11 June 2013 by Jack Devine
However, we all know it really gives them round-the-clock checks on students' immigration status and the chance to throw underperforming students out because they can prove you were necking vodka and coke rather than attending the miserly three lectures per term provided under the fees.
You pay all your bills off at the end of term, but an optional extra is to link the data from your thumb directly to your bank account, so they can check whether you can actually afford the third bottle of Budweiser. I think this is where the system breaks down because students and their economy couldn't exist if they didn't live off totally unfeasible credit.
Anyway, all the hackers are huddling together trying to work out if they can link their thumbs to the account of students with money (like my vair posh friend Ern, who has a trust fund), the bio-chemists are teaming up with the mechanical engineers, the IT crowd and some drama students to try to create an artificial thumb with a convincing back history, and Ern is working on a non-removable thumb cover/permanent glove so no one takes advantage of him when he's drunk. To be honest, this one use of new technology should lead to at least two Nobels in the next couple of decades.
And the result is that we can all pretend we're in an episode of Star Trek, where they don't use money. Or on holiday at a Mark Warners.
"But you never see them even using their thumbs or anything," said Ern one night in the student uni bar, having just thumbed a round of drinks. "How do they pay for stuff on the Enterprise?"
"Aha!" I said, for I know about this, having just realised that I can do my final dissertation on the subject, which is a lot more fun than, I don't know, sustainable health care systems in south east Asia.
Everyone in the United Federation of Planets lives in a post-scarcity society, which means that they can produce and reproduce anything without depleting resources, have infinity energy to do it, and don't need to worry about shipping instant bananas halfway across the universe because they've got teleportation.
"And that means a free bar?" asked Ern.
"Yes it would, my friend! How could you charge for a beer when it can be reproduced instantly at no cost? Economics dictates that the cost would be driven down to zero."
"So no money in the universe at all?"
"There is talk of credits because you might need some way of registering exchange for something big like a starship and "buying" things but the Trekkie theories are that this is just a figure of speech. And it does look like status gets you more stuff - the captain's quarters on the Enterprise are always nicer than the rest of the staff. But the really exciting thing for you guys - and I'm working on this theory - is that in the post-scarcity society everyone wants to be an engineer. And the status is better than in 2013, when everyone is still trying to get into banking."
Ern makes a sceptical face.
"You don't have to work, so you get to do the thing that you really enjoy - and we still need people to create goods and new technologies - lots more, actually, because society is so tech-driven - so we should end up with lots more engineers."
"But some people prefer art."
"Well, lots of artists. And loads and loads of bands, I guess. They just don't need to make a living so they could go on for ever, instead of giving in and getting a day job."
"And sport. Some people will just play golf all day."
"OK, lots of golfers. But someone's got to keep designing the golf clubs and programming the replicators, and making better guitars and amps, and that's the engineers. Basically, because this society doesn't run on money and what it can buy but on technology and what sort of lifestyle it can create, it's you guys that become the top dog. And because status is a currency in itself you are rich. Relatively speaking. Reputation rich. Everyone is very grateful. And you might get quarters with a view on the Enterprise."
"But," said Ern, "Someone's got to teach the engineers... would anyone still want to be an engineering professor?"
"Of course they would! You'd be able to do as much research as you like and go to conferences all the time so loads of people would do that so the teaching load would be really light, and it would suit all the engineers who like nurturing the next generation. Honestly, virtuous circle, man."
Ern looks over to the bar. "Well, who's going to want to be a bartender? I've seen them having to mop up sick. And someone's got to clean the loos at the end of the shift."
He's right, you know. I think this is where the theories of the post-scarcity society break down, because we're all supposed to have a lifetime of leisure where we can do the very things that make our hearts sing. On the other hand, bitter experience in the halls of residence tells me that no bugger ever washes up if they don't have to. So the big question is: on the Enterprise, who is it who serves you the beer?
Jack's Blog: May
It said he was part of the new Technical Middle Class, so he was really pleased to have the word technical in his trade name.
"Look!" he cried, pointing at the screen. "I am largely middle class, and I mix with people in research and science! I don't like highbrow culture, and I only like talking to people like me. It's like someone's inside my head. How amazing is that?"
Mum did the test next. An old school friend dragged her to the opera last month and as a result she came out as Elite, which is top dog in the new world of seven classes (I am somewhere near the bottom as an Emergent Service Worker, ie tip-top education but no money and all my friends work in call centres or bars because that's where the jobs are).
With Technical Middle Class no longer so desirable, Dad seized the iPad, but no matter how he input his info he couldn't get into the Elite class. "Do you have savings you're not telling me about?" he accused my mother. "Do you have a spare home somewhere?"
"No Dad, it's on who you mix with and what you go and see at weekends," I said. "You've just said you only talk to people with Chartered in front of their job title and a ticket to Bruce Springsteen is your equivalent of Covent Garden. Ergo, you will never be in the Elite class of this country."
"But I don't see why not," he said. "I am well educated, I am intelligent, I create the products that actually keep this country running: why should she get to be Elite just because she snoozed through Nessun Dorma for three hours last month?"
"Which would be very inappropriate, when you think about it," said Mum. "What?" cried Dad, reaching "warning" on the Dad Irritation Scale and revealing just how much he knows about opera.
"All you have to do is tick off classical and theatre on the interests page and the job's a good 'un," I said.
Poor Dad. A lifetime of engineering training renders him incapable of voluntarily inputting false data. He had to grab his right forefinger with his left hand to force it down toward the screen but you could tell he was never going to make contact. As the sweat sprang off his forehead I offered to tick the boxes myself but he threw himself back on the sofa with a cry.
"I don't see what's so bad about Technical Middle Class," said Mum, trying not to be patronising but failing epically. "It's all you've ever strived for, and now you've been recognised for it."
"Yes but once again the bloody country doesn't think we're up to much, do they? You can be as competent as you like but you'll still be outclassed by someone who thinks that spending three hours in a red velvet seat in the dark makes them a better person."
"Well why don't you do it then?" asked Mum. "It won't kill you, you might learn something and most importantly, because that's what really matters, you'll come up as Elite. Happy now?"
Dad lunged towards me and seized the iPad (I was checking out Muse's tour dates and wondering if I could somehow steal the money to get me to their UK gigs this summer. Or whether I should go for the part-time job coming up as a cleaner at our halls of residence. Look at me, the Emergent Service Worker in action!)
"Right, what's on?" mused Dad. "Nigel Kennedy's touring - he's OK, likes football, should be fun - how much? HOW MUCH?" Turns out Nigel Kennedy tickets in northern towns cost as much as The Boss at Wembley. Dad actually has tickets for this gig, the one great chance for the 40-somethings who think a pink stripe in a shirt is expressing themselves rather too loudly, to punch their fists in the air while roaring along to "Glory Days". He would never have shelled out that much unless he was convinced that Bruce Springsteen was the nearest thing to a living god we'll ever see, something not even Nigel Kennedy has ever claimed.
"OK, I'm going to have to go for broke. Opera it is. What's the best one? What are they about?"
"Love and death, mostly," said Mum, instant expert after one trip.
"Love and death? Who wants to hear about that? Isn't there one on, I don't know, building cities or transport problems or something?"
"Well, you could try Nabucco for the slaves - they do some work - or there's warfare in Boris Gudunov and a lot of devil and signing your soul away stuff in Faust," I said. "That's if love and death are really not your thing. Or universal experiences, or anything like that."
"How do you know all this?" asked Dad. "What are you actually studying at University? It is something that will eventually get you a job, isn't it?"
"A knowledge of opera plots is a sure fire way to make points on University Challenge, Dad, and I can't study all the time, can I?"
"OK, where's the best place to see opera? Mind, I want to make Elite."
"They do opera everywhere, you numpty. You could go to the London opera houses. But it's a bit far," said Mum, anxious that Dad's endless search for status will start costing us money soon. "Glyndebourne is supposed to be amazing. Opera in the countryside, and all that."
Dad taps furiously. "Here we go. I've got the last two tickets for Le Nozze di Figaro, standing room only, restricted view, £15 quid each. Bingo!"
"That sounds rubbish," I said. "But it's more than £250 miles! It'll cost a fortune to get there!" Mum said.
"Of course I'm not going to go. But you're talking to someone who's got tickets to Glyndebourne. I'm Elite, and it only cost me £30."
Jack's blog: April
19 April 2013 by Jack Devine
My flatmate and fellow student Ern, who wants to make a fortune creating a device no one knew they needed, has been experimenting with finger-warmers for weeping rugby players. He destroyed his own eyebrows when he went down the lighter fuel route before deciding that the crystallisation pads were safer. The trick has been to make them thin enough so that your toasty-warm fingers can still catch the ball, and put the minimum amount of salt stuff inside so it doesn't set too solid when activated. After I spent an entire match with wearing his new Ern-o-matic gloves, my rigid, fat fingers dropping every pass, I asked him to experiment on one of the southern lads instead.
It's weird playing at uni, though. The cold hands, that's the same. But apart from Ern, who is sizing up the potential audience that could make him millions and a few really keen girlfriends who might nip out of the clubhouse after they've fried up the bacon sarnies, you're on your own.
No one shouting "Rip it! Legs! Go for the legs! Knock on, ref!"
I guess - and I can't quite believe I'm writing this - I miss Dad being there.
Mind you, as rugby dads go, he was flipping useless.
There's a thing with kids' rugby. Your dad's got to be there. There's the occasional single mum, looking tired and working out childcare permutations in her head but mostly it's dads, all standing around with dogs on leads and posh wellies and a thermos flask, watching you flapping your little blue hands and hiding them in your sleeves - because it is freezing and they were too mean to buy you the neoprene gloves - and shouting: "Get in there!" Their own rugby days long gone they live in the glory of your skinny-legged attempts to tackle Harry, who's already a foot taller than you by some freak of nature that makes boys shoot up like bicarb of soda volcanoes when they reach the age of nine. Of course Harry can fend you off with one flick of his hand. You can chart Harry's progress up the field by the numbers of skinny little boys bouncing off him into the mud, their dads shouting "Get back up and get 'im!"
Except that I'd look up after an awesome ruck to find that my dad wouldn't be there. No, he'd be halfway up the field on his knees, taking soil samples and trying to get a signal so he could Google hydraulic conductivity bypasses on his phone.
I'd also know he'd be about to send an email to Dave, the coach, about soil pore size and I would just want to die because next week Dave was going to greet me as "son of soil pore man!" or "junior drainage guy!"
