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.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Polish Rock Update

You know those moments when you you're at the laundrette, you've put most of your clothes in the various sized machines and suddenly you have to give a concert. And what's worse is that you've been so busy getting ready to go to the laundrette, you've not bothered to learn how to play your instruments yet. The guitarist is definitely having one of those days.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Slave to the Tradition

I’ve noticed that every year there’s more and more debate about one single aspect of Dutch culture. One figure of Dutch folklore who starts appearing at this time of the year in readiness for his big day. On December 5th, Sinterklaas, the grandfather of Santa Claus, leaves presents in kids shoes in a very similar fashion to his more internationally known offspring, who tends to go for stockings. Instead of the North Pole, he lives in Spain. Instead of a reindeer-drawn sleigh, he has a steamboat. Instead of elves he has a faithful black servant.

The debate about is always about Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) who historically was almost certainly a slave, but is portrayed more as a comedy sidekick. Is it racist, is what the debate is all about. With most people from outside the country saying yes, and many of those who grew up with it saying no.

It took me a few years to get used to it, and now, I must say, I barely flinch when I see a real live Zwarte Piet or a doll-like representation of him which looks exactly like a gollywog, which were dolls we got rid of in the UK quite a few years ago. At least I barely flinch visibly.

My point of view is this. Obviously history is history and the real Saint Nicholas quite possibly had a slave/servant/comedy sidekick who quite probably was black. I don’t have a problem that such a figure still exists in the folklore and has not been replaced by mythical elves or magical reindeer. I don’t have too much of a problem that he is portrayed as being somewhat wayward and a little crazy, slavery isn’t something to help keep up perfect mental health, and as such you should take what liberties you can. The only real problem I have is this, which is at the core of why it’s considered racist: Zwarte Piet can only be portrayed by a white man or woman in black face paint, curly wig and thick, red lips in the style of a minstrel show, something else we got rid of a long time ago.

For me it’s only this offensively stereotypical representation that is what makes my flesh cringe whenever I see it. I think everything else can be kept. Make him blue or say he can only be portrayed by black actors or I don’t know.

But the kids, of course, don’t see it. Piet is a very popular character, mostly because he gives out sweets and so forth. And those adults who grew up with it only to be told later on it’s racist often are quite offended by the suggestion. They make up alternative histories to explain why he’s black - from coming down the chimney. Presumably he scratched his lips all the way down as well and the soot made his hair go curly. It’s only natural to be so defensive of something you grew up with and never saw any offense in. It’s very similar to those Christians who when asked about dinosaurs and their omission from their holy book state that they are a test from God.

I’m pretty sure the debate will continue for a few years yet, but the fact is seems to get bigger implies it will come to a head. As someone who lived through similar issues in the UK some 20+ years ago, I can assure the people of the Netherlands, these sort of changes, although they cause a lot of grumbling and even resentment at the time, are generally looked back upon with an air of, “I’m glad we did that” and without the very fabric of society being any more than ruffled in one corner.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013


The title of this piece is not some sort of swear word, although it does sound like it. It’s roughly pronounced as “bow-facker” (with bow pronounced as in bending forward or the front of a ship rather than as a fancy sort of knot (English, huh!)). It means “builders” as in anyone who does anything related to the physical creation or maintenance of the structure of a building. Americans tend to call them contractors, which is highly ambiguous.

Builders are remarkably similar the world over and have similar patterns of work. For some reason, builders start work insanely early in the morning. Bakers, we all get why they’re up so early: some of us want our bread when we wake up. But I’ve never been able to work out why builders get up so early. Even having spent months working amongst them, I could never work it out.

The pattern is that they start very early, before most of us would even consider getting out of bed, and then at about the time we would normally get up and/or leave the house they stop and take a long, well-deserved tea break. Why they couldn’t stay in bed a little longer and have less of a tea break, I’ve never fathomed. I do wonder if it’s simply to annoy the rest of us.

Can he fix it? Yes he can, but at 7 am and with the noisiest digger you ever heard.
Builders are in the best position to annoy the rest of us. Most jobs, if they started early, we wouldn’t notice or even care. If an accountant started on the books at 7:30, I’m quite sure the people next door would sleep on, oblivious. If a dentist opened his practice at 7 am, nobody would bat an eyelid. And the dentist would sit there in an otherwise empty room, waiting for the first person to appear in the waiting room - probably it would be a builder wanting a check-up on the way to work. The problem is, none of these jobs have anything that makes any more noise than a flatulent bee in a jar.

