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Category: Jason blogs the bleeding obvious (page 1 of 2)

Well, it’s been ten years and maybe more since I first set eyes on you.

me_boboOn this day, 10 years ago, I landed in London.

I landed without a plan, other than wanting to do something a bit different with my life.

Lots of things have changed for me.  I own property.  I have a magnificent lovely girlfriend who I’ve been with for nearly 4 years. I can snowboard.  I’m not connected with the Scout movement at all.  I have a red hat. I run a whisky tasting club with over 400 people on the mailing list, which has held nearly 90 tasting sessions.  I’ve visited 21 countries that aren’t Australia which I hadn’t been to before, and every county in England. I have loads of awesome British and European friends. I’ve been within touching distance, and a couple of times met, idols of mine like John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Robert Plant, Dawn French, Bobby McFerrin, Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Ade Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Rik Mayall, Terry Jones, Bill Oddie, Patrick Stewart, Lenny Henry and Geoffrey Robertson QC. I buy Apple laptops. I’ve seen lots of bands that I love, and lots of bands I’d never heard of – notably (for me) Spinal Tap and also Pink Floyd. Many of my friends have kids now – sometimes several. I’m a British Citizen.

20140502_200533Lots of things haven’t changed. I like beer. I hoard things under the optimistic notion that it’ll be less painful to reacquire them if/when I need them than it will be to haul them around the place with me or put them into storage. I like wearing ridiculously coloured trousers. I have a vague feeling I’m not in the right line of work. I love meeting & connecting with new people. I don’t feel like I miss my friends and family because my life is full of richness and part of that is when I get to reconnect with them. I have loads of t-shirts. I don’t care if the glass is half full or half empty, because I drink from the bottle. I find myself gravitating towards the organising end of extracurricular groups I get involved in. I don’t do anything sensible regarding exercise. I have loads of awesome Australian friends. I don’t trust – or pay any attention to – weather forecasts. I’m not very sensible with money. I write blogposts with no sense of where it’s going to go and feel like I ought to probably start out with a conclusion in mind. I’m usually late. I tend to live in a house for about a year and typically stay in a job about the same time. I don’t have a plan.

It’s tempting to gaze at milestones and ascribe significance to them, but the milestone’s not important – it’s just a reference point for measurement.

Sometimes there are interesting points of serendipity or chance – for instance at the end of the month I’m moving to Bristol, nearly 10 years exactly after moving to London – but then the human brain has evolved to become very good at finding patterns.

Everyone’s life should have changed a lot over the course of 10 years.

Still, as irrelevant as the milestone is – it doesn’t mean I won’t point and say, “Hey look, a milestone!”.

Nope, no conclusion in sight.  I think Eric Idle (the only remaining Monty Python member I’ve not seen live, but that’s set to change come July) summed it up best:

Thought for the day: Relativity

One minute is calibrated in length by the number of oscillations a Caesium atom makes at a laboratory in France somewhere*.

However, the subjective length of a minute is different to:

– a person waiting a minute for their train to arrive (slightly slower than a standard minute).
– a person on a train which has stopped at a signal and will be on the move in a minute (approximately 2 minutes 30 seconds).
– a person whose train leaves in a minute, who isn’t yet at their train station (vastly diminished – a minute passes in about 20 seconds).

Albert Einstein never formally documented this aspect of Relativity, however with today’s technology I’m convinced that this concept could be harnessed to master time travel.

Of all perceived time dilations though, the most dramatic is when you wake up at someone else’s house, need a piss, and there’s someone in the shower. Each elapsed second stretches out into 10 observed minutes. Think of what 2 pints of water before bedtime and some judicious alarm clock setting could do for your daily morning email productivity.

* This is probably hearsay – wouldn’t be surprised to get the WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! treatment on QI over this one.

The Jason B. Standing end of 2012 newsletter

Ordinarily I’d eschew the “Parish Newsletter” format – however the simple fact is I’ve done bugger all in the way of blogging this year, and it’s certainly not been due to any lack of activity at this end! The dearth of electronic reportage has been, in part, brought on by my lack of available spare time – let it never be said that there’s any shortage of things to do in London!

Week in Scotland

We got the year off to a brilliant start with a holiday in one of the less popularly travelled parts of Scotland – the village of Carradale. A friend of mine has insisted for some years now that I use his cottage over on the Kintyre Peninsula, so in March we did that very thing! A week of idyllic relaxing, with a small amount of whisky-related activity thrown in for good measure. It wasn’t meant to be a whisky trip at all, however given our proximity to Campbeltown it seemed silly not to visit Springbank Distillery. And as we were only a few minutes’ drive from the ferry port at Kennacraig we thought we’d capitalize on the chance to pop across on the ferry to Islay (and see 5 distilleries there). Our route back to Glasgow took us to the Isle of Arran, and the distillery was open, so we had a look in there… and then when we found that our route from Glasgow around to Carradale took us past Auchentoshan and Glengoyne… well… we’re not made of stone!

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Hankywaving in Vermont

I’ve been a member of the Westminster Morris Men since 2004, and in all that time I’ve heard endless tales of the various international trips they’d done but I’d not yet had a chance to go on, and so I’ve always been a keen petitioner for a road trip. This year we were invited to the Marlboro Morris Ale in Vermont, and how could we say no to such an opportunity?

Travelling to the USA with a group of morris dancers presents its own logistical challenges, but I was pleasantly surprised that nobody managed to get detained or arrested in Customs, and soon enough we were hurtling along the wrong side of the road out of Boston towards the leafy green New England town of Brattleboro. The trip was definitely a cultural exchange, and from the word go the men seemed keen to embrace it head-on – for instance Andy decided that in tribute to being on the wrong side of the road, he’d try to get us from A to B by following the directions we’d printed out for getting back from B to A. Although the mistake was pointed out as we were amid learning that they don’t sell road maps in gas stations in the US any more (because everyone’s got SatNav now).

The Ale itself was a splendid event, bringing together a great assortment of great teams, and in my comparatively limited time dancing I’ve never been in the midst of such a true variety. Our tour teamed us up with Orion Sword (an extremely skilled longsword team who now choreograph their own dances to tunes they select, with a very distinctive and watchable style – including a dance to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”), and the Rock Creek Morris Women (a very friendly, welcoming & fun bunch, and handy & innovative dancers!), and in addition we met some other great teams at the event. Right from the off you could see there were huge variations in style between what we were doing & what they were doing, but such is the nature of a living tradition. The massed shows on each day gave the best of the weekend’s dancing, and the enthusiastic crowds whipped the dancers into energetic performances – it’s impossible to say who I enjoyed most, because each had its own merit to offer.

