Thursday, 31 December 2009

Should auld acquaintance be forgot?

Robert Burns wrote Auld Lang Syne, right? Think again. The Scottish bard copied it down from an old bloke he met on his travels.

At least the Ploughman Poet gave credit where credit was due. Unlike the forgetting of inconvenient truths when record labels came to release cover versions of songs like Blue Suede Shoes, I Shot the Sheriff and Tutti Frutti.

The flowing of royalties eventually helped to quench residual, often racial, anger.

A matter of honours

The UK New Year's honours list can sometimes seem to be buggins's turn, but even discounting the promise of a valedictory award, the choice of Queen's Police Medal going to Cressida Dick seems a little insensitive. Ms Dick runs the specialist crime wing at the Met -- so far, so uncontroversial -- but the fatal 2005 shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station happened on her watch. Should this matter?

There does not seem to be much consistency in how public officials are treated: some get rewarded with gongs, others get the boot, often dependent on how the media story plays out.

Perhaps the system of awarding honours is at fault. Would a peerage, say, be appropriate for:

Maybe discrete in-house retirement gifts for controversial recipients would be less likely to attract negative media attention.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Sting on a winter's night

What should pop stars do when their white-heat moment of public adoration has gone? If they have genuine musical talent, and aren't manufactured for fame due to their looks and personality, then Sting isn't a bad model to follow.

Pre-Police, Sting was a jobbing musician working in the gaps between musical genres in Wallsend-upon-Tyne. As the front man for The Police and in the immediate post-group period, Sting was a megastar capable of selling out huge venues.

And now? The fame he found in the early 1980s opens doors to follow his own musical path without worrying unduly about chart success.

From the evidence of a BBC One bio-documentary, featuring his new project If on a Winter's Night, Sting has returned to his North-Eastern roots, and still prefers to explore the gaps between pop, rock, jazz, folk, gospel and the rest.

I doubt a 'where are they now' article in 2040 will feature the likes of Joe McElderry, Leon Jackson, and even Leona Lewis on television talking about their forthcoming concert in Durham Cathedral or any other Anglican edifice.

Schadenfreude in Queensland

Every job has its downsides, even the self-declared 'best job in the world': the caretaker post on Hamilton Island in Queensland, Australia.

Ben Southall fended off 34,000 other applicants in a worldwide competition to land the six-month Tourism Queensland post. The job description outline in brief: living an adventurer's lifestyle, looking after the island, hosting guests and publicising the results on a blog, all in the name of saying what fantastic place Queensland is to visit. All amazingly jammy for the right kind of person.

Except now, days away from finishing his tour of duty, Ben Southall has been sting by a deadly Irukandji jellyfish spending several days in hospital.

The media love the Schadenfreude of this: the accident brings Mr Southall down to size and makes the audience a little less jealous of his 'jackpot-win' opportunity. Why is this a reasonable inference? The media have only reported on his job when things have gone wrong, for example when he was criticised for having too much of a good time and not blogging enough.

From the beginning of 2010, Mr Southall starts an 18-month stint of promoting Queensland to the world, so the dream is not diminishing. This new chance to shine would seem to be opening a career path for him, globetrotting the world to promote a region: the British Council would welcome him with open arms.

The moral of the tale? Go for the dream if you have the talent, and see what transpires afterwards. There's hope for us all yet.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The People's Will-i-am

Happy 200th birthday, William Gladstone. Apparently the four-times prime minister read over 20,000 books in his lifetime and wrote copiously: a 19th-century polymath.

Flicking over to news from, which has apparently sold something like 500,000 units of the Kinder 2 since its launch. For the first time in history, more e-books were sold in a day than traditional paper-based books: on Christmas Day 2009. A rubicon has been crossed.

And in another corner of the jungle, Jerry Mitchell says that theatre directors watch DVDs of films for their inspiration rather than reading books, or even synopses of books. The result? Loads of new musicals are now adaptations of movies, the latest examples being Billy Elliot, Legally Blonde and Hairspray. Maybe short stories, poems, children's picture books and magazine articles might fit into musical creatives' mind-space for future inspiration?

Our culture is eating itself at warp speed as creative people are too time-poor and/or lazy to seek out fantastic yet unhyped books to adapt or, whisper it, to create something fabulous from scratch (Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber being the exception that proves the rule).

The upside is that any credible author with a great story that gets made into a successful film may be sitting in the first-class carriage of a gravy train heading towards extended shelf-life as a long-running musical.

