diamond geezer

 Wednesday, November 30, 2005

 Andy-man quiz: To celebrate St Andrew's Day, here are clues to 21 people called Andrew (or Andrews or Andy). Not all of them are Scottish (in fact not all of them are men). In each case I've clued the part of the name that isn't Andrew - can you work out the full names? [The 14 clues in the first two columns are all anagrams, while the seven in the right-hand column are differently cryptic]
    A) weather airflow   
    B) wobbly elder
    C) sawmill I
    D) greedily
    E) rum mess
    F) hawkers
    G) swatter
    H) a cigar
    I) an omen
    J) a whorl
    K) pincer
    L) advise
    M) line    
    N) argy    
O) ringer (singer)
P) movement (poet)
Q) quartz isn't on (sportsman)
R) assassinated president (actor)
S) sounds like gem-e (actress)
T) insect darling? (actor)
U) P&Y (TV character)
Answers in the comments box

The best of November

TV programme of the month: Isn't it fun watching would-be entrepreneurs being eaten alive in the Dragon's Den? They stand there all aquiver trying to pitch their go-nowhere products, and we sit there waiting for them to walk away with their egos deflated. And somehow it all feels slightly more worthy than your usual reality TV nonsense.

Single of the month: How many more great tunes does Damon Albarn have lurking in his brain? Dirty Harry is just one more original masterpiece whose fusion of rhythmic strings and choral rap so shouldn't work, but so does. I just wonder whether it's worth shelling out for the full Gorillaz album?

Gig of the month: The annual 'Best Of In The City Unsigned' event took place at the Islington Academy a few weeks ago. I went along to revel in the performance of one of my favourite not-yet-successful bands, Buffseeds, now reborn anew as the very wonderful IKO. Singer Kieran Scragg charmed the crowd with a set of haunting heartfelt melodies, exquisitely backed by keyboard, bass and strident cello. And he said hello afterwards too. Quite enchanting, and they could be giants.

Film of the month: A bit of Pottery.

Disturbing blog trend of the month: Either there are suddenly more blogs about how to make money out of blogging, or I'm just noticing them more. I have a nagging doubt it's the former. "Once you have chosen and qualified your niche, planned your chosen blog monetization strategy and invented a great blog name, next job is to find your blog a home!" But dig carefully and there are some really very interesting posts about what makes an interesting blogpost hidden amongst the blatant avarice.

Disturbing global warming trend of the month: The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season ends today with the 26th named cyclone, Epsilon, blowing its way round the middle of nowhere. There have never been more than 19 named cyclones in one year before, so this record-breaking season is really quite extraordinary. Still, I'm sure it's nothing to worry about, so long as you don't mind your grandchildren living underwater.

Disturbing chocolate trend of the month (5pm update): While I was buying my newspaper this morning I noticed a fresh box of new season Creme Eggs lying on the counter, its tasty fondant contents silently begging to be purchased. I've seen Creme Eggs on sale on Boxing Day before, and I've heard of them being available earlier in December, but to see them in November feels somewhat abhorrent. I mean, I've not finished all of my 2005 stash yet. Still, Easter is only 20 weeks away, so best not waste valuable eating time.

 Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A close shave

It was the sight of blood in the shaving mirror yesterday morning which suggested that I'd finally solved my Christmas present problem. Surely my upper lip shouldn't be bleeding, not while I was using an electric razor. But closer inspection revealed that there was a tiny raised tear in the metal foil cover, just about half a centimetre long, creating an unintentional extra blade. With each sweep of the shaver head I was busy scraping away the top layer of skin from various parts of my face, leaving behind red grazed blotches and minor lacerations. Probably best to stop and buy a new razor, then.

I'm blessed in that I don't really need to shave every day. What facial fuzz I do have is dark and bristly, but it grows thinly in sparse patches. My five o'clock shadow generally takes until 5pm the following evening to appear. I couldn't possibly grow a goatee because the hairs on my upper lip don't join up with the hairs on my lower chin. To grow a full beard would be completely impossible because, even at the age of forty, the crucial coverage zones on my lower face have yet to spawn any productive hair follicles. And sideburns are out, unless I were to cut strips from a doormat and superglue them to my face. To be honest, even some grandmothers have more facial hair than I do (although I do probably still have a bit more than Geoff).

Nevertheless, as I mopped up tiny globules of blood from my cheek using a folded sheet of toilet paper, my thoughts turned to replacing my defunct razor. I've never been a great fan of wet shaving, not just because of the regular razorblade outlay but also because of the increased occurrence of bogroll dabbing. Neither have I ever felt the urge to daub stinging aftershave all over my freshly mown chin and then to spend the rest of the day smelling like the front of a department store. No, a good old plain and simple electric razor is all I need.

The electric razor is a staple of the festive male grooming gift list. There's always a better, sharper, smoother model on the market, and if three blades were de rigeur last Christmas it's almost certain that nothing less than four will do this year. No matter whether or not the man in your life needs a new Remington, Braun or Philishave - just buy him one anyway and chuck his old shaver onto the nearest landfill site. But I couldn't wait for Christmas to get hold of my new razor. Stubble grows at one-hundredth of an inch every day, which would have meant that by December 25th I'd be plagued by sparse straggly bristles a quarter of an inch long sticking out of bits of my chin. No, an urgent trip to Argos was called for, yesterday evening after work.

It's not always easy to tell from the tiny photograph in the Argos catalogue exactly what the products in their store really look like. And so when my new electric shaver finally trundled down the conveyor belt and into view, I noticed that I appeared to have just bought a product aimed at somebody half my age. The packaging looked more like that to be found around an over-colourful Easter egg, and the box was littered with copious references to music festivals and extreme sports. Back home, once I'd finally broken through the outer plastic wrapper, the electrical device inside appeared to have been lifted from the set of a 90s sci-fi movie. Most worrying of all was the full colour 'shave, style and trim' leaflet advising me of the correct way to carve a 'chin curtain', 'soulpatch', 'Lincolnic' and several other stubbly styles.

