dalliard.net

Acceptance

Well, that’s it. Today, I prepared my handover for my successor, handed over my keys and left my job. As of now, I am redundant, unemployed or one of the jobless masses - whatever you choose to call me. I’ll be looking back at this point in three months and considering it as either the pivotal act that changed my working life, or the one that commenced my demise - only the next couple of months will tell.

Unlike some of my peers who have recently left, I guess you could say I did a relatively low-key departure. Showy is not me. I didn’t do a final tour of the working-floor like a foreign dignitary, I didn’t have a leaving “do”, where members of the clique-erati were made to feel inadequate and outcast by their absence and I didn’t immediately expect everyone to repeatedly examine my facebook page - to hang on my every breath and see whether I’d farted that day.

I just said,“goodbye” and left.

And I feel I left with dignity.

That’s not to say that I didn’t wave farewell to people in my own way. In fact, it was more gratifying that people hunted me down and said their goodbyes, people who appeared to be genuinely sad to see me go. I’ll be sad to leave some of those people behind too. As always. amongst the rough, there’s diamonds.

But most gratifying of all was the sheer quantity of little gifts and cards I received - to the point of embarrassment. I was so preoccupied with staying professional and doing a good job right up to the end that I was too busy to write a single card. For this reason, I feel genuine guilt. I saw the great efforts that many had gone to, along with the generosity that they demonstrated. When I read the cards, I saw that people had written little letters in there, telling me how I was “caring, yet professional”, “a pleasure to work with”, and how I’d kept them on the strait and narrow. More complimentary things have been said in my final week than in the seven years previous. The genuine feelings of fond affection from those I managed went towards endorsing something, namely the feeling that I must have got it right somewhere. People management isn’t easy. Everyone’s got a story about a manager who was an arsehole.

I knew that this day would come just over three months ago - meaning that I’ve had a lot of time to mentally prepare. I’m just a little bit sad, but still me - if that makes any sense. I’m at the acceptance stage. In a couple of weeks, I’ll go on my driving trip - and when I return, I’ll hopefully be a step closer to employment. At the moment, I believe that I’ve done the right thing. The company that I worked for is so precariously on the edge of oblivion that my package is the best a normal person could hope for.

And if it’s not and I’m regretting my words in three months, then stuff will occur, things will move on and shit will inevitably happen.

But in the meantime, it’s time to move on. It’s time to enjoy Christmas.
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An Explanation

For those that still ask about Mr Dalliard - yes, you know who you are.

Watch. And learn.



Second video here.
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Crunch

As property prices nose-dived and banks went to the wall, the bottom fell out the toast market.

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Road Trip, Part 2

Once Christmas is out of the way (in fifty-three days time, if you didn’t know), the job market will probably be non-existent - so it seems fitting to take a couple of weeks out. With the wonder of the internet, I can pretty much make my job applications from anywhere (made easy by acquiring some very cheap mobile-broadband), so I may as well take a trip and enjoy my time off.

Having taken a road-trip back in May (a thoroughly enjoyable experience), I feel it’s time for another, albeit on a significantly tighter budget. I’ll be taking my own car and having a long plod around Europe. Again, the intended distance is likely to be about 2,000 miles.

I’m getting a plan together. As you might have gathered from my previous trip, one must always have a plan. Plans are good and fun to make - even if you toss them out of the window on arrival. So, here’s mine so far:

1) I’ll start by taking the Harwich to Esbjerg (Denmark) ferry and do a near-circular route through Denmark, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Luxembourg - probably coming back via the chunnel in France, although I’ve not booked a return journey yet - just in case I get a prompt interview.
2) I’ll head down through the fjord region of south-east Denmark. Are Danish fjords like Norwegian ones?
3) I’ll find an autobahn in Germany that’ll let me legally drive my roadster to its speed-limit (about 120mph).
4) I intend to do a circuit of the Nurburgring, although possibly not at the speed that many others do.
5) I’d like to see the snowy mountain ranges of Interlaken (Switzerland). A quick search on google-images brings up some amazing views.

I’d also like to pay a visit to some of the smaller, lesser-visited areas of Europe - in particular, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. Some of the photography of Liechtenstein that I’ve seen looks amazing. Maybe I just like snow-capped mountains.

Stopping along supermarkets along the way and staying in youth-hostels, I believe I can do the entire trip on a shoestring. It’ll be a good challenge, anyway. Job-hunting never seemed so civilised...
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Bullies

Nearly five years ago, I got rid of my television - a lifestyle choice that I don’t remotely regret. Whilst the item largely sat in the corner of my front-room collecting dust, that was only a minor point - I objected to paying a yearly tax for something that didn’t justify its expenditure. There seemed little point in paying over £100/yr just for a screen to play DVDs and a games console on.

That’s not to say that a certain agency won’t nag you, though.

Over the course of that five years, I’ve had about ten letters from TV Licensing, threatening me with a £1,000 fine if their mind-probe devices ever found TV reception equipment in my house. They’ve threatened me with fines, house-searches and body-cavity searches* if they found any hint of me watching Eastenders at the time that it was actually broadcast, God forbid.

But every so often when the threatening letters turned up, I continued to put a deft finger in their direction and ignore them.

Until my last letter turned up - and that just got me angry.

