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30 December 2006

Brown Dog, Big City

I think it must have been much later than my normal family bedtime, when my Temporary Master finally went to bed last night. As a result, he slept a lot longer than I ever get to, and I quite enjoyed the lie-in. Around eleven in the morning, he appeared, rushing in, sniffing the air. I bet he expected that, by now, I'd crapped in the living room. I hadn't. His fears were misplaced.

He went into the kitchen and turned on the kettle for his tea, while preparing me my morning milk and cookies. He's obviously been told what I like and how I like it, and he's doing his best to meet those stated goals. He's doing well. He comes into the living room and sips his tea, and smoking several cigarettes. Thank God his big window's open and there's fresh air for me.

Smoking is horrible. I once knew a Beagle who'd picked up the habit, he found it terribly hard to give up. He'd been an employee of some multinational tobacco firm, who dumped him with no pension when his useful days were over. All they left him with was his crushing addiction to nicotine. He died of cancer last year.

Temporary puts out his fag and heads for the shower. He tells me he'll be with me in a minute. Sure enough, his turnaround time is pretty rapid, and he gets on his coat and hat and scarf and we're off out into the daylight.

This place looks a bit better when the sun's up. We walk a different way, this time up over a hill. At the top, it feels like a bridge. Temp tells me it's the canal - which is like a river, apparently - and encourages me to jump up to look over the wall. I decline. Instead, he leads me across the road and down a flight of stairs, leading us to the canal edge. It is like a river, only very straight indeed. There aren't any ducks, and the water doesn't run like a river. It looks dank, and stagnant. I don't fancy jumping in, put it that way.

We walk along the canal towards a massive restaurant with nobody in it. That must be costing them. As we turn the corner, I see a big metal ramp leading to a bridge. Suddenly, Temp is making some noise towards a bloke on the bridge. I think he said, I'll set my dog on you, mate. Luckily, he didn't really need me to do that, as Temp clearly knows this bloke. He waits for us as we head up the ramp and we walk together towards more restaurants and bars. The BBC's here, too - very posh! I am impressed. There's no BBC office where I come from.

It appears that this friend of Temporary's is going to have his coat cut, and let me say, he sorely needs it. He reminds me of a Bichon Frise, or perhaps ever a Puli - his coat is straggly, unkempt, messy and filthy. I'd never let myself get like that - but then, I've got very short hair myself. It never grows wild like this human.

We walk through some shops, and even go in a lift! I'm not sure about it, but the doors close and we move, down I think, and the doors open and off we go. We get clobbered by another escalator, which I definitely don't fancy, so Temp walks me back up the parade to a side passage, and we're back on the street.

It's really very busy here, with both people and traffic. I've never seen so many cars. It's a bit scary, frankly. I stick close to Temp, and we walk towards all the vehicles. It is so bloody noisy, and the air is putrid. As I wait calmly by the road to cross, three enormous vehicles with high sides and lots of people inside them come roaring past. Each of the three causes me to step back. Temp thinks it's fear. It's not, it the stench of their dirty engines coming out of that flap at the back of the bus, blowing me right in the face with horrible stink. How can people live here? It smells.

We walk further to a bit where there are no cars, just lots and lots of people. Up a side street, Temp points out the grooming parlour to his hairy friend, who disappears inside towards a happy lady. No wonder she's happy: she's just had a big, expensive job walk through the door. Temp waves his friend off, and we walk back to the main road with all the people walking on the street. As we come up the top of the road, Temp mentions that there was some German Market here the other day, and that I'd have liked the smell of chargrilled sausages puncturing the air. I thought it sounded great. Sadly, it was gone.

We walked up some steps past a big fat thing in a pond spurting water. I think it was supposed to be a lady, but it was certainly a funny-looking and very fat lady. At the top of the steps, there was a bright carousel of gaily-painted horses. Nobody was riding it, and the man who operated it was looking glum. We walked on past him and his nags, and up a slope towards a nasty concrete building. We went in underneath and walked through to the other side.

Out here there was a big open space, but still not much by way of grass or trees. I was certainly enjoying my adventure here, but I did think the countryside was better. It's more geared towards the dog. We walked around on the grass, and I found a nice tree to mark. I marked it well. Unequivocally. A man walked past and seemed to tut. I was surprised. Did he expect me to use a public toilet?

Temp told me not to worry, and we walked on. There were a load of water fountains, and then, up ahead, I got said hello to by some little humans. They were very excited to see me, and seemed to want to stroke me, but when I was near them, they clammed up. Their Master and Wife seemed to like me too, and were encouraging their little brood to stroke me, but they didn't. I understand. I probably look as big as a horse to them.

The road we were walking along was so busy, and had lots of buses on, which meant I changed sides so that Temp was between me and the smelly things. Revolting. We took a right into yet another restaurant and bar complex, and I began to wonder: is eating all people do around here? We got to a central area, then went down some steep steps to the canalside again. I like the canal. But it could do with some wildlife.

