Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tyntesfield (NT)

Just north of Nailsea, with Leigh Woods separating it from the Avon, Tyntesfield is a sprawling park around a Hogwarts-style Victorian mansion. The house is a mix of over-embellished themes, kind of sub-baroque but the many-splendoured rooms are interesting and comfortable. Later in the season the kitchen garden and the rose garden will be magnificent.

The estate is quite hilly and Clare more than once looked longingly at the NT courtesy bus.

One o'clock found us in a queue at the Pavilion cafe which looked a temporary affair housed in a renovated animal shed (and poorly signposted at that). We stood waiting with our hands full of scotch eggs and drinks as the two young NT staff tried in vain to fix the till. After five life-draining minutes Clare was the first to crack: "Couldn't you give us IOUs," she pleaded, "We're all honest people." So they did and we fed and they fixed the till and we paid. It would never happen in America.

Rain spattered our windscreen on the way back: I think our warm spell must be coming to an end.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Bracelands campsite; Clearwell Caves; Symonds Yat

As the title hints, Alex, Clare and myself camped over this hot weekend at Bracelands, Forest of Dean. The first picture shows the author doing that 'Zen and the Art of Camping' thing he bluffs about occasionally. The next three were taken in the iron mines at Clearwell - notice Alex's eyes in the dark, suggestions on a postcard please. Sunday afternoon we went to Symond's Yat Rock, just around the corner - there's a pleasant view down to the river Wye.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Olympic Torch at Wells, Somerset

I honestly thought that we would be the only two. But as we wandered down our street just after ten this morning there were already gaggles of oldies strolling towards the main road: it was like Glastonbury.

At the main road the kids from The Blue School were whooping and hollering and it was clearly shaping to a mega event. We walked the back roads into town to do our shopping. Quarter to eleven in the town centre, surrounded by a dense throng, we were treated to: insane young people careering the flame-route on quad bikes; self-important police bikes with their blues-and-twos (there was booing); and a succession of sponsor coaches trapped by the crowds: then it all went quiet. Ten minutes passed and I snapped Clare (below) losing the will to live.

When will my flame come?
We started to make our way home but as we walked up Sadler Street we met the elusive flame coming the other way. How the crowds loved it!

The torch arrives
And then there was silence and we all became festival goers on the way home.

But our day was far from ended. Minutes later we were en-route to Burnham-on-Sea for our first picnic of the year. If it had been ten degrees hotter and the bitter wind from the sea had let up it would have been truly idyllic!

A Picnic at Burnham-on-Sea
The author poses in front of our nuclear power station
Hinkley Point B is visible along the coast from Burnham - the arrow indicates the dull breeze-block which is the rapidly obsolescing fission machine.

I cheered Clare up by imagining a critical accident: the actinic flash, the EM and neutron pulse, the spherical shockfront then the ascending mushroom cloud, turning ashen gray as it blew towards us. All of this assumes, of course, that EDF have a secret weapons facility in the basement.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Alan Clark Diaries

Just back from the dentist: yearly check-up. It was a new guy: young, confident, public-school-posh; the faint brashness which stifles your oxygen. The teeth and gums are fine though and I capitulated to his request for X-Rays despite reading what a huge health risk they are. Today it's digital and in three minutes I was looking at his screen and comparing my teeth two years ago and today: hardly any change.

The hygienist tomorrow at 8.10 am and I will sparkle as the Olympic Torch scampers through Wells at 10.35 am: the end of our road, actually.

Alan Clark often reckoned he sparkled, that is, when he was not being at least demi-lionised. I read his political diaries (when he was a junior minister in Thatcher's government in the 1980s) pretty much by accident: it was lying around on one of our bookshelves. I was soon drawn in by his general bitchiness and character-skewering of pretty much every other politician around him.

His final diaries, covering the 1990s until his death in 1999, are more confessional. He's out of power during most of them, moving between his castle in Kent, his Scottish estate and his chalet in Zermatt, Switzerland with stops at his London apartments and his place in the West Country. All this sounds mega-aristo-rich but he still has to shop at Tescos, and without legions of domestic staff upkeep and maintenance are a recurring chore and expense.

The Clark psychology is interesting. He's clearly a Rational, an NT and probably an ENTP. Within that broad classification he's astonishingly low on empathy while exhibiting major hypochondria and a breathtaking lack of self-awareness. His innate psychological drives: ambition, a kind of quasi-aristocratic English nationalism, religiosity and a primal lust batter him around like a skittle. When he's out of Parliament he feels cut-off and lifeless; when he's in he’s trapped by endless pointless meetings and having to deal with what he takes to be idiots, while pining for the freedom of his estates.

