Tuesday, September 30, 2008

So What

I've been working from home and when I'm not being distracted by "Spooks" boxsets and eating, I'm usually listening to Radio 4 rather than watching daytime TV.

Which is why I got to listen to the series "Soul Music" which collects together testimony from fans about how a particular piece of music "changed their life". Yes, it was a bit corny, but that didn't matter - today's piece was "So what" by Miles Davis.

The piece is half a century old now, and by all rights it should be Grandad Music, fit only to be played on TV drama soundtracks. It's also Jazz, which means it occupies a filing cabinet that is widely mistaken for a urinal these days.
(( Insert the usual Stan ravings here during which Stan will beg you to spend a tiny amount of your life listening to the piece that's got him excited. He's even likely to provide a link to YouTube to make it really easy for you. Stan will go on to deny he is a Jazzer, despite having posted on Humphrey Lyttleton and Nina Simone recently. He'll then change the subject to avoid alienating his long-suffering readership. ))
If Jazz isn't your thing, you might at least check out Elbow - one of the few worthy winners of the Mercury prize in recent memory. I saw them on "Later ... with Jools Holland" here and they blew the walls down. Big, noisy, daft Rock from some big, noisy, daft lads from Bury, Lancashire.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Stan Writes

I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise to all my readers for the lack of words lately. The fact is that I've started novel writing again and it tends to swallow spare time, motivation and, more relevantly, every spare well-turned phrase that passes through my head.

I've failed at this before, but this time will be totally different. Last time I shut out the world, climbed into my head and had a totally miserable time. This time I'm going to talk to people, try bits out and generally try to enjoy the experience.

The plot so far :-
"Hailey is a lady having a thoroughly miserable time. Her boyfriend dumped her for a lap-dancer, her accountant decamped to Peru and her grandfather died aged 95 while trying to goose his nurse.

It also turns out that Grandfather was totally broke when he died, so all she gets in his will is his dilapidated Tudor hall (complete with all-too-modern debts) and a decent bottle of whisky that he had managed to hide from the bailiffs.

Spending the night alone at the Hall, she wakes up in the morning with a half-empty bottle of whisky, a bad head and sees Gladys, the Sarcastic Ghost smiling sweetly at her across the table.

Hailey's mission is to restore the hall to a glory it never had, inventing a history for it that would attract legions of American tourists. This puts her in conflict with the dishy history-geek who runs the highly successful neighbouring Hall.

Will fighting turn to love ? What's it like to live with a ghost ? And is there another way of selling Historic Britain without resorting to scones, rose gardens and gift shops?"
Do let me know what you think. I'm certainly keen to see What-Happens-Next; it would be nice to know I'm not the only one.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Pour Encourager Les Autres

If your laptop is misbehaving - show this picture to it and say "Stop that, or I'll get Stan round to rip your screen off".

This is a previous laptop of mine which I dropped, busting up the screen. I've used it on my home network for a while to play around with Linux, but I didn't do anything about the screen, which lit up with an abstract tessellation of jagged shapes.

Yesterday I was running a huge fever from a bout of man-flu. I had a sudden crazy desire to remove the screen - after all, it was just wasting power lighting up a screen that wasn't being used. Sweat was dripping off me as my shaking hands levered up the keyboard cover, unscrewed the monitor retaining screws, removed the screen and relocated the bits-and-bobs that were attached to it. I felt like Doctor Frankenstein creating a monster.

So now I have a headless laptop that has been very well behaved. As have all the other electrical appliances in my house. I think they're scared that the same will happen to them : either that or they're plotting silent revenge for mutilating their comrade.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ambient Kitchen

So what does Stan do when the girls are in the front room indulging in "Strictly Come Dancing" ?

Well, tonight he's at the kitchen table, drinking beer and listening to ambient music on Magnatunes while trying to brush up on his PHP and Perl programming.