William Gladstone's legacy as a representative of Victorian culture is in danger of turning into a derivative rap by the Black-Eyed Peas: pop culture for the Stepford generation The great man would be glad he didn't live to see the day.

Do the math, not the polymath: natch.

The People's Art

Over Christmas I met a textile artist called Jan Connett, who is making the most of her redundancy from Bristol City Council by reconnecting with her creativity.

In her Heart Felt project she has invited local people to write expressions of emotion on tag label as to what is going on in their lives and attach them to different types of heart-shaped images. The work is to be collected by the end of January 2010 and collated as an art installation and book. A website is being designed.

This engagement of non-artists in creative pieces has been a feature of the past year, notably Antony Gormley's fourth plinth project in Trafalgar Square. I hope the response to Jan's project is equally productive and rewarding for everyone involved.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Database lessons from Flight 253

Homeland security is just another area where database information is difficult to track. We all have an irrational hope that computers are magic devices that tell us all the answers, but information is only as good as the people who enter it on to the system, and databases are not good at reflecting nuance or individual workers' meanings.

The scuppered terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit was not foiled because of computer efficiency, as Umar Faroukh Abdulmutallab managed to get close to morbid success having passed through customs in Nigeria and Amsterdam. He featured on lists of suspected activists, was denied a Visa to the UK, and was shopped by his own father to the US Authorities.

Intelligence is only as good as the foresight of the people receiving it. Even the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack that brought the USA into World War II might have been averted if intelligence officers had picked up the correct message in among the white noise.

Databases do not predict, they only hold information about what has passed. The security services need to work out new forecasting strategies for second-guessing enemy groups next moves without killing off the general public's ability to use planes, boats and trains with too many counter-terrorism moves.

Databases are useful, however, for finding out the 'current situation'. When databases go wrong, where staff shortages force time-poor workers to rush updating records, any time savings are a false economy as information decreases in accuracy and value. In any organisation, database work is a frontline service.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

And the Zelig prize for most ubiquitous actor goes to ...

Which actor cropped up most often in original material on the telly during Christmas 2009? It's probably a toss up between:

I reckon David Tennant takes it by a long quiff, as Rob Brydon has been a guest on other people's shows more often than not. The BBC seem to have been treating Mr Tennant's departure from Doctor Who like Andrew Flintoff's 2009 farewell tour of English Test grounds during this year's Ashes series.

Mr Tennant has been everywhere, and now apparently he is trying to make it big in the USA, witness a recent pilot show for a legal series Stateside called Rex is Not Your Lawyer, and a general invitation to 'come and hire him' to LA producers.

This may well work, as his legacy playing the good Doctor will go before him. Perhaps he'll be the next Hugh Laurie, and maybe even Woody Allen will give him a starring role.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Loads for my baby and several for the road

Stop the press, Christmas is nearly over and the pre-holiday-season drink-drive campaign warnings have been finessed by a strange newspaper article claiming a new alcohol subsitute is being developed that mimics the feeling of happy inebriation without causing hangovers. An antidote pill can also be taken that reverses the drunken effects instantly so that people can drive home from pubs, parties and the like.

So, what the downside. This medical breakthrough is based on Valium. Doh! We have just spent nearly fifty years breaking society's addictive dependence on benzodiazepines like Valium. When these drugs first appeared on prescription they were trumpeted as a kind of wonder drug, in the same category as Thalidomide and Prozac. And look where those medicines got us as a nation.

Also, with medical breakthroughs of this type, the human-nature factor is never taken into account:

In short, social policy on responsible driving would be a mess. Companies manufacturing alcoholic drinks will lobby hard to strangle the product at birth. MPs who indulge in a tipple won't pass the necessary legislation. And, even if the new drink does exactly what it said on the can, would it be in society's best interest to encourage a product whose sole function was to render its customers drunk, however temporarily. This new drink would be a Trojan horse rather than a gift one.

PS: The Daily Telegraph's scoop is not exactly straight off the press, it's been recycled from the Daily Record story of 16 November 2009. The Torygraph has simply been storing the piece up for consumption during the post-Christmas hangover. Professor David Nutt was been sacked as a Government drug adviser before the article appeared: the alcohol-substitute drug seems to be one of Professor Nutt's day-job projects at Imperial College, London.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Doctor Ooh

... or maybe even Doctor Ood. The first part of the timelord's 2009 Christmas special The End of Time shown on BBC One tonight was a postmodern mesh of self-reflection over the Russell T. Davies era: the whole dog-and-pony show.

