Gavin Greig (ggreig) wrote,
Gavin Greig

Five Words

huskyteer has given me five words to write about, each of which she associates with me. If you would like me to give you five words to write about, leave a comment. Not usually a big fan of memes, but I like ones that encourage people to write.


Not being the most sociable of people, I've never been a huge fan of birthdays and the accompanying fuss, but by one of those little coincidences that statistically shouldn't be very surprising, but somehow always are, huskyteer and I not only seem to have a fair number of interests in common but also share a birthday. (Sadly, one of us has to admit to being exactly a decade more advanced in years. It isn't her!)

My most recent – possibly my only – birthday party took place no later than 1974, because I remember it was when we still lived in Banff. There were kippers cut out of brown paper, which we had to race across the floor by flapping at them using rolled up newspapers. I’ve recently seen this game packaged as a commercial product – don’t buy it, you can make your own!


I’m not a major cheese connoisseur, but I do like to have a bit of cheese now and again, and it’s nice to have a branch of I.J. Mellis nearby in St. Andrews. I’m not averse to less posh cheese either; over the last couple of weeks I’ve had Leerdammer, Camembert and Cambozola. The latter had somehow previously passed me by, but I’ll certainly get it again. Even a bit of mousetrap can be nice.

I have written about cheese on occasion, when it’s made a strong impression for some reason. I recently wrote about Gjetost, a rare cheese that gave me the grue, and rather longer ago (2004) I wrote about a cheese called tomme au marc de raisin, and offered it round my local friends. Sadly I had to disappoint the more remote huskyteer on the grounds of limited supply, but I was able to send her a piece the following year. I kept the original post private at the time, because I couldn't offer cheese to all and sundry, but here's what it said, with expired offers of free cheese removed:

Readers of tobyaw's LiveJournal will know that a while back I was looking for a very specific cheese which my Dad remembered from his days in France. It is called Tomme au Marc de Raisin and is a softish seasonal cheese a bit like an unripened Brie, and covered in what's left of the grapes after they've been squeezed for wine.

I eventually found out what it was called (my Dad couldn't remember) and also managed to find a UK supplier who was prepared to post it to me. I ordered some to be delivered direct to Dad, and to satisfy my curiosity had some sent to me too. It arrived today.

I was a bit worried when I opened it, as the immediate odour wasn't entirely alluring. However, I think that's due to it being pretty damp externally - grape pressings, remember - and a combination of that leaking through the internal clingfilm and reacting with the external paper wrapping was what I smelled.

Once it's out of the wrapping and has a chance, it is fantastic. Well-remembered, Dad, and I think I will have to get it again. Unfortunately I am a poor describer of foodstuffs, but it's probably fair enough to describe it as a cheese and wine without the necessity for glasses, cocktail sticks or small talk.

At that stage Dad was already not in the best of ways (he died in 2007), so finding something he remembered fondly was a pleasure.

Not on the subject of cheese at all, but other traditional produce that just sprang into my head as I wrote: if you ever get the chance, do try Kingsbarns honey. There hasn’t been any in the village shop for a few months now, so you may have a job getting hold of it, but it is without question the finest honey I have ever tasted. It’s a set honey, but very smooth and tasty. Of course, if you’re daft enough to refuse to touch set honey on the grounds that you think it looks like lard (hello, former university flat mates!) then you’ll miss out.


I've been reading Biggles books since an early age, and still pick up the odd copy when I happen across one I haven't read before - or can't remember! I’m not sure how many I’ve read – my Biggles books aren’t as well organised as my Doctor Who ones – but it’s certainly over half of the 98 published.

I have fond memories of buying them for sums such as 6p from a jumble sale, which represented excellent value even when compared with the economy and entertainment value of 27p for an Airfix  Series One bubble pack (example).

As any right-thinking person will agree, the best books are the ones set during the Great War, but I would also give honourable mentions to some of the weirder ones: Biggles Hits The Trail (invisible Chinese), Biggles – Charter Pilot (short stories of weirdness) and Biggles in the Orient (death rays in World War II – or are they?). The other one I think particularly worth hunting down, if you’ve already read earlier ones featuring his nemesis Erich von Stalhein, is Biggles Buries A Hatchet (actual character development!).


When I finished my first degree, at St. Andrews, I didn't really know what I did want to do, but I was sure I didn't want to do any more in the way of Physics and Electronics. Then I heard that one of my fellow Physics graduates, sharikkamur, had applied to an M.Sc. course at Dundee that offered a conversion to Computer Science. I'd done a little computing as an undergraduate, but hadn't been very interested at that stage. Everyone who went in for computing at the time I was making my decisions seemed to be competing to be most obnoxious alpha geek, and the arrogant competitiveness was not something I wanted anything to do with.

By the time I’d finished with Physics, though, I needed something to do, and it occurred to me that the bits of my course that I had enjoyed were the bits most concerned with logic (no pun intended). I applied for the same course as sharikkamur, and was also accepted. I really enjoyed it; best year of my whole education.

Since then, I’ve been unemployed for a year, suffered the horrors of programming in MUMPS on a pittance, completed a Ph.D., and developed commercial software in C++ and C# (including help, installers, etc. – not just the code). I still like writing code, though as the years go by I get ever more frustrated with the absence of both quiet working conditions and long term thinking.

I recognise the potential of Agile programming, but I think in practice it’s too easy just to use it as a dynamic-sounding excuse for continuing the mistakes of the past, by cherry-picking the easy bits of Agile development and ignoring the hard bits that are required to make it work.

