Monday 28 July 2008

On Carrots and Holidays

I have harvested a carrot. Not a big carrot, not a carrot you could respectably feed to visitors, but a carrot nonetheless, and one that I grew myself. But I think I harvested it a bit soon, so I'll leave the rest for a while.

Plans for the summer holiday are coming along nicely; I have found lots of things to see and do in Belfast - did anyone know that there is a candy factory in Belfast, for example, where you can see candy being made? I not only didn't know about it, but have actually seen it every time I go to the dentist and not realised. It's even called 'Aunt Sandra's Candy Factory', but I thought they just called it that.

So, at the moment I'm thinking I'll have a day of doing churches etc, a day in West Belfast, and a day following some of the Art Trails around the city. I will hopefully take in the Ormeau Baths Gallery and possibly Crumlin Road Jail. The exact itinery is still to be determined, but I will let you know.

Unfortunately I have been out of action for a week or so, due to my doctor giving me new medication which has made me feel profoundly sick and sleepless. Thankfully this is now wearing off; the correct side of it, the side that makes me all happy and not anxious, has not yet kicked in.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

A Helpful Post In Which We Consider How To Keep The Unemployed Occupied

As one who has not 2 days ago sent off her form to apply to be considered by the Daily Mail as a scourge on society, I was interested to hear that the government has come up with a new strategy to 'deal with' people who are on Jobseeker's Allowance and Incapacity Benefit (I've gone for the latter, in case you're wondering) by making them do voluntary work.

I think this is a splendid plan. I already do a little bit of voluntary work, and, while I can't commit to full-time volunteering, it would be nice to have a chance to do a little bit more, meet some new people and get out of the house a bit to somewhere that's not Tesco. It would also give me a chance to try new things, and would look half decent on my CV (which is currently going to have a fair old gap which can only reasonably be explained by admitting I spent it writing this nonsense, or by lying).

But I never trust the Labour government, and am fairly sure they will screw this up as well. Because what will all these people be asked to do? There are only so many walls that need painted, and only so much graffitti that needs scrubbed off. They're hardly likely to train people in anything much (since that would surely attract further Daily Mail wrath, along the lines of "Now Lazy Scroungers Get FREE Lessons: and YOU PAY"); on the other hand, if you match someone up to be doing a job they're already skilled at, then you can't really not pay them if they're going to do it for any length of time. It needs to be reasonably unimportant, in case a big bank or something invests locally and in one recruitment drive you lose all your workers apart from the properly sick ones, and have to put your project on hold for a while. The likes of me will have to have a break for a panic attack every half hour or so, so it can't be anything that needs lengthy concentration. So we need to find jobs with no training needed, not so skilled that anyone would expect to be paid to do them, which are reasonably unimportant, and not requiring concerted effort. And we're talking about a few million people here: we can't all be Prime Minister, even if we take turns. So what does that leave?

Let me make some suggestions:

1. Moving things around. Piles of bricks, for instance, or heaps of sand. This can go on indefinitely, moving things from one corner to another to another to another and back to the first. It requires no skill, no training, and will never be finished. For the ones who work hard, this will lay the foundation for a decent career in local government.

2. Writing for the Daily Mail. One only needs to take the words 'IMMIGRANTS', 'OUTRAGE', 'benefits', 'SCROUNGERS', 'tax' and 'house prices' and shuffle them around with various 'fill in' words like 'the' and 'and' and so on, and add photos. It's not even like The Sun where you have to be able to think of punning headlines.

3. Reality TV Show Contestants. There has to be a limit to the number of people who will willingly do this. There just has to be; the alternative is too frightening. So we will soon need people to be made to volunteer, so that the shows can continue. If there are people left over, they can be in the audience of talk shows.

4. Human Guinea Pigs. No one's that keen to volunteer since that thing that happened in England a few years ago, but they still need people to test drugs on. Perfect for people who are claiming they have a 'bad back': they'll get to lie down the whole time.