The drainage on the pitch was rubbish, and Dad got fed up standing around with his feet in water every Sunday morning while I got covered in mud at training. All the other dads were happy wearing posh wellies (see above) or walking boots, paddling about and having a chat but not Dad. He can't bear to see a blindingly obvious problem without sorting it out. So while the other boys were getting hot chocolate at half time and a second pair of gloves I'd have my hands jammed between my legs to warm them up, sniffing someone else's lovely-smelling drink like Charlie at the gates of Willie Wonka's factory and Dad would be striding off measuring the pitch so he could estimate the piped drainage required to ameliorate the problem.
Dad just couldn't see the point of just standing around, simply - I don't know - belonging, like the other dads. Why would he stand around when there's a possibility of creating a super-highway to move water away from the pitches, thus obliterating the problem?
Unfortunately, the solution to the problem cost several hundreds of thousands of pounds in digging channels and packing them with layers of backfill and, frankly, rugby players don't think they're doing it right unless they're covered in mud so Dad couldn't get it past the finance committee.
So Dad persuaded the club to give him an unused corner of the site - a pitch so boggy you had to swim to get the ball - to run a feasibility study using some students doing environmental landscaping at the local FE college. OMG the carnage. He dug a million trenches to test the drainage matter, the piping, the soil, the grass and by the end of a year it looked like the Battle of the Somme. Mum had practically divorced him because he was never at home, the students had all written their dissertations (on under-resourcing and toxic leadership culture in environmental project management) and moved on and Dad was breaking in another wave of innocent students who didn't know they would spend the next fourteen weekends straight digging up a rugby pitch. On the other hand Dad had become the north-west's premier expert on soil drainage, so it wasn't all wasted.
After two years the club gently asked him to stop, although he protested he still had a few scenarios to test out. They pointed out that as his son (me!) had not actually played for the club for the last year and gone off to do squash instead they weren't quite sure why he was still hanging around. And besides, as some lottery money had come through they were going to redesign all the pitches, if he wouldn't mind going home now and writing up his notes that would be very helpful, thank you very much.
I honestly don't think he noticed I wasn't even on the pitch any more. And writing up the notes kept him going for another six months. It was at that point that he noticed the leaks in the squash club building...
Jack's Blog: February
13 January 2013 by Jack Devine
Economists do not do this. Hardly anyone can blame an individual economist for anything (it's not like we're lawyers or estate agents) so we have a sort of collective, emotionally soupy, group feeling about being one. And enough money to buy another round. The only people who really hate economists are politicians because, duh, no one can really predict what's going to happen in five years time. And we never promised we could. (High fives all round!) Besides, politicians are the hyenas in the careers jungle: if life was like the Lion King, everyone would look down on them.
But engineers carry a secret anger: they know they are superior to almost anyone in a room, especially if you run the "who's likely to survive if we all crash on a desert island?" test, when it would be kinder to heave all the people who do marketing back into the sea before they regain consciousness. And yet who walks around with this sort of insight floating anywhere near their conscious mind? Only the engineers, nurturing their collective feeling of abandonment. They are the Simbas of the world, lion cubs born to rule but cast into exile and given a bad name by the terrible people in power. So when they get drunk, they feel a bit sorry for themselves.
"I'll start," says Ern (second year, design, lives on my floor). "Politicians because they are disappointed all engineers are not James Dyson ie media friendly entrepreneurs who make millions for the Treasury. It's as stupid as if all politicians should be prime minister."
Eric (second year systems, also on my floor): "Also non-politicians because when they meet us they expect us to be James Dyson."
"That's everyone in the country," I say. "Is the game over now?"
"Although you have to push people quite hard to get as far as James Dyson," says Eric, mournfully. "Mostly no-one can name an engineer at all. No matter how many times you say 'But someone actually had to invent the World Wide Web. It wasn't just out there'." He subsides into his pint. I've seen him trying to chat women up. It is not fun for anybody.
"OK, I've got one," says Robert (first year electrical and electronic). "People with messy cars."
The group goes "???" so he explains, very slowly because he's shipping quite a bit of beer. "Cars reflect the mind. Crips packets, sweet wrappers, en-ny-thing on the floor - EN-NY-THING! - dectly collerates with stuff lyin in your head. People with messy cars are jealous of engineers' tidy cars."
A passing drama student sniggers. The group ignores her, loftily.
"Arts students hate us," says another.
The conversation segues into whether hatred is too strong a word. "Well, maybe not hate, maybe indifference." "Strong indifference." "Targeted indifference." "Indifference based on acceptable social outputs, like Boolean logic for emotions."
"And engineering students hate us," continues Robert. "But we are engineering students!" "I mean the ones who aren't going to last. The ones who don't like the reading. And the maths. And the actual turning work in. They go on Twitter and say how much they hate us."
Eric and Ern are second years, and assure him that there's a cull after year one where all the people who hate engineering transfer where they belong, into humanities. You see them occasionally, all like long hair and having a good time and playing in a band. There is a pause.
"Engineers hate us," says Robert, who is really turning out to be a charmer.
"We are engineers," says Ern.
"Yes, but we're the worst. Who doesn't think they're better'n someone else? Superior to the civ engs or the mech engs or the elect engs?"
"It's one of the paradoxes of engineering," says James, who is doing his second masters, is prone to strange musings and is known as the Wise Old Man. His parents call him the Eternal Student. "A clear hierarchy of superiority exists in the mind of each engineer, but there is no real external structure to map against. It is a perfect system for the regulation of the collective engineering psyche but breaks down as soon as you introduce a hint of reality."
"Like pay scales?" says Ern, mindful that one day he will design something utterly useless but incredibly stylish that will net him millions.
"I was thinking of something more visible," says James. "I think we will shortly see engineers evolving at different rates." (I make an economist's sceptical >:/ face.)
"Why do you need hand-eye coordination when you can do everything on CAD?" he continues. "If you've grown up texting and playing Minecraft on a touchscreen all you need are a highly-developed forefinger and thumb.
"If engineers continue to evolve we'll see the hierarchy in the hands. All the technicians will have fully functioning hands with everything in proportion. Meanwhile all the design stages will be done by engineers with freakily big forefingers and thumbs. Highly evolved finger-thumb operators, that's what the future holds: lobster-clawed engineers, proudly flaunting their niche status in the engineering hierarchy. Then we'll really find out if there's an engineering gene because the lobster-claws will go on getting bigger and bigger."
"And that means," says Ern, quickly cottoning on "that all the technicians will either a) think they're superior because they've got fully functioning hands or will b) desperately try to modify their hands to emulate the design engineers. Two choices: boot-camp hand work outs or cutting off their fingers, like the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella. Blood everywhere."
"Well that's just stupid," says Robert. ("Oh, like lobster-clawed engineers isn't stupid?" I say.) "You wouldn't be able to cut off your fingers on the other hand. You'd have to hire someone to do it for you."
Jack's Blog: January
2 January 2013 by Jack Devine
"Look at this!" he shouts, waving his knife in front of my face. I recoil from the Flora. If you want to mug someone - especially someone with mild OCD tendencies, quite common in this tower block where all the engineers live - you just have to threaten them with a really messy butter knife. They'll give you anything to make you take it away.
"OK, it's disgusting. You win. You want money?"
"No! Look at this!" and he shows me a flyer from the debating society, which is holding a debate snappily called: "The Romans: just a bunch of boring engineers v The Greeks: philosophical idiots savants".
Ah, I think. Engineering pride dented. The old Greek/Roman grudge match. This might become a sketch from Monty Python if we're not careful.
"It's outrageous. Engineers are not boring and Romans are not just a bunch of engineers. Look at what they did for us! Aqueducts, sanitation, roads, irrigation, proper architecture..." he trails off and munches a corner of his toast.
"OK, that is a really boring list, I think you're actually quoting Monty Python now and you're just proving the philosophy society's point, and they will go on and argue that the Greeks did abstract thought , invented angles and were infinitely superior."
Eric hammers on Ern's door and enlists help.
"Right," says Ern. "We will have to lay siege to them." ("Roman warfare tactic," says Eric.) "Target their points with light, accurate counter-arguments. ("Also Roman.") "Bury them in the concrete of our evidence." ("Roman.") "Let's form a committee."
I have noticed that engineering activism always starts with a committee and a really robust governance structure, which detracts a bit from the raw anger of it all but I suppose even anarchists can't do away with bureaucracy altogether. ("Committees are also very Roman," adds Eric, as he rings up to book the common room for a meeting. "Yes, says Ern, "from committo, misi, missum, to bring together or connect", thereby demonstrating the benefits of a private education.)
I go along just for the hell of it.
Naturally, the angry engineers spend half an hour listing boring Roman engineering achievements (Pontoons! Arch technology!) as proof that the Romans weren't just boring engineers but once we get through that Ern marshals the arguments in defence.
"How about arguing that roads..." ("Roman!" shouts Eric.) "Yes, thank you for that Eric, that roads actually promote human development, culture and even thought patterns because they enable communication? That Romans did more than the Greeks to change the way we think about ourselves and our world? Can anyone find any research on changes in brain development as a result of exposure to different cultures?"
George from Civil Engineering ignores this promising line of argument and suggests that we make a 1m deep model of a Roman road in cross section as it is obvious to him that the sheer poetry of the construction will just blow the opposition away. This is greeted with grunts of approval as the crowd falls under the common engineering misconception that if everyone just understood how things worked a little better then the world would be at peace and everyone would know important stuff like why pointing your zapper at the gate, rather than the sensor mechanism, won't work. And why it takes you ages to get into the office car park.
There is a counter suggestion to build a huge Lego aqueduct during the debate to show everyone just why the Romans were superior to almost everyone else and stick it to the Greeks - art, democracy, philosophy and medicine notwithstanding. People start making plans to nip back home and get the crates of lego from their old bedrooms.
"We are all of us in the gutter, but I am the only one looking at the stars," sighs Ern. I can see that Eric wants to shout that gutters were Roman too so I head him off.
"It's not roads that drive communication, it's commerce," I say. "Romans used their roads to consolidate their territory grab and to give good supply lines. But for everyone else, there's no point going up a road if there's no market at the end of it, so what drives non-military social development is money. In fact, when the Romans left Britain the market system collapsed and the Roman townships were abandoned - roads don't, in themselves, increase human development or promote the good."
"Who ARE you?" quavers George (he's a civil engineer. He needs to believe in roads, like Peter Pan needs to believe in fairies.)
"I'm the one economist in this block, and I'd argue that it's not engineering or philosophy that matters, but trade. We wouldn't even know about Greek civilisation if it wasn't for the Phoenicians, sailing up the coast with a load of stuff to sell and something they gave away for free - their alphabet. The Greeks passed it on to the Romans, by the way. You wouldn't have lovely stone inscriptions and capital letters without some really rough Phoenician traders a few thousand years ago."
"Yeah, nice try," says Ern. "I'm still going with roads and building the human brain."
