Monday, June 29, 2015

Travel: Finny Dipping (Tampere, Finland, Summer 2013, part 2)

[The write-up for the first part of this trip is here.]

Warning: This story contains full frontal nudity.

The thing I really had difficulty adjusting to in Finland was the length of the days. Finland is north. Quite far north. In the summer, when I was there, it never really gets dark. It gets toward twilight until about 1am, and then it starts getting lighter again. The first night I woke up every hour expecting it to be morning already.

The following night I got out my emergency eye mask and slept a whole lot better, but would have been easy pickins for any assassins.

In winter it’s the opposite and barely gets light. Those long winters have the tendency to turn the good folk of Finland into Goths. I’ve never seen so many Metalheads, Goths and Emos in bright sunlight as I did that week. Over the summer, every weekend there is a music festival in Finland, and every single one seems to be Death Metal festival. I imagine every weekend, the average Finn throws off the work clothes, Goths up and spends the two free days in a field listening to the delicate strains of bands such as Deathbound, Torture Killer, and Impaled Nazarene.

Famous Finnish folk song.

I was in Finland for a festival. Not a death metal festival. My death metal days are so long ago and so dead, there are probably a dozen death metals songs about them. No, I was in Finland for an improvised comedy festival. For more information about my improv antics you can see the blog dedicated to that.

On the last night there was a party. It was the thing I feared the most. Okay I’m not afraid of parties, in fact quite the reverse. However this one was at a sauna.

I’m not a sauna person. I find them stiflingly hot and can never stay in for long. Plus the fact that the Finns sauna as God intended – i.e. as naked as the day he kicked us out of our mothers’ wombs – makes them especially unenticing.

For those of you who haven’t experienced it, which is most of you, naked I look like a frayed piece of string. Pale, fuzzy with sporadic bits flailing off. Although these days the string has a slight bulge in the middle like it’s a worm digesting a bead.

I don’t really have body issues, but I think people who have to encounter my body will have issues, so I try to keep it covered up. It remains quite covered up even when the sun is out because I can go from white to lobster-red in exactly no time at all.

The Finns have a system for saunaing (check this is the correct form of the verb). They boil their skin in the hot room for an allotted amount of time and then they jump in a frozen lake. Some of the real keen ones then birch themselves with bits of tree.

Well, I did that. All of that. I did it in the reverse order.

So that party was not as I had feared taking place inside the sauna, it was just that there was a sauna in the party location, which took some time to get to the lobster-boiling temperatures the Finns like. At some point someone rushed in and said there was a lake a short walk away. A party full of drunk improvisers, is going to find a lot of people who say “yes” to the craziest of suggestions, and so before we realised it, a group of us were heading down towards the lake with the intention to jump in.

So on the way to the lake, through the trees, someone pushed a branch aside that thwacked me in the face. I didn’t realise it then, but that was the start of the Reversed Finnish Sauna Ritual. I’d been birched.

There is a sting after a twig thwacks you across the flesh, but after that sting is the feint pleasure of relief as the pain ebbs away.

When we got to the lake, we threw off the raiments of mortal men and jumped. This act was dubbed Finny Dipping by international improv playboy Jstar Atlanta.

It was damn cold as you’d expect, but when you’re with a group of people all doing the same, you share that suffering. I was determined to not tough it out. I grimaced and watched as other people left the water until I realised the Finns were still in the water, and not only enduring it, but loving it. They were frolicking and splashing each other. It was time to leave. I was, however the last non-Finn to do so, so there.

When you get out of the water, the relief is amazing. It feels so good that the freezing water is no longer surrounding your lower parts.

People of the Lake. This is 1 am.

When we got back to the party, the sauna was at full furnace. Several Finns tried to convince me to get in. I told them it was not my thing. “I have been in a sauna before.” “A Finnish sauna?” “Well, no…” That was it. I could not convince anyone after than I knew what it was like because a Finnish sauna is different to other saunas. I assume the same way that a French firing squad, for example, is different to a firing squad from any other country. There is a clear difference to students of the whole firing squad ethos, but to the person being pointed at by all those guns, the difference is not apparent.

So I was convinced. I debriefed once more and got in. Yes it was hot. Way hotter than any sauna I’d been in before. The Finns like it hot. It explains that old classic movie, “Suomi Like It Hot.”

As soon as I was in, someone said, “okay, nobody leave for 10 minutes. It’s not warm enough.” NOT WARM ENOUGH!! It was the temperature of an angry sun in there.

But, I held out; I did my time and even went back for a little more, later.

Now, the feeling you get getting out of the steaming room into the (relatively) cool air is amazing. That relief is pure joy.

Finnish pleasure seems to be all about experiencing the extreme and then the pleasure you get from leaving it. I began to think that maybe the Finns don’t really like death metal. They go every weekend to a festival and listen to it for 3 days and then when the come back, put on the radio and listen to some cheery, cheesy Scandinavian pop it feels AMAZING.

The antidote to Death Metal?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Train of Thrones

Brussels isn’t really that far from Amsterdam. It’s an hour and a half on the fast train, and 3 hours on the cheap one which seems to stop at every farm on the way. In fact if a cow stands still near to the track, the train slows down in case it has a ticket.

Thalys is the service which runs the fast train. It’s French, so the ‘h’ is only hinted at or mimed and so it sounds like Talece, who I am sure was a character on Game of Thrones. The logo seems to be deliberately sphynx-like.

Thalys seems to massively oversell its tickets so much so that you can pay all that extra cash for the fast train and end up with no where to sit. The only warning you get about this is after they have taken your money. They add matter-of-factly, "oh, by the way you don't have a seat. Bummer." (I'm paraphrasing.) And I wasn’t alone. The train was full of people with refugee status. People who have to move on every time someone appears with a ticket for the seat they are in. They are made to feel like third class citizens in a second class carriage.

Why they have to be so duplicitous about it I don't know. Tell me before hand, maybe offer refugee tickets for a much cheaper price. But don't charge me full whack and do the internet equivalent of muttering under their breath.

It makes me wonder what sort of people ride the Thalys. Well, the answer is short people. The seats on Thalys trains all have foot rests in front of them, attached to the back of the chairs. Down, they reach half-way to the floor, and so are of no use to anyone over 4 foot. This would be fine, because the leg rest folds up out of the way. Except that it doesn’t fold up out of the way, it folds up but sticks out. It’s not in the way for short people, but tall people, such as myself, will have the this thing digging in their upper shins for 90 minutes. Or they can put it down and put their feet on it, but then have their knees in their face.

