A Norwegian Adventure

For the first time in 8 years, at the weekend I was back in Norway, the country I consider to be my spiritual home. It was a whistle stop trip though – my delayed flight arrived 2 hours late on Friday evening, and I was back at the airport before 11 on Sunday morning. I took the airport bus into Oslo city centre – it left within minutes of me getting on the bus and was a clean and quick trip. Free wifi on the bus, and regular updates on the monitors on the bus meant I knew when I’d be getting into the city.

A short walk through unfamiliar streets and I was at the quayside waiting for a ferry across the fjord. It’s a commuter service which runs every hour. What a way to enjoy the views of the city, sitting outside in the glorious sunshine, the only downside being the smell of the diesel engines pushing us across the sea.

The bus service at the other side is timed to meet the ferry, and my parents were there too. Another quick and easy trip on the bus and we were at our destination.

Saturday morning brought a leisurely breakfast then a trip back by bus and ferry into Oslo to do some shopping, then back across the fjord to my aunt and uncle’s before heading off to the reason I was there in the first place: my parents’ Golden wedding party, part two.

We’d had part one in Scotland the week before, with family and friends gathering for a while on the Sunday afternoon, and part two was something similar but for the Norwegian contingent. Buffet dinner and drinks in a bar / restaurant at the edge of Oslo fjord, with all manner of boats going past while the sun made its lazy transit, bathing us in glorious light all afternoon and well into the evening. A final bus trip for the day and time for bed.

Sunday was more or less a repeat of the Friday, but in reverse and with no delays to the flight. I have to say that the cleanliness and efficiency of the public transport in Norway was a notable improvement on my experiences here in the UK – at least from a timekeeping point of view. Services were coordinated so that a delay to e.g. the ferry meant that the buses wouldn’t leave till it came in. For an “expensive” country, which Norway is renowned to be, the 50 minute trip from the airport on the bus was about £12, and the bus / ferry combined at the other end was about £3.50. Not bad at all. Ok, the beer was £6.65 for a half litre, or £5.23 for 400ml, but there wasn’t exactly time for a lot of that, and the prices aren’t that far off “London prices” for beer these days.

The visit was way too short, but did re-emphasise to me how much I love Norway and that I need to go back soon, and then often after that. Who knows, maybe my very rusty Norwegian language skills will improve and I’ll move on from just asking if people speak English, or responding in English when asked a question in Norwegian: that would be a desirable outcome!

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Change happens from within, right?

Over the past few months I’ve had a massive change in lifestyle. I’ve reduced the amount of alcohol I drink significantly. I’ve stopped eating ready meals, in favour of home cooked food or meals in cafes and restaurants. I’ve even managed to start getting 7 or 8 hours sleep a night, sometimes more, for the first time in years. And that’s all been brilliant, because I feel healthier and fitter and have lost a bit of weight. I need to do more, and need to do some exercise, but it’s a good start.

I’ve also stopped being quite such a couch potato. I don’t watch nearly as much TV as I used to, have cancelled my subscription to Sky Movies, and spend my time reading or talking to people instead. Weekends have become a hive of activity instead of the usual struggle to catch up on sleep from the week before. Joining the National Trust and English Heritage has opened up a whole new world of places to see, all for the cost of some fuel to get there. I’ve found I’m learning about all sorts of things, from how catholic priests were hidden in the Middle Ages at Oxborough Hall to how German POWs were used as labour at Waddesdon Manor (some of them not leaving till the end of 1919, well after the end of the war). Trips to Bletchley Park, the National Space Centre and the Imperial War Museum in Duxford have refreshed and reignited by passions for space and air travel, for the engineering involved, for codes and cyphers. I had stagnated in life and that was making me tired, stressed, irritable and grouchy. Outwardly, my sense of humour got me through but hid a multitude of issues.

Talking to remarkable people who do so much for their communities, selflessly helping those worse off than themselves, has opened my eyes to some extent to the extreme hardship some people face, from unemployment and poverty, to substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, people trafficking and all sorts of other things. Just living is incredibly tough for a lot of people, and in many cases it’s through no fault of their own. For those of us who have had a cosy, uncomplicated life, we can never fully understand or appreciate how lucky we are, or what others would give to have the lives we do. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It’s tough and emotional, but I think you’ll be a more complete and compassionate person. I’m trying to do just that and I think I’m getting there slowly.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you find yourself in a rut, there’s only one person that can get you out of it. Make the effort, learn something, see something new, do something different: it’ll be hard at first, but the rewards are just awesome.

What is live music for?

