Andalucia Steve

...living the dream

My Timemachine of Technology

How I've been lucky to live in a time of unparalleled technological change

 

I feel very fortunate to have been born when I did and to have observed the revolutionary change in technology that I have. Things whizz along so fast these days. My father woke me up in the middle of the night to watch man's first moon landing, but the rocket that took man to the moon only had a 16 bit processor and a tiny amount of memory by modern standards. These days we all have far more power in our mobile phones! It's all happened so blindingly quickly!
 
In fact I feel very fortunate to be born at all, as my parents were quite ‘elderly’ when they had me. Dad was 54 when he had me and mum in her mid forties so I'm lucky to be here. Accordingly the environment I grew up in was full of old technology that had been accumulated over many years. We had a valve radios and television that took ages to get hot before they would work. The family camera was a ‘box brownie’ – little more than a black box with a lens and a winding mechanism to advance the film. The film wasn’t cheap so we took each photograph with care, posing and saying cheese! Then it took days or weeks to get the prints back from the chemist! All these artifacts smelt old and musty, but also everything felt frozen in time as though they had been around forever.
 
Then around the mid-sixties I remember my elderly grandfather went through a number of transistor radios, all of which were made in Hong Kong. My grandad was a bit clumsy and used to drop these ‘trannies’ repeatedly. Invariably the case would break and after a few months of being held together with rubber bands and sticky tape, they would be replaced with another which was always smaller and lighter than the last.
 
I loved to take the old radios apart and figure out how they worked. The valves of old had been replaced by small blobs which were transistors. The other components had all been shrunk too, as had the printed circuit board. Even so, every component was identifiable and it was generally possible to figure out which did what.
 
By the time I reached secondary school things started to change a whole lot. My physics teacher explained to me about integrated circuits. Tens or hundreds of transistors were now being fabricated together on one piece of silicon to form whole circuits. These were found in the first pocket calculators. My first calculator, made by Prinztronic cost a fortune but only did +-/* and percentages!
 
It wasn’t long after that I saw the first microcomputer on the television. This was the commodore Pet, which today still looks more like the sort of thing you would find on the deck of the starship enterprise. The Pet seemed unimaginably expensive to a youngster like me, but pretty soon my school purchased a bunch of microcomputers in kit form (NASCOM 1 if you're curious)  and us school-kids were co-opted to spend hours soldering them together.
 
I inevitably found myself working in computers and during the 1980's the IBM PC became the default architecture for most business users. My first experience of these was the Olivetti M24, which was a dinosaur by today's standards but crucially the office had them networked together with this clever thing called co-axial cable. The first time I met with this concept I remember thinking what a waste of money! Surely if two people wanted to work on the same spreadsheet they could copy it to a floppy disk and walk to the next office with it. How wrong I was, which is a recurring theme in my life! Of course from these humble beginnings, networking really took off, bringing us to the Internet and the applications on the World-Wide Web we are all so dependent on today.
 
I'd moved to Spain by the time I saw my first smartphone, a first generation iPhone owned by a friend on holiday from the UK. It seemed so revolutionary at the time, and Apple had clearly got it right - the combination of touch-screen and scrolling GUI was a winner. Now we all have one (or more) in our pockets and think little of it. When you do think about it though, today's smartphones are far more advanced than the communicators used in the first series of Star Trek, which themselves were considered light years ahead at the time. 
 
An example of how far things have advanced is the disdain people have today of optical media, the CD/DVD discs read with a laser, which are now seen as quaint and clunky like the horse and cart of the digital world. With today's Internet speeds it a lot easier to stream a movie from Netflix than it is to watch an optical disk. A laser based tech becoming near obsolete in my lifetime! How amazing is that?
 
You might think then, like the apocryphal story of the commissioner of the US patent office, Charles H. Duell, that everything that could be invented had been invented. (I traced the quote - it was more likely a joke prophecy made in Punch magazine). This couldn't be further from the truth. the 21st century is the age of materials, where scientists are gaining insights as to how to manufacture new things at an atomic and quantum level. Quantum computers are in their infancy but promise to bring unparalleled levels of computing power. Graphene, the single atom thick layer of carbon famed for its conductivity of electricity and heat as well as tensile strength has already made its way into a commercial battery. Though at the moment it is only used to assist and enhance conventional lithium batteries,  it is expected that graphene only batteries will be used in future mobile phones and electric vehicles that will be a fraction of the size of those used today. 
 
So I've seen the world move from valves to the quantum computer in a couple of generations and technological progress is still accelerating. We're living in a world none of us could have envisaged 10 years ago. Who know what the next ten or fifteen years will bring. 

The Thief of Time

You've no idea how long I put off writing this blog-post!
 
 
I remember the occasion that I learned the meaning of the word procrastination. It was 1974 and I was in my first computer class. Our teacher, a dear man called Stan Smith, who in a previous profession had been a scientist at Jodrell Bank, had taught us about loops and set us an exercise - to write a program that printed a phrase 10 times. That phrase was "Procrastination is the Thief of Time". Why he broke with the traditional convention in computer programming of having us print "Hello World" is a mystery to me, but for whatever reason I'd learned a new word.
 
verb [ I ]
uk/prəˈkræs.tɪ.neɪt/ us/proʊˈkræs.tə.neɪt/
to keep delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring
 
Perhaps he was being ironic because computers, machines, electronics and robots simply don't procrastinate. As John Conor said in the 1984 movie Terminator, "..when Skynet went live it decided our fate in a microsecond".
 
Humans do procrastinate and me more than most. I don't think I'm alone in this but I'll watch a movie rather than do something arduous like clean the bathroom, but then when I'm watching the movie I'll pause it at a dull moment to go and check Facebook before resuming the movie. In programming terms I'm a recursive procrastinator.
 
I've never found myself able to stop procrastination altogether, so over the years I've developed techniques for working around it. I split my tasks up so that I give myself divided targets, chunking a big job into several smaller ones, then give myself a foreseen ration of more interesting things to entertain myself with as procrastination treats.
 
As we identify procrastination with the evils of modern life like TV, Video Games, Social Media and worst of all, YouTube, one could be forgiven for thinking procrastination was a recent phenomena. Not a bit of it. The Stoic philosophers were writing about how to combat procrastination 2000 years ago. Seneca wrote (In 'On the Shortness of Life' https://archive.org/stream/SenecaOnTheShortnessOfLife/Seneca+on+the+Shortness+of+Life_djvu.txt )
 
It's not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it's been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it's spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn't notice passing has passed away. 
 
Seneca offered many insights into dealing with procrastination. He advocated structure and planning, anticipating work to be done and analysing it for the pitfalls that await to distract and divert one's attention. Many of the suggestions of Seneca and the other stoics distilled into the writing of Tim Ferris in his famous book 'The Four Hour Work Week', for example in the recommendation that one only checks email once per day. Ferris talks much of the stoics in his works and it amazes me how relevant their insights are when applied to modern life.

It's a shame then, especially with PM Johnson being a classics scholar, that the US/UK governments have not observed the lessons of the stoics. The pandemic crisis of COVID-19 engulfing the world as I write has been met by successive countries, not with decisive action but with procrastination. In fact the World Health Organisation procrastinated in declaring Coronavirus a pandemic. There were over 100,000 cases in all continents save Antarctica before the WHO yielded to the admission. Prior to this it was calling it an epidemic. The distinction may seem a small one but it is quite important. An epidemic can in theory be contained. A country can close its borders and maybe receive aid and medical assistance from outside its borders. A pandemic is confirmation that the whole world is an infected area. Closing borders no longer is an effective way to contain the spread of the disease so that each country has to take responsibility for containing its contagion domestically. It is a starting gun for governments to act.

When the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March it then became up to national governments to take effective action to battle the disease. Spain acted quite swiftly bringing in a total lock-down last weekend. Meanwhile Britain and America are still procrastinating. America has brought in local lock-downs in cities where the infections have been seen. Britain's government have advised people to stay at home but delayed 10 days before taking the decision to close pubs, restaurants and gyms. Most shops remain open and people still have freedom to leave their homes, unlike Spain. It's easy to understand why, they didn't want to cause an unnecessary panic and the economic cost of shutting down businesses will be severe. However the message from Seneca is the relationship between short-term pain and long term gain. The longer Britain and America stave off the decision to bring in a complete lock-down, the larger will be the strain on the health services, the more people will die and the greater will be the socio-economic impact. The thief of time will become the thief of life.