5. Building houses. This would actually be quite useful; and any idiot can lay bricks, right? Not that I've ever tried, of course, but I got proper builders in for that sort of thing and look how that finished up. Also, based on that experience, we know that any house building task can occupy as many or as few people as happen to turn up, which is handy when you don't know how many jobless people you are going to have. You could get skilled people in to do electrics and so on, obviously. The country is much in need of houses, so that first time buyers can afford a home, so this would be good for society in general.

6. Write stuff like this. Entertain people in pointless ways. If you get really good, like me, you can be a government adviser.

Dodgy Mathematics Exposed: #2, The Danger Drawing of Conclusions From Absolute Values

Every year around about now the TV Licence people bring out their latest figures on how many people are avoiding paying for a TV licence while still watching TV, and they rank the list according to city. And every year I listen in disbelief when they announce that London is the city with the most TV Licence evaders. If I happen to hear this gem on local radio, it is usually followed by something along the lines of 'and the city in Northern Ireland with the highest number of people avoiding paying the licence was Belfast'.

And every year I dig around in vain to try to find out what point on earth they are trying to convey to us with this information. It is, of course, always said in a tone that implies that the entire population of Belfast always looked a bit dodgy and if it weren't for the moderating influence of the honest villagers then the whole province would be racing headlong to hell in a handcart, so I assume this is somehow related to whatever point they're trying to make.

Now obviously you wouldn't catch 30,000 people in Portavogie failing to pay their TV Licence. But that's mainly because you'd be lucky to find 30,000 people in Portavogie with mains electricity, or indeed 30,000 people in Portavogie at all, outside of The Twelfth.

I dare say that if we did a survey of 'number of people with 2 arms' or 'number of people who had breakfast yesterday', or 'number of people who pretty much anything', Belfast would come first and Drumbo wouldn't. It might not be a winner in absolutely everything - 'number of people who own sheep' being an obvious example - but these are what are known as 'statistical blips' and do not prove anything.

So of course the wider point here is that if there are more people here than there then here will always come higher up than there in most leagues that count the number of people in any given category, and that a far more informative picture would be gained by providing us with the number of people who do these things 'per head of population'. But they don't do that.

Monday 21 July 2008

Orangefest For Dummies, Part Two

Following last Saturday's local festivities, I have been asked to elaborate on the purpose of our annual celebrations, for the benefit of those who have not been brought up in this fair land and remain uncertain. I initially refer you to last year's post, by way of introduction.

But seemingly some people (Alex, namely) are still confused, or hungry for more in the way of information, or something, and of course WhyNotSmile is always happy to help.

The main thing to understand is that "The Twelfth" (as we shall refer to it for now, but we'll come back to this) is an Important Religious and Cultural Commemoration, and involves much in the way of Religion and Culture. If this is not readily apparent, it is likely to be because you are not drunk enough, and you should probably go and consume a few gallons of cheap cider and get back to us. For those who like finer details: it commemorates the Battle of the Boyne, which was won by William of Orange; the pertinent facts about him are that he was Protestant and not, we repeat, not, Catholic. This battle was in 1690.

Since the commemoration has gone on for so long, it has, naturally, evolved a range of traditions, and we now turn to these.

We begin with the name of the event. Formerly it was known in common talk as "The Twelfth"; the more grandiose way to refer to it was "The Twelfth of July" or "The Twelfth Day of July", although the latter is more of a literary term. It has also been "The Glorious Twelfth", not to be confused with the English event of the same name, which takes place in August, has to do with killing animals for sport (I think), and from which we nicked the term (again, I think - I should point out here and now that I am typing this off the top of my head having done no research whatsoever). Occasionally it is known as "Orangeman's Day", although frankly I have only ever seen this used by my ex-colleague, Living By The Loughshore, who added the date to our work calendar as such; this may indicate that it's a Carrickfergus thing, or that Living By The Loughshore made it up, but he does strike me as the kind of chap who'd know more about this than I do. And now we are trying to rename it "Orangefest", because it sounds cheerful and maybe tourists will be fooled into coming.

