ascendant, claiming a good twelve foot of shop floor and countless shelves for its own solemn anthem : Tragic Real Live Stories. The shelves were full of books with titles like "My Ten Year Fight With Cancer (and How It Failed"), "My Angel Goes to Heaven", and "Angie's Story : The Tragic Life Of A Ten Year Old Blind Prostitute". What was even more intriguing was that they all had similar covers : white background, some kind of semi-cursive typography and a sketch of a bedraggled-looking youngster. Recognising that publishing is a commercial business (and always being on the look-out for some kind of "edge" as a city broker would say), I suddenly saw the significance of my own recent brush with death. Granted the stroke diagnosis was withdrawn after a couple of days and even the doctors in my acquaintance have now downgraded it to a "migraine aura", but that bit about both me and my son being rushed to A&E at the same time has got some strong tragic elements. Who knows what might develop next. I am waiting with keyboard and pen at the ready. Keyboard to get the words down before it is (tragically) too late. Pen to run up a simple little sketch of my angelic features for the front cover.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Under Pressure

When I had my "funny turn" a couple of weeks ago they did a whole load of tests but the only ones which came up "abnormal" were my blood pressure readings. I had always prided myself on having beautifully normal blood pressure and therefore it came as something of a shock to discover they were above the "normal range". They took my blood pressure at both the GPs and the Hospital and told me to go back to the GPs to have it checked again. I was convinced that it was high simply because I was sitting in a GPs Surgery (Hospital Ward) having been told the chances were I had suffered a mini-stroke (the more I repeat that phrase the more it sounds like an out-of-season weekend break for swimmers).

After all the fuss and bother was over, I invested in a Blood Pressure monitor (£12.50 from Asda!) and monitored my pressure with the manic obsessiveness of a card-carrying hypochondriac. Panic over : it was floating along at about 135/85 which, according to that fount of all medical knowledge - the Internet, is nice and normal.

So I set off for my appointment with the Practice Nurse this morning with a light heart and blood rippling through my veins like a gentle moorland stream in August. As I drove out of our drive the car seemed to shake and a strange noise came from somewhere. I stopped the car and looked underneath to discover Alexanders' basketball jammed under the exhaust pipe. After a good few minutes prodding and poking I managed to get it out and kicked it as far as I could into the garden bushes.

This was perhaps my first serious mistake. If you've ever tried to kick a basketball (wearing a pair of light summer shoes) you will know that it can give rise to some discomfort around the region of the big toe. It did. Limping and in considerable pain I eventually managed to get the car started again and drive down to Brighouse where the Health Centre is. By now I was in danger of being late and needed to park in the Municipal Car Park and get up to the doctors in double-quick time. I found a parking spot fairly easily but couldn't get a ticket because the machine was being serviced. The man kept saying useful things like "Won't be a minute, mate" and he was quite correct : he wasn't anything like a minute - more like five.

By then, of course, I was hopping mad (this is a wonderfully descriptive term as I was jumping up and down with one leg making fists with my hands). Eventually I got my ticket and run up the hill to the surgery.

So it will come as no surprise to learn that, on testing, my blood pressure was once again high. I have to go back in a couple of weeks. If it is still high I might have to be fitted with some kind of 24 hours monitoring system. I am in danger of starting along some "hypertension pathway". Like all such pathways, it leads straight to the Crematorium gates.

Over the next two weeks I need to calm down. Think restful thoughts. Avoid stress. Relax.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Marsden Menu

A sign that the annual Marsden Jazz Festival is almost upon us is printing off the Menus. Of all the Marsden jobs it's the one I most enjoy as I can give vent to whatever creativity I might have. Nobody cares too much about the menus as long as they list the food available at each distinct period over the weekend. They are not designed by graphic designers we use, there are no components that have to be used : how they look is entirely up to me. This year there are two common elements to each menu. First is the "marsden07" header which is designed to brighten up the posters and reflect the eclectic nature of the Festival. The second element is the images which have been chosen to represent both young and old people enjoying playing jazz. Here is just one example.


