April 2006 Archives

Supermarket snobbery

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I'm not a supermarket snob, really I'm not. My approach to grocery shopping is based on pure pragmatism. I shop at what ever supermarket is nearest to me. It's an easy decision to make when you're reliant on public transport, and find yourself ferrying around 5 or 6 gallons of milk a week.

That said (yes, I know, "I'm not a snob, but..."), Somerfield depresses me. They have done ever since I found myself living in Brentford a couple of years ago, when I found myself shopping there regularly. I had a brief respite afterwards when I lived next door to a Sainsbury's instead (former bastion of the middle class supermarket run before Tesco mutated into an unstoppable behemoth and Sainsbury's became terminally confused as to what it's place in the market is), but I've been back with Somerfield ever since I moved into my flat.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why I dislike Somerfield so much. On the face of it, they're just another supermarket chain and discounting the enormous out of town supermarkets which have started cropping up, I find most supermarkets to be largely the same as one another, with little to differentiate them in terms of goods on shelves. But there's nevertheless something soul-sappingly wretched about Somerfield. The layout of the stores seem awkward (what's with the bizarre L-shaped dairy section?), the staff are surly (admittedly I would be too if I worked there), the design of their own brand products are horrendously poor, and there are almost never enough cashiers manning the registers. And their carrier bags are too thin.

It's by no means a desperate state of affairs, but it gives you some background as to how much cheer I felt when a letter dropped through my door informing me that the local Somerfield supermarket is due to cease trading shortly in order to undergo a transformation into a... Waitrose. A Waitrose! Imagine the tingle of middle-class excitement that ran up my spine when I discovered this. I've rarely shopped at Waitrose's in the past, since they've formerly been confined to England, and usually to the posher suburbs at that, but the few I've ventured into have all been infinitely more pleasant than Somerfield. Hurrah!

The downside of all this is that I've realised I'm actually excited about the opening of a new supermarket. There's something terribly, terribly wrong with that...

Picard sings

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This may be one of the greatest video clips in the world ever.

The precious...

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It was too good to last.

Apple released a 17" MacBook Pro this week (still loving the hardware, still loathing the name), something I've been waiting on for a little while now. My own laptop, an old Dell, soon to be approaching it's 5th birthday, is, how to put it, a little past it's prime (well, falling to bits really). I don't really need a new laptop at the moment, however, since my work laptop is more than sufficient for my needs, and the general rule with Apple hardware seems to be wait for the second revision so they can iron out the kinds. But desire is feisty creature and not so easily tamed. And I really, really, really want one.

So began my battle with an extraordinarily bad case of technolust. I valiantly pulled forth reason after reason why it would be wise to wait rather than splurging out on a shiny new (and, oh, ever so desirable) laptop now. Such would be the sensible course of action, after all. And then I discovered I had a little more money in my bank account than I'd realised. It was obviously a sign! And who am I to ignore such a blatant sign that the universe wants me to be happy with a new laptop?

At that point I became rather like Steve Martin in The Man With Two Brains, during the scene in which he stands in front in his dead wife's portrait and begs her for a sign that he shouldn't marry Kathleen Turner. In the film, the portrait starts spinning, lightning crashes, winds howl and a ghostly voice can be heard to moan "no!" over and over. In real life I asked for reasons why I shouldn't buy shiny new laptop and in response an envelope plopped through my letterbox containing a letter asking for the first instalment of an obscenely large sum of money for work that's required on the the building housing my flat.

I regret asking, truly I do...

The road to improvement

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The best part of learning a new juggling trick, or indeed any new skill is general, is reaching that sublime moment when an action that was once without question absolutely impossible, becomes merely incredibly difficult. The transition from faint hope to tangible improvement and the sense of accomplishment which goes with it is priceless.

I've just started to get the hang of 3 ball palm circles. It's not the flashiest of tricks, but like most contact juggling it exudes a simple elegance I find immensely appealing. My attempts are still faltering and far from fluid, but considering that I began learning this particular move by holding the three balls in my hand and staring at them, willing them to move, it's a vast improvement.

I celebrated by my brief moment of accomplishment by ordering a couple of contact juggling dvd's via the internet. It's as much an act of masochism as anything else, since there are few better ways to put my own skills into perspective than watching others excel in the art. I don't harbour any illusions about the standards I intend to reach, since this is all purely for my own benefit. I'm not about to run away and join the circus any time soon (considered it once, chickened out at the last moment to my eternal shame), so I'm content to improve my repertory at a more gentle pace. Of course, I may feel differently once those dvd's arrive...