I think I've inadvertently picked up the equivalent of a 'My First Electric Razor' gift pack aimed fair and square at the emergent adolescent. You'll remember those kids in your class who sported full chest hair and a moustache at the age of 13, while the rest of us were still waiting for something more than just acne to sprout from our smooth pores? My new shiny shaver is targetted at these maturing teenagers, keen to shape their budding bumfluff into ever more ridiculous forms of facial topiary. Some of us just never caught up. Ah well, I'm sure I'll be mature enough one day to be able to take advantage of my razor's full functionality. Let me go and see if it's finished charging, and then maybe I can trim myself a 'chinstrap' before work.

 Monday, November 28, 2005

(an annual publication containing tabular information in a particular field or fields arranged according to the calendar of a given year)

Old Moore's Almanac 2006: I love this little two-quid publication, more for the astronomical data in the middle than for the astrological tosh, lucky bingo dates and celebrity horoscopes crammed in elsewhere. Normally I snap up a copy from some newsagent somewhere during the summer, but this year for the first time I've had to send off for my almanac by post. But it's always a fascinating read, not least for the numerous adverts for healing talismans ("attracts divine angelic good fortune to its owner almost instantaneously"), lucky charms ("end loneliness, attract or rekindle love and bring genuine friends into your life"), psychic astrologers ("Michaela will tell you what your future holds") and magic spells ("few are aware of the hidden meaning of hand gestures and their magical significance"). Sadly no lucky Cornish piskeys this year, though. (published by Foulsham, first published 1697)

Whitaker's Almanack 2006: A much more respectable and comprehensive volume, all eminently factual and with an emphasis on current affairs. I remember spending hours in my school library reading through some of the more esoteric chapters in the 1976 Almanac, and I suspect several of the entries won't have changed since then. The latest edition boasts nearly 1400 pages, but I really don't think it's worth forty quid. Thankfully they've put a few sample pages up on the web for us to enjoy free of charge, including 2005 obituaries, 2006 tide tables and (well you never know, it might be useful) distances from London by air. (published by A&C Black, first published 1868)

Schott's Almanac 2006: Not to be outdone (or because he couldn't think up a new idea for a Miscellany), Ben Schott's latest annual publication is his first annual almanac. A fascinating idea, but it's only available in hardback and it costs fifteen quid, so is it worth the money? Ben's kindly put up a few sample pages on his website (for example who wore what at the Oscars, famous guests at Chequers and sporting theme tunes) so you can judge for yourself. Personally I suspect all he's done is to read the press and online news media for the last 12 months, grab all the most interesting lists, surveys and other data and reformat them all into a new typeface... which is the sort of money-spinning idea you wish you'd thought of first. (published by Bloomsbury, first published 2005)

Wisden's Almanac 2006: The indispensible annual guide to the dullest sport in the UK, and almost as thick as the average game is long. The last five years of almanacs are now available to search online (for example, I searched for 'boring' and found five referenced articles). Unfortunately, because Wisden is published in April every year, it's of no use whatsoever as a Christmas gift for the avid cricket fan. (published by John Wisden & Co Ltd, first published 1864)

See also:
Old Farmer's Almanac: The American version of Old Moore's Almanac. (first published 1792)
Jodrell Bank Observatory: Astronomical Almanac: Calculate the position of any astronomical object for any time, date and location on Earth.
Her Majesty's Nautical Almanac Office: Government suppliers of astronomical data.
Stovold's Mornington Crescent Almanac: An ISIHAC favourite.

 Sunday, November 27, 2005

Advent Sunday

Today is the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which makes today the first day of Advent. And 27th November is also the earliest possible date that Advent can begin, which is a consequence of Christmas Day falling on a Sunday this year. All of which begs the question, why doesn't your Advent Calendar start today?

Incorrect Advent Calendar start dates:
1st October
: I can only assume that supermarkets start selling Advent Calendars in September because you're meant to start opening them and guzzling the nasty mass-produced milk chocolate on 1st October, not 1st December. (8 weeks early)
1st November: Ditto, for calendars sold in October. Maybe it's just as well there are no out-of-date nativity references behind any the windows any more, just milk-solid cartoon characters. (4 weeks early)
1st December: 1st December is the first day of Advent in only one year out of every seven (i.e. when Christmas falls on a Wednesday). However, manufactured Advent Calendars conveniently ignore this technicality and always kick off on the 1st, no matter what. All of which means, on average, you're getting less chocolate than you ought to be. (4 days late - 2 days early)

Incorrect Advent Calendar finish dates:
25th December
: Lovely though it is on Christmas morning to open the final mega-window on your Advent Calendar and unwrap a huge great slab of chocolate, Advent actually finishes the day before. Plus, to be honest, there's quite enough calories to be enjoyed/endured on the 25th without adding even more. (1 day late)
31st December: A surprising number of Advent Calendars dribble on to a second post-yule climax. Has a countdown to the New Year become more important than Christmas, or is this just an excuse to boost sales by offering 25% more chocolate? (1 week late)
1st January: Advent finishes on the day before Christmas, not a week afterwards. Honestly, do calendar manufacturers know nothing about religion? (8 days late)

dg's Advent Calendar
(click and enjoy)


[odd dates are Advent-related, even dates are chocolate-related]

 Saturday, November 26, 2005

Greatest Hits Albums, 2005 (and the last time these artists released something similar)

Madness (previously released 2003) (previously released 2002) (previously released 2000) (previously released 1998) (previously released 1993) (previously released 1992) (previously released 1986)
Bob Marley & the Wailers (previously released 2003) (previously released 2001) (previously released 1991) (previously released 1984)
Supertramp (previously released 1997) (previously released 1992) (previously released 1986)
Johnny Cash (previously released 2002) (previously released 1994) (previously released 1969)
Chas'n'Dave (previously released 2001) (previously released 1999) (previously released 1995)
Blondie (previously released 2002) (previously released 1998) (previously released 1981)
Bryan Adams (previously released 1999) (previously released 1993)
Eurythmics (previously released 1999) (previously released 1991)
Dire Straits (previously released 1998) & Mark Knopfler
Slade (previously released 1997) (previously released 1991)
Michael Bolton (previously released 1995)
Mariah Carey (previously released 1998)
Take That (previously released 1996)
[Hmmm, it looks suspiciously as if a lot of these compilations are on a 6-8 year repeating cycle]