I won't bloat this post with more detailed description of the failings of the UK and US governments in their handling of the crisis but here are some links to stories documenting the issue.

Working From Home. Why Not?

2020 is the year that COVID-19 made home-working a must.
With the relentless advance of Coronavirus and the Daily Express asserting this is the 'End of The World' predicted by Nostradamus (as it does regularly as clockwork about anything from the latest Near Earth Object to God's face being seen in tub of lard), governments across the globe are asking as many of us as possible to work from home. 
 
As I touched on in a previous blog, I've had plenty of experience of this since I first tried it in the early 1990's. In fact for the best part of a decade I was a paid up member of the UK's Teleworkers Association. 
 
In theory, modern communications are so advanced that they should make travel irrelevant save for the transport of goods. With a video camera, a microphone, even 3D virtual reality spaces like Rumii and Meetingroom.io available to anyone with a smartphone, there seems on the face of it, very little reason to leave one's house, nor even ones bed in the morning. 
 
Human nature however works differently. I worked in a organisation many years ago with four geographically dispersed offices in different parts of Britain. Someone had the bright idea that if they invested in a video conferencing system, the cost would soon be recouped by the savings in travel and expenses. In those days, before the Internet and with the insistence on studio quality cameras it was a six figure investment. Despite much goading from above to try and get executives to use it, the system soon became a white elephant. I doubt it ever achieved the return on the investment that was hoped for. 
 
The reasons seemed to be twofold.  Firstly many people are inherently camera shy. Especially if they don't appear in front of a camera very often, most people have that feeling of being 'put on the spot' and of having their natural spontaneity sucked from them by anxiousness. Secondly, people enjoy face-to-face meetings. In contrast to camera shyness, people open-up in the physical presence of another human being. Also, as my boss at the time remarked "nobody wanted to use the thing because they would rather go on a jolly, leave the wife at home for a few days, have a few beers in the evening with their mates and maybe squeeze in a round of golf".
 
When the Internet became popular in the early to mid 1990s I really thought remote working would finally take off. Why on earth would employers maintain offices in expensive locations when they could move to a cheaper place out of town? Why have an office at all if employees could network remotely? Then when the Twin Towers (and building seven) were destroyed in a terrorist attack there seemed to be even more incentive for large concentrations of workers in cities to become a thing of the past. Surely businesses would see the value in dispersing geographically? Incidentally I was working at home on 9/11. In the interests of self-discipline I made a point of never turning on the TV while I was working, so as to avoid distraction. One day, I had a yearning to break that rule. I made a cup of tea and turned on the TV which happened to be tuned to Skynews. The first plane had just crashed into the Twin Towers. I watched open mouthed as Kay Burley mistakenly interpreted the incoming footage as being the same crash from another angle. It was the second plane. I don't know what made me turn the television on that fateful day to see the live action as it happened. What did stick in my mind is the sense of being alone in a crisis. There was just me and a two dimensional representation of Kay Burley. I really needed another human being to turn to and just say "what the absolute fuck?", but there was no one other than my cat who was not really interested in the matter. The isolation of working at home can be very frustrating.
 
Anyhoo, despite 9/11, businesses continue to concentrate in ever taller buildings. Twenty years on and the web has made very little impact on employer's desire to keep people in chair so they can keep an eye on them. Most companies have vertical hierarchies, and managers love to manage. Many get into it because they are psychopathic control freaks, the sort of folk who like standing over you watching what you do - seeing how long it takes you to go to the loo and what time you choose to knock off in the evening. Home-working has a different dynamic which old style managers cannot get their heads around.
 
So will generation Z be any different? We're talking about people who were born into being videoed so feel very comfortable with it. They also seem to handle isolation well, being that they are welded to their phones from early childhood and no longer seem to bother talking face-to-face.
 
Somehow I doubt it.  At the end of the day, interaction is at the root of markets, it is at the root of our psyche and it is fundamental to who we are as humans. So however good virtual reality gets and how comfortable future generations become with it, I feel there will always be  the last nine yards in which there is no substitute for direct human contact. Also any companies of the future pioneering teleworking seemed doomed if they try to use the hierarchical management structures of the past. They will need to be more co-operative and have a flatter management structure that is less dependent on monitoring and more reliant on collaboration. I think if such companies do arise they will find big rewards in being agile and competitive. The snag is as, with big open source projects like say, Wikipedia, they end up begging for funding because despite a huge amount of volunteer working they don't have a format that impacts sales in a way that a vertically structured company does. It seems you need an arse at the top banging on doors, making deals and keeping profitability in-check, while confident enough in delegation to keep management structures flat. 
 
I saw an interesting video recently in which Elon Musk was ascribed just these qualities. Apparently in both Tesla and SpaceX he promotes a results-driven culture in which people are encouraged and rewarded for delivering ideas across what in other companies would be considered 'cultural' divides. So if a person working on one aspect of production had an insight into another unrelated field, he or she has free-reign to approach that area's director to make a suggestion. This has led to some quantum leaps in Tesla's development and is the sort of management that is required of companies in the 21st century. I don't know the degree to which Musk encourages homeworking, but presumably because he can't be in two places at once, he must himself be a remote manager for some of his time at Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring company. Perhaps Elon is the chap we should be keeping an eye on. Tesla's market capitalisation has just hit $100 billion which is a trigger built into his contractual compensation plan that could be worth $55billion or more, making him the richest person on the planet. Not bad for a part-timer! 

My Top 10 Youtube Channels

I don't watch TV - here's what I do watch.

I haven't been a regular TV viewer since the last century! Working from home in the mid 1990's I always had a computer in my front room anyway, so I transitioned from 'lean back' to 'lean forward' media very early on and soon found it quite odd that folk would sit on a sofa having inane programming firehosed at them while there was a whole planet of interesting stuff to go and find.
 
Mind you, back then, content was spread around among many independent websites. It was quite a while before video became a significant datatype. Bandwidth was at a premium and video hosting could be a tricky business. An announcement of an online video in the mainstream media could trigger a demand spike that would cripple a normal website. My own web design company, Datadial, reacted by providing a dedicating video-hosting outsourcing service that was popular at the time with advertising and marketing companies, as we had servers in the docklands datacentre that could handle a big surge in demand.
 
I mention this because when YouTube first came out in 2005 my first thought was 'That's a really dumb idea!'. Knowing how video chewed up bandwidth, the idea of having a generic hosting service where anyone could upload a video about anything seemed like a great way to go out of business really fast. Surely hosting costs would never be recouped by a freeview service from the low quality video being uploaded by Joe Public? How wrong I was! Here we are 15 years later and YouTube is one of the Internet's top five websites with over 31 million unique channels and an audience of two billion per month and growing. And I'm the biggest sucker for it! Rarely a day goes by in which I don't watch a video or two from one of the 900 or so channels I'm subscribed to.
 
So for this week's blog (which is admittedly a bit of a filler because I've had a lot to do), I thought I'd list my top ten YouTube channels. 
 

Rich Rebuilds

Rich RebuildsOk this is about a guy (called Rich) who rebuilds cars. Simple enough, huh? Except Richie B Kidd only rebuilds electric cars. The channel started a few years back when Richie bought a Tesla model S that had been written off after taking a swim in a lake. He took the car to pieces and put it back together over a fascinating series of videos that showed me for the first time what the inside of an electric car looked like. Subsequent videos have documented his rebuilding of a Model three and converting a petrol driven Rat-rod into an EV using the guts of a second hand electric motorbike. The show is interesting, not only because it illuminates the engineering behind EVs, but it also exposes the politics behind Tesla's aftercare. Tesla is not keen on work being done on their cars by non-authorised mechanics. Rich has done some quite revealing exposés documenting a range of issues from being denied permission to buy parts to having supercharging turned off remotely by Tesla. Another great reason to watch the channel is Richie himself, who is a world class wit, prankster and comedian. Even when he diverts from the narrative to bring a word from his sponsor, the content he delivers remains fresh and funny as though you're not watching an advert but part of the main feature, which is a very rare skill.
 