"And I'm going with the cross section," says George.
In the end they needn't have bothered. A bunch of chemical engineers hijacked the debate and demonstrated, by throwing in two massive bottles of lemonade which they'd primed with two packs of Mentos, how incredibly entertaining engineers are (sweets catalyzing the rapid release of CO2 = domestic Exocet missile kit.) Not boring at all, when lemonade bottles are ricocheting off the walls and people are diving for cover. Eric ended up in hospital with a broken nose. Worth it, he says; I've never seen philosophers running so fast, and I've never laughed so much in my life.
Jack's Blog: October
"Why are you talking like Sir Lancelot?" I asked, extricating another slice of pizza from the box (since the envelope arrived, unlocking Ern's trust fund, we have graduated from Tesco frozen pizzas to the sort that arrives on a moped. We are all very happy as a result, although Ern has been fretting that he is not being a good steward of the dosh). "Does having money make you feel that noble?"
"It seems to me," said Eric, "you obviously do feel guilty about having a trust fund, desperately want to spend the money on drugs and flash cars but can't quite reconcile that with your idea of yourself as a good bloke. You really don't have to do something grand with the money. Jack and I are quite happy with the free-flowing pizza, if you are looking for a deserving cause to spend it on. Pizza also, may I add, goes a lot further than flash cars and drugs."
"I don't actually want the flash cars. I really do want to do something useful with the money. Something that really makes a difference."
I put it down to the second year at Uni lull. You've made your friends, done all your experimental drinking and you don't have to worry about exams yet. Given too much time students tend to try exotic occupations like potholing and voluntary work. Madness. What about, I suggested, creating the Annual Ern Engineering Prize? Sort of like a mini-Nobel or Mercury Award. Then the money would be working hard, everyone else would be working trying win it, and it wouldn't interrupt our lives too much. Eric and I quickly made a list of the possible prizes Ern could give out.
1) Prize to address the fact that while there are engineering jobs out there, a looming shortage of engineers and it pays relatively well, compared to working in the arts, no one is studying engineering at Uni. This would be called the "Physics is not boring and you're a moron if you think it is" prize for sixth formers who can demonstrate a technique or device to eliminate media studies from the curriculum, and indeed the nation's consciousness. (Solutions ranging from computer hacking through thought control welcome).
2) Freshers week prize for demonstrating mastery of Meccano/Lego/the humble screwdriver. The winner gains the instant approbation of the Dean and all engineering faculty staff, the undying hatred of the rest of the students who spent their teenage years playing computer games instead of making go-karts and gets to miss the annual Freshers Lecture on "Why young engineers lack hand-eye co-ordination and don't have enough engineer synapses in their brains" (subtitle: What were your parents thinking of by getting you a Playstation when they should have given you a bucket of nails and a big hammer?).
3) Prize for convincing the public that if your big engineering project doesn't work first time that's normal and doesn't mean everyone should be sacked. To be named the Cern Reloaded Prize or the "You may be in a four-hour traffic jam but when you realise we just need to get the phasing of the lights right you will enjoy the break" award.
4) The scholarship for solving the conundrum of gadgets getting smaller when we are getting bigger, otherwise known as the Fat Fingers Fellowship, with a secondary award for whoever can convince Apple to move the delete button further away from the "M" on the iPhone.
5) Prize for proving definitively that wind farms are - or are not, doesn't really matter either way - a reliable and economic source of energy, thus putting a stop to all the arguing. Gone with the Wind Award.
6) The Mr/Miss Student Engineer prize. Featuring the lab coat round and exactly how contestants would use engineering to bring about world peace. Evening wear round to feature the one washed tee-shirt in the chest of drawers that every engineer has forgotten about, but can be unearthed with six seconds to spare when parents come to visit.
7) The Engineering for World Peace competition. We can already see a few lines of work here: walls, been tried, not very successful. Proxy wars, eg Olympics, very successful and also a recent triumph for engineering, although apparently it was a bit hot in the Aquatic centre. Algorithm allocating land according to population, democratic, also good for UK which might end up with quite a bit of France, might not actually promote peace at all. Tackling mankind's aggressiveness: not actually a problem which engineering might be able to solve at all, which makes us rather sad.
"But engineering solves everything," said Ern, looking at the list. "Maybe I should create that prize and see what comes up?"
"Yeah, we'd call it the Bran Tub prize to make it sound folksy," I said.
"You're a design engineer - why not make it a prize for that?" said Eric. "You'd be bringing self-clean carpet into the world, or endless loo roll, or finger cameras or robot mice hairdressers or bouncy kitchen knives. All those sorts of useful things."
"But I want to make those sorts of things," said Ern. "I don't want to hand my money to some other bugger for designing them."
"That's the spirit," I said. "Keep it for your start-up fund. The way money is flowing in this economy no one is ever going to give you a loan."
Jack's Blog: August
2 August 2012 by Jack Devine
This is Dave, my Dad's best mate, who has brought his family along to share a huge Welsh farmhouse with my parents and sisters in the name of a summer holiday. I am here because they don't make summer holiday jobs for university students any more so you can see how much I'm with the project, although if I was doing anthropology I'd probably have enough material for my dissertation right here. "Struggles for engineering dominance in a domestic setting" or something.
While the rest of us are sniggering over the algorithm Dad is quite put out he didn't think of it first, so he keeps annotating it in red biro to show how teaspoons cannot be allowed to nest, etc. Sooner or later he will say he just has to redraw the whole thing and will claim ownership in that way - at this point he will pull me over and say son, this is one way to get ahead at work, especially in a project management situation. And I will say Dad, I'm never going to work (see employment situation, above) and furthermore I am never going to leave home as I can't afford a house. Which will make him look very thoughtful.
Meanwhile, Mum is banned from stacking the dishwasher because she claims she can't follow the algorithm and has reduced Dave practically to tears by putting the forks head down on two consecutive days (she has already pulled me over and pointed out this is a good passive-aggressive way of delegating stuff at work, at which point I gave her my "I'm never leaving home or working ever" speech. Which also made her look very thoughtful).
The twins have contributed to the dishwasher situation in their own anarchic way by easing the control panel off and resetting it to give everything a 24-hour wash, which no-one noticed until we were down to the last breakfast bowl at 8am this morning and there was a literal fight over the cornflakes.
To call a truce we all decided we needed to get out for the day. Dad and Dave wanted to go to the castle up the road, which seemed a safe bet. I feel this shows Dad is moving on from his normal holiday need to see the nearest big suspension bridge or nuclear power plant, broadening his horizons to encompass history. An engineer's view of history, of course.
Initially Dave and Dad argued over whether the spiral staircase really was turned the right way if you were a defending knight armed with a sword and whether being left handed was more common than we think; they belted over to the shop to buy wooden swords and fought up and down the stairs for 20 minutes, holding up a coach party of American families who thought they were part of the entertainment and pressed several dollars into their hands as a tip.
Then they bullied the staff over the guide book, which claimed that boiling oil was dropped through the machicolations on the battlements. Joined by a holidaying chemical engineer, who couldn't believe his luck that he'd met two kindred spirits at the information desk, they proved exhaustively, using pen, paper and the calculator on Dad's mobile that oil smokes well before boiling and would probably catch fire before they could pour it anywhere, and that as the smoke point can be double that of water's boil temperature they wouldn't have had the fuel available to get it anywhere near hot enough. The manager agreed that he would ask for the guide book to be rewritten to say "warm to hot oil, depending on the amount of fuel available" although I could see he was thinking "as soon as these people are out of sight this information will disappear from my brain and I am going to forget this ever happened". The chemical engineer further upped the ante by pointing out the startling fact that different oils smoke at different temperatures, and they had a terrific half an hour speculating what sort of oil was being boiled in the first place.
Feeling really chipper now, they tried to work out the motto carved above the fireplace: Ingenio et Industria. The Latin defeated them, and they had to cave in and ask for help from the manager, who with a great sigh informed them it meant: "With talent and diligence".
"I don't know about Welsh warriors, sounds more like a motto for engineers," said Dad.
"No, that would be maior victoria mentis - victory of the mind is greater," said the twins, who did Latin GSCE and retain everything, like infinite girl-shaped bath sponges. "It's a consolation for not earning as much as you think you're worth," they explained, helpfully.
Dad got really interested at this point. "What would the motto be for project managers?" "Tempus fugit," said the twins. "Time flies." Dad thought this was hilarious.
"Software engineers?" asked Dave, who is one.
"Ce qui suit je m'en fous." They also did French. "It means I don't care about who has to maintain this code after me." At this point Dad and Dave are rolling around.
"Design engineers?" "Vultus ante munus. (Form before function)." (Cue Dad beating his knees - he has no time for design engineers.)
"Electronics?" "Abundans cautela non nocet or cavendo tutus, which both mean I am so totally risk averse I have made sure this will work first time and if not I'm going to go off in a massive sulk."
"And what about," said dad cautiously, "systems engineers who make head of department?" (He's up for a promotion.
"Dirigo," said the twins, immediately. "I lead."
"Sounds like a Harry Potter spell," said Mum. "Call it the magic of engineering."
Jack's Blog: July
This is because he can't write code and doesn't want to spend much time with people who do (really, as a product design engineer he barely qualifies as an engineer at all) because if you were developing some sort of world-beating program your life mostly boils down to microwave pizza and Tesco value lager in the same room as your laptop and a couple of friends who don't do small talk for about three years straight.
Eric accused him of discrimination.
"It's not that they don't wash, or have little or no social skills," said Ern. "Although this can be true," he added, gazing upwards in the direction of floor seven of our student accommodation tower, already legendary for housing nine members of the feared BED gang (Back End Development, really these guys are fun fun fun). Hardly ever seen in daylight, it is thought they program furiously day and night, barely bothering to venture to campus itself. An invisible fug of unwashed sock fumes drifts into the lift as you rise through this floor.
"Or that you have no understanding of what they do," said Eric.
"That's right," said Ern. "It's just that at this stage of their careers they will be so grateful for start-up funding that I won't need to be so involved in the product. It's a module I did," he explained. "Mind the gap: profit and patronage."
"To be honest," said Eric, "floor seven would be grateful for a bacon sandwich at this stage of their careers."
I think they'd do better with some green vegetables but Ern is such a good salesman he could have probably got them to sign over 50% rights to whatever they're working on for a plate of peas, and the BED gang would have had no defences, so I kept my mouth shut.
"Too busy to eat, you think?" said Ern. "See, that's what we need to look for. What do Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have in common?"
Stratospheric tax bills? I wondered. Absolutely amazing disregard for what sort of clothing real money can buy you?
