Saturday, July 31, 2004

Twas my fete

How about a few photographs of my day to reward you all for slugging through Blogonomics 101?

I was at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s ‘Village Fete’ today, billed as:

“The best of British and international up-and-coming creative talent design stalls take over the V&A's Garden, surrounded by the activities of a traditional British Fete.”

It was supposed to be: “A quintessentially English event” with a “modern twist”.

What it actually entailed was a crowd of painfully fashionable young things strolling around the V&A courtyard to dubious music. On the edges of the courtyard were the stalls manned by the artistes. Most of the stuff was harmless, but showed a shocking lack of imagination from people who should be brimming with ideas.

Nevertheless, I was glad to be out on a balmy night and photographed some of the most interesting goings on:

“Are you always the one who makes the tea? Are you surrounded by colleagues, friends and family who shirk their tea-making responsibilities? Teabuddy is the answer to your prayers.”

You’ve skinned them alive and hung their hides from the lintels to warn others in the office of my severe dislike for making 20 cups of tea instead of just one? Awww, thanks guys, you shouldn’t have.

“Teabuddy is a tool for keeping-up with the making of tea in the office, at home, or, just about anywhere. No more fighting over who made the last round, or exactly how you like to take your tea - Teabuddy simply takes the hassle out of tea-making.”

Ahh, they didn’t.

Essentially, it’s a web site with a list of tea preferences listed next to coworker’s names. Every time you twitch in your seat so that you can be construed as looking in the direction of the tea room (and therefore be burdened with The Making Of The Tea), you can just tick the names that want tea, print off a handy tray sized list (arrow) and take it with you to the tea room, safe in the knowledge that your subservience to the common horde will be up to their exacting standards.*

Please note that the tea-totallers were, in fact, imbibing Foster’s beer (circled).

Asked how they will be making money off the site (whilst taking my free tea), I was told that they won’t – that they do this out of the goodness of their hearts.

You know, sometimes I wish I had a trust fund to fritter away too, it might be fun.

*(Why don’t I like making tea for the whole office? Simply because what was going to be a 45 second task turns into a production of theatrical scale. Others presume I’m going to make them a beverage simply because I’m making my own. Absurd. Also, as a recovering HR person, I can advise that it’s actually a better idea for everyone to get up from their chair to get their own tea as they will inadvertently be stretching, relaxing, helping their circulation and posture as well as allowing their eyes to focus on longer distance things than just their monitor and desk for a few minutes. )

This man was recruiting an elite militia for a new country called Bananistan. Qualifications required were an asymmetrical haircut, sneakers that had never been used for any form of exercise and hideous vintage clothing that cost more than a monthly mortgage payment. Most of the people in the crowd qualified.

When creative people go bad. Click here for larger version.

Pay a pound, get a baseball bat, lab coat, gloves and goggles. Lucky dip as to what you get to smash. Hope for the melon. Get a piece of electronic equipment instead. Be glad that you didn’t take your afternoon dose of Ritalin. Umm, smash stuff. You have 60 seconds.

This booth attracted one of the largest, loudest crowds. I have to say I was a little disturbed by the sight of the previous boy baseball-batting the bejeezus out of a life-size female dummy’s head.

One of the more creative ways to win things was dreamt up by guys who used old transport pallets to make laptop stands.

A toy rat was placed into the top of a large PVC tube and the contestant given the rat paddle. They had to ‘Smack the Rat’ against the wall as it came out the bottom. This woman missed the critter and it’s on the floor in a sorry heap (arrow).

What fete would be complete without the stick-your-head-in-this-thing-and-look-silly stand?

I diligently stuck my head in and looked very, very silly.

Saw this on the way home on the tube.

I don't think she'd much like my answer, though, because it would be along the lines of:

"We aren't doing anything about your future. Your parents might be, your friends may decide to but I don't give a squirrel's left testicle about you, cute as you are."

On closer inspection, it was a poster for the Science Museum's new 'Energy' exhibition.

Does anyone want to rate the odds that there will be no mention of the cleanliness and cheapness of nuclear power in this exhibit?

I looked at the site and wasn't surprised to find this. Larger image here.

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It looks like there’s a bit of confusion as to the ‘q’ measurement in my little blogging theory. Let me draw attention to Caveat One from the text:

“1 - The quality of the links, the choice of topics to write about and the general tone of the blog is outside the scope of my little measurements. Don’t try to subsume any of these factors into the ‘q’ measurement.”

I think it actually needs a bit of clarification. In hindsight, I chose the wrong word to describe the thing I was measuring. ‘Quality’ is a very high level abstract term that is used to describe the degree to which a product/service achieves it’s goals. That’s not what ‘q’ was about at all.

What ‘q’ measures is how important the writing in the blog (it’s style, it’s complexity, it’s richness of form and it’s length) is to the reader. It’s a measurement on a continuum from 0% (reader doesn’t care one iota, the writing can be full of typos and grammatical errors) to 100% (reader cares about nothing but the style of the writing).

So, say I asked my readers: “Out of 100%, what % satisfaction do you get from the way I write things (q) and what % from how often I post on this blog (t)?”

Imagine I received the following data back:

1 – q = 70, t = 30
2 – q = 95, t = 5
3 – q = 80, t = 20
4 – q = 75, t = 25

I can work out that my average q is 80 and my average t is 20. So when I’m writing a post that’s taken me 3 days already and I wonder at whether I should put it up as is now or if I can leave it for one more day, I have some framework within which I can make that judgement call. 80% of the satisfaction my readers get is from the fact that I have polished the writing to a certain extent, 20% is from the fact that they get the writing asap. Now, stretch it out to my 16th day writing the same post, and I might look at the fact that no matter how well I polish it, I’ve blown the ‘t’ factor severely by delaying posting, so there will only be – at most - 80% satisfaction for that post. Time to just stick it up there and start working on the next one.

The other thing I’m assuming is that the q/t measurements (Well, assumptions, actually, unless you actually go out and ask your readers.) are taken from the point of view of the kind of reader you want in the first place. Why? Well, because blogs do actually need readers and it’s only really worth caring about those readers you want to keep.

A blog can have many purposes. Hopefully, the primary purpose is to satisfy a need of the blogger who owns it. It’s important that a blog stays ‘true’ to what it was set out to do – whether it be delivering the latest gossip quickly, dissemminating good poetry, discussing the fin length of Siamese Fighting Fish or arguing a political point. Whatever it’s reson d’etre, it has an ideal target audience – people who know what the hell it’s author is on about or those who are interested in finding out. Some blogs (political come to mind) might also want to attract people with opposing political views to read, comment and contribute to the general discussion. This just tells me that it’s important to attract and RETAIN your ideal audience. You retain an audience by giving it what it wants and delivering it in the way it wants the material delivered. Q and t are just attempts at guessing how my audience wants my writing delivered.

You may say that that’s superfluous to the main reason that people will read a blog or not – which is the blog’s contents. I agree that it’s a side issue, contents will always be what will set the tone and character of the blog. But just how many blogs are there about any one topic? Quite a few. I surmise that readers find a handful on a topic they’re interested about and then whittle them down. I’m betting that that whittling has to do with those secondary factors – the way things are written (q) and how quickly things are delivered (t).

What I don’t want to do is state that high ‘q’, low ‘t’ blogs are somehow better than high ‘t’, low ‘q’ blogs – they aren’t. This is going to be one of those rare times that you’ll hear me say it’s not better or worse, just different.

A low ‘q’ blog isn’t bad, it just is what it is – a low ‘q’ blog. It just means that the people coming to the blog look to something else to satisfy their need – I thought the other major factor could be Timeliness (t). Who knows? There may a whole raft of other things as well, from the diversity of the blogroll to the colour scheme of the blog. Each would play a part, or contribute some percentage to the satisfaction the reader obtains from visiting.

This really boils down to fitness for purpose. Just as you wouldn’t use a Ferrari to plow a field, Instapundit wouldn’t be most efficient at doing what he does by writing 2 pages of florid prose next to each link. That’s not what his readers look for (methinks) and it would hamper his ability (time-wise) to find so many interesting things to link to in a day. I’d guess he has a very low ‘q’ blog, but would by no means state that his blog is any worse for it.

In the end, what I DO know is that high satisfaction = high return rate. High return rate = loyal audience. Loyal audience (of the right target group) = good blog. I want to have a good blog, so I want to satisfy my audience.

If I were to draw analogies, then I would do so to making love, scratching a cat or cooking for someone. The key isn’t just to perform the task, it’s to make your subject purr from the delivery.


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Thursday, July 29, 2004

Theory of Blogilution

This is a long and convoluted post. It is a technical post. It may require some degree of abstract thinking. Essentially, it’s me trying to understand something for myself and sharing conclusions with the rest of you. If you don’t really want to hear a theory about life, the universe and frequency of posting – wait until my next post. Suffice to say the below outlined theory simply serves to justify my reasons for deciding not to post every day anymore.

In the last week, some things have flourished:

...and some things have not.

*looks around*

Regular readers will know that I decided to up the frequency of my postings from once every four-ish days to one every day.

Unfortunately, I think that the quality of my posts has suffered, so I'm going to go back to the old frequency and quality – and try to slowly bring up the frequency from there as I become a more efficient writer.

This decision was made when I realised that q>t for my blog and that I should have one metric as dominant to the other – always.

Confused? Well, I DID warn you I was a business geek and a processes and systems geek. I will now also reveal my great love for microeconomics graphs in bringing you The Blogosphere According to Monica.

You see, I've had a good look around and have observed that blogs fall into some very broad categories. (I'll mention the ones I read often, as I think I can comment on those more readily.)

There are the massive aggregators such as Instapundit and Vodkapundit, the 'this is interesting/this is strange' commentators such as Survival Arts and World Wide Rant, the theme commentators such as Samizdata, the 'welcome to my life, kitchen to your left, bathroom is down the hall' journals such as Belle de Jour and the 'pondering the mysteries' navel gazers like me. I realise there are others, but these will suffice to illustrate my point.

For all of these, frequency is a factor in audience generation and retention. It is the gauge of effort and of health of the blog, it is what entertains and what keeps the material relevant. But you see, I believe that as you go down my list, frequency becomes less important and the quality of the writing becomes more.

