52% intelligent. 9% modest. More monkey than bear.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

whatever you do, don't tell anyone....

When I was writing the blurb to go on our JustGiving page, I deliberately erred on the side of caution in how I described why we'd chosen the MS Society as the charity we were supporting:

"MS is a disease that has recently touched our lives...."

Perhaps a little coy. My MS isn't exactly a secret, but it's also not something that I'm going out of my way to advertise to all and sundry. I'm all for helping shake off people's preconceptions, but I am also aware that, for people who don't know me all that well, it could easily be the thing that defines me for them. As if to prove the point, one of C's colleagues was asking her about the half marathon and why we were running for the MS Society, and when he was told, he was all.... "Oh, but I saw him the other day and he looked fine".

I was conscious that I was likely to be touting the page at all sorts of people, and I decided that I wanted to tell people -- or not tell them -- about my MS on my own terms... and not via a casual remark on a charity website.

As it turns out, what I'd written was still enough to get a few people curious. Most were content to put their hands into their pockets without probing any deeper, but some were interested enough to try fishing (but not outright asking) for more information, and one or two quietly managed to read between the lines and approached me for a word. Interestingly, in every case, the people who approached me had also had their lives touched by MS: either because a close member of their family was a sufferer, or because they themselves had it. I already know of a couple of people in the office whose lives have been affected by MS in this way, but I was still very surprised when on particular colleague of mine approached me and revealed that she had MS and would be more than happy to speak to whoever it was that I knew who was suffering.

Surprised? Why would I be surprised? Haven't I been going on and on about how MS is a disease that is often invisible? Was I not just mildly disdainful, a mere two paragraphs above, about one of C's colleagues who remarked that I was looking surprisingly well? Just goes to show, eh? Seems we all have preconceptions about multiple sclerosis and multiple sclerosis sufferers, me included. Well, I've worked with this lady for several years now, and not only is she superb at her job, but she is also one of those lovely, warm friendly types who are a real joy to work with. She's about the same age as me, and since I've worked with her, she has married, had two kids and run a half marathon (for the MS Society, I discover....). And yet apparently she was diagnosed with MS when she was in her early 20s and a student - which must have been quite a shock to the system, to say the least. We had lunch together on Monday and swapped notes (she doesn't actually know anyone else with MS). It turns out that she has had a couple of relapses since diagnosis (including the temporary loss of sight in one eye), but is generally doing quite well and is not on any disease modifying drug therapy. It turns out that we even see the same neurologist.....

Who knew that people with MS might turn out to be people just like me? It was good to talk. Maybe we should form a club or something? Perhaps with a special badge, or a secret handshake?

Maybe not, eh?


Just a quick update on our fundraising, the total raised for MS Society currently stands at £2,775 with a further £489.36 of Gift Aid. That gives us a grand total of £3,264.36.

....I reckon that LB, C and I have done pretty well there, eh?

Thanks to you all for your generosity.

You can still donate, actually..... what are you waiting for?


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

old man take a look at yourself...

In my professional life, I am obliged to be something of a Janus: I sit between the business on one side and a large outsourced IT department on the other. I have a responsibility to my delivery partners to make sure that I capture clear, accurate requirements and kick work off in a way that enables it to be successfully delivered, but I also have a responsibility to the business on the other side to make sure that those projects are delivered as cheaply and accurately as possible. In an ideal world, both sides would always be pushing for the same things and everything would go smoothly, but the reality is that I spend most of my time bridging between two (or more) organisations that seem to be wrestling each other for an advantage.

Naturally, I think I do a pretty reasonable job. Where most people in my role naturally tend to focus on one side or the other, I reckon I go well out of my way to try and steer a middle path and make sure that I challenge both sides equally. I don't think of myself as a natural conciliator, but I spend much of my time at work seeking ways forward without endless needless recrimination over what we've agreed to do; over the often difficult line between defect and project change request... to seek, if you'll pardon the laboured simile, to rub the grit together to produce the pearl.

It wasn't that unusual, therefore, to find myself in a meeting this afternoon where the key business stakeholder and the manager of the third party development team were arguing over the scope and costs of a soon-to-be-delivered project. I've worked with both parties for several years, so although the emotion in the room was real and escalating, I was never really concerned that we wouldn't be able to work something out and leave the meeting room as friends. It's a reasonably big project for both parties, but the sums of money we were debating weren't that large and I was confident that everything would be okay. I sat between both parties, listening to each side and intervening occasionally, but generally waiting for the storm to blow itself out so that we could move forwards.

At that point, however, I looked up to see the other two people in the meeting room. Both have played important roles on the project, but both are also relatively new to the company and are in their early-20s. They both looked a touch concerned by the direction the meeting was taking and clearly weren't quite sure what to do next, not quite daring to say anything. It took me a moment to realise why the two of them kept shooting anxious looks in my direction, but it then suddenly dawned on me that they were looking to me to take hold of the meeting and to calm everything down. It was an insight that brought two thoughts tumbling into my head: the first was to remember how relatively inexperienced the pair of them are and how the meeting might be quite unsettling for them. And then, hard on the heels of that thought, I felt like the oldest man in the world. I'm grey enough as it is; I have no wish to be anybody's éminence grise.

Don't these people realise that I'm the young iconoclast?

In my own head, if in no-one else's...... I'm not quite ready to be Solomon.*

* Get me. As if I've ever been a young iconoclast or will ever be considered a Solomon....


Monday, September 28, 2009

I saw the sign....

So there we have it: Pastor Sonny Manuel provides people passing the Palm Heights Baptist Chuch with the definitive answer to a conundrum that has been exercising philosophers for years.

Well, he almost does. I think he's actually trying to be funny.

...or maybe he's simply an accomplished surrealist? Isn't everyone in his line of work?

It's the certainty of it that annoys me most, I think. In "The God Delusion", Richard Dawkins talks about a continuous "spectrum of probabilities" between two extremes of opposite certainty, which can be represented on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certitude that God exists and 7 is certitude that God does not exist:
  1. Strong theist. 100% probablity of God. In the words of Carl Jung, 'I do not believe, I know.'
  2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist. 'I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.'
  3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. 'I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.'
  4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. 'God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.'
  5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. 'I do not know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be sceptical.'
  6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. 'I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.'
  7. Strong atheist. 'I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung "knows" there is one.'

Dawkins rates himself as between a 6 and a 7: "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there." He goes on to add that "I am agnostic, but only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden." His point is that although not many 'atheists' would score themselves as a 7, how many Christians would score themselves as anything other than a 1? I get the distinct impression that Pastor Sonny Manuel would score himself as a strong 1, don't you?

Still, they're easy targets, aren't they? Let's all have a laugh at those weird religious nutjobs and the funny signs they put up outside their churches. The sign above comes from a list of similarly idiotic signs that can be found here and was kindly sent to me by the numnum, but laughing at them seems to be a pretty popular sport: just go and look at Google and you'll see that the internet is full of them. An awful lot of them.

Surely they're not representative? For every one of those, there must surely be hundreds of perfectly reasonable signs outside churches, put there by nice, moderate people?

But why am I asking Google?

(That's certainly true, but am I alone in thinking that Google has probably provided more actual answers over the years than prayer?)

Then again, in the cold light of day, is saying something as sanctimonious, judgmental and smug as "I kissed a girl and I liked it... and then I went to hell" actually all that much more ridiculous than saying "
When the Son of Man comes, will He find Faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). Both statements ultimately display a level of certainty that I suspect leaves little room for rational debate. There was one outside the church around the corner from me the other week loudly declaring that "JESUS IS HOPE". There's not much room for doubt or negotiation there either.

Of course, as long as they don't insist on inflicting it on anyone else, people are entitled to believe what they want. If you ask me, I think that we'd be a whole lot better off basing our society upon the utopian ideals of the Wyld Stallyns:

Now just tell me the world wouldn't be a better place if we all lived by that one simple adage?

Here endeth the lesson.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

living for the weekend....

Well, that was over all too fast. How long until the next one starts? Are they always this far apart?

Who the hell decided that?

Why did we listen?


Friday, September 25, 2009

some are dead and some are living....

Earworms of the Week

> "Screamager" - Therapy?

