I've long had a yen to have a page of random thoughts to which I could add from time to time, but it's taken a while for me to get round to it. I'm glad I've finally done it, if for no other reason that it gives me a legitimate justification for using the 'reflection' applet. I am under no illusions that my thoughts about anything have any significance whatever - they are presented here in the hope that now and again someone will use them to while away the odd moment of ennui. I don't know how frequently the muse will respond, but I will definitely be adding to this page, so please come back now and again.  
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2nd December
  How is it possible, you might ask, to get through 60 years of life without ever contracting chicken pox? Especially when both your children came down with it?

Believe me, it's possible.

Last year I suffered from glue ear.

Is this what they mean by 'a second childhood'?

One always tries to look one's best

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30th November
  I am unwell at the moment, and as a result I have been spending a fair amount of time wading through the mindless drivel which passes for most TV entertainment these days.

I ended up watching Chris Tarrantís Who Wants to be a Millionaire? - the best choice available. For those who havenít seen the show, contestants are asked a series of multiple choice questions, starting with £100 for a correct answer, and doubling the prize every question, until after some 13 questions (I canít be bothered to do the arithmetic) they end up with £1 million.

If they are stuck on a question they have a number of options, including asking the audience to vote on the correct choice. This was an anniversary edition, so not only were the audience answering, but the TV audience could also ring a number to register their vote.

This particular question involved cards, and was something like, ďIn which card game do you use the whole pack, and bid on the number of tricks you will gain?Ē I canít guarantee the wording, because my knowledge of card games is almost non-existent. The four choices were (a) Bridge (b) Beggar My Neighbour (c) Snap (d) Cheat.

Now out of those, the only one familiar to me was Snap, with which I bored my parents as a child and was bored in turn when time came round. For those who donít know it you divide the pack, and then put down alternate cards. As soon as the same number is laid down twice (two sevens for example) the first person to shout ĎSnap!í wins the cards that have been put down. Most parents must be familiar with the fine line to be drawn between letting the child win and not making it obvious.

Now this question was a matter of fact Ė there was no opinion involved. So itís only natural to assume that everyone who answered was absolutely sure of the correctness of their answer. After all, if you didnít know the answer there was absolutely no reason to vote.

How was it then that 5% of the respondents voted for Snap? One person in twenty thought that in the game of Snap you bid on the number of tricks you will acquire.

Iím just trying to imagine the thought processes that went into their vote. ďOh, I know that, itís easy. Itís Snap, isnít it? I remember sitting at my motherís knee bidding on my tricks.Ē

Is this what happens to people when they watch Ďreality TVí?

Oh, and for those who know as little about card games as I do, the correct answer was Bridge.

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24th September
 

I notice in a Commons debate about Iraq that Tony Blair used the word Ďnucularí - exactly the same quaint pronunciation that George Bush gives the word.

I wonder who is brainwashing whom?

 
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23rd September
  It was an interesting day yesterday. In the afternoon there was the Environment Fair, an annual event held in the grounds of South Hill Park, which this year included such diverse things as gymnastics teams and sheepdogs herding geese.

And then in the evening I had the pleasure of watching Maddy Prior singing with the Carnival Band at the Wilde Theatre. It was lovely to hear that voice again, and the whole experience was a memorable one. After all, where else could you hear a shawm expertly playing jazz riffs?

The main impression of Maddy Prior was one of boundless energy. She belongs to two bands, and is also doing a reunion tour with Steeleye Span. All these bands have a full schedule. Then, at the event, we were handed a questionnaire about residential courses she is planning in a farmhouse in the Scottish borders. She is also going on a gruelling dog trek, which will be a sponsored event for charity.

After watching an energetic first half I left the auditorium to get a coffee, and by the time I got to the foyer, there was Maddy behind a table selling raffle tickets for charity!

I sometimes suspect that people like this are not really human - but on the other hand who could object to alien invaders who sing so sweetly?

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2nd September
 

I see from the News this evening that some parents in Reading are to have their daughter microchipped. Interviews with other parents indicated that this would be a popular idea.

