Friday, 27 August 2010

Worst. Name. Ever.

My personal "What The Hell Were They Thinking?" award for this week goes to the disturbingly named "The Fifth Column" blog. Heck, bub, if "The Fifth Column" doesn't sound creepily fascistic to you, why don't you just go the whole damn hog and set up

¡No pasarán!

1812: it's all about you

Here's a (quite) interesting popular misconception. Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture has become one of the standard pieces played in the United States as part of the Independence Day celebrations on the 4th of July. I've just discovered that the title of  Tchaikovsky's rousing composition for orchestra and heavy artillery routinely confuses many people in the USA, who mistakenly believe that the work's title refers to the War of 1812 between the USA and the forces of the British Empire, then including Canada.

I can see why the 1812 Overture got adopted in the States - it's the sort of uplifting, celebratory piece that would go well with a massive firework party. Once the piece became established as a 4th of July standard, attributing the title to the wrong war would be an excusable error - after all, the US national Anthem, which also gets played quite a lot on July 4th, really was a product of the 1812 scrap between the USA and the British Empire. And it would be a little unfair to criticise the US populace for their ignorance of Russia's 1812 victory over Napoleon's Grande Armée, given that Tchaikovsky himself committed a few anachronistic howlers when choosing the tunes that went into his composition:

Although La Marseillaise was chosen as the French National Anthem in 1795, it was banned by Napoleon in 1805 and could not have been heard during the approach of Moscow. However, it was reinstated as the French Anthem in 1879—the year before the commission of the overture—which can explain its use by Tchaikovsky in the overture:
Although God Save The Tsar! was the Russian national anthem in Tchaikovsky's time, it was not the anthem in 1812. There was no official Russian anthem until 1815, from which time until 1833 the anthem was Molitva russkikh, Prayer of the Russians, sung to the tune of God Save the King.

I just think this is an interesting example of how cultures can appropriate, adopt and assimilate stuff from other cultures (just as England -and Russia - adopted the Middle Eastern St George as a national patron saint). It isn't is a childish opportunity to tease the people of the USA for general ignorance of history and anything outside their national borders. Although, if I really did want to tease the good folk in the Land of the Free, I'd suggest that they take a listen to this song, which really is about the American War of 1812...

Hee, hee!


Thursday, 26 August 2010

Big budget airline


When brands go to war

For me, the term "brand fan" isn't a compliment. Like "fashion victim", it's practically an insult. Who would want to be labelled as a mere passive consumer of shiny trinkets, mindlessly following the herd and reflexively salivating whenever an advertising executive rings the appropriate bell?

There's lots of stuff out there. Some of it works a bit better or looks a bit better than other stuff. That's all I need to know about it. End of. Time to think about something more interesting.

It is (IMHO) pitiful to take more than a passing interest in brands and desperately sad to be thought of as having a "relationship" with a brand. On the other hand, some of the techniques used by brand managers to manipulate consumers are quite entertaining to watch.

Here's a good one - identify an unpopular celebrity, then send that that celebrity free samples of your competitors' branded apparel, in the hope that they are seen wearing it and damage the brand. Evil genius! More details here (via). I am, by the way, extremely proud to say that I don't know or care who the alleged celebrity known as "Snooki" is.

Sadly for evil brand managers* of the Cruella DeVil school, I can see a potential flaw in this approach. It seems to me that in a society that sets the bar for celebrity so low and which seems to regard any publicity as good publicity, there are people out there who will want to buy anything associated with somebody who they've seen on telly. Never mind the fact that the person may only be famous for being an annoying twit on some reality TV show - they're famous and somebody out there will want to buy stuff just because it's associated with a celebrity.

Is there any group of celebrities so despised that they'd automatically poison any brand they touched? Disgraced British politicians got a pretty rough ride following the recent expenses scandal.** Unfortunately, even the dumbest MP might now think twice before flashing freebie designer goods in the public's face.

Disgraced ex-politicians and their hangers-on might seem a better choice, but the famous ones are brazen enough to turn their notoriety into celebrity. It's well over a decade since disgraced "cash for questions" MP Neil Hamilton became synonymous with political sleaze. Unabashed, Hamilton and his wife Christine lost almost no time in trading on their ill-earned celebrity, popping up on a classic edition of "Have I got News for You" with their grisly "greedy chump and his bossy wife" double act, grinning inanely as Angus Deayton pretended to give them their "fee" in plain brown envelopes. 

