Thursday, September 30

A pleasant surprise. And another.

Went to the cinema last night, not to see anything in particular, but just kind of on spec. Decided to try Wimbledon, as we really just wanted something lightweight to relax to. And bugger me if it wasn't actually rather good.

If you don't like romantic comedies, you won't like it, as it is one. If you don't like tennis, you probably won't like it either (though you will no doubt appreciate the consideration of the film's producers in giving it a name synonymous with "Tennis haters: don't watch this."). But I love lawn tennis and I've got a soft spot for romantic comedies. Yeah, the genre produces a lot of real dross, not to mention a massive body of films that are merely competent, mildly entertaining while you're watching them but utterly forgotten the second you leave the cinema, which is somehow even worse than dross. But, when it's done well, the results are class. Witness Annie Hall and Two Weeks Notice. And Wimbledon.

The special effects are amazing. "Special effects?" I hear you type. "In a romantic comedy?" Yes, it's true. The makers clearly love tennis and have created some of the greatest footage of the game ever. Sure, we all know that you can do anything with a computer and enough time these days, but that doesn't prevent the wondrousness of having a ball's-eye view of a tennis match. How many of the balls were real and how many were computer-generated, I couldn't say. And the actors at least seem to be bloody good players.

They are also good actors, especially Paul Bettany, who does a perfect job of the world-weary, cynical, upper-class Englishman suddenly and unexpectedly finding his self-contempt destroyed by happiness. Bernard Hill and Eleanor Bron are hilarious as his dysfunctional parents. The script is tight and funny, and emotional when it needs to be but no more; the direction does a beautiful job of capturing atmosphere and character. There's really not much they could have done better with this material.

The only problem is that they used real commentators, whose commentary is (of course) scripted and sounds it. I love John McEnroe, but directors should be ruthless about this sort of thing: if he can't read a script without sounding like he's in a school play, get him out of the film. And Chris Evert. Danny Baker and Chris Moyles sounded perfectly normal, though. Well, as normal as they ever do.

Then I came home and got asked to be an usher at my sister-in-law's wedding, which was quite a surprise, as she hadn't been engaged when we went out. This will be my first time in an official role at a wedding, rather than just being a guest. Oh, apart from being the groom once, but that doesn't count.



Wednesday, September 29

Libertarianism and negotiation.

There are already two responses up on Samizdata to this nonsense. But why would that stop me adding my own?

It’s just not plausible to construe libertarianism as really being about massive, state-sponsored, centrally-planned, militarily-administered efforts to invade and reconstruct another country — let alone to imply that libertarians are by temperament the kind of people who are confident that enterprises like this usually succeed as planned.

... who if not libertarians can we depend on to remind us that the world isn’t fair, your plan brought misery instead, and that you’re just wasting your time — and probably making things worse — by initiating some Grand State Scheme to control unemployment, the market for rental accommodation, civilian air traffic or infant polio. This argument scales up to things like the forcible invasion, occupation and political reconstruction of faraway countries. Given that the country posed no credible threat to the U.S., Libertarians ought to have opposed the war and especially the subsequent occupation in Iraq.


Lots of people make this mistake (though I'm not sure that makes it any less stupid). No, the argument doesn't scale up, because the difference between national and international politics is more than just a difference in size: it's a totally different matter.

Politics, at it's most basic, is the system through which people negotiate and compromise with each other. Some political systems promote compromise more than others. Say what you like about Blair's Britain, but most of the laws on our books are somewhere inbetween the ideals of our various competing interests. Stalin's Russia, on the other hand, was a place of no compromise: you did what he told you, or you died.

Libertarianism applies to any situation in which people are capable of reaching agreements with each other — else it is meaningless. The whole point of Libertarianism is that free people can make free agreements. People might refuse to compromise, but, as long as compromise is an option, they can live freely with one another.

The citizens of different democracies can negotiate and compromise with each other. It's often a long and convoluted process involving elected representatives, or unelected representatives chosen by elected representatives, and it doesn't leave everyone happy, but it broadly works. Free citizens of different nations can also, of course, negotiate and compromise with each other directly: I can make any sort of private arrangement I want with an American or a Czech. I can't with a resident of Iran, because all residents of Iran are directly controlled by the Iranian government and are not allowed to enter freely into agreements, especially with foreigners.

This is the reason why democracies so rarely go to war with democracies (the only modern example I'm aware of is the bombing of Serbia). They have other diplomatic mechanisms in place, and, crucially, those mechanisms work because there is a real and direct link of opinion between the nation's leaders and their people. When Bush negotiates with Chirac, it is true to say that, to some extent, the people of the USA are negotiating with the people of France. Not all of the people all of the time, obviously — but there is enough representation to keep enough people happy that life can go on as normal. This is the great, and often overlooked, strength of democracy: that it doesn't merely help to sustain liberty, but that it makes people happy with their liberty. Happy enough not to go to war, at least.

Do I really need to go into any explanation of how Saddam didn't represent the Iraqi people? Of how the ideas of negotiation, compromise, and agreement between free people are nothing more than cruel jokes to the people of Iran or Saudi Arabia? Libertarianism simply doesn't apply here.

I hope that it soon will, though.



Science and knowledge.

Perry links to this piece by Dr Christie Davies, saying that it's "interesting stuff". And he's right: it is. It's very interesting, and utter bollocks.

It's tempting just to leave it at that. The commenters to both Perry's post and Christie's article have said most of what needs to be said: that teaching kids the scientific method is invaluable, that there's more to education than learning facts that you will use in your job, that some children find English and history boring and love science (I did), and that most of the problems are with the way science is taught rather than the subject itself. So I shan't bother. But I do have an additional observation.

One of the most interesting things I have ever studied is the history of mathematics. It was an optional part of my degree, but I think it should have been compulsory, because of the astonishing insight it gave into the workings of the human mind and the development of science. And one of the most surprising things I learnt from it was just how highly mathematically educated most people today are — even those who flunk maths.

These days, to be really good at maths, you need to get your head around imaginary numbers, integral calculus, topology, group theory, and other insanely tricky things. But there was a time, really not long ago at all, when the world's greatest mathematicians were the tiny handful of people who could solve quadratic equations. A few hundred years ago, there were only two people in the world who could solve cubics. They are famous to this day for their ability to do something that most A-level students can now master. The concept of a negative number was once as bizarre as the concept of imaginary numbers is today: most people, including mathematicians, simply refused to accept the idea of negative numbers. Even once negative numbers had been accepted, resistence continued to zero: how can zero be a number when it isn't anything? And then there was infinity, a concept that great thinkers such as Descartes got totally wrong. The continuous number-line that all children are shown in school at a very early age — that simple straight line with zero in the middle, negative numbers stretching away leftwards to infinity, and positive numbers rightwards to infinity — is the culmination of centuries of hard thinking by the greatest mathematical minds of the age. Today, we teach it to six-year-olds, and it is considered so basic and easy that it forms an integral part of their reasoning skills for the rest of their lives. Even the ones that are "bad" at maths understand it.

And don't underestimate the power of notation. Those simple numerals and function symbols revolutionise the way we think. (There have been some amazing experiments on the way that teaching chimpanzees to read numerals affects their behaviour.) The Romans had all the thinking and reasoning skills, the curiosity, and the industrial need for great mathematical breakthroughs, but they were held back by Roman numerals, which aren't much use for maths. Again, pretty much every child in our society understands what was once incredibly advanced scientific knowledge.

Yes, mathematical and scientific teaching was a hell of a lot better a few decades ago than it is now. But that isn't to say that today's standards are crap: your average Briton today has a level of scientific understanding beyond the comprehension of his ancestors. No, standards are just a little less incredibly high today than they used to be.

The important point is this. When Davies talks about doing away with science education, he doesn't know what he's talking about. He thinks he means playing with test tubes in school labs, but there's more to it than that. The basic scientific and mathematical concepts we learn in school are so fundamental to our way of thinking that we don't even realise that it is a way of thinking. We may think that the populace are scientifically ignorant now, but they are paragons of rationality compared to what they'd be if we stopped their scientific education.



Hindsight.

Yet more on that video.

The Great Natalie writes:

It can happen in war that, temporarily, both sides want the same thing, both believing it will contribute to their eventual victory. One side is wrong.


Exactly. Exactly. We should stop worrying about whether we're giving the terrorists what they want and start thinking about whether we're giving them what they're one day going to wish they hadn't wanted.