Clearly this is a reaction to the tragic deaths of the two schoolgirls in Soham.

However, it's worth reflecting on the statistics. The chances of an individual child being abducted and harmed is extremely low. That is no consolation to the parents who have to face this awful situation, but it doesn't alter the fact that statistically it is very rare. There are a lot of people around, and something that is 56-million-to-one-against will happen to someone in this country because there are 56 million of us. Indeed, someone was struck by a meteorite a couple of weeks ago. No, in fact a far greater danger to the child comes from another source entirely. Its parents. Every year in this country between 70 and 80 children are killed by their parents.

Unfortunately having a child microchipped is not going to protect it from that particular danger.

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16th August
 

This evening we missed Neighbours again because of newly-breaking developments in the case of the two missing schoolgirls.

Everybody is concerned about the case, and we all hope the girls are found alive - although I was never as optimistic about this as the police seemed to be. But the fact was that the BBC1 news report consisted of nothing other than the information that two people had been questioned, and their house and the school grounds were being searched. This was information that could have been imparted in thirty seconds - instead we had twenty-five minutes of utter nonsense.

We had a reporter standing in front of an apparently-empty house informing us that the police were currently searching it. "Itís a scene of ever-moving activity," he told us, contradicting the evidence of our senses. A little while later we had another reporter standing in front of the same house, telling us it wasnít to be searched for another twenty minutes, and that currently it was empty.

There were exchanges like the following: "What is the real significance of this development?" "Itís difficult to say."

At last they finished. But then we had the six oíclock news, and they went through the whole thing again. It was in my view a tasteless and unnecessary exercise, full of inaccuracy and intrusion.

In my sonís view, the current news broadcasts sound as though they have been written by a fifteen-year-old.

This view was confirmed when we heard a following item about the asteroid which is currently coming uncomfortably close. The first sentence of the news report described it as "an asteroid which is orbiting the Earth".

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31st July
 

I might just be disgruntled because after Neighbours was pushed off the screen by the World Cup, we got it back again, only to lose it to the Commonwealth Games. As you might imagine, I am not terribly interested in most sports.

Itís been difficult to avoid the Games, and I have been struck by the way the culture of sport seems to have changed in recent years. When I was young people trained, did their best, accepted their medals if they won, looked rueful if they didnít.

Nowadays it seems a result is not interesting unless some kind of record is Ďsmashedí. Whether itís a world record or the athleteís own best time recorded in training two years ago with a hurricane-force tailwind.

It seems to me we now have a culture of winning at all costs, something evidenced by the number of athletes who fail drugs tests or who ruin their bodies by overtraining. I was struck by the comment of one of the English boxers, who had managed to achieve bronze medal status with his claim to silver or gold still to be decided. ďIím not interested in the bronze,Ē he said dismissively. ďI want gold.Ē

An athlete should, certainly, be determined to win, but there is something unhealthy about the above comment. It seems to me that if you want at all costs to be the best, then sooner or later you are going to have a rude awakening. In a culture of winners, we are all losers sooner or later.

Perhaps thatís one reason why my favourite sport is Formula One. Here we have a group of people prepared to take part in a gruelling, risky business, where winning is the ultimate aim, but not the be-all and end-all. Jensen Button is a driver with an enormous following, as was Johnny Herbert. But throughout his career Johnny Herbert had only three Grand Prix wins out of 167 starts, and Jensen Button has yet to achieve a podium finish. But they still have the respect and admiration of many people. A Grand Prix driver coming third will be full of delight, because coming third in a Grand Prix is something denied most mortals - a rare honour. When Jensen Button eventually achieves third place he wonít say, ďIím not interested.Ē

My favourite athlete of the whole Games was the lady from, I believe, a very small island in the Caribbean. She was the best athlete from her - very small - country. She took part in the long jump, and it looked almost as though one of the athleteís mums had wandered onto the field by mistake. She was rather plump, and she waddled down the run-up, launched herself in the most ungainly fashion, and failed to reach the near end of the measuring rule.

But she represented her country, she enjoyed herself and she gave her best. To me she embodied what the spirit of the Games should be. Itís a spirit which these days seems to touch us only very rarely.

