Saturday, December 16, 2006

HMV website goes rubbish

The service offered by the HMV online store has gone seriously downhill. This was one of the first online shopping sites I ever used, and until recently have always found them to be excellent. Good stock, efficient searching, reasonable prices and quick accurate delivery. But my last two orders with them have been far from satisfactory.

In the first of these two, I ordered about 8 CDs. They were all listed on their website as “Normally despatched in 3-5 days”. As I had selected a budget (free) shipping option I took this to mean that the CDs were in stock but would be sent out less quickly than express shipping. However, three of these CDs were assigned the status “On Special Order With Our Suppliers”. That didn’t sound like something that is going to be sent in a few days. The other 5 were sent within a few days, but one of them was a completely incorrect CD. For the “Special Order” discs, I waited 2 weeks before giving up and cancelling the remaining order. During this time I received one vague eMail about their supplier ordering process in general, but with nothing specific about my CDs or how long they were expected to take.

The second order consisted of 3 items. Again, all items were listed on the site as “Normally despatched in 3-5 days”. And what a surprise, all three items went into the status “On Special Order With Our Suppliers”. A week later, nothing had progressed, apart from the same waffly eMail about their internal ordering system. After 9 days I was about to give up again, when the status of one of the CDs changed to “Complete, will be despatched in accordance with selected shipping option”. What their definition of “complete” is, I have no idea. I don't think it’s complete until I have the CD. It hasn’t even been shipped, so in what sense is it complete? The other two items are still on “Special Order” with no information whatsoever about how much longer it will take.

So I’ve had enough of HMV now. I think I will wait for my complete CD to be really completed, then cancel everything else, and never go back to the website again. It’s a shame because they used to be so good. Maybe there’s just too much competition now and they can’t keep up.

It’s not having to wait for deliveries, that’s perfectly understandable, if you know before you order. But their published delivery times are ridiculously optimistic, maybe even wilfully misleading. In fact they clearly have no idea at all about how long things will take. Obviously they keep very little stock at all, and just order everything as and when the customer does. This is great for cutting their warehouse costs, but unfortunately damages their reputation as a reliable place to buy things. I buy a LOT of music, and as from now, sadly, none of that will be going to HMV. For their sake I hope their cost savings cover their lost business.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The sinister bathrooms

More X-Files-style adventures in my dreams recently. This episode –

(This dream may have occurred because I recently changed the hot tap on our bathroom sink. Also, the night before the adventure we went to a meal where there was a certain amount of talking about supernatural drama shows through the ages).

A shadowy group of state actors posing as water company officials are planning to poison troublesome people by pumping some kind of deadly water into their showers. But they have been found out by me and my crime fighting team (who I can’t remember, except that Penny was doing all the driving).

We have tracked them to their base after some car chases through the city (well done Pen). Their base appears to be a normal suburban house but with a gigantic globe of the world in the front garden. This globe also has sculpted human features on it.

We crash into the house kicking doors down and that kind of thing. We catch them red handed, playing about with bathroom fittings. I single out the ringleader, a business-suited woman near a shower cubicle. A superb flying kick from me knocks her into the shower and I turn the water on. How ironic, your own doomsday weapon used on yourself, mwa ha ha. The rest of the baddies seem to lose the will to fight, so we start wrapping things up and taking them outside.

One of my team suggests going out the back way to avoid the public gaze. He opens the side door and lets me through first. But no-one follows and the door slams behind me. It’s dark. My eyes adjust, I am in a deserted corridor. I look up, the ceiling is covered in shower heads. There’s no escape for me as the water starts spraying out. NOOOOO!!! Betrayed by my own team! They’ll pay for this when I miraculously come back to life in another dream, the fools!!

Lost - Series Three

Series Three of Lost has just started showing on Sky One. After the revelations and cataclysmic events at the end of Series Two, I was really looking forward to the new series.