And, as you could imagine with a group so large, diverse, and eclectic, the post-dancing activity was brilliant too – plenty of folk singing (and bemused faces from the Westminster contingent as British folk songs were enthusiastically chanted in a variety of American accents), many-a spirited debate was held in the pub out the back of the hall, as well as team & scratch dancing in any area which had enough space to dance, we got trounced at an “Aunt Sally” tournament (a game which involves hurling sizeable lumps of wood around a field and is apparently an English predilection – though not one I’d ever seen before, and not one I displayed any sort of aptitude at), and as if by magic one of the teams sniffed out that I was a bit keen on whisky: whereupon I was invited to participate in a blind whisky tasting competition, scoring a fairly respectable 7 out of 12!

As we headed away exhausted from the weekend’s festivities we returned to Boston for a couple of days to recuperate and have a look around, and some of the teams we’d met at Marlboro rejoined us for another evening’s dancing, which was a splendid way to finish up!

Mitch, Rupert & I headed off during the day for a look about the USS Constitution, a famous retired warship in Boston Harbour. The day also played host to a memorable breakfast, and sampling of the odd local beer or 3. Whilst in town I was very lucky to have a chance to catch up with Spiro & Dianne, which doesn’t happen nearly often enough but I relish it when it does.

Maltstock

In September for the second time I made my way to Nijmegen in the Netherlands to the whisky festival known as Maltstock. This time rather than a rail-based sojourn, I teamed up with Ben & Cat from Master of Malt, Billy of Whisky Squad, and Joel of Caskstrength.net and we went on my first ever European road trip! We made it just in time for Billy to have missed the masterclass that he was meant to be presenting (for the second year running), but other than that slight ripple it was an utterly brilliant weekend with much fun and a thoroughly excellent crew. And, of course, loads of very interesting & diverse whisky. As well as meeting up again with the folk from last year, this year I got to meet a couple of people in person who I’ve only thus far known online (for example Gal from Israel, and the thoroughly decent chap known as Sjoerd De-Haan Kramer). And it’s always a buzz to get a chance to spend a bit more quality time with folks from home like Cat, Ben, Billy, Joel, Rocky, Simon, and the infamous Dr Sam Simmons.

2 Weeks in Australia

I was extremely honoured to be invited to the wedding of my mate Fi to her delightful other half Ben, which was to take place in Adelaide in November – so this year I managed to swing 2 weeks in Australia around that, and it was just perfect to be able to spend that time with friends I hadn’t seen in ages. Starting in Sydney (where I hadn’t been since about 1995) I stayed with Winnie & his family – sadly I’d been unable to make it across to their wedding in 2011, but I feel like we did a solid job of making up for lost time: Winnie’s the only person on the planet who, when he advises you that “we’ve just got to stop in and pick up a surprise” you can think “I bet we’re collecting a bouncy castle to take home” and find that you were right.

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As well as Winnie & Sami & the boys, I grabbed the opportunity to see Luca & Niall from the old Quest Computing days (doesn’t SEEM like that long ago!?), swung a surprise bonus catchup with Bronwyn (and some free booze and pizza – nice one!), and a couple of lazy brews & Rover reminiscing with Nat C and Alan J. Quite the dividend for a trip!

Next city in the whirlwind tour was Adelaide, and my distinct intention to not spend the whole trip cris-crossing the state in the car was at odds with my other desire to see as many people as possible and yet still allow some time to relax and spend time with my family. It worked out ok though, and whilst I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to it was wonderful (and quite humbling) to have as great a response as I did to the park bbq and pub night that I cobbled together. There’s a lot more kids running around Adelaide than I remember, and most of them appear to have spawned from my contemporaries. So that’s interesting to watch.

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I got to spend a bit more time with my little nephew as well, which was a bit of a buzz – initially I was a little worried about his casual disinterest in hanging out with Uncle Jason, but after we bonded over epic dancing to Gangnam Style and then me teaching him how to be a Nerf Sniper, I think I made my way back into his cool books.  Although thinking about it, I’m pretty sure last time I went home I had a moustache too, so he probably thinks I’m a weirdo now.

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The wedding was brilliant and a natural extension of the personalities of the people involved. Never seen a wedding dress with pockets before, although that’s not to say Fi got hitched in a pair of overalls. Admittedly, I didn’t know loads of the people there, but it was a treat to get to spend some time with the ones I did, and I even managed to sneak in a little midnight(ish) mission up to the Cargo Nets on the Challenge Hill course – having said that, my sense of direction asserted itself as you’d expect, and I reappeared about 3 hours later having fallen asleep on said cargo nets. Hey ho.

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Another highlight of my Adelaide trip was getting to spend a day brewing beer (and tasting, naturally) with Patrick and Alex – can’t say that I helped in any way other than stirring things occasionally and mopping up some of the extra beer that was lying about, but as we all get older & more grownup it’s rare to get a moment with your chums from days of yore to cherish.

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Charlie and Simon’s Wedding

Thought not involving epic travel, a very important event in this year was the wedding of Charlie and Simon in Bristol. Charlie’s was one of the first people I met when I moved to London back in 2004, and she’s been a really good mate (including housemate, and the catalyst to me meeting the ever-splendid Liz) ever since – so it was a joy to be a part of her wedding! A brilliant day, with a superlative soundtrack and an absolutely top-notch after party (you’d probably formally call it a reception).

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And it’s no surprise at all that Liz scrubbed up magnificently…

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Rob & Mags’ Wedding

We were delighted also to have been able to attend the wedding of our friends Rob & Mags this year too – Rob’s a chap who I met through a whisky tasting, and over the last couple of years have become good mates with. So it was a massive honour to be among the guests at his wedding to his awesome partner Mags – a beautiful day, a hootenanny of grand style, and it must be said: that was one hell of a stag weekend.