The participants in this day are known as 'Orangemen' and they look like Mr Benn before he went into the changing room. It is possible, though unlikely, that Mr Benn was an Orangeman. The uniform is a black suit, white gloves, black shoes and a bowler hat, all topped off with the all-important sash, of which more presently. Women have only recently been admitted, and are known as 'Orangewomen'. They wear a black skirt, black shoes, white blouse, and the sash. The collective noun for 'Orangemen' and 'Orangewomen' is a 'lodge'.

'The sash' is a key element, being an item of clothing, a symbol of the day, a song, and in many cases a hand-me-down from generations of fathers. I believe I have in fact seen the sash my great-great-uncle Robert wore, although as to where it is now, I couldn't be sure.

And so to the main event itself - the parades. At these, the various lodges come together, get themselves some 'bands', and march around a bit. Eventually they arrive at 'the field' where they partake of refreshments, a chance to sit down, and sermons (if they were unfortunate enough to sit down in the wrong place). Then they get themselves together and walk back. There is a big parade in Belfast, and lots of little ones in various towns and villages (the latter tend to be more on the respectable side of things; the former, not so much). There are various types of bands: good, bad and terrible; they generally play hymns and a form of what we might call folk music, unless they are passing a Catholic Church, in which case they just bang the drums really loudly.

Of course, The Twelfth has had its rougher years, but more recently, the main concern is for the toursits. Belfast shuts down for anything between 2 days and 2 weeks, in the middle of the summer, mainly for the purpose of accommodating a blatently sectarian parade, but also because everyone's on holiday, so the tourist board have had their work cut out in trying to convince people that it's still worth coming, and have come up with the grand old wheeze of just pretending we're all having a great time here together at our Orangefest thanks, and why don't you pull up a bottle of cider and join us?

That two of its biggest supporters are Ian Paisley and Iris Robinson gives you an idea that there may be no need to delve any deeper (although, technically, Big Ian is not actually an Orangeman, but is a Free Orangeman, which is different in some Important Respect that has no business taking up inches here).

While we're on the topic of Iris Robinson, I almost wish I had voted DUP at the last election, so that I could write angry letters telling them I was withdrawing my vote. Come to think of it, maybe I will still write angry letters. It's just not as convincing when the only contact you've had with a party was 5 years ago when a lady turned up on your doorstep, offered you a leaflet and said 'Will you vote DUP?' in a not entirely normal questioning way, and you said 'No', thought 'Not if you were the last party on the planet' and closed the door.

Then there is The Eleventh, but I think we'll leave that for next year.

Thursday 17 July 2008

Note To Self: You Hate Being Cold And Wet, Even In The Name Of Culture

Things To Bring To Opera In The Park Next Year:

  • A small tent

  • A duvet

  • A flask of tea

  • A hot water bottle

  • Lots of waterproof things

  • Extra socks

  • More food. Definitely more food.

But otherwise it was a great night.

Stars In My Eyes

You may have heard that Google are in the process of expanding Google Maps so that you can view places in 3D - so, instead of just having an overhead view, you will be able to zoom down to street level and have a look around. They already do this for America, I think, and it's particularly useful for stalkers and burglers, since they can have a good look around from the comfort of their own homes before going out to get down to business.

Anyway, they are currently photographing Belfast, and I have now been filmed at least TWICE. Oh yes. Once on the Cregagh Road (although I think I may have been right on the edge of the frame, so you should probably not get too excited about that one), and once at the junction of the King's Bridge, Ridgeway Street and the Annadale Embankment. For the second one, I was on my bike, and definitely right in the centre of the shot.

This is possibly the closest I have ever come to being famous. It has certainly topped my previous heady claims to fame (I once met Mr Blobby, and I know someone who used to be President of the Methodist Church in Ireland).

When it is published, I expect you all to zoom in immediately and see if you can spot me.

Sunday 13 July 2008

WhyNotSmile's Summer Holiday

I love to travel to new places. I love reading the holiday brochures and websites beforehand; I get ridiculously excited about packing; I'm not overly fond of the getting there; I love being in a new place and finding out all about it; I love buying tacky souvenirs and writing postcards and taking photos; I love coming home and telling everyone about it.

So to say that I'm a bit bummed to be unable to travel this year is like saying the Pope has been sounding slightly Catholic of late.

