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Tuesday, January 31

This is a cracking story about a New Zealand doctor who is opening a brothel in his old medical centre. Great quotes from the man himself.

Monday, January 30

Some debate on Creationist programming
For the first time ever, I've received some feedback on a blog post that even I thought was geeky. I was writing about the creationist vs the evolutionary ideas in terms of product development. To reiterate, I was looking at the Agile idea that we should aim for short incremental improvements when we develop the product towards some goal. In this approach, though we might spend a few minutes with a program that doesn't work, or has some odd loose end, we only ever aim for an easy-to-achieve working and slightly different program. Conversely, the creationist approach (as I'm defining it) says that we can spend time working on a component without surfacing it as part of a working program. In other words, we can create a huge complex thing in completeness between increments.

Here is was my correspondent (an old friend who has chosen this moment to renew our acquaintance) thought:


By definition all computer programs can be reduced to small lines of code and in the process of writing code you are adding these pieces one by one, although you usually have a clear 'vision' of the required end-state. The only question is when to release the product to market. Usually we wait to release until the functionality is fully usable by the customer, but there are many occasions where we may wish to introduce semi-functioning capabilities into a product, possibly with a beta designation.

With a computer program, having extra pieces of code that is not used does not hurt the product (but the same is true for organs that are no longer of use to us - why have humans not stopped having appendices -people who suffer from appendicitis should have died out long ago, leaving only humans without an appendix). Sometimes although we are carrying around extra parts that appear to be of no use, this is not a problem unless there is an alternative that is in direct competition available in the market place.

This is indeed food for thought. Let's have a quick look.

The smallest unit of the program is a line of code
True enough, but not all viable changes can be done in terms of single lines of code. I've just spent all morning writing a series of things which are interreliant and which cannot be surfaced to the user yet. No single line could do the job. So, if the unit of "mutation" is a single line, then the whole idea of evolving programs just ain't gonna work. However, if the unit of mutation is "that which I could do in a few hours", which is the sort of approach I think makes practical sense and which Agile seems to look at, then evolution still seems possible.

Clear vision of the end state
No way Jose. I have never have a perfect or unambiguous view of the end result. Indeed, I've only ever discovered this fact afterwards, so doing little increments and getting feedback (on something which won't break because it's incomplete) seems like a good idea.

When to release to market
This is what Agile tries to make possible more easily. The idea is that every day (or iteration, at least). There is a fully working piece of software with all the latest changes, none of which make the program unviable. Like evolution, which can only allow for the survival and propagation of a creature that doesn't have some horrible fatal flaw (at least compared to its ancestor), so incremental development needs to result in working increments as we go along. If someone has decided to rip something important out, or work on something huge, then this incremental delivery doesn't happen.

Semi-functioning capabilities. In nature, these would not survive, and I think that's what Agile is trying to say about them in software engineering. If it's only half working, then it's not working. If, however, it only does half as much as we would want it to, but is totally working, then that's still an improvement on it doing none of those things. In addition, half of what we wanted it to do might actually be enough for someone to get use out of it and, therefore, make them want to pay us for the privilege of owning it right away.

Extra stuff that is not used does no harm
I agree. In fact, this morning's work has resulted in exactly that situation. Nobody except me and my team will know that my new stuff exists. It hasn't been surfaced in any way a user could discover. This is where the computer programmer can deviate from the evolutionary analogy a bit. Evolution would only favour a mutation which improved the creature's survival. A computer programmer can add something which the programmer knows will benefit the program later on. Such things include back-end improvements or refactorings. These may well be totally invisible to the end-user. However, again it should be stressed that doing this adds inventory to the process. In other words, I've put effort in, so where's the reward? I should be able to see the benefits as soon as possible (in terms of surfacing something to the user). The reason for this is that it's better to do a small thing end-to-end and be able to show a user it, then do a lot of preparatory work and then demonstrate the end result in a big bang and discover that it's well off the mark, or discover that I've gone out of business while I was working on the beautiful creation.

So creationism vs evolution
Again, it's an interesting one. Sometimes, I think the programmer has to put his faith in his own abilities to make the perfect solution in one go, rather than evolve a solution. Yet other times, I think we are far too overoptimistic about our understanding of what is really required to make the perfect creation. Doing little steps in the right sort of direction can take slightly longer, but can provide so much more feedback and guarantees that if we had to stop, there'd still be a viable product. Given that my experience of product development has largely occurred in situations where I was always months away from a product which could do everything available from all of its menus, the idea that we could keep the product releaseable seems to be the ideal.

I think it can be done.

Why humans don't evolve
My correspondent has brought up an interesting thing that has been bothering me of late. I've dropped the whingeing about programming now. The thing which I've realised is that we humans pretty much defy evolution and natural selection. Why? Because we have come to the conclusion that life is sacred and we must do whatever it takes to preserve it.

Nature is a harsh environment. Creatures get killed by other creatures, or by their own inability to look after themselves. It's exactly this process that reduces the likelihood of weaker alleles being prevalent. It also emphasises the stronger versions. To survive, one must compete and improve. That's what gives us the huge diversity of creatures, adapted to their environments.

