“Same again, please”. A poem I wrote. Yes, really

This is a poem I wrote in 1997, when I was twenty two. Yes, a poem. Do not adjust your set. I found it in a Word document on my hard disk on Friday with no comments or anything in it. I have, quite honestly, no recollection of writing it. I don’t even like poetry. I had to Google the first couple of lines of it to make sure that it wasn’t a poem of someone else’s that I had written down, or a song, or something.

I don’t think it’s intended to be funny so it’s not exactly in line with other things I post here. Also, please be nice. This is something I wrote a long time ago, when I was young and stuff. These days I’m a possible contender for Most Thick-Skinned Person ever but, back then, I wasn’t so much, and I feel that I’ll end up reading your unpleasant comments in some sort of strange flashback mode. I was very much in two minds about posting this – I reread it yesterday and I didn’t think it looked terrible, but then I don’t know anything about poetry. Heaven knows why I wrote some. Oh well, here goes. Cry Havoc.

Same again, please

As democracy thunders through acres of tape
In some topical communist state
The headlines smile on at the Forces of Good
As they line up the Forces of Hate

The public euphoria seen on the streets
Shows a people released from their past
They knock down their walls and burn their bridges –
They’re free from oppression at last

But the days grow shorter and the queues grow longer
And taxes are starting to climb
The rose-tinted spectacles get slightly stronger
But the government needs some more time

So the tension flares up and the populous march
And the activists refill the square
Slitting the throats of the same old scapegoats
And firing their guns in the air

Out comes the tear gas, the crowd is dispersed
The Army is back on patrol
We’re into another state of emergency
But everything’s under control

 Last year’s leader gets out of his chair
And taps his cigar on the floor
He slowly and steadily straightens his hat
Turns round, and opens the door

A new type of joke: the Burnsie. You heard it here first

There’s a fairly crap joke in Scotland that goes like this:

Q: How do you become a famous poet?
A: Sit in front of the fire until your Robbie Burns.

Robert Burns is the national poet of Scotland. “Robbie” is not an alternate name for any part of the body, although in this context it quite clearly is intended to mean “penis”.  Let’s be honest, it’s a pretty crap joke. Heavens, my dad finds it funny.

I was thinking about this joke for some reason recently, and it occured to me that this joke itself could be just the tip of an iceberg of jokes. In the honour of Scotland’s favourite bard, let me introduce you to the Burnsies. A Burnsie is a joke of the format “how do you <become a famous role>?” where the answer is “<perform some action> until your <heretofore unknown private part euphemism> <verb related to action, which has the slightest of suggestive connotations>”.

I know what you’re thinking. Perhaps this would be better illustrated by example. Or maybe you’re thinking this is shaping up to be a complete waste of your time, but you just can’t let go of the three minutes you’ve already spent. Here come the examples.

Q: How do you become a famous musician?
A: Sit in the bath until your Bill Withers.

That one, my friends, I invented. When your children try and tell you it in fifteen years, you can turn around proudly and say “I know the guy who invented that! Well, I sort of know him. He’s this guy on the internet. The internet? You remember, it’s that thing we all did when all the computers were connected by wires. Of course, back then we didn’t know the dangers.”

You’re ready for another one, I can tell.

Q: How do you have an affair with a famous politician?
A: Sit in a plant pot until your Jennifer Flowers.

I had to modify the rules very slightly for that one, but I think it can still qualify as a Burnsie.

Well, that’s my contribution to modern society. If you think of any, feel free to post them as comments. Oh yes, I know, you have this look of scornful disdain on your face, as if you were so far above this. But really, you’re angry because you haven’t thought of one yet.

A pledge to the world: I will get a photo on Flickr’s Explore by the end of the year

Mount Rainier

As some of you  know, I’ve recently started taking photos more enthusiastically. I’ve always been half-heartedly interested in this stuff, but eventually I bit the bullet and bought a Nikon D40 for $260 and a couple of lenses for another $400. Those of you who have already looked at my photos will be aware that they’re not, by and large, very good. Hey. I’d probably have spent the money on beer otherwise.

Honda S2000 at Pacific Raceways

One of the more fun things about getting involved in photos has been getting involved in Flickr. Whenever I look at my photos on Flickr I can see how many views they have had, who added them as favourites, et cetera. As always with new hobbies (or dental mouth guards), I discovered that everyone I knew was already doing this Flickr thing.

And what was the great achievement that a Flickr photographer should aspire to? Ahah! That will be getting on “Explore“. Explore is a collection of the most interesting photos on Flickr – they take a thousand per day, I believe. The picking algorithm is kept a closely-guarded secret by Flickr staff. Of all my photography-enthusiast chums, I believe only two of them (Dougerino and AlexBrn) have gotten a photo onto Explore. There’s no way, therefore, that I am going to get into Explore by using my raw photography talent.

I decided, instead, to work out what the algorithm was. That seems like something I’d be better at. Well, after nothing more scientific than a couple of hours of buggering about refreshing the Explore page, I can officially announce here that I’ve got it sorted out. I am going to go out and deliberately take a picture that will get on Explore. I even have a pencil drawing of a couple of possible variants, and a prop set aside.

Why haven’t I done it yet? Well, obviously I wanted to make the prediction first, dimmy, as it otherwise wouldn’t make any sense.

Also I am not going to take it until the end of October, when I will have two more required props at hand. I will post this photo on Flickr sometime around the 5th of November, after which it will get into Explore. If it’s not in by the end of the year, I will be willing to call this prediction a failure.

More to come, of course, but the gauntlet is laid down. It’s on, Flickr. It’s on.

Also Wrong: Gents’ restrooms with a urinal and a toilet in the same room, separated by a velvet curtain

Many of you will remember with fondness my recent post concerning restrooms which contained a urinal and a toilet in the same room with a single lockable door. Several of you were good enough to share with me your own ideas about correct etiquette for such a restroom, and I think it’s fair to say that the majority believed that one should lock the door when using the facility.

Naturally I decided that that should indeed be my own personal policy going forward. The world had spoken.

Imagine my confusion, therefore, when I walked into the restroom in Martin’s Off Madison on Sunday evening and encountered this feast of abomination.

Restroom of the angst-ridden
Restroom of the angst-ridden

If what we agreed about locking the door is true, why would there be a curtain? Is it in case the person on the toilet is offended by the very sight of a nearby urinal? No, my friends, it is because dual occupancy is the very ethos of this restroom.

Frankly, I didn’t know what to do. There was another chap heading towards the restroom at the same time as I went, and now he was standing outside the door. I’d already locked the door before I noticed this. I broke out in a cold sweat. I could just imagine him standing outside the door cursing. Was I such a little princess that I needed the whole restroom to myself? I turned around. He’d hear it if I unlocked the door now. And what if – well, I mean, what if he thought that – because, well, it’s possible that Martin’s Off Madison is a gay bar. It has a lot of men in tight T-shirts and an old lady playing the piano. Not that gay bars are bad, of course. Although I am not gay. But if I were gay, that wouldn’t be bad. At least, it wouldn’t if I wasn’t already married. To a woman, obviously. Sorry, I mean not obviously. Gay people can get married too. Some of my friends are gay. Well, one of them. Maybe one other one.

Anyway, look, whether you are gay or not, any sort of “I’m ready” signal in the restroom of a gay bar is bad if you’re not willing to go through with it, which wasn’t something I was mentally prepared for. Gay people don’t like being dicked around any more than anyone else. I mean messed. Messed around.

I looked at the toilet, and back at the urinal. Maybe he would be less upset if he thought I’d been having a number two. I waited for a couple of minutes, then flushed the toilet. I noticed that the seat was up, so I put it down. I tried for a few seconds to break wind, without success. I sighed, washed my hands, took a deep breath and opened the door.

The man was still there. He looked me right in the eye and gave me an ambiguous smile. I held the door open and he went in. He did not lock the door.

I realised at that point that I had forgotten to pee. The bar wasn’t busy, and the restroom was in full view of the main seating area – how could I now get back into the restroom without that being a sign?

I turned around and walked back to the table where my wife sat.

“We need to go home now,” I said, simply, “I’ve been let down by the internet”.

Bad guys with guns

When I first moved to the US, I spent quite some time getting the necessary paperwork together in order to get a firearms license. The rules vary state-by-state, but in Washington it’s actually quite difficult for a non-US citizen to own a gun. I had to get together a bunch of paperwork, including my original birth certificate and a letter from the British police stating that I had no criminal record. But I found it all, and I sent it all off and got my license. Here is a picture of it.

Yes that is my real middle name. My plan was to buy a gun, but not keep any ammunition at home. The gun was only going to be a toy to casually throw in the lap of visiting Europeans, who had never seen one before. I might also take them to the firing range to play with it.

My wife vetoed this entire plan. The gun was a complete waste of money unless I was intending shooting somebody with it. If I found somebody I needed to shoot, I was to get back to her with the details and she could determine whether I could buy a gun or not.

At the time I made a pouty face, and went and test drove a Hummer instead for my taste of the American Dream. But I suppose my wife is right. Even in a country with bizarre laws about guns, there doesn’t seem a point in buying one unless you have a person to shoot.

The National Rifle Association is an American lobbying group which supports gun ownership. After the most recent school shooting, the CEO of the NRA, one Wayne LaPierre, gave a press conference in which he suggested a few things. During it, he said “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”.

Bad guys the world over can find ways of getting guns – I don’t think anyone would really disagree with that. But, in the UK at least, getting a gun is actually pretty difficult. You need to know the right smuggling contacts, you need to have a lot of money and you need to be pretty damn sure you’re going to need it, because if you get caught with a gun you’ll be put in prison until your hair is grey.

To allow people to compare the systems, I have drawn up a handy table to indicate whom is armed in the US, compared with the UK.

Guy Armed in US? Armed in UK?
Mafia hit-man Yes Yes
Drug lord Yes Yes
Police SWAT response team Yes Yes
Bank robber Yes Probably
Gang member Yes Knife
Street policeman Yes Truncheon
House burglar Yes No
Guy you just pulled out in front of Yes No
Your ex-girlfriend’s dad Yes No
Guy you just fired Yes No
Fourteen-year-old child left babysitting Yes No
Guy who just ninja’d first place in the ATM line Yes No
Certified lunatic Probably No

The bad guys who have guns in the UK need them for their work. They have specific people whom they may wish to put holes in, and the possible income they can gain from shooting those people outweighs the huge penalties for firearms possession. I think those people are unlikely to shoot me. The rest are also unlikely to shoot me, but they’re certainly the ones I’m most worried about. Are they the bad guys? Am I the only good guy?

Best junk mail I’ve seen for a while

Really enjoyed this one. It’s advertising an online casino, but the way they’re doing it is splendid. They’re sending you a variant of the oldest roulette system in the book, the “keep betting on black” method. It works great until you hit the maximum bet or run out of money, at which point you lose your shirt. Anyway, just to make sure you don’t accidentally win any money doing that, they increased the required bets from the powers of two to some bizarre sequence they’ve made up after a couple of beers.

The marketing concept is great – not only will you end up in the online casino, they’ve also given you a great system for spending your money there.

Without more ado, let me introduce “scott”.

From: scott <garywtw@my-syte.com>
Sent: 25 November 2009 08:46
To: me
Subject: Re: ok sending it
yo mate, ok I`ll give you my trick but if you give it someone else I`ll fuckin kill you : ) you know in roulette you can bet on blacks or reds. If you bet $1 on black and it goes black you win $1 but if it goes red you loose your $1.
So I found a way you can win everytime:

bet $1 on black if it goes black you win $1

now again bet $1 on black, if it goes red bet $3 on black, if it goes red again bet $8 on black, if red again bet $20 on black, red again bet $52 on black (always multiple you previous lost bet around 2.5), if now is black you win $52 so you have $104 and you bet:

$1 + $3 + $8 + $20 + $52 = $84 So you just won $20 : )

now when you won you start with $1 on blacks again etc etc. its always bound to go black eventually
(it`s 50/50) so that way you eventually always win. But there`s a catch. If you start winning too much (like $1000 a day) casino will finally notice something and can ban you. I was banned once on royal casino. So don`t be too greedy and don`t win more then $200 a day and you can do it for years. I think bigger casinos know that trick so I play for real money on smaller ones, right now I play on elite vip casino: www.elite24tables.net for more then 3 months, I win $50-$200 a day and my account still works. You`ll find roulette there when you log in go to “specialty” section – “american roulette”. And don`t you dare talling about it anyone else, if too many people knows about it casinos will finally found a way to block that trick. If you have any questions just drop me a line here or on skype.

c ya
—– Original Message —–
From: “rhs100932044” <clr@chrisrae.com>
To: <garywtw@my-syte.com>
Sent: Tuesday, September 15, 2009 1:14 PM
Subject: Please send me the system

> Hi scott.
> Please tell me when you will send me your roulette trick?
> You promised you`ll send it few weeks ago : (
> Thanks in advance.

Bloggers block

Some months ago, I told my new media whore friends that I was thinking about starting a blog. Oh, they said, you have to pick a topic and stick to it. You can’t just make it your random ramblings.

So I did that. I decided that I was going to blog only about things that were particularly good or bad about America. This tied in nicely with the content on my dictionary site, which I was sort of intending to promote. I carefully made notes about things that I liked, and things that I didn’t like. Then I made blog posts about them.

After a while, I discovered a problem. I neither enjoy nor excel at being positive about things. This happens at work, as well – I keep telling customers that are products are okay, which is not apparently the messaging that marketing had in mind. This personality trait means that it’s very hard to write a blog that’s supposed to be 50% positive – the blog sort of morphed into “things that are bad about America” and “things that are bad about other places”. Also, I ran out of topics. Friends of mine very kindly suggested new ones, but it’s hard to rant about something that wasn’t your idea.

So I’m going to do what everyone told me not to do, and just put my random ramblings in here. Most of them will be a bit negative.

Book chapter: What not to say or do when visiting the U.K.

As I promised, here’s a near-final draft of a chapter I’ll be putting into the second edition of the book – I’d be very interested in feedback. I have no idea when the second edition of the book is coming out – my current thoughts are that it’ll be sometime around Christmas 2010, so there’s no enormous rush for the feedback. This was written in response to a request from a reader who wanted a new chapter entitled “What not to say or do when visiting the U.K.”.

About Americans

Let’s not beat around the bush here — Americans have a reasonably poor reputation in the rest of the world. They’re broadly regarded as brash, loud, self-obsessed, ethnocentric and uncultured. Why is this? Well, the rest of the world is exposed to Americans in three ways: 

  • Television and films
  • Foreign policy
  • Tourists

 Because of television, the rest of the world is under the impression that all Americans are fantastically wealthy, and are engaged in a polygamous relationship with a homosexual dwarf whom, they will discover that evening on The Jerry Springer Show, is actually their half brother. Because of films, the world thinks each American has an unusual super-power that he’s been unwilling to use because of an accident that happened in his childhood. Eventually, when the entire world is threatened, he will use this power and save humanity. Afterwards, he will fall in love and unexpectedly die.

Because of foreign policy, the world believes that Americans hate anyone with a political system different to their own, and intend to turn the rest of the world democratic or kill them all trying. For the average American, this is a particularly unfortunate state of affairs as he or she stands very little chance of influencing things. So it goes.

