Saturday, 26 February 2011

Podium position

Yes, I know, I've been remiss. An absentee landlord, if you like. Although I'm not charging rent. And this isn't a building.

Ok, not like an absentee landlord, then. But I haven't posted anything here for a week. This is down to two main reasons:
  • The ongoing lack of reliable broadband. It's been on and off like a disco light (although kudos to VirginMedia; I posted the last thing on Twitter and within a day I had contact from VM's Twitter team to offer assistance).
  • I've actually been a little busy, and the last thing I really wanted to do this week after coming home from work was to sit down at another keyboard and wrangle more words into something resembling coherent thought.
One of the things taking my time over the last fortnight or so was the organisation of some corporate-style presentations. And, working on the basis that it's not terribly corporate for the speaker to rock up in a conference room with a laptop and a projector, we employed some experts to help.

And so I have been immersed in the audio-visual world. A strange world, alluring, yet alien. A world populated by a lot of guys in black polo shirts and combats, wielding those Gerber multi-tool things. I feel for these chaps (and they are always, to a man, men). They spend their professional lives watching presentation after presentation. Sometimes it might be glamourous. But more often than not you're going to be stuck at the business end of a week-long run of two-hour briefings on corporate re-engineering and financial balance sheet management. Either they've learned to sleep with their eyes open or they're a lot more professional than the rest of us.

I was talking to the team who was helping us as we approached the first presentation last week. As is normal for this sort of event, there was gentle background music playing to set the tone as the delegates walked in. And it was Zero 7's album, When It Falls. It's always When It Falls. It strikes the right note. Contemporary, yet fitting. It's unlikely to cause a scene.

I know this was a deliberate choice, because the conference gurus told me. They told me of a rival firm to theirs, who had been contracted to support a high profile conference for a Rather Big and Scary Multinational Pharmaceutical Company.

They hadn't chosen Zero 7. They just put random music through the PA. The Chairman of this Rather Big and Scary Multinational Pharmaceutical Company walked down to the podium. He was ready to tell the gathered masses how well they'd done over the previous 12 months. How they were making a real difference. How they had further pushed back the barriers of pharmaceuticals. And the music that greeted him?

This did not go down well.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Oh great. Another complaint letter.

It's so ironic that female Canadian singer-songwriters would doubtless record songs about it. No more than a week or so after I write about my internet addiction and my broadband connection goes down.

Sing it, Alanis.

Rather than regale you with the gory details, you can read instead the current working draft of a letter I'll be sending to Virginmedia, my ISP. I do love me a good letter:

To: Mark Davidson, Executive Director, Customer Care, Virginmedia

Dear Mr Davidson

Thank you very much for your recent letter informing me of increases to the price for my combined telephone, broadband and TV package.

I hope you don't mind me sending you a letter in reply. I wouldn't normally - I prefer to use email where possible - but the reason for my somewhat retro approach to correspondence will hopefully become clear in due course.

When I was a very small child I used to frequent my corner shop more often than was healthy. I would go there for '10p mix-ups' where, in exchange for one shiny coin, the shopkeeper would put a given number of random sweets into a bag. I'd scurry outside excitedly and rip open the bag to gaze in wonder at the delights within. Then I'd devour the lot before I got home.

I did this a lot. Some 35 years later my dentist is putting his kids through college as a result, but that's not why I'm telling you about it. I brought up this anecdote because it taught me a lesson about getting what you pay for.

Now let us move in an entirely smooth way to my broadband service, which Virginmedia has been supplying for a number of years. It has been a source of near-constant joy to me, bringing the world to my laptop, enabling to me to shop online, manage what I laughingly refer to as my finances and develop a blog that is inexplicably popular in Iowa, amongst other places.

This happy existence ground to a shuddering halt on Tuesday when my wife remarked that the internet had died. I suggested that it was merely asleep, or perhaps pining for the fjords, but she shot me a look that suggested a Monty Python revival would be an unwelcome addition to the ongoing discourse.

I could sense the tone. That's what 13 years of marriage gives you, I suppose.

I've had this happen in the past and previously resolved it by unplugging the modem, waiting two minutes or so (I find singing the words to Pulling Mussels From a Shell by Squeeze tends to work), then powering everything back up again.

