Monday 31 December 2007

Exactly what's required.

This V-Tech Grow-and-Go Ride-On thing looks like rather a nice product. If you're a parent, anyway. If you don't know any toddlers, probably best not buy it.

Anyway, what I particularly like is not the product itself so much as its blurb. Firstly, it looks like V-Tech have decided not to run this one by the marketing department (or have a spectacularly bad marketing department), as it's been written in industry insider technical terms:

3-in-1 to grow with the child for floor play, rocker and ride-on fun

We can all see well enough what "floor play" and "ride-on fun" are, but who would ever use these terms? Oh, yes, we've bought this excellent new toy for Tarquin; he can use it for both ride-on play and floor play. Why are you looking at me like that?

Secondly, it does exactly what parents really want it to:

Variety of manipulative features

Damn right. Program your child.

Happy New Year, by the way.

Monday 24 December 2007

Merry Christmas.

Don't know about the rest of you, but I fully expect to have a considerably better Christmas than last year, what with my wife not being on the verge of death and all. We've already been to see Santa, which was just utter class. We've got a tree, we've got presents, I've repeatedly stabbed a duck with a fork and left it sitting in teriyaki for the night, and it's not raining. All is good.

All the best. Have a good year.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Funny, but still awful.

News from Angola:

The director of an Angolan crime film says police have shot dead two of his actors after mistaking them for real armed robbers.

The duo were carrying unloaded firearms as they filmed a scene in a rough suburb of the capital Luanda, director Radical Ribeiro told AFP news agency.

He said police roared up to the set and began shooting at close range.

This is hilarious, of course, but only from a distance. Two men dead, due to some sort of administrative error and a trigger-happy police force. And they're not just trigger-happy:

"They went on shooting until I shouted out: 'Please don't shoot, this is a movie.'"

The officers then stopped firing and left without attending to the wounded, who were taken to hospital, Mr Ribeiro said.

Yes, once they realised their error and that they were shooting innocent unarmed civilians, the police left the wounded and sodded off. From their point of view, it seems that their terrible mistake was that they were wasting their time, not that they were killing people. We could talk about the various structures of civil society that we have and countries like Angola don't, but, really, isn't this sort of thing supposed to be covered by basic humanity?

Technical difficulties?

Vic and her sister Clare and Daisy and her cousin Noah were at Ikea today. Lucky them. As mentioned a few times previously, Ikea sell some wonderful, excellent products. It is unfortunate that the only way to get hold of these products is to buy them from the worst shop in the world.

The new Ikea in Holywood — the first one on this island — has just been open a few days. Vic and co had been there an hour or so when an announcement came over the tannoy telling everyone to leave the building immediately as they were "experiencing technical difficulties". As if the engines had failed and the shop was going to sink or something. It seems that these technical difficulties affected the lifts, as everyone had to get out via the stairs. So Vic and Clare had to carry a double pram downstairs with two kids in it while, typically, hundreds of Ikea staff looked on, walked past them, ignored them, and just generally helped in no way whatsoever. They weren't alone, of course: loads of mothers had to lug prams down the stairs with no help.

Ikea always offer the excuse of low prices for their appalling customer service. Everything they do badly, they claim that that's how they keep their prices so lovely. So I'd love to hear their explanation for this one. Exactly how much money did they save by having their staff leave the building without helping any of their customers? Assuming that they have a standard evacuation procedure and were following it, how much money do they expect to save by refusing to help any of their customers get out of the building in the event of a fire? I'd've thought the costs of the resultant court cases would be quite high, but presumably Ikea's accountants have run the numbers and decided otherwise.

Once out in the car park, of course, Ikea spotted a genuine emergency that their staff did need to help with: customers still had their shopping bags with them. This was an obvious case of mass attempted shoplifting, and Ikea sprang into action, taking everyone's shopping off them and carrying the bags back into the store — proving, incidentally, that it was not considered dangerous to do so and that the customers had not therefore been inconvenienced for safety reasons.

The place is run by bastards and scum, it really is.

Tuesday 18 December 2007

A frankly impressive lack of charisma.

Went to see The Verve tonight at the Belfast Odyssey Arena. I'm not a fan, but they have a handful of OK songs and a couple of really good ones and aren't actually awful or anything.

On record, that is. Turns out, live, they are actually awful. To an extent greater than seems possible.

Unlike most bands who've got to the arena or stadium stage — U2, Snow Patrol, even the dross that is REM — they haven't figured out how to alter their sound to fit a bloody great room with oodles of echo. The result is mud. Each chord just bleeds all over the next one, creating a morass of indistiguishable noise. They sound like a second-rate pub band doing Verve covers. In a tunnel.

