Saturday, October 31, 2009

Open Letter To Alan Johnson

I was almost irritated enough by this story ( to write a letter to my MP, but he's probably tied up naked in a wardrobe (bought on expenses) somewhere with an orange stuck in his mouth.

So I'll bung it in here instead, because it'll fill some space if nothing else.

Dear Mr. Johnson

Please excuse any poor typing in this letter - my keyboard has been partially disabled by a small blob of Lebanese Hashish that fell from a Camberwell Carrot I was constructing last week. Obviously I tried to suck it out (waste not want not), but I just ended up with a choking mouthful of pocket-fluff, which is weird, because this keyboard doesn’t fit in my pocket.

Anyway, I wanted to comment on your sacking of Professor Nutt, the science expert dude you appointed to advise the government (God rot its socks) on the subject of recreational pharmaceuticals. That’s Druuuuugs to you sir. On the face of things, it would appear that Nutt is failing to live up to his name, while you, Johnson, are definitely living up to yours.

The thing is, Al; may I call you Al? Does it help if I let you call me Betty? Even if I’d rather not be your long lost Pal? (Apologies to Paul Simon). The thing is, what you have in the shape of old Nutter, is an expert. That’s someone who knows more about something than you do (I suspect there’s a lot of people who fit that bill). Now, old Nutt, he says - if I may paraphrase - that Bob Hope’s less dangerous than fags and booze. He’s probably got a point, ‘cos that’s his job, you see. (Personally, I’d rather take Bob Hope on a road trip than Phillip Morris and Johnnie Walker.) And what you wrote to him is “I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy”. There, my old fruit, we agree. But that may be as far as it goes.

Lemme ask you a question, Al. Has it occurred to you that the reason there’s a mismatch between policy and scientific advice, is because the policy’s a bit Pete Tong? Eh?

The rumour we are seeing round these parts (these parts being anywhere outside the House of Commons) is that Golden - I’m sorry, I mean Gordon, Brown is neither a Smoker nor a Midnight Toker, but may well be a Joker. Let’s face it, an unelected prime minister’s gotta be having a bit of a chortle, hasn’t he?

Isn’t it about time you lot stopped pandering to popular opinion, or enforcing your own toffee-nosed holier-than-thou views on the general public just because you can? Is that just wishful thinking on my part? You can’t keep banning shit just because you, personally, don’t like it. Handguns, Fox Hunting; relatively harmless dope… Where’s it going to end? You keep messing with people’s lives on the flimsiest of pretexts for the odd vote here or there (which you clearly don’t need, see Golden Brown’s unelected status) or just because it feels good. I might not like these things either (nobody asked me), but chat with the experts and you’ll get a majority opinion that many of your banning measures (a) are based on false pretexts and (b) wont address the problems in any event.

Besides which, can’t we please have some ‘government lite’ for a while? Minimal interference in our daily lives? That might even buy you some votes! Have a read of my old pal Niccolo Machiavelli’s masterwork. He asks the question whether a prince (and I do you more service than you deserve by comparing you lot to a prince) does better by being loved or feared. The government’s recent actions mean that’ its neither loved nor feared; just laughed at, distrusted and despised.

Credit the populace with some intelligence, and treat us with some respect. We don’t expect you to always tell us the truth, you’re politicians so that would go against the grain. But when everyone can see you’re taking the piss, that’s irritating. Listen to your experts. And remember, if you’ve bought a dog, then stop trying to chase the postman yourself (when they aren’t on strike because you’ve screwed up the Post Office that is).

Anyway, my ride to the pub’s due any minute, and I’m off for a pint to wash that bloody fluff down. While it’s still legal.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Rhymes with Brindle

Last week was a momentous one for the avaricious consumer within me - I got hold of a 'toy' I've been lusting after for ages, yet have been denied on the unfortunate ground of geographical disadvantage.

I finally got my mitts on an Amazon Kindle which, until last Monday's release of the 'international' version, was only available to folks living in the US. For the uninitiated (heavens, where have you been?) the Kindle is an e-reader - a dedicated device that stores and displays digital, downloadable versions of regular books. Its pencil-thin 14x21cm frame can hold the equivalent of up to 1500 books - enough to keep the most voracious reader occupied for a little while.

Despite the fact that I am a compulsive gadget buyer and will surely die should I not continue to amass an ever growing collection of technically advanced yet potentially useless gewgaws, I always make some attempt to justify my purchases. Sometimes that can be quite a tortuous process resulting in a complex excuse, I mean justification, which would be quite a challenge for even the most credulous of us to accept as realistic.

This time, though, justification was an absolute doddle: the only thing I buy more of than gadgets and gizmos is books. Be they paperbacks, hardbacks, fact, fiction or fantasy I must have a ready supply of things to read around me. Work colleagues will attest to the regular deliveries from Amazon, and Mrs Grumbler will confirm that, in extremis, I will resort to reading the nutritional information panels on breakfast cereal packets if there's really nothing else to hand.

