Tuesday 31 August 2004

The Jews in France.

Dissecting Leftism links to the most damning picture of contemporary France I've yet seen — and that's saying something. The author, Nidra Poller, moved to France from the US in 1972, because she preferred Europe to the US, and European Socialism to American consumerism. And now look.

I’m being treated to a poignant lesson in European and Jewish history. The 30’s: why did they stay? Why didn’t they run for their lives? Couldn’t they see what was happening? I see before me a vivid demonstration of the deep roots we dig to make our lives bloom, the intricate biology of a human life, irrigated with the lifeblood of a community, inextricably connected to a society, born of life to give life to keep life alive. Leaving is not packing up and tipping your hat goodbye. It is tearing live flesh out of a living matrix.

I am, or was, the first American-born generation in a family that fled Europe before World War I: a lesson in the wisdom of leaving before it is too late. Now I am the first stage in the story of a three-generation "French" family. Why don’t people just pick up and go while they still can? It’s always the same. There is an ailing grandmother, a son in medical school, a daughter who just got married, a business too good to throw away and not good enough to sell. There are in-laws and obligations and unfinished business and . . . hope. Hope that it will all blow over. That people will come to their senses, reason win out, normal life resume. And so, blinded by hope, people minimize danger and cling to an imagined stability.

Jews are being persecuted every day in France. Some are insulted, pelted with stones, spat upon; some are beaten or threatened with knives or guns. Synagogues are torched, schools burned to the ground. A little over a month ago, at least one Jew was savagely murdered, his throat slit, his face gouged with a carving knife. Did it create an uproar? No. The incident was stifled, and by common consent—not just by the authorities, but by the Jews.


Letters to the editor.

Ah, the cut and thrust of international debate. My new blog has spawned some interesting correspondence. One of my readers, a Mr Derick Kluvert of the Netherlands, writes:








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It's an interesting hypothesis, certainly, but I feel that Mr Kluvert is being a tad disingenuous.

Janet Jackson's political analysis.

Janet Jackson, clearly under the impression that the world looks to members of her family for sensible advice, confirms Alice Cooper's thesis by (a) claiming that she exposed her tit by accident, and (b) blaming President Bush for exploiting that "accident" for publicity purposes. I am quite amazed that she didn't just go the whole hog and accuse Dubya of engineering the incident through misuse of the CIA's clandestine garment sabotage unit.

Anyway, are the last four words of this piece hilarious, or what?

Microsoft VBA help files.

Are utter crap.

That is all.

Criminal law & the Right.

Another post, another link to Crime & Federalism, who asks a good question:

Conservatives distrust the government to regulate almost every area of law. Why then do they love almost every criminal law? Why do they suddenly become 'law and order' when criminal laws are at issue, but not other government regulations?

(Note to UK readers: we're talking about American Conservatives here, not British ones, who, for all their historical alliance, are a quite, quite different kettle of wankers.)

Well, I've got a bunch of answers to this one. Firstly, Conservatives often say that the state's only legitimate job is to protect its citizens; everything else is outside their remit. You may or may not agree with that, but I think it clears any charges of hypocrisy over the law.

Secondly, criminal law generally has a lot less grey area and, therefore, scope for government interference and political manipulation than other areas of government regulation. Theft is easy to define: property belongs to one person; someone else takes it. Yeah, there are some cases of disputed ownership, but they're relatively rare. Same with murder: if you kill someone and it wasn't in self-defense (or, if you live in the UK, even if it is), that's murder. And murder and theft and fraud and rape don't tend to get redefined depending on who's in government right now — at least, not to that great an extent. If you commit a murder today, you're doing something that is illegal now and was equally illegal in 1800, while environmental building regulations, for instance, change every year or so. There's a strong argument that society benefits from its citizens' knowing the law, and it's easier to know the law when it stays the same. People don't steal or murder accidentally, but they do accidentally break all sorts of obscure regulations.

Then there's the Law of Unintended Consequences. Murder and theft and fraud have been illegal for centuries, so we know what a society that prohibits them looks like. With new laws, we really have no idea. When a law is going to have wide-ranging effects on society and we don't know what a lot of those effects are, it's right to be wary about it.

And, of course, a lot of conservatives don't want to see any new criminal laws. When we libertarians (who have a place in the American Conservative movement but not in the British one) talk about law & order, we mean that we want the existing laws to be enforced properly. Many of us think that the way to improve law & order is actually to reduce the number of criminal laws but to enforce them more strictly and consistently. These days, introducing new laws in the light of some disaster or atrocity has become the standard political reaction, even when those laws are totally unnecessary. The obvious example of this in the UK is the bannning of guns. Thomas Hamilton walked into a school and gunned down a load of kids. Yes, it was an appalling atrocity, and I for one wish the bastard hadn't shot himself so that we could have had the satisfaction of reintroducing the death penalty for him. But what seemed to be missed in the outcry was the somewhat obvious fact that murder is illegal. Hamilton knew it was illegal to shoot children, but he did it anyway. Yet campaigners seemed genuinely to believe that making it illegal to own a gun would somehow stop this sort of thing from ever happening again — that men who were perfectly willing to break the law prohibiting murder would balk at using an unlicensed weapon. And the result of the ban? Spiralling gun crime, unsurprisingly. There's nothing inconsistent about opposing excessive legislation, even criminal legislation, while wanting to see improved law & order.

Date cute heathen guys.

I am eternally grateful to Crime & Federalism for showing me the way to Date To Save, a women's guide to the art of missionary dating, which isn't what one might hope.

Hello, my name is Tamara! As you can probably tell, I'm a Christian who loves Jesus and cares for all humans, even the wicked. What you probably don't know is that I'm hot. ... I want to use my beauty for GOD, and want to encourage my sisters in Christ to do the same ...

Not only can we date cute guys, but hopefully we can lead them to God and save them from the burning fires of Hell.

Sounds like a win-win situation to me: go out with a beautiful woman and avoid an eternity of torture at the hands of demons. Oh, except that you'd have to listen to her.

Jesus told us to reach the "outermost parts of the world." I mean, I'm not going to fly to Kenya and date some guy who eats worms, but I think for me, "outermost parts of the world" means all the hot guys that live around me here in Fremont, California. But, God told me not to be a polygamist, so the goal would be to dump your boyfriend before witnessing to your next one.


Contingency plans.

Dr No, apparently, is the nickname of Robert Giovacchini, one of Gillette's lawyers, who does an impressively imaginative job of tweaking the company's products so that they don't get sued.

[He] has forced ... a reduction of the amount of apricot aroma used in Earth Born shampoo so the lingering apricot scent on freshly shampooed hair won't attract bees.

This is genius at work, I tell you.

Monday 30 August 2004

Insane or stupid?

The offensiveness-banning culture of modern control freaks got well beyond a joke a long, long time ago, yet still it manages to surprise me.

A Dutch group wants to ban the word 'thin' from the dictionary because it's insulting to underweight people.
The organisation wrote to Dutch dictionary publishers Kramer and Van Dale asking them not to include the word.

Does the Dutch word for "thin" lose something in translation, or what? 'Cause it's just not sounding all that offensive to me in English.

The dictionary publishers responded with a terrible heresy against Socialist principles:

"We publish a dictionary of spoken and written Dutch. The word 'thin' is part of it. You don't change a language by just erasing a word."