I swear I didn't do it deliberately, but I have spent all day today listening to music pretty much exclusively performed by power trios. I enjoyed the Ungdomskulen gig last night, for sure, but it wasn't until I listed on Twitter what I'd been listening to that I realised quite what my subconscious had been up to: Ungdomskulen, White Denim, We Are Scientists, Supergrass and the Young Knives. It's not on my iPod, but for some reason, the moment of realisation was suddenly soundtracked by this astonishing track. I suppose it's probably because this probably the song that defines power trios for me. Oh, hang on, no sooner have I said that than my head is starting to play "Smells Like Teenspirit" just to show me quite how wrong I can be.....

> "Grace" - Supergrass
> "Richard III" - Supergrass

A completely different kind of three-piece band to either Therapy? or Nirvana, and actually I think they're officially a four-piece now anyway. I loved them from the moment that I first heard "Caught By The Fuzz" and "Mansize Rooster", when I was sat at the desk in my room as a third year undergraduate, listening to Mark and Lard and trying to revise for my finals. They appear to have lasted quite well, although I do generally prefer their earlier, rougher stuff to the britpop-y stuff. Still, good band though.

> "Death" - White Lies
> "In My Place" - Coldplay

It's not been all three-pieces in my head, and I suppose there would be something really wrong if nothing at all from last weekend's Wembley gig hadn't stuck in my head. I thought White Lies were pretty good, and I had to have a little chuckle at the idea of closing your biggest ever show with a song called Death.... I keep saying I'd like to see them at Rock City next month, but I still haven't pulled my finger out to get any tickets. I'd best get on that, eh? As for Coldplay... well, I like most of their stuff, although hearing "In My Place" reminded me quite how good a band I think they can be when they keep things simple. You can't get a much more straightforward song than this, and there's absolutely nothing fancy about it at all, but it remains for me perhaps the definitive Coldplay song, with the definitive Chris Martin worry-wort lyrics. Bless. I loved "Parachutes", but it was hearing this and "Politik" that really made me believe they were onto something. I listened to "Viva La Vida" tonight, actually... it's really very good, you know.

> "DOA" - Foo Fighters

Triggered by the sight of the proposed track-listing for their forthcoming greatest hits album. I've got all of their albums, but I've thought that they're a better singles band than they are an albums band. You'd have thought, therefore, that a Greatest Hits would suit them down to the ground... and I'm not sure that it does. It looks like a decent album, for sure, but it's not the tracklisting that I would have chosen. It doesn't include this belter, for starters......

> "Welcome to the Jungle" - Guns n'Roses

On the way down to the Coldplay gig last week, in salute to the fact that they were the last band I saw at Wembley Stadium (in 1991), I put on Appetite for Destruction. Damn, but that's a good album. Starts strong and just goes on and on. I think I listened to this to the exclusion of almost everything else for the duration of 1988, and it still sounds pretty good to this day. Shame what happened next, but this is an absolute, solid-gold, nailed on rock classic. tr-na-na-na-na-na-na knees, knees..... un-sing-alongeable, but brilliant.

> "Wired for Sound" - Cliff Richard

I'm blaming you for this one Sarah. Great video of Cliff on rollerskates in Milton Keynes shopping centre though, eh? oh-a-oh-a oh-a-wo-oh oh!

> "Falling from Grace" - Gentle Waves

As wholeheartedly recommended by Aertog the other day. As a big fan of B&S and Isobel Campbell, I immediately made my way over to iTunes and downloaded. A welcome relief from all the rock I've been listening to. A contrast, at the very least, that has cleansed my pallet for more ROCK!

> "After Hours" - We Are Scientists

Originally a trio, but a duo by the time they released this song. A fine song by a fine band and a great video to boot. They must be about due to tour again - I do hope so as they are brilliant live.

> "Up All Night" - The Young Knives (ninjas!)

I first saw Ungdomskulen supporting the Young Knives when they played the Rescue Rooms back in 2007. Even in the face of such a superb support band, and in spite of playing mostly new material, I thought they did pretty well. They're a bit awkward and hard to place, and I fear their faces don't fit, but I think they're a good, interesting band. When the mood takes them, which it does here, they can really get a pretty convincing stomp going. We're not sleeping, we are staying up all night....

> "Spartacus" - Ungdomskulen

I've raved about them enough for one week, but when played live, this song is a pretty much quintessential devil-horn hands in the air classic. Statue John would love them: they're like a looser, freer, rockier White Denim... and that really is saying something. (really - do go and have a look at the video - they're brilliant. The album version can be found here, but live is where it really breathes.)

> "In My Life" - The Beatles

Rubber Soul is superb. Statement of the obvious, but there we are. Johnny Cash does a cover of "In My Life" on one of the American Recordings albums.... and having an 80-odd year old singing wistfully about the people and places he has known has an obvious resonance. But fucking hell, the Beatles were 24 years old when they wrote this. 24! How much did you know when you were 24? What an incredible song. I especially love that chiming guitar at the start of every verse. This is a sublime song. Practically perfect.

Enough already. It's been a musical week and I'm off for a swim.

Have a good weekend, y'all. Stay classy.


...not an ordinary son

UNGDOMSKULEN @ The Royal (Derby), 24th September 2009

It's not often that you see a support band that really catches the eye. Well, to be honest, it's not that often that I turn up early enough to a gig to catch much of the support act at all, but.... Norwegian three-piece, Ungdomskulen, providing support for the Young Knives at the Rescue Rooms back in 2007, didn't so much grab my attention, as seize it from me, wrestle it to the ground and pummel it into submission. They were fantastic. They were loud, they had great songs, a nice line in self-deprecating onstage banter and they were clearly all brilliant musicians. The Young Knives were good that night, playing material from their about-to-be-released second album, but by their own admission, they were always going to be struggling to out-do their own warm-up band.
"You pick the support act, and they turn out to be the best band in the world.”

I was so impressed that, for the first time in my gig-going life, I was moved to make my way over to the merchandising table and to get myself a CD. To be honest, I wasn't sure if I was ever going to be able to find an Ungdomskulen CD anywhere outside of Norway, so I thought I'd better seize the opportunity whilst I could. The record doesn't quite capture the majesty of their live act, but it's good enough and an excellent reminder of a happy night.

So when Mike suggested a trip out to Derby to go and check out Ungdomskulen again, I jumped at the chance. Actually, the main reason for heading over to the Derby badlands was the chance to meet Gordon, but the lure of the band was a pretty strong incentive. In spite of living barely 10 miles away from the place, I can count the number of times I've been to Derby on the fingers of one hand (five. I couldn't say how many the locals have...) I've been there on work business a few times, and I've been to a couple of gigs. I'm sure it's a nice enough place, but when you live in Nottingham, there has to be a greater incentive than "nice enough" to go and hang out somewhere. In searching for the Royal, Sarah and I actually walked through a couple of small streets that looked to have some really nice bars and restaurants. Perhaps Derby wasn't such a bad place? Hmm. Soon enough, we turned the corner to find ourselves on a big street with loads of bus stops and taxi ranks, and were confronted by the not-terribly edifying sight of a young man in a tracksuit shouting at the backs of a small gaggle of girls walking away from him:
"Yeah. You're nice. And you're friend's nice too. Not the one next to you, but the one after that."
As mating strategies go, I shouldn't have thought that's the most effective, but I'm not from Derby, so.....

Sarah and I found ourselves a nice, unprepossessing old-school fast food joint and dined in style up chips in naan bread and a nice greasy cheeseburger, and then we went out to meet up with Mike, gain entry to the venue and meet up with Gordon.

I think it's Fresher's Week in Derby, and the Royal appeared to be running some sort of club night for the new intake. Freshers, clearly marked by the wristbands they were all wearing, were free, but we old-timers were admitted to see the bands for the princely sum of £2. The support acts in the main bar made conversation impossible, but we soon managed to find a pew in the large, chandeliered chill out bar where some DJs were busy entertaining themselves (if no one else) with their mixing skills in an almost deserted room. We met Gordon, we drank Carlsberg (who appear to have a monopoly on the joint) and we chatted as the white boys in their over-sized baseball caps went about their business. At one point, I could have sworn I saw one of the guys take off his massive baseball cap to reveal a smaller one underneath, but I could perhaps have imagined that. They were having fun, anyway, and I was enjoying the company too much to care for their assortment of bleeps and nurdles.