To quote the offending paragraphs:

Our standard practice is to now visit your address to confirm that no type of television receiver is being used there to watch or record TV programmes as they’re being shown on TV. This includes the use of a TV set, digital box, DVD or video recorder, computer or mobile phone. Our visit should take no longer than a few minutes.

If you are still not using TV receiving equipment at this address, you needn’t take any action. Just expect a visit from us soon.

Does anyone think these guys are pushing their luck here? Not content with trying to tax TV users, anything with a screen would now appear to be suitable prey - and how long before you need a licence just to get internet access? Does that mean we’ll soon need a TV licence to access the likes of iPlayer? (You don’t at the moment). If so, this change is just the tip of the iceberg.

As for me, well I’m going to continue ignoring TV Licensing’s bully-tactics - no matter whether I’m on their database or not. I don’t have a TV, or a device that looks like one - it’s as simple as that. In the meantime, I just hope that the recently instigated review of the licensing authority actually comes to something meaningful, before loads of OAPs have the shit scared out of them...

...but of course, this is nothing new. Just don’t expect to get in my house unless you’ve got a warrant.

On a final note, I recently got a DVD of old public-service broadcasts (remember Charlie and Splink, anyone?) - and I saw this. The criminal bit isn’t the owning of the telly, it’s the watching of Columbo...



* maybe not the body-cavity search, but they’d give it a go if they could.
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The Other Side

Did you know that there’s ninety-one days left until Christmas?

You probably didn’t. In fact, the thought of Christmas probably brings you out in a cold-sweat, with the notion of false pleasantries uttered to unsavoury relatives and a credit-card bill akin to the national debt of Brazil - but I’m really looking forward to this years festive season and will be counting down the days like an impatient child. It brings forth a new year and a complete change of direction - something that I’ve wanted for a while. I need a fresh start, a kick up the arse.

On Christmas Eve, I’ll get that kick - when I join the other two-ish-million in the UK. I finish my job, clear my desk (although, I’d like a desk first) and join the rats leaving the sinking ship - to face a world of Jeremy Kyle, house makeovers and c-list celebrities giving DIY tips. Although, as I don’t have a television I’ll just enjoy the peace and quiet - a considerably nicer option.

But if I tell you that I’ve not been sacked, you might scratch your head a bit. If I tell you that I volunteered to lose my job, you would probably question my sanity. Hell, you wouldn’t be the first and despite my pre-festive exuberance, the eggnog hasn’t got to me yet. The situation is that I’ve been presented with an opportunity that’s too good to pass up and to miss out this time would probably mean that I’d never get another chance again. It’s now or never, as the saying goes.

After four paragraphs of waffling, I finally get to the point - I’ve taken voluntary redundancy and will leave my job after seven years of service, with a package that minimises the risk as much as can be reasonably expected. In these times of austerity and belt-tightening, the offer is miles better than many could hope for. I get to try something new with a secure buffer behind me, significantly minimising the risk.

You could be asking why I’ve even decided to do this. Surely, having a reasonably paid job is all the more important when economic conditions get tougher?

You’re probably right. I could continue in my current position, doing pretty much the same task for the next thirty years. I could carry on filling-in, signing and filing lots of little bits of paper until the day I die and be a truly hardcore paper-bitch. W00T.

Or I could just throw myself into the shredder now.

Truth be told, my interest (and subsequently, my performance) in my job peaked at the beginning of 2006, after which it has been on a downhill slope ever since. I don’t usually stay in the same job for more than three years and as a consequence I’d made a conscious decision back then to take the same package if offered (and it was), but like a fool I decided too late and missed the deadline. I’ve been kicking myself ever since, so this time I made sure it didn’t happen again by being first in the queue to cash in my chips...

...which leaves me with the dilemma of what to do next, which is not such a large dilemma as you would think. I aim to enjoy my Christmas, do a bit of travel during January and find a job - there’s lots of them still out there. Initially, I don’t really care too much what the job is and only have two criteria to validate it against:

- No call-centres.
- No contact with bodily-fluids.

I feel these are good metrics to work by. They preclude working as part of the drone collective for Yet Another Very Large Company Ltd and at the same time mean I don’t end up mopping up old-ladies wee, cleaning toilets or hosting sex chat-lines (a combination of both rules). Apart from that, I’ll give most things a go.

In the meantime, expect my posting frequency to get a little bit more regular than they have been of late (i.e. more than virtually non-existent). I’m sure you’ll find my adventures at the jobcentre to be interesting reading.
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Smarty Pants

Whilst away in the U.S., I did a lot of driving - over two thousand miles of it. When the opportunity allows, I enjoy driving for pleasure. Whilst we all have to perform the perfunctory daily commute, there's nothing more enjoyable than just going wherever the hell you like. There's much to be said for having complete freedom and the experiences from that fortnight reminded me that I'll definitely have to do it again. When I go on holiday, freedom, independence and solitude are what I seek, unsociable bugger that I am.

As you might have seen from my previous posts, I drove a convertible vehicle. Initially, I did this because it was recommended to me as the only way to see America. However, whilst driving through the Blue Ridge mountains, I had something of an epiphany, a moment of clarity. This was because it wasn't the first time I'd driven a soft-top vehicle and was finally experiencing driving euphoria again.

Shag...

My first car - a rusty black Citroen Dyane.