My laptop now has a choice of Windoze XP and Linux Fedora 9, and I've got to say I'm spending increasingly more time in Linux. One of the main reasons I hadn't moved over before was that previous versions of Fedora didn't recognise my wi-fi card - Fedora 9 worked straight out of the box. Another reason was that Yahoo Music doesn't work with Firefox, but I've now found Magnatunes, so that's less of an issue.

The thing about the Magnatunes site is that they don't work with the major labels - it's a very direct way for independent musicians to get their music heard (and potentially sold). This is fine by me - if I wanted to listen to the current top 100, I'd put on some commercial radio station - personally I'd rather listen to something a bit off-centre - something that might actually surprise me.

Like "Requiem" by Robert Rich from the "Below Zero" album, which is described as "consisting of turbulent organic atmospheres". I don't know about that, but is very much worth a listen. He sounds an interesting guy - according to Wikipedia :-
At an early age he thought he disliked music. However, at age 11 or 12, he began growing succulents as a hobby. He would leave a radio tuned to static at a low volume for his plants. This experience influenced his interest in avant-garde and minimal composition....

... He began building his own synthesizer in 1976, when he was 13 years old ...

... around this time, he attended Stanford University. During his tenure there, Rich became well-known in the San Francisco Bay area for giving live night-time performances for somnolent or sleeping audiences. These were experiments to influence REM cycle sleep with auditory stimulus. They were usually nine hours long and lasted from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.. During these performances, he would generate abstract drones and atmospheres while the audience dozed in sleeping bags that they brought themselves. In the morning he would end the concert with piano solos. He would then serve tea to the audience.
You really couldn't make that stuff up !

Anyway, much more fun than reality celebrity dance contests - and perfect music to drink beer and cut code to.

You can listen to the whole album for free here - and if you think it sucks, then you've lost nothing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fuld's Gold

There are many appealing aspects to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The sight of braying City Boys on the pavement with their potplants and putters for one. For those of us with a pinko-commie-fag-subversive leaning, it would seem that justice is being finally done.

However, there is this guy called Richard S. Fuld Jr.

Let's call him" Dick".

Dick has been CEO of Lehman Brothers since it was spun-off from Amex in 1994. Dick has had a bad year - the value of his options have dropped by some $900 million since the stock peaked last year. However, it hasn't been all bad - he has "earned" (in the loosest possible sense) $466m during his CEO tenure, including a bonus of $22m in 2007. Also, in the (very likely) event that he'll be asked to leave by the new owners, he will be due a $64m leaving package.

Dick didn't see that his company balance sheet was shot to pieces due to the effect of toxic real estate loans. He twice turned down offers of a lifebelt, first from the Koreans, then from the Chinese. Either one of these deals would have refinanced the company and saved tens of thousands of jobs.

While his company has been in meltdown this week, he has reportedly been holed-up in his plush office suite saying nothing while his underlings have tried to save the company. Presumably he's been hiding under his desk, counting his money, crying and calling for his mummy.

He has finally surfaced, and is due to appear in Washington in front of Congress to
“examine the regulatory mistakes and financial excesses that led to the bankruptcy filing by Lehman Brothers,” and “explore the impacts of the bankruptcy on financial markets and the United States economy."
Dick will no doubt blame "short sellers" (as did the Bear Stearns guy before him) and then head off for a very comfortable retirement - he has after all done nothing illegal, and "stupidity" is unlikely to be a valid reason for his new bosses to kick him out of his job without a bean.

Tell me where the justice is in this case ? To me it's another indictment of Free Market theory where the assumption is that "Market Forces" will reward the good and punish the bad.

Buy shares in any company selling Red Tape - governments will soon be putting in panic bulk orders to help regulate their unregulated markets to avoid this happening again.

Oh, and vote Stan.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Jazzmen Never Really Die

I watched "Humph's Last Stand" last night - a recording of the Humphrey Lyttleton Band's last performance before his premature death at the age of 86.