I don’t know who Talece was in Game of Thrones, but she is almost certainly a dwarf, hobbit or orc and, statistically, she was definitely killed of at least a season ago.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Great British Game Shows

The person who finds the next big game show format will be rewarded with great wealth and much public derision. Accepting that there will be derision allows you to dispense with shame and allow yourself to be inspired wherever you are. At some time, one keen production company bod was on holiday on the British coast and came up with Tipping Point. Tipping Point is a game show based on those annoying coin machines at seaside arcade; the ones when you drop coins onto moving shelves hoping to displace even more coins than you put in. It’s all made exciting by the soundtrack from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” which is a show based on an old Abbott and Costello routine.

Other popular British game shows are Deal Or No Deal (which is the dramatisation of those logic problems where you have to work out which is the best choice in a highly contrived situation), Pointless (which celebrates the knowledge of stuff everyone else has forgotten), and Countdown (which is officially the politest TV show ever, with a please-thank-you-to-minute ration higher than any other probably because the audience base was born in the 1940s).

So, I’m creative, I’m sure I can come up with a game show. Here’s my list of formats I’m working on:
  • Gin Rummy
  • Golf War
  • The Great Psychaedelic Cheesecake Badger Horse Challenge
  • To Bee or Not To Bee
  • Rape or Pillage

Look out one for these soon.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Career Plan 9 From Outer Space

You have to feel a bit sorry for this guy. Gregory Walcott, who died recently at 87, was an actor who is pretty much only known for his role in the so-called worst movie of all time.

Walcott was in a few other movies, some of which you’ll (also) have heard of, and worked with some top directors, but on his way up, he reluctantly took one job that was to haunt him for the rest of his days. Normally when that happens the movie in question is porn or nazi propaganda or, worse still, both. But in this case it was neither, it was just another B-movie. Tons of such cheaply-put-together movies were made during the fifties. They still are being made to some extent. These are what used to be straight-to-DVD. Now they are probably straight-to-YouTube.

This is definitely a classic of the genre of terrible B-Movie. It is poorly written, badly acted, its production values are definitely shoddy, and it was made on the kind of budget you find down the back of a sofa. But what sets it a little bit apart is that it was the last movie of Bela Lugosi, who went from a top actor and heartthrob in Hungary to being king of terrible, cheap movies. In fact, this film is quite special in that Bela Lugosi was billed as the star even though he was dead before it came to be made. In fact the the movie was made around some footage shot for a different project before he died.

But let’s be honest, this isn’t really the worst movie ever made. It might be the most entertaining bad movie ever made, but there are worse movies. Basically because it isn’t boring. It has a zeal, which is one of the reasons it’s badness shines. It’s zeal comes because the director considered he was making a great epic picture. So much so, that the details of things such as wobbly sets and unconvincing dialogue could be glossed over. The greatness of the story is all.

There are movies I have switched off after no time at all because they are boring, I care about nobody and there is no entertainment value whatsoever. These terrible movies can still have high production values.

What is different about Gregory Walcott, is that it seems that most of the stars of an Ed Wood movie were on the way down on their career trajectory, but he was on his way up.

I think it’s a big fear for many performers to be remembered for the one thing you are not proud of. You see it often with musicians who are haunted by a big cheesy hit that is misrepresentative of them as performers. It haunts them. People demand they play it whenever they perform live. It’s the song that brings them the most riches, yet they resent it more and more each year.

Gregory Walcott certainly didn’t get rich from being in Plan 9 From Outer Space. He was talked into doing it and presumed it would disappear like so many other such movies. But it hasn’t. And it probably won’t. It’s one of my favourite movies in one of my favourite genres. Bad, 50s sci-fi B-movies were the movies I would sneak up late at night to watch, back in the days when you had to watch stuff when it was broadcast. Later I’d video them. Nowadays, I just search on YouTube - most of them are there.

I think the lesson here might be to be careful which projects you hang your name on, but that’s not always so easy to know. There are plenty of movies that looked like they would be great on paper, but the results were anything other. And any of those could become infamous. No, the lesson is more like, as Mr Walcott also acknowledged, that you have to be prepared that sometimes things outside of your control can take on a life of their own. You can only accept it. It’s a lesson the also recently departed Leonard Nimoy learnt over time with regarding his forever being identified as Spock. And at least the idolatry of Spock is nearly all positive; Plan 9 From Outer Space will not easily be beaten as the worlds most entertaining bad movie.

Anyway that’s what I think happened. In the words of Criswell, Plan 9’s narrator and psychic, “Can you prove it didn’t happen?” Yes, you probably can.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Travel Sweden Feb 2015 part 2: More on Uppsala and Television

It used to be, in the old days, you wouldn't leave the hotel for fear of hostile natives. Now you don't leave the hotel because you don't want to lose wifi. It's called progress. 
Uppsala is a small town dominated by a university and a cathedral.

University building: 4 people in this picture are statues.
Maths ball on top of university building.
Whilst the cathedral is big and impressive, the university has many buildings and some are quite intriguing. I’m not sure if the university and the cathedral have some sort of rivalry. It’s easy to imagine they do as they kind of represent opposing forces. Although they are both about receiving knowledge, how this knowledge is discovered is wildly different.
Something pink poking out of the undergrowth.
Also competing for dominance of the town is a large castle (or slott, as the very satisfying Swedish word for it is). It sits on a hill and tries to look all buff, but it's a bit too pink and phallic to be taken seriously. And not phallic in an imposing way, more of a comical way. It’s possibly a bit too short and squat to really do that dominance thing. How the castle really exerts is authority is by having six old cannons all trained on the church. It clearly isn’t worried about the university.
"Your move, God!"

Uppsala also has some theatres. But its rare for a city’s theatres to be the dominant force. The theatre I was there to play in (see my impro blog later for more details) was the Regina Theatre which is apparently famous (in part) because a well-known actor once died on stage there. I had always thought given the general state and intensity of most actors, that every stage everywhere had had some actor of note keel over on it at some point. Maybe it happens less than I expect. (As ever, Wikipedia already has a list of these things)

This relationship is clearly not working.
I think it seems a big thing for me because some big names in comedy history from my own country have died on stage or in front of the camera. Most notably Sid James, Tommy Cooper and Marty Feldman. If you don’t know who they are then I don’t know what they are teaching in schools these days.
Early attempt to create android.
From the theatre, one moves easily up or down (depending on your leanings) to the television. Sweden is like the Netherlands in that all foreign shows are subtitled rather than dubbed. It’s probably one of the reasons why Swedes speak English more good that what many of us does.