In the twelve months that I owned this vehicle, I drove 24,000 miles - and it taught me how to really drive. I drove without brakes, I drove without a handbrake. Hell, even the steering failed. In the event of a mechanical failure, me or my father would usually get the thing going again by randomly smacking it with a wrench. It's uncomplicated - there isn't an intelligent driving system in sight. I've often thought they should be brought back into production for newly-qualified drivers to cut their driving-teeth with. Once you've done 0 - 60 in 33 seconds a few times, you'll truly appreciate the power under the bonnet of your new-fangled ride when you finally have it. With a retractable roof it was cheap, fun driving.

After my Saxo had been broken into last-year, I'd already made a conscious decision to change my car soon. Whilst the damaged bodywork was repaired, it was only a matter of time before evidence of the break-in showed again and corrosion started around the door. Combined with the bodywork repairs needed after the accident just two weeks into my poor VTR's tenure and I really was starting to think that the car was a bit doomed. Oh and did I mention the leak, problems with the wheel-arches and head-gasket issues?

When I got back from my holiday, I decided it was time to trade in my poor old VTR. Potential issues and large repair-bills loomed on the horizon. I do a round trip of about 200 miles per week just commuting and whilst public transport continues to be a joke in my area, I really can't afford to have an unreliable vehicle.

This led me to start narrowing down my shortlist for my next ride. My criteria were:

  • Economical.
  • Fun to drive.
  • Cheap to insure/tax.
  • Enough boot-space to put the shopping in...

...and finally, something I could put the roof down on. I wanted to get back to fun driving again.

This led me off into a distinct vehicle category - two seater roadsters, although many vehicles were eliminated from consideration:

- The Toyota MR2 has no boot-space whatsoever.
- Neither the Mazda MX-5, 206cc or Beetle have particularly good fuel economy.

This narrowed my list down to the Daihatsu Copen or the Smart Roadster, with me eventually deciding on the Roadster. What swung me were the rave reviews from other owners and almost cult-like fanaticism with which their owners love them.

Here's mine.



Response so far have been mixed...

"It's a bit gay, isn't it?"
"Really cool."
"Snazzy."
"A bit plasticy."
"The front looks like a Lotus Elise"
"Different."

...a bit like asking people opinions on Marmite. One thing's for sure, though - kids seem to love it. I've lost count of the amount of children who have pointed from a distance, or who have shouted, "cool car!".

Without a doubt, the Roadster is distinctive - there's not many on the roads (production was ceased in 2006). Just like the Toyota MR2, they're now an endangered species.

When you mention the specs of the vehicle to people who inevitably ask, they raise their eyebrows and question your sanity. 698cc Hardly sounds like the stuff of sports-cars - I'm about 96cc away from my Citroen Dyane days again. However, with a turbo fitted, 0 - 60 in just under eleven seconds seems a lot more reasonable. In reality it doesn't really matter, because when you're driving it just feels fast - I guess that the close proximity to the road probably has something to do with it. With the roof back and the paddle-shift gear-change,it's all the more fun - I'm continually driving with a big grin on my face.



More importantly though, I'm getting at least 50 to the gallon. Naturally, you'll get less if you drive it like a go-cart, but as petrol prices increase, demand for small cars such as this will too. After having the vehicle for three weeks, I've now sussed out how to use the boost-gauge to better manage my fuel economy - I'm up to 53mpg so far - and that's hardly driving at a crawl. I'm aiming for sixty - and with a six-speed gearbox such as this, I think it's possible.

Whilst I've rambled on about advantages, there's a few disadvantages. With a small vehicle such as this, that's low to the ground, many people don't see you - or pretend they don't. It's interesting how road users will bully smaller vehicles to get where they want, cut you off or pull-out straight in front of you. To get around this, I drive quite aggressively and with my headlights permanently on - this further removes the excuses for not seeing me. You also get attitude from other drivers because you're driving a soft-top, something that other drivers traditionally hate - especially in good weather. "Everyone hates you so much, that it's like you eat babies and still have a half-chewed leg stuck in your teeth.", said a recent passenger. Indeed.

I learnt this that after an idiot reversed into me, having only had the car for two hours - a good start.

Whilst many have cited leaks as a problem (common amongst all Roadsters, not just the Smart), mine has (thankfully) stayed completely dry in the wet. That's probably not going to stop me considering some sort of weather cover for the winter months as extra insurance, though. A slow gearbox has been mentioned too, but I'm figuring that my engine management system has been upgraded, because I don't seem to have any trouble.

As a semi-automatic, my left leg has now been made redundant, but I'm sure it'll live.

In summary, like many others may have said, if you want cheap, fun driving - with a tiny hint of practicality (the boot in the front adequately carries my groceries), then I can only recommend it - unless you've got a family of four and a dog, of course

If you want to see what it's like, click here....
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Wandering

Having returned this morning, I feel fully US'ed out. I've drunk enough coffee to fuel a small republic for a year, eaten burgers, climbed mountains, watched trashy television, sat-out tornado warnings, been burnt by the sun and had a drenching from thunderstorms. It's been a pretty immersive experience and fully worthwhile - but more importantly, I've driven about 2000 miles from Washington D.C. to Fort Worth, Texas, a drive that's been pretty insightful.



