Monday, December 24, 2007

Have A Cool Yule

Well, as today's not-particularly-festive bumper crop of posts comes to an end, it's time for me to take a few days off to spend some time with m'beloved (by which I mean my fiancee as well as the inevitable roast potatoes).

I'll be posting again in a few days, I'd imagine, but until then, in a nod towards the time of year, here's a picture of the Christmas tree in our luxury penthouse flat.

Whether you take a religious or just an overindulgent approach to the holiday, hope you enjoy it, and that you get more than you really deserve in the way of gifts (though not too much - there's always a price to pay for getting everything you want, it seems). Take care and keep smiling, but above all, have fun.

Taken Last Night At County Hall On London's South Bank

As you probably know, I'm very concerned that an exaggerated fear about terrorism is being used as an excuse for the erosion of civil liberies and the introduction of excessive surveillance and the like, but I think most more authoritarian folks would, after a quick glance at this picture, agree that security measures in London might be going a bit far.

Sorry Ladies, It's Not Hugh Jackman

I know it's good when a person likes their job, but Wolverine just looks too damn happy about what he's up to on this comic cover.
I do hope they won't be wiping up anything other than blood.

Vague, More Like

Featuring the not-entirely-ugly Eva Green, this is the cover of the January edition of Vogue. And, magnified, one of the most frankly bewildering coverlines I've ever seen, with what surely has to be a rhetorical question.

If not, though, perhaps the February edition will have special features on whether you can boil thoughts, sell spirituality on eBay, and eat a vague sense of unease.

Then again, physical behaviour towards the intangible isn't entirely without precedent, given the so-called 'War on Terror'...

Yes, You Can Guess What I've Been Shopping For In The Past Couple Of Weeks

Retailers! Tired of customers asking you the same question over and over again at this busy time of year? Well, it doesn't have to be like that! With this handy print-off-n-stick-up notice, you can save your time and their goodwill! Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Get Me To The Church On Time

So, last Saturday, me and my fiancée and a friend set off for a wedding. It was the wedding of two good friends who've (quite frankly) been through the wringer in recent times, and yet they've always come out smiling and generally chipper, so we all wanted to be there for the wedding; clothes and new shoes were bought, a dinner jacket was hired by me (no sense in buying one when my current size of 'fat sod' is, I intend, merely temporary), and we hired a car to get us there.

The wedding was taking place near Uxbridge, which is on the west side of London, so let's call it 9:00 on the clock face. As I've probably said before, we live in East London, so that's at about 3:00 on the clock face. So, the logical route would be one which took us, as far as possible, from east to west in a straight line (though ideally avoiding the city centre). A couple of days before, I logged onto the AA Route Planner website, and - using our starting and destination postcodes, got a printout of our trip, which was estimated to take about 80 mins. We left just after midday for a 2PM wedding, which seemed a sensible margin. The hire car was new and full of petrol, and we all looked quite spiffy, and we set off along the route in an optimistic mood.

That mood lasted about fifteen minutes; I took a wrong turn in Docklands which send us off the wrong way (through the Blackwall Tunnel and almost to the Dome before I could turn around), and that lost us some time, but when we got back to the point of my mistake and started following the instructions again, it became apparent that my error was just the start of our troubles, as the AA's suggested route told us to 'continue straight ahead at the lights' when in fact the road featured a roundabout, with no straight-ahead option.

We tried the various exits in turn, and it gradually dawned on us that not only was the route one which involved travelling on imaginary roads, but that it took us down towards 6:00 on the clock face before circling back up to around 11:00 and then down to a sort-of 9:00 direction. In short, it was hopeless, and driving it on a Saturday was an impossible task, so our friend navigated us to Islington, at which point we followed the Euston Road along to Baker Street, and then got on a main road to the location of the wedding.

Those of you who aren't familiar with London probably won't know or care what the above sentence, with the place names in, means, but it's neither important to know or relevant, really, as the fact of the matter is it was nowhere near as easy as that sentence makes out. After all, we were in Central London on a Saturday.

It became abundantly clear that we weren't going to make the start of the wedding, which was both annoying and upsetting, as we wanted to be there for our friends. Then, as we sat in the car in traffic which I could have outrun even in my present non-running condition, it became clear that we probably wouldn't make the wedding at all. But maybe we could make it to the reception.

And indeed we did - though not after some trouble finding our final destination, because the AA Routeplanner kindly decided not to give us any kind of directions once we got to the village where the wedding and its reception were being held - despite me having put in the postcode of our destination. You'd think that in a village the size of Denham, it wouldn't be too tricky to locate the Golf Club, and indeed it wasn't too hard to find. Shame we found the wrong golf club first and had to wend our way to the right one - past the rather lovely church where the wedding had finished, and where the rose petal confetti on the ground outside the gate was yet another reminder of what we'd missed - so that by the time we actually arrived, it was three hours since we'd left home.

