Signs Seen in Service Stations

It feels like most of the time I’ve spent in a car this year, so far, has been for travel related to somebody’s recent death. And so it was that yesterday, Ruth, JTA and I zipped up and down the motorway to attend the funeral of Ruth’s grandmother.

It went really well, but what I wanted to share with you today was two photos that I took at service stations along the the way.

Sign: "Alcohol purchases in this motorway service area can not be consumed inside or outside the premises."
A sign I discovered at a motorway service station.

This one confuses me a lot. If I buy alcohol from this service area, I can’t drink it either inside… or outside… the premises. Are they unlicensed, perhaps, and so the only way they’re allowed to sell us alcohol is if we promise not to drink it? Or is it perhaps the case that they expect us only to consume it when we’re in a parallel dimension?

Costa's slogan, "The Americano Addicts."
Costa have decided to cut down on graffiti by writing all over their own walls.

It’s hard to see in the second photo without clicking (to see it in large-o-vision), but the sign on the opposite wall in this Costa Coffee implies the possibility of being an “Americano Addict”. And there was something about that particular marketing tack that made me cringe.

Imagine that this was not a café but a bar, and substitute the names of coffees with the names of alcoholic beverages. Would it be cool to advertise your products to the “wine addicts” or the “beer addicts” of the world? No: because alcoholism isn’t hip and funny… but caffeine addiction is? Let’s not forget that caffiene is among the most-addictive drugs in the world. Sure, caffeine addiction won’t wreck your liver like alcohol will or give you cancer like smoking tobacco (the most-popular way to consume nicotine) will, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that there are many people for whom a dependency upon caffeine is a very real part of their everyday life.

Is it really okay to make light of this by using such a strong word as “addict” in Costa’s marketing? Even if we’re sticking with alliteration to fit in with the rest of their marketing, wouldn’t “admirer” or “aficionado” be better? And at least that way, Costa wouldn’t leave me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

Eurovision Spectacular 2012

As I’m sure you’re aware, Saturday marks the final of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, the musical highlight of the year. You may also know that there’s been a long tradition among our group of friends to have a Eurovision Party to mark the ocassion, generally hosted by Adam. If you’ve somehow missed this event, then here’s some background reading that might help you understand how it came to be what it is: me, 2005; Liz, 2005; Paul, 2005Adam, 2006; Adam, 2007 (1); me, 2007; Adam, 2007 (2); Matt R, 2007; Adam on Paul’s blog, 2008Adam, 2008; Adam, 2010; Adam, 2011; me, 2011. Like I said… a long history.

For the last few years, though, the population of Aberystwyth has been dwindling, and Adam’s parties have turned from an immense hard-to-squeeze-everybody-in ordeal to a far more civilised affair. While simultaneously, groups of ex-Aberystwyth people (like those of us down in Oxford, and those who are up in the North) have been having their own splinter satellite parties.

And you know what? I miss doing Eurovision Night with you guys. So this year, we’re going to try to bring Eurovision Night back to its roots… with technology!

Google+ Hangouts
Google+ Hangouts. One of the technologies that will bring us closer this Eurovision Night.

Here’s where the parties are at, this year:

  • Adam’s house, in Aberystwyth – mission control
  • New Earth, in Oxford (hosted by Ruth, JTA, and I) – technical operations
  • …and… anybody else having one this year? One of you up in the North, perhaps?

If you’re one of the usual crew, or one of our newer friends, come on over and join the party! Or if you’re going to be watching from further North (Liz? Simon? Gareth? Penny? Matt? Matt? Kit? Fi?), let me know so that I can bring you in on my proposals for “sharing the experience”, drawing together our votes, and whatnot.

And regardless of whether you’ll be joining one of these parties in person, or not, I hope you’ll be joining The Party at Adam’s and The Party on New Earth digitally. If you’re among the 17 people who are actually on Google+, come and join us in our Hangout! Dust off that old webcam and point it at you or your little party, make sure you’re in Adam or I’s “circles”, and then log in on Eurovision Night and join us via the power of the Internet! You’ll have to provide your own crisps and beer, and (unless you’re at Adam’s) you’ll need to bake your own cupcakes with adorable European-flag icing, too, but at least you can be part of the moment with the rest of us.

See you online!