At a more technical level, I’m interested in meta-programming and code quality. My basic philosophy is that being a developer is all about communication; with the machine (through code), with other developers (through discussion and highly readable, well-commented code) and with users/customers (through discussion and highly usable interfaces). The order I’ve chosen is, I think, reflective of easiest to hardest for most developers, not importance. Personally I may fall short of the ideal on any or all of these, but they’re what I’d like to achieve.

The Web and web development are obviously useful and have their place; but I think the current level of enthusiasm for the Cloud, particularly the extent to which it entrusts data to third parties, is mad. In as much as I do get involved with web development, which isn’t very much directly, I’m an advocate of accessibility. Back in the days when I had a Doctor Who portal, I got an e-mail out of the blue from a blind user, just to thank me for the accessibility of my site. That small thank you letter created a big impression.


(Political bit followed by a more personal bit)

I don't usually aim to talk politics in my blog, and I'm not a member of any party. However, having said that, it's difficult to write about Scotland without politics. I'm Scottish, British and European, currently in that order. I approve of devolution and the Scottish Assembly, but I also subscribe to the notion that devolution is a process, not an event. I think there are two possible logical end-points to devolution within the UK; one is a fully federal UK, in which each country - or possibly region, if England's too big in population terms - has its own assembly, and there's a UK level body with representation for each nation that doesn't put England automatically in charge by virtue of the size of its population. Frankly, I don't really see England going for that option, since the population disparity is so large, which leaves the other logical endpoint of independence; hopefully then with a looser level of international cooperation between the UK nations, with each having the ability to opt out of doing something they regard as stupid.

I think England currently has a raw deal, with Scottish MPs able to vote on matters that don’t affect their own constituents; but I think it’s probably necessary pain to convince England of the need for balance. Ten years ago, when we voted for Scottish and Welsh devolution, England wasn’t ready for a balanced solution for the UK, but for Scotland some recognition of the democratic deficit of the 80s and 90s was long overdue. Now England has a bit of a democratic deficit itself. It’s not nearly so marked as it was for Scotland, where our elected representatives could be completely overwhelmed by English representation – commentators often seem to forget that the Labour party currently has a majority in England, and that the Scottish vote only affects a few decisions, whereas we had nearly twenty years of a government with ever-decreasing minority representation in our country, and over a hundred years of campaigns for a Scottish parliament, including a petition signed by nearly half the population in 1950, which Westminster ignored. Although it’s bound to take time, I’m sure England, with 84% of the UK population, instead of our 8.6% (source), will get its concerns sorted out a little more quickly.

Issues of tolerance worry me a bit. It would concern me if Gordon Brown were to be the last Scottish Prime Minister of the UK, but I think it’ll be difficult in the future for Scottish MPs to rise to the top on merit because of the imbalance between legislative bodies (and no, I’m not interested in debating whether or not Gordon meets those criteria of merit – I’m only addressing the general point). By way of contrast, I’m quite proud of Scottish civic nationalism and its inclusiveness. You can be Scottish if you want to, regardless of your place of birth or colour of skin; and the SNP, often derided as divisive by its political opponents, has members, some prominent, from all backgrounds.

Are there bigots who don’t hold to this ideal? Sadly, of course there are. Can pro-Scottish feeling tip over into anti-English feeling? Sadly, of course it can. We always need to watch for and be wary of such things. However, it’s my personal observation, meaning nothing in the bigger picture of course, that Scotland is a better and less chippy place since devolution, and that having some of our own responsibility has made us feel better about our neighbours. (Though not necessarily vice versa!) Luckily we don’t have – and are unlikely to have – the press stirring up anti-English feeling, as they do with immigrants and the EU and who knows what else. When Michael “did you stay up for…?” Portillo reckons the right wing press is “evil”, you know you have a problem.

For myself? It’s traditional for those arguing that they’re not intolerant themselves to say “Some of my best friends are…<fill in the blank>.” I hope I’m not guilty of the same blindness about myself when I say that for much of my life most of my best friends and many of my closest have been English. And long may it continue.

Well, that’s the politics – how Scottish am I? I have a marked Scottish accent, but not easily more localisable – I’ve had west coast folks think I’m from the east, and east coast folks think I’m from the west. It is probably a bit of a mixter-maxter as my parents and most of my relatives are from the east, but I was born in the Borders, spent some time in the north-east, mostly grew up in the west, and have spent nearly 25 years in the vicinity of St. Andrews.

I speak Scottish English. In common with most other speakers, the extent to which my speech is Scottish varies depending on a range of factors, such as who I’m talking to, what the subject is, and so on. My switching is not usually a conscious thing, though occasionally it is – it’s just a natural adjustment to environment. I’m aware this can sometimes sound false – I know it used to annoy me unreasonably as a kid  sometimes when my Dad, a French and German teacher with an ear for language, context-switched quite markedly – but honestly, however I speak to you, it’s unlikely that I’m putting it on.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I speak Scots, but I read it fairly well and think pupils should be exposed to it in school. I think the existence of Itchy Coo is wonderful. I find people actively trying to use modern constructs such as Lallans in every day contexts embarrassing, but I strongly support the use of Scottish language and vocabulary when they feel natural. If ye dinna come fae this airt, ye’ll just hae tae mak the maist o it ye can. ;-) Usually that means I’ll throw in a Scottish word or two, or use a phrasing that isn’t normal for English, rather than anything more. If I do it here, and I’m aware of it, I’ll try to provide a link to anything that I think might not be immediately understood.

I’ve seen less of of my own country than I would like, partly due to my reluctance to own a motor vehicle. I’d like to see more of the north and the islands, especially Orkney, for all the archaeology.

Tags: dad, history, meme, scotland, software development, thought

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