Thursday, October 25, 2007

Left Or Right?

My Lovely Husband™ sent me through a link to an article in an online newspaper based in Perth, Australia. It featured this animated GIF. Click on it to go to the original article if you like. I love it. To most people, the dancer appears to be turning anti-clockwise. To some, she appears to be turning clockwise. And if you go about it the correct way, you should be able to get her to change direction. It took me a while, and it was really frustrating, but I have finally learned how to change her direction at will, and my life feels a little more complete as a result.


What is really bizarre is that this is meant to indicate the relative strength of your left brain vs right brain, and I have found that if I look up and to the left, then look back at the picture, she will be rotating anti-clockwise; if I look up and to the right then look at the picture, she will be rotating clockwise.

Marvellous things, brains.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Spam Chicago A Lot

Okay, I'm not suggesting either that we should send lots of junk email to people in Chicago (either the city or the musical that bears its name). Nor tinned meat products from Hornell. (Did I get that name right?) The subject of this particular blog is merely an ugly squishing together of a couple of musical titles, viz. Spamalot and Chicago, as a way of appearing to bring together two topics that are completely unrelated other than by the fact that both have had some of my attention over the last couple of days.

First, the spam thing. Actually, I don't mean to talk about the musical at all. However, I wonder if anyone other than me has noticed a significant (four- or five-fold) increased in the amount of junk mail they are receiving? This has happened to me in the last few days. I first noticed it on Saturday morning. Instead of the usual 5 - 10 messages in gmail junk folder, there were 40 or 50. And thus has it continued for the last few days. I've also had a few instances recently of emails I send not reaching their destinations, or emails sent to me that fail to materialise. I wonder whether the global email system is finally melting down under pressure from the low-life scum who send unsolicited commercial email. And the various scam things.

So, now to the other topic, which this time does concern a musical: Chicago. My cousin and his wife visited us at the weekend, and one of the main things we had planned was to go and see a big west end show. We agreed in advance that Chicago was the best option, mostly because it enjoyed the most popular appeal amongst the four of us. Admittedly, my cousin being a rugby-playing chap, seeing musicals isn't high on his list of priorities, bless 'im. The one thing that made me slightly worried was that the part of Mama Morton is currently being played by Kelly Osbourne. This doesn't strike me as the most inspired bit of casting, nor a decision in which consideration of talent was a factor.
However, the reviews had been surprisingly favourable, and having now seen her performance, I have to admit that the reviewers were probably bribed. Whilst she did manage, most - but not all - of the time, to hit the notes relatively well, she could only do so by maintaining a singular focus on that task to the detriment of anything else. Such as moving. Or acting. Or putting any emotion, comedy, life or spark into the performance. Thus, I was witness to a performance of a hugely funny song (When You're Good To Mama) made to sound dull and lifeless. The young Osbourne was also pretty useless when it came to speaking parts. She delivered the lines, but someone might have considered that an ability to speak isn't quite enough to pull off a decent performance in a show.

In fairness, she wasn't the only disappointment. The guy playing Amos was wrong, wrong, wrong. If only Kelly Osbourne could have played him. At least his character is meant to be dull, dull, dull. And he was, but not in an entertaining and moving way. Just dull.

Billy Flynn was also a disappointment, and couldn't carry his lines above the chorus, so ended up spending most of his best numbers being drowned out by the backing singers.

The two leads, though, were great. Highlights in an otherwise disappointing evening. Well, them and the hot bodies of the male chorus line girls. Wow! Those were worth seeing.

I think the most entertaining part of the evening was when my cousin's chair broke about 5 minutes before the interval. Completely. The cast iron supports just snapped right through. One of the staff (or perhaps they're colleagues these days) tried to find us different seats together, but couldn't. They did find two spare ones in the stalls. I suggested that my Lovely Husband™ (who is scared of heights, and was struggling being in the Upper Circle) and cousin's wife (who was most keen to see a musical) should take them. A good move all round, I reckon.

