diamond geezer

 Friday, March 31, 2006

How the enforced introduction of Identity Cards will work

Scene 1: The date is March 31st 2010. Doris Wilkins is walking to the shops to spend her pension. A police officer helps her across the road.
Doris: Ooh thank you kind sir.
Police officer: That's no problem Mrs er.... what's your name, madam?
Doris: It's Doris. Doris Wilkins.
Police officer: Can you prove that, madam?
Doris: What do you mean, prove it? I've always been Doris ever since I was born. My name's Doris Wilkins and I live over there at number 37.
Police officer: I'm sorry madam, but that's not good enough any more. Do you have an ID card?
Doris: No I don't. I don't need a passport these days, I only ever go as far as Penzance for the bingo now.
Police officer: I'm sorry madam, but I'm going to have to insist that you get yourself an ID card. We can't be too careful you know, what with terrorists on the loose, illegal immigrants in every port and benefit cheats at every turn.
Doris: But I don't need an ID card, I know who I am already. I don't have dementia or anything.
Police officer: I'm sorry madam, but you need to apply for one as soon as possible. We can't have ambiguous unidentified citizens walking the streets, can we? Imagine the threat to society that you're creating.
Doris: You're joking, obviously.
Police officer: Not at all madam. The Government voted this in four years ago. Don't worry, you can apply online.
Doris: My nephew has that interweb thing, but he lives in Newcastle.
Police officer: Don't worry madam, I have a pile of paper forms here. Just fill one in and pop along to your local passport office, will you?

Scene 2: The date is April 1st 2010. Doris Wilkins has been waiting at her local passport office for several hours. An Identity Confirmation Officer summons her to the admin booth.
Clerk: Bore Da!
Doris: Don't you talk your funny Welsh at me young lady. Do you know how long it's taken me to get here from Cornwall?
Clerk: I'm sorry madam, but Newport is your closest 'Identity and Passport Office'. Now, could you just stare into this camera while I take your photograph?
Doris: But I haven't had my hair done since last week, and I look a mess.
Clerk: Never mind, madam. And make sure you don't smile. Our multi-million pound computer system can't cope properly if you smile.
Doris: I'm not bloody smiling after that train journey.
Clerk: Thank you. Now if I could just take your fingerprints...
Doris: What do you mean, fingerprints? Who do you think I am, some evil criminal?
Clerk: Well I can't be certain yet, madam. You haven't been verified.
Doris: This is a diabolical liberty, this is. I was in the RAF in the war, you know.
Clerk: Maybe you were, madam. Now, can I have your payment please? That'll be 133 euros with a biometric passport, or 43 euros without.
Doris: What's that in old money? Anyway, I don't have any cash left, I spent it all on that rip-off of a Virgin train service trying to get here.
Clerk: Never mind madam, we can deduct the requisite payment from your pension. Now, the only other thing I need is to see some verification of your identity. We need to be able to prove that you are who you say you are before we can issue you with your card.
Doris: I've got my bingo membership certificate here if that helps.
Clerk: I'm sorry madam, we'll need something better than that. Do you have an ID card?

 Thursday, March 30, 2006

A very stern message from the Blue Peter team

Hello children everywhere. Do you have a Blue Peter badge? Oh good. They're lovely aren't they? Big and white and rubbery with a lovely ship on the front. But is yours a genuine Blue Peter badge obtained through the correct channels? We hope so. Because we've heard that certain naughty people have been obtaining Blue Peter badges by nefarious means like buying and selling them on eBay. Honestly! And then going along to major UK attractions like Hampton Court and Edinburgh Zoo and demanding free admission. Tut. We're very disappointed with you all.

There are several official ways to obtain a genuine Blue Peter badge:
• Write us a letter, preferably in wax crayon so it reassures us that you're six years old. Tell us about your rabbit, or write a poem about raindrops, or outline an idea you've had to save the planet by recycling bottletops. You can even apply online these days, just in case you've forgotten how to hold a pen.
• Enter one of our exciting competitions (for bike safety or something equally worthy) and win a prize. A picture of a puppy painted in non-lifelike primary colours usually swings it.
• Do something really really brave, like setting fire to your house and then single-handedly rescuing a small kitten by fighting through the flames. We can give you a gold Blue Peter badge for that (and your kitten might get one too).

However, we've been made aware of several unofficial ways to obtain a genuine Blue Peter badge:
• Bid for an unwanted badge on eBay. Pah! We send these badges out for free, and you're flogging them on the internet for up to £70. How could you? It's little more than online prostitution.
• Mug a small child at knifepoint as they approach the gates of Blenheim Palace proudly wearing their competition winner's badge.
• Trash the Blue Peter Garden by breaking in overnight and throwing the tortoise into the goldfish pond, then sending an schmaltzy email to the programme saying "I woz shocked it is awful I hope you catch the bastards wot dunnit".

And we've been disturbed to hear of several ways to create a fake Blue Peter badge:
• Make your own badge using a cereal packet, a squeezy bottle, a safety pin and some sticky-back plastic. Everybody has some sticky-back plastic lying around in a drawer at the back of the garage, don't they? But make sure you ask an adult to help you with the safety pin.
• Find yourself a small boat, preferably one with billowy sails, and stick it to a large piece of MDF. It might fool the myopic bloke at the Warwick Castle ticket kiosk if you're lucky.
• Get a qualified tattooist to ink the Blue Peter ship onto your lapel (n.b. logo may not appear genuine when you reach pensionable age).

It's become clear to us that this appalling situation cannot continue. We've taken firm action and have withdrawn all privileges for Blue Peter badgeholders forthwith. Yes we know the Easter holidays are coming up but bad luck, you're all now going to have to pay full price to get into Legoland and Woburn Safari Park. Serves you right.

Obviously the long term solution is to introduce Blue Peter ID cards. Every time a child sends us a letter we'll ask them to attach full biometric details including a strand of their hair and a passport sized photo showing distinguishing facial features. Initially this will be optional, but from 2007 BPID cards will be issued to every child in the country alongside the annual television license. Rest assured that this is in no way an invasion of children's privacy. Neither is this an over-bureaucratic over-reaction to a minor security issue. This is about stopping greedy middle-class families from gaining free admittance to the London Eye. This is about freedom. And later on this is about us selling all your information to the Home Office. They're still trying to create a national identity database by stealth, but here's one we made earlier.