Every country has TV gems in the department of “what the hairy Jesus was that?” Sweden is no exception. The gem here is “Hasselhoff - en svensk talkshow.” If any of those words need translating, it’s “svensk” which means Swedish. If you need Hasselhoff translating, you have not been paying attention at all in celebrity culture classes, which is not necessarily a bad thing. So this show is exactly what you are thinking it is: a talk show on Swedish television hosted by David Hasselhoff. Now it sounds on paper like it could be a fun, kitsch idea, and its clear that this is what it’s meant to be. Unfortunately with its painfully flat jokes, lame pranks and just all around feeling of awkwardness, it’s not fun. At least based on the half a show I saw. Watch it here:

Not to suggest the Swedes are obsessed with kitch (as it’s me who’s pointing these things out and so that is probably where the problem lies) but the big thing on TV the weekend I was there was the Eurovision Song Contest heats. One of a series of 4 heats to determine which of the nation’s musical talents would go to represent them at the Eurovision Song Contest proper.

The Swedes are almost Eastern European in their appreciation of this event. Even for the heats, there were groups of people walking around town dressed up like British hen parties because they were on their way to a Eurovision party.

In the heat I saw, there was a broad selection: an old-style crooner; a young guy who sang country-infused guitar pop; a singer from the world of musicals; a nightclub soul singer;  a loud, blond woman who sang over the top of some 90s dance track; a band of cheeky, fresh-faced boys; and a man so obsessed with the 80s he could have been the very ghost of Limahl.

Some of them went through to the next round and one of them may have even won and can be seen at the Eurovision final. But as with football and porn, if it’s not happening right there in front of me, I really don’t care.

In case you think Sweden is kitsch and behind the times,
here is a poster I found in the theatre.
Now, I should really get out of this hotel.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Travel: Sweden Feb 2015 part 1: Where did you land? Arlanda in Sweden (and other Marx Brothers routines)

Stockholm's Arlanda airport is located amidst what appears to be a wasteland. Or perhaps any part of the airport land not directly used for airport business is basically neglected or worse still, dumped upon.
The airport is very biased towards people going to Stockholm. Even though it's closer to other places, such as Uppsala which is where I was heading. There are 3 ticket machines in the baggage claim hall of terminal 2, all of which sell tickets to Stockholm and no place else.
In fact it was only recently that you could get the train direct to Uppsala without first going to Stockholm, even though the former is a 3rd of the distance of the latter. It's called Stockholm Syndrome where a piece of land appropriated from one region becomes besotted with the area that appropriated it.

I took the bus to Uppsala. It takes as long as the slow train does to Stockholm, but it goes overground so you can see more trees than you ever thought possible to see in one day. It's also cheaper. It's expensive by worldwide standards, but cheaper than the train. From now on I will only use the comparatives "cheaper than" and "more expensive than." Assume everything is expensive in a general sense unless told otherwise.
Between the trees there are the occasional areas of industrial interest or green fields where crops of old style farmhouses have been planted. Sometimes a few houses pack together to protect themselves from wind and wolves.
There are patches of snow dotted about which I assume aren't permanent, but maybe that are.

The bus calls in at Uppsala Business Park on its way, which is another reason I like buses. They don't skirt the everyday parts of town where tourists don't go or put a gloss on it. Bus journeys of more than 20 minutes seldom leave you with the impression that a town is entirely quaint. Unless that's all a town is, in which case it survives on tourism and crime alone.
The centre of Uppsala is definitely attractive. It's wide but low old buildings and spacious streets give the impression of space. (Space, as in room to move rather than the place where the stars are. And by which I don't mean Hollywood. )
Architectural students will tell you lots about the types and styles of buildings you can see there, all I can say is "nice," and "they make pleasant things to walk around amongst." But I say the same thing about trees and vintage aircraft. Except that 15-year-old me could name every single one of those aircraft. 15-year-old me wasn't the hit with the girls you would have expected.

From memory of a glimpse of Google maps, I managed to find the hostel which impressed me. Uppsala was already easier to find your way around than the airport. I presume the airport takes after Stockholm rather than its closer neighbour (see earlier paragraph). I don't know yet as I haven't been to Stockholm. I'll hopefully let you know later.
The hostel is quite large for a hostel and definitely cheaper than Swedish hotels. But there are places in the world where the comparison between Swedish hostels and local hotels is not so favourable.
The beds in the hostel are some of the narrowest I've encountered. I think it's to stop the old backpacker trick of booking a single room and trying to sleep 2 (or more) people in it. They had better be supermodel thin and not mind waking up with foreign limbs in alien places.
With the rooms so sparse and the bed so small and basic, I knew if I stayed there too long without going out and seeing people, I'd start to love it there in that room and never want to leave. Because that's how Stockholm Syndrome works. Even in Uppsala.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Less of a Bite

Two days ago, a very polite older gentleman and his lovely assistant performed a conjuring trick in my mouth. They made 2 of my teeth disappear. By the power of magic. Well perhaps not magic. More by the power of pulling, sawing, cracking, pulling, sawing, cracking, pulling, pulling and more pulling.

The magic comes, I guess, from how tiny the tools are. Little,  mini drills and super-small saws. Well they seem small when you look at them. When you only sense them when they are in your mouth, with your eyes tightly shut to keep out the thought of pain, they feel huge. They are then like an enormous road drill with hammer action and a massive chain saw. And that suction thing is like a giant pipe connected to an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner. You wonder how all that can fit in your mouth. Then I recall my mouth isn’t the smallest on record. I come from Dartford, birthplace of Mick Jagger, it might be genetic. A drunk friend once told me it looked like I had a flip-top head. I still to this day have not thanked her. Or fully forgiven her.

The two teeth I had removed were wisdom teeth. These are the useless teeth at the back that exist only to be pulled out once you hit 35. I don't know if they are named because like wisdom itself you don't really know if you have it until it is too late. Or maybe they are named after Norman Wisdom, a British actor who played bumbling, ineffective characters who caused nothing but pain to those all around him. But most likely is that “wis” is the sound a tiny circular saw looming large in your mouth and the “dom” is the sudden sound a tooth makes when it’s cracked in two after being sawed most of the way through. It’s a crisp, nut-cracking sound that echoes throughout the dome of your mouth.

I’m now on some pretty strong, hippo-strength painkillers, so mostly my mouth is numb. It’s a good time for me to go and pick a fight, I reckon. Still get beaten, but won’t feel much. That is until the painkillers wear off.

