Thursday, 31 January 2008

Don't leave home without it

To: Oliver Haberstroh, VP of Membership, American Express.

Wow. I am so excited. I came home last night to find out that you'd written to me. I don't recall speaking to you before - I think I'd remember a name such as yours. By the way, did you know that on a spell-checker you come out as 'Oliver Overstretch'?

You wrote to tell me, "Congratulations. You have been selected for the final stage of approval for British Airways American Express Credit Card and are just a few steps away from enjoying all its benefits."

Congratulations certainly are due. Because, if I take this opening paragraph at its word I must have somehow attained God-like status, beating aside hundreds, nay, thousands of other less deserving people to reach this exalted position. Clearly this is the pinnacle of all my years on this planet. It's funny, though. Try as I might, I can't remember actually applying for anything, but that's fine. Sometimes Fate just points his finger at you. This must be my destiny.

Anyway, I am merely "a few steps away" from the unalloyed delights you're yearning to give me. Mere formalities, I suspect, for one such as me! What will you want of me, Oliver? "All you need to do is complete and attach the enclosed application form." Hmmm, let me Then I see you'll do a credit search, underwrite and make a decision.

Gosh, Ollie. Aren't those exactly the same steps I'd take if I was applying for a credit card from scratch? You said I'd been "selected," and everything. You even congratulated me. A much more cynical person might think that "selected for the final stage" actually meant "our mailing database chose you at random".

Never mind, let's press on. What joys can I expect if I take that apparently piddling final step? Well, looky looky. One British Airways BA Mile on every £1 I spend on the card. Apparently, "you'll be surprised at how quickly your BA Miles add up." With our spending patterns we could be flying to the moon and back every weekend. Ooh, a worked example, how exciting! "Once you've spent £20,000, for example, you'll collect enough BA miles for a return ticket to places like Italy, Sweden or Croatia.." (I love the casual use of the words "for example", by the way.)

But. But, but, but. Expedia has a return flight to Rome showing for £160. I haven't checked, but if I wanted to experience the delights of Gothenburg or Split I probably wouldn't be shelling out much more than this. Certainly not twenty big ones. Oh Ollie, you're such a tease! Perhaps there are some other benefits; let's read on, shall we?

"Typical 17.9% APR". Silly me, I don't know anything about such matters, I'll have to take you on trust. After all, you congratulated me, so this must be good, right? So even if I have a quick look at MoneySupermarket I won't find better, will I. I'm special, yes?

Oh, Ollie. I am so disappointed in you. At least fourteen companies will charge me less. I mean, they're not congratulating me or anything, but money is money. Even for us specially-selected people.

Hang on, I've just noticed. There's a life-size replica credit card attached to the letter, with "YOUR NAME HERE" on it. A masterstroke. Just in case the wealth of riches on offer aren't enough to turn my head, you think a bit of blue laminated cardboard might do the trick.

You know me so well, Ollie. That'll do nicely.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The secret's in the soil

The more observant of you will have noticed that I am a confirmed carnivore. (And just what is a confirmed carnivore, anyway? Does it involve Catholic clergy with Worcester Sauce?)

It's true, though. I used to be that person who would only eat a meal if most of its constituent parts used to have a mother. Vegetables were to be classified more as garnish - really there as decoration but not to be taken that seriously.

I must have been a trial for my poor mother. Mealtime after mealtime, I'd sit there, my bottom lip quivering ever so slightly, refusing to eat anything green. Ingredients would be pushed around the plate, tantrums would be thrown, sulks endured.

I was 18 at the time. (Buddum tish! Ithankyew.)

But I have had a conversion. Katie not only has the patience of a saint, but also access to Abel & Cole's website. As a result, for the last three weeks a man called Doug* in a little biodiesel van has chugged his way to our front door and deposited boxes of gorgeousness on our step. Bang on 6.00am every Monday, with metronomic efficiency.

I'll be honest, I was a little cynical at first. It all seemed a little, well, worthy. And very much right on. But once Katie unpacked the first box my interest was piqued. Irregular apples. Oranges with pockmarks. And bendy carrots. In other words, fruit and veg that hadn't been mucked around with by some faceless corporation. And as a result, they tasted, well, tasty.

