28 January 2009

Gresham's Law

Yesterday was a revelation. I capped a good day's work with an astonishingly good run with the Amblers. I set out fast, having been left behind as I tied my shoelaces, but soon began to catch and pass clubmates until I found myself running with Dave, Sarah and Trish - all of whom have been consistently faster than me for as long as I can remember. I stayed with them for the whole distance, and actually got back first of that group - which proves nothing, of course, as there's no way of knowing how hard they were trying, they had all been competing much more recently than me, and at least one had been unwell in the recent past. Nevertheless, I stayed with them.
This morning the work side of my life began to unravel. I had a poor night's sleep, pre-occupied with work I think, nd before leaving for London had to attend to feeding the ponies. I arrived too late for the first off-peak train, and the next one was so late that I might as well have waited the extra time to get another one-third off he price of my ticket. But whatever time one travels, one pays through the nose for an inferior and often late service.
The client I was hurrying to meet was not too worried, however, because contrary to what she had told me about having to be finished by a particular time it seemed she now had another hour at her disposal. I need not have rushed quite so much.
The fact that my phone refused to pick up emails all morning made the whole experience more depressing. Time spent waiting for a train is lost time, and time on a train trying in vain to pick up emails is equally lost. An incoming call interrupted my attempt to go on-line, but as I was in the quiet carriage I rejected the call. Instead of leaving a message, the same person (or another withheld number, possibly) called again, so again I rejected the call, then left my seat so I could listen to the anticipated message. When none came, it did not improve my frame of mind.
At the office, when finally I got there, I ddedicated the afternoon to pursuing recalcitrant clients. I don't have a lot of unpaid bills, but those that I have rankle. The biggest, by far, are two bills to the same end client who seems oblivious to them. Should they require further work in the future, at least fees on account will be needed and I am minded to refuse to work for them any more. When there is a hole in your budget of such a size, the time devoted not only to chasing but also to worrying and feeling depressed - both of which sap the will to work - soon outweighs the value of the bill.
The other debtors, depressingly, are all clients for whom I have been particularly accomodating, delaying billing until a website was up abd running, charging only for one trade mark application but filing two, or simply doing a large part of the work for free. Is it inevitable that clients will take such advantage? No, beacuse another client has recently paid an invoice, by bank transfer, on the very day of receipt.
I left the office later than planned, too late to catch the train I wanted, and in such a rush that my reading glasses remained on my desk. Not good when I have for my homeward reading a lengthy dealer agreement. Holding it at arm's length while standing on the packed train, my review of it made me angry that someone had charged a lot of money to write something so bad. It put me in mind of the conversation at lunchtime, in which we had bemoaned the incompetence of members of our profession. I ventured that something like half of the advice dispensed by lawyers seems to be plain wrong, yet charlatans make a good living by charging extravagantly for bad advice while others struggle to earn half as much while taking care to get everything right. It parallels the incompetence of the bankers who have brought the financial system to its knees, when everyone assumed that thay had some idea of what they were doing. Bad advice drives good out of circulation, perhaps.
On the tube, I looked into the window opposite, and in place of my reflection I saw my father ... But at least a third person, and perhaps it has been more, told me today how much better I looked than when last we had met, which pleased me greatly.

24 January 2009

One of these Days

On Thursday we had a meeting of the trustees of the charity that cannot mention its name (for trade mark reasons).  We met in Le Pain Quotedien in Great Marlboroough Street, which merits a recommendation here, and afterwards I made my way to Oxford Circus tube station.  An approved busker was singing a song with a familiar refrain which I caught as I approached, and as I passed him I realised it was San Tropez (sic) from Pink Floyd's 1971 album, Meddle.

Of course, I went back and dropped a coin into his guitar case.  Being presented with an excerpt from the soundtrack of my life deserves payment.  I wonder whether anyone else recognised the piece?

17 January 2009

Bryter Layter

My debating debut yesterday - opposing the motion "Far from making us stupid, Google is making us brighter".  I started off - weeks ago - thinking that the answer was that Google doesn't have the capacity to make us either: it merely serves information to us.  It's a robot, taking our instructions and leading us to what we want.

Well, I was wrong.  When I started to look into the subject, using Google naturally, I came across an article which must have influenced whoever suggested the wording of the motion.  Indeed, the proposer referred to it quite extensively ... although it didn't strike me as being helpful to her argument, a point that she actually mentioned herself.  Clearly, using Google is having effects on the way our brains work, as the invention of writing did, and then the invention of printing - events that also had an importnat bearing on copyright law, as I realised.

