Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Three ways in which the internet is terrifying

Only three?

Obviously the internet is terrifying in a wide variety of ways, not least of which is the ease with which one stumbles into frothing loons, conspiracy theorists and Trump-supporters. Frequently all three rolled into one. However, those are not the dark and daunting corners of the internet that I'm talking about. There are three recent experiences I've had that have left me alarmed, terrified and depressed in turn.

You have no privacy

Before Christmas, I ordered something online. And in my haste to type my address into the delivery information box, I swapped the digits in my house number. And since number YX HomeRoad has the same postcode as number XY HomeRoad, the address was accepted and off the package went. Time passed and I wondered where it had gone. I checked and double-checked the order and the predicted delivery date. I was just warming up to send an irate email when I triple-checked and spotted my typo. So, I went round to the wrong house to ask if they'd had my parcel. Except I never got as far as asking... the man in the house opened the door, took one look at me, and said, "Ah, I've got your parcel here." Not unnaturally, I asked how he knew it was for me... and it turned out he'd looked up my name on the internet and found my profile picture on Facebook, so he knew what I looked like. He'd also discovered where I worked in WorkTown, and what I did there. To say I was perturbed was an understatement. On the other hand, he hadn't found out where I lived, so I guess I should be grateful for small mercies.

They ARE watching you

I've just recently signed up to LinkedIn, and am in the process of piecing together a professional network. Partly I'm doing this because it vaguely feels like it might be a good idea one day. Mostly I'm doing it so I can check out potential interview candidates when they send us their CVs. When I first logged in and signed up, I was astonished that the list of "people you may know" did indeed include vast swathes of people I do know. I hadn't handed over my address book, or social media identity to LinkedIn, so how did it know? More worrying, among the suggested contacts were TheEx, and his best friend (our Best Man). I don't even want to know why LinkedIn thinks we should be connected, but that is right out. And as if that weren't bad enough, ExBestMan has sent me a "connect" request, asking to join my professional network. Given he hasn't spoken a single word to me since TheEx walked out the door 11 years ago, and in that inaction hurt me very badly, this is also right out.

Having freaked me out completely with whatever algorithm allowed it to know who all my friends are from the get go, LinkedIn went another step into the Dark Side a few days later. I phoned the plumber, from my mobile, to arrange to have the boiler serviced. The next morning, LinkedIn suggested I should add the plumber to my network. How did they know? (I'm assuming I'm in the plumber's address book now, and he's set his address book to link to his LinkedIn profile. When I say "assuming", what I actually mean is "hoping", because the alternative is just a bit too terrifying.)


GOMI appears to be a website dedicated solely to be being bitchy and foul to other people. A site fuelled entirely by negativity and criticism. More specifically, it stands for Get Off My Internet, and is set up to mock and humiliate other bloggers. Some of it has, apparently, got really personal, and just reeks of the kind of bullying and unpleasantness that the anonymity of the internet has given free rein to. Now, I'm as happy as the next person to mock the absurd, point fingers at pretension and smirk at stupidity, but running an entire website dedicated to sneering and abuse seems to be taking it all a bit far*. They even give awards for the blog they hate the most. How unpleasant does your mindset have to be that you think it's "fun" to launch unprovoked attacks on members of the public and tell them you hate them/their lives/their writing? Because that's what most bloggers are - just people. Not famous people, not influential people, not publicity whores, not important, wealthy or dangerous people. Just people. And there's quite a simple solution when interacting with people - if someone writes a blog that you don't like, and isn't actually harming anyone, then you can just not read it.

I've read plenty of blogs. Blogs of smug motherhood with perfect, lentil-curry-eating, Boden-wearing children. Blogs of how hard it is to sell your four-bedroom Islington house and self-build an organic yurt in Copenhagen. Blogs that have become successful and started to have more and more adverts "sponsored content" and less and less witty, engaging, honest content. Blogs that seem to be sensible rational human beings right up until they launch off into an anti-vaccination rant**. And all of them I've given up on when they ceased to be interesting, or entertaining, or have anything whatsoever in common with my own life and outlook. It was quite easy, I just stopped reading them. And astonishingly, I had absolutely no desire to go online and declare that the authors of these blogs were horrible people.

You might think that I'm concerned about GOMI in case someone decides to lay into me for my bad parenting, or my terrible writing, or my smug bragging about LittleBear. But given that, at an ambitious estimate, I think there are about 40 of you regularly reading this, I don't think there's any risk I'm going to crop up on their radar. It does give me pause for thought about considering spreading the word about the existence of my blog though. The world is full of self-righteous, superior arses who think that they have carte blanche to rip apart the writings of anyone they don't happen to enjoy reading, just for fun. I don't think I want to be part of a world like that. I think I prefer the other 50% of the internet, where people post pictures of cute kittens.

And since one of our suppliers of precision vacuum equipment has decided to make a calendar with pictures of kittens on scientific instrumentation, here's the happy side of the internet:

Vacgen's kittens on a vacuum manipulator

Happy Internets to you all.

* Yes, I know GOMI isn't the only website that exists solely to be unpleasant about other people's endeavours, but it's my current example. 

** Or pro-disease as I like to think of the anti-vaccination brigade.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Customers who vex me

When I went on maternity leave to have LittleBear, my company employed a new person, who also stayed on after my return. One of the good things about having an extra person, aside from it meaning we weren't all insanely over-worked, was that I was able to dump delegate a lot of customer support. I hate customers. But M took over most of my customer support duties, which was just fine with me. Unfortunately (for us) M has now moved on to potentially greener pastures, and the customer support monkey has landed back on my shoulders.