The main room was disappointingly empty when Ungdomskulen first appeared onstage, but soon filled to the point of respectability when they began to play. They've not changed much since 2007: the singer's facial hair has grown out magnificently, the bassist (who is actually playing a six-stringed baritone guitar) still has a luxuriant moustache and the drummer... well, the drummer looks like he's walked into the wrong band. Happily, something else that hasn't changed much is their thrilling live act. They have technical difficulties during their first song when the microphone doesn't work, but this band are more than happy to jam until they are resolved. How much would you trust a soundman who needs pictures of the positions the sliders should be in on the sound-desk? Ungdomskulen live are a different proposition to the Ungdomskulen on record: live they are heavier and louder, but also much looser and improvisational. They're good on record, but they really make sense live. Like White Denim, another trio I've seen recently, they are driven on by a sensational drummer, but all seem to be fantastic musicians in their own right, comfortable enough with each other and with their material to let it stretch out and breathe. Some bands - most bands - like to work strictly within the constraints of the song as it was originally written and recorded. Not Ungdomskulen. On record, their songs are frequently very long and feature prog-rock like breaks and sudden changes of pace and direction, all clearly very carefully thought through and structured whilst also still sounding spontaneous. Live, they add an extra dash of that spontaneity, and they also aren't afraid of throwing themselves into their songs with real gust. They look unlikely, but they are a real treat.

They've got a new album out, but much of the material they play tonight in their short seeming 45 minute set is taken from their last album, "Cry-Baby": Ordinary Son, Glory Hole, Modern Drummer and the superb rock wig-out of Spartacus. They're superb. Mike might keep his legendary pointy-fingers to himself tonight, but the drummer still sees him dancing and tells him so at the end of the set. No wonder, even a confirmed non-dancer like me can hardly keep still during these songs. The crowd might be small, but they're enthusiastic, even if the glamorously dolled up girls turning up for the club night that follows the band seem mightily confused and soon leave at the sight and sound of this remarkable band (even if the cow-bells on Modern Drummer convince one or two of them to stay until the singing starts!). The earnest, introverted-looking bespectacled indie-kids in front of me nod their approval at what they hear, anyway.... truly a band they can proudly file alongside all those other awkward bands in their record collections.

A great night and a fantastic band.... hard to believe that you can see an act this good for £2 (or free, if you're a fresher... which sadly I haven't been since the frighteningly distant 1992).

Great to meet Gordon too. I hope he enjoyed the gig as much as I did. In fact, for the second-time in my gig-going life, I was inspired to get a CD. Drummer Øyvind was kind enough to throw in a button badge for free too, so I was well pleased. A good night.

Verdict: 8 / 10


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

take your time, don't hurry....

I already own quite a few Beatles albums: Abbey Road, The White Album, Revolver, Sergeant Pepper (obv.) and various collections.... but I only got around to finally getting myself a copy of "Rubber Soul" when I turned the corner in the supermarket to find myself confronted wall of top 40 albums that was unexpectedly dominated by old Beatles records. I knew about the digital remastering, of course, but for some reason I hadn't imagined that Michael Jackson's dominance of the album chart would be replaced by a band even older and still more successful.

It's an album that's intrigued me for a little while. I wouldn't say that I was a Beatles nut, but I am interested in the band, and I love dipping into Ian MacDonald's seminal piece of scholarship on their music, "Revolution in the Head". If you aren't aware of this book, it's a song-by-song breakdown of every single record the Beatles made. Apart from the obvious fascination of seeing who wrote and played what on every song, and a description of the various influences at play, what makes this book great and sets it apart from the crowd is the way that the author is most certainly not afraid of telling it how he hears it. Too often we see the work of this band being canonised. They are, after all, the great Beatles. I still find it refreshing to read the work of a critic who is (mostly) able to keep his objectivity intact whilst listening and commenting on songs we've all heard hundreds of times before. Much of their work still stands up, of course, but crucially, not all of it.

How about this on "All You Need is Love":

"One of the Beatles' less deserving hits...slapdash atmosphere in which it was made...sloppiness on show...The Beatles were now doing wilfully substandard work: paying little attention to musical values and settling for lyric first-thoughts on the principle that everything, however haphazard, meant something and if it didn't - so what? .... drug-sodden laziness...lotus eating delusion of an egalitarian life of ease...."

or this on "Helter Skelter":

"Condensed for release on 9th September, the result was nevertheless ridiculous, McCartney shrieking weedily against a massively tape-echoed backdrop of out-of-tune thrashing.. few have seen fit to describe this track as anything other than a literally drunken mess."

I could go on, but I think you probably catch my drift. Good band, but they sure weren't perfect. If anything, MacDonald generally sounds annoyed and disappointed when a great band, clearly capable of so much, fail to live up to their potential. Must try harder.

"Rubber Soul" is an especially interesting album because it is supposed to catch the moment that the Beatles stopped being the mop-topped pop band of their early albums and started to move into the more experimental second-half of their career. As Ian MacDonald wrote:

"Gradually realising, from Dylan's example, that they didn't have to segregate their professional work from their inner lives, they consciously experimented in much of the "Rubber Soul" material, feeling their way towards a new style - one which, defining the second half of their career together, would be inspired by their encounter with one of the biggest influences on life and culture in the late sixties: LSD."

Cue Revolver....

"Rubber Soul" proves that music doesn't have to be about great singles, but can also be about producing a great album. There's not a track on the album that was released as a single, but feel the quality: Drive My Car, Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), Nowhere Man, Michelle (laughably described by The Sun the other day as being "Greek influenced"), Girl, In My Life.....

Not every song is great (What Goes On, The Word....), but it's a fine album, for sure.

Not that I'm claiming that as any great insight onto what is widely proclaimed as one of the greatest albums ever recorded. I'm not sure the digital remastering adds too much - not to my ears, anyway - but it's still a decent record by anyone's standard.

Great cover too. Growing out their mop tops, but pre-dodgy moustaches and afghan coats. The Beatles looked great around this time too.....

Good band - you should check them out. Remember you heard about them here first.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

do you see what I see?

One of the most common presenting symptoms of multiple sclerosis is optic neuritis. To quote wikipedia:

"Major symptoms are sudden loss of vision (partial or complete), or sudden blurred or "foggy" vision, and pain on movement of the affected eye. Many patients with optic neuritis may lose some of their color vision in the affected eye, with colors appearing subtly washed out compared to the other eye. A study found that 92.2% of patients experienced pain, which actually preceded the visual loss in 39.5% of cases"

Apparently, up to 50% of patients with MS will develop an episode of optic neuritis, and 20-30% of the time optic neuritis is the presenting sign of MS. As I know all too well, MS can somewhat slippery to diagnose at the best of times. Compared to symptoms as generalised and hard to nail down as numbness and pins & needles, it's really not too hard to understand why a sudden disturbance in your vision might be the thing that really scares someone off to their doctor and onwards to their neurologist.

...unless, of course, you've recently had your eyes cracked open and had corrective lens implants clipped onto the front of your irises..... in which case a blurring of your vision may not automatically have you reaching for your neurologist's phone number.

Since I had my eyes operated on in July 2008, I would say that my eyesight has been brilliant more than 90% of the time. I only say 90% because, although I don't regret the procedure for an instant, there have been one or two little niggles. The lens in my right eye is smaller than the lens in my left. The reason for this was that I needed a rigid lens in that eye to correct an astigmatism, and the rigid lens couldn't be rolled up before insertion like the other lens, and so needed to be smaller. Because it's smaller, in some light conditions my pupil approaches the edge of the lens and I get some leakage of light. It's not too much of a big deal, and once I got used to it, my brain basically tuned it out. But it's there. My right eye also seems to react more slowly to changing light conditions, meaning that my vision becomes slightly blurred when I move from very bright conditions to dimmer conditions, and once in a while my pupil seems to get "stuck", and takes a bit longer to adjust. Again, not a very big deal.... but it's there.

