Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Christmas - Bah Humbig

Christmas comes just once a year (thank heavens). Here's my contribution to the Christmas spirit. I call it Bah Humbug.

Christmas comes but once a year
Just as well, ‘cause more I fear
Would send me screaming up the wall
I couldn’t cope with it at all.
The panic, starts as I remember
Round the middle of November.
Rush and tear, the crowds, the cookin’
Jesus doesn’t get a look in.
A neighbour calls. She looks unflapped.
"My presents? They’re all bought and wrapped."
Then adds, with face as smug as Larry,
"The puds I made last January."
In every neighbourhood has he
Who thinks his house a Christmas tree
And buries it beneath a maze
Of gaudy flashing Santas’ sleighs.
The ad men say the world will end
If you do not go out and spend.
The shops perpetuate the lie:
It’s all about how much you buy.
And then those shops assault your ear
With tacky songs of Christmas chear.
Whilst products lined along the shelves
Are daubed with Santas, trees or elves1.
"Stocking filler" Twenty quid?
Just who d’you think you’re trying to kid?
Stockings should hold simple things
Like sugar mice on candied strings.
"Who’s turn is it for Auntie Joan?"
"She cannot spend the day alone."
How is it our more aged guests
Get classified as household pests?
I do believe we’ve lost the plot
True Christmas spirit’s been forgot
Simple presents. Sing Wassail2
Help the meek, the poor, the frail.
Have a lovely Christmas day
But love thy neighbour3 on the way.
Enjoy yourself without a doubt.
Just don’t forget what it’s about.
1 Even my milk had Santa on it last year. What's that all about?
2 Traditional greeting, to which the traditional answer is "It’s a sort of beer you daft ha’p’th".
3 Yes, even the one with the eight foot flashing reindeer on his roof.

Read full article...

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross

I was amused to see that OFCOM's web site, complaints section, is still sporting a notice to the effect that it has had over 1900 complaints about the Jonathan Ross & Russell Brand phone calls fiasco and implying that enough is enough. I would be fascinated to know how many of those now voicing their righteous indignation actually heard the offending (pun intended) broadcast.

I must confess that I didn't. However I did take the trouble to look up transcripts on the Internet before arriving at an opinion - unlike the lady who phoned my local radio station. After a tirade telling us how offensive, disgusting and un-funny Russell Brand was, she then admitted that she never actually listened to him - apparently changing the channel whenever he came on, because he was so offensive etc. I have a nasty feeling this is not atypical of the multitude champing at the bit to condemn Ross and Brand, preaching to anyone who'll listen about the "filth" they've heard about but not actually heard. There's nothing like a good bit of righteous indignation to clear out the sinuses and generally allow you to vent your disatisfaction with the world.

My first impression from the transcripts was that it was Ross who started it. I feel a bit sorry for Russell Brand. He's not the first epicene youth to be led astray by an older man and certainly won't be the last. OK, he went along with it but once banter like that gets going it's much harder to stop than it would have been not to start it in the first place.

Did they go too far? Quite possibly, but not so far OTT as to merit the furore now raging. It wasn't a huge amount more than you'd expect from two broadcasters at the forefront of the modern "shock to amuse" school of comedy. A little ill considered, perhaps. About the most intelligent comment I've seen from the hordes of critics is the rhetorical question "how would you feel if Russell Brand claimed, publicly, to have had sex with your granddaughter?" I'm assuming here it was the claim, rather than the sex, which was public.

It's a good question and worthy of consideration, so consider it I did. I don't actually have a granddaughter but I do have a daughter which is a similar sort of concept. My first reaction would, I think, be silly girl. You can't associate with the likes of Russell Brand unless you're prepared to end up under public scrutiny. My second reaction would be wow - look at all that publicity. How can I capitalise on that? I don't think taking deep offense would come very high on my list of priorities but then everyone's different.

Talking of publicity, hands up anyone who had actually heard of the Satanic Sluts before this scandal broke. No? I thought as much. Do you think their ticket sales are up or down as a result of this row? I rest my case.

Read full article...

