Saturday, 23 July 2011

Peter Sutcliffe Loves His Algebra

Bloody hell! The Open University residential was amazing. I went there expecting to learn about mathematical modelling and instead I befriended the cohorts of the sickest minds in Britain. And it wasn't even a LibDem residential.

It started off in the pub on the first day. The subject came around to sport. I can't really talk football but I like watching Blackburn (which many would argue isn't football at all) because it embraces the eternal optimist in me. If you support Manchester United or Chelsea then anything but a massive victory is a huge disappointment. As a Rovers fans, I'll happily take a 1-0 defeat because it should probably have been a lot worse. When I mentioned my fondness for the Blue and Whites, Jamie on my left said that he didn't think I'd find many football fans in a roomful of mathematicians. I didn't believe him. So I did a straw poll of my other tablemates. And - buggering hell - he was completely right. Apart from Don, who couldn't decide whether he supported Charlton or Chelsea and ended up saying "I just support football", which really doesn't count, no one else was a fan. Out of six, it was just me. But then, totally unconnected to this - or 'apropos of nothing' in wankspeak - Jamie let it slip that he was from Gloucester.

Before I continue, let me explain that I actually have no fascination at all with the perverts and serial killers that have recently featured on this blog but there's a reason for my interest in one of 'em. I used to run a comedy sketch group. I'd never performed on stage before I started it, and my acting skills were (and still are) zero. But I discovered that the more remote a character I played was from my personality, the more comfortable I felt on stage. It's like hiding. And, for this reason, or so I constantly told myself, I always felt happiest playing the part of a certain recurring comedy character we had called Fred West.

Back to the story. Gloucester is Fred West's home town. I thought I'd try a punt. "Did you know Fred West then?" I asked. "No," he replied. Obviously. "But I used to walk past his house every day." Wow! OK, Gloucester isn't massive. Perhaps everybody walked past his house. Maybe he lived near a Greggs. Surely, this was entirely normal.

So, for reasons of statistical analysis - we'd tried the football poll after all - I turned to David on my right. I knew he hailed from Holmfirth, the location of The Last of the Summer Wine, and not too far from Sheffield. So I casually asked him, more sarcastically than anything, if he had any connection to Peter Sutcliffe. At this stage I'd known him for about three hours and was expecting a solid no or maybe a smack in the face, but he replied, "How close a connection?" It turned out he had two. He'd lived in Sheffield's red light district back in the 70s and was on nodding terms with the prostitute who was in the car with Sutcliffe when he was arrested. As a doctor, he also knew a bloke who'd analysed samples of Sutcliffe's victims. Now c'mon. Two out of two. That's spooky.

Chas decided he'd had enough and retired, and while Don was at the bar, I explained the backstory to Londoner Chris and asked, just to amuse myself really, whether he had a connection to anything as sinister as the other two. "No," he replied. Of course. See, entirely normal. "Ah, maybe. My grandma used to have regular phone conversations with Ronnie Kray." Jesus freakin' Christ!

So there you have it. I haven't done much statistics with the OU yet and so this all may be a bit flawed, but from my data, only 16.667% of mathematicians like football, but 50% of 'em have established connections to famous murderers and perverts. Mmm, I bet Carol Voderman is Josef Fritzl's daughter.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Observing Syphilis in Zurich

In Liechtenstein's pretend capital city, Vaduz, I thought I'd been robbed when I bought a kebab for eight Swiss francs. I hadn't realised I'd scored myself a bargain. In Zurich they cost up to four hundred thousand pounds. Normally, wherever you are in the world, the kebab house is a safe bet if you want a cheap meal and can't be arsed to cook. In Switzerland, if you want a cheap meal and can't be arsed to cook then you just have to pretend you've already eaten. Even the bins are padlocked to prevent you from helping yourself to someone's mouldy old leftovers.

And it's not just restaurants. Supermarkets are so dear they have to display their prices in exponential notation. An entry level, scrawny chicken starts at about eight quid. The sort that would cost you three quid at home is more like twelve here. I thought I'd found some fish that compared favourably to Spain until I realised that its price was for 100 g rather than a kilogram. Yikes!

In the Co-op near our apartment the trolleys had a strange additional feature - a magnifying glass on the side. The Lovely Nina hadn't really looked too closely and had taken it to be a side mirror to allow safer navigation around the supermarket aisles. It's not such a silly idea. You can imagine the Swiss doing that, indicating to go into the Cheese section and then pulling out slowly. So why the magnifying glass? I reckon it was so I could see the piece of meat I could actually afford to buy. Or perhaps you could manoeuvre the glass over the top of your trolley and thereby convince yourself that you weren't going to starve to death this week.

Zurich's an odd place. Perhaps we caught them on a bad day but everyone seemed to lumber around like zombies, with no expression except a slight scowl. Signs of life were difficult to detect. I've since discovered that Zurich is twinned with Stepford.

But it's a pretty enough city, nestled on the shore of Lake Zurich, and it's got some interesting attractions. Yesterday we visited the Kunsthaus. That's the art gallery by the way, and not the Swiss parliament as you might have guessed. We had a pleasant afternoon examining its Picassos, van Goghs and Rodins and getting told off by the staff for various misdemeanours. Nina was in a playful mood. I should have known that taking along those felt tips was a bad idea.