In one sense it is unfair to blame Google for all this - it is rather the Internet that shortens our attention span and makes skimmers of us all.  But Google (as a corporate entity) is interested in articial intellegence, and once it starts to do our thinking for us, rather than merely serving information for us to process, a qualitative change will have occurred.  It is already happening, with key words: see my posting on my IPso-jure blog about Marks & Spencer and Interflora here.  The motion, by failing to distinguish between the search engine and the company, was a little ambiguous.

I gave what I thought was a pretty good speech against the motion.  My seconder gave an interesting, and very disconcerting, exposition based on his own experiences of being sought out by threatening critics using Google, and my recent experience acting for clients who are defamed on anonymous blogs and forums makes me deeply uneasy about the way the Internet is used.

I wrapped up my opening speech by referring to my status, courtesy of an earlier blog posting, as the leading auhority on the Ineternet - indeed, the only authority - on Nissan Micra water pump drive belts.  Taht anyone should refer to my work on the subject seemed to me the height of stupidity - or so I said, allowing myself some artistic licence: it was a joke, and was received as one.  But I summed up my answering speech at the end by talking about Google's development of artificial intelligence, and whether for that reason or otherwise a majority voted against the motion.  So, not a bad debut.  It gives me encouragement to branch out in the public speaking sphere.

10 January 2009

Turn, turn, turn

Tea and coffee are made, the porridge is on the hob and it's getting light, so time to blog.  Outside it is -2.4 degrees, and it was probably a great deal colder in the night, when to overcome the effect of the underfloor heating we had to open windows as wide as they would go.  This is what climate change is all about.

I am not at home, close to what was recently the coldest place in Britain (RAF Benson), at minus 12, but high(ish) in the French Alps.  Here the economy depends on snow, without which the oligarchs would stay in Russia, or colonise somewhere else, but global warming probably means that existing ski resorts have a finite, if still fairly lengthy, shelf life.  That makes it particularly confusing when you find that the living quarters are heated so much, and with so little individual control, that the climate has to be regulated by opening the windows all night ...  and how to explain those ridiculous patio heaters that stand outside the most expensive (€1000 plus per night) hotels?

High in the French Alps is where the signs are in Russian.  Highish is where English is the lingua franca.  I have had some difficulty getting French people to speak French to me (not entirely easy to find French people at all), though perhaps my attempts caused offence.  I have used  my smattering of Russian even less: I thanked someone who moved over to let me out of a télécabine yesterday, but I don't know the Russian for "oy, mate, wait your turn!" or "hey, don't push in!".  I thought everyone - nearly everyone - from the Eastern Bloc knew only too well how to queue: perhaps this is a generation that has grown up since queues were made redundant by market forces, or if they were old enough they only ever saw queues as they were driven past in the Zil lanes ...  if they can engage in such conspicuous consumption, they probably don't know about queuing anyway.  They simply walk over whoever gets in the way - my feeling, certainly, when a Russian decided  he wished to get on a ski lift before me.  Best not to generalise about Russians, though ... or oligarchs.

An exhilerating day skiing yesterday, the highlight being a new speed record.  I am sure I will be able to get Garmin to validate my submission to the Guinness Book of Records (as it is no longer called).  A fairly impressive 6,163.5 mph.  I am particularly proud of the decimals.  The technology, of course, cannot lie.

Apart from that, I seem to be getting the knack of changing direction, though Tor and I balked at descending the steep run to our apartment yesterday afternoon - we had aimed for a less demanding route, only to find a "piste fermé" sign preventing us from leaving the piste we didn't want to do again ... so we walked it ...

07 January 2009

Ca plein pour moi

I couldn't get on-line this evening, even if I sat in the street outside
the Tourist Information Office - it looks as if they switch off the
wi-fi when they close. I must ask my new friend who is behind the desk
when I go in, the one who is trying to improve her English. I shall
need to get on-line in the morning to find how to say "wait your turn"
and "don't push in" in Russian. These are essential phrases in this
part of France.

Skiing is progressing well, although I have taken the lead in the
falling over stakes today with two incidents. One was on a very tricky
section of a blue run (the limit of my ability at present), from which I
was picked up (literally only of course) by two nice Russian ladies, the
other a short time later when Mel and I had strayed onto the luge run,
following the Russian ladies as it happens, and I was trying to ski
while watching behind me for luges. We found a way off that (Sarah was
horrified when I told her we'd skied on the luge piste as it is
strictement interdit) but I think that got us onto the last hundred
yards or so of a red, which was virtually cross-country. But i have
also skied successfully down the blue run from 1850 to 1550: not a great
achievement in the overall scheme of things, but it did my confidence a
lot of good and maybe I'll be going for bigger and better things later
in the week. After all, this is only about my tenth day's skiing in my
life.