Tuesday, September 28

This says a lot about my sense of humour.

The Sound Effect Generator is one of my favourite sites. Just keep hitting 'refresh'. This can reduce me to hysterics. My wife, on the other hand, just looks at the screen, then at me.

This is similarly brilliant, but less honed.



Monday, September 27

More on that video.

DumbJon seems broadly to agree with my post about the video of Eugene Armstrong's last moments. Laban has posted a thoughtful response to us both.

Although Jon may be right in thinking that the execution footage shown on prime time news might shock a few guardianistas out of their complacency, the people looking for this video are "FHM types who pore through the telephone sex line ads later. It's a completely different audience."


I agree: there is a significant difference between people who might have the video thrust in front of them over dinner and people who go actively trying to find it. I just don't think that the existence of deviants should be our prime motivator. The way I see it is that we know for a fact that there are people out there who think that putting Jews in concentration camps was a brilliant idea. Presumably, some of these people actually enjoy the footage of the camps. Just as that footage disgusts most of us, I have no doubt that it also serves as a valuable recruitment tool amongst Nazis — a lot of people are simply sadistic, and movements like Nazism have always been adept at recruiting on that basis. But I don't see that any of these facts are reasons to ban or suppress the footage.

I just want to reiterate some points I made in the comments of the last post. Firstly, I think that attitudes of the scum who are interested in the video for purely voyeuristic reasons will change dramatically when there's a major attack closer to home. It's harder to find a video of a gruesome murder enjoyable when the murderers are the same guys who killed your girlfriend. Puts it in a new light.

Secondly, all of these things could have been said about Isreali footage of the Intifada. The photos of the aftermath of bus bombs were utterly sickening: plenty in there to satisfy the prurient desires of those who like a bit of real-life gore. And the effect it had in Israel was to turn the Israeli Left against the path of appeasement and to galvanise support for military action against Arafat and the PA. Of course, it doesn't seem to have had the same effect on non-Israelis. That ties in with my first point: when the footage you're seeing involves people like you, the effect is different. Sooner or later, there will be a major atrocity on British soil. We should be preparing for that, and that means a willingness to look at what happens.

Thirdly, all the same points apply to the footage of 9/11, in which we see thousands of people, rather than just one, murdered. Should that footage be suppressed? I don't think so.

I have a point to make about the difference between this video and a snuff video, though I'm not entirely sure what bearing this distinction has on matters. With a snuff video, the video is the whole point: the victim has to be killed in order to make the video and hence make money; without the video, the victim would most likely not be killed. What the Islamists are creating here is of a different type: the death is the point. If they didn't have access to cameras, they'd kill the victim anyway. In fact, they do: the videos they release capture merely a fraction of their total murders.

I certainly do agree with Laban about this:

The Brit media - including the Sun, Mail and Telegraph are treating this as a massive human interest story with lots of thrilling political overtones. They aren't taking this war seriously.

Blanket media coverage is exactly what the bad guys want and exactly what we shouldn't give them. For the last week the issue and its spin-offs (Islamophobia again - and again and again, 'it's all Blair's fault' again and again) have dominated the papers and BBC. If there's any rationality among the kidnappers I can see the poor guy being kept alive for just as long as they can keep the front pages. On present form they could take a finger at a time and dominate the news till Christmas.


This is true. I was sickened by the press conference from Kenneth Bigley's poor mother. She is obviously being badly misled: some cynical bastard has told her that her son might be released in response to an emotional appeal; "If only they knew he had a family who love him, they would think twice about the consequences of their actions." What she should be told, hard as it may be, is that the people who have her son are certainly going to kill him and that it would be wise for her to start mourning now. Nobody on Earth has seen anything in the last three years to suggest that he stands any chance whatsoever of being released alive. The press conference was organised simply because it made such a great bit of footage for the TV news. I hope that whatever PR consultant thought that one up burns in hell.

Which is why I agree with DumbJon:

I would rather see [the beheading] on the news than the 'hostage pleading for his life' videos that the media show without any qualms.


Absolutely. But it doesn't look like the mainstream media are ever going to start covering this war properly. If they won't, someone else has to. There is more than one reason why that video's on the Net.



Friday, September 24

New and exciting ways to read this blog.

In response to quite literally two requests, I have painstakingly set up two exciting new features. Oh yes.

Firstly, this blog now has an RSS feed, whatever that is. Its URL is www.squandertwo.net/blog/atom.xml. If this actually means anything to you, I wish you all the best with it. A friend of mine has tested it and claims that it works, so it should be more reliable than Windows 2000.

Secondly, you can now opt to receive Squander Two Blog by email. I think this is considerably more impressive than the RSS thing, because I know what email is. It's been tested, too, and it definitely might not all go wrong. My hosts use Majordomo mailing-list-management software, whose user guides appear to be written by Unix geeks for other Unix geeks. Jesus wept. Anyway, I reckon I worked it out in the end, but I'd appreciate people signing up and reporting any faults they can find or cause. The instructions are just over here.

I originally promised myself that I would not blog about blogging. Another broken promise, another lost dream. But hey.



Decommissioned.

Trains cancelled across Northern Ireland this morning due to bomb scares. Seems odd that the government would bother reacting to the bomb threats. After all, this same government keeps telling us that the IRA can be believed and trusted when they claim that they don't need to give up their weapons because they're not going to use them anymore anyway. Why not just run the trains, then, since you're so sure that the IRA would never be so inconsiderate as to blow one up? Even if they did call you this morning and tell you they were going to.



Thursday, September 23

Lies and statistics.

Mr Geras links to this report in The Guardian:

George Bush has failed to win over any of the traditional Jewish backing for the Democrats, despite the unwavering White House support for Israel and a vigorous campaign by the Republican party.


That seems quite surprising. I've certainly read pieces by some American Jews about how their political allegiances are changing in the light of both parties' attitudes towards Israel, and particularly because of the increasingly open Jew-hatred of so many on the Left. Yeah, that's anecdotal, but still.

But the The Guardian continues:

In a poll released yesterday by the American Jewish Committee, Jewish voters preferred John Kerry to Mr Bush by a margin of nearly three to one: 69% to 24%.

It is an improvement on Mr Bush's 19% Jewish support in 2000 but well short of the Republicans' hope of 30%.


Right. So Bush has achieved a 5% gain in Jewish backing, and The Guardian describe it as a failure to win anyone over. That's a bit of a lie, really, isn't it?

In Florida they make up 3.9% of the population, more than the margin of victory in the 2000 election.


Right. Bear in mind that that margin of victory was in Bush's favour, not Gore's. The Guardian are subtly implying here that winning enough Jewish support could swing Florida's election in Bush's favour, when the reality is that Bush won Florida and that winning Jewish support could increase the lead he already has.

So what The Guardian are actually reporting on here is the interesting fact that Bush has succeeded in winning over enough of the traditionally Democratic American Jewish vote to win Florida and therefore the 2000 election with less (who knows? — maybe even none) of that annoying controversy that he had last time. And this they give the headline "Bush fails to raise Jewish support".



The nature of the enemy.

Laban Tall doesn't think people should watch or even link to the video of Eugene Armstrong being decapitated.

Exactly the same could be said of child pornography or rape videos. Why should a snuff video be different ? And the arguments against them are the same. These videos are made to be consumed. Given the difficulty of cutting supply, you must cut demand.


This is more than just a snuff video, though, isn't it? It's a statement of intent and an illustration of character.

I won't be going to look at the video, because I am already well aware that we are fighting a war against brutal, sadistic barbarians, so I don't need to see it demonstrated. But the Western world is full of people who still haven't got the message, who think that our enemies are ... well, they wouldn't even use the word "enemies". As James Woods put it:

A lot of my friends in Hollywood have actually said things like "Let's melt their hearts with hugs and love." It honestly doesn't work. So I respect people's sweetness for believing that you can melt the heart of Osama bin Laden with a hug, but you can't. The only solution to Osama bin Laden is a fucking 88-millimeter shell through his forehead.


The more we hide the true nature of the enemy, the less we challenge the Huggers. And they need to be challenged, because there's no way we can lose this war through military inferiority but every chance of losing it through public resistance. Gradually, people who used to want to appease terrorists are coming round to James Woods's point of view: witness the Israeli Left. The reason they're changing their minds is that they're coming face-to-face with what the enemy are really like.