I also have an obsessive personality, and once in a while, my brain finds something tiny to latch onto to the exclusion of almost everything else. In the old days, this was things like the fit of my glasses or imaginary scratches on my lenses. Nowadays, sometimes it's my new eyes. Initially I fixated on some barely perceptible hazing that occurred in my left eye, caused by skin cells on the implant that my brain - if left to its own devices - would quickly tune out. When I finally let it go, the hazing quickly disappeared. In addition, once in a while, I'll notice that the correction of my right eye is fractionally less good than the correction in my left. I'll sometimes sit for a while, alternately closing each eye and comparing what I see. Then I'll realise that I have perfect vision with both eyes together, and perfectly acceptable vision even in my 'weaker' eye, and I'll get over myself and find something else to worry about.

So, with that in mind, you might understand why, when I start to experience more regular blurring in one of my eyes, I don't immediately assume that it is the onset of optic neuritis. Over the last couple of weeks, this is exactly what has been happening: the blurring in my right eye has been getting steadily worse. Where before it only happened from time to time, now it seems to be happening more regularly, and although my vision still tends to improve in brighter light, that doesn't now seem to be always the case. I've also noticed that, when blurry, my eyesight is less blurry at the periphery of my vision than it is at the centre. Not surprisingly, I've also been getting nagging tension headaches behind my eyes too. Of course, it's possible that it's still all in my head, or that there is some kind of mechanical problem with my implant.... but I've also started to come to terms with the fact that there might also be a neurological explanation.

I really don't know how I feel about that. Let's review the possible outcomes: if it's all in my head, I may well be crazy; if it's a problem with the implant inside my eye, then it could require surgical correction (or removal)....or it could be further neurological evidence that my MS is progressing.

What kind of options are they?

Well, one way or another, I guess I'll find out more on Friday - I've got an appointment go get my eyes checked up. It's a regular appointment that was originally supposed to happen in November last year, then in July and then last Friday, when I sat in a hospital waiting room for two pointless hours for my doctor to show up..... well, what kind of service do you expect when you go private? If the appointment does nothing else, it should help start the process of elimination.

Funnily enough, since the possibility occurred to me that this might be caused by something that is totally outside of my control and nothing to do with any choices I've made or how nuts or otherwise I may be, I've found the whole thing a lot easier to deal with.

Funny things, brains.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

the hollowest of halos is no halo at all....

White Lies / Girls Aloud / Jay-Z / Coldplay @ Wembley Stadium, 18th September 2009

I think the last gig I attended at Wembley Stadium was Guns N'Roses way back in August 1991. It was shortly before the "Use Your Illusion" albums were released, and as I recall, the band kept us waiting for something like 2 1/2 hours after their scheduled onstage time before deigning to make an appearance. Small wonder that it was Izzy Stradlin's last gig with the band before heading off to form the immortal Ju Ju Hounds. The bill at Wembley that night included Nine Inch Nails and Skid Row.

Not only did this gig have a rather different line up, but the old stadium itself has undergone something of a facelift since then. The now-demolished Wembley Towers might be lamented, but surely very few people miss much about the cavernous old stadium itself: everything about this new version seems to be an improvement, from the elegant arch to the way that the -- mostly under cover -- seats now hug up close to the edge of the pitch since the removal of the athletics track. The end result is a venue that feels less like a stadium and more like a relatively intimate arena gig..... it's never going to be as up-close-and-personal a venue as somewhere like the Rescue Rooms, but these things are relative, after all. At a stadium gig, I'll take all of the intimacy I can get, thanks.

White Lies are a band that I've wanted to see for a little while. Their debut album was one that LB said I would like, and sure enough, when I bought it, it was indeed an album that I liked. Superficially, I suppose they sound as though they have a lot in common with bands like Interpol and Editors... mainly meaning that they have a dark, dense rock sound and singer Harry McVeigh has a deep, almost Ian Curtis-like singing voice. Actually, I don't think they're an especially depressing band at all, with lyrical themes often speaking of escape and love. Here they were granted something like 30 minutes to make an impression on Coldplay's crowd, and perhaps sensibly they opted to open with their two most famous songs: "Farewell to the Fairground" and "To Lose My Life". I thought they sounded pretty good. McVeigh has a slightly alarming bulging vein on his neck when he's singing, but otherwise I thought they did the best with the time slot they had. Oddly, I thought they actually sounded slightly like Ultravox live, but I still saw enough to think that I should make the effort to see them playing their own show at Rock City later in the year. You've also got to love a band who sign off what is probably their biggest ever gig by saying "We've been White Lies and here's a song called 'Death'".

I liked them.

When Coldplay first announced these dates, the reason we chose to attend the Friday date rather than the Saturday was because Girls Aloud were initially only playing the first date, and Jay-Z was only playing the second. Later on, long after the tickets had been purchased, it was announced that they would both be playing both nights.... We'd chosen Friday not only through a desire to avoid Jay-Z, but also because C. was quite keen to see the Girls in action. Various people at work have found it amusing that I would be watching a band like Girls Aloud in action, but actually I was quite curious to see them. Other than at somewhere like Glastonbury, when else was I likely to see a band as "pop" as this?

Naturally, the guys in the office were keen to know which of the band was my favourite... and the honest answer is I don't have one. In the fallout of Beatles-gate, I'd already established that I could name the band. Hell, I even have their greatest hits on my iPod.... but a favourite? Nah. That said, I did have to take one of my colleagues to task when he told me that I surely couldn't fancy "the ginger one or the fat one". Now, I'm pretty sure that even Nicola herself wouldn't vehemently deny being ginger.... but which one of those girls is supposedly the fat one? I think he meant Kimberley, but to call her fat is just ridiculous.


So what were they like? Well, I thought they were fun but a touch under-rehearsed. One or two of their vocals were a bit off-key (especially on "I'll Stand By You"). I also thought that whoever dressed and choreographed their backing dancers wants shooting. What on earth were they were thinking of when they dressed them in fluorescent hi-top trainers and luminous dungarees and had them prancing around like children's TV presenters?? I also thought, and I know that this sounds ridiculous, that their songs sounded wafer thin and bubblegum light. I know they're a pop band, but I thought that I quite liked songs like "Biology".... and then I listened to it live, and realised that I actually only like about ten seconds of it. It's true that they repeat that ten second snippet several times during the song, but the rest is pretty ordinary. Yes, songs like "Love Machine" and "The Promise" are great, but I was disappointed by the rest.

Still, they were entertaining... and perhaps even a touch nervous to be playing in such a big venue in front of a rock band's audience. *

Jay-Z. Ah, Jay-Z. I saw him at Glastonbury in 2008 and surprised myself by enjoying his set very much. I'm not a massive fan of the genre, but he was witty and entertaining, and the whole gig had been turned into something of an EVENT by all that stupid controversy about a rapper headlining Glastonbury. He slayed it.... but I felt very little need to see him perform live again, and took the opportunity to look for a pint, something to eat and a chance to take the weight off my feet before the headliners came on.

As I sat at the far end of the stadium from the stage, I marvelled at Jay-Z's performance: all the songs sound as though they've had a backing track supplied by Linkin Park, and Jay's act seems to consist of allowing that backing track to play, watching his supporting rapper and exhorting the crowd to "bounce! bounce!" with an accompanying wave of his arm. I'm sure he's very good at what he does... but I just don't get it.

...although "99 Problems" still sounds brilliant. I can only imagine what Beyonce thinks of the lyrics, but it's a great record.

He seemed to go down very well with the, by now very excitable, crowd, but I certainly don't need to see him a third time to tell you that he's not my cup of tea.

Each to their own.

Which brings us to the headliners.....

I've seen Coldplay several times now. In fact, I actually saw them on this same tour, some nine months and 150 shows ago in December last year at the NIA in Birmingham.... and that's the problem. Much though I like Coldplay, and I think it's been pretty well-documented here that I do very much like Coldplay, when their setlist is at least 90% the same as a show you've already seen -- including the little off-the-cuff bits of Satie that Chris Martin throws in when at the piano, then your enjoyment is going to be limited... at least a little bit.

Don't get me wrong, I thought that Coldplay were good.... it's just that I could almost reprint my review from December word for word.