We're Blue Peter, and we're still very cross.

 Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Yesterday I offered you this Deal or No Deal situation (lifted from Monday's show) and asked what you'd do.
[£5] [£50] [£100] [£750] [£5000] [£20000] [£35000] [£250000]

180 of you responded, thanks. Here are the results:
Banker's Offer £3500: 7% deal, 93% no deal
Banker's Offer £7000: 24% deal, 76% no deal
Banker's Offer £17000: 66% deal, 34% no deal
Banker's Offer £33000: 91% deal, 9% no deal

Only a handful of you would cave in and deal at £3500. A quarter of you would be willing to accept £7000. Two thirds of you would be happy to walk away with £17000. And almost all of you would accept £33000 and continue no further. By the looks of it, the knife-edge Banker's offer which would split you down the middle comes in at just over £10000. Which is very interesting. And very wrong of you.

Look at those eight amounts of money again. Two of them are very big but one, the quarter of a million, is absolutely huge. Numerically, the £250000 box dominates the list. It's worth more than four times as much as all the other boxes put together. Receiving a cheque for that amount of money would transform your life... and there's a one in eight chance that the £250000 is in your box. Those may not sound like great odds, but when before in your life has anybody ever offered you a one in eight chance of winning quarter of a million pounds. Nobody ever will again. Isn't it worth the risk?

Well maybe not. Every Deal or No Deal player has a certain notional amount of money they'd not be prepared to throw away. An amount which would make a big difference to their life and pay off a debt or three. An amount they'd not be prepared to gamble with, because the promise of 'cash-in-hand' is much stronger the risk of the unknown. Once the Banker's offer hits this magic amount then contestants cave in and stop. For some it's as little as £3500. For many (as we've seen) it's about £10000. Most people succumb once the offer rises into five figures. And that's great news for the Banker, because it means that (on average) people stop too early. Much too early.

Consider those boxes again. The eight amounts of money add up to a massive £310000. Divide that total by eight and your average expected winnings are approximately £39000. If the Banker was being perfectly fair, he should be offering you £39000 to stop. But he doesn't need to, because he knows that you have no concept of theoretical probability and you'll stop for less. Much less in fact. Most of you would stop for £17000, which is less than half what you deserve. Almost all of you would stop for £33000, and even that's below the statistical average. In reality, on Monday's Deal or No Deal, the Banker offered a paltry £7000 in this situation. And that's less than 20% of the expected winnings. Pitiful. Monday's contestant carried on, but according to my survey a quarter of you would have stopped, swindled.

And there's more to your delusion. Here again is the position the game is at: £5 £50 £100 £750 £5000 £20000 £35000 £250000 The next stage is to open three of these boxes, leaving just five. Sounds dead risky doesn't it? What if the big numbers are revealed? There's a 50-50 chance that the next round of box-opening will wipe out more reds than blues, and that would leave you in a worse position. Or so you'd think. You'd be wrong.

There are 56 different possible ways that the game could proceed. One would be to open £5, £50 and £100, which would be fantastic. Another would be to open £20000, £35000 and £250000, which would be a disaster. And there are 54 other possibilities inbetween. It's counter-intuitive, but you are nearly twice as likely to keep the £250000 box as you are to lose it. 64% of the time the big number stays. And if the £250000 stays, then your expected winnings (now averaged over just five boxes) must increase. Which means you can expect a better banker's offer after the next round two thirds of the time. You'd be a fool not to go on.

Except, as we know, chance is unfair. The Banker plays this game every day, so things average out. You only get to play ONCE. You can't necessarily afford to take risks. You're just as likely to have the five pounds in your box as the quarter of a million. Opening more boxes is a risky strategy, whereas a banker's offer is a dead cert. Keep going and that potential fortune could slip oh so easily through your fingers in seconds, because dreams can vanish if you push your luck too far. Most people placed in this situation are stubbornly risk-averse, and that's the reason why nobody on the programme has yet won the £250000. Six contestants have had the correct box in front of them, but none has been willing to progress far enough to open it. The show's producers are laughing all the way to the Bank. And we're still watching, because human fallibility makes the best television of all.

Deal Or No Deal - blog
Deal or No Deal - play the UK version online
Deal or No Deal - discuss each UK show (with full stats)
Deal or No Deal - facts and trivia
Deal or No Deal - check the statistics as each game progresses
Deal or No Deal - strategy
Deal Or No Deal - half-arsed maths
Deal Or No Deal - serious maths (35 page pdf)

Total Eclipse - 29th March 2006
This morning. Starts 08:34 GMT (in Brazil), ends 11:48 GMT (in Mongolia)
Where? Visible as a total eclipse across parts of West Africa (from Ghana to Libya), Turkey, Southern Russia and Kazakhstan. You almost certainly don't live beneath the path of totality.
How long for? Maximum eclipse (in Libya) lasts 4 minutes 7 seconds, just after 10am GMT
Can you show me an animated map? Certainly. Fab, isn't it?
Can you show me some 2006 eclipse weblinks? Sure. Here are several.
What will I see from America or Australia? Nothing. It's night time.
What will I see from London? A feeble partial eclipse covering no more than 17% of the Sun's disc (see illustration top right). Starts 10:45 BST, maximum 11:33, finishes 12:22 (see animated graphic)
When can I next see a bigger eclipse from London? 20th March 2015 (84% obscured)
When can I next see a total eclipse from London? 14th June 2151 (bad luck, you won't see it)

 Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A quarter of a million pounds, 22 identical sealed boxes and no questions... except one... Deal or No Deal?

You must have watched it by now. Deal or No Deal is an unlikely TV blockbuster, a game show based on luck which requires (almost) no skill to play. It's revived Noel Edmonds' career and it's put a huge smile on the faces of Channel 4 bosses.

Here's how it works:
• Before the game starts, 22 players each select a different box numbered from 1 to 22
• Sealed inside each box is a different amount of money, as follows: 1p 10p 50p £1 £5 £10 £50 £100 £250 £500 £750 £1000 £3000 £5000 £10000 £15000 £20000 £35000 £50000 £75000 £100000 £250000
• One player is selected at random and brings their box to the central table.
• One by one each of the remaining 21 boxes is opened, five at first, the rest in groups of three.
• At the end of each round a shadowy telephone presence called the Banker offers a certain amount of money. The contestant then has to decide whether to stop (deal) or continue (no deal).
• If the contestant refuses all of the banker's deals, they open their box and walk away with the contents.