For Christine Hamilton, being the publicity-hogging wife of a seedy sleazebag was enough to launch a career of media celebrity that continues to this day, from the "The Christine Hamilton Show", via "I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here" and "The Book of British Battleaxes", to her latest incarnation as a ghastly mashup of Aunt Agatha and gastro-porn star in this year's "Celebrity Masterchef". If you sent the wretched woman a designer handbag, no doubt hordes of morons would want to buy one just the same. 

The dirty world of negative branding sounds like great fun but, regrettably, I won't be making a career of it. I just don't think I could stoop low enough find a celeb tacky enough to be a guaranteed brand-killer.

*Come to think of it, is there any other sort of brand manager?

** Fiddling their expenses was wrong, but the scale of their wrongdoing and its effect on the rest of society was minuscule compared with the careless, greedy, profligate, economy-wrecking crimes of the financial services industry, which were quickly forgotten once MPs started hogging the headlines with their taxpayer-funded plasma TVs, second home allowances and moat-cleaning bills..

Friday, 20 August 2010

Human shields

English professor Lynne Rosenthal has become a cause celebre after she was thrown out of a New York branch of Starbucks cafe by police for clashing with staff over the wording of her bagel order.

The academic had wanted a plain, toasted multi-grain bagel but said she became infuriated when the server insisted she use the phrase "without butter and cheese".
According to Prof Rosenthal, the exchange proceeded thus: "I yelled, 'I want my multi-grain bagel.'

"The barista said, 'You're not going to get anything unless you say butter or cheese.'"

It seems a bafflingly trivial incident for both parties to get exercised over, and the fact that none of Starbucks' staple product was involved in the contentious order makes one wonder what would have happened had Prof Rosenthal had the temerity to ask for a small white coffee.

Via the BBC. I feel a certain sympathy for Prof Rosenthal's frustration. I'm also sick of being asked to buy in to the phony, robotic marketing-speak dreamed up by wretched corporate drones. There's no such thing, in an English coffee shop as a "regular Americano" - it's just a borrowed word intended to re-brand a perfectly respectable small filter coffee as something more exciting and exotic (with a price point to match). When I board a train, I am a passenger, a word that has served perfectly well since the before dawn of the railways - I don't want to be re-branded as a "customer", a weasel word intended to downgrade the railway journey itself to an incidental element in the branded retail experience.

My sympathy is limited, though. Starbucks may be guilty of being a prime purveyor of this sort of weapons-grade bullshit, but getting into a strop with its poorly-paid staff isn't the answer:

She subjects a poor service clerk to a barrage of abuse for asking the question which she or he has been trained, nay drilled, to ask. Anyone who has worked behind a counter will be familiar with the easy air of arrogance with which you can be treated. This Professor made a cruel stand against people who could not fight back, people who at best could continue to ask her perfectly reasonable questions.

Via the Left Outside Blog, clearly not impressed by Prof Rosenthal's outburst. There are two sides to this story, I wasn't there and I don't know whether or not Prof Rosenthal was rude to the person serving her, vice versa or a bit of both. What I do know, is that junior staff in many large organisations have to follow a script. It may be phony, it may waste time, it may enrage the customer, but the person following the script isn't talking like an idiot because they want to. They're doing it because they've been told to do it and will get it in the neck from their boss if they communicate in a non-approved way.

That's why I don't have a go at the bank clerk who asks me whether I'd consider getting a loan, or changing to a new mortgage provider, even though I've clearly only popped in to drop off a cheque, am visibly in a hurry and do not, I hope, look like the kind of half-wit who, if I was actually in a bank and needed a loan, would be incapable of asking about one without being prompted. Because that bank clerk is just another poor sod stuck in a tedious job, who is required to pester potential customers at every opportunity and who would be disciplined for having the temerity to realise that the customer clearly didn't have the time or inclination to discuss additional services and could, therefore, be spared the time-wasting sales talk.

So I bite my tongue. And the faceless corporate zombies responsible for making the poor dogsbodies at the bottom of their organisations talk like exasperating cretins are able to continue tormenting the public, safe in the knowledge that it's the dogsbodies who will be their human shields, taking any flak that results from following their idiotic script.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Savvy v. quaint

Last year, I didn't think much of the emerging use of "staycation" to describe spending your holidays at home or, at least in your own country, and thought that it might lose the Darwinian struggle with other, more colourful expressions. It looks as though I was wrong, at least in the short term, as "staycation" is one of the words that has successfully struggled to get into the latest edition of The Oxford Dictionary of English. Still, The Oxford Dictionary of English is really just a list of trending words, not to be confused with Oxford English Dictionary itself. If the phrase stays around for long enough to make the OED or another proper dictionary, that would be a surprise.

