Watching the shitstorm covering the United States at the moment, it occurs to me that for anyone under 30, who’s only experienced Dick Cheney and Joe Biden as their Vice Presidents, is in for a hell of a culture shock when Donald Trump is inaugurated. And the only prediction that has any weight to it, as to what kind of VP Pence will be, is – as is so often the case with this President-elect, no one has a fucking clue.

Cheney was probably the most influential VP in my adult lifetime. He gave the lie to all the views of the VP expressed by pundits, politicians and former Vice-Presidents in that he genuinely was involved in many high level decisions and wasn’t merely sent out to do the President’s bidding by promoting his policies, and representing the US at funerals. Cheney never looked like he enjoyed being VP though; he always came over – to me anyway – as someone for whom the VP position was just a job in which he could do stuff. For sheer enjoyment of the role of VP, you have to put Joe Biden at the top of the pile. Never have I seen a person more obviously enjoy not only being VP but everything that a VP does. Damn, I’m going to miss him, almost as much as I’m going to miss President Obama.

The VP has precisely two constitutional duties: to break the tie of the Senate is deadlocked, and to step in if the President is incapable of performing his duties. (Yeah, yeah,  you can make your own jokes up about the fella who’s about to be sworn in.) But that’s it. Some VPs have been more of use to their President than others. Some have regarded it as just a PR role, some have bitterly grown to regret accepting the job. 

Not for nothing did John Nance Gardner (FDR’s VP) describe the job as “not worth a pitcher of warm piss”. (Mind you, I also like his other quote of “You have to do a little bragging on yourself even to your relatives; man doesn’t get anywhere without advertising.”)

Other quotes about this oh so powerful office?

“[The Vice Presidency] is the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”
–John Adams, 1st Vice President

“”Look at all the Vice Presidents in history. Where are they? They were about as useful as a cow’s fifth teat.”
– Harry S. Truman

“I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead.”
– Daniel Webster, on not accepting the Vice Presidency

That said, there’ve been a number of VPs who’ve died in office, and I’m glad as hell that VP Biden is making it out alive, and well.

All the foregoing being acknowledged, I still think one of the best lines about the Vice Presidency was spoken by the sage of Baltimore, one H L Mencken with his observation that “A vice-president is one who sits in the outer office of the president hoping to hear him sneeze”.

That, as well as other comments about the Vice Presidency comes from Alistair Cooke’s masterful Letter From America on Vice-presidential responsibilites from October 1996… Read and enjoy.

And so, in a few short weeks, we’ll find out what Vice President Mike Pence will be like. Whether he acts as a restraining influence on Trump, or encourages him, or – as Keith Olbermann wants – desposes him via section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment… either way, looks like we’re cursed to live in interesting times. As, it turns out, is Pence.


This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

2017 minus 24: Short memories

Posted: 8 December 2016 in 2017 minus, politics
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Maybe it’s a combination of both the ever-present news cycle and because so much has happened this year, but I’m starting to wonder whether we’re reaching the end of that time when certain events in a country’s history seem to linger, and take a place in the “group memory” of the population of that country.

Maybe it’s been happening for a long time, that reduction in ‘group memory’; maybe there’s just fewer ‘I’ll always remember what I was doing when I heard about [insert event of choice]”. While Donald Trump’s winning the election is, without doubt, one of the biggest events to happen in the past few decades of American politics – as huge I’d argue as Barack Obama’s first election, but for very different reasons – both pale compared to 9/11 and that day’s attacks on American. Maybe it’s because Obama’s election, while breaking rules of American politics to that point, was still part of the electoral process Americans had been having every four years. Same as Trump; while the shock of his election is still there and raw, it was part of an election, not an armed coup. But 9/11 was different. And it’s still raw, still visceral for some.

For some reason, the 1960s, in the UK at least, is usually held up as the time in history that, well, ‘lingers’ I guess is the word. Whether it’s The Great Train Robbery, or The Moors Murders, or The Profumo Affair, I wonder what events that have taken place within the United Kingdom, say, since 1st January 2000, will still be remembered as landmark events, in fifty years or so.

