Jul 29

As the hot water hits the cool surface of the bathroom sink, I look up at the polished mirror fixed to the wall and consider the face that is looking back at me through the curling wisps of steam. I am struck in that moment by how many changes, both subtle and gross, the years have wrought on me. Sections of my face now sport hair where before there was smooth skin. Other sections possess nothing but smooth skin, having long since given up their hair. At the corners of my eyes, thin spidery lines radiate outward and my beard sports more than one patch of irregularly light colouring. I’m not a vain man, but sometimes the words of an old teacher come back to haunt me. Tempura mutantur, et nos mutamur in illes he said to me. It’s true, but as with most things that are true, it is harsh and sometimes hard to accept.

My hands reach for my razor and my shaving foam, my fingers moving almost of their own accord. Shaving reveals, in its own small way, the comfort that there is to be found in ritual. There is no need to think about what I am doing as I mix up the lather and spread it over my face, no conscious thought required as I scrape the sharp blade over my skin and run it under the scalding hot water. There is just me, the well practiced movement of my hands and the face looking at me from the mirror. As I deftly remove another patch of stubble I wonder who is studying who and I smile at my silliness.

Of course, I’m not alone in this process of change. The whole world is changing from minute to minute, responding in a million different ways as a billion different variables collide in a trillion different ways. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...the words spring to mind over the span of years between my shaving mirror and my old school desk. I’ve changed, the world has changed. It is to indulge in the worst form of cliché there is to say that the only true constant is the process of change, but the statement nevertheless stands with the strength that only the old truths possess.

The face that looks out at me from that chrome-edged disk of polished glass has witnessed so many changes, so many events. My mind wanders as I shave, and I think back to the days of my childhood. Things seemed to be so straightforward then, so simple. I remember the first day of summer holidays, with the whole 6 weeks off stretching out in front of me like an eternity waiting to happen. That is one of the biggest changes that comes with age: a different perception of the passage of time. When I was young and on my school summer holiday, 6 weeks was a stretch of time almost beyond comprehension. I was able to understand “I’m not going back to school tomorrow, or the day after.” but beyond that point it might as well just have read “forever”. Nowadays six weeks is such a short span of time. You celebrate New Year, and before you know where you are the shops are full of chocolate eggs for Easter. You’ve hardly picked one up and got it to the till before there is a suspicion of tinsel and wrapping paper around the aisles. When I was a child an hour’s play definitely had more minutes in it than the mean, stripped down hours I have now, I would be willing to swear on that. Time seems to go faster when you’re conscious of how precious it is, which is a mean trick any way you look at it.

The eyes of the face in the mirror pierce the steam as I shave, and I notice its eyebrows rise as a memory hits me. A memory of feeling old before my time, of knowing that time passes, of seeing a change so bald and so shocking that it stayed with me forever. I was standing waiting for a lift, near a table where two young girls were having their lunch. I remember to this day that they couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10. I didn’t hear anything of their conversation, my mind being on other matters, but just as the lift arrived one raised her voice and said to the other in a tone of some consternation, “Because I’m a virgin.” The lift had one mirrored wall and when I looked up, the younger version of my current shaving companion wore an expression of dull shock. I’m anything but prudish and in fact might be too liberal for some, but I remember thinking “Where did someone so young get old enough inside to be talking about her virginity over lunch?” Children seem on a headlong rush to become adults, only to find when they get there that the whole of adulthood is groaning with desire to go back the other way. Another pretty cruel trick if you ask me.

My mind is drawn sharply – in all senses of the word – back to the present when I nick myself with the edge of the razor. As the familiar sting fades and a thin line of red slowly seeps into visibility, I remember learning about shaving from my dad. The face in the mirror reminds me of him so much: the shape of the nose, the hairline, the arch of the eyebrows, it’s all in there somewhere. My relationship with my parents changed when I moved out of the house and set up on my own. Instead of being in the traditional parent/child positions, the situation more closely resembled that of adults on an equal footing with one another. It took a lot of getting used to. It was years before I would take a beer with my dad. Years before I would speak my mind to them, and relate to them as one adult relates to another. I guess some part of me wanted to hold on to that old relationship and not see it change. Some small part of me tried to defy the process of change, to hold back the progression of the world even just a little bit. I remember reading about some guy who tried that with the sea, and I think he and I had much the same level of success in the end.