We walked up past the National Sealife Centre, and my mind wandered to thoughts of creating a National Dog Life Centre, where our kind can contribute to furthering science, public policy and environmental concerns. These thoughts were soon cast aside as I came into yet another plaza, complete with green bits and trees. Woo. I had a good sniff about, and Temp sat down on a bench made of rock and lit another cigarette, stroking me while he did so.

We wandered back around past the City Inn, and then we found ourselves at that big, busy road again. Temp pressed a button at the traffic-lights, and stood there waiting. While we did so, another herd of buses came past me, blowing more nasty soot in my face. Tell you what, the air around here's not that great.

Temp and I got back home, and soon his wife arrived. There was no more barking, and they seemed to be stroking each other so that seems to be a good thing. In my world, licking each other's face and generally pawing is taken as a positive sign.

The humans did nothing but lounge about all evening, using computers, watching television, putting Google Earth pins in all the theme parks in America. Nice, normal, human activities.

Temp popped me out in the back yard with all the cars for another run about before bedtime. Lots of people were arriving back in their cars, cars coming, cars leaving...and that great, big, gaping hole opening and closing. If I can just get close enough...nope, he's spotted me. Best go back to him or he'll shout.

I took the opportunity to empty my bowels again. Temp whipped in behind me with the plastic bag trick, and my poop was soon dumped in the dumpster. Back upstairs, my milk and biscuits were doled out, and my lights turned off. Apparently, tomorrow, I am going to the park to chase the ducks and squirrels. I cannot wait for that. Roger and out.

My Name Is Jeff

I'm not quite sure what's happened to me these last days. I was having a lovely time at my Master's Wife's Parents' house, running about with their old labrador, Bella. My Master's puppies were also there, getting very excited about some more shiny boxes that were given to them by a bearded man who I think I've met before. He seems nice, anyway, giving me a good tickling right in behind my ears.

Sorry, let me introduce myself. My name is Jeff. I am a brown, medium-to-large sized dog. I'm not sure what kind of dog I am. I'm certainly no recognisable breed. I'm not posh. I'm a dog-of-the-people. I come from a wide, varied range of canine bloodlines, but there's certainly hound in me, perhaps some Weimaraner along the way. At least, I like to think so: I consider myself a skilful combination of the finest dog traits, culled from the very best of breeds. Others consider me a mongrel. But I shan't let that bother me.

I live in the countryside. It's a nice little town with a river, and a lovely church in the middle. People are very friendly and there aren't too many of them. The air is pretty clean around here, and there are lots of open, green spaces for me to run about in with my Master, his Wife and their Puppies. I know all the local dogs, and they know me. I'm known as a nice guy, feisty when need be, but generally stiff-upper-lip and all that. I'm not one for too much fuss.

I sensed that something exciting was on the horizon. My Master and the Bearded Man start collecting up my things - my bed, my bowls, a bag of mixer and a couple of cans of Chum. My bones, my lead and my collar were chucked into my basket, and finally my grotty old ball. Master and Beard took it all outside, where a small, black car was being loaded with all my personal effects. The soft liner for my bed was taken out and put in the boot - I assumed this was my cue - and I jumped in after it and sat there. Beard shut the boot, and everyone smiled and tapped the window at me. It was quite cosy in here, but very comfy, too.

I got out again when Beard opened the boot, and then the Animals were saying goodbye to each other, kissing and wishing each other good things about holidays and something called a Honey Moon, but I'm not exactly sure what that is. It must be something to do with alcohol, as this morning every Animal I've met has reeked of it, and with my sensitive nose, it smells like a hospital corridor. Really gets in the back of the throat, stings the eyes.

Beard and his Wife went out to the small black car, and we all got in, me first, of course. Beard locked the back door behind me - he said something about falling out at speed on a motorway, and I thought it best to protect myself against this terrible-sounding demise. Such was the fear instilled in me by the mere mention of any possible contretemps, that I lay down for most of the journey. The only times Beard could even see my head over all my stuff on the back seat, was when the rear window washer and wiper sprang into action. I tried to lick the water running down the window, but I think it must have been on the other side. So I gave up.

All the way, the radio played on Radio Four, which I found very entertaining. I'm always amazed by the different sounds of human voices. I mean, us dogs have a pretty good vocabulary, and lots of different accents, but nothing to beat humans. Some humans seems to have trouble identifying other human's words or accents - you don't get that 'lost in translation' thing with us hounds. We have a global lingua franca. However, the Beard and his Wife didn't seem to be communicating at all, until we got to wherever it is that I've now come.