Anastacia, Blink 182, Eminem, Prodigy, Savage Garden (all 'new')

Bow Road update: Yes, I know Metronet supposedly officially completed their Bow Road station upgrade last month, but there's still been stuff going on at the station over the last few weeks (and stuff not happening too). Here's what:

One 'temporary' blue wall remains outside the station, surrounding a large area where the portakabins used to be. I hope that somebody from Metronet eventually comes back and clears away all the leftover refurbishment equipment and detritus that still litters the space behind the wall because, quite frankly, we'd like our pavement back. Soon.
The new upstairs 'next train' indicator used to be attached flat to the wall, and so was visible across the entire ticket hall. A few weeks ago workmen re-installed and re-positioned the screen so that it points towards the main entrance instead. The 'next train' can now only be viewed by people entering the station, and not by anybody else (including the station staff standing by the barriers the other end of the ticket hall). Brilliant.
The second 'next train' indicator on the eastbound platform, installed last month between pillar number 6 and pillar number 7, is now operational. However, those very same pillars block sight of the 'next train' from almost all of the rest of the platform. Brilliant.
As yet nobody has thought to install a second 'next train' indicator halfway down the westbound platform, where it would be a) visible b) much more useful. Shame.
The paving slabs across the full length of both platforms used to be a very grubby grey, but some serious chemical scrubbing has taken place and they're now a much lighter shade of gleaming grey. Brilliant, even.
The upgrade's still not worth £3.3 million.

 Friday, November 25, 2005

Here's a special message to the very select group of my readers who regularly buy me Christmas presents every year. This year, don't bother.

<Insert usual rant about over-commercialisation, rampant consumer spending and how Mary and Joseph never spent the whole of November down at the local market buying glittery tat for their new-born youngster>

Several years ago my family and I came to a mutual understanding regarding the purchase of my Christmas presents. They were never quite sure what presents I wanted so, rather than waste money on something superfluous, they set me a notional price limit and left me to go and buy presents for myself. I'd then scour the festive shelves in search of various goodies I might actually want, buy them myself, wrap the lot and stockpile them away. This simple plan avoided them the embarrassment of buying me inappropriate gifts that I didn't want, and saved me the embarrassment of having to pretend to like them. And the surprise of opening my presents on Christmas morning was still there, but just for the rest of my family, not for me. "You bought that?" "Yep, and you paid for it, thanks." Trust me, the plan worked.

But this year I may have a problem. This year I can't find any presents I actually want. This frightening realisation hit me a couple of days ago in the middle of a high street shopping mall. A visit to a bookshop usually yields results, but this year's selection of new titles looked less than impressive. Why would I want to buy any of the one-joke novelty volumes that the publishers appear to have rushed out in time for Christmas? Maybe I made a mistake buying several books back in September, but there's been precious little original stuff published since. It was much the same story in the record shop nextdoor, where I found piles of inoffensive MOR blandness and several repackaged compilations but precious little recent brilliance. Elsewhere on the high street I baulked at over-packaged toiletries and over-priced gadgets. I turned up my nose at the usual pointless festive novelties, purchased for the unfortunate by the desperate. And I disregarded countless non-urgent household items which I'll be able to buy at half price if only I can hang on for five more weeks. So I gave up trying to buy myself anything whatsoever.

I fear I may be turning into my Dad. He's always said that he'd be happy if nobody bought him anything for Christmas (which is a pity, because he's actually the easiest member of my family to buy things for). And this year, finally, I agree with him. There really is nothing I want for Christmas, and it would simply be a waste of everybody else's money if I squandered time buying myself gifts just for the sake of it. There's quite enough waste in the world already, I reckon, without me adding to that total this Christmas. Don't worry Mum, I'm still perfectly happy to traipse round the shops buying gifts that I hope everybody else in the family might like, because I'd hate to let the rest of you down. But on Christmas morning I'll be perfectly content to sit there watching the rest of you opening your presents without having any of my own in front of me. Honest. Go on, make my Day.

 Thursday, November 24, 2005

24 hour drinking

18:00 Fancy a quick drink after work?
19:00 Mmm, this is all very civilised.
20:00 Can't beat a bit of responsible drinking, can you?
21:00 Oh go on then, I'll have another, if you insist.
22:00 My round, I think.
22:55 Just time for one more before closing time...
23:00 Hang on, there is no closing time any more. Let's binge!!!!

00:00 Another twenty quid's worth of drinks please, barman.
01:00 Arsenal v Liverpool live on Sky Sports.
02:00 Police outside the pub give up waiting for people to leave and go off to fight crime instead.
03:00 Kebab shops still empty.
04:00 A few lightweight punters give up and go home.
05:00 Local residents storm round to complain about loud drunken behaviour, but then stay for a pint themselves.
06:00 Pop out to the 24 hour supermarket to buy a bottle of whisky and some nibbles.
07:00 Happy Hour. Yard of ale, only £1.99.
08:00 Breakfast time Pub Quiz.
09:00 Hell, why go to work? Go on, stay for another one.
10:00 Pub runs out of crisps, peanuts and pork scratchings.
11:00 Your breath stinks and everybody in the pub is your friend.
12:00 Number of units consumed now exceeds recommended annual total.
13:00 Liquid lunch.
14:00 Now spending almost as long at the urinal as at the bar.
15:00 Slouch under the table for a beery afternoon nap.
16:00 Schoolchildren drop in for a pint of vodka after lessons, as the country's morals continue to crumble.
17:00 It's all become a bit of a blur, to be honest.
18:00 Hic.
19:00 Drunken revellers spill out onto the pavement for a quick brawl.
20:00 Violent crime at record levels.
21:00 Hospitals at bursting point with sudden cases of unexpected chronic liver damage.
22:00 The social infrastructure of the country collapses.
23:00 Hey, it looks dangerous out there - let's stay in the pub and go round again...

 Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Silver Jubilee

There haven't been enough photographs on here lately, so I thought I'd trawl back into the archives and dig out some old ones. I've gone back to May 2004, a month I spent on a station-by-station pictorial journey down the Jubilee line (which was celebrating its 25th anniversary at the time). Except I didn't have a flickr account at the time, so you didn't get as good a view of the photos as I might have hoped. And now you can take a proper look. I've selected one photograph per station, from Stanmore to Stratford, and yes, that includes the very lovely stations on the Jubilee Line extension.

Which is your favourite photograph? I'm sort of torn between Dollis Hill, Swiss Cottage and Southwark, but if I remember rightly you preferred Baker Street.


Option 1: Silver Jubilee (photostream) click through one at a time to read the commentary
Option 2: Silver Jubilee (slideshow) just the photographs, with no added waffle

All the stations: Stanmore, Canons Park, Queensbury, Kingsbury, Wembley Park, Neasden, Dollis Hill, Willesden Green, Kilburn, West Hampstead, Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, St John's Wood, Baker Street, Bond Street, Green Park, (Charing Cross), Westminster, Waterloo, Southwark, London Bridge, Bermondsey, Canada Water, Canary Wharf, North Greenwich, Canning Town, West Ham, Stratford.

See also:
my full Silver Jubilee blog special (all on one page)
my previous attempt at a photoblog
a Jubilee line history (and extension history)
a Jubilee line route map
other people's Jubilee line photographs

 Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Product placement

Don't you just hate product placement? You're watching a film, or a show on some TV chanel, when the camera nestles slightly too long on a carefully positioned trademark or brand name. Maybe it sony a brief glimpse, or a compaq screenshot, but this sort of blatant promotion mars any good drama (no matter how nimbley executed). I hate to think armani of these sneaky hidden ads we're all subjected to over the coors of one week.

The idea of extra adverts in the gap betwixt the ad breaks is both recent and insidious. Subliminal messages can be slipped into your brain via your TV ariel while you think you're watching something else, and damaging subconscious lynx are made. And all this in the hope that we might one day shell out for some overpriced product or surf to some ad-ridden website. Does this ring any bells?

The very worst product placement is that aimed at impressionable youngsters from the age of 7 up - often the type hoo are most susceptible to peer pressure. It fosters all the wrong attitudes amongst virgin consumers. And letts not forget that these aspirational products often cost a lot of money, so poorer people can only afford them on HP. It sure hertz.

The people behind product placement are top marketing experts with a dazzling pedigree in the advertising world. They may be fantastic at their jobs and at the very top of their kraft, but they're also busy corrupting our TV series and films merely to winalot more market share and earn fastar bucks. Fairy nough you might think, but do they really think we have absolutly no intelligence?

My apologies to the more dellicate amongst you but, if I may be so bold, I reckon product placement has become a form of unnecessarily widespred bullshit. Sorry to harp on about it, but you get my dreft. So I think more people should have the courage to stand up and pledge to ban this visual spam. It's become too big an issue to igknorr and it can only get worse.

 Monday, November 21, 2005

50 75 things to do when it's very cold: chill, knit a woolly scarf, enjoy the crisp winter sunshine, discover that your central heating broke down during the summer, shiver, say "ooh, isn't it cold" to everyone you meet, get sick of people saying "ooh, isn't it cold" every time they meet you, grit the roads, wrap up warm and go out for a bracing walk, hibernate, wear a multi-coloured knitted hat with earflaps and dangly tassels, drink soup, wonder why there are still so many leaves left on the trees, slip on a cardigan, slip on an icy patch, stoke a roaring log fire, dream of spring, throw a stone into an ice-covered puddle, write a blogpost including the phrase "so much for global warming", hang some nuts out for the birds, discover that your old winter coat doesn't fit any more, discover that your old winter coat isn't in fashion any more, go for a swim in the Serpentine, catch cold, scrape the car windscreen, dress up too warmly and sweat like a pig on the tube, fill the hot water bottle, realise that many countries survive far colder weather than this without grinding to a halt, make porridge, fly south for the winter, leave footprints in the frost, remind yourself how negative numbers work, dig some mittens out of the back of a drawer, shrivel, wait for the Thames to freeze over, check on an elderly neighbour, book a summer holiday somewhere warm, lose feeling in your toes, snuggle under the duvet, lag your pipes, go stargazing, get your sledge ready, give thanks you're not homeless, help the homeless, cuddle a radiator, realise that this is just an autumn cold snap and that it gets much colder later in the winter, go to the park and take pictures of the mist, discover you can't take pictures while wearing gloves, lose feeling in your nose, smile as your breath makes a smoke signal in the air, buy candles, see how many jumpers you can wear at once, flick through the Damart catalogue, cook an enormous stew, use that clingfilmish stuff to double glaze draughty windows, nab the fireside table in the pub, toast marshmallows, stick the winter duvet on the bed, clap your hands together in an attempt to warm them up, wear clothes in layers, marvel at the long silhouettes cast by the low winter sun, hit the snooze button one more time, drink a cup of steaming hot chocolate with cream on top, realise you've lost one of your gloves, pay double the normal price to get your car's anti-freeze topped up, put your wellies on and jump in frozen puddles, wish you'd bought some thermal socks, stop gardening, drink mulled wine, walk around the house wrapped in a duvet, book your summer holiday, discusss the merits of de-icer over a kettleful of boiling water, go to a (temporary) outdoor ice-rink, buy lip balm, run a big hot bath.