Tourism, however, is another kettle of fish. It’s through tourism that Americans can show the rest of the world that they’re not megalomaniac inbreds and are actually perfectly nice people. The way that Americans can do this is, by and large, by turning a blind eye to certain godforsaken acts of complete lunacy being perpetrated by the local population. Whilst I’ll try to keep this Britain-centric, the truth is that a lot of this advice applies to Europe as a whole and some of it to the rest of the world.

One thing Europeans always like guffawing snootily about is the fact that most Americans do not own a passport. What they don’t realise is that America is so gobsmackingly large that Americans can have seen a vast proportion of the geographic spectrum without leaving the boundaries of their own country. Most Brits only possess a passport so that they can go to Mediterranean islands, get drunk, try to have sex with other Brits, then spend most of the next day looking for bacon and eggs and a pub that serves Carlsberg. Try asking Brits how many of them have been outside Europe, and you’ll get the same sort of proportions as the number of Americans with passports. Still, though, there’s a general feeling in Europe that Americans aren’t familiar with cultures outside their own, so here are some handy cheat notes to help debunk that myth.


 Of course, it’s true that most Americans are comparatively poorly-travelled with regard to exposure to other languages, and different accents. When conversing with people in the U.K., bear in mind that these people are having as much trouble understanding your weird accent as you are having with theirs.

When compared to Americans, Brits don’t do a lot of talking, and they tend to do it rather quietly. The most British of Brits simply sit in the corner grunting every so often. It’s also a general rule in the U.K. that one only really talks to one’s friends. Given this, it seems difficult to understand how a person goes about getting friends if they’re not allowed to talk to anyone, but rules are rules. Americans will normally chit-chat to one another when they are in some sort of shared limbo (in the queue at the supermarket; waiting for a store to open; et cetera). In the larger towns and cities, Brits do not do this. They will stand in stoic silence. Let’s say an alien spacecraft were to touch down in the car park at a local home improvement shop. A slimy green alien walks out towards the door of the shop, notices the “closed” sign, utters a strange disembodied sigh, throws a £10 voucher on the ground, and walks back to his spacecraft. The Brits who were standing waiting for the store to open would probably be mute. Perhaps if the alien was unusually tall, someone would mutter “he’s a big ’un” or something.

Service Expectations

Europeans tend to believe that Americans are demanding little princesses, always wanting this that or the other some strange way and never being happy to just fit in with what everyone else is doing. This is, of course, because Europeans love to get really, really bad service. This pervades society at a very fundamental level. Sometimes it means standing in a restaurant’s entrance for forty minutes before being told there’s an hour-long wait for a table. Sometimes it means not being let onto the plane because the instructions said clearly to print out the confirmation number, and all you did was write it down. Sometimes it means that no, there is no possible way that this particular dish can be served without the lettuce. Call bullshit on this great tradition and you will end up being the problem, because none of these Brits would know what good service looked like if it came up and bit them on the bum. When the waitress absent-mindedly pours soup in your lap and then claims that it was because you were in her way, just nod and smile. Professional malpractice is just one of those things that happens in restaurants! Get on with your day. Standing up and appealing to the sensibilities of the other restaurant-goers is not going to work. The minute you get up and say “Oh, man, it’s all down my front!” the assembled masses are not going to think “Boy, what a clumsy waitress.” They are going to think “Here we go; another American whining about something.” Changing this system will take many hundreds of years of societal evolution. It is not something that you should even vaguely attempt while on vacation.


In addition to their expectation of appalling service, Brits simply adore waiting for things. There is nothing more exciting to a British person than walking into the supermarket the day before Christmas and discovering that only one checkout is operational and the person serving there has learning difficulties. When faced with a selection of different queues for the cash machine, Brits will inevitably join the longest one. Do not mess with this system either. If there’s a twenty minute wait at the pharmacist’s counter when there also appear to be three would-be pharmacists sitting back there making chains of paper clips, do not dare suggest that they open another counter. Just thank the Lord that there’s someone there at all. If there’s nobody there do not, whatever you do, drum your fingers on the counter. You’ll be that little American princess again. I know, it’s hard. Count to ten.


Many Americans have some British heritage. It’s tempting to try to engage Brits on this topic because, hey, you have something in common. They’ll want to chit-chat about their own heritage and perhaps you’ll find some sort of commonality. Right? Wrong. Brits just take for granted that they come from hundreds of generations of other Brits and they don’t give a flying fuck about their heritage. Most of them couldn’t tell you where their great grand-parents came from. The fact that your family are the McDonalds from Airdrie is going to be about as interesting to the average Brit as the fact that your ex-husband worked in Wal-Mart. In fact, the latter is probably much more interesting. Their eyes will light up as they ask “Hey, is it true they sell guns in Wal-Mart?”


If you wish to be a stealth-tourist, there are two items of clothing which you must not, under any circumstances, wear.

The first of these is traditional clothing from the place you’re visiting. A quick look around Glasgow will reveal few, if any, people in kilts. These items of clothing are to be taken home and worn on special occasions, not to be worn while browsing the fungal itch creams in Boots.

The second item of clothing you must never wear is white socks. I know. Everyone in America wears white socks. In the United Kingdom, only pikeys wear white socks. Take a look around a high street in the U.K. Observe the correlation between colour of socks and fear that the person may kill you.

Comparisons with American Things

Finally, Britain has a large number of tourist attractions. Like all tourist attractions everywhere, they all pride themselves in being the best/oldest/deepest/tallest of something. Because America is a very large country full of ambitious people, the superlatives claimed by British tourist attractions are, by and large, ball-bouncingly shit when compared with their American equivalents. The Brits secretly know this, but are very hurt if you mention it. Your vacation will generally fly by easier if you keep phrases such as “I think there’s one bigger than that in my yard” or “This is IT?” to yourself.

Armed with these handy tips, you should be able to avoid being labelled as the bad variant of American tourist. And, if you get fingered all the same, you can always pretend you’re Canadian.

How to monitor lots of Craigslist sites at once

If you’ve spent much time trying to search multiple Craigslist sites at once, you’ll know that you can’t do it on Craigslist itself and, for some reason, Craigslist habitually shut down other sites that are set up with that intent. One thing you can do that’s perfectly fine with Craigslist is set up RSS feeds to track your favourite searches – however, it’s rather laborious doing this for every single Craigslist site you want to track. Well, I found a (slightly) quicker way of doing it. Perhaps some time I’ll write a web site to do this, but for the moment it’s manual.

To do this you will need:

  • A text editor
  • Some patience
  • An RSS reader which can import OPML files. I’m going to use Feedly here, although I’d recommend using a mobile app that isn’t Feedly’s own horrible one – I use gReader

First you need to get a list of the prefixes of the Craigslist sites you want to search (e.g. seattle.craigslist.org). This is the most laborious part. They’re listed state-by-state. For each of the states you’re after, go to the equivalent of http://geo.craigslist.org/iso/us/wa (change the state prefix at the end). The easiest way to get the prefixes out is to view the page source in your web browser, then copy and paste the list into a text editor and do some search-and-replace and some manual editing. Hopefully you can end up with a list something like this:


You’re probably also a bit bored. Fortunately, the next parts are less repetitive. Now you need to go to one Craigslist local site and search for whatever it is you’re actually after. Copy and paste the URL into a text editor. It should look something like:


You need to turn this into an RSS URL – ou can do this by adding “&format=rss” to the end of it. So you’ll end up with:


You now need to make a search-specific URL for every single one of the specific sites. I just did this by doing a search and replace on my site list and replacing “.org” with “.org/search/allmysearchstuff“.

If you’re carefully following my instructions, you should now be in posession of a list that looks like this:


Excellent. if you only have a few of these you can add them to Feedly one-by-one, but if you have a lot then it’s much easier to do it via an OPML feed import file. Go to the feedshow OPML generator and just paste in the list of RSS links you have above. Click “Create OPML”. Hopefully your web browser will show you an XML file. Save this somewhere.

Now, off to Feedly. Under “My Feedly”, click “Organize”. You should see an “Import OPML” button – click on it, and import the OPML file you created above. Some time shall pass and then… tada! You now have RSS feeds to all the Craigslist sites you were monitoring. Depending on which app you’re using to consume the Feedly feeds, you should be able to get alerts on your phone when new listings appear.

There. Don’t say I’m not good to you.

How to shop for an unusual car

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

I find that car advertiser web sites are pretty well-geared towards finding a blue Honda Accord, but not so great if you’re trying to find a pink Borgward Isabella. Which probably makes sense from the point of view of the web site owners, but can be somewhat irritating if you’ve got your heart set on a particular car but don’t want to sit every morning looking at fifteen “no results found” pages.

What I really want is to set up some searches and then wait for an email saying a car’s turned up, and here’s how I go about doing that. I’m going to group these tips by type of solution – please bear in mind that this is going to be heavily skewed to North America, although with a bit of tinkering you can easily apply these techniques to searches in other places.



eBay’s an easy one, so let’s do it first. Once you’ve searched for the car you want, there’s a button at the top saying “Follow this search”. If you then visit your My eBay page, you can turn on email notifications for that search. One tip: the checkboxes for options will filter based on the current search results. So if you want a purple Gilbern Invader you might have to first search for any purple car, and then narrow your results to the exact make and model. Although frankly if that’s what you’re looking for you might be better trying to buy some purple paint, a bunch of fibreglass and a rusty MG.


Much like eBay, Autotrader lets you save searches and have it email you when new cars turn up. You have to create an account, but once you’ve done that it’s pretty easy to use.


This one is a bit of a nuisance but I did come up with some sort of a solution. I wrote a whole blog post about it. Off you go and read that.

Classified ad sites

After a lot of digging around, these are the only sites that I now bother searching (in approximate order of best to worst):

These sites are all geared toward you searching every day for new results. But we can change that! All you need is a free account on ChangeDetection.com.

For each of these sites, here’s the process to follow.

1. Search for the car you want.

 2. Tweak the search to be exactly right. 

Sometimes the user interface allows you to get the exact search you want but, if it doesn’t, don’t despair. You can start to look at the URLs that the search generates. These URLs contain the set of parameters that are being passed to the search engine, usually in the form “parameter=value” and separated by ampersands (&). For example, I gleaned that you can search for green cars just by adding &clrId=27128 to the URL. Don’t like the dollar ranges they suggest you want to filter by? Look in the URL – more than likely you’ll see something like prMx=6000 which you can just edit.

Screenshot 2014-01-13 14.09.39

Sometimes the clever filters on these sites stop you from filtering results when nothing’s going to be displayed – you can get around this by expanding the search to a larger area or larger selection of models, and then contracting it again (as I mentioned in the eBay item above).

Another URL trick – when you narrow down a search by type of car, Yahoo autos doesn’t actually change the URL. But you can add two parameters manually to the URL to do this – as far as I can see it’s the make and the model with spaces replaced by underscores. So something like make=bmw&model=3_series. I only know this because they used to put those in the URL, and they still seem to work.

Make sure that the maximum number of pages are being displayed – as we’re going to monitor this page for changes, we don’t want new cars to suddenly appear on page two.

Once you have a URL you like the look of, try it in a different web browser (or a private browsing window). This stops the site from using cookies it’s stored, and allows you to see how ChangeDetection will see the page.

3. Monitor the page on ChangeDetection.

Once you’ve got a URL you’re happy monitoring, head over to changedetection.com and click “monitor a page”. Put that full URL into the box and click “next”.


ChangeDetection now has a few extra options to tweak:

  • only send if sizeable change” – I always check this. They’re pretty vague about what it does, but in my experience a new car being listed counts as a sizeable change.
  • only send if text added/removed” – I always check this and select “added”. ChangeDetection is a little finicky with car sites, just because the removal of a 2004 Bentley Continental and the addition of a 2008 one is often seen by ChangeDetection as only the changing of “2004” to “2008”. But either way this counts as text added, so I check this.
  • Only send alert if added text contains x” – you’ll quite regularly get spurious alerts just because advertisements changed on the page, and you can use this option to avoid that. If your search is generally returning no cars at all, just put something like the colour or make of the car you’re after in there. When a car finally appears for sale, the addition to the page is bound to contain the colour of it, and the change detection is much less likely be triggered by advertisements. However… if your search is often returning several cars, don’t use this trick – as I mentioned above, the removal of a 2000 green car and addition of a 2005 one will not be regarded by ChangeDetection as involving the addition of the word “green”.

Get all these set up and, hopefully, you can sit back and wait for cars to appear. It’s not a fail-safe system – sometimes sites change the way they work, and sometimes you’ll get email alerts just because advertisements have appeared or changed. So every so often you ought to go to ChangeDetection and just click on the URLs manually to make sure they’re all working and you’re seeing the results correctly. But it sure beats going to the same sites every day.

Hope this has been some use – if you’ve got your own ideas, please feel free to share them in comments.

Idea: Caddies to Baghdad

I’ve so far spent a lot of time on this blog moaning away about things I don’t like, whilst providing no real suggestions for how to improve matters. Well, things are going to change. Now, my furry friends, I introduce you to a new section on this blog where I propose innovative solutions to the problems faced by modern America. I know Obama reads the internet a lot, so I’m hopeful that some of these will be put into practice.

Let me start with a small amount of ill-researched and probably incorrect history. Many years ago, in 43 AD, the Romans were getting restless. They yearned for adventure, were sick of the nice weather and had a hankering for some fish and chips. Emperor Claudius thought that a fun way to get these things would be to invade Britain. A quick look at the map revealed that it was a long way away, but they set off anyway with high hopes, cheerful spirits and plenty of salt and vinegar. They turned up in England, and were somewhat disappointed with the calibre of the locals, who turned out to be greasy savages with a language so preposterously unstructured that it took several hours of debate to conjugate a verb.

After a couple of brief fights on the beach, the Romans realised that the best way to curry favour with the filthy Brits was to give them free stuff. They got to work building some lovely roads, and after a few weeks managed to start striking deals with local landowners. Before long, the English were building Roman-style villas, wearing togas, zooming around on Lambrettas and smoking Marlboro Lights. The Romans didn’t really do a lot of fighting until they got to Scotland, where the locals thought scooters were gay and preferred grease-induced heart disease to lung cancer. Still, until they hit Scotland the Romans had a pretty good proof of concept for the “cake or death” style of conquest.

Some years ago, America president George W Bush invaded a country called Iraq. He was angry with Iraq because its residents looked similar to a guy who’d been causing America some trouble, and because that guy probably lived somewhere nearby. The Americans got rid of the government pretty quick but, as is the case with many invasions, the local population were irritated and did their best to spoil all of Bush’s attempts to make a new government. This went on for ages, until Bush wasn’t reelected and didn’t have to worry about it any more.

Back home in America, there were yet more problems. The American car industry had suffered its greatest setback for some time when it was discovered by scientists that gasoline was a non-renewable energy source. At around the same time, the world banking industry had discovered that nobody could afford houses any more, and that some of the people who thought they could afford them turned out not to be able to afford them after all. Most of these people owned pickup trucks, which they would not be upgrading.

Over dusty lots across America, unsold pickup trucks and SUVs started to accumulate.

Iraq may be without a stable government or a good relationship with its neighbours, but one thing it’s not currently lacking is gasoline. They had so much fuel lying around during the American invasion that they often set fire to oil wells just for fun.