The obvious pre-2016 examples are, I’d suggest, the London bombings of 7th July 2005 and the London Olympics & Paralympics of 2012. Will they still be remembered and talked about in fifty years? Horrible to say, but no, I don’t think so. In the first, because there were no more and worse ones (in which case they’d have been remembered as ‘the first’) they’ll be a footnote, remembered by those who were in London at the time, something to bore the grandchildren about, but no more.

And as for the Olympics, like any sporting event, they’ll be remembered by some, but for most, they’ll fade to the point hat in thirty years, most will struggle to remember even in what year they took place.

So what will be remembered?

The EU Referendum campaign. Brexit. For good or ill, whatever happens in 2017-2019, the Brexit vote will be remembered. Whether anyone will remember the campaigns is a whole otehr issue; I kind of doubt that they will. I suspect that in a couple fo decades, the lies, the batting, the dog whistles, will have been relegated to faint “oh yesssss” recollections when folks are reminded of them but not until then. But the vite itslef will remain, the scars to the public discourse will linger, the damage will be long lasting.

The date of the vote – June 23rd –  won’t be remembered any more than the date of its predecessor is clearly remembered. No, not the vote on the EC in 1975, but the immediate predecessor: only the second UK-wide  referendum. The one on replacing the electoral system. You remember, the one on Thursday 4th May 2011. The one you’ve thought about so little since then that you missed just now that it didn’t take place on 4th May but in fact on 5th May. 

So, what will be remembered, and in how much detail?


This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

Been too long…

Posted: 7 December 2016 in family
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I mentioned the other week that one of my favourite comedy evenings is The Distraction Club; last night was the Christmas bash, and it was as wonderful as ever. I’ll probably write about it specifically later in this run. 

But my son and I took the opportunity to finally remedy a problem that had bugged the pair of us for ages… we’d not had a photo taken together for… well, neither of us could remember the last time it happened. 

And so, as I say, we remedied that. I’d usually save it for the update to A Life In Pictures blog post which normally comes the back end of the year, but it’s been too long already.

So, here’s me and my lad Phil. 

Previously on “It’s ‘what I’m watching’ Wednesday: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3. 

Let us continue. 

As I’ve said, while I occasionally mention “tv shows I don’t like that everyone else does” I rarely tell you what I do like watching. So, continuing in no particular order, what tv am I enjoying right now?

Conviction
I wish I could tell you why I liked this show. I’m not sure I can. At its heart, it means well, but there’s something missing, while there’s enough there to keep me watching… but when it’s off for a week, I kind of don’t really care? Yeah, it’s that kind of show. Clever concept for the show: party girl and former First Daughter gets tapped (kind of blackmailed) into running a Conviction Integrity Unity by an ex-boyfriend, now District Attorney. The idea is they don’t care if the convict did it or not; they’re just as happy at knowing the right guy is locked up as they are setting the wrongly convicted free. I’m half a dozen episodes through the first season and so far they’re hitting all the marks I’d expect: set an innocent person free; three were convicted together… turns out one was guilty, the other two not; evil person wrongly convicted, how to get the right person convicted but not let the evil one out?

I’m guessing a future episode will deal with someone who did it but was absolutely wrongly convicted or someone who was innocent but should have been found guilty with the evidence alone; they’ve come close so far but not quite there. The sub-plot of family drama is very sub-plottish and isn’t anywhere as clever as the show seems to think it is. Hmm. 

And yet I keep watching. I wonder why.

The Librarians
Remember what I said last week, that I enjoyed NCIS because it’s enjoyable, reliable and fun? Yeah, same applies in spades to The Librarians. Originally a three tv-movie thing about, basically, an Indiana Jones type thing but with a genuine nerd, not an action hero as the lead. It was cute, funny, had clever writing and great – though occaisonally deliberately hammy – acting. Then someone had the bright idea of turning it into a tb series; it could have gone very wrong, but instead it turned out great. Again, clever writing, wonderful acting, great chemistry among the cast… and silly as hell while maintaining just the right amount of tension. And a guaranteed deus ex mechina every episode. I mean, yeah, usually I hate that kind of thing, but it’s built into the show so you swallow it and suddenly you’re waiting to see what this week’s is. It’s ludicrously inconsistent, normally has plot holes you can drive a truck through… and you know what? I don’t care. This is a fun show to watch and everyone’s having a blast making it.