I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here: It's back. Ten orange-tanned C-list celebs camping out in the Australian suburbs for a fortnight, throwing tantrums and enduring a locust diet in order to boost ITV's ratings in the crucial pre-Christmas period. Samantha Fox and John Prescott seemed particularly disturbed by the shark-infested scuba dive, while Andi Peters and Carol Vorderman clearly didn't enjoy being buried up to their neck in kangaroo dung. Sarah Ferguson devoured that grasshopper with rather too much gusto, I thought, but the snake who crept into Wayne Rooney's bed looked even less appetising. The cameras missed no opportunity to zoom in on that Page 3 model whose name I forget, although it was the bloke from the failed boyband who let slip rather more than he expected in the secret dunnycam shot. As for the late night campfire argument, it was good to see Simon Cowell getting as good as he gives - well done Dame Judi! All this and the tables turned on Ant and Dec in their first ever maggot-munching bushtucker trial too. How can a nation resist?

 Sunday, November 20, 2005

Screen 4: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (12A)

What do you mean, you've not seen it yet? There again, the book's been out for five years and I'd never bothered to read that. Wouldn't want to spoil the suspense of seeing the film version for the first time, would I?

It's action action (nearly) all the way in the new Harry Potter film, which has a rather darker tone than the previous episodes in the canon. Director Mike Newell clearly faced quite a challenge to condense 636 Pottery pages into 157 minutes of celluloid, and the screenplay therefore rattles along with barely a wasted scene. No comedy kickoff at the Dursleys, no dashing around in the magical backstreets of London, very little boarding school japery and, most surprisingly of all, not a single Quidditch match played.

The main plot of the film concerns the highly improbable 'Triwizard Tournament' - much like a normal school exchange visit except that these foreign stereotypes (giggly French schoolgirls and close-cropped Bulgarian meatheads) come to stay for a year rather than a fortnight. But Hogwarts seems rather a long way to travel merely for three brief challenges spaced out at three month intervals, particularly given that only one champion per school takes part in the events. The first dragon-baiting task is the most spectacular, complete with aerial broomstick battle, while the ensuing underwater treasure hunt is a bit wet and the final 'killer hedge maze' rather a letdown.

JK Rowling nods at events in our muggle world with the inclusion of a terrorist attack at an international sporting extravaganza and also the appearance of a particularly slimy journalist, played with aplomb by Miranda Richardson. In fact you can spend much of the film spotting famous British actors, like Barry from Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Miss Jones from Rising Damp, Owen from the Vicar of Dibley and even Hattie Jacques' sitcom brother. And heavens if that isn't the brand new Doctor Who lurking in the shadows (oh, and if you didn't see the Time Lord's post-regeneration mini-drama on Children In Need on Friday, do watch it here because you missed a treat).

But the most enjoyable part of the film, unexpectedly, was the romantic interlude. Adolescent stirrings bubble to the surface for the first time when everyone has to choose a dancing partner for the Yule Ball. The event may be an emotional disaster, but the endearingly gauche reactions of the three main characters had our audience entranced. All in all a highly enjoyable cinematic experience, in which Harry comes of age and the film franchise reaches its halfway point. Expect the next episode in 2007, by which time (who knows) JK Rowling may just have got around to revealing how the whole thing ends.

 Saturday, November 19, 2005

Homeland security

I arrived home yesterday evening, unlocked the front door of the block where I live and pushed open the door to the tiny mailroom just inside the entrance. There was no genuine mail in my letterbox, as usual, but lying on the floor of my box I discovered a brand new key. It was big and shiny, one of those long tubular metal keys with a thin metal prong at one end, and attached to a cheap plastic key fob of the sort you can buy in bulk at any local market. I wasn't expecting to receive a new key, and so was mystified as to which door it might open. Maybe it was for the main entrance, although I'd expect the door out onto the street to be secured by something a little more resilient. Maybe it was for my own front door, although if someone had come along to change my locks I'd have hoped to have been informed first. Or maybe it was for my mailbox, although the key looked more suited to a pirate's treasure chest than to a small wooden receptacle stuffed with junkmail and pizza delivery leaflets. Hmm.

I'd arrived home at the same time as another resident, and she too discovered a similar giant key in her mailbox. She thought for a while, and then wondered whether this might be connected to the recent spate of mailbox thefts in our block. Or at least she said she'd once had a package ripped open, its contents stolen and the empty envelope left lying on the mailroom floor. You can't access our mailroom from the street, so this terrible crime must have been perpetrated by one of the block's residents. How awful not to be able to trust even one's own neighbours. So we had a look around and checked the door leading from the entrance lobby into the mailroom and yes, sure enough, a brand new keyhole had been drilled into the wood. The hole was a little low, I thought, unless you were one of the many dwarves who might be moving into our block at some point in the near future. But the new key fitted the new hole, so it was clearly somebody's intention that our mailroom become lockable.

My first concern was that the lock on the mailroom door had no clear 'start date'. We could have locked the door on our way out, but that would have prevented any other residents who'd not yet checked their mail from entering the room to collect their new key. Would it be safe to lock the mailroom tomorrow? Probably not. How about Monday? Maybe, but still maybe not. Something here felt a little under-thought-out. And then it struck me how pointless this new security measure really is. If the recent mailbox thefts really had been carried out by a resident, then what was the point of locking the door and giving every resident a key. If that person still wants to force open another mailbox and rip open another package while they're checking their own mail, then they still can. Brilliant.

No doubt somebody, somewhere in our management company is feeling very smug. A security issue has arisen and they've taken what they think is firm decisive action to stamp it out. Except they haven't. All they've done is to placate a minority of short-sighted outspoken residents by inconveniencing the rest of us. Now every time I want to check my mail I need two keys, one to the mailroom and one to my box. The additional lock is badly placed and cumbersome, which will waste hours of my time over the next few years. I now have to carry this stonking great key around with me everywhere I go, weighing me down and burning a hole in my pocket. Worst of all, none of this extra hassle actually protects my mail, which was the supposed point of introducing this measure in the first place.