Which all sounds a bit dull, doesn't it? It's 100% chance. The contestant has absolutely no way of working out how much money is in their box, they can only narrow down the options as the remaining boxes are opened. The show is full of people wittering on about 'luck' and attempting to read some pattern into the unpredictable. All drivel. But what do you know, it works.

Still not convinced? You can have a go at playing the American version of the game online here or here. Or you can read a UK fan's in-depth blog here. I'm not claiming that Deal or No Deal is the best television going. It's not worth staying off work for, for example, but it is miles better than Ready Steady Cook. And Noel's up for a Bafta, so the programme must have something going for it.

Every show is different because the random revelations play out in a different order each day. Every show is dramatic because host Noel Edmonds manages to coerce emotion out of every situation (yes, I know, who'd have thought?). And every show is fascinating because the contestants blunder about willy-nilly with absolutely no concept of theoretical probability whatsoever. They don't understand when to stop and when to continue. They're just interested in rubbing their lucky charms and opening box 17 anyway because it was Auntie Bessie's birthday.

 So, here's an example from midway through yesterday's game...
There are eight boxes left unopened. Eight amounts still to be revealed. One of them is yours.
Remaining amounts: £5 £50 £100 £750 £5000 £20000 £35000 £250000

The phone rings. Here's what the banker might offer.
What would you do in each case? (please give four answers)
Take the money, or carry on and open three more boxes?

 Deal, or No Deal? 

1. The banker offers £3500. Deal or No Deal?   
Deal No Deal
2. The banker offers £7000. Deal or No Deal?   
Deal No Deal
3. The banker offers £17000. Deal or No Deal?   
Deal No Deal
4. The banker offers £33000. Deal or No Deal?   
Deal No Deal
Final Results
...and why?

 Monday, March 27, 2006

 Element-ary quiz: Below are cryptic clues to the names of 30 chemical elements (none of which end in the letter 'm'). How many can you identify?
  1) can
  2) guide
  3) flattener
  4) ringtone?
  5) in second
  6) policeman
  7) my sibling
  8) five cents
  9) maybe none
10) note ancient  
11) makes 4 line
12) Super planet
13) I nothing eat
14) from this bum
15) stupid swindle
16) a man's gene?
17) mad dog Henry
18) forms tea stain
19) that twat Faldo
20) found in 10 mouths  
21) interplanetary singer
22) rich Noel created this
23) swan left of spacebar
24) mystery, nothing back
25) not quite Turkish straits
26) sounds like kitchen bowl
27) hurls up (from volcanoes?)
28) returns in bassoon or oboe
29) were Jason's men made of this?
30) negative coordinates zero (reversed)
(All answers now in the comments box)

• Feeling down on a Monday morning? Get out your virtual guitar and play the desktop blues (via in4mador)
• What would happens if global warming caused a rise in sea level of two metres, or five, or ten? It could be bad news for most of Hammersmith, Peckham and Stratford, but not for Westminster, the City and my house. Try flooding where you live to different levels to see if your house stays above the water.
• The Armstrongs, BBC2's cult double glazing couple, have their own blog. It's everything you'd expect.
• My thanks to possbert, strangeblueghost and Pamela for having a go at Friday's Me Me Meme. Anybody else tempted?
Wikipedia's list of lists: a catalogue of potentially useful stuff including a list of films about possessed body parts, a list of Simpsons characters, a list of albums containing hidden tracks and a list of global tongue twisters.

 Sunday, March 26, 2006

In search of Spring

Isn't Spring late this year? The vernal equinox may have passed and British Summer Time may officially have begun, but the natural world seems not to have noticed. Normally by the end of March the trees are budding, the bumblebees are stirring and golden daffodils are fluttering and dancing in the breeze. Not this year, with a blocking anticyclone lumbering the UK with a cold, late winter. But temperatures are finally lifting, not a moment too soon, and Spring may (possibly) be just around the corner. Yesterday I visited London's two largest Royal Parks to see if I could spot Spring for myself. [photos here]

Richmond Park
 A vast expanse of green and brown,
     muddy grass and bare branches.
 A moving tribe of beige and fawn,
     deer cower in the undergrowth.
 A steady stream of lime and pink,
     cyclists and joggers panting by.
 A distant view of gold and blue,
     St Paul's is framed between the trees.
 A hilltop garden of yellow and mauve,
     daffs and crocuses struggle through.

Richmond Park is enormous. You could cover it with a town the size of Watford, but thankfully nobody's ever tried. Most of the park is rough undulating grassland, sprinkled liberally with ancient forest and thick plantations. I saw little evidence of approaching springtime yesterday, just a lot of trees with empty branches and a few dead brown leaves underfoot. Herds of fallow deer eyed me suspiciously as they nibbled on stumpy bracken. Large numbers of cyclists and joggers were out parading in their finest lycra - I was very definitely in a pedestrian minority. From King Henry's Mound I enjoyed one of London's protected views - ten miles eastward towards St Paul's Cathedral. No tower blocks are permitted anywhere along this very special line of sight, and a treeless corridor cut through nearby Sidmouth Wood ensures that Wren's dome remains visible. And it was only here beneath the mound, within the cultivated gardens of Pembroke Lodge, that any evidence of Spring was visible. Formal flowerbeds brimmed with soggy primroses, while scattered daffodils and crocuses pushed bravely through the surrounding slopes. Give it a few weeks, and the rest of the park might catch up.

