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Friday, December 22, 2006

I haven't the foggiest

Went to Heathrow for a flight to the States. On the BBC news on the radio, Heathrow was reported as being in complete chaos because of fog, three-hour queues just to get into tents to wait to get into the Terminal etc. Yet on the way there was no traffic, when we got to Heathrow it was emptier than I have ever seen it, and the wait in the tent was 10 minutes before they called the flight number and asked people into the terminal. Because of on-line check-in, it was straight to the bag drop and on through security. I guess the deal is that if everyone else's flights are cancelled and yours isn't (it was all UK and some European flights that were cancelled, not the long-haul flights) then Heathrow is actually a convenient and efficient airport!

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Am I the moron?

I fly quite a lot for business, often three or four times every month. We travel a lot for leisure too: our household probably buys half-a-dozen international flights per annum for holidays, visiting relatives and so on. In the old days, all of this business used to go to British Airways, but now our purchasing in more mixed. For example, the family went to the States at the beginning of November on United. But I generally go to BA first, out of habit I suppose. But not any more. When we booked a flight to the U.S. last time, we got a blank web page back after entering a credit card number. We assumed that something had gone wrong -- now, in retrospect, I suspect that it was trying to display an error message along the lines "sorry, we're a bit new at the web thing and our programmers are too stupid to figure out how to make something that works on Apples as well as Windoze" -- so we just called BA to see if the booking had done through. After waiting on hold for 15 minutes they told us that, no, no booking was in the system. So we went back to the beginning and booked again. A few minutes later, there were two confirmation e-mails in the in box. Aaargh! Still, no problem. We'll just give BA a quick call and they'll sort it out. We called and we were held in a queue (on an 0870 number, which costs us money) for 55 minutes. When we finally got through, the guy told me that it was the wrong number, that my executive club "help" desk couldn't help with web bookings, and that he would transfer me to the right "help" desk (which had 31 callers ahead of me). Meanwhile, my wife had gone to run some errands. When I finally got through, they wouldn't help me because although my wife's credit card is supplementary to mine, I was not the named card holder. When my wife got back, she had to start all over again by phoning the 0870 number and sitting on hold again, at our expense, to get through. We should have just cancelled the flights completely and booked another airline, but we didn't. No wonder the service is so bad in the U.K. -- it's our own fault for putting up with it. Next time, it's United again. (Virgin's seats are too cramped). But it has given me an idea for a New Year's resolution: I will refuse to do business with companies that make you call an 0870 number for their call centre rather than an 0800 number. Conversely I will reward companies with 0800 numbers and good call centres. I'll begin with Morgan Stanley: I have one of their MasterCards and whenever there's been a problem I call an 0800 number and get through to a helpful call centre (which I imagine to be in Scotland) and things get resolved quickly.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

The good doctor

I know it's a bit childish, but I actually laughed out loud during a tube ride in London today. I picked up a copy of Metro, the free newspaper they have at tube stations. On page nine is a story "Circumcision halves the HIV infection rate" which quotes a World Health Organisation spokesman on the benefits of circumcision. The spokesman's name is (seriously) Dr. Cock.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

iPlot

So I was on a British Airways flight the other day... I was testing out my current theory of travel, which is that the only way to make public transport of any form tolerable is by playing The Ramones over and and over again on my iPod. I was tired and bored and half nodding off as the plane was taxiing out towards the runway for take-off... pa pa pa-pa pa-pa pa pa-pa I wanna be sedated... pa pa pa-pa pa-pa pa pa-pa I wanna be sedated... when there's a tap on my shoulder. I look over and the male airhostess (airhoster?) is saying something so I take my Shure E3C in-ears out and he's telling me that I have to turn off my iPod for take off. "Why?" I said. "Because it could interfere with the plane's systems", he told me. I looked as bored and disdainful as I possibly good and told him that if I for one moment believed that that was true, then I wanted to get off now. Actually, I didn't. He's only following some dumb memo and it's not his fault. But think about it for a moment: if the miniscule electromagnetic emmnations from my Nano are really enough to send a 767 crashing to the ground, then someone should sue Boeing for building such an unsafe vehicle. If it were even faintly true, then should British Airways want to fly anywhere where there might be any significant electromagnetic emissions (eg, Earth) they would soon find themselves running short of planes and crewmembers. It did give, however, me the best ever title for a novel: iPlot, which I intend to start working on shortly. It will be the most inventive, most plausible and only British Airways fact-checked novel debut novel in history. The plot is this: a gang of dastardly suicide terrorists make their way through security at Heathrow with not so much as a 100ml of Colgate between them. Beyond suspicion, they make their way to Dixons tax free and purchase half a dozen iPods. They hide them under an innocent girlfriend's burkha (she gets to be the tragic lead, of course, and the burkha means that you don't have to pay anyone famous for the TV adaptation that will surely follow) and get on to the plane. It powers down the runaway. At 1000 feet, just at it heaves itself in a slow circle over Hounslow, the criminal masterminds simultaneously switch on their devil machines and to the strains of (and I haven't decided on this yet: obviously it depends on the narrative flow at this point) the live version of the ponderous Emerson Lake and Palmer "Touch and Go" ("come without a warning like a UFO... you're running with the devil... it's touch and go") it corkscrews into the ground taking all souls on board with it. At this moment, the camera pans out to show that planes are falling out of the sky all across London (in fact, all across the Western world) as the MP3 Mullahs hit play on one flight after another. Can't fail. Rock, rock, Rockaway Beach... rock, rock, Rockaway Beach...

