A Bit on the Side

A while ago I had a sideblog. Actually I had two.

One was a feed from Twitter, which I used for posting pithy comments and insights. I ran out of pith after about 300 posts. The other was from Delicious - a so-called "social bookmarking" system where you find interesting websites, and build up a library of them with your comments, swapping them with other users of Delicious...and sticking the latest ones on a sidebar of your blog.

Well now I'm experimenting with Tumblr, which can do both the above, and more. It's a system for miniblogging, also known as microblogging, also known as tumbleblogging, also known as...keeping a blog with very short posts.

My Tumblr site is here, but it's only there so I can feed it here - just over to the top right of this blog.

So with any luck, stand by for an irregular stream of quoteable quotes, rippable wits, clickable links, risable pics and maybe even occasionally something useful.

One peculier particular: It's quicker to post something to my sideblog by emailing it to my Tumblr blog than to log on to the Tumblr site.

Freezeframe Friday - Inappropriate Emotion Edition


I used to work in a place with a burglar problem. Every few weeks, someone would break in and steal some stuff - usually computers or other electronic equipment.

Exactly why anyone would want to steal those computers I don't know - they were obsolete, bought 3rd hand, and so slow I could literally read a book while doing my job. In fact, that's the reason I stayed in the job.

But evidently someone was dumb enough to come back time after time to steal stuff that belonged on the scrap heap...or there were lots of people dumb enough to do it once each. Either way, the staff weren't too concerned, because either the machines would get replaced with new ones that worked properly, or they wouldn't and we'd all get even more reading time waiting for the remaining computers to become available. The latter is what actually happened.

There was a night watchman. He was usually asleep. Sometimes I had to wake him up after spending my night-shift lunch break cruising in the park just over the road. That was the other reason I stayed in the job.

The staff turnover was so rapid, there was no way he'd even know who had a right to be let in and who didn't. Personal ID cards? Expensive to initiate, easily faked, and no one bothers to check them anyway.

One night he let in some strangers by pushing the 'door release' button on automatic pilot before settling back to his dream. The next day a dozen computers were gone, and then so was he.

His replacement lasted a month, before there was another break in. The security footage clearly showed him, awake and alert, letting in the thieves and helping them carry stuff out. It turned out he'd spent two terms in jail for doing exactly the same thing in other places. Three now.

I once had a very enlightening conversation with a security guard at the local university. He was quite open about the fact that maybe half those in his profession had criminal records, and at least half had drink or drug problems. He drank himself, but never on duty.

Nice fellow - and better at fixing the photocopiers than the highly qualified library staff.

You are probably not Barack Obama, but if you are, there is an FBI man standing outside the home of each of your close relations - and not so close ones.

If you're the president's aunt, there's a man in a suit - maybe more than one man - guarding you against any possible plots to kidnap you as a way to blackmail the government.

There's just about zero chance of anyone trying to do such a thing, but someone is slowly developing a mental illness because they do nothing for hours every day but quietly watch your house to prevent it.

I recall one case of a teenager who hacked into NASA using a guessed password - a row of sixes.

I'd be willing to be bet that, for all your online accounts, you either use the same or a very similar password for them all...or you use a different one for each but they're all written down on a bit of paper close to your computer.

This week, someone asked me to have a look at their old laptop.

The problem and solution were obvious - it needed windows reinstalling, which meant it needed to boot from the CD drive, which meant the BIOS needed to be configured to allow this, which meant I needed to get into the BIOS to configure it, which meant I needed the password to do so.

So how do I get this password? Simple, I go to the Hewlett Packard website, download a form, print it out, fill in the laptop's serial number printed on its underside, and fax the result to HP, who will send me the password.

Either that, or I take apart the laptop with a screwdriver, find the CMOS battery and remove it for ten seconds.

Have you noticed how the word 'security' refers both to measures taken to be more secure, and to the sensation of feeling reassured?

This may not be a coincidence, because the majority of security measures seem to serve solely to give reassurance to the nervous uninformed.

There's no reason to put a password on a computer's BIOS, because there's no sensitive information there, and even if there were, it's easy to bypass. It serves only to make legitimate maintenance inconvenient, and slightly slow down any illegitimate access. Or would do, if there were such a thing.

