Sunday, January 28, 2007

Saluting an old friend

I am not generally given to excessive sentiment, and especially where mere things are concerned. One mourns for a person or a fallen pet, but not for inanimate objects, as a rule. Yet it was with a degree of sadness that I finally decided the time had come to purchase a new jacket.

Se, my previous jacket, the one I will wear until I locate a suitable replacement, has been with me since just before my first trip to France, back in 1998. It has, therefore, served me loyally for nine and a half years, or rather more than a quarter of my life to date.

What's more, this jacket has travelled with me through so many of my adventures, visiting France (five times), the Netherlands, Switzerland (twice), the US, Germany, Italy (twice), accompanying me on the disaster that was life in Yeovil, joining me in drinking Irn Bru atop the Jung Frau , in sun, rain, snow, hail, and many other conditions. And it has borne wounds from its travels - I have resown two of the three pockets, the main zipper has not worked in years, and it now offers only the most marginal protection against the cold.

How can such a loyal companion be so cruelly cast aside?

Well, the answer is quite simple, actually. The zipper on the pocket in which I keep my keys has become rather unreliable, and that is a fault that cannot be ignored. Further, the task of replacing such a zipper is just beyong my meagre skills with the needle and thread.

And so, it is time to lay aside my companion through many adventures. And it is time to have some new adventures. But it just won't be the same.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Bad example?

While waiting in Southampton airport yesterday, I made the mistake of buying that bastion of quality journalism, "The Sun". I did this on the grounds that I kinda wanted an update on the whole Celebrity Big Brother fiasco, and if seemed like the best place for that sort of trashy story.

Anyway, this proved a mistake, as I found myself reading a story that just left me disgusted. (Yes, just one... generally, I get through tabloids in about 2 minutes, because I only read the stories that strike me as remotely interesting, which tend to be few.) The story was about a new publication by the "Islamic Human Rights Commission", which has attacked Hollywood for their portrayal of Moslems. The problem? While there is a disparity in the way Hollywood portrays Moslems, the examples chosen were, for the most part, totally inane.

Firstly, the disparity in the way Hollywood depicts Moslems. It is true that the vast majority of Moslems to appear in Hollywood films fall into one of three roles: cultural stereotypes, terrorist bombers, or oppressed minorities being saved by heroic Americans. This is somewhat unfair, of course, but it's the nature of the beast. A lot of American films are about American soldiers saving the world from some menace or other. So, of course those films set in the Middle East portray Moslems as victims. Many others deal with terrorist plots against the US, and since the end of the Cold War, Moslems have been the terrorists of choice, hence their preponderance of villains. As for the cultural stereotypes... well, everyone is stereotyped in film. So, yes, the portrayal is unrepresentative... but hardly surprising.

But it was the examples that really ticked me off. They complained about Alladin portraying the 'good' Moslems with American accents, and the 'bad' Moslem with a Middle Eastern accent. Well, fair dos on that one.

But then they complained about the lack of 'good' Moslems in films in general. Ignoring for the moment 'Pitch Black', in which the conscience and spiritual centre of the film is Moslem, we'll skip to two of the films mentioned. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is clearly an indication of poor portrayals of Moslems... what with Indy's friend Salah being of that faith. Um, oops? And then there's "The Seige", in which one of four main characters is Moslem, and a good guy, and is not revealed as a traitor at the end. Oops again, I suppose.

"The Seige", of course, is a very strange example to choose. In it, the US is under seige from Islamic terrorists, and decides to intern all folks in the nation who are of Middle Eastern descent. The whole point of the film is that this is not the way to go, and that instead we need to be breaking down these barriers, not building them up. I guess no-one actually watched and understood the film before they had their rant.

And then there's "Executive Decision", in which terrorists who happen to be of the Islamic faith hijack a plane and try to use it as a weapon against the US. Are they serious? On the 10th of September 2001, they might have had a point... but then, on that day this film was just a silly but effective action film. Now, it's incredibly scary. (Just after 9/11, I saw a documentary about the events, which actually mentioned that film. In it, the security analyst said the only thing wrong with the film was that the good guys managed to stop the bomb. As I said, scary.)

The worst thing about this report is that the conclusion was actually correct: the depiction of Moslems in the media is generally not very fair (there is a disproportionate number of terrorists shown, and very few 'normal' people, and fewer heroes). But, by calling out examples that are so fundamentally bad, they manage to totally undermine their argument, and render their position weaker than it would have been if they hadn't said anything at all.