More unusual was the Moulagenmuseum. This contains hundreds of wax recreations of hideously disfiguring diseases and skin conditions. Although it would appeal to those fascinated by the macabre, it's in a room at the medical university and is a genuine educational tool. Speaking of tools, it was heavy on syphilitic genitalia, great swollen penises and a particularly unattractive, oozing vagina that seemed to be developing its own collection of elephantiasised raspberries. This was powerful anti-porn. I now know how to diagnose various sexually transmitted diseases. Well, it's something for the CV, isn't it? By the time we emerged from the horror show we both felt pretty queasy. We didn't mind in the slightest. Neither of us felt like eating. At least that solved the problem of the supermarket prices for a while.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Liechtenstein, You Pointless Sod

Since we last spoke I've done two more countries. Well, I haven't really done Switzerland yet - I've only just poked my nose around its door. And yesterday I didn't really do Liechtenstein because there really was nothing to do. I apologise to any Liechtensteiners reading this but I just have to ask: 'What exactly is the point of you?'

I was expecting Liechtenstein to be another Luxembourg, y'know, a place that doesn't really draw the masses but hides a little gem. But whereas Luxembourg was gorgeous, Liechtenstein wasn't anything at all. The good views it possesses actually belong to Austria and Switzerland sitting either side of it. The capital, Vaduz, has the population of a Port Vale versus Grimsby match on a wet Saturday in February and with even less to entertain you. Let me illustrate this with an example: Liechtenstein's biggest tourist draw is a denture factory. Dear me.

It could have been so much more. There's an attractive, little castle up on the hill over Vaduz. Unfortunately, the royal family live up there, gurning smugly from on high, and won't let us proles have a look inside. We're supposed to be content with the gnashers emporium while they lounge around on thrones, smoking €500 notes and eating swan butties.

Last night - my first in Switzerland - there was a storm. It wasn't a massive storm. It rained quite a lot, there was a little thunder and lightning, and for one brief moment it blew a bit, but it was nothing to worry about. Not unless you're the tent pole of my Hilleberg Nallo GT2. In which case it was such a devastating occasion that the only sensible thing to do was to go into a deep panic and snap once again.

You may be thinking that my tent had been doing well of late since I haven't mentioned it self-destructing for a while. But that's not really true. Rooms were cheap in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And then I had well over a week in Austria staying with mates. And then, bizarrely, rooms in the eastern half of Austria weren't too expensive either. So I've only actually used the tent five times since Prague. Here, have some statistics (as of 8th July):

Number of times tent used on this trip: 37
Number of broken poles: 8
Days per broken pole: 4.625
Number of remaining spare pieces if I continue to use just two poles instead of three: 5
Estimated number of camping days before having only one working pole renders tent utterly useless: 23

Now, in Switzerland and France, rooms are expensive and so I'll need to camp every day. I return from my Open University residential on the 25th July. This means - by my calculations - I have until 17th August before the tent is a goner. Unless Hilleberg, the tent's manufacturer, can replace the broken poles with their new and much improved version. Failing that, it'll have to go in the bin. Or maybe I'm missing an opportunity: I could take the knackered tent back to Liechtenstein and open it as a tourist attraction. Roll up, roll up!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A Marmot for Gary Glitter

You're a dodgy lot. I'm slowly developing a profile of my typical blog reader. My last entry, the one that mentioned Josef Fritzl in its title, was my second most read post since I began. The only thing to beat it was the one a few months back entitled "My Life As Fred West". You see a pattern emerging here? Yes, me too. I haven't worked out yet whether you're darkly fascinated by murder and sexual abuse or whether you're actually looking for tips on how to construct a soundproof cellar or lay a decent patio. Anyway, the mention of Gary Glitter in this post's title was bait. And it lured you in, didn't it? You sick, little puppy.

I'm in a strange place right now. I don't mean emotionally. I'm not that complex. I mean my location. I'm staying in a typically Austrian Gasthof - y'know, all timber and pretty, little flowers spilling from the balconies, dispensing schnitzels and leberknödelsuppes to the locals - except that this Gasthof is run by a Chinese family. It makes a nice change. It's like Heidi meets Bladerunner. And, not surprisingly, they do Chinese food too. For lunch I've just had their Eat-All-You-Want buffet. All I would say is that you should read the labels of the things you put on your plate carefully. Garlic sauce and battered bananas isn't a winning combination. Incidentally, Eat-All-You-Want is not the same as the more American concept of Eat-All-You-Can.

Anyway, I've reached the end of the road. I'm in Zams, Tirol. There's only one sensible way out of this place and that's the way I came in. If you want to continue west you have to go over a 1800 metre pass or burrow through a thirteen kilometre tunnel. As a cyclist I'm not allowed in the tunnel and so your deductive powers have already told you my way out is going to involve pain. At least though there's something to look forward to on the other side of the agony. Well, several things. In five days' time, I meet The Lovely Nina in Zürich for a few days of intense joy before she heads back to Spain and I fly to the UK for a week-long Open University maths residential in Nottingham. I'm particularly looking forward to the exercises involving curves. And the residential should be good too.

But before then I get to meet Elli, OU graduate - definitely graduate and no longer a student, she insists - in Switzerland. Just as my cousin Sarah removed all the pain from the French round of my Eat Something Stupid challenge by getting her hubby to lovingly cook up that poo sausage, Elli's made my life easier too. She's only gone and 'acquired' a bloody marmot, hasn't she? I don't know whether this means she's been secretly out in the hills with a rifle or just that she's a particularly clumsy driver. Not only will this be the first marmot I've eaten, but also my first ever rodent. This is big! About 28 inches long, but I didn't mean that. It's one thing to eat a new species, but Rodentia is a brand new order! Rumour has it that marmot doesn't taste that great. Even better. This was never supposed to be easy.

But why am I telling you all this? You're not interested. All you want is stuff about Peter Sutcliffe or that German cannibal who cooked and ate the other bloke's penis, isn't it? And you'd probably prefer it in the form of a poem, wouldn't you? OK then, just to try and appease you I'll give you a limerick about Gary Glitter and marmots:

I don't know whether it's clear,
But Glitter likes games with his rear,
Even he lost the plot,
When he bought a marmot,
And sex advice from Richard Gere.

Happy now?