Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Bakers and Breaks

The all-new, improved, Great British Bake-Off began its seventh series last night having moved from the BBC to Channel 4. One new judge, two new presenters and otherwise exactly the same as before - twelve pleasant and normal people demonstrating their skills and not one of whom whooped, high-fived or had an emotional backstory causing tears and sympathetic hugs while the cameras gloated - and some splendid cakes to be admired. Same tent, same setting, same awful weather raging outside and identical format.

Except, that being on commercial television, there were ad breaks. C4 decided to keep the content roughly as before and so had to stretch running time by fifteen minutes. I can't recall this being done for anything else; we are used to brilliant shows running for nearly thirty minutes on radio moving to TV and being butchered to less than 24 minutes of content (example: Harry Hill who used the time on radio to develop wonderful running gags that vanished when he transferred to the box).

Advertisers must have thought that this was a great way to show off their products. But in the Commuter household the response was what it always is - the moment the programme ident appears at the bottom of the screen to signify the end of a segment, the remote control is raised and the mute button pressed. Even then some ads were painful to watch - literally. Ebay had a sequence in which the screen changed background colour repeatedly; glimpsed from the corner of the eye this made a stroboscopic effect akin to glimpsing the sun through the trees whilst moving at high speed. Yuck. Presumably nobody connected with Ebay bothers to watch. This "viewer" moved his head further to one side and thereby ignored everything happening on the screen until his more tolerant wife nudged him to restore the sound.

Watching ads without the sound, other than those with genuinely irritating flashing screens, is a slightly surreal experience. "There's that bloke with the beard" you say1 "I wonder what he's on about? If I had a beard would I get more offers of work? Oh look, here's a very sincere and twinkly-eyed man in a nice sweater leaning forward ever so slightly to share his wisdom, or something. What can he be on about? and how many ever-so-slightly less sincere and twinkly-eyed actors did they audition before deciding he was the right man for the knitware?2 Ah, a young person in a white coat pointing at something. Fascinating, really fascinating.  Oh, there's a car. Driven on utterly empty city streets. By a young man with a beard. Who ever would have expected that, certainly never seen that before in an ad, what fantastic imagination these creative chaps have, I do hope they get loads of awards. And there's that comedian I used to like, but am now rather sick of, poncing about on a cruise ship and pretending to be just another paying passenger, that must get him a BAFTA or my name's not Merridew Withers"3

It is vitally important to keep the sound off. Nothing these people say is of the slightest interest given that it is all written by admen. It is equally important to indulge in these speculations because it drives away the message that the ad is trying to implant in your brain and puts your own thoughts in there instead, and I want to keep it that way.

We seem to have wandered off the GBBO but there isn't much more to say about it. I fear that the subject of advertisements, their rotting effect on the brain and the need to combat them with constant cynicism and derision is one that will remain with us.

1. Alright, I say it
2. Or does he have to supply his own jumper? Is there a clothing allowance for this or does his agent negotiate it all as part of the fee? These are the sort of questions that some sort of hard-hitting documentary ought to be addressing.
3. No it's not.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

How dumb is TripAdvisor (again)?

I've written about them before and may, sadly, have to do so again because I see no improvement. Before I deliver this morning's little blast of invective, here are some facts to mull over:

  • Fact. Every review I have put on to the aforesaid website has been of somewhere in the UK or in relatively close parts of Europe
  • Fact. Every journey upon which I have embarked in the past eight years has been facilitated [Nice choice of pretentious words: Ed] by car, coach or by train. I began submitting reviews to TA in April 2014.
  • Fact. TA have never bothered to ask me how I reached those places subject to my expert analysis and therefore has no right to reach any conclusions about the mode of transport.
Good. Now we have established the foundations, we can build the structure. Consider this email that arrived still hot and steaming into my in-tray this morning:

The answers to their questions are as follows:
  • How was your flight? There was no flight, dumbo and why do you assume I flew in the first place?
  • Can you help again by sharing advice on flights you've taken? Delighted to. Based partly on my experiences in the past but mainly on what I learn from others today, flying is horrible, airports treat passengers in a disgusting and shamelessly commercial way, the security (100ml of a fluid good, 101ml some sort of risk) is a joke and the way that people can be casually bumped off flights they have paid for well in advance something that should be outlawed. My advice, which I gladly share with anyone idiotic enough to wish to fly, is Just Say No.
  • Where will you fly next? Up to Heaven to meet my maker and his pals [Or her pals. Can't be too careful these days: Ed] when the Glorious Day Of Judgement sounds, followed by the long Glorious Evening Of Hanging About On Some Clouds and the even longer Glorious Night Of Watching Celestial TV Because There's Nothing Else To Do Up Here.
I don't think I'll bother submitting a review for this last one. I don't want to spoil the destination by having loads of others going there.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

AI or AS?

