Friday, December 30, 2005


I know from my work, new innovations usually hit the troops at the front last of all. Often even after customers hear of them. What do I mean? In my role as Telephone Support Engineer Sans Excellence, I have had people call me and say something like, “Can you tell me more about the Omnicrap OS?” To which I have replied that we have no such product only to be informed by said customer that only the day before no less a monster than our CEO had announced at a conference the imminent arrival of the Omnicrap OS. A little bit of searching around and fuel was added to that adage, “the customer is always right.” A week later, an email was sent round informing the support staff of the arrival of a new product, namely the Omnicrap OS, noting that we were expected to at least be aware of its existence. We should have been aware a week ago at least.

This is not a common occurrence at our company, it is in the world of travel that this sort of thing seems most common. I have twice tried new-fangled things endorsed by the airlines – most recently, checking in online. In this, you print your own boarding pass. But as you only have a bog-standard laser, inkjet or laser-jet printer, you cannot print anything that looks remotely like a boarding pass. It looks like a printout of a web site with some information about your flight on it. Consequently said piece of paper rather than being grasped with joy by all who encompass it, was stared at by the security guards at the gate as if I was trying to show a child’s drawing instead of my passport. The airline’s representative explained it to them but the fact was in the world of international passenger aviation, where security is supposed to THE NUMBER ONE THING OF IMPORTANCE after profits, people were not informed of a security-related change or addition which will affect them.

In the less rapidly-changing world of earth-bound transport, things are not much different. A local bus company, eager to get more people waiting at bus stops, issued free trial tickets to various surrounding businesses. Every single driver I (or any of my colleagues) showed these tickets to, stared at it. First as if I was mad; and then, having read what it said and seen his employer’s logo, he accepted it bemusedly. It seems that all it would have taken is one simple memo to the drivers’ Squadron Leader to inform his chaps to expect these things from customers and the whole thing would have been seamless. But consequently an attempt to improve the image of the company just made it look faintly incompetent.

But, of course, you are dying to know how online checking in worked for me? Aren’t you? Yes, of course you are...

Well, firstly it saves time once you arrive at the airport. You don’t queue up with the other plebs but go straight to the “Baggage Drop-Off Counter.” I went there to be told by a huffy girl, “this desk is closed.” But then she saw my printed boarding pass and that I was just dropping my luggage off. So she huffily took my bag and stuck the usual two metres of sticker to it, and told me where to go. Gate D22. But as that was all. It took slightly less time at the desk than normal. She also didn’t ask me whether I packed my bag myself or whether I had a knife, hand gun or explosive device. I assume that was stated on the website. Anyway, I had and I didn’t have any.

One nice feature of the online check-in is that you can change your seat using a little picture of the plane. Or at least it seemed a nice feature at the time. It didn’t work so well for me. I was allocated a window seat near the back, so I changed it for an aisle seat further forward. Unfortunately it didn’t give me any warning about who else was likely to take the seats around me, and I sat behind the kid who screamed all the way through the approach, setting off his sibling sitting next to him. I had placed myself in the kids section. It made the flight a little unpleasant, but it’ always good to remind yourself why breeding is best avoided. And it illustrated what I have always said, that there should be a clearly defined kids section on all flights. The hold springs to mind, but I am fine with just a cordoned off area of the plane. Seriously, I would rather sit in the smoking section than surrounded by screaming kids. Hell, I’d rather sit in the radioactive waste compartment.

To summarise: Employers, keep your staff informed; Airlines, all terrorists were once children, so don’t forget that kids are a security risk.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


If one was to compile a list of the most annoying animals ever, somewhere very near the top must come mosquitoes.
Benefits of mosquitoes: None.
Bad effects of mosquitoes: They spread malaria.
Things that mosquitoes do to irritate: buzz in your ear and bite your girlfriends.

For me the biting of mosquitoes is not the thing I detest them for. Mainly because they don’t seem to like my thin, tasteless blood. I don’t often get bitten. In fact, if I am sharing a bed, the other person is quite likely to wake up with dozens of tiny bites whilst I will usually emerge with none. The best mosquito deterrent for me is someone else.

What mosquitoes do that is most annoying is they buzz around your ears the moment you are getting settled. It’s like they WANT you kill them. Believe me if they just flew in silently, grabbed a nose-full of blood and silently skitted off to digest it, I would have only a minor problem with them. (As long as they didn’t give me malaria.) But they don’t. They sit and wait. And when the light is out, when you are just comfortable, when you are just starting to slide towards sleep, they swoop down and buzz right by your ear. By the time you hear them, they are gone so you will never swat them like this. You are only going to hit your own face. Nothing wakes you up more than a loud noise in your ear and slapping yourself on the forehead. If you try to sleep again, it will come back. Not to stealthily bite you, but to buzz your ear again. Why? Why would they do this? What is the evolutionary advantage?

After the third time – and quite often now after the first, because I know what’s going to happen – I go into Death to Mosquitoes mode. From then on, there is no rest until I have killed every mosquito in the room. Fortunately, mosquitoes are relatively slow-moving, stupid creatures with a peacock’s sense of camouflage. They are black and seem to like sitting on light-coloured walls where they are easy to spot. They also don’t have a fly's sense of impending newspaper strike, and so do not dart out of the way when a rolled-up newspaper comes towards them. Rather they tend to stay there and become a smear on the wall. Sometimes when you have waited until after you have been bit to take your revenge, the smear is red, and you realise that it is your own blood streaking your walls.