First We Feast - Hot Ones

Hot Ones In the words of their own blurb, "First We Feast videos offer an iconoclastic view into the culinary world, taking you behind-the-scenes with some of the country's best chefs and finding the unexpected places where food and pop culture intersect." First We Feast is a magazine, YouTube channel and brand that produces a number of video series, one of which is called Hot Ones. Hot Ones has a cult following. The format of the show sees host Sean Evans interviewing a celebrity whilst both he and the star munch their way through ten food items (usually chicken wings or vegetarian options such as cauliflower bhajis) each of which has an increasingly powerful dab of hot chilli source. It's a deceptively simple idea that works incredibly well, partly because the show is meticulous well researched so its questions are deep and probing, and also as the 'scoville' units rise, the celebrities are often caught off guard leading to some really revealing answers. This week the host of 'In The Actors Studio', James Lipton died at the age of 93. Previously his show was the best place to go for celebrity interviews, but Hot Ones has in my opinion taken it's place in the 21st century, as the stars seem to be falling over themselves to be on it. Good guests to look out for include Charlize Theron, Gordon Ramsey and Idris Elba.
 

Up and Atom

Up and AtomI stumbled across this channel when I saw the click-bait title "50 AMAZING Physics Facts to Blow Your Mind!" I was irresistibly drawn to click through and I've been a fan of the channel ever since. Up and Atom is the brainchild of Australian science communicator Jade Tan-Holmes. Her videos cover the full gamut of STEM topics from quantum biology, physics, higher mathematics, logic and even touches on philosophy. What makes the channel such a delight is the presenter's mastery of communication. I don't recall seeing anyone taking a bachelors degree level subject and making it so accessible to the layman. Her joy in both the subject and the action of explaining it is instantly visible in all her work and is dangerously infectious. If you have even the faintest interest in science, watch one of her videos. I'm sure you too will end up subscribing.
 

Geography Now

Geography NowWith well over two million subscribers, Geography Now probably needs no introduction, but if you have not heard of it before, the channel is on a mission to bring you a bite-sized video about every country on planet earth. Working from A through Z, they are up to St Kitts and Nevis at the time of writing. Fast talking host Paul Barbato started the channel in 2014 and shares presenting duties with a small team of regular hosts and guests from the country being featured. The presenting style is opposite to what one has experienced in traditional academia, and is an attention grabbing mix of comic book/pop-art/slapstick. Episodes are divided into four sections, political geography, physical geography, demographics and the friend-zone (international relations). Despite the informal presenting style, the videos are well researched and contain a mountain of facts. Errors do creep in occasionally but corrections appear in a follow-up show to each episode in a counterpart called Fan-Flag Friday.  Good episodes to cut your teeth on include Japan, Israel and Iran.
 

Ask a Mortician

Ask a morticianAnother channel that has become so popular now you probably don't need me to tell you about it, Ask A Mortician is hosted by the ever engaging Caitlin Doughty who has been delivering death-themed videos since 2011 and now has over a million subscribers. As one might expect from a holder of a BA in medieval history, Caitlin's videos are meticulously researched, but also she has a gift for story telling. This coupled with her dry sense of humour infuses her videos with bitter-sweet quality - it's kind of like Jackanory with corpses! Good episodes to watch out for are "WHAT HAPPENED TO HIROSHIMA'S DEAD?", "The Self Mummified Monks", "Why Do We Get Columbine So Wrong?" and "The Dyatlov Pass Incident".
 

Ave

AveAve is a channel primarily devoted to mechanical engineering, a subject which is of little interest to me, however I watch often because the host is endlessly entertaining. Who he is remains a mystery as he keeps his identity private, however he is a French Canadian engineer who clearly has a background in machine-shop, hydraulic systems and electronics. Many of his videos (or vijayos as he calls them) are tear downs of tools or domestic electronic products. What makes the channel outstanding is the host's creative use of the English language. He doesn't talk so much as paint with words. His lexicon is extended with local north-American expressions like chooch and skookum, the meanings of which become apparent through watching his videos. He weaves these in with expletives, rhyming slang and shop-talk almost creating a private language all of his own. Just as Shakespeare had a gift for creating expressions such as 'the milk of human kindness' and 'disappeared into thin air', Ave has a gift for coining novel expressions with a wit and creativity that is truly remarkable. I randomly dove in to one of his videos to bring you an example and within seconds came across a rant where he was battling with his camera's auto-focus: "Eye of the Tiger right out fighting with Jesusless camera for the focusing - fuck!" Sheer poetry!

Contrapoints

ContrapointsFrom the channel's description "YouTuber, ex-philosopher. Sex, drugs, and social justice." Contrapoints is the video channel of Natalie Wynn, a transgender women who is making a name for herself as an astute, left-wing video essayist. Her channel also explores transgender issues and the politics of sexuality. Not the sort of thing I'd normally watch videos about but the production values are so high and the content so well constructed that I find her videos compelling viewing.  
 

Dr Becky

Dr BeckyRebecca Smethurst is an astrophysicist with a passion for blackholes. As I write this I can see a common theme emerging among the channels I watch, in that Dr Becky is another presenter who exudes joy in delivering information about her chosen subject. Her enthusiasm is quite infectious. I don't know my parsec from my elbow but I'm learning thanks to watching her weekly content. She only has just over 100k subscribers at the moment but this is climbing and I'm sure she will become the Patrick Moore of the 21st century.
 

Rick Beato - Everything Music

Rick BeatoBeing a musician myself I watch a ton of channels related to musical education, but Rick stands out as the crème de la crème.  He's worked as a college level music tutor, worked for over 20 years as a producer/engineer and has a huge range of contacts in the music industry. He has a number of series within his channel such as 'What makes this song great' where he tears down a famous cut (often working from the original multi-track recording) and he has other series on guitar tuition, music theory and film scoring. If you have any interest at all in how music is made, there will be something in Rick's channel for you.
 

Fully Charged Show

Fully Charged ShowFronted by Robert Llewellyn (yes, the Red Dwarf guy). Fully Charged is dedicated to bringing you news about electric vehicles and sustainable energy. I'm far from being a tree-hugger but I see the importance of moving to clean energy, so I watch the show regularly to keep up with the latest developments. Though the subscriber count is little over 640k there is a unique buzz about Fully Charged, a sense growing over time that we really are on the cusp of a green revolution. Contrary to what you might think, the show isn't all about Teslas! In fact the most recent video featured the Top 30 EV models in what is a fast growing market. 
 
So there we are. Let me know in the comments what you think of my picks and let me know if there are any channels you would recommend!
 

On mumbo jumbo

Is there anything to the Supernatural?

We live in a strange time. The Internet has given us instant access to a greater plethora of information than has ever been possible in history, yet rather than serving to better educate as all, the amount of mumbo jumbo seems to have risen rather than fallen. Flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, homeopaths, folk who swear by the healing power of crystals and Gwyneth Paltrow, all find it easier to get a platform these days.

Now I'm a logical sort of chap, a great believer in the scientific method, which basically stated is that "if a theory is disproved by experiment it isn't true". However there are a few wrinkles and crevasses in my belief system. These are what I want to share with you today.

Take divining for example. It's clearly rubbish as there is no verifiable force that can be detected by a human with a divining rod. However I recall as a kid we had a blocked drain. My father knew a lot about water. He had spent a decade as a plumber and worked for a time for the Water Board. I watched him fashion a couple of diving rods out of an old coat hanger. He than marched steadily back and forth across the garden. Each time he crossed a certain point the rods moved. He dug down a couple of feet, found the water pipe, disconnected it (it was the ceramic sort connected in sections) and found the blockage exactly where the diving rods had indicated. So I know first hand that diving works but I can't explain why. My best guess is my father knew subconsciously where the drain started, and where it exited the property, so he could have been making an educated guess with that information. How he guessed down to the nearest foot is still beyond me.