Bushy Park
The second largest Royal Park is far less well known, tucked away beside the meandering Thames between Hampton Court and Kingston. Bushy Park is an odd mix of formal and informal, with stretches of open grassland surrounding a fenced-off woodland core. Yesterday the park displayed little evidence of budding Spring. The deer-stalked common looked more early January than late March. Dog walkers hurried along bare paths, out from the car park and back again beneath the invisible sun. Cars queued under leaden skies around the Diana Fountain water feature (that's a towering 17th century block of sculpture depicting the Roman goddess, not Hyde Park's farcical granite trough for a Disney Princess). Only in the central landscaped gardens had a few bulbs braved the winter frost, not so much a carpet of daffodils as a threadbare strip of lino. A few premature rhodedendrons were semi-opened up, providing welcome nectar for a handful of lethargic bumblebees. Two rabbits scampered out of the brambles, perhaps surprised to see their first human intruder of the day. There were also plenty of paired-off birds to be seen, including amorous ducks and a couple of screeching yellow parakeets nesting high in a silver birch. I felt I'd come visiting too early in the season. Spring may not yet have sprung in Bushy Park, but there was clear evidence that it's trying ever so hard to break out.

www.flickr.com : Spring gallery
Richmond and Bushy Parks: 15 photos from a budding photographer

 Saturday, March 25, 2006

Please do not have sex today

I should qualify that statement, and say that it only applies to fertile heterosexual couples engaging in penetrative intercourse without the use of contraception. If you should fall into this category, I'd like to assure you that today's warning is based on sound scientific fact. Please read the following information very carefully. It could save a life.

Please do not have sex today

Spring is (at last) in the air, and young couples' thoughts are turning more and more to love, romance and shagging. A bit of warmth and sunshine can have strange effects on the human libido, making it all too easy to get carried away by carnal thoughts. Just one unplanned kiss can lead to full-on sexual arousal and, before you know where you are, you've ended up in the bedroom engaged in intimate physical contact. So I'm told. Should you find yourself in this situation today, stop immediately.

If you engage in penetrative intercourse today without the use of contraception, one of you risks getting pregnant. If you get pregnant today, you'll probably give birth to a baby in nine months time. If you give birth to a baby in nine months time... well, just look at the calendar. Work it out for yourself. Think before you shag.

No child deserves to be born on Christmas Day. Nobody wants their birthday to be overshadowed by the biggest national celebration of the year. Nothing is more guaranteed to give a child major personality problems later in life than to share their birthday with the baby Jesus. Is five minutes of horizontal ecstacy today worth the lifetime of personal trauma to follow? Don't do it.

Jesus is particularly appropriate as a role model for the child with a Christmas birthday because He only received a miserable total of three birthday presents. No doubt each of the wise men told him "I've brought you one big combined present, honest", even though they were secretly relieved at not having to bring more. Any child with a Christmas birthday has to survive 364 days gift-free, with merely the promise of something meagre and average at the end of the present-drought. Meanwhile for the rest of the year they get to watch siblings and friends receiving double the presents, double the attention, and thereby double the love. A Christmas birthday also means a birthday party amalgamated with the festive celebrations. There may be a large birthday cake but, by the time everyone's stuffed themselves with turkey and pudding, nobody can ever face eating even a small slice of it. This is enough to scar any impressionable child for life, and all because you failed to consider the consequences of having sex today. It's inconceivable.

Children born on Christmas Day are also at serious risk of being given an embarrassingly festive name. Just think of all the people you know called Noel. Yes, him for example. Are children born in August ever called Carol, or Holly, or Robin? I think not. All these poor unfortunate individuals are highly likely to exhibit some signs of personal trauma caused by resentment towards inconsiderate parents. You don't want to risk your child suing you for emotional scarring in later life do you? Abstain today.

If you have a Christmas baby, you're also responsible for bringing another Capricorn into the world. Stubborn, inflexible and goal oriented, they often jump to conclusions and miss the big picture. Is this what you want in your family? Cross your legs for a few weeks and have a nice well-adjusted Aquarian instead. Hold it in.

So, there you have it. Unprotected sex today will mean an unhappy and maladjusted life for your son or daughter in the future. Please remember this important advice should spring fever strike today and you find yourself rampaging towards the bedroom whilst ripping one another's clothes off. You may feel like getting stuck in and reaching orgasm, but for one sperm and one egg there'll be a lifetime of psychologists' bills to pay. Please do not have sex today.

This has been a public service announcement. Thank you for listening.

 Friday, March 24, 2006

The Me Me meme

I bet you've seen this meme doing the rounds. It's great isn't it? Really clever. I love reading this sort of stuff. Anyway, Mibby tagged me so I thought I'd better join in because it'll be fun. And illuminating. I love a good meme, me.

Name seven things in your fridge: a carton of milk (I'm afraid it's the really unhealthy full cream stuff), some new potatoes (presumably shipped in from abroad at great expense to the environment), a bottle of four-year-old champagne (which I've never quite had a good enough reason to open), a big steak and kidney pie (because I've got an all-day meeting at work today and they'll only serve up crap sandwiches so I'll be hungry later), a carton of value orange juice (dead cheap, I hate to think how few oranges are in it), a slab of cheese (mmmmm, cheese) and a strange mysterious green stain which probably once oozed out of a cucumber.

When was the first time you went abroad? I guess the Isle of Wight doesn't count!!! So in that case it was thirty years ago when I was 11 we flew to Canada. Flying was a really big thing in those days - almost nobody travelled abroad for their holidays at the time. And I saw Niagara Falls and I went up the CN Tower in Toronto in the year it opened and I got my fingers shut in a big American car door and it hurt.

Who were the last five people to send you a spam message? Northwest B. Ghoul, Sterling Talley, Jeffery Reese, Hobnails P. Fellini, Demetrius Mclain

If you were a type of chocolate biscuit, what type of chocolate biscuit would you be and why? Probably a Jaffa Cake, because they're soft and round but a bit tangy and all orangey inside and you can pick the chocolate off. Not that I'm like that, but I do really like Jaffa Cakes. Although they might not be a biscuit, they might be a cake.

Describe your best friend using only Madonna song titles: Like A Prayer, Causing A Commotion, Gambler, Another Suitcase In Another Hall, Lucky Star, Take A Bow

What's the funniest thing you've ever seen a kitten do? Aww there was this one time when this kitten I had she was well cute she went missing one day it was a Saturday and she was nowhere to be seen so I spent all day looking for her I hunted round the house and found nothing not a thing so I went round the local estate looking for her twice I think and into the woods too but she wasn't there either and I didn't know where she was and she was only little really tiny and I thought maybe she'd run away so I went home and waited and later that evening I looked in the cupboard under the sink in the kitchen and there she was on a shelf she'd been there asleep she'd been in the house all that time and I hadn't noticed I'd even looked in that cupboard earlier and I hadn't seen her and I couldn't get angry about it but what a waste of a Saturday and I know it doesn't sound funny and it wasn't at the time but I can laugh about it now.