As I said before I left, I had preconceptions about the United States and it's people. I didn't elaborate much at the time, but if I'm honest about it, most of my preconceptions weren't good ones. I'm not sure why that was. Perhaps it's my experiences of those I've met when I've travelled in the past, perhaps it's the media, perhaps it's international opinion - I don't know‚ but a preconception is a preconception and the whole point of this visit was to challenge it. The drive allowed me to take in the scenery, talk to people, film a snippet or two and manage those preconceptions - and I'll say it now, the drive was quite enjoyable.

To have an enjoyable drive, you need the right car. This pretty much fitted the bill.



What you see above is my vehicle of choice for the fortnight, a Chrysler Crossfire. I wanted to travel the US in a convertible vehicle - many a traveller will tell you that it's the only way to do it - and they're right. The additional expense over a regular vehicle was worth it. In fact, the car became an ice-breaker for many a conversation. With a stunning degree of regularity, strangers would refer to the "cute car" I was driving - and the conversation would start. That said, the British and American versions of cute are a whole spectrum apart. Using the average American mindset, a 3.2 litre sports-car car is indeed cute - but in Britain, one would be typecast as some sort of daisy-trampling eco-hater. I guess all things are relative when fuel is only £1.75 a gallon and you're using to driving five-litre trucks. Luckily, change appears to be on the horizon and fuel economy is actually starting to be discussed. Perhaps the infamous "credit-crunch" has the odd positive effect.

Over the course of my next few articles, I'll use the challenges I was set to elaborate on the experience further. They're a pretty mixed bunch and hopefully I've caught enough media along the way to give you an idea of what I'm on about. I'm not going to give away as to whether my original opinion was the right one or not, because if I did that it would defeat the object - and I'm hoping that you'll keep reading to the end.

The first part (of five) to follow shortly.
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Proceed To Departure

With any luck tomorrow, I should be on a flight to the US - so I guess it's best if I explain what'll be going on.

Firstly, I will continue to blog my progress across The States, although I won't be able to immediately publish it. On my return, you'll get a post every couple of days, which in essence will be like a little story, pictures included. I'm sure that'll keep you entertained for a while.

However, what I will do along the way is upload pictures to Flickr. Ok, I admit, my "picture a day" project went totally titsup back in about February, but it's a nice quick and easy way to give you a quick (and possibly vague) idea of what I'm up to.

Of course, there is another reason for this - a friend recently suggested that should I disappear without trace whilst on holiday, at least giving some photographic clues of where I am may give the police some assistance in trying to find my gunshot riddled body. Call it photographic breadcrumbs, if you will - just keep looking for new posts after the 5th of February.

The journey will proceed according to the route that I've previously outlined in "The Plan". The last couple days are undecided, but I will give an indication as to where I'm going once I've made up my mind.

There we go. I'm all packed. I've got plenty of pants, my passport and a fistful of dollars - who needs anything else? My next full post will be in just over two weeks.
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The Plan

It's always good to have a plan. Hell, 1,500 mile road-trips don't just plan themselves - so here's mine.

I aim to go through at least three national-parks (Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains and Hot Springs) and across a good few states (District Of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas). I've also left about four or five days to spare - just in case anything interesting I'd not thought of comes along. Here's the map of my journey....



My visit to Hot Springs is my way of paying a small bit of homage to the Japanese trip that wasn't.

The American Automobile Association say that this journey is about 1,475 miles, but I still haven't entirely made up my mind about what I want to do between Little Rock and Dallas, so that might increase just a bit. I did plan going to Cadillac Ranch, but unfortunately, it adds about 700 miles to my trip - and there's limits on how far I'm prepared to drive. In the meantime, here's my to do list of "challenges", varying in difficulty.

1) Visit an Indian reservation.
2) Not get shot.
3) Capture a video-clip of a tumbleweed flying by. (Does that even really happen?)
4) Wear a bad cowboy hat. It's been suggested that I change hat every time I change state.
5) Go to a country bar and select something awful from the jukebox.
6) Find a bear, preferably shitting in the woods.
7) Fire a gun.
8) Eat grits, no matter how disgusting they appear to be.
9) Photograph the most obese individual I can find.
10) Attend an evangelist's church service.
11) Go to a strip-club. (Nice juxtaposition, huh? I nearly fell off my chair when my partner suggested that one)
12) Photograph an Elvis look-alike.

As you can see, my list has changed a little bit from its predecessor, but is a more realistic set of tasks to do based upon where I'm travelling through. I did try to rent a convertible for the journey, but unfortuantely, not a single car-hire company seems to have any in stock - which was a shame, but I'll try my luck again when I reach the vehicle pick-up desk.

In the meantime, if you've got any additional ideas for challenges, feel free to post a comment.
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Road-Trip

Having consoled myself with the fact that I'm probably unable to afford Japan this year, I figured I'd try and look at some suitable alternatives - namely a similar style of holiday (i.e. bumbling around a large-ish country for a few weeks), but hopefully in a way that creates less of a dent on my wallet. I settled on a ticket to the US. Just the air-travel and travel-pass aspects of it alone work out to be about half the price of their Japanese equivalents.

The US has always been a curiosity to me. I wouldn't exactly be what you call an American-lover, but I just want to go and see what things are like. Yes, I'm US-curious. With a country of such size, I figure that you've got a whole pile of diversity there. Just a quick look on my favourite piece of world-browsing software informs me that there's about a 15 degree temperature difference alone between the north and the south - and this is before we even get to talk about architecture, people, culture or food. Yep, there's got to be something there to keep me interested.