Artificial intelligence may well be the future but they will have to weed out the artificial stupids first. Consider the following email, not the first of its type, received here at Ramblings Towers this morning from a sender claiming to be in Belmont, California.

Want to simplify your multi-location phone administration?  

It asks me in the subject. Yes sure, if I had a multi-location phone administration system no doubt I would be looking to simplify it, but why I would wait until some chancer happens to email me about it is something to be pondered. Anyway, let us move on to the first couple of lines of the epistle.

Hi Thomas,

Because Bristow has multiple locations I wanted to follow up on my last email about your phone system.

There's nobody here called Thomas. And Bristow is a cartoon character about whom I have created an extensive and award-winning1 website. So what is going on? The program that has generated this spam email has grazed my website, found the first name on it and assumed that this must be a business. It is hard to think that someone writing code to support a mass spam-out to potential business customers could have come up with anything stupider. I assume it is a program, rather than some bored intern trying to flick through a long list of names from a directory or some such, because it would be apparent to any human, even an intern in California, that my website does not relate to a business. And that there is nobody called Thomas referred to in it. And that my real email address is displayed fairly prominently, so they couldn't even get that right.

I don't think I will take up the kind offer to phone them tomorrow, especially as they have not offered to accept the cost of the call. Perhaps if they offered some extra incentives then we might consider which of our many locations (bedroom, study, living room) could successfully leverage2 a new phone system. How about an all-expenses paid trip to San Francisco for myself, Mrs. Commuter and Thomas? But if they insist we can leave him behind to look after our many locations.

1.  Bound to get one sooner or later so this is not as inaccurate as some may think
2. You simply have to insert this awful word into any business conversation with an American if you wish to be taken seriously. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Brian Aldiss

Very sad to note the death yesterday of Brian Aldiss, one of the finest writers of science fiction this country, indeed the world, has seen. When I first began reading SF, back in the 1960s, he was already a star. His Helliconia trilogy is the best extended piece of SF I have read, not just imagining alien civilisations on a planet in a binary star system with immensely long seasons and a complex biochemistry that has adapted to them, but in creating believable and sympathetic characters. And in Report on Probability A he achieved the equivalent of Waiting for Godot - a story in which almost nothing at all happens but which is compelling reading right up to the puzzling end with a single laconic line that makes you question everything that has gone before.

To a generation believing that Star Wars is the epitome of SF, Aldiss may be unknown. But I would take any one of his books against the entire output of Hollywood in this genre any day.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Limits of Belief

 Words change their meaning all the time in modern English. I found the misuse of one of them in the strapline of a petfood company advertising in the "colour" supplement of my weekend paper. It reads

Royal Canin: Incredible in every detail
I have nothing whatsoever to say about the products of this enterprise. My pets comprise an unruly fellowship of eight goldfish who from time to time oblige me by surfacing from the inky depths of the waters on my estate [pond out the back: Ed] to consume some of the foul-smelling stuff I buy once a year to feed them with and I get the little pot from another supplier. But I digress. Consider the statement "incredible in every detail". What do you think they wish us to understand?
Incredible means not credible, unbelievable, outside the realms of possibility. It does not mean (or at any rate, should not mean) wonderful, brilliant, inspiring, boundary-pushing, 'gosh I wish I could do that' although these are perhaps the meanings the admen might hope we would attribute to it. Nor does it mean something that would be ok to post on Instagram and forget about within seconds, even though it seems some do indeed use it in this fashion. If you tell me something and I say "That's incredible", then I mean that I do not accept your statement. Thus;

"Darling, sorry I'm late, there was a traffic jam" is a fair statement.
"Darling, sorry I'm late, the bus hit a tree and it took thirty minutes for a replacement" is also fair.
"Darling, it's so exciting, I was abducted by space aliens, taken to a mothership and forced to drink four vodka martinis before they released me with a message for the leaders of Mankind" is incredible. Not in the sense of "wow, awesome dude" as our American cousins would perhaps have it. Incredible as in lacking any sense of believability, rubbish, a plain lie.

And so we turn back to the petfood vendors with whom we started. Every thing about this company is not believable, according to its publicists. Its claims about the value of its products. Its mission statements. The ingredients. Perhaps even the contents of its annual financial accounts. They have made it plain as can be - incredible in every detail. Not to be trusted or indeed to have any credence put upon them. Could this be their prawn sandwich moment?

Friday, August 11, 2017

New Look

I've chosen a new theme for this blog. The old one has been in use for a very long time. Maybe I'll revert to it or perhaps try something else. The Editor will be happy to receive any comments [Anything at all, really, don't be shy, I've very little else to do these days: Ed]

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Eating out the Caveman way

A compelling story in today's paper confirms that our Ice Age ancestors really did put human flesh on the menu. The bones found in Gough's Cave, Somerset, have been unmistakably cut up and defleshed deliberately.

