Monday, August 31, 2009

Van Morrison changed my life

Nats was telling me last night how lucky she was to have met me and have her life transformed from a dull grind full of greyness and gloom into a Technicolor cartoon full of shiny happy bunnies dancing the fandango with cute little monkeys in waistcoasts while petals rain down from the sky. Hurray!

Actually, what she really said that she was glad she started fencing and met me because I had helped in the creation of Charlotte. I guess it is just common courtesy to thank the sperm donor, but I’ll take any kind of compliment I can get.

Anyway, this led to a discussion of life-changing moments. All our lives are full of little crossroads that would send us down different paths: John eats a bad curry and gets a dodgy stomach, so doesn’t go out to the concert were he would have met his perfect woman/man/hermaphrodite; Cindy’s alarm clock fails to go off and she misses the job interview that would have seen her become the most powerful woman in Auchtermuchty, holding dominion over 2,000 souls and the wee shop that sells tartan tea towels; Alfie sees a swallow, decides it is spring, takes a more scenic route to work and is promptly squashed by a number 54 bus, which at least has the benefit of providing a talking point for the bored commuters being ferried to their dull office jobs.

Most of the time we don’t notice these moments as they slip by or we don’t appreciate quite how much they would change or lives – well, except for Alfie, assuming he had enough time to think more than “Shiiiiiitttttteeeeeeee!!!!” before the driver was trying to clean his brains off the windscreen with the window wipers. I actually do have a moment from which I can clearly trace a path to where I am now.

It is 1992. I am 21 and sitting upstairs in the Horseshoe bar in Glasgow with my relatively new work colleagues from Linn Products – the high end music system company. I have taken a job stuffing components into circuit boards after dropping out of university due to a combination of factors, including laziness, poverty and a lack of self-esteem. The job is boring, but the people are great and my immediate boss is the exact double of Zelda from the Terrahawks, which somehow makes it more bearable. I have no clear idea of what I am going to do next. I am just content to be making some money to spend on records, booze and chemicals.

I am a terrible singer, but have glugged down just the right number of beers to be cajoled into singing on the Karaoke machine. I elect to sing ‘Gloria’ by Van Morrison, partly because I love Van the Man, but also because it is a shouty song and therefore suits my singing voice. My performance is what you would expect. Even above my amplified screams I can hear giggles and abuse. I content myself by spraying the ungrateful buggers with spittle every time I shout ‘G-L-O-R-I-A’.

Finally it is over, and I return to the table. Callum, who runs the test department - which comprises three or four guys whose diplomas from Cardonald College give them a faint air of superiority over the plebs – comes over and demands to buy me a drink. He is a huge Van Morrison fan, and wants to congratulate me on my performance (he is very, very drunk). We get even more drunk and talk about Van Morrison for an hour, then move onto other things, such as the fact I had finished 2.5 years of Physics at Strathclyde University. Callum and I become work buddies, and within three weeks he asks if I would want to go back to university to study electronics, with the fees paid by Linn (I had lost my right to fee payment in 2nd and 3rd year by dropping out). Of course I say yes. I go to Glasgow University, get my degree and promptly show my gratitude to Linn and Callum by going off to work for OKI in Cumbernauld.

So, here’s the chain of events leading to now:

I sing a Van Morrison song in a bar, and as a result get friendly with Callum. Consequently, I go back to University and get a degree. My degree gets me a job at OKI, where I meet Andy McVeigh. I rent a room in his flat. In a casual discussion one day, I tell Andy I used to fence. He gets all keen and says he wants to start it (Andy is a major womaniser, despite being bald since 19 and looking kind of like a turtle, and is sure he can get some action at fencing). I am not so keen, remembering how angry/upset I used to get when I lost at competitions, but he persuades me to come along with him. We join Glasgow West End Fencing Club, where I drink a lot, make some great friends and kind of fence. This goes on for six years, until I am just about to quit fencing because it has lost its appeal. Then Nats joins Glasgow West. After some ups and downs, we get together. She is going to Bosnia for a year, and after a few months decide we are in love, are going to get married and that I am coming to Banja Luka, the capital of Bosnia's Serb Republic. I sell my house and car and go to Bosnia, where I trade in my soldering iron for a notebook and pen. We move to Hungary after a year, and I start to work for the German Press Agency. Four years later, I apply to get transferred to Nairobi, and we move. Nats gets pregnant, and along comes Charlotte.