2012 hasn’t all been about travel & nuptials though – it’s delivered on quite a few other fronts as well:

Moustaches & mens’ health

IMAG0001For the 9th year in a row I got involved – once again, accidentally – in fundraising for Movember.  I mean, the intention was always to grow a ludicrous moustache, but I was planning to give everyone a break after last year’s onslaught.  Still, this year people were great about it and we proved the “long tail” theory, because with loads of small contributions my total managed to rack up to £422 this year – an excellent amount, for an excellent cause.

Fang installment

I was born missing a tooth. For some of my teen years I had braces, then a retainer plate with a fake tooth on it. Back in 2006 whilst in Shimla I had a replacement plate made up, because the one I had was getting pretty loose (and was prone to flying out if I sneezed without being particularly vigilant). But in late 2011 an opportunity came up for a more permanent solution, and so in May 2012 the implant work was complete, and for the first time in about 17 years I didn’t have a plastic thing wedged up against the roof of my mouth. Not exactly ground-breaking stuff, but it was a pretty big thing for me. My brother has the same type of tooth implant, although he wasn’t born a tooth short – his got smashed out by a seesaw at a birthday party when he was about 9… so I think I got the better end of the deal there.

Handing over loads of cash for a box made of bricks

Something which – by contrast to the tooth thing – was a big deal for me this year was that at the end of August Liz & I successfully purchased a flat in Bristol! 2012 was the year I became a joint-homeowner with my wonderful girlfriend. It’s rather magnificent (I think) – a 1900-built former Methodist Hall, in which we have a delightful 2 bedroom flat.

Being a homeowner’s come with a few abrupt lessons about getting things fixed (£300 on shower & plumbing this week), but already we’re finding it rewarding in terms of being able to set a place up how we like it, and theorise about what we’d like to do next. This will more than likely curtail some of my more extravagant travelling adventures & concerts/comedy tickets, but then that’s potentially not a bad thing.

And – most importantly – I’m extremely happy & excited to have bought a home with Liz.

UK Citizenship

Another significant event managed to sneak in on the 2012 ticket for me this year: being granted Citizenship of the United Kingdom. It’s been a lengthy process, with my first 3.5 years of ancestry visa, then a 5 year extension (about £600 and a 4 hour trip to Croydon later), then applying for Indefinite Leave to Remain (another Croydon trip, passing the Life In The UK test, and another £850), and finally Citizenship (another £851, although this time I was able to apply in Camden Town Hall, and there was only a minor amount of faffing about with paperwork owing to an address change and a discrepancy over dates). So on the 19th of December the Mayor of Camden presented me with my naturalization certificate. So, I’m an official pom now.
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Whisky Squad

Last – and by no means least – the other main thing occupying my time this year has been our little whisky tasting club, Whisky Squad. Set up in April 2010, we celebrated our 2nd birthday this year and it’s still every bit as much fun as it ever has been – in fact, to make an attempt at keeping up with demand we’ve ramped up activity and have been running 2 tastings per month.

We even featured on the excellent Whisky Marketplace TV podcast – worth a watch if you’ve got a few spare moments…

In 2012 we held 28 tasting events which branched out into areas such as rum, Cognac, tequila, and sherry – as well as exploring all sorts of different facets of whisky (both Scotch whisky and from around the world). So far about 190 people (it’s probably more than that) have been part of one or more Whisky Squad sessions, and we’ve got sessions planned well out into 2013 so hopefully we’ll increase that number by a few this year – although we’ve got loads of regulars and one of the joys of doing what we do is getting to know the diverse crowd of whisky enthusiasts who come along (and, as mentioned previously, being invited to their weddings!).

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Tangenting off of Whisky Squad, a couple of the lads & I have been working on a whisky video podcast for a while now, called Village of the Drammed. We’ve continued that through 2012 and tightened up our production & format a bit (whilst still keeping it fairly informal), which has been great fun and created all sorts of interesting conversations & opportunities.

Anyway – that’s a fairly broad look at the significant events of 2012. It’s by no means all of them: I count myself extremely lucky to have opportunities to get to go see a huge array of bands, comedians and musicals, to have had the chance to attend an event at the London 2012 Olympics, to get to pop away for weekends all over the country, and to be visited frequently by friends from all over the world who are in town for a few days and want to catch up. And we’ve been enjoying life rather a lot, with some breathtaking food, wine, beer, whisky, and most importantly: company.

What next?

Well, who knows. We’ve got some exciting holidays penciled in which I’m looking forward to – the one strong falling down that this year had was that the time I spent out of the country was largely without Liz, and that’s something we’re going to remedy in 2013. There’s some great stuff in the pipeline relating to whisky, and lots of fun & possibility to explore generally.

Oh yeah. This should be fun.

2011 – the motion picture(s)

Following the recent post on the books I read in 2011, here’s a roundup of all the movies that I saw this year.  I’ll highlight the ones wot I saw in the cinema, somehow.  As mentioned previously, this is sort of inspired by Billy’s post of a similar nature last year.

And because it’s not just going to be a dry list, you’ll have to endure my commentary along with it.  Who wants to just read a damn list, anyway?

Films I saw in 2011
(* means watched on a plane, ** means in a cinema)