I know astrology is complete twaddle. But time and time again certain character traits do seem to reoccur in individuals according to their star sign. Leos are invariably extroverts. Cancerians are crabby and have mood swings. Virgos are organised and boringly safety-conscious, Scorpios are the undisputed masters of exacting revenge etc. It seems there are two possible explanations for this. Firstly we learn about our own sign in childhood and it is possible we either subconsciously (or possibly consciously in some cases) grow to fulfil our own prophesy. Another theory is that the seasons may play a role. The younger you are, the slower time passes. Imagine you are a newborn infant born say in September. Your first six months would seem like a life time, but much of it would be cold and grey, whereas if you were born in April those all important formative months would be bright and sunny. Many things other than the weather influence adult moods thorough-out the seasons, holidays and so forth, all of which would be absorbed by the infant. Is it then any wonder that people born at different times of year have a different outlook on life? The only snag with this theory is the character traits in the Southern hemisphere would be six months out of kilter with those in the northern hemisphere, though I still think it is a sufficiently interesting proposition that it warrants further investigation.

What I'm getting at is that for most phenomena considered supernatural, there is usually a more mundane explanation.

And now for a good old ghost story. Clearly ghosts don't exist according to science. However strange things happen. This is one I experienced myself.

Back in Murcia a couple arrived from the UK with the intention of establishing a pub, which they did by converting an old residential property, and a very good job they made of it too. They named it the Yorkshire Rose. It was heaven. Just before it opened, they invited an elderly neighbour in to show her what they had done to the place. She was happily admiring the decor until she reached the far right-hand corner of the bar, at which point she burst into tears. It turned out that is where her friend, the previous occupant had gasped her last breath.

I didn't know this until the story was recounted to me some years later. However I recall dining in that corner of the room and thought it felt chilly. I mentioned it casually to the waitress who laughed and said she had lost count of the people who said that. Stories abound that cold spots like this are associated with hauntings, but perhaps I'm just putting two and two together and making five. Perhaps it was explanable by air-flow, fluid dynamics and the fact that air-conditioning unit was just above my head!

However this wasn't the only spooky thing that happened in the bar. One night, I and a bunch of pals had a late-night lock-in playing poker. It was a bright moonlight night and very still. There was not a breeze in the air we had no music playing, so it was just the flick of the cards and our banter that could be heard. At about 1:30 a.m. there was an enormous crash. My first thought was that someone had thrown a brick through the window. As I was nearest the door, I unlocked it and had a look outside but there was nobody there, and anyway the windows were protected by wooden shutters.

Meanwhile my fellow poker-buddies looked around inside. It turned out that a glass had smashed behind the bar. This was strange, as nobody had been behind the bar for a while as we were all involved in the game. Also the shelf on which the glasses were kept didn't have a direct path to the floor. There were freezer cabinets and cupboards on which the glass should first have bounced, but this isn't what any of us heard. We all heard one large crash, so loud that we all agreed it sounded though it had been thrown down deliberately by a human hand. We got back to the game scratching our heads. I considered things always sound louder at night when it was quiet and dismissed it as a freak accident.

I was in the bar again quite early the next morning as I was due to meet a client there. A different barman was on shift. Thinking the owner may have told him the tale already (but setting my self up to segway neatly into the tale if necessary) I jokingly asked him if anymore glasses had smashed this morning. He turned to look at me, eyes like saucers, the colour running from his cheeks.

"How do you know about that?"

"I was here last night", I replied.

"No, just now. After I opened I was standing here at the sink washing up a few glasses and all of a sudden a glass smashed on the floor behind me. It sounded like someone threw it at the floor - I jumped out of my skin!"

It turned out the owner was having a lie-in and the barman knew nothing of the night before. After I shared the story with him, we did the only sensible thing in that situation and had a couple of nerve-steadying brandies!

Coincidence? Maybe. There are a lot of earthquakes in Murcia. Sometimes these come in swarms and are all but imperceptible, but resonance at a particular frequency can cause individual objects to move while everything around them is still. However, there is a primitive part of me that cannot shake off the notion that not everything is mumbo jumbo. Some things do go bump it the night!

The Gargoyle Folk

Second blog in a row about one of my shortcomings, this time, language!

While I did pretty well in most academic subjects at school, languages were not my strong suit. The comment on my report card for French 'Stephen gave up trying' pretty much summed it up and stings to this day. I'm not quite sure why I failed so badly, but I think that while some people have a dyslexia associated with vision, I seem to have a similar thing that confuses my ears brain and mouth! My voice just seemed incapable of making the sounds I command it to, and no amount of practice seemed to be able to remedy that.

A few years back, while failing dismally to learn Spanish, a big stumbling block was that I couldn't roll my 'Rs'. A native speaker gave me a drill that Spanish children use when they have this problem. 'Tres tristres tigres, tragaban trigo en un trigal, en tres tristes trasto, tragaban trigo tres tristes tigres. Un tigre, dos tigres, tres tigres'. I recited it dozens of times a day for weeks but it didn't seem to help me one iota.

Similarly, I seem to have more problems than most in making out words, not just in a foreign language. Even in English, I often have trouble understanding what people are saying, especially in crowded situations, if they are talking quickly or they have an accent. I recall buying a Mars bar in the Shell garage in Kensington, and the Asian chap at the counter seemed to be calling me Pedro.

"Pedro?" I replied, "no I'm Steve".

No he replied "Petrol, petrol, gas?"

"Oh no, just the Mars bar" I said, pulling the hood of my anorak over my head in an attempt to hide in shame. This sort of thing has always happened to me. Back when I worked in the Department of Employment a chap in a turban was in the queue one day. I asked him his name and proceeded to look him up on the system.

"Sorry" I said, "I can't find a Mr Paddle here"

"Not Paddle" he said, "Patel, P-A-T-E-L".

"Oh, Pat-el, sorry", I said, unconciously and rudely re-pronouncing his name for him, having just made a complete arse of myself in front of a queue of a few dozen people who already hated me just for being a civil servant and therefore part of the enemy. I still have nightmares about that one.

Note: I'm not making fun of these people nor belittling their linguistic abilities. These errors are all my fault.
 

“Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language.” – H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

So despite much effort to learn the language, when I moved to Spain and started conversing with the natives I was probably at a bit of a handicap to start with, but nothing could have prepared me for the next big problem. People in the village I relocated to don't speak the sort of Spanish one learns on a Michel Thomas CD. I later learned their accent in Spain has a position similar to Geordie in the UK. It is regarded by the rest of the Spanish speaking world as pretty unintelligble!

My wife and I were very fortunate to purchase a house in a place with fantastic neighbours who quickly adopted us and included us in their social gatherings. We immediately felt at home and took advantage of the opportunity to chat and improve our Spanish. God it was hard.

To give you an idea, one morning there had been a frost which was unusual. My immediate neighbour, Manolo came up to the fence and held out something in his hand, repeating a word over and over again expressing his obvious distress.

"Sellow sellow" is what it sounded like to me. I called out to the wife, whose Spanish was already far superior to mine, and she was equally puzzled.

We quizzed him as best we could and started to put the pieces together. He was apparently showing us a young almond kernel. The kernel had been frozen by the frost. Working backwards from there we found that the word for frozen was helado. The 'h' is silent in Spanish  and in Murcia they don't pronounce the 'd', collapsing it instead to an 'ow' sound. the final touch was this was a reflexive verb and he was saying it had frozen itself so there is the word 'se' on the front. So after a bit of a battle we figured he was saying 'se helado, se elao' - 'sellow sellow'! My wife was triumphant having figured this out but I knew in my heart I was losing the battle to learn Spanish. But worse was to come.