"They played a strong set tonight, bookended by the different versions of "Life in Technicolour". They have now got enough material that they are able to play singles like "Violet Hill", "Clocks", "Speed of Sound", "Fix You", "In My Place" and "Yellow" very early on in the set. "Fix You" in particular, a song that I've never quite liked, seeing it as being too much like Coldplay in excelsis, is embraced by the crowd and becomes the night's first - but not last - mass communal singalong"


"The new material sounded pretty good. "Lost" (thankfully without Jay-Z), "Cemeteries of London" and "42" all sound good, and "Viva La Vida" is a showstopper with a vocal harmony section at the end seems tailor made for a crowd to roar along to"

Well, we did get Jay-Z this time around, mucking about with Martin and trying to put him off the song, but the rest is still true.

"The band themselves are far from static: they do a little segment at the end of one of the walkways, where they emphasise the strength of their material by playing songs as good as "Talk" and "God Put A Smile on Your Face" in a slightly offhand, casual way. Later on in the show, the band also made their way along the side of the arena to a space right at the very back, from where they play another few songs."

That medley actually annoys me even more now: both are great songs in their own right, but they're tossed away in an almost jokey manner, and I find myself wishing that the band didn't play them at all rather than teasing us like this. We're in a stadium now, so the band can't practically make their way to a section at the back, but they do make their way to a small stage near the sound-desk, where they are inexplicably joined by Simon Pegg, who stands around a lot pretending to play the harmonica and is pretty much entirely a spare part throughout. His presence is entirely superfluous, and I'm not sure how he wasn't ashamed to stand there. Mind you, the cover of "Billy Jean" that we're treated to in this little segment is actually surprisingly good, with the vocals suiting Chris Martin (and drummer Will's) falsettos. They've probably been playing it since Jackson's death in June, but this is the first time I've heard them do it and they actually do a pretty good job of it. Credit where credit is due.

"The band finish the show with "The Scientist", an absolutely barnstorming version of "Lovers in Japan" where phosphorescent ticker-tape rains from the ceiling, and leave us with "Life in Technicolour II". It's a good show. The new songs sound great, the old songs are received by the enthusiastic crowd as old friends. The band seem to have a good time, with Chris Martin being his usual puppy-ish, bouncy, cheerful self. We all have a good old sing-song. It's a good show. No question. So why is it that I feel slightly distanced from the whole thing?"

It's not ticker-tape, I discovered, they are paper butterflies... and in spite of the fact that I've seen the effect before, it actually works fantastically well in the stadium, with butterflies drifting down onto the crowd long after the band have actually left the stage.....

It's a good show, dammit. I like Coldplay and I like the fact that, in stark contrast to a band like U2, their approach to a massive stadium gig like this is really simple and stripped down. The songs are good and it's really hard not to warm to a band led by a singer as eager-to-please as Chris Martin. The rest of the band are also doing so much more than making up the numbers, something made entirely evident at the end when the band link arms for their traditional bow to the crowd before leaving the stage for the last time.

But.... I've seen the show before. That's not Coldplay's fault, for sure. Neither is it the band's fault that I have a slightly snobbish dislike for a stadium crowd. It's all part of the territory when attending a big gig like this, but I can't help but notice that we're surrounded by people who are probably attending their only gig of the year. It's okay to be excited, really it is. I don't expect everyone to keep a cool reserve, after all, and I expect a certain amount of pushing and shoving in a big crowd like this.... but this was ridiculous. No, I don't have a great deal of sympathy for you looking for your friends down at the front ten minutes before the headliners come on. Not when you've obviously just popped out for a round, anyway. That said, nor do I have a great deal of sympathy for the guy just in front of me who seemed to be getting more and more stressed with each person who pushed past him. No one likes being pushed and shoved, but if you want to be reasonably close to the band, then that's what you have to put up with. If you don't like big crowds, don't push yourself up to the front. As for the guy who decided to spark up a massive cigar......

Perhaps I'm getting too old for all this.

Verdict: This is a tough one. I enjoyed the day as a whole; I was happy to spend the day at Wembley with my friends and I thought all the bands were good in their own ways... but... I wasn't especially inspired by Coldplay as I'd seen them perform essentially the same set a few months before. They were good, but....

6.5 / 10

I've seen Coldplay perform better, but I reckon it's ultimately harsh to mark them down too far for a decent performance just because I've seen them performing more or less the same set before. Ultimately though, it was a good day but not a great gig.


* for the record, and if absolutely forced to choose, it's Sarah. There's something about her froideur and the fact that where the others are girls, she's a woman..... but like I say, I don't have a favourite.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I may be dumb but I'm not a dweeb....

At last! A geek / nerd / dweeb /dork venn diagram.

This is something that has been puzzling me for some time. Over the years, people have used each of these phrases, apparently interchangeably, to describe me. Although I vaguely have an idea what they mean, I've been bothered because I haven't know exactly what they mean. They might mean similar things, but I've always been pretty sure that they don't mean the same thing. I've been called all of them, but what if not all of them applied? Perhaps none of them did? If they didn't mean exactly the same thing, then isn't there likely to be a hierarchy, where one of those words might be considered to be less - or more - insulting than another? Was I taking offence needlessly, or was I not offended enough by what people were calling me?

So: here's a chart that should provide me with some of answers I've been looking for.

From here (via @annapickard)

Hmm. Unfortunately I'm still no clearer.

Well, I say I'm no clearer, what I actually mean by that is "Dangnabbit, I think I probably qualify for all of the above and that most likely makes me a nerd".

The chart must be inaccurate, right?


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

stupid bloody tuesday....

Um, Something Street?

Amongst all the coverage of the launch of Beatles Rock Band last week, I heard Nicky Campbell on Five Live wondering whether there could really be anybody who would be discovering the music of the Beatles through this game. The guy he was talking to, some expert who has written a book on the band, told him that he would be surprised how many people, especially those in their 20s and 30s, were relatively unfamiliar with the band. Well, I'm in my 30s and I own several Beatles albums, so I wasn't sure about that. To test the theory, as soon as I arrived in the office, I wandered over to the 22-year old in our team:

Me: "Have you heard of the Beatles"
22: "Yes"
Me: "Can you name them?"
22: "Ermmmm. Ahhhh. Hmmmm. Ummmmmm. Aha! Paul McCartney!"
Me: "Yes. And the other three?"
22: "Erm. No"
Me: "John Lennon?"
22: "Yes, heard of him"
Me: "George Harrison"
22: "Never heard of him"
Me: "Ringo Starr"
22: "Isn't he dead?"

This was a level of ignorance that I hadn't been expecting.

Me: "Can you name any of their songs or albums?"
22: "Um. Something Street or Road?"
Me: "Abbey Road?"
22: "That's it"
Me: "Anything else?"
22: "Um. Not off the top of my head"
Me: "Eleanor Rigby?"
22: "Nope"
Me: "Yesterday?"
22: "Yes, heard of that one. Long and Winding Road. Was that them?"
Me: "Yes. Yellow Submarine?"
22: "Is that the same as the song you sing in Nursery?"

....and so on.

22y.o. subsequently had a quick trawl through wikipedia and wrote down a number of other Beatles songs or albums he thought he had heard of ("Sergeant Pepper? I think I know that one"). He thought he was normal, and if anything, he was a little taken aback by the shock with which his lack of Beatles related knowledge was causing in those who had overheard our little conversation.

Not wishing to appear stupid, he set off to prove that he wasn't the anomaly, and that there were other people with a similar lack of knowledge.

He faced an initial setback when the 18 year old who has just joined us for a placement as part of his degree turned out to be something of a fan, but he was undeterred. His policy of asking people much older than him didn't bear much fruit ("Name the band? I can name the two that left!"), but he did have some success when a surprising number of people were completely unable to name George Harrison as a member of the Beatles (surprising in that there were about four or five people who didn't know. I was mildly surprised that anyone didn't know who he was. My Sweet Lord, indeed).

I've never been one of those people who thinks that the Beatles are somehow above criticism. A band that highly praised cannot help but be overrated, if you ask me. I think what's really amazing about them is how so much of their work still sounds pretty fresh today. Not all of it does: I'd just listened to "Revolver" in the car, so I was very well aware that some of the sitar-heavy numbers in particular were very much a product of their era (or perhaps the start of the era itself?). Much of the songwriting remains incredibly fresh though. How many better song lyrics have there ever been than those in "Eleanor Rigby"? Or am I now unable to view a song that is so embedded into our popular culture with anything approaching objectivity?