  • The Tourist – Fairly tedious outing starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie.  Not sure what about this film was worse: the utterly implausible premise, or the wooden acting.
  • Salt – In a brilliant coup of self-control, having that afternoon vowed never to watch another film with Angelina Jolie in it, we wound up watching Salt.  Starring Angelina Jolie.  One of those utterly bullshit spy action drama things where you know the entire plot hinges on some unexpected plot twist, but once again it’s the sort of bullshit thing where even if you were watching like a hawk there’s no way you could have spotted it, cos it’s so frigging contrived.  And after having already watched an Angelina film that day I was starting to get concerned every time she walked near a pane of glass that she might inadvertantly turn 90 degrees too quickly and stick to it.
  • Robin Hood – following up Kevin Costner’s excellent work forever connecting the legend of Robin Hood with implausibly accented actors, Rusty Crowe dusted off his sandals for a stab at the Rich Robbin’ Poor Givin’ archery nut from Nottingham.  I really liked it. It was dumb, epic, and fun.
  • Once – I have no idea how we stumbled on this film about an Irish busker who falls in love with a girl who works in a vacuum cleaner shop.  It was a little bit whimsical, a bit “awww”, and with one of those open-endings that leaves you thinking “Okay then!”.
  • Black Swan – disturbed psychological piece about ballerina(Natalie Portman)’s triumphant rise to playing the White Swan in a production of Swan Lake.  Massive conversation piece because of tortured sequences and disjoined visuals giving you the impression that the action was part hallucinated.  Disturbing.  Got loads of hype.  I’m sure I liked it more than this description would indicate.  It’s worth mentioning that the guys in my office gave it a damning review: “Really weird.  Only one lesbian scene in it, and it’s not very good”.
  • Submarine** – Nearly every bit of promotional material proclaimed that this was directorial debut by Richard Ayoade, who plays “Moss” in “The IT Crowd”.  No idea why, as that information’s almost utterly peripheral.  Submarine however was a fantastic film following the life & dramas of a teenage boy in Wales, the girl he has a crush on, his family life and school life.  Excellent film, enjoyed it immensely.
  • The King’s Speech – Another film that was hard to enjoy objectively due to the humungous hype bubble surrounding it from the word go, however excellently executed story about… why the hell am I summarising this film? I think everyone on the planet saw this one.  Rarely, I really enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of The Queen Mother.  It’s very unlike me to be able to watch her and think, “Oh look, there’s Helena Bonham Carter dressed as a witch/pie chef/ape/etc.”.  Excellent character work by Geoffrey Rush as well – second only to his portrayal of Casanova Frankenstein in Mystery Men.
  • Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Pt 1* – If there’s a way to understate the majesty of a rich visual effects extravaganza, it’s to watch it on an in-flight seatback TV screen like I did with HPATDHP1.  Seemed to follow what I remember of the book, probably.  Jolly good.  Once they’re all out on DVD I expect I’ll have to marathon them and relive the highlights.
  • True Grit* – Coen Brothers remake of the John Wayne character piece about a grizzled frontiersman fighting against the odds, etc. etc.  All very good, naturally, but I get a bit pissed off with remakes when the original’s already perfectly good enough.
  • Requiem for Detroit* – Documentary about the rise and fall of one of the USA’s largest manufacturing centres, and an explanation of the social and political drivers behind why consumerism was directed the way it was, and the resultant effects of that when market conditions changed.  Utterly fascinating!
  • Paul* – Simon Pegg & Nick Frost providing vehicle for Seth Rogen who is by now so ubiquitous on screen that the only way to get him work without nauseating audiences is as the voice of a wise crackin’ alien.  And the hijinks that ensue.  The trouble with putting Frost & Pegg as leads in anything now is that it immediately invites comparison with The Cornetto Trilogy.  But you can tell that Edgar Wright’s nowhere to be seen.
  • Rango* – This was a pretty torturous flight.  Rango was about, like, a chameleon.  Or something.  Animated thing with lots of celebrity voices and promotional gear hyping up the involvement of Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski.  And any merits it had were rendered utterly pointless on the inflight screen.
  • Killing Bono* – Cute piece about an Irish band who were contemporaries of U2.  Sort of an element of the hopelessness of Anvil about it.  Lovely.
  • Tron: Legacy* – Would have been good to get this one on a proper screen.  Future-past visualisation of going inside the computer, directed with a fairly 2-dimensional view to turning swathes of the film into a console game for 30+ man-childs to play on their massive TVs in the suburbs.  It had Jeff Bridges though, so it had to be good.  I think I liked it.
  • Hitch* – Will Smith plays an absolute master pickup artist.  Formulaic and stupid, but I really like Big Will, so I’m giving this one a free pass.  Even though it’s a stupid film.
  • Source Code – Struggled to remember what this was.  It falls into the fairly narrow but nonetheless distinct category of films that feature a person waking up over & over again.  Not sure why that particular device irritates me.  I can say with conviction, of all the films I saw in 2011 – this was definitely one of them.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean IV – On Stranger Tides – On stranger tablets, more like.  This debacle is what happens when you take a colour character and try to spin off around it.  There’s enough discussion online examining where Lucas went wrong with the Star Wars franchise by overcomplicating the story – why the hell did the PotC franchise blunder into this mess?
  • Bridesmaids – The most moving and raw emotional spectacle I’ve ever witnessed.  Touched me in ways I can’t describe.
  • Four Lions – Wanted to see this because it’s got Chris Morris, and also because at an early stage of development they were looking at crowdsourcing the funding – so I was nearly a backer!  Of sorts.  Fairly amusing, and maintains a “truth is stranger than fiction” presence.  Liked it.  Wouldn’t rush to watch again.
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy** – Every now and again you get a film which is more about a performance than a story, and Le Carré’s tale of intrigue set itself up as the sort of thing I perceived I’d have trouble gripping the nuance of, however you couldn’t ignore the sheer presence of Oldman’s Smiley.  EVERY time he was on screen you couldn’t take your eyes off him.  Bizarrely intriguing for a film which could be summarised as “man with glasses walks from one room to another, and sits down occasionally”.
  • Michael Clayton – Can’t remember how we got to watching this – I seem to remember cooking partway through it.  It was something about a senior lawyer going crazy, but I’ve watched way too much Boston Legal since seeing this to remember which had what.  Not that Michael Clayton was a comedy.
  • Red State** – FAVOURITE FILM OF 2011!  Kevin Smith returns to cinema with a 3 act piece that leaves you stranded just when you think you’ve got it figured out.  GREAT performances, and well written.  Kevin Pollak’s performance was unforgettable.  Not a film to take granny to.  But just excellent.
  • Horrible Bosses – Fairly middle of the road caper about disempowered suburban idiots.  Supposed to be made funnier by the incongruity of the actors playing the boss figures.  Just noticed on IMDB that one of the actors in this film was Steve Wiebe – the guy from the excellent King of Kong documentary who should have registered the world’s highest Donkey Kong score, but… well, I won’t ruin a great film for you.
  • The Untouchables – Finally got around to watching the 1987 classic which has spawned so many scene-parodies that it’s now hard to just watch this film without getting put off by the memories of other versions.  Solid film.
  • Zombieland – Watched this twice.  Excellent fun.  Amusingly, when I was describing the cast to Liz I said “Not sure who the main actor is – some kind of Michael Cera wannabe, but I don’t think he’s really done anything else”, and then once we started watching it she said “Hey, wasn’t he the guy from The Social Network?”.  As in, the guy playing Mark Zuckerberg.  Yes, yes he was.  I’m a tool.  Anyway, great fun film, and has Woody Harrelson AND Bill Murray.  Epic & awesome just for that.
  • Super 8 – I wasn’t entirely sure where this one was going, and possibly made some wrong assumptions about the style of film it would be, but ended up being a fun sorta Spielbergy kid film, not entirely dissimilar in tone to Stand By Me.   Sort of 80’s Adventure, I guess.