On Thursday, my boss ambled over and asked, "would you rather deal with the Portuguese customer or the SIMS* customer?" I knew that neither of us knew anything whatsoever about the Portuguese customer, as that had been M's project. I also knew that I probably had more detailed knowledge of the SIMS instrument in question, but my boss has more years experience in SIMS. So I did what I thought was the decent thing, threw myself on my sword, and volunteered to handle Portugal. And despite the fact that I ended up sat at my computer, gazing at emails and photographs and yelling obscenities at the screen regarding the wit, intellect and parentage of my Portuguese customer, I still got the better half of the deal.

The SIMS instrument in question has been installed on the other side of the world. It costs about a quarter of a million pounds, has been provided with a site specification that requires its installation in a lab with low vibration, limits on the temperature range, stability of the mains power, supplies of high grade bottled Oxygen and Nitrogen, and a clean room for sample preparation. It is a precision scientific instrument, many parts of which can only be handled when wearing sterile gloves. Most of the internals of the instrument operate at 2,000 volts, with some sections at 5,000 volts and a further section at 25,000 volts. All of these voltages are generated and supplied from large electronic control units that we also supplied.

The support request we had came via our agent, who reported that the PC had stopped working on the instrument. He (in his eyes) had heroically diagnosed the problem. The "lab" the instrument was installed in had such high humidity that water had condensed in the computer and it had stopped working. He had removed the power supply and the memory from the PC, dried them with a hot air blower and put them back. His request? That we supply a replacement PC that was more "stable" as the customer was not happy to have spent so much money for something that stopped working.

Now, I know that not everyone knows and loves electricity the way that I do, but let's just stop here for a moment and consider if there are any important things that we do all know about electricity...

Had a good think?


I hope you're with me on this, as I'm pretty certain that the one thing we all know is that electricity and water don't mix. Dropping your hairdryer in the bath is generally seen as a Bad Idea. Pouring tea into the back of your television? Also frowned upon. Hosing down your PC with a sprinkler? Never a success.

So what do we think about running a computer in a room with such high humidity that water condenses into actual droplets inside it and it needs drying with an industrial hairdryer? Probably not what we'd call a wise course of action. Now let's try and imagine whether we think that having water dripping around the place is going to be a good idea when we have a 25,000 volt power supply in the quarter-million-pound, precision scientific instrument? I'll give you a clue. My clue begins with "b" and ends with "ang".

We probably should have known that this instrument was not going to be loved and cared for when a dog wandered in off the street and went to sleep underneath it during the on-site training. The layers of dirt and dust on the floor might have given us a hint that they hadn't quite grasped the concept of "laboratory" let alone "clean room". And now here we are, with a customer who is liable to blow his instrument up in a spectacular, watery, arcing, loud, dangerous explosion. And he wants us to replace his PC to "solve" the humidity problem.

Like I said, a Portuguese customer who fails to read the labels on this equipment is easy in comparison**. I am delighted to say that my boss was feeling quite robust when he replied, so the damp customer received short shrift. Essentially he was told, "unless you provide a suitable laboratory with a controlled climate for the operation of your instrument, we will not support it. Your instrument is NOT under warranty if operated in the conditions you describe. Don't talk to me again until you have sorted this out."

It's a mystery why M would want to leave, when he had people like this to deal with every day, isn't it?

* Not the computer game, but Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry (SIMS) - one of the techniques we specialise in. We make big, shiny instruments for analysing materials' surfaces.

** No, I'm not joking. He has three controls labelled "pulse width", "pulse amplitude" and "static extract". If you had a wire labelled "static extract" and it was plugged into a socket marked "static extract" would you seriously contact the manufacturer to ask, "is the static extract output adjusted with the pulse amplitude control?" No, I didn't think you would. My customer did. I think I've mentioned before that I don't always have a great deal of respect for people just because they have a PhD.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Things my hands are handy for

As I believe I've mentioned, I mashed my hands a bit last week. They're healing nicely now, though I haven't been brave enough to peel the steri-strips off yet, and the bruising and tenderness is still pretty bad. Six days of having fairly unhandy hands has revealed to me some surprising ways in which the backs of my hands are really quite important. Prior to this I treated them rather as the poor relations of the appendage family - there to make sure the fronts of my hands were attached to something, but not actually useful in their own right. As it turns out, there are a variety of ways in which I really like the backs of my hands, and have found their incapacitation rather, well, incapacitating:

Wearing gloves. If you can't bend your hands in the middle, and contact with the backs of your hands is painful, then gloves are basically Right Out. Which is obviously why the cold snap started this week.

Putting tights on. Turns out I thread my whole hand into my tights to get them on. Or wear socks instead this week.

Doing the laundry. All of LittleBear's clothes are inverted as they are removed and flung on the floor. All of LittleBear's clothes thus needing turning right-side-out again. LittleBear's sleeves are even narrower than my gloves.

Reading a book. This was a Major Issue. I'd never realised quite what an interesting contortion a hand has to make to hold a book open, in a comfortable position. Or that an un-grippy, un-bendy hand won't contort comfortably. So I was forced to adopt a posture rather more akin to a monk holding a bible. Not at all comfortable. I don't think I'll become a monk.

Tucking my clothes in. It's cold out, and I really dislike draughts sneaking in around my midriff, so I like to tuck at least the base layer in. Just casually slide my hand into the waistband.... aauughhhhhh....

Getting up from sitting on the floor. Time spent with LittleBear is invariably spent sitting on the floor. And then just bunch your hands into fists, fists on the ground, push up.... and collapse on the ground whimpering and cradling your hands. Bugger.

Getting anything out of my handbag. My handbag is a place of Doom And Frustration at the best of times. Whatever I want is always at the bottom, or somehow inside an inner pocket that I didn't even know existed. Now my handbag also seems to be magically filled with hard, sharp, lumpy things that conspire to stab, prod and crush my hands the moment I even consider trying to find my keys. And don't even mention pockets. They're smaller than gloves.