I tried this on Tuesday evening. I even threw in Up The Junction for good measure. All to no avail.

What service we did have was like wading through treacle. And while that might sound like fun - who, apart from diabetics, would want to wade through treacle? - it wasn't really what we wanted from our evening's web-browsery.

At this point I decided to call your support line. Who would have thought that pressing three little buttons - dialling 150 - would in fact put me on a direct collision course with the seventh circle of Hades?

I don't want to blame Gadge (pronounced Gad-gey). His English was way, way better than my Hindi. I only know one word, and I'm not entirely sure it is one to be repeated in polite company. I'm saving it for best. But the problem was that Gadge (pronounced Gad-gey) was hamstrung by more than mere language.

It didn't help that the line between me in Birmingham and him in Mumbai was atrocious. It didn't help that he was having problems with his computer. It didn't help that Gadge (pronounced...oh you get the point) had a script in front of him and He Was Going To Stick To It Come Hell Or High Water.

I asked him if there were outages in my area. There were none, he said. None whatsoever? No, none. There are no outages in your area. It was, if you like, an outage-free zone, uncorrupted by outages.

We had a nice chat for the next couple of minutes about what could be happening. We did the whole "Did you switch it off and on?", "Yes I switched it off and on" thing. We were having a ball.

Then Gadge said "I can see that there is some slow running in your area."

"I'm sorry?"

"Yes, there is some slow running."

"But you said there were no outages."

"That is correct. But there is some slow running."

I decided not to go into the whole philosophical debate of 'outage/not an outage'. Despite appearances to the contrary, I still have some semblance of sanity and I'm quite keen to keep it. So I asked him when it was likely to be resolved.

"Eighteen days."

Eighteen days. In eighteen days I reckon I could develop alternatives. I could have a pretty good stab at training a band of highly intelligent marmosets to bring the zeroes and ones to me personally. Obviously marmosets cannot carry an electrical charge (and believe me, it wasn't fun discovering that) so we would need another way to represent bits of data. Perhaps we could get each marmoset to bring a peanut. An empty peanut shell would represent a zero, a full peanut representing a one.

There are some potential drawbacks to this approach, I'll grant you. We might find some data degradation if some of the less-professional marmosets eat the peanuts. I need to find out if Birmingham City Council would let me put the used shells in my recycling. And, it's fair to say, it might not be the speediest of services.

But it might be an improvement. And at least I'd get what I would be paying for. Quite unlike my current broadband service from Virginmedia.

I'd be grateful if you could let me know what you're going to do about this. Partly because I think your job title suggests this is something you'd be keen to do. Partly because I'd quite like a halfway-decent service. Partly because if I'm paying for a service it would be nice to be receiving it. But also because I need to know what to do with this 17 tons of peanuts I've got in my back garden.

Yours, etc.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Once, twice, three times a cheeseboard

There was a time when going out for a meal was unremarkable. However, that was before the recession. These days we spend our evenings in our damp hovels, glumly sucking at a thin gruel for sustenance. The only seasoning we've had for the last three years has been the saltiness of our own bitter tears. You say 'Dickensian', I say 'charmingly retro'.

So it was nice to go out last night. We'd quite forgotten what it was like to eat at an establishment that doesn't have a drive-through element to its offering. To not have to wade through ingredients and recipes and washing-up. Quite a novelty, in fact. I'd go as far as to say that we're out of practice when it comes to restaurants.

It started when we were greeted by our waiter. Young? I own underwear older than this chap. And he had this flicky-feathered hair thing going on. So for the rest of the night we referred to him as Justin Bieber. maybe all restaurants have to employ a Justin, to appeal to the sensory-deprived 14-year-old girls that are clearly a major part of the target market these days.

We perused the menu.

"What does this mean?" asked Katie, looking at the starters. "'English Goats Cheese served Three Ways.' How many possible ways are there?"

I put down my pint of Old Hooky and reflected on this question.

"Well," I said, "you could serve one portion cheerfully. The second, with a sense of melancholy, perhaps redolent of times past. The final serving could be served in the style of King Louis XV of France."