I was let out of the car, and found myself in a big, concrete pound full of cars. Beard made sure I didn't run out of the open gates, so I weaved in and out of all the parked cars, investigating every corner of the place. There were a couple of weedy-looking trees there, which I duly sniffed and marked.

The Beard then got me and tied me to a post of some sort, while he sorted out all my stuff, and all of his stuff, out of the car. He made a couple of journeys into the big building, then finally came back and untied me from the post, and took me inside.

It was big in here. There were corridors and doors everywhere, and what a load of scent! I was picking up at least twenty distinctly different smells; they can't all be in one pack? When Beard - who I'll now call Temporary Master, as he's more than just a beard - started ushering me up the stairs, I hesitated. Going upstairs usually means I'm about to get shouted at, maybe even a walloping on my hindquarters. But, he insisted, and so I followed him. I hoped it wasn't a trick.

We went up and up - I'm sure even Master's house doesn't have this many stairs - and finally we turned left and into a smaller vestibule. Temporary Master opened a door, and I scooted in. The first room on the left had my water bowl and a big parcel in there, as well as my cans of food and bag of mixer. Temporary Master took me into a much bigger room, with lots of things in it, including my bed, blanket, toys and bones. It looks like this is where I'll be staying. Finally, he took me to the other rooms, and told me that I was not to go in them. He made this quite clear.

Just as I thought everything was getting settled, suddenly Temporary Master and his wife are barking at each other like crazy! There's so much barking, I was sure someone was going to bite, and then Temporary Master's wife kicked him! I had no idea what was going on, so sat in my bed and kept my head down. Temporary Master told her to go outside - I dunno, maybe she'd wee'd on the floor or something, and then there is door-slamming, followed by door-beating. Temporary Master opens the door and tells her to stop. Thankfully, the banging did stop, and Temporary Master came back in the room, sat down and began to howl. His eyes were wet, as wet as my black nose.

After a while of howling and sniffing - I'm not sure what was going on here - Temporary Master got up and walked past me. Of course, I thought I'd done something bad, and skulked a little as he went past. Temporary must have seen me do this, as he came down to me and said that it wasn't anything I'd done, which I was very relieved about. He stroked me and cuddled me, and scratched me behind the ears and all the way down my sides and back. I think he must have had a dog before, sometime. He has a very soothing voice, very tender when he's comforting me, not that I needed comforting anymore, I realised. He went to the kitchen and came back with a biscuit-shaped thing, but it seemed that this was biscuit with chocolate. Wow. Yes, please. It didn't even touch the sides.

I soon realised that Temporary was tired. I guessed it had to do with the big barking session, and so I curled up in my box while Temporary grabbed some sofa time. While he slept, he made funny noises that sounded like fear, or worry, and he made lots of quick, jerky movements. The TV was on - dunno what, don't care, can't really see it anyway - and I just slumbered, comfy in my box by the high window, from where I could look down on what was happening below.

It's a strange place, this. Not the house, though I do want to know where all the other rooms and floors are - the building is much bigger than the bits I've been in. But the house is fine. Nice and spacious. Room for football, which is good. It's very warm, too, and Temporary keeps some funny things in a big box of water. It's too high for me to get to, but the things in there are looking at me.

What's strange is outside. It's very different to what I've come to expect. Where I come from - and I'm not one hundred percent sure where that is, exactly - there's lots of grass and trees. There are cars and people, but it's all quite quiet and sleepy. This place feels like the Big City. There is no grass, and there are few trees. The noise from the cars, the buses, the aeroplanes, the sirens, the helicopters hovering overhead - it's crazy here. My senses are being assaulted.

While he sleeps, I watch some telly - it all seems to be pretty dull to me, but then the Chrismas schedule is always painful, isn't it? After a couple of hours snoozing, Temporary wakes up, leaps up and makes my dinner. Before he does that, he gets the big, shiny parcel from the worksurface, and puts it on the floor. He tells me it's for me, and so I start sniffing around it, and clawing it a bit to see if there are any edges I can grab. I can't, it's too shiny and slippy. Temporary pulls a corner for me, and I grab the bit with my teeth and pull. A great strip of paper comes of in my mouth, and Temporary helps me with the rest.

A new set of bowls. Not just ordinary bowls, but a lovely, black-stained wooden stand, with two removable stainless steel bowls. Easy to remove and clean. Classy when at table. I like their style, whoever got me these. I think it might be from Master, his Wife and their Puppies - but I'm not sure. I'll ask them when I get back from my holiday. In the meantime, I want my dinner.

Beard clearly knows what he's doing. Cleverly, he holds the two cans of Chum out for me - one was chicken, the other lamb - and asked me which one I wanted. I really did fancy lamb tonight, so I pointed to the can and Temporary got on with the job. First, he scraped out all the lovely lamb into my new bowl, before adding a mugful of mixer. A quick dash under the tap, and he mushed it all up good and proper. He was so excited, making me my dinner, that he flung two bits of mixer onto the floor, which of course I ate.