Closing doors. Who closes doors with the backs of their hands? That's just absurd! Turns out I do, if I'm already holding something in my hands. Just a little nudge with the back of the hand to swing the door closed, and then, "oops" that thing I was carrying is now on the floor as the pain prevents me keeping hold of it.

Or perhaps that should be Handnote? Either way, the glue and steri-strips are now off, and the cuts have healed beautifully. But they also still hurt, so most of the above remains true. Apart from holding a book, which is now a doddle. If I were to choose one thing to improve first, it would have been the ability to hold a book, so this is A Good Thing.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Perverse psychology

I've been at this for just over four years and I swear I am no closer to understanding the workings of my son's mind than I was four years ago. In fact, I might be marginally more mystified now than I was then. At least when he was a baby he couldn't speak and confound me with his thought processes.

After last term's contretemps over swimming, I had a certain amount of trepidation regarding restarting swimming with the same teacher again. To which end I made sure I took LittleBear swimming every week during the Christmas holiday, and to my great delight he absolutely loved it, and completely overcame his fear of going underwater. Or did he?

Last week, there was more than a hint of reluctance to get in the pool. This came as something of a surprise as LittleBear had been full of enthusiasm about going swimming, right up to the moment he was stood on the edge of the pool, at which point he started whimpering and continued to cry and whimper for a good ten minutes through the lesson. Teacher even made the fatal mistake of threatening LittleBear. Admittedly the threat was to send Mummy to the changing room so he couldn't keep watching me and ignoring Teacher, but nonetheless, it was a threat, and it didn't help. By the end of the lesson however, he was doing splendidly, high-fives all round, lots of praise, lots of cuddles and LittleBear announced, "I was proud of myself!" with a hint of amazement.

Having faced his fears, overcome them, and been praised, I thought the worst was over. Yep, you're right, any parent who has ever thought that has had a nasty shock waiting around the corner, but I still have moments of insanely naive optimism in this whole parenting adventure. So I carried on thinking the worst was over right up until last Friday. Last Friday, I was unable to take LittleBear for our "fun" swimming, having mashed my hands at work and been temporarily rendered unable to be immersed in water. Last Friday LittleBear was sad not to go "fun" swimming. Last Friday LittleBear started to declare he didn't like swimming lessons, he only like swimming with me. And so, throughout the weekend, he increasingly frequently announced that he didn't like swimming, didn't like "being ordered around", didn't like Mondays at all, because of the swimming lessons, was worried, didn't want to go, didn't like deep water, didn't like not being able to touch the bottom, didn't like jumping in, didn't like going underwater. You name it, he didn't like it.

This general bleating escalated as Monday progressed until it was almost time to set out for swimming and my poor boy sat on my lap sobbing, his bottom lip doing the full tremble, telling me he was afraid and worried and didn't think he'd ever enjoy swimming lessons ever again. He was almost inconsolable, but I did somehow (and I now forget how) manage to jolly him along and get him in the car. We had a packet of maltesers ready as a treat for after swimming, on the condition he tried his best. But as we walked into the pool room, the bottom lip got going again, and then before I knew it, there we were in the changing room, sobbing and cuddling and panicking. Having learnt my lesson last term, I didn't scold, or threaten, or get cross. I just cuddled my boy, got him to take a deep breath, and dried his tears. I was a gnat's whisker from just scooping him up and taking him home, because I couldn't see any way for this to end well for anybody. Having made the promise to myself that I would leave swimming if it ceased to be a positive experience, it was time to make the same promise to my boy.

So, I held his face and kissed my baby and told him that if he could just today try his very best to see if he might enjoy it, then if he didn't enjoy it we wouldn't have to come again. <sniff>... <hiccough>... "Are we allowed to do vat Mummy?" <sniff> "Yes darling, it's up to Mummy whether we come or not."

At which point, my baby gave another sniff, and consented to wriggling into his costume, and hand in hand we walked out to the pool. The other children were already in the pool, but the teacher had seen the state LittleBear was in, so he came over to the side and reached his hands up to LittleBear, "It's alright buddy, just take my hands now". But instead of taking Teacher's hands to be lifted in, LittleBear just jumped in to him. Just like that. Of his own volition.

LittleBear then proceeded to have a fabulous lesson, no tears, no fear, no fuss. Today's lesson was all about going under water, and LittleBear wore a pair of (borrowed) goggles for the first time so he could see to retrieve things from the bottom of the pool. ("It's so clear Mummy!") Whether it was the goggles, or the knowledge that this was actually an optional activity I don't know, but at the end my LittleBear clambered out and informed me he loved it, and could we do exactly the same things next Monday please.

So we came home, ordered LittleBear his very own pair of goggles, and I sat and pondered over the peculiar psychology of my child. I think I can now confidently say that I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what will happen before, during and after next week's lesson. I can also safely say that whatever happens before the lesson cannot be taken as any sort of indicator of the enjoyment or success of the lesson. If I were a normal human being, this would be evidence that there is no point in worrying. As I am me however, this means that I can spend a week imaging every possible permutation of behaviours and worrying about all of them.

Saturday, 16 January 2016


Today LittleBear declared he was a "Why-ologist". You or I might think that this is a surprisingly perceptive, and self-aware, view of life as a four-year old. In fact, it turns out to be the technical term for someone who studies live dinosaurs. Because the idea that the dinosaurs really are all gone is basically not acceptable. So, there we were with two toy dinosaurs, a tool kit and a doctor's kit, and LittleBear decided to teach me how to be a Why-ologist.

First, it was important to understand the potential hazards of handling dinosaurs. These particular specimens "have venomous spines on their backs, but they can retract them into their skin like a cat's claws, and they have venomous teeth and venemous claws. If you have the right kind of tough clothes then the venom can't get you, but if it touches your skin it will kill you. So you have to wear special gloves."