We arrived late, irritated, but most of all upset at missing a once-in-a-lifetime event. If we'd known that it was going to take that long, we would have allowed time for it, but we were misled by directions which were just plain wrong. This isn't the first time we've been scuppered by the AA Routeplanner, I have to say - driving in Warminster a couple of months ago, the route map told us to follow a road which simply wasn't there, and then missed out several of the final stages of our journey, meaning we had to call our destination and be talked through what to do, like something out of an old Airport film (though it could be said that it was more like Airplane!, though that's open to debate).

Several people have said 'well, you should get a sat-nav', which I find a moderately moronic solution since we don't actually own a car, and I'm inclined to agree with m'beloved's assessment that next time, we'll do it the old-fashioned way: by sitting down with a road map. I'm certainly biased that way after the journey home, which took about 75 mins. Granted, it was late at night, but we winged it in terms of the route, and somehow, without the help of major motoring organisation the AA we made it home safely and with no hassle at all, faster than their projected return time.

So, despite having linked to it in the second paragraph, I strongly recommend that you do not use the AA Routeplanner, as my recent experiences with it have shown it to be wildly unreliable. For those of you with a car, a sat-nav might well be the answer (though not necessarily) , or using a map might be old-school but prove oddly reliable. And of course, if you're going to join a road recovery organisation, I recommend the RAC.

Still, it goes some way towards explaining why I recollect seeing members of the AA on the news urging the government to build more roads: clearly, they want the roadways of England re-shaped to match with the version of things that Routeplanner's made up in its mad microprocessor mind.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Last Minute Christmas Ideas

It's that time of year again, when magazines fill up with 'year-end round-up' articles and 'best of' lists, but what if the journalist in your life has left it to the last minute to hand in an article? Well, don't panic, because even at this late stage, there are still article ideas you can give them, for example…

Shopping For Women
This is a perennially popular theme, and you can't really go wrong with it. Remember to start from the premise that all men are eye-rollingly gormless when it comes to this sort of thing - particularly the buying of underwear, when, left to their own devices, men inevitably buy red PVC basques in the wrong size.
Perfume and bathroom products are always a favourite, mainly because the nature of the items can't really be conveyed on the printed page, and you can dupe the testicle-toting fools into buying something which is stunningly well packaged, but actually smells as if a mouse has died behind the radiator. Of course, an article of this nature implies that the gift recipient smells, and if the gift itself smells bad, it's doubly insulting, suggesting that the revolting stench of the gift is none the less preferable to the woman's natural odour.
Shoes and handbags are always a safe bet for an article, too - not only are there so many colour and style variables that you can probably make your word count easily just by dropping in a few big designer names and references to current trends (which you can always contort to fit your brief), but best of all, you can drop in a few references to how men don't understand women and their love for shoes and handbags. God, men are stupid, aren't they girls? Eh? Eh?

Shopping For Men
Again, very popular, and nice and easy. All men love all gadgets, so just take a look at a few websites and make up some stuff about 'this year's hottest trend' or 'really big in the USA at the moment' or something like that.
DVD box sets are always a nice shelf- and page-filler, and as all men love Bond films, you can always recommend whatever the latest version of the Bond boxed set happens to be; this idea has the added attraction of enabling you to make some irrelevant but wordcount-upping comments about people having a favourite Bond actor (with examples), or about Daniel Craig being blonde-haired, or, if all else fails, you can refer to Ursula Andress in her bikini as 'iconic' (perfect excuse to illustrate the article with an appropriate photo, thus filling more space and increasing the sex-factor of the article. Ka-ching!).
If the journalist in your life is writing for something a bit alternative and wants to seem a bit edgy, then they may need to come from a less mainstream angle than the Bond films, so bear in mind that even though all men love Bond films, any men who don't love Bond films will always love all Tarantino films. Don't be afraid to write about the DVD releases of these, peppering the article with quotes from Pulp Fiction, speculation about what's in the briefcase, suggestions that you'd always been a huge fan of Pam Grier's work, and of course you can always refer to Uma Thurman in her tracksuit as 'iconic' (see above re illustrating article, etc).

Shopping Experiences
In the past few years, with the growth of the internet, we've seen an explosion of articles comparing online and real-life shopping experiences, and these are always a good way to fill the bits between adverts in magazines and papers. The benefit of writing about online shopping is that you can do all your research sitting at your desk, cutting and pasting from the websites in question, so it's all in the comfort of your own home.
On the other hand, nothing really beats going out and doing all your Christmas shopping article research in real shops, as you can write about the shop's décor, the crowds of people, the music of Wizzard and Slade pumped at you from speakers, and the rudeness of shop assistants and/or other customers.
This latter is an important element of the shopping experience article, as, unlike web-based shopping, what someone said to you in a shop is hard to verify, whereas with an online shopping article you might get some bored or nosey sub-editor actually looking at the website to see if what you've said in your article is true - which can be a nuisance if you've said that you can buy a brontosaurus from Amazon or something like that. So think carefully about whether online or real-life shopping is the experience for your article.