A recurring motif is the "Sword at the bottom of the lake". In this Arthurian reference he sees himself as being destined for greatness: Secretary of State in one of the Great Offices, Leader of the Conservatives, Prime Minister. Malicious 'friends' flatter him every so often that his chances are looking up. He believes them. It's obvious to the reader that he has no chance: he has no concept of being a team player or working the Party; he periodically announces insane policies such as summarily executing 600 known IRA men for "twenty years peace"; somehow self-knowledge eludes him.

The final part of the diary, where he is dying, is described as ‘poignant’. In fact it confirms that to the dying person there is no such thing as death, only illness: tiredness, dizziness, headaches, lack of focus - which steadily worsen. If you are aware of the syringe driver being fitted, then you can safely assume the inevitable. But you never experience death yourself, only the long sink through delirium and coma. Your death is for others.

His wife Jane survives Clark and still potters around the Castle. She's now 70 and has never remarried. Interesting interview with her here (2009). Alan Clark liked a reputation as "the only colourful Tory", a highly-intelligent maverick who could see way beyond his dullard contemporaries. Actually he was a nasty piece of work, as detailed here by Dominic Lawson.

Monday, May 14, 2012

European Psychosis

There have been a lot of extremely well-informed and intelligent analyses of the current situation in Europe (you know who you are, Daniel Finkelstein): I just have the following observation.

Countries, when put under intolerable pressure, exhibit the same psychological disorders as people do: denial, delusion and psychosis.

(Based on recent interviews with German, French and Greek politicians and commentators on TV).

Review of 'Triggers' by Robert J. Sawyer

My review of "Triggers" by Robert J. Sawyer has just been published at The book is an acceptable, if disposal, recreational read marred only by the impeccably-liberal convictions expressed by the author.

I remain immature in reviewing these kinds of books. I am driven to a kind of fury at the smug, self-righteous, morally-superior, doubt-free expression of what in reality are biased, inaccurate, trite and rather stupid, priggish, conventional and overpoweringly-boring bien-pensant received wisdom. There, I said it!

However, such fulminations in a review are pointless so in the end I revisit the text and remove these self-indulgences. Then the piece gets published :-).

"President Seth Jerrison, the Republican successor to Obama, is giving a speech from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. The former History Professor from Columbia is presiding over a nation still at war: Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco have been devastated by a new kind of bomb with the destructive power of a nuke. The perpetrators? Al-Sajada, an offshoot from the now-defunct al-Qaeda.

Jerrison is just getting into his stride – ‘… we shall not rest until our planet is free of the scourge of terrorism …’ – when that old nightmare makes its appearance: an assassin opens fire, mortally wounding the President..."

Continue reading at

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday afternoon at Montacute House, Somerset

The last of the sunny-ish weather led us back to Montacute House to walk the gardens. We were promised a "Ten minute guide to 1,000 years of history" but Matt, the NT expert, failed to show so we pottered off to explore those parts of the garden and estate which we've ignored on previous visits.

Here are some pictures of less-often-seen vistas of Montacute.

 Clare hugging a Redwood 

 The author - not hugging at all ... 

 A carved totem-pole 

 The double-headed eagle: Ach Ja? 

 Back to the Famous Five 

 The Garden at Montacute 

 Montacute House from the old drive 

Worries at Weston super Mare

I worry too much. Yesterday we went to the seaside. As my mother was with us, I was able to park in a disabled bay in the multistory behind the winter gardens. As we walked away, I saw the sign written on the tarmac "Reserved for wheelchair users." My mother uses a walker, not a wheelchair God forbid, so now I was thinking 'OMG I'm going to be clamped when I get back.'

Stupid isn't it. How could they tell? We have a blue disabled badge in the car.

As we walked towards Weston's Grand Pier, we passed a beach toyshop on the front. Clare saw an enormous beach ball which would make a great present. She spoke to the shopkeeper and he agreed to keep it for us till our return. I paid the four pounds.

As we walked onto the pier, with the crowds enjoying the sun, the gulls wheeling overhead and assorted Star Wars characters being photographed at the entrance, I was thinking this. What, if on our return, the shopkeeper has sold Clare's beachball to someone else, or just denies the transaction ever took place? It was all very informal and I had no receipt. My mind advanced scenarios: arguments, the involvement of the police, throwing the toys out of the shop.

