Saturday 9 December 2023

Swift, pleasing and faultless

Goodbye old friend, gateway to France

UK passports last ten years so you have time to forget the palaver of renewal. But here’s a happy story based on technological development.

I wasn’t looking forward to renewal. One reason was pure sentiment and normally I detest sentimentality. It meant junking my little red booklet representative of belonging to the EU. Replacing it with the UK’s flag-waving blue number and thus being forced – symbolically – into joining the Brexit voters. Who are now strangely silent about the “benefits” Brexit is bringing us.

Even worse is the very real palaver of organising a photo acceptable to the passport authorities. You sit on the stool in the supermarket cubicle, twiddle it up and down, yet still cut off your hairline (Forbidden). Get your hairline right and find you smiled (Forbidden). Contrive to look serious but your chin’s too low (Forbidden). An adult woman I know became so disturbed by all this she rang her father to help her. I sympathised.

This time a digital photo is required and so to hell with twiddling the stool. I spent £12 at a specialist. If I hadn’t chatted a perfect photograph would have been mine – approved and paid for – in three minutes. A lad with a Canon said “Lips together.”, “Chin up.”, etc, and that took 20 seconds. He fiddled with the Canon at the counter for a minute, handed me a colour proof (I looked dully insane.) with an eight-figure code. I swiped my credit card and was gone.

Online at home I followed a simple procedure, entered the code and was gratified to see my face appear on the filled-in application. The time-consuming bit was putting my old passport into an envelope and posting it to the authorities.

I was mildly exhilarated. I rarely yearn for Old Times.

Friday 8 December 2023

Self-torture? 2

During my RAF National Service (1955 – 1957) my technical competence was examined and, astonishingly, I was deemed capable of repairing complex electronic equipment carried in warplanes. I wasn’t convinced but when The Military says “Do this.” you do it. And the Military was right. During an 8½-month course I passed 25 exams and emerged as a Junior Technician.

Thus I learned about electrical systems and, especially, some of their associated mathematics, an interest later stretching all the way to quantum mechanics. Ah, quantum! Hard stuff which revolutionised techno-thought and led to misunderstandings about Schrödinger’s Cat.

I must confess my useful knowledge is virtually zero but my curiosity remains enormous. Rovelli’s book (see Self-Torture?) was reviewed, I think, in The Guardian so the prose is not considered hopelessly specialised. In fact, Rovelli’s aim is to reveal – as simply as possible - a decades-long quest to find out how the force of gravity can be incorporated, mathematically, into what is known about the atom.

Beyond this I cannot explain. That’s up to Rovelli. But I can hint at the weirdness.

How about: “… Planck’s length… in numerical terms… is equivalent to approximately one millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth (ten to the power of minus thirty-three) of a centimetre.” Never mind about the “what”, just consider its smallness. Rovelli puts it into context: “It is at this extremely minute scale that quantum gravity manifests itself.” 

And it’s not just numbers. “Energy makes space curve. A lot of energy means that space will curve a great deal. A lot of energy in a small region results in curving space so much it collapses into a black hole…”

You see my problem. The mental images are inexplicable but I can’t stop reading (ie, letting the images form in my brain).   

Thursday 7 December 2023


Help! I am reading a book ninety percent of which I do not understand. Yet I continue, often no more than two or three pages at a time. Why?

Could we rule out: that I’m doing this to boast about it in Tone Deaf. This post demands I summarise the book’s contents and that’s far from easy. In my sere and yellow years I shun hard work.

Reality Is Not What It Seems, subtitled The Journey to Quantum Gravity, is by Carlo Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist  and international best-selling author. He wrote Seven Brief Lessons on Physics which I have read and - I think - understood. 

So, what izzit? To use his own words "... coherently synthesizing what we have learned about the world with the two major discoveries of twentieth-century physics: general relativity and quantum theory"

More particularly it tries to bring gravity into what went before. And it's the simpler declarative factoids that require chewing. F'rinstance, "the granular structure of space", or "the disappearance of time at small scale", or "the origin of black-hole heat."

Already I'm admitting defeat. Rovelli explains things for non-scientists. Am I asking too much of myself to simplify what he has already simplified? No comfort in “non-scientist”, by the way. For me it requires dedicated concentration and much memory - both qualities undermined by old age.  Still I mainly fail.

So why persist? Perhaps because of the way I earned a living. To ask worthwhile questions I needed - at the very least - to know little bits about lots and lots. Maybe brushing against this arcane world will add to those bits. Or is this self-delusional?

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Where are they now?

Writing's an imaginary rocket that can take me to all sorts of places. That’s me re-commenting on a comment from Colette.

Here I am at take-off with: UK jobs that have disappeared since WW2.

National hangman. Yes sir, we Brits were breaking felons’ necks back in the fifties The night before, people gathered round the relevant gaol; nominally (see pic) to protest against capital punishment, more likely to share the buzz. To avoid national shame hangman had a Frenchy sort of surname: Pierrepoint. Ran a pub (and yes, I know the name) while fashioning nooses.

Chimney sweep. To emphasise his authenticity he didn’t wash. Came covered in soot. Attached a collection sack (also sooty) to the fireplace by nailing it to gaps between the surrounding ceramic tiles. Was forcedly jolly, unusual in that part of Yorkshire.

Door-to-door milkman. Ladled milk from a sort of bucket which must have weighed a ton. Customer provided the receptacle, typically a jug; as a token towards hygiene the jug was then covered with a lace doily with glass beads round the edges.