So, not that many, I guess.

There were a couple we started and didn’t make it all the way through – main one to mention is Frozen: we felt we’d been virtualy strongarmed into this by our French snow holiday companions, who asked at every opportunity “HAVE YOU SEEN FROZEN?!”, irrespective of knowing full well that we hadn’t.  It’s an utterly woeful thriller about 3 kids who get stuck for the weekend on a ski lift.  My only hope is that the producers made a pact immediately after this film’s release to NEVER MAKE ANOTHER FILM, EVER.

Suitcase shunting

Is this about the time of year I usually apologise for falling miles behind on bloggery?  I just re-read that Edinburgh post from about 3 weeks back and realised that the promised forthcoming detail entirely wasn’t…  but it’s not a new thing, because in a variety of notebooks and scraps of paper I’ve got embryonic posts dating back as far as the snow trip we went on to France back in about February-ish!

The primary thing I’m facing at the minute is what you might term an Ongoing Logistical Nightmare.

In February I moved out of my residence of 5 years – the grotty basement in Camden – and installed myself in The Puzzler’s spare room, more or less as a temporary measure in the interim whilst I track down more permanent lodgings.  Being that it’s a much smaller room, most of my stuff then went into storage somewhere out in the wilds of North London.

So the routine of living off a reduced subset of gear, with a weekend at Liz’s place in every 2 or thereabouts, was reasonably ordered but not insurmountably difficult to manage.  For extra fun though work sent me to the US for 2 months, which meant a certain amount of suitcase-based living-out-of.

Having returned at the end of July I was looking forward to a little plain-sailing, but of course we went away to Edinburgh Fringe for a week which meant more suitcase-livin’…  great fun trip of course, but the sort of thing which requires a bit of recovery time from afterwards.

So it therefore makes sense to charge straight into housesitting for a friend for 3 weeks.  Not 3 complete weeks, of course – it meant a weekend at Liz’s place.  Also, in the middle was a weekend of hankywaving in Gloucestershire.  Of course, I didn’t have any of my hankywaving gear in my suitcase, so the challenge (once I’d realised) was to find a night where I wasn’t going to be out too late, followed by a night where I’d be back at the housesit house, and spend *that* night at Chez Puzzler, where all my stuff is.  The next day it was a simple matter of lugging a bag of hankywaving gear and indoor camping gear in to work, then back home that night to pack in the weekend bag, then take that back in to work the next day, then to Gloucestershire, then back to work, and back to housesitting.

The friends I housesat for have 2 small kids, so we worked out that it’d be better for me to be out of the house when they got home…  only the tricky part there was that Thursday night before that I left for Brussels, followed by a weekend of whisky-festivalling in the Netherlands.  So, yet again, the process was to pack a bag for the weekend & take it in to work the next day, then that night pack EVERYTHING ELSE into another bag, and leave that in the office over the weekend, ready to take home Sunday night.

I say “home” – the other fun part is that I moved into a new house (temporarily) on Monday night.  So Sunday night I stayed at Chez Puzzler, which afforded me the opportunity to collect a few more things that I needed from there, and lug that lot in to work Monday morning.  Monday night we were recording our video podcast, so I left my bags at the office, and returned to collect them from the lobby afterwards.  At which point I collected the whole shooting match (a rucksack, backpack, wheely suitcase, messenger bag, and plastic bag), and lugged the whole lot to the new digs & up 3 flights of stairs.

I am SO sick of lumping bags around.

Luckily, all things going to plan, the next move I make will be rather more permanent.

But I hope that gives some idea as to where all the blogging’s gone.

Discussion: Alternative Voting

Anyone waiting for buses recently in Vauxhall would have seen a fairly imposing billboard, and it’s the sort of thing which signals to me that I must be getting older, because instead of not giving 2 shits about it, seeing it sends me into apoplectic paroxysms of rage:

The principle at stake is the upcoming referendum about whether the UK should replace its current “First Past The Post” voting system (FPTP) with a system called “Alternative Voting” (AV).

For those who don’t know what that’s all about – the UK currently uses an election system whereby the candidate with the largest number of votes after counting wins.  Consider a fictional constituency (Lumpfordsomethingshire) of 100 voters, with 5 candidates standing for election.

First past the post

Under FPTP , Candidate E would take the seat of Lumpfordsomethingshire, having the highest score (25 votes).  The problem with this, and the whole crux of the AV argument, is that it means the other 75 people in the seat (total of people voting for A, B, C & D) potentially didn’t want Candidate E.  FPTP has been the method the English system has used for some time now, and defenders of it say “The person with the most votes wins!”.  However if you look at it from the point of view that if a voter casts a vote for one candidate, they’re also saying that they don’t want any of the others, it’s very quickly obvious that one candidate can be elected despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of the voters don’t want them (in our example, 75%).

The process in AV is that instead of each voter selecting one candidate to vote for, they number all candidates on the form from 1 through to 5 in preference order.  In our example, Candidate C is the least-popular option (17 votes), so under the AV system Candidate C is removed from the running, and the Candidate C voters’ 2nd preferences are counted.

Round 2 - redistributing votes for C

Of the 17 people who had C as their primary choice, 10 of them marked A as their 2nd, 5 wanted B, and 1 each wanted D and E.  At this stage however no candidate has greater than 50% of the vote, so once again the lowest scoring candidate is removed from the running, and now the 22 people whose votes were for D are distributed to their next available option.

Round 3 - down to 3 candidates now

With no clear winner still, the 28 votes which Candidate E had attracted are redistributed to the 2 other contenders.

How about that? A winner!

10 of them listed Candidate A as their next preference, 18 listed B, giving Candidate B the admittedly small margin of victory of 51 votes to A’s total of 49.

It seems like such a no-brainer to me, but when I’ve discussed it with people there’s been some interesting objections come up, so I thought I’d expand on some of those.

Why should one person’s vote count more than once?  With our current system it’s “one man, one vote”.