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29th July
 

An alarming item on this evening's news informs us that the number of deaths caused by taking the drug ecstasy has doubled. Interesting that the number given is 50 per annum, which means that the figure of 50 which we were given at the time of the much-publicised death of Leah Betts must have been a false one, or, of course, a guess.

Assuming that this figure is accurate, it means that the number of deaths from ecstasy has now reached halfway towards the number of women who are killed every year by their partner or husband. Perhaps we should be talking about banning men.

Another interesting piece of information was that the reason the figure has increased so much is due to the number of people mixing alcohol with ecstasy. Perhaps alcohol ought to take a teensy bit of blame also. It seems to me that our attitude to drugs remains totally illogical while we regard as relatively harmless the worst of the hard drugs in daily use, alcohol, which causes death and social damage that makes the problems caused by other recreational drugs look relatively insignificant ...

Just out of interest I looked up the number of alcohol-related deaths for a similar period. It was 33,000.

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26th June
 

With the release of the film 'Minority Report' we have another Philip K. Dick story transferred to the screen. Dick's unique work has become very popular these days. Deservedly so, for his view of the world, the multiple layers of reality and fabrication, is unlike that of any other writer, but has its own compelling psychological truth. Perhaps Philip Dick is one of the most popular sf writers today, and it seems certain that his name will live on.

It seems odd to look back about 30 years to the time I sat in a publisher's office and offered them the UK rights to all of Dick's work for the sum of £50.

They politely declined.

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It is interesting that those sf writers who were not interested in prediction seem to have been the ones who have done it most successfully. In Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch, written in the sixties, we have the scenario of a fatal sexually-transmitted disease let loose upon the world. In some of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books we have a war in Europe, which chillingly pre-echoes the events following the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Philip Dick didn't actually predict the Tamagochi, but if ever an object stepped straight out of one of his books that was it - a little electronic pet which had to be petted, fed and played with or else it died.

In one of his books he had two people playing a game with computer translation (something way beyond the bounds of possibility when the book was written) where they translated a popular saying into another language and then back again, and gave the result to the other person to guess the original. Quite feasible now.

I was reminded of this when I went to a site devoted to the ondes Martenot, an electronic musical instrument, and got it translated from the original French by means of Alta Vista's translation machine. The phrase which came up several times - 'large typesetters' - reminded me very much of the phrases which occurred in the translation game. Perhaps it was due to my familiarity with the Philip Dick book that I had no trouble divining what this phrase meant.

'Great composers', of course!

 

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23rd June
 

Since I am doing a Victor Meldrew impersonation, let me ask this:-

Am I the only one who becomes incensed at the treatment of film credits on television?

Credits are strictly utilitarian in that they just contain all the required information. But a skilled director can make the credits part of the film, giving extra information or changing the mood. With a film which has a particularly emotional close, the credits can serve the function of slowly lowering the emotional temperature, so that we have a gentle transition back into real life once more.

Why, then, have all the TV companies taken to having an announcer's voice breaking into the credit sequence telling us what is coming next? At best this is crass, at worst it can ruin the atmosphere of the film.

When I first saw the film Being There, the credits were overlaid on a shot of a TV screen, a sensitive and fitting close. When I took out a video of the film, I couldn't believe my eyes - this time the credits were superimposed on a series of outtakes, with Peter Sellers fluffing his lines and laughing. This was so incongruous and jarring it was almost an act of vandalism, and for a while I developed a hatred for Peter Sellers. But I later discovered that this credit sequence was put in despite his strenuous objections. I wonder whether the person responsible for this atrocity has since gone to work in television.

How long will it be before we are listening to one of the rare classical music concerts on television, and we hear, above the coda of a symphony, the loud voice of an announcer telling us what delights are in store? Not too long, I fear, if things go on as they are.

 

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17th June
  I do believe I'm turning into Victor Meldrew.  

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12th June
  Like many hapless web users, I recently got myself infected by lop.com. This is a pay-per-click search engine, which acts as a virus and infects people who visit certain sites, takes over their browser in such a way that they are constantly forced to visit the lop site, and also corrupts their favourites list.