So, I've booked myself a flight. I'll fly into Washington DC (east coast) and come home from Dallas (down south, Texas) two weeks later. In a straight line, it's about 1,300 miles, but you didn't seriously expect me to go in a straight line, did you?


Wiggly: The route above (purple line) is 1,328 miles. My route will be a bit longer.

When I started planning and reading up, this was my initial list of stuff I wanted to do whilst away.

1) Find an Amish community in Ohio. (Hey, Diary Of The Dead did something good).
2) Go to a national-park in Arkansas.
3) Have pancakes for breakfast.
4) Go on a Greyhound bus.
5) Do the touristy thing on Capitol Hill, Washington.
6) Go into a bar in Tennessee and hear some country-music. (I hate country music, but it's got to be done)
7) Visit a town/city on the south-east coast and go to the beach.
8) Drive down one of those very long roads that seem to disappear into the distance, just like in photos.

..and no doubt I shall think of more.

As to how I'm going to go across the country, well, I've got three options - take the train, use the Greyhound network or hire a car. To be honest, the price isn't much different between the three methods, so I've decided on the car - this will allow me some more flexibility, freedom and the ability to do some of the things on the above list. The rail network doesn't get much in the way of glowing recommendations (it seems that freight takes priority over passenger traffic in most cases and the infrastructure is poor) and I do appear to limiting myself quite a bit by buying a Greyhound pass. Nope, in this case it has to be driven.

I'm looking forward to the whole thing and will be away for the last week of April and the first week of May. In the meantime, if you've got any tips on driving in the US, or things you consider to be quintessential activities that you should do whilst away, I'd be happy to hear 'em.

Footnote: Shit - I bought a B.A. ticket from Heathrow. Was this such a good idea?

Update (3/4): Some more stuff for the list (thanks for the suggestions)

9) Visit an Indian/Native-American reservation.
10) Drive an old Ford-Mustang.
11) Visit Graceland in Memphis.
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Worth remembering...

From the fire information council...



...it's always worth remembering, folks - "All year round, fire works".

Perhaps if fire works, that's why everyone else gets a bank-holiday.
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Diary Of The Dead

Plot overview: Dead people return to life and start to kill off the rest of the planet. A student film crew go on the run from the undead hordes and record their experiences. More comparisons to the Blair Witch Project again, anyone?

Who's in it?: Mostly dead people. I'm not good with names - and to be honest with you, in this film it's not really of any consequence as to who plays what. And those that aren't dead probably will be dead eventually. Hell, you don't watch zombie movies for superlative acting. If you do, you've probably missed the point.

Is it any good?: Despite the obvious comparisons that are to be made with Cloverfield or Blair Witch, this film had potential. George Romero's track record on his previous zombie films has been reasonable, so I was hopeful of good things. What I actually got was a lot of people doing annoying stuff just like in Blair Witch, combined with cliched characters and a hint of oddness.

Should I go and see it?: I really don't know. When I first found out this film was coming, I was really enthusiastic to see it and even watched Dawn of the Dead (remix) just before to get me in the mood. I was disappointed by Diary Of The Dead. Whilst nobody expects good acting in these sort of films, some of it was just plain terrible. Combine that with my wanting to scream at the stupidity of the main characters and I felt somewhat unfulfilled.

The film should have built up to a crescendo, which ultimately results in the survival (or undeath) of the main characters. Without giving away any of the plot, all I can say is that I came away with questions and a big "mneh" feeling. The film had so much potential, but it's not been realised - and it's not like the director hasn't had enough practice at zombie movies to get it right. For all it's attempts on social commentary on the media society, it's forgotten something - it's forgotten how not to be a mediocre film, when many others have done the handycam thing so much better. Ho hum. (2.5/5)

Other reviews: Here, here and here.
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Stripe

I've never worked so hard for a piece of duck-tape - video to follow.



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Open letter...

Dear Mr Activision,

I recently bought Guitar Hero for the Wii. After playing the game for several days, I feel that you've missed a few warning messages that should have been on the box:

Warning! Extended play will give you RSI in your ring ringer.
Warning! Will make you see coloured lines and bubbles when your eyes are closed.
Warning! Extended play will make you think Aerosmith actually wrote a good track. *shudder*

And worst of all, I could end up like these people. Jeez, you'll start making me think I'm playing a real guitar, when actually all I'm doing is playing with a big lump of black plastic with seven buttons on it. It's scary. You'd best warn people about this stuff, before all who play turn into sad, sad bastards.

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My New Motto

A couple of days ago, my partner mentioned a phrase to me. It's stuck in my head ever since. It's stuck there becuase it's so very true.

"No good turn goes unpunished."

Hell, yeah.

It's been shit recently - going that little bit extra for someone has generally been a pointless exercise that's been taken for granted and inevitably has come back to bite me on the backside. As a consequence, I am currently resenting any form of generosity.

I now have the phrase printed in a couple strategic places, so that I'm reminded not to be so daft and start learning the art of saying "no".

I'll stop there, before I go into a fully-fledged rant.

Some links that illustrate my point: One, two, three, four.
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Bello!

I love the Nigerians - they're so generous. I got an e-mail from a Nigerian person last week...