With a little more care and a little less of the comfort of familiar ritual, I resume shaving and can’t help but wonder why my mind keeps moving back and forth from the smallest issue to the largest. I remember video games being easier to deal with. Two buttons, and a joystick. Then they changed and suddenly had more controls than the average fighter plane. I remember the world on the morning that planes with a great deal more controls in them were directed on courses that would alter the world forever. I remember wanting to eat sweets all day. I remember watching the news and seeing smoke rise from a train station and knowing that change had come again. I remember losing a member of my family for the first time, and seeing new arrivals. As I set down my razor and look at my hands, I wonder if this is perhaps a natural consequence of thinking about change. Small changes contribute to larger changes, which set off a cascade of other small changes, which build up to big changes, and on and on it goes. Maybe it’s not such a coincidence that the process of change and the fundamental stuff of our bodies both resemble a spiral.

My hands shake slightly, as if aware they are under scrutiny. When did that happen? I turn them over slowly, examining each side closely. Each mark, scratch, scar and callus speaks of times enjoyed, or times survived. Lovers held. Enemies struck. Games played. Hands shaken. Keys pressed. Food prepared. Snowballs thrown. I wish I could pass this on to the young, I wish I could make them listen and understand, but I know in my heart that I can’t. To do that, to achieve that, would be to destroy that which I sought to protect. You can’t protect youth by imparting to it the wisdom of age, because to do that is to give youth the burden of the knowledge that can only come with age. All you can do is enjoy the process of change as your perspective shifts with each new, small, hard won nugget if wisdom.

Anyway, I say to myself. Enough of this, time to get ready for the party. I raise a hand to wipe clear the mirror but as I do, the grey in the hair is revealed to me. The eyes looking back at me are rheumy with age, and the eyebrows above them bristle. The beard has gone, but the hand that held the razor is thinner than I remember, the skin mottled in places with dark spots. As the smell of aftershave mixes with the smell of soap, and as the mirror starts to fog again, I remember in a moment of clarity that I am an old man, and my parties are all behind me now.

Jul 28

Last night I finally bit the bullet and downloaded Firefox for my mac. Since I am on a sllllooooow 56k connection at home it took a while (seriously, seeing me go online at home is like one of those long, elongated moments in movies where someone jumps in front of the president/king/leading lady with a shout of “nooooooooooooooo” as someone fires a gun at them), but I finally got it down and installed it last night. And what a difference it has made – I can now see my blog properly, the “create” section actually HAS the “edit HTML” tab and formatting controls, and sites that either didn’t display correctly or just didn’t display at all are now bright eyed, bushy tailed, ready to serve and all “Would you like something to drink with that sir?” so it wasn’t a bad hours work all in.

Of course just as a disclaimer, all this means is that you’re getting the same old crap but with slightly prettier formatting. Just so we’re clear. It’s an italic button I now have access to people, not some magical “make this fat berk into a talented wordsmith” button (though if you’re listening blogger, I would pay for that, but only if you use that exact wording).

Last night was supposed to be my disciplined “sit down and focus” night. I was supposed to flesh out the rough structure of my Blog Party offering, and then start refining. I was supposed to be (for once) all smug and ahead of the curve instead of being my usual last-minute, in by the skin of my teeth, red all over from the running self. That lasted about five minutes, right up to the point where my better half and I decided to head out to a local Borders for a coffee and a bit of people watching. Focus, discipline and the ways of the force pretty much lose their appeal when faced with the competition in the form of “There will be chocolate cake.” If I ever choose to hop off my agnostic fence I’m so going to hell.