I'm by no means an expert on the facial features of cats, but there is one expression, common to all members of the species, that I've come to recognise: the one that say "mine". You might have witnessed it yourself from time to time, if a cat has come up and brushed itself against you, or deigned to allow you to touch or pet it. "Mine" the cat says, regarding you with evident self-satisfaction.

There are many cats where I live. None of them are mine, but I think several cats have started to lay claim to me. At first I thought it was just one particular feline, the large black and white moggy with a fondness for my doormat, but today I strolled around my flat with the distinct feeling that I was being watched. It turns out it was no mere paranoia on my part. A pair of eyes peered through the my window. The eyes in question belonged to a rather handsome silvery grey cat perched up the window ledge outside. It's a cat I've seen before - only yesterday I caught it coming of out the open window of a neighbour's flat, it's feigned air of nonchalance obviously masking a guilty conscience. I tickled it, then, behind it's ears for moment or two before it darted off. Today it's eyes continued to follow me around my flat as I walked around. I went outside, and cautiously walked up to it. The cat allowed me to approach, and when I petted it again, it turned lazily onto it's back and allowed me to scratch it's belly for a bit. Once it had tired of my attentions it batted my hand away with it's paw, claws noticeably visible. It looked at me, still hoarding my window ledge. The expression on it's face said "mine".

For some reason I like cats and enjoy their company. On days like this, I'm increasingly given to wonder why...

Are you ready to rawk?

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'tis brother Nicky's birthday tomorrow, but since Sunday dinners have become something of a tradition in my family we help birthday dinner (birthday dinner's also being traditional since time immemorial) tonight instead. Actually, I say "we" but in truth it was more like "he", since Nicky organised everything and cooked dinner for everyone himself. He even went so far as to bake his own birthday cake (lots of chocolate - it was scrummy).

I'd feel a little bad about this, but since all offers of assistance were cheerfully declined I wasted my time playing with the birthday present I'd given him instead: The rather awesome Guitar Hero. At first blush, Guitar Hero sounds like just another entry in the endless parade of bemani games first popularised by Parappa the Rapper nearly a decade ago. Basically gameplay involves pressing buttons on the controller in time with the music. It's not the most complex of genres, but it's certainly near the top in terms of pure fun. Several games have taken the basic idea a step further by introducing custom controllers to supplant the control pad. The most famous of these is the Dance Dance Revolution series which include a mat on the floor divided into various segments which must be jumped on at the correct time. My favourite is the sublime Samba De Amigo which uses maracas instead.

Guitar Hero continues this theme by including a 3/4 scale Gibson SG, a plasticky device which is in no danger of ever being mistaken for the real thing - but that's by no means a bad thing. In place of strings it features 5 large coloured buttons where the frets would live, and a plastic bar that can be pressed up or down in place of strumming the guitar. All the player need do is press the appropriate fret buttons at the right time and simultaneously strum the bar. It doesn't sound like much, but trust me when I say this game rocks big time. I'm by no means a fan of rock music in general, but my lack of familiarity with most of the 30 something songs included in the game hampered my enjoyment not a jot. Somehow that plastic guitar wields the ability to bring out the rock star in even the most reticent of players - whilst playing it I found myself adopting poses I'd only previously witnessed in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure without the slightest hint of shame.

It really is tremendously good fun, and all who played will testify to it's horribly addictive nature. If you own a PS2 I heartily recommend it, and if you don't, well, I'm sure you know someone who does who can be badgered into buying it.

Rock on!

I had an unusually cheerful breakfast. My toast said "good morning" this morning. 'Twas a brighter way to start the day.

Don't worry, I'm not losing my marbles. This makes sense to someone. Honest.

Beware low flying food

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Someone threw a hamburger at me earlier today. If you're wondering exactly what I did to deserve this particular volley of processed meat, alas I'm afraid I did little more than stroll past a McDonalds. I'm not sure exactly what had happened inside but someone was leaving in a hurry and seemed inclined to divest themselves of their burger in as expedient a manner as possible. It wasn't directed at me personally, rather my route and the burger's flightpath intersected by sheer coincidence.

Strangely, those around me seemed more shocked and bemused by this turn of events that I did. Had someone deliberately thrown something at me I'd feel very differently, but as it was impersonal I viewed it as little more than an act of nature (on a par with being pooped on by a goose, and with very similar laundry requirements). And to be honest, I can think of worse things to do with McDonald's burgers other than using them for frisbee practice. Eating them, for example...