Hundreds of good FBI agents quit in disgust and/or need therapy because they're guarding against something which is somewhat less likely to happen than their protectee being struck by lightning.

Warehouses and office blocks everywhere are patrolled by exactly the people least suitable for the job - the easily led, the drunk or stoned, sometimes the habitually criminal, generally those with little to gain by doing their job well, and little to lose by not doing it at all. It's not like they're paid enough to care.

Most of the time, security measures seem to serve one of two purposes. One is to make some group feel secure. The other, as with immigration security, is to make a group feel insecure. Either way, it's about feeling safe, not being safe.

Wise Wednesday - 12

Au Revoir Les Enfants

My two week course lasted four days.

It seems the agency which funnels students to the school has finally realised how pointless it is to have French pre-teens with maybe a hundred words of English taught by an Englishman with maybe a hundred words of French.

If only they'd realised this a week later, they wouldn't have to renegotiate half the student contracts, send half of them home early...and leave me with half the promised wages.

I may have mentioned this is the most disorganised school I've ever encountered. Still, I think I picked up more French than they picked up English. These from the last day:

Dites moi en anglais.

Je suis trop gros pour la danse.

Pourquoi dites-vous qu'elle est un travesti?

Nu Skool Breaks

I may be working for the least organised school in the world. In fact, I may be working for the least organised company in the world. But I think I like it.

Not knowing who I'm going to teach, how many, at what level, what age, where - and therefore what - until two minutes before I do it...is not normal in most schools.

I've worked for places where paychecks regularly bounced, and almost worked for places the manager regarded as his personal hareem, but this place seems to "Not Do" forward planning.

Monday was the day for meeting the students - about 40 of them, not including the inevitable few who cancelled but decided not to say they'd cancelled. Actually it was the day for sitting them all in an echoy gymnasium and giving them tests for writing, grammar and comprehension.

Every school does these tests, for the very good reason that every single agency, embassy and parent-slash-guardian lies about their student's abilities.

If a student is "Advanced" according to their official documentation, there's a reasonable chance they can string together a basic sentence - but don't bet on it. If they're "Intermediate", break out the "Absolute Beginner" books.

Of course there's one other group that lies shamelessly about student proficiency: Schools. At the end of this brief course, I have no doubt I'll be expected to exaggerate any small advances that have been made - otherwise There Shall Be Complaints.

Complaints almost as loud as the ones from parents about how we've sullied the little angel's morals by teaching them swear words and sex terms. One day parents might realise children learn far more from other children than from teachers, but I doubt it. There's no need to teach them about sex and swearing - often those are their subjects of greatest fluency, long before they meet us.

So anyway, we gave them tests. Which is to say, management promised they'd have a brand new exam written and published well in advance - so on the day it fell to an old lag teacher to sift through her files from decades ago to find a tenth generation photocopy of and old exam...and make forty eleventh generation copies.

While they were being marked, I helped out in another teacher's class. The student intake averages about age fourteen, but ranges from eleven up to eighteen - in other words, they all love to provoke authority figures.

The attitude ranges from immature to staggeringly immature. Attention span ranges from two minutes to, well, negative figures. Ability to find ways to annoy the teacher reaches genius levels.

Which must be why the supposedly qualified and experienced teacher was reduced to an ineffective screeching schoolmarm at least once a minute.

And why such a person, when faced which a class who swivel on their chairs only when he's looking, specifically to make him react, falls for it every single time.

One boy was in The Naughty Corner because he'd Been Disruptive, and was continuing to Be Disruptive in the corner. While I was minding the class alone, he said he was bored, I gave him a book to read and he was happily quiet.

Today, I got my first proper class.

Five French boys and three French girls. The girls sat in the front row and answered all the questions, the boys sat in the back row and...didn't listen. Often, they didn't listen in quite loud French.

Their level wasn't just below their official level, it was below the first chapter of the lowest level book I had. Exactly why someone should think it was a good idea to send eight beginners to England for two weeks to be taught by someone who doesn't speak French, I'm not sure. But obviously someone had, and the many schools who make a tidy profit out of it aren't going to question it.

I was provided with a godsend - a relatively advanced French student of English as an assistant. I was able to introduce to concepts of Noun, Verb and Adjective in English - yes, I really did have to start with grammar that basic - and she translated.