There will also be millions of children who woke up to Santa bearing gifts this morning who will have nightmares tonight inspired by The Master. Lots of hand-holding, landing lights left switched on and favourite bedtime stories being read tonight, and that's just the parents.

Wrapping up Christmas

Most of Britain will have exchanged presents today wrapped with as much gusto as the Christo team. Our family made a small dent in our personal carbon footprint by not using paper to conceal gifts, just putting them in reusable plastic bags.

This got me thinking just how much paper got used at Christmas 2009 in the UK. One supplier in Kent has had an 18 per cent increase in orders for wrapping paper, making a total of 35 million metres (enough to cover 9/10ths of planet Earth) and their Christmas cracker orders are up 21 per cent to 26.6 million (to say nothing of the paper hats and awful puns). The Royal Mail estimate that 700 million Christmas cards will be sent via the delivery service this year, and the paper usage includes envelope and card for each item. If an average card and envelope uses, say, 0.5 metres then that's 350 million metres. Maths has never been my strong point, but that's an awful lot of paper.

So, Christmas 2009 in the UK is like Christo wrapping the world several times over, and that's just from one country. Maybe the dominant green campaign needs to stop people wrapping presents (at least with printed papers) as an awful lot of trees must be being sacrificed for the annual splurge, rather than simply using recycled paper to prepare gifts for family and friends.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Reality TV auditioning

So what next for the Heene family, after the parents have served their jail sentences for hoaxing son Falcon's abduction by weather balloon?

We live in warped times. Some commissioning editor, somewhere in the USA will devise a reality-TV format for them to host (with all proceeds going to charity), as Richard and Mayumi showed (twisted) ambition, resolve, ingenuity, and a talent for event PR.

Probably on Fox Reality TV, natch.

Another death, another dollar

What is it about celebrity deaths that creates such a media feeding frenzy, even when the celebrity involved did not hit the heights of a Michael Jackson or an Elvis Presley? Websites like TMZ and Gawker are like hyenas in at the kill, tearing the flesh from the bones of the famous before it's even cold.

Brittany Murphy is the latest case. She was not hugely famous, but had acted in some well-known movies (e.g. Clueless, 8 Mile). From a distance it appears that the ambition to be famous is not matched but the reality of being scrutinised by the flashmob generation. This is not a new phenomenon: Sir Tom Courtenay once told Michael Parkinson that he was uncomfortable with fame and that all he'd ever wanted to be was a jobbing actor.

So how can be blogosphere be tempered when it comes to the modern trend of wanting to own celebrity souls? Here are some thoughts:

  • How about a grassroots campaign for real movie stars along the lines of CAMRA, the campaign for real ale? Perhaps call it CAMERA, the campaign for real entertainment artists? This group could campaign for the public's right not to know everything about media and entertainment performers' private lives. It could promote traditional ideas about stars sharing creative talents with the public and showcase good causes celebrities promote without cynicism. It could seek improvement in the quality of story-telling so that performers can stretch and challenge their abilities for the benefit of audiences and their own careers. It might even look to educate audiences in what makes for a satisfying cultural experience.

The campaign for public libraries in 19th-century Britain improved adult literacy and cultural awareness, and the people responded with wanting to better themselves. In Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1960s, the Hays Code was a draconian, prescriptive set of rules that had the unforeseen benefit of forcing movie-makers to improve their story-telling.

In the digital age, it is all too easy to become media-illiterate through the sheer volume of information and resort to the easily digestible formats presented by commercial media seeking high audience ratings (e.g. reality television, high-concept movies). And higher audience expectations may give stars the opportunity to enjoy private spaces beyond the tabloid public gaze.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The wrong kind of excuses

Britain and snow don't go together well. So far we've had 48 hours of senior transport executives blaming the wrong kind of weather (again) for road, rail and aircraft fiascos, largely involving machines not moving very far.

Things are never going to change, in spite of global warming.

In 2050, the UK's travel executives are going to blame the wrong kind of heat when rail tracks start melting, cars get stuck in the tarmac and when aircraft get sand stuck in their hydrogen jet engines.

Passengers missing their journeys will get angry when the travel companies do not offer them any drinks, forgetting that water is rationed.

Weather forecasters will predict the end of the crisis after about three months, when the temperature drops. All except a descendent of Michael Fish, who will confidently predict an early hurricane season after a few days.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Most expensive movie ever made

Déjà vu, all over again? James Cameron has blown the most budget on a film in Hollywood history, twice. This is is beginning to look like a marketing feature. And the length is on the gargantuan side, too.