However. There is no point in being miserable about this, so I have come up with a solution. I am going to go holidaying in Belfast. I will put myself at the mercy of the Northern Irish Tourist Board (Belfast wing), and allow them to entertain me for the duration. I am going to do things that tourists do but that I never get round to because I live here. I will take photos and write blogs. I may even learn things.

Now, clearly it is not possible to just go on holiday: it requires some planning. So, I will first do some research and decide when I am going to go on holiday, and how long I will stay. I will also decide what I am going to do and see. For example, I have never seen St Anne's Cathedral, or Clonard Monastery, or indeed anything much in West Belfast. I may go a little bit outside Belfast too, or I may decide to save that for another holiday later in the year. We shall see.

Once the library re-opens on Tuesday, I will go and investigate; perhaps on Monday I will go to the Tourist Information Place and ask for leaflets (we'll pretend I sent off for them). I will get back to you with an itinery.

Friday 11 July 2008

I Grew A Lettuce

I have harvested the first lettuce. You can see the lettuce on the chopping board in the picture below. It was very green and crispy, and much nicer than the lettuces you buy in shops. Please note that these are baby lettuces which can be grown in window boxes; that's why it's not very big.

There are several more lettuces which are ready to be harvested, and then other ones which are smaller and will provide food later in the season.

The potato plants have grown flowers, so the potatoes are also nearly ready to harvest, but not quite.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

Jobs I Believe I Could Have A Stab At: #1, Prime Minister

Being unemployed, I am, naturally, turning the occasional thought to how I might earn myself a crust or two some time in the future. I have discovered that I pays to think outside the box and to reconsider careers which I would previously not have thought myself fit for.

Such as being Prime Minister.

I had always made the mistake of thinking that in order to be Prime Minister, and therefore run the country, you needed at least a basic grasp of how to do so. You would need to know about things like Economics and be able to give Convincing Speeches about what you're doing to tackle knife crime. However, it is now clear that you can be Prime Minister (in Britain at least) without having to concern yourself with such weighty matters, and furthermore, if the entire country is about to tip over into a massive recession, you need merely to advise people 'not to waste food'. It is also possible to do this while flying to Japan to dine on truffles and caviar, which is nice.

So I got to thinking about what else I could offer advice on, if I became Prime Minister. The key, it appears, is to make sure that people feel the responsibility they must take for their own lives. Get them to keep track of the pennies, and you can be off with the pounds before they can say 'Credit Crunch'. Give the peasants something to do, and stop them revolting, basically.

Let's say, for instance, that the country was about to be hit by a massive hurricane. Why, I would tell people not to make any plans for tomorrow that depended too heavily on sunshine for success. Perhaps recommend a game of Monopoly with the children, under the dining room table.

Or, imagine there is an outbreak of a superbug in hospitals. I would swiftly recommend that everyone stays inside and tries not to break any limbs or catch any debilitating illnesses.

Or, suppose there was an approaching strike by Petrol Tanker Drivers (at nearly £40,000 a year, the current favourite candidate for Jobs I Believe I Could Have A Stab At: #2, by the way). Well, I would tell people not to panic buy petrol. And they would listen.

Yes, I think I could do this job.

Wednesday 2 July 2008

Science, and What It Might Do To Us All

Back in the days when I was a physicist (about 4 years ago now), I was a member of that venerable society, the Institute of Physics. For about a tenner a year, you got to put AMInstP (or something) after your name, and you got a magazine every month or so. The magazine was called Physics World, and yes, it was as geeky as it sounds, and of course therefore truly fascinating. It featured articles about the latest developments in physics, and also a prize crossword, which I mention just so I can tell you that I won it once and got a book on Superstring Theory, which has made me able to discuss in a more fact-based way the possibility that the universe exists in 14 dimensions, and has thereby increased my level of interestingness by several orders of magnitude (admittedly among a fairly select group of friends... no, actually, scrub that - among my friend Mark).