I can see you

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Creature of innate curiosity that I am I couldn't resist installing some tracking software on this blog, courtesy of Google Analytics, so that I could learn a bit more about how many people are reading it, if any. It's been in place for about 6 months now, long enough to tell me that I have a small but loyal band of followers - thank you all for your patronage. However it's also rather fun to browse around the other features it offers.

Easily my favourite is the ability to present a map of the world over which are displayed numerous dots showing the locations from where people have read my blog. There's a random smattering of dots across pretty much the entire globe (one time traffic from Google searches for the most part) but reassuringly large clusters appear where I expect them to, with Vancouver, Minneapolis, New York and various parts of the UK all being well represented. Strangely, though, a couple of new clusters have appeared this week in unexpected locations - Denver and Jakarta.

You're more than welcome here wherever you're from, of course, but I hope I can tempt those of you in more far flung locations (relative to myself at least) into leaving a comment. As I said, I'm curious...

iDon't get it

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Much to the consternation of a great many pundits Apple have yet to produce a video iPod, despite the many rumours of the device's existence which have been circulating over the last few months. Wait, I know what you're thinking: didn't Apple just realise a video iPod? Well, kind of. They produced an iPod capable of playing video, but only on a rather titchy little screen. The rumour is that the new iPod will feature a larger screen covering nearly the entire face of the device, with all controls handled through a "virtual" click wheel on a touch sensitive screen.

My initial reaction was (and still is): Meh. Much like pocket televisions in the past, it'll produce a number of column inches in the media, and probably gather some generally positive publicity for Apple, but I'll be tremendously surprised if it sells well. I certainly don't expect it to displace sales of the more conventional iPods. Ignoring battery life issues resulting from the larger screen, the biggest problem with the video iPod is that it's likely going to have to ditch one of the iPod's greatest success - the click wheel.

It won't be the first time that Apple have produced an iPod with a completely touch sensitive interface. We've seen it before on the third generation iPods, which featured four touch sensitive circles above the circular scroll pad to serve as buttons. It was a neat looking design, but the buttons weren't terribly practical for one important reason: No tactile feedback. There was no way to feel that a button had been pressed. It may seem like a minor gripe, but it made using the iPod considerably more difficult that it should have been, and mistakes, such a double tapping a button by accident, were all too common. The development of the click wheel on subsequent iPods rectified this flaw and it remains the interface by which all other mp3 players are judged (although I find it ironic that many companies are still trying to ape the 3G iPod's touch sensitive interface). But for all it's sins, the 3G iPod featured a recessed scroll pad and buttons so they could at least by distinguished by touch alone. The video iPod won't ever offer that.

Ultimately, I find it difficult to understand exactly why so many people are so excited by the prospect of the video iPod. The interface will almost certainly be lacking, a lower battery life - never one of the iPod's strong points - seems inevitable and it'll inevitably cost more.

Is there an upside that I'm not simply not seeing, or am I finally developing immunity to Steve Jobs' vaunted Reality Distortion Field?

YouTube video of someone completing the Dragon's Lair arcade game. Unfortunately most of the humour in the game came from Dirk's numerous deaths along the way, which are sadly lacking here...

Laugh. It's funny (although probably more so if you're familiar with Marvel's Secret Wars series from the 80's)

Here's the problem with chocolate in a nutshell: There's no plateau.

You eat chocolate and it's wonderful, so you're naturally inclined to continue repeating the experience. And, assuming there are adequate supplies of chocolate, say, for example, on Easter Day when bountiful amounts of chocolate are available, that chocolate will be consumed. Because it's wonderful.

Until it's not.

There doesn't seem to exist that perfect moment and which just the right amount of chocolate has been eaten, and you can sit back and be content. There's no plateau, instead there's only a vicious peak followed by an inevitable and precipitous decline.

Which is to say, I think I may have eaten too much chocolate...

The test was supposed to shut down after 15 seconds but continued long after that. Hilarity ensues.

Don't get the wrong idea, it's simply what I get for trying to use my laptop whilst also watching Chocolat on television. A delightful film (though the book is better yet), but the scenes involving chocolate and it's preparation - of which there are many - are nearly too much for me, my constitution obviously having weakened as a consequence of chocolate deprivation.

I'm a little vexed at my lack of forethought. Had I an ounce of common sense I would have stocked up on choccy treats earlier in the day in preparation for the coming midnight which signals the expiration of lent. As it stand I'll have have to run out first thing tomorrow morning in order that I can spend the rest of the day gorging myself silly.