But enough of bang-up-to-date, with-it, savvy expressions. Sometimes language attains a certain strange music precisely because it's out of the loop. Here are a couple of examples, the first made quaintly compelling by the passage of time, the second by translation:

A thin and foolish woman believed she had accidentally swallowed a frog and that her thinness was due to the frog eating the food in her stomach. In order to dispel the illusion the doctor gave her an emetic and during the vomiting, he slipped a small frog into the basin. When the patient saw the frog her joy was great, but in a few minutes her depression returned: "Oh!" she exclaimed, "I am sure this frog has left some young ones in my stomach." The doctor looked wise, pulled out his magnifying glass, and after critically examining the frog said unto the patient, "Fear not: this frog has not left any froglets inside you. Behold, it is a male!" The patient was quite satisfied, became happy, and in a few months was plump again. She was not a naturalist, and therefore ignorant of the fact that it is due to tell the sex of frogs by mere inspection except at the breeding season. 

(from the transcript of a 1925 lecture entitled "The Psychology of Animals Swallowed Alive" by Sir John Bland-Sutton, via The Null Device - echoes of the old woman who swallowed a fly)

Present Animal : King Charles Spaniel

These are present animals donated by great leader kim jong il in Juche year 97(2008) on December the 3rd to the JungAng Zoo.

Spaniels live in many areas throughout England.

There legs are short, and they are covered with long black-yellow fur.

they have distinctive long fur on their ears, and also on their legs.

They are very gentle/kind and follow people well.

They live for 10-13 years, and grow up to 8kg in weight. 

(Translation by one Min-Taec Kim of the commentary to a North Korean documentary about spaniels, as posted in the comments section of the Blood and Treasure blogspot)

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Golf on trial

People facing serious charges deserve due process, a fair trial and all that stuff. But if - and I repeat if - the president of the Kent County Golf Union was to be tried and convicted of smuggling surface-to-air missiles to Iran, then the evidence supporting Linda Smith's description of golf as an "abomination" would become overwhelming.

The crimes against humanity begin with pringle sweaters and unfortunate golfing slacks. They escalate via a literal belief in the accuracy and wisdom of the sort of Daily Mail editorials that any sane person would immediately recognise as being concocted entirely out spite, ignorance and something unspeakable smelling of mildew. Before you know it you're (allegedly) selling high-tech weaponry to bloodstained God-bothering fanatical maniacs as brutal and unhinged as Torquemada.

Golf. Just say no.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Haven't been there, didn't do that, got the T shirt

It's almost obligatory these days for leisurewear to be covered with banal and almost meaningless words and images. I tend to avoid such items of clothing, although I do have one such item in my wardrobe, bought because it was cheap and for some other obscure reason that I've since forgotten (see Exhibit A, front of T shirt, above).

Neither the slogan or the illustration has any relevance to my life. I've never owned or even driven a VW minibus / camper van* (although my significant other would rather like to own a camper van, if we had the money). I have no idea where North Shore, if it exists, is (somebody once asked if the slogan referred to the North Shore at Blackpool, although the prominent palm trees and the total absence of trams in the picture would strongly suggest otherwise).

In 1968, I wasn't hanging out with beach babes and gnarly West Coast surfer dudes, looking tanned and dangerously cool in beads, shades and a pair of baggies . I was five years old, in a back garden near Scarborough, playing with plastic dinosaurs, dressed in a bottle green jumper, with a reindeer pattern (probably knitted by mum), distinctly un-baggy shorts and Clarks sandals (complete with socks).

 I thought I was alone in finding the fashion for printing more or less nonsensical words and images on clothing just weird and faintly irritating. I am, however, delighted to find that, mirabile dictu, someone's created an entire blog devoted to the sustained mockery of Meaningless T shirts. I strongly recommend that you dip in and enjoy. Via a splendidly curmudgeonly post at the Enemies of Reason.

*An interesting feature of the illustration is that the VW logo is missing from the minibus. I know next to sod all about image rights and the fair use of trade marks, but I'm assuming that this has something to do with not having to pay royalties to Volkswagen.