Shopping For Children
Although over 50% of the homes in the UK don't have children in, it's always a safe bet that an editor will accept an article on shopping for kids at Christmas. Like the 'shopping experience' article, this gives you a lot to work with - the store itself, the experience of trying to find something suitable, and if you write as if you've taken the child shopping with you, you can always end on an emotional note - such as:
"When we got home, Molly looked me in the eye.
'I don't mind about not getting the toy I wanted,' she said, thoughtfully.
'No?' I replied. 'Why's that?'
'Because I enjoyed spending time with you, Mummy. That's all I want for Christmas, really.'
I turned away, so she couldn't see my eyes fill with tears."
Of course, you can also get a lot of mileage out of talking about the latest crazes amongst kids, and how you don't understand them. You can either play this ignorant for humorous effect ('Is an X-Box something to do with Simon Cowell?') or faintly indignant ('When I was growing up, we didn't have games consoles, we were thankful if our Christmas stocking contained a mouldy tangerine and a hardened lump of grandma's excrement'). Don't forget, the semi-nostalgia angle article is like a present without wrapping unless you refer to Raleigh Choppers or Spacehoppers.

Party Season
Many people who work in offices or other shared environs have some kind of work 'do', so this is often a safe bet - as long as you write about it from the standard position, which is that December is an endless whirl of parties for which all female readers must buy new outfits, and at which all male readers will be trying to get a snog from a female member of staff (always try to make this sound like a given, or received wisdom, by giving an example of the sort of department the female in question might work in, but make it sound both casual and plausible - for example, 'the pretty girl in HR' or 'the brunette in goods received').
Regardless of the fact that most people will, at best, have one work do and attend one party thrown by friends, feel free to make December sound like a non-stop carnival of parties, at which all work bashes involve champagne flutes, cocktail dresses and refined environments (as opposed to a meal in the local Harvester, which is more likely to be the reality), and all parties hosted by friends are (if you're writing for a female audience) like something out of a Helen Fielding novel or (if your readers are male) a National Lampoon film.

This Year's Christmas Must-Haves
If you have a page to fill and no time at all, then the Nigella Express of articles is surely 'this year's must-haves'. Take pictures of items from websites or press releases, put in little details of stockists underneath them, repeating until the page is full. If you can find a picture of someone in the public eye using, holding or wearing any of the items, then so much the better.
Remember to use the phrase 'must-haves' in the title or subtitle, or the article will be unfit for print; 'must-have' is a magically-imbued phrase which renders your readers both susceptible and slightly disoriented, so that they'll both feel somehow like they ought to buy whatever random tat you've given pagespace to, whilst simultaneously wiping their memory of the fact that, in the previous issue, you told them that items of an entirely different nature were things they ought to have.
If you do not use the phrase, the article will look like a haphazard collection of images that could have been assembled by an infant with access to a pot of glue and a copy of the latest Argos catalogue and your editor will not consider it a 'must-have' in publication terms.

Last Minute Ideas - Last Resort
If you have to write something shortly before Christmas, and genuinely have nothing at all to say, then the only route left to you is to take the 'last minute' route, and to either write about your own 'trying to get gifts/cook a meal/whatever at the last minute' experience (but do bear in mind this might actually take some effort to create), or - and this is easier - to write an article advising people on what they should do if they find themselves empty-handed (or empty-headed) at this time.
It might seem like a cop-out option, but in fact its timing makes it a sure-fire candidate for publication - not only does it look suitably aligned to the calendar, but the time of year means people tend to have other things on their mind, so the editor's less likely to spot the absence of any real point or merit to the article, and the reader's probably not going to realise that the whole things is just an exercise designed to waste their time and energy to no real purpose.

...Which, of course, applies to these words as well.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Looks As If It Won't All Be Over By Christmas...

You may have noticed I've gone a bit quiet about the US Writers' Strike in the last week or so - the reason for this is simple: things have gone very quiet on that front, because the AMPTP (American Motion Picture and Television Producers - in essence, the major studios) have as good as walked out of the discussions with the Writers Guild of America.

It's all pretty tangled and messy, but it's extremely well summarised and analysed in Robert J Elisberg's report here , but if you can't be bothered to follow the link, then basically what happened went rather like this:

AMPTP: Right, we want you to take your six big issues off the table. Then we can talk.

WGA: No, those are the points at the heart of this. They're the issues we're striking over.

AMPTP: Oh, so you're refusing to talk, eh ? Right, we're off.

And twenty minutes later, the AMPTP issued a press release saying that the WGA was unwilling to talk - as Elisberg notes, that's suspiciously speedy given the number of people such a document would have to go through; a cynical sort might conclude that the AMPTP deliberately brought the talks to a halt because they want to play hardball. And given that they're due to renegotiate contracts with the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild in the next six months or so, you can see why they want to be seen to be tough negotiators. Though the DGA has decided to push back the start of its renegotiations to let the current strike be resolved, and the SAG has recently pledged its support for the WGA, so one could get the feeling that the various unions are pretty much aware of the need to play it tough as well.