I've formulated a personal set of frequency/quality theories, where 'Quality' (q) refers to the complexity and richness of writing demanded by the readers (note: this isn’t really a value judgement where high ‘q’ is better than low ‘q’. Fitness for purpose is important, some blogs don’t NEED to have lyrical prose choking the important information) and ‘Timeliness’ (t) refers to the importance readers ascribe to getting the information NOW.

Both are measured from the reader’s point of view, where I tried to gauge what percentage of a reader’s satisfaction would be sated by each respective factor. I presumed* that where timeliness (t) was a low percentage satiety factor, posting less frequently would be permissible – where if it were a high percentage satiety factor then posting as frequently as possible should be a goal. So far, so obvious.

*(I think my old uni lecturers can probably sense this going on and are gnashing their teeth nicely. I haven’t actually received a research grant for this idea. I haven’t even a PhD – and here I am making PRESUMPTIONS! Where will it end?)

Essentially a similar presumption was made for quality. Where quality (q) was a high percentage satiety factor, the readers may be willing to give the blogger more time to formulate the posts. Where quality was of little concern, frequency of postings should be higher as the reader would gain value by the variety and volume of posts and the links that were provided – there would be an expectation of more postings more often.

These kinds of linear relationships lend themselves to graphs. So I graphed them. Both graphs shared a common axis (frequency of posting) so I put them together. I may be arrested by the Academia Police for creating relationship diagrams rather than just memorising them for exams. If you don’t hear from me for weeks, you’ll know what happened. The diagram below is a visual representation of the q and t lines I was talking about. Click here for a larger version so that you can actually see what I'm going on about. 

You can see by the dashed lines that I took the time to plot four blogs to illustrate my point. They are:

I = Instapundit
S = Samizdata
B = Belle de Jour
T = Th’ inkwell

Let me go through the four types of examples to explain what on earth I’m trying to get at with all those pretty colours.

Two caveats:

1 - The quality of the links, the choice of topics to write about and the general tone of the blog is outside the scope of my little measurements. Don’t try to subsume any of these factors into the ‘q’ measurement.

2 – The observations noted about these blogs are generalisations. I realise that not all posts to these blogs will follow my rules. Blame it on that annoying ‘free will’ stuff you hear about.

The first blog I thought of plotting was Instapundit. I had noticed that the posts were very frequent there and that the blogger himself usually added little original commentary to the link and its quote (where a quote was supplied). If I were to guess what his readers log on for, I would say that they come to ‘graze’ through his offerings for something interesting. I would suppose they expect a high frequency of posts but aren’t overly concerned with the way he expresses himself. In other words, very high t and low q.

Then I thought of Samizdata, which also has many posts a day but the posts have an article-like structure about them. This isn’t just about pointing the reader to an interesting link on world events but posting some pithy commentary about the topic and shaping an opinion around the link, extrapolating it’s pertinence to higher level abstractions and general political trends. So what do readers expect of Samizdata? I would say that timeliness is still an issue – especially where links and comments are made on the day’s political manoeuvrings - but leniency has to be given to allow the blogger(s) to scribe something of value around the event. The quality of writing is more of an issue than with Instapundit as readers are interested in the wording of the commentary as well as the link provided. Here, I would say that t>q as for Instapundit, but the gap is significantly narrower between the two.

The next blog I decided to place on the diagram was Belle de Jour, a classic journal blog. Journal blogs help us to step into the life of the writer, so frequency of posting is important as we come to expect to be in their confidence regularly. Just like reading a chapter of a book at a time, few of these posts give us a complete story by themselves, but are at their best when read together to give us what we want – an overall picture of the person or of their profession/life/relationships. Because the posts need to be read sequentially, we get impatient if there's a break – hence the need for frequency. The quality of these posts is extremely important, there's no point in reading the journal if the life in it is expressed poorly or tediously. Here, I would say that q>t, but the margin between the two isn’t exceptionally wide.

Lastly, I thought about Th’ inkwell and where it would fall in the whole scheme of things. The purpose of my writing is to explore an idea, research it where relevant, draw a conclusion and present it as best I can in a flowing, informative and entertaining form. Here, the ideas themselves are timeless – current events can be used as a starting point, but are often no more than that as the writing delves into the deeper and more abstract issues behind the triggering event. Timeliness is important to let the readers know I've not been hit by a bus but I think that people log on for the quality of the writing above all. I would argue that I have a very high q quotient and a low t.

And here’s where we get to the group activity part of the diagram. By plotting where you think your q and your t values are on the x-axis, you can scoot over to the y-axis and obtain two readings for suggested frequency. Although the scale on the y (frequency) axis was chosen entirely arbitrarily, I still think that it does give some idea of where in the frequency continuum you might want to settle.

The diagram, therefore, points to me settling for lower frequency. This is a good thing, a very, very good thing. Firstly, it means that I can become reacquainted with M. Secondly, it means I won’t cringe when I look over old posts that were cobbled together as a last-minute thing. Thirdly, it shows that I am entirely capable of creating theories that prove what I want them to prove. It might be time to start postgraduate work.

Something interesting I noticed when I drew a horizontal line across the intersection of the two graphs (as you do just for fun) is that I could split blogs into what I call 'external focus' blogs (where the blog looks at, comments on, links to and revolves around things going on outside the universe of the blog and its writer) and 'internal focus' blogs –(where the topic of blog posts is the writer and their thoughts or experiences.)

As I mentally plotted other favourite blogs onto my diagram, I realised that the trend of distribution above and below the line by external/internal focus continued (for my exhaustive sample size of 0.000000000000003% of the web).

All blogs above that line are ‘externals’ and of the t>q nature, meaning that frequency of posting is predicted to be high to satisfy the audience. I wonder if this is because these blogs are highly reliant on their outside links (It’s no fun to hear about something interesting and follow the link to find the information is no longer there. It’s also not particularly interesting to hear old news with little commentary.) and must constantly refresh posts to stay relevant.

Right, those that are still cognizant after that little onslaught are no doubt wondering what happens when q=t. Well, honestly, so am I. Perhaps, if q>t=Internal Focus and t>q=External Focus, then q=t=Crosseyed. I do know that it would be hard to keep the readers happy and difficult to make a value judgement over which to sate where a choice between either t or q has to be made without one being obviously a more dominant driver of customer (reader) satisfaction.

The second purpose of this thought exercise was to decide on the metrics I would use for my blog. I knew that both t and q were important, but which was more? The conclusion that q>t for Th’ inkwell has helped to clarify which is primary (quality) and therefore which should be ‘anchored’ to the right level before I start changing things to improve the other (t).

It also boils down to the fact that the posts I most like are the ones that took a couple of days to think about, a couple of hours to write, were allowed to ‘breathe’ for a day and then edited for another hour or so. I can’t produce them at the rate of one a day without having a life support system hooked up to my office chair and a gravity well distorting space-time around me so that:

a)      I can have flashbacks to old episodes of my life
b)      I can, well, you know – do the high frequency, high quality thing.

Of course, I could have just spent two days mapping out the topography of my navel.


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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

An ode to 'buy'

I think eBay is one of the ultimate tests of human self control. I think that the Backstreet Boys are one of the ultimate arguments against formula songwriting.

How glad I am that Wierd Al saw the confluence of the two as a viable song. Do press 'play' in the little box at the top of the screen for the full effect.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2004


What happens when bureaurats become bored?

Horrid little community programs such as the Shoreditch Festival, which:

"... is produced by Shoreditch Our Way (ShOW) - a central government initiative to address issues facing areas of extremely high deprivation. ShOW is a community-led regeneration company primarily focusing on housing, health, education, employment and community safety."

I'd like to publicly announce that I'm deprived too. Deprived of the wonderful feeling of being surrounded by common sense. Deprived of a proportion of my earnings to fund some do-gooder nitwit's warm fuzzies.

"The Shoreditch Festival is a way to give the many local groups, businesses, schools, artists and individuals within the community an opportunity to become involved in the regeneration of Shoreditch."

I have a wild, crazy, insane idea. Find a large crowd with pitchforks to storm the local council. Send the council workers home with boxes of personal belongings and a firm boot to the ass. Ditto to other do-gooder government agency buildings. Overnight, barriers to purchasing, modifying and using property will dissappear. People won't be going to Shoreditch to receive their state-acquired alms. Whole buildings will be vacant and ready for non-insipid use. Shops will spring up as will creative, interesting buildings in shapes that we can't even imagine. Yuppies will move in as will the businesses that support yupp-ness: cafes, florists, restaurants with snooty French maitre d's, silly knick-knack shops, Toni & Guy salons, delis that sell normal food with pretentious names. Et voila! Regeneration.

The thing that actually got me looking up the Shoreditch Festival's site is a little article in the Metro newspaper about some silly art 'piece' that is part of the festival:

" ...bus passengers travelling from five bus shelters on Kingsland Road in Shoreditch will be hearing the dreams of young mothers in the area as they wait for their bus.
The installations have been created to build up a picture of the women's hopes and experiences, with each telling a different story."

With all the respect that could possibly be due to such a monstrous piece of drivel: 'Eh?'

Who in their right mind gives a damn about the dreams and aspirations of a COMPLETE STRANGER? Someone that has no ties to you, someone that you wouldn't recognise in a crowd, someone that you haven't even met?

This is one of the reasons that I'm inordinately thankful we humans can't read minds. Can you imagine the kind of thoughts we would be bombarded with? Something may be interesting or pertinent to one person, but that doesn't guarantee that it will be interesting or pertinent to another. I don't actually want to hear about someone else's battle to iron straight creases into their trousers every morning. I don't give a damn if they think they've left their newspaper on the train. My life will continue if I don't learn of their sexual indiscretions. Yet with the advent of trash like this and other 'reality' art such as Big Brother, this is exactly what I am learning. The everyday thoughts of any random schmuck.

Whilst we're on the subject - what were these women's qualifications? How is it that they were chosen to bleat out their dreams to an unsuspecting public?

They were women, they were mothers, they had the right postcode.

Congratulations sweetheart, you can breed. So could my cat - though with far greater efficiency.

Perhaps they wanted to express themselves somehow? Perhaps this was a way for them to receive some sort of state-sponsored therapy? Was it an ego boost for the administering government gimp or for the mumsy? Evidently someone wanted something, held their hand out to the state and got it.

It seems that all you have to do is scream loud enough nowadays to get what you want, so let me have a go.

I demand a government program aimed at MY needs, dammit. I feel demoralised and depressed when I see taxes and NI taken out of my paycheck. I become physically ill whenever I pass a Social Services office. I feel* discriminated against by the government because I'm white and there's nothing particularly physically wrong with me.