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Christmas time, something and wine

I can't remember the words to the magnificent Cliff Richard Christmas no. 1, but that's because I've been drinking mulled wine at the Christmas fair in the Marianplatz in Munich... munichxmas It was a really pleasant evening. The market goes back to the 14th century so it's obviously a well-established tradition. We ambled around in the market -- and even bought a couple of nice mitteleuropan (is that the word?) things there -- and then went to very pork-oriented restaurant for dinner. I don't know if there's going to be a Christmas market in the middle of Woking, but if there is I'll report back.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Train rage

The organisation I loathe the most is South West Trains. Their appalling service, which is going to become even more expensive in less than a month, is plumbing new depths. In the last few days I've found myself trying to get on trains which didn't even have standing room. This morning, one of the trains I couldn't get on at Woking was full to standing capacity in first class, let alone cattle class. Those people must have been really pissed off. UPDATE: Here's a picture proving that (not even at rush hour, this way 9:45) people couldn't physically fit on the train from Woking to Waterloo... trainjam I managed to find a place to stand on the second train the arrived, and decided to spend the journey (since I couldn't do any work) devising vile tortures for the executive officers of the company. Correct: I was literally driven mad by South West Trains. Fortunately, due to my wise policy of refusing to go anywhere near public transport without an iPod, I was able to turn up the Ramone's End of the Century loud enough to drown out the voices in my head.

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Thursday, November 30, 2006

(Don't) read all about it

I don’t really understand where newspapers are going. I mean, I understand that circulations are falling and that young persons don’t read them any more, but their solutions to this problem seem so 20th century. Apparently newspapers gave away more DVDs this year than were sold in shops. I can well believe it, since I have several. I’ve not watched any of them yet, but there you go. Is this really helping the circulation war? Why not try making the newspapers smaller and more focused rather than bigger.

If I buy a newspaper at all, it’s the Telegraph on a Saturday. Here’s the approxmate process:

1. Buy Saturday Telegraph

2. Throw gardening, travel, property and motoring supplements in the bin.

I don’t do gardening, if we do take the kids on holiday it won’t be mountain trekking in Peru, I’m not thinking of buying a country house or a new car.

3. Throw “weekend” supplement in the bin but keep the crossword.

I couldn’t care less about the problems some woman is having with her nanny or how to knit jumpers for labradors.

4. Have a cursory glance at money supplement then throw it in the bin.

I haven’t got any money to invest but I do like reading the readers problems page.

5. Read the football part of the sports supplement then throw it in the bin.

I like the football bit, which always has interesting feature, but don’t really care enough about golf or rugby or cricket to actually read about them.

6. Unwrap plastic package with: keep the TV guide and throw the rest in the bin.

The glossy magazine is ludicrous, even when it does have a pull out supplement about how competitive Greece has become for business (as it did last week). I don’t care about fashion, celebrities, gossip, horoscope or luvvie interviews.

7. Put review supplement in the downstairs loo for later perusal.

My Amazon wish list is often guided by the Telegraph reviews or the Spectator reviews when someone has left a copy on the train. I never buy it any more.

8. Read newspaper.

So almost everything I’ve paid for goes into the bin unread. I think it might buy it more often if it had less in it. UPDATE: I just bought it again this weekend and threw even more than usual in the bin because there were more catalogues inside it.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

I just saw Douglas Hurd walk past me on lower Regent Street. No limos anymore I guess! [Posted with hblogger 2.0 http://www.normsoft.com/hblogger/]

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Cam and get it

I've decided that I'm never going to buy anything from JVC again, which is a shame because I've had some JVC stuff in the past and it's been fine. But my JVC camcorder, which I hardly ever use, has now gone wrong for the second time and it's a waste of money to get it fixed. Anyway, since I potter through Heathrow duty free from time to time, I picked up the Dixons Tax Free catalogue and decided to have a browse at home and choose a new one. But guess what? I've discovered that Dixons Tax Free shopping may not be the bargain you'd think. Take for example the Sony HC3 -- one of the new High Definition camcorders and by all accounts a great piece of kit -- which Dixons have for (all figures in Sterling) 850.97 (page 19 of catalogue) and claim a high street price of 999.989 ("Save over 145"). Amazon UK have it for 749.94 (free delivery). Or what about the the Sony DCR SR30 hard disk camcorder? Dixons tax free price is 408.42, Amazon UK have it for 346.00 (free delivery). Or perhaps the JVC MG26, which I was thinking of buying before my other JVC went up the Swanee? Dixons tax free price is 340.33, Amazon UK have it for 287.90. Just for an experiment while waiting for a backup to complete, I opened a random page in the Dixons catalogue and closed my eyes and put my finger on it. When I opened my eyes I was pointing at the Altec Lansing In Motion M602 speakers (to plug your iPod into). Dixons tax free price is 161.69, Amazon UK have them for 139.99. The moral of this story is that "tax free" does not mean "worth buying tax free". But I guess you all knew that anyway.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Pomp and circumstances

I was ambling along to my first meeting today near Parliament Square in London. When I got to the square it was blocked off to traffic and there were police everywhere and some soldiers. I asked a policeman what was going on, and it turned out to be the state opening of parliament, an odd piece of pomp where the Black Rod knocks on the door of the House of Commons while the Queen goes to the House of Lords and reads out drivel written for her by government spin doctors.