Humans, however, are sentimental and life-preserving. No natural selection for us. We'll favour the underdog. If someone has a congenital condition which hampers their survival, we'll keep them alive and someone may even fall in love with them, possibly having children with them. In nature this doesn't happen. In humanity, we defy nature. I don't know if it's right or wrong.

I do know that there is evolution occurring in some ways. Our culture is evolving. Instead of physical survival traits, we're developing cultural ones instead. Who can be the most famous? Who can be known by one name, instead of their full name? That's a sort of propagation. It's shallow, but it's there.

Look at the recent celebrity Big Brother. Take a bunch of unimportant people, who have a fake status of "celebrity" cast upon them through stuff that they have or haven't done. Add an underdog (we love an underdog) in the form of Chantelle, some exceedingly unimportant nobody (in the grand scheme of things, we all are) and see what happens. The public choose the nobody over the other nobodies and then the nation's attention is bestowed upon that person who, in the absence of any discernable ability to do anything, gets her clothes off for the tabloids, because it's easy money and she may as well cash in on the only natural thing she's got.

Maybe if we were constantly fighting for our lives, or had to watch our loves ones die because of lack of medical science, we'd be more keen to have real things in our lives than all of this.

Rats
Changing the subject this morning, I had a fairly odd journey into work today. It's interesting how these things go. I was offered a cup of tea before I left, but declined. Had I remained, I might have left 5 minutes later, which would not have been the end of the world. However, I chose to leave when I did.

I spotted a dead rat in the road on the way to the car. It was completely flat. A white rat, it looked quite odd. For a second I wondered if it might not actually be one of my girlfriend's guinea-pigs. One of them is white. It might have escaped in the night and been run over. Except guinea pigs don't have tails - well, not rat's tails at least. This musing delayed me and so I went over to my car. I reversed it out of the parking space and headed off down the street. All of the events leading up to this drive had taken time from me, or given me extra time to get to work. I had the sat-nav telling me to turn left into a minor road, I made the turning and was then hit by a car that had decided to ignore the combination of the give-way junction opposite the road I was turning into, and the presence of my car.

If I had been a few seconds delayed or sooner, the accident would not have occurred. If the person driving their car had been PAYING ATTENTION then the accident would not have occurred. I saw her slow down for the junction and I had right of way. I even clocked her out of the corner of my eye (as she idiotically rolled out into the road) and tried to get out of her way. It was not to be. Now we have to go through the process of getting her insurance company to pay up. This may be complicated by the fact that my insurance company's first stab at finding the details of her company has not been wholly successful.

D'oh!

My poor car.

Friday, January 27

A geeky post
I was watching a BBC2 programme last night on the subject of Darwin's theory of evolution and how there are groups who propose that it is totally inadequate. These groups are motivated by religious belief. However, they have used scientific methods (whether they've used them correctly is not necessarily relevant) to debunk the idea that evolution is a theory which actually explains the development of life on our planet. Darwin himself pointed out the hole in his theory. If it can be shown that some complex entity could not possibly have developed piecemeal, then it can't have evolved via a series of small mutations. Evolution totally relies on these things:
  • Random mutation
  • The ability of a mutated creature to survive
  • The natural selection of this mutated version, therefore...
  • The increased fitness of this mutation such that it becomes the dominant form (or at least a part of the ancestry of the dominant form).
  • No big changes
Okay, so maybe I've no idea exactly how evolution works, but I think that's a fairly important series of pre-requisites for evolution as Darwin described it.

The arguments that the creationists - sorry, "Intelligent Design"ists put forward is that the criteria for evolution are simply not all met in nature. One argument they suggest is that random mutation is not possible - mathematically. This is probably nonsense, especially since there are clear examples in nature of species with common ancestry where some mutations are more advanced than others. The creationists point out that it's perfectly reasonable that some adaptation occurs, but not at the scale of an entire organism having evolved from something much much simpler. The second argument is the interesting one. It uses Darwin's own theoretical hole - can we find something so complex that it cannot have evolved in small stages? The creationists claim to have found a creature whose motor mechanism is reliant on 50 individual parts, which are so inter-reliant that they would have been useless had they evolved from 49 parts, or whatever. This idea is called irreducable complexity.

While the pro-evolution creationist-debunkers (i.e. the people with the counter-arguments to the counter-arguments) have been able to prove the flawed maths behind the probability argument, and have been able to demonstrate that there are subsets of the 50-element motor function "machine" of the supposedly irreducably complex creature that can work together, this debate over creation in total vs small incremental, fully viable, steps is still of great interest. I don't think it has been entirely resolved. One of the hardest things to explain, for me, is the fact that very different creatures, from supposedly very different families, seem to agree on things like "where an eye goes" or how a joint works. Or even the existence of joints. However, I can't believe in an intelligent designer or creator, so I'll have to believe in evolution. Ultimately, I think that the absence of an empirically discovered map of all the mutations that occurred means that there will always have to be a degree of belief.