So what I need is a social worker that will be sensitive to my needs. I expect them to be able to converse with me on my level and smooth the path for me in life. As such, I'd like a management graduate who blasts all the suffocating red tape ahead of me in starting my own business. If they so much as peep ONE anti-business, anti-individual, anti-capitalist sentiment, I'll haul their ass (and their respective department's) in front of a tribunal for discrimination and for perpetrating a random 'ism'. How about successism? That'll do - discrimination against an individual because of the level of their success.

I really wonder what would happen if enough people demanded those kinds of government services? We all have needs, if the government is there to provide for them then let's give them a full list.

The problem here is, of course, twofold. Firstly, the government is NOT there to actually provide for our needs. That's just a false idea so prolifically bandied about that it's become a trusim.

The other is that in order for my subversive little plan to work, I would have to convince people who never ask for handouts to ask for handouts. Work though it might to wedge a rather large spanner in the works, watching producers become beggars would just be too much for me.

So I'll just amuse you lot and get angry on my little blog instead.

* Note - 'feel', I don't need to prove jack.

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I'm too tired after training to post up anything tonight and I really wonder of what value my reflections on training would be - brilliant though the sessions with Peter King are - to anyone who doesn't train Bunjikan. I suppose if I were to say anything at all it is that one of the pleasures I find in life is to observe someone who has mastered a skill. Another is to discover that person is an excellent teacher. Yet another is to have the privilege of being taught by them. This is why I ache in wierd places and my left knee doesn't seem to want to bend anymore - I have two hours a week with Peter and I make the most of it.

Anyhow, if you're looking for some entertaining reading whilst my body sinks into an unyielding but oh-so-healthy futon, click your mouse here.

The synopsis is pretty evident from the title - the author has found pretty men to be duds in the sack. The theory is that those (of either gender) who don't have model looks have to try harder to attract and retain a partner. From information gleaned personally and the occasional lewd-yet-informative session with my female friends, I'd have to agree.

Then again, looks have never been a big deal for me in men. I generally prefer someone who can construct a sentence that amuses me than someone who looks good in clothing. There is rarely anything worse than an absolutely beautifully made man - an Adonis or David, a marble sculpture made in flesh - who opens his mouth to reveal an untrained, uneducated, unpalatable mind. I'm under no illusion that the underwear model on a billboard is someone I'd enjoy meeting in the flesh - they stick their bits in knickers for a living, am I really supposed to expect a sublime mind choosing such a profession?

This is where my girlfriends and I fervently disagree. They like men to be cute, I like men to be ... well ... men, actually. We're equally horrified by our different tastes. Often, a friend will point in a crowd and murmur some approval of a male. I will scan...I will not find a single attractive man...I will ask and be given a more specific description. Then my eyes will alight on a boy that I had completely discounted because he didn't look old enough to be physically capable of breeding. He might also have one of those simply hideous gelled-up-like-a-porcupine hairdos that seem to be all the rage in London at the moment.

Then, when I look twice at a man and point him out to them I get quizzical looks and comments about me liking 'old men in suits'. Apparently, 30 & 40-ish is 'old' - a fact that I am storing up to unleash on my girlfriends when they nudge the big three-oh themselves.  They also don't appreciate that a suit is the male version of lingerie. Few men can escape looking good in a tailored suit and London is the home of bespoke tailoring.

I suppose the difference shows the disparity in what we currently like in a man. They want a hard body and choose men with pectorals that could crack walnuts, I want a hard debate and choose a little grey at the temples to signify some la connaissance. It shows how very even-handed nature can be in ensuring that everyone gets a mate. It also shows what a rarity M is in that he's only one year older than me and is one of the few people I know who can stand up to me when I'm in full temper mode, know he's right, weather out the storm, convince me with infallible argument and gracefully accept my apologies without gloating.

Well, will you look at that? I managed a post after all. Not the kind I really like to see on here, but I have a review of the Vettriano exhibition that will sate the palate of those more used to my essays than my random ramblings.



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Monday, July 26, 2004

This Is Serious Mum

There are few bands that write wickedly good lyrics and I do love wicked things sometimes. Let me introduce you to TISM by way of an example very pertinent to an upcoming movie release:

"Thunderbirds Are Coming Out"

I was my parents' puppet till my teenage years
When I rebelled and swapped them for my peers
I used to sit for hours all alone
Without an opinion to call my own
I had to keep this compulsion to myself
This need to be like everybody else
But now I'm out of the closet and I feel free
Cos I just saw Thunderbirds on TV
Yes I've been outed and I'm so happy
I've found a role model just for me
I think I could be like those puppet guys
Cos there's less to them than meets the eye
5, 4, 3, 2, 1!
Sing if you're proud to be plastic now...
5, 4, 3, 2, 1!
Thunderbirds are coming out
Now I don't have to worry about a thing
As long as someone else is pulling my strings
My pop star can tell me what to know
I can get my political views from my youth radio
I can join the queues outside restaurant chains
Now I can do the Mexican Wave
Just tell me what's in and I'll make sure I fit
Just herd me into that mosh pit 
I wouldn't say that they're accomplished in the musical sense but the musical backing seems to be an afterthought to the overtly political and often scathing-of-popular-culture lyrics. They're different, they're smart, there's rumour that they're all lawyers under those balaclavas and they would be the perfect thing to bring home to mum - don't you think?


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Update: Please see 'The Ascendance of Firefly' - which is this blog post made into something far more graceful.

C recently commented that I sound rather angry on my blog, as if I don’t like anything – ever. Then she remonstrated that I always find something negative about cultural things she takes me to. She’s quite right on that account, the last two things she had taken me to were a shockingly bad modern music concert and a very poor talk by a woman who gallivanted her way around Antarctica, finding it to be (surprisingly) full of male scientists.

This comment, however, was made after taking me to the National Portrait Gallery’s showing of the entrants and winners of the BP Portrait Award and listening to my running commentary.

Essentially the half hour diatribe can be summarised thus: 5% were excellent, 15% were good, 20% were passable, 60% should have been recycled for the valuable canvas underneath. Somehow, most of the winners were chosen from the last group.

C knows I’m generally a happy, bouncy person. C listens to me warbling songs at inopportune moments. C just wonders why I choose to be so cuttingly negative so often.

The answer is passion. I just don’t have lukewarm feelings towards anything I give a damn about. I either love it or I hate it. I may love it despite some small flaws, I may hate it yet see some redeeming qualities – but you won’t find me shrugging my shoulders and saying “Yes, well, I suppose it’s nice.”

I once heard a definition for ‘nice’ that I very much liked. Nice stands for:

In me

…which sums up the concept perfectly.

It’s easy to know when I don’t care about something or someone. I’ll be very quiet, I won’t venture an opinion, I’ll smile weakly, I’ll say that it’s ‘nice’.

If I get fired up, whether it be foaming at the mouth from anger or beaming from adoration – it just means that I care, I really do. Perhaps the reason that there are so many negative entries on my blog is that I give a damn about too many things that are out of my influence to change.

So here’s something positive – something I wrote a while ago and shelved, thinking that it wasn’t really good enough to do homage to something I truly loved. Perhaps it’ll balance things up a tad.


(I guess it’s all been written before. I’m sure I’m not the first blogger to be struck with ‘I’ve just watched the entire series of Firefly, there aren’t any more left and I simply must immortalise the grief with a post’-itis.

It’s probably been written more prosaically, it’s probably been written by someone with a unique angle, it’s probably been as done to death as anything popular with the smarter people on the web. However, in light of the fact that I can be as commandeering as Mal and as scary as Zoe, I’ll just go ahead, do it anyway and stare down anyone who so much as twitches at the plan.)

A firefly is a creature given to metaphor. Short lived, dazzlingly and surprisingly bright – it conveniently mirrors larger occurrences in history and allows us to essentialise and encapsulate them in one convenient image. Part of the fun of being human, I suppose.

I don’t think Joss Whedon gave his show the moniker with any foresight that it would so closely mirror the actual lifespan of nature’s firefly. I’d like to think, rather, that he knew - given the right creative freedom - he could make the show sparkle and delight like the little bug. Happily, he was right, I was utterly delighted.

It wasn’t until I saw the extras on my DVD set that I came to a more complete understanding of why this series was so good. The sections went through the concept, set design, camera/FX/CG work and musical score - I saw how each element was controlled by someone with a deep understanding for their craft, a genuine love for the show and run in a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experimentation mode. Many things weren’t done the way that they’re usually done. I heard the phrase ‘you simply don’t do that’ many times. I LOVE to hear that kind of thing – it’s usually the way fantastic new processes happen.

To me, Firefly is an example of what happens when a talented group of people come together and give their best to a project which is itself led by someone talented giving their best.

In the same way as like attracts like on a personal level (you can tell a man by the company he keeps as the old saying goes), like hires and retains like on a professional level (you can tell a company by the people it keeps). I think it explains why companies carefully and obsessively controlled by the original entrepreneur or by a strong CEO have such a different feel to those which are controlled by the ‘everyone and no-one’ of committees committed to the ‘everyone and no-one’ concept of stakeholders.

I don’t buy into the new ideas about the way things should be run. Things that work are always, ultimately, controlled by an individual.

One person holds a vision, controls it’s execution at the macro level – he hires people he can see ‘get it’ and they control it’s execution at the micro level. Joss Whedon wrote the theme song, for chrissakes. There’s no mistaking who was at the wheel here.

I daresay that he fought every decision the besuited bumpkins at Fox handed down with the superior mein of those who forage daily at the trough of popular opinion.

Someone who didn’t understand the concept of Firefly and who wasn’t completely and irrevocably committed wouldn’t have fought for its original inception tooth and nail. We wouldn’t have had the short, fresh, violent and utterly brilliant season of Firefly we do today – we would have had ‘Friends’ on a spaceship arguing over who would receive which quarters and wondering whether the Alliance General gave Rachael the eye. It would have lasted 10 years. It would have canned laughter every time Ross fell off his horse or fumbled with his gun. The horror is actually palpable, isn’t it?

Whedon had his concept, though. He fought for it and today we have a piece of art that is incredible in it’s design and execution.