Finally, he puts the bowl down into the wooden stand. He's asked me to sit and wait. I am doing. I look at him, and do that inquisitive/cute thing with my eyebrows. Works every time, this one. Sure enough, Temporary cracks a big smile at my schtick, and lets me at the bowl with a simple Go on, boy! He leaves me to wolf down my chow.

I come back in to the room and lie back down in my bed. He's quite strict this Temporary Master. He's told me I can't go in TWO rooms, and refuses to entertain me on the sofa. I'm gonna stick to his rules, otherwise he might forget to feed me or walk me. Not that this was a problem right now: fully fed and feeling full, he appears with my lead and collar, and puts his coat on. And we head out into the night.

It seems a bit shady, where Temporary Master lives. It's very busy, with lots of cars and lots of people. We walk up a long road behind a main noisy road. There are lots of people scurrying, looking and smelling a bit shifty to my well-honed doggy senses. Temporary Master doesn't seem to mind, so I don't mind. But I'm on my guard. This is foreign territory.

As we walk, I'm checking out all the scents. Lampposts, trees (when I see one!), walls, car tyres, the place is covered with messages, and I must say, their tone is much more aggressive. Where I come from, messages tend to be genteel missives, written by countryside dogs with nice owners. Many of the scents here seem to be almost like graffiti - they are short, sharp messages often with short, sharp swear words in them. I'm not sure I like the smell of the local dogs. Best be on my guard.

We walk up to another big road, and we turn right. Temporary has mentioned something about Nando's, whatever that might be, and he seems to be looking for somewhere to tie me up. All the posts around here are right by the road - he needs to find something set back, otherwise I'll be in the road. We get to a cinema, and he ties me to the bottom of the big sign telling everyone what films are on inside. He tells me he'll be two minutes. I sit and wait.

He's back in 30 seconds, muttering something about his bloody wallet, and he unties me and we walk on. He's taking me down the block, in the spitting rain and cold wind. On the other side of the road, an athletically-built man with a shaven head is walking his athletically-built, short-haired dog. It is, of course, a Staffordshire pitbull terrier, and I can smell him from here. His Master is keeping him in check, though, and our paths don't cross.

Temporary crosses the road and we walk up another back alley, very dark and moody. A woman is walking towards us and scurries past, keeping her eyes fixed on me the whole time. Seems a lot of people around here don't like dogs, which is weird. Where I come from, everyone loves dogs. There are loads of them about. We all know each other, and leave funny jokes and political musings on all the trees around the town and countryside for each other to read. We are one big, adopted pack. A real virtual doggy community noticeboard.

Once we get to the end of the lane, I spot another person, but I can't tell if it's a man or a woman. It has long blonde hair, and a belt with chains hanging off it, as well as a rucksack. It could be a prostitute, I thought, but then, suddenly, it looked like a very thin man. He/she/it wandered around seemingly quite aimlessly, and certainly kept looking over at me. What a confusing place the city is! Men look like women, people scurry keeping their heads down, and they all seem to use cars, everwhere. It's like one great, big road.

We turn the corner and we're back. I recognise the place immediately, and Temporary opens the doors and we head inside. I reckon it's about 8pm, and Temporary gets on his computer and does some typing, while the TV blares unwatched in the background. I'm back in my bed - my new Master has made it quite clear that that's where I may lie, or the floor. I cannot go in his bedroom, or his toilet. Only the living room and the kitchen, and the hall. He's clear with his instructions, so I'll follow suit.

He watches some telly, messes about with some music and his computer, and finally starts yawning himself. I've been curled up in my box, dozing, for an hour or so, when he suddenly jumps up and puts his coat on again, and gets my lead. Stretching myself out before our departure, we head down and out onto the street, where the slicing rain is still coming down, and the wind has built up even further.

He takes me across the street to a small bit of grassy bank, with some trees built in to make people think it's the countryside. We wander around the bank, walking left and right and left again, and I leave some messages on several trees. Temporary seems to be inviting me to take a crap, but I don't need one, so I just let him know.

I'm guessing it's about midnight. People are still walking around, lots of them, but many cross the street from Temporary and I - they seem nervous. They certainly smell it. The way they hold their bodies tells me that nervousness is a key part of living around here. Lots of people are doing it, everywhere I look and smell. It hangs in the air like smoke.

Temporary finally gets the message that I will not be crapping this evening, and he takes me back to the house. We got in and up all those stairs again, and into the living room. One by one, he turns off the lights, including the box with the water and the things in it. Before the last light goes out, he goes through to the kitchen and starts clanking my bowl about. I don't need telling twice when I hear that sound, and I'm soon at his side.