So we went, we people watched, we made jokes and I (as usual) got annoyed at the staff who won’t take an order for “a large cup of coffee” but instead insist you order a “venti soy milk latte with no dash and chocolate sprinkles”. Making me speak that coffee-shop gibberish is bad enough, but what always gets under my skin is that they STARE AT YOU WITH THE BLANK EXPRESSION OF A COW UNTIL YOU ACTUALLY SAY THOSE WORDS (and until you do that, their whole attitude is a mix of the aforementioned bovine stupidity with a little dash of smug “No coffee for you, bitch.”) . We even had a look at some books I fancy, but for once I was able to show a little strength of will and not buy any of them. At this point in the evening my darling better half dropped one of the most hilarious “subtle hints” in the history of subtle hinting.

“Oh look, Robin Hobb has a new book out in paperback in August.”

A line to which I, diplomatically, responded in the affirmative. I then made conversational mention of the fact that my better half’s birthday, which is in August, isn’t it?

“Yeah it is,” she said with a note of (entirely fake) surprise, as if this thought had NEVER OCCURRED to her ever, and all the birthdays in her life ever had all passed her by with nary a sign of celebration. “I really like her.”

The CLANG of that hint hitting the floor could be heard, I think, way up in Discovery. If you heard it last night and it gave you a fright then I apologise. Gotta love the ingenious, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it subtlety though.

Jul 26

Well I hosted the poker night and a good time was had by all. Beers were drunk, pizzas worked through with commendable (if gluttonous) industry, chips thrown in and bluffing skills tested. It was a fun game, and one of the big surprises of the night for me was the fact that four hours could go by so quickly. That was not my biggest surprise, however.

I won.

Yes, I won.

Not to sound too “Denny Crane” about it, I WON.

We all started off with 180 in chips, a simple enough number: 10 chips valued at 10, 10 valued at 5, 10 at 2 and 10 at 1 gave us all 180. Then we started playing. My friend Ian was first to go all in and drop out about 2 hours in. About an hour later my friend Donny went that way too. About half an hour after that my friend Craig dropped out, and when the game ended I had more chips than my friend Paul. Admittedly he won a sudden death hand for a small cash prize we all put into, but I walked away with the biggest pile of chips!

My only outright disaster was folding once and then finding out I would have had two pair if I had just stayed in to see the five community cards dealt out, but these are early days for me so I hope I can gloss over any silly mistakes. By the end of the night I think I was starting to find my feet: playing conservatively on the whole, edging up the betting when I had a strong hand, but occasionally doing so with a weak hand when I could afford it (so the others round the table couldn’t pin down the sort of hand I had from my betting). I also discovered the benefits of position in relation to the dealer – you get a lot more advantage out of seeing how everyone else bets. When you’re first in line, you’re really going in kinda blind.

So I end my first ever poker night with a win. I have no doubt this was some sort of weird beginners luck, but that said I’m not that proud to refuse it. Alas no photos of me wearing a little green dealers hat but keep looking, there are always more games to be played. All we have to do is work out a way to play blog poker and I think we have the next generation of blog parties right there people.

Can you see the vision?

Jul 22

Tomorrow night I am having some friends over to my flat for a game of Poker. We only got playing recently and just play for chips, but its fun and a surprisingly social thing to do. I always thought of Poker as serious faced men and women sitting around a table saying nothing. Not so – from my own (very limited) experiences and watching tournaments on the TV in preparation for the next game, I’ve come to see it is in fact a very social game played for the most part in a relaxed atmosphere.

This is probably down to the fact that we don’t play for money, and the guys in the tournaments play for the love of the game (I’m guessing if they can afford the money they’re betting in those games, they’re not poor and they’re not playing to make ends meet). I think it’s when people play for money they need or can’t afford to lose that the fun aspect goes out of the game, and I think we will manage to avoid that. That said, I would think it was so cool if, mid-game, someone threw in a set of car keys. Half of my friends would probably have a heart attack right there and then.

So I’m reading up, trying to free myself from the shackles of poker newbie-ism. Those shackles are easily identified in my case – sudden huge bets when I have a good hand (at which point everyone else folds), asking every time “So I need to bet more than he did?” and having a little printed sheet with all of the hands in ranking order sitting next to me. I’m the poker version of the child in school with big thick glasses and one huge corrective shoe. And a hump.