As for Richard Ashcroft... whatever it is that Bono is good at, that Prince is good at, that Michael Hutchence was great at, Ashcroft is bad at. The ability to fill such a large space with your presence, to hold the audience rapt, to project... all of this he lacks in spades. He just stands there in shades, doing that weird squatting waddling thing that rock singers from Manchester insist on, droning on interminably. Every couple of songs, he shouts the name of the next song, preceded by "This is..." That's the full extent of his banter.

I never thought I could be so disappointed by a band I didn't even like in the first place. Most bands who've been around a few years, even if you don't like their music, are at least good at doing what they do. The Verve can't even play Verve songs without fucking them up.

Monday 17 December 2007

Number 27.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the opening night of Number 27 Talbot Street, a new Belfast restaurant. And to say that it was bloody brilliant would be an understatement.

Now, you shouild probably know that the place is owned and run by Vic's best friend's husband. But I have more integrity than you can stick a shake at, and the stingy gits absolutely refuse to give me any freebies, so I don't care. I certainly wouldn't've plugged the place without trying the food. And now I have tried the food, and It Is Good.

The decor is "unashamedly modern" — that was the phrase used by the designer, into whom I bumped at some point. But it's different. A lot of pubs and restaurants these days are spaces that might look cool in a photo but aren't such welcoming places to sit and have a drink and a chat. Number 27 is different: lots of hard shiny surfaces, but without being unfriendly. There are some beautiful, warm works of art on the walls. And the lighting is simply gorgeous. It's just a fundamentally nice place to be.

And the food. At the opening night, we were provided with copious platters of canapes, all of which were little sample-sized versions of stuff off the menu. So while I may not have had an actual meal there, I've tried a lot of what's on offer. The sushi is superb. The frito misto is superb. The risotto is superb. The roast beef is some of the best I've ever had. The weird little parcels containing inexplicably pink goat's cheese are wonderful. The melted taleggio on toast is... well, any idiot, me included, can melt taleggio on toast, but the chutney that came with it was perfect. I haven't had such good food in years.

In short, I fully intend to eat there again, even if my so-called friends do insist on charging me for the privilege. Maybe they'll change their minds after reading this. Fingers crossed.

Friday 14 December 2007

Is waterboarding torture?

I just stumbled across this absolutely brilliant film about waterboarding. Kaj Larsen, an ex-soldier, who had to go through waterboarding as part of his training, arranged to do it again, on film. His purpose was to take some of the abstraction out of the debate about whether it should be allowed.

There are a couple of interviews in the film, too, making two perfectly good points. Firstly, Alan Dershowitz, who opposes the use of torture, says that it should be legalised so that it is never done in secret. If it's going to be used, he says — and it inevitably is — he wants the president to sign a torture warrant for every case, so that there's proper accountability. I think he's right about this. It is the whole point of a chain of command, after all.

Then Juliette Kayyem says that the debate about whether or not waterboarding constitutes torture is a pointless argument that misses the point. What the argument should be about, she says, is: here's an interrogation method; this is what it involves; should it be allowed? I think she's right about this, too.

But the truly interesting thing is, of course, the film of the technique itself. It's not pleasant, as you might imagine. Somehow, Larsen puts up with it for twenty-four minutes — testament to how good a soldier he must have been, since we are told that the average person can stand it for about two. The moment I saw it start, it was obvious to me that it was torture. There's simply no way you can describe a practice like that as anything else.

And then something very interesting happens.

It stops.

"You OK?" asks one of the film crew.

"Oh, that sucked," says Larsen. And he laughs.

Now, he seems to be pretty tough, and he has a minute to get his breath back before this exchange. And it's not exactly a joyous laugh of merriment, obviously. But still. The fact that he laughs while describing what he's just gone through puts new doubt in my mind. Part of me thinks that an experience that you can laugh about as soon as it's over perhaps isn't quite as bad as proper torture. It's simply not in the same league as having your thumbs cut off.

My point here is not that I approve of the practice; neither is it that I'm against it. Quite the opposite: having seen first the technique itself and then its immediate aftermath, I simply have absolutely no idea. Fascinating.

Thursday 13 December 2007

Mutual respect.

Just stumbled across an interesting post by Mike at The Monkey Tennis Centre (great name, by the way):

Other than among Islamic hardliners, you would think that the plight of British teacher Gillian Gibbons, who faces jail and 40 lashes in Sudan for allowing her pupils to name a teddy bear Mohammed, would elicit near-universal sympathy.

Not so, judging by the comments of a sizable minority of commenters on the BBC's website, who appear to think that Mrs Gibbons deserves everything she gets. This is just a selection of their views ... :

... We always preach that when foreigners come to Britain they need to do their homework, learn our culture and abide by our laws. ...

... If we expect people living or working in the UK to abide by our laws, British citizens working abroad should be expected to abide by the laws of the country they work in. ...