I know this might sound a little odd. But I have taken to saying things like, "That apple tasted apple-y, " with an expression that is rapidly approaching awe. And as a result of their approach to stock control (if it's not in season you're not getting it), I have experienced more new things in the last fortnight than a stag party in Amsterdam.

Kohlrabi. Looks like a turnip, tastes a bit like a herby potato. Radicchio. Bitter as buggery, but works well with a dash of balsamic. Ok, a lot of balsamic. Alfafa. Bless you. Katie made some caulifower dahl and I found it almost edible. This week we had sunflower sprouts. I know. Someone call my mother.

But they also do non-veggie things too. This evening we had the Thai fishcakes. Which, for the benefit of Rebecca, is not a Big Lebowski reference on this occasion. And I've noticed that they supply beer and wine, too. There could be carnage ahead.

If they have a fault, they do sometimes fall into the Too Much Information category. In the weekly newsletter they told us about Andrew, their potato farmer. Apparently he'd been distracted from packing his 'Arran Victory' potatoes this week because he'd had to deliver his own baby girl.

I'm all for going back to nature. But I sincerely hope he washed his hands afterwards.

*(I don't actually know the driver's name. But in our house, forever more, he shall be called Doug. And Verily It Is Decreed.)

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Let there be light

Never let it be said that I can't pull my none-too inconsiderate weight when it comes to manly duties. It's unlikely that 'll be called upon to chop much firewood, neither am I going to be going around saving us from roaming grizzlies. However, I have a great line in removing lids from jars.

And, occasionally, very occasionally, I will be asked to perform acts of do-it-yourself.

Stop sniggering at the back, there.

On Thursday, Katie called me at work to tell me that there had been an incident. On coming home, she'd switched on the light in the living room, only for one bulb (out of three in the fitting) to pop. Well, 'pop' is a bit of an understatement - there were bits of bulb - glass, filament, etc, scattered all over the floor.

By the way. I have observed that asking in a loud voice, "What do you mean, exploded?" down the phone is guaranteed to get the attention of your co-workers.

The remnants of the bulb were still stuck in the fitting, and weren't going anywhere fast. Given that we were now 33% down on available illumination, Katie leapt on this as a perfect retail opportunity. After all, there is nothing finer than shopping for light fittings, is there? Shortly we were the proud owners of something that looked like a chrome plated dish of pasta, with five arms, each of which would project 40 watts of photons into our lives. And I was to mate this item with our ceiling.

I am not trusted with anything structural, for that would be foolish. Allowing me to deal with the gas supply would just provide the B27 postcode area with its own new impact crater. And as for plumbing - that's not going to happen until Katie finishes that "Build Your Own Ark" partwork. But strangely enough, when it comes to electricity, basically I'm handed the pliers and told to get on with it.

How we've not become human barbecues before now I'll never know.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Worse than his bite

In recent news, scientists in Hungary have developed a computer program to determine the emotional state of dogs by listening to the various noises they make - their barks, growls, etc.

Ingenious. And about time, too.

"Growl, grrr, woof!" - "Chipper see ball."

"Yap, yap, grrr!" - "Chipper want food."

"Grr, yelp, rowf!" - "Chipper go outside now?"

"Grr, woof, woof, yip!" - "Every rational action must set before itself not only a principle, but also an end. Most ends are of a subjective kind, because they need only be pursued if they are in line with some particular hypothetical imperative that a person may choose to adopt. For an end to be objective, it would be categorically necessary that we pursue it."

Meh. Those German Shepherds are all the same.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Read all about it

Is it possible to beat having the Sunday papers delivered, as far as treats go? Having had a second Christmas dinner last night, as compensation for Katie being poorly during the real one, rest and relaxation were the dual orders of the day today. And this meant newsprint. To the extreme.

I sat here this afternoon and evening, wading through pounds of printed matter. The main paper, the News Review, the Cultural bit, even the Business section. Having now read the colour supplements and their associated advertisements, I have two observations:

1) The Eagles are advertising a tour of the UK. I'm sure this is a Good Thing for their legion of fans, eager to see and hear some easy-going country-rock stylings. However, given that "tour" normally means "moving around a bit", surely spending four nights at the same venue, then leaving the country, is missing the point somewhat? Or have I missed something?