And don't ask me to part with a book once Ive bought it - dear me no. I'd rather give away the children (there is no truth in the rumour that I'd actually like to do that). So, there are, as a result, books all over Grumbler Towers - a situation which drives the good lady wife to distraction and threatens to cause friction in our otherwise happy existance. Now there's finally a gadget (and a very pretty one at that) which stores books! How fantastic is that? Even 'er indoors likes it despite the fact that I'll probably never let it out of my sight!

So what's this particular marital aid like, and will I go blind if I use it too much? Here it is, on the left. I've already quoted the size, in case you think that size is an important characteristic. It weighs about the same as, well, a book really. And the screen's a particularly nice 'electric-paper' thingy that shouldn't be (and hasn't so far been) a cause of any eye strain. In regular operation you can hold it in either hand, which is a relief if you get a tired wrist. And there's a handy text-to-speech format which is almost like someone else doing it for you. I've got to say that I absolutely love it and I just can't get enough! (Am I stretching the marital aid joke too far?)

Now, if you want one of these - and you should want one - there may be a couple of things with knowing.

At present, you have to buy it via the Amazon US website where it's advertised at $259 (it was twenty bucks more than that, but the price was reduced days after release and - get this - Amazon sent us early adopters a refund!) But then you need to add shipping - which is in the order of $20, and excise duty - another $45 for the customs men, damn their eyes! Of course, if you happen to be in the US for a visit, you can save quite a bit of this.

Now, once you have the device, it needs to be registered. If you've bought it for yourself, this will already have been done for you. This associates it with your Amazon account (where else would you get the books to put on it) and also sets the 'country' for the device. Since my 'main' Amazon account address is based in the UK, so was my country set. This is important!

Amazon's goal is to have every book it sells available on the Kindle. In practice, there are about 350,000 on the US Kindle bookstore, and 290,000 on the UK one. This really shouldn't present a problem - or so I thought at the time. After all, they're gonna put the popular ones on there first, arent they? As long as you aren't after the Siberian edition of the 1968 Toenail-clipping Collector's Almanac youre gonna be golden, right? Wrong, actually.

Now, my reading tastes might be eclectic - the first book I searched for was 'The Fourth Bear' by Jasper Fforde, having just been lent (and hugely enjoyed) its prequel 'The Big Over-Easy' in paperback. No luck. OK, so I'll try the greatest living author - lets look for anything by Sir Terry Pratchett. Nope, nothing, nada. There was a book about the great man, but nothing by him. OK, lets aim for a classic then - how about Isaac Asimov's 'Foundation', my own dead tree copy having sadly shed its pages, lost its cover, and been regretfully consigned to the recycling bin some months ago. No. That's not there either. I tried a few more, my heart sinking with each fruitless search. Had I finally got my hands on the kindle, only to have nothing to read? Oh cruel, cruel irony.

Still, I'm nothing if not resourceful - I'd had the Kindle delivered to the US, I was in the US at the time, so I set the beast up to think of itself as belonging to the land of the free. Nothing wrong with that, is there? It's pretty easy to do this, by the way. Just use a US 'delivery address'. If you wanna try that on iTunes you'll find it a lot harder, because that system uses your credit card address - whatever you try. Now, let's go book buying again, shall we? This time, everything I searched for is on the store. My guess is that the UK store will catch up with the US one soon, and when that happens I can go 'legit' again.

There are other implications of letting the Kindle think its US based. For one, now that I'm back home in Blighty, buying a book and having it delivered 'wirelessly' (the Kindle makes use of the 3G mobile phone networks) incurs a roaming charge of $1.99 on top of the book price. Of course, you can avoid that by downloading to a computer then USB transferring, but where's the fun in that, eh?

The other twist involves our old friends the pirates, I mean customs and excise, again. Dead tree books are exempt from Value Added Tax - I assume because they are 'food for the brain'. Not so digital books - is that not silly? Anyway, the upshot is that technically, I'm rooking the VAT-man for about a quid every time I buy a book while sitting at home. I don't *think* they'll hunt me down like a dog, but if they do, Ive got the two quid I owe them here in a jar.

I will doubtless discover more oddities, and I might note them down here. I've had to resort to a little trickery to get the Kindle to play nice, but I'm still rating it nine out of ten for now...

Oh yeah. Brindle... refers to the colouring of a horse. Or cow. Or dog. Not Kindles though - they can be any colour you like, as long as its white...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Long Way Found

Last month, my pal Bob the B'stard and I toured the UK on motorbikes, taking in John O'Groats and Land's End on the way. It took us just over a week, and was rather good fun.

If you'd like to read about our adventures then you're in luck, the Grumbler has spilled the beans, told the secrets, and gossiped the gossip in mini-book form! You can download this short pictorial account here in PDF form.

(For those who don't want a 16Meg download, there's a web version - but it really doesn't match up to the loving care put into the PDF!)