... When working in a particular country it is imperative that you comply with and respect the rules of that country. This lady clearly did not comply and respect such rules and must suffer the consequences. ...

... Why do we think that anyone coming to the UK must abide by our rules and regulations, but that the same does not apply to us when we are abroad? ...

The notion that "we expect them to abide by our laws, so we should abide by theirs" is worryingly prevalent, and an example of how the doctrines of multiculturalism and moral equivalence have corrupted the minds of many in the West. Of course we expect foreign visitors to comply with our laws - but our laws don't decree that a person should be flogged for giving the wrong name to a cuddly toy.

Actually, I don't agree with Mike here. It's true: not that you should necessarily respect the laws of the country you're in, but that you can expect to face the consequences if you break them. It's true that laws in the Sudan are absurd, that their "justice" is a joke, and that the country is generally just plain run by bastards, but the sad fact remains that it isn't a colony of Britain and so British subjects don't have special rights there. If you visit the place, you have to obey its stupid laws and live by its nasty small-minded barbaric mediaeval mores. More fool you for going to the hellhole in the first place, Mrs Gibbons.

But there's a flip-side to that. Just as the Sudanese have no duty to give special consideration to visiting British infidels, so the British state has no duty to mollycoddle the Sudanese. Our government supposedly disapproves of theirs, after all — or so it claims from time to time. I understand that a certain amount of pussyfooting around was necessary while Gibbons was still in jail over there, but she's out and home now. So broadcast a warning to all Britons in Sudan to get out of the country ASAP, expel their ambassador from London, and cut down on that money we keep giving them — most of it's to aid the Sudanese victims of the Sudanese government, but we could at least reduce those portions that help the ruling class.

It's not a matter of punishing them. It's certainly not a matter of infringing their sovereignty. It's a simple matter of asserting our values. "Yes," we should be saying to them, "you have every right to punish Britons in your country under your laws. And we have every right to choose who to give our money to and what kind of people to invite to our state functions. We're not going to pretend you're civilised when you're not. You're just not our kind of people. Oh, and have this DVD of the 2007 British Comedy Awards as a parting gift. Bye."

Anything but this crap:

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, said:

... 'I want to pay tribute to the work of Lord Ahmed and Baroness Warsi whose welcome initiative has been important in securing this outcome. They, and the Muslim community in the UK, have shared our view that this was always an innocent misunderstanding.'

Whether this was an innocent misunderstanding has absolutely nothing to do with it. Because what if it hadn't been? What if she had wanted to insult or criticise the genocidal religious totalitarians who run the Sudan?

My nation has no spine. And, rather unfortunately, everyone knows it.

Wednesday 12 December 2007

I am shocked, shocked, I say.

It has taken three years for experts from three leading universities to discover that ...

Extreme inebriation is often seen as a source of personal esteem and social affirmation amongst young people ... Tales of alcohol-related mishaps and escapades were key markers of young peoples' social identity. These 'drinking stories' also deepen bonds of friendship and cement group membership. Not only does being in a friendship group legitimise being very drunk — being the subject of an extreme drinking story can raise esteem within the group. ... Inebriation within the friendship group is often part of a social bonding ritual that is viewed positively and linked with fun, friendship and good times.

Sometimes you just have to marvel at the culture of academia, that allows people who need three years to find that out to call themselves "experts".

Monday 10 December 2007

Too much help.

I've been shopping in supermarkets for quite a few years now. And I know how I like to pack things; I've got my system. We all have. Some things go on top of other things. Some things go a certain way up. Only a fool would put that in the same bag as these. You know. And, quite often, I'm shopping for more than one household, so want to keep certain items in separate bags because they're not going to the same place as everything else.

So I realised the other day that attempts by supermarket checkout staff to pack my bags for me actually make me angrier than any other single phenomenon in the world. Even government. They used not to do this. I spent thirty happy years growing up in a world where supermarkets chucked the food at you as quickly as possible and you and the whole family had to pack as a perfectly choreographed team in order to get out of the next shopper's way quickly enough. But no, now they go and get all nice and helpful. It's driving me up the bloody wall.

Now, usually, they ask you, "Would you like some help with your packing?" And I can politely say, "No, thank you" and then I get a bit of a look from them and it dawns on me that they thought it was a rhetorical question. I'm not supposed to say no. They think they're being helpful. What kind of ungrateful fool would turn down an offer of help? And then I end up having to pack at insane speeds, because, if just a couple of pots of yoghurt don't get stowed quite fast enough, the checkout person will sigh very slightly — as if to say, "See? I knew you couldn't pack quickly enough without my help." — and start packing for me anyway. Even though I have expressly asked them not to. What is wrong with this world, that that is not considered rude?