Jonah Goldberg wrote about this in the wake of 9/11.

Well, I want to be disturbed. I say: Let's bring back the horror. Let's remind people what started this whole mess. Stop bathing us in the sentimentality of Sept. 11 babies being born and start reminding us why these newborns are without fathers in the first place.

... those things not actively remembered are easily forgotten. This is especially true of the moral lessons of history because there are people intensely interested in rewriting the moral history of America so that we are always the villains of the tale. The Founding Fathers are called greedy white racists, for example, because as a society we stopped reminding ourselves why they were the architects of the last best hope for mankind. This allowed those who want to make America the focus of evil in the modern world to work unopposed. And now what was once a point of consensus for most Americans is an ideological dispute.

Well, if the moral lesson of the Holocaust can only be kept alive through five decades of grisly footage, perhaps the U.S. could use a few more months of reminders about the morality of this war.

...

The images of people leaping to their deaths from the World Trade Center were carried around the world for weeks. Many have cited and credited these images with rallying world opinion to our cause. When visiting the United States, Hamid Karzai, the interim president of Afghanistan, singled out those images as the essence of the evil we face. By the evening of Sept. 11, the only place Americans could see these morally compelling images was foreign television. It is a rare thing in the history of humanity that the galvanizing images for a nation's war are more likely to be seen by the enemy than its own citizens.


A rare thing, and a bad thing.



Wednesday, September 22

Mark Holland is wrong.

Says Mr Holland:

Squander Two has a couple of excellent posts up.


Why, thank you. No, that's not what he's wrong about. Well, not according to me, anyway.

When reading a Squander Two post you can actually observe his thought process in action. You won't see that occur at this blog because, well, there isn't a really thought process to see.

Squander Two did, I believe, come over from the dark side .... Becoming an apostate takes a great deal of thought and this, I suspect, is why S2's thinking is so obvious. For a while, at least, everything must pass through his Damascene converter.


Mr Holland is clearly a very perceptive man. In this case, however, he's dead wrong.

I've always been like this: insanely analytical. When I was a small child — and I mean small, like four or five years old — one of my very favourite things was solving mathematical and logical puzzles. My mother would buy me those logic puzzle magazines you see in newsagents (haven't tried one of them in years; they're just far too easy for me now). My father has been telling me since I first learnt to talk (yes, really that early), "Don't be so bloody literal minded." I would carefully work out incredibly cynical but statistically effective strategies at cards, including a way of playing German Whist that causes my opponents to scream at me in frustration even when they win. When learning foreign languages, I actually liked the grammar. During maths GCSE, I got fed up with the slow pace of the class, taught myself to do quadratic equations, then, when our teacher finally got around to it, taught half the rest of the class behind his back because they found my method better and easier than his. I was one of those freaks that does two maths A-levels for the fun of it and finds them very, very easy, I love integral calculus, and I studied maths and philosophy and logic at university. As a musician, I would sit down and painstakingly calculate bizarre chord substitutions.

All while I was still a Socialist.

If I'd never changed my mind about anything political, I'd still be blogging in exactly the same style from the other side.



Thankfully, I don't have to deal with them anymore.

Mr Brown (a.k.a. Squander Five, Glasgow pop genealogy fans) has posted his complaint letter to the evil that is First Bus and their response. Amazingly, their response isn't an automated piece of crap and actually addresses the points Ronnie raised. Blimey. Kudos to them for that.

However, either the response is evasive or their management have a genuine and therefore worrying ignorance about the standards of their service. Unfortunately, Glasgow city centre is total gridlock every rush hour, and parking is pretty much impossible unless you're rich, so I had to use their service for seven years. It ain't good.

I was most concerned to learn of this hopefully isolated incident of a driver who upset you in this way.


No-one in Glasgow would ever believe this is an isolated incident. Bus drivers, particularly First's bus drivers, are one of the most common causes for everyday comlpaint in the city, possibly even beating the weather and football. I have often thought how amazing it is that, in a city full of friendly people who pride themselves on going out of their way to give advice to strangers — a city where a tourist standing in the street with a map will receive directions whether they ask for them or not — First somehow manage to employ such a bunch of surly, rude, arrogant, sadistic, joyless bastards. Picking a thousand people entirely at random from Glasgow's population would yield better results than First's recruitment process, even if some of them were blind, insane three-year-olds.

Please be assured that First in Glasgow operates a very strong anti-speeding policy and all our drivers are aware of the speed restrictions in the areas mentioned in your letter. Those who do not abide with these are putting their license at risk, which ultimately could cost them their job.


But the problem isn't speeding; it's acceleration. Most of First's drivers believe that the acceleration and brake pedals are simple on/off switches. They stamp on them alternately. I have sometimes had to get off their buses because of seasickness. The point isn't that they go above 30 (though they often do); the point is that they go from 0 to 30 in about 3 seconds, usually while an old lady with two walking sticks is still trying to get to her seat. I am not exaggerating at all when I say that having old people thrown onto you by G-forces is a frequent danger on First's buses.

The drivers are obsessed with going as fast as possible (why? They're not actually going anywhere), to the extent that they frequently don't bother stopping to let people on. On many occasions, I've seen Glaswegians resort to standing in the middle of the road and waving their arms to force buses to stop at bus stops, after three or four have simply ignored the conventional sticking-your-arm-out signal. Come to think of it, I've had to do that myself a couple of times. Because they speed, they get ahead of schedule, so you have to get to the bus stop at least twenty minutes early to avoid missing them. Then you catch a bus whose driver is nearing the end of his shift and has realised he's running insanely early, so he drives at about 10mph and stops for 5 minutes at every stop, usually reading the paper.

These new vehicles, are double glazed, climate controlled and benefit from a bright modern interior, low flooring for ease of access and designated buggy and disabled seats located at the front of the bus.


Well done to them. It's true: there are more and more new buses and fewer and fewer old ones, which is just as well, because the old ones smell really bad. But there are still a couple of problems here. Firstly, the seats on the newest buses appear to have been upholstered with granite. The first batch of new buses, introduced a few years back, had seats at the front with loads of legroom, which is handy for very tall people like me. That idea seems to have gone out of the window with the latest models, and they've reverted to seats with so little legroom that I have to sit sideways on them, which means either that other passengers think I'm just trying to hog two seats out of selfishness or that I stick my legs into the aisle and trip people up. The other big problem is the low flooring. It's great if you've got luggage or a pram or whatever: the driver can lower the floor to pavement level to help you get onto the bus. Unfortunately, this also gives drivers something to play with at traffic lights. Sitting at red lights in Glasgow, the buses bounce up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down and all the passengers get heartily sick of it. First could tell their drivers not to do this, but I doubt it'd do any good.

What they really need is to stick a bunch of anonymous inspectors on their buses for a few weeks, find the few good drivers, then give those drivers huge bonuses. Sacking a few of the worst offenders would work wonders, too.

Apart from the drivers, though, the big problem with First Bus is a minority of their passengers. Violent, abusive neds, who set fire to the seats, vomit, throw things, hit people, shout racist epithets out of the windows, leave stupid amounts of litter, sing sectarian songs, spit on people, throw food, start fights, and smash windows. These people genuinely aren't First's fault, but First could solve the problem. It'd cost money, though.

Let's get some security guards on the buses. Big, strong, dangerous-looking guys with threatening uniforms, whose job is to chuck trouble-makers off the bus. I reckon most of First's customers would be happy to pay slightly higher fares in exchange for this service.

The police should be sticking plain-clothes officers on the buses, as well. They've got arrest targets to meet, haven't they? Well, the buses are rife with crime. Get on there and make some arrests.

But I have a more radical idea. What you need is members-only buses.

Here's how it works. You're only allowed on the bus with a valid membership card. Make it very difficult to forge, and have card-swiping devices by the bus's doors. The card is free: if you want one, you just have to ask. Because you can't get on the bus without swiping your card, there is always a record of who's on the bus and who isn't. Have CCTV on there, too. Every time any vandalism, abuse, or whatever occurs, identify the offender and ban them for a year, with no appeals process. Anyone who commits a second offense is banned for life. Have frequent manual inspections, by inspectors who are well equipped to deal with trouble.

(Of course, the cards could double as a convenient way of paying: you could charge them up with credit.)