Isn’t music a strange thing? All human emotion can be portrayed through it, whether it be a couple of notes or a whole passage, sometimes subtly and sometimes with great force. We’re exposed to that range from a very early age: think about cartoons and animated movies. I find it quite strange that though our early exposure is mostly to the instruments found in an orchestra, whether singly or en masse, for the most part we “grow out of” liking “classical” music and instead largely turn to more modern or contemporary genres. Do we ever recapture the joys of when a piccolo was used to indicate that the mouse has appeared in a cartoon, or the tuba whenever Reggie Perrin’s mother in law (younger readers may need to look this up!) is mentioned?

Movies are often successful in large parts due to their soundtracks. Just think of Jaws, Star Wars, Titanic, Pulp Fiction etc – just the mention of those makes you think of the music (and am I the only one who starts whistling The Great Escape only to end up with Indiana Jones?) Soundtracks can change your perception of the movie, but also change you for life. Imagine my surprise when, having existed almost entirely on punk and goth for years, I watched The Blues Brothers and was compelled to go out and buy blues and soul by all the artists in the film. It’s still my favourite movie ever.

My own musical journey is, I think, quite odd. When I was growing up, the radio was rarely on, and my parents didn’t have a collection of records, cassettes or 8-track cartridges (it’s Google time again youngsters 😀). But nearly every week, I would eagerly sit down to watch Top of the Pops and, later, The Tube. I’ve no idea why music had the effect it did, but I’m very happy that was the case. I didn’t often listen to Radio 1, so I wasn’t really exposed to what the youth of the day was listening to – TotP hardly covered it, did it? One of my earliest memories is of seeing Chuck Berry perform (the soon to be banned) “My Ding-a-Ling” on TotP.  I got into trouble for singing “Crazy Horses” at school (I know, The Osmonds – what was I thinking? But saying that, I so want to cover that in a band some day!) and my first favourite band was The Sweet. Cue Eurovision and Abba came along – I was hooked. I won’t say much more, other than “Arrival” was the first album I ever owned (hopefully redemption can be found in the fact that the first record I ever bought was “Funky Gibbon” by The Goodies) and a few years later salvation appeared in shape of punk rock.

I have to admit I’ve never been a big fan of The Clash – sacrilege to some, I know – and I’m not sure why. The lyrics were awesome, bass lines were brilliant, but there was just something I couldn’t quite get. In comparison, I thought the Sex Pistols were brash, but seemed to keep things on a more simple level. The whole movement was antiestablishment, in your face, and shocking, but if you listen to the music now? Straightforward rock with attitude, no messing about. I still love listening to the Pistols today.

Out of this new found music style, there was a new experience to be had – going to see live bands. And I have to say, that sealed music into me. Seeing people who were passionate about what they had to say, who enjoyed what they were doing, entertaining others and mixing with other people who were like me, fans – what’s not to like?  The first band I saw was the UK Subs at Carlisle Market Hall when I was 14, followed soon after at the same venue by Stiff Little Fingers, who promptly established themselves forever more as my favourite band ever.

At about the same age, the inevitable happened – I had to become a musician! So I bought a battered old 3 piece Premier drum kit from a friend for £40, hung a couple of metal biscuit tin lids from the ceiling cos I wanted more cymbals, and started trying to play. I joined a band, which rehearsed in my attic, every Saturday. I think it’s fair to say we weren’t that good, and the drummer was shocking! I could keep a beat, was a good timekeeper, but that was as far as it went.

I also bought a Kay’s catalogue Rickenbacker bass copy, with amp, from another friend, but couldn’t really get into it. In the space of 18 months I learned a couple of tunes – the UK Subs’ “Warhead” being the first of those and, incidentally, when I picked up bass again some 25 years later, was the first song I played: I still play it when warming up or sound checking.

Inevitably, the bass was sold, the drums were burned (after I well and truly trashed them while listening to The Who), and I restricted myself to watching from afar. Initially sticking with the music I knew and liked, then branching out into other genres, live music invaded my being. Whether it was pubs and clubs or theatres, open air events in the park etc, I’d go and watch just about anyone playing just about anything. Having seen Big Country at Ingliston, and Simple Minds at the SECC, I realised that I didn’t like big venues where you struggle to see the band unless you join the crush in the mosh pit. Years later, I saw Green Day at the Milton Keynes Bowl, and Muse at Wembley, and that just compounded that view. I just don’t get the same vibe or feeling from a big venue.

About ten years ago I picked up the bass again, and pretty quickly regretted having ditched it all those years ago. I made a point of trying to learn, or at least try, as many different styles as possible. I found that irrespective of what I was playing, all other thoughts, worries and doubts left me and there was just the music. That’s still the case today. I may struggle to play some pieces, I may worry about making mistakes or letting my band mates down in some way, but at the heart of it all, the music takes me and I can forget about the rest of the world, in a way that I’ve rarely experienced other than when out hillwalking. I now pay more attention when I go to see people play, to see what I can learn, what are good things to do and what are bad, which means I don’t relax quite as much as I used to at gigs, but I view it all as a positive learning experience from people who enjoy what they do.