I sit down, wagging my tail and doing the eyebrow thing again. He opens the fridge and takes out the milk, and pours a decent splash into my bowl. While I get down to some seriously concerted lapping, he's clearly opening some kind of rustly packet behind me. I stop, and he has what looks to me very much like a biscuit in his hand. He asks me to sit again, and I do.

He breaks the biscuit into four bits, and feeds them to me one by one. As he gets each piece near my mouth, he says something odd, something I've never heard before. It sounds like jay-jay, but said quite quickly, with short syllables. It comes out je-je. It's a very soothing sound, and I gently take each piece from his hand, one by one. I don't understand anyone who thinks all dogs are bitey.

Once I've scoffed the biccies, I finish my milk - there's just enough to wash down that chocolatey biscuity loveliness - and Temporary takes me back into the room. He gives me another good tickle in behind me ears, and kisses the top of my head. He says goodnight, and turns out the final light and closes the door.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring? I can't wait to see what it all looks like in the light. Good night for now.

28 December 2006

Wouldn't It Be Nice?

I'm already well-ensconced into the runners for the Democrats in America's 2008 elections. I'm particularly fond of Barack Obama, currently Senator for Illinois. He'll be up against Johns Edwards and Kerry, as well as one Hillary Rodham Clinton, who I'm sure we've heard from before. Whichever, I just hope the Good Folk of the US of A make a strong, clear decision in two year's time.

But it did occur to me that I would prefer Barack, especially if he inherits GWB's ridiculous international relations mess, AND if he manages to catch or kill the leader of al Qaeda. Imagine the headline:

Obama Bins Laden.

This alone would make his election worthwhile. Not to mention, becoming America's first black president. About time, y'all.

18 December 2006


Such is the miserable state of the world - global warming, the war on terror, murdering bullies, kids on drugs - that light relief, when it comes, is a rare, welcome visitor. My internal clock was already up into the multiple GHz at too early a time of day, watching and reading about the Suffolk serial killings, Israel/Palestine, North Korean nuclear talks or America's new defence secretary Robert Gates and his Iraq exit strategy. These vibrations had sent me spinning around the room in a blue funk, wondering where on earth it was all going to end? I needed something to calm me down.

Thankfully, in Moscow, they're holding the Pig Olympics.

There was a time - and, bubbling away in the background since Mr Litvenenko's untimely and appalling demise, probably still is - when all that came out of Russia was bad news. Georgian terrorist attacks, black ops within the government, oligarchs being made overnight by purchasing entire utilities networks from a crumbling constitution, whole communities poisoned by the overweaning search for anything worth dollars, Chernobyl. It pleased me that today's menu from the former USSR was nothing but porky fun. And so I play the video. This is gonna be great. I sit back to watch the drama unfold, as all of the squealing contestants don their competitor jerseys, complete with numbers and sponsors. There is much hullabaloo coming from the assembled masses (mostly mums and kids, surprisingly for a Monday morning in the former capital of the communist world).

To be fair it's soon clear that, far from being a true Olympics, it's really just pig racing. I ask myself why I was expecting pigs to be pole-vaulting, long-jumping, discus-throwing decathletes. Casting this thought aside, I settle into the sport. Each lane is gated off from the next ones, so the pig can't really screw this up. It's just a matter of cajoling. There are a few practise laps, getting their trotters warmed up, checking the lie of the lane and so on, before they are placed in their horseracing-style starter pens. A silence falls. And they're off! Pigs hurtle down the track, their trainers at their heels, clapping like mad to - essentially - frighten the poor-kers into running away from them, which to the untrained eye looks like racing. Once they get to the end of their lanes, it's chaos, the pigs running left, right, back and around, with their trainers desperately rugby-tackling the little bacon sarnies into submission.

Now, these are young pigs. There are no sows or boars here. It really should be called the Piglet Olympics. Or Piglet Racing, which I think has enough of a USP to survive quite happily in vying for the general public's sports-viewing attention. There's really no need to over-egg the pudding with the Olympics tag. Anyway, the youngsters, having been frightened out of their wits by their owners and the reams of screaming, excited children watching the spectacle, settle down in a big straw bale and pant, nuzzling against each other and doing distinctly more naturally-pigletty things.

And now we cross over to the BBC's Sam Ryder: "While the winner usually basks in glory, this year’s paciest piglet will soon be basting in the oven, as organisers sharpen their knives for the main event. Until then, dreaming of winning next year’s Pig Olympics, they each take a well-earned rest..."

Do all the little children know that the winner is about to be killed? Do the other competitors realise that, in losing, they have saved their bacon? Why do you think they'll want to win it next year, when they find out what happened to this year's gold medallist? And what do you propose I do about my blood pressure?

06 December 2006

Entschuldigung Sie, Bitte?