The latest I've seen is that the WGA has made two announcements - firstly, that they're willing to negotiate with the studios invidually (so that the 'united' but potentailly competing interests of the six studios don't get in the way), and secondly that they're filing Unfair Labour Practice charges against the AMPTP with the National Labour Relations Board.

I'll be particularly interested to see if the commercial interests of the individual studios make them prone to break ranks and negotiate with the WGA - in a fashion which it seems the AMPTP was rather hoping would happen in relation to the general members of the WGA, and the folks who work on reality TV and animation; it didn't happen there, but since the studios in question are actually in competition with each other (after all, it's not as if Sony, Warners, Disney, Fox, CBS, Paramount, MGM and NBC are obvious bedfellows), it could yet happen.

As ever, I'll let you know what happens. But here's hoping the WGA gets a decent deal for their members, especially in regard to any 'new media' residuals - let's face it, the internet is where it's at, as this blog all too readily demonstrates.

Covered, Yet Bareback

Contrary to what book cover designers would have me believe, I don't actually spend all my time approaching semi-clad women from behind and to the left.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

No Idea When The 2008 Edition Is Due, I'm Afraid

You really don't want to know how I found this enticingly-titled tome, but I think we all know you want to order a copy. Oh yes. Yes you do.

Most other countries are also available - search under 'mucilage' and pick your favourite!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Another Reason To Wear Earphones And Try To Cut Yourself Off From Things, I Guess

Go and take a look at this article. Go ahead, read it through, I'll wait.

Back now? Okay, brace yourself while I rant a bit.

It's an interesting use of technology, sure, but the way that the founder of Holosonics seems utterly oblivious to any possible criticisms speaks, to my mind (though thankfully not into it), volumes about the way that marketing and advertising seems to work nowadays; he seems unable to grasp the idea that as you're walking along, you might not want to have someone trying to advertise directly into your head. Sometimes, when people are doing things, they're actually not ready to be sold or marketed to.

Despite the fact that a lot of advertisers and marketers see their work as some kind of artform, and have successfully duped a lot of people into believing this (testimony to their skills of persuasion, I guess), the underlying reason for their existence is to sell stuff. Call it 'building brands' or whatever you like, but they're just selling stuff, not actually adding anything to the sum of human knowledge. And they seem oddly unaware of how sometimes, just sometimes, there are times and places when you don't want to be advertised to.

This basic concept, it seems, is almost impossible for advertisers and marketers to understand; when I'm at home, I don't want them to call me about books clubs or phone services, and when I'm walking along I don't want someone beaming a message directly into my ear telling me about a TV show or something. The Holosonics development - which I'm hoping doesn't really spread any further - is quite different from an ad on TV, radio, a billboard or even in print, as in all of those situations I have the choice to look away and curtail the advert if I'm not interested. If someone beams an audio ad into your head, then you have no choice as to when it ends. And that, it seems to me, is an unpleasant intrusion.

The specious comments about people 'being sensitive' to it, or comparing it with a loudspeaker annoying large numbers of people at one time (as opposed to individuals - what does he think large bodies of people are comprised of if not individuals?) show a slightly dismissive attitude to the idea that people might not want to be advertised to without permission, doesn't it ? How would this chap care to be bombarded with ads for rival companies as he went about his daily business? Not much, I suspect.

I firmly and sincerely believe - and I appreciate this goes against current thinking in commercial and governmental circles - that there are some places which should be free from advertising and marketing. Schools are a key example - they're places of education, not another potential market where Coke or Walkers or whoever can try to build 'brand loyalty' or some other nonsense. If the thinking goes that adverts should be allowed to go anywhere at all - and I can only conclude that this is so, if there's a belief that beaming them directly into a person's ear is acceptable - why are they not trying to advertise within churches, mosques and synagogues? I think we all know why.

There are, then, some limits on where adverts can be (and indeed, should be) placed, though these ad-free zones certainly seem to be on the decline. And I don't find it in the least bit reassuring to see it implied - through the whole Holophonics sales pitch - that my ear canal is no longer seen as being a private place.

Who knows which orifice is next?

Letter to The X-Factor HR Department, SyCo TV, c/o SyCo Music, Bedford House, 69-79 Fulham High Street, London SW6 3JW

December 12 2007

Dear SyCo TV

I'm writing to apply to become the person who does the music on 'The X-Factor' (not the singing, the incidental stuff).

I've been watching the programme over the last couple of years, and think I've pretty much got the gist of how it works - plus (and this is the most important thing) I also own copies of all Craig Armstrong's film scores, Orff's 'Carmina Burana', and Rod Dougan's 'Furious Angels', so apart from the theme tune (a CD of which I assume would be supplied on day one as part of the new starters package), I think we both know that's the whole series covered.

I'm sure you probably get lots of letters asking to get involved with this programme, though, so by way of an audition, I thought I'd give you some examples of the music I'd play in the various situations that arise in the series.