Cameron lavished about $200m on Titanic, released in 1997, and squandered $316m on this year's 3D blockbuster, Avatar. At this rate, his next movie will surface in 2021, cost around $416m, and feature the intergalactic, 35th-century spaceship Noah's Ark (in which every pair of animals speaks its own bespoke language) trying to avoid being sucked into a supermassive blackhole at the centre of a galaxy: in 4D, the space-time continuum factor built in, with added 'feely vision'. Natch.

Titanic grossed over $1.8m worldwide, the highest grossing film ever. This is why Cameron got to play with an even bigger train set on Avatar. So, will he get to do it all again in 12 years time? Highly likely, and the wait shouldn't be as long if the rumoured Avatar trilogy is to be made: Avatar is a lovely movie that made a strong start on its opening weekend, though there is limited wriggle room for Avatars 2 and 3 as the story line for the first movie leaves few loose ends.

PS: Na'vi night-school classes may be on the agenda after all (see earlier post, Navigating Na'vi).

Rage against 'The Climb'

Up until yesterday there were three certainties in life: death, taxes and that the X Factor winner's Christmas single would sail to No. 1 in the UK charts. No more. Rage Against the Machine beat Joe McElderry's The Climb surprisingly easily to the top spot with a death-metal track that proves the power of audience participation.

Now the route to chart success has been demonstrated, no end of online groups will set up next year in an attempt to unseat the X Factor once more. They probably won't succeed, for two reasons:
  • A thousand flowers will bloom, and there will be no consensus about which song stands the best chance, especially as many of the promotions will be stealth campaigns by record companies trying to ride in on fans' enthusiasm.
  • Forewarned is forearmed. Simon Cowell will have contingency plans for dealing the 'threat' at Christmas 2010. His generosity of spirit to the Morters may be due in part to their demonstration of how to use social networking media very efficiently. They will have given him ideas.
And Joe McElderry will probably have a No. 1 single before long anyway. I wouldn't put it past the SyCo record label putting out another track before the release of the inevitable album.

Christmas pub quiz questions

A homage to the Landor Pub quiz in Clapham (run by my friend, Dan Calladine)

Question 1: Where are your car keys?
(a) At the police station?
(b) With a sober friend?
(c) At home: you walked here?

Question 2: Music round: Why do DJs play Christmas records in pubs before the end of December?

Question 3: Why are bad karaoke singers more entertaining than good ones?

Question 4: How may sips are there to a unit?

Question 5: How much change from £1.00 do you get when buying a packet of crisps at the bar?

Question 6: What is the probability that the next person through the bar room door will be wearing a Santa hat?

Question 7: Picture round: What's the likelihood on a scale of 1 to 10 that the picture just taken of you by mobile phone will end up on Facebook by the morning?

Question 8: What proportion of quiz answers are searched for via mobile phones and PDAs?

Question 9: Will you be ready to leave at closing time?

Question 10: Is it your round? Yes or no.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

The quiet lady sings: what now after Copenhagen?

How is the Copenhagen climate change conference to be rescued for posterity? Maybe the politicians will be embarrassed by world public opinion, but more likely not -- as voters will continue to be more focused on relatively short-term issues, like salary levels, taxes and employment.

Jimmy Carter, the former US President, wrote yesterday about the Quartet (US, EU, Russia and the UN) being reformed to consider the plight of the Palestinians and their quest for a homeland. The Quartet, he argued, might have more clout than single nations in forging a solution to negotiations that have been going on for decades. He praised Baroness Catherine Ashton, the new EU foreign affairs chief, for flying this kite: a 'quiet lady' who just might know what she's doing?

Perhaps the Quartet, or some similar grouping, might also consider climate change on their agenda, if the 193 countries present at Copenhagen is too large a number to manage? When crisis strikes globally, perhaps global bodies need to take action on behalf of the world? And the UN should come into its own, as long as the people at the top are strong enough.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Strictly popularity vs talent

Definitive evidence closes the case for the prosecution, m'lud.

Strictly Come Dancing, and its Saturday-night television scheduling cousins, is a contest where charm and likeability trumps ability: Chris Hollins beats Ricky Whittle to the glitter-ball mantle for the 2009 UK series.

The telly genre is called 'light entertainment' -- not 'light expertise' or 'light education' -- for good reason.

So long and thanks for all the species

Transition town, Copenhagen? Are you having a laugh? More like transition hamlet, Copenhagen, when it should have been transition global village.