I predict that, with this system, there would be loads of vandalism for the first few weeks — probably more than usual, as the criminal scum of Glasgow would view the whole thing as a challenge. But that's fine: the more crime occurs, the more scum get banned, and so the better the environment becomes. After a couple of months, you repair the damage the scum did, and get on with providing a decent service for civilised people.

A lot of thought would need to go in to stopping forgery, use of stolen cards, etc, but none of these are insurmountable problems. If any bus company were to adopt my idea, I believe they would quickly make a fortune. And then, of course, the other bus companies would start competing....



A great musical event.

People who know me well can get quite bored of my going on and on and on about No-Man, the greatest band ever. However, much as those people may tell me to shut up in person, none of them have yet worked out how to stop me blogging.

No-Man's first two albums are absolutely incredible, although they have utterly dreadful titles: 1991's Lovesighs: An Entertainment and, as if to prove that coming up with the worst album title ever is no reason not to come up with an even worse one, 1993's Loveblows & Lovecries: A Confession. What were they thinking? Come to think of it, those two titles might be the reason why No-man have never become even mildly famous, despite the wild critical acclaim heaped on the sheer quality of their early records — not only by the arty music press, but by Smash Hits, too. They started out with the name "No Man Is An Island (Except The Isle Of Man)", which really is not a good name for a band. And they really do talk some pretentious bollocks, even by muso standards.

it was a mature work - surprisingly subtle and airy, and boasting a fragrant melodicism.


Fragrant?

The hovering heartbreak of 'Things I Want To Tell You' showed that No-Man could still find new modes of expression - poised on the lip of breakdown, wringing the last drop of significance from inertia and despondency and flushing it with an unearthly beauty.


Flushing the last drop?

Creating a sound that's both contemporary and timeless, No-Man use a wide musical palette to orchestrate their disillusioned dream-pop songcraft.


I hate to say it, but my band have been described as dream-pop. But not by ourselves, at least.

However, when you hear the records, all of this can be forgiven. They are quite simply perfect. Even the bad prose, when transformed into lyrics, becomes good. Over the years, they've mixed pretty much every musical style there is, with the possible exception of death metal (thank God), and those first two albums sound pretty uniform in comparison: they're just very atmospheric dance music with a mad violinist. But they're still utterly fantastic, easily the best dance music anyone recorded between '87 and '95. I have them both on tape, because I didn't have one of them expensive new-fangled CD-players back in those days, and I've been wanting to get them on CD for ages. But they're both deleted. No-Man managed to reacquire the rights to the recordings from their old record label a few years ago and have been promising to re-release them since about 2000, but, exasperatingly, still haven't got around to it. And then, out of the blue, I find this: a special release of both albums on CD, brand new, imported from the USA via Germany by Amazon via German Music Express, for a mere £18.67, a perfectly good price for two albums. There's no mention of it anywhere on No-Man's site, so it looks like even the band don't know it's available.

So of course I bought it. As should you.

I know, I know: this doesn't look like that big a deal, but, trust me, it is. Literally dozens of fans (well, at least a dozen, probably) have been eagerly awaiting this release for years. I have had an astonishly crappy week, not to mention a very very bad year, so I'll take my good news where I can find it.

Yay!



Monday, September 20

The latest thing.

All the bloggers seems to be doing this personality disorder test, and who am I to resist the latest fad? It says I'm paranoid:

Paranoid personality disorder is characterized by a distrust of others and a constant suspicion that people around you have sinister motives. People with this disorder tend to have excessive trust in their own knowledge and abilities and usually avoid close relationships with others. They search for hidden meanings in everything and read hostile intentions into the actions of others. They are quick to challenge the loyalties of friends and loved ones and often appear cold and distant to others. They usually shift blame to others and tend to carry long grudges.


All of this is a pretty accurate assessment, but what pisses me off (apart from the obvious fact that someone fed my IP address to the site's webmaster so that they could rig it in advance to give me that result) is their contention that it's some sort of personality disorder. It's a simple case of learning from experience. Failure to do that would be a personality disorder.

I distrust others. I used to be very trusting towards everyone, and can count on the fingers of one hand the times that that trust has not been abused. So I don't do it anymore.

I suspect that people around me have sinister motives. I used not to, but the overwhelming majority of people I have met have had.

I do not have excessive trust in my own abilities, but I know from experience that they are the only abilities on which I can rely. Whenever I have relied on anyone else's abilities, they have let me down.

I read hostile intentions into the actions of others. I used to think people were generally nice, and was so adamant in that belief that I had to be royally fucked over a few more times than should have been necessary for me to learn that lesson.

I avoid challenging the loyalties of friends, because such challenges have almost always resulted in disappointment, not to mention disaster: most of the friends I've had in my time have had no loyalty to me whatsoever.

I sometimes do appear cold and distant. I used to be friendly and affable to everyone I met, but stopped, because I have managed, against the odds, to acquire a tiny handful of friends I can trust, and have no desire to make any more friends, when I know from experience that they would almost certainly screw me over.

I never shift blame. As mentioned above, I prefer not to delegate tasks to anyone else in the first place, because I know they will let me down. I prefer not having anyone to blame.

I do carry long grudges, but, again, that's simply a matter of learning from experience. Someone screws me over, I forgive them, they screw me over again, I forgive them, they screw me over again... eventually, I learn, and I never again have anything whatsoever to do with them. People who complain about grudge-bearing are one of my pet hates, actually. They don't like being reminded of what utter bastards they are. They want to be able to treat people like shit without their victims having the temerity to mention it. When a man uses the phrase "He really bears grudges" as a criticism, be very wary of him: he is certainly the one who gave the object of his criticism the grudge to bear in the first place.

This is my big problem with psychoanalysis: it assumes that everyone's simply lovely, so any bad feelings one might have towards other people are irrational. My paranoia isn't a personality disorder: I have bad feelings towards other people because I've met them.



More on fox-hunting.

There's been a lot of debate all over the Web about this, but it looks like the great Chase Me Ladies blog has the last word.



Politics and dialect.

There is a dialect of English known as Ulster Scots. Even though it's just a slang dialect, it has become an official language. How comes?

Well, before Northern Ireland's government was suspended, they had time to do lots of really stupid arguing at the taxpayers' expense. Sinn Fein insisted that all Stormont's paperwork had to be produced in Irish as well as English. This wasn't for practical reasons — no-one in Northern Ireland speaks Irish unless they've gone out of their way to learn it — it was just to make a cheap point: "Look! We produce documents in Irish, so we must be Irish. That's logic, that is." Well, the Unionists couldn't think of any sensible grounds to oppose the move (when local councils produce all their literature in Urdu, who can object to Irish?), so they decided to sabotage it instead: "If our literature is to be produced in the language of the South, it should also be produced in the language of the North!" What, you mean English? No, that'd never work politically: the Unionists needed some sort of concession to match the concession they were giving the Nationalists, and demanding something that is already happening isn't much of a concession. So they went for Ulster Scots, and the Nationalists okayed it and sat back and smirked.

Not one single person in Northern Ireland thinks that Ulster Scots is actually a language. I doubt that anyone who speaks it would ever dream of writing an official letter to their solicitor in it, any more than a Cockney would start an official letter with "Awwight, me ol' china?" Yet the Northern Irish Executive now employ a translator to render all their official documentation into slang, which no-one will ever read. This tells you a lot about why government is a bad idea. But, hey, if a bunch of paperwork in a joke language is what it takes to bring us peace, it's cheap at the price. The Northern Irish have a good excuse for this silliness. Not so the Scots.

Ulster Scots comes, as you might guess, from Scotland. People from the West of Scotland migrated to Northern Ireland, taking their English slang with them. A lot of Scots call this slang "Scots" and claim that it's a language. But it's not a language: it's just English, with a few quirky words and expressions thrown in, and a load of phonetic spelling. Example: "wean" means "child". Oo, you might think, that's an interesting word. Well, no it isn't. "Wee" means "little" and "wean" is just a way of writing "wee un", meaning, obviously, "little one". It's not a word, any more than "saaf" is a Londonese word meaning "south". There is a difference between speaking a different language and attempting to spell a strong accent. People from Surrey pronounce "trousers" as "trizes", but they still spell it as "trousers". If anyone were to start spelling it "trizes" and claiming that it's part of a language distinct to Surrey and separate from English, everyone would just look at them odd. Because the English, like the Northern Irish, don't have a giant chip on their shoulder.

