JohnPullin's Blog

Journalism, engineering, business, and sometimes other things

To speak or to remain silent

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We moved house back in the early part of the year, and along with the downsizing comes a smaller garden and rather shorter distances to other houses. It’s fine and it’s what we wanted, and we were looking forward to having fewer rooms to heat and clean and spread our (my) tide of paperwork over. Mostly that’s working.

But there’s a “but”, and it’s only become apparent in the evenings and nights of a rather-better-than-usual summer. It’s been warm and sticky in London for a week or so now, and at night the stuffiness means you want to sleep with the windows wide open to catch any fleeting breezes. But in our new house, the breezes come accompanied… by voices.

Neighbours tangentially to the back corner of our end-of-terrace house have been sitting, chatting, in their own back garden for four of the past five evenings. They have loud voices and they don’t moderate them for fear of being overheard; they have loud laughs, too, and likewise they’re not shy about them. One chap in particular is a fund of relentless anecdote, often, it seems, about rugby, most of which he then finds very funny, so the voice is followed by guffaws, mostly his. But there are other voices too, some of them quite penetrating.

None of this ought to be a problem and it is part and parcel of living in a city. The difficulty is that it goes on. And on. And on. Eight o’clock in the evening sees them in place in their garden, nine o’clock, ten, eleven. They don’t pause at midnight, though the lights are out in virtually all the other local houses. One o’clock, two o’clock… that seems to be about the norm at the moment, though one night there was still jollity and anecdote at a quarter to three. It’s not very noisy: close the windows, and you barely hear it, though in the current heat you may well then struggle to sleep for a different reason.

The thing is: what does one do about it? If anything? We don’t know the neighbours – the chattering ones or any of the others who may also be being disturbed. It seems churlish to complain when it’s probably only a temporary difficulty: there aren’t that many warm nights a year in London. We can get earplugs. But maybe they just don’t know how intrusive they are being and would be mortified if they realised that they were causing a disturbance. There’s a danger, I suspect, that the longer this goes on, night after night (except Sunday), the more tired we will get through sleeplessness and we’ll then make an inappropriate approach to them, and put their backs up. But currently our backs are up: well, up to two in the morning, at least.

So should we say something or stay silent ourselves? Advice, please.

UPDATE, 25 July: Well, the gist of advice seems to be that a problem unconfronted is a problem that won’t go away, and that we should tackle the talkative folk. If only to let them know that their intimate conversations are not exactly private. But actually last night it was quiet, so we slept. And today the UK weather is forecast to resume its usual summer pattern of unreliability, so maybe there will be less cause to sit out into the early hours. We’ll see…


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July 24, 2014 at 10:03 am

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More than a museum piece

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I am temporarily in Boston courtesy of friends at PTC, and took myself off on Sunday to the other side of the Charles River, where in Cambridge, Massachusetts stand the twin peaks of US intellectual prowess, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bostonians apparently debate long and earnestly which of the two has contributed most to the sum of human knowledge, but will agree that, no matter what the order, these are the No 1 and No 2 academic institutions worldwide. They may have a point.

But that wasn’t the point I was going to make, or argue. What I got myself diverted into, seeking shelter from the hot sun, was an institution that I think has no parallel in the UK: or if it has, it’s well hidden.

The MIT Museum is in a slightly shabby 60s building, but turns out to be a treasure trove of current research projects, including this summer’s graduate students’ work, and really interesting special exhibitions.

Downstairs you catch up on well-described snippets from current research programmes, in areas such as air traffic control and driverless vehicles. Upstairs, alongside current students’ projects – these are bright bunnies – there were special exhibits on holograms and daguerreotypes and a couple of rooms with kinetic sculptures, mechanical and gravity-actuated moving devices, many of them created by Arthur Ganson. One small girl, a potential MIT student in maybe seven or eight years, was much enjoying turning the Ganson artefacts on and off, so I did the same. Fun.