I have to say that the first two episodes were a bit disappointing. Apart from a seemingly endless game of capturing and escaping ping-pong, and a flimsy premise to show Kate getting sweaty in an even flimsier sundress, nothing much seemed to happen. I know some people don’t like Lost because things take a long time to get explained and even then don’t seem to make sense. Even so, the story (bizarre as it is) always progressed and there was always lots of things happening. That just wasn’t the case with these episodes.

I have no problem with the absurd side of Lost, in fact I rather like it. It reminds me of Twin Peaks which also made little sense, but I still found totally absorbing.

I am hoping it will pick up the pace soon – in fact I am sure it will. I’m not ready to kick my addiction just yet.

P.S. One strange continuity thing at the start of episode one – when the woman puts on the CD, I immediately recognised the inlay as “Speaking In Tongues” by Talking Heads. So why does “Downtown” by Petula Clark start playing?? Sorry, that was extremely geeky. It doesn’t matter. Or maybe it does…. This is Lost after all!

London Underground notices

On Monday morning I don’t know what was worse - the actual delays on the Underground, or the pain of having to read the information about the delays. They had managed three spelling errors in one sentence. The message read:


Now I know I am pedantic about this sort of thing, but that’s just ridiculous. Although I'm not sure it takes the crown from another London Underground message I saw a while ago on the Central Line, which remains the worst public information sentence I have ever seen. It was a warning against buying tickets from touts:


It looks innocent enough at first glance but read it carefully. The deeper you go semantically, the worse it hurts.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The big-footed lady who doesn't like science fiction

Conversation overheard yesterday between two elderly ladies browsing the paperbacks in a charity shop:

Lady 1 - (accidentally kicks chair)
Lady 2 - Are you OK?
Lady 1 - Yes, it's just my big feet.
Lady 2 - Did you find what you were looking for?
Lady 1 - Well I can see "S".
Lady 2 - That's Crime.
Lady 1 - Who?
Lady 2 - No, Science Fiction.
Lady 1 - Who?
Lady 2 - Science Fiction.
Lady 1 - Oh.
Lady 2 - Is that what you want?
Lady 1 - (Aghast) No thank you. (Pause). Anything but.

- The end -

Monday, August 21, 2006

Mah Jong humiliation

Last night Julie and I played a short session of Mah Jong. Within two hands, she had scored over 2000 points, and I was on just 96.

In the first hand, she scored for 'fishing the eyes' which is where you blind draw the exact tile you need to go Mah Jong by completing your pair. Not only that, but it was a pair of white dragons so was worth even more.

In the second hand alone she scored 2112 points. It was a superb winning hand with all major tiles including a pair of South Winds, and no Chows. The base score of the hand was only 66, but it was doubled 5 times.

Overall it would be fair to say I got the biggest thrashing I have ever received in any game ever.

If there is anyone reading this, what's the highest you have ever scored in a single Mah Jong hand?

If you don't play Mah Jong, I would heartily recommend it. It's arcane, physical, contains more than average randomness, and looks great.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Real fear

This is going to sound unbelievable but it is true.

The thought of travelling in an uncomfortable enclosed space to the other side of the world without a book to read terrifies me more than the risk of being blown up by a bottle of lucozade. I am really hoping things settle down by October when we are scheduled to be flying to New Zealand.

If a paperback really is a security threat, I would urge airlines to bring on board a selection of books and magazines for passengers to use. Anything less would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

The whole episode further reinforces my resolve to travel by train everywhere possible from now on, even if it takes days. This is mainly for environmental reasons, but increasingly it is also for convenience and comfort. We are planning to go to northern Sweden at Christmas and we intend to take trains all the way, probably via Paris, Hamburg and Stockholm.

Friday, July 28, 2006

50 Films To See Before You Die

Last weekend Channel 4 broadcast a programme called 50 Films To See Before You Die. It concentrated more on arthouse and cult films than other movie rundowns I have seen recently, being a thinly disguised promo for Film4 which is now free. Despite not really understanding how you could possibly see a film after you die, it was a very enjoyable show.

The only thing I really didn't like about the programme was that several times they revealed huge spoilers and endings of films. That seemed a pretty dumb thing to do if the aim was to try and get people to watch and enjoy them for the first time. It's perfectly possible to give an idea of the atmosphere and premise of a movie without giving away vital plot details!