Not only is it not considered rude, but what would be considered rude would be for me to ask them to stop it. When someone does you a favour out of the kindness of their hearts, it's not really on to tell them to bog off. For some reason, this same etiquette seems to apply when they're not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts but rather to get you out of their sight as quickly as possible. Livid though I am at their crappy packing (no, it is not organised to put all the liquids in the same bag! It will break, idiot!), I can't bring myself to fight my own annoying Britishness by saying anything. So instead, I Drop A Hint.

When the bag that they have badly packed trundles down the conveyor belt to me, I unpack it and then repack it the way it should be packed. I'm going to have to do this anyway to avoid breakages and squishages and to balance the bags properly if I'm going to be carrying them, so I may as well do it here and now and hope that they notice and stop. I mean, you pack a bag for someone and they immediately unpack it. Just how obtuse would you need to be to ignore a hint like that? Well, exactly as obtuse as a supermarket checker-outer, apparently. From their stunted point of view, I'm now going even more slowly than before, so need even more help, so they do even more packing for me. But I'm not going slowly. I'm actually going faster to try and counteract the fact that they're slowing me down. Plus I'm wasting precious energy on not screaming.

And that's if they ask. Sometimes, they just start packing for me, without so much as a by-your-leave. This is as bad as before, only I don't get to pack even one bag my way. Bastards.

And then there's the charities. It started with the scouts, but now everyone's in on it. Some moppet with a big plastic bucket that I'm supposed to toss coins into because they have chucked all my shopping randomly into plastic bags, as if simply being inside a plastic bag is all I require of my shopping. And they always seem to come in twos, so there's not even enough room for me to stand, let alone to get to my shopping before they do. And then I'm supposed to pay them for having done their little bit to jam a spanner into my day. And some of them aren't even proper charities. At my local Asda, there were some kids collecting so that their drama group could go to the USA. Now we've buggered up your shopping, please pay for our holiday. No.

And then there's the nonsense with the conveyor belt. I put stuff on there in the order in which I want to pack it. Approximately. What could possibly go wrong? But then you get those weird check-out people who seem to be having some sort of private don't-let-the-conveyor-belt-move competition. The conveyor belt is actually there to make their lives easier; it brings items to them so that they can reach eveything easily and don't end up straining themselves reaching for stuff. But these guys seem to want the strain. They reach as far back up the belt as they can, grabbing the dog biscuits while leaving one lone cucumber sitting on the belt's sensors and stopping it from moving. Why? What would be the big problem if the conveyor belt were to move? If I'm lucky enough to have been allowed to do my own packing, this completely screws it up.

So, supermarket people, if you're reading, here are some notes for you. Firstly, if a customer asks you not to pack for them, don't pack for them. (You'd think in this day and age that people would know that no means no.) Secondly, stop pissing around with the conveyor belt. I know I'm not the only person to put stuff on there in a useful and non-random order. Thirdly, if you start packing, unasked, for a customer, and that customer is me, be aware that, while I may look only mildly annoyed, I am in fact pouring all of my energy into not screaming at you. And I can really scream.

Wednesday 5 December 2007

Gillian Gibbons.

The whole ridiculous teddy-bear story has been more of the usual, frankly, but, now she's back home and has talked to the press, we get to see just what an impressively thick woman Gillian Gibbons is.

"I'm just an ordinary middle-aged school teacher who went out to have a bit of an adventure, and got a bit more than I bargained for," Gibbons said at a brief press conference at the airport.

What is the world coming to, eh? You go to a country in which an ethno-religious genocide is ongoing, for a bit of an adventure. And then something slightly bad happens to you. What are the chances?

"I don't think anyone could have imagined it would have snowballed like this."

Gosh, no. Who could have imagined that large numbers of Muslims in a devout Muslim country might completely overreact to a tiny little thing, form mobs, and demand the death of a westerner? There's certainly no precedent for it.

"I was very upset to think that I might have caused offense to anyone, very, very upset," Gibbons said.

You know, some people might have been upset by this:

Some Sudanese protesters, however, demanded far more punishment, such as lashes or even death.

But no, when an angry mob bays quite literally for her head, Gibbons is simply appalled that she might have made some dreadful faux pas.

"I am very sorry to leave Sudan. I had a fabulous time. It is a beautiful place and I had a chance to see some of the countryside. The Sudanese people I found to be extremely kind and generous and until this happened I only had a good experience."

Is this woman even aware of the hundreds of thousands killed and the millions of refugees? She had a fabulous time while the extremely kind and generous people went about clearing their beautiful country of black people and Christians by killing them.

"I wouldn't like to put anyone off going to Sudan"

But fearing for her safety, she returned to England immediately.

Seeing her on camera spouting this drivel, there really did appear to be no suggestion that her interview was all a big put-on.


I only noticed this for the first time the other day.

In the Band Aid video, the line "The greatest gift you'll give is life" is sung over footage of Paula Yates.

Even by fate's standards, that's pretty cruel.