LOL that was fun. And it saved me thinking up something original of my own to write about today. So now I'm going to tag Brad, littlegreenpea and Mr Squiggles to try this meme on their blogs. Because they like this sort of thing too. And because, like me, they've clearly run out of blogging inspiration. Come on everybody, why not join in? Let's meme!!!!

 Thursday, March 23, 2006

Do you have a local free newspaper? One that keeps you in touch with what's going on round your way? A weekly freesheet poked through your letterbox packed with stabbings, golden weddings and lost dogs? Because I don't any more, and I sort of miss it.
"A Watford band has successfully beaten off competition from 22 other ensembles to reach the finals of the British National Brass Band Championships. The group's rendition of Anglian Dances by Alan Fernie was good enough to place them fourth over all in the regional heat on Sunday."
For years, a free newspaper was a regular part of my life. If planning permission was sought for a lean-to shed down my road, I knew about it. If an old schoolmate hit fifty runs in a weekend league cricket match, I knew about it. If roadworks at a nearby mini-roundabout threatened major traffic congestion, I knew about it. The local paper was a window on my immediate environment, keeping me in touch with what my neighbours were up to. Even if it was only a coffee morning or an unmuzzled dog on the rampage, it was better than hearing nothing. And now I live in London I have nothing. And I think I'm missing out.
"An elderly woman had a narrow escape today after an accident in Stowmarket ended up with one car on top of another. Three fire crews were sent to Ipswich Street near the Regal Cinema after reports that an elderly person was trapped following an accident at 9.50am. An ambulance crew was also at the scene, but the woman did not need hospital treatment and was taken home."
I may live in a densely populated patch of the largest city in Western Europe, but nobody seems to think that my letterbox merits a local freesheet. No thick supplement of houses for sale or rent ever wings my way. Heartbreaking local crime stories pass me by. Local council initiatives go unannounced. There's a captive audience of hundreds of thousands of eager citizens round my way, but if I want a local paper I have to pay for it. I could buy the East London Advertiser and Tower Hamlets Recorder every week (I'm discounting the Evening Standard because that only feels local if you live in Putney or Notting Hill), but I was brought up on free local news and somehow paying for my weekly mugging update feels wrong.
"Officers have revealed that drunks and drug-takers in Bethnal Green's Museum Gardens have become such a problem they have now applied for an alcohol exclusion zone. Kids coming out of the Museum of Childhood have been terrified by people falling over and urinating into bushes, police told residents at a neighbourhood forum."
Was it the internet that killed off the local free paper? I can now read about joyriders on the A13 online. I can find local houses for sale online. I can discover which dodgy student band is playing in the pub down the road online. I have no need to wait until Friday evening for a hastily-assembled wad of newsprint to be thrust into my letterbox, because I can find out what's going on right here right now via my computer. Except that I can't usually be bothered to look. The great joy of the local freesheet was that it reported on the commonplace and the mundane whether I wanted to hear it or not. And now I'm not hearing anything. Am I the only person living under this unfair local information embargo, or is free-paper-lessness now a nationwide phenomenon?

 Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Silver discs (March 1981)
A monthly look back at the top singles of 25 years ago

Something highly prophetic happened on Top of the Pops in mid-March 1981. A technicians' strike (or something similar) meant that no live acts could appear, and the whole show featured nothing but new-fangled pop videos from end to end. I'd never seen anything like it. How times change.

The three best records from the Top 10 (17th March 1981)
Kim Wilde - Kids In America: She was only 19 at the time - no longer a kid, and had never even been to America. But we didn't care, we loved the record, and we loved Kim. As the daughter of 60s rocker Marty Wilde music was in her blood, which did at least mean she could sing. This, her debut record, sounded both angry and glamorous (but in a very approachable Home Counties style). Kim's reinvented herself recently, flogging cod liver oil for Holland & Barrett and standing knee-deep in manure on daytime gardening programmes, whilst still somehow keeping her credibility. She may have moved on, but they played Kids In America on daytime Radio 1 last month and to my ears it still sounded just as fresh and sparkling and lovely as ever (although sandwiching it between two R&B dirges probably helped).
"Outside a new day is dawning, outside suburbia's sprawling everywhere, I don't want to go baby. New York to East California, there's a new wave coming I warn you."
Toyah - It's A Mystery: At the opposite end of the pin-up scale to pouting Kim came post-punk Toyah. Across the country copycat girls tried to tease their hair into extreme shades of red and daubed their faces with suburban warpaint. Leaping into the chart for the first time, perhaps more through hard graft than pure musical talent, Ms Willcox offered us her 'Four From Toyah' EP in the hope that we might like one of them. Thankfully we did, and an endearing pop (and acting) career followed. And she's still going strong, as anyone at (ahem) Butlins in Minehead or Skegness last weekend can testify.
"It's a mystery, oh it's a mystery, I'm still searching for a clue, It's a mystery to me. A shot in the dark, the big question mark in history - is it a mystery to you?"
Teardrop Explodes - Reward: Bang! This song punched you in the face with its perky brass opening, then hurtled onward without pausing for breath. Three minutes of uplifting joy from the pen of musical maestro Julian Cope, although none of his later musical masterpieces managed to reach the same giddy chart heights. One of my schoolfriends was absolutely convinced that this song kiched off with the lyrics "Bless my cotton socks I'm in the nude". I hate to disappoint him, but...
"Bless my cotton socks I’m in the news, The king sits on his face but it's all assumed. All wrapped up the same, All wrapped up the same. They can’t have it, you can’t have it, I can’t have it too until I learn to accept my reward"