So, in another reference to Douglas Adams, it's last chance to see fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, the whole planetary caboodle.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Snow tweeting

One of Twitter's primary functions came to the fore today. People stuck in snow everywhere (including Davina McCall) tweeted for help.

This is an off-shoot of the site's 'stuck in a lift' application, as demonstrated recently by Stephen Fry.

Star navel-gazing (continued)

This is what celebrity PR fire-fighting looks like from the other end of the telescope from the Tiger debacle: Michael Phelps is hitting the swimming-pool in Manchester in a glorious comeback merely months after being outed as an alleged cannabis user by tabloid world.

There are no prizes for guessing there are people employed to sit it out for scoops on A-List celebrities: the more wholesome the image, the better. Without counterattacking, rottweiler PR teams, it can't be much fun being the likes of Robert Pattinson, Miley Cyrus, Zac Ephron, David Beckham, Megan Fox, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Peyton Manning, Kobe Bryant, etc, etc, especially as to get known in the first place you have to play the celebrity game.

There is a moment, however, where if you survive as a celebrity you reach an untouchable 'national treasure' status, unless of course there's a seismic dissonant event that exposes the gap between image and reality (e.g. Phil Spector, Michael Barrymore, Angus Deayton).

Today Sir Terry Wogan, the famous BBC radio DJ, retired from his breakfast show after 27 years to a chorus of universal praise: a great example of how private life can be separated from public gaze.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Tiger in trouble

The trajectory of the Tiger Woods story is both tragic and ghoulishly fascinating: no doubt his lawyers will be trying to gag as many players in the cast as possible to limit the PR tsunami-type damage. Only odd details are filtering to the UK, but some trends can be spotted already:
All of the above is both predictable and depressing: celebrities having to dance to the publicity cycle's beat when things go horribly wrong.

News media hates hypocrisy, and when blood is in the water the game of keeping a reputation is up while the destroying of a name sells units (e.g. newspapers; cable channel subscriptions; website memberships). The hunt is only called off when a tipping point is reached when more units can be sold by covering the star's recuperation, and that moment for Tiger Woods will come (even with the unfortunate likelihood of marital separation at best being played out in public).

Maybe at fame schools everywhere budding role models will have to be trained even more in the art of living a decent life in private if the desired public image is one of wholesome family bliss. And the art of living a private life out of the public eye for even the most global of A-list celebrities will have to be re-examined and the curriculum updated.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Angstheimer's disease

It's all over. Even A.S. Byatt claims she's scared of having a bad memory. What hope is there for the rest of us?

Chequered future

Farewell, then, bank cheques: after 300 years of supremacy For the inevitable reason that banks find them too expensive. It's going to be increasing hard to be a 21st-century Luddite as there is no machinery to smash up: the technology is all virtual, in cyberspace.

For those people who find money scary enough to keep their cash under the bed, the days of such subterfuge may be numbered. Now matter how susceptible to hacking, online banking is like a super-massive black hole, sucking all other ways of keeping account into its midst.

Generational shift is no longer generational. Paradigms are changing on an exponential curve akin to Moore's law for computing power: ways of dealing with the modern world seem to be doubling in difficulty at least every 18 months.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Jingle hell

Peter Jones has just published a survey: classical music in the shop subconsciously convinces Christmas shopping browsers to stay; muzak forces them out.

The worst offender, apparently, was Merry Christmas Everybody, Slade's monumental seasonal ubiquity. Perhaps, after 36 years, people are finally getting sick of the K-Tel approach to flogging merchandise? And perhaps one year soon the perennial single won't get re-released?

Blog wars: shock and awe vs the long haul

Blog opinion is an untamed as a domestic cat: it might look cute and fluffy, but while your back is turned, its claws are out and it's offering you a dead rat.

On the one hand, blogs (and social networks) are naked attempts to court popularity by making claims judged to fit the Zeitgeist. When this happens successfully, campaigns can snowball in hours, witness the bizarre attack in the last few days on the merits of Ian McEwan's novels. All guns blare, no cliché is spared, in vast commando raids against perceived canards and lame ducks. This is the tabloid, video-on-demand, flashmob approach to blogging. Blink, and the moment may have passed.

On the other hand, some blogs attempt to build a case, create an environment, and construct characteristics that develop depth and originality: to find an authentic voice of expertise, filtering unseen angles from the morass of raw news of any given moment. This is the broadsheet, feature-length documentary, writer-producer-director approach to blogging. The moment becomes an opportunity for blog-authors to create a following around a persona.

