Influential People

Follow the link if you wish to see TIME’s 100 most influential pioneers, leaders, titans, artists and icons of 2018

I heard a report on the radio about the list whilst driving from visiting my father in hospital.

He’s been in one ward or another now for over a month, tended by any number of nurses and health care assistants. These people have washed and shaved him, changed his clothes, sat him up in bed and made him comfortable. They’ve given him his pills and injections, mashed his food, helped him to eat and drink and done everything they can to help him get better. He spent his 80th birthday in hospital and the ward staff baked not one but two cakes, decorated his bed and even bought paper hats for him and the other patients.

Now, I’m not claiming that all nurses are angels. Not all the staff I’ve encountered have displayed the same level of dedication, but I find it hard to believe that anybody could be doing the job unless they really wanted to look after people. And at the end of the day, they’ve actually done something. Their patients are cleaned, fed and have had their medication administered.

And so, as I drove from the hospital listening to the radio, it occurred to me that I really didn’t care how influential the people on Time’s list are. I didn’t care what they’ve tweeted, what speeches they’d made or how many disaster areas they’d visited. At this point in time, I don’t care about the films the people on the list have starred in, the books they’ve written or how their art inspires others.

Right now, I’m not interested in lionising people who tell others what to do. Right now, I’d rather hear about the millions of people who just get on with their job. I’m annoyed by the list’s tacit promotion of exceptionalism.

Ideas that change things for the better aren’t the preserve of the exceptional few, look around and you’ll see that they’re already being carried out unnoticed every day by the vast majority. Ideas aren’t any the less valuable for that.

Or to put it another way, any half competent nurse is already doing more for the world than at least half of the people on Time’s list.

Heading off to College?

Now that the A level results are out, many students are about to leave home. There are many articles out there giving advice on what to do when arriving at college for the first time.

Here’s mine.

I’m sharing this because a friend recently asked me this: what I would do if I could go back in time and speak to myself when I was 18? What one piece of advice would I give myself?

It was a good question, and I thought about it for some time. This what I came up with, and I’m convinced it’s the best guidance a young adult could have.

Here it is.

Learn to drink your tea and coffee black.

I stopped adding milk to my drinks after an illness when I was 25. Since then my life has been so much easier. No more running out to buy milk in the evening, no more coming back from holiday to find there’s nothing to put in the coffee. No more having to get involved with the milk kitty at work (honestly, we order hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of IT equipment on a regular basis and yet still never have enough money in the tin to buy a carton of long life).

And just think of all the time saved when making a hot drink. All those trips to the fridge add up.

If only I’d know that when I was 18. I’d never have got into stupid arguments about who was using whose milk in the communal fridge.

Oh yes, and don’t forget this:

Drinking black coffee is cool.

That’s it.

Second Rate Entertainment

I love second rate entertainers.

I encountered a fine example whilst on holiday in Madeira last week. He had a residence in the hotel: 8:30 until 10 every night. Keyboards and vocals, he was a competent player with a good voice that came into its own when doing Elton John covers.

As is the nature of a great second rate performer, he’d arranged everything himself. He switched between keyboards to play different parts, occasionally improvising, all this done over a drum track. Such performances are necessarily individual in a way that singing along to a backing tape never is. He did 70s and 80s covers: Hotel California, Sacrifice, that sort of thing. Given that he was singing in what was to him was a foreign language his phrasing was odd, but hey, he was singing in a foreign language.

It would be easy to dwell on his faults: the arrangements that didn’t quite work, the bland repertoire (necessary, given the venue), his intonation.

But then again that’s sort of the point. I’ve written about second rate performers before at the end of my novel CAPACITY, when the Watcher listens to just such a performance (the scene was based on a concert I attended in a church in France when I was writing the book).

It’s so easy to see perfect performances nowadays. They’re the result of multiple retakes and remixes, they can be autotuned and airbrushed… I don’t have a problem with this. But this can give the impression that all performances should be perfect. That everything should be first rate, all of the time.

No. None of us are capable of that.

That’s why appreciating second rate performances, appreciating people who are willing to make a go of it despite their imperfections, is such an important thing.

Because, for the most part, that’s who we are.

The First Time I’ve Written the Word Chutzpah

I’m pretty sure the title of this post is the first time I’ve written the word Chutzpah. That last sentence was probably the second.

It’s not a word that I think I’ve ever used in everyday conversation, either. But I’m using it now because I’ve just experienced what I think is an excellent example of that quality.

By the way, if you’re a regular reader of my stuff, you may have realised that I like to protect people’s anonymity. For reasons that will very quickly become clear, I can’t do this in this post…

Yesterday I received a LinkedIn invitation from a Senior Project Manager called Tony Ballantyne. Now, I’ve made contact with another Tony Ballantyne in the past – the Historian Tony Ballantyne who I’m occasionally mistaken for – so I thought… why not?, and I accepted.

This morning I received an email from the other Tony Ballantyne explaining that he was moving to Australia, and asking if I’d like to buy his personalised car number plates. Maybe I should have been annoyed, but I had to admire his cheek. And thinking about it, isn’t that an inspired use of social networking? It’s not like he was trying this trick on just anyone.

Anyway, I’m not interested in personalised plates, so I wished him good luck on his move and that was that. If the other Tony is reading this blog post – think of it as more free advertising.

And if anyone else is thinking of contacting me in this way, don’t bother. It’s only amusing when it’s original.