The Festival starts tomorrow so we are all watching the sky, hoping for good weather and hoping that everything goes as smoothly as possible.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A Bit Of A Turn

It's been a funny old week. Last Wednesday I was sat at my computer minding my own business when everything started to go black. It was a weird sensation, like your consciousness is closing down because you have forgotten to put another coin in the slot machine. I knew I was going to pass out but I was more concerned about my inability to see properly. With the help of Isobel I got downstairs and to the door. Slowly the curtains began to open again and I was left shaken and stirred. The whole episode took about four minutes.

Isobel insisted I go to the GP and he started what turned out to be a marathon session of tests. He took blood, carried out ECG's prodded and poked me and decided that I should go straight to hospital. While he was writing the letter referring me to A&E we got a phone call to say that Alexander had been taken to A&E having been hit in the eye with a football resulting in him not being able to see anything from his left eye.
It was turning out to be like one of those plots from Casualty. Various characters (all somehow linked together) all arriving in the A&E Department at the same time. They are never believable, those plots. By late afternoon Alexander and I were in adjoining cubicles : Isobel running between us like a confused mother hen. Then we went our separate ways : me to the Medical Assessment Unit and more tests, him to the Ophthalmology Department and more tests. We both made it home that night (although it was almost midnight when I escaped) but the following morning we had matching appointments at the Eye Clinic.

In Alexanders' case it was eventually determined that nothing was broken or dislodged and slowly the sight came back. Eye drops and no sport for a week was the only treatment. In my case they decided there was nothing wrong with my eyes and the chances were that I had suffered from a mini-stroke. That diagnosis lasted for 24 hours until I saw the stroke specialist who assured me I had not had a stroke. We are still waiting for some test results but the best theory at the moment is "blood pooling" in my legs resulting in a shortage of blood getting to me brain. To me, that sounds almost as frightening as a mini-stroke but all those who know about such things seem reasonably relaxed about it.

My own diagnosis, I made just after it occurred on Wednesday. After enough tests to make a dent in the local NHS budget, that diagnosis seems to be gathering strength. All I had was "a funny turn".

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Forensics


Well, I never thought this would happen to us....

Jane and I went to clear bedding from our boat late last Sunday and I opened the door for her whilst I wanted to check the drive electrics.... she said "You didn't leave the cushions like that, did you, Edwin?"

Oh my goodness. Somebody had broken in through the bow doors of the boat and ... pee-ed in the loo and not flushed it, grabbed the cushions from the front seats to make a pillow, slept in the bedding we gone to collect, had a fag or three they'd stacked on the shelf by the bed....

Stunningly, NOT touched anything else. Even the damage to the bow doors was minimal... and goodness knows they were never actually seriously "secure" - small bolts to look pretty with one's fitting seriously damaged ever since I'd had to break in through those doors (two years ago?) when the snib on the Yale lock at the back had somehow locked us out....

We tidied up (easy enough to do) and collected the bedding, Jane chucked two of the fag ends into the canal but the third into the bin on the boat... I refixed the bit on the bow doors had been knocked free and tried to dream up a way to make sure the same person couldn't easily get in again...

They hadn't touched our food store - they could have cooked themselves a meal if they'd wanted! - not even touched the Blandford Fly beer in the cupboard, brewed by Badger...

An interesting ale one of Jane's writer friends demanded for the writers' party - it's spicy/ginger flavoured. Jane says it's like barley ale. It's definitely different and quite pleasant...

This was late afternoon Sunday last... we decided we should tell the police simply for them to be aware...

Amazingly enough, they took it entirely seriously and demanded to send a SOCKO person to collect samples...

Yes, actually DNA, said the cigarette butt was the best thing. The photo is of one of my butts - the actual butt was roll-your own....

Well, I screwed a wooden bar across the doors so if the same person came back they'd realise they weren't so easy to push open... and we left signs on the door saying the door was now screwed closed and the police were connecting DNA samples... which we first wrote not realising they really WOULD!