"The Sun King?"

"No, that was Louis XIV. Although he advocated the divine right of kings and lack of temporal restraint, he was in fact lactose intolerant. His successor had no such weakness."

"You enjoying your beer?

"Why, yes I am, why do you ask?"

"It's not important. Look, let's order."

And so we did. Neither of us went for the goat cheese.

Some minutes later, we were coming to the end of our respective starters and Justin approached us once more, bearing main courses.

"Is there a chicken here?" he simpered, his voice a semi-tone away from breaking irreparably.

I looked at Katie. Katie looked at me. Her eyes seemed to say: don't be a smartarse. It's a look I've seen countless times before. I heeded the warning and our mains were delivered without further drama. Very nice they were, too.

While digesting my slow-cooked shank of lamb with herb-roasted potatoes I looked at the choices for dessert. I don't have much in the way of a sweet tooth so looked for the cheese alternative. And I saw this:
'Mature Farmhouse Cheeses served in the traditional way.'
This I had to see. Because, as every fool knows, this country has a long and noble tradition when it comes to the serving of cheeses. Especially those that are mature and linked in some way to agricultural dwellings.

Our friends in the Orient have their tea ceremonies; a whole etiquette around the serving of leaf-based hot infusions that speak of centuries of carefully-guarded cultural development. The traditional English cheese ceremony is a similar sight to behold.

A local yeoman presents the cheese for the diner's inspection. You're supposed to 'nose' the cheese before exclaiming three times, "Verily! And forsooth!" Then it is carefully sliced by a flaxen-haired maiden, into wedges of Imperial dimensions, using an oak-handled knife while humming Greensleeves.

These days some establishments try to bling the ceremony up a bit. It's not uncommon to have your cheese delivered by parachute from the bomb-bay of a passing Lancaster bomber. However this plays merry havoc with Stilton, which doesn't travel too well.

Keen to see this tradition unfold once more, I ordered the cheese course, making sure to use the words, " the traditional way" to Justin.

Hmm. Apparently these days, "traditional" actually means "on a board, with chutney and celery."

I feel somewhat cheated.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Logging off?

My name is Phil and I have an addiction.

Not one of the obvious ones, though. Sorry, this is not going to be that sort of post. I've never inhaled. Never been offered, for that matter. Honestly, I had a very sheltered upbringing. I was brought up in a cul-de-sac. I was 17 before I saw another human nipple.

No, in my case, my addiction is something so much more..21st century. I am addicted to the Internet.

See, I even have to use the capital 'I'. That's how bad I've got it.

As far as I know, there are a million-and-one things you can do with a computer these days. But whenever I switch one on, it's the same thing. The muscle memory kicks in and I'm opening up Firefox to look at something suitably random, without even thinking about it. I can't help it.

It started many years ago, on 56k dial-up and a Tiny computer, which was, ironically, the size of a locomotive. Most nights it was a case of dialling and re-dialling to get a connection. It was difficult to get going. But I was hooked, nevertheless. A few years later broadband came about, giving me that instant hit. Then laptops, then wireless, then more speed.

Most nights I'm like a sailor on shore-leave. Actually, that's not a good analogy. I don't look so good in white, for starters. There are more websites out there than there are people. And yet I end up on the same few dozen. (Before you ask, nothing like that. Remember the cul-de-sac thing above?)

But I've realised that this is no way forwards. Refreshing my Facebook page every 30 seconds is just not a healthy way for a grown-up to behave. There are books out there unread. And none of them require me to slide a finger down the front to switch them on. There are some things I'd like to write that are a bit more than 300 words of bloggery. And yes, that is a word if I say so myself.

So I'm going to try and ration myself. I hear there are applications you can download that restrict your Internet access. But finding them would involve more surfing, and that's just silly. There is such a thing as an 'off' switch, after all.

Of course, it's only me who's going cold turkey. I fully expect you to keep using the Internet on a regular basis. I hear some of the blogs out there are outstanding, for instance.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Oddly-shaped balls

I have a confession to make. I my younger years I spent some time as a hooker.

That dragged you in, didn't it? But how else could I get you to read a post about the noble sport of rugby?