Honestly, you'd think a publisher of dictionaries would know better. That's exactly how you change a language, not to mention its underlying culture. Of course, to succeed, you need to do more than merely change the dictionaries: you need to establish a predominant culture of absolute terror of authority, too. Stalin forced Russian dictionaries to define the word "initiative" as "Seeking for the best way to carry out an order." So these idiotic skinny people are, I think, showing a shrewd understanding of history and politics here. There aren't many of them, so any attempt on their part to throw a proper revolution would surely be utterly quashed, but they can lobby the evil dictionary companies, and then they can lobby the government to force people to obey the dictionary.

Mark my words: having failed to acquiesce, the dictionary publishers will find themselves being sued.

At the root of evil.

Harry's Place links to this interview with Mikis Theodorakis. It's fascinating and sickening, and tells you all you need to know about modern European Jew-hatred.

Every day that has passed since 9/11 has made me more ashamed to be European.

Friday 27 August 2004

Futility in the face of evil.

One of the more distressing aspects of modern life is the way we're expected to sit back and watch as genocide happens, yet again, and our "leaders" do fuck all about it, yet again.

So I support these guys, who want, through the twin miracles of banners and shouting, to shame the UN into stopping the Darfur genocide. Good luck to them. I really, genuinely hope they succeed. But they won't.

They're demonstrating at the UN. Why? I could understand it if their rationale were the same as that behind demonstrating against apartheid outside the South African Embassy, but I don't think it is: these people aren't expressing their outrage at what the UN are doing; they're trying to persuade the UN to act, to save the day. You'd think, by now, that even the most naive would have noticed that the UN have acted and are acting: they are helping this genocide, in hundreds of different ways. That's what the UN do.

So, like I said, best of luck, but you're doing it all wrong, guys. Don't demonstrate outside the UN, asking them to help the world's oppressed. They won't. For the most part, they're the oppressors. Demonstrate outside the Whitehouse, asking Bush to chuck the UN out of New York and stop funding them. You'd be amazed how much less genocide there'd be with the UN gone.

Oh. My. God.

And there was me thinking I had become so used to modern left-wing stupidity that it had lost its ability to shock me. Nope. From The Policeman's Blog:

Routine arrests can only be arranged between 8:00am and 10:00pm. You probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that my force has determined that arresting people outside these times contravenes their human rights

Some enterprising spark should commission a totally realistic cop show set in modern Britain.

Thursday 26 August 2004

I don't understand baseball.

But I love Tim Dorsey.

It was the Year of the Curse. The Red Sox led the Yankees in Game 7 of the American League championship until they fell victim, once again, to the Curse of the Bambino. And in the National League, the Chicago Cubs were ahead in Game 7 until the Curse of the Goat, which means not only did they lose, but they're stuck with the stupidest curse ever. If you've already decided to have a lame curse, I say, why stop at goat? "The Cubs lose another heartbreaker in extra innings as the Hex of the Yellow-Banded Carpet Weevil lives on."


Where do people learn these things?

A phone conversation I had a few minutes ago (with the names changed, obviously):

"Hello, could you give me Ron Klein's email address, please?"

"It's Ron dot Klein at Percival dot com."

"Is that the wee 'at' symbol?"


"Is that the wee 'at' symbol or A-T, the word 'at'?"

"It's the 'at' symbol; it's an email address."

"Oh, yes, I know; it's just that a lot of them are using the actual word A-T now."

Strange electoral tactics.

No surprise here that Senator Kerry appears to have been getting his own biography wrong yet again. I'd be surprised if even his most staunch defender were to describe him as "reliable". His campaign are offering the absurd defense that they got confused between the names of Bob Kerrey and John Kerry. It's not absurd to confuse the names; it's absurd not to ask the guy whose presidential campaign you're supposed to be running what political jobs he's held. Or, if they did ask him, it's absurd that he didn't know. (Yes, I am being terribly charitable.)

Anyway, none of that is even the point of this post. The really weird thing is that Kerry's campaign claimed that he was on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 1995 to 2001, while Dubya's team claimed that Kerry was on the SSCI from 1993 to 2001. Either Bush is right, in which case Kerry is lying in order to make his own achievements look smaller, or Kerry is right, in which case Bush is (for once) lying in order to make his opponent look better than he really is. What kind of fucked-up election is this?

I was predicting a Bush win, but I had kind of assumed that both candidates understood how elections work and were at least slightly sane. Looks like I was wrong. Since both candidates are trying hard to sabotage their own campaigns, or are so incompetent that they might as well be, this one's now totally unpredictable.

Wednesday 25 August 2004

Customer service.

Photon Courier discusses this piece by Jim Jubak about atrocious customer service. I have some observations.

Firstly, this is American customer service that's being discussed. Brits who visit the US are often amazed by how good their customer service is, and Americans who visit the UK can't get over how bad ours is (unless, of course, they come via France). So the implication of this article seems to be that American customer service has got so bad that it's crippling their economy — but is still better than ours. How I wish that were surprising.

Secondly, I have to say that David (that's Mr Photon) is dead right that good customer service doesn't require more employees or more technology. In fact, I would go so far as to say that every bit of bad customer service I experience is down to one thing, and it's not technology or staff numbers: it's attitude; specifically, the attitude of management towards customers. This attitude shapes the way that technology is used and influences the number of staff that are hired, but they're just symptoms of the underlying attitude: give the persistent offenders, like, say, Ikea, more staff and better technology, and they will still piss their customers off, until their managers learn how to treat them.

I used to work for a company who weren't called Farmec, who were one of the world's largest (sometimes the largest, depending how the competition were doing) providers of customer resource management solutions. (Why they couldn't just call themselves a call centre provider, I don't know. OK; contact centre, then. Still better than "Hi. I'm in CRM provision." Jesus wept.) What companies like Farmec do is they provide the customer service wing of your company for you, usually in the form of a call centre. The idea is that you might run a company who are brilliant at making widgets and inventing new uses for widgets, but you haven't got a clue how to deal with customers when they start complaining about sub-standard widgets, so you hire a CRM provider, and they do all your customer service for you. Working for one of these firms is fascinating, because you have loads of different clients (I could be helping to organise a dozen or so different call centres at the same time) and, as you have to put their customer service policies into practice, you get to see the differences between their attitudes. And those differences are huge.

Bear in mind that none of the disastrously bad customer service practiced by any of Farmec's clients was the fault of underinvestment in technology. Part of the point of hiring a CRM provider is that, since they specialise in customer service and nothing else, they invest heavily in the latest customer-service-orientated technology.

Here's one simple example of bad practice. A leading UK company, who aren't called ME, routinely hire at least two different CRM providers to fulfill different parts of their call centre function. This is actually a pretty good idea: you get to compare their performance and choose whose contract to renew when the time comes. But what ME also do is they absolutely refuse to give the different firms each other's phone numbers. So you, the customer, ring ME; you get an IVR ("Press 2 to wonder what the hell's going on," etc), and, depending on which choices you make, you don't just get through to different departments; you get through to entirely different companies, none of whom have each other's phone numbers. What if you make the wrong choice? You wanted to talk to someone about maximising your synergies and you've accidentally got through to someone who can only synergise your maxims.

"Can you put me through to the right department, then, please?"

"No, sorry; you'll need to call back and choose option 17 this time."


It's just one tiny example — from, I have to say, one of Farmec's better clients at customer service — but it speaks volumes. ME's customers complain about it all the time, and ME know it. Farmec, being customer service experts, knew that it was a bad idea and kept asking ME for the necessary phone numbers so that they could put their customers through when necessary, but ME refused those requests. What does this say about ME's attitude to their customers? Well, firstly, it's interesting that they ignore Farmec's advice. Farmec's entire raison d'etre is customer service expertise. The firm was founded by a man who got so pissed off with the crap customer service provided by companies that he set out to do it better. When you hire Farmec, you pay them a hell of a lot of money, and one of the things you're paying for is their expert advice. You then ignore that advice. What sense does this make? Funnily enough, even though it's a totally senseless thing to do, almost every one of Farmec's clients do it. Why?