Worst Weekend Of Cinema – Part 2

This weekend was the worst net weekend of cinemagoing experiences that I’ve ever had. I went to the cinema twice, and both times I left dissatisfied. An earlier blog post talked about the second of the two trips: this is about the first.

You know what – 2012 has been a pretty shit year, so far. We’ve had death (my father’s), more death (my partner’s grandmother’s), illness (my sister’s horrific face infection), and injury (a friend of mine lost her leg to a train, a few weeks ago, under very tragic circumstances). We’ve had breakups (a wonderful couple I know suddenly separated) and busy-ness (a cavalcade of day-job work, Three Rings work, course work, and endless bureaucracy as executor of my dad’s will).

But it gets worse:

Piranha 3DD. Twice the terror. Double the D's.
Of all the things that have gone horribly, tragically wrong so far this year… going to the cinema to watch this film was the worst.

On Friday night, I went out with my family to watch Piranha 3DD.

This is one of those bad films that falls into the gap of mediocrity between films that are bad but watchable and films that are so bad that they wrap right around to being enjoyable again (you know, the “so bad they’re good” kind of movies). To summarise:

[one_half]

The Good

  • Lots of nudity, all presented in 3D. If there’ll ever be anything that convinces me that 3D films are a good idea, porn will probably be it. Boobs boobs boobs.
  • Fun cameos from Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown!), David Hasselhoff, and Ving Rhames, along with enjoyable accompanying pop culture references.

[/one_half]

[one_half_last]

The Bad

  • 3D films remain a pointless gimmick, still spending most of their time playing up the fact that they’re 3D (lots of long objects, like broom handles, pointing towards the camera, etc.), and still kinda blurry and headache-inducing. Plus: beams of light (e.g. from a torch) in 3D space don’t look like that. The compositor should be fired.
  • The cameos mostly serve to show off exactly how unpolished the acting is of the less well-known actors.
  • Plenty of less-enjoyable pop culture references: if you’re not going to do the “false leg is actually a gun” thing even remotely as well at Planet Terror, don’t even try – it’s like trying to show a good movie in the middle of your crappy movie, but not even managing to do that.
  • Unlikeable, unmemorable characters who spend most of their time engaging in unremarkable teen drama bullshit. Same old sex joke repeated as many times as they think they can get away with. And then a couple of times more.
  • Lackluster special effects: mangled bodies that don’t look much like bodies, vicious fish don’t look remotely like fish (and, for some reason, growl at people), and CGI that would look dated on a straight-to-video release.

[/one_half_last]

So yeah: give that one a miss.

Worst Weekend Of Cinema – Part 1

This weekend was the worst net weekend of cinemagoing experiences that I’ve ever had. I went to the cinema twice, and both times I left dissatisfied. This blog post is about the second of the two trips.

Avengers Assemble.
Man, this movie looks good. Wish I was watching it and not, say, a black screen.

The less-awful of the two trips happened on Saturday. Ruth, JTA and I turned up for the 20:10 showing of Avengers Assemble at Oxford Vue. We were quite surprised, entering the cinema right on time, to find that they weren’t already showing adverts and trailers – the screen was completely dark – but we found our way to our seats and sat down anyway.

A little over 20 minutes later, nothing had happened, so I went out to where the ticket collectors were doing their thing, down the corridor, and asked if they were planning on showing a film in screen six at some point this evening. “There’s a technical problem with the projector,” I was informed, “We’re trying to fix it now.”

“When were you planning on telling the audience who are all just sat there in the dark?” I asked. There were mumbles of concern, but they were half-hearted: these people were paid primarily to tear tickets, not to deal with irate customers. The stub collector apologised, and I returned to the cinema to feed back to the others. Sensing the dissatisfaction of the other audience members, I briefly considered making an announcement to them all: “Ladies and gentlemen: I regret to inform you that Vue Cinemas doesn’t care about you enough as human beings to tell you themselves, but there’s a technical fault and they’re working on repairing it.” Instead, I grumbled to myself in a British fashion and took my seat.

“I could have downloaded a pirated copy by now,” I joked, “But then I wouldn’t be getting the real cinema experience.”

“For example, it’d start when you pressed the play button,” replied JTA.

(for those of you who know the story of his employment there, you might be unsurprised to hear that this was the very Vue cinema at which Paul worked, very briefly)

An audience falling asleep.
"Is the film on yet?" / "Nope; still just a black screen."