Meanwhile, as 22 y.o.'s quest continued, he faced an increasing level of incredulity from those around him:
"Are your retarded?"
"Is it too late to have him shot?"
Whilst it's true that I hadn't even been born by the time by the Beatles had split up, that I had parents who weren't really into music, I still managed to discover the band. I was therefore somewhat surprised by his total lack of knowledge on the subject. Even so, I soon started to feel mildly uncomfortable about what I'd started. Was it really fair to call him ignorant? After all, "Free As A Bird" and the fuss around the release of the Anthology albums happened as far back as 1995. 22 y.o. would have been 8 years old. Is it all that surprising that he might have missed out on the Beatles entirely?

I became more uncomfortable the next day when 22 y.o. was grilled about his knowledge of Queen - much harder than knowing about the Beatles, surely? Before long he was being asked about capital cities. Perhaps he should know what the capital of Australia is, but should we really be laughing at him? He took it all in good spirit, but by the time he was confronted with "The Ultimate Beatles Quiz" from the Times, I wouldn't blame him if he was thoroughly bored of the whole thing and starting to feel a little got at. He got 0 out of 40. A big fat zero. Then again, I don't think I got more than about half of the questions.

"Who was the first Beatle to sport a moptop?"
"Name the Beatles first wives"
"Who suggested that John Lennon change the line "Waiting for the man to come" to "waiting for the van to come" in I Am The Walrus?"
"Who pressed the panic button in Yellow Submarine?"
"Who is the only guest musician to be credited on the label of a Beatles record?"

Not impossible - but if you don't know who George Harrison was, then I'd suggest you're going to struggle with some of those.

22 y.o. hit back this morning with some questions for me:

He tried to test me initially by asking me to name the members of Girls Aloud, only to find that I could (I am seeing them live at Wembley on Friday, after all....), but he found more fertile ground with some questions from a football quiz he was at on Monday night.

"Tony Roberts (the old QPR goalkeeper) was the first goalkeeper to do what?"
"Which striker made his debut for Manchester Utd in the 2007 season, playing up front with Ole Gunnar Solskaer, and made a total of 3 appearances for the club?"
"Name the three Australian players in the Leeds Utd squad in 2001"

I got none of them right, and he felt a bit better about himself (even if he actually only knew the answer to one of those questions himself...)

I don't know though. Is it right to mock someone for something like that? I might perhaps marvel at how he hasn't been inquisitive enough to pick up practically anything at all about the Beatles, but it's entirely possible that they just haven't crossed his radar. Incredible though that sounds, they just don't register with him. Why should they? Is it fair to call him ignorant because of that? They're just a band, aren't they?

At what point does the teasing become bullying?

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Monday, September 14, 2009

I think the finish line's a good place we could start....

Half Marathon? Done.

My official time was 1 hour, 56 minutes & 52 seconds. All my training has led me to think that I run at a fairly steady pace of between nine and ten minutes per mile. I took that to mean that, on a good day, I would be able to complete the course in less than two hours.... although I was also mindful that basically all of my training has taken place alongside either a river or a canal, and that the race itself featured a few more ups and downs. I hoped I could beat 2 hours, but until the actual day itself, I didn't know if I was going to be able to.

I've been in various triathlons and things, but I've never actually run a race like this before. There were 12,000 runners all lined up for the start, and it took me something like 5 minutes from the gun going off before I actually reached the starting line. The first mile or so was spent weaving my way through other runners and trying to find a path that compromised my running pace the least. In spite of all the traffic though, that first mile was quite a bit faster than my normal pace... probably something to do with all the excitement of the day and being carried along by the sheer weight of all the other runners. Mind you, I ran the whole thing faster than my normal pace, as the splits below show:

climb (ft):

I think you can ignore the split for the 12th mile (I had to adjust a glitch on the GPS reading on the map Runkeeper was plotting), but those splits show how much faster than normal I was running. I overtook the 2 hour pacemarker (a guy holding a red board with the time he was aiming for emblazoned on it) in the first mile, and - in spite of a vague fear that he would appear over my shoulder any minute - never saw him again. Mind you, I am told that the 2:00 pace marker was actually overtaken by 2:15, so something was wrong somewhere. I didn't actually believe that I was going to beat 2 hours until I went through the 10 mile marker in 90 minutes.

I'm very, very pleased.

Although I was very sore on the last mile, especially in my hips and in my calf muscles, I was actually more surprised at how much of an emotional rollercoaster I found the race. I seemed to vacillate wildly between feeling strong and positive, and feeling quite the opposite. I played little tricks on myself like plotting 3 miles as being a quarter of the way there; 4 miles as a third of the way there; 6.5 miles as halfway..... but it was still sometimes a struggle not to feel oppressed by the amount of running I still had to do. The hardest part of the course for me was actually the last couple of miles, even the last 400m, with the finishing line literally in sight in front of me. That was when I felt the most crippled by the distance seeming to not get any shorter. Never has 400m felt quite so disproportionately far. Other stretches were a doddle: running down the Derby Road the first time; running down through the fallen leaves of that tree-lined avenue in Wollaton Park... Indeed, the eleventh mile felt the shortest of the lot, as I rounded the bottom of Castle Boulevard and turned towards the Experian offices and the last, painful, couple of miles.

I listened to my playlist on my iPhone throughout, and also had the Runkeeper application keeping my up to date with my pace and progress. Funnily enough, although I must have listened to loads of tracks and used them to distract me from how much my legs were hurting... I can actually remember very few specific songs. "Keep On Rocking in the Free World" helped me up that nasty hill at the University, "Hiphopopotamus vs Rhymenoceros" took me around the lake, "Ace of Spades" helped me up the long hill in Wollaton, "Touch Too Much" helped me up another nasty little incline.... but generally it's all blurred into the background.

Actually, thinking back, I can't even really remember the detail of the route we ran either. I know it in outline, but if I try and think back to running the course, the details become quite sketchy. Even when I was quite fresh, apparently I was concentrating more on the runners around me and on my running than I was on exactly where I was going. That's not to say that I didn't look at the crowds and the spectacle of the race itself, because I did: I enjoyed the huge variety of other runners, with most seemingly representing a charity. There were people of all shapes and sizes, with some athletic types wheezing on the floor having a breather after a couple of miles, and other far more unlikely looking runners breezing past me with a mile to go. The crowds were brilliant too. I was cheered off at the start by our own little pack of supporters, and again at 8 miles going up a nasty hill... but the crowds lined the route throughout and it was great to be clapped and generally encouraged.

I wish I could say that I felt a tremendous rush of emotions when I finished too, but I was so physically and mentally tired that I could barely lift my leg up to have my timing chip removed from around my ankle. I had about twenty minutes to myself before I caught up with everyone else, and I was busy doing mundane things like taking on board lots of fluid, eating the Mars bar that was in my little finishing pack and trying to stay warm. After that, I was busy cheering C. and LB to the finishing line. It was only really much later on that I started to get a sense of quiet satisfaction at a job well done.

C. came in at 2 hours, 18 minutes & 41 seconds, with LB being sightly harshly - given they crossed the line together - clocked a second later. They started the race together, separated when C set off down a hill like she was on rollerskates, and came together again in the last couple of miles when LB caught up with a struggling C. and helped give her the encouragement to get over the finishing line. They did really, really well and I'm very proud of both of them. They beat the first marathon runner in, anyway, which is just as well as he sprinted / floated his way to the finishing line in about 2 hours 20 minutes. Well, he gets paid to do this sort of thing, so....

Between the three of us, we have raised (so far) a total of £2,640. On top of that, the MS Society will receive a further £480 in Gift Aid.... this gives us a grand total of around £3120. That's a fantastic achievement - especially given that I was initially hoping to raise a mere £1000. I am really grateful to every single one of you who has made a donation, however small, or offered us any kind of support at all as we've pushed ourselves through all those endless, dreary miles in training. It was a real incentive to keep on going even when every fibre of my being was telling me to stop.

Well done team!

There may be some more photos appearing here as and when I gather them all together (some are on my dad's phone, some are on the official photographer's website (here are the ones of me and the ones of C - also featuring LB). You never know, LB or Hen might put some up at their places too.