So, there you go. If it weren’t for a drunken decision to sing a certain song in a certain bar, I would not have gone back to fencing and met the only perfect match for me out there, I would not have the gorgeous little Charlotte, I would not be a journalist, and would not be living in Kenya. All pretty big consequences for one little song, which I am now very glad I sang.

I would love to know if anybody else has a moment like that they can pin down. If so, leave a comment or send me a private message with your story.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Open letter to God on baby design

Dear God,

RE: Baby design improvements

As I am sure you are aware - being omnipotent, omniscient and fluorescent (well, I am guessing the last one, since the first thing I would do as God would be to make sure that I glow in the dark) – I was an engineer before I became a journalist.

You are also no doubt aware that I am now a father. You probably regret letting that happen, having watched me play Black Sabbath to my five-week-old daughter and teach her how to give the finger to the evangelicals next door - even though I am sure they annoy you too with their tuneless singing and gibbering in tongues. Maybe you were perched on the celestial bog looking at the centre spread of Hot Angels Monthly at the moment of conception. It does seem like you dropped the ball.

I, however, prefer to think that since you have a master plan, you must have let it happen for a reason. Is it possible you wanted me to bring my engineering skills (admittedly now a bit rusty after seven years of not being used) to bear on improving your original baby design? I think so. I don’t want to second guess you, but I figured it wouldn’t do any harm to suggest a few tweaks, which you can take or leave, you being God and all.

Please bear in mind that the following are merely initial observations. I have not costed the project or figured out the technicalities, although I have carried out one or two small experiments. They didn’t make Charlotte cry for too long, so I think I am on the right track.

1. Replace crying with programmable alarm tones

I don’t want to be too critical here, but I think your premise that parents have to be irritated into helping their children through ear-splitting and insistent wailing is flawed. Crying babies are a pain in the arse, as I think the above picture illustrates even without sound. I think it is fair to assume that parents love their kids and want the best for them. Therefore, I would like to suggest a more sedate system for alerting parents that there may be a problem.

Swap crying for an alarm, preferably with a snooze function. As with mobile phones, parents should be able to download MP3s for the tone. What parent wouldn’t go rushing to their baby’s aid when they heard their favourite song wafting through the door? One note though: the system should reject any song written by Lionel Richie, Michael Bolton or anyone else whose hair is too big to fit through a door frame without turning sideways. Pan pipes are also out. We are trying to make the world a better place after all.

2. Introduce an LED system

Now, I know what you’re thinking about doing away with crying: Different cries mean different things.

For example -

“Wah, wah, wah, waaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!” means: “Me hungry, where’s that big squishy thing that gives me milk?”

Whereas “Wah, wah wah, waaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!!” means: “Tell those bloody evangelicals to stop singing, I am trying to get an afternoon nap in.”

If we cut out crying, we will lose those subtle differences, you say. I disagree. Respectfully, of course.

May I suggest that, since most parents don’t speak annoying cry, we install a network of LEDs to indicate the child’s current mode. This would be low cost, as infants only have a few states: Hungry, Tired, Sleepy, Ouch, Sick, Bored, Grumpy and I’ve shat myself and it is sticking to my arse.

Most parents attempt to resolve crying by random application of boob, blankets and booze. Well, the third one we try in Scotland at least. A few cans of Super Lager work wonders when your baby is crying - you just stop noticing. I suggest we employ a more efficient system: install a bank of LEDs in the baby’s forehead to indicate these primary states. Then we can deploy a secondary network about the body to indicate where the pain is, should it be necessary.