I'm no jazzer, but even I could see that the band was something special. Even I could see that Humph's lip wasn't quite what it was, but I loved the way he worked around that, like a veteran midfielder who doesn't have the legs any more but makes up for it in guile and experience. Plus he was smart enough to surround himself with an amazing mixture of old jazzmen and two young lady sax players, Jo Fooks and Karen Sharp.

Jo Fooks composed my favourite piece, with the downright daft title of "M25". Unlike the motorway, it flows and moves along at a fair lick. A wonderful virtuoso piece, and she makes that big tenor sax seem very light on its feet indeed. I've checked, and she is known to name her tunes after the first thing that comes to mind e.g “Faffin”, “Song for Sid”, “Bums on Seats” and the immortal “Quite likes Brussels Sprouts”.

According to her gig guide she's been playing some pretty small venues since Humph's band broke up - if there's any justice in the world though someone's going to give this girl a break soon. Meanwhile buy her album. Or if you've already got it, give your copy to a friend and buy it again.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Grumpy old man made grumpier by a pub

I went to a pub near my home with Mrs Stan a few weeks ago and even now when I close my eyes, the screaming starts in my head


The pub had been a low dive when we moved into the area and they hadn't been able to make a living from serving cheap lager to knife-wielding maniacs and old men with dribble hanging out their mouths. Now it was under new management, had been painted and a chef was rumoured to be knocking out gastropub grub. This was appealing to us as the existing pubs near us either cater exclusively for adolescents or for old men with dribble hanging out their mouths.
What we only realised when we stepped through the door was that this one had decided to become a Sports Pub.

In a suburb this is just plain silly. Sports Pubs do well in the city with the after-work mob. In the suburbs, Sportsfans have made the long, arduous trip home and the last thing they want to do is to go back out again. Especially since they've got Sky and Setanta at home, which is likely if they're any kind of Sportsfan.

As if to confirm this, the number of massive plasma screens showing different obscure football games outnumbered the clientelle. One quarter of the room was set up with tables for food, and a single hassled party of diners were gamely trying to ignore the noise.

It took the four staff twenty minutes to serve us beer, which is impressive given that, with the exception of one noisy Drunk talking belligerently at one mute Drunk at the bar, we were their only customers.

We eventually got the drinks over to the only two comfy seats and the table was sticky. Despite the pub being empty and the staff bored, no-one had been pestered to clean the table. We later heard the owner at the bar trying to save money by sending one of the barmaids home. The chef lurked looking like a man in secondary nicotine withdrawal : his bargain roast meat specials weren't exactly in demand.

I felt like striding up to the bar and sorting them all out :-

  • "Oi ! Owner ! You'd be better off chatting to the customers rather than trying to save a tenner's worth of bar staff expense"
  • "Oi ! Barmaid ! If you're doing nothing better you might as well be clearing tables. Or learning how to change a barrel in less than 20 minutes."
  • "Oi ! Chef ! If you're not busy, knock us up a batch of chips - you might just persuade me not to leave the second I've chugged this pint"
  • "And would someone for the love of God, please switch off the fecking TVs if no-one's watching !!"

Clueless. I know nothing about running a pub but I even I know when one is in a death-spiral of despair when I see one. And if I can see it, why can't the owners see it ?

So we're back to drinking Breezers with the adolescents or listening to the old men cough.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Words, Wide Night

The title is my favourite poem by Carol Ann Duffy, who is very much in the news at the moment.

She wrote a poem "Education for Leisure" about a sad, broken boy having murderous thoughts and heading out into the world with a knife "to play God".

This didn't go down well with a small number of teachers. They kicked up a stink and it has now been removed from the exam syllabus and books containing it are to be destroyed.

If I started a Google search, how long do you think it would take me to find a case of murder caused by good poetry ? Duffy's poem doesn't glorify, encourage or excuse violence. She reports a state of mind and the only rational response to it is pity for the deluded boy/girl. It wouldn't make you think "A knife rampage! What an excellent idea ..."