That wasn't geeky? was it
We didn't get to the geeky part. I've been contributing posts on the blog of a friend recently. This friend is trying to use Agile software development to make some software. He keeps finding problems. Agile is a process of developing a piece of software by starting with a fully working program that does nothing and then adding, in small increments, things which surface as improvements as far as the user is concerned. Each increment should be only the work of a few hours and should result in a fully working piece of software. This is, in my head, akin to evolution. A small change occurs and then natural selection decides if it is to stay in the species (i.e. does it improve the species - if so, then it's more likely to survive and thus get propagating between generations and then become the dominant version of the species and so on). So, in software, the natural selection analog is whether the software still works and seems, to a user, to be any better than the software without the change.

It's not necessarily that dogmatic in Agile, as some changes may yield little or no user-oriented improvement, or may provide a feature that neither works, nor doesn't work. However, the Agile approach is very much based around evolution.

Yet, the natural instinct of a computer programmer is to act as a creator. I know that my programatic creature needs a heart. So I'll build a heart. Then I'll drop the heart into the creature and see if it works. This is akin to the intelligent design model. Something is so complex that it cannot be viably be created in a series of small tweaks. So, it should be designed and dropped in complete. Of course, the heart is a complex entity in its own right and would have a series of non-trivial connections to the rest of the entity, so building it would take a while and connecting it would take a while too. So to the "creationist" programmer, there will be long delays between different forms of the creature. These long delays could create costs and risks, and may also allow more room for confusion about how much is really needed of the entity when it is complete. This is why Agile programmers prefer to evolve.

So, is there a question?

I think there is. While for evolution, the idea of irreducable complexity may well be nothing more than a counter-argument, rather than a proof of the fallibility of Darwin's theory, or a proof of any alternative explanation, for software, there is a genuine issue. Are some things (albeit small things) of such a natural level of complexity that evolving them will only ever produce incoherent mid-way-products? If that's the case, then we cannot always make software in small increments. Alternatively, any small increments we make will be nothing more than waypoints on a way to a complex model that we've already designed. The mid-points serve no purpose then, except to prove that we're still busy and adding to the solution.

There's probably a lot of room for discussion on this. I have no answers of my own yet. I do know that a huge amount of design decision up front can be exceedingly wasteful, as things often look different in real life than they do on paper. I also know that a series of artificial mid-points, just to feign evolution, is probably not a good thing. Maybe the middle ground is the right place to go, but it can be hard to achieve.

Perhaps we all should pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster for guidance.

Wednesday, January 25

What a Malarkey
I arrived at the gig last night, having driven straight from work (my journey started at 4pm and involved a very very quick toilet/food break). The promoter had contacted me during the journey to make sure I was coming. Given that his is on of the few gigs that I'd gladly travel through 4 hours of rush hour traffic to attend (and I did). I thought that it was decidedly unassuming of him to double check. He is truly a great guy.

So, it was a venue I've played often (and I've always had great gigs there), but it had a couple of changes. Firstly, it had been spruced up. Actually, it's possible that it was spruced up last time, but I just didn't notice, distracted by my own self-absorption, the presence of my cousin, and the obscuring effect on decor caused by there being a huge crowd of students in the place. Sadly, the other change was that the huge crowd of excitable students was somewhat lacking in the important property of its magnitude. It was a crowd, but not a huge one. Couple this with the fact that the mid-20's of January is the most depressing time of the year and the gig was, unusually subdued.

However, subdued at XS Malarkey in Manchester is the equivalent of roof-raising in other gigs. Plus, this was the first time I'd ever been put on the stage there without a strict imperative to keep to time. So, I was intent on having as much fun as I could with the audience. overall, it was a very enjoyable and rewarding gig. I think I had to work a lot harder than I've ever worked on that stage before, and there's no doubt that at least two of the songs I did could have been cut - indeed, cutting them might have contributed to the set, rather than taken away from it. But what the hell. I hardly ever do "Distracting Racists With Board Games" and I thought that a Malarkey crowd might play along. It didn't lose them totally. In addition, "Bridget The Diabetic Midget" is a good student sing-along number, but it failed to hit the spot as it has done on previous occasions.

Keeping control of an approximately 30 minute musical set is a skill. It's something I don't get to do very often, and I was reasonably out of practice. There were a few points where I lost my internal sense of rhythm and started belting along. Had the audience been interrupting me with huge uncontrollable laughter, then that wouldn't have happened - the trick is to be able to keep your own pace when there's no laughter, rather than rush on to the next guaranteed laugh. Overall, I didn't rush it too much, and I felt distinctly confident on the stage. It's hard not to feel safe among an XS Malarkey audience.

One of the things I've been doing more in longer sets is alternating between playing the show tight to the script and loosening up - usually in the links. For me, one of the skills is to make the scripted pieces seem spontaneous in their delivery, or at least not appear to radically be changing gear between making it up and doing something I've done countless times before. Between big hitters, I purposely made myself go off script, if only to make some pleasantries with the audience, or comment on one person who was particularly enjoying it. I even threw in a bit of audience banter. That should be good, right?

Not quite. Audience banter is an artform. There are various tricks you can use. One of these is the loaded question. For example, if you notice someone has a very expensive watch, you can put a question to them thusly: "Oooh, that's an expensive watch - is your daddy loaded? or did you nick it?". This is socially awkward, so when they reply with anything, you can either mock them for being a spoilt-rich-kid or thief - even if they try to deny being either. That's not a great example, but you get the idea. So, I started a conversation with someone who was sitting in the front row and who was the only person to clap a particular part of the set. I said this:

"You're the only one clapping. Thanks for that. Hey, you're balder than I am."