Well, it's all about control and internal discipline. The decision to outsource customer service is a big one, usually taken by the guys at the top. But the exact details of how the outsourcing is going to work are relatively small decisions, typically delegated to underlings. These underlings typically believe that the best way to make sure everything runs smoothly is to control every detail. And their managers don't realise that the decision to outsource, if it is not to be sabotaged by micromanagement, needs to be immediately followed by an injunction to their own staff not to interfere. One of the results of this is scripts. Even though everyone knows that customers hate talking to someone who's reading a script and that the best thing to do is to hire staff who can actually conduct a conversation, the middle-managers who are about to lose control over part of their company want to retain that control, so they start to specify exactly which words may or may not be said to customers, exactly what way the conversation must progress, exactly which types of conversation may occur. (One leading car manufacturer actually forbids its staff from using the word "car".) So Farmec, having put in some considerable effort to hire staff who are good at customer service, end up being forced to hobble those staff to such an extent that they may as well just have used monkeys with vocoders. More to the point, their clients may as well not have hired them.

Secondly (yes, there is a "firstly" somewhere back there), ME may have entirely legitimate reasons for not wanting their different providers — who are, after all, competitors — to contact each other, but the big mistake they are making is in giving these reasons greater weight than the desire to give their customers good service. They have lost sight of the ultimate simple truth of outsourcing: your customers don't give a shit about it. You can hire whomever you want to do whatever you want for you, but, from your customers' point of view, it's all internal company organisation that holds no interest for them. The moment anything you do makes life more difficult for your customers, you'd better have a good explanation for it that does not involve any reference to the way you choose to organise your firm, because how you organise is your decision. Somerfield supermarkets, for instance, refuse to give their till staff enough free reign to void an item scanned in error. Voiding an item could be some type of fraud. So every time the reader accidentally scans an item twice (a regular occurence), a manager has to be called to turn their special supervisor's key in the till. This manager is often in the middle of an exciting conversation about Eastenders, so this can take a while. Now, I don't know how Somerfield's accounts work, and am quite willing to believe that there is a big hole in their system that would allow their staff to defraud them if they could only void erroneously scanned items. But what Somerfield have failed to realise is that their decision to treat all their own staff as criminals is less important than the delay their procedure is causing their customers: they're so absorbed in their internal organisation that they've forgotten to look at their actual job. Which neatly brings us on (at least, I think it does) to the way that many companies can't tell the difference between a company policy and a law of physics.

American Express (never having worked for them, I gleefully name the incompetent bastards) are a good example. I once called them to draw their attention to a missing payment: I had paid them by bank transfer and the money had not reached my account. As is normal for a credit card company, they took all the payment details, then promised to look into it and call me back. This usually takes a few days and usually results in their finding the money and crediting it to your account. A couple of days later, I got a call from one of their staff, who informed me that my account was overdue and asked me to pay immediately by Switch. I explained to her that I had already paid and that I was waiting for a call back from one of her colleagues who was trying to find the money. She, bizarrely, informed me that this was in fact that call back and that she was the one looking for the money that AmEx had mislaid. So why had she started the conversation by demanding money? Well, she explained, she had to. There then followed a long argument in which it transpired that (a) American Express have a policy that any member of staff who contacts any customer whose account is overdue must start the conversation by telling them how much money they owe and demanding immediate payment, no matter what, and (b) American Express's staff are incapable of telling the difference between something that they have to do because their bosses tell them to and something that the company simply has to do. This makes for frustrating conversations, of a type that are distressingly common these days:

"Why are you treating your customers like crap?"

"Sorry, but we have to do that."

"No, you don't."

"Yes, we do. It's the rules."

"They're your rules. Change them."

"We can't do that. They're rules."

This is certainly a novel excuse: tell your customers that not only are you treating them badly, but that you've made it company policy for all your staff to treat them badly. It is strange that this is usually offered as an explanation intended to placate customers, and it is stranger still that so many firms are baffled by its failure to do so.

The most egregious offender, in pretty much every way, is Ikea. Their managers believe that long queues (sometime twenty minutes or more) are just part of the Ikea experience for their customers, so staff accordingly. They outsource their delivery function, but expect their customers to handle the outsourcing on their behalf, insisting that the delivery firm, whom they have chosen to hire, are nothing to do with them. They use Soviet-style division of labour, because (presumably) it makes life easier for them, not caring that it makes life much harder for their customers. Simple example: buying a kitchen and having it delivered (and does anyone buy a whole kitchen without having it delivered?). First, you queue up in the kitchen section to speak to a kitchen advisor who orders all the parts from the warehouse for you and gives you a printed inventory, but who doesn't take payment, because that's not their job. You then go and join the queues at the main tills, present them with the inventory, and they take your payment, but they don't give you your kitchen, because that's not their job. You might think, at this stage, that you could leave them your address and leave it to them to organise the delivery, but you'd be dead wrong. No, you take the receipt to another long queue, and eventually hand it to someone who gives you all your kitchen components. If you want them delivered, you then take them (which isn't easy) to another queue, where you hand them over to Ikea's designated delivery firm (to whom Ikea have given a desk in their own building but who they insist are absolutely nothing to do with them), who painstakingly scan every single component of the kitchen before arranging delivery for you. Insane.

So chuck technology and/or staff at Ikea's faults, and what will happen? Absolutely nothing. Part of the problem is that they're using four staff to do a job for which B&Q would use just one. Whichever idiot manager thought that one up isn't going to turn suddenly clever when you give them more staff. And the technology needed to take payment and arrange delivery has existed for centuries. The problem lies in Ikea's attitude towards their customers, which is that they should count themselves privileged to be shopping in Ikea. That attitude is all that has to change. And changing it is free.

Bank with First Direct. They're just great.

[ Updated at 13:46 ]

Aye, right.

Damian claims that he had nothing to do with this masterpiece. And, you know, before he issued such a carefully thought out and thoroughly sneaky denial, I didn't think he had.

Tuesday 24 August 2004

Attitude versus policy.

Here's a brilliant article by Bret Stephens in the Jerusalem Post about the difference between the French attitude to Islamist extremism abroad and French policy towards Islamist extremism at home.

Since 1995, when an Algerian Islamist group called GIA killed eight people with a nail bomb in the Paris Metro, there has not been a single terrorist incident in France. This is ... because the French fight Islamic militants in ways that would make Israeli Shin Bit chief Avi Dichter proud and US Attorney General John Ashcroft envious.

... This year, eight Muslim imams have been deported from the country under a 1945 emergency law for preaching "discrimination, hatred or violence against a certain person or groups of persons." The judicial system has staged mega-trials of terrorist suspects – 100 at a time, in one instance. Suspects can be held without trial for years. Torture is not uncommon: According to a BBC report, the British High Court has blocked France's extradition request of Rachid Ramda, wanted in connection to the 1995 bombing, on grounds that "the evidence against him had been beaten out of one of the bombers by the notoriously tough French anti-terrorist police."

... France is not hypocritical: It simply holds contradictory positions. Or to put it more precisely, France has attitudes and it has policies. And while the two are frequently confused (often by the French themselves) they serve radically different functions: the former is psychological; the latter is political. To have an attitude is a way of saying, this is who I am. It's a matter of self-identification. To have a policy is to say, this is what I'm going to do about it. It's a matter of will and capacity.