I have been bothered by mosquitoes more in Amsterdam than in most places, except perhaps on boating holidays in the UK. It’s a canal thing – they love water. I expected to be bothered in Singapore, but they have pretty much eradicated them there. In China, they are not very common in the big cities. Although on my first trip I was advised to take malaria tablets but started taking them a touch later than recommended, so they were not fully working when I arrived. Having left the plane, I found myself in a taxi with the fattest, most malaryised mosquito I’d ever seen; with an expression that said I was just the change of diet it was looking for. In the end it just sat out of reach and shifted a few inches when the driver tried lazily to swat it, and I was soon even more terrified by my first experience of the way Chinese taxis drive.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Festive Cheer

I don’t do Christmas very well. I am an under-consumerist atheist with a phobia of unwarranted false displays of affection, so there isn’t much of the festivities for me to really enjoy. I detest shopping so much that an hour of it leaves me emotionally exhausted and as irritable as all hell. And when some of my friends (nearly always girls) tell me how much they enjoy shopping as if that would suddenly make me realise the error of my opinion, I shake my head in an unfestive way.

Christmas, in case you are from Mars, is a kidnapped pagan festival (that’s where the trees and holly come from) converted to be the celebration of the inaccurate birth date of an over-hyped rabbi. It has since been re-kidnapped by The Coca-Cola corporation and Hollywood, acting on behalf of the manufacturers of tacky products the globe over.

It is the time of the year that every one insists that you have some “seasonal cheer” despite the fact this forcing you to be cheerful has an even more detrimental affect on one’s mood than a whole sleighful of carol singers singing Christmas hit singles.

It is a time when everything is enfestived (a word closely related to infested). Shops can’t get enough silver shiny things to adorn their products and every public space - and I mean EVERY PUBLIC SPACE - is filled with nauseatingly tinny versions of nauseating tunes sung by nauseating children. Children who will soon be receiving a deluge of gifts all, ironically, made by other children their age. Albeit in Santa’s many sweatshops in less Christmassy places.

So I think Christmas should be banned, then? No. I think it should be made to go behind closed doors. Those of a religious bent should go off to their churches quietly, with only a special TV programme on in the morning for them to sing along to. The kids should receive their presents, but from their parents and not some mysterious recluse who lives in an igloo for 11 months of the year and then in every single shopping mall for the other month.

In no places except churches or in the privacy of the homes of those with serious taste deficiency should Christmas music in any of its guises be played. Tinsel is outlawed outside of homes, and people who cut trees of from their roots and put out of the way of sunlight so they slowly die whilst covered in silvery crap should be prosecuted under the protection of wildlife laws. Gangs of children found hanging around and going from door to door singing the above mentioned songs should be served (in the UK at least) Anti-Social Behaviour Orders. Believe me, “Away In A Manger” should be classified as a dangerous weapon. And finally, any mention that someone should get some “festive cheer” should be classed as assault, and retaliations such as bludgeonings and disembowellings should be accepted as self-defense.

Oh, but it should still be a holiday. Anyway, Merry Christmas everyone.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Meet the Piets

It was recently that time of year when normally sane and otherwise liberal-minded Dutch men and women black-up and dance around the streets throwing sweets at children.

For those of us who live here but who came from elsewhere, it takes some getting used to. (More than 4 years, is all I can say at this point.) Most expats express at least mild discomfort at the spectacle of white folk frolicking about with boot polish on their faces. Not to mention the disturbing caricatures of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) whenever he is drawn.

Every year, the debate rages. Is Piet a slave? Or is he a Personal Assistant? Is he black because of his racial origin? Or (as some people have claimed) from climbing down chimneys? Is it all harmless fun? Or are the undertones of slavery reinforcing racial prejudices?

I am old enough to remember the great golliwog debates in the UK, when we (as a country) asked ourselves “are these black-faced dolls with exaggerated, stereotypical features racist?” “Almost certainly yes, we concluded.” “And, by the way, is this TV show, where white singers paint their faces black and sing and dance cringingly, something violently offensive that should never have been made, let alone aired?” “Absolutely!”

In fact in a Party shop, I saw several Zwarte Piet dolls, which were exactly the same as the old golliwogs, for sale quite openly. It was a harsh reminder of less tolerant times. Like watching old cartoons when, after being blown up, characters always resemble a grotesque black caricature who will inevitably start singing a spiritual.

So, does Zwarte Piet represent the condoning of the subjugation of whole races? Or is it merely a representation of the fact of the time – a bishop would have had a servant. And one from Spain or Turkey (depending on whether you believe the Dutch or fact), is even more likely to have one that was black. To hide this fact is also wrong. And he is integral to the legend. Although Sinterklaas has the status - there is only one of him and he is clearly in charge - who do the kids call out for? Not the dignified cleric, but the crazy one who doles out the sweets.

But it is not Piet’s colour that is unsettling, of course, but how it seems he can only be portrayed by a white painted black (or black-painted white, if you prefer.) It is all done with naivety rather than with any malice, but still, there is offence to be taken.

I know of one school for foreign children that tries to steer the practice in less murky waters by having Bonte Pieten (Multicoloured Petes) where all of the faces are painted in different colours). You only have to do something differently for a few years running for it to become the new tradition.

Whether in the future Piet becomes multihued or stays black... Whether his ethnic heritage is played down or played up... Whether he and the bishop are held up as an image of modern inter-racial co-operation or past enslavement... the kids won’t really care. Just as long as they get their sweets.