I’ve been spending the time watching old videos of magicians. Now I know how they work, I’m looking to see that moment when David Copperfield, somehow without us seeing, pulled and sawed and cracked and pulled and sawed and cracked and pulled and pulled and pulled until the Statue of Liberty was nothing but a gaping hole in the gums of New York.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Happy New Year (contents may be different to those advertised)

Many of you might have read my diatribe against the Christmas song. I spent Christmas in the United Kingdom (which is barely united these days and actually a queendom, but whatever). I was confronted by plenty of Christmas songs during this trip. The UK (or 'U'Q as it should be called) is somewhat obsessed with Christmas songs. As a conglomerate of countries, we lap them up. I always assumed the US gets more obsessed with Christmas than we do, but in terms of the songs about the season, the UK is barely short of insane.

Every artists is compelled (possibly by law, I haven't checked) to release a Christmas song (or even album). It is, after all, the spiritual home of Sir Cliff Richard, the so-called Peter Pan/Dorian Gray of pop. A performer so apparently wholesome he could be called the Anti-Ozzy.

Cliff's last album was a croc.
There are some bands in the 'U'Q who find their career leads them down a path where they become known as Christmas bands and people forget anything they do or did that was not Christmas related. The archetype here is Slade, who are now only known for their Christmas hits, despite a previously extensive career outside of December. But then the step from big-chorused, glitter-fuelled glam rock to sing-along, tinsel-covered Christmas pop is not a big one.

So growing up, I heard a lot of these festive songs and learned to despise their near-manic cheerfulness. It doesn't help that my mum loves them all, especially if they are by the aforementioned Mr Richard, and loved to play them constantly in the run-up to the day itself.

Slade are not ashamed of their Christmas band status.
Not even slightly. Youcan try to make them ashamed
but they won't hear of it.

I missed Christmas Eve in the office, but apparently the office manager played Christmas songs all day. It's hearing things like that that make you realise why so many people go berserk in the workplace taking out a few colleagues with them. It was especially prevalent in the US post office, hence the expression "going postal" to mean to take a gun into work and decorate the place with your colleagues' innards. When you are delivering packages all year round it must feel like every day is Christmas, so you can understand it.

I was, however, in the office for New Year's Eve, and as a treat, the office manager promised to play New Year's songs for the last 2 hours of the workday. I was not looking forward to it.

I had assumed New Year's songs are like Christmas songs, although none came to mind. I spent the day trying to only think about work and secretly polishing my M16 assault rifle.

But I needn't have worried. New Year's songs are not the relentlessly chirpy songs that Christmas brings, they are an altogether different breed. They are far from chirpy, they are depressing. Which is great. I love depressing songs. Nothing makes me happier than a song about impending planetary doom or not getting over the fling from 17 years ago.

New Year's songs have lyrics like "So this is the new year / And I have no resolutions / For self assigned penance / For problems with easy solutions" – Death Cab For Cutie ("The New Year") and "What's another year for someone who's lost everything that he owns " - Johnny Logan ("What's another year"). Awesome.

Even Auld Lang Syne, the song traditionally sung at New Year's, especially in the UK, is basically a song remembering how great things use to be. In fact, the original poem by Robert Burns is about old love gone very cold. Remember that then 2015 decides to sod off and leave you all alone  in about a years time.

Abba did so much work in the 1970s to make people
aware of the plight of turkeys at Christmas time.
"But, hang on," people usually blurt out at this point in my rant, "what about 'Happy New Year,' by Abba." Well it certainly sounds like an upbeat song, but it isn't really. If Abba are the kings and queens of anything it might be making bouncy songs out of less than upbeat themes. For a classic example see "Waterloo" which is a very bouncy song but is basically equating love to one of the most famous battlefield defeats in European history.

Likewise, I defy you to get hold of the lyrics to "Happy New Year" (they're here), read them aloud as if it were a poem and tell me that is a happy song. For a highlight see: "Seems to me now / That the dreams we had before / Are all dead, nothing more / Than confetti on the floor."

So, in summary, this last month, I have learnt (a) of the existence of the genre of New Year's songs, (b) M16s are a lot heavier than they seem in the movies, and (c) I might have a secret soft spot for Abba.

The culmination of this paean has to be some classic Scandinavian on Scandinavian action, perfectly illustrating why Abba's lyrics are often simply in the wrong genre

So, anyway, Happy New Year! And you can take that any way you want.

PS as a bonus, here's the first draft of my New Year's song...

As the rockets shoot up,
My heart shoots down.
There are 20,000 people,
but you're not around.

Its the end of the year.
Another year without you.

There's a Chinese lantern,
Caught by the breeze,
Lost in the sky,
A dying light in the freeze.

Its the end of the year.
Another year without you.

And although I made up my mind,
This would be the year,
The year I'd pull through.
When you wish upon a million exploding stars,
There's no chance,
That any of your wishes will come true.

Its the end of the year.
A send off with a cheer
But it's the start of a year...
Another year without you.

Friday, December 26, 2014

We Want Information (Christmas Travel and Technology 2014)

In this modern era, technology gets information to us at a phenomenal rate. The main problem is that it gets correct information to us at exactly the same rate and in the same manner as incorrect information. In fact, nowadays, incorrect information can be beamed straight from the source of that misinformation direct to the phone sitting in your pocket. It's never been so easy to lie to or misinform so many people so convincingly. Believe me, smart phones will bring about more religions, not less. Notice that even the most fanatical religious people pray far less than most of us check our phones.
We were running a little behind schedule. Partly because we had to leave super-detailed instructions for our cat sitter, who I assume is some sort of robot, as I have never seen her/him/it. So when my baapp, or whatever the British Airways app is called, gleefully told us that our flight was going to leave 90 minutes later than the sages had originally predicted, we took this as providence and proof that we should hold off from worry.

We decided to take our time. If we hadn't been worried about meeting up with the cat sitter, who I guess must have laser eyes and would vaporise any non-cat creatures she might see upon entry, we would have hung about for an hour, but instead we just sauntered to the metro.

Sitting leisurely on the train, we rechecked our compact guru who was eager to inform us that the flight was now on time. On time! We were in saunter mode, planning to roll up to the gate at our leisure, well in time for a very delayed flight, but now we were the ones running behind.

I think the lesson here is always have a deep seated distrust of technology.

As it happens, the plane did end up being delayed by 20 minutes, so our arrival was not as tight as we had feared. But we were worried most of the way. And because our original plan allowed plenty of extra time to allow for delays in reprogramming the cat sitter.

Well I say 20 minutes delayed. They told us ten minutes but they started boarding 20ish minutes later. And once on board, we had to wait for a gap in the constant stream of planes and a let up in the wind that was causing all this chaos.

We, in fact, got off lightly. There were flights delayed even more than we had been originally told. Planes from the morning were still waiting to leave 3 hours later. The whole board was lit up like a Christmas tree, with baubles replaced by a rubicated "Delayed."