I had seen 20 out of the 50 films which wasn't bad going. But of those 20 I had seen, although all good films, I wouldn't class many of them as ones to see "before you die". The only ones I think I would categorise as such would be Three Colours Blue, Brazil, Alien, Pulp Fiction, Manhattan, Trainspotting, and The Shawshank Redemption. Especially Three Colours Blue. That is without a doubt the most emotional, visually beautiful, perfectly acted, paced, and atmospheric film ever made. In case you haven't worked it out yet, I really like Three Colours Blue.

Of the ones that I hadn't seen, I had already intended to see Princess Mononoke, Lost In Translation, and City Of God. Nothing in the programme changed my intentions there.

From the rest that I hadn't seen, or never even heard of, there were several that the programme convinced me that I would like to see. These were The Ladykillers, Come And See, Black Narcissus, Sexy Beast, Chinatown and The Apartment. Also it reminded me to watch Three Colours Blue again soon.

Surprisingly, given the Film4 ethos, there was the usual under-representation of foreign language films. I couldn't believe there was nothing from Spanish directors like Pedro Almodovar, Julio Medem, or Luis Bunuel. Eric Rohmer was nowhere to be seen. The new wave of Iranian cinema might as well not have happened. Even the clips of Princess Mononoke had horrible Disney-like overdubs instead of the Japanese. Well at least they had Three Colours Blue in the list. Did I mention that I really really like that film?

Anyway despite that, it was interesting, and certainly the best of those kinds of programmes I have seen. Maybe I will put together my own 50 at some point. You can probably guess what number 1 is. Well that's a start.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Shame of the Metropolitan Police

In the early hours of yesterday morning, fifty Metropolitan Police officers dismantled and removed placards and banners that were being displayed by long time peace campaigner Brian Haw. This man has been camped out in Parliament Square for years protesting at sanctions and war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has never harmed anyone or used any violence. By carrying out this operation in darkness they obviously intended to avoid it being seen by many people. But several brave souls climbed on top of the sea container being used to throw everything into, and delayed the operation until daybreak so it was seen by many people and media. More reporting and pictures at Indymedia

Apart from being a blatant attack on the basic right to assembly and expression, it is hard to imagine how this can be a valid use of police resources. Jenny Jones, one of the Green GLA members, has demanded to be told how much this operation cost and how it can be justified when there is real crime (i.e. with victims) being committed. There may have been someone being mugged or raped while these police were wasting time repressing peaceful protest to spare Tony Blair's embarassment.

And I'm sorry, but the usual 'just doing their job' arguments aren't good enough. No one was at risk. No one was being harmed. The police have a choice which laws to enforce when, where to put their resources, for the general public good. This wasn't some spur of the moment decision where a finely balanced judgement had to be made between free speech and public safety. It was well planned and the objective was clear. Someone simply made a decision that this demonstration would no longer be tolerated. That there are limits on expression, and this man has now used up his quota of free speech. What a total disgrace. Only a few weeks ago Tony Blair had the nerve to say how wonderful it was that people could demonstrate and voice their opposition. Presumably he meant only until it irritated him too much and reminded him too much of his legacy that he is trying so desperately to rewrite.

A very sad day for our 'democracy', and I fear just the beginning of worse to come.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Deerhoof - London Scala, 27th March

The cover of Deerhoof's latest album "Milk Man" (left) shows a figure being injured by pieces of fruit. This image is not that disturbing in itself, it's plainly ridiculous because we know fruit is good for you. But the image did take on a new sinister edge when at the end of their recent London show they started throwing bananas into the crowd!

That's one example of the fairly high levels of interactivity that were evident. People at the front of the crowd got to play some cowbells, and right at the end there was a full-on democratic process to figure out whether t-shirts would be sold from the stage, or in the bar.