But builders have a dizzying array of devices to help them in their job. And every single one of them makes a noise like ten million bees smashing their way out of a million jars and letting forth a thunderous wall of wind.

We currently have painters doing up our building. Painters are very much builders. They start at 7:30 sharp. Before then, there is nothing but the silence of the ageing night. Then suddenly, without warning they let rip with whatever noise-making equipment they can get their hands on. In the first few days, they were scraping, which is surprisingly loud when you are on the other side of the woodwork. Now they seem to have managed to get hold of sanding machines that go all the way up to 11. They do all this until everyone has gone to off work and then they have a nice long tea break.

I feel once they get onto the painting, they should be quieter, surely. However, if I know bouwvakkers, and I do pretty well, I’m certain, right now, they are taking delivery of some sort of industrial, mechanical paint application device that goes all the way up to 12.

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Fox

Sometimes a song comes along that makes you question everything that you thought you knew. Sometimes within the realm of the simple exudes the complex. Occasionally the very fabric of existence is challenged to its core. This song does all that. And more.

Even beyond the central haunting question that is directly asked of us, there are many further puzzles raised. Do ducks really discuss elementary particles? Are fish responsible for the text on the back of books? If a fox is alone in the forest with nobody to hear him, why shouldn't he scat?

Beginning with detailing the core scientific facts of how we know animals to communicate within their own species the thesis moves on to examine how different species can communicate with each other. Coming to the alarming conclusion that animals may have adopted many of the forms of communication that we have discarded in our new technological age. And if Morse, why not semaphore? And why not, indeed, Telex?

Most chilling is the revelation that follows the simple logic of the first line to its logical conclusion. If "Dog goes woof" as the song states, and there is no reason to doubt, then surely God, as the clear reverse of the literal transcribed "dog" and the being to whom our thoughts must naturally turn in any discussion of his work, must go "Foow." "Foow" must be the true word of God. People, if you think on one thing today. Think how our furry, feathered, scaled and single-celled friends communicate. What are they trying to tell us? Will we ever truly understand them?

May the Foow be with you.


Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Sweet Smell of Good Service

I'm going to preface his by stating I am not a shopper. Shopping tires me out. Even walking past shop windows seems to suck energy from me as though shops were made of some sort of Kriptonite (Kooptonite? Copetonite?).

But the act of going into shops is still something one has to face every now and again. Even in these days when pretty much everything is available online. Once the problem of not being able to see up close and feel the products has been solved, we can close all the shops and turn high streets into playing fields. Oh glorious utopian, noshopian future.

Alternative shopping future

In the meantime, I still occasionally find myself swallowed up by a shop. I've gotten worse over the last few years with my shopophobia. Probably due to living in the Netherlands where choice is regarded with suspicion and people believe working in the service industry is beneath them, especially those people who actually work in the service industry, they definitely think working there is beneath them.

Often in the Netherlands, I feel the sales assistant is regarding me as something sullying their store and keeping them from musing about the world and its problems rather than being the reason the shop is there in the first place and the ultimate source of their income. I can't say I felt the UK was hugely different from this. Certainly both places were a long way from the other end of the spectrum, America. In the US, shop assistants regard you as though you are a potential new best friend and fawn over you in a way that outside of the shop environment would require you taking out a restraining order. I often worry that shop people there will start stalking me. But it's just a cultural thing that is magnified in shops. If you want to make sure they're not about to stalk you, do what I like to do. When you turn away to leave, do so slowly but keep them in your field of view. I really enjoy watching shop people dropping their shop faces and putting on big frowns. Especially after I've just decided not to buy something.

In the last few years, the UK has been heading further away from the stereotype of a nation of grumpy shopkeepers and bringing in a lot more of the American concept of service. People eagerly help you and know what they are talking about. I've been in shops where people have radioed to someone in another part of the store to come and help you.

The other thing in the UK which has improved but was always way above the Netherlands is choice. It's gotten better in the Netherlands. It used to be there'd be at most 3 types of anything. But mostly one. When I arrived there were only 3 possible flavours of crisps: Natural (slightly salty), Salted (very salty) and Paprika (salty and peppery). Now there are sometimes as many as 10 varieties in a big supermarket.