Agents of SHIELD
Once upon a time, this was a clever show about what it’s like to be a secret agent for a secret team in a world of super-heroes and villains. At some point during the last season that changed and ever since then, this show seems like it’s going through the motions. I’m still watching because the individual performances by the actors are still great. And watching some of them, you can see genuinely good acting, great performances. And the effects are incredibly good; entirely naturalistic, by which I mean that of course theu’re special effects, but they’re done so bloody well, they don’t look like special effects.  

A Special Note about The Arrowverse crossover
Yeah, I know I covered the four shows in the first of these reviews (link above) but now they’ve done a four part crossover (well, three part really, involving one character from the fourth show) a few extra words. I’m not sure what it is about crossovers in the Arrowverse, but by god they’re good. This one was particularly good; each part totally true to the different style of each of Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow while telling one story, dealing with sub-plots throughout and with each ofthe main characters learning and moving and growing. The final scene, with Oliver and Barry having a drink in a bar and just talking about their lives, was the first time, the first time in three years, that you saw the former treat the latter as a genuine equal. Not for effect, not as a pep talk but as a genuine equal. The interaction etween the casts was excellent and every bit of friction you’d expect was there, as well as some genuinely surprising meetings of minds. The crossover didn’t put a foot wrong, not one.

OK, so that’s another few shows I like. To end with again, here’s a new show this season that I tried, but gave up on.

Pure Genius
Once again, a clever concept (young tech billionaire sets up a high-tech top of the range medical facility using start of the art tech to solve medical problems, but what else is going on?) And once again, what would have been a clever TV movie, or even series of movies… is… what? I have no idea. I watched the trailer and then the extended trailer (otherwise known as the pilot) and was intrigued enough to watch episode 2. Or rather to watch about the first half of episode 2, after which I gave up on the show. The acting is wooden, not one of the characters are believeable, the tech is pretty cool, I’ll accept but I have no idea what on the show is a genuine extrapolation of tech that already exists and what is pure fantasy. After an episode and a half, I could not remember most of the main chacarers names, had no idea why any of them outside two main leads were there (money or desire to do good?) and kept thinking “why am I watching this?” SO I stopped asking, and stopped watching. 


See you tomorrow, with something else. 

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

2017 minus 26: Numbers

Posted: 6 December 2016 in 2017 minus
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One of the questions I used to ask, when I was intereviewing people for the finance department I used to run, was… “why finance? Why accountancy?”

There were plenty of ‘good’ answers – this wasn’t one of those ‘impossible to answer’ questions, nor a ‘there’s onl one right answer’ question. Genuinely, there were loads of good answers and I got some of them when I asked it. Some were the kind of answers you’d expect, some… not so much.

I think my favourite was the young lady who said she entered the profession to spite an ex-boyfriend who’d constantly belittled her and – when they split up – had mocked her for an opportunity she’d had at her company: to cover for someone in her company’s finance department on maternity leave. She took the proffered opportunity, and found she loved the work. 

Then there was the interviewee who told me he’d chosen accountancy because he’d fancied the woman who’d come to his careers day at school, had temped during the summer at an accountancy firm, and again, found he enjoyed the work.

The best answer, though, the one that pleased me most, was when someone said they’d always felt comfortable with numbers. I could teach them the methodologies of accountancy and the rules and regs, but yeah, they had to feel supremely comfortable with numbers. (Much as my younger brother used to say, he could teach anyone to cut a head of hair, but only someone who felt very comfortable with the idea of changing someone’s appearance stood a chance of success as a hairdresser.)

I said above there’s no ‘right answer’ to the question. You might have inferred from that that ‘there’s no or wriog answer to the question’. But you’d have been wrong. Oh boy were there some wrong answers and I heard all of them. But The Wrong Answer was, and remained throughout my career, “I was always good at maths”.