This was not a remarkable observation and it seemed to stun him and the audience to silence. Given that he'd probably just shaved his head, it wasn't too shocking. So, like an idiot, given the opportunity to avoid the slippery slope, or jump headlong down it, I followed with:

"Oooh, you're not undergoing chemotherapy are you?"

Yep. I managed to turn the whole room into a crowd that wanted to know if the big man with the guitar was picking on a guy because he had cancer. I then pushed the point to get an answer and he said that, in fact, he was undergoing chemo.

Oh hell!

In fact, two things occurred to me simultaneously:

1. I think I've heard talk of a regular at the club who may or may not be disabled, possibly cancer ridden.
2. I don't feel like I care a great deal about this moment - I can talk my way out of it.

So, I pushed the point. I asked him if he was okay, he said he was and I got the crowd to cheer him. Then I feigned embarrassment at the situation I'd caused. While doing this I studied him and noticed that his facial hair was still there, a sure sign that he hasn't got some hairloss disease thing going on. So, I pushed the point with him. Actually, I momentarily debated reasoning with him in front of the audience that he wasn't chemo using this logic, but decided it might be risky. So, I pressured him to admit that he'd been lying. He admitted it. I then was able to break the tension which I'd somehow created.

I've listened to this moment back a couple of times from the recording I took. While there was clearly a tension in the room, there were laughs throughout the banter and the big thing I got wrong was that I didn't really pause between the next bit of the saga. For me, it seemed like 2 or 3 minutes had elapsed when I came out of the moment the other end. In reality it was about 20 seconds of silliness! I learned an important lesson. Don't use "have you got cancer?" as a comedy-loaded-question!

The audience were still laughing in my last song and I left the gig with my head held high. I think.

I look forward to playing that venue again. It was definitely worth the drive.

In a change to the planned itinerary. I drove to my girlfriend's parents' house to stay the night, despite having planned to spend the night at my new place in Farnborough. So, I had to make a quick trip to the house in Farnborough to get a change of clothes before work. The things I'll do to avoid making a bed!...

Finding your voice
I was reading in another comedian's blog something about finding one's comedic voice. He somewhat pooh-poohed the idea of a voice as being some americanised inanity (I'm paraphrasing). In fact, the "voice" or "persona" or "mojo" or whatever you want to call it, are vital in being funny on stage. It's now three years into my time as a stand-up comedian, and I know that I'm still finding my limitations and my strengths on stage. I think there was a time when making the transition to "performing mode" from being me was a big thing (the wind-up and wind-down from a gig were huge and I didn't quite feel natural when on stage). Now, I transition between the two easily, and there's some of my stage-persona in my daily interpersonal behaviour and vice-versa. However, my behaviour on stage is very particularly different to my behaviour off it.

I was going to post about this on the comedian's blog (mentioned above) but the comments screen went wrong. So, I'll write about it here. There is a story that illustrates this. It happened back in November when I arrived at a Friday evening gig in Manchester after a horrendous car journey - Friday on the M6 is never fun. I was stressed and tired and due to go on first at a tough gig. I moaned at the nearest person, who happened to be the promoter. He said - "Yeah, but once you're on stage, you'll turn on the energy and cheer". I imagine that he may well have been suggesting this partly as coercion on one of his acts to go up there and BE FUNNY. However, he was also observing the fact that when you take to the stage you're there to do your act and not reflect too much on your mood. Being funny involves using a stylised way of behaving to communicate with an entire room full of people (or in the case of this gig, a room, one-third-full-of-disinterested-people).

So, one's comic voice probably starts with the persona. To be funny in company requires a certain way of behaving which would probably not work if you did it exactly like that on a stage in a big room. By exaggerating the things which make you funny and making them as big as the room, perhaps using them to signpost things in your material which are meant to be funny, you can make a room full of people laugh. Being funny partly comes from within, and is partly a straightforward skill of audience-coercion. Finding a comic persona is the junction of these two things.

Once you know who you are on stage, you have to make sure that you deliver your material in character. As such, some material simply cannot work for you and some of it comes very naturally. For me, singing self-deprecating, rude, or wordplay intensive songs seems to work quite well, where biting political satire never truly fits me. I can learn to adapt to other areas, and my persona will expand. Somewhere, though, after gigs and gigs worth of experience, a particular sort of behaviour and a particular branch of comedy will shine out as the most comfortable for me, and the most entertaining for audiences. That's what it means by finding a comedy voice.

I think I know who I am on stage at the moment.

I also think I'm enjoying it.

I hope to do more gigs and make the most of it. I won't be young and energetic enough to be able to cope with 7 or 8 hours in the car after a day's work forever!

Monday, January 23

Let's blog again
A comedic colleague has just started a blog which she hopes to update every day. I think that it's fair to assume that, based on past performance, I simply haven't got the commitment to keep that up. However, I am blogging for the second day running, so let's not look this particular gift-horse in the mouth.