"Rubicated" is the dictionary word of the day and it means "marked or coloured with red." At least that's what my phone says and so it quite likely means something more like, "to be ridiculed and humiliated by a bunch of refined metals and micro-engineered plastics in what is increasingly looking like a concerted pre-takeover plot."

Yes, I know that sounds paranoid, yes, I do believe it's all part of some technological conspiracy and, yes, I do think the cat sitter is in on it too.

Ding Dong - The Horror of Christmas Music

Christmas has descended upon us like a plague of tinselly locusts.

At the airport, 3 young ladies in narrow, red dresses were harmonising closely the song Silent Night. (Or "Spent Might" as my phone suggested the song be spelled.) They were very good and Spent Might is one of the least awful Christmas songs, but still this whole endeavour was indicative of the fact that absolutely everything at this time of year has to be tinsellated or Christmasified or ensantanated or whatever it's called.

Every shop becomes a shrine to glitter. Every TV show will have a Christmas special featuring expensive guest stars and more whimsy than a castle full of fairy princesses. Anything that can broadcast any form of sound is forced to transmit non-stop seasonal songs. And if there is enough space for it, people will be forced into herds and made to sing these songs. As witnessed with the red dressed trio at Schiphol. Many of them seem very happy to do it, but I presume they have family members being threatened and if they stop smiling, an uncle will be shot.

I'm not generally a curmudgeon, but there are some things that really do bug me. And Christmas music really does bug me. In fact, the moment I first heard the Coldplay Christmas song (or "a" Coldplay Christmas song as there may be more than one), I very nearly went on a shooting spree.

What's funny is that there are people out there who like Christmas songs. I've met them. People who otherwise seem to be rational, intelligent human beings. People who at other times of the year could be people I'd be more than happy to hang out with. But for several weeks of the year, a sort of mania sets in and they actively wish to hear these tunes. These songs so cheesy it's like Christmas is just one big, giant cracker; songs so cliched it's like the whole season is a direct-to-youtube action movie sequel; songs so joyful, they are clearly hiding some inner trauma.

So, although these three red-bound women at Schiphol taken on their own, are a nice diversion, they are the shiny tip of the great, bloated, glistening corpse of a semi-musical whale that is dredged up every December.

Well, that's a glimpse into my head this time of year. I wish all of you seasons greetings, but I do so in flat tone, with absolutely no musical accompaniment.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Keep On Moving

So, I’ve bought a house. 19-year-old me once swore to never be married, never have a mortgage and never eat muesli. 19-year-old me is now a ghost. He is as pale and deathly as he looked and was ribbed for all those years ago.

As the new place is smaller and we both have hoarder genes, we had to get rid of stuff before we moved. To some extent we were successful, however the move took about 10 times longer than estimated and we still turned up with a lot of seemingly unnecessary things, such as a million books; a box of assorted cables giving us the ability to connect any computer to any printer going back to, my guess is, 1976; and two cats. Yes, they came with us. I had suggested otherwise, but I was out-voted. Apparently the cats also have a say.

However, the first opinion of the little mites was that they hated the new place. Their immediate reaction was to run out the door and try to make their way back to the old place, just like in those old Disney animal odyssey movies. I hated those movies so I stopped them on the stairwell to save us having to go through all that.

The Dirty Dozen after a 1960s Disney rewrite.

So, while they hid, we piled up the boxes and worked out where everything should go. Where do you put a box of 40 years worth of printer cables? Especially as our printers are on the wifi now, so printer cables would seem to be obsolete. Still, supposing we suddenly had to connect a 1978 model DEC PDP-11 to a Mannesmann Tally dot-matrix printer from 1981? How do you propose we do that without a box of assorted printer cables? You guys haven’t thought this through.

It took 2 days to move our stuff and afterwards we were in that “just moved” state where you can’t find anything you need. There are efficient people who plan their packing and have all the essential stuff to hand once they’ve moved. Apparently. But who wants to meet those people? It’s quite frustrating knowing that in one of these boxes is the cutlery we need to eat our dinner; another box contains the pans required to cook that dinner. We couldn’t even find the cats who we need to complain to us whilst we try to eat. Then you start finding things and you move to that stage where you have almost the right thing, but not quite. After a few days of boiling water in a frying pan and eating everything with paper towels, you find a knife which gets used to do everything: stir coffee, screw together shelves, write notes.

Cubist Home.
Eventually, a sort of normality takes place. You have most of what you need, but missing a could of bare essentials, plus you have located some odd things that you may never need. You might not have a corkscrew, but you have the strange horse-shoe object someone got you as a present that you’ve never quite known what it does. You can’t staple papers together, but you can, of course, lay your hands on an RS232 cable.

Even the cats have emerged and decided they like the new place and feel confident enough to constantly mew for food as is their normal state. The number of boxes dwindles. Shelves appear and are filled with far too many books. Other furniture is assembled and soon the metaphorical welcome mat is dug out of the last box and placed before the door.

A new home is made. Everything has a place, even if it’s on the floor in the storage room. The cats mew their contentment by asking for more food. Being ignored, they trot off to play with their new toy, a mouse cable for a Babbage Difference Engine. We’re pretty sure we won’t be needing that anymore.

Some cable.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

L'aƩroport et la haine

I always used to love hanging round airports. I would always leave plenty of time to have a stress-free journey in and time to watch the world of airport life. Everything you have in the real world is in airports, just on a smaller scale and more expensive. There are people from all walks of life, except the very poor, all about to go somewhere for some reason worth the time, effort and money of travelling there. There is also a subtle air of panic because many of those people are running late and most of them have some vague sense of impending doom.

But I might be done with airports. Or maybe I'm done with Schiphol. Or maybe I'm done with killing time in the B gates area of Schiphol. It's hard to tell at this moment.

As I sit here, mustering thoughts, there is a constant barrage of announcements from a very proper Dutch lady and a girl who seems to be from Essex and occasionally a German man and a lively woman from Spain. They all seem to be having a competition to try and annoy me by announcing the same thing in as many different languages as possible.

In this day of personal communications there is no need for announcements. Everyone has a phone and the airlines probably have most people's numbers so don't annoy everyone, simply call Mr Bladeblah and tell him he is delaying the flight and to proceed to gate suchandsuch or you will offload his luggage. You can even email him a gif of the luggage guys rummaging around the hold searching for his bags.

I'm particularly annoyed because I was on the way to a festival for a show and the rescheduled flight arrives a good couple of hours after we're due on stage for our first show. And instead of the time we'd be getting to meet the other people at the festival and getting to know the place, we'll be stuck in the airport, listening to how much of a dick Mr Blahdeblah is. And when we should be on stage, we'll be sitting in a different airport in a different city waiting for a flight connection.