And, of course, the French have no real international capacity, hence their policies have no real consequences outside France, so all we get from them is attitude.

The result is what one might call attitude inflation, which in turn arises from the de-linking of attitude from policy. That is, if you don't actually have to do something about your attitudes you're likelier to have more of them, and they are bound to be both more extravagant and more unrealistic.

Bret Stephens is clearly a man who understands the French.

Pets meet politics.

Well, we went to meet Socks yesterday, and he's lovely: sweet natured, friendly, a head-butter (cat-owners know what I mean by that; the rest of you will just have to marvel at how mysterious we are), and he drools when he's happy, which is whenever anyone picks him up. We're definitely going to adopt him, just as soon as we get our new house.

Anyway, it really is a funny old world. When I was a kid, we had a springer spaniel called Millie. She was great. President George H W Bush also had a springer spaniel called Millie. President Bill Clinton had a cat called Socks. We were clearly destined to adopt this cat. And I am equally clearly destined to be the leader of the free world.

Unintended consequences.

Further to my post about racism in South London, in which I wondered why once genuinely mixed populations seem to have become racially polarised, I've come across this piece on Spiked, which explains why.

A raft of new legal and policy measures was initiated to eradicate institutional racism - the most significant of which was the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000. This places a duty on over 43,000 public authorities to 'promote…good relations between persons of different racial groups' - effectively requiring bodies to prevent acts of racial discrimination before they occur. Social institutions such as the police force, education system, and health service are now legally obliged to monitor people's interaction with each other in order to tackle racism.

But the more public authorities talk about racism and devise anti-racist policies, the more they racialise people's everyday experience. It seems that everyone today is seen as a potential racist who needs to be monitored and every member of an ethnic minority as a potential victim of racism.

It's sad, is what it is.


Political Correctness Watch brings this nonsense to my attention.

A businesswoman has been banned from asking for 'hard-working' staff in a job ad because it discriminates against the lazy.

Yes, really.

There's no work left for satirists in our society.

A new type of microwave.

BusinessPundit has found this amazing new device.

Unveiling its invention Monday to the media, Sharp said the microwave generates "superheated steam" at a temperature of about 572 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt fat and reduce oil and salt from steak, chicken, fish and other foods.
The company said the new oven can remove eight times more fat off a 200 gram beefsteak than if prepared in a frying pan, leading to a 13 percent reduction in calories.
But reducing the fat and calories of your meals will come at a price. Sharp said it expected the "AX-HC1" to sell for about ¥126,000, or $1,153, several times the price of a typical microwave oven that might retail in Japan for around ¥20,000.

Fascinating technology, but will anyone buy such a pricy bit of kit when George Foreman's grills are so cheap?

Monday 23 August 2004

No free speech in this election.

The always-interesting Overlawyered points to a couple of articles by George Will illustrating the problems arising from the atrocity that is the McCain-Feingold "campaign finance reform" legislation. It's difficult to know what to say about a law that destroys freedom of speech being passed in the nation which, traditionally, has had greater freedom of speech than any other, except that any of those eejits who insist that there's virtually no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats have their work cut out explaining this one.

Freedom: you're either for it or you're against it.

Rock stars are morons.

Andrew draws my attention to this gem:

If you're listening to a rock star in order to get your information on who to vote for, you're a bigger moron than they are. Why are we rock stars? Because we're morons. We sleep all day, we play music at night and very rarely do we sit around reading the Washington Journal.
— Alice Cooper


A delicious fish pie.

Everyone who ate this on Saturday says it was just the best fish pie, like, ever, so I shall now share the recipe.

You will need:
Fish. Whatever kind you like. I usually use half-and-half smoked and unsmoked fish. On Saturday, it was smoked coley, which is dirt cheap and very tasty, and salmon fillet. I was going to get haddock, but the salmon was cheaper, wonderfully enough. If I remember correctly, I had about 300g of each, but don't go relying on that figure.
Eggs. I used 3.
2 or 3 Leeks.
An onion.
A handful of cheese. Mature cheddar's always a good bet. It is verily the king of cheese. Don't use Scottish cheddar, though: it's shite.
Double cream.

Hard-boil the eggs.

Chop the fish into chunk-sized chunks and put them, higgledy-piggledy, in an oven dish. Chop the hard-boiled eggs into quarters and place them amongst the fish. Grind a bit of salt and plenty of black pepper onto it all.

Dice the onion and chop the leeks, and fry them in a little oil. Keep frying them for, oh, ages, stirring occasionally.

Grate the cheese. Make a bechamel sauce. (This is done by melting some butter in a saucepan, adding a bit of flour and mixing them together, heating all the while, then gradually adding milk and stirring continuously until you get a smooth white sauce. If you've never done this, you might need a couple of practice runs to do it non-lumpily.) Add black pepper, some nutmeg, and as much grated cheese as you like to the sauce, and keep stirring until all the cheese has melted. You might want to add salt to the sauce, but it depends on the type of cheese. Mature cheddar is pretty salty, so I didn't.

Make sure the heat under the frying onions and leeks is turned up to maximum, and pour some double cream over them. Let that simmer for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Then pour it into the cheese sauce. Stir them together, then pour the mixture over the fish.

Cover the pie with breadcrumbs, then cover the breadcrumbs with grated cheese, then add another layer of breadcrumbs. Grind plenty of pepper and salt over the top.

Stick it in a medium oven (that's heat, not size) for half an hour or so.

Eat. Enjoy.


"But what do I do with the parsley?" I hear you cry. You chop it up and have a little bowl of it on the table to sprinkle over your pie as you see fit. Or you put it in the cheese sauce. Or both.

Friday 20 August 2004


The always-fascinating Language Log has posted this brilliant piece about the correct use of the word "he". They offer the following simple example of why it is not a gender-neutral word:

Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself.

Quite. One of those things that is very obviously wrong, once you bother to stop and think about it.

The commonest way to get around the gender problem here is to use singular they: ... Either the husband or the wife has perjured themself. Shakespeare used it; Jane Austen used it; loads of fine authors use it. Get used to it. And if you have a usage book like Strunk and White that declares singular they to be an error, throw that book away.

I'd changed my mind about this one before, and now I've just done it again. I have thought for a long time that anyone who claims that "they" may not be used singularly is being ridiculous, but I had thought that "he" could be used neutrally. No more. Language Log have got me convinced.

No hypocrisy involved.

OK, I can see why some people might think that this is hypocritical in the extreme. Build a fence to keep out murderers who are determined to kill your citizens, and the EU castigate you for human rights abuses, war crimes, fascism, and having hooked noses. Yet not only is it perfectly OK to build a far larger security fence to keep out people who are, er, looking for work, but it's actually a pretty good idea to hire some of the fascist war criminals to do the work for you — after all, they're experts at it now, the bastards, and, let's face it, they'll probably put in a lower bid than everyone else.

However, I put it to you that absolutely no hypocrisy is involved in this decision. The two situations are totally different. You see, Europeans have never had a problem with Jews who work for Europeans. They're intelligent, hard-working, and know their place. Even the National Socialists were more than happy to employ Jews, though the two groups didn't see eye-to-eye over their conditions of employment, particularly in relation to health and safety. No, the problem Europeans have with Jews is that sometimes they get all uppity and try things like self-sufficiency and self-defense, which are clearly not on. So there is really nothing hypocritical in the EU's stance: the issue isn't under what conditions it is reasonable to build a fence; the issue is simply one of what the hell those damned Jews think they're doing. As long as what they think they're doing is working for Europeans, that's fine, and working for Arabs is probably OK too, but they'd better not try and work for (in ascending order of badness) other Jews, Americans, themselves, or Israel. And self-defense is just verboten.