Duffy has had bad luck with tiny vocal minorities. She was considered for nomination as Poet Laureate but the story is that Tony Blair thought that a homosexual Laureate would upset Middle England.

Andrew Motion got the gig instead. Know any good poems by Andrew Motion ? Thought not. Neither do I.

Anyway, "Words, Wide Night" isn't at all controversial. It's all about how words don't do the job when you're trying to express love. In other words, love poetry is all very well and good, but it's not to be confused with the real thing.
Words, Wide Night - by Carol Ann Duffy

Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
and the distance between us, I am thinking of you.
The room is turning slowly away from the moon.

This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say
it is sad? In one of the tenses I singing
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.

La lala la. See? I close my eyes and imagine
the dark hills I would have to cross
to reach you. For I am in love with you and this

is what it is like or what it is like in words.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Get Your Torches and Pitchforks

According to their website, The Metro Hotel in Woking "is a highly successful budget hotel that has been open for 4 years and can boast a year round occupancy in excess of 85%".

I have a feeling that they will have less to boast about next year after they refused entry to an injured British Army Corporal visiting an injured colleague (and didn't get away with it).

I'd love to have been a fly-on-the-wall today as the management tarred-and-feathered the receptionist concerned and begged for mercy under an onslaught of hate mail, cancelled bookings, abusive phone calls, tabloid snappers and purple-faced politicians. For a good and rather amusing cross-section of reaction, see the unreliably brilliant ARRS (ARmy Rumour Service).

I hope this incident will convince workers in the leisure industry that discriminating against soldiers is a career-limiting decision.

Corporal Stringer is now back in Helmand Province doing a nasty job that I'm SO glad I'm not doing. I wonder how much the Receptionist would fancy a spell of facing-off to the Taliban ?

Next time the Corporal comes home, here's hoping the country will have changed ever so slightly for the better and he won't be in any danger of having to spend the night in his car.

Update 1 - later that day : The hotel are being flamed to a crisp on blogs and news sites across the planet. The Armed Forces and Defence ministers have written stiffly worded letters. The owners of the hotel, American Amusements, are not answering their phones and are hopefully cowering behind the reception desk wanting their collective mummies. Every conceivable travel agency website has acquired several unflattering reviews of the hotel today. The Sun are pestering Michael Appleton, a director, "at his £2million home".

Update 2 - the morning after : I didn't believe that a jobsworth receptionist would just make up such a policy on the spot. They hadn't - here's the BBC coverage of a the response received to letter written by the soldier's mum's MP, Hywel Williams :-

A manager in the letter said the hotel had in recent months "experienced some rather serious incidents" resulting from the stay of personnel from a local barracks and staff had been requested to be "cautious" in taking future bookings from the armed forces.

Managers were asked to assess cases.

"In almost every case the booking is accepted. This process does not appear to have happened in this case, for which I sincerely apologise. We also fully recognise and appreciate the tremendous courage and sacrifices made by member of our armed services".

Just how much damage did they think one tired squaddie with a broken wrist was going to do to their hotel ? I still want heads on sticks.

Update 3 : The evening after : a couple of hundred people visited Radio Free Stan thanks to the above article - wish I had something to sell to all these good people.

It's interesting to see on other blogs how in their versions of the story, Corporal Stringer was going to a funeral. According to all the sources I trust, the mate he was visiting was alive but recovering from wounds (extent unknown). I guess somewhere along the way, someone sexed the story up for additional impact. Shame : it's a strong enough story without turning it into an urban myth.

Another common trick I saw in other blogs was to imply that the hotel "hated the military". I really can't see the evidence for this. There is definitely evidence of stupidity, lack of tact and casual discrimination - but hate seems unlikely.

And I don't condone the threats that have been made against the hotel staff - I think this battle has already been won - it's not good form to bayonet the survivors.