You’re not voting more than once.  Your vote only finally counts towards one candidate.  With 100 constituents, you’ll get (up to) 100 votes.  Under AV the philosophy is “I want to vote for B, but if B got knocked out of the running, I’d rather have C than D”.  What I like about the AV system is that it removes the idea that “my vote doesn’t count anyway”, which is an excuse a lot of people use for not bothering to turn up and vote.  If your local area’s “always” been a stronghold seat for B party with 36% of the vote, that means that there’s 64% of the people voting who didn’t want party B.  Under AV, it’s possible for the non-Party B voters to reach compromise and get a more representative candidate.  If it ends up that that’s party B, so be it, but at least you’ve got the peace of mind knowing that the winner is supported by at least 51% of the voters.

If you’re in a seat with loads of candidates, doesn’t that mean it’ll take you ages to fill out a voting form?

I can’t believe this is a genuine objection – that voting for the person representing your local area in parliament, and by extension determining which party is going to form government for the next 5 years, is something that it’s not worth taking a few minutes out to number a few boxes.  What’s potentially scarier is that under AV it’s more important to have an understanding of what the various party plaforms are, so that you can correctly rank the candidates according to what your personal requirements are.  But as I mentioned previously, some of the UK newspapers put together excellent sites for getting your head around which party promotes what.

It’s still possible to game the system.

There’s no such thing as a perfect voting system.  However when used as intended – that a majority of the population vote honestly rather than tactically – AV can produce an outcome that more of the people feel like represents them, and giving them the empowerment to effect change should encourage buy-in to the voting process.

It’s going to cost a lot of money to implement, which could be used better elsewhere.

The whole point, as far as I can tell, is that nobody’s ever happy with what the government spends money on, however the sorts of sums they deal with are beyond the comprehension of the ordinary person.  A leaflet I read recently from a counter-AV interest party suggested that the money could be used to provide 2,503 doctors.  That suggests instantly that doctors are paid nearly £100k each, which most doctors will very quickly set you straight on.  It claims that £130 million would need to be spent on vote counting machines: my understanding is that this isn’t necessarily the case, and there’s no reason the votes couldn’t be manually tallied.  The billboard at the top of this post suggests that the soldier needs bulletproof vests more than we need an AV system, however this completely ignores the fact that the UK went into Afghanistan against the overwhelming outcry of public opinion, and that possibly if government had been more representative of the people then we wouldn’t be in there to start with.

If it were to come down to questioning where parcels of money were spent, I’d certainly sooner see money spent on electoral reform than on strategic attention-distracting U-turns such as the Tory woodland selloff, where the government put forward a proposal to sell off publicly owned forests, then claimed to be surprised by the public’s reaction, and performed a backflip on it after much public campaigning.  Some commentators believed that the selloff was launched as a PR exercise that the Tories never intended to go through with, as well as a means of soaking up campaigning funds from pressure groups – in addition to the cost of putting together the proposals and holding the debate in the first place.

Under AV the loser can win.

This is pure poppycock.  In each round of voting, the candidate with the fewest votes is removed from the running and their votes redistributed based on their preferences among the remaining candidates.  In the fictional example above, the candidate initially ranked 4th ended up winning, whereas the candidate who started out leading the vote was eliminated in the 3rd round.  In each round, the “loser” is eliminated.  If a candidate’s not eliminated, it means they’re not the “loser”.

Similarly, the voting rounds only continue until one candidate has more than 50% of the vote.  If in round 1 70% of voters go for candidate A, that’s case-closed.

AV will give the BNP a greater chance of gaining office.

If more than half of the people in an electorate list the BNP candidate as their 1st, 2nd or 3rd choice, then that suggests that the people in the local area support that candidate or party.  A party holding one seat doesn’t instantly mean the demise of the country (In the BNP’s case, as with many similar styled parties, their polarising firebrand attraction point is usually overshadowed by their complete inability to deal with other policy within the first year or two, and it’s rare that that candidate is re-elected).  Based on anecdotal evidence though, the main reason that non-lunatics vote for Nationalist parties (such as the BNP) is because they’re disillusioned with the 2-party duopoly and want to cast their vote as a visible protest rather than actually wanting that party to win.

AV is only used in Australia and a couple of other places, and most Australians don’t want it any more.

I’ve had a look around for a source on this one, and there’s 2 facts to consider:

– the claim in the leaflet was that 3 countries use AV and none of the others do, however this statistic is misleading in that it fails to point out that not all countries are run democratically.  According by an index assembled by The Economist, only 26 countries in the world operate a “full democracy”, with a further 53 operating “flawed democracies”.  Zimbabwe uses FPTP, but that doesn’t seem to form a cornerstone in the pro-FPTP argument.

– there was a survey conducted in Australia which gave a result saying that 57% would favour a change to FPTP.  The survey, as the article references in its last line, canvassed the opinions of 1202 people.  The population of Australia is currently 21.8 million.  To claim that such an impossibly small fraction of the population’s opinion is representative would be absolute nonsense.

Stability of government is important. Under AV there would be more likelihood of shift and change, and I would rather have my MPs spending their time governing than on backroom party politics every time there is a new coalition formed at an election.

That’s not a bad objection.  My uneducated observer’s opinion on this is that 2-party politics is so polarised, and parties are so obsessed with governing towards winning the next election, under an AV system they’d need to change their tactics to sticking to campaign promises and core party principles in order to ensure that they continue to enjoy the sort of 51% or greater support they’d won in an area.

The adversarial nature of 2-party politics, that if you don’t want Big Party A you’ve got to vote for Big Party B (even if you hate them almost as much), prolongs the mentality that you’ve got to vote based on what you don’t want rather than on what you do.

I don’t know.  I don’t really have an answer for this one.  The Titanic was stable.

AV is a flawed system.  Proportional Representation is far superior.  If we get AV through, there’s no chance people will vote for PR further down the track.

As far as I can tell, this is wildly speculative.  PR seems to be a superior system, however to rule out the possibility of a further referendum on electoral reform – presumably to be held after a few elections using AV so that people have time to figure out what they think of it – is to make a massive assumption.  It’s equally valid to hypothesise that if AV’s defeated at this referendum that people will get it stuck in their minds that electoral reform is too complicated and has too many down sides.

I think this, above all, is a mentality that needs to be avoided.  As the arguments above illustrate, First Past The Post works in favour of 2-party politics.  It perpetuates the oscillation back & forth between the monolithic traditional political institutions, and through fear of wasted votes it removes choice from the people.