So, 'shock and awe' versus 'the long haul'. It's not really an either/or scenario, as both approaches work in different time scales. But the 'reconstruction' efforts to make sense of the mayhem are what define the context for creating opinion and evolving the culture. In the end, battles may overwhelm 'enemies' for a while but negotiation within a framework of competing demands is what wins the day.

Monday, 14 December 2009

In Desktop Jubilo: an eCard suggestion

Here's an idea. Sending my Christmas cards, I realised I didn't have certain friends' real-world addresses. Armed with their email addresses, I explored the world of eCards ... briefly.

At one end of the market -- the end where the cards are half-decent animations -- you have to pay an annual subscription, which is fine if you actually want to send eCards all year, but I suspect is like the proverbial New Year's resolution gym membership: one visit and you never go again. At the other end is the truly free stuff, so long as you sign your life away in registration detail to the spammers and hackers.

How about a middle way? Get an eCard for free, but download an accompanying mp3 single to send to the recipient -- maybe a way of getting unsigned bands publicity, a single-track podcast with an added eCard attached (perhaps even disguised as a promo video).

Simon Berlusconi?

It's neck and neck for the UK Christmas No. 1 in the singles charts. Fed up with the hegemony of endless X Factor winners hogging to spot, an online campaign to thwart Joe McElderry's The Climb from achieving the summit has been launched: Rage Against the Machine's Killing in the Name is in with a decent chance.

So what's going on? While 10m-plus people voted in the X Factor final (more than voted for the Labour Government at the last election), a significant chunk of the population think Simon Cowell is getting too powerful in the culture. Hence cocking a snook at a man who is used to getting his own way.

This means two future scenarios are unlikely.

First, Mr Cowell's kite-flying today that he's looking to move the X Factor formula into politics is a dead parrot. People can spot a Berlusconi-wannabe a mile off, and he won't get any viewers even if the show gets green-lighted.

Second, the licence fee for broadcasting in the UK is beginning to look like a useful barrier to anyone wanting to totally swamp the airways. The thought of just how powerful Simon Cowell would be in a deregulated television market is scary, especially if he de-camped to Sky to join forces with the Murdoch empire.

The British character will ensure that Simon Cowell remains a very large fish in his own music format, for however long the viewing public want to be entertained by his franchise. The little man in the UK has always been powerful, which is why we haven't had loads of civil wars down the centuries.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Arcade ingenuity

The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well on Southwold pier in Suffolk. Frustrated by the behaviour of fat cats in the City of London's financial sector, Tim Hunkin has devised a version of the 'Whack a mole' game well-known to fete-fanciers everywhere, called 'Whack a banker'.

Every time a balding banker figure pops up briefly out of a hole, people are invited to hit the model on the head with a mallet. The mallets are getting worn out with overuse and excessive vigour.

I sense a franchise opportunity: substitute bankers for politicians, estate agents and the paparazzi (for that niche market, celebrities' favourite hangs-outs), and Mr Hunkin would be sitting on an even bigger gold mine than he first thought.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Strictly Housewives Voting

Telephone polls in the hands of the television-viewing public are predictable beasts masquerading as unfathomable. The key to breaking the code of irrational voting behaviour is to understand which portion of the public is voting.

Picture tonight's Strictly Come Dancing semi-final on BBC One. Three couples, two near perfect-scoring celebrities (one Ricky Whittle, a hunky soap actor and male model with a six-pack and his own website; the other Ali Bastian, an English rose-type soap actress without a six-pack or a website) and one plucky underdog without a brilliant score throughout the whole series (Chris Hollins, an engaging breakfast-television sports presenter with a stomach profile earned from hours spent sitting on the proverbial sofa).

Were Strictly simply a talent contest, the best dancers would always survive the chop. But it's more of a popularity contest with viewers voting on the basis of who would make the best son- or daughter-in-law material. Chris Hollins got to the final based on the fact that he and his partner, Ola Jordan, seem to be having the most fun.

The final will be a close-run thing, with Ricky probably getting the nod from the judges but Chris taking the title on a wave of public love of plucky personality.

Wigan peer

Willard Wigan? Crazy guy. He sculpts figures into the eye of a needle and on to pin heads, out of grains of sand, gold dust and the like. Each takes 6-8 weeks to complete, a steady hand and a microscope.