I gathered our forensic evidence into a plastic bag with not too much care since the boat must be absolutely full of our DNA!!.....

When on Monday we went to meet the SOCKO lady (a curiously wizened older lady) I slightly nervously wondered if the person might have tried again... no. But more than that, it was easy to tell because there were now undisturbed spiders' webs across both stern and bow entrances... and, indeed, in the cabin there were spiders' webs.... they're only little-ish spiders and so don't freak me despite my arachnophobia.....

We thought we must tell our "landlord" Oxford Design etc... the office is all locked up, you have to buzz to be admitted. I asked for Nigel Holt who's a boat fanatic and tends to watch the moorings for that reason although he's not officially the person in charge of our arrangement...

The receptionist (I'd never seen in my life before!) said "You're Mr. Osborn?" Fascinating, she must have learnt this from office gossip and posting our invoices since otherwise she had no reason to realise... I said, "Well, yes, but actually, as it says on the boat, we're Edwin and Jane or if you look on the other side, Jane and Edwin." She said she never walked that far down the car park, hadn't seen the signs on the boat.

WOW. That's stunning. You would have thought that in several years she would at some point read the sign on the boat. Oh, she obviously knew I was a harmless eccentric but I would have loved to know why she seemed to almost laugh. Not that I'm paranoic, be clear. But who had said what she clearly knew we were on the side of the angels? I find that almost more fascinating than what the DNA test may reveal. If anything.

Nigel came along with huge grin - he was foolish enough to want to know about our electric drive and was stunned to discover this was something I could wax on about at length.... poor man. He didn't know I used to be a physics teacher and just love people to understand why something works so well... he mostly just wanted to know it did....

He has his own boat up the canal, recently built, very swish, called Mallard. After the blue paint.. same colour as Mallard steam engine, he told me that bit. Not quite right, actually, and why didn't he admit he liked model trains until I drew that out of him? Yes, yes, he'd had a Hornby Dublo Mallard model... as we had, very battered, never ran well, so many years ago one thinks of big bang theories.

Oh but. For his boat he has heavy iron bars across the doors with big padlocks which he instantly admitted were a pain before I even said they would be....

I didn't add that, if you did that, it implied there was something inside worth stealing. So somebody might really try to break in. He's a nice guy, he admitted it WAS a pain, he'd bolt everything in place and then realise he'd forgotten....

Ah dear, the number of times working on our now working charge meter I took the mobile phone in case Jane had a message... from experience I couldn't hear it if left in my jacket, so I'd put it on the side... yes, yes, you guessed, I'd do what I was doing, have my mind full of things needed sorting out, get home and suddenly realise I'd left the mobile on the boat. Sometimes, only next day.....

I told Nigel what I really thought I'd do was place a flashing red LED in view.. he said "You WOULD!"....

Oh, but, nobody ever tried to touch our older cars once I bethought to place a black plastic box on the dashboard with a slowly flashing red LED. Then I had to make the circuit - these days you can buy flashing red LEDS and all you need to do is connect them to a battery to make them flash warningly and mysteriously that you might have a security system...

But I'm curious who on earth bothered to break in but then was remarkably polite about it, nothing damaged (except in opening the door) or stolen... somebody stacked their fag stub ends on the shelf carefully except not perfectly - there's a very slight singe mark....

Jane swears the bedding was still slightly warm but also insists the person couldn't have gone via the bow doors for detecting we were arriving... I'm not so sure about that. IF she's right and the bedding was still warm, not a chance he came out via the stern door or we would have seen.

Madly enough, I don't feel our precious boat was sullied somebody broke in - perhaps because it is an ex hire boat and goodness knows has been on it during it's usage... and it was even back out as a hire boat after we owned it... indeed, on our trip to Banbury somebody passing said they'd been on it, I suddenly realised, quite possibly during the time it was ours but still hired out...

I guess the wizened SOCKO lady is right only the cigarette butt might show anything interesting.... any of the other things would easily have DNA not only from us but a host of people have had a trip on the boat....