But in the UK, it's actually going too far. In some areas it's as bad as the US. In a big US supermarket, the choice for certain items (such as popcorn, breakfast cereal, assault rifles) is horrendous. Every single variant of topping, filling, salt content, sugar content, cheese content, vitamin content, heating method, and sports-team affiliation is available for the shopper who has any idea of what works for them. Those who don't, have a lot of experimentation before they find what does.

One department that has always had a crazy amount of choice which has recently gone up to levels that are officially insane loopy not right in the head is cosmetics. The numbers have shot up because nowadays anyone who is anyone in the pop world has also brought out their own line of cosmetics. Who would have though that Rhianna, as well as all her wildchild and pop credentials is also a fully qualified olfactologist.

Britney Spears, Beyouncé, Lady Gaga, Rhianna Bean, Plink, Nikki Minge, Kylie Minge, Christina Watersports, Justin Bieber -- all of the big girls of pop -- all have their own line of perfumes. It's shocking how widespread it is. I don't hold any of these ladies responsible for this. They are free to try and cash in on their product status. What I find shocking is that people buy them. People think, "screw Chanel and Lorry-L and their laboratories of highly qualified, French scientists and scores of years of research and experience, let's get some old muck based on the say so of someone with Britney Spears' business sense."

And it isn't just the women's cosmetics that this is happening to. In the expanding markets of men's cosmetics and children's cosmetics things are even more disturbing.

We've sort of already dipped into the children's market with mention of the Justin Bieber range. After all, anyone over 15 wearing Justin Bieber's Girlfriend should be reported to someone.

But it doesn't end there at all. Disney has a range of perfumes for children endorsed by such 2-dimensional celebrities as Snow White, Cinderella, and the Little Mermaid. I don't even want to talk about how awful the idea of marketing perfume to children is. I just think do you really want perfumes endorsed by people who don't really exist? And if they did exist, what sort of people are these? One lives in a tiny house with 7 miners; one is famous for wearing rags and the third is 50% tuna.

There is even a Betty Boop perfume for children aged 107.

For the men there's of course Playboy (also available for women). What woman could resist a perfume chosen by an 87-year-old pornographer? But my favourite is this one...

The Musked Avengers
The Marvel Comics eau de toilette. This really blows my mind. There seems so much wrong with it. Whoever thought, "Oh the Hulk, I bet he smells nice." No. If you think about it, how disgusting do you think the hulk would smell close up? The Hulk is basically a superhuman, green wrestler.

But maybe that's the point. Superheroes sweat a lot and most do so in latex, heavy armour and with their underwear outside their leggings. So if any group of people are in need of perfume it would be superheroes. But which is the group of men least likely to wear perfume? Superheroes. Okay, Miners, truck drivers and then superheroes.

I think my main problem with this is if you want a product to help you get the girls, Marvel isn't going to be the manufacturer of choice. But then if you're after finding a good man to treat you right, you probably shouldn't be going to Rhianna for help.

What’s good for the goose

Bentley Waterfowl and Motor Museum has become my current favourite unlikely museum combination. It exists, I passed a sign for it on a recent trip to the UK and did an intergoogle on it.

Waterfowl and motor vehicles are not part of a symbiotic ecosystem. Contact between ducks, geese, etc and cars, motorbikes, etc are seldom mutually beneficial. In fact there is a special word for waterfowl that have come into contact with motor vehicles: roadkill.

Perhaps if the cars were half submerged into a lake providing good nesting places, this would be a way that the relationship could benefit the birds, however, it’s clear the cars get the short end of the deal here. There seems no way for them to coexist harmoniously except in cartoons, where I am sure I have seen ducks drive cars and motorbikes swim in ponds.

The museum makes no attempt, as far as I can tell, to connect them. The two sides of the museum seem entirely separate. The only connection is that they are housed in the same grounds. In fact, now it seems they are expanding and pushing the site as more than just a museum of two incongruous things, but it is calling itself a Country Park (isn’t all of the countryside basically a park?) which houses an even wider collection of incongruous things (a country house, a miniature railway and even the death-defying excitement of willow tunnels*).