For some reason the authors of most viruses are treated as the criminals they are, but when it is a commercial company they are able to get away with it, and continue their activities. This is something I really don't understand.

For those companies who are thinking of buying a place on lop.com, be aware that your company will probably end up being as hated and reviled as lop.com most certainly is.

You can find out more about this atrocity at www.spywareinfo.com/lop.html. If you have been infected, then this site will give you various ways of getting rid of it, depending on the infection method. The latest incarnation of Ad-Aware should be able to remove it as well.

I look forward to the day when sites such as these, which make unauthorised and damaging changes to people's computers, are made illegal and forced to pay for the damage and inconvenience they cause.

 

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8th June
  I receive 60 letters on my hotmail account, making a variety of offers, including enlargement of various parts of my body, including my penis and my breasts.

What is my reaction? To delete them all and swear a little. (Although they do provide the rare moment of comedy, as when I received a spam email addressed to Mr King warning me how easy it was for people to discover all kinds of things about me.)

I go to a web site, and immediately a whole series of pop-ups appear, obscuring my screen.

What is my reaction? To get rid of them as quickly as possible so that I can see what I am trying to look at.

I go to a site, which then decides to modify my browser without asking me, and changes my start-up screen.

What is my reaction? To change it back to a blank screen.

I watch TV, and have my attention grabbed by what appears to be the start of an interesting program. It turns out to be a trailer for a programme which will not be broadcast for several hours or days.

What is my reaction? To switch channels and forget about it.

Now, I cannot believe that my reactions are totally outside the normal range of human response. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that probably the vast majority of people would react in exactly this way.

Why, then, do we have to put up with these things, which are not only annoying but apparently ineffective?

 

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26th May
 

Today was the last day I logged into Compuserve.

Unfortunately Compuserve 2000 is closing down in the UK, and as I transferred from a Classic account to save money, this means it's the end of the line for me.

I first started on the internet in 1997, and my first experience of it was seeing the screen of Wincim 2, and the colourful buttons which seemed to offer a whole new world of options, which of course was exactly what it was.

In those days, of course, the forums were great, and the software was good too. Unfortunately every subsequent version of the software was less functional than the previous one, until finally Compuserve 2000 arrived, the least functional of them all. By now you couldn't even save forum messages. In the earlier software you could press a button and instantly get a list of everybody in the forum, whereas at the end you had to load a Java applet which, on a good day, would take about three minutes. In fact Compuserve were responsible for introducing the novel concept of downgrading their software.

In the same way the forums deteriorated as well. When I first joined Compuserve there were many hundreds of forums, offering all kinds of specialised knowledge and a lot of fun. I remember joining the dinosaur forum, expecting a layman's discussion of the subject, but finding it was full of palaeontologists, and discovering there existed sentences of which I understood only the prepositions.

I met many interesting people both in the forum and with some of them in real life as well - at one point I ended up at the House of Commons at a function held to launch a bill at which many showbiz people were present. I met my friend in the flesh for the first time, and also spoke to Patrick Moore, which was a great and unexpected pleasure.

I remember Arzani Love Lewis, whom I met several times. She had an interest in Sufi, and the last time I saw her we paid a visit to Southall, where she bought an enormous tanpura, a string instrument almost as big as she was, which she began to learn to play. Unfortunately she died unexpectedly having just satisfied her ambition to travel to the US to meet an American friend and to take part in the Dances of Universal Peace, and although her last email told me that she would tell me all about her visit when we next met, the fates decreed that the meeting had to be postponed.

It was also a great pleasure to meet Uju - an American citizen who came originally from Mumbai, and who was married to a Frenchman. We had a pleasant day in London before she returned to the US.

Anyway, over the years the forums have been getting smaller and less interesting. One of the problems was that individuals (the wizops) were given complete power over their forums, and as invariably happens, when you give people absolute power, they tend to abuse it. So some of the forums became dictatorships, and some of them became so politically correct they stifled any meaningful discussion. But there were some great forums, and some wonderful characters, like the anglophobe American who thought the NHS was the embodiment of evil, and described Margaret Thatcher as a socialist. But I met many people whom I admired greatly, and I will miss many of them a great deal.