Eventually we returned to the shop where Clare retrieved her purchase without any fuss, then we returned to the car and drove away unscathed.

Is worrying a survival trait, I wonder?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Travels with our satnav

Yesterday was busy. Leaving from Alex's flat in Reading I drove to the first client in Watford, then to my second meeting in Brentford near the elevated section of the M4 at its London end, before finally driving home in the wind and rain.

I guess I could have played safe travelling between meetings 1 and 2 by zooming around the M25. But trusting the voice of Yoda on my Gamin satnav (and of course, The Force) I was safely conveyed down the M1 and round the North Circular. As a bonus I got a passable lunch at the M1's London Gateway services.

The satnav creates a curious sense of company, and its expertise and understanding when you go wrong induces in the driver a sense of childlike trust. It's a strange subliminal psychological effect.

Note to Google: the same psychology should apply to a synthetic companion. A sympathetic voice from a small Yoda doll parked on the sofa, with a WiFi connection to Google News and the Daily Mail's online site should generate an endless source of reassuring gossip. Truly ELIZA brought up to date.

For a modest capital investment, the market for "small-talk Yoda" and all its variants would be worth billions. And I give the idea away!

FireAngel Smoke Alarm: the correspondence

A few days I posted a note indicating that in trying to change the battery on my FireAngel smoke alarm I ended up breaking it. This was because the device gave no clue as to how to remove it from the ceiling.

Yesterday I received out of the blue an email from FireAngel and here is what it said.

"Hello Nigel,

I’m sorry to hear of your frustration with trying to replace the battery in your FireAngel smoke alarm.

As I’m sure you can appreciate, in a battery-operated device, it’s essential that people are alerted when the battery needs changing. Failure to do so could have serious consequences – even fatal – in the event of a fire. Replacing the batteries should be a quick and simple process, with a push and twist action to remove the cover.

If you no longer have the instructions, our customer services team is always on hand to talk you through the simple steps to replace batteries or if you need any other advice on how/where to place a new alarm. You can contact the Technical Support Helpdesk on: 0800 141 2561 or email

We will send out two new smoke alarms to you – one for you and your mother – and I’ve arranged for one of our customer services team to contact you to talk through their installation. Your local fire and rescue service will also be happy to supply and fit an alarm for you free of charge.


Jane Duncan
Head of PR

Sprue Safety Products Ltd.
Vanguard Centre
Sir William Lyons Road
Coventry CV4 7EZ UK

It's always interesting to see a company which has introduced a process to monitor social media and produce something like "rapid rebuttals" but Jane's standard text has completely ignored the central issue: something I felt impelled to point out to her in my reply.
Thanks, Jane.

Good to see you're monitoring social media. The most important point in my post was that there were no instructions on the device visible to the user indicating how to get the alarm off the ceiling so as to change the battery. This is a quite shocking design flaw because the time between battery changes is so long so it's easy to forget, or to lose instructions.

For example, we have been in this house around two years, but we didn't install the smoke alarms - the previous owners did. That's why I had no idea how to get the thing off. Your design is stiff and it's not obvious that it has to be unscrewed. In the absence of a global standard, as I'm sure you're aware, unscrewing can't be assumed; my mother's alarms (not manufactured by FireAngel) slide off, for example.

So rather than offering me replacements, the message I really want to hear is that in the next redesign, FireAngel will state on the user-facing casing:

"To remove please twist anticlockwise"

in lettering which can be read in poor illumination by an old person.

I'd be grateful if you could escalate this point to your chief of design or operations as it could save lives.



Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Alan Clark's Diaries

Belatedly reading Alan Clark's diaries of the 1980's, when he was a junior minister in Margaret Thatcher's government.

He revealingly describes arguing with Thatcher (about animal rights) where she flips laterally from topic to topic, never letting his rational intellect get purchase: like driving a car on an icy winding road. A classic instance of ENTP - ENFJ confrontation. It was good to get a nailed-down confirmation that conviction-politician Thatcher was actually an ENFJ.

Clark was likeable and ambitious, but lacked self-knowledge. His strategic extrapolations were plausible but frequently wrong (NATO has not been terminally irrelevant; the world's elites do not speak Japanese).

His high IQ was accompanied by a lack of the small-talking, glad-handing minutiae of the political game and he lacked common sense. As a fiercely-independent intellect, he deserved his maverick reputation; he was congenitally incapable of being a team-player.