All of it was done with a splendidly light touch and with wit and style. I’d happened across it by chance; but it was, for a sunny June day, pretty busy, so it’s by no means unknown. And there were nice incidents too: in the middle of the neutrino exhibit, I overheard one mother with a bespectacled late-teens son say to another with a similar youngster in tow: “Are you an MIT mom?” She was, and they briefly embraced, like clandestine sisters sharing a rare and proud family secret. Their sons meanwhile were questioning the neutrino presenter about some aspect of particle physics.

“Proud” is in fact the overriding impression. This is about MIT being proud of its work, and also about local people and others being proud of MIT. I’m not suggesting you go: Boston has so many museums and sights that to pick one out is invidious – though it is well worth an hour.

But it does strike me that our UK universities, which have a record that can often compare with these two “incomparables” in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are missing a trick or two in terms of their current students and their future ones by being shy about how proud they are of their people and their work.   

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June 17, 2014 at 2:10 am

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Bemused of London SW

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Occasionally – no, actually more often than I would like – I receive an email that I can make neither head nor tail of. Today’s is from one of those “unsolicited” PR feeds that has, ostensibly, polled me about my interests and filtered out the irrelevant. This one was filtered in. Someone thinks I should be interested in it.

The first sentence reads: “The TDWI BI Symposium, presented in association with IRM UK, offers 5 tracks of full-day interactive courses, run over three days and taught by the most knowledgeable and experienced practitioners in the industry.”

Ah yes, I hear you say, that does indeed look interesting. TDWI? Of course. BI? Well, who wouldn’t? Except that it makes no sense at all to me. A sentence further on and I can glean, though it’s never stated as such, that the “DW” in the middle of TDWI might be “data warehousing”, and as that sentence also includes the words “business intelligence” I might think that that is what BI is. Exactly what “business intelligence” means is naturally thought to require no explanation. If this is all about working smarter, then I’m patently not smart enough to work at all. And “data warehousing”? Presumably it’s the opposite of “data whorehousing” where all of your information is open for anybody to peruse.

Oh, look! Here’s another one. I’ll give you the headline this time: “Dimago, inks deal to distribute Orchestra Networks’ MDM solution, EBX5, in Southern Africa”. The comma after “Dimago”, I assure you, is theirs, not mine. Maybe it’s part of the company’s name and is a nod to the tendency to transcribe some of the languages of southern Africa, such as Xhosa, with integral punctuation marks such as ! to indicate glottal stops and clicks. Or maybe not. MDM turns out to be “master data management”, by the way, not a kind of chewed up fibreboard that low-cost bedroom furniture is made from.

I’m probably being unfair with these examples, of course, and it may well be that there are journalists out there who have seized on these gems with cries of glee and sighs of relief that the hole on their front page or their first screen or whatever has now been filled. But for me there’s a kind of double jeopardy going on here, in that I don’t understand the shorthand and then, when it’s spelled out, I don’t understand it again.

And at that point, the first rule of journalism comes into play. If in doubt, leave it out. If you as a journalist don’t understand something, then your readers won’t understand it either. And if something comes in that you don’t understand, bin it. BIN: that’s Business Intelligence Negativisation. I think.


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June 9, 2014 at 4:08 pm

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Different types of bravery

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The reason that certain phrases or sayings become truisms or clichés is over-use, not a lack of truth. The 70th anniversary today of D-Day, the allied invasion of Normandy that saw the beginning of the end of the Second World War, will be filled with familiar phrases from crowned heads and elected politicians on the beaches of Ouistreham and Arromanches, and many of the words will be familiar and even slightly hackneyed. But they’ll still be true.

There will be talk of bravery, of heroism, of defiance. Of overcoming the fear, and the queasiness. Of luck, both good and bad. The familiarity of the story does not diminish the courage of the participants. A June day 70 years ago was a personal turning-point for many individuals, as well as a strategic one for the war: the biggest day of their lives and perhaps of the whole 20th century.