3. Alternative power systems

As you know, an increasing focus is being placed on non-traditional energy sources. Solar power, wind power, biomass, etc are being developed and scientists and engineers are looking at ways to recycle and cut waste. I would suggest that we apply the same principle to babies instead of allowing them to consume so much milk.

Now, I admit I have a vested interest here. I recall a time in the vague, distant past when I was allowed access to my wife’s Fun Bags, as we playfully referred to them. Well, at least as I referred to them. When she wasn’t listening. Now there is an infant constantly clamped on them. This is bad for me and also bad for my wife, who finds it quite difficult to go about her normal business with a little nipper swinging from her tank starter buttons.

I propose a system using multiple green energy sources that should dramatically cut down time on the boob or bottle. The system would incorporate the following elements:

a) Solar – Let’s be honest, babies don’t really care what they look like. We can easily slap a few solar panels on top of their heads,

b) Wind – Babies fart. A lot. It would be simple to attach a small turbine to the upper thigh and place the blades directly over the anus.

c) Biomass – Babies go doo doo. A lot. A biomass unit would go a long way to increasing efficiency.

d) Kinetic – Babies spaz out randomly. A lot. Why not use the energy from the spastic limb flailing or head wobbling kids seem so fond off. I am sure a few dynamos can be subtly attached to arms and legs.

4. Improve olfactory experience for parents

Baby shit stinks. Sorry to be so blunt about it, but it does. Why not take a fresh, scented leaf out of the book of Ambipur? If some geeky scientist with hairy palms and an addiction to World of Warcraft can invent a device that you plug into the wall to make the room smell of the autumn breeze, I am sure you can invent a plug-in that directly pumps sweet smells into a baby’s intestines. Imagine, every time your baby lets one go the room could smell of Forest Fruits rather than curdled milk toots. You could even use your child to freshen the room before having a dinner party, rather than desperately burning ten incense sticks and searching for that rogue nappy that got away five minutes before your guests arrive.

5. Hibernate button

Computers have them, so why not babies? They are generally pretty crap at getting themselves off to sleep, so why not do us all a favour and provide a wee button that knocks them out (preferably with a variable time setting for how long they are out). We could also have automatic hibernation, so if the child is left unattended for say 15 minutes, it will automatically enter hibernate mode, enabling parents to nip out to the pub and not worry if they left the baby turned on.

6. Paedolarm TM

All parents know that paedophiles are lurking behind every corner, rubbing themselves through their filthy cords and waiting to pounce with sweaty hands on any unguarded baby. I suggest installing a Paedolarm TM (my invention). If a paedophile comes within 30 metres of the child, a pre-recorded message of “LYNCH THE PAEDO” will blast out from the attached unit, and an accusing finger will spring out and point in the direction of the offender. I suggest employing Gary Glitter in the factory’s test department, as nobody will buy his records or go see him on tour ever again anyway and he probably needs the money for his next ticket to Thailand.

7. Locator

We’ve all done it. Put the baby down somewhere and then forgotten exactly where. Let’s cut out all the frantic searching and attach a locator device. One press on the parent’s key fob, and the baby emits a shrill tone. This could easily be integrated with the Paedolarm TM.

8. Baby microwave

Small babies are boring. Fact. They don’t do very much, and their lack of self-reliance is quite tedious. My fellow engineer David Docherty long ago began work on the microwave bed (a full night’s sleep in ten minutes). He still hasn’t perfected it, and may not, since he is in hospital suffering from internal third-degree burns, but I am sure you, who created the universe, can easily knock together a microwave device that will add months to your child's life within minutes, thus cutting out all the boring bits.

Well, that’s it so far. I do hope you don’t take offence at my suggestions and strike me down with a bolt of lightning or anything. I have been hit by lightning once before (that’s actually true) and didn’t much enjoy the experience.

I'm a big fan of all your work, and appreciate that when designing such a complex system as Earth you are going to get a few teething problems. But it has been a few million years, so I'm thinking it might be time for a review.