Then, I had to be introduced to all the tools:

"This (a chisel) is for stroking along their skin so you can feel what the skin feels like because the feeling bounces up from the skin into your hand so you can feel it without getting venomed."

"This (random metal widget) is for them to stroke along you to find out what your skin feels like."

"This (a set square) is for putting oxygen into them if they can't open their mouths or noses to breathe."

"This (a saw) is for opening them up so that you can see inside them to make sure everything is OK and then these (nails) are for closing them up again." (When asked if perhaps they might need anaesthetic for this, frankly terrifying, procedure, I was informed it didn't hurt them and they were fine...)

"This (a strange bent piece of metal) is for looking into their bottoms to see if they're going to poo so you can run a long way away because their poo is venomous from the venom they swallow from their teeth."

"This (a spanner) is for checking if their teeth are OK without touching their teeth and getting venomed."

"This (a small hammer) is for hammering their eyes back in if they come unscrewed. Once you've hammered them back in they never come out again." (Oh dear lord, this is getting nasty...)

"This (a screwdriver) is for stroking them with" (a slightly less stomach-churning proposition than some).

"This (a large hammer) is for getting them into the zoo once we have checked that there's nothing wrong with them." (Pleased to know we have a thorough quarantining system at the dinosaur zoo, but slightly concerned by the use of a hammer)

"This (a workbench) is the table for putting their food on at the zoo, and you hide their food all over it so they can't find it all straight away." (Good to know the zoo keeper's explanation of enriching the tigers' environment sank in. Foolish mother that I am, I asked if any of the food was hidden under the workbench: "Sometimes, but they see it straight away because they're low to the ground.")

Once I had been educated in the basics of Why-ology I was allowed to assist in a health assessment of one of our specimens. Having sawn open the belly, there was a certain amount of tooth-sucking and head-shaking, so we then needed to take the dinosaur's temperature. Unsurprisingly my digital thermometer recorded a dangerously low temperature for the patient, so he then needed to be dosed up using (empty) calpol and calprofen syringes, plus a spoonful of mysterious medicine that I was informed contained rats. "And we mustn't have any dinosaur medicine Mummy, because it's poisonous for people, and they mustn't have our medicine because that's poisonous for them." So it seems as though LittleBear took on board everything I said about the cat's medicine definitely not ever, ever being for people.

Having performed amateur surgery and pharmacology on the poor creature, he was then packed off to the zoo, by means of a hammer. I really don't know where the hammer came into it. I'm not entirely sure I want to know either, not after discovering what the small hammer was for anyway.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

If a picture paints a thousand words...

...do two pictures paint two thousand words?

Picture Number One is an illustration of the perils of removing a large vacuum pump from its housing...

1. Grasp handles "A" firmly and pull towards you.

2. The frame on which the handles are mounted will roll towards you on bearings located in the bearing-channel "B".

3. As the first set of bearings exit the bearing channel, the pump"C" will drop sharply towards the floor, as indicated by the large red arrow. You are now supporting most of the weight by the handles.

4. Failure to support the full weight (41kg) of pump "C" will result in your knuckles coming into rapid contact with frame corners "D". These corners are raw machined aluminium and may be sharp.

5. Seek medical attention.

Picture Number Two is an illustration of the outcome of Step 4 and Step 5:

Interestingly, the wounds are considerably worse than they look in the pictures. The nurse-practitioner who patched me up was quite concerned that the left hand might have nerve or tendon damage. They're now held together with steri-strips and glue, and I'm under strict instructions not to get them wet for the next five days. Both hands. Dry. For five days. With a 4-year old. That'll be easy won't it?

I think we can manage many things by such exciting departures as "skipping bathtime" when BigBear is still at work, and "eating things that don't need much work" since I don't seem to be able to hold a knife. Quite how I'm going to wash myself is beginning to concern me somewhat. I guess the bonds of marriage will be tested for a few days...

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The Importance of Sleep

We all know how much sleep matters, right? More importantly, we all know how much it matters that certain members of our family are well rested. Lack of sleep leads directly to the very worst of days...

... the days when nothing you do is right. Where the very act of choosing which clothes to wear is fraught with danger and can lead to a heap of clothes on the floor for no apparent reason. Isn't that the favourite shirt? And the most-loved trousers? Not today apparently. By the time the family is actually herded downstairs for breakfast, you can guarantee tears have been shed, and "No! I will not!" has been yelled at me more than once. And we haven't even got close to (a) choosing breakfast and (b) getting everyone to sit down to eat it without wandering off halfway through a piece of toast because "I just have to do this..." And by the time the rogue wanderer has returned to the table and is prepared to consider the drink that Daddy had been dispatched to acquire, that drink is no longer acceptable because it's the wrong temperature. Really.

... the days where everything you suggest is just plain wrong. Play a game? Nope, not that game, not that one either. Build a den? Nope, no dens today. Reading? Doesn't want to. The only acceptable activity is apparently going to the park. Why would I want to go to the park? It's cold and wet and muddy and foul outside, but it would appear that we absolutely must leave the warmth and comfort of the house and all the toys and books and games today. Inexplicable.

... the days when the bliss of bathtime and bedtime awaits, and there's something lovely and warm and comforting to look forward to, where you know there'll be cuddles and snuggles and love and it'll all be OK. And then there's water on the bathroom floor, and apparently it's all my fault despite the fact I genuinely have no idea how the water got there, but nonetheless there's no calm or tranquility, just more yelling.

