Anyone here work in television?

I have an idea for a new programme which I’m going to call “Celebrity Morris Dancing”. In it, a group of Z-list celebrities are paired up with a professional cloggie, who is carrying a big stick.

That’s as far as I’ve gone so far, but I think it has potential. Any takers?


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What’s an invention?

What is an invention? If you come up with a new idea, does it matter that someone else had it first? I think just about everyone thinks it does – which is a shame as I had an idea last week of which I’m quite proud. Everyone I’ve mentioned it to though says something along the lines of “Oh, yes, we do that.”

I’m not a gardener. Well, technically I suppose I am a gardener in that I do have a garden and occasionally I go into it and do what Hemingway might have called “the thing with the lawnmower”. That’s my sort of gardening. Cutting the grass and trimming the hedge – and, of course, as revealed in posts passim, the strimmer. Destructive gardening. Negative gardening. Not for me the digging and seeding, the composting and potting out. If my sort of gardening ever makes it into the national curriculum it’ll probably be called “Dark Gardening” and the set text will be by Severus Snape.

My garden isn’t large (which is one of the reasons I like it) and over the years I’ve used various ruses to keep the maitenance down as far as possible. When my children were young we had a slide and swing set – or as I thought of it, a device for reducing lawnmowing by 15%. A generous playhouse took about another 10% and I had a shed – nominally to store the lawnmower but really it was far too large for that, though it was exactly the right size for it’s main purpose – which was covering another 10% of the garden.

The one thing over which I’ve never had any control is the hedge. I live at the top of a cul de sac and my garden – though not very large in area – is quite wide. If you put your right index finger along the knuckles of your left hand you get the idea – my garden is your right index, the other fingers are the gardens of my neighbours. Your left index knuckle has a thick privet hedge which is a bugger to cut. Your middle and ring knuckles have old laurel which is, because of its age, thick-stemmed and an absolute bugger to cut. Your little finger – I really like that neighbour. He has a fence.

For many years now, I’ve have stepped into the garden, wielded the clippers, raked the cuttings off the lawn and returned indoors for little refreshment; three fingers of hedge earns – well, you can probably work it out. And it worked well until we had the garden redesigned. Where I once had one patch of lawn, I now have two smaller patches and two patches of gravel. At the design stage this seemed a wonderful idea – less lawn equals less mowing. And so it does. But there’s a flaw. And it involves, as you’ve probably guessed, the hedge. Trimming it is the same job it ever was, but now half the clippings fall on gravel. And I can tell you from experience that hedge trimmings do not rake easily from gravel.

And so I came to hate hedge-trimming even more than I did. I never like hedge-trimming. And the nedge never liked being trimmed. It used to fight back – snagging the cable of the electric trimmers, or jamming the manual ones. Showering me withsecond-hand rain. Attacking me by spitting out 3 millions wasps. OK, it might not have been 3 million. It might only have been three. But in my defence they were moving rather fast and they do all look very much the same so I may well have counted some of them more than one. But last week I was in the decorating section of Homebase and it came to me in a flash that leaves are, essentially, the same as paint. And you can get rid of them in the same way. (No, not chemical stripper. Nor a blowtorch. Though I did think about it.) It occurred to me that the dustsheets decorators use to catch drips of paint could just as easily catch leaves, so I bought a large cloth-dustsheet (I thought the thin plastic ones would blow away). Last Thursday, I tried it out. It worked like a charm. Down goes the sheet, snip, snip, snip, roll up sheet, empty into the bin and repeat. Much less effort that picking privet out of gravel and even less effort that raking cuttings up from grass. I was delighted with my discovery and proudly brought it up the next day – only to find everyone in the world (as far as I can determine) knows this ruse. They generally don’t use dustsheets – they use old curtains or duvet covers cut open. But the priniple is the same.

Ah well. back to the day job.

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Dear American Shopkeeper…

I have a small request. Just a little one. Next time you’re labelling your stock or setting up price lists, do you think the amount you put on your price list or price tag could be the amount I have to part with, in order to purchase the item? Something we in England call the “price” of the item? Could you do that for me? That would be wonderful.