Monday, 3 November 2008

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

With the imminent arrival of 5th November I thought it was about time for an educational account of what this bonfire night shenanigans was really all about. Read on for a humerous, but historically accurate, account of some goings on in 1605 - all in verse.

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.

Copyright © Keith Sheppard, 1996

My story begins quite a long time ago
In the springtime of sixteen-oh-five.
When some angry young men vowed the king had to go,
They could no longer bear him alive.
The reason that tempers were running so hot
Amongst some of King James’ minions
Was that he and a few of his subjects had got
Wildly different religious opinions.
The king was a protestant man through and through,
And he drove all the catholics mad,
For his treatment of such folk, between me and you,
Was really a little bit bad.
The leading dissenter was one Robert Catesby.
His friends gathered round him and cried:
'We agree James must go, so how long must the wait be?'
Mr Catesby stood up and replied...
'Oh please do remember the fifth of November,'
'For that's when the evil King James'
'With his parliament sits. We shall blow them to bits.'
'We shall send the whole lot up in flames.'
'It's a gem of a plan, but there's danger, that's why'
'It's essential that nobody talks.'
'And a gunpowder expert is needed, so I'
'Have recruited some guy they call Fawkes.'
So Catesby and his group of like minded fellahs,
Who all bore the king the same malice,
Put their plan into action by renting some cellars
Which ran under Westminster Palace.
Then into this pit the conspirators stowed
Quite a number of barrels of powder.
It was more than enough so that, should it explode,
As bangs go, there are few would be louder.
Then, for the duration of summer recess,
The gunpowder plotters dispersed,
Believing the start of November was best
For powder kegs doing their worst.
It was whilst the assassins were biding their time
'Til parliament next was in session,
That one of their number committed the crime
Of careless unwise indiscretion.
It seems Francis Tresham's own brother in law
Was a member of parliament so
Of course Frankie warned him 'my lord I implore,'
'When the house reconvenes, please don't go.'
'I hope you won't think that there's something awry,'
'It's just that I think that it's best'
'If you let the first day of the session go by.'
'You look tired and in need of a rest.'
Young Frankie's relation, by name Lord Monteagle,
I'm sorry to say, smelt a rat.
'I'm sure,' he said, 'Frank's up to something illegal,'
'Else why should he speak out like that?'
Suspicions thus roused, on the eve of the day
That parliament met once again,
A search of the buildings was put under way
By some of King James' best men.
They searched and they searched to see what could be found.
They searched the whole place top to bottom.
If only they'd done it the other way round,
Then much quicker would they have got 'em.
For down in the cellars, amongst all the rats,
Was where the king's men apprehended
The unfortunate Fawkes and his gunpowder vats,
With which the king's life could be ended.
In those days, of course, people had no idea
Of a criminal's right to be silent.
Their questioning methods were sometimes, I fear,
A little bit gruesome and violent.
And so it is only a matter of time
Before our friend Guy Fawkes confesses,
Revealing the nature of his would-be crime
And accomplices names and addresses.
So that was the end of the violent schemes
Of Catesby and Winter and Wright
And others whose mark on our history, it seems,
Was giving us bonfire night.
So please do remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot,
When the guy they called Guy tried to blow them sky high,
All that parliamentarian lot.

Read full article...

Friday, 17 October 2008

My Book on Authonomy

I guess most blog writers are frustrated authors and I'm no exception. This is a shameless plug for my children's comedy novel "Fair-Eyes" which has just been posted on Harper Collins' "Authonomy" web site (

I say children's novel but it's probably more appropriately described as "young adult" - say 12+ through to adult. It's kind of in the fantasy genre but not really. There are elves, it's true, but their society and foibles are just a thin disguise for a parody of our own society.

If this interests you at all, please take a mosey on down to Authonomy and take a look. If you like it then register with the site and put it on your bookshelf. The more people who do that, the higher my ranking.

To give you a flavour and whet your appetite, here's the "blurb"

"Saving a nation can be a tricky business at the best of times and being adopted by a pet dragon pup, who can cock its leg and melt a lamp post, really doesn’t help." [from "Once a Hippie" by Bartholomew Harvester, Books-Elf Publications].