But getting back to the magazine; in those days, there was much excitement about the building of something called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. The LHC is essentially a large machine designed to fire stuff about in order to try to recreate conditions at the time of the Big Bang, in order to see what we can find out. This is what I love about physics: a collaborative effort by scientists from 85 countries, who hooked up to build a circular tunnel 27km in circumference, capable of firing protons about at the rate of 11,245 laps per second, costing over £5 billion so far, mainly for the purpose of just "seeing what happens". Splendid. Of course there is the usual talk that it will either prove God doesn't exist, or it won't; as ever, one can only be sure that whatever happens, both sides will quickly claim victory.

Anyway, I had kind of forgotten about this, what with one thing and another, until I read in the paper on Monday that they've got it built and they're about to switch it on.

So what's going to happen when they do? Now of course we are used to the switching-on of things; the results tend to depend on where the thing itself is based. For instance:
If it were designed, built and housed in Britain, it would blow a fuse and quietly die.
America: there would be much noisy fizzing and sparking; after a while it would quiet down and fall over.
Belfast: it would give weird results for several months; eventually someone would discover that a pack of hoods had got inside and sprayed 'Jamie Luvs Stephnie UVF 4EVA' on one of the interior mirrors; this would quickly be removed and the results obtained so far passed off as really quite good.
Zimbabwe: no results for months, and then it would declare Robert Mugabe president.

But since this is a collaborative effort and involves the Swiss, it is reasonably likely that it will actually 'work'; i.e. do something. The question is what that something will be; and in answer to this, people are starting to get a bit edgy.

This is where we need to make the acquaintance of another friend of mine from physics days: the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle. Basically this says that if you find yourself in a situation where there are a number of things going on, you can never really be quite sure what's happening. In an added twist, the more you try to pin things down, the more uncertain you will get. For instance, suppose I decide to go to the seaside next Wednesday. I can be sure that I'm going on Wednesday, but I can't know what the weather will be like. If, on the other hand, I decide to go to the seaside the next time the weather is good, then I can be sure of the weather but not sure when I will actually be going (although, glancing out the window, probably not any time soon). And it's much the same for particles, in a manner of speaking.

The Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle means that physicists tend to be a little on the uncertain side about pretty much anything. This is fine in the lab, but less good when they come up against modern media. The thing is, you see, old Heisenburg has made it impossible for physicists to be absolutely definite with regards to what will happen when the LHC is switched on, so when they are asked 'Could this create a black hole and wipe us all out?', they don't do what anyone else would do and just say 'no, certainly not' in a confident tone; they instead reply with something more like 'well, we don't think so', which of course, as far as the papers are concerned, is near enough to 'yes' as makes no difference, and so we have a frenzy, and people are telling us that once this machine is plugged in and turned on, we could be sucked into a massive black hole from which there is no escape.

There is already a group of people in Hawaii (of all places) who are trying to get a court to stop the thing from being started up in case it wipes us all out. In The Guardian on Monday, Michio Kaku attempted to allay these fears by pointing out (rather unwisely, I feel, given the context) that it is just as likely that flicking the LHC's 'On' switch could produce fire-breathing dragons (I mean, I can see where he's going with this, but I reckon that in a toss up between calming down the Hawaiians or simply unleashing another law suit, it could, with about equal odds, go either way). But anyway, the point stands that pretty much anything could, in theory, happen: we could all be sucked into a black hole, fire-breathing dragons could be unleashed, we could wake up to discover that we're all back in 1315, or 3015, or any year you care to name; equally, however, none of these is (For All Practical Purposes, as my Quantum Theory lecturer used to say) remotely likely to happen at all, and in fact, we're all at much greater risk of seahorses taking to the skies this afternoon and smothering us with a noxious mix of chemicals they've been quietly brewing at the bottom of the sea for all these years than we are of dying from a black hole unleashed by the LHC. Not that, theoretically speaking, the seahorse thing is impossible. I have to admit that.

So, when asked whether, by attempting to go back to the start of spacetime, physicists are going to wipe the whole show off the face of... well... of nothing, I guess... I think we can only bring to mind what Jaybercrow once said to Zoomtard: "Even the end of the world wouldn't be the end of the world", and hope for the best.