I will always be grateful to Compuserve for my introduction to the internet, and for some many happy memories. I remember with pleasure the election of 1997, the shock landslide victory of Labour, and the online meeting between a group of Brits and some Americans. The Brits were relaying the results and getting very excited, while the Americans expressed a polite interest without really understanding what was going on - why, for example, the Brits erupted when Labour captured Basildon.

Now, there are not many forums, and Compuserve has been taken over by AOL, which I would have thought was the kiss of death. But even though I will no longer be a part of it, nevertheless I hope Compuserve continues to survive. While it survives there is always a chance that one day its star will rise again, and it might in the future regain its position as a rewarding and worthwhile corner of the web.

 

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21st May
 

I have recently been trying to get information about broadband. There seem to be two likely suppliers, ntl and Freeserve. Ntl's policy on pricing seems, for someone as innumerate as me, to be extremely complicated. Their website offers lots of stuff about how fast broadband is, but very little hard information about how much it's likely to actually cost me.

Unfortunately when you phone ntl you invariably get put into a queue by a recorded message. You can stay on the phone as long as you like, but you never get through. I did get some enjoyment out of the fact that the female voice who starts by saying, "We apologize for ..." sounds uncannily similar to the receptionist in Theme Hospital. But such innocent pleasure wears thin when you have been standing there listening for fifteen minutes.

And Freeserve is no better. There is an element of urgency, because their offer expires at the end of the month, and I need clarification of some badly-written FAQs on their site. But both email and phone have proved pretty useless when it comes to contacting them.

It's not unusual these days for the service departments of companies to provide an abysmal service, but I have been trying to contact the sales offices!

It makes you wonder what their service departments are like.

Perhaps I can live without broadband after all.

 

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20th May
 

I had occasion recently to do a local television interview. The reporter told me the time he would arrive, and I arranged to meet him at the bottom of my road.

As it happened I was early, and I started walking down from the top of my road. A car stopped and a man got out. It was the interviewer, although I didn't know that at the time. He was early too, and this wasn't the place we had arranged to meet. "Ah," he said, recognising me instantly, "you look like a councillor."

I would like to think that he meant I looked mature, wise and dignified, but I suspect that what he really meant was that I looked old, fat and pompous!

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Speaking of television, I still remember the shock of seeing myself on TV for the first time. Having had a video camera you would have thought I would be used to it, but seeing yourself in a semi-formal situation in close-up with high resolution is a different matter entirely.

When I did my first interview I had fondly imagined that I would project an image of openness, transparency and honesty. Instead what I saw looking at me from the screen was Richard Nixon's dishonest brother! I looked incredibly shifty. Having seen that, I have to say that I am amazed that anybody would vote for me.

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Many of us have had a dream which has contained a powerful revelation, a moment of enlightenment embodied in one short sentence. The only trouble is that when we wake up we just cannot remember what the sentence was.

Many years ago I had such an experience. In this particular dream I hit upon the ultimate secret of existence, and the revelation hit me like a bomb. But where this differs from the usual story is that the revelation was so intense it actually woke me. I had a pen and a piece of paper handy, so I was able to write down the ultimate sentence for the sake of posterity.

In the morning I awoke and eagerly read what was on the paper. It was: "Working in a counting-house preserves one's sense of sociology."

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I suppose many of us were changed in one way or another by the events of September 11th, 2001. The long-term effect it had on me was to make me rather less tolerant than I had been of religious people.

I don't know whether I was alone in this, but I found the ubiquitous mantra "God bless America" to be actually offensive in the context of what had happened. Here we had an atrocity which had been caused by religious fundamentalism allied with fanatical patriotism, and the way many people dealt with it was to invoke their own religious slogans in relation to their own version of patriotism. This to me devalued the events from being an example of cruel irrationality on a grand scale into a conflict between two madmen.