So, besides the fact that someone stubborn got his way, why do I love it so much? Let’s start with the fact that I’m not a passive watcher/listener/reader of entertainment. Silly though it may seem, I talk back. Often, I will suggest what I see as obvious actions for characters to take in their situation. As the episode goes on and the characters (inexplicably) ignore me, I become more and more agitated. Occasionally, I yell. Often, I swear.

Half an hour into the first Firefly, I remained in the same position on the couch. I had been completely silent. An hour in and not a muscle twitch. Two hours gone and all I could do was turn to M, slack-jawed, before quickly scurrying to the mouse and clicking on the next episode.

***Warning…spoiler…plot element discussed below.***

In the second episode, when Mal is confronted by a giant of a man who vows to spend his life hunting Mal down to kill him, I find myself thinking – “Aha! This is the clincher…this is the Bad Guy who will pop up every once in a while, try to kill Mal and be thwarted. All this because Mal is going to have one of those weak moments of hippy conscience at the very time when he could stop the Bad Guy. Gotcha – same old lazy scriptwriting.”

It may not seem it, but damn do I love being proven wrong, especially when I think something’s not good.

And so it was that I was proven wrong, so very, very wrong.

Just when I was beginning to grumble something to the effect of “Just kill him, for chrissakes, why the hell would you let…” Mal simply shrugged and kicked the bastard into a turbine engine. It was the loveliest little bit of violence I think I have ever seen. I made a noise, something like “Oip!” and felt my eyebrows raise far beyond safety limits.

***End of plot spoiler, you can read below safe in the knowledge that you will be surprised by EVERYTHING in Firefly. I promise.***

What Firefly gets so right – what sets it apart from every other show I’ve seen - is the fact that the morality is so damn close to what I agree with. The characters don’t faff about – they know which action gives them the most benefit personally and they take it without qualms. There is no apology for what would be considered crude opportunism in other shows.

You also won’t find your stock standard characters, your Tortured Soul 56b and Bimbette 29a on the show. You’ll find very complex characters making very difficult decisions and *gasp* actually THINKING those decisions through.

You’ll also be entertained. Joss spins his usual verbal mastery and gives the characters strong, punchy, funny lines.

So here’s an endorsement – nay, a directive.

If you like what you read on my blog, if you’ve clicked through on a few of the links and enjoyed them, go and buy Firefly on DVD. There’s no prerequisite to have enjoyed Sci-Fi previously, this isn’t traditional Sci-Fi.

When there’s so much entertainment around and so much of it is lukewarm, finding something that makes you think, laugh, gasp, worry, chew the couch cushions and admire the actors is a prize. Go discover it for yourself.

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Sunday, July 25, 2004


This is fascinating, perhaps there was some mix-up at the hospital and I'm actually an Israeli - I can see so many of my traits here...well, except for the personal Palestinian tragedy thing. I have close relatives who were in gulags, perhaps that can count toward something.

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BS on a budget

I have to tip my hat to C for finding entertainment on a budget. It's like the girl can sniff free movies, gallery talks, food and concerts from a mile off.

So I shouldn't have been so surprised at the entertainment value of 'Survivors' by Zion Ben Jonah, a book she purchased for the handsome sum of 15p from one of those random floating nutcase Christians who seem to favor large crosswalks and Oxford street’s shopping areas.

I tend to feel quite left out most times as nutcases don't approach me. Though I try to look as vulnerable as possible when passing by, there must be something about me that shouts “I think you’re a fraud and would adore ripping shreds off you with my teeth.” I’ve even tried wearing floral print – to no avail.

So I am left with but two choices. The first is to approach them, which doesn’t yield the joy it should. Only the most zealous fruitloop doesn’t mind a rigorous questioning - but because they are zealous fruitloops, they seem to leave their minds at home suspended in formaldehyde, only to be brought out to complete tax forms and enjoy TV quiz shows. Answers to genuine enquiry often involve quotes from the bible, quaran or L. Ron Hubbard text of choice.

The other method is to live vicariously through C and read the materials she brings home. This is far easier and is less likely to lead to arrest for civil disobedience.

‘Survivors’ is some leagues beyond being just a bad book. A book needs some coherence from one paragraph to another. This is just a graphic tale centering around the concept of a Rapture being brought on by a god traveling around in a big crystal pyramid.

It does unintentionally answer some fundamental questions, though:

Neville was there too, and he had some exciting news to announce about something he had learned from his angel.
“You know how we were able to send and receive email without a service provider?” he said. “Well, it was all being processed through a control room up here. This whole place can disappear into another dimension. It was out there all the time, tapping into the worldwide web to process our mail. That’s why we never received a bill form Web Wonders after they destroyed it.”

Another dimension, eh? M immediately wondered what the SMTP server was set to in Outlook. Suggestions included pop.heaven.xtra.dim, port 666.

I have been entertaining myself for days now, just flicking the book open at a random page and reading until I find something immensely amusing.

Overall, though, I realise that something much more important is revealed by this text. It doesn’t gloss over the more radical notions in Christianity – in fact, it revels in its lunatic fringe-ness. There is no attempt to hide the fact that the religion is a cult of death:

Life for most of us today has to do with more and more comforts, more and more luxuries, and less and less preparation for death.

…which is the way I like it, really. Bring on the luxuries and comforts and stave off death with every fiber of your being and every resource at your disposal.

But where else have we seen this kind of thinking lately? Where have we recoiled against a philosophy that encourages its followers to head toward and embrace death if it is a part of the ultimate goal of dissemination of ‘the truth’ according to some book or some prophet or some god? Isn’t there a distant echo of men with beards praying minutes before hijacking aeroplanes and perishing in a glorious and (obviously) sanctified fireball?

Bottom line is – I don’t think there’s much of a difference between your fundamentalist Christian and your fundamentalist Islam extremists. Both think they’re right, both think that some ‘god’ creature is on their side and both firmly believe that the deaths of infidels (and their own deaths) are fully justified for the cause.

Seeing overtly religious leaders like Bush perform mental somersaults to convince themselves that their belief system is somehow very different to the one that they are fighting is amusing.

Give Christian leaders (nicely hardcore fundies, the ones that still like the old testament) the same powers as the Taliban had and you would quickly see exactly what your friendly neighborhood pastor really thinks a woman’s role is. Kiss science goodbye, give a parting glance to evolutionary theory and enjoy your last moments of intellectual freedom because you would be heading toward a stifling and frightening dark age. There would no longer be debate, only conformity or heresy.

Although it may be expedient to allow men like Bush to fight regimes such as the Taliban, this expediency will come at a cost. By sitting silent and allowing the enemy of our enemy think they have our tacit approval, aren’t we just strengthening their authority and their position in the world?

And here’s where I become slightly sulky and despondent, wondering at the matted mess of a political system we have in the west.

Happily, though, I also like to pay a little more than 15p for my entertainment, so today’s visit to Waterstones yielded my very first Heinlein and a biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. You really do get what you pay for.


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Saturday, July 24, 2004

Feeling Lucky?

I'm often stuck for a good phrase to wish someone well in an endeavour. I really don't like saying 'Good luck' as I don't believe in the fairies-and-universal-energy type luck that most people refer to. I don't like abusing the language and saying such an empty, useless, meaningless phrase seems to be one of the worst abuses one can perpetrate.

The concept of luck is also an insult to those who have truly earned what they have. It's an easy way for others to write off hard work and perseverance as merely a kiss on the forehead from the fates.

You see, I find it invariably true that 'luck' strikes those that are well prepared to receive its bounty. By preparedness I mean that they have educated themselves, unerringly pointed themselves in the direction of choice and put themselves forward again and again as a person who desires the chosen end result. I'm as unsurprised by these kinds of people being struck by ‘luck’ as I am by the tallest grounded antenna being struck by lightning.

Unfortunately, the luck we hear sensationalised in the news is the luck of the undeserving - the lottery win, the shock inheritance, the easy game show win. It sells precisely BECAUSE it's undeserving. It only serves to give hope to those who think there's an easy gain somewhere.

Anyhow, it’s almost 5am and sleep would be an attractive option. I find that lucidity, somehow, increases my chances of being lucky in the morning.


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Beggars and Choosers

I have just this evening been told by Perry de Havilland that it is imperative to post daily. Several times if at all possible. I realised I’ve been neglecting the blog – not through want of love for it, but because of my inherent perfectionism and tending to take days to actually write something I’m finally happy with. Leaving it untouched for days simply isn’t on – I’ll have an insurrection on my hands and you’ll all leave me alone to babble to myself in a corner. Clearly, something must be done.

So if you’ll bear with entries that aren’t as polished as usual, I can manage the daily(ish) rant. Here’s today’s -

Yesterday, C and I were on our way to the National Portrait Gallery for an evening lecture from Sara Wheeler, author of Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica as part of the Three Centuries of Women Travellers exhibit. The lecture itself had some interesting points, although I was disappointed by the author’s constant need to obtain cheap laughs from the audience by peppering her halting tale with obligatory anti-man jokes. There are only so many times you can chuckle at the use of the word ‘testosterone’.

Anyhow, in one of the interminable underground walkways connecting tube stations, we came across a man who was huddled in the corner with a sign: ‘Hungry, please help.’ I noticed C slow down, but was swept along myself by the rush-hour crowd. When she caught up with me, I saw a wry smile on her face.

Apparently, she had read the sign and stopped to offer him her packed dinner. Not a shabby dinner either – a flat bread stuffed with freshly grilled salmon, avocado and salad. The man, however, had refused as he was a vegetarian.

Now, correct me if I’m completely wrong here – but vegetarianism is a moral choice for most people, not a physical requirement for survival. That moral choice usually hinges on some belief that animals are equal to humans and that it’s cruel to eat them. I have severe – SEVERE – problems with those who think that humans and animals are the same. If someone wants to believe that they are no better than a slug, so be it. Don’t apply it to me though.

Nevertheless, this man was starving, wasn’t he? So by not taking the food he was essentially saying that he values a salmon’s (or cow’s, or pig’s … or whatever’s) life above his own. He would rather hold out for someone to give him cash so that he can head to Pret a Manger for a vegetarian baguette and a double espresso.

I myself try to avoid wheat and milk because they’re not particularly good for me – but if I were starving, I’d take a hamburger and milkshake to sustain myself. I can only understand this man’s attitude if eating animal flesh is somehow severely physically detrimental to him. If he’s just doing it to save the whales then perhaps Darwinism can claim a deserving victim.

What on earth is it that makes people think they can demand the constituents of alms granted to them?