Since I don’t often host parties I have found there to be one disadvantage to the poker night: I have had to clean my flat from top to bottom to make it presentable for visitors. Surprising how messy a place can get, really. Thankfully my better half helped out, and actually helped me to clean my floors and dust the place. If I haven’t said it before I’ll say it again, that woman is the best argument I’ve ever seen in my whole agnostic life for the existence of a merciful and generous God. I’m just going to hold out on the agnostic thing until he ups the ante with a nice BMW and maybe a shiny Powermac G5.

However there is one advantage – my place has my computer, so if the night goes well I might put something up here detailing my progress. Don’t be surprised if you see something up here on Saturday night along the lines of “Help! Have lost pants and dignity. Someone is taking my keyboardusrsihdksgd….” You have been warned. They’re big pants.

So off I go to study up on the flop, the turn, the river and the importance of having that little plastic green hat thing. Queens high! Aces fold. Wild sevens. Buy. Sell. Raise shields. Khaaan!

I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it soon.

Jul 21

Not again, surely. Not so soon and not again. Three tube stations and a bus reported to be involved with incidents?

Again, I wish I believed in coincidence. More than I can express here I wish I had that ability in me.

Jul 21

The last few days have seen a spike in my number of late nights. Between the new Harry Potter book (yes, I am that big a geek), some time off (which always knocks off my body clock) and a surge in work taken home as a result of the time off, I am now in my fourth or fifth day with an average of 4 hours sleep per night. As a result I’m starting to feel a bit punch drunk, a sensation I haven’t experienced since the darkest days of my time in University.

On the one hand it’s nice to know I can still pull a reasonable amount of late nights and still function adequately, so I’m not old and obsolete quite yet. On the other, though, I have to check everything I type five times because my first attempt now always looks like 3oruhfo2efh fwefhwohfefb lwefw efib wlefbn wlefb wleflenflqhfqj;4eiu;2efm;1dn f2efn 2lebfl1bfl2 egl2bfl1wbf2legn 2;fb2lergb.

And that’s after the spellchecker has had a go at it. That being said, on a third hand (which, right now, might explain my bad typing) it’s cool to have OMG emails (or more honestly, WTF emails) from colleagues wondering why I sent those figures through at 3.20am.

That’s the unfortunate spiral of late nights spent working. You can be tired, but you’re also busy, which means your head doesn’t want to wind down and relax, which means you’re up later, which means you’re tired…and so on and so forth.

The sum total of this unstructured and slightly baggy-under-the-eyes ramble is that I’m still 100 pages short of the end of Half Blood Prince (an unfortunate slip from a friend of mine means I know the surprise at the end though), am swaying slightly as I type this, and all I can see in my mind’s eye is a huge, fluffy bed. Remember the Simpsons episode where Homer fell asleep after working 24 hours a day? That’s me.


PS – strikes me writing rambling, dissociated and slightly odd material like this is probably excellent practice for the Old Coot blog party. Nice to know I have it in me.

Jul 14

Well, I think the time has rolled around again to have another stab at hosting a Blog Party. I always enjoy these and while I missed Lorna’s excellent party, I still intend to turn up a few weeks late and my entry for that party is in the works. Unfortunately this time around the venue for mine will not be as glamorous as a majestic alien time machine, but we will make do I’m sure. There will be plenty of soft seats, the heating will be turned right up and I’ll make sure Glenn Miller songs are playing.

The events of last week – and my later ruminations – have spurred me on to think about how the world is changing at an ever faster rate. Technology, people, concepts and securities that seemed immovable years ago are now gone and new ones have popped up to take their place. So that’s what I want to explore with this Blog Party – how you see the world as having changed. What changes do you regret? What changes are you pleased with? Where can you see it all going? How do you feel about the changes? What would you change if you had the chance? What will you tell your grandchildren about 2005? Will they believe you? Plus, of course, in honour of our party mascot, feel free to digress, ramble and reminisce about anything you like.

No guidelines, no maximum or minimum entry requirements. Just have a perspective, and put it forward. The world has changed a lot. Anything from “International security isn’t what it used to be.” to “They don’t make bread like they used to.” and anything in between is welcome.