I'm sure this dull parochial tale is of no interest whatsoever to the rest of you. But I tell my story because it reminds me of the current UK political debate about . These kneejerk measures may sound like a good idea at face value, and they may help certain gullible members of the public to feel safer, but their practical impact is more negative than positive. Any capable criminal can easily find a way to bypass each of them () while the rest of us just have our civil liberties ratcheted down another notch. In protest, every time I find my mailroom locked I'm considering accidentally forgetting to lock the door again on my way out. It may only be a small act of defiance, but it's the least I can do. And, if anybody ever writes to me to complain, I shall of course claim never to have received the letter.

 Friday, November 18, 2005

The Friday puzzle (medium)
Six three-digit numbers fit together (across & down) in the grid below.
Five of those numbers are: 252, 527, 552, 725, 727.
What's the sixth number?

[Please don't stick the answer in the comments box, but do tell us how you get on]

The Friday prize puzzle (hard)
Eight four-digit numbers fit together in the grid below.
Seven of those numbers are: 3833, 4383, 4388, 4434, 4438, 8443, 8483.
What's the eighth number?

[Please don't stick the answer in the comments box, but if you email me the solution by midnight, I'll give you and your website a namecheck here later]

Correct solutions received from... (congratulations)...
Forest Pines
• (The Gospel according to) Rhys
Rick Parsons
Peter Howard
• (Clear Blue Skies) Dave

 Thursday, November 17, 2005

Little Britain (a clicky clicky guide)

Third series begins tonight (BBC1, 9pm)
official BBC website
(very detailed) reports from those in the audience at the recordings
the complete guide to series three
some photos and press info

A few characters
First series: Marjorie Dawes (dust, anybody?), Ray McConney (yeeee-ees), Daffyd Thomas (I'm the only gay in the village), Dame Sally Markham (how many pages?), Emily Howard (I am a laaaady), Lou and Andy (what a kerfuffle), Kenny Craig (look into my eyes), Anne (eh eh ehh), Dennis Waterman (write the theme toon, sing the theme toon), Vicky Pollard (yeah but no but yeah), Sebastian Love (whatevah!).
Second series: Bubbles De Vere (call me Bubbles, darling), Harvey Pincher (bitty!), Carol Beer (computer says no), Judy and Maggie (who made this?), Florence (I am also a lady), Mr. Mann (I would like to purchase...), Linda (how can I describe him?), Viv Tudor (ooh, he was gorgeous).
Third series: Desiree, Dudley and Ting Tong, Orville, Pat and Don, Sid Pegg, Sir Norman Fry MP, Mrs Emery, Letty, Leonard and Alan.
character guide

Llanddewi Brefi
the real Llanddewi Brefi (between Lampeter and Aberystwyth)
daily life in Llanddewi Brefi
"Legend states that Saint David, the patron saint of Wales, lived in the village and it is named after him; "Llan" referring in Welsh place names to a church or holy place and "ddewi" being a Welsh variant of the name David (or, in the more usual Welsh version, Dafydd, pronounced "Da-vith")"
Sold in the village shop: t-shirts with slogan 'Nid Daffyd yw'r unig hoyw yn Llanddewi Brefi' (Daffyd isn't the only gay in the village); book of five circular walks (£3)
Not sold in the village shop: Gay Times

Assorted links
complete sketch guide to series one and two
Littler Britain - the lookalikes
Little Britain - the UK tour
Tom Baker (tonight's BBC1 continuity announcer)
all about David and Matt
Lou and Andy platform game (new on the BBC website)

Little Britain, EC1
My report from Little Britain, a little street in the City
The story of Postman's Park

Things we learnt yesterday...
• Some bloggers will never ever have ads on their site
• Some bloggers see no problem in having ads on their site
• Some readers really don't care one way or the other
• Blogads pay peanuts, unless you're really big (which you're not)

 Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Ad 'em up

On Monday I (no, we) received an email purporting to be from a woman called Sally. I won't dignify Sally by mentioning (or linking to) the merchandising company she works for, because I reckon her email was probably carefully-targeted spam. But Sally wondered whether, perhaps, it might be a natural step for me to corrupt my blog by entering "the ever-dynamic world of online marketing". Sally's an "Affiliate Marketing Manager", you see. According to Sally, "affiliate programmes are the small operator's tool of choice". Or in other words, why not climb on board now and make money out of the more stupid members of your readership. According to Sally, adverts "provide a valuable service for site visitors". Or in other words they're the perfect exit strategy for misdirected readers who've Googled their way to my site by mistake. According to Sally, online adverts "can even add an aesthetic element to the page". Or in other words, she reckons my site could do with tarting up to provide a dollar-driven visual experience. And most importantly, according to Sally, now is the perfect time to get involved in "seasonal affiliate marketing". Or in other words, let's all screw Christmas until it squeaks.

Irrelevant US political website
Why don't you click on this parochial and obsessive online nonsense?
Pink PR puffery
A string of press releases dressed up as a pink girly blog full of posh shopping tips
Jamster club: Crazy Frog!!!!
Get this crazy sound and ride with the frog each time you get a call!
Amazon sell books & CDs
And I know you know already, but I get commission if you click here, OK?

I despair at the continuing creep of the mighty blogad. This feeling is especially strong on days when I log in to what used to be a nice homely blog with quality content, only to find that it's mutated overnight into a tacky cheapened blog with 80% quality content and 20% ugly advertising. Up below the blog title, look, there's a row of Google-based text ads related vaguely to the content of recent posts. Halfway down the screen there's an intrusive advertising panel which (scroll scroll scroll) interrupts the flow of the page. Over there in the sidebar, high above the original blogroll, there's a distracting animated rectangle linking to some distant and irrelevant site about lipstick or car loans or something foreign. Somewhere high up, probably in the zone of greatest click-through profitability, the page is blighted by a series of finely-tuned 'sponsored links'. And, lurking off to one side, some whizzy Flash-based graphic has added invaluable extra seconds to the time it's taken this newly ad-infested website to download. According to Sally, this is the future.