I’ve just stood in a queue at Madison Airport, on my way home from the second North American Discworld Convention, waiting to buy a steak sandwich. OK, I’m in Wisconsin, it’s a steak and cheese sandwich. With extra cheese. And the menu says it’ll be $9.59. So I rummage through my wallet, find I have a $10 bill left, and order my sandwich. It looks good, and I’m starting to feel hungry. In a few moments, that delicious piece of cusine will be mine to do with as I wish (which is to eat it, in case you’re wondering).

But that would be too simple.

For reasons I find hard to fathom, buying a $9.59 sandwich involves handing over $10.12. It appears that if you want to buy something in Wisconsin which costs $9.59 and you want to know if you have enough money on you, you need to be able to calculate $9.59 by 1.05526590198123. Now, I don’t want to have to calculate $9.59 by 1.05526590198123 for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t want to multiply 9.59 by 1.05526590198123 in my head. And secondly – how am I supposed to know the magic number is 1.05526590198123, rather than 1.04 or 1.34 or 65.876? I don’t really care about your rates of local tax, or state tax or federal tax or carpet tax. I’m not from round here. You didn’t know? Well, here’s a clue – I’M IN AN AIRPORT. I reckon if I spoke to the hundred or so other people here, I might just be able to find one or two who aren’t local. Oh, sure, most of them are kids on the way to school, or people heading for the grocery store who’ve chosen to fly rather than take the bus for half a mile but there often is, at an airport, a tiny nidus of travellers from elsewhere.

I’m not asking much. Just think of us when you’re pricing up your stock. It would be good. And perhaps not just for us. In the UK, where the price on the ticket is actually the amount of money you hand over, we almost never have armed holdups by people who’d rather risk prison that own up in public that they don’t know their 1.05526590198123 times tables.

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Classless Society 2?

I feel slightly dirty about something I just did. I am an egalitarian. I believe all men are equal. But I think I just betrayed my principles. We arrived at a restaurant and the conversation went like this:
“Good evening, sir, table for three?”
“Yes, please, on the terrace if possible.”
“Certainly, sir, do you have a reservation?”
“No, I’m afraid we don’t.”
All fairly straightforward, I’m sure you’re thinking, and wondering what the problem was. Well, what you can’t see written but was all too painfully obvious was that between my first and second sentences is that my accent went up at least two social classes. And it kept going. With every sentence I was getting further from my comfort zone. If the conversation had gone on for much longer, I would have made the Queen Mother sound like someone from The Only Way Is Essex. But what made it worse is that I’m in Canada where the locals struggle to understand my total lack of accent at the best of times. So now we have a very well trained waiter trying to deal politely with a man whose voice is moving backwards and upwards, totally out of his control. I could see in the waiter’s eyes that he was beginning to consider the Heimlich manouvre, since the sounds I was making could only come from someone with a foreign body wedged firmly in a major airway. But just in time I managed to regain some small amount of control and, in a mutual state of great relief, he showed us to a table. Where I ordered by pointing at the menu.

And since you ask, it was the best good I have eaten in Canada – though having only been here 48 hours that’s perhaps not much. But if you’re ever in Niagara, I recommend The Old Winery on Niagara Stone Road. But probably better if you don’t say I sent you…

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Classless Society?

While waiting to board at Manchester International Airport (home, incidentally, of the World’s Worst Technology Display – a 3DTV in duty free which shows adverts which actually look less convincingly 3D than a traditional 2D television) we were treated to the announcement “First and Business Class passengers may now board through the carpeted lane.” Seriously. The “carpeted lane”. They didn’t quite say “Economy scum – crawl over the broken glass and be grateful that we permit you to rest your fetid gaze upon our magical metal flying bird” – but it was definitely implied.