Glad we cleared that up.

Keep fit the natural way.

The trouble with reading this sort of thing at work is that trying to contain my laughter just makes everything that much funnier and so my laughter gets worse and I have to try all the harder not to laugh and that just makes everything funnier still and then I have to hide under my desk.

Thursday 19 August 2004

There's such a fine line between clever and stupid.

Not only that, but there is a fine line between walking the fine line between clever and stupid and triumphantly skipping along several miles into the clever side, and that is the fine line that Fafblog treads. If you have not read Fafblog, go read Fafblog.

One week after the California Supreme Court annulled over over 4,000 gay marriages in San Francisco, the Medium Lobster is pleased to report that marriage is already strengthening in America.

Marriage - once thought to have been destroyed beyond repair due to the dual throbbing sodomite assault in both Massachusetts courtrooms and upon the late, lamented Federal Marriage Amendment - has been notably strengthened since the decision. Divorce rates have plummeted throughout not only California, but the nation in general. Rush Limbaugh, the Medium Lobster is given to understand, is getting back together with not just one, but all three of his ex-wives. California governor and gay marriage opponent Arnold Schwarzenegger has noted that he will continue to grope and manhandle strange women, but now when he does so, he will do it in order to lovingly honor his sacred bonds of matrimony. And Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has sprouted five new penises with which he may deposit fertilizing seed within the womb of his Godly, heterosexual wife.

(Yes, those lines are non-Euclidean. And fine.)

Wednesday 18 August 2004

Copyright and irony.

Good article here about the problems of modern copyright law and the way the law's original intent is being twisted by corporations. All very well and good, but not why I'm linking to it. Go read the copyright notice at the bottom.

Stomachs are not combustion engines.

G comments on my last post thusly:

I think there's a danger that in much the same way that people erroneously believe low-fat stuff is by definition good for them (something that isn't helped by misleading packaging), they'll believe that low-carb stuff is low in calories (when in many cases, it's anything but).

To which I reply, "Ah, the calorie falacy."

Firstly, I think G's plain wrong about people being misled: no-one who buys this food thinks that low-carb stuff is low in calories, because people who are into low-carb diets tend to believe that their weight loss and weight gain don't depend on their calory intake. Secondly, these people are right.

By now, the Atkins Diet is sufficiently popular that most of us know at least one person who has lost loads of weight while living on a diet of steak, fried eggs, dripping, bacon grease, and lard. Regardless of how well we may understand the biochemistry behind it, it should be clear to everyone by now that it's not the calorificity of a food that determines how fattening it is. Yet everyone still clings on to this belief that the way you lose weight is by cutting your calory intake; people still talk about taking in less energy than you expend. Trouble with this is, your body is not a simple mechanical input/output device.

A food's calory count (for those of you that don't know) is a measure of the amount of energy you get out of that food by burning it. And that's not "burning" it as in going for a run; it's actually burning it, by setting it alight. As you may have noticed, this rarely occurs in your stomach, for sound evolutionary reasons.

Simple example: wood. Wood is dead high in calories. That's what makes it such a great fuel. So, if I eat nothing but sawdust for a week, I'll put on loads of weight, right? This is obviously bollocks. (Well, I might put on weight if I get constipated, but I wouldn't put on fat.) Humans don't eat wood. It'd pass right through me, mostly undigested. Because, as we all know if we stop to think about it, our digestive systems treat different foods in different ways. This is because we convert fuel into energy not by burning it, but through chemical reactions, and different foods are made of different chemicals. Furthermore, our biochemisty adapts to changes in our diet, which is why cutting out carbohydrate completely has such an extreme effect, as Dr Atkins discovered.

The calory-intake model works very well for steam engines: you can chuck any old shit on the fire, so long as it burns. With animals, more sophistication is required.

Tuesday 17 August 2004

The evil Nestle.

I've heard a lot from left-wingers over the years about how Nestle are basically child-murdering racist criminal Nazis — and, I have to admit, I used to be one of those left-wingers and various people heard a lot about it from me. Sorry about that. Anyway, they've just launched a new range of low-carb sweets, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to sing their praises.

There is currently an obsession in our society with low-fat food. Most manufacturers respond to this by making "diet" versions of sweets, biscuits and puddings which are low in fat but preposterously high in sugar. If you're diabetic (as is my wife), this is an utter pain in the arse. Even if you're not diabetic, more and more research is showing that carbohydrates make you put on weight every bit as much as, or even more than, fat. After decades of denouncing him as a quack, the medical and dietary establishments are gradually realising that Atkins was on to something. If you're diabetic, and so have to consciously control your body's levels of insulin rather than leaving it up to your subconscious, you get to see the process in action, and it becomes amazingly obvious that carbohydrates and sugars are converted into fat quickly and easily.

Yet, despite the growing evidence, and despite the millions of people voting with their feet and switching to Atkins-inspired diets, manufacturers are ignoring the demand. Pick up a bit of "diet" food in your local supermarket and read the nutritional information: it is incredibly rare for them to have replaced any of the sugar with sweeteners — in fact, they often add more sugar to make up for the dearth in taste caused by removing all that yummy fat. So, thank you, Nestle, for the new low-carb versions of Rolo and Kit Kat. You can find the nutritional info here — it's astonishing just how little carbohydrate they've managed to put into products traditionally made of sugar, biscuit, and caramel. I've tasted the Kit Kat, and it is pretty much indistinguishable from the real thing.

Let's just make this absolutely clear: these products will genuinely improve many people's health and quality of life — not because diabetics with sweet teeth can now eat Kit Kats, but because what was an obscure niche market dominated by the sort of companies whose products one only ever sees in health food shops next to the seaweed-and-ginseng-marinated tofu has suddenly, and incredibly tastily, been broken into by a mainstream company with well-established, popular products. This has been a major gap in the market for ages now, so it's difficult to imagine that Nestle are going to fail with these two forays into the low-carb world, which means more products and, crucially, more manufacturers, will follow. The more mainstream this stuff becomes, the more the thinking behind it will permeate the public consciousness, and the healthier people's diets will become. This is the start of a revolution. Finally.

Thank you, Nestle.

Mind you, all that being said, £1.49 for a packet of Rolos? You're 'avin' a laugh, 'in't ya? Roll on the competition.

What was I thinking?

Recording Things Happen To Us with Squander Pilots took about three years. During that time, being the producer and having a day job, I got very little sleep, regularly getting just three hours a night, and sometimes just going without. And I was OK with that: might have been a tad dopey now and then, but I generally felt OK.

Once the album was finished, I got down to the important business of catching up on sleep, relaxing, and just enjoying the novelty of coming home from work every evening without having yet more work ahead of me. It was great.

Anyway, so I've nearly finished this research work I'm doing, which was given to me in a very last-minute sort of a way and has a bit of a tight deadline, and I've had four hours' sleep since Sunday. I'm having serious trouble thinking in straight lines and stringing sentences together, my left temple is beginning to throb, and I find myself wondering, if this is what I'm like after just two days, how on Earth I survived like this for three whole bloody years. Am I getting too old for this shit? Should I take up gardening? Or macrame?

Urk. I've got that special sleep-deprivation taste in my mouth.

Monday 16 August 2004


You are more likely to be shot dead in the USA than in the UK. This is often cited as a good reason to ban guns.

You are more likely to be strangled to death in the UK than in the USA. I propose that the government has everyone's hands cut off immediately. Anyone who opposes this emminently reasonable measure is clearly an extremist hand-nut who doesn't care about our children.