I love technology. I remember when I was little - about the age of 8 or 9 - and my school announced that it would have a Computer Room from next year. The excitement swept through the assembled prepubescent masses, and you could see a wry smile grow on the faces of all the geeks; they knew their time had come. Sure enough, the following academic year found an old, unused classroom being converted to a full-spec IT Lab, with about 10 computers, various Acorns - BBC Model As and Bs. One even had a 5-inch floppy drive, back when floppies were floppy. Back when there were floppies. That was 1981.

A few of the boys at school soon found themselves with Spectrums, ZX81s, later Commodore 64s. The school had even set a small, secure cupboard-room aside for those lads with their own computers - at a later point in history, this very same room featured heavily in the Handcross Crow Massacre of 1982, which I won't go into here. For now, it contains computers, and no birds.

My parents, in their wisdom, had asked my school which computer it would recommend - far be it for them to ask me, myself, or go and actually look in a shop or magazine - and so I ended up with a BBC. Of course, this meant that I was the only person I knew with a BBC, apart from school IT Labs. My parents clearly saw my computer as an educational tool, rather than a timewasting exercise, which at the age of eleven was an unfortunate misjudgement. Those who had BBCs, whether their own or via regular use at school, tended towards the programming end of using computers. Most other people used them as games machines. I wanted to play games. I didn't want to be a geeky programmer.

Swapping games with my friends was impossible. Nobody had the same system as me, so it was useless - I had to entice people to play games on my machine at home, which was kinda tricky, as you may recall that the BBC was not over-blessed in the games department. The best game - allegedly - was Elite, which I found all but unplayable. Chuckie Egg, Jet Set Willy, Q-Bert - these were my stalwarts. And for two years, I survived in a rather lonely computer world.

Around 1986, my Dad was sent on a PC course through his work. Needless to say, the course came with a computer, which took up residence at home. It looked pretty much like what we still see today: tower, monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer. It ran on DOS - no Windows just yet, not in our house, anyway - and while my Dad effed and blinded at the infernal machine, I played large amounts of DigDug. Finally, something approaching a usable computer - with easily accessed applications, games and so on - was in the household. It was, of course, far more powerful than any gaming console or consumer computer available - and so my friends started taking an interest in the raw processing power contained within the hallowed walls of home.

And then, I turned 14, and stopped liking computers, and started liking girls, and beer, and other fine things that require minimum effort. That's not to say I don't put effort into my female relationships or my drinking of beer, but I hope you see what I mean. Late teenage years took over and I forgot about computers until I returned from my year out in Australia and went to university.

It was clear very soon that hand-written essays and work were not accepted, and so the computer room became the hive of any actual university effort. I realised then that, while work should be good and consistent, it helps enormously if that work - the process, the research, the references, your conclusions - are all arranged in one, easy to find, digital location. And, the circle complete, I returned to being obsessed with computers. However, where before it had been for games and general arsing about, now it was about work. It was a work machine. It was my friend.

As a kid, I always wanted the latest gadgets. I was at boarding school through a bizarre set of circumstances, but was very much not of the "same stuff" as most of my peers there. We are talking proper rich people. The sons and daughters of politicians, international businessmen of standing, diplomats, armed services personnel. I was surrounded by kids who "just got" everything they wanted, and I was insanely jealous of their conspicuous consumption. Here was me with my Star Wars figures and my Lego, while over there, snooty Watkinson-Hempleton and toffy-nosed Smythe Snr are starting their own games arcade. I felt like I had Luddite toys. So - real. Not virtual enough.

And so, when I was able to have these things, which was when I was working, I went a bit kerazy. I am a fully-fledged gadget-freak, computer-freak, audio and video freak. I would list all the personal electronic items that I own and love, but I feel it would look like showing off. But all major classes of product are covered, from PCs to laptops, mp3 players, stills and video cameras, PDAs, PMPs, and so on. No wonder I'm in debt.

Why write about this now? Well, in the course of my pursuing matters technical, I am pleased to see that a chess Grand Master has been beaten (again) by a supercomputer. I've watched the activity of Blue Gene, Tera-10, Thunderbird and Columbia, Hydra (which beat Michael Adams), Deep Blue (which beat Gary Kasparov - the big man then took revenge by defeating Deep Junior)...but the point is, artificial intelligence is getting there, and I'm enjoying watching man and machine jockey for superiority.

But - and it's a big but - today, another human has failed to beat a machine. World chess champion Vladimir Kramnik took the supercomputer on for a six-game match in Bonn, Germany. The computer won by four points to two, the last game taking 47 moves and nearly five hours. Eventually, the machine won two games, and drew four. All wonderful for the machine, whose name is Deep Fritz, which I think sounds rather like a German porn actor, but there you have it.

It's not the first time these two have met: back in 2002, Kramnik held Deep Fritz to a draw in eight games. Since then, the software has been updated, and is now capable of calculating millions of positions every second. Today, it was clearly out for revenge, which raises some interesting questions.