It was a good day. My legs are quite sore today (and oddly getting more sore as the day goes on), but I'm off for a curry now, so it's all good. I'm not in training any more, you see....

Not until tomorrow, anyway.

Perhaps the London Triathlon next year. That's the one I had to drop out of at the last minute in 2005 when I first started seeing my neurologist. No promises, but it feels like unfinished business.....

It's not too late to add to our kitty for the MS Society either. You can still sponsor us here.

Thanks everyone. That's a wrap.


Friday, September 11, 2009

stop them crazy horses on the run....

One of the most important things to remember when preparing for a race like the half marathon, they say, is that you should try not to do anything too differently to normal. Obviously, the presence of 20,000 other runners is going to be a bit of a change, but I'm going to wear the same trainers, drink the same amount of fluid beforehand... that kind of thing. I'm also going to be wearing a pair of headphones and carrying my iPhone strapped to my left arm. Partly that's because I'm going to have the Runkeeper application on and telling me how far I've run and what pace I'm running at -- it makes me run faster -- but also so that I can listen to music.

For me, music is a vital part of the whole process: apart from anything else, if you can focus on each song as it goes past, before you know where you are, you're another four or five minutes down the road and not worrying too much about how everything hurts. For the last few weeks, I've been training to a playlist made up of tracks by the likes of Metallica, Foo Fighters and Iron Maiden. There's something about the driving drums and screaming guitars that encourages me to pick my knees up and run as though the hounds of hell are on my trail.

For Sunday, I thought I might treat myself to a new playlist.

I've been combing through iTunes, pulling out songs that I think might be good. There's a fair bit of rock in there, but as I'll be listening to it on shuffle, I've thrown in a few wildcards to change the pace and to freshen things up from time-to-time.

I've been thinking about it for a little while now, and so, not surprisingly, this week's earworms are all taken from that playlist.

Earworms of the Week

> "Celebrity Skin" - Hole

Courtney has been in the news this week raging against the approval of Kurt's image for use in one of those Guitar Hero/Rock Band type games. As well as being able to play "Smells Like Teenspirit" (also on this playlist, of course), you are able to unlock the "Kurt" character and have him play songs by the likes of Bon Jovi. Yeah. I'd be pissed off too, but who gets the money?? Ah, whatever, this song remains a timeless reminder of the fact that the woman may be crazy but she does / did have talent.

> "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret" - Queens of the Stone Age

QOSA make good running music, and I've slipped a few tracks onto the playlist ("No One Knows" is always good). This was actually initially my favourite track on "Songs For the Deaf", even though it's only included as a live bonus and actually appears on their previous album.

> "Make Your Own Kind of Music" - Mama Cass

Something of a change of pace, especially if it follows something like "Master of Puppets" or "Battery", but hopefully it won't make me slow down too much and will give me a bit of respite from the relentless metal. I ran out of patience with "Lost" not long after, but that opening sequence of the second season that was soundtracked by this song was absolutely brilliant.

> "Search and Destroy" - Iggy & The Stooges

If this doesn't make me pick my knees up, then nothing will. I actually discovered this song initially through a cover version by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, of all people. It's a b-side to "Under the Bridge", and it's surprisingly good. Less surprising once I'd worked out the quality of the source material though.

> "Foux du Fafa" - Flight of the Conchords

Mock French whimsy? But of course. I had to have some Conchords on the playlist too. Baguette!

> "Souljacker pt1" - Eels

Watching Okkervil River last night actually made me pine to see Eels. They're a band that I've never actually seen, and although I didn't especially enjoy last night's gig, there must have been something in their style that made me think of someone who also does a nice line in downbeat, sometimes lyrically dense material. Mark Everett also does it a whole lot better than Okkervil River, if you ask me. I picked this particular song, from one of the less celebrated albums, for the simple reason that it rocks in a way that "Climbing to the Moon" and "Mr E's Beautiful Blues" just don't. Both those other songs included, mind you...

> "Safe European Home" - The Clash

I've been obsessing about the Clash for a while now. Usually, I focus my attention on their debut album and songs like "Career Opportunities" and "White Riot" (both included), but for now my attention has been particularly taken by this one from "Give 'em Enough Rope".

> "Chasing Cars" - Snow Patrol

Another change of pace, but incredibly satisfying to run to. I once listened to this about five times in a row when I was out for a lunchtime run at work. It's not that I especially like the song, although it's pretty good, but for some reason it absolutely hit the spot about halfway round a 4 mile track. If it has the same effect at the ten mile mark on Sunday, then I'll consider it a job well done....

> "Fireball" - Deep Purple

Another earworm I can safely dedicate to Des..... it's that keyboard solo and the fact that it throws me back to the first CD I ever bought ("Protect the Innocent"). Other songs included from that album: "Ace of Spades" by Motorhead and "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath.

> "Crazy Horses" - The Osmonds

Included first and foremost because it's a (surprisingly) good song. Also included because I've been reading "America Unchained" by Dave Gorman, and he spends a fair amount to time explaining in great detail the madness of the Mormons. I was only dimly aware of some of it, but a book of golden plates? the angel Moroni? Urim and Thummin? Goodness me.... Still, it's a great record, isn't it?

Waaaah! Waaah!


I reckon I need a playlist that's about two-and-a-half hours long, to over some mucking about at the start and the two hours or so that I'll need for the race itself. After a careful process of elimination, my race playlist is now complete. You know how long it is?

9.4 hours.

That should cover it, eh?

Many thanks to everyone who has contributed to the sponsorship money we're raising for the MS Society. I was originally aiming to raise £1000, but the figure at the moment stands at the magnificent sum of £2,080... with £500 of that being matched by my office and still to be added to the total. That's pretty good, I reckon and you're generosity has both astounded and humbled me.

Still time to contribute of course - you can do that on our JustGiving page.

All that remains now is to forcefeed myself wholemeal pasta until the race starts on Sunday morning at 10am.

Wish us luck!

I reckon we'll have earned that pub lunch we've got booked for 2.30pm.....


Thursday, September 10, 2009

evil don't look like anything....

Okkervil River @ Rescue Rooms, 10th September 2009

A band that name themselves after a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya can only be a barrel of laughs, right? Right? Well, I first heard of Okkervil River when Mike included "Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe" on my 2007 Shuffleathon CD. It's a great track, and although I liked it immediately, it's one of those songs that seems to have got better with every listen. I was intrigued enough to go out and buy the album, "The Stage Names". And....well.... it's okay but I'd already got the standout track. It's probably one of those albums that I need to give more time to breathe, but it just hasn't grabbed me enough to get much airplay. Still, I was disappointed to miss the band last time they were in town (I was at a gig somewhere else on the same night, if memory serves me correctly), and was keen to get grab my chance to see them live when I saw they were playing the Rescue Rooms this time around.

I very nearly forgot, too. Ninety minutes of football, and my plans for a long leisurely shower and a lazy evening were ambushed by a text from Sarah asking if I'd bought a ticket in the end. Shit. The gig. Somewhere in the back of my mind (and in the front of my diary) I knew that I was supposed to be attending this gig, but somewhere along the way I'd managed to forget. Nevermind, I still had enough time to grab a bite to eat and to head into town to meet up with Sarah and Mike in the RR bar - which was already filling up nicely with earnest, bearded types.

The gig? Well, perhaps I should say that there were an awful lot of people there who seemed to know the band's material really, really well and who really enjoyed themselves. I don't know the band's material all that well, and I found them, and singer Will Sheff in particular, to be overly earnest and the material live sounds more country than on record. At one point, Sheff approached the microphone to tell us about the pressure he felt to think up witty rejoinders to members of the crowd who shouted things at him from the darkness in front of the stage. "It's not my job to think up witty rejoinders!" he cried. No, but it is your job to entertain me, and frankly I wish you'd start. I was not grabbed. In spite of their country sound, when the keyboardist at the back grabbed a trumpet, I was oddly reminded of James fronted by a lesser singer, albeit one with a good deal more hair. It was a comparison that made me think how much I liked James, and my mind began to wander to which album I would dig out tomorrow. Not really a good sign for Okkervil River's hold on my attention, eh?