"It's the work they put in," said Ern. "All of them, slaving away, putting in their 10,000 hours, bless their little programming fingers. Also possibly something to do with an excellent education and private schools and good friends who didn't mind doing some of the donkey work but look at Jobs, never made it through college so the key thing is to get them before they drop out. I've got to catch them young and invest in their disruptive and floatable idea, and I've got to do it now."
"Right," said Eric. "So you're looking for a close-knit group of people who spend huge amounts of time working with the door shut and who don't go out or otherwise socialise or talk to other people apart from nipping to the corner shop for provisions. Blimey, Ern, you don't need money to get in with them you need a counter intelligence agent."
(Engineers, terrorists: hard for outsiders to tell the difference.)
"You're right," said Ern. "Someone who can pass for one of them, who knows how to operate the microwave for the pizzas, and who actually knows what back end development is. I'm looking at you, Eric, BSc, Software Development. In ten years time, you'll be worth billions."
"In stock options," I said. "Really, they only have a nominal value and can't be considered as a real asset in the way, that, say...."
Ern looked at me, mouthed "facebooooook" and I shut up.
"Don't make me go in there, said Eric. "I wash my socks. I'm friends with you guys. Don't make me go to the dark side!" It's no use. Within half an hour Ern had him knocking on the door, six pack of value lager in hand.
One of the BEDders stuck his head out. "Whareypsewnt?" he said.
Good God, I thought, they'd been in there so long they'd forgotten speech. Ern quivered beside me; whatever they're working on it must be brilliant.
"Just....hanging out," said Eric. "Fancy a beer?"
The BEDder looked at him and light broke across his face. "You've come for the game!"
Ern practically squeaked beside me.
"It's £100 to get in, though."
Ern growled: not only is the entry investment suspiciously cheap, he's obviously not the first.
Eric whipped around. "It's poker. They've spent a year in there playing poker. Haven't you?" he said.
"Yearh, pretty much, man," said the BEDder. "What dya think we were doing?"
"Working on making me millions!" cried Ern. "Do you mean you haven't even programmed anything in all that time? Losers!" He stormed off to the lift. Eric and I considered, just for a second, whether to join in the game. But we're in enough debt as it is.
Back in Ern's room I asked: "What were you going to invest anyway? You're in as much debt as we are."
Ern looked sheepish. "It's a trfd," he mumbled.
"It's a trust fund," isn't it?" asked Eric. Damn that student, he gets all the pub quiz answers right. "Does it kick in when you're 21? That's in September, isn't it?"
Ern will be loaded when we get back off holiday. Next year will be interesting.
Jack's Blog: June
10 June 2012 by Jack Devine
Sadly, I am an economics student in an enormous amount of debt so while I understand all that I probably can't actually come up with the killer idea, and even if I did I can't translate it to the world of click-throughs and shopping carts.
And so I philosophise. "Money isn't everything," I tell Eric and Ern, as they pop the tabs off yet more high-energy drinks, convinced that a brainstorm which lasts until 4am will be more productive than a normal one ending in time for, say, a quick round of cheese on toast followed by Countdown.
In reply, Ern shows me the front page of today's paper, predicting tortilla-flavoured financial Armageddon. "We're the generation with no jobs and no prospect of home ownership. If money doesn't do it for us, what will? About the only people in the world with any sense of security are Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. And Posh Spice because she can always go back on the road for a reunion tour. Me and Eric, we've got to create a business. And quickly because all the good ideas are going fast."
"A bit like cocktail sausages on the party table," muses Eric. "They always go first. Can we make money out of student parties? You know, delivering beer and pizza?"
Ern Googles swiftly; idea already gone.
"Well, can we make money out of taking them to hospital afterwards? Or cleaning up the place?"
Another quick Google. "It's all too labour intensive," says Ern. "We need something online, where the punter does all the work. Look at facebook: it claims to offer a service but it's actually you dong the servicing. Now what could we create that does that? What is it that students don't realise they want but that we can deliver via an app where they have to develop the product themselves and I can charge them for it?"
Eric smirks at the naked exploitation on display here. As an economist I must say I am impressed.
"Help with writing essays," I offer.
"Yeah, but the way to make money out of that is to create a programme that rewrites stuff you've nicked off the internet so the plagiarism checkers don't notice. And that's like the subject of a masters thesis anyway. I'm already doing one degree, I don't want to do another."
"They want to know what's the latest band to watch and if they're going to the coolest places and what they should be wearing to fit in," says Eric. Ern makes a face. "What? Students are very conventional. So in the sixties they were all protesting even though half of them didn't believe it and in the eighties they all wanted to work as investment bankers and in the 2010s they all want to be famous."
"Yes," muses Ern. "That's right. They are tribal, too, which means you could segment your site so the Goths never meet the Indie kids and there'd be a real feeling of exclusivity and you could charge more. But how to get that info cheaply? You could hire a bunch of researchers but that's expensive - how do you get the punters to do the work themselves?"
"You could probably devise something that identified what celebrities were wearing and drinking and the places they were going to from paparazzi snaps."
"Yes, that's not bad," says Ern. "And you could get fashion and journalism students to do the initial research for free and tell them it's work experience! And later you'd get link-ups with the retailers so they would give you the codes and pictures for their new ranges which you could programme straight in. But it's still quite a lot of work. Come on, think guys: we need a product or a game where it's the punter who puts in the effort."
"Well, I say, "we could create another virtual kids game where they are consumers - you know, Club Penguin or Binweevils where they earn money by doing tasks and selling services and spend it on stuff - so the punters pay you to play and create the world at the same time - but the twist is that you charge financial institutions for the right to experiment on them."
"Oh my God what do you mean?" asks Ern, obviously having visions of small children strapped in front of laptops being shown unpleasant images - egg sandwiches, maybe, or bedtime at 6.30pm.
"No, you idiot, financial modelling. The EU could test exactly what it would mean if Greece dropped out of the Euro by banning a whole group of players from using the normal currency. Or any country or bank could test the effects of a really severe shortage of money - or water, or doughnuts, or anything, really."
"Oh my God the boy is a genius," says Ern. "Two revenue streams and the whole thing runs itself. We are rich, my boys, we are rich."
As Eric and Ern dance round the room a cold hand clutches at my heart, and I wonder if they will remember it was my idea when it comes to the IPO.
"I'm not an engineer. I can't write it," I say, bluntly.
Eric stops dancing. "You are an honorary engineer, my man; we couldn't do it without you."
An honorary engineer. My dad would laugh his socks off. Mostly because engineering and being honoured aren't two concepts that sit together very often. Still, I'd be some sort of engineer. A stealth engineer. Now there's a thought.
Jack's Blog: May
30 May 2012 by Jack Devine
I put Muse on my CD player, because everyone knows crazy kids like me can't write without music blasting out.
"Turn it down!" says Ern. "We need to concentrate. And anyway, engineers don't listen to music in the office. We need to be in character."
"I think that's actors," says Eric. "We're just writing this."
"I bet you wouldn't get told off at Google," I mutter, but quietly so they won't hear me.
"Yes you would," Eric whispers back. "Even paradise has its share of disappointing managers with no accountability. And besides, how would you concentrate on the neck massage?"
"Right, we need some characters," says Ern. "What sort of characters do you see in the average engineering team? I'm thinking of a leader, brilliant at his job, incredible at motivating his people, but with some sort of flaw."
"He could turn out to be a woman," says Eric. There is a pause.
"Eric, in today's society that's not actually considered a flaw," I say. "Unless you mean he wants to turn into a woman and the very painful surgery leaves him permanently bad-tempered?"
"No, I mean Ern is assuming the leader of this team is a man. It would actually be far more interesting - and create more character-driven tension - if the leader of the team were a woman."
Another pause. I am goggle-eyed with admiration. Ern slaps the table, just a little too hard.
"Thinking right out of the box there, my man!" High-fives all round. I can see it hurts like hell, and not just because his hand has gone bright red.
"So, we have a woman," continues Ern, "young, perhaps a little too young, driven, no kids, perhaps a dog? No, she's more of a cat person, having to deal with a team of men, all wearing short-sleeved shirts and with beards, perhaps with a secret in her past, and most of the men are slightly podgy..."
"No, that's just a engineering cliché," says Eric. "And you'll never get a TV series made about podgy men with beards that doesn't involve cooking."
"All right, so the team consists of young, slim and amazingly good-looking engineers who want to stand around at a flip chart all day long and discuss ideas while the project slips dangerously behind and the female team leader has to get them back on track? And what' she called, anyway?"
"Maisie," I say.
"Daisy," counters Ern.
"Holly," I say.
"Er, Dollie?" offers Ern.
"She is called Vivienne, she is not called after cows or ragdolls, for God's sake it's like you've never met a woman in your life," says Eric, who is frankly turning out to have more imagination than I, his best friend and writer of this blog, gave him credit for.
"She is beautiful, because you can't help that when you're a TV engineer, she has long swishy hair because ditto, she has left a high-flying job at Microsoft head office to help develop a new cyber-security start-up in London because an unexplained tragedy in her life has caused her to come back to her roots, and the tension exists between her principled brilliance and Torvald the founder's expansionist yet sexily Scandinavian aggression, and the cast is peopled by staff members including John, the cycling, code-cracking encyclopaedia of knowledge geek character who has an accident halfway through the first series but who is nursed back to health by Sheena, the messy-punk youngest member of the team who also plays in a rock band at night, Jason the tattooed, drug-taking, wannabe games developer whose high-risk social life threatens to destroy the company and Lem, the angry one. Suffered abuse as a child. That probably comes out in series two, though."
Even Ern, never lost for words, has his jaw hanging open in admiration at this point. I can only think that Eric, being an analytical chap, has processed the millions of hours of TV our generation has watched and distilled it all down into pure, formulaic genius.
I can see Ern he feels his TV series is slipping away from him, so he says: "Yeah, and what happens is that Torvald sells out to a big company and we see who really has what it takes to succeed in business, yeah?"
"No, because that would be really boring," says Eric. "What happens in series one is that Vivienne negotiates a government contract and Sheena discovers a massive conspiracy to control the population through covert use of personal data. Torvald sees no problem with this, which splits the team, and means Vivienne doesn't kiss him at a crucial moment for their relationship. She then uncovers a bizarre terrorist plot and has to choose between going public and causing people to flee city centres or hand it over to the government she now despises, which uses the information to win the next election. And Torvald's daughter is kidnapped. The team must decide what to do."
"Oh, how about they miss a big project deadline because they're working round the clock to get her back?"
""Well, you're on the right lines but you seem to think that it's all the procedural business stuff that really matters, Ern. I'm not sure our audience will find it as fascinating as you."
"But all that procedural business stuff really does matter, Eric. That's what business is about. And engineering is all about deadlines. Isn't it?"