The people reading this are representative of a huge span of age groups, but I don’t think any of us have truly got in touch with our inner crazy old coots, so the time has come. Let’s gather our courage, our warm slippers and our faintly suspicious boiled sweets and shake our fists at the modern world together. The party will take place Friday, 29th July, but I will not do the writeup for a couple of days to allow others to participate over the whole timezones thing, so there is some flexibility there. As usual, stick a link to your entry in the comments or email me.

Wasn’t like this in my day, that’s for sure. In my day we got one banner for a blog party and we just had to make our own entertainment. These days you get a choice. You don’t know you’re born. Never had it so good.

Jul 12

I’m currently staggering through the closing stages of A Forest of Stars, the second part of the Saga of Seven Suns by Kevin J. Anderson. I’ll leave it to your own curiosity to chase up the plot if you want to (gotta admire the service here, huh?) but suffice to say I’m finding it hard going. To be honest, I’m now only reading through the remaining 100 or so pages because to put it down now would be to admit that the whole book has been a waste of time. At least this way I get to know how this part of the story ends. It might be unsatisfying, but it’s closure.

Starting with the first book, Hidden Empire, Anderson has tried to write a truly old fashioned space opera: a galaxy spanning tale with a multitude of characters and interweaving plot strands. I understand his aims and I even applaud them. Sci-fi is the perfect genre for such a story (indeed, the only genre in which it can truly take to the broadest canvas there is – the whole universe) and if it is told properly, as is the case with Peter F. Hamilton‘s excellent Night’s Dawn trilogy (to pull a recent example from memory) then it’s got the ingredients of a story without equal for depth and entertainment. However, it puts tremendous demands upon the writer. He or she isn’t keeping one, two or three main characters in play at any one time: it’s ten, fifteen or twenty. All with individual situations, the need to be characterised fully and to be developed as the reader’s understanding of the story develops. For an idea of what I mean, here is the cast list for the Night’s Dawn trilogy. Not exactly Waiting for Godot, is it?

And this is where Anderson falls down. His characters aren’t interesting: indeed, they’re rendered down into such simple, one-dimensional stereotypes that there is no interest there, no duality. It’s a reference that won’t mean a lot to most of my readership, but there was more characterisation of Megatron in Beast Machines than there is of all of the central characters in the Saga of Seven Suns. When a cartoon show outpaces you on characterisation, it’s surely time to hang up the writing pen. The characters, however, might have been forgiven if the premise of the story was a little more interesting….but it just isn’t. It falls flat. Hard.

My main problem is with the pacing. Things are built up, cloaked in mystery, big noises are made and then…nothing. Some revelations are revealed in situations that are so convenient it knocks the reader out of any suspension of disbelief, and some have the drama gutted right out of them by characters revealing the surprises almost as an afterthought. Anyone who is halfway savvy (and if I managed to work it out, others certainly will have because I’m not the brightest lightbulb in the box folks) will have worked out the central plot twist pretty early on, and from that point on the books become an exercise in waiting for all of the characters to get where you are already. An exercise which isn’t, as you can probably imagine, the most interesting way to pass the time.

And the worst of it? There are two more books in the damn series out now. Right now I’m quite happy to pass on them, but I know in my bones that at one point in the future four things will happen:

1) The books will appear in some sale somewhere. Probably a “3 for the price of 2” bundle at Borders.
2) I will have just finished a book and be on the lookout for something else, or will just be looking to buy a new book to have something to read at one point.
3) Some time will have dulled my memory of how poor this story really is.
4) Cha-ching.

So I know I’m going to get drawn into this morass of mundanity once again. And again. And again, until the whole torrid business is done with. Of course I am quite prepared to have egg all over my face if the story suddenly kicks off in book 3 into high gear, but I just don’t see that coming.

So, one rather disappointing book over and done with. Now a couple of days of reading snippets here and there, and then at midnight on Saturday I can settle down with a glass of something cold and get into a guilty pleasure of mine. After that, the biggest book on the horizon for me is Judas Unchained. Along the way I am considering picking up Freakonomics, The Insider and maybe even following up on an author mentioned in my Blog Party.

That is, of course, unless Kevin J. Anderson finds me and beats me up. That might change my plans a bit.