Public Auditions:
For the bits where Simon and the other judges turn up in some city looking for talent, we want to go big, don't we? So it's obviously the opening bit of Carmina Burana.
But as the audition goes on, and Kate/Dermot/TBC says that things look grim for the judges and the mood is dipping, we want something tense and nervy, but also with a hint that a change could be round the corner, so we go to the old 'is that morse code?' beepy-starting bit from Craig Armstrong's track 'Ruthless Gravity'.
And of course, The X-Factor is nothing without tales of personal tragedy, so as a small child waits to hear about whether they've got through, or someone tells Kate/Dermot/TBC the tale of how they overcome a life-threatening disease or were constantly supported by a now-dead loved one, it's time to play that slow bit of music from Love Actually, 'Mark's Video' also written by Craig Armstrong (don't worry, I know this CD's very rare, but I promise you I have a copy - another example of how perfect I am for this job).
Oh, and I have the 'Psycho' theme on CD too, so we can play that over the footage of contestants who refuse to take no for an answer. I've also got the theme to 'Halloween' available, but let's hope they never get that scary.

Studio Shows:
For that shouty bit at the start when the bloke who sounds like Patrick 'Four Minute Warning' Allen (no, I know he isn't the same chap) tells us it's time to 'face the music', you've been using 'O Verona' from the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack, once again by Craig Armstrong; I think changing it when I take over the job would be fixing something that isn't broken, so I'll leave it as it is. Mind you, I am aware of the challenge this presents - after the opening twenty seconds or so, you have to be careful to stop the track or merge it with something else, or you get the voice of Pete Postlethwaite coming in with the opening lines of the Shakespeare stuff, but don't worry, I can stop the CD in time.
And then, for the filmed bit with the contestants standing on a stage looking all mean and moody, I've got that Rod Dougan CD with 'Clubbed to Death' on it (you know, the one from The Matrix), and that sounds kick-ass. Or we could use it for the bit where the judges stand in front of big air-conditioning fans, looking a bit miffed (presumably as they've somehow got lost and wound up in a warehouse somewhere). I'm a team player, you let me know what you want.
Oh, and as we do the little filmed backstory bit with the contestants where they say how they all want this more than anything and that they would be gutted if they had to go home this week, I think we should go with another sad bit of music from Craig Armstrong - probably from Love Actually again, but maybe a slightly more rousing bit, like 'Restaurant'.

I hope the above gives a flavour of how easily I could fit into your existing setup. As I say, I have all the above on CD, but I could easily put the tracks onto MiniDisc or convert them to .mp3 or .wma files or whatever, and I'd be more than happy to bring my own copies into work. Or, if you wanted me to work from home, I could just post you a compilation of the above tracks and you can send me a cheque.

I don't know who currently does the music for you (mainly because ITV insist on shrinking the credits on the show while they show pictures from whatever's coming next, so I can't make out the small text) but with their imaginative and varied approach to scoring the show I'm sure that they’ll soon be moving on to bigger and better things, so I hope you'll bear me in mind when a vacancy comes up.

Thanks for considering me for this position, hope to hear from you soon.

Lots of Love

PS - Alternatively, I'd be willing to read out the new T&Cs relating to people phoning in to vote for their favourite act: Kate/Dermot/TBC does a terrific job, but I think I could say it more quickly - that way, we can get past the tiresome legal necessities and back to the meat of the show as soon as possible.


(I'll let you know if I hear back from them, of course...)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Released May 1993, Highest UK Chart Position 63

I love the way that the title of the song and the performer's name are put perfectly in order - so as to save infantile people like me from having to make the inevitable joke.

And A Warm Welcome To All Of You Who've Come Here From Google Or Yahoo!

There's a St Trinian's film coming out later this month - I don't know if it's a remake of the originals (or one of them), taken from the original cartoons, a whole new story, or a 'reimagining' (I'm sure you can guess how I feel about that phrase) or what its origin may be, but I might see it, I might not.

Anyway, that's not the point of this post, what I want to talk about here is an element of the whole image of the St Trinian's films, and one which should help garner me a few more hits courtesy of search engines: sexy schoolgirls.

My recollections of the old black and white films are vague and far-off, but I recall being a bit weirded out by the fact that the headmistress was her own brother in drag (I was never quite sure if they were meant to be the same person, which kind of suggests a certain dissociative disorder), or why Arthur Daley used to emerge from the bushes looking shifty. I think I was probably about ten or so the first time I watched (or failed to properly watch) them, but the one thing I used to find a bit disappointing was that the apparently shockingly-naughty schoolkids just didn't seem to be very naughty at all. This might speak more about my behaviour at school (or, rather, misbehaviour), but my recollection of the films seem to be that the 'naughtiness' of the kids usually extended to some scenes where they'd all yell and run at adults with hockey-sticks, and the adults would rather inexplicably be overpowered by them. All very odd.