To be fair, things looked up when one of the keyboard players picked up a guitar and they began to play much more muscular material, including a decent version of "Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe" (still far-and-away their best song). I even began to enjoy a few of the slower songs, some of which sent parts of the crowd into raptures (why do people shout out requests at bands? Isn't that what setlists are for? And if you're shouting for one of their best known songs, really... what's the point?). Perhaps the band had always been good and I was just warming up? Perhaps they're the kind of band that I would only really enjoy live with a slightly more than casual knowledge of their material?

Hmm. Even then, I suspect they'd still be overly earnest.

I'll have to give that album another listen, but they didn't do very much for me live... although, to be fair, clearly they did for a decent proportion of the audience. Still, I haven't been to a gig for a couple of months now, so it's always good to get out of the house, right?

Verdict: 5 / 10


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

repossess and crucify....

In April last year, I was struggling to get my bank to care about a mortgage payment they had lost. All they had to do was to transfer it from my current account to my mortgage account with a different bank. They transferred it out okay, but sadly they didn't transfer it to the right place and didn't actually know where it had ended up at all. I wasn't sure how that was even possible in the digital era, so not surprisingly I was hopping mad and anxious to find my money. You'd think my bank would be anxious to find it to, right? Wrong. They couldn't have made it clearer that they didn't think it was anything other than my problem or that they had any kind of responsibility at all. I was actually told by my local branch manager that I wasn't actually able to complain about it. Needless to say, I did complain, long and loud and pointlessly. I waved the banking code at them, I waded through the endless circles of hell that is their call centre, where poor undertrained people on the other side of the world tried everything to politely make me go away, including at one point, putting me on hold on then bringing me back and pretending that I was now through to the complaints department.

In the end I found the money myself. They'd transferred it to another account I sometimes make payments to. I moved it out and made up my mind that the £20 compensation they eventually paid me wouldn't be enough to prevent me from moving my account.

Needless to say, although I opened another bank account with an ethical bank, I haven't yet been bothered to shift my current account. This, of course, is what they count on.... but I've got a long memory: I know that this is a bank that can't be trusted with anything and who ultimately don't give a monkeys about their customers or - ultimately - their customer's money.

Imagine my total lack of surprise, then, when I received a phonecall this afternoon from the "Premiere Account Advisor" at the local branch of my bank. The very same branch, you'll remember, where the manager told me to my face that I wasn't able to make a complaint. Now what on earth would make them want to suddenly call me up out of the blue a mere five working days after I paid in a cheque worth more than three year's salary? Oh, HSBC... your total predictability is almost awe-inspiring.

Was I aware of the Premiere Service the bank offered? No, but I was aware that HSBC have been doing everything they can to make me think I should pay for their lack of service, but I was not aware of any Premiere Service they offered. Oh, it's for our favourite customers with a shit pile of cash (I'm paraphrasing) in their accounts. We offer them all kinds of free services, including access to our "independent" financial advisor. Independent? Yes, she spends all her time in different HSBC branches. Right, I see. What are you planning to do with all that money? Remove it from your crappy bank as soon as possible and talk to a real financial advisor, as it happens. Undeterred by this news, or perhaps following her bank's noble tradition of not listening to what I had actually said, she pushed on. Can I give you my mobile phone number? Just in case you think things over and decide you want to talk to me.....

Unbelievable. Alright, it's my own fault for not pulling my finger out and moving my current account business sooner, but - like I said - I've got a long memory. Longer than them, anyway. They might not be able to remember losing my money eighteen months ago, but I do, and if these clowns think I'm leaving my money in their bank for any longer than necessary, then they've another thing coming. Honestly, it it wasn't for the fact that even their derisory rates of interest are preferable not cashing the cheque at all, the bloody thing would still be sitting on my bedside table now.

As always, Richie had it right:

"Economic forecast soothe our dereliction
Words of euthanasia, apathy of sick routine
Carried away with useless advertising dreams
Blinding children, life as autonotomes"

Death sanitized through credit indeed.


Monday, September 07, 2009

somehow it always collects to one big melting pot....

Yesterday morning, with exactly one week to go before the start of the half marathon, I began to get myself ready for my last big training run. I'll have a couple of short - 30 minute - tuning runs before I get to the start line on Sunday, but this was one final sixty minute thrash before I rest up for the big day.

There was just one small problem: I felt terrible.

I'd woken up on Saturday morning with a headache that got steadily worse through the day and took away first my appetite and then my desire to do anything much more than just go back to bed. Now, my body is not exactly a temple, but the plan was to stop drinking entirely for the seven days in the run up to the race. I'm not sure if a total abstinence from alcohol would significantly enhance my performance - I don't drink that much - but I was pretty sure it couldn't hurt. A couple of drinks on Friday and Saturday and then off the sauce until after the race. That was the plan, anyway. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out like that. I'd only had a couple of small glasses of wine on Friday night, so my headache surely wasn't caused by the booze. Now it was dragging out into Saturday though and I no longer felt like drinking anything stronger than water, I was starting to feel positively resentful: how unfair that I was going to be deprived of even a moderate weekend tipple before my self-imposed alcohol ban. Feeling distinctly sorry for myself, I couldn't help but wonder where the justice was in that.

Things got worse when I awoke to find the headache was still there on Sunday morning. Worse yet: now it was accompanied by a feeling of crippling fatigue that made even getting out of bed something of a struggle. Where a headache might be a symptom of MS, fatigue definitely is one of my warning signs, although I haven't worked out yet what triggers it. You might think that it would be directly related to the amount of physical exertion I put in, but actually it doesn't seem to be. I seem to be able to physically push my body quite hard, but it's often smaller exertions that seem to really clobber me: a few weeks ago it was an early start and a long(-ish) drive that had me struggling to hold my arms up straight on the steering wheel; last week it was the couple of hours I spent in one of our warehouses doing nothing more physical than observing transactions.... neither of those activities should be as taxing on the body as a 12 mile run, but both of them left me feeling bone weary and with shoulders actually trembling with fatigue. I'm fairly sure that all of this extra mileage is taking its toll on my body, but it's not a straightforward case of cause and effect, with the running being linked directly to the fatigue.

I'm nothing if not determined though - probably to a fault. Whatever was making me feel fatigued was not going to stop me getting up and going out for my last long training run. I dragged myself out of bed, got into my running gear, stuck "Death Magnetic" onto my iPod and set off out the door.

Almost immediately I knew this was going to be difficult. If you're a runner, you'll probably know this feeling, but there are some days, some runs, where everything feels great, and - more often - other runs where everything feels much harder than usual. Things often get easier after the first half mile or so as your body eases into the exertion, but it was quickly clear that this run was going to be a real struggle from start to finish: my muscles felt okay and relatively loose after a couple of days off, but my head was aching and my shoulder and arms felt weak and useless.

I ran for a little over an hour, in the end. I covered 6.51 miles at a decent overall pace of 9.19 minutes per mile... about the same as usual if not actually a little faster. But it was hard. In fact, it was a real struggle putting one foot in front of the other. I usually listen to music to help me to focus my mind on something other than what I'm doing; with each song taking me another four or five minutes down the road. Today, not even Metallica was helping take my mind away from how difficult it all felt and how much more running I had to do before I could stop. I got home okay, but I am really not relishing dragging myself around 13 miles-or so next weekend if I feel anything like that on the starting line. I also have the words of one of my MS Nurses ringing around my head: MS is not something you can just "push through" and you have to learn to listen to your body. Was I listening to my body by dragging it out for a run when all it wanted to do was to rest? No. Will I listen to it if it tells me the same thing before Sunday's race? No. When will I learn that it's not always a case of mind over matter?

Perhaps it was just a bad day; a one-off. Maybe next week I will bounce my way around the half marathon course in something approaching two hours and wonder what all the fuss was about. I hope so. I currently feel very mortal - although sadly not in the Scottish sense of being profoundly drunk, either. I'm officially off the sauce, remember... and I've still got that bloody headache too.



There is one perfectly good reason to drag myself around the course next week, and one thing that makes it all feel worthwhile: all the money we've raised for the MS Society. You've all been amazingly generous so far, but there's still time to sponsor us yet. We're hoping to raise more than £2,000 overall and we're well on the way towards that target..... Click here for more details and to sponsor us.

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