Ranger Justin James Cupples died in an explosion near Sangin in Helmand Province while this hotel nonsense was going on bringing the total of British casualties in Afghanistan to 117. Soldiers have given so much - it's surely not out of line to treat them well when they get home ?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Just Browsing

How much of a geek are you ? A good rule of thumb is to look at your attitude to web browsers.

Class Zero Geeks (a.k.a dumb people) don't even know what one is - which probably means that they aren't reading this page and won't be insulted by me calling them "dumb people".

Class One Geeks (a.k.a Civilians) are still using the web browser that was installed when they got the machine - usually the small blue "e" of Internet Explorer.

Class Two Geeks (a.k.a "The Slightly Geeky") have played around with the competitor web browsers, either out of pure curiousity or because Internet Explorer is driving them mad with all the crashing, advertising spam and unexpected behaviour.

Class Three Geeks (a.k.a "Me") don't even know how many web browsers they have on their various machines. I would put myself in this category - as well as IE, Firefox and Safari I've got an old copy of Netscape on the main PC, on my mobile phone I've got Opera and on my Linux box ... well, there's SeaMonkey, Konqueror, Dillo .. er and a few dozen others I've never used.

Added to this list now is Google's Chrome browser which I've been trying out and,in brief, I don't get it.

It's quite similar to Firefox, except without its infinite customisability. It has an equivalent of Safari's "Private Browsing" called "Incognito Windows". It's supposed to fast, but I couldn't prove it was any faster than Safari, which is the fastest of the mainstream browsers. This is not a surprise as under the bonnet, the same WebKit HTML-rendering engine is being used by both.

I looked at their marketing literature and I test drove it myself and nowhere could I find a valid reason to make it my browser of choice. Presumably Google will be demonstrating how Chrome adds value to their suite of office applications and Google Earth in due course, but personally I'd say the responsibility was with the application developer to ensure their application runs well on any browser, rather than forcing us to use a particular browser.

By the way, just in case you think I'm one of the geekiest person in the world, there is a Class Four of Geeks, who despise and distrust all browsers and have either written their own in Assembler Code or are still using slide-rule technologies like Gopher. You're not likely to meet these people, as they don't tend to have friends and tend not to get out much.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Edge of Darkness

There is a village of a few thousand people near where I live which could put together the world's best five-a-side football team. And maybe the second and third best come to think of it. Football players are attracted to the place because of the obscenely splendid Victorian mansions originally built by the cotton barons. Not just footballers obviously, inhabitants of the village could also put together a legendary rock band, and should the actors that live in the village decide to act in the local pantomine, you'd have to postpone Coronation Street.

These are the big-names in the village living in the big houses, but the people who live in the smaller scale town houses and flats near the main street are pretty darned wealthy too.

It's a great place to go Charity Shop rummaging - the more-money-than-sense lot tend to buy good gear, wear it once and give it away. This means that it's possible to buy Hugo Boss for the price of George at Asda.

Which is why I was in their local Cancer Research shop looking at a pair of £60 FCUK jeans and thinking that £9.99 was a very good price - especially considering that there seemed to be a £10 note in one of the pockets.

One further investigation there was a wad of notes which I immediately brought to the attention of the the shop ladies who stuck the wad into a collection tin without counting it and made a big deal out of how honest I was. I suggested that most people would have done the same but they came out with a list of stories about how the people of this most blessed village would steal the CDs out of their cases and want to haggle over the prices when making a purchase.

I was stunned - there wasn't a single moment where I considered pocketing the money while I was in the changing room, or buying the jeans quietly. It would have been like walking into the shop and helping myself to the collecting tin. But you just know that a percentage of people would have done just that, even though they were stealing from people who needed the money and even though they really didn't "need" the money themselves.

So what is this percentage ? More than 50% ? Am I part of a quaint minority, or was I right when I said that most people would have done the right thing ?