Giving up chocolate for lent. What a bloody stupid idea that was...

Am I allowed to take umbrage against events that affect me only peripherally? A rhetorical question, I know, but let's assume that the answer is in the affirmative.

My hackles have been raised by the announcement that work is introducing a clear desk policy. I'm naturally exempt from such a decree (oh, the joys of homeworking), which is just as well, considering that there's a heap of miscellany obscuring the surface of my desk right now. However, I'm still unhappy about it, as are many of the people I know who still work in the office. I've suffered through enough clear desk policies in my career to have little respect for them. I understand the motivation behind their introduction but it invariably strikes me as little more than wishful thinking. Experience tells me that the only result of the policy will be the reduction of staff moral for a few weeks before the ruling collapses under the weight of it's own self importance and stuff gradually starts creeping back onto desks once more.

Most of my irritation is simply due to the fact clear desk policies are, in my estimation, nothing more pure undiluted bureaucracy which serve no useful purpose. I will confess, however, that a least a small fraction of my ire stems from the fact that a lot of items scheduled for removal from desks around the office are, well, mine. Some animals have obvious ways of marking their territories - I'm sure you can all pluck out an example or two from your fertile imaginations thus saving me the small embarrassment of elaborating further - I on the other hand like to think that my methods are somewhat subtler. A miniature zen garden here, a geomagnetic sculpture there. A snow globe or two for effect. A lurid posable pink flamingo for... well, just because. Ok, so my ways aren't exactly subtle, but suffice it to say that I've left my imprint on the office. What trace of my will be left when those are gone?

I will not give up my stuff. I've made too many compromises already, too many retreats. They remove my clock sign and I fall back. They clear my crap from the office and I fall back. The line must be drawn here. This far and no further.

They may take our desks, but they will never take my flamingo!

Ah, Easter's almost upon us, bringing with it the end of Lent (oh, have I really been parted from my precious chocolate for so long. Precious, preciousss chocolate), and two bank holidays flanking the day itself. Four whole days off work. Bliss.

I don't have anything special planned mind you. Having just been on quite a tiring holiday I'm rather looking forward to a calmer break this time around. I'm sure I'll be able to amuse myself anyway. There are plenty of small things I should really be getting on with, some spring cleaning, a few bills to pay, more tax forms to fill out. All rather mundane really, but it'll feel good to rid myself of the small mound of nagging tasks I've continued to put off. And I'll probably get around to watching some of the films I've been recording over the last few months. I've gotten into the bad habit of accumulating films from the nether regions of the freeview schedule and my pvr currently contains a curious melange of Japanese, Spanish, English and American arthouse cinema. All improving stuff, although as they're unwatched at the moment I'm rather like those people whose bookshelves contain volumes of unread classics....

There's something eerily organic about this device. Perhaps DataTic would be a more apt name

What Mark saw

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Right I've finally uploaded and formatted some holiday snaps for your delight and delectation. There's only three I've deemed worth putting up here, though I did take a few more. Whilst I like to have a few photos reminisce over, I try not the let the exercise of taking them get in the way of actually experiencing what's about me. I don't quite understand those people who seem to have one eye permanently glued to the eye piece of a video camera for the duration of their holiday.

Before the pics I do have to comment on what an absolute delight it was to simply stroll around Venice. It's a fantastically pedestrian friendly place, and makes a welcome contrast to most anywhere else. Cars are such an omni-present factor in day to day living that their absence almost comes a shock and it takes a while before that nagging feeling at the back of your head that something is missing begins to subside.. I genuinely wish more cities were built around pedestrians rather than motor vehicles. Logistics be damned, I'd want to live there.

One curious consequence of the lack of cars is the large number of dogs to be found roaming around (in the company of their owners of course, and both were usually well behaved). I've never seen so many dogs concentrated in such a small place before. It was impossible to walk for more than a few minutes without encountering a four legged friend of some description. Some streets were a little bit... poopy as a result, but it didn't seem much worse than many streets I've encountered in this country. Amusingly, amidst all the dogs, I only spotted a single cat. It would be quite easy to believe it's the sole feline inhabitant of the city, although on my last day I did see a missing cat poster bearing a strong resemblance the the kitty I saw, so it's possible cats simply have a very short shelf life in Venice.

Anyway, here are the photos. Apologies for the meagre number. Click for larger versions.

Uh oh

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I'm completely immersed in a kakuro at the moment, a rather fiendish sudoku alternative. Blame the puzzle supplement that came with last Saturday's Guardian.

I may be gone some time...