I hope this finds you in good health and fine smiting form (just not me, please).

Yours Faithfully,
Michael Logan.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

You must show me your boobs, I'm a journalist

I took part in two very different press events this week. On Thursday, I listened to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed discuss the unholy mess in Somalia (We feel sorry for you and don’t want those nasty Islamists taking over, even though they brought peace for six months in 2006, because they are all terrorists and might try to blow up some Americans in Kenya again. But then we don’t want another Black Hawk Down, so we will just give you some money to shut you up and pretend the African Union peacekeepers are doing a good job – to paraphrase Clinton’s message to Sheikh Sharif).

Then, on Saturday, I hung about the Mombasa docks with a bunch of German TV journalists to cover the arrival of the Hansa Stavanger, a German-owned container ship freshly released by pirates that had five Germans onboard (And a bunch of other foreigners from random countries like Tuvalu, wherever that is, who could all have a big orgy and then commit ritual suicide right on the dock in front of us and we won't notice, but wait a minute, I’ve heard the German captain has a splinter in his little finger. Call Gunther and tell him to cancel that documentary on human rights abuses in the Congo, we’re going live!!! - to paraphrase the German media’s angle on the ship’s arrival).

Both events highlighted for me that journalists are a funny bunch.

The Kenyan press pack was up in arms on Thursday when they found out that Clinton would only be answering four questions after making a short statement. I guess it has been a while since a top US official has visited Kenya, but this is the way it always works. You have to book your question in advance and hope you are high enough in the pecking order. Fat chance of that.

Usually the first few questions go to the pet media, the travelling contingent that follow Clinton/Bush/whoever around the world and faithfully report every word in return for a comfy seat at the front of the press conference instead of a rickety fold-down chair at the back and the chance to share a chummy joke with the top official in front of the other journalists to show how important they are. This will also most likely be an American agency or paper - step forward AP and the NY Times in Clinton’s case. Then a few questions will be tossed to the local media, in Clinton’s case to the Somali journalists.

So, I wasn’t surprised when Clinton’s aide indicated that the next question would be the last. But the Kenyans were. Howls of outrage came from around the room as they demanded that Clinton stay and answer more questions, because they hadn’t had their turn yet. Eyes rolled, fists shook and well-fed jowls wobbled in righteous indignation. Clinton laughed them off and left the room. Cue lots of muttering and the scraping of chairs as half the room left – rather shamefully I thought, since Sheikh Sharif was still speaking.

Something similar happened on Saturday, when the local shipping agent tried to close off the berth where the Hansa Stavanger would arrive. Forklift trucks piled up empty containers, blocking the view of the dockside and spewing tasty exhaust fumes down everyone’s throats. The TV journalists who had come all the way from Germany to get pictures of the ship arriving went ballistic and loudly remonstrated with everyone in sight, including a bemused port official who seemed to just be passing on his way to the toilet.

I have to admit, I was considering the sneaky option, which would have been to climb across a large chain at the other side of the dock, despite the fact there was a ten metre drop to the sea and one of the KK security guard would probably have conked me on the head with his baton had I got in anyway.

In the end, the direct, rowdy approach proved successful as the mob forced its way in and refused to move. The shipping agent had no choice but to let us stay behind a hastily erected piece of red tape. So this time it was a partial victory for the journalists: the German TV crews got their pictures of a big ship sitting at the docks doing nothing for hours. I got to hang about for 12 hours watching them turn increasingly alarming shades of red under the equatorial sun (I suspect the carpets of German newsrooms will be covered in flakes of journalist skin later this week). There was a lot of complaining about the lack of access to the crew, however. Apparently the ungrateful buggers didn’t understand that we needed comments for our stories.

The common link between the two events was the genuine sense of outrage the journalists felt when they found out they were not going to get their way. Most of us feel it is our absolute right to ask anybody any question we want at any time of day or night. Never mind that somebody may have something trivial to do like, oh I don’t know, represent the world’s most powerful nation in seven African countries in under two weeks. Or recover from a four-month kidnapping ordeal at the hands of Somali pirates, in which you had to sleep on the floor, had automatic weapons pointed at your head and were not allowed to brush your teeth.