I befriended the local vet who took me out on his house-calls one day. The way it works is that farmers with herds of pigs or goats or whatever would take out insurance with him. In order to minimise his exposure to claims, he would visit the animals from time to time to carry out inoculations and inspections to look out for signs of infections and so forth. These actually took him quite far afield, which is why I was unusually eager to awaken at stupid-o'clock one cold winters morning, to jump into his 4x4 and bounce a long an ever deteriorating series of tracks that led to the mountains of Albacete. As the altitude increased so the temperature fell. I don't know how cold it got but I saw a frozen waterfall. This is a remote part of Spain, pockmarked by empty villages that had been abandoned as the children obviously made a choice between a propsperous life in the big city they saw on TV or a remote, freezing, impoverished life in the hills as a goat farmer and thought to themselves "blow this for a game of soldiers".  We visited several farms on the trip and on the way back I confessed to my veterinarian friend that I hadn't understood much of what had been said. He grinned and said he didn't either! Apparently the towns up in the hills are so spread out and isolated that the accents have diverged to such an extent that they were half unintelligible to a native Spanish speaker.

God rolled his dice and a few years later I started a new life, moving to a town in the inland of Andalusia, in Olvera, Cadiz province, the 'white village' I'm living in at the moment. Just as I'd been getting the hang of the accent in Murcia I found myself back in the deep-end trying to figure out what in God's name the Andalusians were talking about. Not only is the accent different again but the Andalusians speak Andaluz which is a combination of a heavy accent and a local lexicon of colloquialisms unique to the area. The bigger problem with Andaluz however is there seems to be a long standing campaign to kill off consonants altogether and reduce language to the lowest possible combination of vowel sounds.

The first word that foxed me when I moved here is a local term meaning mate or kid. I've never seen it written down but I'd have a stab at spelling it 'chaqillo'. When you hear this on the street however, typically one guy calling out of a car window, it is compressed into something resembling 'yo' where the 'je' of the 'y' is almost silent.  Another phrase common in Spanish is when two people greet they might say "¿Que haces?", meaning what's happening/what's up. Well that's how they say it in Spanish text books. Here they say "eh ah ee" though not as three separate syllables as I've presented here (for intelligibility?) but more like 'eai'.

I asked a local friend of mine about this and he said yes, that's the way in Andalusia - we eat our consonants! He went on to ask,

"Do you know how we say yes in Andalusia?"

"Si?" I suggested, wincing at the prospect that the real answer would be far worse.

"No, we say  eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee". He didn't even need to change his mouth shape to reward himself with a lingering grin!

Soon after, I visited one of the smaller town here south of Ronda. It only had about 200 inhabitants and I learned later that it only got its first fridge in 1983. There I was introduced to a jolly Spanish fellow whose name escapes me, but in entering is house I saw he had a fine collections of CD's.

"You like music", I said "what is your favourite kind?"

"aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa", he said.

I looked blankly at the person who had introduced us.

"Jazz" she translated, half smiling apologetically. At this point I felt so out of my depth I could see fish with lights on their heads!

I just pinched the 'lights on their heads' gag from my favourite comic author, Terry Pratchett and I think what the Andaluz accent most reminds me of is his story in 'Men at Arms" where Captain Vimes starts a conversation with a Gargoyle:

'What's your name, friend?'
' 'ornice-oggerooking-Oardway.'
Vimes' lips moved as he mentally inserted all those sounds unobtainable to a creature whose
mouth was stuck permanently open. Cornice-overlooking-Broad-way?
'Egg'.

The best way then to try to understand the local accent in Andalusia is to imagine them as people who don't close their mouths very much, somewhat like Pratchett's gargoyle folk.
 

That would have been the end of this blog post but I had a more serious afterthought. While I'm on the subject of my trouble dealing with the language here (and at least, I try) another thing  that I found to be a real challenge are automated telephone answering systems. If you try to ring many of the major utilities in Spain such as Telefonica or Vodafone you will be greeted by a mechanical voice asking questions about the nature of your enquiry. In an effort to steer you towards an answer with as little costly human intervention as possible, the questions may include speaking/spelling your name or contract number or even worse, repeating the answer of a multiple choice question.


Now the tricky thing here is that the phone software will be attuned to the accent of a natural Spanish speaker. When I try to respond to these questions in my best Spanish, the system must sniff out my South London accent and raise a red flag, as I can never, EVER, EVER manage to make the machine understand what I'm saying!! Often I'll run against a brick wall and a human operator will eventually come on to find out what is going on. Sometimes though - and this winds me up - the automated system will say it can't understand me and terminate the call. This has happened several times with Telefonica - and I've stood there for several seconds looking at the dead phone with complete incredulity. What else can you do other than get a Spanish friend to make the call for you?


IMHO there should be a law that stops them being able to do this. Non native speakers should have a right to access basic utilities through mutli-national phone answering systems using buttons only. My only consolation is a private chuckle when I think of the amount of business they must loose as a result of this sort of practice. Right now I need a second phone but I'll end up getting it from the highstreet shop of another company as my existing mobile operator can't be bothered to talk to me - stuff them!!

A Growing Lifetime of Not Understanding

The older I get, the less I seem to understand, but I don't think its just me!
 
I rarely visit the UK, but the last time I did I confronted one of those new-fangled self-service tills in a shop for the first time. It confused the hell out of me! I had to get my niece to show me what to do. This was particularly embarrassing because I'm supposed to be a techie guy - Computer Steve - the dude who has been bothering microchips since the early seventies. The odd thing is that while this is factually correct, the world has progressed while my understanding of it has become increasingly muddy.
 
I'm not talking about things I don't understand about life in general, like why women fashion hats out of towels at some point during the process of taking a shower, or why dogs don't chew their food whereas they're so adept at chewing on furniture. I'm specifically concerned with the wall that has been growing between man and machine since electronics has been migrating from analog to digital.
 
If you are old enough to remember the 1960's this wall didn't exist. If you owned a radio or a TV, the chances are it had two dials - one that turned the volume up and down, the other which tuned the device through different channels. There was also a good chance that these were labelled 'volume' and 'tuner' in English. 
 
The first suggestion in my world that things were about to get ugly came with the Cassette Tape recorder. Do you remember those? We used to use them to record the top 30 pop songs on a Sunday night. A tune I remember fondly was Queen - Seven Seas Of Rhye which was as near as I got to liking heavy metal back in the day! Anyway, the thing that was lost on me and probably many others at the time, was that the controls on these machines had a language-independent interface. This allowed the manufactures to streamline tooling so they could basically knock out the same machine and sell it to different countries with the minimum of changes, perhaps with just a different mains plug and user manual. This was a subtle but important turning point as it meant we, the great unwashed public, had to start  learning a new language of symbols. (The posh word for this is semiotics but lets not get ahead of ourselves).
 
Now a cassette recorder wasn't rocket science but it was more complicated than a radio. One had to express forward/back, stop, record/play and pause. This was done with the use of symbols and sometimes colour, with the red being used to signify record. Us old folk have had forty years to forget how we first learned this interface but I understand it still foxes kids today when they see a Sony Walkman for the first time. 
 
Household appliances of all kinds have undergone similar 'progress' since those heady days. Our washing machine back then was so simple a child could use it. There was a dial that had labels in English that said meaningful things like 'wash', 'rinse' and 'spin'. The washing machine I use today has a dial with dozens of signs on it that look as though they were invented for the purpose of confusing the hell out of me by some insane professor of Aztec hieroglyphics! Fortunately the Devil's spawn was already here when I moved into the house, so I just leave the dial where it has always been, throw my washing in, switch it on and hope for the best! Seems to be OK but God only knows what all the other settings do. As for the washing instructions they put inside clothes, don't get me started!
 
It's the same thing with steam irons. No idea! Turning the dial clockwise seems to make them hotter but as for the other symbols, not a clue!
 
Things really started to get mysterious when appliances became digital. An old analog microwave oven was a joy to use. There was just a timer and a power level control - easy. Does anyone really understand the interface on a conventional digital microwave? Weird images of chicken drum-sticks and steaming bowls? I would never buy a microwave with an interface like that, but I had occasion to use one a few years back, and in the absence of a manual (or anyone else that was in possession of the sacred knowledge of how it worked), I eventually managed to cook some popcorn after about five minutes of trial and error, randomly pushing buttons and trying my best to gauge the results.
 
The removal of language in favour of internationalization is only one of the problems. The other is that all signs are not equal. If it were just the case that a picture represented something recognisable, things wouldn't be too bad. Think of a public toilet for example. There is an image of a man, an image of a woman and an image of a person in a wheelchair. It's not easy to confuse these icons for the things they represent in the real world.
 