I should declare, of course, a bit of a vicarious interest of my own in this particular date. My father, then 24 years and nine months old, was among the first troops to land on Sword beach; his job, as a Royal Engineer, was to rush across the beach and make his way, cross-country, to the Pegasus Bridge on the Caen Canal which, by the time he arrived, would either have been secured or destroyed by the airborne landing troops.

In fact, it had been secured, but the airborne landings to the east, beyond the river, had not been successful, so the bridge was, and remained for a few weeks, pretty much on the front line: a hugely dangerous place. With the Royal Engineer skills not immediately put to use, there he stayed, used as an infantryman on dangerous patrols, pinned down and penned in while progress was made on other fronts.

My father’s D-Day has been an ever-present across my life too, though until recently he rarely spoke of it. I’ve been aware, vaguely all my life and with more detail in recent times, of what he was doing at particular times on that particular day: more so, in fact, than any recollection of any individual day within my own lifetime. I’ve always been able to imagine the chill and damp of the landing, the confusion of the beach, the fast cross-country route carrying heavy packs, the arrival at the bridge: my imaginings are commonplaces and truisms, but real to me.

Only more recently has there emerged more detail from my father, real incidents to augment my supposed and generalised reality. The sniper’s shot that rang out loud and that took away half the face of the man standing next to him. Maurice, his name was. The clandestine observation of the departure of the German commandant from the childrens’ home at Benouville… My father’s version of D-Day and the days thereafter is partial and partisan, occasional snapshots, not necessarily agreeing with the official histories, but real nonetheless. His day on D-Day. His weeks in Normandy. His truth. Not mine. But true.

There’s a bit more to it than that, though. Today in Normandy is a day of remembrance and celebration, and there will be 100s of D-Day veterans there alongside the politicians and the monarchs. My father isn’t there, and I suspect there are many more like him, unable to forget, but not really wanting to remember, who have tried and failed to banish memories and who have wanted nothing more than to live in the present, not in a past that is fixated on a single day. He never claimed any medals, he went back to his old job after the war, he didn’t speak of it for years. Truth? Bravery? What do they mean?

I don’t quite know what he’ll have been doing today, at the age of 94 and nine months. He may have caught some of the coverage on TV, but more likely he’ll have been to the shops, getting the paper, perhaps to the local town on the bus, out in the garden dead-heading and watering and cutting back the overgrowth and the undergrowth: the clichés of normal life. A D-Day 70 years ago, his D-Day, his truth, will always be with him. But so too is the bravery just to get on with it. Then, and today.  

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June 6, 2014 at 4:47 pm

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Now, where was I…?

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I’ve given this blog a rest for about a year or so, and maybe now is the time to start again in a gentle way. I gave up because there seemed to be too many other things to do, no one much was reading anyway, and it was all a bit self-indulgent (and if there’s one indulgence I try not to indulge in it’s self-indulgence). Also, when you’ve been throughout a working life a slave to deadlines, you tend to impose them on yourself even when there really are none…

So let’s see if this is but a momentary twitch of the corpse or a full-scale resuscitation. And if there is any response.

Written by johnpullin

May 13, 2014 at 10:40 am

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Pentecostal pandemonium

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Sunday mornings in your area may currently be calm and serene: the sounds of sponge on car bodywork, a languid dog bark in the distance, the scraping sound as last year’s congealed carbon is scrubbed from the barbecue. That’s how it is now. But if the government has its way, it’s going to be different: carnage, chaos, crisis will ensue.

The problem that’s looming is the one of lost souls, and the cause of this is going to be the transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, who has just announced incentives for local authorities to “de-clutter” their roads of duplicated and unnecessary roadsigns. A good thing you might think, and I’d agree. But there are consequences.