Date: Mon, 17 Feb 2008 09:26:04 -0800 (GMT-08:00)
From: "OFFICIAL"
Subject: Your Fund Release


INTERNATIONAL REMITTANCE DEPARTMENT
African Development Bank Group
Nigeria Country Office (NGFO)
Plot 813 Lake Chad Crescent
Maitama District Lagos, NIGERIA

http://www.afdb.org

Dear Beneficiary,
I am Dr. Yakubu Lukman , A director with Africa Development Bank here in Africa .I want to bring to your notice that my office has taking over/ Mandated all the money Transaction originated from any part of African and Europe countries  such as Contract payment, Fund inheritance or Lottery Winning due to Unauthorized/incapability of financial Institutions/security companies In releasing such huge sum of money due to Fraud, terrorist and money Laundry activities going on world wide.

The World Bank Group has Mandated the African Development Bank via my Office to release funds to beneficiaries through International automated visa atm card  or via wire bank transfer depending on choice of fund transfer. Hence Your Name appears as one of The fund beneficiaries whom their fund was successfully cleared recently From Terrorist and Money laundry and your money will be released to you .

You are therefore advised to forward your direct telephone numbers, your contact address and a copy of your identification  for Immediate release of your money. Most importantly be aware that Six Million , Five Hundred Thousand Dollars Only (US$6, 500, 000.00) was allocated to you Only .

Finally , immediately you can re-confirm your full details as stated above , we will commence  your fund transfer release order .Confirm the receipt  by your swift reply. Awaiting your response .
 
Yours In Service,
 

DR. YAKUBU LUKMAN.
INTEGRATED PAYMENT DEPARTMENT

What a nice man. He's much nicer than George Agdgdgwngo. I might tell him that.
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Google Cop-Out

You might remember a while back that I decided to buy an Asus EeePc. Whilst I eventually went into Toys-R-Us to buy it, I initially tried to buy it from an online retailer, who used Google Checkout as their method of payment.

Buyer beware.

The retailer in question (I'll keep it nameless for the moment), was totally unresponsive to my order - hence the reason for me cancelling my purchase. I've never actually known such an unresponsive e-tailer. I contacted them to cancel the order and they never replied - meaning that I'd either have to contact Google (who processed the payment) or my bank to lodge a dispute.

Try a search on Google Checkout and customers getting refunds - you may notice the rather unhelpful search results.

My bank initially advised me to contact Google in relation to this - but funnily enough, they don't have a phone number. In fact, most of their help is dedicated to the merchant, so this makes reclaiming the funds virtually impossible.

My only recourse was to log a dispute with my bank - and with any luck, I should get the funds back shortly.

The moral of this story? I guess that should be self explanatory - even Paypal has a number you call in the event of issues. The lack of a physical building to go to in order to get some results doesn't help, but I shall be a lot more wary when buying online in future because Google's payment system appears to be very one-sided. When things work, great, but when they don't, you're a bit stuffed.

Other web experiences: Here and here. (There's a lot more)
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There Will Be Blood

Plot overview: The rise and fall of an oil tycoon in the late 19th/early 20th century, along with the relationship between his son and everyone else around him.

Who's in it?: Daniel Day-Lewis is the main man, in more ways than one - he's amazingly good, even if he does sound a bit like a certain someone from The Matrix.

Is it any good?: The first twenty minutes or so has no dialogue in it whatsoever. This doesn't mean that you won't know what's going on. You'll feel the pain of his initial prospecting and the struggle he goes through. Likewise, the last 10 minutes has some of the greatest dialogue that I've heard for years and equally, you'll love it. The film score is wonderful. The eery sound used at the beginning of the film is enough to make you feel ill. Day-Lewis puts in an amazing performance througout, although that's not to say that anyone else doesn't do well. Honourable mention should also be given to Paul Dano, who is Eli the preacher, the man with the stranglehold over the local community.

Should I go and see it?: Yes. And if you don't like it, you're either mentally deficient or a communist. There's a lot going on and you'll need to concentrate, but the pay-off will be worth it. Everyone in the film is deeply symbolic, representative of love, greed, ethics, family, religion and much more besides. This will be remembered as one of the greatest films of all time and is certainly one of the best things I've seen for about three or four years.

Have I gushed enough about it yet? (5/5)

Other reviews: Here, here and here.
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Pah

Blatantly obvious alert: There are 364 other days in the year that allow you to show appreciation of your partner. Do it.
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Efergy Energy Meter

It's a smart electricity consumption monitoring device - and it doesn't need any wiring. How does it work? Or indeed, does it work at all? Read More...
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Cloverfield

Plot overview: A New York twenty-somethings leaving-party gets ruined by a giant monster that attacks Manhattan. As the ground shakes, people go onto the street, chaos ensues, buildings get flattened, lives are lost and the Statue of Liberty becomes detached from her head. Some of the initial scenes that depict building destruction may be too close to 9/11 for comfort.

The military drop in - and admit that they're losing. In the meantime, ordinary people are running very quickly to get out of Manhattan before things get nastier. The central group of four that we're introduced to during the party mount a rescue operation for a girlfriend, and as the chaos unravels it's all caught on a shaky handycam - and boy, is it shaky. If you suffer from motion-sickness, this is probably going to make you feel ill.

Who's in it?: I'm not good with names and faces, but the cast list did look like a list of relative unknowns - and for a film such as this, that was a good thing. You won't be distracted by a big name attempting some heroics or something out of character. Why the monster is here, you don't know - but that's not the point. The film is about ordinary people trying to escape a major disaster, but despite its subject matter it will still amuse. Indeed, as we learn more about the guy who spends the majority of his time holding the camera, we find that despite the awful situation the group face, things can still be funny. I found myself chuckling occasionally - and that's not because I'm some sick puppy.