An elderly man in the lift this afternoon started speaking to me in
French, too fast for me to follow, but I think I caught the words "nous
anciens". I smiled politely. As bad as when my mother-in-law said
something about "people of our generation": she and I were the only ones
in the car at the time. It reinforces what Nancy said in an email about
me being the oldest beginner in town ...

06 January 2009

Even Serpents Shine

I can work quite effectively like this, away on holiday, picking up emails at a public hot-spot twice a day and preparing my replies in between.  Why bother with an office?

This morning I went to the Office de Tourisme to log on, and asked the young lady behind the desk in my best French what the opening hours are.  (The wi-fi connection works outside office hours, I know, but I prefer not to work in the street when the temperature is several degrees below.)  She told me, in English.  I explained that I wanted to speak French: she countered by telling me she needed to practice her English.  (Not as much as I need to practice my French!)

Being Courchevel, there is more opportunity to speak Russian than French anyway.  Today was the Russian Christmas Eve, and we attended an event to mark it with a Russian choir, Father Christmas on a horse-drawn sleigh, and all the Ecole de Ski Français moniteurs from the three Courcheval resorts and a few others snaking down two pistes carrying flaming torches.  A rather inebriated Frenchman who rose to the challenge of communicating with me in his language told me there were 1500 of them, which didn't seem much of an exaggeration.  Spectacular, it certainly was.

As for skiing, I took a half-day break yesterday but skiied today morning and afternoon - with the result that I fell asleep as soon as I returned to the apartment this evening and had some difficulty getting to the Russian Christmas festivities.  Yesterday I worried that I would cause too much damage to my knees, but today I do at least seem to have identified the technique problem that was causing the trouble.  It's a long way from being rectified, but knowing what I am doing wrong is an essential first step to stopping doing it.  So I have progressed from simple greens to blues by now, and developed enough confidence to imagine I might go further.

05 January 2009

Seven Sore Bruises

In Courchevel for a few days' skiing, starting yesterday afternoon, and
I am already pretty battered. I took a spectacular tumble on my fourth
or fifth run of the day, just after mentally congratulating myself on
not falling over. Naturally, it happened on a very gentle section of a
gentle run, while I was performing the relatively simple manouevre of
going in a straight line. Suddenly I was pitched head-first onto the
piste, losing both skis in the process. Tor and Sarah were behind and
stopped to pick me up again, and I finished that run and then repeated
it, but now I have a very sore and pretty useless thumb, which has
swollen up a bit and turned a strange colour, and a very painful bruise
on my thigh which corresponds to the tin of lip balm I had in my hip
pocket at the time (and which required considerable effort to restore to
something like its original shape). Also a headache, though my family
rejected my claim that I must be concussed.

I have another five bruises to collect before I match the title (from
Audience's last album before they split in the seventies, "Lunch"), but
it's probably only a matter of time. Still, it was gratifying to find
on my second skiing holiday that I had remembered so much of the little
I had learnt last March. It was also gratifying to be greeted by our
instructor from that trip when she saw me and Mel, although the balance
of opinion is that she recognised my extremely un-chic one-piece
ski-suit - an eBay find - rather than either of us. This morning
someone suggested that she recognised the 50+ year old beginner from the
earlier time. More gratifying still was when I told the assistant in
the ski hire shop that I was determined to speak as much French as
possible, and then proceeded to start immediately, she said "bon
accent!". Malhereusement, I thought, pas bon vocabulaire, et grammaire
faible, a statement which probably proves itself. Where does the
adjective go?

I broke my cardinal rule - the first thing to pack when going away is a
pair of running shoes - expecting unsuitable conditions for using them,
but in fact I could run on the roads here quite easily. The problem
would not be snow or ice but Russian oligarchs in Mercedes 500s. At
least I assume that describes the driver who nearly forced us off the
road on the way up here yesterday, impatient to overtake a string of
vehicles along the winding mountain road. And if he nearly forced us
off the road, what he did to the car coming the other way - which almost
had to stop to accomodate him - was even worse. But I did get in a run
on New Year's morning, with my club: I cannot recall seeing a bunch of
Abingdon Amblers wearing so many clothes ever before. Only three or
four of us were displaying any leg: my concessions to the cold were a
long-sleeved top, hat and gloves, and I was quite warm enough after ten
minutes or so.