Trapped by an underground rock fall, Eve and Paul stumble upon the bizarre world of the "Fair-eyes", a subterranean elf clan whose society and foibles are curiously reminiscent of our own.

The kidnap of a princess catapults the children into a desperate and dangerous rescue mission but is everything as it seems? Could the pathologically stupid Goblins really have hatched this plot on their own or are there darker forces at work? Was the princess the real target or is someone playing for even bigger stakes? Why do all your biros go missing and you keep finding unidentified keys at the back of the kitchen drawer?

Suspend your disbelief from a clean pair of suspenders and let’s go rescue a princess. She’s a celebrity for heaven’s sake. Get her out of there…

Read full article...

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Long haul, but without the plane

Arguably one of the most boring things in the entire universe is when folk regale you with a detailed account of their last holiday. It is perhaps a close run thing alongside what they dreamed last night or how well their kids are doing at university, but it's certainly up well up there in the yawn stakes.

I was therefore surprised, and not a little apprehensive, when approached by my firm's in-house magazine for a description of a trip earlier this year. Perhaps I should explain a little more. My nearest and dearest doesn't like flying. Indeed it would be more accurate to say that she doesn't fly. It's simply not an option. Any suggestions that she could overcome this by going on a course or taking therapy fall upon deaf ears. To her it is not an irrational fear to be surpressed with suitable training. It is a healthy survival instinct to be nurtured and encouraged.

This can be slightly limiting when it comes to holiday destinations but we were determined not to let it get in the way of our ambition to visit Morocco. Perhaps I should add that we live in the South of England. Most people seem to assume that such a journey cannot be achieved without the aid of an airoplane. Not so. I can now verify that not only is an airoplane entirely unnecessary but actually the journey is much more pleasurable without one. The journey becomes part of the holiday itself - a great adventure conducted at a pace reminiscent of a more leisurely age, with time to stop and smell the roses on the way.

It just so happened that the in-house magazine was doing a series on reducing your carbon footprint when they got wind of our plans. The notion of travelling overland to Morocco intrigued them sufficiently to generate the invitation.

I was determined this wasn't going to be the literary equivalent of imposing your holiday snaps on the neighbours so I decided it had to be funny, pithy and of general interest even to those who don't know me from Adam. What I had in mind was a Michael Palin style travelogue. Was I successful? Well the magazine editor was so enthusiastic he serialised my efforts over three issues. If you want to judge for yourself, you can find it here. If you follow the link at least you have chosen to read it so I can't be accused of inflicting it on anyone.

Read full article...

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Off Road Vehicles

After last week's carefully considered and factual review I have decided to continue the motoring theme this week, but with an unashamed rant.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve nothing against so called "off road vehicles" per se. I just think there’s a bit of a clue in the title as to where they belong.

I do understand some people genuinely need an off road vehicle. If you regularly drive across fields, pull a horse box (although I’d far rather you didn’t) or perhaps just live at the bottom of a very wet and muddy lane, there might be a case for owning one. You might then be justified in driving it on the roads occasionally. At least have the good grace, though, to leave a substantial quantity of mud and other unmentionables on the wheel arches as evidence of your credentials.

The ones which get up my nose are the pure status symbols – pristine shiny new ones on the morning school run or in Sainsbury’s car park. The closest these vehicles get to off road is on a front drive - no doubt in one of those front gardens concreted over in the belief that ease of maintenance is worth any adverse impact it may have on the land’s ability to absorb rain.

I would love to understand the rationale behind this vehicle choice. "What do you think dear? The Centurion Tank is maybe a tad expensive but perhaps one of these would provide you almost as much protection when you take the kids to school. Yes I know it uses a fair bit of fuel but think of all the extra Nectar points you’ll earn."

Are these vehicles intended to be the envy of other road users? How sadly misguided. If I wanted one I could get one, but until they decide to plough over the A329 or turn the M4 into a cart track I really don’t see a need. I’ve read a lot of banter about the right to make "life style choices". That’s only an absolute right when doesn’t impact other people. If I made a "lifestyle choice" to hold rock concerts in my back garden I would consider the neighbours’ objections thoroughly justified.