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I was going to wander on to my first meeting but then I heard a band coming so I stayed to watch...

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Strike two

Off to Paris today. The trains were on strike, as they generally are, so I had to wait ages to get a taxi from the airport. But I was already wanting to go home even before I got out of Charles de Gaulle because my BA flight from Heathrow was over an hour late, and when I got off I discovered that the French authorities had decided to have only one person on passport control: predictable result, long lines and angry passengers. CDG November 2006 Why do they do it?

Friday, October 27, 2006

A tale of two phones

So, I had to order couple of phones recently. Both on O2. One was a Blackberry, one was a K800i. I found the Blackberry (refurb) on e-mail for a pretty reasonable £40, won the auction, paid with Paypal and it arrived in a couple of days. I was ordering from a person, who's living depends on getting stars on eBay. I ordered the K800i from Carphone Warehouse six weeks ago and it still hasn't arrived. I was ordering from a computer that doesn't care whether I ever get a phone or not. I kept checking the web site, which kept saying that "Your order has been recieved" (they even sent me a confirmation e-mail) and it will be dispatched in 2-3 days. When I e-mailed to find out what was going on, I got an e-mail explaining that they "are currently experiencing high volumes of correspondence" blah blah blah. No wonder eBay is so successful, when the alternative is dealing with leading British retailers. P.S. The story has a happy ending though. When I rang up to complain earlier in the week, the phone was answered within a couple of minutes, the phone arrived two days later and they're sending me £45 compensation and upping my tariff by an extra 30 minutes per month for nothing.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Nice is nice this morning


Look at the colour of the sea. For some reason when you wake up in the morning and find yourself looking at sea that it this colour, it automatically makes your entire outlook on the world better. Even though there was an earthquake last night. Or at least that was what everyone was claiming this morning. I didn't notice it because I was (gasp!) at a party, but supposedly there was a small earthquake about around 8pm on Monday evening. I haven't been in an earthquake for years. I've only been in a couple of significant (ie, scary) earthquakes, once in Indonesia and once in California, so it would have been interesting to compare!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Goan, goan, gone

A very confusing Tuesday morning. My brain was expecting this... still_waiting.jpg ...but it got this... goaview1 ...because I'm in Goa. I am at some sort of backpackers hostel, but it's alright for a couple of days.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Sunset at Silverstone

Lovely. And here's what it looked like when I was pottering around the pit lane and suddenly remembered that my mobile phone can take videos (it took me a while to figure out how, so I only got a short clip).

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Wood Lane


Exciting scenes as I arrive at BBC Television Centre for an unspecified reason. I didn't see anyone famous in the canteen though, which was a bit upsetting as I was hoping to get something good to sell to the tabloids (someone using the wrong glass for the port, for example).

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Auld Reekie


Yes, I'm in Edinburgh. After Frankfurt and Milan last week, I'm in Edinburgh for a couple of days, and very pleasant it has been, except for the view from my hotel, which appears to be almost entirely taken up by lap-dancing clubs. I imagine they do a different version up here, more in keeping with the traditional Scottish reel, but I can honestly say that I haven't been tempted to find out.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Woking station


What a joke. 25 minutes to get on a train. The queue was out of the ticket office and down the street on the other side as well -- I know because I wasted my time going over there -- and, as usual, they wouldn't let you through the barrier to pay on the train.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Is there nothing Google can't do?