"But it doesn't matter to Vivienne, or Torvald, except there could be a sub-plot about tax evasion nearly bringing the company down. It's not engineering that's the problem, Ern, it's real life. It just never measures up."
Jack's Blog: April
16 March 2012 by Jack Devine
"iPlayer costs less than a TV. Or a TV licence," says Nikola. "And they don't build halls of residence with common rooms in case all students are busy creating anarchist 'stop the planet' collectives. Or making bombs. Anyway, it's not the upper sixth at Eton any more, Ern, we can do what we want and we're all grown ups now." She looks in the freezer and wails. "Who's nicked my mini Magnums? Was it you, Jack?"
I shake my head. I would honestly rather die than steal from Nikola, goddess of the student halls of residence.
"It's only because everyone uses iPlayer to get away from their parents," says Ern. "If you had been to boarding school, Nikola, I think you'd find that boat's sailed. We need to get people doing stuff together. Like watching a movie!"
"How? No one has a TV. Or a DVD player. Or a room to watch it in."
Ern decides to bodge it by streaming through an open source media player to multiple laptops. I'm not sure people want to spend Saturday night sitting on the floor of somebody else's bedroom sharing multiple laptops but Ern's a leader and has already decided what we need is a film club, a committee and a film selection panel, which he kicks off with a survey of what we'd like to watch.
I'm worried this looks more like work than fun but because there are more engineers than anybody else in our halls they a) like being given parameters and really like titles like "Film selection panel deputy chair" and b) come up with a top films list which looks like this:
The Right Stuff
Bridge over the River Kwai
Phineas and Ferb (disqualified for being a kids' cartoon, however good they are at engineering stuff in their backyard).
"Excellent!" says Ern, setting up an account with a well-known video streaming site on the credit card his very wealthy parents keep topped up for him. Lucky git.
He puts posters up all over the halls, carefully selecting a Saturday evening start time that will still allow people time to go out and get wrecked, cooks up a batch of sugar popcorn, throws open the door of his room and waits for the crowds. By 8.30 there are still only me, him and Eric waiting to press the button. Even Nikola has deserted us. On the other hand we can definitely hear what sounds like TV coming from one of the rooms down the corridor, so we burst in and find five of our film club members watching an old episode of House on a catch up channel.
Ern staggers. "But I'm streaming Ironman! And this is a month old!" "Yeah but House might lose parole if he's sacked from his job," says one of the traitors. "We might even stay in and watch the next episode if it looks like he's going postal."
"But you don't have to watch it now, it's not like it's really happening. It's not even real," says Ern. "Oh, and like Ironman's totally lifelike," comes the reply. "Well, actually, a lot of the technologies he's working with are being trialled at the moment..." says Eric, before Ern whacks him on the head with a bowl of popcorn. The film traitors howl as popcorn covers the room, and Nikola comes out from under the duvet where she was hiding.
"But look," says Ern. "You're all engineers, why are you watching this crap? When you could be watching someone actually making something?"
"House is making people better," says Nikola. "Making diagnoses, making people angry, what's not to like? It's about people."
"Yeah, but not MUCH about people, is it?" says Ern. "It's more about their insides and trying stuff out until you get it right, and fighting with the management about resources and trying to get the team on board and House doesn't even have a girlfriend in this series and OMG. I am describing an engineer. House is an engineer in a doctor's white coat."
"Yeah, but House also has a primetime TV series that's watched by 10m people," I say. ("It isn't real," hisses Ern. I ignore him.) "How come you engineers never get that?" I sound a bit sarcastic, even to myself: could it be that I really wanted to watch Ironman with Nikola?
"I reckon it's because he can eliminate all the other probabilities and find the right cure in an hour," says Eric. "The trouble with engineering is that you can't do much in an hour. You could write the first few paragraphs on a report about why this round of the validation test is throwing up inadequate data, but that doesn't make good TV."
"But look at Apollo 13!" howls Ern. "That's like House, but in space! They need to get astronauts back to earth with a pair of socks, a roll of gaffer tape and a piece of vacuum cleaner! Why don't we get TV series about that?"
"Because it only happened once? And House has a new patient chucking up blood on the floor every week?"
"Damn engineering! It's too slow," says Ern. "Maybe we could write our own engineering TV show? With a team of young, anarchic and fit engineers who do engineering really quickly. What do you think?"
Edited: 16 March 2012 at 11:45 AM by Jack Devine
Jack's Blog: March
10 February 2012 by Jack Devine
He basically went to boarding school and doesn't know what it means to be alone in your own bedroom with nothing but World of Warcraft for company. Bedtimes for him, he says, meant three boys trying to smoke out of the window and avoid being caught by the housemaster or thrown out of the window by someone from the upper fifth. A sort of cross between Colditz and Total Wipeout, with cigarettes.
So he's always trying to get us to team up and do things, like when he organised a charity day for Syria and asked the engineers to run a bookstall. Fifteen engineers in our halls of residence, and between them they collected one copy of HTML for Dummies and what was left of Design Patterns by the Gang of Four after it had been cooked up in a frying pan after a late drinking session because there's a shape on the cover that looks like bacon.
"Bacon?" said Ern, looking at the empty stall.
"Or there's a sort of egg-shaped thing there as well," said Daniel, first year games programming, huge cider drinker, bad wind problems. "Maybe that's why it got cooked."
"But why haven't you got any other books? You know, novels?"
"Novels?" said Daniel, as if Ern had said "Actually, Design Patterns is a really easy read, you know."
"Yes. Novels. Terry Pratchett. Harry Potter. Dickens. You know, 200th anniversary and that?"
"Engineers don't read books," said Daniel.
"No, I can see you cook them. A career in the city obviously awaits," said Ern, pondering. Daniel looked hopeful for a moment and then remembered how rich the makers of Angry Birds are, and that he doesn't have to join the City to make money. The fool. Apps are a) like the X Factor because everyone thinks they've got what it takes (when they really, really don't, but it's fun watching them fail)and b) like the lottery - millions to one against but everyone thinks they'll be lucky.
Apps are like engineering kryptonite to software designers: destroys all sense of probability, which is the secret power all engineers have but can never use because no one else in the world can afford to care about what the chances of dying while driving during the rush hour are, otherwise no one would drive at all and the economy would grind to a halt.
Anyway, within a week he had booked the first meeting of the Halls of Residence Book Club (or HORBuC), asking people to bring their favourite novel for discussion.
Eric and I tried to talk him out of it, pointing out that no students read the books they're supposed to, let alone the ones that won't get you a degree, and that we are not living in the 50s where children were forced to build Airfix models on the kitchen table while Dad read to them from the paper, but in an era where people like their entertainment on a screen, preferably a little flat one they can watch while in bed, but he's stubborn. "Don't get me started on everyone watching BBC iPlayer in their bedrooms," he said, setting out the chairs in the games room.
Mind you, he got 20 women to the first meeting, all clutching Twilight and ogling him (he is very good looking, has rich parents and he does organise things. Apparently this is very attractive to women). I turned up to give him moral support (favourite book: Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith - I'm the only economist in the building, we're an endangered species), we forced Eric to come with To Engineer is Human: the role of failure in successful design, which apparently is his favourite book), and Joe the chemist came with The Periodic Table by Primo Levi but had boobytrapped it so that it released a stink bomb when someone opened it. The first meeting of the Halls of Residence Book Club lasted five minutes. And no other engineers turned up at all.
Ern was furious, and went round drumming up support for the club. (Honestly, he can't leave people alone. You just know he's going to be prime minister one day.) "Engineers do read books," he insisted. "What are we as a profession, if we don't read books? Mere machines, without the imagination to understand the human condition."
"Steady on," Eric and I said. I think he gets it from all the "Bring your product to market" bits of his product design course.
"But I don't want to know what's going on inside other people's heads," said Daniel. "I'm an engineer."
"There are girls there," I said. "And they read Twilight, which is perfect for games programmers like you because it's all about people with mad eyes who never see daylight."
Long story short, he got all the engineers to come, and got them all to compile a list of top books that engineers like. It goes like this:
1) Anything by Douglas Adams
2) Anything by Jules Verne
3) Anything sci fi but especially Robert Heinlein because he was an engineer
4) Nevil Shute, because he was an engineer too
5)Sherlock Holmes, because they don't mind being inside his head
The girls took one look at that list and said they didn't want to come any more, and set up their own book club and are reading The Help, the engineers have gone back to iPlayer and Ern is wondering whether it's worth setting up a movie club instead. "What are," he asked me, "the top favourite films of engineers?"
Jack's Blog: February
"A blowtorch? What was Santa thinking?" asked Nikola, who shares our floor in the halls of residence. We were watching Ern incinerate a crème brulee he'd just whipped out of the oven.
"I think Santa thought that as one of my ambitions is to design a retractable bike rack moulded into the bodywork of a car that a blowtorch would come in handy."
"Yes, but not on the seventh floor of a high-rise tower block containing 200 drunk students, surely," said Nikola, cracking open the perfectly-charred top of her pudding.
"You do know Santa doesn't exist?" asked Eric, who is a bit literal. "I'm not sure about this crème brulee," he went on. "It's gone grainy, which means the temperature was too high, and you cooked it for too long: you destroyed all the elasticity of the protein structure and allowed it to clump together. You actually need to use a temperature probe when cooking this sort of thing. And look, you've got custard syneresis as well."
I noticed Ern had that staring rabbit look that men get when they are being challenged on technical stuff and have to decide whether to run for their holes. He decided to turn rabid.
"No I haven't," he said, metaphorically developing myxomatosis and charging at Eric with custard foam dripping from his rabbity front teeth.
"Yes it is, you've got liquid seeping out. Any decent chef would have moved you on the vegetable chopping station by now."
Nikola just laughed. God it's easy being a woman.
Just to show him how it should be done, Eric devised an experiment using 12 different crème brulee receptacles made of six types of material, four different ways of cooking them, and a blind tasting test adjudicated by the mathematicians from floor four. The conclusion was that too much crème brulee makes you sick as a dog, that cut-down baked bean tins don't make good egg custard bakers, and that Ern shouldn't be trusted with the blowtorch , as Eric's recipe book mysteriously went up in flames.
Ern retaliated with a three-bird roast, which was like a horror film (Eric stood over a swearing Ern as he tried to force a floppy hen into a floppy duck, with bones and guts all over the place, and told him he was practising engastration, which is the technical term, while the vegans in the halls banged on the door outside and shouted that we'd all die of salmonella poisoning, and that what we were doing was unnatural. "Christ, we're not mating them," Ern shouted back. "We just want to eat them.")