Now, I'm not here to name and shame any individual ad-bloggers out there, because incorporating adverts into one's own website is a matter of personal choice. If you want to earn a bit of money as a reward for your writing, then good for you. And if the adverts you display are for your own merchandise or for a book to which you've contributed, then that's great. But I'm saddened every time another blogger succumbs to the lure of effortless conscience-free blogad cash. A newly ad-splattered website both feels and looks cheaper than the pre-ad original, and all for a meagre monthly income. It's like watching a favourite programme on Sky, only to find that it's been ruthlessly sliced up into incoherent segments to make way for unyielding commercial breaks.

Rest assured that I have no intention of abdicating responsibility for my own blog's content. I shan't be violating my integrity just to have some nasty adverts shoved where the research says they'll have the greatest visual impact. I want the links on my website to be those that I choose, not links that a commercial robot has chosen on my behalf without my consent. If for some reason I choose to write about laminate flooring, for example, then I don't want a row of cheap adverts for laminate flooring suppliers cluttering up my website for days to come. I'm not out to earn pin money from poor misguided readers who'd rather click on my adverts than read what I have to say. In short I want editorial control, not a paltry income and diminished respect from my regular readers. And I'm delighted to see that the great majority of the blogs I read still choose to operate in the same profit-free environment. Sorry Sally, but you'll have to look elsewhere.

 Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Silver discs (November 1980)
A monthly look back at the top singles of 25 years ago

The three best records from the Top 10 (11th November 1980)
Bad Manners - Special Brew: Classy it wasn't but, like the can of cheap lager that provided the lyrical inspiration, this was a fizzy, slightly acidic mouthful with mass market appeal. It's easy to forget how big ska was at the time - even Blondie had a ska cover version at number 1 at the time. Bad Manners were most famous for their fat bald frontman Buster Bloodvessel (known to his Mum as Douglas Trindle), back in the days when being morbidly obese was still a laughing matter. But Buster's slimmed down a bit since, following major surgery for a strangulated hernia a few years ago, and now (sob) weighs less than me. There again, I haven't had two-thirds of my stomach removed.
"I love you, yes I do, 'cos I know that you love me too. I love you, yes I do, gonna spend all my money on you. I don't care, when they stare, at the way that I'm always with you. We're a pair, it's not fair when they say we're a special brew!"
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark - Enola Gay: "Tell you what, let's write a song about possibly the biggest act of mass murder in human history." "Yeah, but we'll name it after the plane that dropped the bomb, which itself was named after the pilot's mother." "And we'll make the song really catchy so that schoolboys don't feel embarrassed about going into a record shop and asking for a single with the word 'gay' in the title." "You know, I think there's every chance these synthesiser things might just catch on."
"It's 8:15, and that's the time that it's always been. We got your message on the radio, conditions normal and you're coming home. Enola Gay, is mother proud of little boy today? This kiss you give, it's never going to fade away"
Adam And The Ants - Dog Eat Dog: I first heard this song while sat in the back of my parents' old Renault 5, waiting for my brother to emerge from a dental check-up. Even from the opening bars I knew that the tribal drums signalled the start of something special. As it turned out, this song provided the first big hint that 80s popular music was going to be to be very different from the simpler 70s. OK, so the Ants were just a failed punk combo reinventing themselves in the pantomime traditions of the Glitter Band, but this was new, this was exciting, and this was the future. More importantly, this was before before all that white stripy facepaint and fancy dress got too commercial, back when Antmusic was cool.
"You may not like the things we do, only idiots ignore the truth. It's easy to lay down and hide, where's the warrior without his pride?"

My three favourite records from November 1980 (at the time)
Spandau Ballet - To Cut A Long Story Short: It would be an understatement to say that I adored this record. In fact I was completely hooked well before the Kemp brothers & Co had even nibbled at the lower reaches of the Top 40. When Peter Powell played four up-front Spandau session tracks on his show one week, I recorded the full set off the radio onto a cheap cassette tape and replayed them all incessantly (sorry Mum). Here was the underground movement of New Romanticism rearing its well-groomed head in public for the first time, ushering in a strange new era of lipstick, androgeny and over-dressing. Thankfully I restricted my interest to the music, never once turning up at home wearing a kilt and a frilly shirt (for which I suspect my Mum remains eternally grateful).
"Sitting on a park bench, years away from fighting, to cut a long story short I lost my mind."
Devo - Whip It: I couldn't see Devo on the radio, so I never noticed that they were a quintet of mad Americans wearing red plastic buckets on their heads. But this is probably a good thing because I just really liked this quirky record, whereas other addicts from back then are probably still busy tring to buy a genuine energy dome on eBay.
"When a problem comes along you must whip it. Before the cream sits out too long you must whip it. When something's going wrong you must whip it, whip it good"
Split Enz - Nobody Takes Me Seriously Anyway: This New Zealand band may be far more well known for their gorgeous love song I Got You but, as a spotty adolescent back in 1980, I related far more to the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of this particular gem.
"If war broke out I'd be the last one to know, if there was a fire they'd just leave me to burn. I've got just as much to say as any man but I never seem to get my turn"

15 other hits from 25 years ago: The Tide Is High (Blondie), Ace of Spades (Motorhead), I Could Be So Good For You (Dennis Waterman), I'm Coming Out (Diana Ross), What You're Proposing (Status Quo), Never Knew Love Like This Before (Stephanie Mills), Loving's Just For Fun (Kelly Marie), One Man Woman (Sheena Easton), Fashion (David Bowie), The Earth Dies Screaming (UB40), The Same Old Scene (Roxy Music), Passion (Rod Stewart), Bougie Bougie (Gladys Knight), Don't Walk Away (ELO), Kiss On My List (Hall and Oates) ...which one would you pick?