I've been driven up the wall by British gas over recent months. A quick summary of events: 1. They sent me incorrect bills. In the case of the gas bill, it had the wrong tariff and did not include a credit of £129. In the case of the electricity bill, it had the wrong tariff. 2. I called on 10th July. They said that there was a computer problem, confirmed that the tariffs had been set up incorrectly, and said it would be sort out and they would send a revised bill. 3. No revised bills arrived. They sent me a reminder. 4. I called. I went through the whole thing again and was told again that it would be taken care of. 5. No revised bills arrived. They sent me a rather insulting “red reminder”. 6. I called again and they assured me that no further threatening letters would be sent and that the matter would be resolved. They asked me to send a copy of the tariffs (apparently they don't know what they are) to their amusingly entitled “Customer Care Team”, which I did. 7 I (stupidly, in retrospect) posted a letter with the tariffs enclosed. 8. No revised bills were received, of course, a few days ago I came home to find notices of disconnection. 9. I called their ridiculous customer “service” number, only to be told that (as usual) all of the representatives were busy and that I would have to wait 30 minutes (at my own expense) to speak to someone. Since I had no alternative but to tolerate this appalling state of affairs, I had no choice but to sit with a phone against my ear—when I had considerably better things to do—for 59 minutes. Correct: I waited 1 hour to talk to a customer “service” representative, who said that he couldn’t hear me properly because of a bad line but would call me back right away. Which, naturally, he did not. 10. I called back and spoke to someone who said that there was nothing she could do but have a manager call me back in the morning. Naturally, they didn't call. 11. I called back to get a fax number os that I could send a letter detailing the problems together with (another) copy of the tariffs. They gave me a fax number which of course turned out to be incorrect. 12. I called back next morning and and a woman told me that my account was not on the right tariff (which I knew), that the letter I had sent would take at least a month to process, and that she could not stop the disconnection process. 13. I asked her to transfer me to the debt department, where the phone rang continuously for several minutes without being picked up. 14. I called back and spoke to someone who gave me another fax number which, like many of the other British Gas numbers, is never answered. At this point, I decided that I was wasting my time calling "Customer Service" and that since my electricity and gas were going to be cut off I'd better do something. I turned to the mightiest weapon in any modern person's armoury... Google. Bif! I googled and found that customer services are based in Manchester. I called directory enquiries and got the number. That got me through to a reception desk. The person on the desk said that there were no fax machines in the customer service department. I said that I had an important letter to get through to them and the person on the desk gave me the e-mail address of someone in the department. Bam! The address was in a particular format x.y@x.com so I googled "head of customer services" and go straight through to a page with the relevant clown featured GETTING AN AWARD FOR CUSTOMER SERVICE!! I guessed (correctly) the e-mail address and I sent the contents of the letter as an e-mail. Pow! Since the e-mail didn't bounce, I knew I was on to something. I googled the name on the bottom of the letter threatening to disconnect me and deduced the e-mail address. I send an e-mail with the same complaints (and slightly more invective). Blam! Within a few minutes I had a call back from a nice lady who sorted out the problem. Moral of this story: if one of the faceless and unaccountable fat cats discovers a message in their inbox, they will get someone to do something about it. Don't waste your time calling their disgraceful customer "service" number.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Helping GSE

The Great She Elephant has a questionnaire on blogging and public relations, so if you have a few minutes could you pop over and help her out with it. Thanks.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Is it called Chinglish?

On the tube today I sat next to a family from China. From body language I thought they were a couple with her Mum and Dad. Mum was wearing a chic (I'm not really sure what chic means: perhaps I should have just said tailored with no sleeves) black summer dress and lots of jewellery. On the dress in big gold letters it said "Judging The Street Fashion 80s Will Back". It struck me as odd, because I mean it was gibberish but I kind of knew what it sort of meant. English is a fantastic language.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Crime and punishment

I must have still been asleep, but I'm sure I heard someone on the radio this morning reporting on the newly-released crime figures and expressing surprise that crime appeared to be going down "yet the prisons are bulging". Clearly they don't teach logic as part of media studies courses nowdays. It's a shame, because I also heard on the radio that there are twice as many people doing media studies at university than there are people doing engineering (amazingly, there are also more people studying philosophy than engineering: I mean, I can understand doing media studies in the hope that you';; end up getting paid a fortune for not doing very much for the BBC, but philosophy?). The figures (start tracking them down here) also show that murder is down 12% while attempted murder is up 20+%. Clearly, even our murderers are second rate (and getting worse). Cue favourite line from Robocop: "Attempted murder! It's not like he killed anybody.".

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Black sheep (no!)

I'm reading "Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets" (Nassim Nicholas Taleb) at the moment. It's not as good as I thought it would be from the reviews, but it's mildly interesting. He keeps going on about the "black swan" effect (that no matter how many white swans you see, that doesn't mean there are no black swans). Hence I was genuinely amazed when I saw a black swan on the River Cam today... BlackSwan

Thursday, June 29, 2006

WAGs

OK, so I said no more travelogues for a while, but I'm back in Turkey. I'm having a beer with the chaps on top of the Swisshotel Bosphorous in Istanbul. Look at the view... In the beer garden Afterwards, we went to a fabulous restaurant: Tugra and had dinner looking out over the water. It wasn't that peaceful though: the Turkish football league champions, Galatasaray , were having a celebration ball at the same place. There was a lot of very nicely, and very expensively dressed, WAGs (wives and girlfriends). It was a bit like watching the filming of an episode of Footballer's Wives and therefore quite exciting for dreary middle-aged businesspersons such as ourselves. Excellent night out, and the baklava was unbelievable. Tugra

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Southwest Trains are totally hopeless and I hope they lose their franchise

It took me half an hour to get on a train at Woking. I got there in plenty of time so I would be early for a meeting in the city. But when I arrived at the station there was a queue for tickets stretching all the way to the door. It was clearly going to take at least a quarter of an hour to get a ticket and that would mean missing a couple of trains. There were plenty of people like me standing around being pissed off but what can you do? The guy in front of me had had enough and started to walk over to the ticket barriers so I went with him.

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We asked the guy on the gate to let us through saying that we would buy tickets on the train or when we got to Waterloo. He was a total jobsworth and absolutely flatly refused to let us pass and said that if we went through the barrier we would be subject to a penalty fare. I can't imagine what penalty could be worse than having to travel on SWT but there you go. Anyway, we were forced to go back into the ticket hall. I don't understand why we can't just wave our mobile phones and get on the train like they do in Japan. All of this Victorian messing around with bits of cardboard is a joke. By the way, when I told the guy on the gate that I thought it was absurd having a ticket line stretching all the way to the door forcing people to miss trains., he said, essentially, 'tough'.