Oral campaigner. Only saw him once. He stood bareheaded in our street (about 125 yards long) and, lacking amplification, shouted pitifully, urging us to vote against the opening of cinemas on Sunday. Was he successful? Haven’t a clue.

Ancillary job for trolley-bus conductors. Often the bus’s poles detached from the overhead cables carrying the power. The conductor descended, walked to the back, drew an equally long bamboo pole (with hook) from a tube under the bus, and hooked the power poles back up to the cables. Lots of dangerous amps.

Outdoor newspaper vendors. From sites at street corners in the city they yelled their presence, sometimes summarising the main headlines. Generally thought to be “characters”. 

Monday 4 December 2023

Husbandly gesture

Shaving in the dark? Why do it? Isn’t it horribly dangerous?

On Mondays I rise early in preparation for one of those activities listed above, now excluded from Tone Deaf to avoid subject-matter repetition. VR is able to lie abed. However, all impedimenta for shaving, tooth care and the prevention of certain pathological conditions are to be found in the en suite bathroom adjacent to the bedroom. Turning on the light there would disturb VR’s slumbers. I choose to let her sleep.

But before picking up the razor other tasks must be faced. Selecting an anti-gout pill from the bubble-pack, for instance. And ensuring the freed pill doesn’t drop down the plug-hole. The cod-liver-oil-plus-vitamin capsules are more manageable. 

Next I must fumble for my detachable brush-head and attach it to the electric toothbrush. Squeezing paste from the tube means standing closer to the window to gather light from the street lamp outside.

Then shaving foam from the aerosol. Amazingly, because the foam is bright white, I am able to monitor its distribution on my face via reflection in the mirror.

Et enfin, the five-bladed razor. Certain facial sore areas must be avoided and up-and-down sweeps are necessary to hack bristle from my neck.

All this before the central heating radiators switch on and I’m bare to the waist.

VR often raises the subject retrospectively, saying she wouldn’t mind the light going on. But it’s tiny – seemingly unimportant – observations like this that have helped maintain the marital state over 63 years.

Sunday 3 December 2023

Yearning for the Golden Age

Easier for clumsy hands; authentically coloured

Once upon a time there were “sayings” – oft-repeated phrases and/or sentences said to offer wit, wisdom and comfort in compact form. My maternal Grannie, who lived to be 96 (more remarkable since life expectation, then, was much shorter than now), knee-jerkingly added “All being well.” to any discussion about future events. It didn’t do to tempt the devil.

Now there are epigrams and apophthegms.

Less popular is “Fashion follows form.” which sort of translates as: “Successfully pleasing design must always grow out of being easy to use.” Thus, a hat-stand fashioned out of deer antlers could never be considered fashionable given the antler points would tear the silk lining out of top hats. Something we could all profit from.

Bringing me to my mobile phone which I contemplate with mixed thoughts. Earlier mobiles were the size of house bricks as we sneeringly remember. Manufacturers saw they had to get size and weight down to make them more pocket portable. Thinness became an obsession; ads proclaimed the new Skeleton Phone was 2 mm thinner than last year’s Fatty Phone. Thinness became a quality rather than a mere specification. A bit like opera singers.

And now…? As with other designs the volume control and the on/off switch on my phone are vestigially located on the wafer-thin right-hand side. Ideal for tiny fingers and quite close together. Aiming to turn off the phone I accidentally reduce the volume to silence, leading to reduced info. And angry confusion.

Touchpad controls are so smoo-oo-th, so tactilely sexual but vulnerable to accumulations of sweat. Unthsheathed the oh-so-smooth phone body slips easily between arthritic figures. So buy what could, I suppose, be described as a phone condom. Ensuring our imperfect device doesn’t breed.

No doubt about it, though. Mobiles are utterly fashionable. 

Friday 1 December 2023

My noisy world

Overhead wires thought unsightly.
Comparative silence was bliss

The sounds of my life, past and present. 

Ѿ Air-raid sirens warning of enemy bombers during WW2. Moaning and wailing. As an infant I asked: why so sinister? Now I see why.

Ѿ Immediately post-war, we were unusual in having a phone. It had a real bell which tinkled, wearily. As if power struggled to get through.

Ѿ Transport was by electric trolley-bus fed from overhead wires via two spring-loaded poles. Gliding past, it hissed and whirred. A more tranquil alternative to the diesel engine.

Ѿ Morning assembly at my secondary school was marked by a quasi-religious service. Strangely, we cynical kids shouted out the familiar hymns. As if finding some kind of release.

Ѿ Producing hourly editions of a daily newspaper requires a fast-working printing press. For fast read noisy, very noisy. To the point of menace and excluding all other sounds.

Ѿ London means underground tube trains. Tube travel sound is regularly captured in movies but it’s the hydraulic (pneumatic?) sighing of doors opening and closing I now remember.

Ѿ Reaching the Continent by car involved a cross-channel ferry. A multiplicity of sounds and shouts of barely controlled chaos. Now I relish the silence of Eurotunnel. Sitting at the steering wheel, advancing my watch an hour

Ѿ My first US flat was on a very steep hill. US cars with huge engines strained at the gnat.

Ѿ US again: the insistence (and frequency) of TV commercials while lacking the merciful mute button.

Ѿ Steel plant, Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela. An unknowable extreme sound as if close to the sun.

Ѿ Distant rumbling and more hydra/pneu gasping as a modern garbage lorry picks up and discharges our wheelie.

Ѿ An unidentified hum if I wake from sleep during the night.

The symbol? Use your imagination.