The one thing I can say for him is that at least he was just begging, rather than mugging us as is the government’s regular wont to do. Where it was his (stupid) prerogative to refuse the very thing he actually needed and demand something else to satisfy his whim, it is not a prerogative that is open to those who are on government assistance.

This is why I can’t stand to read of people not satisfied with the standard of government housing , government provided childcare or whining about social services being provided in a way that’s not sensitive to their particular bent . To my thinking, they’re damned lucky that they obtain anything at all.

Don’t like the housing? Start paying market rates of rent like the rest of us and you can choose from a variety that will stagger you.

Don’t like the childcare? Either don’t breed or pay for your own goddamned sprog.

Don’t like the way social services are delivered to you? Don’t take any.

Better yet, throw social services out the window and ask me directly for what you need. I’ll see what I can spare.


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Wednesday, July 21, 2004


I had an absolutely wonderful time at the Samizdata Blogger Bash Sunday night. It’s rare enough to find a roomful of such bright and easy-to-talk-to people, but I have to say it's even rarer to find so many who are able to talk about the things I find irresistable. You see, I’m a business geek – I absolutely adore business from an operations point of view and could talk the grin off a hyena about my passion. What made the night so very good was finding people who could talk about ideas, about what-ifs and about real-life problems and their solutions without considering such conversation to be hard work or a bore. I even found a co-conspirator (Adriana Cronin) to happily chat about a real business problem with. Heaven.

You see...talking about world events is nice, politics sharpens the ‘ol fangs, arts sticks my left hemisphere on the treadmill for a workout, other’s wistful recollections are a great escape and random observations about people and life are the glue sticking conversations together – but nothing, NOTHING makes me happier than generating new ideas or brainstorming solutions to problems. This is most often found in the field of business, although I have participated in some great political/philosophical discussions and even some discussions about silly things like traffic flow where it's possible to just throw ideas around and think freely on their application.

So I came home remembering afresh my unique brand of geekery and made an important discovery.

Pistachios are simply the worst food to give someone who is obsessed with systems.

Quickly, the object of the exercise shifts from enjoying a snack to refining the mechanism whereby that snack is available. I realised this after finding I had created a veritable mountain of pistachio shells in my bid to perfect the hand-to-mouth delivery system.

First, I found the fastest way to crack the nut open (thumbnails pull it open whilst middle fingers cradle and index fingers position the nut). Then I had to find the fastest transfer method to the mouth. Many were tested in MonSnak Inc.’s London Kitchenarium Labs including suction, flicking, plucking and tipping before grazing the nut out of the shell was selected. Disposal methods of shell byproduct were found not to affect the critical path minimum time, so research funds were not allocated to this area (I do realise that this would be a consideration in the long term, as several hours of activity at maximum output might produce an awful lot of shell. It’s on next year’s budget.)

Lastly, I had to find the most ergonomic way to store the maximum number of rounds in my lethal nut-cracking hands. It was a balance between relaxing the fingers enough to store more nuts in the palm and keeping them tense enough to be able to crack the nut.

All the while, I’m eating these goddamned nuts and not really noticing the taste or sensation because of being so fixated on cracking them open as quickly as possible. I stopped when I was satisfied with my little system. That’s when I realised just how many shells I’d gone through and that I felt rather full.

I told myself to stay away from pistachios and I did, easily. Then I noticed I was eating cherries and refining the fastest seed-removal-with-front-teeth-system.

So the plan is that from now on, I’ll be sticking to the easy foods – cracked nuts, raisins, rice thins, grapes, water. Things that are so very easy to unpack and eat that I’ll quickly grow bored of the whole exercise and go rearrange the sock drawer by purpose subcategory for more of a challenge.

Overall, I really don’t mind being like this – I can see exactly how to organise things to get maximum efficiency out of processes and do it with almost nil effort, have been able to since I was a kid. It’s when my wetwiring overflows to everyday things that it can get a little out of hand and more than a little weird. A lot of the time, I’ll hold back from over organizing the house because I live with two other people who wouldn’t much appreciate being handed an operations manual with headings like ‘Doing the Ironing the Easy Way’ and ‘The Bookshelf – Why We Use the Dewy Decimal System.’

So if we do ever meet, dear reader, and I stand in your kitchen rearranging your spice rack whilst talking about the weather, please understand the compulsion and try to hand the jars to me in flavour groups.


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Sunday, July 18, 2004

Cover up

A little while ago, I read that Home Secretary David Blunkett – he of the National ID Card and charging innocent people for going to jail (more David goodness here) - wants to introduce legislation banning free speech that may be offensive to religious folk in particular.
Realizing that I may not have much time left as an outspoken atheist, I thought I’d finish this work in progress and post it before the storm troopers drag me off to the baptismal font.  

If you listen to the popular media and subscribe to all the PC BS out there, I must be the only remaining soul who is patently disturbed by seeing women bundled up in cloth from head to toe. I am, of course, referring to the Muslim traditional garb for women (the ‘hijab’ or ‘purdah’) – which varies in degree from a small scarf over the hair to a black sack over the entire body with a small slit for the eyes.
I was confronted with this baffling phenomenon comparatively rarely in Australia, yet here in London it’s a common sight. I always thought I’d get used to it, that the more of it I saw the more normal it would become to the point where I would barely notice it anymore. That’s not the case, however. In fact, my thoughts on seeing it are consistently negative – as if it’s very proliferation is an affront to something.
At first, I thought I was reacting to it negatively in the most primitive fashion – shunning something different only because it was different. So I decided to investigate the practice and find a reason for all this flesh covering that I could agree with.
So where to start? I thought back on my conversations with Muslims I’d studied with at University and those I had spoken to on other informal occasions. I suppose I had always been curious about the reasons for the hijab, because on recollection I found that I had received many varying answers over the years. I thought I’d go through each I’d heard and agree with it or reject it.
In Kuala Lumpur, a Muslim taxi driver told M and I that the practice started in the desert where it was important to shield one’s face from the sand and wind. It just somehow continued on from there.
Omitted from this explanation was why only women retained the facial garb and why on earth it was necessary in a city like KL where it was as likely that a woman would endure a sandstorm as a snowstorm.
As an aside, the Muslim taxi driver certainly availed himself of the opportunity to gaze at the Chinese girls on the street that favored western clothing to show off some rather stunning figures.
The second explanation centered around the notion that women are jewels to be protected from the wandering eyes, hands and intentions of any random, licentious man. That they are not inferior creatures at all – but ones with a mysterious ‘power’ over men that must be restrained by society.
Evaded carefully from this is the fact that the woman must abrogate her rights in order to protect herself from the ‘natural’ desire of men to harm her in some way when they see her.
This merely makes me think the religion doesn’t think much of the male gender. It portrays men as base, reactive, uncontrolled animals and women as unsuspecting prey (or bewitching temptresses) whose duty it is to look less appealing. Where is the call to the self-discipline of these men to withhold from perpetrating crime?
This is the kind of thinking that leads to the ‘She was asking for it by wearing such a short skirt’ mentality.
I would have to say that there IS legitimate reason for a human to be wary and make themselves less of a target sometimes. There is certainly one circumstance where the blame for an attack can rest on the victim or on unfortunate circumstance – where the attacker is something without a volitional consciousness – an animal.
Walking through a wild game park with bloodied steaks strapped to your thighs IS quite literally asking for it because the lion that attacks you isn’t making a moral choice, it’s just an animal acting on instinct.
Walking through the city in a skirt so short that it’s possible to see what you’ve had for breakfast may be asking for a couple of raised eyebrows, but certainly doesn’t sanction assault or rape. If another human decides to harm you in some way, it was still an independent decision, irrespective of the triggering events.
Another I’ve heard is that women choose to wear the hijab in order to prevent objectification in a sexist world. This implies to me that the male form is the norm - the standard to which women must aspire - and the only way to do that is to completely hide any physical differentiation with the aid of several yards of material. I completely reject the idea that one gender should hide it’s attributes from another in the attempt to receive equal rights.
Of course, there’s the argument that all this veiling is God’s will. I reject that one as I don’t believe in anything supernatural – fairies, ghostly specters or god.
A quick search on the internet revealed several well-written articles describing the reasons for wearing the veil from the Muslim woman’s point of view.
Sehmina Jaffer Chopra’s article ‘Liberation by the Veil’ states: 

“From an Islamic perspective, to view a woman as a sex symbol is to denigrate her. Islam believes that a woman is to be judged by her [virtuous] character and actions rather than by her looks or physical features" (Takim, 22).”

“Another benefit of adorning the veil is that it is a protection for women. Muslims believe that when women display their beauty to everybody, they degrade themselves by becoming objects of sexual desire and become vulnerable to men, who look at them as "gratification for the sexual urge"(Nadvi,8).

Interesting – rather an echo of today’s western feminists. What I see in the above statement is an automatic assumption that sex is something evil or dirty and that it is distasteful to be associated with in any way. To be a sex symbol is therefore not to be revered for one’s desirability, but to be dragged down to a level from which one’s virtue simply cannot recover.

Garbage. Sex is a wonderful, joyous, pleasurable experience. True, some people do drag it down to the basest levels – sleeping with either random strangers or people that they don’t particularly like. This doesn’t denigrate sex itself but denigrates the person choosing to use it in such a fashion. Either way, being associated with sex or being seen as sexy isn’t a denigration but a compliment.

“Muslims believe that God gave beauty to all women, but that her beauty is not be seen by the world, as if the women are meat on the shelf to be picked and looked over. When she covers herself she puts herself on a higher level and men will look at her with respect and she is noticed for her intellect, faith, and personality, not for her beauty. In many societies, especially in the West, women are taught from early childhood that their worth is proportional to their attractiveness and are compelled to follow the male standards of beauty and abstract notions of what is attractive, half realizing that such pursuit is futile and often humiliating (Mustafa).”

Women (and men) are judged on many different levels by the opposite sex, physical attractiveness is but one. Some people don’t go beyond the superficial as is their prerogative. Others are intelligent enough to realize that the most interesting things about another human are revealed after they open their mouths.

Hiding one’s physical attributes doesn’t suddenly switch off other human’s innate valuing and judging processes, it simply means that you’ll never score highly on the ‘Hot or Not’ section of the scorecard.

This argument also seeks to nullify the validity of physical attractiveness in the selection of a partner. I really have to ask: Why? Is there really something morally wrong in wishing to have a physically desirable partner? Is there something wrong with enjoying someone else’s physical appearance? I tend to think not.