So far they have ignored my suggestion of rather than justifying the incongruities by adding to them, they fix them by combining the elements to make something new an exciting. So far the website has no mention of Goose Stock Car Racing, Coot Hot Rods or Monster Duck Trucks. We wait.

Notes: * - Willow Tunnels is not and never has been a star of adult movies.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Forbidden Planet (1956)

I've just finished rewatching Forbidden Planet, a big-budget sci-fi adventure movie from 1956. It’s a bit of a departure for me because my favourite genre is in fact low-budget sci-fi adventure movies from that era. But there are plenty of reasons to watch this movie even though it is dated. In fact it being dated is tied up in nearly all of the reasons to watch it. It’s a very 1950s view of the future. I’m so used to watching movies from that era with terrible or no special effects that it’s always surprising to see one from that era with pretty darn good special effects. For the time.

Reasons to watch:
  1. A very young Leslie Nielsen. 
  2. It’s basically The Tempest with a planet instead of an island. 
  3. Because it was made in 1950s, the technology is very mechanical and everything needs cables. 
  4. Because it was made in 1950s, the crew consists of only white men. 
  5. Because it was made in 1950s, the only woman for 16 light years is wearing a miniskirt. 
  6. Because it was made in 1950s, people are amazed at a very clumsy, mechanical robot. 
  7. Because it was made in 1950s, people think that men will land on the moon at the end of the 21st century, rather than 15 years later. 
  8. The monster looks like an early draft of the Tasmanian Devil.
  9. Did I mention a very young Leslie Nielsen?
Actually, despite the things that clearly date it, it is a good, well told story. No doubt due in part to it being penned by one William Shakespeare. And the story in this futuristic setting remains very plausible, even though the 1950s realisation of it is very much fixed in the 1950s. In this respect, this is not a movie to watch to see 150 years into the future, but to see 50 years into the past.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Improve Your Dutch Through Murder

Given the amount of time the good lady wife and myself have lived here, our Dutch is really not so great. It's pretty good, but had we lived in France or Germany, or some other place where people are disinclined to switch automatically over to your language, we'd be fluent by now. But especially in Amsterdam, where even the most dishevelled beggar can converse in pretty good English (although, occasionally, that's because they are British), it's pretty hard to learn Dutch. You really have to want to, otherwise your laziness and the eagerness of the locals to show off their language skills, will make you give up pretty soon.

To help our Dutch, we've taken to finding TV series to edify us in the language. The both of us enjoy a good crime story – us and 95% of the rest of the world, it must be said – so it seemed a good to check out that genre. After all there's no point in forcing yourself to watching things you'd hate in your own language. So we've stayed away from reality shows – us and 5% of the rest of the world, it must be said – and we haven't bothered to check if the Dutch have an equivalent of Glee. {Editor's note: Vrolijkheid, a show which features a class at the Koninklijke Nederlandse Podiumkunstenarenacadamie who, in between a set of tedious interpersonal issues, manage to sing some autotuned covers of Eurovision hits, does not exist, as far as I'm aware.}

Crime fighters arranged by height.
We started with Spoorloos Verdwenen based on the simple reason that a friend of ours is in it. It is a police procedural show, a little like CSI, but without the budget, following the missing persons bureau as they go about their daily business of looking for lost people. It means "Missing without a Trace." Although, of course, there is always a trace, because they do manage to find them. Or at least bits of them.

It was kind of fun and rarely so complicated our Dutch couldn't follow it to some degree. In fact, even people under duress enunciated very clearly so we could understand.

As a police procedural it fell over a few times because I'm pretty sure they aren't supposed to break into every place they come to and when the case broadens or becomes clearly a fraud or murder case, they still continue to investigate without the assistance of other departments. But this might actually be how the Dutch police operate. Although my experience of Dutch companies leads me to believe that once a missing person's case becomes a murder case, the real missing persons' bureau will go, "sorry, we can't help you any more."

What might be a more realistic aspect of policing in the Netherlands, is the fact that during every case, the boss will state, "every second counts" and then at 5 o'clock, everyone goes home. A few quibbles aside, we enjoyed it and it definitely helped our Dutch.