Is it any good?: The first twenty or so minutes act as a fairly pedestrian introduction to the characters that you'll be following, whereas when the action hits, it's relentless and doesn't give up right up to the end. Whilst the film is actually just under an hour and a half long, you'll feel like you've sat in on something that's more like 2+ hours. Keeping up with the action will make you feel tired with all that's going on - and there's a lot going on.

On another note, the film seems to tease you with regards to how much of the monster it shows. Initially you might just see a bit of leg, then a bit more - until you get to the full sight of the beast at the end. Only then do you start to realise the full scale of the thing - it's huge.

Should I go and see it?: Oh yes, you should. This is the sort of stuff that cinema is for - and you might just drop your popcorn every so often. The film appears to be a cludge between Gozilla, Blair Witch, Alien and Independance Day, but possibly I'm doing the movie a big injustice by saying that because retrospectively, The Blair Witch Project got on my nerves. This certainly didn't - and I might even go and see it again. (4/5)

Other reviews: Here, here and here.
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Linky Stuff

As I haven't give you any for a while, here's the odd bit of linkage for you to read/watch/play.

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Clutter

Humans are awful hoarders. Blame consumerism, blame sentimentality, blame whatever you like - but I shudder each time I hear somebody say an item,"might come in useful", because invariably it doesn't. Before you know it, you've got a whole pile of shite in your house, just longing for an excuse to justify its existence. Those of you who have read my prior postings might have seen this before.

To ensure things stay clutter-free, I go on a house-wide purge at regular intervals - approximately every four months. Maybe I do it in time with the changing of the seasons. Maybe I do it because I've previously lived in a multitude of rented houses - who knows? I e-bay off stuff I no longer use, shred and recycle old bits of paper, I put unworn clothes in the charity bins and generally slim things down. Perhaps it's also because I live in a small house that has a minimal amount of storage space that requires me to be more ruthless than most - I most certainly get quite miffed when I trip over something that doesn't have a cupboard to live in.

On this occasion, I took it a step further - I purged people.

Purging people isn't as painful as it sounds. It's just another way of removing the clutter and mostly involves the deletion of data.

I fired up my e-mail software and deleted people from the address book - ex-work colleagues who vowed to stay in touch but inevitably didn't, friends who weren't any more and business associates long gone. I applied my usual logic - if the contact hasn't been used for over twelve months, there was obviously a reason why - delete them.

I repeated the process with my mobile. Fifteen e-mail addresses and twenty-ish 'phone numbers later and things are certainly a lot more minimal. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and liberating experience...

...with the exception of one 'phone number that I've kept - she knows who she is. The optimist in me hopes that she'll contact me one day (or I'll be able to contact her). Until then, I'll wait until it's useful again. Considering my ruthlessness, one phone number won't do any harm, will it?
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21=Run

Always worth knowing...

20

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Sweeney Todd

As you'll have seen from my previous post, I was duty bound to see this film. I guess that now means I'm duty bound to review it.

Plot overview:
Set in 19th century London, the story features Benjamin Barker the barber (say that after a drink or two) who seeks revenge on the judge who sent him away for fifteen years - robbing him of his wife and daughter. Barker sets up business as Sweeney Todd the Barber, situated above a pie shop. It's not long before an unholy alliance is made and the bodies from his kills turn into pie-filling.

Who's in it?: Mr Depp is Benjamin Barker, Helena Bonham Carter is Mrs Lovett the pie-shop owner and Alan Rickman is the evil judge. Add in Sacha Baron Cohen for a bit of randomness and you've got quite an impressive cast.

Is it any good?: My partner, who had been gagging to see this film came out feeling a bit let-down, saying that the music score was at times inappropriately over-dramatic to the point of annoyance. The guy sat to my left fell asleep during the film and snored. That's hardly a good start and I'm not a musical sort of person, but I managed to get to the end without feeling my life had been robbed of a couple of hours, which is quite an achievement. Even more of a surprise is that Johnny Depp can actually sing. It's just a shame that he can't do a British accent very well. In Pirates of the Caribbean he sounded like Keith Richards, but in Sweeney Dodd he sounds like David Bowie. Helena Bonham Carter does a pretty good job of being the piemeister, but I'm not entirely sure she was as sordid for the part as we're led to believe she should be. There's plenty of CGI in there too, which generally succeeds in making 19th Century London look downright grey and awful.

Should I go and see it?: It's an interesting notion to see a film that combines music humour with blood, gushing at times as per Kill Bill, but it gets away with it. It's an 18 certificate - and deservedly so. If you're squeamish, don't see it. If you like laughs with your body count, do. (3.5/5)

Other reviews: Here, here and here.
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No Country For Old Men

Plot overview: Whilst out hunting antelope, a Texan man finds two million dollars, a pick-up truck full of drugs and an assortment of dead people. Do you call the police, or take the money and run? Well, it would be a very short film if he did the former, so as you might have gathered, he takes the money and runs - but he doesn't realise there's a tracking device in the money-case. After not too long, he's being hunted down by a man who can only be described as the embodiment of the pure evil. Oh - and the police eventually discover the bodies, but they're not really the ones you need to be scared of. The film develops into a chase, with guns. Lots of guns. The body count is quite high.