In October this year, Mr K defeated the big Eastern Bloc processor, Bulgaria's Veselin Topalov. This made Kramnik the undisputed world chess champion for the first time since 1993 (do you have to beat a supercomputer to be undisputed?). This no doubt swelled his confidence enormously for his rematch with Fritz. However, Fritz saw him coming, and Fritz had been working on his technique. And Fritz doesn't like a smart arse.

So, how long before they take over and kill us all?

03 December 2006

History, Politics & Religion

My father and mother always told me that the above were not things to be discussed in polite company, as often the historical-versioning, political positioning and religious fervouring of your nearest and dearest may not be exactly that with which you yourself agree. It's easy: avoid rows - don't mention these three things.

Unfortunately, all three horsemen of the Apocalypse rode into town this evening aboard fiery steeds, nostrils flared and pumping steam from their cavernous recesses, their gloss-black coats speckled with sweat, rippling with muscle. An old friend was back in the country for the first time in a while - certainly, the first time in a while with us lot all together - and sadly, we entered the Israeli-Arab Conflict as a prime topic for debate. Football had been done, as well as the relative merits of leaving England (given our special guest tonight).

You can't pick up a paper today without the Muslim issue being raised, and from there we hit the Iraq war, and from there, the Jewish-Palestinian furore. Around the table are some very well-informed chaps, and others less so. One of our number took such exception to my demolition of his position, that he chose to purchase a round without including my Amstel in the calculations. I get up to get my own pint, which I return with and slam on the table. The culprit gazes at me with a wry smile across his smug, dumb fizzog. We continue. Eventually, we reach a point so heated, that - damn it - I lay the rest of my pint across him. And others, either side. It's a spectacle, and the kind I can only generate when truly espousing righteous irritation at the childish behaviour of one of our number (sorry, who's childish?) It's tit for tat, as it always is with this least-intelligent member of our cohorts.

Anyway: I immediately admit my stupidity, my out-of-line-ness, and take to my feet to leave. I have accepted my foolishness before my peers, I have embarassed myself and my lady, and my friends. And as I make to leave, the object of my verbal assassination comes marching around the table, and smacks me in the side of my head with a pint glass.

Clarity rushed upon me like the heat when you open an aircraft door in the tropics. Whooosh. I didn't retaliate. I didn't punch, flail, kick or scream. I just stood there, eyeballing him, and repeating once again what a stupid fucking twat he was, and that he'd just done more than he ever need to prove that fact. And I looked down at my shirt, and the claret was dripping, some hitting my shirt and bouncing onto the floor, while everyone just looked at me, and him, agog.

He was advised to leave, which he did. I'd gone outside for a fag (can you believe it, you can't smoke in the White Swan anymore. Bastards.) and obviously the missus was clucking around me like a worried hen, and my mates asking me if I'm alright. I was fine. I was bleeding, a bit heavily, but there was no pain and I was fucking irate. A member of staff comes outside and asks me what I need, ambulance, police or both? Ambulance only, please, mate, I suggested. He disappeared.

We mill around outside waiting for the cavalry, only three squad cars turn up before the neenaw arrives. I ignore them. However, soon the boys in blue - these days, the boys in black with kevlar vests - are with me, asking what happened. Again, I explain that I've had an altercation with a friend, that I had wound him up, that he settled my pint-flinging with a glass to the face. But that I absolutely, no question, did not wish to press charges. Which must have seemed quite extraordinarily magnanimous.

The ambulance finally pulls up, and we walk around to it, jumping a low picket fence in the process. Beyond, there is an old man, fiftyish, grey beard and salt-n-pepper crew cut, Joseph Mengele glasses and a smart, woollen overcoat. As I jump, the policeman holding him turns to me and says: is this the bloke? Nah, nothing to do with it mate, I reply. You sure? Yes, positive. And I get in the van with the two paras, am joined by a copper, the lights and music are turned up to stun and we zoom to Selly Oak Hospital (the best in England - fact).

I wait ages, but I'm sure there are folks with far worse injuries than my own. One old bloke keeps appearing past the front of my cubicle, old, and bent, and scruffy, and most notably with his trousers around his ankles. On the way in, I'd seen three or four blokes in day-glo jackets milling about in the A&E foyer. Jesus, the cops must spend their whole night in this place. I later find out they are hired security: hospitals need bouncers in England. How shit is that?

Two coppers are with us now, the Asian chap who came with me in the ambulance, and another who had been at the pub. Remember that old chap with the glasses being held in the car park? Well - this great - when the cops arrived, he walked up to them saying "I'm the one you want, it's a fair cop." And so they arrested him. Now, in the hospital, copper two is asking me to confirm or deny the fellow's involvement. Of course, he was nothing to do with it, and that's what I tell them. Meanwhile, I refuse to make any official statement, and am forced to make do with a "pocketbook" statement, whereby I refuse and refute any legal pursuance of the matter.