Naturally archeologists and anthropologists will study all the evidence intensely and try to understand whether cannibalism was endemic at this time or a reaction to extreme conditions. The carvings found on the bones introduce, inevitably, the 'ritual' aspect. But there is another aspect of the whole affair that may be more relevant to the rest of us. If people were gathering to eat each other at this place, then surely they did it elsewhere, and were aware of the existence of other such places. And so they must have surely considered where was the best place to get a bellyful of the neighbours. Extensive and original research conducted for Ramblings has unearthed the following document, believed to have been nailed to a tree as part of the TravelCounsellor oracle much used in the early Stone Age.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Sparrow Renaissance

Nearly ten years ago I was bemoaning the virtual disappearance of the sparrow from our gardens. Recently I have noticed a few from time to time. This summer they are back in force; a little gang of them has taken to swarming in our rose bushes and shrubs and chirping their little heads off prior to swooping around the ground pecking away at whatever they can find. I took a quick snap, unfortunately it had to be through the window so it is not quite as sharp as I would like.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Khan: We Said build Great Wall, Not Demolish it

from our own correspondent who, having finally fled Karakorum, is hiding out in Shanghai awaiting a fast junk to anywhere

An astonishing rumour was spreading last night through the bazaars in Karakorum that the main pledge given by President Ghengis Khan to the Golden Horde that helped secure his election last year was utterly and completely misinterpreted. At the time Khan was said to have declared, to rousing cheers from many tribesmen wielding scimitars,

We're gonna knock down that wall that stops us riding into China and doing what the hell we want, and the goddam Chinese can pay for the lot, we've had it up to here with paddy fields and writing and that **** philosophy - all that true Mongols want is to ride around on horses slaughtering people and we're gonna do that all the way up to the kingdom of the Khmer going one way and the the Kingdom of the Franks going the other.

Certain parchments being read to bemused goat-herders at the Gate of the Foreign Devils seem to contradict these words. The parchments are said to be transcripts of a meeting between Khan and Chinese Emperor Bing at the Summer Palace in Beijing three months ago. The key passage reads

The Emperor, inspired by the benevolence and wisdom of the gods, enquired graciously if the President intended the militaristic threats against the Kingdom of Heaven. The President said he had been entirely misquoted, that it was fake news and that what he really said was that anything the Chinese wanted was all right by him, but not to tell anyone until the election was over. The Emperor condescended to nod and smile, inscrutably.

No word was available from the President's spokesman because the post remains unfilled following the execution of every available candidate.

[This will be the final despatch from the Mongol Empire unless we can find anyone stupid enough  with the right credentials to be appointed to the Court of the Great Khan. Which, quite frankly, seems pretty unlikely: Ed]

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Khan: I'll Slaughter Them All If I Have To

From our own correspondent hiding under the bed in Karakorum

It is becoming increasingly difficult to report on the doings. and even the very constitution, of  recently-elected President Ghengis Khan's inner circle of Advisors. According to a goat-herder in the Karakorum market place the leader of the Scar-Mouthed tribe has been honoured. This report was immediately contradicted by a water seller near the East Gate who thought that Khan had declared the Scar-Mouths to be heretics and in league with the devils of the Gobi. There have been sightings of the ghost of the previous spokesman Zarn ("the slicer") Spicer going "Woo Woo" a lot. It has also been suggested that the President's son, Ghengis Jr, has been replaced by a glove puppet and that nobody can tell the difference.

Another casualty of the turmoil is the noble Prince Re-bus who has spent much of the past six months working on the Golden Horde's long term plan to conquer the entire world within thirty days or less. Associates of the Prince have been seen loading up camels and speeding off toward Kashgar. It is not known what has become of the Prince and seasoned observers have begun investigating the dung-hills in a manner that is becoming all too familiar.

Speaking to a delegation of the Ulan Baator Archery Club who were promoting "Why work for a living when you can make someone else do it at the point of a bow Week", Khan said "The Prince was the finest public servant that the Horde could have wished for. And that Scar-Mouthed chap, he was the finest, if not finer. They worked for me, right, so they must be the all-time best. But, you know, they were black-hearted enemies of the Great Mongolian People, in league with many bad spirits and anyone who delivers their heads on a plate will be rewarded. Gosh, it's hot in here, I'm going to have a long rest, wake me up if the Chinese start attacking the city."

In other news, the Horde has been engaged in a fierce stand-off on the remote western frontier against the Kazakhs. A Kazakh on horseback is believed to have ridden up to the frontier post and made an offensive gesture. The Horde officer on duty then made the same gesture back. Tension remains very high. The officer has been quoted as saying "If they give me the finger again then they will have crossed a red line and we will not hesitate in giving them the finger back. In fact, I am authorised to give them two fingers. That's how seriously we take this matter". Appeals for calm from the Moghul Emperor and the Serene Republic of Venice have failed so far.