Who buys this stuff? Rich people who have everything, for £10,000s a pop. Willard Wigan is a self-made millionaire. No so crazy after all.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Navigating Na'vi

The world premiere of James Cameron's $306m, 15-years-in-the-making movie, Avatar, took place last night on the blue carpet at the Odeon, Leicester Square in London. So, no pressure then. Mixed reviews so far, but movies this huge are bound to attract critics salivating with anticipation of a turkey.

The story revolves around an indigenous alien species on the planet Pandora, the Na'vi, sitting on a mining site coveted by human invaders. The language of the Na'vi has been created by University of Southern Californa linguistics professor, Paul R. Frommer, in a direct attempt to mimic the success of Klingon from the Star Trek franchise.

This is a massive hostage to fortune. Star Trek grew a fan base organically from the original 1960s television series after a dodgy start in the ratings. Fluency in Klingon was far from the minds of ambivalent viewers. Three series of beaming William Shatner up from disastrous escapades on strange, new worlds meant the hard slog built a back-catalogue of 79 shows to be stripped into endless repeats, eventually finding its audience of enthusiastic Trekkies. Klingon first appeared as a nascent language in 1979, throwing off the strictures of English in Star Trek: The Motion Picture only getting fully fledged by Star Trek III in 1984.

Avatar, meanwhile, hopes to super-glue Na'vi lingo into the world's nerd consciousness in one giant leap. Either audiences will think 'Huh?', especially if the movie tanks, or it'll be a grower and fans will be flocking to night school. Everything probably depends on the film's ability to wash its face and spawn a sequel franchise. Otherwise, fluency in Na'vi will be at best a party piece at Hollywood dinner parties or at worst a symptom of autistic tendencies.

If the franchise takes off, it would be great to send broadcasts off to the stars in a mad attempt to see if any species out there can work out how to engage in Na'vi conversation. Or not, obviously.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Aussie Carol, C'mon, C'mon

Until now, the closest thing Australia has to a Christmas carol is Miss Minogue senior's sexy rendition of Santa, Baby. There is no equivalent local songbook Down Under to the Northern hemisphere, save for the odd local competition and a few humourous offerings. So there's no:
Step forward Susanne Scott, my friend and professional singer, who has stepped into the breach with her festive offering: The Aussie Carol, Come Sing Hosanna (now available as a single). At least now the Australian Carol Songbook has reached pamphlet dimensions.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Snooker loopee

Television rules bodily functions: it's official.

Snooker players have been told to curtail comfort breaks, but it'll only be a matter of time before someone get caught short on national TV (crystallised forever on social media networks) for the policy to be quietly reversed.

Rough-and-tumble justice

True-crime author, Gary C. King, has written an instant take for John Blake Publishing on the Kercher killing, called The Murder of Meredith. Such a Penny Dreadful-style rush to bring gory details to a baying readership seems premature at best and callous at worst. The ink isn't even spilt on a definitive judgment for Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, with appeals pending, and the Kercher family's dignified press conference deserves the reward of privacy not mass exploitation.

What bothers me most about these rapid sprints to publish is the possibility of wrong verdicts: it's a lynch mob mentality. For example, had publishers rushed to sign up condemnations of the accused in the Rachel Nickell murder case, they would be laying themselves open to libel charges. Only by waiting for the dust to settle in the Nickell case gave publishers (John Blake Publishing, incidentally) the correct perspective of police coercion and incompetence mixed with compensation for a man wrongly fingered by the original investigation.

Instant books filling the vacuum after a trial won't get read by the likes of Knox, Sollecito or the Kercher family, but I'm uncomfortable with businesses making a fast buck from high-profile tragedy. And the damaging effect on the psychological health of victims, criminals (whether guilty or not guilty) is palpable, as such books help to fossilise opinion at the level of the lowest common denominator.

What chance have any of the players in the drama got when trying to move on with their lives, after a verdict or a prison release, short of assuming a new identity (e.g. Mary Bell, Maxine Carr, Robert Thompson and John Venables)? There is never any closure, and the press or the mob is always waiting.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

What is art? (part 69)

So Gavin Turk's brick work got half-inched in Peckham: £3000 of masterpiece replaced with a 40p replica.

And no one really noticed.

World heritage sights

Egypt wants the Rosetta stone back. Nigeria wants the Benin bronzes. Greece wants the Elgin marbles. And Scotland's SNP wants the return of the Lewis chessmen. The common denominator? The originals are in the British Museum, acquired or purloined from centuries of Empire, conquest and political manoeuvring. Finders keepers, losers weepers.