Back With The Crew, in Crewe
Since my farewell-to-Newcastle gig in December, I've not gigged very much. In fact, I've done two gigs. Considering that I did over a dozen in November, it's fair to say that I've somewhat slackened the pace. This is not abnormal for me - I usually have a quite Jan and Feb (though usually because my efforts are elsewhere - on a musical, perhaps). Anyway, the problem is that not gigging for a while can make you feel rusty and out of condition. Where in November, I could easily eat up a 30+ minute slot, I am now pondering how easily I could keep up the pace in a 20 minute slot.

My first gig of the year was at the Red Rose Comedy club in Finsbury Park, London. I opened the show and things went reasonably well. I'd prepared a bit beforehand, but felt under-rehearsed... and more spontaneous. I found new opportunities to make laughs from my material - this is good. It felt fresher.

Last Thursday (19th Jan) I drove some 185 or so miles to Crewe (I think it would have been a similar distance from Newcastle) and did my first 20 minute set of the year. The Crewe gig operates the Manchester-style system of putting the main paid support act as the penultimate act of the night, so the shorter spots, sometimes comprising newer acts (or in the case of Thursday, the break-through acts), get to warm up the crowd. The aforementioned blogger and comedian, Sarah Millican, left me a lovely crowd to come on to and I duly proceeded to have a wonderful time with them.

I really enjoyed the gig and it was good to see some of the comedians whom I'd not seen in a while. I drove one such colleague back to Birmingham, and he even graciously sat through my wild ideas about musicals, some of which involved recordings I'd made of a work-in-progress.

All That Malarkey
I've got a gig tomorrow in Manchester that I'm very excited about. It's Bar XS in Manchester. The gig is run by a smashing chap - Toby Hadoke - who was also the compere last Thursday. I don't think I've had a tough time at a gig he's compered, so I feel like I will be in safe hands... at one of my very favourite venues ever!

Sunday, January 22

A lot has happened since my last blog entry. Well, over a month's worth of stuff. My life has changed significantly, as I predicted, and I've not really had the chance to catch up with any of it. I should, at least, attempt to write about some of the events of the last month, lest they one day retrospectively shed any light on what's to come.

Farewell to Newcastle
It wasn't a huge event to say goodbye to the job I'd had for one month short of nine and a half years. The job had pretty much fizzled out for me. I had an exit interview with the boss, where I explained to him some of the things which are hard to say from the position of someone ensconced in the workings of the office. How can you say it straight when you're planning to depend on some of the things you may be making quite a stand against? Perhaps if you feel you can say these things then you're in a very strong position.

Anyway, I had been quite outspoken with the boss and I think he may have wondered whether my parting comments at the usually awkward leaving gathering would be destructive to morale. I think I could have gotten away with saying some cheeky, even downright rude things in my parting speech. However, I had no intention of doing so. While perhaps it might have looked like I had nothing to lose (what were they going to do? sack me?), I reasoned that I had a lot of friends whose future depends on the success of my ex-employer. Unless the members of the company recognise their own responsibility to improve things, then there might not be a company one day. So, I spent the morning of my leaving day writing a speech. I put jokes in it. I am quite pleased that it was reasonably well-received.

I won't explain the tedious details of the speech... well, these details may be tedious, but they're not the whole thing. I started off by telling the story of picking up a hitchhiker on 15th November (oh, bit of a tip - it really freaks them out if, when you drop them off, you ask them for their share of the petrol). I had had a discussion with this hitchhiker about how I felt that a lot of the things that made my life stable also tied me down. A house, a job that is needed to pay for the house... and so on. I explained that I felt I could not free myself from the life I was leading. Though I quite liked having all the things around me, it was also weird to see my "advantage" as chains. I felt totally unable to change my situation.

Yet, a few days later, I had already resigned my job and found a new one - something I would never have believed myself capable of. The point I was making to my (now ex-) work colleagues was not that they should all quit their jobs and change their lives, but more that we all have more ability to change the status-quo than we think. If something is in need of a change, then it's not as hard as it might seem to go about making that change happen. Sitting back and complaining about it certainly isn't going to help.

I remember receiving criticism on another blog for some comments I made about how keen I was to change the way things were done at work in order to make them better. The other blogger thought that I was just being suckered in by management, expecting me to do more work for the same pay. That somehow, I was being a victim of "working for the man". The truth of the matter, though, is that one's job is an important part of one's life and one's concept of self-importance. Part of the reason I left my last job was related to how my transition through the company had reached a point where working there was negatively contributing to my sense of achievement and self-esteem. At that stage, I felt that I could gain more by a fresh start, building on what I'd learned from my previous employer. Indeed, this is exactly what I'm now doing and it's great. However, I had never felt that way before. If I saw a problem in my work, I saw it as part of the fun of having a job to fix the problem. That's what I'm being paid for. That's what my identity as a working man means - doing the best that I can in the role I've chosen to take.

Hopefully, I encouraged my ex-colleagues to make the most of what is, despite a recent spate of exits and reorganisations, a good company. Of course improving the way the company works should not be done at the expense of actually producing the output that the system is supposed to produce. Nor should the system become some huge lawnmower that cuts down everything in its wake. People are important.

So, I gave my speech. It had been preceded by a few words from my ex-team-leader. He was probably more interested in the gig I'd done at the start of the week, than anything else. Fair enough - he'd seen me at my computer loads of times and only once on a stage with a guitar. Then I received the obligatory card with silly comments in it, put my stuff into a bag and walked out of the office. It was weird. It still feels a bit weird.