Memo to Mr Frey & Co: you may indeed prefer to "Take It Easy," but don't go playing fast-and-loose with the English Language.

2) The back page advert for a Swiss Military Diver's Watch enthralled me. Which particular branch of the military in this famously-landlocked country employs divers? And where would they, in fact, dive?

I ask again - have I missed something?

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Blimey O'Riley

I am occasionally aware that the TV is on. I will look up from whatever I'm doing and it will be there, like a one-eyed demon. A malformed demon, clearly; with a square head, no limbs, and one multicoloured, freaky eye. But a demon, nevertheless.

Katie has taken to watching CSI: New York. Apparently there are quite a few different shows in the CSI canon - let me tell you, I can't wait for CSI: Abergavenny to come about. Anyway, until then we have to do with the Big Apple version, mainly because we've been there a few times but also because there's some chap called Carmine on there, the sight of whom makes Katie come all over all unnecessary.

In between cries of, "Oooh, look behind that corpse, didn't we buy knishes there?" or "Isn't that Saks, past that pool of bodily fluids?" I've been able to discern a plot of sorts. I'll be honest, there doesn't seem to be too much variation from episode to episode.

Gary Sinise is cast as Grumpy Bloke. He spends his time growling, mainly at Carmine and some other chap who looks like he's been introduced intimately to a broom handle. Grumpy Bloke doesn't smile, I've noticed.

Then there's Ringlet Woman, who wears a vest - she'll take off her jacket to show this every third episode. Strange Coroner with those glasses that split in half - that's his only trick - and Scientific Guy who will solve the crime with one atom of evidence so they can pull in some scrote and bang him up for life.

But for me, the highpoint was always the theme tune - The Who's Baba O'Riley. It is an excellent tune, even if we only get a few seconds of it. But what's this? The latest season is now showing, and they've gone and farted about with it. The power chords are subjugated and there's what sounds like (shudder) a drum machine of some sort. Wrong. On many levels.

Hear that high-pitched whirring noise? That's Messrs Moon and Entwistle spinning in their graves.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

I was never going to be that big in Nagasaki

We live in times of conflict, tension and disagreement. The clash of cultures, religions, Coke versus Pepsi. But there is one thing, it seems, that unites great swathes of the world's population.

The annual condemnation of Japan's scientific study of whales is one of those subjects that appears to get people from most countries talking as one.

I was reading through some of the comments on this as the news broke that Japan had essentially held some protesters hostage today. And it was remarkable; it seems not to matter whether you're socialist, liberal, conservative or otherwise, there's a groundswell of opinion on this one.

But is it a problem that a lot of the arguments against whaling tend to be emotional, passionate, even? These are beautiful, graceful creatures, they say. We shouldn't be killing such intelligent, sociable creatures, we're told.

That way lies hypocrisy, goes the counterpoint. How many of the anti-whaling people are strict vegetarians? Can a cow not be cute? Could a lamb be lovable? Would meat by any other name taste as sweet? I've got to admit, it's not an entirely bad point. I mean, I quite like to eat things that once had a face. And not just beef and lamb, either. There's venison in the freezer, so as far as I'm concerned, that's Humans 1 - Bambi's mother 0.

So given that I might be on a sticky wicket if I play the emotional card, let's look at some of the other arguments instead.

Argument no. 1 - It's part of our culture.

What a novel concept - slaughter as a heritage industry. Perhaps we can get the Sealed Knot folks to drown a few kittens in a bucket while they're at it? If you're going to get all hissy about history, why not carry out your whaling in an open sailing boat, with hand-thrown harpoons? Make it a bit more sporting, perhaps.

In fact (and whisper this verrry quietly) Japan only started whaling 60 years ago to stave off post-war malnutrition. So the "part of our culture" thing is, well, a little ambitious. We gave up ration-books and Vera Lynn, so they can give whaling the heave-ho, surely?

Argument no. 2 - Protesting is just how the western white folk try to assert their authority on the Japanese.