Here are two problems with an obvious solution. Operating a couple of aircraft carriers in a shuttle system, America can begin to move the unsold pickup trucks and SUVs, acre by acre, over to Baghdad. They’ll then be handed out to the Iraqis who have killed the fewest Americans that week, or who are the best at singing the new national anthem. Perhaps there should be some sort of point system. As time goes on, the Iraqis will be delighted with their new cars, and the money saved in firing expensive weaponry at them will more than pay for the cars themselves.

But it gets better than this, my friends. These cars were made in America. They will spend several weeks bouncing around in the hold of an aircraft carrier, after which they will be driven around on poorly-made roads in scorching heat. After a few weeks, these cars are going to need some serious maintenance work. A whole local economy will spring up around repair of American cars, and the US auto industry will be thrown into overdrive, barely able to manufacture and ship spare parts fast enough. The huge influx of extra income will allow them to invest heavily in alternative energy sources, propelling America’s car industry to the top of the heap once again.

I will probably be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, at a ceremony where I will give a moving speech.

Need a spot of help naming an application – winner gets three (yes, three) free copies of the Septics Companion

So I’ve been working on this mobile phone application. The primary purpose of the app is to stop people who’d had a few beers and taken the train home from dozing off and missing their train station. My app will use the GPS to track their progress, then wake them up before they sleep past their train station. However, it can also be used for all sorts of other location-based triggers – SMSing your carpool buddy when you’re about to arrive and pick him up; letting your dad know when he should come and meet you from the bus stop, et cetera. You basically pick a location, and a bunch of things you’d like to do there, and it does them (you can also pick multiple locations).

The app is pretty much finished, but it is currently uninspiringly called “LocAlarm”. I need a way better name, and I am willing to give three signed copies of The Septic’s Companion to the person who thinks of one. How’s about THAT?

Why can’t I think of one myself? Well, it’s kind of complicated. I want it to be immediately apparent that it will stop you sleeping past your train/bus stop (because that’s mostly what it’s for) but I also don’t want to rule out all those other uses. The situation is complicated by the fact that it will be sold through the Windows Mobile Marketplace site, where people will only see the icon, app name and my company name, like so:

A typical marketplace app

Clicking on the app shows a long description. This means that my program name and icon have to alert the casual browser to the fact that that this is to stop him sleeping past his train station, but also does other stuff. I was originally keen to have some sort of catchy Twitter-style name – was thinking about “Jitterbug” (as in “wake me up, before you go-go”) or “Dozer” but I think this is a no-go as you’d actually have to click on the app to see what it did. I then got thinking about some train-specific catchy ones (“WakeMeUp“, “BRT“) but wasn’t too happy that either of them was particularly great. The maximum length of app name is 58 characters, so I am now heading towards something horribly bland and Microsofty (“GPS Alarm“, “Location Alarm“) – I hate myself for doing this but, given the way in which the app is going to appear, I think it might be my only option.

Does anyone have any better ideas? If anyone can come up with some sort of name (and ideally an icon too) that somehow tells the reader all these things, I shall be delighted to send them three books. I will also immortalise them on the credits screen for the app, should they wish!

Need a spot of help naming an application: We have a winner!

So, the other night I collated all of the name suggestions I’d had for my mobile application. Spread across Facebook and the comments on the blog post, I had fifty six of them! Anyway, I printed them all out (with no names attached) and showed them to several people:

  • Myself
  • A friend of mine who works in marketing
  • A friend of mine who works in publishing
  • My wife (this doesn’t really count, as she said “you didn’t put my suggestion on there” and then refused to look at it)
  • A selection of my colleagues at my real job

There were a few popular ones. In the end, these people whittled it down to small batch (some of which got modified in the whittling process). The ones left were:

  • Proximity
  • Commuter’s Companion
  • BuzzStop
  • Are We There Yet?
  • Whereabouts

These are all pretty good names, but there can be only one winner. And the winner is…

… drum roll…


This wasn’t actually suggested by anyone on its own, but it was a part of a number of suggestions from a gentleman named Eamon Holmes, on Facebook. I’m pronouncing Eamon the winner, and will send through his books. Many thanks to all who took part – I expected about three responses so was somewhat surprised by what happened. A lot of the funny ones gave us a lot of entertainment but may possibly not count as very professional. And I am, of course, exceptionally professional at all times.

I’ll be posting here again when the app is available – will probably be in a month or so.

No more nonsense from my .com here

Spurred on by the news that Apple is now bigger than Microsoft, I’m going to invest some time in doing more blogging for my fledgeling nest-egg, Beta Minus. I’ve started a blog on http://betaminus.com/, and migrated a couple of posts I had here about mobile app sales. Just to tempt you over there, I’ve written a brand new post about using my Proximity app whilst skiing.

I’ll try and keep this blog for things marginally more funny. Once I think of them…

Pictures of funny things from my phone

Like any other mobile phone owner, I occasionally take photographs of things that I find amusing. Often, like other irritating pedants, these are linguistic mistakes. More often than not, they involve things in quotations. These just languish on my phone… when I get a new phone, I copy them to it, and then they languish there instead. Occasionally after a few beers I get into one of those “everyone show each other the funny pictures from their phone” sessions, which is the only time they get an outing. Well, not now. Now I’m giving them to the world!

And, well, here they all are. They’re from a mixture of countries and date back to 2000 or so. Perhaps I’ll start a brand new collection, and blog about that in 2020.

There’s cost cutting, and there’s cost cutting.

When autocorrect doesn’t help.
It’s like beer, but without the uncomfortable wetness.
The most important thing about goals is that they’re attainable.
Honesty is the best policy.

This never normally happens…
If you have to ask what’s in the grog, you don’t want the grog.
Sore cock? Try some nice wine.
When picking a web site URL, make sure it works in all variants of English.
A straightforward misunderstanding, I think.

For when you’ve had one of those days.
It’s like shooting fish in a barrel, but I still “love” it.
A bag for my paintbrush? Yeah, sure, I’ll take a bag. Oh.
45 days into the project, eight builders were fired.
Sure, you can cook. But can you name a restaurant?
Football scarves on sale on Basle, Switzerland. It’s not so much who you support…
It wasn’t so much a year as an emotion.

That’s all, folks. Get back to work.

Questions people ask when they find out you do Lemons

“How fast do you go?”

Credit: myrideisme.com
Credit: myrideisme.com

: Erm, well, I don’t really know. There’s no speedo. Maybe a hundred and ten at the end of the straight?
Them: My brother did a hundred and thirty between Dead Squaw, Arizona and Coleslaw, Nevada
You: Uh-huh?

“How long do you each drive for?”



You: The serious teams can put a driver in for a whole tank of fuel, which is usually about two hours.
Them: I drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles once without stopping.
You: Mmm.
Them: Also I only used two tanks of fuel the whole way.

“Do you all have to be in the car at once?”

Credit: missedshift.com
Credit: missedshift.com

: No. It only has one seat.
Them: But how do you get to the race?
You: I think this is a more involved procedure than you’re imagining.

“Do you wear your costumes when you’re driving?”

Credit: 4theriders.com
Credit: 4theriders.com

: That would be kind of dangerous.

“What do you do if the car breaks down?”

Credit: murileemartin.com

You: It doesn’t.
Them: Really?
You: Sorry, that was a joke. Actually we call AAA.
Them: Really?
You: That was a joke too.

“I love driving. I might get a team together!”


You: Great! Do you love reading instructions, filling in forms, looking after children, organising other people’s vacations or taking days off work to drive around fire extinguisher companies looking for a metal mounting bracket?
Them: No.
You: You probably won’t like it then.
Them: Then why do you do it?
You: By the time I realised what it actually involved, I had a car that couldn’t be used for anything else.

Renaming “Christmas” – next steps


As a non-religious person, I applaud the renaming of various things which once had religious significance. Until last year, “Christmas” in my house involved singing hymns, praying, nailing ourselves to crosses and drinking the blood of bats.  Now, with the invention of the new “holiday yuletide snow fun” period, the event has been completely transformed. We buy a tree, give each other gifts – and this year we didn’t even sacrifice anyone!

I’m equally pleased about the abandoning of the archaic term “AD” (“Anno Domini” – in the year of our Lord) in favour of “CE” (“Common Era”). Previously, every time I wrote down the date I was caught up in a terrible misery over the death of Jesus, the son whom I doubt existed of a god I don’t believe in. As I write dates quite regularly for my job, this was causing me a lot of anguish and I’m very pleased it’s being painstakingly stamped out.

My only complaint is that these changes don’t go far enough. The next things to approach are:

  • The word “enthusiast“, as I’m sure you know, means a person possessed by a god. This is out of touch with modern reality. We should use “fan” instead.
  • The term “OMG” currently stands for “oh my god”. Do we all live in the fourth century now? Let’s stop this nonsense and make it stand for “oh my goodness” instead.
  • Somehow the term “milky way” and its Greek equivalent, “galaxy“, continue to see regular use. We need to stamp this out – although we can’t be sure of exactly where the galaxy came from, we can be confident that it did not come from breast milk sprayed into the sky after Zeus’ baby son woke up during feeding. I recommend we use “distinct universe area”.
  • I don’t believe in the Norse god of strength, Thor, and every Thursday this riles me up into a frenzy. I propose we rename “Thursday” to “Beyonceday” to reflect more current thinking.

These are quite common terms, so making the necessary changes will no doubt take a while. Rewriting the history books will probably be the most time-consuming part, but I think we can all agree that it will be a useful investment.

Review of the Cotton Carrier camera harness

I did say a while back that this blog would become somewhat random. Well, now I’m posting a review of a harness with which one can carry a camera. Variety, they say, is the spice of life.

I recently bought my first digital SLR camera, a Nikon D40. At the weekends I often climb up mountains, so it seems sensible that I use my nice new camera to take pictures of those mountains. As far as carrying a large camera up mountains goes, you have two options:

  1. Leave it in your pack all the way up there and back again
  2. Swear at it continually until you revert to option (1).

Enter the Cotton Carrier.

Simply put, The Cotton Carrier is a harness that straps over your chest and allows you to carry a large camera as though it was bolted to your chest. The unit has a sturdy plate which sits on your chest, and the camera attaches to that plate via a small mount that goes in the threaded tripod attachment on the camera. The camera is attached to the mount by turning it to face left and then sliding it into a groove – it cannot then be removed from the mount without turning it ninety degrees and sliding it upward, therefore making it unlikely (but not impossible) that you’ll disengage your camera from the mount by mistake. The device was created by Andy Cotton, a landscape photographer, and it’s described a lot better in Andy’s own introductory video on his web site.

I heard about this system from my boss, Doug – after explaining the whole concept to me he was then inspired to go out and buy one himself. It arrived on Thursday, and rather generously he lent it to me immediately so I could take it on my backpacking trip down the side of Lake Chelan that weekend. This I duly did, and here are my thoughts about the device. I ought to point out that Doug, being a man of great means, purchased the $170 complete system, but the parts that I am reviewing really just represent the $99 camera vest for regular cameras. The complete system has attachments for a secondary camera, bottle opener, lightning conductor, divining rod et cetera. Neither of these systems are cheap, so let’s hope it’s good!

Okay, it’s good. I was never an expert at suspense.

Putting on the harness was pretty simple and after a few experiments I found a height that works well for me on my chest. After you’ve done it a few times, taking the camera out of the carrier becomes almost instinctive. Once it’s out, it seems to magically end up exactly in the right place to take a picture – you can have the camera out of the carrier, take a photo and put it back in within a few seconds. It fits solidly into the mount so there’s never any doubt whether you’ve got it successfully in or not.

Historically I’ve always taken a point-and-shoot camera in my trouser pocket where it’s nice and accessible – carrying the SLR on the Cotton Carrier actually made it much simpler to take photos on the spur of the moment, especially given the extra power-on time that my compact camera seems to need. At one point, one of my backpacking companions leaned over and grabbed my SLR from my chest mount because he didn’t have the time to take his own compact camera from his pocket. It’s amazing the times when a handy pocket is actually not handy at all.

Alright, I think I’ve gushed about this enough now, so I’ll analyse a couple of details. First off, the way in which the camera is mounted to the stand. This is done via a small machined button – I’m please that it’s not heavy, but it does mean that the camera doesn’t sit level any more when you put it down on a table. The only real annoyance here is that it’s hard to take long exposure shots without actually using a tripod – I’m used to just sitting the camera on a rock, and it’s tricky to do that with the button on the bottom. The button comes off easily with the tool provided – it would be great if either the button was a little wider (so the camera could sit flat on it) or the tool could easily be attached to the harness itself (because, umm, I left it in the car). The slot to unscrew the button is pretty generic and the button could easily be removed with a coin or some other similar object, but I stopped short of this one given that the harness belonged to my boss and it might be a bit difficult to explain on Monday exactly what I had been trying to do with his brand new piece of camera equipment and a bent spork.

I was concerned that wearing the harness all day would make both it and me somewhat sweaty – somehow, this didn’t happen but I’m not exactly sure why. The carrier is made of some sort of mesh – Mr Cotton, I don’t know what this is or how it works, but please keep making it that way. Somehow, my rucksack straps ended up soaked, but the carrier did not.

On the subject of rucksacks, the carrier can easily be worn at the same time as a large pack. As you can see from the photos, I was carrying somewhere around 20kgs of stuff in a 70 litre pack and the carrier fitted fine underneath. The shoulder straps are wide enough that they cause almost no discomfort, although if I had to choose I’d have them wider rather than narrower, as that would mean the backpack sat entirely on them which I think would be even better. The carrier was sitting high enough on my chest that the chest strap sat just above the waist straps on my rucksack, so this worked ideally. I could easily have worn a climbing harness as well, and the carrier wouldn’t have got in the way.

Any minus points? Well, I jotted down a couple. However, I’m very much convinced that the positioning the Cotton Carrier uses is precisely the correct place to carry a camera, and some of my gripes are around this. Firstly, I was using a water-bladder inside my rucksack to drink from – the problem with this is that you’re drinking water from a spout directly above the back of your camera so you have to be a little careful not to cheerfully pour a torrent on top of the thing. The solution to this one is, I think, just to drink more carefully. Secondly, it would be inadvisable to keep the neck strap on the camera when using the carrier unless you were going to also put it around your neck as an emergency measure – there’s a reasonable chance it would slip down and you’d end up putting a knee through it when climbing steep terrain. Again, not sure of the solution – the carrier itself comes with a “jesus strap” that you can attach to the harness, so the right answer here is probably just to embrace that, and ditch the old neck strap.

Overall, this is a superb piece of gear – as you know, I don’t make a habit of writing equipment reviews on this blog but I was so impressed with this harness that I felt I ought to write something. I was approached by two people during the backpacking trip asking me what it was and where I’d got it, and my backpacking chum told me he was sorely tempted to buy one because right now his $1000 DSLR camera was largely worthless, gathering dust in his basement. I’m amazed that this device isn’t an open secret in the climbing community, but it isn’t – I’ll certainly be doing my best to remedy that, and I hope Mr Cotton continues innovating because he’s onto the right thing.

Now to persuade the wife…

Right: Burgers

The best part about America being the most overweight nation on the planet is that, boy, can America make superb beef burgers. God damnit, why do I have to be mean even when I’m being nice. I tell you, I should have called this blog “Things other people apart from me do badly”. That way I could be persistently negative and snipey without really making any constructive effort to remedy the situation, which is my favourite thing.