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In order to try an avoid the still enormous lines, I went to investigate the ticket machines. Both of the ticket machines weren't working. Here's an SWT person trying to fix them while we were standing in line like lemons.

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Actually the machines aren't terribly useful even when the are working. They appear essentially unchanged since the first world war. You have to feed notes and coins in to get a ticket out. Since I never have enough cash on me, and even if I do the machines will only take exact change or won't take my notes at all, they are essentially useless. However, a little while back someone had mentioned to SWT that credit cards had been invented half a century ago. On the entire station they have one machine capable of taking credit cards, but it's never working. Today, as usual, it was broken again. I'm starting to wonder if even SWT are sufficiently incompetent to have this machine broken all the time and I'm beginning to suspect that they've actually switched it off. It doesn't take chip-n-pin cards you see (the chip-n-pin switchover had only been known about for five or six years which clearly isn't long enough for SWT to plan for it) so I expect people use fraudulent cards in it all the time.

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Meanwhile, the line was still huge. I went to try and find out the problem. I think I discovered it right away. The "help" desk was closed and there was no one there. This meant that the ticket line was clogged up with people who wanted to find out information rather than buy a ticket. Now we recently tried to find out the price of a train ticket from Woking to Newcastle. Despite being intelligent people with considerable experience of electronic commerce and online travel purchasing, we found the railway websites utterly incomprehensible. It's no wonder people find it easier to actually go to the station.

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Here are the people trying to find out if you can take live toads to Inverness, and if so what might be the best route. These queries take about a hundred times as long as buying a ticket. Even the most rudimentary queueing theory simulation would reveal the disastrous consequences of allowing them in the ticket office. As only two of the three ticket windows were open anyway, an intelligent solution might've been (apart from installing modern ticket machines that accept cards) to have one window for information and one for tickets. But no.




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They're still there while I missed yet another train.

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I finally got on a train at 11.17 and even then I had to stand up all the way to Waterloo in boiling heat surrounded by unwashed young persons coming back from the Isle of Wight pop festival (festival, pah!, listening to Coldplay whining isn't a festival, I remember Glastonbury back when it was worth going to and I saw Led Zeppelin at Knebworth etc etc).

Does anyone know how you vote against a train company retaining a franchise?

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Cheltenham lady

I took the kids to the Cheltenham science festival. In the Town Hall, they were looking round some exhibits and I wandered into the buffet to get a drink. There was some sort of press conference going on in the buffet. There were three or four people on a panel and one of them I recognized, I'm sure, from the telly. She was a woman scientist of some description and I'm sure I've seen her on Horizon or something like that but I can't quite place her. I didn't catch the question she was asked as I walked in, but from her answer it was something about making science more accessible to the public and discussing how to give science a more friendly face. I wandered back into the exhibition area. The boys had been making playdoh models of molecules, bacteria and other stuff. All very educational. My youngest wandered over to a nearby exhibit which had instantly attracted his attention because it featured a football in some role. I went over to see what was going on. Basically you had to kick the football at a target and a radar gun measured the speed. He scored a respectable 41 miles an hour, which I didn't see any other kids come close to, most of them were around 30. Anyway he was having great fun so I thought I'd get a picture of it to show Grandma and Granddad. No sooner had I taken the camera out than I was approached by a lady jobsworth with an official looking pass who told me I was forbidden to take pictures. I assumed that I'd misunderstood what she said so I asked her to repeat it and she said that I wasn't allowed to take pictures because it was against the council policy because of child protection. Incredulous, I spelled it out exactly to make sure I understood exactly how unfriendly the science festival was. So I said, very clearly, "you're telling me that it's against council policy for me to take a picture of my own son kicking a football?" The lady jobsworth repeated that this was indeed the case and asked me to put the camera away again. Perhaps if they want to have a more friendly face on a science festival for children next year, they should consider somewhere other than Cheltenham, because I certainly won't bother going there again. P.S. What's tragic about this vignette is that it highlights one of the more catastrophic ways in which our country becoming a less pleasant place to bring up a family every day. I haven't the slightest doubt that the council's absurd policy has made no difference whatsoever to the quality of life of any single child in their jurisdiction. All it does is introduce yet another mean and petty restriction on the people once responsible for the Magna Carta. P.P.S. This farcical bureaucracy was of course defeated. I saw countless people taking pictures with camera phones. It can only be a matter of time before Cheltenham Council ban those on the grounds of child protection shortly before they ban all phones because they cause brain cancer.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

It's all Greek to me

Well, here I am in Athens (moblog picture to follow). There was a minor panic earlier yesterday because a bomb went off in the city but it turns out it was a failed attempt to blow up a government minister, as opposed to failed attempt to blow up foreigners. So nothing to worry about.
Uh oh, the dancing has started
Uh oh the dancing has started...
I promise I'll stop the travelogue now.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

1453 and all that

It doesn't get much better than this. Here I am walking up to the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul this morning...

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Afterwards, we walked over to the Sultanahmet Mosque (the "Blue Mosque") through the park and fountains, in beautiful sunshine, pausing only to fend off the legions of carpet sellers. Later on we're going to a cocktail reception on the roof of the hotel, which has a fantastic view over Istanbul, and then after dinner we've got tables booked at a bar to watch the Champions League Final between Arsenal and Barcelona.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Jesus


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Originally uploaded by Citizen Dave.
Pottering around in cambridge today at jesus.