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Time to eat…

It had been an odd few days, gastronomically speaking. Sunday at 5 am, I was stood in front of an open fridge playing “Chew or Chuck”. The bin got the cabbage and old peppers, I got two apples, a piece of ham and a slice of my father’s birthday cake from the day before. Most of the rest of the day was spent either in the air or waiting in airports and the food was pretty much what you’d expect. But finally we got to Buffalo, picked up the car and drove to Canada. Drove very slowly, I must say, not because I was freaking out about driving an automatic on the wrong side of the road, but simply because (as best I could judge by reading number plates) every Canadian in the US was trying to get out before Independence Day (my wedding anniversary. Yes, Alanis, it is, unlike much of your song.) We were in a queue for over two hours and according to the news reports, we were the lucky ones! Finally we got to the hotel. It was 10pm clock time, 3am stomach time when we stumbled into a Wendy’s. Now, I don’t know if you’re aware that the name Wendy was created by the writer J M Barrie for the heroine of his best known work “Peter Pan” but perhaps I should have anticipated a step sideways from the world I know. And so it was that I set my eyes on The Baconator. How could I resist anything with such as name? Well, I couldn’t. It’s hard to describe The Baconator. It’s as if someone took a pig, used it to beat a cow to death, grilled the grizzly remains and then buried the evidence in a bun. I couldn’t see any evidence of vegetables or anything which might have contained vitamins. Asof Junior said there was cheese in his – but he may have been having a carnivore hallucination. And I have to say it was delicious. I’m not a big fan of fast food burgers, but I’d have another one of these – as soon as my body had digested this one. So that’ll be in time for the next Convention in 2013.

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Broadband upgrade

The phone rang in Asof Towers a few weeks ago.

“Good afternoon! My name is Julian. May I speak to Dr Asof?”

It took me a little while to understand Julian due to his accent – not as you might expect from the name an accent that spoke from Winchester or Cheltenham or some other middle England bastion, but just a litle, well, Indian.

“Hello Dr Asof my name is Julian how are you today I am calling from Unviolated Entertainment and as a valued customer of ours I am calling to offer you a special upgrade to your internet connection.”

He paused to draw breath and hearing that I hadn’t hung up he plunged on.

“You are currently on our 10 megabit connection package and we would like to offer you an upgrade to 20 megabits for only a small extra charge. Would you be interested in that?”

“Well, Julian, I would be interested in a faster connection. You see, the thing is, although I’m paying you for 10 megabits, I never get more than about 7.”

“Ah, Dr Asof, you have to understand that the speed we advertise is a speed which we aspire to deliver, and which many of our customers receive, but we cannot guarantee that any individual connection will receive that speed as there are too many variables.”

“But you can offer me a faster connection if I pay for the upgrade?”

“That is correct, yes, we can install a faster connection for a small extra-”

“Sorry to interrupt – but here’s a suggestion, just a wild, off the wall, bear with me I’m thinking out loud here, idea – but how about you install the faster connection at your expense and use it to deliver to me the service for which I am already paying and then if you can actually do that perhaps we can consider a paid upgrade to a service beyond that speed?”

Dear reader, you may be amazed to discover that Julian didn’t feel he could do that. How to deal with a customer who wanted what he was paying for before agreeing to pay more didn’t seem to be in his script. But eventually, he agreed to send me a copy of the agreement to the new service which I could peruse and return to them, which I did.

A few days later, the phone rang again. It wasn’t Julian – it was a woman called Alice who described herself as being from the contracting department. I expressed my sympathy, and then she explained she was from the department which handled contracts, not a department which was shrinking. She rapidly came to the point.

“Dr Asof, you’ve made a change to the contract before returning it to us and I’m afraid we can’t allow that.”

“Really? I didn’t think it was a big change. All I did was move a few words from one sentence to another. It used to say you’d supply ‘up to 20 megabits’ and I’d pay 9.99 a month, and I changed it to say you’d supply 20 megabits and I’d pay ‘up to 9.99 a month’.”

“Yes, but…”

“You see, 9.99 is a payment which I aspire to deliver, and which many of my creditors receive, but I cannot guarantee that any individual invoice will receive that payment as there are too many variables.”

Asof (posted on a 10 megabits connection (well, 7 really))

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Der Spring Is Sprung…

As the weather gets warmer – well, less cold, anyway – the familiar spring rituals come round again in their timeless cycle. Each year I know that after I’ve taxed the car, it’ll soon be time to worm the cat, and only yesterday saw the emergence from hibernation of the old summer visitor, the lawn mower. The grass was a bit long and damp but the cutting passed off without incident – resulting in perhaps just one or two bald patches here and there – and soon it was time to strim the edges.