So what about the music? Well I've put off talking about that because it's difficult to explain. By turns they reminded me a bit of The Fall, Cardiacs and Trans Am. That covers the experimental, multi-tempo, art/punk side of the sound which is undeniable. But quivering next to that is a delicacy of touch that really confuses things. Their tiny Japanese vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki makes effortless leaps between sounding innocent and childlike to wailing banshee without warning. The overall effect is disorienting but not unpleasantly.

The San Francisco band seem to revel in juxtaposition and throwing diverse ideas together to see what survives the impact. They have a wilfully obscure and confusing website. Animals seem to feature heavily in the titles, suggesting a cartoon-ish, fairy story element (Rabbit Dog, Trickybird, The Pickup Bird, Holdy Paws). But then so does the vaguely horrific and nightmarish (Gore In Rut, Dead Beast Queen, Heart Failure). Dadaism does come to mind, especially as they make no attempt to explain themselves.

It was a very enjoyable night, and I always like the Scala for an intimate venue. I can't give a setlist because I don't know their stuff well enough. They have a bunch of MP3s freely downloadable, take a listen and see what you think. But watch out for the killer fruit when you walk past those market stalls...

Saturday, March 25, 2006

My Old Dutch

Today the BMRB meal club went for lunch at My Old Dutch in Holborn. I think the overwhelming impression we came away with was how BIG and FILLING everything was. Starters were the size of main courses, with mains the size of - I don't know, really big main courses. I had some tasty deep fried cheesy things in breadcrumbs, followed by a pancake with sundried tomatoes, olives and artichokes. After a short break, I managed to squeeze in some ice cream with chocolate sauce. A highlight was the drinks menu which sported a good range of beers, including some premium Belgian ones. I went for Fruli, a strawberry beer. So this will allow us to cross off either D for Dutch or P for pancake on our A-Z of world cuisine. More photos here

Friday, March 24, 2006

Freedom from imprisonment by deranged zealots

Well, for some people anyway.

It's great that Norman Kember was rescued this week from his imprisonment in Iraq. This must be a joyous time for him and his family and is cause for celebration any way you look at it.

However I can't help thinking also about the many people, including British residents, also being unlawfully detained in contravention of all international legal standards. Yes of course I'm talking about Guantanamo Bay. But we don't hear much about efforts and resources being spent on freeing them. All we get on this is hand wringing and empty words.

The last British citizens who were being held there have been released after years of detention and interrogation without trial. But this is no thanks to Tony Blair, who blatantly sold out his own citizens to ingratiate himself with George Bush.

Now, it can't possibly have anything to do with the fact that Kember is a white middle class Christian, and the Guantanamo detainees are about as far removed from that demographic as you can get. Surely not.

I'm not saying we should send the SAS in to storm Guantanamo, but I just want to see the same level of determination to end arbitrary lawless detention and mistreatment wherever it occurs, and to whom.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Free Music

Kristin Hersh, former vocalist with Throwing Muses (one of my favourite bands of all time), has been fronting a new band called 50 Foot Wave for a while now. They have a sound that will be familiar to Muses fans, a bit harder edged though. Anyway, their new EP is being made available to download freely, and copying/sharing is encouraged. It is called Free Music and you can get it here.

Partly this is being done as a 'thank you' to fans, but also an experiment with a new way of distributing music - there is a PayPal donation link where you can contribute, if you want. I think this home grown approach is a wonderful thing, and is increasingly being taken up by artists especially people who have had plenty of experience with the music business, not all of it positive!

Kristin says "Money has so polluted the music world that my overwhelming urge right now is to divorce money from recorded music ... So we're sending free recordings off into the world to do their work. If people enjoy these songs and are excited by them, we ask that they share them with others. The music business is about fame and huge profits -- egos and greed -- music itself, is not."