This attitude is, of course, what helps keep politicians on their toes in most countries and helps ensure that democracies actually function, so it is generally a good thing. And witnessing a dozen miffed adults stomping their feet in a petulant rage is priceless.

But the same attitude also fuels the worse type of intrusive gutter press journalism, and there have been times I have found myself teetering on the edge of doing things I am not comfortable with because of the “I have a right to know” attitude.

Like anything in life, it is all about finding the right balance.

So I’m now off to peer in through Scarlett Johansson’s curtains. The public has a right to know what she looks like naked.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Mzungu, your baby is cold!

We are currently holed up in a hotel in Mombasa, fugitives from an angry mob of machete-wielding villagers who chased us out of their hamlet for child abuse.

OK, I am exaggerating. But just a little.

It is the cold season in Kenya, which means that temperatures are dropping as low as 14 degrees centigrade. Now, Nats and I are Scottish and that is the threshold that heralds summer in Scotland. When the thermometers hit such heady heights in Glasgow, pasty white, hairy legs are unfurled from beneath shorts that have lain, forlorn and unused, in a drawer for eleven months. Everybody begins licking an icecream. Exposed beer bellies drink up the sun like wobbly solar panels.

So, while we have acclimatised to Kenya and are finding it a little chilly, it is far from cold. Charlotte, being Scottish and all, is dressed much the same as we are - top, trousers and maybe a light jumper or cardigan.

But Kenyans like to keep their babies warm. In fact, they like to keep their babies roasting hot. There are kids roaming around Nairobi right now in balaclavas and snowsuits. Yes, snowsuits. One kid we saw was clearly also wearing about five jumpers under his suit. He couldn't bring his arms into his body and was walking with his legs wide apart. I couldn't decide if he looked more like a mini Michelin Man or the Gingerbread Man.

It makes me wonder what Kenyans would do if they ever went to Europe during the winter. After all, where do you go after you've gone nuclear? A survival pod?

But anyway, each to his own. The only problem is, Kenyans can't seem to understand that other people might not want their child to sweat like Gary Glitter in a room full of 12-year-old boys. In the last five weeks, we've had plenty of comments about Charlotte being cold. But today's incident took the biscuit, the packet, and an entire sachet of those little triangular jelly things that go on top of empire biscuits.

I have been sent to Mombasa on an assignment involving pirates and relieved, released German hostages, so I decided I may as well drive down and bring Nats and Charlotte. Along the way we stopped in a small village - pretty much just your typical collection of ramshackle buildings that serve as hotels, bars or brothels for passing truckers.

All was fine, until the villagers spotted that we had a baby. With its head exposed to the FREEZING COLD BREEZE. Of around 21 degrees C, since we were close to the coast.

Soon we were surrounded by a gaggle of locals trying to explain we should cover our baby's head or she will die horrendously of pneumonia. I explained that she was Scottish and they should all fuck right off (ok, I didn't say that).

The ladies finally got the idea and backed off, deciding that if the stupid Mzungu wanted to let his child suffer a long and painful death punctuated by hacking coughs, it was his lookout. But one bloke persisted, trying to pull the blanket over her head. He even attempted to take her off me. The funniest thing was that he had the longest, filthiest talons I have seen on a man in quite some time, no doubt jammed up with the detritus of regular nose picking (I don't see any other reason for a man to have nails that long). I suspect the health hazard to Charlotte came from those nails, rather than a breeze that would pass as the Sirocco in Glasgow.

We managed to politely but firmly extricate ourselves and drive away, although I half-expected to glance back and see a pickup truck full of villagers waving blankets and shouting: "Your baby is cold, Mzungu. Cover her!"

Even now, sitting in the hotel room, I have made sure the door is locked and a chair is wedged up against the handle. I'm worried we might all wake up wearing snowsuits.