The weather is glorious!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Working out

A friend of mine pointed me to Music 2 Work 2. It's a fun idea: music specifically composed to be on the background while you're working. Not muzak, but music that is supposed to help you focus. While I was working yesterday, I was listening to an album of cover versions of AC/DC favourites by female country & western singers on acoustic guitars. Probably not as conducive to getting anything done. Anyway, I came, I listened and I purchased. Check it out.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Genetic software enginnering

Well, this is exciting. I tried genesreunited on Friday, just out of vague curiosity because I had an e-mail mentioning it from "friends reunited". I entered a simple "three level" family tree: me, my mum and dad and their mums and dads. Within a few hours -- really, not even a day -- I got an e-mail from a cousin who I have never met (although my mum has mentioned him from time to time) and from someone in a branch of my dad's family that I never even knew existed. It's truly astounding, yet another "only because of the net" revelation. I've been adding additional persons to the tree, just a few every day, and I can't wait to see what will happen. If you're at all curious about your family history -- perhaps through watching "Who Do You Think You Are" on the BBC -- then give it a shot.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Name that tune?

Apropos of nothing, I'm trying to track down a favourite ballad "It's going to be a straightjacket Christmas again", but I can't remember who it's by and Google can't help me. While I recover from the terrible discovery that there's something Google doesn't know, can anyone help me?

At first I thought it was by Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers, the artistes behind the country and western masterpiece "If I'd Shot Her When I Met Her I'd Be Out Of Jail By Now". But it's not.

UPDATE. Turns out that the chorus running through my head is all there is. It's an advert for a non-existent album called "Cowboy Dick's Christmas Special" by the American Comedy Network. God knows where I heard it. Anyway, the song is actually called "Looks like a straitjacket Chrismas for me" (the other song is called "There's no mistletoe down on death row").

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Oh you pretty things

What a wonderful, wonderful find. Further confirmation of my theory that the real/virtual divide is rather permeable.

We're all familiar with the fascinating emergent behaviour that is blurring the boundaries between movies and games. Kids play games such as Halo, where they can log in from around the world and battle it out. My sons and I have excellent fun taking our clan in battles on servers around the globe. Then, some people decided to use the game as movie set. They began to write scripts and act them out in the game. A well-known example, again in Halo, is the Red vs. Blue series. At miniscule cost, but maximum imagination, the games has been repurposed as a shared creative space.

The game designers did not have this in mind when they created the game yet now and entire genre of machinema is growing, developing in crazy directions and capturing interaction and inventiveness that makes our current mainstream media look like, well, current mainstream media actually. I can't imagine any circumstances under which my eldest son would rather watch Pets Win Prizes or Coronation Street rather do what he was going when I got home from work yesterday, which was building a movie set out of Lego so that he and his best friend could make their own Halo movie. They were using the superb Boinx iStopMotion to capture stop-motion video via a JVC camcorder and firewire, then using iMovie to edit it and add laser (etc) special effects using the Virtix plugin. One of their plans for the weekend is to figure out how to add a soundtrack they are making in Garageband.

The genre moves on.

A guy has created his own talk show. No big deal. Except that he interviews the guests on a network of XBoxes playing Halo2. The guests (who are real) join the in the game as other space marines on another planet. While the guests are being interviewed, space marines and aliens are battling it out around them.

You have to see it to fully appreciate it. Run, don't walk, to This Spartan Life.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The new Gatwick gamble