And so Mr Hinkley brings us to this idiocy:

The Scottish Pairlament is here for tae represent aw Scotland's folk.

We want tae mak siccar that as mony folk as can is able tae find oot aboot whit the Scottish Pairlament dis and whit wey it warks. We hae producit information anent the Pairlament in a reenge o different leids tae help ye tae find oot mair.


"Wey" means "way"; "reenge" means "range"; "oot" means "out"; "aw" means "all". If anyone anywhere else in the UK wrote like this, it would be called "very bad spelling"; in Scotland, it's called "our proud heritage" or possibly "oor prood heeritage". The Scottish Parliament haven't produced that site as the result of some silly political compromise: they actually take it seriously, as do most of their constituents. Sad.



Sunday, September 19

Things you just don't think about.

For reasons that I won't go into, I have just discovered that you can download ringtones for your mobile phone from the BNP's website. There's no reason why not, I suppose, but still... it just seems odd, somehow.



Friday, September 17

Better late than never.

Via Gene at Harry's Place, some very good news indeed.

The United States for the first time named Saudi Arabia yesterday as a country that severely violates religious freedom, potentially subjecting the close U.S. ally to sanctions.

"Freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia, the State Department said in its annual report on international religious freedom. "Freedom of religion is not recognized or protected under the country's laws and basic religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam," the report said, adding that "non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and sometimes torture."

...

The designation of Saudi Arabia was made as the Bush administration has come under sharp attack from Democrats -- and the hit movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- for its close relationship with Saudi rulers.

Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry took the unusual step of singling out the Saudi royal family during his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, saying, "I want an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation -- not the Saudi royal family."


This should have happened by October 2001 at the latest, of course, but it's still welcome news. One thing that Bush has made very clear over the last three years is that there is a world of difference between allies and "allies", but he does seem to have a bit of a blind spot over which category the Sauds should be in. My guess is that this is part of a grander strategy: the Administration reckon that Iraq is now in such a position that the US no longer need Saudi support. The real message behind this statement could well be "We don't need your oil no more." Could even be part of a plan to topple Iran's Ayatollahs without having to go to war again. Let's hope so.

Says Gene:

But credit where credit is due: to Moore and others for raising uncomfortable questions about the cozy US-Saudi relationship


Yes, absolutely. If this is a result of Farhenheit 9/11, then, much as it pains me to say it, thank you, Michael Moore. I still think John Kerry would be a dreadful president, but I thank him, too, for making the Sauds into an election issue. When he loses the election, he'll still be able to take some pride in having helped to make the world a better place.



Thursday, September 16

Peter Cuthbertson is wrong.

Peter's posted the text of a speech he's been making to hunt supporters, and it looks like he broadly agrees with George Monbiot: this is class war, he says. I have no doubt that, for many people, it is. I'm sure Monbiot isn't the only left-winger who wants to stop fox-hunting because it's associated with the upper classes. But Peter is saying that every person who opposes fox-hunting does so on class grounds, which is obvious bollocks. He is being disingenuous in the extreme.

You don't need me to tell you that hunting is no crueler than shooting or farming or fishing - that in a matter of seconds the fox's neck is snapped: seconds of fear, no pain, instant death.


Seconds? Really? That's how long a hunt takes? Well, technically, yes: after all, dinosaurs roamed the Earth seconds ago.

Many are willing to give the proponents of a ban the benefit of the doubt on this one - they may be wrong and ignorant, we are told, but their hearts are in the right place. "They act out of misplaced concern for the animal, not hatred for the hunter." This is rubbish and we know that.


Well, we can argue back and forth about whether the concern is misplaced, but that's not what Peter's doing here: he's just flat-out denying that any such concern could exist. I'm concerned about the treatment of foxes, and I couldn't care less about class. According to Peter, that can't be true: I must be lying. Topically enough, here's Oliver Kamm on Noam Chomsky:

Chomsky is of course not making a serious claim about economics. Rather, he is employing a rhetorical tick of the form "the person I'm attacking can't possibly believe what he says". He does this often, and even had the gall to try the tactic explicitly when supposedly responding to Christopher Hitchens' criticisms of his stance on the destruction of the Twin Towers:

I have been asked to respond to recent articles by Christopher Hitchens, and after refusing several times, will do so, though only partially, and reluctantly. The reason for the reluctance is that Hitchens cannot mean what he is saying.


This is a dual-purpose expedient of arrogance and intellectual disrepute - a means whereby Chomsky can avoid difficult questions in favour of attacking his critics' probity.


Quite. Now back to Peter.

The bill that will soon become law will not save a single fox, nor spare it a violent death of some sort.


Of some sort, no. But people distinguish between sorts. I buy free-range or barn eggs. I have no problem with stealing the infants of chickens and dunking them in boiling water, but I believe it is immoral to keep chickens in wire cages smaller than they are, where their wings and feet rub against the bare wire, giving them cuts and sores. I have no problem with killing animals, but I do have a problem with torturing them prior to death. The issue depends, too, on what the benefits are and what the alternatives are. I have no problem with medical testing on animals. My wife is diabetic, so she would be long dead if it weren't for animal research, and, contrary to the claims of animal rights activists, there aren't any real alternatives yet. But, when we do one day develop alternatives, of course we should use them. And I'm dead against injecting hairspray into a rabbit's eyeball. Hairspray's just not that important. Any lives being saved by fox-hunting? No. Any alternative, more humane, ways of killing the fox? Yes.

If these Labour people cared only for the fox, why would they accept that it be shot instead - as if a shotgun is as precise and quick a death as a quick break of the neck by a pack of dogs?


It's not just a quick break of the neck, though, is it? I don't have any problem with foxes being killed by dogs. I do have a problem with foxes being chased for miles until they collapse of exhaustion, when the only purpose of that chase is enjoyment. Peter's speech doesn't even contain the word "chase": listening to him, you'd think the fox was ambushed.

By the way, "these Labour people" is a nice touch. Peter insists on making out that this is a purely party-political issue. It isn't. There are lots of anti-hunt Tories, whose existence Peter simply doesn't acknowledge.

Some of them know how the sport originated in its modern form in the first place - as a way for aristocrats to persuade farmers not to annihilate foxes completely by allowing them and their labourers to join in the fun of the hunt. This was in the 17th Century, and hunting was already helping to break down the barriers of class.


So what? That something was a great idea in the Seventeenth Century doesn't make it good now. Times change. Society has changed. And Peter is implicity recognising the value of change here: he's pointing out how the introduction of hunting brought benefits to Britain over three hundred years ago. Fair point, but, if you recognise that change can be good, you must recognise that banning hunting could bring benefits to Britain today. Are foxes going to be annihilated? Nope. Apart from anything else, most of them now live in towns, and townsfolk love them. So the Seventeenth-Century problem that Peter mentions no longer exists. Well, if the problem's no longer there, why do we need the solution?

Look, this has nothing to do with animal rights: they have none. It's to do with human responsibility. We have power over animals, undoubtedly. It's up to us how we use that power, and our choices tell us what kind of people — and what kind of civilisation — we are. Kipling believed that black people were inferior to white people. He was wrong about that, but he was very different to the modern racist, in that he believed that white people's superiority gave them a moral duty to help black people. I agree in principle: the strong should help the weak, not abuse them. It's the human's burden.

All that being said, Blunkett's plans to use the hunting ban as yet another excuse to divert yet more police away from stopping thieves, burglars, muggers, rapists, vandals, and murderers should be opposed at every turn.



Depleted uranium.

Natalie links to this ranting inanity by A L Kennedy, reminding me why it can be a bad idea to read The Guardian. Kennedy, like most left-wingers, is terribly upset about, among other things, depleted uranium.

Forty journalists have died trying to report from Iraq. DU atomicity in Iraq is equivalent to 250,000 Nagasaki bombs, so simply by being there and breathing, reporters risk cancers and birth defects in their children.


I'll quickly pass over what this says about the oft-repeated anti-war claim that of course they didn't wish ill on our troops. If you think depleted uranium is so dangerous, why are you only worried about journalists who get relatively little exposure to it; why do you not even mention the soldiers who deal with the stuff daily? Natalie has already ably addressed the fact that Kennedy doesn't know what "atomicity" means. I just want to quickly mention a couple of points about the anti-DU brigade: firstly, they don't understand Physics; secondly, they don't understand English.