I felt that invoking God in this way turned the whole thing from a human atrocity into a contest of deities, and was deeply disrespectful to the memories of those people who died. It was interesting that a popular evangelist with links to the White House used the occasion to blame the sexual mores of Americans for the tragedy, particularly those who are gay. He had a lot in common with the Taliban in that he used religion to justify his own bigotry, as people have done through the ages.

When are we all going to grow up, so that we no longer need the ramshackle props of religious faith?

September 11th changed me from an atheist into an atheist missionary.

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Now I realise that I probably have a greater interest in the English language than the average person, but even so, despite not having an academic background in English and being prone to mistakes myself, I am appalled at the lowering of standards in the written and spoken language during the past half century. This has been exacerbated by the enthusiasm with which people in Britain have seized on every Americanism they can, especially when it is more long-winded than the British equivalent.

Good examples are 'for free' and 'meet/consult with'. Until fairly recently (by my standards!) if you used either of these expressions it would have caused raised eyebrows, but now they seem to have supplanted the original, and more efficient, 'free' or 'for nothing' (which had a subtle difference in meaning, now lost) and 'meet' or 'consult'.

Now if we all started to say 'have gotten' I would have no problems with this at all, because it is logical, and I suspect it's probably the older form. 'Got' occurs too often anyway, so anything which gives it a bit of variation is ok with me. But for some reason we seem to choose those things which say something simple in a complicated way, like 'at this moment in time' instead of 'now' - a handful of words where one would suffice.

At one time the BBC News was an exemplar of excellent spoken English. Now words are used wrongly on a daily basis. "Language changes, evolving into new forms all the time," some people might say, and I wouldn't disagree with that. What I do object to, however, is when people misuse a word because they think it means something else, but sounds fancier, and this results in the loss of a useful word.

Some common examples:

The use of 'majority' instead of 'greater part of' - "the majority of the sample".
The use of 'avoid' instead of 'prevent' - "It is hoped this will avoid it happening".
The use of 'less' instead of 'fewer' - "with less strings attached" heard this evening on BBC News 24.
The use of 'plus' instead of 'also' - something that has come directly from advertising - "Plus we have for you ...."
The mixing up of 'discreet' and 'discrete', which mean totally different things.
Although it's not strictly English, the mixing up of 'crescendo' and 'climax', which mean totally different things.
The mixing up of 'fortunate' and 'fortuitous', which mean totally different things.
The use of 'fulsome' instead of 'full' or 'wholehearted' (Tony Blair, you are clearly in need of a proof reader - you have only to ask!), which again mean totally different things.
Again, 'noisome' and 'noisy' - an example of etymological synaesthesia!

I sometimes find it difficult to believe my ears when I hear adults using without embarrassment what I call 'Blue Peter' words (I suspect that programme is responsible for their origin). Things like 'humongous' or 'ginormous'. There is nothing wrong with portmanteau words, and Lewis Carroll coined some excellent ones. 'Chortle' is a good example, being a mixture of 'chuckle' and 'snort'. But 'humongous' has only one element: huge. 'Ginormous' has two, but 'gigantic' and 'enormous' mean more-or-less the same thing. So neither of these are portmanteau words - when you open the case you find it's empty except for an unwashed pair of underpants. Guesstimate is another. 'Guess' and 'estimate' in that context mean exactly the same, so why not use one or the other?

People worry about their children swearing - I'd be far more concerned about things like these.

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I obliquely mentioned age in the last entry. What I find astonishing about getting older is the dramatic acceleration of time. When I was a child half an hour was an eternity - nowadays a day seems to go in a flash. No sooner have I got up that it's time to go to bed again.

I recently had occasion to contact my GP, and I mentioned to him a visit I had recently made to a specialist. "It was two to three years ago," I said. "Possibly a little longer." He spent some time looking through my notes, and then looked up with an odd smile on his face. "Ah," he said, "I've found it. Um - actually it was nine years ago!"

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And on the same subject of the passing of time and mortality, a moment that stays in my memory. With Mike Moorcock, looking glumly at the place where Maeve was about to be buried. Mike shook his head, and said, "You know, Lang, I really think that death is not a very good idea."

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