To win the vegans back, Eric made a very technical nut roast using ground flaxseeds as the binding agent and demonstrated on a flip chart, while they were eating it, the flow properties of heated flaxmeal which keep the food hydrated and allow expansion during cooking. I think they were just grateful to be taken seriously and Emilia, who is studying medieval history, pointed out that the scene resembled a monks' refectory.
And it is true that girlfriends are thin on the ground for me and Eric, although Beth, who really is thin, seems to have disappeared since Ern took up technical cooking: either she can't compete with the joy of the Maillard reaction, or the amount of cakes she was expected to say yum to scared her size-eight frame off.
It was the chemists in the halls who told us about the Maillard reaction. Intrigued by the food coming out of our kitchen they stopped boiling up drugs and came to give us some technical advice. To make something lovely and brown you need to keep it dry, cook it at high temperature, and make sure there's a reaction between protein and sugar going on - you can do it by adding milk powder.
Ern went straight out and got sponsorship from our local supermarket (there's a module in his engineering product design degree about getting finance and selling your ideas) which meant that he could then experiment with perfect steaks. The vegans were back outside the door but man was our kitchen popular on his steak sandwich nights.
Eric, who as a systems engineer is never going to be sponsored for anything, had to carry on with austerity cooking, and got lost for a couple of weeks in the science of creating the perfect boiled egg. Ern came right back with the high-speed omelette challenge, and by the end of that one they were turning out omelettes, shell to plate, in five seconds.
Nikola and I were worried that they would actually kill each other by competitive cooking. Either one would batter the other with a sharp-edged spatula or they would simply keel over with heart failure.
It ended with Baked Alaska. Ern found Eric weeping in the kitchen early one evening after a day spent trying to get the oven hot enough to flash the meringue through without melting the ice-cream. They experimented throughout the night, trying to get as much insulating air as possible into the structure of the shell, until they had created a ridiculously light eight-egg sponge, which would hover in the air if you looked at it sharply, and a meringue casing that actually weighed nothing. I'm not sure how two rather desperate and sleep deprived students managed to overturn the laws of physics but they did. They'd stolen the ice cream, eggs and flour from fridges all over the halls to do it, but Ern finally blowtorched the meringue and, screaming with delight, they woke us up for breakfast. It was fantastic, magnificent, delicious. And my two friends were friends again. It's great being a student.
Jack's Blog: January
7 January 2012 by Jack Devine
Ern is an ideas man (he's doing engineering design) and while not all of his ideas are great - who knew Brandy Alexanders would make us all quite so brilliantly sick, and in the TV room too? - they're usually worth going along with.
Eric, electronic systems, also on my floor, was keen to come too because he had read that Leonardo was the perfect engineer. (Which did start me thinking, who is the perfect engineer? Probably someone who got early stock options in Microsoft. Every other engineer on earth does the curiosity, the logic, the huge chip on the shoulder, all that stuff, but hardly anyone does the money bit too.)
And finally, we ended up with Beth, who hopes that by pretending she understands engineering design that Ern (blond, posh, good-looking) will go out with her. She's got competition: he got flu recently and there were about a dozen girls standing outside his door with home-baked cakes. It was like Master Chef with pheromones, you could almost hear the voiceover: "Making Ern fancy you: it doesn't get harder than this."
Anyway, we got in, and the exhibition started promisingly with a picture of a man whose head had been sawn in half to show the eyes plugging straight into the brain - Leonardo as horror cartoonist - but it became clear by room 2 that the whole thing was about girls with nice hair holding stuff ranging from stoats to babies.
I could see that the engineer in him was peeking through - you'd get buildings drawn in cross section of pieces of paper which he then decided to turn into sketches of people, and geometrical studies dotted about, and Eric got very excited about a hygrometer stuck on a drawing of apostles, until he realised the audio guide wasn't going to tell him anything about measuring humidity in 15th century Florence.
But even the guide said that if you'd come to see Leonardo the engineer, forget it, so I thought I'd concentrate on the girls with nice hair. They were very beautiful, in an exopthalmic way (I am a student, I live for Countdown). I suppose they'd fancy Ern too. Popping their eyes at him. Everyone else does.
Eric was very disappointed when we came out of the last room. "What sort of an exhibition was that?" he said. "Nothing about the war machines with the multi-barrelled guns; nothing about the turning spiral screw work; who cares about Leonardo the painter, anyway?"
Ern came out with the sort of glassy-eyed look you get when you've studied 800 very faint line drawings in a dark room painted purple. But it wasn't boredom, it was wonder.
"He was trying to paint perfection, or the truth as he saw it in nature," he said. "That's why he had to be an engineer as well, because everything he did was a search for truth, for origins, for meaning."
Eric and I stood a little slack-jawed at this, but Beth got right in there with a sort of twinkly-eyed heavy breathing routine. "Oh, that's wonderful," she said.
I could see she meant "Oh, you're wonderful," and I did ask myself whether any girl is ever going to look at me like that. I do have an uncanny ability to quote Muse lyrics even when drunk, after all. But thinking all this meant I missed a valuable opportunity to shut the pair of them up, because Ern went on: "He was the ultimate artist engineer, and when he painted those women he wasn't just thinking about their skin and their expression, he was also seeing the bones and the sinews underneath, and creating faces based on perfect mathematical proportions and making a complex geometrical statement with his composition. People only see the artist, but he was thinking like an engineer all the time."
"I never knew engineers could be so wonderful," breathed Beth. "Do you mean," she purred, "that engineers think about engineering all the time?"
Eric and Ern both said yes, instantly, which I thought would put Beth right off, but no.
In the interests of balance I told her it wasn't all that wonderful. Like when you want to watch TV and dad insists on turning over to National Geographic to see some engineering thing with Richard Hammond, and you can't record what you want to watch because the DVD is broken and he won't get a new one until he's tried everything he can to fix the old one. Or when engineers insist on those reporty type words like adjacent to or prior to when every normal person says next or before and it's just toe-curling. Or when they just have to explain how a cantilevered stadium roof actually works when all you wanted was to discuss whether it was a dirty rotten foul or not.
Or, said Eric, like when you go to someone's house and your dad walks round it knocking on the walls to check they're sound. Embarrassing.
But you did that in my room, I said.
"I'm very worried the building is going to fall down. They don't build well when it's just students," said Eric.
"Anyway," I said, "Leonardo was a rubbish engineer, because he never published anything. No one knew he'd invented the helicopter, or the parachute, or the Toyota Prius, and the world had to wait another 500 years for someone to invent it all again. In terms of scientific advancement he was as much use as a multi-barrelled chocolate cannon."
"Oh, he wouldn't be an ordinary engineer. I think he'd probably be doing engineering design. Like you," said Beth, grabbing for Ern's hand. To my disgust, he didn't drop it like a dead fish. Engineers are such fools.
Jack's Blog: December
Mum's early Christmas present to Dad was a mid-life crisis personality test, which revealed that he's an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs test, ie you have to be an engineer or you shrivel up and die.
"Not necessarily," he says. "I could also have been a doctor, a dentist, or a military leader. Or a criminal mastermind. Apparently Blofeld from James Bond was an INTJ. My only problem is the cost of retraining."
"But Ian, you can't stop being an engineer," says David, who has great big whiskers and small dogs. "It's like being a Catholic. You might stop going to mass but you can't escape all that indoctrination."
Dad turns to Steve, our new next door neighbour, who has turned up with his wife Susie, looking like a whale. Apparently there's a baby on the way. As if seven billion of us wasn't enough. Anyway, the fact that there are new kids in the road means Mum and Dad are getting old and need to downsize and release some equity for me. If Dad doesn't want to be an engineer any more - bad pay, no status, terrible managers, yadda yadda yadda - he'll probably get an even worse paid job, so they'll need to move to a tiny flat. Good plan.
"Don't you think, Steve," says Dad in his You Must Agree With Me As I Know Everything voice, "that, as with Catholics, discriminating against engineers is probably the last socially acceptable prejudice? Otherwise why else would we be so badly paid, our status be so low, and we be so mercilessly hounded by bosses who know nothing?"
"You an engineer?" says Steve. "Can you fix boilers? Cos our new house is freezing. And the BMW's giving me jip as well. You're not a mechanic, are you?"
Dad looks at him as if he has spat beef and cranberry vol-au-vent all over his Christmas tie.
"Boilers are fixed by engineering technicians. Cars are fixed by car mechanics. I am a Chartered Engineer. We do not exactly fix things." (You can hear the capital letters from the kitchen, where Mum is straining the mulled wine into the slow cooker.)
"I don't care what you is called," says Steve, "so long as you can fix it. Anyway, I pay whatever it takes. It's my mantra: find a man who can do it for you, and pay him right for the job."
"Engineers do not actually care that much about money," says Dad, which is a huge lie. Mark's last remark particularly hurts, as Dad has never felt able to pay for anything without being very grumpy about it for months.
At that moment Mum drops the mulled wine - crash! - everyone shrieks and Susie the Whale clutches her stomach. After the swearing from the kitchen calms down and all the tea towels have been thrown over the flood, we realise that Susie is clutching the back of the sofa and breathing most strangely.
"Oh my good God," says Steve. "We have to go to the hospital."
A merry crowd accompany them outside, and are ready to cheer them off, when it becomes clear that their car won't start. Steve swears at the gods of BMW.
There is a wide range of opinions as to what should happen next, including the suggestions "ambulance!" and "you'll be waiting hours on a Saturday night before Christmas!" Dad suddenly appears with his tool box, and a cheer goes up. He disappears inside the hood.
Susie finds she can't sit down in the car and has to walk around the close for a bit, moaning softly, with the women following her around giving advice. Mum's suggestion of "Why doesn't someone drive them to hospital rather than standing around in the cold" is met with the most drunken chorus of offers you've ever heard, so she goes back inside and brings out a tray of mince pies.
Someone starts singing Silent Night, and the whole close joins in, which is quite touching, except that Susie is moaning quite loudly now and Steve, her husband, is being sick into the gutter. "Save it for later, mate," someone advises him. "It gets gruesome."
Calling for a taxi is obviously not dramatic enough, so we segue into God Bless Ye Merry, and everyone is so concerned with Susie, now trying to sit down in the road, that no one notices Dad slipping behind the steering wheel. And as Hark the Herald starts up, so does the car, with a defiant roar.
A massive cheer rolls round the close, the young couple are bundled in and drive off, veering from side to side, everyone shouts "Merry Christmas!" and troops back inside to drink the house dry.
Mum and Dad are left waving after them.
"Well done, love," she says.
"Any car mechanic could have done it," he says. "She could have been living next door to a car mechanic."
"Yes, but you're an engineer. She lives next door to an engineer, so you can also fix anything you like in your spare time. Mind you, so can I, but I don't want to take away your moment of glory."