They have been trying to placate us with vouchers for the unlikely price of 14.95 (vouchers should be whole-numbers, surely). Now 14.95 can get you a very reasonable lunch outside in the real world. But in Airportopia, it gets you a sandwich, drink and a muffin that disintegrates the moment you try to store it anywhere.

And it's not like there is any good reason for al this. The original plane we were hoping to catch was diverted to Brussels due to mist. Not thunderstorms, not hurricanes, not even fog, but mist. I thought most modern planes could cope with mist. But then I don't know how modern Estonian Air planes are. I am now expecting some cut-price copy of a cold-war-era Boeing with a wet sock where the radar should be. Still, I expect we'll get some exercise giving it a push-start down the runway.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

It’s A Man’s Wind

A little while back, I saw this article in the Washington Post about how people don’t take as much precautions when a hurricane is named after a woman as when it’s name after a man. It seems because people don’t feel threatened by a woman. My first thought was, isn’t this a subtle way of reducing the number of sexists in the world? But then I also thought, is it actually sexist to think of women less likely to cause harm to the world, when statistically it’s true. Whether that’s something to do with the nature of the female of the species or the fact that they don’t usually get too much chance to get to a position where they can do too much damage is up for discussion. But this latest research seems clear: women are perceived as less of a threat than men. My second thought was to use this information to make people take the appropriate amount of precaution. So we name our hurricanes according to how bad we’ll think they’ll be.

Benign storms can get “little old lady” names like Gladys or Martha. Then, building up through increasingly macho names as the storms get more dangerous. The very top rung we can pull out another prejudice and use foreign-sounding names. Just to instill a bit more fear into the general public. Thus Ramon or Abdullah would be great names for dangerous hurricanes in the US. The trouble is, this doesn’t simply use established stereotypes and prejudices for a practical purpose, it also helps to reinforce them. (Plus, people in ethnic groups where these names are more common, won't prepare as well.)

Meteorologists deny that Hurricane Bertha caused by Bermuda setting light to a fart.

So maybe we should take it away from the world of human names and use other categories to name them. Maybe it’s animals that we should use. Our fear of animals tends to be related to actually how dangerous they are (well, somewhat). So we can base the name on how deadly the species is. Thus Hurricane Mouse is nothing compared to Hurricane Shark. Hurricane Wombat would be quite small and Hurricane Boa Constrictor would be pretty darn big. And you should all run and hide when you hear Hurricane Mosquito is coming. Seriously, look those statistics up.

Or maybe we should use movies. Small hurricanes can be named after classic, friendly movies you see at Christmas or on Wednesday afternoons, but the really big ones can be named after video nasties. Hurricane I Spit On Your Grave or Hurricane Texas Chainsaw Massacre are definitely ones to hide from. But you can probably go for a walk during Hurricane Lassie Come Home.

*Woof Woof*

What's that Lassie? There's a storm coming? What's it called?

*Woof Woof Woof Woof *

Hurricane Ramon and Abdullah Kill Dismembered Slut Spiders and Drink Your Blood! We'd better hide.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Hup Hamsters Hup!

Albert Heijn is the biggest supermarket chain here in the Netherlands [1]. Their shops are everywhere and their numbers are increasing. It used to be that every time a building was left abandoned here, after a few months it would be a squat. Well, the times are a changing and now every time a building is left abandoned, it becomes an Albert Heijn.

Albert Heijn is mid-to-high range in terms of its produce. It's not super-fancy but it's higher than most. The Dutch don't tend to go for fancy, so anything that tries a little harder than filling a few shelves with tins is already creeping up the fancy list.

By the way, Heijn is pronounced Hine but with a diphthong meaning you should pronounce it something like Hy-een, but you'll get by with Hine and nobody needs to strain themselves.

If Albert Heijn can be said to have any sort of mascot its hamsters. For a few weeks of the year, they have hamsterweken (hamster weeks), where you are encouraged to stock up on things and stuff your larders the way hamsters stuff their cheeks.

Obviously the hamsters are cute, plentiful, have lots of character and are always getting up to antics. They are not unlike the minions from Despicable Me, which is all about devious masterminds who want to take over the world, so the comparison is highly apt.

For the world cup, Albert Heijn has been working hard in his laboratory breeding a new strain of orange-dressed hamsters that are obsessed with the world cup. They even stowed away on a plane and then a coach to get to Brazil to bother the Dutch world-cup team who should have been preparing for the game [2]. So far it doesn't seem to have affected the team's performance.

I am really not sure that the mascot for a major food retailer should be a rodent. I would say supermarkets in general should stay away from making any reference to anything related to mice, rats or things of that ilk.

But now that Albert Heijn have gone that route – and very successfully as everyone loves these little fellers and kids want to collect the whole world cup range [3] – is it time for other supermarkets to follow suit?

I can see C1000 going with kakkerlakkenweken (cockroach weeks) featuring a band of cute, animated 6-legged, trouble makers led by the enigmatic Kokkie de Kakkelak, burrowing into sacks of rice and surviving nuclear attacks.

And Aldi's new campaign, "maand van de vliegen" (month of the flies), with a three minute ad where a bunch of anthropomorphic, flying insects get stuck on a remote island and try to rule themselves with comical results.

I'm looking forward to all this. But I'm laying down here and now the ultimate marketing challenge to a supermarket chain – the one thing we truly fear about supermarkets and shopping malls: I challenge a store to start a long-term campaign featuring as its mascot, a bunch of zombies. The time is right – Zombie TV shows are more popular than they've ever been, people have more sympathy for traditionally unlikeable characters than ever before, and of course the zombie apocalypse itself is closer than it's every been. So there's my challenge, I'll be here waiting, in the meantime, here's some journalist rodents in the field...


Thursday, July 03, 2014

Operating Conditions

I've just installed an old computer from scratch. It's not difficult these days. I remember when it was, but nowadays, you throw in a DVD or what-have-you, leave it for a surprising amount of time and then fill in the time, place and inside leg measurement, then have it reboot two dozen times and it's away. But I have 2 things that are bugging me and need to vent about:

1) Virus scanner – whilst I appreciate the keenness, I'm pretty certain my computer hasn't got a virus unless you consider Windows itself a form of virus, which is arguable, so you don't need to jump in and insist on a full system scan right off the bat. At least wait until I've connected to my first Russian porn site, please.