 Monday, November 14, 2005

London's shortest place names
3: Bow, Ham, Kew, Lee
4: Hook, Nash, Soho
5: Acton, Cheam, Downe, Erith, Hayes, Penge, Upton
6: Arkley, Balham, Barnes, Barnet, Bexley, Camden, Cowley, Cudham, Ealing, Eltham, Fulham, Harrow, Hatton, Hendon, Heston, Hoxton, Ilford, Kenley, Kenton, Leyton, London, Malden, Merton, Morden, Newham, Osidge, Poplar, Pinner, Purley, Putney, Sidcup, Sipson, Sutton, Waddon
(n.b. I'm not allowing places which exist only as station names, eg Angel, Bank, Oval)
List updated. Have we missed any real shorties?

London's longest (one word) place names
11: Barkingside, Bexleyheath, Brondesbury, Chessington, Chislehurst, Clerkenwell, Cockfosters, Cricklewood, Edgwarebury, Freezywater, Gunnersbury, Hammersmith, Leytonstone, Locksbottom, Pentonville, Rotherhithe, Sanderstead, Snaresbrook, Southfields, Walthamstow, Westminster, Whitechapel
12: Southborough, Spitalfields
13: Harmondsworth, Knightsbridge
List updated. Have we missed any big long 'uns?

 Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Lord Mayor's Show

An English village show is always a quaint, traditional occasion, usually involving the local school orchestra and the anointing of a carnival queen who parades around the streets on the back of a lorry. The Lord Mayor's Show is very similar, except that the event is held in honour of a portly old bloke in a red cloak who parades around the streets in a horse-drawn gold coach. Welcome to the City of London's grandest day out.

The Lord Mayor's Show takes place every year on the second Saturday in November. The event has an uninterrupted history stretching back 790 years, which is bloody impressive really, even if all that happens is that the new Lord Mayor rides up to the City of Westminster to pay his respects to the sovereign and then rides home again. But the whole journey is wrapped up in such pomp and spectacle that half a million people turn out to line the route, nearly two miles in total from the Guildhall to Temple and back again. And I'd never been before, and the weather was nice, so I thought I'd go along. I gave the outward leg past St Paul's Cathedral a miss and took up position instead down on the Embankment near Blackfriars, just behind a group of conveniently short cub scouts.

The parade is organised with military precision, taking precisely one hour and five minutes to pass each point along the route. Maybe that's why most of the participants appeared to have military connections, from mounted soldiers to bearskinned bandsmen. In fact if they'd withdrawn everybody who kills for a living from the parade, the whole event would have been considerably shorter. I was struck by the wide variety of historical fashion that passes for modern military uniform, and also noted that there appear to be some really lardy seamen in the navy these days. The event was an aural feast for everyone who relishes the three-note melodies of military band music. Every couple of minutes another crack team of cornets (or flutes or trumpets or accordions or big silver glockenspiels) strode past, competing to be heard above the sea shanties and other traditional tunes playing out to front and rear. Young musicians in over-sized uniforms performed like true professionals. Percussionists held their drumsticks high, like split-second moustaches. Buglers carefully sidestepped a suspicious puddle which had recently erupted from the underbelly of a large stallion. And hey, where else could you hear the Isle of Sheppey St John Ambulance Band and the Romford Drum & Trumpet Corps? It's unique stuff, this.

Whereas village shows usually feature a succession of floats organised by car dealers, an old people's home and the local sea cadets, the Lord Mayor's Show always manages something a little more exclusive. Many of the participants seemed to be celebrating centenaries this year - the Rotary Club and the AA, for example - or were in some way connected to the Lord Mayor himself. Charlie Dimmock and Michael Aspel were on the back of one charity's float, allegedly, although they were all dressed up for the Mad Hatter's Tea Party so I didn't recognise either of them. Some of the organisations taking part were just plain obscure, like the Old Bailey Judges Golfing Society (seen beaming from a vintage vehicle). There were also a couple of public schools blatantly touting for business, some sick animals in search of a home, and even a camel called Therese (honest).

Much of the rest of the parade was taken up with City types. That's not the financial institutions (although a few were represented) but the archaic civic hierarchy of Guilds, Livery Companies and Aldermen. There are 107 Livery Companies recognised by the City, but only a few got to take part in this year's procession. The new Lord Mayor is a member of the Merchant Taylors, so they got a float, as did the equally medieval Blacksmiths, Pewterers and Leathersellers. The Distillers looked to be having a whale of a time on the back of their lorry (hic) while the Woolmen were probably regretting dressing up as yokels and shepherdesses for the day. But there were also some rather more unlikely guildsmen parading up and down in swirling cloaks and big floppy hats, because it seems any modern profession can be incorporated as a Livery Company these days. All hail the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers and (most recent of all) the Worshipful Company of Tax Advisers, not to mention a crowd of caped businessmen representing Management Consultants, Lightmongers and Information Technologists. Maybe next year we'll get Baristas, Clampers and Minimum Wage Cleaning Operatives.

Near the end of the procession I spotted the Pageantmaster - not a new Harry Potter character but the man responsible for organising all 64 floats and 5261 participants into one clockwork procession. He stood proud in his open carriage, beaming like a victorious army general, resplendent beneath a black feathery hat. And finally came David Brewer (the City of London's seven hundred and something-th Lord Mayor) in a gleaming gold coach pulled by five great shire horses. He waved his black-fringed tricorn hat out of the window at the passing crowds, evidently enjoying every second of this very special autumn afternoon, before heading sedately onwards towards Mansion House. David has a busy year ahead, acting as the City's ambassador at home and abroad, hosting big banquets and raising money for his nominated charity. Sounds like Dick Whittington had it easy.

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bletchley park
george orwell
big breakfast
clapton pond
san francisco
children's tv
east enders
trunk roads
little britain
credit cards
jury service
big brother
jubilee line
number 1s
titan arum
doctor who
blue peter
peter pan
feng shui
leap year
bbc three
vision on
ID cards