Nice try. But I'd get quite pissed off should the Norwegians start whaling again. And they are probably the whitest people on the planet. Seriously, they make me look latino.

Argument no. 3 - It's a scientific study.

I was struggling to conjure up the particular question that might need such study. I could only come up with "What happens when you fire a 500-pound steel harpoon into an aquatic mammal then tear it to shreds?" I'm aware that the scientific community will happily graft an ear onto a mouse's back just for something to do between episodes of QI, so they are a little odd, but surely not that odd?

I then remembered the dismal science - economics. Of course - what a fool I'd been! The scientific study in question must therefore go something like:

"If we kill 900 whales this year as opposed to the 450 we took last year - thus increasing supply - how much can we charge for the steaks?"

Scientific study? I'm sorry, but as arguments go, that's bollocks.*

The slaughter is bad enough, but it's the dishonesty that tops it all off for me.

*(And I'm well aware that my aunt reads this. Sorry for that, Viv.)

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Hot stuff

The Red Button Question is one that sorts the logical people from the impulsives. It goes like this: you come across a big red button marked "Do Not Press". There are no other instructions. What do you do?

Given that my random button pressing appears to have borked one out of the two PCs in this household (the big HP desktop that sits in the spare room making malevolent clicking noises), I think we can safely put me in the Press It Now And Hang The Consequences Club.

Another example of this came into play today. We went for lunch at the Orange Tree in Chadwick End. Katie tells me she likes to go there because of the menu - simple food done really well - and the informal surroundings. I actually think she likes it because she can take a table close to the entrance and pass judgement on people as they arrive:

"Oh wow, she must have been to Fringes-R-Us for that haircut."

"The Great Wall of China. And that forehead. Two things that are visible from orbit."

"Do you think she's wearing those shoes for a bet?"

Of course, this is bad behaviour. And it is wrong to do this. It is something with which I would never join in. Oh, sod it, OK, some people in the area must have got dressed in the dark this morning.

But the highpoint of the meal was when her tuna starter came out. Seared perfectly and served not only with pickled ginger but also some wasabi. I'd seen this legendary fiery paste on various cookery programmes - often with sushi - but never tried it. Everyone says it has a bit of a kick, but I've known heat before, being no stranger to curries of all sorts. So why not press that button?

"Can I try a bit of that?"
Katie said nothing, but gave me a look that said, "Go ahead, sunshine. But consider yourself warned."

My hand shot out and I got a smudge of wasabi on a fingertip. "Smudge" makes it sound like I had a viable amount, whilst in reality this was the sort of quantity with which molecular biologists deal on a daily basis. Delicately I let it rest on my tongue.

"Oh, it's not too bad. It's a little like horseradi...."

Tick followed tock followed tick followed tock.

"Holy crap," I croaked as my mouth turned to brimstone. I reached for my pint of Old Hooky. By this point my witty repartee was further reduced to "Ohgodohgodohgodohgod."

Half a pint later, I was dabbing the tears from my eyes with a napkin, wondering what manner of people eat that sort of thing for fun.

A little more considered thought in future, perhaps.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Sustaining an election

I always said I'd never do a political post. Actually, "always said" is a bit rich. It's actually just a rule I made up a few minutes ago.

But when the politics in question relate to another country, I'm really not qualified to write about them. Plenty of people from the country in question (some of whom actually might use the phrase "open up a can of whup-ass" without irony) would have something to say about it if I tried. It would be like someone from Des Moines writing about the recent Liberal Party leadership campaign, for instance.


Given that just about every news outlet here in Britain has decided that the preliminary stages of the US Presidential Election are major, headline, oh-my-God-this-is-really-important news, I'm beginning to wonder if I can keep my interest levels up for the rest of the year.

I mean, I like a good caucus as much as the next man, but really.

(And I mean every news outlet. If any story can get house prices off the front page of the Daily Express, you know it's time to get worried.)

Yes, I know it's a vitally important subject, especially if you're, well, American. Even for those of us who put the "i" in aluminium, I accept that a degree of awareness should be shown about the outcome. Hands across the thingummy, and all that.


If the coverage is like this over here, when we've allegedly got other things to distract us, I dread to think what it must be like for those poor souls in the States....