Jul 12

If passengers will direct their attention to the right hand side of the blog, you will notice that I have added a link to my very own flickr page. Yes, that’s right, not content with boring the tits off you with words alone, I am now widening the mind-numbing experience that is me into a true multimedia extravaganza. Aren’t you all lucky? I really like the daily photo feature over at Dooce, and though I might not be able to match her damned fine creativity and knack for catching a good photo, I figure that if I keep clicking I’ll hit one or two good ones along the way.

Failing that I could always steal her photos and photoshop my face in there. Hmmmm.

Now that I’ve hit upon that plan, don’t be too surprised if I suddenly start sporting a slightly more feminine figure in any future photos. You have been warned. There will be hips. There will be breasts. Then will come the beard and the receding hairline. Think of a nightmarish chimera of William Shatner and the girl next door and you’re pretty much there.

And with that in mind, I bet you’re all wishing I had stayed talking about bombs. Tough break, folks. Tough break.

Jul 11

No matter how hard you think about things, no matter how well you plan, no matter how prepared you think you are and no matter how many pennies you throw down wells, life has a strange way of happening in such a way that occasionally manages to completely blindside you. Sometimes this is a pleasant experience and sometimes not. Sometimes it’s huge and you wonder how you couldn’t possibly have seen it coming in advance. And sometimes, just sometimes, it’s so small that it beggars belief.

I never saw it coming.

The events of last Thursday have been well chronicled and commented upon. It’s now clear that four bombs went off, 49 lives lost (at last count) and some 700 people injured, 300 seriously. And yet, life goes on. Londoners returned to work the next day. Life resumed, because to have it happen any other way would be to lose something fundamental and irreplaceable. It’s not done yet, but the long process of a return to normality has begun in London. For all of us really – though it happened in London, that doesn’t diminish the fact that it happened in the UK, to our countrymen, and it could happen again.

So Friday rolled around, and I went to work. I did my job, I read the news, I sent emails, and I enjoyed the glorious sunshine as I walked back to my car. After work on Fridays I head out to see my family, and I always enjoy catching up with my brothers. They’re a lot younger than me, and so I try to see them as much as I can because at that age they’re changing so much it’s scary. I sat down to a dinner made by my dad (ah, the benefits of a father who enjoys cooking) and that’s when it hit me, hard.

My brother Nathan was sitting at the table, opposite me, looking at a newspaper someone had left lying around. On the cover was a picture of the Tavistock Square bus, top deck completely destroyed and the bottom deck looking as if it’s days of travelling around London were well and truly gone. In the corner was a picture of a man with bad facial injuries. Blood, burns, bandages, the works. And there was Nathan, all of 9 years old, looking at these pictures and obviously trying to work the concept of terrorist attacks into a world better suited to Digimon, Pokemon, bikes and PS2 games.

I don’t mind telling you, it took a LOT of swallowing to get that particular mouthful of food down. As it happened Nathan was pretty calm. He had some questions, and my dad and I answered as honestly as we could. Both of us saw little point to sugarcoating what had happened – Nathan is an intelligent boy, he has access to a television, he can read and to evade an honest answer would just invite a child’s imagination to create some spectre ten times worse. For all that though, that fifteen minutes was what hit me the hardest out of this whole thing. Having to explain that there were security forces now tracking down terrorists – and having to go off on a tangent slightly to explain the whole concept of terrorism – to a curious 9 year old who was trying to work out, in his own small and limited way, how his country – and the wider world – has undergone something horrific.

Never, in a million years, would have seen it coming. Never.

However, as mentioned above, life goes on. Old Tony wants us to move on and not give an inch, and at the risk of sounding jingoistic that’s what he’s gonna get. If anything the events of Thursday have underlined to me the importance of enjoying yourself. How many of those 49 people thought that they would pick up that book another time? See that movie next weekend? Not bother with that extra packet of crisps or that glass of wine? It’s a terrible cliche to say so, but sometimes things happen that lend your usual concerns a bit of much needed perspective.

So business as usual for me and everyone else. I live my geeky life to the full, then write about it here for you to read about. Apologies in advance for the depths of sheer unrestrained nerdiness you’re going to be forced to endure.