Around here, a large proportion of the roadsigns seem to relate to places of worship. It’s a pretty non-denominational thing, with signs to churches, chapels, mosques and temples – there do seem to be, however, large numbers pointing, not necessarily in consistent directions, to “Elim Pentecostal Church”. There’s one at the nearest A-road junction to my house pointing north, and one a mile or so south which points, er, south. Maybe there’s a lot of Elim Pentecostal Churches around. Or maybe the gist of the Elim Pentecostal Church is that there are lots of signs, but few destinations, and that north and south are essentially the same. I don’t know.

What I do know is that these signs must have been put up for a purpose in pre-McLoughlin days. Then, presumably, there were hundreds, even thousands, of people descending on my part of south London every Sunday morning, each of them pondering the same question: “I wonder where on earth the Elim Pentecostal Church is? If only someone would give us a sign.”

Well, someone did. And now someone else wants to take it away. That may be biblically apposite, but I do wonder if the consequences have been thought through. Or whether pentecostal pandemonium is about to return to our quiet Sundays.

Written by johnpullin

March 18, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Transport

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Cricket tickets: Lord’s and money

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I’ve been going to cricket Test matches at Lord’s and The Oval ever since I moved to London, which is more than 40 years now. I’ve seen every single one of the Test-playing countries there and I’ve watched some memorable cricket. But in recent years it’s become more and more difficult to get a ticket. And for this coming season, at Lord’s, it’s impossible. It’s an Ashes season, with the Australians in town, and while I was able to watch all five days of the equivalent game in Sydney on my trip to Australia two years ago, in my own home town it’s no longer possible. Not even a single day.

It’s been noticeable at Lord’s over the past few years that long records of watching rather dull games in May against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe count for nothing in terms of getting tickets. The 250 or so of us who watch a County Championship match at Lord’s in late April for £10 better make the most of it. Because if it’s a big match, against the Australians or maybe the South Africans, we ordinary folk hardly ever get in. And the problem? Corporate hospitality and profiteering.

Last time the Ashes were in town, 2009, four of us managed, somehow, to squeeze some tickets out of Lord’s for a single damp-ish day towards the back of the Mound stand. There for most of the day we sat entirely alone, surrounded by empty seats. Fleetingly, towards lunchtime, a few bodies came in to sit near us, but pretty soon they departed: they were there for a lunch elsewhere in the ground, with a seat at the cricket thrown in, but the cricket was of no interest. One chap came back in mid-afternoon after lunch and sat near to us: he was, he said, embarrassed that none of his fellow lunch companions were interested in cricket and none intended to return.

Lord’s can and will protest that demand far exceeds supply for seats for the premier matches, and I’ve no doubt that they’re right. Some form of ballot for scarce seats is probably inevitable and that’s allegedly what’s been held… though when you’ve been unsuccessful in a ballot, as I and everyone I know appear to have been, you wonder whether it was ever actually held.  London’s other big cricket venue, The Oval, is far less opaque in its machinations: I didn’t get the tickets I wanted for there this year either, but I can see that others did.

At Lord’s, you see from websites that some people have got tickets. On Viagogo, a reseller site, you can buy tickets for the Ashes Test at Lord’s: seats with a face value of maybe £100 are now on offer for sums between £350 and £700. Charlatans and profiteers seem to have a licence from Lord’s to ply their trade. There are, elsewhere, corporate dining experiences available for £760 a day, with a seat thrown in. I love cricket, and I love watching cricket, but I can’t afford these sums. And nor do I want lunch: I want cricket. Lord’s isn’t interested in whether people who get seats are interested in cricket. It just wants their money.

I shall be watching the Lord’s Test from my armchair this summer. I shall be interested to see whether all the stands are full. Next year, when Lord’s will host some presumably “less attractive” Test matches, I’ll probably get in again: my money will be good enough for them again. But this year, it just isn’t cricket.

Written by johnpullin

March 1, 2013 at 12:05 pm

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