On reflection, it seemed to be a bit of ‘Booty Socialism’, as the only women it could benefit are those that don’t have much beauty to add to their ‘intellect, faith and personality’. If two women of equal mental capabilities but unequal looks are not veiled, men will naturally tend to be more attracted to the beautiful woman. Where the women are veiled, this distinction (which is still there under the veil, yet now hidden in pretense of its lack of importance) is blurred if not completely hidden - to the disadvantage of the beautiful woman and to the advantage of the homely one.

Again, this comes back to expecting women to make up for a perceived shortcoming in men. Why do women need to cover the thing that men aren’t supposed to judge them on? Why not just teach men not to judge women on that thing? It seems a little like a teacher blotting out some of the choices in a multiple choice test to help a particularly dull class along.

Life isn’t fair – never has been, never will be. Genetics didn’t bestow upon me the looks of a model, yet somehow I have attracted a partner without wearing a gauzy film over my imperfections. My husband likes my mind first and foremost – so it’s still possible to do when a woman isn’t covered.

Chopra concedes that some Muslims misread the true reasons for the hijab and use it “…as a means of keeping many Muslim women away from society, with the misconception that it signifies isolation and weakness.” She sees women returning to the ‘untainted and true Islam’ choosing to wear the veil for the reasons she outlines, citing this as proof that the veil is not a tool or symbol of oppression.

Well, after reading her reasons for veiling, I can’t say I felt particularly overjoyed for those women who willingly choose to don the veil. Convincing women to be ashamed or disturbed by their sexuality to the point where they will cover themselves is as oppressive as legally obliging them to wear the scarf. Telling a human that their exposed body is somehow a powerful magnet for evil isn’t a liberating thing, it simply imposes the expectation for this human to somehow mitigate the effects of this ‘natural evil’ that their body produces. It’s a burden, not a freedom.

Naheed Mustafa’s short but sweet essay ‘My Body is My Own Business’ states:

“Women are taught from early childhood that their worth is proportional to their attractiveness. We feel compelled to pursue abstract notions of beauty, half realizing that such a pursuit is futile.”

It all depends on what you pursue and whether or not it’s realistic. For most of us, the looks of a supermodel are futile. This is no reason to throw the mascara and high heels out the window. Every woman can look feminine and attractive with some minimal effort.

“In the Western world, the hijab has come to symbolize either forced silence or radical, unconscionable militancy. Actually, it's neither. It is simply a woman's assertion that judgment of her physical person is to play no role whatsoever in social interaction.”

A woman can assert it at the top of her lungs, it doesn’t make it so. As I said, men will still judge (at least partially) based on what they see as well as what they hear. If they see a woman who doesn’t groom her face, who doesn’t wear makeup or jewelry, who doesn’t allow her hair to enhance the appearance of her face and who seemingly has no distinguishable feminine figure – they’re simply going to give ‘nil points’ on all physical factors, not discount that area completely.

“Wearing the hijab has given me freedom from constant attention to my physical self. Because my appearance is not subjected to public scrutiny, my beauty, or perhaps lack of it, has been removed from the realm of what can legitimately be discussed.

No one knows whether my hair looks as if I just stepped out of a salon, whether or not I can pinch an inch, or even if I have unsightly stretch marks. And because no one knows, no one cares.

Feeling that one has to meet the impossible male standards of beauty is tiring and often humiliating. I should know, I spent my entire teenage years trying to do it. It was a borderline bulimic and spent a lot of money I didn't have on potions and lotions in hopes of becoming the next Cindy Crawford.”

Reading between the lines, all I see is someone absolving themselves of the need for personal grooming and care. I don’t see an empowered woman, I see one who has relegated a certain aspect of herself to the ‘too hard’ basket and expects the world to pretend it’s not there at all.

Then there’s the doublespeak of ‘The Question of Hijab: Suppression or Liberation?’  stating:

“A woman who covers herself is concealing her sexuality but allowing her femininity to be brought out.”

How one can divorce the concept of femininity from that of sexuality is somewhat of a mystery to me. Femininity, derived from the attributes of the female gender – is a sexual distinction. To be feminine is to be sexual insofar as it is to embrace one’s gender and enhance its attributes. How does one embraces one’s gender whilst ignoring the fact that gender distinctions are sexual?

I, for one, am glad that I can expose my shoulders in the summer or feel the sun on my legs when I wear a skirt. I love wearing my hair out and enhancing my face with makeup for special occasions. I find the attentions of men pleasant on the whole even though they can sometimes be expressed in an irksome way. I don’t consider my femininity a burden to be hidden away in some attempt to become equal to the male gender, I am equal in any way that matters legally. That doesn’t mean I’m the same as a man, far from it, I revel in the differences – they’re a part of what makes life interesting.
So I come to the end of my investigations and find that although I have heard many explanations that try to make veiling seem good, rational, normal or somehow equal to the freedom I am granted, I cannot endorse it or agree with it. So far, I haven’t found a single argument that makes me think veiling is a positive or life-affirming practice.
It isn’t my intent to offend people, nor to force others to my line of thinking. If anyone has anything to add to the cauldron, feel free, I would be most interested in hearing any arguments for the other side.


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Saturday, July 17, 2004

Caution - mutation in progress

I'm working on a post, I really am. It's one I want to make sure I get right, so it needs to 'breathe' a little.

Anyhow, I was reading some terribly uninteresting paperwork a little while ago in the lounge and happened to look out the window at my new little Platycodon plant. What I saw made me immediately jump up and check for it's normal characteristics on the internet. It seems that the flowers should have 5 petals. Mine, however, seems to have one flower that has 4.

Anyone with any clue as to what my new little plant is up to is welcome to let me in on the secret. In the meantime, I'm waiting to see what else it will produce.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Scientists discover first sign of bureaucratic animal...

The strange things you come across when searching for something COMPLETELY different on this here internet. This story isn't particularly new, but I found it fascinating.

Apparently, there's a wasp out there that lives off a host spider, attaching itself to the abdomen and casually feasting on the host spider's 'blood'. When it thinks it's good and ready, the wasp injects a chemical substance to make the host weave a web of the dimensions and strength required to house its new IKEA lounge suite. Once that's done (and the tea candles are lit in their little glass holders), the wasp kills the spider and chews on it for a good 12 hours. Lovely. I think that if they looked hard enough, they'd find that the wasp is actually a native of Brussels.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2004


The maintenance man was supposed to come today to fix something in the apartment. We’re on first name terms now, although he insists that I call him ‘Noddy’, which disturbs me no end. I always feel like I’m insulting him, yet ‘Norman’ seems too formal a name for someone who insists on wearing shorts so small that nothing (nothing…) is left to the imagination. On an unfit man of 40-something, this is not an altogether enticing proposition.

Anyhow, he didn’t turn up. No phone call, no notice, no Noddy. And, surprisingly, I wasn’t jumping out of my skin, pummeling pillows, practicing using the kind of language that may actually kill a senior citizen if uttered within hearing proximity (10cm).

I expected it. Somehow, eerily, I KNEW the lazy bastard wouldn’t turn up, despite his phone call yesterday and an SMS to confirm. I felt like I had entered a Zen-like state of calmness, what I had foretold had come true. Black was white, dark was light, the man was an eediot. All was normal, in other words.

I think I’ve actually gotten the hang of this ‘surviving in England without going completely crazy’ gig. It centers around not actually expecting anything to happen when people promise it will happen. The fine line I walk is between where I am right now (knowing this is going to happen but still railing against it at every opportunity) and where I could quite easily be (not just knowing about it, but accepting it as what is right). I know most other people don’t give a damn, but organizational systems are my passion – as is business. If I become blunt here I’ll be completely useless. I just don’t want to have the fight knocked out of me.

So this weighs heavily on my mind, it influences decisions I make, it slithers its way into plans and it knocks sideways ideas for otherwise solid systems. You see, we’re all quite dependant on each other in these big cities. Of course, we don’t actually have to be dependant on anyone to survive; humans are quite ingenious that way. It requires some idea of what to do out there in nature, but it’s still a possibility.

When we move to cities, however, and insist on things like plumbing and supermarkets, buses and postal services. These things rely on the reliability of others. This is where it can all go pear shaped if said ‘others’ don’t give a rat’s ass about performing the task they’ve set out to perform.

We’re so very reliant on others that even someone who genuinely wants to and intends to deliver on their promises becomes mere chaff floating on the wind of other’s whims. What use is it having an efficient manufacturing plant if your orders are always late because your courier is lacking? What good is a fantastic manufacturing process if you can’t rely on the quality of your material components? What use is outsourcing something if the company you outsource to promises the sky and delivers a steaming pile of nothing?

I firmly believe that I could trace the majority of sales of Zantac to managers in any British manufacturing concern that has implemented the heavily-reliant-on-others system of Just-In-Time.

It couldn’t have always been this way. This is the nation that conquered the seas, seeded colonies and refined the art of drinking tea with milk and sugar. All this ineptness must have therefore started somewhere at some time. Someone just didn’t follow through on a promise and it had an impact on someone else’s promise – and so on and so forth until we have the situation at hand today.

I imagine a knotty and twisted thread of happenstance invisibly winding its way around the country, inevitably landing on my doorstep in the person of the mailman that keeps delivering mail that is actually for the people next door.

So I ask myself the question: Would it be possible to follow that thread along its bumpy road back to the source, the wellspring of all this misery? If I found this person and fixed their problem, would everything else untangle?

I keep imagining what it would be like to finally find this person. Kitted out in the management consultant version of SWAT gear (Navy suit, navy heels, white blouse, hair in French twist, glasses perched librarian-high, briefcase held in a firm yet flexible grip.) I would be alerted in the radar van to the location of The One. My crack team of accountants and I would swoop into the basement room to be confronted with….with?

I think it would be someone in his 40’s, living with his nagging mother. I would find him behind a massive table which would be covered in an elaborate and detailed train kit. He would look up at me myopically through glasses large enough to magnify every pore of his cheeks and forehead. Startled, he would drop the small paintbrush in his left hand, whilst slowly crushing the dining car of the Orient Express with the right. There would be a light from somewhere (possibly an accountant’s pen torch) illuminating this whole scene.

He would be The One because for the last 20 years, he’s been promising BT to let a technician come by and check his line. Thing is, between one thing and another, he’s just never actually gotten around to it.