If you walk into a random bar in the United Kingdom and order a beef burger, you can guarantee some things about it. Firstly, it will be black and hard around the edges, as though it has been fried more than once in its tortured life. Second, it will be strangely soggy in the middle, as though it was finally put out of its misery in a microwave oven. If it’s an upscale bar, you’ll probably get a large piece of wizened-looking tomato to go along with it, and if it’s a really fancy joint then you’ll get a pickle. Generally a burger you bought in a British pub can be regarded as a good one if it’s possible to tell the meat from the bun.

The first time I ordered a burger in America, the waitress asked, “And how would you like your burger?” I peered back at her. “I beg your pardon?” “How would you like your burger, sir?” I tried to sneak a peak at the menu to see if I’d accidentally ordered the Kobe special. The waitress tried to help, “For example, sir, medium rare?” I looked at the waitress and back at the menu. A burger medium rare? Are you nuts? At that sort of temperature the eyeballs and toenails won’t even have melted. “Umm… medium,” I said, and waited for her to ask whether I’d like my chips cooked or not.

As to why Americans are so good at burgers, I can only assume that it comes down to the fact that America actually has a lot of space in it. A cow reared in America owns its own piece of land and has a tree-lined driveway and a hot tub. A cow reared in Europe is sharing a room with another cow in order to pay the exorbitant rent, and turning tricks in the evenings to make ends meet. She’d stop smoking if it wasn’t for the coke habit, which has made her udders practically disappear and left her gaunt and emaciated. How cows are supposed to cut coke with no fingers I’m not sure. This post needs some work to be believable, but it’s getting late now.

Right: Condiments in large bottles, not ridiculous sachets

Today, my friends, I am complaining about condiments.

The condiment of Beelzebub
The condiment of Beelzebub

In America, the way in which you receive your condiments will depend a bit on the sort of restaurant you’re in. If it’s an extremely expensive restaurant, you obviously shouldn’t be asking for condiments at all. If it’s a fairly expensive restaurant, you’ll get a rather nice silver dish cointaining your condiment of choice, with a dainty spoon in it. If it’s a reasonably-priced restaurant, it’ll be the bottle the sauce came in. If it’s a really cheap place or an on-street vendor, it’ll be one of those industrial-sized vats of condiment with a shampoo-style dispenser on the top, and you’re left holding your dinner under it and squirting at it. Consider yourselves lucky, Americans.

In Britain, in a really expensive restaurant, you’ll get the nice silver dish with a spoon. Treasure this because, pretty much anywhere else, you will get a miniature individual sachet of sauce. These sachets are around 8cm long and 2cm wide, and are made of a strange metal/plastic composite originally invented for protecting components of the Hubble Space Telescope. A note on the side says “tear here”. This is sarcastic. You can tell it’s sarcastic, because there is a tiny picture of a pair of scissors. No tearing for you, bucko. The only way these things are intended to be destroyed is by an intergalactic singularity.

To open the sachet, you must grip the corner next to the “tear here” nick as tightly as you can between your front two teeth, and then pull the packet away from your mouth. The packet is covered in your sweat, from the period a few moments earlier when you really thought you were going to tear it with your hands. It is more than a little slippery. You’re going to have to hold it pretty tight. Those space telescope scientists may not know how to make a mirror, but this sucker was designed to withstand re-entry. Get ready for a rough ride.

At this point, your dinner companions may start to pull away from the table or run to the loo. This is normal.

Those telescope scientists no doubt have friends in the rocket business. They all hang around together, joking about how rocket science isn’t all that hard anyway and making puns about quarks. Anyway, their rocket friends will tell you that any container, when squeezed as hard as possible and then split, will propel its contents vigorously in the direction of the breach. These sachets should come with some sort of written warning, and perhaps a set of protective eyewear. At the very least, they should say “not for use in densely populated areas” in clear lettering on the side.

And why do the Brits insist on serving condiments like this? I can only assume it’s because there is empirical evidence that one in five males has, at some time, stirred a pub tomato ketchup container with his John Thomas. Or perhaps some people have a penchant for opening the shared mustard, sneezing in it, then replacing the cap. It’s just the way they roll. Are we honestly that untrusting a society that we fear constantly that other pub-goers have been putting ricin in the tartare sauce? Are we really that germophobe that we can’t stand to eat something that’s been touched by another human being?

And, well, I hate to jump on the popular bandwagon, but isn’t this rotten for the environment? Whenever you ask for ketchup in the UK, you can be sure that they’re not going to give you only one space sachet. They’re going to give you six. And you just try giving back the ones you didn’t use. They’ll eye you with a suspicious look. They certainly won’t touch them. Who knows what you’ll have done with them. Heavens, they’ve probably been up your arse twice.

Right: Consumer services available when you want them

A typical UK storefront
A typical UK storefront

Let me illustrate this with the transcript of a telephone call I had in London whilst trying to arrange the servicing of my car.

Garage: Yes, Mr Rae, we can certainly do all that. If you drop the car off we’ll be happy to get started.
Me: Splendid. When would you like me to drop the car off?
Garage: Any time between nine and five.
Me: Okay – I’ll bring it in on Saturday.
Garage: Oh no [laughs], we’re not open on Saturdays. Goodness me.
Me: I imagine Sunday is out.
Garage: [hearty laugh] My wife’d kill me. Sunday, haha.
Me: The thing is that, well, those times are pretty similar to the times when I am required to be at work.
Garage: At work?
Me: Yes.
Garage: Every day?
Me: Every day except Saturday and Sunday. I get those off.
Garage: Oh! Well, maybe your wife –
Me: My wife also works.
Garage: Every day?
Me: Yes. Perhaps I could leave it outside and put the keys in your letter box or something?
Garage: One second.
Garage: [muffled] Bob, this guy can’t bring his car in.
[inaudible response]
Garage: [muffled] He’s working all that time.
[inaudible response]
Garage: [muffled] Yeah, every day. Well, except, apparently he gets Saturday and Sunday off.
[inaudible response]
Garage: [muffled] Well, get this… apparently she also works.
[inaudible response]
Garage: [muffled] Yeah, every day. He’s wondering if he can leave it outside.
[inaudible response]
Garage: Alright, look mate. We think you can probably leave it outside.
Me: Okay, great.
Garage: So just any time, I suppose.
Me: Wonderful. Where shall I put the keys?
Garage: Probably best if you drop them off while we’re open. They’ll get nicked otherwise.

The same conversation is being had daily across the UK, and pretty much across the entire spectrum of service provision. Parcel delivery, fridge repair, license renewal, escort services. Contrast that with the US – I just dropped our car off at the dealer for its service – I could drop it off, they tell me, any time between 6am and 9pm. Seven days a week. It’s true that things are starting to change in the UK – some supermarkets are open late, and more and more busineses are open at the weekend. However, your chances of getting anything done after 5pm on a weekday or at all on a Sunday are somewhat minimal. If you want to make a killing in the UK, I suggest you start a business which is open at times convenient for your customers. Your competitors won’t know what hit ’em.

Right: Landing on the moon

If I could put this one in bold, I would, as it’s possibly the most spectacular thing the Americans have ever done.

To me, landing on the moon was always something humans had done ages ago, and barely even in colour. I knew my parents had lived through the event but they never implied that it was an important part of their lives – it wasn’t nearly as important as, say, that time my great-grandfather drove his car through the back of the garage by mistake.

A while back I read Andy Chaikin’s splendid book, A Man on the Moon. The book is an amazing account of the Apollo programme and the moon landings – Andy Chaikin is British, so it’s pleasantly devoid of chants of “USA! USA!” and trite tales of how Neil Armstrong’s dog fell in love as soon as he landed, or similar such Independence Day-esque bollocks. It’s just an honest account of an extraordinary feat of mankind.

The extraordinary feat, if it can be summarised, was this. In 1959, America had no rockets other than missiles. In 1969, they landed someone on the moon, had them potter around for a while poking at stuff and brought them back again. Of course there are all sorts of technological wonders going on here, but perhaps the most interesting part of this is in the numbers. The moon is 385,000km from earth. That is one fuck of a long way, whether you have a rocket or not. In 2005-dollars, this programme cost the taxpayer $140bn. That is the entire GDP of Pakistan and represents a thousand dollars for every American citizen. One fifth of the world population watched the live transmission of the first moonwalk. At its peak, 400,000 people were directly employed by the Apollo programme.

Every so often, we as human beings need these sort of dangerous, expensive, unjustifiable follies to be brought down upon our country by those in power. We need this to feel like we’re progressing as a species, even if on most days we are more worried about traffic and healthcare. Responsibility to the people through democracy makes things like this harder – my ancestors will sadly not be touring Castle Obama a thousand years down the line – but Kennedy proved that it doesn’t make it impossible. When the people have a genuinely inspirational common goal, a nation can unite behind it and enjoy a collective euphoria and sense of purpose so splendid that they hadn’t realised it existed.

It strikes me that the Kennedy-esque aura that surrounds Obama right now and the downturn of the economy is going to leave a situation ripe for a “grand plan” when America’s finances start to pick up.Once he’s pulled out of Iraq and turned it into a new bloody dictatorship, the American people are going to be clamouring for something less horrific and more exciting to pull together and spend money on. Ten years seems like a good watermark (it worked for Kennedy) but what to do? Tallest building? Man on Mars? Zero dependence on fossil fuel?

Right: Not throwing rubbish everywhere

It’s well known in Britain that the entire country is a great big rubbish dump into which you may cast your cigarette ends, crisp wrappers, used condoms and half-burnt mattresses. If you see someone on the street opening a new packet of cigarettes, I would say there’s about a one third chance that they’ll thrown the packaging in the street. As a result of this, British cities are – perhaps unsurprisingly – strewn with junk. Before I moved to the US, I rather thought this was the way cities were.

In the US, at least here in Seattle, it’s quite the opposite. There’s a real sense of civic pride about keeping the city clean, and as a result it’s much nicer walking around. I suspect this is something of a chicken-and-egg situation – if everyone else is throwing their crap in the street, why shouldn’t I throw mine? Assuming I am a pikey bastard with a dog on a bit of string and whose children have tattoos.

Right: Not too many people

Land of not a lot
Land of not a lot

One pet peeve I have concerns the fact that most governments insist upon paying people to reproduce. When I am president of a country, the first law I enact will be to remove child benefits. I may even imitate my favourite government, that of the People’s Republic of China, and instate some sort of penalty for having children. Life will be great. House prices will go through the floor. There’ll never be any traffic. You’ll never be put on hold when you call tech support. Hmm, wait, maybe they’ll reduce the number of support staff. Scratch that last one. Anyway, the world will be a way better place, and all the people who decide to have children will pay appropriately for the privilege. Don’t get me wrong – I like children. In fact, I’ve been trying to persuade the wife to help me produce some. They’re just the least environmentally friendly thing we could be doing right now, and for some reason they attract government grants. It’s like subsidising Buicks.

This rant was intended to lead into an almost wholly unrelated topic. That unrelated topic was the fact that America is quite sparsely populated, although the rest of the world doesn’t really know it. Take a look at Wikipedia’s list of countries by population density. America is number 177 of the 238 countries in there. It’s less densely populated than Zimbabwe and Bhutan. There are ten times as many people in a square kilometre of Israel as there are in a square kilometre of America. There’s nobody here. For its size, it’s a ghost country.

This is good because I like hiking, and I like hiking without bumping into other people all the time. I used to go hiking a lot when I lived in London – you could get to the Peak District in four hours, but to get to any mountains higher than Trump Tower you’d be looking at the Lake District, which meant six or seven hours in the car. And even once you’re in the Lake District, it still has the trappings of a fairly densely populated place. You’re never too far from an Olde Worlde Tea Shoppe, or a McDonalds, or some roadworks. This, of course, is mostly due to the very high population density in the UK. As far as rating London against other cities goes, I don’t think population density captures quite what I’m talking about. I’ve developed a new unit of measure to quantify this. Which I will now explain. In the next paragraph.

Were I to start the car in downtown Seattle on a Saturday afternoon and drive purposefully out of town, I’d be in the countryside reasonably quickly. Of course, my idea of the countryside might not match yours, so in order to reliably measure this we need to agree on some sort of standard fixture that is present in the countryside but not in town. This is the cow. Seattle, therefore, has a rating of somewhere around thirty minutes to cow. In London I think I’d be looking at well over 90MTC. Edinburgh, where my family lives, is about 25-30MTC. Manhattan is probably 120MTC. Of course, Bumfluff Arizona is probably a mere 1MTC, but you wouldn’t want to live there. This is why you should be careful to bear in mind population size when considering MTC ratings. I tried to come up with a simple way to work it in, but I couldn’t come up with any measure that didn’t make Los Angeles seem like a dairy farm. Suggestions appreciated.

Right: Salespeople who have actually heard of the product they are selling



Americans have something of a tradition about the place they choose to work. Regardless of their particular position in the company, they generally choose to work in places where they like the end product. Financiers in the software industry are gadget-junkies; delivery drivers in the pet food business have a house full of dogs. Hey, why work towards the creation of something you don’t care about?

In Britain, being excited about anything to do with work is gay. If you are interested in not looking gay, you should actively avoid any job which runs a risk of interesting you. If you’re bulemic and allergic to nuts, why not get a job in the food industry? You hate men? Get a job in a strip bar! If Stevie Wonder was British, he’d be a parachute stuntman.

Personally I rather enjoy being permanently curmudgeonly about work. However, this approach does leave the United Kingdom with a service industry which is almost entirely useless. Let me leave you with a typical conversation between a member of the public and an in-store customer service representative.

Salesman: Can I help you, sir?
Customer: Well, yes, actually, you can. About this hifi system –
Salesman: Ah yes, the C9000. Beautiful system, sir. Sound quality is truly astounding. Blows your mind, the sound quality on this –
Customer: I was wondering if it has a radio. I’m guessing it does, but I can’t see any buttons for it.
Salesman: Oh yes, sir. State of the art, the C9000.
Customer: So it has a radio?
Salesman: We can also do you a two year warranty on this one – if anything goes wrong, you can just bring it back here, no questions asked, and – well, you know the rest. Not that anything goes wrong with these things. I don’t think we’ve had a single one back this year.
[Salesman gives the stereo system an affectionate but firm pat on the top]
Customer: So it definitely has a radio?
Salesman: It’s got everything, this puppy. Sound quality is astounding.
Customer: Can you turn on the radio for me?
Salesman: Blows your mi – hmm. The radio?
Customer: Yes, can you turn on the radio? So I can hear the sound quality?
Salesman: Well yes, of course. Let me find the remote.
Customer: I don’t think it has a remote, actually.
Salesman: Of course, yes, I’m thinking of the C8000.
Customer: Actually, I don’t believe that one –
Salesman: All of the functions are available from behind this beautiful stainless steel sliding panel. See how smoothly that slides back? That’s quality right there.
[pause. Salesman gazes with reverence at stereo system]
Customer: The radio.
Salesman: Yes, amazing radio. Astounding sound quality.
Customer: The radio switches on from this panel?
Salesman: Look, I’ll let you in on something. It’s getting near the end of the month and my boss is really putting pressure on us to get the numbers up, so I think we can come to some sort of deal.
Customer: I’m unlikely to be interested unless it has a radio.
Salesman: Well sir, here we pride ourselves on our sixteen-day money-back risk-free guarantee. Do you know what that means, sir? It means that you can take it home, use it for two weeks, and if it turns out it doesn’t have a radio, you can put it back in its original packaging and bring it back here with no questions asked. Is that a deal, or is that a deal?