Greedy Trifle.
After this we tried a little of Gerede Twijfel, which is somehow a mixture of Buffy and one of those detective shows where they dig up old unsolved crimes and try to solve them (like Cold Case). In it a professor and his cabal of student archetypes investigate crimes the police gave up on. As did we. We didn't last long as it was clearly aimed at people half hour age and four times our tolerance of cliches.

We’re now on Baantjer. This long-running detective show is confusingly named after the author who created the characters. A bit like calling a Sherlock Holmes series, Doyle.

This series also has the benefit that at some point at least one other friend will make a brief appearance. Baantjer is a much more thoughtful affair than the previous two. We’re watching an early series made the 90s and it feels somewhat like Inspector Morse or Columbo, however, with a somewhat jarring 1980s soundtrack. I don’t know why it should have a 1980s soundtrack when it was made a decade later, but it does.

There is definitely something of the Columbo / Morse in Baantjer's De Cock. Which is a weird sentence having written it. He definitely has Columbo's gift for the "Oh, there's just one more thing" question, that looks like an after thought, but in fact gets right to the point.

Crime fighters arranged by height
Because it's more of a thinker and because the characters mumble a lot more, it's a lot more of a challenge for our Dutch. Sometimes too much. Occasionally we can clearly see that Somebodie van de Whatsit has become the prime suspect, but we have no idea why.

We have a lot to watch if we stick with it (it went on for 12 seasons) and by the end we should be able to understand pretty much every piece of Dutch someone mumbles at us. Especially if it's in the form of an explanation of where they were last night between 2 and 4 am.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Travel 28/5/13-2/6/13: Tampere, Finland part 1

This was my first trip to Finland. Some 20 years ago, I flew Finnair to go to China, and did stop over in Helsinki airport for an hour, but airplanes and airports are not the soil of that country so don’t count.

You can’t even say you have met the people because airline stewards and stewardesses are but a tiny percentage of the population of that country. And not fully representative, as a rule. The stewards and stewardesses on that flight 20 years ago all looked like 1970s porn stars. Even down to the fact that all the men had 70s porn-star moustaches. It may be that everyone in Finland looked like a porn star 20 years ago. But I’m not sure that’s the case.

Finnair cabin staff don’t look like porn stars these days. But then porn stars don’t look like porn stars these days.

The flight to Helsinki was pretty easy and the plane had the best new plane feature I’d seen for a while – video feed from outside the plane during takeoff and landing. During takeoff it was from a video at the front of the plane and once it was off the ground it was from looking down at the receding Earth. That was awesome. Because I prefer an aisle seat because I have legs, I only see the takeoff from the side through that part of the window that isn’t obscured by up to three other people. And it’s never as exciting as seeing pretty much what the pilot sees.

During the flight, they threw some sandwiches at us to keep us quiet. Because people always prefer either brown or white bread, the Finns had an interesting solution, biracial sandwiches. It’s not nearly as pornographic as it sounds. It was that the sandwich was made with one slice of white bread and one of brown. Everybody’s happy, right? Except those people who absolutely hate the other sort of bread.

The sandwich came in a package that, after you’d eaten the contents, gave you instructions on how to fold it up. It was a flat-pack sandwich box. A kind of reverse Ikea principal. (Yes, I know Ikea is not Finnish.)

The second leg of the trip was on a propeller plane. It’s so rare for many of us to go on propellered planes that we get excited when we do. They somehow feel less safe, even though their principle of propulsion is based on creating a pressure difference so that the air pushes the plane forward rather than a jet which simply causes backwards-facing explosions.

Scene from Casablanca

The in-flight tourist and duty-free magazines reminded us that Finland is most widely known for it’s bringing to the world, two giants of popular animated culture. The first, the Moomins are basically affable, pale hippos who had lots of fairytale-like adventures.

Haunting 1980s Moomin Theme
90s Moomin theme from around the world

The second? Angry Birds: the story of an aggressive, avian terrorist cell, hell-bent on destroying the pig way of life.

Theme park sign. Finally see the evil kid behind the Angry Birds and how canine bureaucracy is powerless to stop them. 
Part 2 follows soon.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Free At Last

July the 1st is Keti Koti. Maybe you knew this, but I didn’t until last year. Keti Koti is the Surinamese day of emancipation. In Amsterdam it is celebrated with a festival in the park near me. I presume it’s a lot bigger in Suriname.