Wanted ad

I've always felt depressed and intimidated by job advertisements. I'm a reasonably intelligent, conscientious, responsible, literate person, with fair problem-solving skills, capable of occasional bursts of creative flair, but after reading the requirements of two or three wanted ads, I generally feel totally useless and practically unemployable. I'm beginning to realise why I feel so alienated and uncomfortable. Most of these adverts are written by and for self-promoting extroverts, and emphasise traits that are totally alien and exhausting for introverts to fake. I came across this pastiche of of a job advert that would make introverts feel at ease, (it's a bit exaggerated, but not much):

  • Must not be a team player
  • Must work best in a quiet environment
  • Must live in their head for the majority of time
  • Must not be a multi-tasker
  • Must like to work in solitude
  • Must not co-mingle with other staff members

Via Suite 101. As I say, a bit exaggerated - I'm not quite that anti-social, and can be quite personable in between tasks requiring close attention, but when I'm doing something, I do like to get my head down and do it, rather than half doing it whilst exchanging small talk about football, the X Factor, or what somebody in accounts allegedly said about the branch manger. As for being a team player, I generally try to pull my weight, but I don't do the sort of "multi-tasking" and "team playing" games that all too often involve sucking up to the boss whilst plunging the knife between a colleague's shoulder blades.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Tragedy, farce and a nice cup of tea

Hegel  remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

So, famously, wrote Karl Marx. I'm sceptical - it's one of those sweeping generalisations that sounds as if it pithily captures the essence of things, but falls apart on closer scrutiny - what about all those times when history doesn't repeat itself at all? With the benefit of hindsight, historians routinely criticise unsuccessful generals for fighting the last war and being foolishly unprepared for the changed reality of the contemporary battlefield.

Sometimes events do follow a similar pattern, but don't follow the path from tragedy to levity. For example Napoleon's doomed Russian campaign was a tragic waste of life and a military failure. Hitler followed in his footsteps 130 years later. Was the later invasion, with its grim privation, five million dead, countless war crimes and merciless brutality somehow more ligthweight and just a bit of a laugh? I don't think so.

Some events echo previous ones. Later farce occasionally follows earlier tragedy. But it ain't necessarily so and I can't see any pattern, or see any good reason to think that Marx's flippant line, which may have been right about the dissolution of the French Second Republic, constitutes some sort of profound insight into the general laws of history.

I think, however, there's a modern variation of Marx's formulation that does more or less hold true, at least in the developed and developing world:

History repeats itself occurring first as epic, the second time as a heritage-themed marketing opportunity

This less pity phrase occurred to me on hearing that the Indian entrepreneur Sanjiv Mehta is resurrecting the East India Company as "a consumer brand focused on luxury foodstuffs". There's a faint echo of the old East India Company here - it did, after all, start out trading in luxury goods like silk and tea. But the scale, ruthlessness and ambition of the old monopoly enterprise contrasts starkly with the company's new incarnation as an up-market deli, selling expensive tea and posh chocolates to the more prosperous shoppers in the West End.

The old East India Company in its heyday was an economic and military juggernaut, leading the way to British Imperial domination of India. When Clive defeated the  Nawab of Bengal and his French allies at the Battle of Plessey, he wasn't commanding regiments of the British Army, but an army belonging to the British East India Company.

In the recent past there's has been justified concern about the activities of "private armies" like Blackwater USA in Iraq. These activities, though, were miniscule in comparison with the British East India Company's role as the military spearhead of regime change in India. Subsequently, the East India Company involved itself in the highly profitable business of growing Opium in British India and trafficking it to China. The "war on drugs" is another historical conflict that keeps on coming back. The wisdom of fighting a war against illegal drugs may be questionable, but at least it's an improvement on fighting a war to keep the drug barons of the East India Company in healthy profits.

The flag of the East India Company was so well-known, that it almost certainly inspired the design of the United States' stars and stripes (illustrated, in its eighteenth century form, at the top of this post).

The old East India Company was like a Norman Castle - a powerful fact and symbol of economic, political and economic power and dominance, real, huge and inescapable. The new one is more like the National Trust gift shop in a Norman castle - a retail outlet for discretionary spending and the consumption of sanitised heritage. Marx would probably have been amused, although, IMHO, not vindicated.

Friday, 13 August 2010

The war against emus

Arriving in the town of Campion on November 2, 1932, Meredith's troops drew first blood in a skirmish later that day, then established base camp on a local farm. The emus tended to stay near tree cover, making them unexpectedly difficult to shoot. On November 4 an ambush of 1,000 emus went awry when the machine gun jammed after only a dozen kills. An attempt to chase them with a truck-mounted gun likewise failed, as the gunner was too busy hanging on for dear life to squeeze off a single shot.