This lasted ninety minutes, then inexplicably I swapped my all-French class for a different all-French class for another ninety minutes. I soon discovered the reasoning behind this timetabling.

The contract with the agency specifies that students will be taught at least part of the time by a native English speaker - on the intriguing grounds that, not having studied the language at school, native speakers can explain it better.

So the school employs a native French speaker who's quite fluent in English to teach them half the time, and picks up stray native speakers for short contracts to be the Other One. Which means, even in England, I'm the token Englishman.

Tomorrow I'm taking both classes on a nature walk. Which is to say, we're visiting a park and seeing some exotic birds in cages, and possibly practicing our English skills buying from an ice cream stall. The reason for this is...a screw up with room bookings.

With no rooms available, and two teachers taking the day off for their university graduation ceremonies, I'm making a checklist of "things to look for" in a park.

One of the skills of a teacher is to find teaching opportunities in apparent non-events. One of the others is to pretend non-events are teaching opportunities.

We'll see which this is.

Mi Mem

Oh look, a Meme. So called because it's about Me! Me!

Courtesy of Aethelread the Unread, who of course I haven't read.

1. Are you currently in a serious relationship?

Relationships can be serious?

I suppose they can, as in "seriously messed up".

2. What was your dream growing up?

At 5 I wished adults would make sense. A 10 I wanted to be an actor - playing moustache-twirling, cackling villains. At 15 I wanted to be a philosopher, at 20 a computer programmer, and at 25 to not be a computer programmer anymore.

All but the first of these have come true. Though I didn't have the moustache.

3. What talent do you wish you had?

The ability to make people go into a deep sleep by snapping my fingers. But only to make them shut up.

4. If I bought you a drink, what would it be?

Hot chocolate. With five chocolate biscuits for dunking. And a 99 flake stuck in it.

5. Favourite vegetable?

For eating? The turnip.

For feeding? Turnips are good for that too.

6. What was the last book you read?

I can't remember the last time I read a book all the way through. It was probably a slightly polemical history of psychiatry, arguing that psychiatrists are like witch doctors who don't know their medicines are bunk.

I've read several of them.

7. What zodiac sign are you?

Capricorn. Capricorns are skeptical of crap like astrology, so if I were gullible enough the believe in it, I'd have to be skeptical.

8. Any tattoos or piercings?

I once got the top of my right ear pierced to celebrate graduation - though I forget which one. I considered getting a nipple piercing, till I found what could happen if it went wrong.

9. Worst habit?

Thinking that people stupid enough to believe in homeopathy, hate muslims or deny climate change are smart enough to listen to corrections.

10. If you saw me walking down the street, would you offer me a ride?

If I had a car and could drive...I'd give you a ride in the back seat.

But only after finding a safe parking space.

11. What is your favourite sport?

American politics.

12. Do you have a pessimistic or optimistic attitude?

I'm told if I weren't a pessimist, bad things wouldn't happen to me. The people who tell me this have lots of bad things happen to them, but they frantically emphasise the few good things.

There are few things sadder than someone desperate to tell you they're happy.

13. What would you do if you were stuck in an elevator with me?

Depends what I was stuck to.

14. Worst thing to ever happen to you?

I fell in love once.

15. Tell me one weird fact about you.

Erm. I taught myself to recite the alphabet backwards because I'd seen it done on an advert. Plus I had insomnia.

16. Do you have any pets?

My parents have five dogs and three parrots, but I'm the one they bark/squawk at. So they either think I'm their owner...or a burgler.

17. What if I showed up at your house unexpectedly?

I'd invite you in for a cup of tea, hoping just this once it would end like in the movies.

The kind of movies you download from newsgroups and put on DVDRs marked "Misc Vid 56", in case someone finds them.

18. What was your first impression of me?

Smart and messed up.

19. Do you think clowns are cute or scary?

Creepy. Especially in clown porn. They're on "Misc Vid 72".

20. If you could change one thing about how you look, what would it be?

I'd add Brad Pitt's sexier younger brother to my left shoulder. Just hanging on and looking besotted.

21. Would you be my crime partner or my conscience?

Crime partner every time. Especially if I get to twirl the moustaches this time.