Icons however are only one of the three categories of sign recognized in semiotics, the study of signs. The other two are symbol and index. Icons are reduced depictions of the object they represent, such as our toilet folk. Symbols however are signs that represent an object without resembling it.  Most national flags are abstract symbols, which clearly represent a national identity without imaging a real thing (there are exceptions - some flags may contain stars, lions etc but for the purpose of the example I'm talking about plain flags with just lines and colours). Indexes are pointers to a concept that often cannot easily be represented directly, e.g. drawing three horizontal squiggly lines doesn't look much like water but it does suggest a river or sea and maybe used to indicate water, swimming, tide and many things water related. 
 
All three types of sign are found in the earliest cave paintings dating back hundreds of thousands of years. The paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has been doing a study of the objects represented in engravings and paintings in caves across the world and has discovered that all the designs can be reduced to a basic 'vocabulary' of 32 separate signs. She mentions in her excellent and fascinating TED talk on the subject that "There is a striking lack of diversity in the earliest rock art from France and Spain to Indonesia and Australia". The thought that the outlook of people across the human world hundreds of thousands of years ago could be expressed in 32 signs is a sobering one. Hold onto it while I describe what happens next in my story.
 
Computers, as you will know, are a lot more than glorified adding machines. Since the early days of punch cards and paper tape, the interfaces through which we connect to computers has been gradually evolving. From my earliest contact with them during the 1970's until the middle of 1980s, all interaction was mainly through a 'terminal' model, where one would see a command line on a screen, type in commands and get the answer back as lines of text. Later, many alternative custom graphical interfaces came and went but the one that endured was called the WIMP interface (standing for windows, icons, menus and pointers - or mice and pointers depending on which version of computer history you believe). This found its way into the Apple Macintosh in 1984 and other home computers such as the Atari and Amiga until eventually being reinvented by Microsoft as their flagship interface, Windows.
 
I was a command-line ninja having been a Unix programmer who had worked in this type of environment for so long, so I personally found the move to a graphical user interface a very painful one. Implicit in all these interfaces was the dubious conceit that they represented your desktop and the items within it, such as files, printers, waste-bins and so on. I couldn't see what was intuitive nor useful about say, clicking my cursor on a file and dragging it onto the printer to print it. In my experience, dropping a physical A4 document onto a the top of a physical printer or photocopier would not induce the latter to print, so why should it be so on my computer? It really took me decade to get my head around it.
 
Meanwhile the academic thinkers in the process of constructing the Tower of Babel we jokingly refer to as Computer Science had another trick up their sleeve. The number of printable characters back in the 60's was originally a lowly 128, due to the limited bit-length of early computers (the size of the blocks of numbers the computers were able to work with at a low level - this grew over time time from 8, 16, 32 to 64 etc as technology improved). The size of the possible 'alphabet' was extended throughout the years, but the huge uptake of computers internationally and the need to represent different character sets such as Japanese Kanji text meant a complete overhaul of how characters were represented was in order. The boffins came up with Unicode, a standard which is now used to represent hundreds of thousands of characters. 
 
Now you will probably be aware that techies used smiley symbols 🙂 back in mainframe days. When mobile phones became a craze in Japan during the 1990s, their phone manufacturers extended this idea and ran wild with it creating the sub-culture of the emoji, those crazy little images that almost substitute for text in messages exchanged by young people. This soon spread beyond Japan and cutting a long story short, emojis are now represented across technical platforms worldwide using the Unicode standard. They are now mainstream!
 
Smartphones didn't come out until I was well into my forties, by which time the last thing I wanted to do was learn yet another interface. The gestures, swiping and pinching all baffled me for some time. I still get the shivers If I have to copy something from one app to another on my phone or have to print something out, but I'm getting there. 
 
My Waterloo however is messaging. I sometimes get messages, especially from young people, that look like they were copied from the walls of an Egyptian tomb. Icons, symbols and indexes all in the shape of modern emoji. I know what they are, I just can't figure out what they mean, because there seem to be thousands of these things. When I see them I often think back to Genevieve von Petzinger's fundamental 32 character vocabulary and wonder how old I actually am, because I often feel nearer to our cave-dwelling, stone-age ancestors than I do to our couch-dwelling Generation-Z!
 

Why I came to Spain

What am I doing here - well people do ask sometimes!
First Year in Spain 2003
 
Python sketch comes to mind - Shopkeeper "Why are you here?" Customer "Why are any of us here, its all so meaningless really..."
 
This might go back a bit further than you imagined. Europe was a mystery to me that revealed itself slowly over many years.
 
I cherished home a little too much as a kid. I grew up in a working class cottage with dad the janitor, mum the cleaner, grandad the ex-sailor/bricklayer and sister the audio-typist. I didn't know anyone 'foreign' or anyone who had been abroad. The world came to London to play us at footy in 1966 and we of course won. I had a 'World Cup Willie' in my Christmas stocking that year. Everything seemed cosy and local! 
 
Then something weird happened. One of my sisters moved further away due to her husband getting a better job. I'd never countenanced the idea of moving for such an unimportant thing as work before - what on earth were they thinking of? Looking back on it I had an insular mindset, but that was about to change. It turned out the cottage we lived in was tied to my father's job, and when he retired in 1973, we had to find another place to live. 
 
By this time I'd become dimly aware of the existence of Europe, primarily through TV There was the Eurovision Song Contest, It's a Knockout and European football, all of which I now know were designed specifically to create the awareness I was experiencing. Also my sister's husband's career was taking him all over Europe and we would get strange phone calls of the type "I'm pulling my hair out here - I've got three Hungarian executives coming around for dinner and I don't have a recipe for goulash!" My horizons were slowly broadening.
 
Our neighbours in the new house were a nice old couple with two bright young sons, Tommy and David. The boys were both toolmakers which was a much sought-after skill in the early 1970's. Due to Labour's 84% tax rate they both decided to leave Britain. David emigrated to America but Tommy went to live in Alicante in Spain. This fascinated me beyond measure. I couldn't believe this guy was going to relocate to a country the spoke a different language. This was really the start of a new mindset for me where I looked at the concept of international mobility and the pros and cons of living in Britain and living abroad. The subject haunted me thorough-out my adolescence. It seemed difficult to relocate abroad for work but the notion of retiring abroad was something I'd already considered was going to happen, even though I'd not been overseas myself yet.
 
On one occasion I remember sitting in a very dull A-level physics lesson and a thought struck me. Given current interest rates, how much capital would I need to acquire in order to live off the interest rate if I went to live in an inexpensive Mediterranean country? I did the sums and worked out I'd need about £100k. Though that was a chunk of money back then in the late 1970's it was achievable. Much of the next decade would see me revisiting this figure, adjusting it for various expenses as my naivety about the true cost of living was replaced with experience, as soon after, I started work.
 
One of my early jobs was a summer spent with the Department of Employment as it then was. I was a temporary administrative officer in the local unemployment benefit office and as such I had to attend a week of training. Part of the course covered the reciprocal rights that existed for workers in Britain and the EU. There were many of these but the one that lept out at me was that as an unemployed Brit, it was my right to sign on as unemployed and receive unemployment benefit was respected by the EU. I remember asking the tutor in disbelief, "So that means I could go to say, Italy for a month looking for work and sign on over there". Yes was the reply. From then on I really started to pay attention to this EU business. This sounded great!
 
However I didn't actually set foot in an EU country until 1985 when I went on holiday to Lanzarote. Then I was smitten. It wasn't just the weather, though that was pretty good. It was the smells, the taste, the vibrancy of the colours - everything seemed better than blighty. I later learned the vibrancy of the colour in sunny climbs is not one's imagination but a fact due to colour being a function of the quality of light, a fact noted by Leonardo Da Vinci many centuries ago. [Quote from the notebooks of Leonardo https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Notebooks_of_Leonardo_Da_Vinci/V]
 
Since we see that the quality of colour is known [only] by means of light, it is to be supposed that where there is most light the true character of a colour in light will be best seen; and where there is most shadow the colour will be affected by the tone of that. Hence, O Painter! remember to show the true quality of colours in bright lights.
 