Why do I dislike them so? I don’t want to get into the environmental argument because I don’t know the figures, although I doubt you can get away with carting around that much metal without taking some sort of economy hit. They are ugly and too tall and bulky to see past easily. If they offer extra safety for the occupants it is at the expense of the safety of those on the outside. Most of all, though, I hate them for what they do to me. They inspire prejudice. I find myself looking down on the drivers (figuratively, of course – in practical terms you’ve no choice but to look up at someone perched five feet off the ground). Without ever meeting the driver, I decide they are shallow individuals for whom status is clearly far too important. In a way I feel sorry for them, and I feel bad about myself for making such judgements about someone I've never met.

If you have such a vehicle because you genuinely need one then I apologise. I may even have looked upon you with unjustified distain at some point. All I ask is that if you are considering buying one because you think it will make you look good, don’t. It won’t.

Read full article...

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Toyota Prius T-Spirit

These are my thoughts and reactions having had access to a Toyota Prius for 48 hours.

For those who don’t know, the Prius has a hybrid petrol/electric engine. That doesn’t mean you have to plug it into the mains. Indeed, you can’t. The battery recharges when running on petrol or when braking. It’s all computer controlled but basically it uses battery at low speeds, only switching to petrol for faster speeds or harder acceleration.

It’s nickname is the Toyota Pious, because it allows you to wear your green credentials on your sleeve. The model I was testing was the top of the range T-Spirit (cue Nirvana jokes).

The initial reaction of most people seemed to be surprise that it looked like a “real” car. I think there’s a misconception amongst those who have never met one that it’s some sort of novelty vehicle – a sort of high tech 2CV.

It’s a decent size, the build quality seemed good and it was very comfortable. For someone used to a manual gearbox the continuously variable transmission took a while to get used to but I’m talking minutes, not days. The foot operated “hand brake” was also a bit of a surprise and difficult to locate the first few times.

I was expecting it to be a little sluggish. It isn’t. A sports car it’s not, but it takes off pretty well if you do feel the need to put your foot to the floor. For less aggressive driving it’s smooth and quiet.

The intelligent parking assist is only really of novelty value. It took me several goes to get the hang of it and even then it seemed more hard work than parking manually. It’s also just a little bit paranoid. On the few occasions I did get it right, it sometimes cancelled itself because (apparently) my speed was to high. That’s even though I only took my foot off the brake and didn’t apply any accelerator. If it’s so fussed about speed, and if it can take control of the steering wheel, why can’t it just limit my speed rather than going on strike if I go too fast?

The rear view TV display is nice but all those red, green and yellow lines are just confusing. I tried to read in the manual what they all mean but my eyes started to glaze over.

There’s plenty of room inside to accommodate four adults comfortably. I didn’t try five but it would probably be OK provided you’re not travelling too far.

Whether you rate the boot as large or small seems to depend on what you’re used to. Compared with my old Vectra it was tiny. You could be pushed to fit in luggage for four adults on a holiday break. This is mainly because the floor is at bumper level to accommodate the spare wheel and some of the electrics. A removable cover gives access to a bit more space under the boot floor but that makes the luggage area a strange shape, not having a flat base.