Right: Supermarket trolleys with fixed rear wheels

Some bright supermarket proprietor, many moons ago, realised that it would be much easier for people to shop at his supermarket if they had some sort of hand-propelled vehicle in which to pile up their shopping. He doubtless came up with a few different ideas and eventually settled on some sort of neo-cuboidal wireframe device with a handle at one end.

But then, something happened. Somehow the world managed to agree on the design so far, but something was to cause something of a schism in the realm of supermarket improvement.

If this was a Discovery documentary, there would now be a commercial break.

Somehow, the mechanism of steering a supermarket trolley in the United States ended up being different to that used in Europe. The Americans opted to have the rear wheels fixed on their vertical axis and the front wheels able to laterally rotate, much like the type of steering mechanism used on a car, or any other goddamned wheeled vehicle. The Europeans, however, elected to have all four wheels steer. This has the great benefit of making the device able to travel sideways, or diagonally, or through time, or across dimensions, with the only side effect that it cannot be deliberately moved in any direction whatsoever. The only way to steer a European shopping trolley is to crouch down behind it, stretch your arms down the entire length of its sides and rotate it using a shuffling motion like some sort of Russian dancer with an early Communist kidney dialysis machine. It is a common site in Europe to see old ladies, drawn and haggard, being led down the street by errant supermarket trolleys on journeys that had originated in a supermarket, sometimes one in the next town.

Right: Tax refunds

Boy, are we going to have some fun
It’s playtime, Sheryl

I can’t speak for the rest of the world here (well, I can, but it stands a high chance of being discovered to be false) but America has a much smarter approach to making you do your taxes than the UK does. In the UK you slave away all year, fill in your tax return, send it off and in a couple of months you either gain or lose a few quid. While you’re filling in the forms, you think about how the government are taking all this money that you worked so hard to make and spending it on gay marriage and old people. In America, you almost always get money back. This means that, whilst they don’t like form-filling any more than anyone else, Americans aren’t thinking the same stuff while they are sitting there writing down their social security numbers. They are actually thinking of the ride-on lawnmower, or the new flat-screen television, or the Sheryl Crow special edition real doll that they’re going to buy when the refund comes in. These are not necessarily the things that I personally thought about. I don’t have a lawn. I am also against neither gay marriage nor old people, just to nip that one in the bud.

Search terms used by people to find my site. Yes, really

I was inspired yesterday by my friend Richard MacKinnon to go hunting for the search terms people have used to find my site. I use Google Analytics to monitor my site traffic, which provides a nice way of scrolling through these. Of course, most of them are pretty predictable – “british insults”, “british slang”, “british slang words” et cetera. What’s more interesting is where you scroll down to the searches that had only one single occurence.

Some of these were still looking for my site.

the septic’s guide
septic dictionary
septic mans dictionary
syptic companion

Some of them were looking for the right sort of thing, although perhaps they didn’t find it on my site.

what does the term love mean to british
[Lady, I think this means it was a one night stand.]
british euphemisms has your wooden leg fallen off
[Are you pulling my leg?]

Some people were just angry. About stuff.

why are americans such tosspots
are audio cable companies taking the piss

Some people needed help with something.

how to demo letter g?
[This is your seventh demo, right?]
derogatory chat up lines
[Hmm. Your mother told you this was a good idea?]
am i most likely to date a guy thats starts with the letter c
[Perhaps, but I’ve a sense it’s not me.]
c-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s meaning in each letter
[Fact: Christmas started as an acronym.]
what do americans call faggotts
[Well, erm…]
I want to have a pear everyday is that ok
[Knock yourself out. Assuming you’re eating it, there are worse vices.]
what belt would faggot attic ed wear
[I’m going to a fancy dress party as Ed. Ed. You know Ed. No, not that Ed. Faggot Attic Ed.]

Some people were looking for… well, they were looking for something. Heaven knows what it was. I’d like to warn readers that this is where it’s going to start getting more colourful. If Faggot Attic Ed was too much for you, close this window now.

“fag snow fairy”
[For the person who’s tried everything on top of the tree.]
the bitterness of s.w.o.t. is in the analysis,while the sweetness of wedding cake is in the icing sugar.discuss
[The nonsequiteur seminar seemed to have started well.]
why do prostitutes eat ice cream
[Good question. And why is it that they wave when they see someone they recognise? Those crazy prostitutes.]
strung up by the tits tube
[YouTube for the sado masochist.]
is the word fucking religion an insult?
[That’s two words. And probably.]
colloquialism for nothing dick
[Yep, I’ve got ole’ nothing dick again.]
wanking with washing up liquid
[Not recommended. It says on the bottle that it softens your hands.]
wellington boots wanking 
[Unless these are children’s boots, you’re better endowed than I am.]
big fat black slaves hung by pantyhose
[There’s no such thing as an overly-specific fetish.]
animal words for willies and vaginas beaver
[If animals could talk, my bet would be that this was a likely topic.]
dog buggers the grandmother
[Not just any grandmother.]
russian or romany lady required as live in 4-sex shagg buy please apply if you can help
[I get a warm fuzzy feeling in my heart that some people didn’t end up with very accurate search results.]
how to get your wife to make sense and shag you
[Do you need these simultaneously?]
how to strangle your manky skanky daughters
[It’s just the same as strangling other people. Drop some search terms for better results.]
how to transport a naked girl into your house in two seconds 
[On wheels? Or teleport?]
if was going to shove veggies up my pussy i use a zucchini
[This is why nobody at the party understood! Those Brits call them aubergines!]

And finally, onto some personal favourites.

replica of chocolate cocks
[A real chocolate cock?! What do you take me for?]
arab womne looking like binbags
[Come on, admit it. We’ve all done this search after a few beers.]
quickest way to deflate boner at the beach
[My site is pretty much guaranteed to have provided some results.]
where can you fine scandinavian grope suit 
[Well, sir, they’re over here. What chest size are you. Oh – wait – *Scandinavian*?]
what do you call a system that really slows work flow in a company 

Ah yes. That would be the internet. Back to work, everyone.

Soda Mario

This is what happens when your company gives free soda to its software developers.


This fine creation is located in building 35 of Microsoft’s main Redmond campus. It was made by a friend of mine called Thibaut, who informs me that it contains 512 cans. He matched up the drinks to the pixels in Excel (obviously) and then put up a “wanted” poster for the appropriate number of each.

A call to arms

As I’m sure you’re wondering, the artwork contains:

  • 170 Diet Coke cans
  • 82 Peach Nectarine Talking Rain cans
  • 36 Coke Zero cans
  • 120 Coca Cola / Dr Pepper full caffeine & sugar cans
  • 4 Caffeine-free Pepsi cans
  • 68 Pepsi full caffeine & sugar cans
  • 32 Mug Root Beer cans

Apparently the hardest ones to find were root beer. Proof that software developers are not without a sense of taste.

Some more anti-freedom ramblings

As you probably know already, I am not a great gun fan. Like everyone else, I spend my lunchtimes sitting watching videos that already agree with my point of view. Because, y’know, otherwise how would you learn anything? Anyway – one of the things that is often cited by people on my side of the debate is the vast number of gun deaths in America compared to other civilised countries. And, sure enough, there they are on the list, right up there with all the places you’d not like to live. But I think this is a kind of meaningless statistic – of course hardly anyone in the UK is killed with a gun. There aren’t any guns there. There are very few snowmobile-related deaths in Afghanistan.

I would assume that, every hour, about the same volume of the population in America and the UK decide “Right. That does it. I’m going to do that twat some serious damage”. Then, with the finest murder weapon they can get their hands on, off they trot. Americans obviously have it comparatively easy as they can either use one of their own guns or pop to the supermarket and buy an AK-47. But us Brits are resourceful souls. We could run someone over with the car, or throw a waffle iron into their bath, or push them out of their bathroom window. How hard can it be?

Instead of comparing firearm murder rates, what we really want to compare is any-old-weapon murder rates. And, actually, Americans do way better on that list. They have 4.7 homicides per 100,000 people – this compared to a world average of 6.9. They’re still behind most of the places I’d like to live (UK 1.2; France 1.1; China 1.0; Switzerland 0.7) but they’re ahead of some surprising locations (Russia 10.2; Saint Lucia 25!). So perhaps it’s not such a bad spot after all.

Another thing to think about is the fact that a gun is probably a more sure fire murder weapon (ha, ha) than whatever the angry but resourceful Brit might have come up with. So presumably America has a higher successful-murder rate but Britain will have higher rates of other injuries. There aren’t so many clear numbers on this, but the Wikipedia page about American crime has a section devoted to comparisons. Summary: probably not.

Of course, there are probably quite a few murderers in the UK who run out of steam while trying to find a murder weapon, or their weapon of choice fails entirely to injure the person they were after. I’ve no statistics on that. Hopefully they got it worked out some other way. Maybe it’s for the best.

Sometimes I wish things were more expensive

Here’s a scenario that played out for me this week, and has probably played out for you before too. I’ve been tinkering around with the idea of recording on-track video from car races, and I was looking for a mobile app which could record video along with telemetry from an OBD2 engine management system while driving the car. From this you can make nifty videos overlaying dials from the car on the live feed.

Anyway, I was delighted to find that such an app exists! So off I went and downloaded it (it’s called aLapRecorder HD). It’s a rather specific niche market, so unsurprisingly there’s pretty much just the one app to do this.

I installed it, got it going and then found a few bugs in it that were going to cause a bit of a problem with what I had in mind. So off I went to the developer forums… only to find that the forum is full of spam and appears not to be in use. Off I went to the reviews page (sometimes you can get some useful extra info from there) only to discover that the most recent reviews were all one-star ones complaining that the app didn’t work well on current hardware and that the dev didn’t pay any attention to the forum or email, and appeared to have given up on the project. And, sure enough, the last update was from November last year, so it looks like he has dropped it.

Why would the developer give up on something that was so close to great? The app looks superb and just has a few bugs. It’s so nearly perfect!

Well, let me tell you why. The “pro” version (which removes a two-recording limit) has sold “1,000 – 5,000” copies, for $6.50 each. The developer has made somewhere between $6k and $30k. This app obviously contains many months of solid development work – I’m going to estimate six months, but it easily could be longer. The US Department of labour says that computer programmers in the US earn $60k per year on average. This app’s first review was in April last year, so if this talented programmer has sold the absolute highest number of copies that he could have done, he has been paid the average developer wage for the last year. And if he’s sold the least, he’s been paid what he could have got working in McDonalds. So, screw it. Instead of buggering around answering emails from angry users and fixing bugs for various new devices, the developer has no doubt just gone and got a job with some software company and is busy programming his heart out doing something different.

The consumers of this are car racers, and this is an expensive hobby. I just got an email suggesting that I buy the cheapest bolted neck restraint available for $600, which also involves replacing all four of our team’s helmets, at about $150 each. Race entry fees are easily $500-$1000 even for the cheap races. It would make no difference to a race team if this app was $30, $50 or perhaps even $100. And then the developer would have been able to keep working on it.

We’re used to wanting to pay the lowest price for everything, of course, but we have to remember that software is not like physical goods. It needs care and feeding to stay up-to-date with hardware and technology, and it is something that can evolve over time to improve, well after you have purchased it. It makes perfect sense to just want the lowest price when you go and buy a waffle iron. If the company who sold you it goes out of business, who cares? You still have a waffle iron. But if the company who sold you a piece of software goes out of business, it’s not going to get updated to work on the phone you’ll buy next year.

Of course, it’s the developer’s choice as to how he prices his application and in my view this developer made a poor choice. But the culture of users right now is constantly forcing prices down, and giant companies are busily producing mobile apps that make no money because they want a foot in the door of this market and, hey, they already make money from other stuff. For the poor indie developer who isn’t making money from other stuff, he’s left with a userbase that isn’t willing to pay for anything and an app that doesn’t make him a living wage.

So the next time you look at the price of an app, don’t think “$5.99?! Jesus Christ, what am I, made of money?”. You should instead think “$5.99? Hmm, perhaps this will still exist in three years”.

Ten Nürburgring Videos You Won’t Secretly Be Bored By

Let’s face it. We all know the Nürburgring is the greatest racing track in the world and we’re all so excited as we click on yet another Nürburgring lap video. But then, somewhere around Adenauer Forst, our attention starts to waver. Is he intending driving the whole lap with the air conditioning on? And who on earth would wear slip-on shoes in a driving video? Or any video? And, shit, wasn’t I supposed to be presenting at our team meeting five minutes ago?

Yes, while it may be the greatest racing track in the history of the world to drive on, eight minutes is a lot of video to watch of someone else having a good time with their clothes on.

So, we present to you, ten Nürburgring videos that are in some way different. In no particular order:

1. Crashes at Adenauer Forst in 1970

Some useful things can be learned from this video:

  • Always wear your seatbelt (particularly while driving on racing circuits)
  • When racing, do not keep the entire contents of your home in your car
  • Do not buy a car made in the 1970s
  • YouTube has a “mute” button

2. Hans-Joachim Stuck Driving Faster Than You

Meet Hans-Joachim Stuck. He’s a thousand years old and he can drive faster than you. This 2004 video is either from a VLN race or the Nürburgring 24-hour, so it runs on the Formula One circuit as well as the Nordschleife (and there’s no pass-on-left rule). Bear in mind that the cars he is passing are actual racing cars, taking part in an actual race.

3. Porsche 911. Nürburgring. Snow

Skip to one minute in and, unless you speak German, just imagine some commentary. But here is a Porsche 911 driving on the Nordschleife in the snow. Which looks like a lot of fun, if a little daunting.

4. Under 7 Minutes in a Radical SR8 LM

Okay, you got me. This is just a video of someone driving. But, on the upside, you only have to watch it for seven minutes, because that’s how long it is. It’s not the fastest SR8 lap that’s out there, but it’s pretty exciting.

5. CTR Yellowbird

“Sideways Stefan” Roser, drives a 930 RUF CTR around the ring in a rather enthusiastic fashion. Quite a few external shots from a helicopter and various on-car cameras, which should help stave off the boredom.

6. Helmut Dähne Bike Lap

It’s a surprise to most that car lap records are faster than bike ones on the ring – what bikes gain on the straights they make up for in the corners. But, even if you’re not a bike person, you can’t help but appreciate Helmut Dähne endangering himself for your entertainment. Dahne holds the two-wheeled lap record on the Nordschleife – and will hold it for the foreseeable future: Lap records can only be set during official race or qualify sessions, and the track’s motorcycle homologation was not renewed after Senna’s 1994 accident, so until that changes no official bike lap record can be set. Because we’re talking bikes and Nürburgring here, I ought to add that Helmut is still alive.

7. Liri Farfus Passenger Lap

I have driven my wife around the Nürburgring several times, and each time she has managed to look equally bored. My wife is obviously made of much sterner stuff than Liri Farfus, the wife of WTCC driver Augusto Farfus. He drives almost as fast as I do, I think, and she goes to pieces.

