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Stay safe. Stay in

The other night I nearly lost my eyebrows lighting a barbecue; today, I managed to blow up a strimmer. They say trouble comes in threes, so I’m staying indoors for the forseeable future. Going outside is too damn dangerous.

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On the radio again

Blather alert: I’ll be on Karen Dunbar’s show (BBC Radio Scotland) this morning at 10.40ish to wibble on about mobile phones. And, er, that’s it.

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Books Music Uncategorised

Little thoughts

…none of which justifies an entire blog post:

* I traded in a bunch of 360 games at the weekend: PDZ (because it sucks), Ghost Recon (because it’s too difficult) and Far Cry: Predator (because I’ve already played it on Xbox and can’t be bothered with the new mission). Result? Nearly sixty quid, which I put to use by buying two pre-owned games. In the shiny, DRM-protected download future, I won’t be able to do that.

* Pirates of the Caribbean 2 is an hour too long, like every sodding film seems to be these days. At two and a half hours films stop being entertainment and become bladder abuse, with added numb-arse syndrome (and if you’re a smoker, thoughts of murder). As for the film itself, I was mildly entertained but can’t really remember anything about it. But – sad internet type that I am – I had to restrain myself from punching the air when the trailer for Snakes on a Plane appeared.

* There weren’t any anti-online-piracy ads before Pirates… a missed opportunity, not least because it would have been the first time I could have shouted “Yarrrrr” without being out of context.

* There were anti-fake-DVD ads though. At last they seem to have abandoned the “if you buy these, you’re funding Osama Bin Laden” approach and started stating the bleedin’ obvious: fake DVDs suck.

* Red Eye (Cillian Murphy film) is ace. And the DVD’s cheap.

* The new Thom Yorke and Muse albums are really rather good.

* Every time I hear Snow Patrol’s “Run”, I get really angry. I’ll come back to this soon.

* Prey (the game) is all right. If you like that sort of thing, it’s the sort of thing you’ll like.

* British men – me included – really can’t do summer clothes.

* Tim Dorsey has a new book out, The Big Bamboo. I’m halfway through it and it’s as demented as his other stuff.

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Technology Uncategorised

Pimp my email

Today’s unfortunately named Web service is…

[photopress:whoryou.jpg,full,pp_image]

[Via Digg, again]

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Hell in a handcart Uncategorised

“I just know it’s going to be the best non-anesthetized invasive uterine surgery ever!”

Pro-life blogger gets very upset about a pro-choice article. Doesn’t spot that it’s from The Onion.

Here are some of the bits quoted in the blog:

“I am totally psyched for this abortion!”

“Those pro-life activists made it pretty clear that, unlike me, they actually think abortion is bad and to be avoided. Are they nuts? Abortion is the best!”

“I realize there are people who will criticize me, calling me selfish and immature because I took “the easy way out.” I realize there are those who will condemn me to hell for what I’m about to do. Well, I don’t care what they say: It’s worth it for all the fun and laughs I’m going to have at the clinic.”

[Via Digg]

Update, 13 July

The blogger in question now claims that it was all a big joke. Uh-huh.

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Bitch and hose

Sorry about the title, but I thought it was funny. Anyway: Megan is a girl dog. Megan likes water. Megan particularly likes fighting the garden hose.

YouTube video here…

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Why I don’t get invited to many parties

An Italian restaurant in Glasgow, a few weeks ago. I’m there with my wife to meet friends I haven’t seen for months, and their friends who I haven’t seen for a few years. One of the latter group asks me about my dog, Megan.

Me: She’s a monster. She eats shoes, digs up the lawn, chews the wall…

Girl: Yeah, but they grow out of it. Eventually.

Me: I hope so.

Girl: My one’s the same. I have to keep an eye on her all the time or she’s trashing the place. You can’t leave her alone for even a second.

Me: It’s a pain, isn’t it? But they’re so cute that they can get away with it.

Girl: Oh, absolutely. I’ll be glad when she calms down a bit though.

Me: So what breed is she?