My favourite three records from March 1981 (at the time)
Depeche Mode - Dreaming Of Me (reached number 57): I didn't realise when I taped this single off the radio that this was the beginning of a 25-year love affair. Casio drumbeats and a synth siren, followed by plinkety keyboards with a teenage bedroom vibe - it was an inauspicious start for the four lads from Basildon. Nobody yet really knew what the band looked like, or even how to pronounce their name properly [see debut NME article here]. But I was instantly attracted by the unique close harmony vocals and alluring melody, and I adored it. The single may not have reached the Top 40, but various careers spanning teenypop, Yazoo, leather shorts, Erasure, near-fatal overdoses and stadium rock all began here. I'm just chuffed that I noticed.
"So we left, understanding, cleancut so we're sounding fast. Talked of sad, I talked of war, I laughed and climbed the rising cast"
B Movie - Remembrance Day (reached number 61): Perhaps not great timing to release a song about November 11th in March, but hey, I'll still happily replay this gorgeously atmospheric single even in May or August. The Mansfield band had just featured on Stevo's seminal Some Bizarre album (alongside the equally unknown Soft Cell, Blancmange, The The and Depeche Mode), but alas their music never really captured the public imagination. If you remember B Movie you'll want to visit their tune- & nostalgia-packed website, and you might even want to head down to the Metro club in Oxford Street this Saturday for a (very) rare gig. And yes, they all look like bank managers now.
"Hailstones and epitaphs, mourning bells and half mast flags, in the cemetery where they fell all those many years ago, now it's just a memory eroded by the years"
Small Ads - Small Ads (reached number 63): You won't remember this, I bet. A bunch of chirpy geezers, cooler than Chas & Dave and more tongue in cheek than Madness, singing a song about local newspaper classified advertising. Wholly appropriate, then, that you can now buy a copy on eBay. I'm tempted.
"This year's registration with a slightly dented wing, only down in Finchley, think I'll give the bloke a ring"

20 other hits from 25 years ago (and this is easily the best list yet): Jealous Guy (Roxy Music), Kings Of The Wild Frontier (Adam and the Ants), This Ole House (Shakin Stevens), Can You Feel It (Jacksons), You Better You Bet (The Who), Star (Kiki Dee), Ceremony (New Order), Something 'Bout You Baby I Like (Status Quo), Intuition (Linx), It's A Love Thing (Whispers), What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted (Dave Stewart and Colin Bluntstone), Walking On Thin Ice (Yoko Ono), I Missed Again (Phil Collins), Lately (Stevie Wonder), Mind Of A Toy (Visage), St Valentine's Day Massacre EP (Headgirl), Can You Handle It (Sharon Redd), Capstick Comes Home (Tony Capstick), Slow Motion (Ultravox), Up The Hill Backwards (David Bowie) ...which hit's your favourite? ...which one would you pick?

 Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Car sharing

Yesterday the Government announced that Britain's first car share lane will open next year on the M62 between Bradford and Leeds. Any vehicle containing more than one occupant (or a very convincing inflatable doll) will be able to use the lane, shaving eight minutes off a typical morning commute. Research suggests that only one in every six vehicles using this stretch of motorway during peak hours currently contain two or more occupants. They'll be in for a treat next year, then, speeding past all the lonely singletons queued nose to tail in the bog-standard lanes alongside. I do hope those evil individuals are feeling appropriately guilty as they commute passengerless to work, murdering the planet as they do so.

They've had carpool lanes in other countries for some time. In California, for example, they're sometimes called "diamond lanes" (which is the only reason I stopped to take this photograph, honest). As you can see, this diamond lane in San Francisco is a huge success, completely empty of any traffic whatsoever. Maybe that's not surprising in a country where only 7% of vehicles have multi-person occupancy, or maybe it was just a very quiet Sunday afternoon. Whatever the case, carpool lanes haven't been universally popular in the States, seen by some as a chronic waste of valuable roadspace and by others as creating new forms of risk and congestion.

Our Transport Secretary, Darling, says that car share lanes are "a sensible measure to try and encourage people where they can to share lifts, especially if they're going to work maybe in the same place or same area." But I have my doubts as to just how feasible car-sharing really is.

The major flaw with car sharing is surely the unpredictability of most people's journeys. It's great if you always go into work at eight and always return on the dot of five, but most of us don't lead such rigid lives. What if one day you want to go into work early, or divert along the way to pick up a prescription or some dry cleaning? And how much time would you end up wasting each month if your carshare partner always finished work half an hour after you, or decided to stay late one night to complete an urgent project. And what about spontaneous leisure journeys, or shopping trips? Even by using a carpooling website it's still nigh impossible to find the perfect partner whose journey requirements perfectly match your own. Car share lanes are likely to prove too impractical for the majority of road users, benefitting only those who already drive around accompanied by friends or family. The rest of Britain's solo drivers are unlikely to be able to change their existing behaviour, even if they'd like to.

And anyway, the Department of Transport already has a fully-trialled 100%-effective road congestion solution whereby several road passengers share the same vehicle. It's called a bus. A few more of those running regularly and reliably around the country and we might be able to cut road congestion without spending the odd £2½million on one mile of new road.

















a bit


 Monday, March 20, 2006

An A-Z of
Essential oils
Feng shui
Japanese reiki
Life coaching
Magnetic bracelets   
New age
St John's wort
Tarot readings
Vitamin supplements
Xtra sensory perception
I'm not wrong, am I?

Is there a mobile phone mast near your house? There are four within a couple of hundred metres of mine. There are none on Buckingham Palace.
• It may be low-tech entertainment, but how long can you keep the red square away from the blue rectangles? I've managed 18.5 seconds.
• Do you need a sort-of-but-not-quite accurate calendar? Here's one.
• Better than a thesaurus when you can't quite think of the right word or phrase - it's the OneLook Reverse Dictionary.
Adopt a cyber kitten (or bunny, or llama, or penguin...) - ideal to add a bit of class to your MySpace profile.

 Sunday, March 19, 2006

Sorry, after 10 days of consecutive posts about London I was planning to talk about something, anything else today. But no. Sorry...

Why is it so difficult to find out what's going on in London? There's so much going on in fact, so much background noise, that often the big events can slip past unnoticed. I was lucky yesterday - I noticed one twenty minutes before it began and was able to head along without missing much. But all too often the first I find out about a fascinating event is reading a review afterwards, too late. Damn you London.