"I suppose there's no point being able to pay for anything you like if it's Christmas and everyone is smashed," says Dad.
"You are definitely my go-to guy if we get stranded on a desert island and need to build a radio or other household appliance from salvaged bits of aeroplane engine," says Mum, as they turn back to the house.
"Stick to being an engineer, then?"
"It' what you're good at," says Mum, closing the door.
Jack's Blog: October
I told him he was lucky to find me out of bed: one of the students on my floor has never been seen conscious.
We'd hovered outside his door for days, wondering if he was dead.
When we inched the door open he certainly smelled enough, and no one wanted to touch him. Eventually, one of the civil engineers built this amazing retractable poking stick from McDonald's straws suspended from linked coat hangers, but it collapsed as soon as it reached the body, which was very embarrassing for Hui, who is Chinese, and genuinely wants to learn how to make things that don't collapse, and is thinking of switching to music instead.
One of the biologists was about to creep in with a mirror to check his breathing until Dan, a mechanical engineer, walked straight up to the corpse and slapped it on the cheek. The corpse shot straight upright, shouted "Get off my beer!" and fell off the bed, breaking his arm and passing out from the pain. Ern, who has a car, had to take him to A&E, and wasn't back for eight hours because they came home via the students' union, where the entire bar signed the plaster cast. The guy with the broken arm - still don't know his name - collapsed back into bed and hasn't been seen since.
Dan is considered a bit of a hero around here, but not by the other engineers, who feel he subverted the whole process and blame it on a lack of feasibility thinking and preliminary design. Dan, also, is thinking of switching to music instead, and the engineers on the floor are developing a siege mentality.
Into this walked Dad - "What's with the partitions in the corridor? And why did I have to fill in a questionnaire at the door to see which bit of the corridor I could use?"
The civil engineers have zoned the entire floor of our halls of residence and are patrolling the corridors making sure the engineering students only ever see other engineers, in case they get enticed over to the dark side - business studies, or zoology. Because Dad answered "Yes" to the question: "Would you be interested to know what's inside this TV remote?" and, when offered the chance to guess what it was, went for "Mostly, a chip, a transistor and an infrared LED", rather than "drugs", "magic" or "tiny television programmes", he got to go down the (very narrow) hallowed corridors of the engineers, so he arrived at our kitchen feeling quite loved.
I could tell something was wrong, though. I made him a cup of coffee and he looked out of the window for a bit. Was he going to split up with Mum? Honestly, you spend all your childhood slaving away, keeping them together, making sure they look after you and feed you and buy you iPods and earn enough money to put you through university, and the minute your back's turned they give up on the project.
To distract him - if I pretend it's not happening maybe it really isn't - I went on about my first term research project: the concept of peak student. Like peak oil, we have reached maximum volume of student numbers and we're now on the downward slope of the bell curve, bringing in its train the contraction of the industry, the closure of the processing facilities, the diversification of the producers (if they can't get crude student they'll make do with people beyond the age of 18) and the prospect of a world without students at all. Initially, this will clean up the streets - no more Saturday night binges, no more students falling out of pubs dressed as bananas, or Smurfs, the cast from Lord of the Rings, or Ghostbusters. I'm trying to work out whether the cost of being a student will fall (the universities will do anything to attract the ones left) or actually rise - it will be so expensive to educate us that the current tuition fee will look like beer money.
Normally, Dad would be really interested in something like that, but he just nodded his head and said he felt his industry reached peak engineer some time ago.
"I mean," he said, "How many engineers work in the UK today, do you think?"
"About half of them?" I said.
"No, that's a project manager's joke. I'm talking about real engineers."
"Umm, about half a million?"
"Right. How did you know that?"
"Well, it's not like you're a secret society of Masons or anything, unless there's a whole world of underground engineers slaving away like Orcs in the modern equivalent of the caverns under Isengard? Possible, do you think? Under Croydon, maybe?"
Dad ignored me. "The point is we're in decline. There are fewer of us, we're working harder than ever, no one thinks we're worth anything and every year someone closes another division or shifts it overseas. At what point does the UK engineer become an endangered species? I think that point is fast approaching."
I think he'll know when he's endangered because they'll round up all the engineers and put them in a compound with wifi, a couple of Mac pros and lots of bits of broken electrical equipment to tinker with. On the other hand, if he's lucky they'll let them roam through the empty offices and factories of the UK and finding an engineer will be more of a safari experience.
"I mean, I look round all this," and he waved a hand at my amazingly mediocre student room in my brutalist halls of residence, with its standard cork board and my one permitted poster of Muse, "and I think, look at all this promise - where did I go wrong? Is it too late to choose another path? But what could I do, if I wasn't an engineer? Have you any ideas, son?"
To be continued....
Jack's Blog: September
Mum just wants to know who has put little coloured stickers on all the cupboards.
"That was me," says a guy who comes in, clutching the latest MacBook Pro to his chest. I wonder if he carries it everywhere, and if this is like his badge saying who he is (ie an engineering student), or whether there's a massive thief in the place.
"Hello, I'm Eric," he says, clutching the MacBook tighter. We all put our goggle eyes on, because who's ever met an 18-year-old called Eric?
Dad recovers first. "Ah, after Eric Cantona."
"No, after Eric from The Little Mermaid," says Eric, flatly. You can see a sort of despair in his eyes.
"Oh you poor boy," says Mum, faintly, as Eric explains that his mum believes in angels.
Suddenly we notice that the most gorgeous girl I have ever seen is standing in the doorway. Dark hair, huge eyes, pale face... "Hi, I'm Nikola," she says. "With a K. After Nikola Tesla? Can I make you all tea? Cool MacBook. Really like that new import/output port. Did you upgrade the processor?"
Dad staggers back. It's like the goddess of engineering is walking the earth, and she is going to be living in my halls of residence. Of course, he picks on the most irrelevant bit of her goddessness for comment.
"The Nikola Tesla? Really?"
"Oh yeah, my dad's a mechanical engineer and my mum's his great-great-great-something niece."
For Dad, the only thing wrong with that sentence is the word "mechanical", because in his engineering hierarchy mechanical engineers come somewhere down the food chain near nematodes. But for this woman I can see he will make exceptions.
"Jack, here, of course, we named after James Watt," he says. As it's the first time I've heard this humongous lie I stand for a full thirty seconds with my mouth hanging open before I can think of anything to say but realise that for this woman I, too, will suspend all normal brain activity. "Yup, James Watt. That's right. Old Watty himself," I burble.
"Oh that's so cool," says Nikola, looking anxiously at my slack jaw. "My parents would love you. They're just downstairs finding out why we don't have wifi. Let me text them."
Oh God, she's even got that engineer's sense of entitlement. Mind you, you'd never have a problem getting online if she was your girlfriend.
Mum is looking daggers at Dad and considering whether she will prop up his fragile ego in the face of so much beauty but he is busy getting the milk out of the fridge. Helpful old Dad.
"Oh, someone's put stickers all over the fridge as well," he remarks.
"That was me," says Eric the Little Mermaid, as I am beginning to think of him. Really, this guy is full of surprises. I am so happy to be sharing a floor with him.
"I thought that we should demarcate certain spaces within the fridge," he says. "As you will see I have colour coded each shelf according to function - milk in the door and raw meat at the bottom of the fridge, for example - and I have sticky letters which we can all use to mark our own food. I have heard that milk can go missing if you're not careful! And we wouldn't want that now would we!"
"Do we get any choice in the matter?" I ask.
"Well, you can choose which letter you want to be."
Suddenly I can't think which letter I want to be - m's nice. Or q? Is there a j for Jack? (or even James). Oh God, I am so not an alpha male.
"I'll take the a, then," comes a smooth voice from the doorway - really, this is just like a play now - and we all look up to see what I can only describe as Prince William, or someone very like him, entering our increasingly crowded kitchen. Blond, posh, crew neck jumper, deck shoes and disconcertingly, carrying a large syringe. Good grief, what sort of crime do they have in this halls of residence? "Name's Ern. Short for Ernest."
"Rutherford?" asks Mum, who is getting slightly hysterical now, but that may be the effect of the syringe.
"Why would my name be Rutherford?" asks Ern, looking at her intensely. Suddenly, he lunges at the fridge door with the syringe. Dad shrieks and grabs the kettle to defend himself.
"Aaargh!" shouts Ern, as he injects the entire contents into the milk carton on the bottom shelf. "Green food dye! None of you blighters will touch my milk now, will you? That's how we did it at Eton."
"But that was my milk," says Eric, plaintively. (Honestly, Eric and Ern on the same floor. You couldn't make it up.)
"I wouldn't worry," says Nikola. "I used the last of it this morning."
Beautiful, entitled, but a milk snatcher too. I'm looking forward to this term.
Jack's Blog: August
Dad seems to be revving up to give me an awkward "welcome home sonny" speech, when he catches sight of my wrist.
"Good God, isn't that π to the first 50 decimal places?" he squawks.
"Well, I don't think it can be," says Alice, "because as you know the ninth place is 3, and Jack here thinks it's 0. Or at least his tattooist did."
"What?" I cry, frantically looking at my wrist. My cool, slightly inaccurate wrist. Still, not all girls will be as geeky as Alice.
"π?" asks precision Dad.
"Well, I honest to God was going to get the quantity theory of money on there, but I thought pi was cooler in the end. Easier to explain. Sexier."
"And, remind me, you're hoping to work for Goldman Sachs? How well will that go down at interview, do you think?"
Bloody hell, he's got a point. Didn't think about work 'n' stuff before I did it.
"Anyway," says Amy, "no one thinks pi is important any more. It's all about tau now."
"τ?" says Dad.
"Yeah, or 2π, if you want to be colloquial about it," says Mum. "It's a more fundamental measurement. We make circles with the radius, not the diameter."
Good grief, I have returned home to an Open University lecture. All I did was get a few numbers inked round my wrist. It's not like they define the universe or anything.
"So, son," mumbles Dad, and I consider making a run for it through the kitchen door.
"Have you ever thought of being a policeman? Or going into the Army?"
Whoah, where did that come from? "Er yeah, when I was, like, five, Dad, along with every other kid."
"Because I was wondering whether you might like to revisit that childhood ambition, er, about now."
"Um, no, Dad, because, like, the Goldman Sachs thing? See above?"
"It's just this little thing about university fees, son. Just wondering if it was a good idea to, ah, indeed, go to university at all. After all, John Major didn't."
"Who?" say the twins. Honestly. Kids today. Know pi to 100 decimal places, know nothing about stuff that matters.
Meanwhile, I am clutching the kitchen counter after Dad has said the equivalent of "I'm sure you're right, I probably don't know as much about that subject as you." Or "Yes why don't you try fixing it I'm sure you'll do a better job." Which, coming from an engineer, is like snowballs in hell.