One thing they go on and on about, in tones of dread, is the half-life of depleted uranium: it's a billion gazillion years or so, apparently. What this means, the protestors tell you, is that the stuff will still be radioactive millions of years from now. True, but what it also means, as any schoolkid who doesn't sleep through physics could tell you, is that the material is giving off radiation very, very, very slowly. In other words, it's not very radioactive. Well, it wouldn't be, would it? It's been depleted.

And that's my second point. CND never campaigned against depleted nuclear stockpiles; no-one talks about how much more dangerous armies become when their ammo has been depleted; no-one thinks obesity might be caused by depleted supplies of fat and sugar in our diets; if there were such a thing as depleted mustard gas, I don't think anyone would be very worried about it. The word isn't used with a special non-obvious scientific meaning when applied to uranium: depleted uranium is, as you might expect, a lot less radioactive than natural uranium, which we all breathe in and eat every day as a matter of course. However, the word does have one special meaning: when used by anti-DU campaigners, it means "Oo, doesn't this word sound scary?" Buy a dictionary, morons.



Dots and dashes.

Mr Save The Queen doesn't care for my punctuation. My blog, on the other hand, has a nicer colour scheme than his. So nerr.

Still, considering how much I complain about bad customer service, I suppose I should try to respond to feedback when I can, so I provide the following for my readers' future convenience and delectation:

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Please do feel free to append these to my blog as and when necessary. Or not.



Wednesday, September 15

Monbiot is wrong.

Badly, badly wrong.

I could, but shan't, go on for days about how he appears not to have recovered from the shock of the Norman Conquest's wicked trampling of the Saxon proletariat. Instead, let me say yet another word about the corruption from within of Socialism.

As I understand the principles of wealth redistribution, the idea is to take money and land and property from people who gained it for no better reason than that their great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers were friends of the King, and give it to people who are piss-poor simply because their ancestors were slaves. As it happens, this is an endeavour I approve of, if only as a temporary measure. Libertarian politics would be a cruel joke if a minority of people were still wielding thousand-year-old advantages gained through decidedly non-Libertarian methods. And wealth redistribution has undoubtedly worked, though reasonable people can disagree over whether we need any more of it (I don't think we do). But Monbiot's not talking about any of that:

There is one thing on which both sides agree: hunting is not a class issue. The hunters claim that it's no longer the preserve of the aristocracy. Labour MPs insist that their determination to ban it has nothing to do with the social order: it's about animals. Both sides are wrong. This is class war.

...

In the thunder of the hunt today we hear echoes of the joust, the tourney and the cavalry charge. As if to remind us of its military associations, the hunters wear the uniform of the 18th-century soldier.

...

The Norman lords' superiority, Shoard writes, was established by two features of feudal society: the castle and their "association ... with the horse, which enabled them literally to look down on the serfs, who walked".

As an animal welfare issue, foxhunting comes in at about number 155. It probably ranks below the last of the great working-class bloodsports, coarse fishing. It's insignificant beside intensive pig farming, chicken keeping or even the rearing of pheasants for driven shoots. But as a class issue, it ranks behind private schooling at number two. This isn't about animal welfare. It's about human welfare. By taking on the hunt, our MPs are taking on those who ran the country for 800 years, and still run the countryside today. This class war began with the Norman conquest. It still needs to be fought.


For the record, I oppose fox-hunting, on anti-cruelty grounds. I do not believe that animals have rights, but I do believe that humans have a responsibility not to treat animals with unnecessary wanton cruelty. But Monbiot's not even going near that debate: he doesn't think it's worth opposing hunting on grounds of animal cruelty. Neither is he arguing that the property owned by hunters should be redistributed to the poor. He merely hints at an environmental argument. No, his problem with hunting is that it's the wrong sort of hobby. He believes that it's not enough merely to take money and power from the aristocracy; we must dictate what activities they may take part in. Even more than that: since he acknowledges that not all hunters are aristocrats, what he's really saying is that everyone, even the working classes, should be banned from practicing a hobby simply because it is historically associated with the aristocracy. By Monbiot's logic, we should also ban polo, show-jumping, croquet, fencing, contract bridge, and the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.

Since when is this a part of Socialism?



The web-head's version of fame.

I now have the top two Google results for "Squander": Squander Pilots and Squander Two. I don't know whether I should be proud of this achievement, but I am.

Puzzlingly, though Squander Two is the second Google hit for "Squander", it's not even on the first page for "Squander Two". Go figure.



Haley Waldman's mother is wrong.

Well, this is certainly interesting.

An 8-year-old girl who suffers from a rare digestive disorder and cannot consume wheat has had her first Holy Communion declared invalid because the wafer contained none, violating Catholic doctrine.

Now, Haley Waldman's mother is pushing the Diocese of Trenton and the Vatican to make an exception, saying the girl's condition — celiac sprue disease — should not exclude her from participating in the sacrament, in which Roman Catholics eat consecrated wheat-based wafers to commemorate the last supper of Jesus Christ before his crucifixion.

"In my mind, I think they must not understand celiac," said Elizabeth Pelly-Waldman, 30. "It's just not a viable option. How does it corrupt the tradition of the Last Supper? It's just rice versus wheat."


This is not the first time I've noticed that modern-day Catholics don't seem to have much faith in their own religion. How does it corrupt the tradition of the Last Supper? A devout Catholic needs to ask this? According to Catholic doctrine, Christ has granted his priests the power to perform a couple of miracles: they can turn wine into Christ's blood and they can turn bread into Christ's flesh. That's not a figure of speech or a merely symbolic act: when you take communion, you are drinking Christ's actual blood and eating his actual flesh. If you take communion with a rice wafer, you are drinking Christ's actual blood and eating a bit of rice. It's not just rice versus wheat: it's a substance that Catholic priests have the power to miraculously transform versus another substance that they can't.

"This is a church rule, not God's will, and it can easily be adjusted to meet the needs of the people, while staying true to the traditions of our faith," Pelly-Waldman said


No, it's not just some random rule; it is God's will. It's a miracle, an actual miracle. God has the power to perform any miracle; your priest doesn't. Your priest doesn't get to pick and choose which miracles God lets him perform; God decided two thousand years ago, and hasn't changed his mind yet. How comes I, an atheist, know all this, yet this supposedly devout Catholic doesn't? And she accuses the Church of not understanding the issue.

"I'm on a gluten-free diet because I can't have wheat, I could die," [Haley] said in an interview Wednesday.


Bit of an exaggeration there (though it's not her fault: the poor girl is repeating what her mother's told her). All the Church are saying is that there has to be at least some small trace of wheat in the wafer. Trace elements are not going to kill her; really small trace elements she'll hardly even notice.

And whatever happened to sacrifice? I thought the whole point of the story of Christ's suffering was to serve as some sort of example. Indeed, many Christians have taken the story perhaps a little too much to heart, submitting themselves to torture, death, slavery, and genocide for their faith. Self-sacrifice is something you can overdo, but the basic premise is a good one, I reckon. Elizabeth Pelly-Waldman, however, is teaching her daughter that her faith — which, to a devout Catholic, should be the single most important thing in her life — isn't worth any mild discomfort. Doesn't the Church teach Christianity any more?



Tuesday, September 14

Lunatics and bastards.

For most of the first half of this year, I was unemployed. As I've mentioned before, I did a brief stint of temping for the Royal Mail, which was hell itself. (They sacked me exactly one week before I intended to quit, which was actually pretty good, as it enabled me to sign on again relatively easily. Still, bastards. Anyway.) I have mercifully blanked most of my time there from my mind, but there were two types of customers: those who were justifiably angry at having to deal with such a God-awful "organisation", and those who were just barking mad. There was quite a lot of overlap between the two groups. I suspect that talking to the Royal Mail's "customer" "service" "team" might drive anyone mad. Certainly, my orders were to be as obstructive as possible as quickly as possible, though the company's "managers" are so thoroughly institutionalised that they don't even realise that that's what their orders amount to. Their attitude can be summed up with two simple points. One: "What do you expect for 28p?" Two: "Actually, that was a rhetorical question; we don't care what you expect for 28p, because we're the only company allowed by law to charge less than a quid, so where else you going to go? Ha!" The job of their "customer" "service" "team" is to impart this information "politely". I sometimes wonder, in my brief time there, just how many people I tipped over the edge.