As soon as I work my organizational magic, however, that technician will come by and the line would be checked. The technician could then make the midday call he promised to make three weeks ago. The person who took an extended lunch to be at home for the technician would be back in the office by mid-afternoon as promised, just in time to answer an urgent email that noisily pinged its way into his box just as he was logging on. The answer to that email would cause great rejoicing in a footwear manufacturing plant in Krakow, sorting out a problem that could have meant a delay in their delivery schedules. The trucks ordered to take the shoes to London would therefore be leaving on time. A severe pothole which would most certainly have capsized the trucks would be reported by a woman next door to The One who suddenly found that her telephone worked after 20-odd years. The pothole would be fixed just in time for the trucks to rumble on by without any delays at all. The soft soled shoes my mailman ordered would therefore be on his feet at the time that he delivered my mail, allowing him to concentrate on the great task of matching the little numbers on the envelope with the big numbers on the doors.

Slowly, the order I created will unfurl the great knot this nation has got itself into. People would return phone calls, deliveries would come on time, trains would run (even when it rains), shop assistants would actually learn to comprehend the meaning of the word ‘service’ and plumbers would not only keep appointments but wouldn’t trudge someone else’s effluent all over one’s carpet. In other words – utopia.

This is my plan. Does anyone have a van equipped with lots of flashing, beeping boxes, a small geek and a spare driver I could use? I think I’d like to save the world.

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Monday, July 12, 2004

It’s the SRCL of life…

Andy shackled me in chains of words and sent me here kicking and screaming against my will. Me? Succumb to the lure of a quiz about personality? Pah. Shackled I was, I say.

Anyhow, after a little time thinking, checking weensy boxes as far away from the ‘I’m a bunny-loving fluff-brain’ option as possible, I was officially told that:

“You are an SRCL--Sober Rational Constructive Leader. This makes you an Ayn Rand ideal. Taggart? Roark? Galt? You are all of these. You were born to lead. You may not be particularly exciting, but you have a strange charisma--born of intellect and personal drive--that people begin to notice when they have been around you a while. You don't like to compromise, but you recognize when you have to.

You care absolutely nothing what other people think, and this somehow attracts people to you. Treat them well, use them wisely, and ascend to your rightful rank.”

Ooooh, flattering but very, very confusing.

“You don't like to compromise, but you recognize when you have to.”
Now, I know my copies of Rand’s fiction look like they’ve had hordes of schoolchildren using them as footballs, but I’m pretty sure no pages are missing. Especially pages that might say something like:

“Roark sat back, studying his client and the request put before him. He knew he desperately needed work, the meagre savings he had wouldn’t last him much longer.

“Ahhhh, what the hell.” He said. “You want turrets? I’ll give you freakin’ minarets if you want them. Cherubs? Plaster fruit in the corners? I can make your house look like the Natural History Museum in London if you want me to.”

His hand reached out and he started to sketch. The building rose to grandiose proportions, thrusting engorged spires into the clear sky. Delicate lace, to be fashioned out of tons of concrete, was slung between columns supporting nothing.”
The reason that sounds so absurd is that Roark didn't compromise. Period. Fin. That was the whole point behind his character - to show that it was possible, dammit.

And then there’s:

“You care absolutely nothing what other people think, and this somehow attracts people to you.”
…yeah, when they’re not busy running the hell in the other direction. The annoy-to-amuse ratio is rather high. You don’t exactly get a fan club when you point out that the Emperor has a furry butt.

“Treat them well, use them wisely, and ascend to your rightful rank.”
Again, something that must have been ripped out of my copies of Rand’s fiction. Use people – so THAT’s the ticket. Bloomin’ eck, so far I’ve been trying desperately to appeal to other’s reason and all this time the only thing I really needed was a cattle prod.

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Friday, July 09, 2004

Apolitical Correctness

Update: Colin, an honest to goodness real American (I've not met that many, you know. Some weren't even 'real' Americans - just having lived there for a couple of years and picked up the accent. No, Colin is a REAL American replete with an accent that makes me grin and inexplicable cravings for food of particular colours like 'pink' flavour and 'purple' flavour. He also introduced me to the fascinating concept of 'cheese food'...anyway...) has decided to bestow his benevolence on my non-detail-orientedness and provide a source for the last post.

I like Colin. I like surrounding myself with people like Colin who tut-tut and tsk at my scatterbrainedness at certain things and correct me - sometimes they pat me on the head if they can reach.

Anyway, here's the proper source.

...and a toast to the variety of people and temperaments in the world.

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Thursday, July 08, 2004

Fw: Fw: Fw:

I got the following in a stack of emails that flooded in once my connection was reestablished. Apparently, it's the synopsis of a speech that Bill Gates gave to a bunch of high school students. I really don't care if it is or it isn't - I still like it.

Rule 1: Life is not fair - get used to it!

Rule 2: The world won't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping - they called it opportunity.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent's generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one

It's also the kind of email that is still somehow relevant a couple of weeks on - unlike those from some who shall not be named asking me if I wanted to go out for drinks or if I wanted to meet them for some exhibition or another that's now closed.

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Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Our reputation…we can rebuild it…

…we have the technology (once again).

Yep, I have broadband once more which means I’ll be entertaining you with poignant tales of life in London with M and C and an entire entourage of cameos from people that have no idea how famous I can make them from the merest mention of their antics on this here interweb.

The post below (Shrugville) was written in the depths of the night on Tuesday and not posted because the trudge to the internet café didn’t seem worth it, so do read it with the knowledge that at the time of writing it wasn’t certain that I would have an internet connection any time before hitting menopause. I think you’ll understand the anger and whininess so much better.

I am posting this from the luxury of my new office, which is just fantastic. I feel like a warrior trudging back from the battlefield with a bloodied sword in one hand and the severed head of the enemy in the other. I have won, I have defeated ntl’s evident plot to keep me off the net and start me on the long and tortuous road to mental illness.

There was one last hurdle to deal with today, though. I had to relive my recent nightmares and brave a good half hour of remixed classical hold music interspersed with ‘We really do love you, but you’ll have to wait to speak to one of our trained seals.’ messages. The conversation and the bouncing around from department to department wasn’t anything terribly different from the average mind numbing fare. It was when I found myself earnestly engaging in another round of Existentialist Wheel of Fortune where I had to prove that I did, indeed, exist in order to win the toaster and the broadband connection that I felt things had become surreal again.

In England, post codes are quite specific – they actually narrow you down to a single street. There are databases that companies buy with this information. I think ntl must have the Wacky Humor Fun-o-Matic Not Quite Right version.

‘What’s your postcode?’

I give him my postcode. Carefully, carefully – in that radio jargon code full of Papas and Lemurs and Tango Zulus.

‘That’s Smith road?’

‘Err, no – it’s Jones road’

‘It says here that that postcode is Smith road.’

‘Well, it’s not Smith. It’s Jones.’

‘I don’t have a record of an account at Jones road.’

‘Erm… there was a technician here not a minute ago, I’m sure I have an account.’

*sigh* ‘Alright’ (At this point, it’s evident that I’m one of those pesky nuisance callers that get their kicks from staying on hold for hours to play postcode guessing games with the droids. He thinks he is humoring me.) ‘What’s your telephone number, then?’

I give him the number.

‘Ahhh…here it is.’

…so what, it was hiding? I ask what the address is on the account. It’s correct. The postcode is correct. The reason for this conversation remains a mystery, as do so many things here.

Anyhow – point is I’m back and so very happy for it. Now on to two weeks worth of emails needing to be cleared.


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You know that ‘temporary’ glitch in transmission which meant that I wouldn’t have internet for one week? Well, I *still* don’t have a connection – two weeks on. The company is ntl. I would usually recommend that people steer well clear of such a shoddily-run organization, but in this case it’s quite hard.

You see, it’s one of the largest providers of cable TV/phones/internet on this soggy little isle. There are alternatives out there, amongst which are British Telecom and keeping carrier pigeons. I considered the only REAL alternative and found that it was difficult to train the little bastards to fly across the Atlantic.

Let me give you a brief rundown of the (almost unbelievable events) so far:

• 2 weeks before moving, inform ntl of move. New property actually has all ntl connections as previous tenant was a broadband customer. Will this make any difference? Can I just plug my little black box of wonders into the socket and get going? Hell no, they need to send a technician out.
• So when can they send a technician out? The day of the move? A couple of days later? We’ve given them notice, remember? week after the move. I was assured I would have a connection on Thursday.
• Thursday rolls around and so does a South African with a jaw that could slice cheese. He looks startled and asks me why I have ntl equipment (said little black box of wonders) in my home. I tell him I’m an existing customer and took the box with me as instructed.
• After much murmuring into a telephone and plugging in cables that I could have done a week ago, he gives me a broadband installation disk and instructs me to install it. Now, I’m the wife of a certified geek – I know all generic installation disks perform carnal acts of lust with system settings. I tell him I won’t install it – I don’t need to install it, all I need is an active connection as the system is already set up for an ntl connection. It seems to make sense to him so he tells me to wait for a call from his supervisor to get me a PIN to register my connection. I am promised a connection at 4pm.
• 4pm rolls ‘round.
• 5pm rolls ‘round and I decide to give them a call. I am apologized to. I am told that someone will call ‘in minutes’ to get me my PIN.
• 6pm rolls ‘round.
• 7pm rolls ‘round and I become proactive again. This time, I’m told that the PIN generating staff have gone home for the day. My number is taken and I am told that I will get a call ‘at 9am’ the next morning.
• 9am rolls ‘round.
• 10am rolls ‘round and I settle in for another interminable wait on hold to speak to a drone. I begin to seriously resent their cheerfulness when lying to me. Nice or no, these people seem to be willing to promise ANYTHING without any cognition of whether or not that promise will be fulfilled.

‘Uh huh, yep. So we’ll have a yodeling Alsatian outside your bedroom window tomorrow. In a tutu. Absolutely. You have a nice day now.’

• I get through to someone who tells me that he has put a request in for my PIN (What, now? You mean there wasn’t one on the system?) and that they need to wait for overnight processing for the PIN to generate. Tomorrow then.
• Saturday. The birds tweet, the household awakes, I sit listening to hold music and actively imagining taking a paintball gun to ntl’s city offices. I can’t say I’m surprised that my PIN isn’t there. I can say I was surprised that they didn’t seem to have a record of an account at my new address AT ALL. The conversation was somewhat surreal.