2) Windows/Toshiba – I've installed nothing but the operating system and whatever stuff you think I might need and bundled with it, I've installed nothing extra or copied any of my own stuff to it, how come the virus scanner has to look through 180,000 files. That seems an unnecessarily huge number. I'm pretty sure the installation would take less time and the computer would run faster with a lot less than that. I'm pretty sure there's some unnecessary stuff in there. That pop-up that shows me the latest Toshiba products. I'm sure I don’t need that. That stupid block on the side with an AOL button and a 'shopping guide!' Not necessary for my daily existence, thank you. Yes, I think a bit of weeding might make the whole thing a much better experience on all fronts. 180,000 files! Oh yeah, and not one of them has a virus.

Vent over, you can all go about your business.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Battle with a Boots self-service checkout.

Picture via the awesome
Boots self-service checkout: "Please place scanned item in the bags provided."

*Us struggling to open cheap plastic bag*

Boots self-service checkout: "Please place scanned item in the bags provided."

*Us struggling to open cheap plastic bag*

Boots self-service checkout: "Please place scanned item in the bags provided."

*Finally succeeding to open cheap plastic bag and put the item in it.*

Boots self-service checkout: "Unexpected item in bagging area."

Artificial intelligence it ain’t.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Your Attention Please

About fifteen years ago, the greatest band that ever existed split up. My childhood was over. Not that I was even remotely a child then, and not that that’s been a part of my childhood. They’d just been the greatest band that ever existed and they’d split up. And your childhood can end at any time. I was lucky mine had lasted so long.

But although you can never recapture your childhood, bits of it can return. You can’t experience in the same way those early emotional discoveries: those long car journeys with the stereo blaring out “Don’t forget the alcohol!” as if you were ever likely to being a young adult in a beer obsessed country; or that first time listening the freshly-purchased Gentlemen whilst lying on the mattress on your floor because beds were for those people who could be bothered to go out and buy them. No modern experience can adequately recreate those exciting days of youth. All experiences are now tempered with wisdom, flavoured with the bitter aftertaste of accumulated failure and slowed down by the fact your body no longer just consists of skin and bone, but there is somehow some fat there as well. And don’t get me started on gray hairs.

To find that not only has the greatest band that ever existed come back together, they are recording new songs again. Maybe they’ll never achieve the peaks that allowed you to glimpse What Jail is Like, but maybe they will. That fact that one bit of your childhood, that happened way after your childhood, has reassembled can only mean hope. Hope that music will once again be holy and that your body can once more be that unusual shade of a bit too lean you got used to over all those years.

It’s been a while since I preordered anything. That requires optimism. Maybe mine’s back. I’m going to leave you with the song that made me start writing all this. Goodnight.


Monday, January 06, 2014

Guardian Seinfeld interview

Jerry Seinfeld on how to be funny without sex and swearing, how his approach to comedy is more like being a sportsman and a few other things

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Report under fire

Right now, the city of Amsterdam is under attack. Judging by the munitions, I can only assume by a 13th century Chinese army. So far the army itself hasn’t been seen, but local spies, often children, are leading the attack. It started earlier in the day, but reached a peak at midnight. “Awe and Awe” seems to be the predominant tactic. I’d take to the streets to repel them, but they planned the attack on the very day they knew too many of us would have too much to drink. These 13th century Chinese armies are super canny. I’m going to go to bed and tomorrow herald our new Chinese overlords. I hope they need comedians who know 16 words of Mandarin. Happy 2014, year of the Horse.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Texas, Dec 2013 pt 2: Airborne Entertainment Review

The plane for the London to Dallas leg of the trip was a super-modern Boeing 777. Even in coach class they have power outlets, high-quality screens and a large selection of movies, TV shows and games. There’s even wifi if you want to pay for it.

I slept for a bit (to supplement the 1 hour I got the night before) and then watched some stuff. And because everything I do is just to have an excuse to blog, here’s tiny reviews of all of it.

I got to finally see Despicable Me (2010), which is an enjoyable take on the supervillain theme with the most adorable henchmen ever. Definitely aimed at pleasing kids but also at entertaining adults. It pleased and entertained me enough to forgive the schmaltziness. Kids love schmaltziness, I guess.

I also started and unexpectedly finished This Is The End (2013) which is like an updated version of those Hollywood Party movies they used to make in the 30s and 40s. In it a bunch of actors, all playing grotesque (probably) versions of themselves get caught up in the end of the world and have to redeem themselves to be able to get to Heaven (which is just a bland extension of the original party) . It’s a tongue-in-cheek light-hearted horror, and is pretty well done nonsense which goes on a little too long, but has some nice moments . I’d probably enjoy it a lot more if I really knew much about the actors in it. I’m so old fashioned I’m better off watching Hollywood Party At The End (1933).

I also watched some of the TV show The Mindy Project as I’ve been curious for a while, enjoying the eponymous creator very much. However I was disappointed, finding was trying a bit too hard and ending up a very standard sitcom. But one episode of a sitcom is not normally enough to form a proper judgement. But who has time for more these days?

Then I caught an episode of Big Bang Theory. I’ve not seen it for a while, and so wondered how it was faring. Sitcoms, if allowed to go on too long, have a tendency to become soap operas (or tragic parodies of themselves as with Happy Days, although Happy Days actually started out as a tragic parody of itself, so that’s a bad example). Friends definitely became a soap opera, and Big Bang Theory has already started that transformation. I guess it’s only natural. In human life, the 20s for many people is a sitcom, but by the 30s the sitcom has usually become a comedy drama, soap opera or outright drama.

The 20s for other people can be Intense Drama, Action Adventure or Monty Python Fan Sketch Recreation Show. I’m sure this isn’t the complete list.

Dr Who toys in Austin toy show.
Good to also see Dress-up Jesus making an appearance.
I also managed to catch up with a show I’ve managed to avoid (not deliberately) for a number of years, Dr Who. Dr Who is an eccentric, time-travelling problem solver. The problem is almost always alien-induced. The genre I would put as campy kids science fiction comedy drama (or sci fi pantomime). At least the comedy episodes are like that. As a kid it was the show that scared me the most. I think it would still be as the often ridiculous monsters are accompanied by genuinely scary music.