That was my big exit from Newcastle.

Poppins
That weekend, we were celebrating my girlfriend's birthday. We went to London for a night out. We took a "flight" on the London Eye, went for a meal and then went to see Mary Poppins, the new adaptation of P.L. Travers' books, which includes many moments and songs from the Disney movie, but also has its own songs and vision for how the story should be told. The show is on at the Prince Edward theatre, which is part-owned by its producer Cameron Macintosh. This theatre also saw the original run of Evita (which I happen to know as I have a programme for the show in a clip-frame on the wall in my house in Newcastle). As might have been expected for such a show, our expectations were high.

In some ways, the show is excellent. There's no doubt that the Sherman brothers' songs are worth performing loud and proud on stages everywhere. The choreography was, on the whole, excellent, and the set was inventive and interesting - like a huge dolls' house, sections of which could be dropped down or flown to reveal the different floors.

On the down side, however, the magic seemed to be missing. The basic premise of the movie is that two perfectly innocent children are among a bunch of extreme and unbelievable characters. There's the totally unfeeling father, the rampantly suffragette mother, the odd neighbours, neurotic household staff. They meet up with the cheerful and enigmatic chimney sweep and the magic nanny and things turn around. The father cheers up, the mother gets closer to the children and their behaviour - wanting to fly a kite - is not seen as a problem any more. In the stage adaptation, however, the children are not so wholesome. There's a definite darker-side to this show and the kids are reasonably obnoxious too. Where I quite liked sympathising with the kids as these sane real characters, now the show has changed the emphasis and the real person in the mad-house is Mrs Banks. She sings a song bemoaning the identity crisis of "being Mrs Banks." Equally, the kids need to learn a lesson about their temper, which is achieved in a rather unpleasant (read not-entertaining) nightmare scene. It's more adult, but I'm not convinced it's truly in keeping with the magic which made Mary Poppins first capture the hearts of the world.

The flip-side of this view is that Walt Disney's original movie was quite saccharine, and perhaps doesn't quite stand the test of time. I've parodied its premise on stage myself. By today's standards, the whole thing seems very unlikely and tame. The stage show may endure longer as a result of reflecting a more worldly audience. I don't know.

Probably the biggest problem in the staging of the show was that some of the "magical events" associated with Mary Poppins, like inanimate objects moving of their own accord, people being sucked out of chimneys, or dancing over rooftops were present, but not particularly believable. Either the props behaved too much like they were just machines, or safety restrictions prevented the cast from being able to do stunts. The rooftop scene was especially restrictive as the cast were genuinely a storey or so above the stage when on the roof of the set and so couldn't do all the leaping about that so gave the Chim-Chimerney scene in the film its fluidity.

The new songs were, for the most part, pretty good. They didn't jar with the existing, well-known songs, but the Sherman brothers songs still leapt out as being of outstanding quality.

Comparing this show with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which I found better on stage than it was when I rewatched the movie, I think that it has been shown to be possible to recreate a Dick Van Dyke movie with a Sherman brothers soundtrack on stage a lot better than Poppins managed.


Crisis at Christmas
No sooner were we back from the weekend's West End show watching, than we were due to pack for Christmas. Unlike previous years, where I'd been a general volunteer, staying somewhere in London for my voluntary work at the Crisis Christmas shelter, this year I was going to be staying at my girlfriend's parents' house and volunteering as an assistant shift-leader.

In some ways this might be seen to be an upgrade. I'd traded in the solitude for company of a girlfriend (whom I first met during last year's Crisis Open Christmas).
I'd traded my white general volunteer badge for a green shift leader badge - surely some sort of increase in rank? Was I not going to be better off?

Overall, I think perhaps I broke even. Maybe I even personally fared worse. Perhaps I was able to contribute more to the event than I had in previous years, but I felt reasonably low and exhausted by the end. I don't know if it had anything to do with the fact that I was the most unsettled in my daily life than I had ever been at Crisis.

Living in a house which is running normal daylight hours, while working a night-shift, is a bit weird. On the up-side, I had someone to say hello to when I arrived back from the shift. I also woke up to find a meal being prepared by someone else. So, in that respect it was easier. I'm not sure that I got my mind focused on the night-shift as well as I had done while alone. However, I've never been a huge fan of loneliness, so it was a fair swap.

The traveling time to and from the shift - a hour or so's commute to/from London - was not a particular advantage, but it didn't bother me a great deal and gave me a bit of time to unwind after a particularly hard shift or two.

The new role as shift-leader seemed to change my outlook on the shelter and its occupants (volunteers and guests alike). Having to keep my cool in emergency situations and realising that I had fewer people above me to support me was more of a challenge than it had been. Conversely, I think I managed to offer more support to the newer volunteers than I would have otherwise.

Overall, I came out of the event exhausted and uncertain of my immediate future. It was probably the fact that I spent the entire event musing over my own situation - I was not homeless, but I didn't have a place to live in the part of the country where I'd be working only a few days hence. I had places to stay, but nowhere to call my own. My house in Newcastle can't be considered a home to me anymore. That's something that will take a lot of adjusting to.