The second worst thing is that the group then called on the BBFC to be given, and to exercise, greater powers of censorship to ensure that the depictions given are more balanced, and to cut out material that, frankly, they don't like. That I find incredibly disturbing, since I rather prize freedom of speech.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Ubiquitous communications and fear

J'ai veux (mot?) ecrire ces enses en Française, mais j'ai oublieé tous les mots, donc j'ecris en Anglais...

For those who don't know, this week I have found myself in France, the folks at work, long since having grown sick of me, finally having found a trip to send me on that has not been cancelled. Alas, I am also totally bereft of an internet connection, as this post clearly demonstrates. :)

Much to my horror, when I arrived here I found that the people I was supposed to be working with spoke decidedly ropey English. One spoke the language reasonably, and could understand me if I spoke really slowly and took my time with difficult concepts (itself a challenge when what we're doing is inherently very technical). The other, alas, spoke significantly less English than I do French, and I learned my French at school some thirteen years ago, and other than a couple of holidays here, I haven't used it since!

Furthermore, no-one else around here speaks any English either. Even the people whom you might think would know English, such as taxi drivers and waiters, generally do not (with the notable exception of the head waiter in the hotel restaurant, thankfully). It has also become very clear to me that the French I learned in school is not the French they speak in France, and further that the French you need as a tourist is a world apart from the French you need in an area where no-one speaks any English! Horrors!

Still, I manage. In truth, my French grammar remains very good, and I can still read the language very well... except for menus. Here, the lack of context means that the test is one of pure vocabulary, and as I said above, I have forgotten all the words! Fortunately, here my habit of always ordering something different in restaurants comes to my rescue, as I can just order at random, safe in the knowledge that good restaurants don't serve truly inedible food. (Although, this did result in my eating an egg salad yesterday, which is almost as bad as fish in my list of disliked foods.)

Over the course of the week, my French has been becoming significantly stronger, such that I now understand most of what people say to me, if they don't speak too fast. A few more weeks of this, and I would be able to manage just fine, I think. The other thing that has become apparent is that I could never be a translator.

Allow me to explain: In order to most effectively process the language, I find that it is easiest to not just read, write and speak French, but rather also to think in French. If one then speaks to me in English, even for a few words, my mental gears shift, and it becomes significantly harder to adjust. Weird, no? And yet a useful skill at this time.

I guess that means I'm not really bilingual, but rather monolingual in two different languages!

The other event of note this week occurred this evening, when I went into Rennes to experience the nightlife. (That I am now writing this in my hotel room at 10:45 should suggest something of the quality of that nightlife.)

Now, as we know, the world has changed utterly in the last ten years, with the internet and the mobile phone having an effect that most people don't really realise. Suddenly, every question is an easy question, and if you want to talk to anyone anywhere, it is probably a trivial matter to do so.

But, if the effect of this ubiquitous communication isn't clear to most people, the effect of suddenly being deprived of it is even less well understood. Tonight, I found myself in the middle of Rennes, and thus without an internet connection. Furthermore, I was surrounded by people who spoke only French, and language with which my skill is, as indicated, rather poor. But, no matter. With my credit card, and my mobile phone, I was pretty sure I could walk out of almost any scrape I was to get into - there are very few things that cannot be fixed with enough money, and in the occasion that that went wrong, I could call someone for help...

until I discovered that my mobile phone battery hadn't charged correctly, and had therefore gone completely flat! Suddenly, I was completely cut off, and reliant on my native wit and charm, and the hope that my sheer charisma would break through any language barrier. Uh oh! I couldn't even call a taxi to take me home, since my phone wasn't working. Whatever was I to do?

Well, the story had a happy ending, of course. The tale featured an ATM machine, a trip to McDonalds while completely full after a meal of pancakes and the finest profiteroles ever, and la Gare. Perhaps one day I shall tell the tale, but I think I shall save it for a lull in some future conversation.

Au revoir!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Will this week never end?

Is it just me, or has this week just dragged interminably? It never seems to end! On and on and on it goes!

Why can't it be Friday already?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

It's all about the timing...

While cooking my dinner, I developed the funniest joke my appartment has ever seen.

Unfortunately, it will only be funny for one day, and that day is the 1st of January, 2010. I'm not sure I'll be able to sit on such a red-hot jape for that long...

but I must try!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Spoiling for a fight

I almost quit the band again on Thursday. The problems there continue as they have been, with the band not being significantly better than it was in November, and that being 'not good enough'. It would appear that the Pipe Major is losing interest, or it's possible that he has other priorities at the moment, but either way, the band is in the hands of this other instructor (the guy who just doesn't like me).

Anyway, on Thursday I finally got sick of his end-of-practice rants about the quality of the band. They do nothing to encourage people to improve, and serve only to drive people away. Further, we had that at the BB band, and the net result there, as it will be here, is that the band very slowly collapsed. Whatever, I determined I couldn't stay and listen to this any further. I'd rather spend my time doing something I actually enjoy.

