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.