Long silence.

Girl: She’s my daughter.

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Hell in a handcart Media Uncategorised

“A guy who can take buttholes, midgets, and fried fish, and make a love story”

This is a fantastic bit of journalism: David Foster Wallace goes to the Adult Video Awards. It’s a very long piece that’s hilarious and depressing in pretty much equal measure:

Alex Dane is now telling Harold Hecuba about a stray dog she found and has decided to keep. She is excited as she describes the dog and for a moment seems about fourteen; the impression lasts only a second or two and is heartbreaking. One of the B-girls, meanwhile, is explaining that she has just gotten a pair of cutting-edge breast implants that she can actually adjust the size of by adding or draining fluid via small valves under her armpits, and then—perhaps mistaking your correspondents’ expressions for ones of disbelief—she raises her arms to display the valves. There really are what appear to be valves.

[Via MetaFilter]

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How to beat the banks

You may be aware of this already, but if not: it might be worth suing your bank. If you’ve never paid a penalty charge in your life then you can ignore this post, but if you have then you might find this interesting.

The Office of Fair Trading recently investigated credit card firms’ penalty charges, and concluded that the lenders were breaking the law. The law says that yes, they can levy penalty charges – but it also says that those charges must reflect the cost to the lender, rather than kicking someone when they’re down. According to the OFT, a fair penalty charge is £12; anything beyond that is punitive.

The thing is, the same law applies to banks’ other penalty charges. Here’s a fairly typical example of what might happen if your wages are late one month, through no fault of your own:

Three direct debits and three standing orders are due to come out on your normal payday. You have no wages, so the bank bounces the lot.

  • The bank charges you £38 for each bounce. That’s £228.
  • The bank charges a “referral charge” because it bounced the DDs and SOs. That’s another £90.
  • The lenders whose direct debits were bounced charge you penalty fees. Let’s say £25 each, so that’s £75.

In total, then, your late wages have left you facing £393 of penalty charges, not to mention the extra interest. However, if – as the OFT says – those charges shouldn’t be more than £12 a pop, you should only pay £108: six penalty charges from the bank, and three penalty charges from the lenders whose direct debits bounced.

I’m not arguing that banks shouldn’t penalise misbehaviour, but penalty charges are very profitable – and if you’re in the financial shit then excess penalties can make a bad situation worse. I’ve got some experience of this: in the last four years, on two occasions problems with firms’ accounting systems have left me without income for nearly two months apiece, which wasn’t a lot of fun. When the money finally turned up, almost all of it was eaten by penalty charges.

Now, here’s the good bit. If you’re willing to take on your bank, you can raise an action in the small claims court to get the excess charges back. And you can go back six years, which can mean an awful lot of money. Here’s how to do it:

  • You contact the lender and file a Subject Data Access request under the Data Protection Act. This request asks for a breakdown of penalty charges dating back six years, and you have to pay £10 for it. The lender has 40 days to comply.
  • You calculate the difference between what you should have been charged, and what you actually were charged.
  • You write to the lender detailing the unlawful penalties and asking for the excess to be refunded.
  • If the lender doesn’t comply, you take them to the small claims court for the excess fees plus interest. Judging by the posts on moneysavingexpert.com, you’ll almost certainly win.

Nice, eh? Of course, there are some downsides. The following list of sneaky tactics are anecdotal, but I’ve read enough of them on various forums to believe that they’re true:

  • Banks are telling customers that the only way to let them know the charges is to issue duplicate statements, at £5 per page, which is a serious amount of cash for six years’ worth of transactions. They’re wrong.
  • Banks are telling customers “hey, you agreed to the terms and conditions, so tough”. That’s no defence. If, as the OFT suggests, the T&Cs broke the law, then you’re entitled to the money.
  • Banks are ignoring letters asking for refunds.
  • Banks are threatening to blacklist customers. They can’t do that, or at least they can’t do that just because of this particular wheeze.
  • Banks are closing the accounts of those asking for refunds.