So, priority one after Crisis was getting back into the swing of things and finding a new place to live.

Finding a new home
Though I could stay at my girlfriend's place for as long as I needed, it seemed a priority to find a room to rent. The logic went like this. If I didn't have a room, then I had no idea of what space I had for my stuff. Without that idea, I didn't know how much of my stuff, and thus how many of my out-of-work activities, I would be able to put together in it. I had to visit Newcastle to pick up my things and I couldn't do that without knowing how many of them to pick up. I also needed to have some idea of how rich a life I could expect to be living in the future - dependant on the standard of living and the space to do my own thing, I'd have.

So, I had to find somewhere.

I think I saw, in total, about 12 different properties. One of them was great, but too small. One of them was perfect, but not available, in principle until the end of January - but then it proved not to be available at all. D'oh! Then there were 8 absolute shit-holes. Seriously. I'd have paid £400 a month NOT to live in these places. Someone was offering a "studio-flat" which was actually a bed-sit with a nasty shower-unit blocking the route to a nasty toilet, in a cramped broom cupboard attached to room, into which I wouldn't have taken a cat, let alone failed to swing the aforementioned pet-mammal around in. On most viewings I had to keep control of my face, lest I reveal to the person showing me around that I was trying to bide my time until I was allowed to escape from the place. It's rude to look frightened and then run from a house viewing.

However, one room was great. It has its own sink, a nice sash window. Space enough for the double-bed (provided), plus space for another 3 or so of those beds. Not that I wanted a room full of beds, but I like space. I want space to have somewhere for my computer, a TV, some books, and my musical instruments. There's plenty of space in this room. Its only disadvantage was that the walls were a mucky putrid colour.

I rented the room and got permission to paint it. Sorted.

Sadly, I've not managed to live there yet, but the time will come. The room does contain a load of my possessions, and I've even used the address for various items that I've been buying from ebay. The house is under a mile from my office and I have walked there in under ten minutes. I even have a new set of bed linen, pillows and duvet. It will be great to live there. I just have to sort it out.

Guerilla Moving
Having sent the money for the deposit on my room and the pro-rata payment for the first month's rent (minus the time already past). I had to collect my possessions. I scooted off to Newcastle. I filled the car, with things that I'd packed on the spot. During this trip, I also showed two friends around the house with a view to them renting it. It's looking like a possibility, which is nice. I trust them to live there and be good tenants, treating the place and the neighbourhood with respect.

I discovered exactly how much stuff my new car can hold. I bought the car in September and I hadn't had cause to drop its rear seats down and fill it with large objects. I was truly impressed by how much it could fit. The stepladder, table, guitars (3), keyboard, countless boxes, bed linen, clothes and washing basket didn't seem to overfill it. I might have squeezed more into the car, but I ran out of time. I was in the house for a total of about 3 hours on Saturday 7th Jan.

On Sunday 8th January, I spent about 90 minutes at my new place unloading the car and meeting 3 of my new housemates. It's a house of 7 in total, plus the occasional visiting girlfriend. The house mates seem like nice people. So far, so good.


The New Job
Monday 9th January, I started my new job. There was the obligatory induction, followed by an introduction to my new team. I'm going to be working on a new product (well, a total rewrite of an existing product in such a way that doesn't rely on its existing design).

I got a computer, installed some software on it and spent my first week getting around the challenges posed by trying to get the code related to the company's internal frameworks to work on my machine. I also did a bit of self-training on a new computer language - C#. In my previous job I'd been a C++ expert and I was given an interview for this new place according to those skills, even though the company has moved on to C#. It's up to me to learn C#, which is a natural successor to C++. So far, what I've seen has made sense, but I've not had to use it in earnest, yet.

A week into my new job, I was given a design challenge. It's not that complex, but our understanding of what it entailed seemed to change on a daily basis. This is the bad thing about doing up-front-design, but it's also the good thing about doing up-front-design on a small subsystem, rather than the whole project. We will implement a first-attempt at what we now think is required. It should be expandable or easily replaced at a later stage if necessary. Either way, we've learned a lot more about the problem in the process.

The company I work for has a system of working that is similar, in some respects, to that which I left in Newcastle. It's also different. Where in Newcastle, we did everything in short bursts (originally 3 weeks, then it became 1 week), in this place we do things in 6 week iterations. However, an iteration is actually composed of one week's preparation, 4 weeks' implementation, and 1 week's "wash-up". So, we appear to be moving only 4 weeks in 6? Well, perhaps, or perhaps we are moving all the time, but we gain stability in the "wash-up" week and insight in the preparation week. In the 4 weeks' implementation, the ideal is to remain in sync all the time and to set weekly milestones (mini-iterations). So, it's no different to the Newcastle system... except that we now put effort into working out the detail for what's coming in the short, mid and long-term. So people outside the team can see what's going on, and people within the team can predict a little more of what might be required, rather than doing everything on a short-sighted hand-to-mouth sort of a way, which, quite frankly, DOES NOT WORK.

I'm only explaining this in such detail in case any of my ex-colleagues read this. There is a better way. While I am neither dogmatically promoting my new employer's system as perfect, nor am I experienced enough with it to understand its full implications, I am really happy that I am working in an environment where people have answers. They're not definitive answers, but they do exist. I have some idea of what I'm likely to be doing between now and 2008!