Yesterday's jewel of an event was the London Maze, an annual free 'local history' fair devoted to London and its past, which somehow I'd never heard of before. The fair takes place at the Guildhall in the City, and attracts stallholders from small museums, libraries and local history societies. I missed Peter Ackroyd's opening ceremony, but arrived in time to collect my free carrier bag and fill it with leaflets. Where else could you find the Association of London Pumping Heritage Attractions, the Lambeth Local History Forum, Barking & Dagenham Heritage Services, The London Topographical Society and the Old Operating Theatre Museum, all under one roof? And what a roof, by the way. There was also free admission to the Guildhall Art Gallery (whose latest exhibition London Now - City of Heaven, City of Hell was small but unexpectedly brilliant). Best of all, though, was the chance to pop down to the basement and view the remains of London's Roman Amphitheatre. Somewhere along the gladiators' entrance passage I took this rather dark photograph of a genuine AD120 wall. Coincidentally the London Flickr Meetup group were there too, flashing their giant lenses, and cowfish got a much better shot here. You can normally get in to see the ruins for £2.50, but I'd have been gutted to miss this opportunity to step back two millennia for free.

So, where do you go to find out about this kind of event in advance? Time Out's useful, but expensive, and you only get a few days advance notice. Visit London, the capital's official tourist site, is comprehensive but it's hard to find the special events in amongst the Lion Kings and Mary Poppins. No, what I need is a list of upcoming "big free events", far enough in advance that I can plan to attend them (or not). And I can't find one. So I'm having a go at making my own...

Here's the diamond geezer clickable list of the next ten upcoming "big free events"* in London. Except it's not yet especially comprehensive, or upcoming. Can you help me to improve on the current ten? Please help.

   • Fri 24 - Sun 26 March: Inside Out (South Bank)
   • Sat 25 March: Head Of The River Race
   • Sun 2 April: Boat Race
   • Sun 16 April: Hackney Marshes Vintage Bus Event
   • Sun 23 April: London Marathon
   • Sat/Sun 5/6 August: Fruitstock
   • Sun/Mon 27/28 August: Notting Hill Carnival
   • Sat/Sun 16/17 September: London Open House
   • Sat/Sun 16/17 September: Thames Festival
   • Sat 11 November: Lord Mayor's Show
   • Sat 7 July 2007: Tour De France
   • Fri 26 July 2012: Olympic Opening Ceremony

* that's "big", as in not your local church hall jumble sale
* that's "free", as in not something you pay to enter
* that's "event", as in not some three month art exhibition

 Saturday, March 18, 2006

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 7: Imperial War Museum

Location: Lambeth Road, SE1 6HZ [map]
Open: 10am - 6pm
Admission: free (some exhibitions cost)
5-word summary: military might and reflective remembrance
Website: www.iwm.org.uk
Time to set aside: at least an afternoon

Just down the road from Lambeth North station, just that little bit further than the original Bakerloo line ventured, stands the imposing Imperial War Museum. The jingoistic name probably deters a lot of more sensitive souls from visiting, wrongly expecting that the place is full of guns, artillery and body armour. Which is a shame, because that's only partially true. I was in the area, so I thought I'd pay the former lunatic asylum a visit.

Once you get past the queue at the cash desk (which always strikes me as strange in a free museum, but I guess they need the opportunity to flog you a £3.50 audio guide) you enter into a tall airy entrance hall packed with the machinery of war. Mighty rockets rise up from the floor (that's a V2, that's a Polaris). Field guns and tanks are scattered around for intimate perusal (that's a Howitzer, that's a Sherman). A selection of classic warplanes hang across the ceiling (that's a Sopwith Camel, that's a Focke and yes, that's a Spitfire). There's nothing here over 100 years old because the museum concentrates on 20th century conflicts, from trench warfare to more modern genocide. But for me the jewels in the collection aren't these large objects of military strength, they're the exhibitions spread across the six floors behind.

As you might expect, the majority of the museum is given over to remembering the First and Second World Wars. Downstairs is a traditional glass-cased walkthrough of the history of each, complete with a fibreglass WW1 trench to shuffle down and a blacked-out WW2 air raid shelter experience. There's a special area devoted to D-Day, in some depth, as well as a skim through some of the later global conflicts of the 20th century. I was especially impressed by The Children's War, an extensive exhibition recounting the experiences of evacuees and those left to fight WW2 on the Home Front. Like all the best history it's delivered as much through written and spoken testimony as through collections of appropriate artefacts. Best of all was the chance to walk through a full size mocked-up 1930s semi-detached house, peering into the period kitchen, austere bedrooms and gadget-free parlour. It's hard to remember that for most of the children being taken around the exhibition this is a glimpse back into the long lost past, whereas I could easily imagine my parents and grandparents sitting down at the dining room table for a rationed meal or hiding inside the steel cage of a squat Morrison Shelter during an air raid.

But you have to ascend to the third floor to enter the most thought-provoking galleries of all - the Holocaust Exhibition. Two floors of the museum have been given over to detailing the Nazis' so-called Final Soulution, starting with an in-depth exploration of the politics and propaganda which allowed mass genocide to sneak up almost unnoticed. Due attention is paid to the creeping tide of oppression as Hitler's borders expanded, notably across eastern Europe, and it's chilling to hear genuine first person testimony every step of the way. The journey to (and through) Auschwitz is remembered in graphic detail, and the inhumanity of this place of extinction is brought home by the tales of a handful fortunate enough to survive. You won't leave unmoved. And if a few gung-ho Playstation addicts visit the museum expecting bloody war but discover instead this heartfelt plea to peace and tolerance, the museum has done its job well.
by tube: Lambeth North

 Friday, March 17, 2006

Here endeth my journey along the 100-year-old Bakerloo Line. I'm always fascinated by following lines across London to see where they lead, and the Bakerloo didn't disappoint. I hope you found the trip interesting too (assuming I have any readers left, that is). And watch out, because yet another tube line has a centenary later this year. I wonder whether Hammersmith to Finsbury Park is quite so absorbing...

www.flickr.com : Bakerloo gallery
50+ photos from Baker Street to Lambeth North

All of my Baker100 journey on one page

Baker100 walk: Waterloo to Lambeth North

At the far eastern end of Waterloo mainline station, just that little bit further than most commuters usually venture, there's an exit out into nothingness. OK, so it's not quite nothing, particularly if you turn left up towards Westminster Bridge Road, but I turned right. A long straight pavement stretches the full length of platform 1, but on the opposite side of a stark brick wall [photo]. Alongside is a rat run for buses and queueing taxis, shielded behind some grey functional railings with a view downhill across the wastes of North Lambeth. And the highlight of 'Station Approach Road' is a small mini-roundabout. Sorry, it's not exactly a heritage hotspot like Regent Street, is it? At the far end the pavement descends into a roadside subway that's even bleaker. I stopped to take a photograph of this unappealing hole, only to be laughed at by an incredulous passer-by. He may have had a point [photo].