Sounds about right to me. So if you’re thinking of doing this – and it’s worth looking at; people are getting serious refunds if they stay the course and go all the way to the small claims court – you should be prepared to switch banks (which means getting another current account set up before you start this stuff) and you should be prepared for foot-dragging, inaccurate information and the hassle of a small claims court action. Despite all of that, it could be very lucrative. You’ll find out a lot more at moneysavingexpert.com.

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Technology Uncategorised

Flickrs of talent

One of the reasons I stopped playing in a band (other than the obvious ones: geography, a face only a mother could love and the increasing feeling that once you’re over 30, you’re too old to rock) was frustration: while a lot of the stuff we did was really, really good, I never felt it was good enough.

To me, there was always a yawning chasm between the stuff I was writing and the stuff I was listening to, so while I could easily write a 1,000 word forensic analysis of, say, Red Dress by Sugababes, There There by Radiohead or (yes!) Biology by Girls Aloud that tells you exactly why they’re great, what sneaky musical tricks they use and what particular moments elevate them from ordinary tunes into something special (in Red Dress it’s the chaotic “woah woah woah” bit before the second part of the chorus; in There There it’s the chord change underneath the line “just ’cause you feel it / doesn’t mean it’s there”; in Biology it’s the spooky backing vocals that come in halfway through the chorus), no matter how hard I tried (or how talented my fellow band members) I could never reach the same heights myself.

I feel the same thing on Flickr when I browse other people’s photos. Sure, I know a bit about composition and photography so I can tell a good pic from a bad one; I can also tell when a pic’s benefited from professional lighting or from sneaky Photoshopping. But the really good ones aren’t just about technique: the really good stuff comes from people who could take better shots on a crappy cameraphone than I could ever manage with ten grand of camera kit. There’s things I can do – I can (and did) upgrade from a basic compact camera to a pseudo-SLR, I could learn about shutter speeds and other technical stuff (if anyone can recommend a good book for digital camera owners who’ve no idea beyond autofocus and pre-defined picture modes, I’m all ears)… but while those things would certainly help me take better photographs, they can only help with the technical stuff. What differentiates the really good pics from the quite good ones isn’t equipment or technique, but talent.

The best example I can think of is in my day job. I’m not suggesting I’m some literary giant, but I do think that there’s something going on that means unlike many people, I find writing easy. The something is this: 99% of the time I have absolutely no recollection of writing an article. One day it’s a blank page and I’m howling with frustration, then something clicks in my head and the words start flowing. Before I know it I’ve got a finished piece, but my involvement is a bit like when you drive somewhere and arrive with no recollection of actually driving.

I’m reminded of a comment by a musician (I can’t remember who): the songs are just floating through the air, and it’s your job to catch them before some bastard like Mick Hucknall gets his hands on them. But that’s not just the case in music; I reckon it’s the case with writing and photography too.

Writing, then: there’s technique in there – planning out a structure, editing and refining, editing again, particular word choices, deciding the whole thing’s shite and starting again from a different angle – but the bit that matters to me, the process of turning a bunch of ideas or facts into a feature, or story, or book, happens on a subconscious level. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using Notepad, Word or some amazingly clever document editor: if you don’t have that subconscious thing going on, then no matter how good your software (or your pen and paper) the process of writing is bloody hard work. The tools you use can make things easier, but they can’t write the words for you.

And that’s the big lie behind a lot of tech marketing at the moment. Sure, programs such as GarageBand put amazing power in the hands of would-be musicians (when I started playing in bands, the only way to get even a crappy recording was to spend hundreds on kit and then hundreds or even thousands of pounds on studio time), but if you want to create a Red Dress, There There or Biology you’ll need to bring the same alchemy to GarageBand that those songs’ creators brought to the studio. Yes, upgrading from a crappy cameraphone to a digital SLR will enable you to take better photographs, but it won’t make you a better photographer. And using a state-of-the-art word processor or blogging system will make the nuts and bolts easier, but it can’t help with the actual writing. Technology firms can sell you the tools, but they can’t sell you the talent.