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Byte Night, Thames Valley Park, 2nd Oct 2009

Last night I had the honour of sleeping outside the offices of my illustrious employer in Reading. I'll spare the usual jokes and sarcasm, because this was all about Byte Night.

For the uninitiated, Byte Night is a yearly occurrence where a bunch of IT professionals basically give up the comforts of home and bed for a night in order to raise money for and better understand the plight of homeless children. The monies raised go to a charity called Action for Children, and the understanding gained, well, that's right here. Hopefully I can convey a little of it to you...

Those of us taking part (about 150 in Thames Valley Park this year) have been raising sponsorship money over the past few weeks and last night we all gathered in one of the Oracle buildings for the evening. The format was pretty simple - registration for the event, some speeches, some food, a fundraising raffle and an auction before heading outside to bed down under the clouds. Since I've not done this before, many of the things we were told were news to me, and Ive still got a bit of a lump in my throat.

What sort of kids end up in care, or on the streets? Troublemakers, misfits and junkies, right? No - dead wrong. Example stories we were told of cases typical of those in which Action for Children find themselves involved:

1) A teenage boy, sleeping rough on the streets. His parent were seperated, and living at his Mum's house had become impossible for him, since there were only two bedrooms and he has a younger brother and sister. He'd tried staying with his Dad, but his Dad's hooked on smack, so its not the nicest of places, with junkies in and out all day. He'd stayed with one of his Dad's 'straighter' pals for a while, but that hadn't worked out, and he was on the street. Without Action for Children's intervention he'd probably still be there, but they managed to help him find somewhere to live, set him up, and start him out with a job. A chance of a normal life.

2) A teenage girl, also sleeping rough. Every Friday, her Dad and Uncle went drinking. When they came home, her uncle would sexually abuse her. This had been going on for years (it started when she was 13) by the time she decided that living rough on the streets was better that what she had to suffer at home. Her Mum had known the abuse was going on - she was certain, because "when I cried, Mum would turn the TV up so she couldn't hear me"...

3) Sometimes the charity can get involved before a Kid hits the streets - perhaps communication has broken down at home, there are arguments, maybe more. Action for Children can often mediate, counsel, generally get things back on track before they get as bad as they can get...

33% of the kids who've been driven to live rough on the streets will attempt suicide. One kid in every three.

So its pretty desperate, isn't it? But, there are always some sad and desperate cases, aren't there? Surely there cant be that many of them? What's the scale of the problem?Well, according to a survey in the UK conducted two years ago, there were 75,000 kids living rough on the streets, and every single one of them will have had a story like those Ive just told you.

I wouldn't say I'd been particularly complacent about the whole issue - I'd read a little of the background before I signed up, and I'd spoken to a few people, but its weird how last night kind of concentrated the mind and helped me to understand why I was really doing this...

At about eleven, we were all shepherded outside. I'd had a vague picture in my mind of being left to find somewhere to huddle on the path round the building, but were were all to sleep on a grassy patch at that back which, in sunnier days, serves as a BBQ area. And let me be clear that the organisers weren't taking any chances with us - we were supplied with groundsheets, bivvy bags, fashionable(!) and warm hats and there would be a constant supply of hot drinks available all night (many decide they'd prefer wine and beer which they'd thoughtfully brought along in their packs). And, if any of us were to feel 'poorly' there were volunteer medical staff on duty. Clearly, none of this is on hand to the kids we're trying to help here but, even so, I still felt a certain amount of trepidation and I wasn't the only one!

Yes, I did get some sleep - about four hours. I woke at about six, gritty eyed and disoriented to discover that breakfast in the form of hot tea and bacon rolls was laid on. Another thing you don't get after a night in a box under Waterloo bridge.

And then, of course, I could drive home, have a hot bath, and get another couple of hours shut-eye in my own bed, if I had a mind to. So what has all this acheived, then?

Well, I've certainly got a new found appreciation of what it must mean to have to sleep rough, rather than to choose to experience a watered down version (paradoxically it would have been more realistic if we had been watered down, but the rain stayed away). But most important of all is not what I did, but what everyone who sponsored me to go through with it has done. Together, we have raised GBP 1700 as I write this. If you want to see what Action for Children do with the money they raise, then look here, but I can tell you that 1700 quid could pay to help that young lad I wrote about set up home for the first time, keep the doors of an emergency drop-in centre open for a week so the poor girl in the story, and many others like her can get a little respite and still leave enough left over for help for that final kid we wrote about to prevent him from being taken into care or hitting the streets himself. And with that one in three attempting suicide, between us we might actually have saved a life here, but of course we'll never know.

So I'm hugely grateful to everyone who has sponsored me, and fit to burst with pride at having such a fantastic, generous and caring bunch of friends and family. And if there's anyone reading this who hasn't sponsored a byte night sleeper this year, then the donations page will be open right through December.

Quite simply, I want to thank you, you're all fantastic.