Freakishly beautiful mammatus clouds

Fantasy islands

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Venice is unreal. Not unreal as in "cool", but literally unreal, such that it's hard to believe it exists in the world today. The entire city is a vast anachronism belonging to story books and history books - not the here and now - which makes walking around it all the more remarkable.

And a remarkable place it is. Some cities are known by their landmarks, a city like London for example, is presented to the world as a series of icons, from Buckingham Palace to the Gherkin, but much of fabric of the city is curiously anonymous. By contrast, any part of Venice is immediately recognisable, each sliver of the city seeming encapsulating the whole as though it were constructed from some exotic fractal algorithm. It's impossible to gaze down any street or canal without experiencing a familiarity verging on deja vu.

It would be so very easy to be negative about Venice. It's a quixotic, crumbling edifice starved of any real purpose in the modern world, save as a curiosity to gawped at by an endless legion of tourists. It came a something of a shock to discover just how given over to the tourist hoarde the city is. Various guide books refer to Venice as a theme park, and it's all too apt a description. The last 50 years or so have seen the native population shrink by almost two thirds as tourists snapped up holiday homes and forced house prices upwards. The majority of shops seem to cater near exclusively for tourists now, and the casual observer would quickly come to the conclusion that the entire Venetian economy is wholly dependant on the sale of glass trinkets, carnival masks, chocolate, and tickets for concerts of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Finding anything else for sale requires a surprising amount of effort.

Another shock is the state of many of the buildings in and around the city. Flooding hasn't been kind to many of the older buildings, but there are obvious signs of decay and neglect to be found almost everywhere. Boarded up windows are common around the canals, and crumbling brick and plasterwork are familiar sights. But if Venice in terminal decline - and despite efforts to save the city, such as a flood barrier that's been recently approved after 30 years of wrangling it's hard to escape such a conclusion - it's nevertheless a charming sort of decline. In the pantheon of cities, Venice most closely resembles an alcoholic film star who's best days belong in the distant past, but is yet able to enthral an audience. It's a wondrous place which feels magical in a way with which no other city can compare.

Venice is both tragedy and comedy. It should be a place of painters and musicians, of playwrights and storytellers, home to artisans of all sorts. A trip to the Guggenheim revealed much about Venice's vibrant art's community back in the 1950's, but little evidence of such can be found today. It seems a terrible shame that Venice is damned by it's own beauty. I feel guilty for having visited the city, for having contributed to the creeping tourism that infests it. I'm not sure if there's a collective noun for tourists, but if not I have a proposal: A plague of tourists. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

I'm genuinely glad for having visited Venice. It's a wonderful place and I loved the city and the feel of the city. It exudes character and beauty and is truly marvellous, though less so than it once was I fear, a thought which saddens me greatly. I can't recommend you go there, since to do so can only seem to doom the city further, though at the same time I believe it's somewhere everyone should have the opportunity to see. I shan't return, though I would dearly love to.

Kitty Captcha

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This is just so gosh darned cute I don't know where to start

That is so book

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Today I learned of a new entry into the vernacular of our youth: Book. It's a synonym for "cool" and derives from the fact that the same keypresses are required to enter both words on a mobile phone, but T9 prediction tends to pick out "book" as the primary choice.

Well, I thought it was interesting...

Delays expected

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Well, my plan for this evening was to sit down and delve into some details about my holiday, including posting a couple of photos of Venice (I didn't take many in the end, though I'm pleased by some of them). Alas, Nicky and Kerry dragged me out instead, so that will just have to wait until a future date.

I'm off to bed now. Good night.

Mischief managed

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I returned home late last night after an exhausting (but fun) break which culminated in a day at work in the London office. Perhaps not the ideal end to a holiday, but set against that is the fact that it means I can expense my flights down to London. Aren't I sneaky?

Whilst in the office, I noticed the latest sign of the company's recent forays into new markets - a series of wall clocks displaying the time in locations in which we have interests: Buenos Aires, Paris, London and New York. Having felt sorry to have missed April Fool's Day, by the time I left the office that day a small spot of creative vandalism on my part left the clocks displaying the time in Buenos Aires, Paris, Edinburgh and New York. It doesn't hurt to remind others of your existence whilst working from home, after all.

Alas, it was a short lived piece of mischief - I've just been informed that my handiwork has been spotted and the clocks are now restored to their previous state. I'd have been happy to leave it at that, but a rather unnecessary spot of gloating saw a declaration of war in response from me.

Suffice it to say, those clocks haven't seen the last of me...