The innovation that Dr Who brought to TV shows that allows it to be one of the longest running shows ever, is that every now and again, when ratings, contract issues or simply the need for change require(s) it, the Doctor undergoes a regeneration (or recasting) where he transforms from one quirky Englishman to another. Dr Who is a Time Lord, which is somewhat below a Time Earl but above a Time Baronet. He travels all over the galaxy, but mostly England and planets that resemble the English countryside. I’m very gladdened that it has an increasing following in the US now - I saw plenty of toys in the toy stores, met a few fans and even found a poster for an improvised Dr Who show. I look forward to the remake with any of the cast of This Is The End with total nonchalance.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Ten amazing things you won’t believe because they aren’t true. And not really that believable. Please read this…

1. Cars are really trains that don’t run on tracks.
2. 4 pencils tied together are stronger than a diamond.
3. France wasn’t discovered until 1904.
4. What we think is paint is really an invocation to the god of that colour.
5. The Vatican is built on a giant Native American burial ground.
6. Humans can fly but the fact has been covered up by Boeing since 1956.
7. Monkeys know the Chilean national anthem by heart.
8. The first Moon landing was in 1968 but they forgot to bring the camera.
9. Long Tall Sally was only 4 foot 6.
10. Spiders have 2 legs and 6 arms but are too lazy to stand up.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Texas, Dec 2013 pt 1: Trains, Planes, Buses and Automobiles

Getting to the airport for 6:30 sure is a rigmarole, but in some ways it’s worth it for how uncrowded and unrushed it is there. And getting there was only a rigmarole because we eschewed the convenience and expense of taking a taxi for risking life and limb on the night bus and train.

Night busses in Amsterdam are pretty similar to those in other cities around the world. They are infrequent, filled with people who are either drunk or who to or from arduous jobs or both, and they are driven by people who are desperately trying to get away from somewhere.

Quiet day at Amsterdam Schiphol airport by Maurice on Flickr

Most transportation systems require you to be in one of two states prior to embarkation - rushing all-out to catch it or waiting for it. Any trip that requires you to take a train, two buses, two planes and the world’s smallest Chevrolet (still bigger than most Fiats) certainly gives you the chance to experience both of these.

All flights begin with the Safety Rigmarole. It’s always been fascinating to me since the first time I heard it. In recent years, airlines have taken pains to make it more entertaining. BA’s has the usual dryish voice over, but instead of the normal shots of concerned extras, this features a plane full of cute, happy, multinational travellers animated in a briezy style. It even begins with a Save The Cat[™] moment, when the central stewardess character picks up a floppy piglet dropped by a kid.

American Airlines’ uses the style where every line is said by a different member of staff much beloved by appeal ads and has the added benefit of showing that American Airlines is an equal opportunity employer and their employees are very happy.

My seat on the BA flights had a mechanical fault so that it slowly reclined imperceptibly. I only noticed when the steward, who looked more like an old-school club comedian than a steward, told me to put my seat back up prior to take off. It might have been the reason the urchin behind me kept kicking my seat right in the small of the back. Had he a little bit of rhythm and pacing, it could have been quite theraputic, but the kid had no talent in that direction. And the kicking is not so hard that there is any chance the kid might grow up to become a footballer or nightclub bouncer. No, the kid just had persistence but no discernable talent. [Insert your own jobbist or celebrity-specific punchline here.]

The BA flight had only stewards. I’d never been on an all-male crewed flight before. It felt unexpectedly weird like an insight into an alternate universe. It’s nearly always mixed these days.

“Breakfast,” as the stewards called it, was a croissant shaped bun indecently forced apart by slices of cheese and ham, and one of those tubs of orange juice you only ever see on planes. On a flight this short, they barely have time to throw the food at you and then wrench the remnants from your bony grasp.

Heathrow at 9 am is the total opposite of Schiphol at 7 am. It’s so full of people that if you swung a cat, you’d hit a dozen people at least. We didn’t have a cat, so it was only a thought experiment, like Schrodinger’s Swinging Cat. Which states that you don’t know how many people a swung cat would hit until you swing the cat. Schrodinger’s many thought experiments are all tough on cats. He’s my favourite scientist.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Old Jokes, Old Battles

"Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I
said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me."
I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"

He said, "Yes." I said, "Are you a Christian, Jew or
Muslim?" He said, "A Christian." I said, "Me, too!
Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I
said, "Me, too! What franchise?" He said,
"Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or
Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist." I
said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said,
"Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great
Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist
Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative
Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!"

Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region
Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist
Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said,
"Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region
Council of 1912." I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over."

This is an old joke but it sums up something about inter-religious intolerance. In that it's often directed to those who are more like you than those who are very unlike you. But in fact this phenomenon goes far beyond religion. You see it in politics, somewhat. And you definitely see it in regional prejudices. The people that are hated in one country are not usually the people from the other side of the world, but usually the people in the country next door. And the reason for that hatred can often be traced back to an historical point of disagreement. It's quite common for people that once were united as one country to now hate each other's guts. Or at least be the butt of each other's jokes.

I would go so far as to say that most major supposed religious conflicts are not about the differences in religion at all but are territorial disputes. They may have become magnified because of the religious differences and because the religious differences aew used to define each side, but often the original dispute is about a pice of land. It 's usually made worse, of course, by something holy being on that piece of land.

The other key source of religious disputesis the one the joke reather nicely exposes. Some age-old decision about the interpretation of some vague or ill-translated statement. Again this is echoed in politics, as can be enjoyed any time Americans 'debate' whether they should arm themselves to the teeth or not.

I've always felt that politics and religion are not so very far from each other. They deal with very different parts of our lives, but they are both attract a similar range of fanaticism and a similar range of (un)willingness to listen to the other side.

It's the sort of thing that can be a bit despairing were there not jokes like these to help put things in perspective and realise you are not alone in thinking about despairing because someone must have written that joke.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Piet Moor

I wrote recently about how the debate here about Zwarte Piet, the blacked-up helper of Father Christmas’ granddaddy, and how it seemed more intense than earlier years. And I wasn’t kidding. It’s gotten so heated here the UN has gotten involved. As often happens when the UN gets involved, misunderstandings and miscommunications means that their presence has simply made things worse.

It’s very interested how heated it’s got. Based, as ever, on the fact that people rarely listen properly to people they don’t fully agree with. A lack of empathy and going on the defensive too quickly are the main causes of this. It’s like american politics where everybody shouts so loud they can’t even hear when the person they are shouting at is agreeing with them.

People are quite naturally defensive when something they had never considered anything other than a harmless children’s festival is being attacked and by association them with it.

As I said before, I think the days of blacking up to represent Piet are numbered, but obviously not going without a fight from those who don’t want to change any aspect of tradition.

If it doesn’t go, I have an alternative strategy. Introduce Witte Willem. Witte Willem is represented by non white actors, who white-wash their faces, put on blond floppy wigs, wear very tall clogs and pull long serious faces. They then say in slow, deep voices, things like “nou, zeg,” “he-hee,” and “dat is niet mogelijk.” They stare people blankly in their faces and coldly point out their faults. If someone says anything bodily function related they laugh very hard at it.

Sure, this isn’t most Dutch people, it’s a grotesque exaggeration of some of the stereotypical aspects of Dutch people presented in an offensive manner, but that’s the point.

Happy UN day.