inner strength

Ah, dear reader, welcome back. I know that I’ve been remiss in updating the blog recently, but I promise to write more often in future.


Let me take you on a journey through time and space, back some twenty-odd years (and trust me, some of those years were very odd), and about 80 miles north from my current location…

Are we sitting comfortably? I’d get a coffee or something, as this is pretty long.


Then I’ll begin…

Hereby hangs a tale of shameless self-aggrandisement. We journey to 1986. Durham university. Young dakegra has been chosen, though he knows not why, to take part in an inter-schools technology conference, called Input ’86. Schools from around the North East send promising young things to the conference, to learn Stuff and do Exciting Things.

We’re split into teams of four, and given Tasks. First task is to build a machine which will transport a can of Coke (or generic soft drink of choice) down a ramp, into a swimming pool, across said pool and up a ramp on the other side. Without sinking, falling apart or tipping over. Much in the style of The Great Egg Race. The great Heinz Wolff himself is in attendance, of course, though there is no sign of the lovely Lesley Judd.

Our team spends several hours constructing their device, only for it to fall apart, tip over and sink, approximately halfway across the pool. Kind of embarrassing, really.

Our heads hung in shame, we retreat to lick our wounds. The next task is given.

We are to construct a tower, from assorted pieces of metal. This tower must not exceed one metre in height, and must be capable of supporting a weight of 50kg. We cackle with glee, and start drawing plans of a *really* short tower, say about an inch high, made of solid metal. Our hopes are crushed however, when we are told that the rules had been hastily amended, as everyone had the same idea.

New rule: The tower must not be less than 75cm in height.


So, we begin our plan. We devise a tower *exactly* 75cm tall. With legs just slightly off vertical, for balance. Comprising of lots of triangles, as triangles are Strong. We reinforce the top of our tower with lots of metal, as this is where the weight will go. We strengthen the base, as this is where a lot of the outward force will go.

At the very last minute, we add a band around the centre of the tower, to try and hold it together, as the legs would otherwise buckle.

Our tower is a flimsy little thing. Four legs, where they should be. Rivets cover every joint. Surely not up to the task in hand.

Time’s up. Testing begins. There are about ten teams, and the winner will be the one whose tower holds the most weight. Our team is last in the list, adding to the tension.

Each tower is tested at various loads up to 50kg. The first tower passes. Their team heaves a sigh of relief. More weight is added, and it quickly buckles under the stress. Pretty good.

Towers come and go. Each passes the 50kg mark easily. Some crack early, some last slightly longer. Towers of various shapes and sizes are put under the test rig and, eventually, destroyed.

Time for the penultimate tower. The record at this point is around the 200kg mark. Pretty impressive.

Tower 9 is loaded up.
150kg. Pass.
175kg. Pass.
200kg. Pass.
250kg, 275kg, 300kg. Pass. Pass. Pass.

325kg. Pass. The uni guys are nervous, the test rig can only exert a load of 350kg. Students mill around, looking for the weaknesses.


One joint finally collapses under the strain. Legs skew and buckle, and Tower 9 is crushed.

Time for Tower 10. Our tower. Our little bit of metal, against The Rig.

50kg. Pass. A sigh of relief. Imagine the embarrassment if this had failed as spectacularly as the coke-carrying machine.

We make it to 200kg, and it’s looking good. 250kg. 300kg. Our team looks nervous, apprehensive. Beads of sweat appear on furrowed brows. Could we match the 350kg? We’re in comfortable 2nd place already.



Solid. Absolutely rock solid. We’ve won! We’ve beaten the rest.

Cheers and pats on the back, grins all round. We’re presented with a souvenir pen of some description, to mark the achievement.

A couple of weeks later, I’m back at school. The teacher comes into the lesson, and hands me an envelope. It’s from Durham uni. They decided to set up a stronger test rig, to see what our tower could take.

It finally *started* to go at 682kg, nearly doubling Tower 9’s record. Our tower weighed in at less than a kilo, the lightest of the ten.

My point? I don’t really have one. This is a story that has made me smile with a fierce kind of pride since that day back nearly 20 years ago. I just wanted to share it with you.

on writing

If you aren’t reading Michael Marshall Smith’s blog*, then you really ought to. It’s really rather good.

He’s on Twitter too, if that doesn’t cause you to immediately run for the hills, screaming.

Another Archetype Bites The Dust(bin)

* and his books for that matter. Start with Only Forward, or Spares. Thank me later

spam poetry

I usually skim the contents of my gmail spam folder, on the offchance that something is in there that shouldn’t be. I was struck this morning by some of the titles, and mused that they almost sounded like poetry.

I present, for your edification and enjoyment, a pome. I call it ‘Spam, entitled’. Made up entirely of genuine spam subject headers.