Between '96 and '99, I worked on the phones for British Gas Services. Towards the end of '96, Anne Robinson devoted an entire episode of Watchdog not just to British Gas Services, but to the very call centre in which I worked. I believe that this is a record that has yet to be broken. That's how bad we were. (And, to be fair, that program shocked the company into massive reform and, by the time I left, it was actually running very smoothly.) British Gas's customers are a lot less barmy than the Royal Mail's, but a hell of a lot angrier. My training at British Gas involved being given a stack of very old unanswered complaint letters and a phone and being asked to call the customers and solve their problems. At this point, I still wasn't entirely sure what the company did. I maintain that it was the most efficient training I've ever had.

Anyway (yes, there's a point to all this rambling), one of the jobs that I went for and (I like to tell myself) very nearly got earlier this year would have involved answering phones and reading emails for the BBC. Which brings us to this brilliant piece in The Guardian (pointed to by Michael at Mischievous Constructions).

Received wisdom has it that the British don't complain.


Received by whom? Hermits?

We chow down on any old crap put in front of us in a "restaurant" without so much as a squeak of protest.


Has Neil Armstrong actually been to a restaurant? Oh, of course: he's a London journalist. When he says "any old crap," he means that there was a smidgeon too much white wine in the blackberry-and-lobster sauce he had with his thirty-quid emu steak at that lovely little eatery in Soho that's so exclusive they only have three chairs. Us plebs do complain in restaurants, Mr Armstrong, I can assure you.

We stand around for hours on crowded platforms waiting for trains that never turn up and pay handsomely for the privilege.


OK, fair point.

But sit us in front of a TV with a phone by our side and a red mist descends, a red mist suffused with the dull glow of barking lunacy.


This is very true, but the TV is not required. Other things that have the same effect include central heating boilers, any kind of mail, local councils, printers, roadworks, computers, the Interweb, insurance, telephones themselves, and George Bush.

I've mentioned a couple of times that I have the occasional exasperating conversation in my work, but, really, customer-thickness-wise, this is cushy, and I know it. Look at what I could have been dealing with:

Ed Harris in his history of the BBC complaints department, Not In Front Of The Telly, relates the story of the caller who wanted to make an offer on one of the vehicles in the used car lot in EastEnders.

When told they were only props and not actually for sale he demanded to talk to a supervisor, fuming that the BBC was guilty of "stifling free enterprise".


I'm pretty sure this man has a contract with British Gas Services. I think I may have spoken to him about a hundred times.

How about the bloke who calls ITV every time it pours down just to let them know that he "does not like the rain"?


Yep, spoken to him too.

There is a very thin line between the eccentricity of some callers and the genuine mental health issues of others. John Reith himself, the founding father of the BBC, noted: "Periodically, letters come in, one per thousand or two, which make one doubt the sanity of the correspondent - in fact, there is little room for anything other than doubt."

One BBC duty officer was very disturbed when the woman on the end of the line who had been complaining about the shrieking emitted by her TV revealed that the wailing continued through the night. When the TV was turned off.


When I started at British Gas, I thought that the stories told about mad people were just to wind up newcomers like myself. I soon discovered the truth: call centres provide a valuable hobby for nutters. One seemingly perfectly ordinary woman, having had a perfectly ordinary conversation with me, then remembered another thing she wanted us to deal with. She'd mentioned it before, but the problem was still persisting and no-one had done a thing about it. Someone was stealing her gas. They were stealing it directly out of the pipes. She knew this, because she could hear the thieves at it. Under the floor. At night. And she wasn't even the maddest person I spoke to.

There is a woman somewhere in the UK who calls gas engineers out to her house to fix her central heating, then refuses to let them in when they arrive, believing that they are intruders come to attack her. Sometimes she pretends she isn't in. As soon as they're gone, she calls to complain that they still haven't arrived. By the time I spoke to her (and, oh, what a bundle of fun that was), there was not a single gas engineer within fifty miles of her house that did not have a strict ban on having anything to do with her. Her son is very apologetic about all this, and advises gas companies to tell her to call him. Apparently, this usually works, but not when I tried it: she immediately responded that she had no son. Great.

British Gas Services keep a database of boiler spare parts and their availability. If spare parts cease to be available for your model of boiler, the company send you a polite letter informing you that they can't renew your service contract. This is fair enough, you might think: it would, after all, be fraudulent to offer full parts-and-labour cover when you know you can't get the parts. Most customers accepted this explanation, even if they didn't like it, but I had a long argument with one Muslim man who insisted that the whole spare parts thing was just a front: British Gas "obviously" had a policy of getting rid of all their Muslim customers; their engineers were calling headquarters whenever they visited a house to report if they spotted any tell-tale Korans or prayer mats or whatever. He refused to believe my denial, telling me that I was clearly part of the Jewish conspiracy. I forget whether this was the international conspiracy or just the British Gas one.

I once spoke to a man named International Master Simmonds (the name has been changed to protect the strange, but the title is exactly as it was). Unfortunately, he was unhappy and annoyed, so I never got to ask him what he was international master of. To this day, I'm dying to know. He insisted on being referred to by his full title throughout the phone call, which was really awkward.

Now, what would you do if you smelt gas? Call the police or the fire brigade, perhaps? Or call the gas company? Or your local council? Well, any of these would be preferable to what most people do, which is to make a mental note to mention it next time they're on the phone to the gas company about some other matter. ("Is there anything else I can help you with?" "Oh, yeah, now you mention it....") There is a list of standard questions you ask anyone who reports a gas escape, one of which is "How long have you been able to smell the gas?" You're looking for answers along the lines of ten minutes, half an hour, since this morning. What you really don't want to hear is:

"Oh, now, when was it? Hang on, I'll just ask my wife. Sheila, when did we notice that gas smell?"

"It was just around the time your sister visited, wasn't it?"

"Oh, yes, that's right. So, what, about January, would that be?"

And that is not even slightly unusual. Having spoken to so many of these idiots, I simply cannot understand why there isn't a major gas explosion in the UK at least every week.

It was always great fun to talk to yuppies reporting gas leaks, though. They report the leak promptly enough, but are incapable of recognising that anything in the world is more important than their business schedule. It would go like this:

"Hello. There's a strong smell of gas in my house and I'd like to make an appointment for someone to come and look at it next Thursday afternoon."

"Certainly, sir." At this point, your experienced operative (that's me) makes sure he gets their address before breaking the news to them that appointments aren't exactly the way one deals with gas leaks. I once spoke to a man who refused to give his address once he knew what we were going to do. His appointment book was more important than the lives of his neighbours. How many of your neighbours think like that, do you think? It's worrying. Anyway, I get his address and phone number and various details, and then start to give him the advice that I am legally obliged to give him. "Can I ask you, please, to open the windows of the property to make sure it's well ventilated?"

"I'm not at home."

"Well, is there anyone there you could contact?"

"No."

"Well, may I ask you to go home, please?"

"What?"

"If at all possible, we need the house ventilated and the gas switched off at the meter. If you could please head home now, that would be very helpful."

"Well, I'm not heading home. Don't be ridiculous. I've got a meeting at two."

I give him the rest of the safety advice, peppered with interruptions from him about how pointless the advice is when he's not at home. Then the good bit. "An engineer will be out within an hour."

"Aren't you listening to me? I'm not at home. I said I want to make an appointment for next Thursday."

"Making gas leaks safe is an emergency service, sir. An engineer will be out within an hour. I advise you to head home immediately to let him in."

"Well, I'm not going home and that's that."

"OK, sir. The engineer will be out anyway."

"What? This is just silly. What's the engineer going to do, then? Just stand around in the street?"

"Well, sir, he'll put a probe through your letterbox to check for gas in your house, and, if he has cause to suspect any danger, he'll make sure a police officer is present and then break down the door."

At this point, mere italics cease to be any use to convey the amount of outrage expressed. I used to live for those calls. I just wish these arrogant bastards could all live in secluded houses with no neighbours or passers-by. I'd happily leave them to blow themselves up.


Update:

Oo! Mr The Unread has rendered my experiences into poetic pastiche.



Monday, September 13

Exotic food.

Nasi goreng is really nice. A Malaysian acquaintance of mine told me today that "goreng" means "rice" and "nasi" means "fried". What a disappointment.


Update:

I got those two words the wrong way around, of course. Doh.