... the days when I'm tucked up warm in bed, and can only hope that Mummy is going to be sensible and go to bed early so she won't be so over-tired again tomorrow.

signed: LittleBear

Monday, 11 January 2016

Updates, various

Update1: Swimming

Before Christmas we had the trauma of swimming, followed rapidly by the salvation of swimming. And I was left with the dilemma of what to do. Or rather oh-my-god-what-should-I-do-should-I-carry-on-swimming-oh-help-oh-no-what-if-it-all-goes-wrong. Repeated ad infinitum over the course of rather too many nights.

In the end, I decided, for good or ill, that I would continue with the current swimming teacher. Mostly I decided this because LittleBear said he wanted to. And that seemed like the best argument. If LittleBear professed himself to be happy, then who am I to second guess him? So, today... along we went. And for the first ten minutes my LittleBear whimpered and cried and shook his head and desperately, desperately didn't want to jump in, or put his face in the water. And I sat on the side, almost gnawing my fingers off, fearing I'd made a terrible, terrible choice. BUT LittleBear carried on with the lesson anyway. And this time, perhaps aided by a reprieve from teaching small monsters that the Christmas holidays provided, the teacher was much more positive and encouraging. Still firm, but kinder, and full of praise, and hugs, and high fives when LittleBear did the things he was asked. And by the end of the lesson? When the teacher asked who wanted to go down and touch the bottom of the pool, LittleBear was the first to volunteer, and he came out of the pool with a bounce, and I was so proud of him, and told him so (perhaps more often than was entirely necessary).

I'm still not convinced we won't have the same performance next week, but I do now know that LittleBear is beginning to master the ability to overcome a fear and be proud of himself, which is a pretty good life lesson. And I'm also 100% prepared to simply leave the classes if LittleBear is not thriving or his confidence is broken by fear again. I think that's a big internal change for me. I may have paid for the classes, but I don't owe the swimming school anything. It's not my duty to make my child suffer to keep their classes going. And the money is unimportant compared to my LittleBear's wellbeing. It's been very freeing to be able to say, "I can always leave. It won't matter."

Update 2: Schooling

It may not have been apparent to some readers here, but I had an awesome upswelling of kindness on Facebook after voicing my fears about the school application process. And the upshot was that I overcame my terror of phone calls, and I phoned the school to ask for a tour. So tomorrow morning, I shall be visiting the school with lovely friend L (she of the children's party). At the very least I can ask if they have a feel for the size of intake. I'm sure they'll say "we don't have any official statistics", but at least I'll have asked and won't therefore be tormenting myself with wondering whether I should have asked.

Update 3: Star Wars

OK, so maybe you weren't expecting an update on Star Wars, but I had a bit of a self-pitying bleat on Facebook and in RealLife about my lack of opportunity to go and watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I was utterly, utterly gobsmacked to be phoned at the weekend by my boss and invited to the cinema with his son on Saturday afternoon. This may not astound you, but my boss is not exactly renowned for (a) empathy or (b) noticing or remembering anything about other people's private lives, so this was an extraordinary act of kindness. Either that or I really, really, really bleated about not going*. As it happens, I couldn't go, but instead I went on my own on Sunday evening, to a cinema with awesome reclining seats. More comfortable than my own sofa, and with an obscene quantity of popcorn, which my own sofa never has. Herewith some random thoughts, hopefully un-spoilerish:

1. I loved the references back to the old films. The repeated scenes, the nods to original dialogue, Harrison Ford's knowing lopsided smile as he referenced things he filmed all those decades ago. This was a film made by someone who loved the originals and wanted to acknowledge them. Thank you JJ Abrams

2. I loved having a female character who didn't need her hand holding.

3. I do hope there's going to be a better reason for characters turning to the dark side than George bloody Lucas managed with his petulant teenage angst for Anakin Skywalker. No reasons have been given yet, but I live in fear.

4. I temporarily thought Admiral Ackbar was a supporter of Scottish Independence:

Admiral Ackar of Auchterarder?

5. I remember Mark Hamill as being a particularly poor actor, and was worried about how he might come across this time. He handled his lines fine.

6. I absolutely loathed the stupidly gung-ho "I'm the greatest pilot" Poe. I know he was supposed to be an over-the-top caricature. At least, I hope he was. I still wanted to slap him. A lot.

7. I felt vaguely wistful watching the scenes filmed in the Lake District, and both want to get back there on holiday soon, and also fly a TIE-fighter there. I suspect I may only achieve one of those wishes.

8. The way Han Solo said Supreme Leader Snoke's name sounded just like "snoek" to me, which is much funnier than the Supreme Leader was supposed to be.

* Yes, it was the latter.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Three months and a million miles

So it turns out, sometimes I over-react. I even over-think things. And occasionally I might possibly worry too much. I know, who'd have thought it?

Last October, we went to a children's party and my LittleBear was incredibly clingy and shy and withdrawn, and I was worried and sad and it all seemed like a foretaste of life to come. It seemed as though from a tender age my LittleBear was already condemned to struggling in social situations. And I worried.

Today... we went to another children's party, in the same village hall, with the same bouncy castles and same ride-on cars. And? LittleBear didn't exactly charge straight in, but with lots of smiles and cuddles from me, it was only a few minutes before he was happily zooming round and round and round the hall on a scooter with a beaming smile on his face. And he waited until there was nobody on the bouncy castle before climbing on, but once on, he continued to play even when other children joined him. There were a few slightly worried glances my way, but all I needed to do was smile and nod at him and he just kept playing. And bouncing. And bouncing. And bouncing. And giggling.

He even joined in the game of Musical Statues (and my lovely friend L, the mother of the birthday girl) made sure he got a chocolate coin for "the best dancing" which was a generous description of the wide-boy, elbow-waving,  dancing he was doing amidst a bevy of skipping, delicate, princess-dressed four-year-old girls!