8. Electric Car Speed Record

Toyota ran a 7:47 in an electric car back in 2011. We’ve seen the future, and it looks exciting and sounds awful.

9. Sabine Schmitz Top Gear Van Video

I was at the ‘Ring when Jeremy Clarkson tried to break ten minutes in a diesel Jag and apparently succeeded. They closed the circuit in the early-morning for him to practise, on the only day I’ve ever been at the track when it opened. Sigh. Anyway, after Sabine Schmitz told him she could beat his lap time in a van, they sent her a van and a Richard Hammond. So she tried.

10. Seven-Second Ring King

What Nordschleife video collection would be complete without the shortest ‘ring video known to man? Two chaps from Manchester join the ring at Adenau only to leave it again at Ex Mühle. Using the alternate track entrance was probably a wise idea, as they ended up only five minutes’ walk from a pub.

Tesla to take US license plate legislation head-on

Image: dougerino
Image: dougerino

PALO ALTO, CA – High demand for the Model S from Silicon Valley auto manufacturer Tesla (TSLA) is greatly increasing demand for holier-than-thou electric-themed vanity plates, a spokesman for the company said during a press conference this morning.

“A large part of purchasing this automobile is the sense that one is saving the environment, and that others aren’t,” said Crabtree Wolstenthorne, head of the company’s new Plebiscite Differentiation division. “Many of our lucky customers have already successfully purchased appropriate plates such as ‘VOLTS4ME’ and ‘GASSUCKS’ but, as yet more concerned environmentalists join our ranks, the archaic seven-character restriction on US license plates is making it exceptionally hard for us to help them secure an appropriately haughty message for other road users”.

The company has lodged a case with the US Supreme Court demanding a change from seven to thirty characters on standard US license plates for electric vehicles only. “The restriction may seem unusual”, Wolstenthorne added, “but owners of gas-powered vehicles have less of relevance to say to the outside world”. When questioned about the increased difficulty for law enforcement in reading these new plates, he noted with a laugh, “our customers are all just going to hire a lawyer anyway”.

In anticipation of a successful verdict, Tesla is allowing its customers to pre-purchase the new vanity plates. “We’ve had a great response from our clients so far,” Wolstenthorne mentioned, “only this morning I sent home two happy individuals with ‘UH8PLANET’ and ‘MY4THCARISGREENERTHANYOURONLYCAR'”.

The 4,600lb Tesla model S has been highly praised for its cat-like agility by many tech bloggers in the computer industry.

The cute little elephant in the room

I have a rather bad carbon footprint. We have two cars in which we drive around 25,000 miles a year (11 tons of CO2). We have a large house with ancient oil-powered heating (9 tons). I fly several  times a year for a mixture of business and pleasure (15 tons), I don’t make any attempts to buy local or in-season produce and I have carbon-expensive hobbies. All told, the Carbon Footprint Calculator tells me that my footprint is around 45 tons a year. This compares badly with a US average of 20 and a world average of 4.

And, of course, I’m doing this every year. CO2 production varies a lot with age so it’s hard to come up with a figure for my entire life, but using the UK Carbonica calculator and extrapolating it to my life, I’m guessing I will consume somewhere around 2,000 tons of CO2.

I could get a job that involves less flying, and probably save 200 tons over my life. I could get the bus instead of driving, and perhaps save 150. I could start shopping more carefully, and maybe save 20. We’re converting our heating to electricity, which should save 50 or 60. These are the sorts of things I’ve been thinking about in order to reduce my footprint.

The United States government are also doing their bit to shove me in the right direction. Last year they gave me $300 in subsidies to help insulate my attic (which should save 1-2 tons a year). They’re taxing motor fuel to encourage me to drive less, and that’s certainly made me carpool more often. They’re taxing air travel, and that’s cut down my number of work trips somewhat. All these seem like moves in the right direction.

Exhibit A

This is my son, Philip. He’s probably the cutest baby in the world. Well, top ten anyway. My wife and I made a choice to have him, and we’re very happy indeed about it.

Unfortunately for the planet, he’s munching through CO2 with gay abandon. He’s been born into a world that is more careful with this sort of thing and where carbon munching is more expensive, so I doubt he’s going to hit the 2,000 tons that I’ve used up. Let’s be conservative and say he is going to consume a tenth of what I will – 200 tons.

In environmental terms, my child will be the equivalent of:

  • Driving around the planet nine times in a Hummer H3
  • Seven Space Shuttle launches
  • Flying first class from London to Sydney 16 times

And all this only if he manages to produce ten times less CO2 than I will.

I understand that reproduction is an important thing for human beings, and I don’t propose that we stop anyone from reproducing. But we could at least quit encouraging each other to continue banging them out. It seems odd to me that we’re all quick to look scornfully at the person zooming around on their own in an SUV, and at the same time smile demurely at the person with 3 kids in a Prius. It seems odd to me that kids get to eat for free in a bunch of restaurants, and that a person earning $100,000 in the US gets a $1000-per-child tax credit.

Which brings me on to China.

China is the world’s largest emitter of CO2. There are a lot of things that are a bit wonky about China’s one-child policy but it seems to me that, while the rest of the world footles around making subsidies for hybrid cars and solar panels and having pop concerts to “raise awareness”, China is the only country that’s actually made any effort to reduce the greatest cause of environmental damage.

Well, that’s the end of my child-hating blog post. No doubt my child will wave this at me at some point claiming it’s a fine example of my bad parenting (although hopefully he won’t have printed it out).

The ten best track cars, chosen by a spreadsheet

I’ve often wondered how successfully one could choose a car by looking purely at numbers, and nothing else. So, without further ado, here’s my list of the best road cars to drive on a race track, as declared by my spreadsheet.

Position Car



Tesla Roadster Sport


Porsche Cayman R


Lamborghini Gallardo Coupe LP 570-4 Superleggera


Ferrari 430 Scuderia


Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0 Coupe


Audi TT Coupe


Audi R8 GT


Aston Martin V8 Vantage S Coupé


Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG


Audi S4 Sedan 3.0

Okay, there you go. That’s that decided. Now, should you be interested, here’s how I got to this list.

  1. I downloaded the textfile version of Freebase’s automotive data
  2. I loaded it into Excel. I am now looking at 23, 812 cars
  3. I filtered out all the automatic transmissions – down to 6392 cars (presumably this data is somewhat skewed towards America)
  4. I filtered out the front-wheel drive cars – down to 5312
  5. I filtered for 0-60 times of less than 6 seconds – down to 355
  6. I took the lightest ten by curb weight

Here’s the list I had at this point:

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport
2010 Tesla Roadster
2011 Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5
2011 Tesla Roadster 2.5
2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder
2011 Porsche Cayman R
2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder AT
2011 Porsche Cayman R AT
2011 Porsche Cayman
2011 Porsche Boxster

The list is actually fairly reasonable, although unfortunately it’s not very exciting, because it only contains cars from two manufacturers, and a limited set of models at that. So for each car model we’ll take only the lightest, because they make the best racing cars anyway. This cuts my list down to:

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport
2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder
2011 Porsche Cayman R
2011 Lamborghini Gallardo Coupe LP 570-4 Superleggera
2008 Ferrari 430 Scuderia
2011 Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0 Coupe
2012 Audi TT Coupe
2011 Porsche 911 Carrera 4 Cabriolet
2012 Audi R8 GT
2010 Nissan 370Z Roadster

The only problem with this new list is the presence of the convertibles. Without trying to get into mud-slinging here, it’s a fairly well-established fact that convertibles don’t have great structural rigidity and so the hardtop version of a given car will normally race better than the convertible. It’s certainly true that when a car has both convertible and hardtop versions, the manufacturer does not tend to race the convertible. Fortunately there are no rag-tops here without a hardtop equivalent, so I didn’t feel too guilty when I filtered out the convertibles manually, leaving me the list at the top of the article.

Obviously this system of selecting cars isn’t perfect, but there are a few caveats beyond even that in this specific data set. The Freebase database has hardly any weights for cars more than two or three years old, and the acceleration figures are missing for many. I’d love to have included some other factors (lap times; weight distribution; price) but these things aren’t present in the data set.

The exercise did teach me a few things, though. First off, Aston Martins and AMGs aren’t quite as fat as I thought they were, and neither is the Tesla roadster, despite all those batteries. Next was the heavy presence of Audis, which aren’t really known as especially wonderful track cars, and the entire lack of BMW, which are (the M3 fell just short of the top ten). And the complete lack of my own car (but hey, maybe this shows I’m unbiased).

If you fancy, download my spreadsheet and choose your own selections!

Ah well. It turns out there’s more to cars than numbers. But you knew that.

The words that really get your film an R-rating

There are some people who spend their lives determining what makes an R-rated film and what makes a PG-rated film. And, of course, there are all sorts of factors. But if you took the visuals out and compared just the dialogue? What words appear in R-rated films but not PG-rated films? And vice versa?

We’re really cross now

I used the Internet Movie Script Database and several computer programs to build a list of the most common words in the 519 R-rated films they had scripts for, and the most common words in their 332 PG-rated film scripts. Obviously the majority of the words contained in these scripts are pretty unsurprising. The most common word in both is the, which is also the most common word in the English language. Where it starts to get interesting is where the proportions differ.

Some differences you’d expect – the word fucking has the greatest disparity, occurring in 80% of R scripts and only 33% of PG ones. The rest of the top four are taken up by fuck, fucked and fuckin. In at 5th is asshole (56% of R; 31% of PG). Then comes jesus, shortly followed by christ, so obviously it’s the two words together that are making the difference. It’s amusing to see that “jesus christ” is used in language so much more often than either “jesus” or “christ”.

Shortly behind our lord and saviour is motherfucker and the top ten is rounded off nicely by bullshit and fucker (29% of R; 6% of PG). Some of the words I might have expected to appear in the top ten are nowhere to be seen – murder is way down at 20th and gun comes in at a miserable 517th (just 18% of R-rated films and 12% of PG-rated ones). It’s interesting that cigarette (in 12th) beats joint (in 13th), which in turn beats drugs (29th).

Of course, there must be some words that appear in PG films but not R films, right? Well, there are, but the difference is less distinctive. The biggest hitter is the word ship, which appears in 40% of PG films but only 23% of R ones. It’s followed closely by bows, excitement, cloud, larger and tower (41% of PG; 26% of R), but sadly I think any statistician would tell you this was irrelevant on a data set of this size.

Without further ado, here are the words that appear the most in R-rated films compared with PG-rated films. The words are sized by discrepancy.



And, in case you’re interested, here is the entire list in a big spreadsheet. Want to guarantee a PG rating for your film? Steer clear of any sort of fucks, don’t mention cigarettes (other drugs are ok) and don’t blaspheme. Perhaps add a nautical theme and your film is practically guaranteed a PG. Unless its primary visuals involve people being gunned down while conducting sexual acrobatics with a chain-smoking Shetland pony.

It’s possible that films are rated on more than just dialogue.

Time to stop being an atheist

Atheists will all tell you that atheism isn’t a religion, but I think these days it’s becoming one. I constantly see more and more people posting links to posts proclaiming that “science” beats “religion” every time, even though the majority of the world’s religious population are perfectly normal people who also believe in “science”. And plenty of the world’s not-religious people are blithering halfwits.

Perhaps I’m getting old, but there’s a sneering pompousness about atheism these days that doesn’t really reflect my own point of view. Sure, I don’t believe in gods. And yes, I think that people who do are a slightly odd. I also think you’re slightly odd if you want to drive a car with an automatic gearbox, but I won’t align myself with a group of people whose only entertainment in life is slagging off people who have automatic gearboxes. It just seems a bit too negative.

So from now on I’m not an atheist. My religion is “none”. I don’t believe in a god, and I don’t believe in taking pot-shots at people who do.

Who’s with me? I need money to build our church.

Why I hope there’s a SOPA v2

The purpose of having a blog, as we all know, is to complain about stuff in an acerbic fashion without proposing solutions. Today, we’re going to talk about SOPA.

SOPA, as we all know, is a bill going through the the House of Representatives in the United States right now. It is intended to stop online plagiarism of intellectual property of various sorts, and proposes implementing this by allowing the police to delete Wikipedia,  shoot internet service providers on sight, and detain potential suspects without trial indefinitely. No, wait, that was something else. Well, you get the general idea. It’s not a very well thought-through bill and I hope it fails.

SOPA inspires me to become grumpy about two things. Firstly, I’ve heard several times that this bill is being forced through by the film industry, who are incapable of waking up to a reality of digital distribution. And, of course, Viacom, Warner Brothers et cetera are all supporters of SOPA. It’s certainly true that these companies stand to make money if SOPA passes. But the list of companies that oppose SOPA isn’t a list of companies that have the best interests of the glorious internet close to their cute little altruistic hearts. It’s just an equivalent list of organisations that will lose money if this passes. It’s the companies who’ll have to spend a ton of money vetting user content, screening their output and adding infrastructure for reporting and monitoring. Facebook, Microsoft, Google, et al. The fact that some of these companies had the muscle to black out a chunk of the internet on January 18th is something of a confusing message, but I think we should disregard the corporate sponsors on either side and think about the bill itself.

The second thing I’m grumpy about is the fact that there’s far too much online piracy, and the death of this bill will probably mean the continuation of that. People justify ripping off films, music and software because they’re just taking it from a big company and they’re all bastards anyway. And I can see why that justification is socially acceptable most of the time. But this rampant stealing from “the man” has left people my age with a similar disdain for intellectual property rights in general. How many of us have needed a picture of two rabbits having sex for a work presentation, Googled “rabbits having sex“, taken the first image and stuck it in the presentation? Sure, it probably belonged to someone and they had some blah on their site about attribution but it’s only a presentation and, hey, they put it on the internet for heaven’s sake, what do they expect? My generation is habitually stealing this sort of content with only the merest hint of shame.

What I only really realised this week is that people younger than me are doing this with no idea that it could actually be wrong.

My friend Doug takes pretty nice photos. He doesn’t do it professionally, and he states on his web page that you can use his photos for noncommercial purposes as long as you give attribution, and should contact him for commercial use. He’s a nice sort of a chap. I suspect his total income from this has been less than the price of a nice lens. Doug doesn’t go off looking for stolen copies of his photos, but he’s a good enough photographer that he or his fans regularly just come across them.

Imma boop your intellectual property rights
 Doug’s most stolen photograph is probably this one. It was turned into this by a gentleman, who unashamedly added a copyright message for himself and then posted it all over the internet. This week it was posted on one of those “funny thing every day” Facebook pages – Doug spotted it, and pointed out that it was his stolen picture. The usual mixture of YouTube-style comments (from both sides) followed, but what really struck me was a comment from the original poster who was incredulous that someone could be so “up-tight” about “A FUNNY PICTURE POSTED ON THE INTERNET”. This hit a raw nerve for me – I was kind of okay with us having a society that ripped off each other’s internet content the whole time, but we’re breeding a society that has no awareness that this is even wrong.

Ten years ago or so, I used to occasionally search for plagiarised versions of my own web site. I’d send them an email asking them to link to my actual site as well, and they’d normally reply saying they were happy to. I thought I’d have another look today, so I searched for a reasonably distinctive phrase which appears in my definition of “bollocks”. Rather disappointingly, my own site is the third result after copy-pasted versions on The Urban Dictionary and DictionarySlang.com. Other highlights were a Facebook page which seems to consist of nothing other than unattributed chunks of my book, several copy-pastes of swathes of my site content and the rather glorious version of my entire paper book that the Chinese search engine Baidu has, complete with a handy reader app, some colour added and “Mr_doody2004@yahoo.com” carefully written in the footer. Sorry to disappoint, ladies, but this is not my email address.