Disgrace.

Being a bit of a hard-nosed bastard, it takes a lot to bring a tear to my eye. But having to haggle with a Battle of Britain vet who's insisting that I'm trying to put too much money into his collection tin does the trick.

So let's say a word about the utter abject failure of the Socialist welfare state. Men who risked their lives, and widows whose husbands gave theirs, to save us all have to stand on street corners giving away stickers in exchange for a handful of coins because the pension provided to them by the state whose existence they preserved isn't enough to give them a decent basic standard of living — and I'm not talking about lavish lifestyles here: "decent basic" means what it says. Meanwhile, a large portion of the tax I pay is spent on the hefty guaranteed inflation-proof salaries and pensions of bureaucrats whose job is to calculate tax according to the obscenely complex tax codes created for no other real reason than to provide them with those salaries and pensions.

There is simply no way that any World War Two vet should ever need to be the beneficiary of charity. Every time you see anyone collecting on their behalf, remember that it is an abomination — and give generously.

Take from the rich and give to the poor. From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs. Never worked out that way, did it?



Another stupid conversation.

I answer the phone. (Names changed, of course.)

"Hello. Boisterous Systems. How can I help you?"

"Can I speak to Moira Daly, please?"

"Hold on, please."

I try Moira's line for a while. There's no answer.

"I'm afraid she's not available just now."

"What? Are you telling me there's no-one in Support at all?"

Yep, that's what I was telling him, all right. Practically verbatim.

Moira doesn't even work in Support.

I'm paid surprisingly well to have these conversations, you know.



Good news where it's most needed.

Chrenkoff has posted his latest round-up of good news from Iraq. It's invaluable reading: it really undermines my faith in human nature, which is a good thing, my opinion of human nature being what it is.

Read the good news from Afghanistan too. And treat yourself to a smile.



Saturday, September 11

A plug for some good music.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, so I shan't bother. And why would you need my vague and useless descriptions when you can listen to it and make up your own mind free of charge?

The song is called Condiment, improbably. It's by Squander Pilots. I co-wrote it and programmed all the drums and keyboards on it and produced it. Then Gum and their friendly engineer at Invocations remixed it rather brilliantly.

This is the link to the MP3. Click or right-click or whatever to download. Enjoy, and do please feel free to comment.



Friday, September 10

We meet at last! But, this time, the advantage is mine.

Following on from my last post, a great thing about the MMR story is the name of the chief researcher: Dr Liam Smeeth. What an excellent name. I can't work out whether he should be a character from a Speedy Gonzales cartoon or an evil arch-nemesis to James Bond. Maybe both. I can hear Peter Lorre saying that name.



Dr Andrew Wakefield is wrong.

I'd love to say that this won't come as a surprise to anybody, but, unfortunately, it will. So much so, in fact, that thousands, possibly millions, of people will simply refuse to believe it.

There is no evidence to support a link between the controversial MMR jab and the development of autism in children, researchers said today.


Of course, with all these conflicting claims, it can be difficult to know what to conclude. On the one hand, one doctor did some research on 12 children, concluded that the MMR jab causes autism, and had his research roundly criticised by pretty much every scientist who looked into it. On the other hand, many teams of researchers have done many studies over the last few years, all have concluded that there is no link between the MMR and autism, and none of that research has been debunked, culminating in this latest paper, which is based on studying nearly 1300 children. How on Earth are laymen supposed to cut through the scientific mumbo-jumbo and work out who to believe?



The Guardian is wrong.

The Guardian's "expert" panel vote for the top 10 science-fiction films, and compile a list that is just plain wrong. Why they didn't consult me, we may never know.

Number 1 is Bladerunner, unsurprisingly. I really don't think it's all that great, myself. It's quite entertaining, but also quite dull in places. One thing The Guardian get dead right, though:

Debates rage on whether Deckard himself is a replicant.


Yes, exactly: the debate does rage on, so all those boring Bladerunner obsessives who go on and on about how "obvious" it is that Deckard's a replicant can please shut up: if it were obvious, the debate would be long dead. Don't talk to me about unicorns. I've dreamt about unicorns before, and I'm human (no, really). And, yes, the film does still make sense if Deckard's human. Feh.

Anyway, at least Bladerunner, while not as great as some make out, is a bloody good film. Number 2 is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Please. I don't care how good the bloody special effects are. Get a plot. This film is basically a lecture about technology and civilisation. Now, they're both dead interesting subjects, but — call me old-fashioned — I still want a story when I watch a film. If I wanted a lecture, I'd, er, go to a lecture.

Then, at number 3, one of my pet hates: they include Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back but pointedly exclude The Return Of The Jedi. Why do people do this? It's a brilliant film, every bit as good as its predecessors, and (I just know I'm going to get it in the neck for this) even better in places. Oh yes it bloody is. Just look at what it offers: the longest and best light-sabre battle in the trilogy; Han Solo being melted out of the carbonite; all the weird creatures in Jabba's place, and the monster in the basement; the Death Star looking really cool because it's not finished; more spaceships swooping around each other and fighting than ever before; an entire star destroyer plunging nose-first into the Death Star; the fights on the skiff over the desert; a really attractive forest; droves of scout walkers, which are just such cool vehicles; a new type of storm trooper with much more stylish helmets than the old type; Princess Leia in a bikini; blue lightning coming out of the Emperor's fingers (and remember how unexpected that was when you first saw it); the Millenium Falcon racing to the centre of the Death Star — and back out again, surrounded by flames; arguably the best soundtrack of the three; and the speeder-bike chase, for crying out loud. The speeder-bike chase is one of the best chases on any type of vehicle in any film ever. And what a cunning way round the limitations of the special effects: they couldn't stop the shimmering round the edge of things when they were using bluescreen, so they just made the background move so insanely fast that no-one can see the shimmering.

And the Ewoks. That film has so much going for it, and people whinge about the Ewoks because they're cute little round teddy-like things instead of, presumably, tall skinny killer robots or something. But a large part of the film doesn't make sense without them. The Rebels get help from the locals, but the only reason the locals are in a position to help is that they look harmless: if they appeared at all dangerous, the Empire would have got rid of them long ago. And the whole point of that part of the film is (a favourite theme of Lucas's) that you shouldn't underestimate people because of their appearance. Again, this wouldn't be possible if the Ewoks didn't look harmless and primitive and perhaps a bit silly. It's sad that so many people went to see a film with such an enormously unsubtle moral — "Don't judge people by their appearance" — and still managed not to pick up on it, even taking the exact opposite message — "I don't like that film 'cause some of the characters looked silly" — away with them. And these Ewok-haters, in my experience, think they're showing off how adult and sophisticated they are. Tsk.

The only real problem with The Return Of The Jedi is the whole "I'm evil and I'm going to kill you but if you kill me then that'll make you evil and then I win anyway" thing. Bollocks, more like. But if we're going to start nit-picking at pseudo-religious morally absurd mumbo-jumbo, then it's goodbye to all three films, not to mention a substantial portion of Hollywood's total output.

Alien at number 4, but no mention of Aliens, generally reckoned by most viewers to be a better film. At least they don't try the same stunt with Terminator, though, correctly including both. War Of The Worlds isn't up to much, if you ask me: a second-rate film based on a great book. Apart from that, the remaining films on the list are good, and probably deserve to be there. But what did they miss?

Well, talking about Terminator, they say:

One of a few films to deal with problems of time travel, such as the grandfather paradox: if you travel back in time and kill your grandfather, you wouldn't exist so wouldn't be able to travel back in time to...


So what about Back To The Future, then (which also features the best mad scientist ever)? Or Twelve Monkeys? Or, come to that, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure? Yes, the last is a really silly film, but these critics appear to be judging films based on the interestingness of the scientific ideas they raise, and Bill & Ted was the first film to take time travel to its logical conclusion: if you have a time machine, you never need to be prepared for anything, because you can always prepare in advance later, after you know what it is you need to prepare for. I'm convinced that it was a huge influence on Twelve Monkeys.

Is The City Of Lost Children science fiction? I'd say so: one of the characters is a brain in a vat, another has cloned himself multiple times, another uses machinery to sneak into children's dreams, and there's a cult of men who replace their own eyes with camera implants. And it's utterly brilliant. It should be on the list.

And what about Mad Max 2, eh? And The Fifth Element? And The Abyss? Eh? Eh? And another thing....