But over the weekend, my position softened somewhat. Instead, I determined to speak up at last night's practice, and try to persuade the Pipe Major that a new approach was required (he's usually at the Monday practices). I might even be able to persuade them that the end-of-practice rants had to go. I had it all worked out...

and, of course, the Pipe Major wasn't at the practice last night. So, that plan goes on the back burner, and it becomes a matter of waiting for the next opportunity.

But there's more!

The instructor decided last night to go through Wings again. One of his pupils has just finished learning it, so we need to integrate his play into the band as a whole. This is a good thing. Each person round the table plays the first part in turn, as we do (it's actually a poor learning technique, but never mind). My turn comes, and I play the tune.

And, again, the instructor goes into this big rambling monologue about my play. Apparently, this time, I'm to try to "put some music into it." Which leads me to question just what I've been doing.

As he's wittering on, I'm counting very slowly to ten. I very carefully ignore what he's saying, since it's irrelevant blather anyway. And, almost miraculously, I manage "okay" when he finally drags to a halt, when what I really want to say should not be repeated here.

The second part rolls round, and I play it. At this point, I'm really hoping he'll say something, anything about it. Because I've made the deal with myself - one word, and I'm out the door.

"That's fine," he says. Damnit!

Still, I'm spoiling for a fight at this stage. So, I determine to wait until his end-of-practice rant, so I can launch into "You know, it's amazing you have a band left, the way you tell everyone their play is 'seriously shite' at every practice."

This, of course, leads directly to him forgoing the end-of-practice rant for a change. Gah!

The most frustrating thing about all of this is that I can see exactly where the band is going wrong, and I can see exactly what is required to fix the problems. I can see these things basically because I've seen this before in previous bands, and because I've fixed these problems before in previous bands. Unlike in previous bands, however, I'm not in a position to actually implement the fixes in this case. (And, frankly, I don't want to be. I'm sick and tired of being the guy who has to carry the band, and I'm sick and tired of carrying the responsibility. It's all just too tiring.)

I guess it really is time to just quit.

The worst thing that has ever happened

My headphones gave up the ghost this morning. One minute I was listening to music, and then... nothing.

In truth, this tragic turn of events has been on the cards for some months now. The left phone had already died, the wires leading to the earpeice becoming sepatated from the speaker. I could have fixed it - we have the technology - but I just couldn't be bothered. Besides, having only the one to deal with had certain advantages.

It's also worth noting that I'd had those headphones for a long time. Scratch that... a very long time. I don't recall quite when I did get them, but I think I may have been at university, which places them at more than eight years old. I had, in the past, attempted to replace them, but without success.

Anyway, I'm now without music for the rest of the day. Initially, I tried singing to myself to fill the void, but my colleagues took to throwing things at me. After I regained consciousness, I took the hint.

Surprise! It costs double!

For reasons that I'm not going to go into, I have to book some flights for next week. After a lot of messing around and various soul-searching as to the available options, I settled on some flights that will get me there by Monday lunchtime, and require me to leave Friday morning. This was decidedly sub-optimal since it means I lose any productive time during the day on Friday (and yet require the hotel overnight... but it's the only flight from that airport for three days either way), and further it means a looooong wait for a connection on the way home, which kills the rest of the day.

But, it struck me as the best of all the options - the alternative loses the whole of Monday in travel and requires the cost of a hire car, negating any cost benefits.

So, I click through the ordering options (also annoyed that the website in question doesn't seem to allow you to book the whole journey in one go - I need to book each of the two legs seperately), and select the flights I want... only to discover that the price they're quoting is entirely a lie! In addition to the cost of the flights, there's a large charge for 'taxes and charges', which rather neatly doubles the cost of the trip!


Plus, to add insult to injury, there's a little advert at the side of the page stating that by ordering direct I was saving at least £5 per flight, which obviously makes me feel much better about being ripped off with these hidden costs.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Lethal comedy

On Wednesday, I found myself watching "Monty Python's Flying Circus" on Paramount Comedy 2. Good stuff. It was the very first two episodes.

The second episode is a true masterpiece, featuring the delightful 'flying sheep' skit and the 'Yorkshire novellist' skit, both of which are highly amusing, although I had to resist the temptation to recite them along with the TV.

The first episode is not so funny, but it does have the 'Funniest Joke in the World' sketch, about a joke so funny it kills all who hear it. Amusing stuff.

But that's just background information. Yesterday, I watched the last ever episode of Green Wing, and lost yet another reason to watch Channel 4. In truth, while it was quite funny, it wasn't the comedic gem that previous episodes have been.