‘And the address?’

I tell him.

‘There’s no record of that address.’

‘How could there be no record? One of your technicians was here on Thursday.’

‘Are you (old tenant)?’

‘No, I’m Monica White – I’ve moved my account from another address to this one.’

‘The record is in the name of (old tenant)’

‘Well then, looks like you’ll have to change it, right?’

At this point, he began to be snappy. The kind of snappy you usually associate with a woman. I hate that kind of prissy snappiness and sure as hell don’t expect it from a customer SERVICE person. His supreme benevolence in the face of such a demanding customer allowed him to press on, however:

‘What’s the address on your account?’

I tell him my old address.

‘So you’ll be wanting to set up a connection there?’

At this point I pause. Reality seems to shift a little to the left.

‘No, I’m actually calling for my PIN, I was told yesterday that it would be waiting for me this morning after the overnight generation cycle. The account was moved weeks ago.’

‘I don’t have a record of you at that address.’

*gritted teeth* ‘Well then, can you MAKE a record of me at this address?’

This hilarity ensued for a while. It was evident that I wouldn’t get my PIN that day, in fact I would be lucky to escape with all of my wits from this tête-à-tête. I resolved to wait until Monday when the ‘normal’ drones slithered in. I use normal in it’s loosest sense – remembering the benchmark is the average ntl staff member. I begin to wonder if this is the place where bad little boys and girls go if they don’t listen to their parents or knock off a car or are found bleeding in a gutter and need rehab.

• Monday happens, a connection doesn’t. I finally get through to a manager, an Australian. All I had to say to him was ‘You KNOW this isn’t right, don’t you?’. He knew what I meant. ANY expat here would know what I mean. The best he could do for me was having a technician over on Wednesday.

Today is Tuesday – a day of limbo and hope.

So if the moral of this story isn’t ‘Stay away from ntl’, what is it, given that I tend to have some morsel of an idea behind most of my ramblings?

It’s that after a little over a year in this country I have definitely come to the conclusion that Shakespeare was shaky on his geography. Something isn’t so much rotten in the state of Denmark as in the state of England. What passes here for ‘good enough’ isn’t – not by Australian standards, certainly not by what I understand to be American standards. My thinking is that if Americans and Australians can do it, there’s no goddamn reason any other nation on the earth can’t.

My little broadband story is but one of dozens weaved into my life and the lives of those around me. It’s indicative, though, of an illness that has seeped into the working culture here and it’s consequences are very, very ugly.

To wit, here are some other examples, in case you’re thinking I’m extrapolating from just one incident:

• I had set up a new bank account for my business. One of the ATM cards didn’t arrive in the mail and I went to the bank to trace it. I spent over an hour in the corner of the branch glued to a little red phone on the wall to speak to someone in Bangalore who had no idea what the hell was going on. I have a card now – it’s taken 5 weeks.
• M and I have to travel to Croydon – 1.5 hours away – every week to go to training. This entails upgrading M’s annual travel pass from 3 zones to 5 zones for the night. Every week – without fail – there has been some drama or other about doing this. My favorite included an inane conversation with a woman who had screwed up and didn’t understand that a refund meant actually giving us our money back, not just a receipt that stated we had received a refund. She wasn’t impressed by me telling her that she needed to give me the ‘shiny, round, coppery things’ as well as the ‘little papery thing’ when she gives a refund. Not impressed at all.
• The tube (underground) system is a shambles, signal failures and line closures a daily bane. It’s quite acceptable to be late for work or a business meeting, uttering the magical cure-all mantra: ‘tube’.
• When I walk into a store, I don’t actually expect service anymore. I expect to hunt down a surly little wench and gently pry her away from her inane conversation with another surly little wench. This can take a good 30 seconds of ‘excuse me’s. I have since found that that’s not effective, it’s like background noise. Walking up and saying ‘You!’ rather loudly tends to rattle them enough to get one or two questions answered. I really don’t like doing this but I just don’t care anymore, they’re paid to do the job, I suppose I have to shock them into actually doing it.
• When M first came to his office, he was amazed at the fact that it was culturally expected to make up fictitious reasons for systems failures to give to the IT Manager. The first few months were simply awful for him – thankfully he has been able to do what he was hired to do, change the culture of the email team. His company, by the way, is one of the best in the city to work for.
• My last contract was one of the worst experiences of my life. After a couple of weeks, I was pulled into my managers office and outright chastised for not lying enough. I kid you not. Their idea of HR was to keep as much information hidden as possible and give people red herrings to chase whilst we got on with…an average of 4 hours smoking and lunch breaks per day. Again, I kid you not.
• C is looking for work. She has now been told three times to prepare for an interview the next day, the details of which will be given to her in the morning. None of the interviews have materialized. When she does make it to an interview, the feedback she gets is that a decision is being made. In reality, someone has already started the job and she is not told for weeks. This has happened on several occasions.
• A couple of weeks ago, a friend had (stupidly) had a ridiculous amount of ecstasy, alcohol and (most likely, knowing her lately) cocaine over the weekend and had stayed with us over Sunday night. Monday found her bent over double, shaking and fainting. I got her to the hospital by 10am. We were finally seen to by a doctor at 6pm. 8 hours in a waiting room – it’s frightening to think of what could have happened if she were any worse.
• Stores are often and mysteriously out of stock of the most basic items. No-one can tell you when that item will be in or if it will ever be in again. I’m talking about the large chains such as Tesco (like WalMart) here, not the tiny little delis that sell meat canned during the second world war.
• I chose this new apartment 3 weeks before we were scheduled to move in. I needed the letting agency to get rid of two of the beds that came with it – M and I sleep on our own futon and the third bedroom is my office. The day of signing contracts and handing out exorbitant amounts of rent and bond, I asked my spiky haired real estate agent offhand:

‘Tell me that the beds are gone.’

*blank look*

‘The beds, the ones I told you to remove before we moved in – tell me that they’re gone.’

‘Umm’ (trying to be funny now, in a deadpan monotone) ‘The beds are gone.’

‘So when we drive off now to the new place, there will only be one bed and that bed will be in the end room, right?’

‘Well, actually, it hasn’t been done.’

‘So do it now.’


‘I have furniture coming. I bought new furniture for the house. It won’t fit if those beds are there.’

‘I can get rid of them next week.’

‘What can you do for me NOW, Bradley?’

‘Umm, we can probably get rid of the mattress tops in a couple of days and then the bases in a week or so.’

‘No Bradley, I don’t think you understand.’ *putting away the pen that was poised to sign the lease* ‘What will you do about the beds TODAY?’

‘Well, I don’t have a car for it right now and we’re busy today.’

‘Bradley…’ (You know, it’s funny. I don’t speak in a particularly feminine, soothing manner most of the time. It’s only when I’m extremely angry that my voice takes on a silky quality. At this point in time, it was molasses and melted chocolate.) ‘You had three weeks. Three weeks to get rid of those beds.’

Bradley starts flicking through his diary randomly, muttering things about ‘Not hearing’ me when I asked for the beds to be moved. He even deigns to blame the maintenance department.

Sadly for him, the maintenance department chose that moment to walk through the door and, upon enquiry from me, to state that he had never been instructed to move anything at all.

I start positively purring. The office gradually ceases work to watch Bradley fidget under my stare.

‘Three weeks is enough time to shred those beds and eat them. You just forgot or you thought I wouldn’t notice. You’re going to get rid of them for me today, I really don’t care how.’

Suddenly, it was possible to do the job. Amazing - the boy was embarrassed into doing what he was paid to do. I was solemnly promised that action would be taken that day, I was even privy to the logistics.

Would it surprise you if I told you that now, two weeks after that meeting and five weeks after my original request, the mattress bases are residing under the arch by the front door? No, sadly nowadays neither am I.

Those are the big things. The little things just peck away at your soul until you start to become tired, angry and churlish. I could write an entire post just on the poor quality of goods sold here.

It seems to me that this entire country has shrugged* and no-one sent me the memo. The level of incompetence, mismanagement, poor product/service quality and general idiocy is something I have never seen – and I lived and worked in Poland about 7 years ago when it wasn’t too westernised. That’s saying a lot, non?

The thing about humans is that we’re supremely adaptable – we can deal with just about anything by shifting our baseline of normality to encompass our new environment. When I first noticed that things were bad here I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t lower my own standards so that this quagmire ever seemed normal. Back hone, I used to complain about Australian companies – now it almost seems like nitpicking, although I know that it’s not – I’m just surrounded by something exceptionally bad.

This is why it’s great to have other Aussies and Western expats around me. Once in a while, we get together to quite simply bitch about things here. An hour or two in, we emerge from the bloodletting and feel so much better. Not just because we vocalized our frustrations, but because others were genuinely horrified by our experiences. When you think you’re going nuts, it does help to have someone trustworthy tell you that it aint necessarily so.

Two people that I regularly share my disbelief over events with are my parents who aren’t just expats from Australia over here, they were also first generation immigrants to Australia from Russia and Poland. These people grew up in communist countries and escaped (now THAT’s a tale in and of itself). When they tell me that the attitude of people, shopkeepers, managers and professionals here is very similar to what they were used to under communism, I become very, very concerned. When they draw direct parallels in behavior, in systems, in practices, in culture – I realize that what I’m experiencing isn’t just the death of the centre of an empire, but the birth of a hideous monstrosity. This wannabe-kibbutz is also crawling on it’s belly towards Brussels and the EU – as if beaurocratic incompetence with a French accent is somehow going to help things along.

Brits themselves seem to be split into two groups – those that realize something’s very, very wrong and those that just don’t want to hear it. It’s also dangerous (as always) to categorize people into groups and ascribe generalized behavior to that group – it smacks of lazy-brain thinking. I have had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful, hard working English people, it just seems that they’re outnumbered by the incompetent and sluggish at an alarming rate.

My experience here is invaluable – it makes me appreciate Australia all the more and shows me what kind of a society Australia is headed for if it follows down the leftist, Politically Correct, don't-recognize-greatness route with the rest of the west. Had someone told me that this kind of mess existed, I would have thought they were exaggerating. I think I had to see it for myself to believe it could be true. Then again, I don’t see why I thought it wasn’t possible to degenerate to this level – humans created communism too.

* This is a reference to a favorite book – Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It deals with the hypothetical scenario of what happens when the productive people in society – the best and the brightest – go on strike or ‘shrug’.

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