22. What colour eyes do you have?

I don't know - I can't see them.

People have told me they're green, or hazel, or "Oh My God that's so creepy!"

23. Ever been arrested?

Yes. It was very boring. And not like in the movies either.

24. Bottle or can soda?

Can I have it can-shaped, but made of glass?

25. If you won $10,000 today, what would you do with it?

Shove it in a high interest accont and forget about it for 20 years.

26. What’s your favourite place to hang out at?

I'm pretty sure I've never hung out anywhere. Or is it hanged out?

27. Do you believe in ghosts?

Do I believe that some people, when they die, get a semi-transparent copy of their outer bodies, plus of their typical clothes, but not of their internal organs?

Plus the ability to walk through walls but not fall through floors, and the inability to be touched by anything solid combined with the ability to breathe and push air through their incorporeal larynxes to make speech?

Hmmm. Not sure about that.

28. Favourite thing to do in your spare time?

I like to spend hours planning all the things I'd like to do the next time I get some spare time.

29. Do you swear a lot?

I like to use swear words from science fiction. Yeah frell, I zarking well do.

30. Biggest pet peeve?

You know what's the most useless thing in the world? Apart from a rubber chicken or a deputy Prime Minister? An ignorant pedant. Someone who pedantically corrects you, but gets it stupidly wrong.

People who tell you not to split infinitives, dangle prepositions, or verb nouns. People who know frell all about language or linguistics, and therefore think you shouldn't use a word they understand perfectly well, on the grounds that it doesn't zarking exist.

31. In one word, how would you describe yourself?


32. Do you believe in/ appreciate romance?

I believe it exists. I don't like it very much.

33. Favourite and least favourite food?

If there were such a thing as chocolate curry.

And if there were such a thing as liquorice flavour raw tomatoes.

34. Do you believe in God/ a higher power/ whatever you want to call it?

Of course not. The only way to believe in a higher power is to not understand why some people believe in it.

35. Will you repost this?

You can answer that better than I can.

So...did I?

Freezeframe Friday - What Women Want Edition

Crosswired and Aimless

I think I know what depression is. At least, my particular form of depression. I just thought of it, but bear with me.

I'm happy when I've got a problem to solve. Not an arbitrary artificial problem, like a crossword or an IQ test. A real one, with defined parameters, that I can solve in a few minutes or a few hours.

Write a song with this structure, this tempo and this melody. Find out why this printer isn't working, and fix it. Read this article to find these bits of information.

Figure out how to make spaghetti in the kettle without gumming it up. Explain to this youtube commenter why they completely misunderstand genetics in 500 words or less. That kind of thing. I enjoy all these.

I'm unhappy when I've got...a different kind of problem. A large, unclearly defined, possibly insoluble problem.

Design a two week course for a group of students you haven't met yet and whose abilities, personalities and preferences you don't know. Write five songs in ten days. Advise someone on "the best laptop" they should buy, when they don't know what they'll want to do with it and aren't even sure how much money they want to spend.

Decide what I want to do with my life. Decide whether I want a boyfriend or not. Chose a mobile phone from the fifty almost interchangable models, none of which do everything I want - and some of which have specs that are, well, lies. That sort of thing. It just makes me want to give up and crawl under a rock.

So yes, I have a job. Namely...the two week course I mentioned. I have a free hand, no resources, no information, and only the vaguest possible preparation. And yes, it's depressing me.

All this time I thought I was aimless because I was depressed. Maybe I was depressed because I was aimless.

School's Doubt for Summer

  • Discover a hitherto unknown English school, five minutes walk from my home, run from someone's basement. And it urgently needs a teacher.

  • Phone them up, get promised they'll arrange and interview later in the day.

  • Get called three hours later to say...can you come in on Monday.

  • Go to the interview, get told a lot of nebulous stuff about how the school works. Short version: Keep a dozen fourteen year old's occupied for four hours a day - plus whatever's needed.

  • The age and nationality of the children is to be confirmed. And so's their level of ability, if any, in English.

  • They'll let me know on Tuesday whether they need me, but seeing as there's no other applicants, they should.

  • Nothing.

  • Phone the school.