Shall I mail all these people asking them to attribute me? Probably not, because there’s every chance these days that these are people who are genuinely unaware of such a thing as copyright (well, except for Baidu). If I did this now I’d probably get incredulous replies wondering why on earth I’d try to shut down funny stuff posted on the internet.

People ripping off Doug’s photos and my book doesn’t really make a difference to the world.   Although we both make a little money from our enterprises, we’re not trying to make an income and we’d both still do it if there was no money at all. But what about my sister, Joanna, who is trying to start a career as a professional photographer? What about my friend Nick, who makes a living writing online Excel training?

As I mentioned towards the beginning, I have no solution to this problem. Maybe it’s not SOPA, but we need something to teach our kids that going to a web site and hitting Ctrl-C is the same as going to the library, selecting a book, taking it home and starting typing from it verbatim.

Why you don’t want a curated app store


Some web sites are bad. Just clicking on a link in an email can send you somewhere that looks like PayPal, asks for your login details and will then instantly automate the emptying of your account. Some web sites prompt you to download software which will encrypt all the files on your computer and then try to charge you for a decryption key. Some web sites are bad, m’kay?

Well, the great news is that Google have solved this problem. Rumour has it that the next version of Chrome will limit your web access to a predefined list of “known good” web sites. Sites can easily apply to be added to that list and, as long as Google approves them, they’ll be available in your browser the next day. Isn’t that great? I don’t think any other browser is going to be able to compete with Chrome once they get this out.

Of course, Google aren’t doing this. Because it is a terrible idea. The reality is that the existing security systems build into browsers actually do a pretty good job of preventing access to malicious web sites. Don’t believe me? Visit http://winsetupcostotome.easthamvacations.info/answered-polynomial-eccentricity-unserviceable/029287718218614814 . It contains malware that will install on your computer. Go on!

The site was first reported as malicious just today, but opening it in Chrome I see this:


Browsers, operating systems and the interconnecting web technologies have a bunch of mechanisms built into them to keep you safe online. And they work. How many times have you actually been caught by a phishing email, or installed apps that empty your bank account? How many people do you know who have?

Apple’s marketing around the app store is centered around the fact that it protects you from malware. Which is true to a degree – there’s almost no malware on the Apple app store. F-Secure estimates that 0.1% of apps on Google’s Play Store (which has no approval process) are malicious. But a whacking 10% of web sites are malicious. So why don’t you want a curated web site list?

I don’t want a curated web site list either. I also don’t want a curated app store – even one regulated by some sort of independent nonprofit would become a horrendous mess of inconsistencies, but one regulated by a corporation is even worse. Let’s take a look at a few of the actual Apple app store requirements. You can download the whole lot of them here and read them yourself if you like. What, you say? There’s 25 pages of them?! Oh, yes…

Let’s start with the easy ones.

3.15 Apps with previews that display personal information of a real person without permission will be rejected

Fair enough. That seems sensible and reasonably measurable.

4.1 Apps that do not notify and obtain user consent before collecting, transmitting, or using location data will be rejected

Seems fine to me.

14.1 Any App that is defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited, or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harm’s way will be rejected

Okay, I guess we don’t want people to be put in harm’s way. But offensive to one person isn’t necessarily offensive to another. What about Charlie Hebdo?

14.2 Professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary

Oh okay. Am I a professional satirist?

2.18 Apps that encourage excessive consumption of alcohol or illegal substances, or encourage minors to consume alcohol or smoke cigarettes, will be rejected

I… hmm… what is excessive? And alcohol is legal – what’s wrong with me consuming plenty of it?

And here is the crux. A gatekeeping system that involves humans making judgement calls is almost impossible to keep fair and consistent. App developers know that the best way to get your app through these requirements is just to change something minor, resubmit it and hope you get someone different in whatever offshore team is reviewing these. I had one app that was just for submitting data to another system and required the user to log in. It was rejected due to 17.2 Apps that require users to share personal information, such as email address and date of birth, in order to function will be rejected. I resubmitted it with the same login screen and an “about” page but with a bug whereby it displayed an alert saying “[object object]” every time you ran it. It was immediately approved. My fix to remove the bug unfortunately took two weeks to make it through.

As well as making requirements that are hard to consistently measure, you’re making censorship calls on what your users may look at. Do I want to view anti-Jewish websites? No. Do I want to be prevented from viewing them? No, I do not.

18.2 Apps that contain user generated content that is frequently pornographic (e.g. “Chat Roulette” Apps) will be rejected

What the heck is “frequently”? I don’t know about you but I once shared a hotel with the crew of an aircraft carrier on shore leave and they were all sitting in the lobby on quite eye-opening Skype calls to their girlfriends. Also Skype is owned by Microsoft, a competitor of Apple’s. So probably a great idea getting rid of that. FaceTime doesn’t have to get store approval. Oh yeah, that reminds me:

3.1 Apps or metadata that mentions the name of any other mobile platform will be rejected

This was the requirement that recently started Apple blocking apps which mentioned Pebble support (the Apple Watch’s most viable competitor). Don’t worry, though, after some negative press coverage they eventually decided to stop paying attention to that requirement and instead hold the Pebble iOS app in review for a curiously long time.

And this, to my mind, is where the curated store really starts to leave a bad taste in the mouth. While some of these requirements are mechanically measurable and undeniably beneficial, the great majority of them range between ill-defined judgement calls and downright anti-competitive practice.

2.16 Multitasking Apps may only use background services for their intended purposes: VoIP, audio playback, location, task completion, local notifications, etc.

This is why your favourite mail app can’t actually download email in the background. It’s not that the platform can’t do it. It’s that only apps that Apple themselves made are allowed to do that.

2.17 Apps that browse the web must use the iOS WebKit framework and WebKit Javascript

You know what this means? This means the only web browser you can use on iOS is the Safari one. You installed Chrome for iOS? Well that’s not actually the Chrome browser. That’s just some Chrome icons and the default browser. You thought it was faster? You were wrong, my furry friend.

Apple takes a 30% cut of all revenue from apps. In 2014, that was $3Bn. While the app store purports to protect Apple’s customers from themselves, what it mainly does is prevent anyone making money in apps without giving Apple 30% of it.

11.2 Apps utilizing a system other than the In-App Purchase API (IAP) to purchase content, functionality, or services in an App will be rejected

11.13 Apps that link to external mechanisms for purchases or subscriptions to be used in the App, such as a “buy” button that goes to a web site to purchase a digital book, will be rejected

Ever wondered why the iOS Amazon app doesn’t have the ability to purchase things? It’s because Amazon don’t want to give Apple 30% of the money. Apple also blocked any updates to Microsoft’s SkyDrive app because they wanted their cut from users who paid for storage.

It’s almost hard believe but, in the 1980s, Microsoft was the darling of the tech world. They disrupted a near-monopoly on software and hardware and made a brand new technology available to a huge mass of people. They spent the next decade destroying their competitors via any means available and are still paying the goodwill price of that behaviour twenty years later. Let’s hope everyone can learn from that lesson.

Wrong: Antisocial networking

Okay, I admit it. This is almost definitely not an American phenomenon. I suspect it’s a worldwide thing that happened since I got to America. However, my friend Ryan tells me that blogs are supposed to have themes and stick to them, and America is my theme, ergo this is a problem with America. Nobody said this was going to be fair.

Something new is happening in the world. Nobody had heard of it ten years ago, but now you’re doing it with almost everyone you know. That new thing is social networking. Social networking is the great electronic bringing-together of people. Social networking allows people to interact online with their friends, their family and their colleagues more easily than ever before. With a couple of clicks of a mouse, it’s now possible to learn that your ex-girlfriend became a lesbian, discover that your boss spends his weekends performing live-action roleplay and find pictures of your uncle Bill vomiting in a pint glass in a strip bar. How did we live without this?

A fascinating part of social networking is a feature called the “status update”. You can now inform your friends, family and colleagues what you’re up to at any given second. I am going to take the dog for a walk. I am going to work. I am at work. I am still at work. I am probably working late. I am working late. You can even do this using your mobile phone. I’m standing at the bus stop. I’m thinking about buying some chairs. I’m taking a dump.

This is great. We’re all in touch with everyone we know, all the time. Unfortunately, it is also the root cause of man’s very newest newest personality disorder. Let me introduce antisocial networking: the state of being more involved in updating your status message than in actually doing whatever it is you’re claiming to be doing.

Let me illustrate this principle by showing you a selection of Twitter posts.



Wow, that must be some great brunch they’re all having. I missed one hell of a time there. Why did I end up staying home? Well, wait. Let me show you a photograph of that brunch.



These people are not having a great time. They’re so interested in talking about having a good time that they have forgotten to have a good time. There are antisocial networkers reading this now. I know there are, because I mentioned this post on Twitter. Come on, guys. Come on, you antisocial networkers. The last time you actually had a good time, did you Tweet about it whilst it was happening? As you slipped between the sheets with Miss South America, did you lean over to rummage for your phone in your crumpled jeans on the floor? As you pointed the nose of the powerboat you’d unexpectedly been lent towards the setting Pacific sun and slid the throttle towards the bow, did you ponder which pocket your iPhone was in? As you opened the door to discover that your boyfriend had covered the entire house in rose petals, put up the sets of shelving that had been in the garage since 2001, smeared himself in honey and prostrated himself on the couch, did you look at the kitchen table to check whether you hibernated your laptop? No. You did not. This is because actual interesting stuff was really happening to you. Perhaps a good Twitter feature would be to add “and bored” to the end of every post.



Wrong: Brake lights

Typical American traffic
Typical American traffic

It’s the small things in life, they say, that make a difference. I drive to work most days, across the lovely Evergreen Point Floating Bridge. I really mean lovely – you usually get a great view of Mount Rainier. Anyway, this means I get to spend a reasonable amount of my time in stop/go freeway traffic, looking at Mount Rainier.

In Europe, like in America, cars are equipped with a special set of rear lights which are intended to show to other road users what the driver is attempting to do. There’s a white one to show that the car is in reverse. There are two, perhaps three large red ones to show that the car is slowing down. And there are two orange ones, one on each side, which employ a time-honoured blinking action to demonstrate that the driver is intending moving in that direction. This system works great.

In America, there is a similar system. Similar, except for the fact that the lights intended to indicate motion are not orange, but red. The sharp-eyed among you may notice that this is the same colour as the brake lights. Perhaps orange is an unsually expensive filter. Perhaps orange was once regarded as unlucky. Still, not to worry. They still blink. Surely anyone who could confuse a single blinking red light with several solid red ones ought not to be on the road in the first place.

This is a reasonably sensible conclusion to draw, until you are furnished with two other pieces of information. First off, Americans primarily drive automatic cars. Automatic cars don’t slow down appreciably when you lift off the accelerator, so you often need to give the brake a little tap when trying to maintain pace with traffic. Or perhaps two or three little taps. This introduces a behaviour not unlike flashing in your brake lights. Secondly, unlike most other countries, America doesn’t require any sort of roadworthiness test alongside its road tax. This means that there are oceans of cars out there with one single operational brake light.

These two facts conspire with the red-only lights to produce an effect which could fairly easily be confused for a turn signal, especially in stop-go traffic. In order to save confusion, I propose that every car is fitted with one large, centrally mounted red light. The light comes on automatically whenever the driver moves the gear lever or steers. Not only will this save money, it will also mean there can never again be a confusing signal. Unless the light is broken.

Wrong: Capital Punishment

Capital punishment seems to me to be a fairly crap idea. It seems foolhardy to dispense any sort of justice that can’t be at least partially reversed.

That said, I can see why some societies choose to have a death penalty. It is, as they themselves say, one fucker of a deterrent. And I can even see why some of those countries impose it for rape, or armed robbery, or spitting in public. If you believe those things are wrong, why not impose the death penalty? Why not sacrifice one person every so often in return for the happiness of millions? I can see where they’re going with that.

What I cannot understand is the way the death penalty exists in America. Deterrent my fat ass. If you’re sentenced to death in America it really just means twenty years of buggering around waiting for appeals and counter-appeals. The worst part of the death penalty in the US is the sex.

If the Americans are set on having capital punishment, at least make it a deterrent. This means actually enacting sentences, and it means public beheadings. Why not turn it into a primetime show? Popular television celebrities could each suggest an interesting method of beheading, and then the public could phone in their votes. Straight after the 8:45pm advertisement break, the assembled millions will get to watch a convicted criminal being beheaded by a plastic model of Nancy Reagan, fired across a football field by a large ceremonial cannon, lit by the winner of Fame Academy. Doesn’t she look great?

Wrong: Exaggeflation

I went to the Paramount Theatre, here in Seattle, the other day to watch Flight of the Conchords perform. Don’t get me wrong, I think Flight of the Conchords are great. In fact, that’s the main reason why I went to see them.

They ambled onto the stage holding their guitars, and sat down at their chairs. The audience all stood up, whooping and cheering and stamping their feet. A standing ovation? Before they opened their fucking mouths? What if it turns out they’ve spent the entire day doing crystal meth in Cal Anderson park and are just about to proudly unveil to the audience the body of the disabled girl they burned because they thought she was a demon? It’s too late now! You’ve given them a standing ovation already! The worst you can do now is clap a bit sarcastically at the end! You are sanctioning ritualistic murder, you crazy bastards!

Of course, they played a pretty fine gig. They didn’t seem to have killed anyone, and if they had spent the day doing crystal meth then they were at least experienced enough to cover it up. They got a standing ovation at the end as well, with some more whooping and cheering. How do they know if they played a good gig? Well, they certainly can’t tell from the audience. Maybe they could ask the promoter at the end, but the promoter would probably describe the gig as “awesome”. This word, “awesome”, is defined on some website I found thusly:

awesome: (adj) amazing, awe-inspiring, awful, awing (inspiring awe or admiration or wonder) “the awesome complexity of the universe”; “Westminster Hall’s awesome majesty, so vast, so high, so silent”

To the average American, the word is defined more like this:

awesome: (adj) not shit. “That was an awesome bowl of cereal”; “My brother got this awesome job stacking shelves in Target”

It’s impossible for the poor Conchords to find out whether it was a good gig or not, because Americans have adopted this unpleasant habit of using more and more superlative words and actions in everyday life, and therefore steadily deflating their significance. Faced with this problem, the promoter would probably have to say something like “it was so awesome I had a boner for the whole of the second half” and, in doing this, therefore contribute to the deflation of the word “boner”. The next time he wanted to explain to someone that he actually had a boner, he’d have to call it a “raging boner” just to make the point. And so, as you see, the cycle continues. After my notable lack of success in coining the phrase “antisocial networking”, I am going to attempt to coin the term “exaggeflation”.

exaggeflation: (n) the diminishing of emphasis by over-use

This problem pervades the whole of American society (and, much like most of the things I grumble about in these posts and try to fob off as American phenomena, the rest of the world). Think of the other words you hear kids using all the time these days. Gorgeous. Excellent. Amazing. Fantastic. Superb. What on earth are they going to say when something really good happens? Even “100%” now means “35%”. The actions are perhaps even worse than the words. Ten years ago, I remember aircraft passengers occasionally clapping when the pilot managed an unusually smooth landing in the middle of gail-force winds and a lightning storm. Now, everyone on the plane practically starts performing Mexican waves when the 7:32 from Spokane plops down in bright sunshine. Soon they’ll be clapping when the hostess successfully opens the door, or when their luggage arrives on the carousel.