I had many subsequent holidays to Greece, Cyprus etc, and while my wife was busy working on her tan, I'd be looking at the price of property and the work opportunities for possible emigration. The problem always came down to income as I didn't have any easily translatable skill at the time that I could use to find work abroad. 
 
Then in around 1989 I changed jobs and started working IT. At first I was trained as a small-systems developer but after a few short years I found myself working in the latest 'big thing', the Internet.
 
While still working in government I started working at home as long ago as the early 1990s. I was running a Unix computer network at the time and there were certain jobs that had to be done while everyone was offline. I'd previously been doing these on the weekend earning a bit of overtime, but I hated the commute - there were less trains than during the week and more likelihood of meeting a group of drunk footy fans on the way to a game. So I had a word with my boss and pointed out that if I he let me dial in remotely to do these jobs from home, I'd only charge him for the hours I was on-line and not for any travel time. He agreed and over the next couple of years I became a part-time teleworker. 
 
During the decade of the 90's the Internet became vastly more important with the development of the web. I voluntarily retired from government, setting myself up as an Internet consultant, which eventually led to me co-founding a web design agency called Datadial Ltd which is still running today. 
 
Towards the end of the decade, on another holiday in Lanzarote I met a chap who caused me to rethink my plan to retire abroad. He was a Brit who retired to the island on a police pension. We had a conversation about the Spanish language.  He had been there a number of years and could hold a conversation in Spanish well enough to identify the accents folk had from different towns in the island. He impressed two things upon me.  Immersion was essential and each decade that goes by it gets exponentially harder to learn Spanish. So the notion that one would wait until retiring at 65, coming to Spain to live and starting to learn the language was a fantasy. I've since found that to be true. Clearly the longer I waited the harder it would be. Curiously I went back to the UK, started to learn Spanish, but unlike previous occasions where I'd read a book for a week then put it down out of boredom - I kept the learning up month after month. I'd clearly made a decision that this was going to happen.
 
I was not very happy working in the company I'd started. My business partner and I had various differences of opinion as to how things should be done. Also the notion that the longer I waited, the harder it would be to learn Spanish was niggling away at the back of my mind. Finally in 2003 I hit upon a solution. I was working at home a lot of the time anyway since my role as technical director meant a lot of time was spent in software development.  I decide to let my business partner effectively take over the reigns of the company while I relocated to Spain. I would keep working part time on a reduced salary. Once agreed the move became very simple. I sold my house and within three months I'd moved to Spain. I was living the dream.
 
Incidentally I'd been battling away learning Spanish for nearly four years at this point. I wasn't very good. 17 years later I'm still not very good, so I hate to think how bad my Spanish would be if I'd waited any longer. Much to my chagrin, my wife, who had been brought up in a Polish speaking household and excelled at French and German at school didn't do any preparation before moving to Spain but was fluent after about three months of getting off the plane!
 
A lot has happened since I moved here. I've gone through two long term relationships, lost a house due to the financial crash and been through lots of jobs. I've worked as a software developer, translator, estate agent, labourer and a busker! Today I'm clinging on by my finger-tips, hoping the exchange rate doesn't do any more harm to the tiny income I get from the UK. Like many Brits here, I really didn't believe Brexit would happen, but now it has, I'm so glad I made the decision to come to Spain when I did. Hopefully I will retain the rights conferred on me from the EU by virtue of being a Spanish resident next January which is much more preferrable than if I were living in the UK and about to have those rights stripped from me. The one thing that sticks out as a problem for us expats is Freedom of Movement. It looks as though we're stuck in our chosen country of residence because we're British passport holders. After January 2021, unless a deal emerges to the contrary, I couldn't go to say, Germany and apply for a job as easily as I could pre-Brexit, which is something I had considered as I see a lot of adverts for jobs in Germany with my IT skills.
 
My battle with the language continues. In another blog post I'll explain some of the issues that make the language in Southern Spain so difficult (possible title - The Gargoyle People - that should get you thinking!)

Spanish Bureaucracy

Often cited as the least favorite thing about life as an ex-pat, bureaucracy is the bête noire of living in Spain
 
A viral video appeared on social media video a while back that took a humorous look at the nature of administration in Spanish offices.
 

 
All the issues in the video, the plethora of documents, the need for copies, the importance and finality of the rubber stamp, will be familiar to those of us who live here and bear the scars of many battles in the offices of local and central government, utilities and even many commercial organisations such as car-hire companies (which can be one of the worst IMHO).
 
An illustration of the frustrations associated with Spanish administration is my recent attempt to pay a water bill. How hard can it be? A lady knocked on my door and presented me with a 'notificación providencia de apremio' an urgent notification. This is a registered document which I had to sign for. Sent by the office that collects money on behalf of the water board, it contained advice of an outstanding bill. I've been in the process of trying to get the bill in my name and the money taken from my bank account for some years, but that's another story! Anyway, the notification doubles as a bill and contains a bar-code with which I can go to the ATMs of most Spanish banks to make the payment in cash. I was just off to the shops and since the bank was on the way I decided to strike while the iron was hot.
 
I went to the cash-point, scanned in the code and was greeted with the message 'The payment date of the bill has expired'. I laughed out loud. This was less than 15 minutes after I'd signed to say I had received the damn thing!! So the next day I had to visit the office to get another document. I took this one to the bank, scanned it into the machine and got another message saying 'Sorry but I cannot issue you with a receipt at the moment'. The message disappeared after a few seconds and returned to the previous screen inviting me to scan the document in. I was clearly in a loop as there was no option to escape by paying the bill without a receipt. Mired by thoughts of impending doom I entered the branch and joined the queue. After a quarter of an hour I reached the teller and explained I wanted to pay the bill but the machine wouldn't let me. 
 
"I can't pay it here for you, you must use the machine" the lady replied.
 
From previous visits I'm familiar with her lust for automation which I presume she sees as work avoided for her.
 
"I've just tried, it doesn't work" I said, trying my best to appear genuine and pathetic at the same time, in the hope that she might take pity on me and actually choose to help instead of scowl at me which had been her posture so far.
 
"OK I try" she said and frog-marched me outside to the machine. She stood over me while I repeated the same steps I had previously taken and unsurprisingly achieved the same result. 
 
"The machine is not working. You will have to use another bank." she said and returned to her lair. So I trudged off in search of another bank. First world problems I know but kill me now!
 
It's worth noting that this bar-code malarkey is relatively new. In the past one had to take such bills into the bank in person. Since the 2008 crash all the banks seem to have introduced measures to restrict the days and hours during which cash payments can be made, so one would, for example, have to wait until the next Thursday and join a long queue between the hours of 8:30 to 10:30 and deal with the teller face-to-face. It was a grim affair. 
 
I recall an incident regarding this in Murcia a few years ago. Cutting a very long story short, I'd found a renter for a property that was just about to get its electricity cut off. He gave me a wedge of cash as a deposit, so I went to see the electricity people and got a chit to take to the bank to clear the outstanding bill. I took it to the Santander bank but the gentleman refused to take the payment because it was on the wrong day. I should point out the bank was empty except for he and me. I asked to see the manager. He said he was the manager! I remonstrated with him for a good ten minutes, pointing out the imminent demise of the leccie supply but he remained smugly resolute - he didn't want my money!! It was nearly closing time and, realizing that I was achieving nothing (other than entertaining this chap's fantasy of how he would treat people were he a guard in a Nazi concentration camp), I decided it was prudent to leave in search of another bank. Fortunately a nearby branch of La Caixa was more accommodating. I understand why banks have these rules to streamline transaction activities in order to reduce costs etc but Jesus wept, whatever happened to 'the customer is always right?'
 
Incidentally there appears something institutionally evil about Santander. A friend of mine visited the local branch with his elderly incontinent mother a while ago. She was 'took short' and asked if she could use the staff toilet. They refused. Her son pleaded but to no avail, so they had to forego their place in the queue so she could be taken elsewhere for a pee. The branch closed down some months after. Karma is believed to be the cause.
 