Advocates of the restitution of treasures to their country of origin mention national pride, historical injustice, and contextual meaning provided by place. Promoters of the status quo talk about the difficulty of the logistics of moving ancient objects, the threat of fragmentation of the world's great collections, and the resulting loss to academia.

So who's right? The distribution of artefacts is an early kind of globalisation. If globalisation is the movement of people to seek available work and resources, then countries biggest assets are their populations. Why not decide on the best locations for international treasures based on their safety for future generations where most people can see them? If terrorist attack is a tangible threat (e.g. the Afghan buddhas), then artefacts should not be returned? If global warming threatens the lie of the land (e.g. South Pacific treasures) then the goodies should be looked after elsewhere. In an era of carbon footprint awareness, perhaps the greatest treasures should be the things to travel rather than the people? And custodianship should be in the gift of a global body, say UNESCO, rather than any national government, but experts from each relevant country would play key advisory roles in preserving artefacts for future generations.

Let's put the boot on the other foot. How would the British like it if Stonehenge was relocated to California? How would the Americans cope if the Liberty bell was the star attraction at the Louvre in Paris? How would the Chinese feel about the Terracotta army being rehoused in Russia? It doesn't make sense, yet that's what has happened in similar cases throughout the ages, with only the passage of time taking off the edge off the absurdity.

Tourism has to be balanced with natural justice. Wouldn't it be great if world collections that may lose control of work that wasn't theirs to keep encouraged the development of their own indigenous culture, invited guest, itinerant exhibitions from other countries to fill the gap, and displayed magnificent copies of treasures to satisfy the memory of historical displacement (e.g. the Roman antiquity copies at the Victoria and Albert museum in London)?

Monday, 7 December 2009

Two-jugs politics

You have to be like Janus to be a politician these days, but with more than two faces. You would have to look to the future and analyse the past, while presenting an individual face to whichever constituency you happen to the facing. And this gift is not restricted to party or persuasion, it's part of the genotype of putting yourself up for election.

Consider the following from the last few days:
Result? Stress city, Arizona (or any other state you care to mention).

What's the solution? I don't know, but Capitalism doesn't allow for people only to take on the work they can manage and for deadlines to fit into people's ability to fulfil them.

The default position of our culture is overload. Email and the internet at 21st-century slave-drivers. Either we go for utopian robots to do our work, and pay ourselves to manage them and re-balance our work-life priorities, or we explore variations of humane social policy ideas (in the European Union and elsewhere) that give people back their quality of life and their humanity.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the decline of Soviet-style Communism, what is the equivalent symbol for a Capitalism gone haywire? Perhaps with the turmoil in the banking sector and the opportunity to agree big climate change stuff in Copenhagen, we are close to finding out.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Public Santa

What is it with office culture?

The moment lots are drawn for Secret Santa players, the race is on to find out who is buying what for whom.

Colleagues revert to their two-year psyches and you can tell who would have stayed up all night on Christmas Eve in their early years for a chance of catching the great man red-handed.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Convergence of the book

The Bookseller has just published a survey of industry-figure guesses regarding future trends (that fade into the past when reality bites). On reflection, what's to stop libraries continuing their evolution into 'Ideas Stores' an give customers the chance to buy books, eReaders, etc.

The truth will be stranger than present trends predict, as someone always comes out of left field to upset the applecart (e.g. Microsoft PCs and software; Apple PCs, iPods and iTunes; Amazon internet retailing; Google search and online advertising).

The show must go on

My swine flu jab either didn't work or brought on a huge cold in reaction to the vaccine. Although I made it to work, it was touch and go. It got me thinking about how illness is dealt with by people in the public eye.

Sports stars get injuries that are reported, but how often is the reason for someone not playing given as a virus? Blackburn Rovers' finest got swine flu recently and I do remember a food poisoning incident that caused the 2006 Spurs team chasing a Champions League spot to lose out to Arsenal's advantage. Cricketers sometimes get dehydrated in hot weather or eat the occasional dodgy curry.

Pop stars get problems with vocal chords and stress-related illness, guitarists suffer with broken digits. Many entertainers face self-induced difficulties requiring rehab.

Politicians rarely admit to illness as these gets pounced on by the press as signs of weakness (Tony Blair's heart murmur being one case I remember). And when is a monarch or a president ever laid low (this would make front page news and make society feel unsafe, as in Cuba).

There's a 'show must go on' mentality for people in the public eye, whether entertertainers, sports stars, or statesmen and women, but that can't be the entire truth. Even the Queen of England must have been tempted to throw a sickie sometimes, especially during her Annus horribilis in 1992 and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.
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