Keti Koti means something like “chain cutting” and celebrates the day that slavery was officially abolished. At least that’s what gives it the date. What people are actually celebrating is the slaves being freed. Now in your naivety, you might be thinking, as I once did, “surely the day these things are declared is the day they happen.” *pats self on head.*

In the US a big day of celebration is Juneteenth (June 19th). This celebrates not the actual day that slavery was declared to be abolished and not the date it was enacted as a law, but it celebrates the day the slaves in Texas were told about the abolition.

Abraham Lincoln declared slavery illegal on September 22, 1862, but the law only came into effect on January 1, 1863, which itself seems a long time to wait. But it was only after military action two and a half years later this got announced to the citizens of Texas.

In Suriname (a Dutch colony), slavery was abolished also in 1863 (on July 1st), but it would take ten years for it to come into full effect. Ten years! That’s a crazy long time. It was hailed as a ‘transition period’ which seems a very Dutch response to a problem. Namely, “We’re going to ban slavery but tolerate it.”

It’s no wonder people want to celebrate it finally coming about. Even 140 years later, in a cold, wet land far, far away. 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Travel: 18/6/11 (part 1) Texas: Family Tour – Segregation and Assassination

Hotel breakfast buffets look the same wherever you are in the world. If you were beamed into the middle of one you could tell instantly that you were in a hotel restaurant at breakfast time. Where you were in the world... that might be harder. You will have to look at the guy cooking the eggs to get some sort of clue. Or for those subtle regional variations that are slipped in amongst the typical English, American and "Continental" breakfast faire. 

Two flags over Texas

After breakfast, it was time for a tour of Texas attractions especially those related to my girlfriend's family (or as they are now known, my wife’s family). We started with the Elementary School named after her grandfather. The head and some of the staff even took time off their weekend to show us their school. It's a very impressive school with a computer lab full of Macs and an electronic whiteboard which incorporates a projector so teachers never need to get dirty fingers again. It does mean there's nothing to throw at pupils, but I doubt that's allowed any more.

The school services poor areas and even provides breakfast and lunch on non school days for those people whose families who have trouble providing nutritional meals.

This is not what the tour looked like.
We then drove to the sites of other schools in the area, ones where the grandparents and parents were educated. One school no longer exists, the other is still there. It should be noted that these were times of segregation when, if you weren’t white, an education was not something you just came by. People had to fight to make it happen. The grandparents were educated because of programmes instigated by the black community to send kids to school. Often private schools because they were the only ones that would take them. Later special schools were built and these are what the next generation went to.

The grandparents had a firm belief that through education the fortunes of the community could be improved. It led them to become teachers and to make sure their children were well educated.

This is a fascinating story for me as it's very different from my family history. From my understanding, the grandparents of my wife’s grandparents were freed slaves. And at least one of them had been alive when some of Cath's parent's generation were born. For me this always clashes with my European notion that slavery was a sad, but distant part of history. For people I have met to have known someone who had actually been a slave makes me realise how much closer it had been. Plus there are so many people in the US who lived through the segregation era, which really was the son of slavery. The echoes of slavery and segregation still reverberate through America.

Some of these purpose-built schools still exist but are no longer blacks-only, of course, and now part of the regular US education system.

Six Flags Over Texas
Unfortunately our bus was too big to get down the street to see the house of the grandparents, so we headed back to Dallas to get another part of Dallas history. One that's a bit better known.

Book repository
On November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald in conjunction with the CIA, Cuban exiles, the Mafia, Aliens from Roswell and Oliver Stone leant out of a book repository window and shot John F Kennedy from a grassy knoll. At least that’s my understanding of it all.

I shouldn't joke, really. It seems like a long time ago to me, but it still looms large in many people's lives. To me it is a remote historical event, usually brought up to make a conspiracy joke. But in Texas, for people a little older than me, it was and is very real. One of Cath's uncles was actually on the way to see the cavalcade when he people heading the other way told him of the shooting.

In the run up to the Obama election, several people pessimistically hinted at the fact that he might well be shot. I hadn't even thought of it (it's a rarely used political option in Europe), but these were people who grew up at a time when high-profile figures of change WERE shot.