Another incident of bureaucratic madness got my gander up recently. Very kindly and proactively, the department of health in Andalusia sent me a letter offering me the opportunity to volunteer to take part in a regional colon cancer screening programme. I was thrilled to be included and immediately returned the letter signifying my agreement to be so. Soon after, I received a screening kit through the post. One is instructed how to take the sample (not a great deal of fun) and to return it to the local medical centre, recommending a Monday or Thursday. This I did. The medical centre lady quizzed me when I brought it in to make sure the sample was fresh - apparently it only lasts a day even when refrigerated.
 
Some weeks passed and I was sent another kit and a letter saying something had gone wrong with the previous specimen. So once again I waited until Wednesday evening, did my sample, popped it into the fridge and brought it to the medical centre the following morning, as again the accompanying letter said to return the sample Monday or Thursday. This time there was a huge group of people queued outside, but I caught the lady's eye in the hope of dropping my bag of shit and making a run for it.
 
"Can I leave this with you" I said,
 
"No" she said, and officiously tapped her Bic on a paper notice that had been sticky-taped to the door,
 
"Colon sample deposits Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday 8:30 to 9:30" she said.
 
"You won't take it?" I pleaded. Then another woman in a white coat chimed in.
 
"Tell him to come back in the morning..."
 
Her colleague pointed out tomorrow was Friday so I wouldn't be able to come until Monday, by which time the sample would have expired. The other lady said it looked as though I would need another kit. Both health workers lost interest in me and drifted back to their business without really giving me a satisfactory answer as to what I should do.
 
Then an old lady in the queue took to scolding me, wagging her finger and reminding me it was 'Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday only - 8:30 to 9:30', as though this was blindingly obvious to all, however half-witted, not least the old hags like her who have nothing else to do all day save occupy queues at the local medical centre. I reveled briefly in the contemplation that due to her advanced years, the blight of her visitation on humanity would soon be at an end. Then I took my leave. 
 
It's hard to nail a common theme in such anecdotes, though I submit that while the Spanish are normally the most lovely, kind, helpful humanitarians one can imagine, put them behind a desk (or a steering wheel, or handle of a Zimmer frame) and it's as though they have taken a large swig of Dr Jekyll's potion. Fronting such people with the straight-jacket of computer systems magnifies their power creating an edifice that at times seems completely unscalable. A friend recently remarked on how impenetrable Spanish Government websites are to human navigation. He's not wrong. A week of exploration has gone by and I'm still trying to figure out how to get my hands on another colon cancer testing kit!
 
 
 
 
 

Logical Thought

Recalling the Book Straight and Crooked Thinking.

I make no apologies for how ever dull, dry and boring some of my blog posts here may seem to some people. This may be one of those posts, but this is my blog and I'll write want I want to. 

Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. - Cyril Connolly New Statesman, February 25, 1933

My favourite pastime is studying. I like learning about all sorts of things, music, science, politics, economics, history and current affairs. This led me towards MOOC - Massive Online Open courses. These are being run by universities all over the globe. They use them as a sort of sales vehicle in the hope that if you get hooked on them you will upscale to a paid course.

I've done dozens of these courses in recent years. One that I particularly enjoyed last year was run by Stanford University and was entitled Introduction to Mathematical Thinking and hosted by a well respected mathematician called Dr. Keith Devlin.

Much of the course was devoted to the application of the rigors of mathematical logic to the everyday language we humans use. All human languages have shortcomings that make it easy for meaning to be distorted and misconstrued (as do the users of them). By applying certain mathematical rules, we can overcome many of the errors of thinking people make everyday.

This concept was not entirely new to me. In fact the course reminded me that when I was a kid, maybe in the first or second year of secondary school, I was lucky enough to read a book by RH Thouless called Straight and Crooked Thinking. This book was quite famous back then but seems to have fallen out of fashion of late. You can however read it online: Straight and Crooked Thinking by RH Thouless.

The book was a revelation to me then. I was just becoming interested in politics and reading the newspaper at that time, so the book helped me avoid some of the pitfalls that one encounters in dealing with communications that have an agenda at heart.

Many concepts are covered in the book, certainly too many to explain here within the confines of the 1000 word target of this blog post. However I'll give you a few examples of the type of issues the book addresses and how they come in handy when listening/reading the daily news.

The first chapter introduces the concept of emotionally charged words. Often, especially where a newspaper is trying to trigger a prescribed response, a journalist will use similes of harmless words, replacing them with alternatives that may contain stigma, prejudice or some other emotional colour. The Daily Express is particularly good at this using it as a technique to elicit clicks in its online version every day. Here is a random title from today's edition "Sturgeon FUMING as she's savaged for IndyRef2 obsession amid SNP-led Scotland 'CRISIS". Can you see what they did here? FUMING, savaged, obsession and CRISIS are all emotionally charged words that could have been written with milder alternatives (annoyed, condemned, concentration and situation for example), but the author has deliberately used the most extreme alternative for each of these words with the deliberate intention of making the SNP leader look bad because the Express don't care much for the SNP.

I saw another good example in a tweet this week. The MP Zarah Sultana had made a speech in the house. She tweeted a video excerpt from her speech along with the message:

Just because they want to learn, young people are burdened with colossal student debt.

My debt is nearly £50,000 & last year alone it grew by more than £2,000 in interest.

Now someone who is obviously a supporter of the party on the opposite benches replied:

Just a thought Zara , is it fair that kids whom choose to become bricklayer, plumbers , electricians etc pay via their tax for their peers to drink and socialise throughout a 3 year course in media studies at some spurious polytechnic ?

The chap has used a series of emotionally charged words and concepts in his reply to belittle the MPs position. Let's deconstruct this because it is quite skillfully and mischeiviously done. Firstly he uses the word 'kids', suggesting that children are being taken advantage of. Yet he's actually talking about people of working age. Would have been less inaccurate perhaps to say 'young adults'. Then he names three trades, bricklayer, plumbers and electricians, as examples of these working age adult's jobs. Notice he chose to use types of work associated with the working class. He could have said 'banker, stock broker or civil servant' none of which necessarily require a degree to enter, but his choice again emotionally colours his argument. He then asks why these people's taxes should pay for their peers to 'drink and socialise' - notice that he didn't say 'study' which is what student loans are for. The vast majority of students don't borrow enough to pay to drink and socialise, many indeed have jobs to help pay for food, but again he's cleverly invoking a stereotype of student days of the past which were much easier than today. Then the last two stingers, 'three year course in media studies' and 'some spurious polytechnic' both of which are deliberately designed emotional triggers. Media Studies are often derided as vacuous and easy options by right-wing commentators, however ironically the people on media studies courses are the ones learning the very pitfalls and traps the author is laying. Again 'polytechnic' is a derogatory term for university, as they were tertiary educational institutions in the UK which, prior to 1992 were regarded differently to universities due to their specialization in STEM subjects, a distinction that was abandoned in 1992 by the further and higher education act.

So nearly every word and phrase in this tweet has been tweaked with emotionally charged language, designed to persuade the reader to believe a particular political viewpoint.

For what its worth I replied with:

Is it fair that many have no choice other than to become bricklayers, plumbers, electricians etc because they can't risk taking on student debt as they already come from a poor background?

Twitter's character limit makes it hard to address each of the authors' word choices individually!

Talking of limits, I've just reach mine for this blog post. In fact I'm over the 1000 word target already! But I hope I've introduced you to the gist of Straight and Crooked Thinking, a topic I may revisit in the future.

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An aside

Spain News

Thursday, April 02, 2020 10:02:21 AM
Political divisions deepen as Spain battles coronavirus Financial Times
Thursday, April 02, 2020 9:53:00 AM
Grim one-day virus death toll for US, Spain, UK: Live updates Al Jazeera English
Thursday, April 02, 2020 8:30:52 AM
A People Betrayed by Paul Preston review – a magisterial study of Spain's turbulent past The Guardian
Thursday, April 02, 2020 8:11:00 AM
Timeline: How the coronavirus spread in Spain Reuters India
Thursday, April 02, 2020 8:06:00 AM
As Spain battles virus, medics' unions hit out Reuters
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