Still, though my recollection of the St Trinian's films doesn't feature any kind of sexy schoolgirl stuff, the phrase has in itself become a bit of a shorthand for young 'women dressed in short school dress with stockings showing, possibly hair in bunches etc' (which you might imagine would be frowned upon in today's society with paedo-fear and all, but apparently it remains pretty mainstream - I understand the popular music group Girls Aloud are to appear in the new film). The schoolgirl image was all too apparent in the Britney Spears 'One More Time' video - and, of course, in the UK, the School Disco brand (club nights and associated CDs) has been doing big business for years, very much trading on the idea of schoolgirls in a sexualised context (and a weird mix of music from wildly different eras, from what I can see: the aforementioned Britney song, alongside songs from the 80s and Abba and the like, so it's hardly representative of the genuine experience of a school disco for anyone… except maybe teachers or caretakers who've been pressed into helping out, I guess).

My point - and you'll be relieved to know I actually have one - is, I like to think, rather highlighted by the tangled nature of the above paragraph, but it boils down to this: the whole 'sexy schoolgirl' thing is just made up, isn't it ? I was at school for the usual length of time, and at no time did I ever encounter anyone who wore the sort of modified uniform involved in the whole St Trinian's style thing. And apart from possibly in Japan - and that's an uneducated guess born of watching films and reading the odd bit of manga - I don't think that there are any schools which actually have uniforms for female pupils which are even vaguely reminiscent of that look.

On reflection, I can't help but think that the whole thing is not only made up, but probably made up by men in their 30s or beyond with an unhealthy interest in teenage girls (possibly as a result of not being able to talk to them when they were peers). I mean, when I was at school, I looked at some of the girls and thought 'ooh, she's nice', but that was when they were pretty much my only frame of reference for these things, but none of them were wearing that kind of clothing - and let's be honest, when you're a teenage boy, you're onto a bit of a loser as far as the girls in your class (or even year) are concerned, as they're usually more interested in the Sixth Formers. The ones with cars, who can buy drink and cigarettes with impunity (well, with money, but you know what I mean).

All in all, then, I have a sneaking suspicion that people - and by people, on this occasion I mean men - are kind of deluding themselves about this whole thing. There may be a cultural aspect to it - in the same way that the USA doesn't have any kind of 'gas mask fetish', probably because gas masks weren't a feature of life there during World War 2, but here in the UK some people get their jollies from such things - but in a slight echo of my post from the other day, it feels a little bit like the whole 'sexy schoolgirl' thing has little basis in people's genuine experience, and is just a myth which has mutated into a preference which has, itself, made its way into the mainstream. And as with so many things, I think it's worth just taking a moment to examine its roots and see where it came from… and here, I fear, it's probably some older blokes leching at young girls. That's not right, is it ?

You might suggest the reason I'm sceptical about this sort of thing is because, at an age when I was actually spending time with schoolgirls, I wasn't very good at chatting them up, let alone asking them to wear inappropriately sexualised versions of school uniforms, but the fact is, I was pretty happy at the time; I had my comics, a ZX Spectrum, and had accumulated a number of Experience Points for my character in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Not just ordinary Dungeons and Dragons there, note, but Advanced… hmm.

Actually, I might have been aware of the unlikelihood of getting a snog from playing 'AD&D', as there was a joke told at the time which me and my friends laughed at, though not without a stab of self-recognition. The joke, such as it was, went thus:

Q - So, if 'Advanced Dungeons and Dragons' comes after 'Dungeons and Dragons', what comes after 'Advanced Dungeons and Dragons'?
A - Dating.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Unintelligent Design: Recordable Pen

No real need for me to rant at vast length about the stupidity of this existing, I think, as the pointlessness is pretty apparent - to wit: if you've got a pen, why bother recording anything? Why not just write whatever it is you’ve got to remember, even if it’s only on the back of your hand?

Most of these pens only have a recording time of around ten seconds, which just emphasises the sense in using the pen as, duh, a pen, though some of them have (using new digital technology) recording times of up to two hours. Is it genuinely likely that you'll not be able to get to a piece of paper in two hours if you need to? Sure, you could be in the middle of the Sahara or something, but let's face it, in that situation you've got more pressing issues than the presentation that Derek wants to see by the close of play tomorrow.

Ah, you might say, you could use it as a recorder for a long meeting, and then play it back. To which I say counter-ah, how are you going to transcribe the salient points from the meeting - your pen's in use as a playback machine. What's that you say, you'll use it as a pen at the same time? What, and press play and stop repeatedly while you try to keep up with the speed of speech? I doubt it. Huh? What? You'll get a different pen? Ah, so you concede that it's either a pen or a recorder, not both. So why don't you buy a proper recorder, not some executive toy that's neither one thing nor another? Eh? Answer me. I said - oh, stop crying. Just throw the pen away, and we'll let the matter drop.

Recordable pens, then; like the calculator digital watches of the 1980s, an unworkable combination of two different functions - though whereas the calculator watch was too small to work as a calculator and too chunky to work as a watch, the recordable pen actually works against its two aims by providing the possibility of audio or text-based record-keeping, but makes it impossible to use them in tandem. Which is why you should either buy a pen, or a recorder.