I have done some complex calculations in order to find out how much exaggeflation modern society can take. The results, my friend, are disturbing. In ten years, audiences at Flight of the Conchords concerts will be forced to expose themselves as the band come on stage and then, if the gig was particularly good, ritually disembowel their first-born child using a rusty penknife. By August the following year, it will be a Samurai sword, and their first born had better be male.

Wrong: Gents’ restrooms with a urinal and a toilet in the same room

First, you must see a picture.

Restroom of confusion
Restroom of the damned

Taking this picture, I need you to know, turned out to be one of the more difficult things I’ve had to do recently in the name of art. There was no lock on the door, and just as I had squeezed into the corner with my camera and was framing up the shot, a gentleman burst in. We stood frozen, each as surprised as the other, for several seconds. He held the door open so that I could leave, and so I left. We exchanged no words. I came back later.

So, here we have a urinal and a toilet, sat next to each other in the restroom. There is a lock on the door. Perhaps a helpful American can fill me in on the etiquette here. Do I lock the door if I’m intending having a number two in the toilet, but leave it open if I’m having a number one in the urinal? If I walk in and someone is using the urinal, am I allowed to pee in the toilet, or is it strictly reserved for number twos? Is it acceptable for me to drop my trousers, mutter a cheery “good evening” and sit down for a crap? May I sing?

Of the various possible situations that this special restroom configuration offers, I have so far only come across one instance of dual occupancy, and that was when I was having a pee in the urinal (having left the door unlocked) and someone else came in and had a pee in the toilet. This, I have to admit, was something of a relief. Oh, and there was that time when I was taking the photo.

Wrong: Hogs

The accused
The accused

So I’m something of a Car Guy, but let it be said that I like motorcycles as much as the next man. They look nice, they’re fun and they’re fast. My, they’re fast. Driving a car quickly is a fairly cerebral experience, whereas riding a motorcycle at pace is more like a test of virility.

There are fast bikes made all over the place. The best ones mostly come from Japan, but some of the greats come from Italy, Germany – even the United Kingdom, who appear to be less shit at making bikes than they were at making cars. The best way to see a bunch of fast bikes is to turn up at the Nürburgring on a Saturday afternoon and hunt around the car park. Ah, the smell of mineral oil and the rattle of those Ducati dry clutches. This is the life.

There is, however, one motorbike that you’re not going to see at the Nürburgring on a Saturday afternoon. That motorbike is the two-wheeled abortion known as the Harley Davidson.

There are two things wrong with Harley Davidsons. The first thing is technical. I’ve not ridden one, so I don’t know how they drive. Instead, I’m going to guess how they drive by comparing some vital statistics of the 2009 Harley Davidson Sportster 1200 Low (which appears to be one of their sportier models) with the 2009 Yamaha YZF-R6, one of the Japanese efforts. Perhaps the best way to represent this is in a table. Please excuse the American units of measure – it was all Harley had and I couldn’t be bothered converting them.

Yamaya YRF-R6 Harley Davidson Sportster
Engine size 599 cc 1200 cc
Power 126 bhp 80 bhp
Weight 414 lbs 581 lbs
0-60mph 3.6 secs 5 secs
Top speed 165 mph 110 mph
Price $9,990 $9,799

Based unfairly on these numbers and my own preconceptions, I’m going to guess that a Harley Davidson drives like a Dodge Durango. I bet I’m right. Anyway, either way it’s clear from this that the Harley Davidson Sportster wasn’t designed with sport in mind. But cars are more comfortable, drier, more practical overall – what was it designed for? Which brings me nicely to the second thing that is wrong with Harley Davidsons.

The second thing that is wrong with Harley Davidsons is that they are one of the greatest triumphs of marketing ever to exist. This is done in part by the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. The Hell’s Angels is a group of unemployed misfits and small-time cat burgulars who are scattered around the world. Every so often they hit the headlines when one of them punches a woman outside a nightclub, or strangles his dog, or chokes to death on his own vomit. One thing they have in common is that that all happen to own Harley Davidson motorcycles. You have to have a Harley to get into the club.

Harley Davidson, of course, don’t officially have any relationship with the Hell’s Angels. Officially, they’re pretty angry with them. That’s the way it has to work. Harley Davidson knows that scattered all over America are bored dentists, middle-aged stockbrokers and lonely realtors who are sitting in front of the television watching their lives ebbing away. They have money in the bank, but they’ve already bought a house in the suburbs, a brown dog and a silver BMW 525. They can’t think of anything else to spend it on. More importantly, their wives are complaining about their rapidly receding hairlines and increasing levels of impotency. But wait! Breaking news on the television! Some Hell’s Angels have broken a window in a bar downtown! There they are on television, with their tatoos, and all that leather gear and their Harleys. I bet they’re not impotent! I bet their wives don’t talk back to them! And all I need to do to join that club is ten grand!

So the morticians and the lawyers run out and buy Harleys. They don’t join the Hell’s Angels. It would be too difficult to explain in church. They do buy leather jackets, and patches with skulls and crossbones on them. They do buy helmets with “ride or die” and such on them. They do meet up with other similarly-minded individuals, where they stand on street corners in their leathers and talk about the Dow Jones, or about  interest rates, or about how difficult Thomas is finding it settling in at Yale. One or two of them will sometimes smoke, and now and again someone will turn up with a beer. Passers-by cross the street to avoid these meetings, which gives the dentists a strange, inexplicably heart-warming sensation. They’re radicals. They’re on the fringes of society. They’re alive. Before they go home, they collect their litter.

Wrong: Impossible banking transfers

America, as we all know, is a country which loves technology. When internet access came through the telephone, America had free local phone calls and a permanently connected population. Some years passed, the rest of the world got free local calls and so America got broadband. The entire country was alive with clever wires beaming pictures of naked ladies to countless dimly-lit homes.

Americans do everything online. The coke dealer who hangs around at the end of the road probably has a web site. You can pre-order your wrap, request how much you’d like it cut with baking powder, pay via a credit card and probably have the stuff delivered via Twitter.

Well, my furry friend, one thing Americans do not do online is transfer money from their bank account to someone else’s goddamned account with a different bloody bank. I wasted a good hour of my life faffing around on First Tech Credit Union‘s internet banking site trying to find where it was I clicked to send money to other people, only to eventually discover that this is impossible. Impossible, you hear. It’s impossible to transfer money from one bank to another. Perhaps I should send a cheque, they said. A cheque! What is this, 1860? And I suppose you expect me to write on it using a pen? I’d have to buy one especially! I don’t even know how to draw letters any more!

Wrong: Pointless removal of random body parts

Hello! Can we have your liver?
Hello! Can we have your liver?

One thing the Americans are very proud of is the ease and effectiveness with which they can remove body parts that were causing their owners no trouble whatsoever.

One thing I am very proud of is my foreskin. I’ve had it since I was born and, at least up until the time of writing, it has not gone gangreenous and dropped off, or revealed itself to be harbouring Anthrax. Most American men, however lost theirs during their very first pointless removal of a body part. The Wikipedia article goes into some detail about how exactly this is removed. Those of you with intact foreskins and delicate stomachs may wish to avoid it.

Having escaped this first pointless amputation by not being born in America, I was caught full in the face a couple of months back by the traditional second wave of pointless body part removal. This began with a seemingly mundane conversation whilst at the dentist.

[I am flat on my back in the chair – my dentist is peering into my mouth]
Dentist: Ah-hum. You have some decay on the back of your ante-posterial pre-prandial molar.
Chris: Gar.
Dentist: [Strains a little] It’s really… hmm, it’s really quite far around the back.
Chris: Oark.
Dentist: Yes, as I thought, it’s really right up against your wisdom tooth.
Chris: Gung.
Dentist: Well, I think the best thing is probably to have the wisdom tooth out before I try and cap it.
Chris: Gout?!
Dentist: Once those are out, it’ll be easy to get at.
Chris: GOSE!?
Dentist: It’s really quite a simple procedure – I can recommend a great guy just down the hallway.
[Dentist retracts from my mouth, and casually steers me back to an erect position]
Chris: Do I really have to have them out?
Dentist: It’s really a very simple procedure. You’ll hardly feel a thing.
Chris: But… umm, I mean, is there something wrong with them?
Dentist: Look, I’m just talking about taking your wisdom teeth out, it’s really very simple.
Chris: Are they decayed?
Dentist: It’s all covered by your insurance.
Chris: How many of them are there?
Dentist: Three. They’re not under the skin or anything, so it’ll really be quite easy.
Chris: Just to get at this one tooth?
Dentist: Chris, really, pretty much everyone has them out.
Chris: Oh.
Dentist: It’s all covered by the insurance.
Chris: I see.
[The dentist reaches for his pen]
Dentist: I’ll write you a referral.

Obviously I realised that the dental industry had some sort of vested interest in this particular pointless body part removal, so I decided to raise my concerns with some friends. This is how this conversation went.

Chris: So, the dentist says I have to have my wisdom teeth out.
You’ve not had them out yet?
Well, no, I didn’t really think –
Man, you’re going to hurt for days.
Yeah, jees, you’re going to be sore.
Chris: Why did you have yours out?
Steve: Oh, years ago.
Chris: Not when, why?
Steve: What?
Ryan: They’re wisdom teeth, dude, everyone has them out.
Chris: Were they rotten?
Steve: I don’t know, I have them in a bag somewhere, I could look at them. They had bloody bits of gum stuck to them.
Ryan: You’re really going to hurt. I was eating soup for a week.
Steve: Yeah, I was off work for four days.
Ryan: It’s going to be brutal.
Chris: Steve, do you have a foreskin?
Ryan: Steve’s Jewish, man.
Steve: Are you being racist again?
Ryan: Why do you have to keep on with the Jewish thing?
Chris: Forget it.

So I went to the wisdom tooth removal guy. He quickly and efficiently removed my wisdom teeth. It cost somebody $1800. I hurt for a few days. He gave me a selection of Vicodin pills, which turned out to go very nicely with beer but created the mothers of all hangovers. Once all the Vicodin had gone I slipped into the silent mass of people in American who’ve had limbs removed on the advice of people they barely know.

I’m starting to realise how Bush got elected.

Wrong: Prices that don’t include tax

One thing I can guarantee when I go abroad on holiday is that within a week or so my trousers will be around my ankles. This is neither because of my irresistability to the local ladies, nor because I only wash my trousers once a week, although the wife can testify that one of those isn’t entirely false. No, dear friends, this is because my pockets are full of coins. Like anyone else trapped in a world where they can’t add up coin values at speed, I am forced to hand over notes in shops and I never manage to get rid of my change.

I moved to the U.S. two years ago, and even now my pockets are full of change. But why? I understand how to add up the coins now. Well, I was contemplating this in a bar the other day and it dawned upon me what the problem was. The problem is that Americans quote prices without sales tax, so it is physically impossible to sit in the queue at the supermarket waiting to buy milk and idly put together the exact money it’s going to cost you. Although it says clearly on it “99c”, it’s not going to be 99c. It’s going to be 99c plus sales tax, which is not something worth bothering to idly work out in the supermarket queue.

Why? Why must this happen? Are there that many people that will be reclaiming the tax from baby formula or plastic cutlery? Are the stores thinking that you won’t realise the price of a banana until you’re standing at the checkout and it’s too late? Are they trying to show how little profit they’re collecting, on the assumption that most customers are well-versed with the wholesale price of bread?

Wrong: R&B

The typical R&B songwriting process
The typical R&B songwriting process

Before I get started on this, let me say two things. First off, I am complaining about what Wikipedia calls “Contemporary R&B”, not real R&B. Mariah Carey, not Marvin Gaye. Secondly, I am aware that this isn’t a purely American phenomenon, but it’s American enough that I can stick it up here and still sleep at night.

That said, here goes.

I’m not a music afficionado. I like listening to things like Coldplay and Badly Drawn Boy. In my head they’re the music that cool people listen to, but in twenty years my kids are going to regard them with the same sort of scorn as I currently regard Phil Collins. It’s old people’s music, with easy-going chords and three minute songs. I understand that. Hey, I’m not really a music guy.

I’m enough of a music guy, however, to realise that the dribbling genre of musical wallpaper paste that calls itself “R&B” is an offense against taste so vicious that hanging must surely be the only valid public response. If you’re driving along listening to the radio, there are several ways to detect that you’ve accidentally stumbled upon a contemporary R&B station. Check for the following:

  • Ability to predict the next line of a song you’ve never heard before (“you’re the one I love / you’re the one I’m dreaming of” et cetera)
  • Use of the words “brother” or “sister”
  • Song lines followed by clarifications like “yes he did” or “oh no, no”, just in case you couldn’t grasp the depth of the lyrics and required some further clarification of what was going on
  • Prodigious use of “mm-hmm” or “ooh” when a suitable “love-of”/”heart-apart”/”you-true” rhyme is unavailable
  • Did that song finish? Is this another one?

Perhaps the most offensive aspect of this Bud Light of musical genres is the fact that it stole its name from a completely unrelated and perfectly decent form of music. In the 1950s, R&B music was the great creative outpouring from a misrepresented black America – as it took off in popularity, it became the unifying sound of the grass-roots civil rights movement in a way that nothing written or spoken could easily manage. There was real feeling behind it, and real power in what it said.

By contrast, contemporary R&B appears to be the disembodied voice of dumpy, angst-ridden fourteen year olds with ill-concieved chips on their shoulders about what a hard time in life they’re having. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the elevator music of the next decade. Watch out, Phil Collins.

Wrong: Root beer

Once you get to the age of thirty or so, you’re pretty much done with truly new taste sensations. You’ve experienced the strange dryness of buffalo meat. You’ve savoured the odd nuttiness of a brussell sprout. You’ve gasped at the awkward sharpness of cilantro.

We’re all prone to exaggeration. There’s a world of difference between “that looks like shit” and, well, shit. When you announce “that tastes like vomit”, everyone knows that you’re employing a certain amount of poetic license. No food would actually really taste like that. It’s a turn of phrase.

Nothing, my friend, nothing can prepare you for that first giant swig from a bottle of “beer” which is actually dental fluoride rinse. It doesn’t just taste of dental fluoride rinse. It is dental fluoride rinse. With one crucial difference. Dental fluoride rinse is alcoholic. Root “beer” is not.

I have done some research into how root beer came to be invented. It seems a shame not to share this with the world, so I leave you with the “History” section that I have added to Wikipedia’s root beer page. I hope this will help others who were as confused as I was. Click on the image for a copy of the whole page.

I messed with Wikipedia. I know. It’s not original, and it’s not clever. I didn’t remove anything. I didn’t swear. I wrote in American English. I even gave them $30. But I know it’s a Monstrously Bad Things, because I was actually shaking when I clicked “Save”. I hope nobody dies.

Update: The edit was removed on 14th January – it lasted two days. The good citizen responsible either found this blog posting somehow, or started off here. Looks like this Wikipedia idea works…