Winston Churchill said AV was “The most worthless votes for the most worthless candidates.”

I’m not sure that cherry-picking a quote from a politician from the 1930s is exactly a conclusive way to win an argument.  Whilst unquestionably an inspirational wartime Prime Minister, Churchill was largely a member of the Conservative party and as previously demonstrated had a vested interest in maintaining the 2-party system, but moreover it’s worth noting that not everything Churchill did between 1900 and 1955 would be considered laudable by today’s standards.  For instance, as Chancellor of the Exchequer he oversaw the return of the British Pound to a gold backed standard, and drove the country into unemployment, depression, and a General Strike.  He was also massively in favour of maintaining British control in India and was said to have favoured letting Gandhi die on hunger strike.

At this point I’m going to push the Publish button on this post, as I’ve been agonising over it for over a week now, and I want to get it out before the voting happens.

And, irritatingly, Charlie Brooker pointed out yesterday that the Yes campaign have started to shoot themselves in the feet by resorting to the sort of hyperbole that we’d expect from the No campaign.

Ultimately, it’s up to the voter to decide.  It’d just be nice for the voter to have a chance to have access to a reasoned discussion of the facts.  The Political Studies Association have published a reasonably objective paper on Alternative Voting, which is quite interesting.  And it will be quite fascinating to see what the results of the referendum are, considering that at the last UK General Election there was only a 65% voter turnout.  My understanding is that referenda are usually carried by simple majority, so it seems to be the case that AV could be brought in – based on those turnout figures – by a mere 1/3rd of the UK public.  It’s doable!  (Ironically, by a FPTP method)

Personally, I’m for Alternative Voting – however the important thing, as always, is that people make their decision an informed one.

Edit: A fairly succinct if tongue-in-cheek summary of the deficiency of FPTP turned up on Twitter via the lovely @stephenfry and @standupmaths which I’d be foolish not to append:

The farmer takes a wife, the barber takes a pole.


Whilst perambulating about the lovely city of Bristol the other day we stumbled past a reasonably fetching barber shop.  Stumbled upon isn’t quite the right word.  We weren’t really stumbling at that point of the evening, so it’s not like we were stumbling and then went past it…  it was more just that we were walking along, noticed the shop, and I forced everybody to stop and look because I thought it might be cool.

If I’m honest about it, the thing which caught my attention was the yesteryear-stylee clock protruding above the door, bearing the fairly past-times temperance influenced warning “Remember time lost has gone for ever”.  A businesslike eye-boob-triangle glance at the shopfront (can you even do that to a shop?) then spied window writing proclaiming “Master of the tonsorial arts”.

The next window quaintly announced “Hairdressing for Gentlemen and their Sons”.  A peer in the window revealed a sign – amid the Victorian trappings – stating “No credit given to women”.

It wasn’t an opportunity for a politically correct rant, however I realised that all of the Equal Opportunities rhetoric that had been beaten into me during the 80’s in suburban Australia was bubbling suddenly and violently to the surface, and got me thinking “They can’t put that there, can they?”.  On the other hand, the arrangement had a certain tongue-in-cheek charm: I’m sure they wouldn’t actually give anyone credit at all… we’ve moved on now to credit cards, which make that someone else’s problem.

The current mentality of reviving this sort of old worldyness is intriguing and a bit of fun – I enjoy the concept of The Chap magazine and its associated annual Chap Olympics, and also The Tweed Cycling Club – and it makes me wonder what’s causing this “movement”.  I don’t recall a lot of it going on during the last 2 decades, which though they frequently saw different period fashion revivals would typically cycle between 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s.  Ventures forth into Victoriana were generally the preserve of the sort of people who collected & rode penny-farthing bicycles, or were members of a moustache growing society.

The point is, I saw a barbershop which looked like it was nice, and am now diverting off into an essay of the origins of the nouveau-moustache community and how they’re trying to bring about the downfall of Movember by removing the once-a-year stigma of moustaches, and it’s all because I’m jealous that you can’t get enough tweed together to make me a suit of it.

That is all.

Get Stuffed

Someone really should set up a museum of museums.  Y’know, a sort of look through the ages (or at least since the 17th Century, when wikipedia would have you believe musea started to pop up) at the different ways in which humans have elected to catalog and display their antiquities.  Not that it’s obvious how you’d mount an exhibition depicting going from private collections, all the way through to the interactive all-singing, all-dancing innovations which we currently queue up for at half-term week if we’ve been foolish enough to time our visit poorly.

Specifically, I was fascinated recently by a visit to the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.  After we’d negotiated our way through the exhibition entitled “Flight – 100 years of the Bristol Aeroplane Company”,  and found it a little underwhelming and poorly structured (harsh comment – I’m sure that I’d be hard pressed to assemble a museum exhibition, so I’m sure it was a laudable effort… we just didn’t enjoy it that much).  The Egyptian room was engaging, captivating, and instilled a sense of wonderment in us.  So that was good.  Moving on, there was the rock & mineral display where I suddenly realised that I’m 34 years old.  By that I don’t mean that I had a sense of my own mortal insignificance next to the ancient display of rocks around me which probably took thousands and thousands of years to form under great pressure and heat – I mean that I realised that all the time I was a kid and ever saw Dads pottering around rock displays looking interested they were probably thinking, as I was, “Hmmm… Strontionate… strontionate… that’s… don’t tell me…  yes, that’s a carbonate… used to extract Strontium from… that’s an element… is this one igneous?… that’s the volcano one, isn’t it… hmm… oh look, that’s Pyrite… doesn’t fool me… ho ho ho… Now, Coprolite… Coprolite… where’s that then… oh wait, that’s dinosaur shit.”.  Etcetera.  Essentially, desperately trying to fool oneself that one remembers anything from high school, when before even beginning to go through with the facade one has already internally admitted that it’s a topic area in which one was peripherally interested, at best.

In the next room however was something which was altogether more fascinating – the Taxidermy room.

Looking around there were a good number of glass cases with quite well-preserved specimens of various bird and animal families or examples.  I’m no expert on taxidermy, but judging by the posture of the animals presented, the vibrancy of the colours, and the fact that they were standing there in pristine condition despite having been prepared quite some time in the past (as referenced by the signs nearby), it appeared that the taxidermist(s) involved had done a very good job indeed.