I was flying out of Gatwick yesterday when I came across an interesting new torture for travellers. You have to admire these people: it is fiendish in its simplicity yet generates amazingly high levels of stress and anxiety. Here's how it works. At North terminal departures there were four or five long and tedious lines for security but there was one very short line at the right hand end. I started walking towards the short line. As I got closer, I could see that there was a sign and a guy standing there, but couldn't quite read it. Closer still, and I realised that it said that you could only use the line if you had one piece of hand-baggage only (women excluded, of course, as gigantic sleeping-bag-alike handbags do not appear to count under this rule) and, and here is the diabolical twist, it weighed less than 8Kg. Who the hell knows whether their bag weighs more or less than 8Kg? Like most true born Englishmen, I don't know a kilogram from a hole in the ground so I was stopped in my tracks. Mentally regressing to the last time I had to think in S.I. units, my reasoning went like this... I know that a kilogram is 2.2 pounds. But what does 2.2 pounds feel like? I know the standard measure is a bag of sugar, which I remember from Weightwatchers. OK, does my bag feel like it weighs more than a bag of sugar? Definitely. More than four bags? No, I don't think so. Wait. I know that my laptop weighs 5 pounds. Or does it? Why do I think that? Did I read it somewhere? OK, suppose it weighs 4.4 pounds, that would be 2Kg. There's no way that the rest of my bag weighs three times as much as my laptop. Yet my bag does feel quite heavy, because I've got the power adapter, plus my book which is a hardback ("The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" (Mark Haddon)) and quite a thick folder of documents that I need for my meeting later on. No, that couldn't take up 6Kg could it? I mean, my phone and iPod don't add up to much. What do car keys weigh? I've got a lot of keys on my key ring. After a few minutes of this I hadn't moved. Eventually my nerve failed and I joined the long line, paralysed by the fundamental English middle-class nightmare: I might have felt embarassed had I gone in the short line and been turned back. Then I noticed that guard on the line did actually have some electronic scales by the door. OK, should I risk it now? Being turned back by an inanimate object -- the scales -- is fine in my twisted calculus of Englishness. I doesn't bother me at all. Hold on though, I had to get up early this morning and I didn't sleep very well last night. Perhaps I'm not thinking clearly through lack of sleep. Better stay in the long line. A woman who was three or four places ahead of me in the long line decided to go for it. Perhaps she was American or something. Anyway, she stepped out of the barely-moving long line and walked (rather brazenly) over to the short line. The guard directed her to put her bag on the scale. I could see the quivering red LEDs of doom from where I was standing: 8.65Kg. She was 650g over the limit, a measly one and a bit punnets of minced beef from Waitrose. (I'd remembered that they were 500g by now, as trying to figure out whether The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night weighed about the same as a punnet of mince or not). The defeated traveller started to trudge disconsolately baack to the long line. But oh no: she had transgressed the unwritten rule of emergent behaviour in English people. She had got out of the line. Now she wanted to come back. We were all cringing inside for the poor woman but, as the imp on my shoulder reminded me, I was one person closer to getting through security. Phew! I've decided to call this interesting variant on the prisoners' dilemma the travellers' dilemma. In the prisoners' dilemma, there are two people. Prisoner A and B have to decide whether to co-operate or not. In the travellers' dilemma, there are N people and N-1 of them have to decide whether to co-operate or not (they are not allowed to speak to each other, only to exchange odd glances of sympathy) with the Nth. We decided not to. She went to the back. Well done Gatwick: maximum humiliation for minimum effort.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

They want you to steal the music

This is what a friend of mine told me today: he was sitting around chatting with his wife and a couple of our mutual friends and for some reason the conversation came around to The Comic Strip Presents episode "GLC". As you may (but probably will not) recall, this was a rather funny episode of that great series (first broadcast in 1990) in which a heroic Ken Livingstone takes on an evil Margaret Thatcher. It has fantastic title track by Kate Bush called "Ken". It is by far and away my favourite Kate Bush track as well as his, and he hadn't heard it in years. Having enthused to the assembled company about how good it was, he punched it into iTunes, fully intending to buy it to play to them there and then. There it was for 99 cents in the iTunes US music store. He tried to buy it, but couldn't, which is why he called me. But I couldn't help. It's not listed in the iTunes UK music store, and as I am domiciled in this sceptr'd isle the same as him (ie, have a UK-issued credit card) I couldn't buy it either (he thought that I might have US credit card, which is why he called me). This infuriated him: here's something he wants to buy, but is not allowed to buy it, presumably because of something to do with copyright and licensing deals. I have to say that I've been thwarted by iTunes too: it's not perfect. I wanted to buy some AC/DC and they're not on iTunes either (nor is Led Zeppelin). In fact, when I went to use it last time it was to buy an album that I'd just read about it the Saturday Telegraph review section but I discovered that it was the same price as the CD on Amazon, so I ordered the CD! Given the choice, and if not it in a rush, I tend to order the CD of stuff I want because when you load it into iTunes you can code it at a higher bit rate than the Apple Music Store and, of course, without the DRM. Anyway, back to the story. My friend googled "Ken" to see if there was anywhere else to buy it from, but after a few fruitless minutes he gave up. He even went to the official Kate Bush web site, but said there was no obvious way of buying any of her music from her. So he did what any normal person would do and found it on a filesharing network and downloaded it. What an absurd industry: it is actually easier to "steal" something even if you want to, fully intend to and even try to pay for it. How on earth did this benefithim or Kate Bush? What do EMI think? That he was going to go online and pay fifteen quid for for fifteen year old CD in order to get one track a week after he wanted to play it for a friend? I say that copyright should run for a fixed time -- say seven years -- and then that's it. Whatever Kate can make out of her song in that time then good for her. But after that, tough: back to work. If someone other than EMI or Apple can set up a web shop where people can buy and instantly download a good quality properly mastered and coded version of her songs, then good luck to them (and good luck to the world economy, which would thereby increase). Ah well, you might say, copyright is the only thing that stops artists from starving, so you have to respect it and quit bitching about it. Really? When I was first told that the song "Happy Birthday" is copyrighted, and that those well-known starving artists AOL TimeWarner earn $2 million per annum from it, I assumed it was an urban legend. But astonishingly, it's true. Copyright is supposed to be a balance between the interests of society and the interests of artists. Its purpose -- in the utilitarian sense, which is the only sense I recognise -- is to increase the net welfare. It is no longer doing this, and has as such run its course. For the sake of everyone, it needs to be destroyed in its current incarnation and redeveloped for the modern age. Serendipity: while hunting around the Internet, I did find the ukelele version of Wuthering Heights, which was thoroughly enjoyable. P.S. Just in case Kate Bush or anyone from the British Phonographic Institute (whose name tells you everything you need to know about their enthusiastic embrace of new technology -- they were formed not in 1873 but in 1973) is reading this, my friend has put his 79p in escrow (on top of my fridge) and they are welcome to collect it whenever may be convenient.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Tossing tips