From their better, and much more expensive seats, those two enjoyed the second half much more than we did, and came away much happier with the experience as a whole. I suspect that even a better seat wouldn't have created a better impression for me. The film was great. The stage show ... it's some songs very loosely strung together, with a minimal set, and none of the glitz that one might reasonably expect, given the cost of the tickets.

I know - I'm a Grumpy Old Man!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Misjudged Jargon

Sainsbury's staff have clearly been instructed that these days, they are colleagues.

I don't have a problem with that. For decades I've referred to the people I work with as colleagues. I find it has a more pleasant, inclusive overtone than co-worker. The latter seems a bit disdainful, and suggests that you wouldn't be seen dead hanging out with those people if it weren't for the fact that you have an employer in common.

Also, some people are prone to leaving out the hyphen, and "coworker" has always suggested to me something like an updated version of "cow poke". You know, like how firemen became fire fighters. And actresses became actors, for the most part without the need for surgery (to effect the change of job title, at any rate). I could see how the cow pokes of this world might want a job title that was a little bit less open to misunderstanding.

However, I think the staff at Sainsbury's may need a little bit more training. For the segment of the job market we're looking at here, when I say a little bit more training, I probably mean they should have paid attention a bit more in school, because we're talking about a fundamental lack of comprehension of a fairly standard English word.

The reason I think this is that I was in our local Sainsbury's, trying something new today*. A fellow shopper wanted to ask a question, so he approached someone who looked like they might work there, and asked, "Are you a member of staff?"

Rather than say "Yes", and getting on with it, the response was,

Um, I'm a colleague, yes.

The best of it was that this "correction" was delivered in really rather a condescending voice. You could almost hear the accompanying slightly smug internal monologue:

Oh, you little, little, ignorant, ignorant person. You understand almost nothing of the glamorous world of fast moving consumer goods. We haven't been 'staff' for such a long time. Your quaint term of address is so last millennium! We're now colleagues. Yes, we're all colleagues. Sainsbury's doesn't have staff any more. Just colleagues.

Someone needs to sit that chap (and probably many others like him) down and explain that whilst the people who work with him are his colleagues, and he is theirs, it doesn't actually stop him from being a member of staff; and for the most part, he is not the colleague of the people who shop in his store, so it makes no sense for him to describe himself to them as "a colleague".

So. Try something new today. Try teaching English to Sainsbury's staff.

* I've never been a huge fan of this kind of catchphrase, tagline, or whatever other marketing jargon gets applied to such sloganeering these days. Sainsbury's - try something new today. I've never tried shoplifting. I suspect they would argue that they aren't encouraging me to do so, but there's very little else in their shop that would fit the bill, with the possible exception of feminine hygiene products. And to some extent, those aren't unexplored territory to me, either.

I feel I ought to explain that last bit. When I was young (about 5, I think), I found an intimate hygiene product belonging to my mum, and asked her what it was for. She said it was for cleaning one's bum. So, next time I happened to be dropping one off and ran out of loo roll, I scampered off to where they were kept and used one. It didn't seem to be the most effective way of wiping. And it wouldn't flush, either. That's how I got myself caught.

Missing Inaction

I know that I haven't been blogging much at all of late. I think this corresponds to the period last year where I shut my virtual gob for a while. For some reason August - October seems to be a non-blogging time for me, and I noticed that it seems to be for quite a few other folks, too.

In truth, work has been taking me away quite a lot in the last few months, and I have much less time for such diversions as social notworking sites. I don't know how facebookers cope. (I still get regular emails telling me I've been added to facebook as someone's friend, but I continue to resist the temptation to sign up.)

Poison Ivy

On Sunday, I quietly acknowledged that I have now been gracing this planet with my presence for 37 years. Clad in a lovely, warm coat - a gift from my Lovely Husband™ - we made our way to The Ivy to meet up with the ever charming A&B for dinner. As it happens, I have had a long-standing self-imposed obligation to treat A&B to dinner there, so it was my shout. And just as well, I think, because it put me in the position to do something about an injustice that might otherwise have obtained.