"What do you mean, not go to university, Dad? University is your holy grail. It's the special place where geeky teenagers learn they're not alone in the world. It's where mediocrity is not welcomed or even tolerated, because while the practice of engineering might get sullied in the outside world due to annoying things like small budgets, cross-eyed project managers and an impatient media it can exist in true, transcendent form within the temples of learning. It's the basis of your "I'll tell you what the future of this country is, if only they'd invest in R&D" argument, without which you just don't know how you'd get through dinner parties. It's the place you got a first, and that's like winning a Gold Medal. At the Olympics. Because they can't take it away from you. Unless you're Ben Johnson, obviously."
"Who?" say the twins.
"Don't you know anything about modern culture?" I snap at them.
"Well, it's not like you were raring to go to uni," says Mum, the traitor. "Or you wouldn't have gone on a gap year."
"I went because you told me you couldn't afford it last year! I've come back halfway round the world from a brilliant job because if I don't go this autumn I never will! You told me Mum's company was doing better this year! And I don't want to be a bloody policeman there are too many riots to deal with and I don't know if you noticed but they are proposing to make radical cuts to the armed forces so I should think my chances of getting a leg blown off in Afghanistan are actually quite slim at the moment!"
I glare at the twins, in case they ask where Afghanistan is, but they are too busy arguing about fractals. "Listen up, kids, because this concerns you. If they won't stump up for me then they won't do it for you."
"Don't worry," says Alice. "We're off to Harvard on a scholarship. They do fee paying properly there. None of this liberal hand-wringing about it. Proper philanthropic foundations for super bright kids like us. In the bag already, big bro."
"Back up," says Dad. "What do you mean, if you don't go this autumn you never will?"
"Because the full £9k a year doesn't come in until September 2012 and if I start this year I'm on £3k a year for the duration. Don't you know anything?" (I can't believe I'm talking to my Dad like this. This is the Man who Knows Everything. Blimey, I really must have grown up on my gap year.)
"Oh. Oh, that changes a lot. Right, well, er, of course you must go to uni. And , er this autumn. Yes, university. Degrees are absolutely necessary in today's cut-throat world. Great places. If only they'd invest a bit more in R&D, of course."
Jack's Blog: July
6 August 2011 by Jack Devine
And here comes Jim, partner of my boss Clare, who rescued me from relief worker hell here in Christchurch (the hostels are manky and you have to poo in the street - it's true; after the earthquake they built loads of outside bogs and called them Long Drops - that Kiwi humour for you) and gave me a proper job, with a room above the bar and everything.
I haven't seen Jim much. Which suits me, as Clare and I get on very well and she asked me today if I can defer my uni place for another year.
I get on very well with Clare. Very very well, and I'm not too pleased to see Jim back again. Back from whatever clever piece o f civil engineering he's been doing.
Clare says he works rebuilding war-torn countries, and then sighs a little and wishes he was back home a bit more and I say, what countries are they, then, and she says he's not allowed to say and I think my God you're gorgeous but wake up and smell the coffee he is obviously an S. P. Y.
Evidence: mysterious job. Inexplicability of mysterious job. Frequent foreign travel. Obviously crap cover story, which is that he is a civil engineer, when everyone knows engineers are incapable of doing anything as undercover as spying, even for the sake of Queen and country.
My dad has to beat down an urge to confess if the latest project runs even a nanosecond over time or one little thing goes a bit pear-shaped - it's drilled into him to record the results accurately, and report those results to the appropriate authority. Poor engineers, trapped in the hamster wheel of their profession, testing and repeating and unable to falsify even one tiny, insignificant piece of data in case it causes a surge in the process or (and this is my favourite bit of engineering jargon, worth having engineering parents just for this) creates a terrible pogo oscillation. Pogo Oscillation - I'm sure I met him throwing up on a Thai beach a few months ago, on his gap year between Marlborough and Newcastle.
And as for stealing the plans of the death laser satellite - my dad would think: "Some engineer has spent his life working on that, and even if it does have the capacity to wipe out the entire East coast of England, I can see this is a terrific piece of work, he didn't get paid enough for it and goodness knows he definitely didn't get enough credit and it's not like we ever went to Scarborough on holiday, is it?" And he'd put a little tick in the "audited" box, put the plans back in the filing cabinet and sneak off in his socks.
Anyway, I pass Jim a beer and ask if he's read any good spy thrillers on his trip. "Nau," he siz in his clipped Kiwi iccent, which makes me so mad, "don't have time to read out there."
"Too busy rebuilding war-torn countries?" I suggest, snarkily.
"You'd be surprised how many bridges need building in them," he says.
"But that's such a cliché, I know civil engineers don't just build bridges," I say.
"You don't even like engineering, mate, I'm just giving you what you can cope with," says Jim, playing hard ball.
"My mum is in IT and my dad in systems, I think I can cope with quite a lot, actually," I riposte, in what I hope is an arch, Roger Moore sort of way.
"How about the impossibility of implementing BS EN 1992 Eurocode 2 Design of Concrete Structures (EC2) in the building of box culvert structures when there's no one to authorise it for you and you have to do an entirely unorthodox self audit?" says Jim.
"Wow, that does sound like you're an engineer."
"What the hell did you think I was?"
"A.. a... spy?" Sounds lame, even to me.
"And what do you think spies do?"
"I dunno, go round dressed in black, taking tiny photos of stuff and jumping out of exploding buildings before driving off in a really expensive car?"
"In a James Bond film maybe, but don't you think spies are more likely to be working for the defence wing of an international engineering corporation, turning up to work every day, keeping their head down and making the odd photocopy of a top secret plan when no one else is in the copy room?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess, I just thought..."
Suddenly, Herman the Human Fireball, who is performing at the other end of the bar, gets a blazing torch stuck in his throat, knocks his bottle of paraffin over and coughs a jet of flames all over the front five tables.
The tablecloths start burning.
Jim cartwheels over the bar, grabs a fire extinguisher, runs sideways round the walls and dives towards the tables, streaming halon as he goes, whips the tablecloths off, leaving the burning margaritas in place, blows them out as he somersaults through the open door and throws the smouldering fabric in the path of an articulated lorry which squeals to a halt just before it reaches the charred remains.
Everyone in the bar stares at him, slack-jawed. Man, I don't know if he's a spy or a god, but that's one pretty cool civil engineer.
Clare's never going to take me seriously, is she?
Jack's Blog: June
11 July 2011 by Jack Devine
I've ended up working in this bar in Christchurch. They've moved the whole of the city centre sideways after the earthquake, and all the businesses and cafes and restaurants have ended up in the suburbs, where they never meant to be, and no one's sure whether they'll ever get back, as they're still finding new buildings in the city centre that have to come down.
The focus group
The boss, Clare, wants to give the bar a new name. New site, new start, is what she says. Every time she gets a letter from the insurers about the old place she has to go away and kick the back door - there's a dent the size of a bank statement in it now - so I'm thinking it's not a good memory to try to carry on the old name.
Now, call me unimaginative but as we're in an old garage (which is fantastic; we put sofas in the inspection pit and fitted up a pole which means you have to swing down into it) you'd think they'd go with The Garage or some sort of automotive-related imagery. Top Beer. The Filling Station. Whatever.
This concept goes down well with a lot of our customers, who are students and relief workers, also students who have flown in from around the world to help with clearance and shop fitting and so on.
But no, a lot of the regulars are from the arts district, who have moved out here as well, and have square black glasses and very white shirts and wanted to get creative. And Clare launched a competition to name the bar and got some sponsorship from a marketing company and here we are, doing a focus group. You'd think they'd all been in solitary confinement for five years: I've never heard people talk so much.
We're three hours in, we've done Audience: do we want more creatives? (Apparently yes.) Do we want more students? (Apparently no, as they have no money and are loud.) Do we want more families and should we turn the inspection pit into a play pit? (At which I nearly started to weep).
We've done Offer; beer and peanuts looks pretty good to me but then I'm a student, what do I know, I'm cheap and loud, and Theme and I'm not sure how this happened but all the creatives think the bar should be named after a dog. Loyal, always there, a friend in need etc etc.
And I've realised that these marketing things take on a life of their own, a bit like raking leaves for your dad when he's cleverly promised you a fiver to clear the lawn. You start out all eager beaver and fill three sacks in a matter of minutes, and then you realise that the leaves are still coming down, and you're never going to clear the lawn and suddenly you're in a sort of hell where you've committed so much to the project you can't let yourself say that a) I'm going to down tools now because even if I don't get the fiver it's not worth any more of my time b) dad saw me coming and c) what's the point, it's just leaves and they'll be gone by the end of winter anyway.
I have subsequently emailed dad about this and he agrees that you should never let a marketing firm into a normal firm ever because it's indeed like raking leaves except that you're paying someone else and doing all the raking yourself. Engineers, in particular, should avoid marketing firms because they will try to convince you that they can do the raking by talking the leaves into the bag when any engineer knows all you need is a rake.
Back in Christchurch, we are beginning the brainstorming on dog types. Lorraine, the facilitator from the marketing company, in her square black glasses and very white shirt, writes furiously on little white cards and sticks them up around the room. Then she puts on Ride of the Valkyries on the sound system and we have to run around choosing the dog name we think suits the bar best.
So the relief workers, all the students who have flown in from around the world to help refit offices and clear rubble, all go for the Labrador (kind, willing, good friend); me and my four engineering mates stand by the St Bernard (it carries alcohol round its neck: what more could you want from your bar/dog combo?) and all the creatives stand by something called a Maltese Poodle cross, which none of the rest of us have ever heard of, but is apparently the latest thing in dogs. Small, smart, good memory, gets tired easily: it's like the iPhone of the dog pack.
"Right," says Lorraine. "I can see we're really stoked about the Malti-Poo. I think we have our winner!"
Clare, who decided about an hour ago what a huge mistake this was and stopped serving free drinks, realises they are about to officially call her bar something with Poo in the name.
"Well, you might be stoked but I'm buggered if I'll call it the Malti-Poo bar," she announces.
All the creatives start talking furiously about brand and originality and producing pictures of their little Malti-Poos and me and the engineers start shouting randomly poor automotive bar names. "Pint stop! Beerometer! Gas guzzler!"
"You could call it the Moodle Bar instead," says one creative, taking off his glasses wearily.
"I like that," says Clare. "The Moodle Bar."
"Er, that's the name of an open source software package to create educational web sites," says my friend Ben, who is one of those engineers who knows everything. "How about the St Bernard bar?"
"Actually, that has a ring," says Lorraine. "Shall we brainstorm it?"
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