A café. All the customers are Vikings. Mr and Mrs Bun enter - downwards (on wires).

Mr. Bun: Morning.

Waitress: Morning.

Mr. Bun: What have you got, then?

Waitress: Well there's egg and bacon; egg, sausage and bacon; egg and election; egg, bacon and election; egg, bacon, sausage and election; election, bacon, sausage and election; election,egg, election, election, bacon and election; election, election, election, egg and election; election, election, election, election, election, election, baked beans, election, election, electionand election; or lobster thermidor aux crevettes, with a mornay sauce garnished with truffle paté, brandy and a fried egg on top and election.

Mrs. Bun: Have you got anything without election in it?

Waitress: Well, there's election, egg, sausage and election. That's not got MUCH election in it.

Mrs. Bun: I don't want ANY election.

Mr. Bun: Why can't she have egg, bacon, election and sausage?

Mrs. Bun: That's got election in it!

Mr. Bun: Not as much as election, egg, sausage and election.

Mrs. Bun: Look, could I have egg, bacon, election and sausage, without the election.

Waitress: Uuuuuuggggh!

Mrs Bun: What d'you mean, uugggh! I don't like election.

Vikings: (singing) election, election, election, election, election ... election, election, election, election ... lovely election, wonderful election ...
(Brief shot of a Viking ship)

Waitress: Shut up. Shut up! Shut up! You can't have egg, bacon, election and sausage without the election.

Mrs. Bun: Why not?

Waitress: No, it wouldn't be egg, bacon, election and sausage, would it?

Mrs. Bun: I don't like election!

Mr. Bun: Don't make a fuss, dear. I'll have your election. I love it. I'm having election, election, election, election, election ...

Vikings: (singing) election, election, election, election ...

Mr. Bun: ... baked beans, election, election and election.

Waitress: Baked beans are off.

Mr. Bun: Well can I have election instead?

Waitress: You mean election, election, election, election, election, election, election, election, election, election?

Vikings: (still singing) election, election, election, election ... (etc.)

Mr. Bun: Yes.

Waitress: Arrggh!

Vikings: ... lovely election, wonderful election.

Waitress: Shut up! Shut up!

(The Vikings shut up momentarily. Enter the Hungarian.)

With apologies to Messrs Cleese, Palin, Jones, Chapman, etc.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Random musings

Partly inspired by my attempts to find something to drive along to on my way to work, but mainly pinched wholesale from The Word Magazine, here is my Randomizer.

The rules are simple. Get your iPod or similar music player. Set it to "Shuffle" and write down the first five randomly-selected tracks it chooses. Apparently it tells people everything they need to know about you. And your dodgy tastes in music, by all accounts.

And no cheating. You cannot choose tracks that make you look cool and interesting.

Right, out of the 3,800-odd tracks on my ancient but serviceable 3rd generation iPod, what do we find?

1 Santana - Smooth

Damn. This could have been something off one of the more interesting seventies albums, not the later stuff where the Fugees would show up and Carlos was just phoning it in.

2 R.E.M - You

Album track off 'Monster', if I remember correctly. My jangly indie credentials are restored.

3 Thin Lizzy - Emerald

Ah. You see. Brother no.1 used to play Thin Lizzy, Rainbow, Deep Purple and ACDC on the stereo at Sunday lunchtime when we all lived at home. I think it used to drive my parents nuts, despite my dad's protests of "No, I quite like this one. It's got a great tune" partway through an eight-minute Ritchie Blackmore solo. With the Lizzy, though, any band from Ireland was always going to have my mom on side.

4 The Stranglers - Golden Brown

January 1982. Immediately I'm in the metalwork room at King Edward VI Grammar School, trying to work a lathe. None of this health-and-safety stuff, neither. Eleven-year-olds with power tools? Get stuck in, you ponce.

And any lazy commentator who writes anything along the lines of "Golden Brown? That sounds a bit like Gordon Brown..." needs to be taken out and beaten with a length of two by four.

5 Massive Attack - Risingson

Coolness at last. I think. Although I suspect this one might be Katie's. Swings and roundabouts, though, she's put her Alexander O'Neal collection on there, and any one of those could just have easily emerged.