  • Listen to a whispered conversation between two collegues about how a third collegue's not there and hasn't done their job, plus some stuff about the other applicant.

  • Get told they'll phone on Thursday.

  • Mention the other applicant. Get told there isn't one.

I have a rule. Tell me the truth and give me respect, and I'll do everything I can to help you. Bullshit me, and I owe you nothing, least of all loyalty.

Wise Wednesday - 10

Video Games / Video Sex

From a recent blog discussion on whether video games are (or could ever be) an art form - I wrote this comment but don't think I got around to posting it.

I often hear the arguments about video games being art applied to other forms. For instance:

Many people believe that pornography can never be art because they can't imagine it being great art. There are two obvious problems with this view.

1) Even if it's true that no pornography is great, that in itself doesn't preclude it from being an art form. If all sculptures but ten bad ones were to be destroyed, sculpture would still be an art form - and one with the potential for greatness in the future.

2) A very small number of porn films are erotic masterpieces - just as a very small number of erotic paintings are more than pinups.

Of course, any movie that sets out to be a masterpiece of any genre is likely to fail miserably. I think classics usually happen by accident.

Now substitute "Horror Novels" for "Pornography".

Now substitute "Video Games".

Finally, ask what pornography, horror novels and video games all have in common, against religious portraits, madrigals and ballet.

Are many religious portraits actually much good as paintings? No. Are some horror novels well written? Yes. So why is there the persistant feeling that a photo of the painting is still better than a PDF of the novel?

It's simple - one has prestige and the other doesn't, and this whole debate is based on a confusion between prestige of the genre and quality of the example.

The question of why one form of media has more prestige than another...is a question of history. But not art history.

Comment on this from Aethelread here.

I have found my soul. It is East European, electronic, supersonic, and on youtube.

Wise Wednesday - 9

Now Then, Children

My first day of being a teacher. Indeed, of being a teaching school.

Student 1 is not answering his phone.

Student 2 is an adjunct of student 1, and doesn't have his own phone.

Student 3 is somehow both too ill to come to lessons, and too busy doing other things - but not too ill to do them.

Student 4 has postponed.

I still don't have a name for my peripatetic school. I'm thinking "Logopolis" - partly because it means "City of Words", but mostly because it's an old Doctor Who story.

Failing that, "The Queen's English Academy" might be appropriate. You think?

There's "Sifr", an Arabic word from which we get both "Cypher" and "Zero" - the former being vaguely language related and the latter, well, nevermind.

I've got a contract all written up - for legal and accounting purposes. Odd how people are up for doing things until there's a bit of paper telling them to do it.

Freezeframe Friday - Politics Edition

A Load of Bankers

I've been with my bank (HSBC) since I was thirteen. Why HSBC? Because when I was thirteen, there was a branch just around the corner - in what is now a very expensive and permanently empty wine bar.

Odd how decisions which affect your life decades later are made on one moment's convenience. Which then stops being convenient.

Anyway, I've had multiple accounts before with no problem, so yesterday I tried to set one up for my burgeoning business empire. Not an actual business account for paying expenses, because when you talk and think for a living, your only outlays are pens and paper. No, just a current account for incomings to come into.

They won't let me.

HSBC have a new policy, whereby I'm only permitted to have a second account if I've been in full time employment for at least three months, with a monthly income of at least GBP500.

Yes. They will only let me let them use my money if I don't look like a credit risk - even though there's no risk to them because I'm lending not borrowing.

Which means I can only use them to set up my business...if I've already set up the business. This is known as a Circular Depedancy in computer programmming, Gross Stupidity in ordinary life, and Absolutely Normal where there are more bureaucrats than brain cells.

So I went to a different bank - the Co-Operative Bank. No trouble setting up the account, no impossible tasks to prove I exist, no pressure to adopt an account type called "Plus" or "Extra" which does nothing but cost me money.

Oh, and I get a FREE credit card. A shiny black one. Yippee. Which they're really really keen that I use. So much so that if I don't use it for a three month period...they won't let me use it at all. So there.

Um. Okay. If they want to threaten me with taking away something I don't want but they're desperate I have, I think I can live with that.

There may be no such thing as an intelligent bureaucracy, but you can sometimes shop around for types of stupidity that do you no harm.