Kristin still records and tours with solo material, and last year I went to see her perform an evening of Throwing Muses tracks with just her and an acoustic guitar. That was a rare treat, some songs that I haven't heard live since I first got into Throwing Muses about 20 years ago.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Dream On

I sometimes wonder what my dreams say about me. I think my dreams are pretty unusual. I don't seem to have the kind of anxiety dreams that a lot of people have - getting lost, falling off bridges, being naked, etc. Mine are often ridiculously action packed, dramatic and outlandish. They are like adventure movies or computer games. I wake up exhausted sometimes after haring around saving the world and being heroic. One theory I have is wish fulfillment; In my dreams I am usually decisive, fearless, even reckless. In real life, I am actually risk-averse, fairly unambitious, and a terrible procrastinator. Maybe it means I would like to be a more forthright, decisive person. The other explanation, which my wife often suggests, is that I watch too much TV and films.

For instance, here is last night's epic:

I was travelling on a plane when some kind of disaster struck, and we crash landed in a remote location. Somehow it came to light to me and the other survivors that all the major cities in the world had also been destroyed by the disaster, and that we were among the last humans left alive. We realised that not only did we need to somehow stay alive ourselves, but that the future of humanity also depended on us to get things back together and start repopulating the world. So we tried to survive in the remote wilderness, and inevitably started forming relationships with others in the group. I fell in love with a woman survivor and we decided to settle down together. Everything was going OK, until our first night together, when I found out she was a vampire. She always looked normal in the daytime but at night she grew fangs, her hair turned black and her eyes darkened. She was not evil, but sadly told me that we could never be together because I was a normal human and she was a vampire. She told me some of the other survivors were also vampires. We told the rest of the group to make sure that vampires only paired up with other vampires, and humans with humans, otherwise the next generation would be mutants and may not survive. I was crushingly disappointed as I really loved this woman. I decided to stay single and just help out with general planning for survival.

Some weeks later, we managed to repair the plane, and also we had come up with a long term plan to reorganise and save humanity. In the outside world, anarchy reigned due to the general collapse of organised government. There was starvation, poverty and disease everywhere. We had radios and so were keeping up to date with what was happening. Because we were outside of the smashed civilisations, we managed to keep things together and had space to think and plan. We now knew it was our duty to fly the plane back to New York, where we had heard that some kind of world government was left hanging on and tell them what we all needed to do as a species to survive.

So we flew the plane back, and we were very fearful of what we would find happening in our ruined civilisation. However as we approached, we could see that all the major cities were actually still standing. Paris, London, and New York were all still there and functioning normally. When we landed in New York and were greeted by huge cheering crowds, we realised that our entire experience had been faked, and we were actually put in that position and fed the misinformation deliberately in order to come up with solutions to the world's problems of racism, violence, war and pollution. They could not wait to hear what we had come up with. We were bursting to tell them.

We wondered how we could communicate everything to the general public. We had some genuinely new and innovative ideas that had come about because of our isolation and our true belief that the end of civilisation was imminent. In the end we decided to present it in the form of theatre, where we would get the ideas across using dramatised situations.

We worked on the production for a long time, with complex special effects and music. When it came to the opening nights across the world, things went badly. The props and sets were poor quality, the special effects did not work. Actors did not seem to understand the concepts and so did not communicate them properly. They forgot their lines. Everyone wondered what all the fuss had been about. By taking our ideas away from our protected space, by having to get them across to others who had not shared our genuine terror, they had become dulled, corrupted, cracked and flawed. They seemed ridiculous, infantile. Even we ourselves started to lose our grasp on what we had come up with, the concepts just fluttered away on the breath of our words. We knew we had been right, but now the edge was blunted, the crystal ball was dark. It was too long ago, we were all too much in love then, and reality drifted down over us like a dusty old blanket.

We slipped out of public view, and people forgot about us. The world carried on not knowing the answers. We missed our opportunity to reshape life on earth, but we knew it was in our grasp once. We were happy because of that. We never let on that there were vampires among humans, because we knew they would be persecuted even though they were kind, but looked frightening.

The end.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Feathered Friends

It always makes my day when I see a bird species for the first time. It's been quite a while since that happened. So on Friday morning I was really pleased when I saw a group of redwings foraging about on Ealing Common while I was walking from the tube station to my office. I got pretty close to them and they didn't seem bothered. They are very bright and breezy little creatures. They don't breed in Britain except in the Scottish Highlands, but they visit during winter when it gets too cold in their native Scandinavia.