Particularly liked:
  • “Star-trek” style central console with touch screen. This is used for Sat Nav display, control of the audio system and climate control, or it can display an animated image to show power source and power routing.
  • Voice control of some functions. As well as the novelty value this could help keep your eye on the road because it allows several functions to be controlled from one easy-to locate button on the steering wheel. You can say things like "18 degrees" to set the climate control, "radio" to turn on the radio and "louder" to turn it up. The repertoire of commands is perhaps a little limited and it would be nice to be able to add your own. The voice saying "say your command now" would have quickly driven me up the wall but thankfully I found a menu option to turn it off.
  • Rear facing camera providing full colour display of what’s immediately behind you when reversing.
  • Large number digital speedometer (switchable between MPH and KPH).
  • Fuel economy. Driving back and forth to work for a couple of days (all urban driving) I averaged just a smidgen under 50 mpg (see also conclusions below).
  • Total silence when you come to a halt at traffic lights and the engine shuts down. It somehow makes your contribution to a cleaner atmosphere all the more real.
  • Rear spoiler cuts a horizontal line across the view through the rear view mirror.
  • ‘Er indoors said she banged her knees on the underside of the dashboard when adopting her preferred driving position.
  • Sat Nav won’t accept full 7 character post codes. After (e.g.) RG41 1 you then have to select street and house number, which is fine if you know it but a pain if you don’t.
  • Continuous beeping when in reverse. If a continuous warning tone is necessary then something less penetrating (like the “ping” of a lift) would be preferable. Toyota please note: the "ping" you get when the auto-park finishes would have been a much better choice.
  • The car’s paranoia. The display console frequently shows warnings to which you have to touch “I agree” or similar. After the first time round you don’t read them anyway and the distraction of having to dismiss the screen can end up being more dangerous than whatever it was it was trying to warn you about.
  • Flimsy cloth cover to boot area.
  • I could have missed something but I couldn’t find a way to leave the radio/cd playing to entertain a passenger without leaving a key in the vehicle.
  • Small boot area. I know I’ve already said that but really deserves repeating as it’s my main reservation about the vehicle.

In the end, I think the plusses outweighed the minuses. It’s a decent sized family car with a performance which will only disappoint if you are a “boy racer”. You cannot argue with the fuel economy even though I couldn’t achieve the manufacturer’s suggested figures.

If you are a (UK) company car driver it could save you a fortune in income tax because of the tax breaks for “green” vehicles. If you own one yourself I believe the annual road fund tax is an incredibly low £15.

If you frequently drive into town, it’s currently exempt from the London Congestion Charge although you do have to pay an annual fee (currently £10) to register. However I hear rumours that Boris may have a plan to stop this concession so don't count on it continuing forever.

Add to that the fuel economy (who knows what the future holds for the price of petrol and diesel) and the savings could be substantial. The sums will vary with personal circumstances but I’m anticipating a saving of around £80 per month (fuel and tax combined) compared with my old Vectra. On top of that there is the thought that you are doing your bit to conserve resources and protect the atmosphere.

Given the economics I think I might be prepared to be a bit more creative when packing for a weekend away with friends.

Read full article...

Why blog?

OK, here are my excuses for starting blogging at a stage in life where I really ought to know better. It might give you some insight into why I'm here and what sort of thing to expect on this blog. On the other hand, it might not.

This is a tad embarrassing. Despite over 30 years in the software development industry I have to confess that I have little or no knowledge of what a blog is and how one works.

I have noticed that as soon as someone learns you are "in computers" there's a tendency to assume you know everything there is to know about computer hardware and software. In truth we computer people are often highly specialised. I could answer all but the most difficult questions about the Windows API, C++ syntax or how to use Visual Basic but I'm probably no better than the man on the Clapham omnibus when it comes to the questions lay people actually ask me like "my hard drive is playing up, how do I fix it?" or "my computer's running really slowly, any idea what's wrong with it?". I guess it's a bit like being a brain surgeon and having to field Auntie Janie's enquiry about how to deal with her in-growing toenail. When you say "it's not my field" the usual reaction is "but I thought you were in computers".

So why am I venturing out of my comfort zone and launching into this new enterprise? Although I'm a software man by trade, the real me is a frustrated author. This is a bit more than a practice ground, but only a bit. Every author wants to be heard, otherwise there’s no point.

I have a lot to say. Being of “grumpy old man” age, if not a little past it, I’m forever thinking, I must write to the papers about this or that. In truth, of course, I rarely do. Maybe this will be the outlet for all that suppressed grumpiness as well as wanting to share my boundless wisdom.

If you have stumbled in here (heaven knows how) then welcome. Please feel free to contribute. I’ve made this an open forum. Hopefully in the cornucopia of opinions I intend to post here on a divers range of subjects, you will find something to interest you.

I have no aspirations to change the world (at least, not realistic ones) but if I manage to amuse then I have succeeded.

Read full article...