If you’re in a pub, club, beer garden, whatever, and there’s a band playing, please make sure you applaud them after every song, and at least show some kind of appreciation. At the end of the day, those guys and gals up there have put in time and effort, and have had the courage to get up there and do something for our entertainment. They are worthy of our attention and encouragement.

What’s another year?

Yesterday was yet another birthday for me. My age doesn’t have a 0 at the end, but it’s not far off. As birthdays sometimes do, this one set me thinking. What has changed, or what have I done to effect change, in the last year? The answer is – and this is unusual for me – a massive amount of change. (In no particular order) I’ve visited Auschwitz, crossed the Atlantic for the first time, had a mud bath in a volcano, walked with wolves, ended a 25 year marriage, recorded in a “proper” studio and, more recently, rediscovered the joys of life and felt rejuvenated. And that all feels like just the tip of the iceberg.

For all those events, perhaps the biggest change has been within me. Seeing in excess of 800 000 poppies at the Tower of London on a rainy November evening in London, contrasting that with the thought that double that number of people died in Auschwitz (that visit was on a searing hot July day). You can’t see those things and not wonder what life is all about, what’s it for? I’ve developed an aversion for tall chimneys, which now unsettle me almost as much as graveyards do.

I’ve also become aware of the “hidden” world we live in. I say “hidden”, but it’s more one I was relatively unaware of because I’ve been pretty privileged in my upbringing and life experiences and that I’ve not (knowingly) come into contact with it. That “hidden” world is one where domestic violence, rape, discrimination and intolerance are a fact of daily life for a large number of people. That can’t be right, can it? In a modern society, in the 21st century, why is this still happening? I’m hoping that if more of us speak out against such practices, the more awareness is raised so that people who, like me, lived in their own little protective bubbles, then change can and will happen. I know it’s not easy, but as the proverb goes, even a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. I’m determined to do what I can, but what are you going to do?

On a more positive note, I’ve started to enjoy days out seeing different things, with new experiences. A water mill that appeared in the Domesday Book, a fortified medieval home complete with moat and priest hole (persecution again), the National Space Centre, Bletchley Park, the Imperial War Museum at Duxford – they’ve all taught me new things and given me more appreciation of the struggles of those who have gone before us, as well as made me value what I have and who I share it with. It’s a validation of life, that for all the dark things that go on, there’s also goodness and light.

This may sound strange, but standing underneath a Vulcan bomber, or within touching distance of a Lancaster and a Spitfire yesterday, made me very emotional. To be awestruck at the size and majesty of those instruments of death and, ultimately, catalysts for freedom, was incredible. Every component, from the smallest screw and rivet, had a part to play in enabling the whole to function correctly. Isn’t that the same as the parts we can play in combating the hidden world I mentioned above?

Definitely NOTGUILTY – a brave woman facing up to a problem in society

I assume that many people have by now heard the story of Ione Wells, an Oxford student who was sexually assaulted in her home street in North London. She chose to waive her right of anonymity and wrote an open letter to her attacker. I’m not going to go into detail, but if you want to read more then details can be found here: http://www.cherwell.org/lifestyle/features/2015/04/24/not-guilty-a-letter-to-my-assaulter

What struck me was how brave this lady was in confronting what had happened to her and speaking out about it.  She’s right, she has nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. Her attacker is the one with the problem. Ione Wells should be applauded for taking a stand, she is indeed #notguilty. 

It set me wondering, why does this sort of behaviour continue in “modern Britain” and in other countries throughout the world?  We’re in the 21st Century, and yet some men still think it’s ok to assault women, to grab them, to beat them, to rape them.  I’m not just talking about sexual assault, but also domestic violence.  Think of Jimmy Saville and all the revelations that keep cropping up about him and his contemporaries – how could that be allowed to happen, and to continue to happen, for so long? We may not be able to influence people in other countries, but it seems to me that there’s a lot of work to be done here in the UK before we try to solve problems like this elsewhere.

Though hardly original, isn’t it time we concentrated first on teaching the children of today not to rape, assault or beat others, before teaching them how not to become victims?  Our collective problem is that we don’t do enough about stopping perpetrators from doing wrong, and try to put some of the responsibility on the victims because “they asked for it” or whatever nonsense excuse is flavour of the month. No one ever “asks for it”, and isn’t it time that society stood up on the side of the victims rather than tolerate the perpetrators?

