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The Knowledge

In which FP plots to go on the telly again

Regular readers of this site might be aware that, in the past year or so, I’ve appeared on telly a couple of times, showing off my inner geekiness. If you weren’t aware: specifically, I was a contestant on the 2009-10 series of Mastermind, parading my knowledge of French history (I won, hurrah!) and steam trains (lost, but not because of the trains).

It was all great fun and a grand couple of days out. Indeed, if you ever get the chance, I’d recommend going on either Mastermind, Countdown or Jeremy Kyle – they’re all filmed in studios alongside each other – because, if nothing else, the backstage food is very good* and it’s always nice to get pampered.**

Now, I’d never tried doing that sort of thing before, despite people saying “oh, you’re clever, you should enter [latest popular gameshow]”. And I don’t want to turn into one of those people who goes on every quiz show going, popping up every week somewhere across the TV schedules.*** But, even so, now the “you must not go on any other telly” bit of my Mastermind contract has (I think) expired, I’ve started casting an eye across the networks and thinking “maybe I could do that”.

I’m not sure that there’s much TV that I’m suited to, though. Definitely not that Channel 4 thing with Davina McCall, if it’s coming back, just because I don’t think I’m the sort of person who would get through their auditions. The more I look at the lists of game shows that are out there, the more I’m attracted to the ones where you don’t actually win anything material. Radio 4’s Brain Of Britain, for example – not TV but you get the point. I also quite fancy the thought of applying to Only Connect on BBC4, because I think I’m quite good at spotting links between things.**** The only problem is, that’s a team game; I don’t know anybody else who would want to do it (or even who watches it, apart from K), and I never know any of their music questions.

So – does anyone have any other cunning ideas? I will have to ponder it over, and see what I can enter. And, then, watch this space.

* Apart from their meringues, which were the worst meringues I’ve ever had – they had the texture of a stale bread roll.

** There were seeming armies of runners with nothing really to do other than be nice to nervous Mastermind contestants and their families. You couldn’t even try to get yourself a cup of water without a runner saying “oh, don’t get up, we’ll get that for you”.

*** Like the woman who beat me on Mastermind; at least, my mother said she’s spotted her on TV a few times before. I didn’t realise. Another of the contestants, too, was on A Question Of Genius not long ago.

**** If you don’t watch it: the aim is to spot connections between words or statements. A sample question: “12:00am, 1st January, 1970″ is one clue; “Newlyn” is another; the answer is “datum points”, because the former is the time datum for Unix-based operating systems, and the latter is the site of the altitude datum used by the Ordnance Survey. The full questions have 3 or 4 clues, but you get more points if you don’t use all of them.

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In which FP goes back to BASICs

No, I’m not a masochist.

I take a strange, geeky, masochistic pleasure, though, in making things hard for myself. In doing computer-based things the long way round. In solving the problems that are probably easy for some people, but hard for me. In learning new things just because it’s a new challenge.

Today, I was wrestling with a piece of Basic code in an Excel spreadsheet. I’ve not touched Basic since it had line numbers,* and I barely know any of it. I forced myself to work out how to do what I wanted in it.** It was mentally hard work, and meant a lot of looking back and forth to the help pages, but I got it done in the end. It might not be written in the best way, the most efficient way, or the most idiomatic way.*** But doing it was, strangely, fun.

* this is geek-speak for “a long long time ago”.

** or, rather, what the consultant I was assisting wanted.

*** for non-geeks: every computer language or system has its own programming idioms, which fit certain ways of programming particular problems. Someone used to language A will, on switching to language Z, often keep on programming in language A’s style even if this produces ugly and inefficient code in the other language.

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End of the week again (no, really)

In which we set up something geeky

It does come around fast, doesn’t it? Here it is, a beautiful day outside, a clear blue sky, and here I am sat inside updating the blog. Still, it’s almost too hot and sunny to go out. What I could really do with: a laptop, a wireless card, and a deckchair, so I could sit in the shady bit at the bottom of the garden, surfing the web with a nice big G&T. I can’t sit in the sunshine, I burn too easily.