Smart, duplicitous, honest, reckless and fun, he had no chance of top ministerial office, but what a diarist!

Monday, May 07, 2012

Android Dolls

My latest article for explores the taboo subject of artificial people used for sex. The stimulus was this article by columnist Caitlin Moran in The Times.
By 2050, Amsterdam’s red-light district will be all about android prostitutes.”

This was how Caitlin Moran, a columnist on The Times of London, summed up recent research from two New Zealand academics. Ms Moran suggested that this outcome: ‘would be both ethical and pleasurable: robots could be customized to provide “a range of ethnicities, sizes and ages”, and would provide a “guilt-free” experience for men – as, technically, they wouldn’t have had sex. They just would have used a “sex machine”, as prophesied by James Brown, all those years ago. In addition, a robot sex trade would mean “no more trafficked sex slaves”: we wouldn’t need to steal girls from Eastern Europe if we could just make them instead, build a factory to make plastic, f***able things that looked like girls, but never cried for their mothers, accidentally got pregnant or ran away.

Science Fiction has already imagined this possibility. In his novel ‘The Holy Machine’, Chris Beckett considers the future technopolis of Illyria, a science-based city state on the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard, an oasis of technology in a world relapsed to religious fundamentalism. For some of the reasons Ms Moran already outlined, the rulers of Illyria have sanctioned brothels containing ‘Advanced Sensual Pleasure Units’ (ASPUs) – ‘syntec’ devices with skins of vat-grown human flesh.

Continue reading.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

FireAngel Fire/Smoke Alarm

I was woken up this Sunday morning at 7.15 am by the high-pitched chirrup of the smoke-alarm: the sound it makes at 40 second intervals when its battery is low. I closed the door and burrowed beneath the duvet until 8.30 am when I was finally forced up.

The offending device was on the hall ceiling and I was up on a chair inspecting it. The round squawker had no instructions so I tried a rotary motion - maybe it unscrewed? No luck, so I recalled the smoke alarms in my mother's house, where you had to insert a screwdriver and depress a tab, then slide it off its ceiling-mounted seating.

There was indeed a small gap for a screwdriver.

Here's the result. You can now see that the device attaches to its mount via three flimsy tabs: my first guess was right - it's an unscrew action. My leveraging efforts had led to the three tabs breaking off (one is shown next to the screws).

I am furious about both the lack of instructions and the shoddy construction. We won't replace it, so if we burn to death, the world will know to blame you, FireAngel!

PS: My mother has had similar problems in the past. If someone can invent a smoke alarm where the batteries don't run out (solar power?) and it doesn't emit that hyper-irritating squeak, the world will surely beat a path to their door. I recall that my mother resorted to hitting the damned thing with a broom handle - which sort of works.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Arc of Political Correctness

I remember the dawn of Political Correctness. In the early seventies I was a member of the International Marxist Group, dedicated to world revolution (yes, it seemed to make sense in those days). The IMG, like all marxist organisations, needed to have a political line on events such as Government policies, wars and the struggles of the oppressed. The Party intellectuals developed positions through the leading institutions (Political Committee, National Committee). If you deviated, you were not 'politically correct'.

Revolutionary Politics withered away, and PC moved from the NT Rationals to its new owner, the NF Idealists. Now it became the touchstone of 'rights', focusing on identity politics and oppressed minorities. The broadening of the concept from revolutionary-left discipline to bien-pensant opinion made the term woollier, fuzzier but still often a force for good.

The final arc of PC was its institutionalisation. Once the ideological battle for tolerance and empathy had been largely won, PC transformed into rules and regulations.

PC had moved home again and now lived with the SJ Guardians, who were happy to act as 'little Hitler' enforcers. And so PC became perverse and oppressive, a killer of spontaneity and a rigid and sterile ideology of censorship.

What a shame.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Personal Cloud Computing

I now have 14 GB of cloud synchronised storage: DropBox (2 GB), Google Drive (5 GB) and Microsoft SkyDrive (7 GB). I have another 25 or so GB of music and archival stuff which sadly has to stay on local storage only. As it's read-only my disappointment is bounded.

DropBox is still the best: very, very fast to synchronize between machines and very accurate in keeping track of complex changes.

SkyDrive is also excellent, loading 3.4 GB of video and personal stuff in no time.

The real disappointment is Google Drive. It still hasn't finished uploading a couple of GB of pictures - it seems to trickle feed, in that irritating way which put me off desktop Google. It also keeps dropping the connection. What rubbish.