A fun musical interlude with Henry Cluney, XSLF

Post gig, apparently we were supposed to be serious!
Post gig, apparently we were supposed to be serious!
On Sunday 26th April, the venue was The Wheatsheaf pub in Oxford, for a mid afternoon round of musical merriment organised by Purple May. Dee and I had arrived early, so managed to get a good spot. The special guest of honour was the legend that is Henry Cluney, one of the founders of Stiff Little Fingers, and now touring with an ex bandmate, Jim Reilly, as XSLF. Henry was playing on his own for the day. For those who don’t know, SLF are my all time favourite band: I’ve been going to see them play ever since the Go For It tour reached Carlisle Market Hall in 1981.

Having seen Henry in the same venue last year, when he played in front of no more than 15-20 people, I knew some of what to expect, but it was also good to see quite a few more people had come along. It was great to see some familiar faces from last year’s gig. It’s hard to believe that one of my all time heroes was standing in the pub (did I mention the gig was free entry?) only a couple of yards from myself and the other fans. Essentially, it was a request show – after each song, we were asked what we wanted him to play and for the most part he obliged us. I won’t spoil things for those who haven’t had the pleasure of Henry’s company in a setting like this, but suffice to say that there was a lot of singing, and even more laughter. Henry was obviously having a ball, and the rest of us enjoyed it too. I have to say, I’m impressed that he was able to keep his place in the songs, as there was a fair bit of micky taking and loads of good natured banter. Dee reckoned it was a fantastic afternoon too – I’m glad I’ve been able to introduce her to some of the music and lyrics which helped shape my personality and morals.

I was delighted that I got a chance to chat to Henry after the gig, and to get a photo with him too. When XSLF come round my way, I’ll definitely be going to see them. And if there’s another solo performance – I’ll be there for that too!

Patching – what’s all the fuss about?

I suppose this falls under Security 101, one of the most basic things we’re all encouraged to do with our technology, but there’s always a reason to postpone it: 

  • My machine slows down while it’s downloading the latest patches
  • I’m worried that things won’t work afterwards
  • I keep having to reboot my machine, sometimes several times during one set of updates 
  • I’m busy just now, can I not just do it later?
  • I don’t use the Internet much, so my device can’t be infected
  • I’m not using Microsoft, so there’s no need to patch
  • ….and, well, you know how it goes on…. 

I’m sure you’ve got your own versions of these, but the point is that these are all just excuses for something that should just be part of your normal experience – in my opinion. 

Should we patch absolutely everything? I.e. should we install all updates for all products as soon as they’re available? No, I don’t think so. We should base our patching strategy on a risk assessment. If you find out about a patch for one software programme – let’s say Microsoft PowerPoint – but don’t have PowerPoint on your device, do you need to apply that patch? Not if it only addresses vulnerabilities in PowerPoint, as your device doesn’t have that vulnerability. But if the patch includes other packages which you do have installed eg Excel, then yes, you should. 

Why am I picking on Microsoft? Just in order to use program names that we’re most likely to be familiar with. The same principles apply equally to other vendors and other software packages. Software has vulnerabilities, it’s inevitable. If there are none on the day it is released someone somewhere will find some soon afterwards. And the more valuable the data you access through the software, the more likely someone is try to create an exploit for that vulnerability. 

In my opinion, you should patch regularly i.e. keep patches up to date. Apart from anything else, this lessens the amount of time spent downloading updates, as you’re keeping on top of things (in many respects, the same goes for antivirus updates too). Patch what you have to, but eg if the patch is for a Mac and you’re using Linux, why apply a Mac patch unless the patch also applies to Linux devices. 

Not using the Internet often is no protection either. The only truly secure device (from Internet attack anyway) is one which does not have any form of external interface (wifi, wired, serial cable, whatever) and which is never connected. Some well known legitimate websites have been targeted and have had malicious code embedded in them, infecting users who are only browsing (because no software is totally secure, right?). Botnets are out there looking (in an automated way) for vulernable machines, so you only need to connect once to run the risk of infection. It’s a bit like contraception – if you don’t ever have sex, you’re unlikely to get pregnant, but do it just once without any form of protection and pregnancy is a very real risk. 

If you’re only looking at your personal / home PC / laptop / tablet etc, then you’re unlikely to have a test environment. This is the best place to try out new patches, but if you’re a home user then you probably don’t have the luxury of testing things there. In any event, its notoriously difficult to configure your test environment to exactly match your real, live environment, down to version numbers of DLLs and other components, so you’re probably just testing in a representation of your live environment and there will still be some risk when you deploy for real. So what should you do?

This is where having a good, robust (and tested) backup regime comes in. More on that in a future post, so watch this space… 

The guy that speaks his mind

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