Observe a typical rugby team. Look out for the short, stumpy one with mis-shapen ears and a broken nose. Ok, the shorter, stumpier one. That'll be the hooker. Ironic, isn't it? He's the chap who is right at the centre of the scrum, trying to hook the ball backwards with his foot while his opposite number systematically rearranges his facial features.

That was me, aged 11 to about 16. It explains a lot.

Most of all, it explains why, as a decidedly non-sporty bloke, I am fascinated by rugby. It's pretty much the only sport where I would sit down and watch a match as a neutral. Football (ok, "soccer" for you lot over there) leaves me a little cold. Cricket has rules complex enough to make your typical Hadron Collider look as simple as a matchbox in comparison. Athletics is just a whole range of wrong.

But rugby is something I can get down with. I can watch it and understand the strategies. I can tell when the referee is being an idiot, instead of speculating upon his idiocy as we all do when watching football. And my national team has actually won a World Cup in the last decade.

Orcs on steroids. You've got to love it.

So that is why I'm going to switch off this computer in a few minutes.  The Six Nations campaign is about to begin. I shall be settling down on the sofa as 40" of HD wonderment expands in front of me.

I have a surfeit of beer and spicy food to hand. This is as sporty as I get.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

It's like the same thing all over again

In honour of today being Groundhog Day I was just going to repeat a post that you'd already seen before, but I thought that would be taking the proverbial. Besides, I have nothing about groundhogs. Swimming squirrels, yes, but not groundhogs.

It is the case, however, that in the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, they're relying on the local wildlife to predict the seasons. I'm led to believe that the mammal in question lives at Gobbler's Knob.

I have no further words to sensibly add in response to this particular bit of information.

Anyway, this year Punxsutawney Phil has not been able to see his shadow, which means that Spring is near. This will undoubtedly be good news to those people of American leaning I happen to know who are currently using snorkels as they walk about under eight-foot snowdrifts, saying "WTF?" to each other, knowingly.

What is less known is that the groundhog in question predicts far, far more than just the weather. A quick look at random February 2s over the past few decades shows some remarkable carryings-on:

2 February 1962 - Phil fails to see his shadow, but rattles his whiskers in an irritated manner. This has been seen as an accurate prediction of the invasion of English guitar-based pop groups.

2 February 1978 - Phil runs around in small circles. Flared trousers are due to go out of fashion.

2 February 1983 - Phil blinks fourteen times in rapid succession. Do not buy Betamax.

2 February 1984 - Phil tucks his front paws underneath his body. Experts aren't 100% sure whether this is a premonition of the decision of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to retire, or the ending of Happy Days.

2 February 1986 - Phil does 'jazz hands'. Later that year,a revival in musical theatre occurs.

2 February 1996 - Phil walks backwards for 20 seconds. Alanis Morissette wins a Grammy award a mere three weeks later.

2 February 2005 - Phil chirrups while facing the assembled crowd. Frosted cupcakes become inexplicably popular later that very same year.

The signs are there if you know what to look for.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Welcome to the Happy Achievers' Club

Well. There we go then for another year. Never wanted the stupid thing anyway.

Thank you to those of you who nominated this blog for a 2011 Weblog Award. You are all good people, respectful to animals, politically wise, sweet-smelling and earthily attractive to everyone you encounter. However, I'm afraid your efforts have been in vain.

The finalists have been announced and I am sorry to tell you that they are Lardless. I shouldn't be surprised, to be honest. The nomination phase relied on getting lots of people to, well, nominate. Which is a whole lot easier of you have several thousand visitors every day.

I do not have several thousand visitors every day. If you are reading this you can consider yourself a member of a very limited club. A bit like the Illuminati but with less Latin.

I thought we might have been in with a chance in the Best-Kept Secret category, but I think I've been doing too good a job of keeping things secret. Oh, the irony.

This is the part where you expect me to make bitchy comments about the finalists, but maddeningly they seem to be pretty good. Well, apart from the Hollyoaks one, but each to their own, I suppose.

Oh well. To paraphrase one of my heroes, all I ask is a chance to prove that success won't change me.


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