I'm reminded of a joke I used to make in my stand-up days (as I'll egotistically call them) about how I was thinking about getting a tattoo, but wanted to get one which I wouldn't be ashamed of in years to come, which would have some resonance for everyone who saw it, and which would mean something to me every time I saw it. The only tattoo that met those criteria, the punchline went, was a tattoo on the back of my hand, saying 'Get Milk'.
And now you understand why there's no live DVD from me on sale this holiday season.

Last Time I Mention This, I Swear. Well, This Year Anyway.

Following on from my arguably self-indulgent post about not reaching my National Novel Writing Month goal, I received (as I suspect many other participants did) a very friendly e-mail from Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, sending the e-mail equivalent of a cup of tea and a reassuring pat on the shoulder, in which he said “Successfully pulling off anything creative given our ridiculously high standards and congenitally overscheduled lives is a miracle, and sometimes that battle just can't be won in a single month”, which I’ll cheerfully admit, made me feel better about it. Thanks, Chris.

Anyway, moving away from me and onto you, my loyal audience, I thought I’d share with you the fact that a number of genuine actual real published authors wrote Pep Talks for people participating in NaNoWriMo, and that these are now available to read on the NaNoWriMo website specifically, here.

Granted, they use a lot of words specific to people writing a novel in a month, but I think that there are many words of wisdom (from, let’s not forget, proper writers) to be found in the Pep Talks – not least in Neil Gaiman’s message, where he rightly says “nobody else is going to write your novel for you”.

Hmm, maybe I should have that printed off and stick up versions of it around the flat, replacing ‘novel’ with ‘screenplay’, ‘radio play’, and any other unfinished items which are currently lurking on my hard drive…

Unintelligent Design: The Waterless Urinal

Welcome, my friends, to a new feature here on the blog - a celebration of all that is pointless and useless in modern design.

It's all too easy to forget, in this age of iPhones and the like, that there's a lot of stuff out there in the world which is ugly, pointless, or doesn't work (or, indeed, all of those things). And so welcome to the first in a projected series of posts intended to shed light on folly in design, whilst giving me an opportunity to rant and rave and possibly even swear. Oh yes.

First up is an item of which I have some experience, but which may be an entirely new item in the eyes of my female readers: the waterless urinal.

It sounds like a joke, but I promise you such things exist - as you can see from the picture above, they're designed without the need for water to rinse out the bowl from an overhanging auto-rinse sump bar or similar. This is because the bowl contains a filtration layer designed to remove the carbamide (or urea) from the urine - and urine is, of course, predominantly water. The water then passes on to the usual outflow pipe. The filters need to be cleaned with specialist foams or sprays, and occasionally replaced.

As you can imagine, the waterless urinal has been quite popular; it uses less water than a standard urinal, so it's both more environmentally friendly, and cheaper to run (a major reason, I'd guess, why the last two places I've worked have had them installed in the gents). Despite its environment- and money-saving credentials, though, waterless urinals are ideally placed to kick off the Unintelligent Design series of posts on my blog for one very simple reason, and that is (drum roll)

They don't work.

Well, perhaps I'm being unfair, and all of the ones ever made and sold apart from the five I've encountered (three in the previous workplace, two in the present) work perfectly well, but that'd not really very likely, is it? As it is, the waterless urinals I've come across all block up in a frankly unsightly manner, though that's not the worst of it - far, far more unpleasant is the smell. It's the smell of urine and chemicals - the sort of odour that you might smell in a grotty underpass, or pick up a whiff of as you pass the doorway of a shop that's closed but unfortunate enough to be close to a pub at chucking-out time on Saturday night. In short: rank.

As I say, these urinals get blocked up, and this appears to be because the plughole at the base is made of some sort of plastic, which starts to rot because of constantly being deluged with urine of varying density, and I'd guess that the urea and other discharged minerals cause it to decay. This, combined with the fact that some people don't just pee into the urinals, but also spit and shed pubic hair into the bowl, means that the plug starts to clog with a number of unplanned-for items, so the urine doesn't pass through as expected, and starts to hang around and smell. Oh, and I'd respectfully suggest that the frequency of application of the appropriate cleaners, and replacement of the filters, should probably take place more often than the manufacturers let on when giving estimated running costs.

The upshot of all this? In essence, gents toilets which smell as if they contain day-old buckets of piss, and urinals which are clogged with pubes and puddles of slowly-darkening urine. Lovely. Granted, it does save money for the organisations that install them - in the short term, at least, I don't know about having to call in the engineers or other facilities management folks - but I think the environmental credentials are pretty arguable, what with the filters that have to be replaced and thrown away, and the chemicals which are introduced into the environment generally.

Don't think I'm some sort of toilet snob here; I've trekked up mountains and roughed it and used toilets that were little more than holes in the ground, and I know that when you need to go, you need to go, but we're not talking about an item for emergency use - the waterless urinal is something that has been thought about, designed, manufactured and sold for use, and in my experience it's far from fit for the purpose.

Frankly, I wouldn't cross the road to wee on one if it was on fire. Though chances are I could smell it from that distance anyway.