My best friend is keeping me in line. The perpetrator's Christian name has been mentioned a couple of times, together with a few red herrings. Messages are being deleted from my phone as they arrive, it's like having the Stasi live with you. Information channels are controlled, and no excess information leaks out. Transgressors vill be shot.

We wait an age: my lady and my best friend are keeping things light and fluffy. I haven't seen what I look like, but by now, a six-inch-wide beard of blood starts beneath my neck and stretches all the way down the front of my shirt, and down my crotch. It's like I've sicked up gore on myself. My vital juices have started to congeal, I'm amazed at the thickness and viscosity. And, it's not red, not really. It's purple. A purpley-reddy-bronze. And the taste? The metal in it is palpable. I used to think it tasted like licking a copper coin. It doesn't, it's iron. It's the same taste you get if you leave a supplement on your tongue too long.

After the more needy are attended to, finally someone comes to see the bleeding chap who's making all the gags. It's probably not the best strategy for early service in your average A&E ward, but there you have it. I was really quite high. I'd had five pints of strong Continental lager, and now my blood was pumping down my face. Sharpens you up a bit, that. I'm examined by house officer Adrian, who thinks there's a definite x-ray, clean-up and stitch operation planned.

As he ferrets around in the wounds, my missus suddenly turns white and keels over. With regard to the evening's beer intake, I had been pissing like a trooper since my arrival, and had filled three of those cardboard bedbottles so far, all neatly stacked on a shelf above the sink. As she goes down, my best mate steps back to avoid her - knocking all of the bottles over.

One flies off the shelf and explodes everywhere, while the other two tip, lie down gently, and glug their contents down into the sink, from where it is splashing onto anything within a metre's range. Adrian is attending to the missus, who is spasming on the floor, making a terrible gutteral, choking noise.

At that moment, an orderly walks past, and taking one look at the scene within - me and the headwound, the fainted lady, the splashing piss bottles, the bemused companion - makes his instant assessment. "Nice," he imparts without skipping a beat, or breaking his stride.

Adrian soon has her back with us and looking a little perplexed as to why she's on the floor, and what she's being splashed with. Then the shift changes. Adrian is vamoosh, and enter Dr Banerjee. She is clearly from the efficient, get-it-done, move-on school. She decides that an x-ray will not be necessary, and tells me to follow her: it's a ten-minute job. And, like a lamb to the slaughter, I do. She and the staff nurse take me into the room, and ask me to lie down on my side. I'm asked about my allergies and so on - I have none - and so she gets to work.

This might hurt a bit, she says, and she's not wrong. It's worth mentioning at this point that, despite the fact that (and this is all before the age of ten...) I've faced a loaded sub-machine gun being waved angrily at me and my family, or that I've been dragged from my bike and gang-beaten, the thing I fear most is needles. You can shoot me or stab me all you like, but if you bring a needle near me, I'll do whatever you want. Promise.

The first jab goes in, and I hate it. I let out a sustained moan. Even when the novocaine kicks in, I can still feel the next couple. She's jabbing all the way around the ear, outside the wounds. Jab Four onwards is in a world of numb, but I can hear/feel the puncture, and then the rush of liquid. She's a bit heavy-handed, it must be said, but I'm sure delicacy is not high on her list of priorities just now.

She cleans up the wounds - I have lacerations to my earlobe, just above and in front of the ear, below and behind the ear, a nick to the outer edge of my ear about half-way up - and begins to suture them. I'm completely numbed, but you can still - at a few inches removed - "feel" each hook as the stitch is placed, feel each thread being pulled through your flesh, and finally the tightening of the knot, and clipping. As I lie here on my side, reading as many signs and sentences on the wall as possible, I wonder what humans did before local and general anaesthetics. Died, I suspect.

It seems a complication has arisen. The cuts are cleaned and stitched, only the bump above my ear is looking like a haematoma. This could be bad news. She's still prodding and pressing with all the finesse of stampeding wildebeeste, and so I gently suggest that - if she needs to carry on doing any more manhandling - perhaps another couple of shots of that lovely no-pain liquid? Is it hurting, she asks? Only when you push it like a rocket-launcher, I offer. She gets the syringes and another two shots hit the area. Bliss.

She has to extend the wound in order to allow the excess blood and clotting to come out. She does this, and all is fine. Another dousing in saline, and the wound is cleaned, then stitched. Finally, a large square gauze is fixed over my whole left ear zone, and strapped around my head with light swaddling bands. And we get my drugs, and I sign out, and we head home in a cab.

The taxi driver driver is a star. What happened mate? Had an altercation. What happened? I got hit across the ear with a pint glass. Who did it? A friend. A friend? I'd hate to meet your enemies, mate!

And on that note, I'm going to bed.