The Only Good Thing about Vinyl was the Covers

I must have bought about 200 vinyl records before I bought a CD player. You can see some of them above, there’s a prize for the first person to name them all (album and artist).

It’s the first time those albums have seen the light of day for about 20 years. Some of them came out about ten years ago when my wife bought me a digital turntable for my birthday, but they quickly went back on the shelf when I discovered just how badly scratched they had become simply through being played.

I’d forgotten just what revelation CD quality sound was, I hadn’t realised just how much I’d taken it for granted. Today is Record Store Day and I note that lots of people are rediscovering the pleasures of vinyl.

Well, good luck to them. I won’t be joining them. CDs were much better than vinyl, and digital downloads are much better than CDs. My CDs are now ripped and in the attic and my music stored in the cloud so I can access it where and when I like. I toured the US one summer whilst at University. I took a Walkman and four C90 cassettes with me. Eight albums for ten weeks.

Never again.

Codes that Changed the World: Fortran

Before Fortran there was no poetry in programming

The BBC are doing a a very interesting radio series on programming languages called Codes that Changed the World, starting with this one on Fortran.

I learned Fortran 77 at university as part of my maths degree. What most sticks in my memory are the dreadful videos we were made to watch featuring a male programmer trying to explain concepts to his dumb girlfriend. That we found the videos offensive goes without saying. I (and many others) stopped going to the lectures and taught ourselves using the text book.

What really puzzled me was why they showed the videos in the first place. Even the lecturer used to apologise for them, saying they were dreadfully old fashioned, but they can’t have been that old. I went to university in 1984. Now, when did Fortran 77 come out, I wonder?

The Twelve Days of Christmas – Simplified

If, like me, you’ve found yourself repeatedly performing The 12 Days of Christmas over the last few days, you’re probably in search of some way of remembering where you are in the score. After all, most scores make much use of repeats to keep the page count down, so when you’re performing the song for thirty fifth-time it’s easy for the attention to wander and to lose track of where you are.

The following is an attempt to provide a simple aide-mémoire that will help you keep your place.

  1. The song consists of 12 verses. Let n = the current verse
  2. For n = 1, play the phrase as written.
  3. For 1 < n < 5, there is a repeating phrase on the present count. (Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves etc.) Repeat this phrase (n-1) times.
  4. When n = 5, play the phrase for the current present and then repeat the subsequent present phrase 3 times
  5. For n > 5, repeat the present phrase (n-6) times, then play case n = 5

This can summarized as follows

* For n < 5, repeat the phrase (n-1) times
* For n = 5, play as written, then repeat next phrase 3 times
* For n > 5, repeat the phrase (n-6) times, then goto case n = 5

Incidentally, my carol book has a tempo of crotchet = 132. In order to maximize jollity, this tempo should be varied according to the formula

crotchet = 132 + 2(n-1)

thus ensuring a steadily increasing pace that increases the excitement of the singers.

Tip: if time prohibits a full performance, simply play a selection of verses such that n is a prime number

And there you have it. Festive fun delivered in a rational and logical manner.

Merry Christmas.

I Have no Opinion

Who says that Weetos are just for breakfast?

I have no idea. I’ve never heard anyone express an opinion on the right time to eat Weetos, one way or the other.

But advertisers love these sort of challenges. They appeal to the rebel in people (hey, no one tells me when to eat my breakfast). More than that though, they want to make you part of the debate. Advertisers validate the thing they are trying to sell by tricking you into having an opinion on it one way or another, because once you have an opinion on something it becomes important. That’s why the adverts want you to believe that you have to either love or hate Marmite, they want you to believe that indifference is not an option.

Well, yes it is. Indifference is a vital thing. I have no opinion on many things. I haven’t got time to have an opinion on everything, because if I were to try it would stop me concentrating on the things that are really important.

This is the politician’s trick. Concentrate on the fact that it’s important to vote and you validate the people you are voting for, the politicians themselves. Keep telling people that they have to vote or the wrong party will get in, and they’ll forget to check if the right party has anything going for it.

The Internet is full of people with opinions, many of them keen to get you involved in their debates. That’s how they validate themselves. That’s how they promote themselves. They want to drag you into the argument, they’ll tell you that you have to be involved, that if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.

Well, no. You’ll just have to excuse my indifference.

Cherry Blossom in the Moonlight

Years ago I read a passage in a book about an ancient Japanese party.

During the day the snow had fallen amongst the cherry trees. On the night of the party, someone commanded that snow be brought into the room, and a bough of cherry blossom placed upon it. The lanterns were dimmed so that the scene could be viewed by moonlight.

A poet was present, no doubt the greatest of Japanese poets, for that would make the story better. The poet was asked to write a poem about the scene. He replied

The snow, the blossom, the moonlight. Sometimes things do not need to be improved upon.

Or words to that effect. I’m sure he put it a lot better. I’ve hunted through my books for the passage many times and never found the original passage.

Then again, as the sense of the passage has stayed with me, perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

Something to read on a Sunday morning…

I often think about this poem when people ask me about a novel I’ve written. Usually people are being polite: they’re making small talk. I ask them about how their weekend went, if they had a successful fishing trip, and they ask me about the family and how the book is going.

But occasionally someone is genuinely asking the question, they really want me to distill 100 000 words down into a couple of sentences. That’s when I think of this poem…