Statism and whisky.

I'm slightly surprised to see David Farrer writing in favour of Alex Salmond's proposal that all the SNP's parliamentary staff be forced to join the party.

First off, this is little better than extortion. "You want to keep your job? Pay my organisation." When the Mafia do it, it's bad. When a political party does it, it's still bad. No libertarian should support this sort of crap.

Secondly, it'll lead to — sorry; I mean, increase corruption. The SNP aren't all that big, but imagine if Labour and the Lib Dems were to go down this route. The political party with the most seats would also have the most members working for the parliamentary civil service, which would quickly become a self-reinforcing situation. Every time a sitting MSP lost an election, the incoming victor would be faced with an entire staff hostile to their ideas and batting for the other team. A politicised civil service is something we're supposed to avoid, not aspire to.

David makes the classic mistake of the business manager:

It's perfectly natural for managers to want employees to support an organisation's product, especially when that "product" is ideological.

It's natural, yes, but it's not all that useful. The world needs people like David: they really care about what their company does, so are the ideal people to run businesses. But what they always fail to realise is that the world is also full of people who are very, very good at doing things they don't give a damn about. People who can take pride in a job well done merely for its own sake, regardless of what the job is. Companies are full of people like this, and their managers always fail to empathise with them. We don't need "motivational" pep talks about the share price; we don't need company mousemats, covered in mission statement, to take home with us; we don't need press releases from head office emailed to us every day. We are perfectly capable of being good — brilliant, even — at our jobs without being passionate about the industry. And it's exasperating for us that our managers are so rarely capable of grasping this concept.

employers should have the right to lay down whatever conditions of employment that they see fit.

This is absolutely correct, but I'm amazed to see it in this context. I never thought anyone would have to spell this out to David Farrer, of all people, but here we go. The SNP MSPs are not civil servants' employers. Civil servants and MSPs both work for the same employer: the taxpayer. Yes, taxpayers should be able to lay down conditions of employment for their employees — MSP's salaries could be decided by referendum, for a start. But Alex Salmond's suggestion is akin to my demanding the right to decide how my company's cleaning lady spends her money simply because I happen to be further up the org chart than she is.


I need to make it absolutely clear that being first doesn't make you the best. Right? I mean, look at colour television. The Americans produced their system first, but the British system had higher definition. So, well, just because Socks (who, I must stress, I haven't even met yet) was the first subject of a photo on this here blog, doesn't mean that he is in any way superior to, or even anywhere near as good as, the lovely Phoebe. Phoebe is the best dog in the world, ever. And is clearly better than all mere cats. I don't think she reads this blog, but she's been giving me looks. And, added to that, some of her many fans have been demanding to see her pictures. And I've been hearing worrying reports that Liz, dog-lover extraordinaire, thinks Socks's picture is way cool. So.

Oo! An action shot! Hollywood, here we come. Or Holywood, anyway.

Seen here with her faithful sidekick, Boris. (Boris is scared of hoovers and prams and has an irrational hatred of old English sheepdogs. He believes, despite experience, that walking out through a door and then back in again will magically cause food to appear. Oh, and he's a close personal friend of Liz.)

See? She's great.

Sunday 15 August 2004

Brian bloody Eno.

Don't get me wrong: I like Brian Eno, I really do. But I'm doing a bit of freelance research for a publisher just now and had to provide a complete list of every album he's ever produced. Do you have any idea how hard that is? It's like Eno goes out of his way to make the job tricky for any poor researchers who may come along, deliberately choosing to produce albums for the most obscure acts ever. I mean, Zvuki Mu? Who the fuck are Zvuki Mu? And Edikanfo? And Sikter? Why couldn't he just stick to James and U2, eh?

Friday 13 August 2004

Film scores.

Norm points at this brilliant piece in Sight & Sound, in which film directors and musicians choose their favourite ever soundtracks. I have to say the results are extremely surprising. Quite a few of the directors seem to have treated the exercise as an excuse to publicly name-check the most obscure films they can, which is no surprise at all. No, what's surprising is how badly some of modern cinema's greatest soundtracks have fared.

Only one musician and not one director named The Jungle Book. The Piano and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence each get just a couple of mentions. Star Wars isn't anywhere near as popular as it should be. No-one mentions David Arnold, despite the fact that he has actually managed to improve on the unimprovable, namely John Barry's James Bond work. Danny Elfman gets just one mention, for Edward Scissorhands — where the hell is Batman? And the only Hans Zimmer piece mentioned is The Lion bloody King. Surely Gladiator deserves a mention. And no sign of Dances With Wolves. Tsk.

Annoying though Belle & Sebastian generally are, Stuart Murdoch must be congratulated for picking the themes from Mr Ben, which are indeed so good that they deserve to be mentioned among the greats. And it's interesting how, when you read Martin Scorsese's contribution, you can't help but hear it in his voice.

These two eejits deserve a mention:

Mamadou Diabaté
(Composed the music for Moussa Sène Absa's Madame Brouette)
"My favourite music track is Titanic (1997). I like the emotion of the movie, it gives you the same feeling that the music plays. Celine Dion's voice brings you to the past and the deep feeling from that time period."

Now, James Horner's soundtrack for Titanic is actually rather excellent, and deserves to be mentioned. But Celine Dion doesn't sing in the film; she just sung on the hit single spin-off, which was a horrid bastardisation of a great piece of music, complete with bad Eighties-style soft stadium rock arrangement. Yeah, I think it got played over the end credits, but so what? This woman is implying that Celine Dion's voice is part of what makes the music right for the film. Since you don't get to hear her voice until after the film is over, this is clearly bollocks.

John McNaughton
"My choice for favourite film soundtrack music is Ennio Morricone's score for Sergio Leone's Once upon a time in America (1983). It has stayed with me since I first saw the film by which I mean the so-called long version and not the cut down studio version, which was unfortunately the first version to be released. The movie is about a man, David "Noodles" Aaronson, haunted by the past, who returns to his old neighbourhood after a thirty-five year exile. The story is told in flashback and is sometimes difficult to follow but Morricone's use of thematic and harmonic repetition functions to connect the narrative and make emotionally clear that which may be intellectually confusing. As "Noodles" is haunted by the past so are we haunted by Morricone's music, which so beautifully evokes the past. Of special note is the cue, "Cockeye's song," played on the Pan Flute by Gheorghe Zamfir. The beautiful melody conveyed by the unique tonal quality of the Pan Flute transports us into "Noodles'" heart, so haunted by memory and loss."

This is one of my pet hates. This bloody film. Now, anyone who says that it's a great soundtrack to an otherwise dreadful film has my agreement, or at least my sympathy, which is near enough. But don't try and tell me that this film is good in any other way.

Firstly, this is one case in which the studio were right to move in and cut down a film that had been made stupidly long by a self-indulgent director. Don't get me wrong: I love long films. Lawrence Of Arabia is probably my all time favourite. I love Dances With Wolves (which could have done with being a bit longer, in my opinion) and JFK. But the thing about Once Upon A Time In America is that it doesn't actually have the plot to support its length. The script for the film is about ninety minutes long, if that. Any other director would have made a short film out of it. The long version isn't the "so-called long version" — it's the bloody interminably long version. Leone didn't stretch it out by adding bits of plot or dialogue or even scenery; he did it by adding about fourteen hours of footage of Robert De Niro quietly remembering things. Yes, Noodles is haunted by the past, all right. He looks at a wall. It reminds him of when he was last there. He continues to look at the wall. The camera moves around a bit, so we see him from a different angle, still looking at the wall. The music swells evocatively. Robert De Niro looks at the wall. What was that? A slight flicker in his eye, perhaps, as he looks at the wall? Perhaps he's remembering something. Yes, look, he's definitely remembering something! And... cue flashback. He looks at the wall. Cue flashback. He looks at the wall. Cue flashback. Cue flashback! He looks at the wall. The camera zooms in. Cue the fucking flashback, already! De Niro looks pensive. Aaaaarrrgh!