It was a bad answer for so, so many reasons. For a start, they never meant they were good at maths; they meant they were good at arithmetic. To say they’re the same is like claiming that speaking is the same as making a speech. Or being able to write is the same as being a writer. Sure, the latter involve the former, but it’s a small part.

Besides which, I had a calculator and a spreadsheet to be good at arithmetic. (Never forget that a computer is just a pocket calculator with a jumped up attitude.)

But, I hear you cry, when they said they were good at maths, they meant they felt comfortable with numbers. Really? Then why didn’t they say that? No, what they usually – almost invariably – meant by “I’m good at maths” is that they got good exam results on their maths exams. 

Every person I took on to work for me either in an accountancy practice or in a finance department who’d said they ‘were comfortable with numbers’, or who’d said ‘numbers always made sense to me’ turned out to be a good hire. 

Me? I’ve been out of accountancy now for some time. I still like numbers. I still like playing games with numbers, solving number problems often, though not always, logic problems involving numbers, sometimes just solving those “Are you smarter than an [insert age] year old?” online puzzles. 

Long time ago, I posted here about arithmetic, specifically How to tell if a number is divisible by any number between 2 and 12.

But here’s some odd things involving numbers you might not have known:

  • A pizza that has radius “z” and height “a” has volume Pi × z × z × a.
  • In a room of just 23 people there’s a 50% chance that two people have the same birthday. It’s called The Birthday Problem, presumably because you now have to buy birthday presents you didn’t previously realise you had to.
  • a) Choose a four digit number (the only condition is that it has at least two different digits)  b) Arrange the digits of the four digit number in descending then ascending order  c) Subtract the smaller number from the bigger one d) Repeat. Do it enough times you always end up with 6174, Kaprekar’s Constant.
  • Forty is the only number whose letters are in alphabetical order.

Look, numbers are just weird. Well, some of them are, anyway.

And finally, random numbers aren’t that random. For various reasons, they tend to follow the distribution as below. It’s the first thing auditors look for when they think expenses have been faked. The tax man, and the SEC are also very aware of it… In a given list of numbers representing anything from stock prices to city populations to the heights of buildings to the lengths of rivers, about 30 percent of the numbers will begin with the digit 1. Less of them will begin with 2, even less with 3, and so on, until only one number in twenty will begin with a 9. The bigger the data set, and the more orders of magnitude it spans, the more strongly this pattern emerges.


This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

James Burke makes the point, fairly regularly, that the biggest crises happen when something that people are so used to relying upon that they don’t even think about it… stops working. Also, that when things do stop working, the assumption is that it will, soon enough, start working again. There’s irritation, not worry, nor panic. It’s irritation rather than panic because there’s a temporary inconvenience, not a permanent end to it.

Similarly, I think that the biggest non-recognised events come when people begin to not think how amazing something is, and start to accept something as part of everyday life. 

I used my contactless card to pay for coffee today. OK, yes, I’m still old fashioned enough that I prefer to pay for small items in cash, but that’s slowly changing. But, as I was queuing up, I saw people pay by four different methods:  one person paid by cash, another used NFC via Apple Pay on their iPhone, someone else used their ‘contactless’ bank card, and yet another used Chip and PIN. And as new methods come into play, older ones vanish. While cash remains a useful method of payment*, use of personal cheques in retail shops has plummeted. 

(*worth pointing out that intent out that in London at least, you can no longer use cash to pay for busses; it’s contactless or tfl’s Oyster card.)

But whereas even I thought it was ‘wow’ to use contactless when it started, now it’s just ‘how I sometimes pay for stuff’. It’s not even fair to describe my attitude as blasé, because if I did think about it, I’d probably still be a bit ‘wow’ over it. But I don’t. I don’t think about it, any more than I think about the genuinely modern miracle of constant access to… well, to everything, via the wonder of constant internet access. As Chris Addison puts it: it takes roughly thirty seconds for the modern miracle of the Internet to become, if it’s ‘down’, a basic human right. 

There’s so much I use and experience every day, from my iPhone and my iPad to my bluetooth keyboard, from text messaging to the large digital displays by the bus stop, to the fact that the London Underground keeps running, somehow. 