Right. Now it's your turn. You can comment with your random five tracks - yes, you lurkers, let's be hearing from you. Or those of you with blogs could put a post of your own together.

Go on, knock yourselves out.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

What's in a name?


"Good morning, Flinty & Mumble. 'For public relations, we're your closest relations. ' How can I delight you this morning?"

"Mr Flinty, please."

"Just transferring you."

"Hello, Brendan Flinty here."

"Flinty, it is me. Norovirus."

"Noro! Nory! The Normeister! Normunga! My, you're being busy these days. Out of all our clients, you're getting all the column inches right now. You're hotter than the sun, baby!"

"I know."

"Let's see now. 'Thousands Hit by Stomach Bug' - BBC. 'Virus Lays Hundreds Low' - The Mirror. You're getting Q&As in the broadsheets and analysis on web-pages from here to New Zealand. You're as big as it's possible to be, right now."

"I know, Flinty. But I'm not happy."

"Why not, Nory? You're the virus on the street right now."

"Have you seen what they're calling me?"

"What do you mean?"

"Have you seen it? 'Winter Vomiting Sickness!' Winter. Vomiting. Sickness. I ask you..."


"Do you know what this is doing to me, Flinty? If I had a head, I wouldn't be able to hold it up. All the other virii and bacteria get cool names. Strep A gets to be the 'Flesh Eating Bug'. Even MRSA gets to be called 'Super Bug'. And me? I get something you'd get out of The Big Book of Bugs for Kids. It's not right."

"I see."

"I mean, it's not as if I just do vomiting. I've got a lovely line in diarrhoea too. I'm versatile, Flinty. But I'm not happy."

"Ye-e-es. I see what you mean. What can we do for you, then?"

"Options, Flinty. I want options. You've got 48 hours. Come to me with something more in keeping. I want results."

48 hours later.

"Nory? We've brainstormed. We got the focus group in. We're really buzzed about these. I've just faxed over a list of suggestions to you. What do you think?"

"Festive Death? End of Year Enteritis? Both-ends Bug? What is this?"

"They're our best ideas!"

"What am I paying you for, Flinty? They're all crap!"

"Well, I guess you'd know...."

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Oh well, that's torn it

It's almost become a tradition; every 2nd January I make my first journey into work for the New Year. I have to. They tend not to pay me if I don't go in.

And my mind is elsewhere; muzzy with memories of the festive season, fuzzy due to lack of sleep and too much bad food. But I have a lot to do- it's the first proper day back in, and there are no more breaks on the horizon. I have plans to consider, projects to get moving.

2008 stretches ahead of me as I ease the car onto the seasonally quiet M6. The Warwickshire fields surround me, foggy and foreboding. Like a blank canvas, the New Year sits there, waiting for me to make my mark. Like an unsatisfied mistress (I have no direct experience here, by the way) '08 is teasing me, tempting me with the promise of potential as yet untapped.

How will this year look? What will I achieve? Will there be crowning moments of glory, periods of desolation? Joy, laughter, despair or pain?

If only there was a sign.

Overtaking a Belgian 18-wheeler, I reach for the stereo controls. Perhaps a randomly chosen track from the CD player will be my talisman? Maybe Fate will give me some guidance in musical form? Could it be that the next track I hear will set the tone of my life for the next 12 months?

Half-empty or half-full? Let's do this thing.

I press "Play". The CD changer clunks and whirrs into life as we - it, the car and me - continue towards Coventry.

The sound of wind merges into a stylised police siren. A slow, steady drumbeat. Rising organ chords. Bass. A synth line. Trumpets.

"This town, is coming like a ghost town," snarls an echoed voice. "All the clubs have been closed down."

Oh bugger.

"This place, is coming like a ghost town,"
"Bands won't play no more,"
"Too much fighting on the dance floor."

Nothing like some politically-inspired depression-era Ska to make you feel really upbeat about the future, is there? Especially knowing that I'm heading towards the city it was written in and about.

OK. That was a bit of bad luck. Let's hit the shuffle and try again - maybe the next random track will reflect the coming year more closely.

"I can't stand up, for falling down," chirps Elvis Costello.

Radio 2 it is, then.


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