More details of one of the Twentieth Century's strangest conflicts can be found here.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Unwelcome mat

Like many people, I don't like being spammed, getting junk mail or being interrupted during dinner by somebody trying to flog double glazing. I was therefore pleased, when searching Milton Keynes Council web site for something unrelated, to find that they were giving away free window stickers to residents who didn't want to be pestered by cold callers.

When the stickers arrived, I found the wording quite, shall we say, direct. The first bit, in red, got all legal on the doorsteppers' collective asses:

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008

Then, the sign told them to go away:

The Residents of this property do not want uninvited traders to visit this property.

Then, in large, unfriendly, letters it made it clear that the resident really means it:

Please leave and do not return.

If you do not leave and/or if you return, you may commit a criminal offence.

Crikey. The wording was so in your face* that I nearly had second thoughts about putting something like that in the window. But I did, and I haven't seen many cold callers since.

*not to mention the final sentence being slightly ambiguous, although in context it's pretty clear that 'you may commit a criminal offence' is a caution, not an invitation.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Blue remembered hills

Taken on the Long Mynd, near Church Stretton, Shropshire.

Friday, 6 August 2010

A silver lining

I'm no great fan of the Con-Dem coalition, but they deserve some credit for hacking back the proliferation of intrusive, costly, insecure, unworkable and unnecessary databases so beloved of New Labour's Stasi Tendency. The ID Card Scheme was the worst offender, but today we can also celebrate the end of an insane project to put the details of every child in the country onto a vast database, accessible to 300,000 users. The last administration's mulish determination to continue with this madness was made all the more infuriating by the fact that plenty of people were patiently explaining in a clear, coherent manner why this was A Really Bad Idea. For example, here was Terri Dowerty, a representative for Action on Rights for Children, being consulted, but not listened to, back in 2007:
“Anyone with a basic knowledge of IT will know that it is impossible to keep a database safe and away from abuse, especially when there are a proposed 300,000 staff being given access to it."

Contactpoint will contain details about every one of the 11 million children in the country. It will list names, addresses and gender and give links and contact details to for schools, GPs, parents and other carers, such as hospital consultants and other professionals. Because it is designed to flag up children at risk, it will also show if the child has been the subject of a formal assessment on whether they need extra help.

The database will be available to an estimated 330,000 vetted users. Some of those allowed to check records, such as headteachers, doctors, youth offender and social workers, are uncontroversial, but critics have questioned why other potential users, such as fire and rescue staff, will have access to the database.

In a memorandum to the House of Lords Select Committee on Merits of Statutory Instruments, Dowerty argued that two-factor authentication does not protect the system from all outside attack, particularly as Contactpoint will be accessed via internet protocols. She pointed out that neither does it prevent careless disclosure or the unauthorised sharing of login information.

"Last year The Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust reported a 'wholesale sharing and passing on of system log-in identifications and passwords', recording 70,000 cases of inappropriate access to systems, including medical records, in one month," Dowerty said.

Via  Computeractive. Heaven knows, I don't want to see this coalition in power for five years, but if they stay in for just long enough to dismantle a bit of the database state, they'll have proved themeselves useful for something. I just hope the Labour party spend some of its time in opposition getting over its bizarre infatuation with the panopticon.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Security of tenure under threat

20th May 2010:

The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have launched the government’s five-year policy programme.

4th August 2010

Mr Hughes told BBC News the idea had not been formally discussed by the coalition and Lib Dem MPs would need a lot of persuading to back it.
David Cameron clearly values the long-term stability of his secure tenancy at No. 10. It would be poetic justice if his attempt to take away one of the last remnants of stability and security still enjoyed by ordinary folk in our increasingly "flexible" (i.e. insecure) Britain split the coalition and started the process of bringing his own gilded tenure to a premature end.  I don't think this is likely to happen, but it would be highly amusing and quite satisfying if it did.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Your views are important to us

The government's first attempt at crowd-sourcing policy has ended with every Whitehall department rejecting the public's ideas, or claiming them as endorsement of existing plans.

More than 9,500 comments were published on the Programme for Government website, which was launched on 20 May, days after the formation of the coalition.

Whitehall departments published their responses late last week to no fanfare, revealing as they did that not one policy will be changed as a result of the exercise.

Via "The Register". If you look hard enough, you can see a coded message from our (only just) elected overlords. Fortunately the code's quite easy to crack:

con + insult = consult