I must say I like my strimmer. I don’t know why I like it so much. The lawnmower does more damage — and it’s a hovercraft, for heaven’s sake, an actual hovercraft! How cool is that? When I was a kid, only Thunderbirds had stuff like that at home! But nonetheless, it’s the strimmer which holds my affection. Perhaps it’s the way I can pretend it’s the horticultural equivalent of a light sabre. Perhaps it’s the berserker way it just bludgeons the opposition into submission with its flailing strings-o-death(TM). (And yes, I said stringS-o-death, my strimmer has two. But I digress) For whatever reason, it’s the strimmer I love.

Until yesterday. My darling beloved strimmer turned on me in the most brutal fashion. While I was tidying the edge of the lawn something – I don’t know what, a stone, a twig, perhaps a bit of the actual string-o-death flew up and struck me in the face. Bleeding, dazed, confused and feeling betrayed, I stumbled into the house to clean up.

Where I met ASOF Junior, who instantly summed up events. He said it was clear what had happened: I fought the lawn, and the lawn won.

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Classic film remake

We seem to be going through a phase of remakes – sorry, reimaginings (is that even a word?) – of classic films. We’re also in a recession, so budgets are being cut. I’ve had an idea to cash in on this lucrative market AND save money at the same time – simultaneous remakes.

I’m working on a script now – it’s a simultaneous remake of two 1970’s specials – creature feature “Jaws” and supernatural vomitfest “The Omen”. I’ve only written one scene so far – it’s the one in which Brody and Hooper (I’m thinking Tom Cruise and Russel Brand?) perform a black-magic ritual to get rid of the shark and only then realise the size of the creature, and that their sacrificial animal was far too small to appease it. Brody looks from the shark back to Hooper and utters the immortal line: “You’re gonna need a bigger goat.”

No – you’re right. What was I thinking? Stupid idea. Cruise isn’t right for Brody. I’ll give Will Ferrell’s agent a call.

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How To Get Thrown Out Of Medical School – part 2

You thought getting IN was hard

So, you’ve made it in to medical school and you want out. It’s possible – but you need to know what you’re doing. The first thing you have to remember is that universities are large organisations with long histories, and they didn’t get that way by allowing fee-paying students to walk away without a fight. Universities are also rated (both by government and by applicants) on their ability to retain students. Institutions with high drop-out rates are less likely to attract central fund, or applicants. In a way, you should think of the university/student relationship as predator & prey – you aren’t going to get away without a fight. And this predator is much bigger that you – and much more experienced. This is your first attempt to get away; the university has been here many, many times before.

So what do you do when you’re faced with an opponent bigger, stronger and more experienced than you are? Come on, you know the answer to this! You’ve seen Karate Kid? (The 1984 version with Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi who teaches the Karate Kid karate, not the remake in which Mr Han, played by Jackie Chan, teaches the Karate Kid – kung fu. That’s right, it’s not even the right martial art. Come on, Hollywood, if you’re going to remake a classic, at least do it right! But I digress.) The principle stands, however – you use your opponent’s weight and size against them. And the weight and size of the university lies it its regulations. Now, reading university regulations is a long boring task which only very sad nerdy people do, so I’ve done that and here’s what I’ve learned.

There are four sections of the regulations which are of use to you, and we’ll work through them in sequence: Examination, Fees, Attendance and Behaviour. Let’s start with the most obvious: Examinations.

Everyone knows that if you fail your exams, they throw you out of university. Like all great misconceptions, there’s a grain of truth in this. There are also – from your point of view – two problems. Firstly,  exams tend to be at the end of a year – and don’t forget that most universities will also have a resit policy, so you can’t really fail until about August or September of the year after you join. That’s a lot of time to be in a course you don’t like. Secondly, although your course will have criteria for progression to the next year, it doesn’t necessarily follow that if you fail meet them that you’ll be asked to leave. You won’t progress, but that doesn’t mean you have to go. Your university has become rather fond of you (and the fees you attract) so they won’t necessarily want you to leave. They may well offer you the opportunity to take the year again!

So what does that leave us to say of technique 1, examination failure? It’s slow, it’s tedious, it’s expensive and it doesn’t always work. I’ll give it 3 out of a possible 10. There have to be better ways. We’ll look at some in part 3.

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