So there we were at a party, and I got to drink a cup of coffee and chat to other mothers, and watch fondly from the sidelines as my boy bounced and ran and danced and zoomed and just enjoyed himself. I was even very proud of him. He'd asked to have a turn on the most desirable ride-on toy, and a fellow small boy had kindly relinquished it. A little while later, LittleBear bounced up to me (no longer on said desirable ride-on) to inform me that someone else had wanted to ride on it and he'd let them because he'd had his turn. He's four. And he knew that he'd had his turn. I am even happier about that than I am that he enjoyed the party without holding my hand the entire time.

Three months ago, my LittleBear's comfort zone was small and he was attached to me on a six-foot piece of emotional elastic. Any event that disturbed his fragile equilibrium caused him to bounce back to my lap.

Today, my LittleBear's comfort zone was large and he was attached to me on a village-hall sized piece of emotional elastic. Any event that surprised or delighted him caused him to bounce back to me to tell me about it.

There's probably a lesson in here. Probably, "it's just a phase" would more or less cover it, and looking back, I think that was a lesson I claimed to have learned when LittleBear was a baby. So, that's about 4 years ago. And I still haven't quite fully read, learned and inwardly digested that particular lesson. To the bottom of the class with you PhysicsBear...

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

If I ignore it, it's not happening

School Admissions.

A phrase to strike fear into the heart of many a parent. A problem that I am currently pretending doesn't really exist. Well, I say I'm pretending, what's really happening is that half my mind is pretending there is no problem, while half my mind plunges into a dark bottomless pit of nameless terror, in which the worst possible outcome is so awful I haven't even got as far as any "what ifs..." but am stalled at an internal, soundless scream of the kind that nobody else can hear in the nightmares that haunt the darkest hours.

LittleBear is due to start school in September, and the deadline for submitting an application is midnight on 15th January. HomeVillage has a school. I have applied for a place for LittleBear at that school. I have not, however, applied for a place at any other school (yet)*. I do not have the faintest idea where else I might apply. Anywhere else will  require driving to another town or village, and would just make our lives horribly, horribly difficult. That's the "what if..." that I'm not even "what iffing..." at the moment. The blase part of my mind is simply saying "it's fine, it's all fine, everything will be fine, he'll definitely get a place, nothing to worry about...".

But... there's also the paranoid part of my mind. And the paranoid part of my mind is a dark and fearful place.

Last year there were so many children starting school in HomeVillage that they had to expand the Infant School to make room for them, and that involved temporary classrooms. It's not clear whether the "temporary" is going to extend into "permanent", thus allowing the school to take 120 pupils again this year, or whether it's going to contract back to taking only 90 pupils.

So the paranoid part of my mind takes over and starts scouring the internet for previous admissions figures, for admissions criteria, for figures that might make me feel better. But they don't. Of course they don't. The only thing that can actually make me feel reassured about whether LittleBear will get a place, is, well, LittleBear actually getting a place.

In the meantime I keep returning to the interwebs and searching, scouring, hunting, peering, pecking, prodding, desperately hoping some magical, secret piece of information will be revealed to me that will bathe my paranoid mind in a warm compote of honey and flowers. Strangely, no matter how often I look, I still can't find my compote.

I have found the basic facts, such as they are. These are the criteria used for allocating places at our local schools:
  1. Children in Care, also known as Looked After Children (LAC), and children who were looked after but ceased to be so by reason of adoption, a resident order or special guardianship order; 
  2. Children living in the catchment area with a sibling at the school (or a partner junior school) at the time of admission; 
  3. Children living in the catchment area; 
  4. Children living outside the catchment area who have a sibling at the school (or a partner junior school) at the time of admission; 
  5. Children living outside the catchment area who have been unable to gain a place at their catchment area school because of oversubscription; 
  6. Children who live outside the catchment area, but nearest the school as measured by a straight line;
We meet criterion number 3, which seems OK.

And I can find some records from what happened in previous years:

  • In 2015, after expanding, children were taken all the way to criterion number 6 and there were still spaces left, but who knows what size the intake will be set at this year? <state: mild panic>
  • In 2014, children were taken all the way to criterion number 6. <state: gently calm>
  • In 2013, children were taken all the way to criterion number 6. <state: warm bliss>
  • In 2012, children were taken only to criterion number 3. Gulp. When that happens, priority is given based on distance from the school. The furthest away child given a place only lived 0.914 miles from the school. Apparently one child was banished to school in the next village, eventually leading to the whole family moving house. We live (quick check) 0.72 miles away. <state: nausea and palm-sweats>
  • In 2011, children were taken all the way to criterion number 6. <state: still recovering from previous stress>

You see? There is no comfort to be had in statistics. There are no facts available about HomeVillage's population, or demographic, or what this year's intake size will be, or anything that I actually want to know. Someone, somewhere knows how many children live in HomeVillage. It's just not me. And nobody's telling me. Which means there's no way of getting any kind of handle on whether it's All Going To Be Alright. And (just to exacerbate things for those of us of an anxious disposition) you aren't notified about whether you have a place until April. April! That's another four months of worrying. You do know how much worrying I can fit in to four months don't you?

* For those not familiar with the UK state school admissions process, this does not mean LittleBear won't get a place at school, it means that he'll simply be assigned a place at wherever the Local Authority deems "best". The applications process is a means of making your preferences known.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

2015 Reading List

In 2014, for the first time, I kept a record of every book I read throughout the year, mostly as an interesting exercise for myself, to see how many books I read and what types of books they were. By the end however, I found that all I had was a list, with no real recollection of which ones I'd loved or which ones I'd hated. So in 2015, I had a go at making a few notes about each books. And this is the result. My 2015 Reading List.