Secondly, the story is not "sometimes difficult to follow", unless by that you mean that you keep drifting off to sleep and it's difficult to work out what's happened when you wake up, although even that is unlikely as you can get a good hour's kip without any actual plot happening on screen. The story could be summed up in four paragraphs, easily, without using any long words, or even semi-colons. It's simplicity itself. Oh, yeah, it has a "twist" at the end, which I've heard people describe in the same sort of terms as the twists at the end of The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game. It's not that good. You sit through twenty-seven hours of crap, dull film because you've heard about this great "twist" and you naively hope that it might make it all worth it. Nope. It turns out to be the very thing that was made extremely obvious right at the very beginning — in about the fourth hour.

That film is three bloody days of my life I won't be getting back. You can probably get the DVD for about a tenner. So take a tenner, get a snail, and watch the snail eat the tenner. It'll be more interesting than the film, and quicker.


I've added links to all the films and soundtracks mentioned above. Apart from that bloody film. Remember, kids: links are what is great about the Internet.

Further update:

Oh, and the observant among you will notice that I didn't link to The Lion King either. Don't get me started on The Lion King. Grr.

Things you don't often see.

As I was driving to work today, some sort of falcon swooped across the road in front of my car, clutching actual prey in its talons.

That is all.

Thursday 12 August 2004

Oo! An antisocial behaviour order. Well, then.

Brought to my attention by This Is True:

John Cash, heroin addict and burglar, managed to commit two hundred and sixty-two burglaries in a year. He would pose as a policeman or milkman in order to get into the houses of elderly, frail people, then mug them, the bastard. He's been sentenced to "seven" years in jail, which, this being the UK, he won't serve, and he has also been given the unprecedented punishment of a five-year antisocial behaviour order which bans him from entering any home in the country without permission. He's even been banned from phoning strangers without permission.

That was the problem; that was why he burgled: he had permission to do so. And now Judge Barrington Black has revoked that permission. Problem solved. All great ideas are obvious in retrospect, of course, but, when crime is no more — probably just a couple of years away now, in the light of this breakthrough — I certainly hope that the history books give Judge Black full credit for his genius.

Wednesday 11 August 2004


Anthony Wells is intrigued by the Royal Mail's Dickensian language.

The best thing on there though is that the Royal Mail Group plc will not accept a letter that contains "Filth". You and I may well assume it means faeces, but the Royal Mail does not elucidate. No "Filth" and that's final.

Earlier this year, I temped for the Royal Mail for a couple of months. It was utterly dreadful, but that's a different story. In my training class, we did actually ask what "filth" is. Our trainer was not entirely sure. He initialy thought it was pornography, but that's elsewhere on the list ("Indecent, obscene or offensive material"). I remember we had quite a long discussion about it, the upshot of which was that no-one in the organisation is entirely sure what filth is, but they are positive that it must be kept out of the mail.

(Pornography is actually specified on the list we used in-house, though not on the public list Anthony links to. More intrigue. Maybe the rules have changed in the last few months.)

(Oh, and the heading of the Royal Mail's list is "Things we can't carry and why". But it's actually just a list of things they won't carry — no reasons why are given. That's pretty typical of the Royal Mail, I have to say.)

Anyway, the really good stuff is the international prohibitions. Each country has its own list of banned items. (You can spot the dictatorships a mile off: they all have some crap in there about "items critical of the government" or "literature liable to cause civil unrest". Funny how so many of these places are named "The Democratic Republic of". Apart from Australia, who inexplicably ban "seditious" literature. Probably a hangover from Ned Kelly's day.)

Can't find a reference for it, but I remember that you can't send bees to Mexico.

You can't send horror comics into the UK, apparently.

You can't send shorthand to Vietnam.

You can't send underwear to Peru.

You can't send police whistles to Nicaragua.

You can't send adverts for medicine for venereal disease to Jordan.

You can't send handkerchiefs to Italy. (Cue hilarious joke about Italian hygiene.)

You can't send sand to Israel. Lucky they nipped that one in the bud.

You can send a complete deck of playing cards to Germany, but you can't send the individual cards.

You can't send musical birthday cards to Cuba. So Castro's not all bad.

And you can't send Japanese shaving brushes to Tanzania.

What gets me about them is that they're so specific. One of our beloved MPs drafted a law regarding exactly which types of comic Her Majesty's subjects could be allowed to receive through the international mail, and, presumably, Parliament spent time debating it. Must have been a slow year. Politicians in Paraguay must have had quite a rigorous debate over their ban on the postal import of socks, as a compromise seems to have been struck, and socks made of jersey are allowed in. Did Japan once have a shaving-brush trade war with Tanzania?

And pretty much everywhere bans pornography in the mail. Why?

Those crafty Kuwaitis have clearly decided to preempt any legal niggling over what exactly is and isn't pornography by banning "Magazines or other printed matter containing illustrations of nude or partly nude human figures." That should cover every eventuality. Apart from people wearing skin-tight latex and slapping each other.

Now, have I mentioned pornography enough times to get some visitors?

Tuesday 10 August 2004

Poor Thing.

My wife and I have been asked by a friend to adopt a homeless cat named Socks.

How could we not?

The scariest thing about the Internet.

Every day, around the world, people get hit by cars and die, they fall into rivers and die, they get attacked by wild beasts and die, they drink dodgy water and die. Some rather interesting scientific research recently showed that people are more likely to open up the less direct their contact with each other is, so, for instance, people will share more about their feelings over the phone than face to face, and more in writing than over the phone. Add together these two facts and you get the true terror of the Internet. You don't just read a blog; you get to know the blogger (or think you do); you come to feel an attachment to them. And then, one day, they just stop blogging. Maybe it's a brief holiday. Maybe their computer's broken. Maybe their child is ill. And maybe they've been wiped off the face of the planet, in which case finding their blog and taking it off the Net is hardly going to be their loved ones' top priority. You'd be unlikely to see their obituary, if they had one, because they're not that famous — and, anyway, this is the Net: they could be using a pseudonym. Their blog isn't like a newspaper, whose editor would let you know what had happened. It could just sit there, unchanging, for years. So you check their site every day or so. You know they're probably not dead, but, the longer they don't blog, the more the possibility nags at the back of your mind. It's just simply awful.

Or is that just me?

Anyway, my favourite blogger has taken a weight off my mind. Which, I suppose, makes the subject of her first post in what seems like aeons a tad ironic.


Natalie points out that she did actually say she was going to go camping.

Yes, but camping's dangerous, you see. Your tent could get run over by a bulldozer, you could be attacked by bears, or moths, the police could arrest you for loitering....

Sunday 8 August 2004

Small-scale bad luck.

You know those paving stones that are pivoted and have secret puddles hidden underneath them, so that, when you tread on the paving stone, the puddle shoots up your leg? Well, the other day I bit into a pizza and it squirted oil up my left nostril.

Saturday 7 August 2004

The Retro-Encabulator.

G points me towards a mind-blowing promotional film for the Retro-Encabulator, a fantastic new gadget from Rockwell Automation. I want one. Now.

