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Alan In The Pink

There are times when you wish with all your heart that you could melt into a puddle, ooze between the cracks in the floorboards, and trickle down deep into the bowels of the earth never to be seen again. You have said or done something so exquisitely embarrassing that you just know that people all over the world will be talking about it for years to come, and every time you walk down the street people will point at you and giggle.

When I was three years old I approached my grandmother, a dinosaur lady with extraordinarily advanced wrinkles, and I asked her, "Nana – how old are you?"

"I'm 42," she said proudly.

I was aghast! I'd realised she was old. But I hadn't realised she was quite as ancient as that.

"Nana," I said, somewhat diffidently, "if you are that old, why aren't you dead yet?"

After a start like that, the rest of life can only be an anti-climax. Fortunately I'm not alone in my suffering. Sometimes I have watched my friends open their mouths and insert both feet up to the ankles. That's always fun.

For instance, every so often, when the mood takes me, I go ten pin bowling. I'm not very good at it and apparently I have a somewhat unique style as I race up to the line and release the ball. My friends in England used to refer to me as the Sugar Plum Fairy which I am sure was a reference to the balletic grace and style that I brought to the game.

When we had finished bowling, it was our custom to retire to the pub, compare score cards, and analyse every roll of every ball to death. As the levels of Guinness dropped in the glasses, the volume of the conversation tended to rise.

My friend Jennifer was a lady with a screeching voice that cut right through every conversation even at the best of times. After she'd soaked up a couple of pints, you could etch glass with her.

"Look how good my husband is," she declared, waving his scorecard in the air. "Look how well he did tonight."

We agreed that he had done very well indeed, rolling his ball and knocking down the pins like an automaton. Strike after strike. Classy stuff.

"He owes it all to me," howled Jennifer. "I taught him everything he knows. Before he met me he didn't even know which holes to put his fingers in!"

Every single conversation in the pub came to an abrupt halt as Jennifer's words vibrated across every eardrum in the building. A cone of silence descended and every male face assumed the same thoughtful look.

Shortly before I left England to come and live in New Zealand, I visited the family home for the last time to say goodbye to family and friends. The village was all of a twitter – my parents had told everybody that I was off to the other side of the world and every single person in the village was amazed that I could even conceive of such a plan, let alone carry it out. Most of them didn't believe that there was any such place as New Zealand. Mind you, many of them weren't too sure that far away, exotic places like London or Redditch existed either. And Wigan just had to be the product of someone's fevered imagination...

It was decreed that I had to have a haircut. It was not possible to visit other countries when you had untidy hair. What would people think? And so my mother made an appointment for me to visit her hairdresser. I turned up at the appropriate time and sat myself down in the chair. The lady whose job it was to do me up nicely approached and wrapped several bedsheets around me and then set to with the scissors and shampoo.

"Why are you going to New Zealand?" she asked. "It's such a long way away."

I muttered something innocuous.

"We were so thrilled when your mother told us all about it," she said. "It's so exciting."

I muttered something else innocuous.

"I recognised you as soon as you walked into the salon," she said. "You look exactly like your mother."

"It's the beard," I said loudly. "It fools everybody."

There was a horrified silence. Everyone in the salon stared at me.

Fortunately I was 12,500 miles away when the story finally got back to my mother. I heard her shrieks of outrage as clear as a bell.

I soon settled down in New Zealand and began to make friends. I got invited to parties. Life was good. One of my friends was an extremely well endowed young lady who I will refer to as Sue, for that is indeed her name.

Sue arrived at the party wearing her new T-shirt. She was very proud of it, having only just bought it, and this was the first time she had worn it. The slogan on the front was quite witty, though the letters were somewhat distorted by her very shapely bosom.

"Isn't it great?" she said happily. "Isn't it just the cleverest thing you ever saw on a T-shirt?"

"Indeed it is," I said. "I wish I was blind so I could read the Braille version."

Slow circles of silence spread around the room as people turned towards us. There were whispers as those who had heard what I said told the people who had missed it. The story quickly reached the furthest corner, and a whole room full of people stared in shock and horror at me and at Sue. It was a silence of the jaw-dropping variety and everybody was dropping jaws. The absence of noise was deafening.

Sue and I looked at each other and held a blushing competition. Sue won on points – even her toenails blushed.

She never wore the T-shirt again.

In the fullness of time I got a job that required me to teach people how to look after their computers. One of my more boring courses involved running mysterious unix programs with names like iostat and vmstat and netstat. They gather performance statistics about the computer and when you analyse the figures you should be able to work out just where you are going wrong, and then you can tweak various system configurations and the computer's performance suddenly goes through the roof and everybody says:

"Wow! I've never seen a computer run as fast and as efficiently as this one is running!"

Your boss gives you a huge pay rise and for the first time in your life you have so much money that you don't know what to do with it. You can't think of a single thing to buy. You've bought a home theatre and a plasma screen TV. You've bought an ipod and you've bought a cell phone with a built in video camera and a gadget for taking stones out of a boy scout's feet. You've bought everything you can plug into a USB port, including a USB memory stick in the shape of a barbie doll, and a USB vibrator with a built in french tickler. You've completely run out of ideas.

At least that's the theory. In practice, you gather the figures together, analyse them, tweak lots and lots of system configurations, and absolutely nothing happens at all. The system continues to run like a dog, only now it's a Rhodesian Ridgeback instead of the Jack Russell Terrier it was last week and everyone is after your blood, and it doesn't look like you'll ever be able to afford the USB vibrator with a built in french tickler that you've got your heart set on, and even if you could afford it you'll never have time to play with it because you are too busy working 24 hours a day trying to keep the computer running at all, let alone running more efficiently. Oh God, I'm so depressed.

Anyway, the course was designed to teach people how to gather the figures together and, more importantly, how to interpret them. We also deliberately set the computers up in, shall we say, slightly sub-optimal ways, so that we could see the kinds of figures that corresponded to a three-legged Rotweiler with mange.

One student, David by name, had been working with computers for almost as long as I had. He was old with knowledge, grey-haired and stooped with experience.

"Let's try this," I said to the class, and I instructed David to modify certain parameters and to compare the results he got with the unmodified machines belonging to the other students. I was aiming to have his computer slowly get worse and worse as a backlog built up. The differences should be quite obvious.

"David," I said in ringing tones, "as time passes, does your performance degrade?"

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