That’s something else I’m used to and don’t think about that often, if at all: the systems that keep working. Whether it’s the National Health Service (no matter how bad, I know I can turn up at Acciednt and Emergency and I will, eventually, be seen) or the street lights or – as I say above – the London Underground.

Those trains, hundreds of them, running roughly to timetable, thousands of drivers and staff just keeping them moving. And, when there is a problem, (the Piccadilly Line has severe problems at the moment… and will do so for some weeks to come) somehow, the system copes, manages. Except it’s not just the system itself; it’s the people who work there, working harder than anyone realises, but that’s the truth of most jobs: no one realises how hard any job is unless they’ve done it.

It’d blow my mind if I actually thought deeply on what it takes to keep the major infrastructure systems running.

But I don’t think about it.

I probably should.


This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

Some more fiction for you… As I’ve mentioned previously:

Elephant Words was a fiction site to which I contributed stories, on and off, for several years. The idea behind the site was simple, based on the old tale of several blind people describing an elephant based only on touch; one described the animal as a long snake, another that it was hard and bony, still another that it was like a tree trunk. Every week, one of the participants would put up an image, and over the following week, people would write a story inspired upon the image alone.

Occasionally, a story didn’t need the image to contextualise the tale, but I always tried to use it to the point that if the image wasn’t there, I’d have had to change something about the story.

Here’s another one of them; an image, and the story it inspired me to write.


 

THAT MORNING

The fat old man sat at the table, idly watching the patrons of the small coffee shop as they entered, ordered, consumed their fare, and exited.
He was a regular patron, always arriving around ten in the morning; always staying about ninety minutes. The waitresses – for it was a coffee shop that held to the old traditions, despite only having been in business for twenty years – liked the old man. He tipped well, for one thing. And given their location, and the type of clientele that frequented that area of the city, he was polite. Never obsequious nor affected; merely… polite.

He washed as well.

This set him apart from many of the other customers, some of whom seemed to view personal hygiene as an optional extra during this portion of their lives. Not the old man, though. Every morning, he’d… arrive. None of the waitresses, had they thought about it, ever remembered him walking into the coffee shop. Nor, had they been asked, and correctly recalled, had any of them seen him leave. Oh, they could remember him pushing his chair back, recall him patting his right trouser pocket and the brief smile every day as he discovered enough change to pay for the toasted rye bread and the cups of tea he’d ordered and duly consumed. They would enjoy the moment as he found he had just enough change to leave a generous, though not overgenerous, gratuity. He always had just enough change. And as they moved towards the counter to pick up one of the pink and grey towels to clean the table, they would ask themselves why every customer wasn’t like the fat old man.

That morning, the fat old man had been sat at his table (he always thought of it as his table) for a little over an hour, enjoying the flow of people. Business had been slow in the coffee shop, but in the primary reason for his being there, the red painted wooden fronted store with the garish yellow sign across the road, trade was brisk. And with every purchase made, the old man shuddered almost invisibly. As every patron entered, he smiled. As every customer left, he smiled. Not quite as widely. But he smiled nonetheless.

The door to the coffee shop opened and a shadow fell over the old man and his table. He knew who had entered without looking up. And he frowned. No one could have detected the frown, but then he had perfected the art of invisible expression when he had been young, when none of those present (apart from the newcomer) had known him. And even had they known him, it was unlikely that they would have recognised him in the dowdy suit that had seen better days, and the faded brown overcoat.

Then the shadows moved, and the newcomer followed them. A large man, in that way that mountains have of being large, walked to the old man’s table and without waiting to be asked, sat.

They smiled, genuinely pleased to see each other again, though equally concerned at what point the other might lift a weapon or in some other way indicate unhappiness.

It could be argued that gods rarely spend time in coffee shops; it is an argument one would lose. And whether that is because of the nature of gods or the nature of coffee shops is a hypothesis best not considered.

But as the patrons filed in and out of both the coffee shop and the sex shop, the Greek god of pleasure and the Roman god of war discussed demarcation.

© Lee Barnett


See you tomorrow, with something else. 

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.