The other thing was very curious was that the person had taken a bundle of our loo paper into the bed with them. Just SO strange. Why would somebody take a bundle of loo paper into bed with themselves? No sign at all there was anything on it... did they take it in case they might exude something?

Jane's cross we should spoil our boat to keep people out. I agree. I shall remove the barricade soon... just thought it should be there in case the person thought they could just call back easily. The boat has been there 7 years... I think... this is the first time anybody has broken in. Whoever it is needs a message that isn't allowed or possible...

And yet it must be a lonely soul... and not even a drinker or surely they would have spotted the beer? Terrible admission, I would have! Mind you, I would have also known how to flush the loo...

Now, I would like to know if my DNA shows disposition to horrendous ills. But I suspect not. And if it did, would I really want to know? No! But, then, when I hear of other people's really awkward problems I realise it's terribly unfair I'm basically absurdly healthy. Perhaps people should take my DNA to discover what you need not to be about to suffer some dire fate?

But who was the sad person broke into our boat to have a kip and a pee and smoke three fags? Somebody suggested a tramp character we've all seen around, I said it couldn't be him because he smelt and there was no trace of untoward smell....

The wizened Socko lady realised I was merely revealing possible thoughts when I suggested escapee from the immigration place nearby... or maybe the Al-Quaeda guy on the run from Germany. How did she KNOW I wasn't serious I really thought it might be either?

Much more likely a lonely soul desperate. But naughty because it really isn't done to break into somebody's boat ... but SO curious they ONLY broke in to... have a pee, grab the cushions to use the bed, smoke just three cigarettes. Not touch anything else except to move our ropes and life-jackets off the bed to clear it - neatly placed just where I would have!

I can't help wondering if it wasn't a woman, the moved things were placed so neatly, indeed, the lifejackets folded to fit into the space! If only I'd thought... Jane flushed the loo before I saw the urine... actually female urine smells different from male, I could have detected if only we'd thought....

I know? Lordy, when I worked as a psychiatric nursing assistant the male and female wards smelt totally different and... it was sweat and urine. Men and women, in bulk, smell different. Any dog could, of course, tell you this instantly. If only they could talk. I always so wished our family dogs could... but they did, in their way... indeed, it was quite funny to suddenly realise you could work out what they were thinking because they'd look at things revealing what they were thinking about ... and don't tell me dogs don't show emotions, I'd even get a mournful look I wasn't about to take them for a walk because I was looking at them amused that was what they'd been thinking about.... and the reproachful look I'd get for being amused!

But perhaps the DNA will trace a known person with problems... well, they must have for what they did. They definitely need help.

Seaside Jazz

I spent last weekend at the 2007 Scarborough Jazz Festival. The Scarborough trip has become something of an annual event now : coming just two weeks before the Marsden Festival it provides a relaxing opportunity to actually listen to music before all the rushing, fetching and carrying sets in. As usual, the programme provided a good mixture of names - some familiar, some new. Highlights included Laura Fowles, Stan Tracey, Martin Taylor and, of course, Alan Barnes. But the most enjoyable of all the sets - one which seemed to capture the excitement and the fun which is what good jazz should be - was Richie Barshay's Roundtable. Barshay is a young American percussionist and he was joined by a couple of New York based saxophonists Daniel Blake and Petr Cancura and London-based bassist, Mike Janisch. Completing the Roundtable was the superb young British vibraphone player Jim Hart. It was ninety minutes which will live long in the memory. The whole Festival was a most enjoyable occasion - let's hope that Marsden is as successful.

I also got the opportunity to take some half-decent photographs. The first shows trumpeter Byron Wallen who appeared with the Tony Kofi Trio. The second shows the North Sea waves doing battle with the Scarborough sands. The sands won.

Monday, October 01, 2007

At Last!


There it is, for all to see - planning permission granted. That's only taken approximately 10 months since we bought the house.... Oh lordy, and now we have to wait and wait and hope we've enough financial resource and building regs... yeah, probably be okay. So frustrating the modification should actually be quite easy, almost trivial.