Friday 6 August 2004

Those crazy Soviets.

Yeah, yeah, they killed people, but they still knew how to give us all a good laugh. In Mongolia, for instance, they banned surnames. Apparently, this was to try to break the old clan-based power system of the Mongols, but to me it sounds as if Lenin just wanted to see how crazy an order he had to give before someone refused to obey it. Bastard. Anyway, the new government is forcing people to adopt surnames to stop what must be horrid & almighty daily confusion, and the people are responding by all picking the same surname.

Similar thing happening in China, though for different reasons. Is Communism incompatible with surnames? Could this, in fact, be one of its inherent contradictions? Hmm.

I'd love to see the Labour Party's photo archives.

Mr Pootergeek draws attention to this utter gem. Considering the obvious care Labour have taken to find photos of Tories looking really, really laughable, kudos to Derek Conway: clearly a man who takes great care with his facial muscles when cameras are around. The Tories should make him Shadow Paparazzi Secretary immediately.

No dogs.

Those signs on shop doors that say "No dogs except for guide dogs." How stupid is that?

The cost of BBC DVDs.

Much as I detest the BBC these days, one area where their standards haven’t slipped and they can still claim realistically to be the best in the world is in wildlife documentaries. I’ve got the box sets of The Life of Mammals and Volume 1 of The David Attenborough Collection, and they’re just utterly brilliant. But they’re far from cheap. And that’s what got me thinking about the price.

When I buy a DVD of, say, Season 3 of CSI (arrived last week — yay!), I’m paying the producers not only to manufacture the DVD but also to produce the TV program in the first place. Obviously. But this is not so if the producers are the BBC.

The production of BBC TV programs is paid for by funds raised through the license, as we all know. So I and millions of others had already paid for The Life of Mammals to be produced. To release the series on DVD, the BBC needed to burn the DVDs (dirt cheap), manufacture packaging (dirt cheap), distribute them to shops (not so cheap, but still pretty damn cheap), and, er, that’s it.

So I have two questions. Firstly, why are BBC DVDs priced similarly to DVDs produced by private TV companies? All I should be paying for when I buy a BBC DVD is the manufacturing and the distribution — not the production (the expensive bit), which I had already paid for through taxation. It can’t be that the BBC are trying to make a profit, because they’re above that sort of thing, and it can’t be that they’re pricing according to market demand, as the very purpose of their existence, as they keep telling us, is to ignore market forces.

Secondly (and, I think, even more puzzlingly), why does the price of BBC DVDs vary so much? Example: on Amazon, the complete Black Adder costs £35.97 while just Black Adder II is £15.98. The complete set should cost a bit more, for the extra discs and a bit of extra cardboard packaging, but these are very small costs — not twenty quid’s worth. What usually makes twelve hours of DVD significantly more expensive than three hours is the production cost of the original material, which, in this case, was paid in full long before the DVD was invented.

So what is their pricing model? Hmm.

Thursday 5 August 2004

Speed cameras don't piss people off; people piss people off.

In general, I agree with this piece by Johann Hari, despite the despicability of the organ for which he wrote it. Now, I'm a libertarian. But I don't have a big problem with speed cameras, which tends to get me spurned by the proper libertarians. If you have a problem with being given a ticket for doing 45 in a 30 zone, then your argument is with the speed limit, not with the method by which that limit is enforced. Any argument that it's OK for a policeman to fine you for speeding but not for a speed camera to do exactly the same is simple Luddism, and I have no time for Luddites. It's like a bank robber complaining about the police chasing him in fast cars instead of on bicycles. Similarly, I have no problem with traffic wardens. If you don't like getting parking tickets, don't park on yellow lines. Complaints about speed cameras are, for the most part, messenger-shooting.

All that being said, Johann is, in many ways, talking bollocks.

Firstly, let's tackle that silly comparison between speeding and paedophilia.

Quoth Johann:

Paedophiles slaughter 15 children a year on average. Speeding kills 150.

Now, there's a meaningless statistic dressed up to look like an important point. By this logic, climbing Mount Everest is safer than eating food. Stands to reason. Far more people die of food poisoning than get killed climbing Everest.

What we should be comparing is the proportion of those children who come into contact with paedophiles who are harmed and the proportion of those children who come into contact with cars who are harmed. And what we see is that it is rare for paedophiles to get close to children without harming them, while millions of children cross roads and ride in cars every day and are perfectly OK.

Now, speaking as someone who only speeds on motorways, who adheres faithfully to the 30 limit in built-up areas, and who thinks cameras are a perfectly acceptable way of deterring or catching speeders, let me explain why speed cameras fucking stink.

I live on a residential street. It's bendy, so has limited visibility. People there regularly back out of their drives. Children play. People take their dogs for walks. And cars careen down the road doing at least 40 all the bloody time. The garden at the bottom of the road has cars smash through its wall and onto its lawn, sometimes upside-down, at least twice a year. The residents here would love a speed camera. They've been asking for some sort of traffic-calming device for years, but the police aren't interested.

Meanwhile, on the edge of town, the limit on a dual carriageway drops from 60 to 40. The road is dead straight, has perfect visibility, and virtually no pedestrians — certainly no children playing or cars backing out slowly into the road. And the police just love it. They set up cameras there regularly, and fine drivers who are doing about 45 or 50 just inside the 40 zone — i.e. drivers who are actually slowing down in order to obey the speed limit. As far as I can see, this sort of police behaviour is typical. Can Johann really not see why it might erode the public's faith in the law?

Next, we have to consider the current government's attitude to speed cameras. It would be easy for them to blow most libertarian arguments out of the water: just make it illegal for speed cameras to be used for any purpose other than detecting speeders. And, while you're at it, make the police properly independent of central government. But no. Instead, we keep hearing, particularly from Blunkett, about how wonderful it is that the police can now watch our every step through our cities on CCTV, about these marvellous plans to put our DNA on compulsory ID cards, and the ongoing research to link surveillance cameras up to facial-recognition software. Is it surprising that libertarians might see speed cameras as part of a bigger picture?

Cameras as they are currently used destroy the old reasonableness that the police used to employ. It used to be well known that the police would allow speeders 10% leeway, so you could do 33 in a 30 zone or 66 in a 60 zone before they bothered with you. (In fact, I was actually told by my driving instructor to drive at about 32 or 33 in order to pass my test — and it worked.) This was a perfect example of the spirit of the law triumphing over its letter, and it's gone. Now, do 31 in a 30 zone at just the wrong moment and you get a fine and points on your license. Unless your car's got cruise control, its speed will fluctuate a bit. The police seem to be well aware of this, as they set up so many cameras at the bottom of inclines. I have to add to this that the new cameras, which track your average speed over a distance, may well solve this problem — if they're used correctly. I hope so.

Finally, we have to consider the problem of finite police resources and how we want to spend them. Britain's violent crime stats are flying through the roof, while our roads are among the safest in the world. Now, just because they're safe, doesn't mean they can't be safer. If the police were reducing speeding and burglary, I would say fair enough. But they're not. They're devoting their resources to making safe roads even safer while ignoring our ever-more-dangerous streets.

The reason I like speed cameras is that they should be a labour-saving device for the police. Automating the detection of speeders should free up more police time to catch burglars. So why in hell's name isn't that happening?


Well, I'm Squander Two, and this is my blog. No, of course that's not my real name. I shan't bore everyone with loads of tiresome "Gosh, I'm a blogger now and here's a description of the software I'm using" crap. I have other ways of boring everyone. For instance, there'll be an FAQ and stuff added to the site soonish, like anyone cares.

So, here we go.