But my exit was into one of the area's more characterful and historic streets - Lower Marsh. The name's a hint to its origin - a road cutting across extensive marshy land to the south of the Thames and once the quickest way to walk between Westminster Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge without getting your boots wet. Lower Marsh has been a shopping street for centuries and retains a charming run-down retail look today. The buildings are a higgledy-piggledy ragbag of mixed-height terraces, selling nothing overly corporate [photo]. I arrived in the middle of a Saturday afternoon when you might have expected trade to be at its height, but instead the street was unexpectedly quiet and market-free. I guess that weekday office workers now form the mainstay of local business. Otherwise I'd undoubtedly have popped into independent bookshop Crockatt & Powell, being the only blogging booksellers I know. Alas, like the Golf Sale earlier in my walk, I find the prospect of a solo browsing experience somewhat uncomfortable, so I passed by.

With just a few hundred yards of my Bakerloo line walk remaining, I finally located something I'd been searching for in vain for the last three miles - a bakery. Admittedly it was nothing truly local, just an identikit blue Greggs outlet selling all the usual cakes and savouries, but this was the first building on my journey where I could actually have bought a loaf baked on the premises. Except unfortunately they'd sold out of bread and were down to the last few leftover pastries, so I made do with a sausage, cheese and bean melt while the ladies cleaned up behind the counter. I'd found a baker but I couldn't find a loo, so I decided against purchasing an accompanying beverage. By the look of the street outside, however, I bet some of the side alleys get used as an extremely public convenience every now and then. Lambeth North station was now just around the corner, and I felt a world away from my starting point on the edge of leafy genteel Regent's Park.

Baker100 - Lambeth North station
Station opened: Saturday 10th March 1906
Station originally called: Kennington Road, but changed to Westminster Bridge Road after just five months, then changed to Lambeth (North) in 1917 (and lost the brackets in 1927)
Distance from previous station: 900m
End of the line: Not any more, obviously, but it was when the line opened. The tracks to Elephant & Castle were opened five months later.
Nearby depot: There's room for 10 Bakerloo trains in the London Road depot, just off St George's Circus. It's hard to believe that railway sidings still take up so much prime land so close to central London, but they do. Apparently the depot is haunted by the ghost of a nun.
Most outstanding feature outside the station: Tall-spired Christ Church, once home to William Wilberforce's anti-slavery campaign, now home to an ultra-progressive ministry called (ouch) church.co.uk (the sort of place that has a TV vicar and a Sunday evening service called "headspace")
Thrilling fact: There are 84 steps down to platform level
Below ground: A proper old-style tube station with curvy platforms, creaking lifts and genuine old ivory and brown tiling, mercifully free of the ravages of a wholesale Metronet upgrade. [photo] [photo] [photo]
Proper history of the station: here
Local Bakerloo book: Geoff Ryman's unique novel 253, in which a packed Bakerloo line train hurtles southward towards Elephant & Castle, and we learn in detail about each of the 253 characters on board. Just before the train crashes. Not only is it a great book, but it started out online so you can read the whole thing here. Recommended.

 Thursday, March 16, 2006

Baker100 walk: Embankment to Waterloo

Until a few years ago, the best way to cross the Thames from Charing Cross to Waterloo was by train. You wouldn't have wanted to walk across the old Hungerford footbridge, a narrow confined passageway on stilts hemmed in beside the old iron railway bridge. Not unless you were a beggar or a mugger, anyway. There's been a footbridge here since 1845 when Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the first to connect southern shoppers to bustling Hungerford Market on the north bank. Structurally it was gorgeous. As a pedestrian tollbridge crossing a stinking river, however, it was a financial disaster. In 1859 the South Eastern Railway bought up Brunel's bridge and promptly demolished it, replacing it with a sturdy box girder rail bridge designed by John Hawkshaw. Commuter trains still rumble through his iron lattice today, crawling slowly across the river into Charing Cross station (built on the site of the old Hungerford Market). The desolate red footbridge endured far longer than it should, but the demolition order finally came and the new Hungerford Bridges are its replacement. They were tough to build, not least because the fragile Bakerloo line passes only a few metres beneath the riverbed, but they were finally opened in 2002.

Aaah that's better. Not just one footbridge but two. Not a narrow walkway but a broad span. Not a boxy iron tube but an elegant wave of supsended steel cables. Not a criminal paradise but a busy thoroughfare. Not a shortcut to scurry down but a tourist destination in its own right. Not a grim view of passing trains but an open vista across the Thames. Walk across the eastern side and there's St Paul's rising above Blackfriars Bridge. Walk across the western side and there's the London Eye looming above the Houses of Parliament. The Golden Jubilee Bridges were clearly meant to be photographed and to photograph from. So my apologies to any passing couples whose path I blocked while I was busy snapping away, but there was no need to be in such a hurry, OK?

The new bridges have increased pedestrian access to the South Bank, at least for us northerners. Most of the arty buildings here grew up as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain - an event a bit like the Millennium Dome except that it was an enormous success. Closest to the bridge is the Royal Festival Hall, recently buried beneath a shroud of boards and sheeting awaiting concrete rebirth. Architecturally it's not to everybody's taste but inside the auditorium, where it counts, the acoustics in are spot on. Well, I thought so when I performed here as a spotty 12-year-old, one of hundreds of Hertfordshire schoolchildren press-ganged into singing some worthy Vaughan Williams oratorio to a packed audience of devoted parents and grandparents. You might remember me - I was the well-scrubbed short kid seated stage right who felt distinctly faint just after the interval and had to sit down mid-performance. Sorry. I've not been back inside since, just in case somebody official recognises me. Quick, let's hurry onward, along to Waterloo. Meet you under the clock?

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seven sisters

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here's where to find...
diamond geezers
flash mob #1  #2  #3  #4
ben schott's miscellany
london underground
watch with mother
cigarette warnings
digital time delay
wheelie suitcases
war of the worlds
transit of venus
top of the pops
old buckenham
ladybird books
acorn antiques
digital watches
outer hebrides
olympics 2012
school dinners
pet shop boys
west wycombe
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