We get a 100 business people in a room and ask them all to toss a coin. Everyone who gets heads stays in, everyone who gets tails is out. Now there are 50 people left, so we repeat the experiment. Let's say 23 people are left. So we repeat the experiment, and now 12 people are left. Do it again and seven people are left. Once more and four people are left. A final toss, and three people are out and we have a winner left in. We get the winner to write a book "Coin Tossing My Way" or the "Zen of Coin Tossing" or whatever and we sell it at airports. Plenty of people want to know how to get six heads in a row, and since most of the population are mathematically and scientifically illiterate (not to mention just plain stupid), they will buy the book, thinking to themselves "Here's a guy who really did get six heads in a row, I can learn from him and do the same". Far-fetched? Not really, since that's what most of the business books I saw at the airport last week seemed to be. They are books written by winners that discount any element of luck or chance and attribute success entirely to the subject's inherent talent, vision and so on. Charles Cohen, of Beenz fame, wrote a book called "Corporate Vices: What's Gone Wrong with Business?". I happened to have invited Charles to Singapore for a seminar I was organising a couple of years ago while was publicising the book. His thesis, as I remember it, was that people think that some companies are run well and some are run badly so they buy business books from the ones that are run well hoping to learn the lessons. In actual fact, all companies are run badly (and have been ever since the invention of the joint stock company, when the interests of management and the interests of shareholders began to diverge) but some are just plain lucky. They become the winners, and so everyone else looks to them to replicate their special sauce. I was reminded of this reading one of the book reviews ("The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism" (John C. Bogle)) in this month's Financial World. Apparently, this book claims that capitalism is falling apart because enterprises are run for the benefit of their incumbent management rather than their shareholders. Charles is even more of a visionary than I thought.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The march of technology

For another great step forward to even he had exciting world off blocking and yet their rush of the year there a rough not to remove a year New And in India narrow off the To self discovers to advance of life can use my 8 iListen (in to the speech recognition program) to dictate directly into a the toe and (my building program) and two-thirds of my aid to arrange for rambling this directly into you and texts of beer is So way shores stopped, and the firm daily to be noticed and periods (You know what, I don't think my speech recognition software is ready for prime time.)

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Easy does it

It's astonishing, really, but I'd never been on Easyjet before. I've seen the adverts for flying to Warsaw for 20p and the like, but I'd never been tempted. For some reason that I can't remember, but probably related to disorganisation, I was booked on Easyjet today. When I bought my new (now old) carry-on, I deliberately bought the maximum size that the airlines generally allow (55 x 40 x 20). So, when I checked in with Easyjet today, I assumed that there would no problem despite all of the strict notices about hand luggage. Sure enough, they asked me to put my carry-on into a metal frame at the check-in: it fit like Cinderalla's slipper (which, incidentally, was not “glass” but “green”: the original French was mistranslated when the story came to England). Excellent. But at the gate, the Easyperson said that I could not take the bag on because it was too big. When I asked what the point of the check-in metal frame charade was, and why I couldn't take the bag on despite it being exactly the right size, I was told (basically) “tough: the flight is busy, so you can't take it on”. I had to hold up the entire line of people trying to get through the gate while I unpacked my computer, magazines, book and bottle of water so that they could take my carry-on away and check it. While I was doing this, I noticed that a couple of women were allowed on with carry-ons the same size as mine, plus a gigantic handbag as well. I should have sued for sex discrimination on the spot, but I didn't want to appear ungentlemanly. While I was ruminating on the egregious gender bias, I was getting steadily more annoyed. As a result, I forgot my iPod and so (rather upsettingly) had to spend the entire flight listening to the chavs behind me discussing what bars they were going to go to tonight and comparing the prodigious quantities of vomit they had unleashed on their previous rampage. It's a Brit thing. When I got on the plane, I discovered another annoying interaction between people and systems. The flight was open seating. Logically, the fastest way to fill the plane would be if the first people on were to walk down the place and start sitting down from the rear, window seats first. But they don't, because everyone (well, those allowed to bring on their hand baggage) wants to sit near the entrance. And they all sit in aisle seats. I wasn't familiar with Easyetiquette so I sat in a window seat. Then I realised that it was just like Southwest trains. People were sitting in the aisle seats hoping that no-one would sit next to them. But with N aisle seats and nearly 3N passengers, the people in the aisle had to keep getting up and clogging the aisle further. Luckily, my baggage-repacking episode didn't hold up the flight. Apparently, just as Easyjet expect you to bring your own drinks and snacks, you are also expected to bring your own medical treatment. When we were waiting to take off, an appeal came over the PA “Is there a doctor on board?”. I've never been on a plane when that's happened before, so I was quite excited. I was imagining that something amazing was going to happen, like when a doctor used a coathanger to save the life of a passenger on a British Airways flight. (How, I can't remember, but I think it was opened up and jammed into a lung or something.) It transpired there wasn't a doctor or a nurse on board, so a few minutes later there was another announcement: a passenger had been taken ill so the flight couldn't leave the gate until some paramedics (Easydoctors?) had arrived and checked things out. So we were nearly an hour late taking off. And it didn't cost 20p but a hundred and eight nine quid.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Oh well

Might as well start yet another blog.

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