The food was lovely. The service was pretty poor. Here is one example of the level of poverty. I ordered a side of vegetables to go with my main course. It didn't arrive along with everything else. By the time I caught the attention of a waiter (their attention was not easy to attract, and I wasn't in a good position for attracting it), I had finished my main course. Only then did I get the chance to ask where the side dish was, and only then (after another few minutes) did it turn up. By which time it more or less constituted a separate course, albeit on the same plate.

In between receiving dessert menus and actually being able to place an order we waited about 20 minutes. In between placing dessert orders and having the things turned up, we waited about another 20. Then again trying to get some attention so that we could ask for the bill. The place wasn't especially busy, and they didn't look in the least bit short-staffed.

So, when the bill arrived (£300 for four of us), the service charge was somewhere in the region of £36, and had already been added. They had also added an additional cover charge of £2 per person. I asked to have the service charge removed, so the woman sorting out the bill (who was about the fifth or sixth member of staff who had dealt with our table that night) went away and got the head waiter, who asked what the problem was with the bill. I just said I wasn't happy to pay the service charge because the service had been quite poor. He promptly took it off, and the world improved just a little bit.

I've been to quite a few good restaurants in my time. In every place I've been that charges the kind of prices we were paying, the service has been exemplary. In The Ivy, it was not so. Sadly, I think they are now relying on their name to continue to bring them customers, despite not offering good value for money any more. I feel particularly sorry for the chefs, who send out excellent food, only to have the overall dining experience undermined by the serving staff. And I feel sorry for the serving staff who individually can be attentive, friendly and helpful, but collectively are not organised well enough to run the restaurant properly or efficiently. But there you have it.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Stupid users!

I'm very sympathetic to people who complain, rightly, when a piece of technology (software or hardware) is difficult to use, and/or the documentation does not do a good job of explaining how to use it properly.

However, I have very little sympathy for users who get stuck, or make a mess, because they haven't bothered to look, listen or learn.

Last year, I dealt with a case of this so acute that it passed beyond frustrating and actually became funny. I had written a little DOS script (I know - how last millennium!) to do a lot of tedious work for the users rather than obliging them to do it all. The script relied on a number of steps, and attempted to elicit information from the users at least once in the process. If the user hit return before actually providing the information, the process abended. Unfortunately, the limitations of the environment meant that I couldn't loop them back and say "Oi! You were meant to type something there!"

To get around this, I made sure that the script put up information clearly explaining what was going to happen, and explicitly telling people that they should read each screen as they worked through the script. They shouldn't just hit "Any Key" without thinking. I pointed out to the users that the script did this, and emphasised that they really ought to read everything on the screen before proceeding, since this was a process they hadn't performed before. They all nodded and agreed. Then proceeded to ignore the warning, ignore the information on the screen, rush through the process, and waste their own time by stuffing it up. This was whilst I was sitting in front of them, immediately after I had told them to read everything and they had said they would!

The second and third groups faired no better, despite the fact that, having stressed the importance of reading everything on the screen before proceeding, I then went on to mock their colleagues, who had done exactly what I told them not to do. The second and third groups laughed at their colleagues stupidity - then went on to do exactly the same things themselves!

It beggared belief.

I was going to explain how this is similar to the situation I find myself in now, but as I started typing it, I realised that the process is much more complex, and explaining just how the users are getting it wrong - beyond the simple and obvious fact that they clearly haven't read my beautifully crafted, crystal clear instructions - would be even more tedious to read than it would be to write.

Let me short-cut that mutually unpleasant process by just writing: "Users? Thick eejits, more like."

Thank you all (or few - that might be more accurate) for bearing with me over the last few weeks. I've been really, really, really busy. And travelling a lot. Normal service will resume soon, I think.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Out Conjured

I was delighted to read in yesterday's Independent On Sunday that Derren Brown is now officially, openly gay.