In addition to the official list,  which follows, I have to put in an honourable mention to a graphic novel published in 5 parts: "Surface Tension" by Jay Gunn, who I am delighted to say is a friend of mine. I wasn't sure which month it belonged in, as it was read over such a wide time period. It is a genuine work of art - beautifully drawn and with a gripping and engaging plot. It revealed a (slightly embarrassing) weakness of mine - my visual mind appears to switch off when it perceives I have entered "reading mode" and its services are no longer required. I kept finding myself gazing at panels in the novel thinking, "wait, hang on, have I seen this character before? Which one is it? What's happening?" Because my "reading" mind had taken over and was doing its damnedest to read the words alone and ignore the pictures. Which really, really, doesn't work with a graphic novel. I had to actively re-train myself to read in a different way to be able to follow, understand and appreciate the story. Sorry Jay!

The second honourable mention has to go to the countless (and I mean that in it's literal sense - I genuinely cannot count them) dinosaur books that I have read to LittleBear. Very, very large, very, very long, very, very detailed dinosaur books. We were assembling a model velociraptor skeleton yesterday and examined the pelvic bones. LittleBear announced "it's a lizard-hipped dinosaur Mummy, a saurischian, not an ornithischian. The saurischians split into theropods and sauropods, and this is a theropod." Which told me. I clearly should have been paying more attention to the books I was reading to LittleBear. I think I paid more attention to the books I chose to read than I paid to all those dinosaur books...


The Mystery Mile - Margery Allingham
Gentle, witty and manages to leave a lot unsaid and unexplained without being irritating whilst doing so. No sense of “what? wait? what happened?” and yet a pleasant sense of “hmm, I wonder…”
The Mystery at 31 New Inn - R Austin Freeman
A proper Holmesian whodunnit, of its time and outrageous in its attitude towards women, but still romps along. Thorndyke’s assistant/narrator is just a bit too slow on the uptake and I found myself harumphing at Jervis a few times “oh for goodness sake, it’s obvious!” when once again he couldn’t piece together the blindingly obvious. Still leaves me wanting to read some more, if only to see if Jervis manages to learn a bit under Thorndyke’s tutelage!
Whispers Underground - Ben Aaranovitch
Fun, silly, fast-paced adventure. Not exactly high-art, but I can't resist a murder mystery with some magic thrown in. Really enjoying this series.
I Will Repay - Baroness Orczy
Aaagggghhh! I've enjoyed the daft romps of the other Scarlet Pimpernel books, but this was just cloying, overblown, romantic twaddle with weak, pathetic women with mysterious, complex, unfathomable hearts and strong, noble, devoted men who could merely worship their beloved's perfection. Bleugh.
Winnie the Pooh - A A Milne
OK so I read it aloud to LittleBear, but it's still a proper book, and I love it. Making myself do all the voices and reading it slowly made me enjoy it all the more.
The House at Pooh Corner - A A Milne
The final chapter still makes me weep, and is the only one I haven't read aloud to LittleBear. I took into a corner to be private with it.
The Story of My Life - Helen Keller
A really extraordinary insight into learning, language and life. A genuinely inspirational woman and book.
Sweet Danger - Margery Allingham
Exciting, funny, fun, sweet. What's no to like?


Medusa - Michael Dibdin
Fantastic writing and gripping plot. I'm always in two minds about how I feel about Zen, as he's such a morally ambiguous character. I can't help feel I'd get more from the books if I knew more Italian history and more of the way life is there. Still brilliant books though.
Flowers for the Judge - Margery Allingham
More Campion. Another good 'un.
The Truce - Primo Levi
Hard to know what to say about this. Beautifully written and immensely moving.


The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler
No pastiche or impersonation quite gets close to the genuine Philip Marlowe. Great.
The Jungle Book - Rudyard Kipling
Bought to read to LittleBear, but gobbled it up myself first. Quite surprised how much I don't remember from my childhood.
Sir Percy Leads the Band - Baroness Orczy
An early one and a proper rollicking adventure again
Broken Homes - Ben Aaronovitch
Great fun, but let down by assuming you remember the details of the plots in the previous books. A bit more recap would help.
The Big Short - Michael Lewis
As gripping as a thriller and yet it's a book charting the course of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco. Brilliant and depressing at the same time.


The Hour of the Donkey - Anthony Price
Brilliant, as always. Why these books are out of print is a mystery.
The Dead in their Vaulted Arches - Alan Bradley
I've been waiting over a year for this to come out, and it was as fantastic as I hoped. Read it in one day, and wanted it to last so much longer.
Every Day is Mother's Day - Hilary Mantel
Beautifully written. But. But. But. A dank, depressing, miserable book about grubby, dank, miserable lives. I won't be reading the sequel. There's only so much murder, adultery and child abuse I can handle.
The Envoy - Edward Wilson
I read this on a friend's recommendation and was sorely disappointed. The blurb quoted a reviewer as saying "the thinking man's le Carre" which should have warned me. Le Carre is the thinking man's le Carre. The writing was almost Dan Brown-esque, the plot lurched from twist to twist with no justification or plausibility and the details of "local colour" were laughably bad (6 inches depth of hail in June in Suffolk?) Miss.
The Long Goodbye - Raymond Chandler
Beautiful writing, the best use of simile I think I've read, great plot, and utterly timeless. Fabulous.


Christine Falls - Benjamin Black
First time I’ve read a Benjamin Black, and it was almost enough to make me give up writing anything myself. Such beautiful writing. But then, he is actually John Banville, so what did I expect? A depressing story though, despite the amazing writing.
The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel - Baroness Orczy
Short stories and very, very silly
The Case of the Late Pig - Margery Allingham
I still love reading these, and this one was as much like a warm bath with a cup of tea and a hobnob as all the others I’ve read.
The Bleeding Heart - Christopher Fowler
Another outing for Bryant and May. Funny, warm and interesting. I always find these a reliable and rewarding read.
The Night of Wenceslas - Lionel Davidson
A slow start, and not terribly likeable protagonist, but gripping in the end, once I got going. Not as good as Kolymsky Heights.
A Long way to Verona - Jane Gardam
One of my new favourite authors. This one had a lovely protagonist in a thirteen year-old girl who rather reminded me of myself.