To himself on the Crumpetty Tree
Down the slippery slopes of Myrtle
Beware of cold, deterministically skipped
Why it falls quick? Did you asked something?
Spin the wheel of chance
See you there, address attached.

[edit] turns out the first line is from Edward Lear’s The Quangle Wangle. I rather suspect that Myrtle’s slippery slopes are *not* Lear though. 🙂

[edited edit] turns out Myrtle is Lear’s too. Which means my cunning plan of doing spam subject-related poetry works because it was poetry in the first place. ha!

Musings on the Post Office

I’m pretty sure that the Post Office on a Friday lunchtime constitutes one of the circles of Hell.

Having decided, in my infinite wisdom, that going there for a book of stamps might be a reasonably sane thing to in my lunch hour, I was faced with a nameless horde of blank-faced people, milling listlessly around in a zombified stupour looking for the screen which would reveal that yes, finally ticket 203 could go to desk Q.

This may, in retrospect, have been An Error of Judgement.

I approached the perkily cheerful assistant, standing helpfully beside the large friendly touchscreen device offering a bewildering array of options for services available, and which would, at the touch of the aforementioned screen, dispense a small numbered ticket. The small numbered ticket would naturally contain a number an order of magnitude higher than any on display as being ready to be served.

I avoided the machine, and went straight for her. “Book of stamps?” I asked, hopefully.

She smiled brightly, showing entirely too many teeth. “Over there at the shop, love,” she replied.

A shop within a shop. How very meta.

I joined the queue at the ‘shop’. It wasn’t a long queue, and had the added bonus of being an actual discernable physical queue, with an easily identifiable number of people in it. Unlike the rest of the Post Office customers, who had no idea whether there were, as their ticket suggested, somewhere in the region of a thousand people between them and the nirvana of service.

The milling horde eyed our proper queue with undisguised envy.

The problem was that in our queue we had what’s known in local parlance as ‘A Right One’.

One of those people who decide to pay for their second class stamp with small lengths of string, or beetle carapaces. The one we had required the intervention of three separate members of staff, including a large sweatily flustered gentleman, looking remarkably similar to that nice chap you see in the adverts.

Having worked out the correct exchange rate for string to stamps, the customer was served and the queue started to move again. The horde started to snarl and drool in an impressively unpleasant manner, not dissimilar to that of the Orcs about to storm Helm’s Deep.

We reached the penultimate customer, a young chap with a scrappy ginger beard. He asked politely if he could have four first class stamps.

Not an unreasonable request, you would imagine.

“We sell books of six, or I can do you four individual stamps,” the lady behind the counter replied.

He looked puzzled. “Which is cheaper?” he asked.

“Well, they’re the same price,” she said, then paused. “For the stamps that is. Buying four is obviously cheaper.”

“Errr. I’ll have four then.”

She gave him A Look, which suggested that she viewed this sort of thing as Dangerous Thinking In The Young, and reluctantly tore off four stamps from a large sheet.

Now, my turn. Having noticed that they sold books of six, I reasoned that buying a book of twelve would constitute little in the way of actual issues – after all, I would either get a book of twelve, or two books of six.

Luckily, I was correct. She gave me a book of 12 stamps (blimey, they’ve gone up in price), I gave her a grubby fiver, and I was on my way.

What the post office needs, I mused, is some sort of coffee shop within the post office itself. So you can sup coffee whilst waiting for your number to come up.

Though knowing the Post Office of course, they’d just institute a second ticketing system for *that*.

Then it struck me. What they need is a nice little old lady to push around a tea-trolley, serving a variety of hot drinks (tea, or, erm, tea) and maybe a selection of biscuits. Kitkats, and so on.

More jobs created, more tea consumed, more profit for the post office, and the added bonus of you getting a nice cuppa whilst you wait for your turn.

I shall be forwarding this to the head of the Post Office, post haste.

pale blue dot

meant to post this yesterday, as it was Earth Day, but never mind.

pale blue dot

Earth (the dot in the middle) as seen from 3.7 billion miles away by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, on 6th June 1990.

… Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

(From Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan, Random House, 1994)


I find it odd that if I were to go into Waterstone’s, I would have to pay £12.99 for a copy of The Corner, by David Simon & Ed Burns.

Whereas if I go online to their website I can pay £7.79, and get it delivered for free to the exact same store (or my home address).

But then I have to wait for them to deliver a copy to the store. The same store which I was in earlier, and and where they had half a dozen copies in stock.

PC World have a slightly different take on the process. You essentially pay the web price online, then collect the item from the store an hour later – just enough time for them to forget to pick it off the shelves, so you have to get it yourself, saving a fair whack of change in the process.

So why can’t Waterstone’s do the same thing? Surely it would save on costs getting extra copies of already-in-stock books delivered, and make the customer (me! hi!) happier.

Just a thought.

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