Or was it?

See, just as one of the breaks began, I was laughing at one of the jokes only to take a monstrous coughing fit, such that I couldn't stop, nor catch a breath. Green Wing almost killed me! Frankly, I consider that cruelty, but perhaps they considered it a mercy having removed yet another top comedy from production.

Uh oh...

I'm not really a football fan, but I do maintain a marginal if academic interest in the goings on in the leagues both north and south of the border, just in case I need to make conversation. It's also true that I'm not a Rangers fan by any stretch of the imagination. My thinking is that I would much rather there not be a single dominant team in a league, but rather that everyone prospers when two or three teams are in strong contention.

That being the case, I was rather glad to see Paul le Guen leave Rangers yesterday. It was very clear that he wasn't the right man for the job there, and the result of his tenure is that the league was over by October, which is nothing short of scandalous... and defeats any notion of having an interesting league. So, this is a good thing.

However, apparently Walter Smith and Ally McCoist are favourites to become the new management team at Ibrox. This is a really good choice for Rangers if true, and will be massively popular with the fans. All in all, another really good move...

except that they are two-thirds of the current Scotland management team. And Scotland are playing ridiculously well at the moment, defeating teams we have no right to even be compared to (specifically France), and absurdly having what looks like a real chance to qualify from the group of death (we got Italy, France and the Ukraine? How is that fair?). The last thing we should want to see happen is the departure of that management team at this time.

I have a bad feeling about this.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Not entirely resolved...

A bunch of years ago, my New Year's Resolution was to stop making resolutions I wouldn't keep. Said resolution has therefore stood the test of time, such that I don't make New Year's Resolutions (also, since time is arbitrary, I don't see any special significance in making resolutions on Jan 1st anyway, but that's another post). This is a good thing, because if I did make resolutions, the one I would have made would have been shattered rather spectacularly yesterday.

(What would it have been, you ask? I would have resolved to stop swearing (except when in character). Now, this might surprise you, since a great many of the people I know have never heard me swear. However, that doesn't mean I don't - it's just one of the things I do when I'm alone that I don't generally do in company. Most often, it's because the PC or all the other drivers they allow on the road have annoyed me. Anyway, I'm kinda of the opinion that I should stop, but I'm also inclined to think that it's a good idea to have one recognised vice to work on, so I don't know.)

However, although I'm making no resolutions, I do have certain aspirations, usually ones I have been contemplating for a while, and perhaps might even have taken steps over. Or not. Note that these are not goals - a proper goal needs a specific target, some sort of accountability, and a deadline. (It's the whole SMART goals thing - Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Time-bound. Without at least four of the five, you'll never actually get anything done.)

So, anyway, aspirations:

- To lose weight. Allegedly, according to the Body-Mass Index thingy, the upper limit of 'okay' weight for my height is 13 stone and 2 pounds. I'm a good bit over that. However, I generally scorn these BMI numbers as wishful thinking - I don't recall meeting many people who can even be close to the figures, especially since muscle weighs more than fat, and to get near that sort of weight would require some serious workout. Plus, my diet is now about right (too many fizzy drinks, though), and my weight seems to be stable, so... Still, losing a bit wouldn't be a bad thing.

How that would be achieved without going on a diet (to which I'm opposed on principle), I don't really know.

- To cease being single. This goal also has significant problems. The first is the inherent difficulty in meeting someone without going to places where people congregate, as discussed in a previous post. The second is that I abandonned hope in November, and that rather negates any attempt. But I never promised my thought processes would actually make sense.

- To be generally better. Better at work, better at my band, a better friend, a better person. Just generally better.

- To continue being practically perfect in every way. Yes, I am in fact Mary Poppins.

And that's about it. One aspiration I have no intention of actually pursuing, one I fully believe is hopeless, one that is probably worthwhile but is too nebulous to be any real use, and one that's nonsensical. Frankly, I think that's a really good set.

Car trouble - but is it a bad thing?

I got in the car this morning to take back those contact lenses, only to find that the damp had gotten into the brake, and so it wouldn't move. Consequently, I had to get the AA out. He very quickly fixed the problem - although even he was mystified as to how. He was in the process of removing the tyre to hit the brake with his hammer when the whole thing suddenly released.

Anyway, with brakes there are broadly two things that can go wrong - either they can lock on, or they can fail to work when you need them. On balance, I would rather have the first problem.

More to the point, the only reason I was using the car was to take those lenses back. Were it not for that, the next time I would use the car would be tomorrow morning, when I needed it to get to work. So, all in all, better to have the problem today.

Interesting, is it not?