*Rogers Cowboys*
To bring the mood back up we went to see a more upbeat side of Dallas life – its sporting life. Apparently Dallas is very well known for sports. The Dallas Cowboys, The Dallas Stetsons, and The Dallas Lonestar Gunmen are all well respected for their performance in the various derivative sports America is famous for. We saw a few of Dallas’ stadia including the local horseracing track and the Dallas Cowboy stadium where they play American football, which is a cross between rugby and American Gladiator.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Daniel Kitson - Secret Comedian

On Monday night Daniel Kitson performed his latest show to an audience of mostly awed admirers. It certainly included a significant proportion of the Amsterdam stand-up community.

Daniel Kitson is one of those comedians who are talked about in hushed tones. He’s practically a secret due to his studied avoidance of the limelight. He has refused to do TV, doesn’t put much out there on the interweb, and doesn’t do social media. Unlike most comics, youtube isn’t flooded with clips of him. In fact what is out there doesn’t do him justice.

I first saw Daniel Kitson when we were both starting out on our comedy paths. It was at a try-out night in Brixton, South London, I believe. (I mean I believe the gig was in Brixton; I know Brixton is in South London).

He was the first to arrive and I was the second. He looked like he was 17. And may well have been, I don’t have a date for this story. He looked like the nerdiest kid on the block. The kid the kids the bullies beat up beat up. He had glasses so thick it looked like he’d taped magnifying glasses together. And when he spoke, he had one of the worst stutters I’d ever heard.

My thoughts, and I’m so ashamed to type them out loud, were, “You are going to die out there.”

Off stage, back then, pre-gig, this was Daniel Kitson as I knew him in the few minutes I knew him.

On stage he did the very opposite of die. He killed it. He was intensely funny, had a nerdy, shambolic stage persona, that was somehow in control; his poor eyesight was the genesis of a very funny bit about it as a disability; and he did not stutter one bit.

Sometime later, he won the Perrier award (as it was called then), Britain’s most prestigious comedy prize. His Edinburgh show the next year was not stand-up. He refused to cash in on being a prize-winning stand-up (even though it undoubtedly help the shows sell out) and told a story. An entertaining, odd and funny story, but not a story you would expect from a stand-up.

As a performer, he is perceptive, sharp and seems to have an impeccable sense of what’s funny. And he’s clever. And he doesn’t mind that cleverness showing. Many comics hide their cleverness to increase their mass appeal. As Daniel hasn’t gone that route, he is free to be as clever as he likes. This as much as anything makes him a comedian comedians love.

His current show is an hour-and-a-half monologue with its own soundtrack about how faulty human memory is and how we can never really know ourselves. Obviously topics you can write long, dry philosophical textbooks about this, but to create an hour-and-a-half of comedy is definitely a challenge. Daniel likes to challenge himself.

The result is far from dry. It’s an impassioned plea to remind us of human failings we all too eagerly ignore – because basically we are much happier and confident when we think we know who we are and what’s going on. An impassioned, strongly-argued plea, interwoven with sublimely funny examples and incisive observations of us the predominant species on this here planet.

I thoroughly recommend that if you ever get the chance to go see him, do. But not every single one of you interwebbers, we don’t want him to lose his “secret” status.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

More about Standing Up

So as not to start yet another blog (I have a dozen I write or write for), I'm going to be using this one to share things about stand-up, given that this is a thing that once again has entered my life, and I keep finding things to share about it and occasionally things to write about it.

To start with (if I haven't already added any before now) there's this. In between berating and then adoring Michelle Obama, David Mitchell (the comedian not the novellist) has some well-put words about the nature of and dealing with heckling.

Comment is free There's a right way to deal with hecklers. Then there's Michelle Obama's…

Friday, April 26, 2013

Friends who know friends who know friends

I recently reached 500 friends on facebook. Which is quite amazing because in real life I only really know 12 people. This is why social media is, ironically, great for the social mediocre. Facebook really is the Jesus of friends. Bring your few meagre scraps of people you haven't alienated through thinking before joking or expressing your extremist views on cats and facebook-jesus will turn them into a multitude. You can befriend the five thousand.

Even I with my brag-worthy half-a-grand of friends, stull suffer from the feeling that I have fewer friends than most of my other friends. Although suffer is a strong word. I actually think the 12 people I really do know is quite a lot of responsibility. But I do have the sense that everyone else knows more people. And that is probably true according to this article in the New York Times...

