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.