My previous sighting of a new species was a few months ago when there were a pair of dunnocks in our garden. They were chasing and pecking each other which is something peculiar they do as part of courtship.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Caff Culture

I would like to bid a fond farewell to a local caff called "Cappucino" in Wimbledon Broadway, which has recently closed down.

It wasn't particularly salubrious, actually it was slightly grimy. I only went there a few times. But it always delivered what was required after a late night out, which was of course a breakfast the size of Estonia.

But the best thing about it, which I will miss most, was the advertising blackboard they had outside which offered something called "Mixed fried up" containing among other things "Musherooms" and "Harsh brauns". This sign always made me chuckle when I walked past it every day.

This kind of idiosyncratic place is fast disappearing from our town centres, especially Wimbledon, which was recently shown to be the most homogenous and boring high street in the whole of London. I can see why, as it is almost entirely dominated by the same chain stores you see everywhere.

I now actively seek out and use smaller independently run shops. The people who work in them often own them, which means they are more concerned that you should have a good experience when visiting. The average worker in Tesco or whatever couldn't care less if you like shopping there (and I can't say I blame them, given the pay they probably get). It means you get to know people in the local area, and the act of shopping or eating out becomes more than just a transaction of money for goods and services; you can help keep your local area dynamic and individual.

Oh, and I also find bad grammar and spelling on public display like that really funny for some reason. A bit annoying as well, but mostly just amusing. I've got a few good examples of that for future posts.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

You're so Vanian

I feel sorry for The Damned. I mean the band, not the actual damned. By definition, we don't have any sympathy for them. And even if we did, nothing good would come of it.

Anyway, The Damned. They seemed to inhabit too many musical worlds at once for their own good, and I feel they never quite got the recognition they deserved in any of them. Too melodic for punk, too experimental for pop, too witty for goth.

Listening to The Black Album yesterday, I decided that it's one of the Best Albums Of All Time. It has some incredibly strong songwriting on it, which isn't something you readily associate with punk, the genre they are normally plonked in. Well it certainly brightened up my rainy trudge to Ealing Common station yesterday evening.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Serial killers

TV serialization in the UK has had something of a resurgence in recent years, with series like 24 and Lost.

Part of the enjoyment of these kinds of programmes are cliffhanger episode endings, which makes us look forward to the next episode. The delay, the having to wait a week, is all part of the excitement. There is heightened enjoyment from delayed gratification. Another enjoyable aspect is discussing the programmes with work colleagues and friends.

So I really can't understand why people ruin it for themselves by downloading loads of episodes and watching them all in a row. Well, some people seem to just like feeling superior because they have seen it before the rest of us. But they are missing out on a really fun part - the shared cultural experience. OK, I know it's only TV, but you know what I mean.

But also, they ruin it for the rest of us by openly discussing future episodes and revealing spoilers for people who haven't seen those episodes yet. I always find myself asking people to please stop talking about the middle of series two of Lost when I am still watching series one.

Normally I feel justified asking people to not talk about episodes that haven't yet been shown on terrestrial TV. But this week I screwed up and forgot that Lost was a series finale double episode on Channel Four. I only recorded the first of the double, so I still haven't seen the very last episode. I will have to wait for the repeat on Sunday. (By my own argument I suppose I should feel even more excited about that rather than annoyed).

So because of my mistake I spent a fair amount of time in the office wearing my headphones and playing the loudest, most intrusive music I could find on my MP3 player, so as not to ovehear the conversations that have inevitably been going on about the series ending. Well anyway the music was good!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Hot Runes?

You may be wondering what the title of this blog means. Well, it is the name of a track by The Fall, from their album The Unutterable released in 2000. It's not the best track on the album by a long chalk, that would be "Hands Up Billy".

Monday, January 09, 2006

Blogness will be mine

At last, I have got around to creating my own blog.

I have been inspired by reading friends' blog sites, and now I think it is time for me to get writing.

So here it is. Hopefully someone will find something useful and thought provoking here. Only time will tell.