Farewell My Lovely - Raymond Chandler
Still such fabulous writing. Another corker.
Ghostwritten - David Mitchell
Lovely writing and some interesting ideas, but in many ways a deeply unsatisfactory book. Too much left untold such that it came across as the author not actually knowing the rest of the story, but trying to be deliberately enigmatic to hide his own poor plotting.
Soldier No More - Anthony Price
Another viewpoint onto David Audley, and another convoluted and intriguing plot. Still thinking about it and trying to work out exactly what happened and why...
The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
Not at all what I was expecting, and a cast of largely unlikeable people. Meh.


Back to Bologna - Michael Dibdin
Zen is still ambiguous, but I still enjoy reading him.
The Fashion in Shrouds - Margery Allingham
Very silly, with some quite shocking ideas expressed. Campion tells his sister what she really needs is to be raped. Really?
The High Window - Raymond Chandler
Convoluted plot but fantastic writing again
Traitor's Purse - Margery Allingham
Another silly one, falling back on the old “hit on the head and lost his memory” trick, but quite moving as well.
The Silver Swan - Benjamin Black
Dark, a bit depressing, but writing that makes me want to give up writing because it’s so good.


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke
Very, very, very long. A good read with some great ideas though. I did stop and wonder quite often what drove the decision to keep it as one book when it had a structure that could have easily given itself to being more than one. Couldn’t help feeling she may have lost readers by creating such a dauntingly long work.
The Lady in the Lake - Raymond Chandler
Still love them.


The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan
Lovely writing, depressing, and at the end I felt a bit cheated by the emotional manipulation introduced by the absurd coincidences I was expected to accept. If your subject is the POW camps of the Burma “death” railway you’ve got enough heart-rending material to work with without adding in cliched romantic junk.
Salt is Leaving - J B Priestley
Fun, but the dialogue felt very much of its time. Perhaps because he captured the dialogue of the time so well?
Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel - Baroness Orczy
Daft. Again.


End Games - Michael Dibdin
Still the nagging feeling that a better grasp of Italian politics would help
The Weeping Girl - Hakan Nesser
I sort of saw where this was going, but only sort of.
Notes from a Small Island - Bill Bryson
It’s now longer since BB wrote this than the period of time over which he was looking back and reminiscing, so there were two layers or reminiscences. Still plenty of chuckles.
Coroner’s Pidgin - Margery Allingham
I seem to have not written down what I thought of this, but it's a fair bet that I enjoyed it. Have I mentioned I like Campion?


More Work for the Undertaker - Margery Allingham
Campion. Excellent.
The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss
I absolutely loved this. Gripping plot, interesting characters that it was possible to empathise with, very funny and engaging, makes me remember why I used to read fantasy novels. Really, really good. Am now incredibly angry that it’s the first part in a trilogy of which the third part hasn’t been written/published yet.
The Tiger in the Smoke - Margery Allingham
More Campion. Still excellent.
A Clubbable Woman - Reginald Hill
When unsure what to read, Dalziel and Pascoe are always a good choice.


An Advancement of Learning - Reginald Hill
Still unsure what to read, Dalziel and Pascoe still don’t let me down.
The Wise Man’s Fear - Patrick Rothfuss
Part two of the incomplete trilogy. More brilliance, more rage that I can’t finish the story.
Ruling Passion - Reginald Hill
I’m not buying any more books before Christmas, so Dalziel and Pascoe to the rescue again
Foxglove Summer - Ben Aaronovitch
Christmas brings new books! Same problem as the last one - it relies on you remembering rather too many details from the previous novel. And thus I was a bit confused at times. Too many police acronyms as well. Funny and engaging though. I’m a sucker for magic.
As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust - Alan Bradley
I adore the Flavia de Luce books, but this one headed dangerously into jumping the shark. With a change of scene, a lot of the brilliant interactions between characters was lost, and therefore some of the fun and charm went too. Good but not as good as the others.

New Year's Rissolution

I'm not usually one for New Year's Resolutions. They're just a way of starting the year with failure, and I have enough things I can get wrong, without setting myself up for any more. This year, however, we ended up trying to explain what a New Year's Resolution is to LittleBear. The best we managed was that it's something you promise to try and do better this year than you did last year, and that it's usually something that you either don't like doing very much, or is difficult, or perhaps you're not very good at. (This amendment to the definition needed to be added when LittleBear attempted to declare that his New Year's Resolution was going to be being better at building dinosaur dens. Admirable though that is, we didn't think it quite captured the spirit of the notion).

By way of an example to LittleBear, I chose a New Year's Resolution:

I will try not to shout at LittleBear just because I'm tired, when he hasn't done anything wrong.

After some thought, LittleBear then came up with not one but two New Year's Resolutions:

I will try not to do things that make Mummy cross.
I will try and make more cuddles for Mummy.

And every day so far I've had many moments in which my lovely, lovely LittleBear has thrown himself at me, wrapped his arms round my neck and declared, "this is one of my New Year's Resolution cuddles for you Mummy".

There are times I think I can't have gone too badly wrong, despite the hinted-at shouting-when-tired, if I have such a loving little boy.

And BigBear? Apparently he's so perfect he doesn't need to make any resolutions.*

* For those not actually familiar with BigBear, you may not successfully identify this as a joke. It would be hard to find anyone less arrogant than that statement implies. In fact BigBear's view of resolutions is rather the same as mine. There's not need to set oneself up for more failures than life already throws at one. And no need to jump on a bandwagon with the rest of the world either.