A little while later – still with no announcement from staff, we got sick of the whole thing and went and demanded a refund. The manager – when we finally got to see him (apparently he’s also the guy who was fixing the projector: I guess the cinema must be run on a skeleton staff) – was suitably apologetic, offering us free passes for our next visit as well as giving us a full refund. Another staff member apologised for the delay in sorting out the refund, explaining that “it always gets busy, especially on Orange Wednesdays.” I’m not sure why he told us this, given that it was now Saturday. Perhaps there were still patrons from the previous Wednesday, also still waiting to see their film, too.

As we explained to the manager, it wasn’t the wait that bothered us so much as the lack of information about the reason (or an estimate of the duration) of the delay. All it would have taken would have been a staff member to turn up at five or ten minutes, apologise, and explain, and we’d have understood: things break sometimes. All we wanted was a little respect.

Pay To Post

I see that Facebook is experimenting with allowing you to pay a nominal fee to make sure that your posts end up “highlighted” over those of your friends’ other friends. That’s a whole new level of crazy… or is it?

A screenshot of Facebook's new "Highlight" feature.
A screenshot of Facebook's new "Highlight" feature. For about a quid, you can push your wall posts to the top of everybody's list.

I’m not on Facebook, but I think that this is a really interesting piece of news. The biggest thing that makes Facebook unusable (and which also affects Twitter) is that people will post every little banal thing that comes to their mind. I don’t care what you’re eating for your lunch. I don’t want to read the lyrics of some song that must have been written for you. I really can’t stand your chain messages (for a while there, after I hadn’t received any by email for a few years, I hoped that they’d died out… but it turns out that they just moved to Facebook instead). If you’re among my friends, I know that you have some pretty smart and interesting things to say… but unless I’m willing to spend hours sifting through the detritus it’s buried in, I’ll never find it.

Social Media Citation. The littering fine tickets of the digital generation.
Social Media Citation. The littering fine tickets of the digital generation.

But this might work. If the price sweet spot can be found, and it’s marketed right, then this kind of feature might make services like Facebook more tolerable. When you’re writing about a cute picture of the cat you’ve seen, that’s fine. And when you write something I might care about, you can tick the “this is actually relevant” box. You’ll have to pay a few pence, but at least you know I’ll see it. And if I want to churn through reams of “X likes Chocolate” (who doesn’t?) and “Y is… in a queue for the bus” then I can turn off the “only relevant things” mode and waste some time.

The problem is that the sweet spot will vary from person to person, and there’s no way to work around that. Big Bucks Bob can probably afford to pay a couple of pounds every time he wants to push some meme photo to the top of your feed, but Poor Penniless Penny can’t even justify ten pence to make sure that all of her friends hear about her birthday party.

Google+ tries to use heuristics to show you "top" content you might be interested in.
Google+ tries to use heuristics to show you "top" content you might be interested in. It feels less insidious than charging you, as Facebook will, but it still doesn't quite work.

It’s a pity that it won’t work, because a part of me is drawn to the idea that economic theory can help to improve the signal-to-noise ratio in our information-saturated lives. Turning my attention to email: of all the cost-based anti-spam systems, I was always quite impressed with Hashcash (which Microsoft seem to be reinventing with their Penny Black project). The idea is that your computer does some hard-to-do (but easy-to-verify) computational work for each and every email that it sends. But in its own way, Hashcash has a similar problem to Facebook’s new system: the ability to pay of a sender is not directly proportional to their relevance to the recipient. If my mother wants to send me an email from her aging smartphone, should she have to wait for several minutes while it processes and generates an “e-stamp”, just because – if it were made any faster – spammers with zombie networks of computers could do so too easily?

Yes, I just equated your social network status, about what you ate for your lunch, with spam. If you don’t like it, don’t share this blog post with your friends.

hashcash token: 1:20:120511:https://danq.me/2012/05/11/pay-to-post/::UVHo081pj6bSDWkI:00000000000001sxI

On This Day In 2005

Looking Back

On this day in 2005 (actually tomorrow, but I needed to publish early) I received an unusual parcel at work, which turned out to contain a pan, wooden spoon, tin of spaghetti hoops, loaf of bread… and an entire electric hob.

A parcel from Paul, containing everything required to make a "proper" plateful of spaghetti hoops on toast.
A parcel from Paul, containing everything required to make a "proper" plateful of spaghetti hoops on toast.