Have you been affected by any of the issues covered, or the references to effluvium and excreta, in this post? Do you think the waterless urinal is the greatest invention since the solar-powered tamagochi? Or would you like to share your experiences of urinating into a modern toilet such as the she-inal? If so, then please contact our team of researchers by clicking the comment button below. And for god's sake aim straight, whether ye be man or woman.

Perhaps Dali Should Have Called His Painting 'The Transience Of Memory'

Despite having what many people might consider a shaky grasp of reality, I like to think I have a decent memory. In fact, compared to quite a few people I know, it's a very good memory indeed, because a startling number of people seem all too keen to rewrite events in their mind, for whatever reason. I understand that we often amend our recollections of the past to meet present emotional needs, but … well, that shouldn't extend to blocking things out in their entirety, should it?

To take an unpleasant but true example, some years ago a friend of mine decided to break up with her boyfriend. He took it badly, to say the least, wrestling her into a nearby wardrobe and holding it shut - apparently in an attempt to convince her to stay (yes, that's bound to change her mind, you violent genius! Well done you!). She got out of the wardrobe, got out of the flat they shared, and got on with her life, which is obviously a good thing.
However, not so good was the way she remembered these events a short time later.

"Oh, he wasn't so bad," she said.
"What the hell are you talking about?" I near-shouted. "He was really awful to you at the end!"
"I don't know what you mean. I think a lot of it was my fault, and I -"
"Look," I cut in, "don't give me that. I saw the bruises on your arms."
She stopped talking then, and her face dropped as if something unpleasant had just dawned on her. Because, I realised, she had tried to forget his violence towards her, and put it behind her - to the extent that she'd convinced herself that it hadn't happened.

I seem to come across examples all too often - I referred to an ex denying my involvement in typing her dissertation in this post - and it's worrying to see how people don't even need time to have passed for them to have reframed events; someone I know rewrote their partner saying "You're not putting up that picture in my house" into "We need to have a discussion about the room you're going to put that picture up in" within a matter of minutes.

I'll be honest, I find it maddening and worrying at the same time; maddening because I believe that the present is the result of a gradual and inevitable accretion of events, like layers of paint added to a canvas, and that relationships and situations are examples of this - and how can you have any kind of healthy handle on a relationship or situation if you're always blocking out the truth of it?
And I find it worrying when people seem to be unable to accept and process the meaning of events and actions as they truly are, because … well, that way delusion lies. There's that old adage about 'those who don't learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them', and I think there's a lot of truth to that - but I don't want to have to spend a lot of time working around delusional recollections of empirically verifiable events, nor being treated like some kind of heartless swine because I insist on reminding people of what they actually said as opposed to nodding along with their rewritten version of things.

I appreciate that a lot of people suffer traumas which they'd sooner forget, and I can understand that, but what I'm talking about here are more everyday things, which should be more easily coped with; disagreements with partners or patterns of behaviour which people simply refuse to acknowledge, and all too often repeat over and over again.

What, you may ask, has prompted a lengthy post of such venom on this subject? Well, rather tangentially perhaps, I saw an advert for the Borne Ultimatum DVD which had the tagline 'Remember Everything. Forgive Nothing', and my immediate thought was "Hmm, I dunno if I remember everything exactly, but I remember a hell of a lot more than some people seem to, and as a result I end up forgiving them a lot…"

Well, if not exactly forgiving, then posting a big ranty blog entry, but you know what I mean.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

There's No Way I'm The First Person To Suggest This, I'm Sure

John Simm (of Life on Mars and Doctor Who) and Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) do strike me as looking rather similar... what do you think?

And The Fact I Haven't Blogged Over The Last Couple Of Days Doesn't Make Me Look Prolific Either

Well, November has come to an end, and with it, National Novel Writing Month has finished too.

The aim of Nanowrimo, as I've probably mentioned tiresome times before, is to write a 50,000 novel in one month - at an average of around 1700 words a day. Did I succeed in doing it in 2007, after 2006's unimpressive attempt?

Did I hell.

In fact, I didn't even make it to 5,000 words - 4,300 by my rough count, which is around 8.6%, which is up from last year's 5%, but which is still almost unbearably lame. It's actually quite embarrassing - which is, of course, the point of making a public declaration about this sort of thing, with the aim that the shame will spur one on - but I honestly don't know where the time went in November, or (more importantly) where I could have retrieved the hours I needed to get more done on it.

Which is, all too often, the problem I face with the writing - the day job and the associated commute leave me feeling quite floppy by the end of the day, and BLAH BLAH BLAH… it's all excuses, isn't it? If I truly want to write for a living - and I sincerely believe I do, and that I could be all right (or maybe even better) at it - then I need to make sure that I make time, don't I ?

It's simple, but not necessarily easy - and in that distinction, I suspect, lurks the problem.

Anyway, onwards - Nanowrimo 2007 was a bust for me, but there are other projects to be completed, things to be written, and that can only be done with words as a path is made of stones: by placing one after another until I reach the end.