What this article basically says is that feelings of inadequacy are just an anomaly of statistics. And that's not just on facebook, but in other areas too. Buck up, stop feeling sorry for yourself, it's all just a statistical illusion. And in fact, statistics has just proved you are way superior than most other people. Very few people indeed have actually made it to the end of this blog post.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Two-Wheels Good

Let me start by reminding you that riding a bicycle is impossible. Impossible. Bicycles are two-dimensional objects – especially my ageing wannabe racing bike. And we expect these two-dimensional objects to propel us, increasingly three-dimensional objects, along a plane perpendicular to the aforementioned bicycle. A plane that exerts a gravitational pull on us and is hard and jagged enough to bruise and graze us – or worse – when the geometry of cycling fails and the gravity gets a hold of us.

Riding a bicycle is impossible. Earlier humans seeing us riding bikes would burn us as devils or witches. Yet billions of us do it every day; Defying gravity, the gods and good judgement. It’s not only fun, enhealthening (note to self: check dictionary), but a very practical way of getting from A to B.

As you might have gathered from this blog, I live in Amsterdam which is famous for having a free and liberal attitude to cycling. Compared to many other big cities where cycling is treated like a criminal offense, Amsterdam seems to positively welcome cycling and cyclists. Cycle paths not only exist but are clear, visible and don’t suddenly stop and become a wall as they do in some places.

The streets swarm with cyclists at most hours of the day and especially in the morning and evening at those times when people bring and collect their kids to and from the various kid-repositories and bring and collect themselves to and from the place they keep themselves during the day (usually a place of work, but not exclusively).

This morning was one of those days where people cycling in front of you randomly and suddenly slow down for no apparent reason. The whole journey was me braking to avoid nudging into the back of some work-bound Amsterdammer. It was especially difficult because today I had been paying more attention to the street than other parts of the environment. This was due to my recent flat tire from which I pulled a hunk of glass which was a perfect scale model of an iceberg. So today I was studiously watching out for flocks of icebergs.

playmobil policeBy the end of my journey, I was paying more attention to the frequently stopping bikes and other eye-level hazards with only glances towards the glassy danger that lurked below because a flat tire won’t kill you. It saved me from ploughing into the back of the last cyclists that randomly stopped in front of me: two policewomen both with impressive blond ponytails poking out from under their cycle-cop caps.

It was then my mood was set for the day. I realised how happy I was to live in a city where my protection was provided by three-dimensional, blond devil-witches effortlessly doing the geometrically and gravitationally impossible. How can you not appreciate that?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Anatomy of a visit to the hairdresser

I view a trip to the hairdressers in the same manner that most people view a trip to the dentist. I don’t enjoy going to the dentist, but I know it’s necessary for health reasons and I’m always the better for it. However, going to the hairdressers fills me with dread. It is not something I view as truly necessary and I never come away feeling good about it.

Evolution (or some form of human-like being we can substitute for Evolution, if you will) has dictated that our hair production is patchy and localised in certain seemingly random areas. And Society (or a set of accumulated and largely-unwritten but fiercely enforced rules we can substitute for Society, if you will) has decreed that hair must be kept at a reasonable length. If you don’t, everybody hates you but doesn’t tell you. All they do is wait until you have it cut and then they say “thank God!” But it’s not God, it’s Society.

There is a long established pattern with me and visiting the hairdressers.

1) You arrive and they look at you like you are dirt until you tell them you have an appointment. Then you get elevated from dirt to an estranged uncle who might be rich and are invited to sit by the glossy but vacuous magazines for a while.

2) Eventually you are invited into a chair not unlike the dentist’s. I’ll use “she” to denote the hairdresser because statistically the hairdresser will be a she, even if it’s a man.

3) From the chair, you tell the hairdresser what you want; she repeats back to you what you want; and then she does what she wants. No matter how explicit you have been about how you want it, that’s not going affect the result. You may as well explain how you want world peace and respect for all humans for the outcome you’ll get.

4) Once she has done what she wants, she shows it off to you and you tell her you like it and pay her more than you do for a visit to the dentist.

The final step is you go home to your wife who berates you, demanding “why in God’s name did you ask for that?”

“It’s not God,” I explain, but she doesn’t want to hear it.