This turned out, as I describe in my blog post of the day, to have been the result of a conversation that the pair of us had had on IRC the previous day, in which he called me a “Philistine” for heating my lunchtime spaghetti hoops in the office microwave. This was a necessity rather than a convenience, given that we didn’t have any other mechanism for heating food (other than a toaster, and that’s a really messy way to heat up tinned food…).

It was a different time: a time when the lives of many of my friends were still centered around academic persuits (Siân was working on and handing in her dissertation, as was Liz, Claire was getting results back, Ruth was stressed out by a useless student on her team, Paul took things too far, and even JTA was suffering: struggling with his wordcount of an essay that he considered handing in late). It was a time when our evenings were being consumed watching Knightmare (my blog posts mentioning: the first series, first half of second series, second half of second series, Ruth’s commentary) or at the Ship & Castle (both, sadly, without Sian). It was a time when Andy worked at the cafe under The Flat, like we were all in some kind of sitcom or something.

It was clearly a time when we were all blogging quite regularly: apologies for the wall of links (a handful of which, I’m afraid, might be restricted). Be glad that I spared you all the posts about the 2005 General Election, which at the time occupied a lot of the Abnib blogosphere. We were young, and idealistic, and many of us were students, and most of us hadn’t yet been made so cynical by the politicians who have come since.

Another shot of the parcel. This wasn't posted, mind: he lugged this over to my office by hand, and dropped it off at the reception desk.
Another shot of the parcel. This wasn't posted, mind: he lugged this over to my office by hand, and dropped it off at the reception desk.

And, relevantly, it was a time when Paul was able to express his randomness in some particularly quirky ways. Like delivering me a food parcel at work. He’s always been the king of random events, like organising ad-hoc hilltop trips that turned out to be for the purpose of actually releasing 99 red (helium) balloons. I tried to immortalise his capacity for thinking that’s not just outside the box, but outside the known Universe, when I wrote his character into Troma Night Adventure, but I’m not sure I quite went far enough.

Looking Forward

It seems so long ago now: those Aberystwyth days, less than a year out of University myself. When I look back, I still find myself wondering how we managed to find so much time to waste on categorising all of the pages on the RockMonkey wiki. I suppose that nowadays we’ve traded the spontaneity to say “Hey: card games in the pub in 20 minutes: see you there!” on a blog and expect it to actually work, for a more-structured and planned existence. More-recently, we’ve spent about a fortnight so far discussing what day of the week we want out new monthly board games night to fall on.

There’s still just enough of the crazy random happenstances in my life, though. As I discovered recently, when I once again received an unusual and unexpected parcel in the post. This time, it wasn’t from Paul, but from Adam, who’d decided to respond in a very literal fashion to my tongue-in-cheek suggestion that he owed me tea, and a keyboard.

Several boxes of fruit and herbal teas.
The second of the two unexpected parcels I received from Adam.

I got the chance to live with Paul for a couple of years, until he moved out last month. I’m not sure whether or not this will ultimately reduce the amount of quirkiness that I get in my diet, but I’m okay either way. Paul’s not far away – barely on the other side of town – so I’m probably still within a fatal distance of the meteor we always assumed would eventually kill him.

We’ve turned what was his bedroom into an office. Another case of “a little bit less random, a little bit more structure and planning”, perhaps, in a very metaphorical way? Maybe this is what it feels like to be a grown-up. Took me long enough.

This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years gone by.

A New Keyboard

I already own the best mouse in the world. Maybe it’s time for a new keyboard, too.

An unexpected parcel.
What a large package! I wasn't expecting that!

A few weeks ago, Adam blogged about his trip to London last year, and mentioned that, after trips out to Soho’s “G-A-Y” nightclub when he was younger, he’d often surprise himself the following morning to wake up in some quite distant travel zones of London. My favourite bit was when he mentioned that, on one ocassion, he’d…

…somehow managed to whore my way beyond the reach of the Underground.

Adam

I replied with a comment, stating, among other things:

You owe me a fresh herbal tea. Also a new keyboard, which might never recover from the nasal spraying of herbal tea that it’s just been exposed to.

Dan

(it’s not a particularly original comment, I know: Jimmy said something similar in a comment on this very blog, about four years ago)

A gift note from Mr. A Westwood: Hi Dan, As requested, one replacement keyboard. I do hope that it's a suitable replacement and that nobody's got their wires crossed. Happy tapping! Adam xx
This note went a little way to explaining the parcel.