I’m actually going away for the weekend. Well, I haven’t gone away yet, but I’ve booked an exotic hotel* for the night, in the hope of getting to bed before dawn. I’m off out for the day tomorrow, you see, and I thought I may as well spend £50 on a headstart.

Geek news: I’ve been having fun setting up MRTG on the home computer network. NB: if you do not know what this means, do not worry – that is probably a Good Thing. The main thing it means to me is: lots of pointless graphs to look at.

My desktop PC's CPU activity

All that information is completely useless, and unnecessary to have, but when you’re a geek that’s not the point. It will be useful if I ever bother to get it set up properly at work.

Plans of going away for the weekend reminded me that I don’t have many good luggage bags. I could really do with a nice multi-purpose over-the-shoulder bag that I can stuff with luggage when I’m setting off, use as a day bag when I’m off doing touristy things, and as a kit bag if I have a good night out. If I could also use it as a makeshift gadget bag when I’m out with the camera, that would be an extra too. Something like a record bag would be good, but they’re an awkward shape for anything apart from 12″ singles – good for carrying about an A-Z, a couple of books and a notepad, but I couldn’t fit much camera kit in one. A proper photographic gadget bag would be expensive – and they’re mostly either rucksacks, or a bit ugly-looking – and a magical chest with lots of little feet would definitely be overkill. So, any better suggestions gratefully received. And now, I’m off away to pack.

* The Wooldale Travellers’ Motel, junction 39A of the M62.

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Sometimes I Can Be Too Geeky For My Own Good

In which FP measures himself up

A scene from office life: me and Big Dave, sitting at our desks, beavering away. Big Dave is working on building a website around some of the printed advertorial bumpf our PR people have supplied.*

“What’s this font? Any idea?” says Big Dave.

“That’s Gill Sans,” says I, “I’m surprised you didn’t recognise it. It was heavily used by British Railways before they switched to Helvetica in the late 60s.”

“Aaah,” Big Dave replies, “that’s why you know about it.”

Cut to: later on in the day, as I’m sitting in the local chinese takeaway waiting for my order, I’m doing a bit of naval-gazing, pondering the proportions of my body.*** And I suddenly realise that one key dimension of it**** is, roughly, 4 feet, 8.5 inches. The distance between the rails on most railway lines, in other words. Sometimes I really am too geeky for my own good.

* yes, we know this is a horrible way to go about doing things. Our PR people don’t, though. They see themselves as the fount of all design knowledge, and any criticisms** get ignored.

** like “but that looks bloody awful.” We’re not that subtle.

*** Not purely out of self-obsession, you understand, but for a bespoke DIY project I’ve been thinking about.

**** The maximum distance between my wrists, if you’re really bothered. Obviously it’s a rough estimate – I wasn’t sat in the takeaway with a tape measure – but going by Leonardo’s proportions it should be the same as your height (5′ 9″ for me) minus the length of both hands (6.5″ each).

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Two posts today, to make up for yesterday

In which FP looks like a typical boffin, again

Following on from the vague theme of: does it matter what I look like? A couple of weeks ago, at work, Colleague M told me: “you look like the sort of person who would have a website“. Today, I had the chance to talk to M again, so I asked why I do.

“Well,” said M, “you’re a computer geek, and I assumed that all computer geeks have websites.”

“But do I look like the sort of person who does.”

“I don’t know, really.”

“I was hoping you’d say something interesting!” I said. “So I could write about it on the website!”

“Well, say that you look like a computer boffin, and all computer boffins have websites.”

We talked about the sort of things I write on the site, and, if I was more sensible, the conversation would have stopped there. However, being me, I blundered on.

“You can read it if you want. I don’t really want people here to know about it – so I can write about them – but I trust you not to tell anyone else.”

“Well, I’ll have a look,” said M, “but it sounds like it might be a bit boring.”

I wrote down the address on a scrap of paper, and M burst out laughing.

“What’s so funny about it?” I asked.

“It just is! Partly because you wouldn’t see why it’s funny!”

So, hello M, if you’re reading.

In other, geekier news, the site stats reached 10,000 page views some time today.* Woo!

* that’s when the logs are analysed by Analog, at least. Webalizer thinks it happened a few days ago – presumably they disagree on which files count as pages.

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