A Pyrrhic Victory
Some victories are not worth it. That's basically what is meant by a Pyrrhic Victory. In other words, the cost of winning is far too great. Such a problem was demonstrated to me recently. I'd argued over Christmas with my girlfriend that, when we saw The Producers in the West End last year, we'd seen it with someone other than Nathan Lane playing the role of Max. She had argued firmly that it had been Nathan Lane. I knew otherwise, but bit my tongue. It wasn't worth making the point.

Then we went to see the movie version of the show and noticed, in the closing credits that Brad Oscar, who had been in the broadway production, had a small cameo in the film as a taxi driver. My girlfriend thought this was good, as she knew he had played the role of Max in the show. I couldn't stop myself pointing out that he had, in fact, played the role of Max when we saw the show together on Lee Evans' last day as Leo Bloom. I should not have bothered. This led her to insist that we should find out for certain that I was wrong and that she had indeed seen the show with Nathan Lane in the role.

I can't help being a musicals geek. So, I knew the answer all along. Ultimately, it was my own blog (April 23, 2005) which furnished the answer. I wish I'd kept my mouth shut. If she wanted to have happy memories of seeing Nathan Lane, then what difference did it really make?

The Producers
The movie of the musical of the movie. Was it any good? Well, not bad. There were some highlights. Nathan Lane is always going to be a highlight. Will Ferrel was also excellent as Frans Liebkin. The music is good and always was, and the look of the movie was impressive. From the musicals-geekery point of view, it was nice to see that it was set at the Shubert theatre, a place I've visited.


Here it is

In addition, there was a poster on the wall of the theatre for My Fair Lady, which would have been playing on Broadway at the time that this movie is set - the late 50's. A nice touch.

The downside to this movie can be summed up in three names - Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman and Susan Stroman. Let's take Susan Stroman first. She did a smashing job of the direction and choreography for the stage show and should definitely have been involved in the movie. However, as its principle director, she should have done something more than just plonk a camera in front of the action as though we were watching a stage production. In places there was more, but overall, it felt bitty - sometimes it was just the film of a stage-show and sometimes it was in movie-mode. something was missing. In a similar twist, some of the script was hastily edited to avoid the references to there being a stage, or an interval. Rather than rewrite those bits, they were tweaked into pointlessness.

However, it's not in my interest to say too many disparaging things about the genius that is Mel Brooks. Ms Stroman takes the first bit of blame.

Secondly, Uma Thurman. She can't particularly sing or dance and she's not got the stunning good looks for the role of Ulla, the swedish dream-date that acts as the love interest and leading lady for the movie. What a horrible piece of casting. As a result there were several hilarious camera tricks to mask the fact that she couldn't dance.

Finally, Matthew Broderick. I don't know why he ever got the role. He's always been too cool for Leo Bloom. Bloom is a loser who is not a man - he's a mouse. He's timid, awkward and we need to see that so that when he starts acting cool it's a big change. Broderick just isn't awkward. Lee Evans had the role to perfection and should have been put into the movie. I know that Broderick created the role on broadway, but it should have been Evans on screen. Simple as that.

So, it was a mixed blessing seeing the movie. I enjoyed it, despite the various glitches that howled. Even though we saw it in a relatively empty cinema, people laughed out loud, and I don't think I've been to a movie with laugh-out-loud moments in it in a very long time.

Reading a book!
Not content with watching movies. I finally got myself back into reading a book. I had started the fourth of the Dan Brown novels (or at least the fourth one on my list to read) - Deception Point. I like Dan Brown's writing, and this book, after a slightly dull start, was no exception to his high-standard of fast-paced, intriguing, plot-twisting fun reads.

Not Writing The Musical!
I've done a lot of thinking about my hopes to adapt The Musical! into a radio play. I've not managed to do a whole load of writing, but I have managed to generate a bunch of ideas. I may be about to get time enough to assemble them into a series of scenes within the episodes of the series.

I would like to spend some time doing some writing, but somehow the opportunity has always been "just around the corner". Maybe I'm nearly at the corner, now.

Not moving in
The commute from Southampton to Farnborough, where I now work, is somewhere between 1 and 2 hours each morning. It's just over an hour back. Given that I have a rented room less than 10 minutes' walk from the office, then I really need to organise myself and stop the driving and petrol expense. However, I have no intention of deserting my girlfriend while she's suffering the slings and arrows of exam stress, so I'm staying around here, providing moral support, among other things. The exams ease of shortly.

Not revising
Though I'm not revising myself, I am providing key revision services. This basically involves transcribing sections of text for my girlfriend to quickly reduce down to note-form on the computer for memorisation purposes. It's quite an industry we have going here. From the page, through the computer directly into her brain. I couldn't do it. I was also the sort of person who memorised methods, rather than essays. I would hate to be a student again - it looks too difficult.

Not blogging
Somehow, I've managed to go a long time without writing a blog entry, and then this essay pops up. I recommend against such large blog entries. Sorry to everyone who has waded through this one. I'll try to blog more often in smaller chunks. You know me, though, I probably won't manage it.

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