In any case: the week before last I received a pair of unexpected parcels. I opened the first, an Amazon box, and pulled out a note. It was from Adam, and stated that the contents were “a replacement keyboard”, assuming that “nobody’s got their wires crossed.”

The 'keyboard' that Adam had sent.
Adam's instrument. You need to wrap your lips around the tube and give it a good blow, while you finger the other end.

A musical keyboard: this one’s powered by air (I’d have never guessed that Stagg would have made such a thing!). The musician blows into a tube while they play the notes in order to elicit a tune. It doesn’t sound bad, actually, although I do feel that it could do with a MIDI port. And an air-driven dynamo to power that port. And then a battery-powered pump so that you don’t need to blow it at all.

The second parcel continued the theme:

Several boxes of fruit and herbal teas.
Hot and fruity: just the way I like them.

A selection of herbal and fruit teas, from Asda’s Morrisons’ range. There was no note in this parcel, but it was pretty clear by now who the sender must be. I’d have been ever so confused if I’d have opened the second parcel one first.

So thank you, Adam, you crazy old fool, for making me laugh out loud yet again. I shall have to compose a song in your honour: and given the amount of air intake that’s needed to keep the keyboard playing, I shall call it, The Big Puff Song.

Ageism, Nightline, and Counselling

As a trainee counsellor, I’ve had plenty of opportunity of late for self-analysis and reflection. Sometimes revelations come at unexpected times, as I discovered recently.

A counselling session in progress.
A counselling session in progress.

I was playing the part of a client in a role-play scenario for another student on my course when I was struck by a realisation that I didn’t feel that my “counsellor” was able to provide an effective and empathetic response to the particular situations I was describing. It didn’t take me long to spot that the reason I felt this way was her age. Probably the youngest in our class – of whose span of ages I probably sit firmly in the middle – her technical skill is perfectly good, and she’s clearly an intelligent and emotionally-smart young woman… but somehow, I didn’t feel like she would be able to effectively support me.

And this turned out to be somewhat true: the session ended somewhat-satisfactorily, but there were clear moments during which I didn’t feel that a rapport had been established. Afterwards, I found myself wondering: how much of this result was caused by her approach to listening to me… and how much was caused by my perception of how she would approach listening to me? Of the barriers that lay between us, which had I erected?

Since then, I’ve spent a little time trying to get to the bottom of this observation about myself, asking: from where does my assumption stem that age can always be associated with an empathic response? A few obvious answers stand out: for a start, there’s the fact that there probably is such a trend, in general (although it’s still unfair to make the outright assumption that it will apply in any particular case, especially with somebody whose training should counteract that trend). Furthermore, there’s the assumption that one’s own experience is representative: I know very well that at 18 years old, my personal empathic response was very weak, and so there’s the risk that I project that onto other young adults.

However, the most-interesting source for this prejudice, that I’ve found, has been Nightline training.

The Nightline Association
The Nightline Association, umbrella body representing student Nightlines around the UK and overseas

Many years ago, I was a volunteer at Aberystwyth Nightline. I worked there for quite a while, and even after I’d graduated and moved on, I would periodically go back to help out with training sessions, imparting some of what I’d learned to a new generation of student listeners.

As I did this, a strange phenomenon began to occur: every time I went back, the trainees got younger and younger. Now of course this isn’t true – it’s just that I was older each time – but it was a convincing illusion. A second thing happened, too: every time I went back, the natural aptitude of the trainees, for the work, seemed to be less fine-tuned than it had the time before. Again, this was just a convincing illusion: through my ongoing personal development and my work with Samaritans, Oxford Friend, and others, I was always learning new skills to apply to helping relationships, but each new batch of trainees was just getting off to a fresh start.

This combination of illusions is partly responsible for the idea, in my mind, that “younger = less good a listener”: for many years, I’ve kept seeing people who are younger and younger (actually just younger than me, by more) and who have had less and less listening experience (actually just less experience relative to me, increasingly). It’s completely false, but it’s the kind of illusion that nibbles at the corners of your brain, if you’ll let it.

Practicing good self-awareness helps counsellors to find the sources of their own prejudices and challenge them. But it’s not always easy, and sometimes the realisations come when you least expect them.