As a matter of fact the only up close and personal experience with taxidermy I’ve ever had was on the way home from an office Christmas party, encountering a girl with a case of beer under one arm and a taxidermied (is that the term?) duck under the other.  She was good enough to share one of her beers with me (far from a necessary move at that time of the day), and as such I felt it uncouth to comment on the somewhat ragged state of her mallard.  Apparently she’d found it in the basement at her office and decided that it’s what her next Christmas party that evening required.

This case really needed a couple of mushrooms and a snake to make it complete.

None of the stuffed animals in this room showed any similarsuch signs of misappropriation or mispurposement (although there’s probably a retired colonel somewhere who has an anecdote about the time that he, Randolph and Timothy absconded with a stuffed ostrich from the Bristol collection, etc.).

So the thing I actually found intriguing about the whole arrangement was that this exhibit was a tangible display of the way that our attitude towards studying animals has moved on since Victorian times.  In that Empire-building age, it seemed that it was very much the measure of a man’s prowess that he had an extensive collection of excellent specimens for show, and extending on this early biologists would go to great lengths to collect samples of one of each species of animal for ostensibly noble purposes – for study and learning.

You can imagine the conversation:

“Gadzooks, Tarquin, is that a Lesser Spotted Anvil-arsed Tree-climbing Desert Trout Bird?”

“Well spank me twice and call me Susan, Clive – I think it might be… Let’s go have a closer look!”

BLAM!

“Hmm… no, no, turns out it wasn’t.”

Of course since those heady days of progress our attitudes have moved on a bit (at least, in the scientific field) – presumably catalysed by the fact that during this period of progress the human race wiped out so many species (or indirectly did so via the introduction of domestic European animals to foreign habitats).  As if to really grind that point in, the door that we entered the collection through had a stuffed Dodo in a case as the first thing you saw.

I must admit, after having seen so many of the environmentally conscious and low-impact ways that zoos and museums do things nowadays (which, I hasten to add, it utterly commendable and a Good Thing all-round), it was quite amusing to see the way that things USED to be done.  For instance, in the “civilised western world” you’d be unlikely to ever see a display like this:

There’s no point pretending that the Bengal Tiger in this case was either terrified or just plain pissed off when it was “collected”.  However the bit that made me giggle, based on today’s low-impact modes and awareness of the fragility of continuation of species, was the caption at the top-right of the case:

Triumph.  Progress.  Might.

Incidentally, having looked at Wikipedia, I’d suggest that the King George I referred to here was George I of Greece, as not only did George I of Great Britain die in 1727, but George I of Greece had an utterly appropriate moustache for the sort of person that probably enjoys a spot of tiger shooting.

The thing is, even though it’s a bit disturbing to see a tiger stuffed and mounted in a case like this – especially in light of the fact that estimates put the total current population of Bengal Tigers at around 1400 (irrelevantly, about the same as the number of people living on Christmas Island) – you can’t be too dismissive of old King George, because more than likely back in those days it was very much the done thing to set off in groups in search of large carnivorous animals and then kill them before they ate you, without care for how many were left.  They all sort of lived in the foresty-thing, didn’t they?  Bound to be more in there somewhere.  It’s the great dichotomy of the Victorians – so forward thinking, so much scientific and technological progress, but so little regard for safety and conservation.

Anyway, in a later case I was intrigued to spot a large green parrot that I immediately recognised.

I was surprised to see that the collection had a Kakapo.  One of my favourite books during high school was the Douglas Adams wildlife chronicle with zoologist Mark Carwardine), Last Chance To See (latterly revisited with Stephen Fry and turned into a BBC series).  The Kakapo was a large native flightless bird of New Zealand, which pretty well didn’t stand a chance when European housecats and rats arrived on the island.  The population is perilously low, at about 122 birds left in the world (irrespective of Sirocco the Kakapo’s attempts to mate with Mark Carwardine’s head).  It just seemed unusual, after having read about the absolute scarcity of these animals only from a very specific part of the world, to come face to face with a not-recently-stuffed one in Bristol Museum.

And then, looking to another case, I recognised someone else.

Also from the same book, I read about the Aye Aye – a sort of Madagascan lemur with an elongated middle finger for picking ants out from underneath bark.  Whilst not as critically endangered as the Kakapo, it turns out that the main reason that Aye Ayes get killed is because local people in Madagascan villages think they look really spooky, and regard the animal as a harbinger of death – with one tribe even going so far as to claim that the Aye Aye will climb into a hut and use its elongated middle finger to puncture a sleeping man’s aorta.  One can only hope that education can trump superstition, or even logic might win over in that an animal that lives on ants, grubs, fungus and berries might not be also interested in drinking human blood.

As usual, I don’t really have a conclusion to this.  If pressed to conjure one up though for anyone who’s hoping that 1500 words might produce some sort of payoff, I’d say that museums are almost always worth a look at, because you never know what you might learn or observe when you’re in one.

Oh and buy a copy of Last Chance To See, and then read it.  It’s frigging excellent.

UPDATE: 2 Dec 2010

I’d forgotten that I’d also photographed an informational sign at the museum which included copies of letters written to the museum regarding peoples’ opinion/reaction to taxidermy, and I couldn’t resist capturing one person’s thoughts on this critical and deeply earnest issue facing our society in the modern world.

They didn’t say whether it was from Angry of Mayfair, Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells, or Slightly Annoyed of Berwick-on-Tweed.

This time machine’s taking longer than expected…

Wow.  I just checked to see what blog entries I’d left unfinished lately, and spotted one from early May detailing how I’d been too busy to write about anything and giving dotpoints of the sort of thing that’s been going on round here.

Of course, as is now plainly obvious, I’ve been so busy I haven’t had a chance to finish the post.

There you go – self-referential supporting evidence.

Now – HTC Desire, or iPhone 4?

Happy Me Day!

I tell ya what, if ever you’re feeling short of the luuuurve I can definitely recommend signing up with a Facebook account, and having a birthday.  My inbox today looks a little like this:

Click for readable version

You guys seriously rock.  It’s humbling, and you’re all awesome.  And it’s gonna take ages to respond to each one, but y’know – me’ mum taught me to be polite.

Special mention to Douggy for the best gift (so far) today: this handsome Virtual Spatula.

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