Who's in it?: If I'm honest about it, it's only Tommy Lee Jones (who's the sheriff) that I could identify. Don't let that put you off, though. The acting is superb and the cast are well selected.

Is it any good?: I went to a preview screening with my partner. I generally enjoyed it, despite a few flaws, but my partner really didn't like it at all. I now have to watch Sweeney Todd with her by way of an apology - make of that what you will. So as I'm the one writing the review, I'll recommend it. The film is bleak, very bleak indeed. The dusty Texan landscape, the western-esque parallels and the nutjob who kills with a gas cylinder - they're all there. The film does have some minor flaws (which I shan't elaborate on, as they'd be big spoilers), but generally it's well executed throughout. Chigurgh (our psychotic nemesis) tosses coins to decide the fate of people's lives, the sheriff and his colleague seem to bumble their way from day to day and the body count of Mexicans piles up. Perhaps there's an analogy there somehow.

Should I go and see it?: To me, this film as more of a modern-day western. If that sort of thing floats your boat, then perhaps you should go and get your film of dust, guns and fine-talkin' - with the odd bit of humour thrown in. The film has been nominated for a good few awards - and I can see why. I'll be surprised if it doesn't come away with something. (4.5/5)

Other reviews: Here, here and here.
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Asus Eee PC

Looking for a very small (and cheap) computer? Read on - this seems to fit the bill... Read More...
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The Final Frugality Challenge Update

Total for December: £31.74
Total for 2007: £1,275.46

So, there you go - I aimed to save £1,500. On the face of it I've failed, although I beg to differ. £100 Per month is still a tangible sum. Unfortunately, the car break-in meant that I haemorrhaged money during the course of December. It was a shame, because I had quite a cheap Christmas. It would have been nice to fully reap the benefits and increase the total saved for the year.

That said, I could have tried harder in many other areas. I managed to do quite well with my shopping, but in other areas I could have been more aggressive. As the challenge was to save money as ethically as I could, I don't think I did badly in that respect. The Good Shopping Guide became my bible and at the same time as saving money, I managed to do so with a relatively clear conscience, so much so that my new habits have become second nature.

The challenge certainly hasn't been a lost cause. Most of the consumer choices I've probably made in not just the last year, but over the last several years have been influenced out of ethics, whether that be finance, food or clothing - it's just that there's more work to be done. For example, the fixed-rate on my mortgage comes up for renewal this year. I'm now in a considerably better bargaining position than at the start of the term and as a consequence I believe I should be able to lower my repayments, whilst using an ethical provider. I'll keep you posted on that one.

I'm also pleased to say that I've observed retailers changing their habits too (M&S is a big example). The optimist in me hopes that consumers consciously choosing to buy "good" products has spurred this on. This is a trend that I hope to see continue throughout 2008, because it'll make my life a lot easier when it comes to making the right choice on what to buy.

Finally, you could argue that the lack of a true motive meant that I had no real impetus to push the project further. For example, I don't have bailiffs knocking on my door, nor do I need to find a job. However, as you'll have seen from one of my previous postings, that might be a different matter - therefore I think I'll be continuing with the exercise, because you never know when it might happen.

It's been an interesting exercise.

del.icio.us links of the day:
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I Am Legend

Plot overview: The film commences with a smug Emma Thompson, telling the world that a cure for cancer has been found - and the next thing you know, the majority of the world's population has been wiped out by a virus called KV. That's with the exception of Will Smith of course, because when he's not playing golf on an aircraft carrier or talking to shop dummies or hunting deer, he's trying to find a cure for the disease in his laboratory back at home in Manhattan.

Who's in it?: The cast is not particularly extensive in this film. Will Smith. And a dog. The dog deserves an Oscar. Will Smith doesn't.

Is it any good?: If there's one thing that you can't fail to be impressed with, it's the cinematography. Maybe I'm easily impressed, but it's quite a sight to see an area such as Manhattan completely empty, bar one man who's hunting deer. The problem is that the nature of film means you immediately draw comparisons with other films such as 28 Days/Weeks later. In fact, with an abandoned city and raging hordes of nasties coming out at night, this film could have easily been called 2.8 Years Later - but it was a few years too late for that. The first 60 or so minutes of the film are generally pretty good, with Will Smith (and dog) pottering around, along with momentary flashbacks to before mankind's annihilation. It's only when the nasties (which are very evidently CGI generated) come into play that the wheels fall off a bit, resulting in the last 10 minutes lacking all credibility - which is a shame, because it had potential.

Should I go and see it?: If you can ignore the faults, then go ahead. The story still has bits that make you laugh and cry, meaning that for all its issues it's still worth seeing - even if it's just for the visual splendour. (3.5/5)

Other reviews: Here, here and here.
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Resolute

As the New Year started I was on a boat somewhere in the middle of the English Channel, celebrating the arrival of 2008 twice - once for the benefit of the French (11:00pm GMT) and once for the benefit of the British. Taking a little cruise to St Malo was a nice distraction, allowing me to have a go at a bit of French geocaching and buy the odd bottle of wine or two.

As we returned to Blighty, our discussions turned to New Years resolutions. My partner isn't really that fussed about such things, whereas I've had many different resolutions over the last few years - with varying degrees of success. This year, I've decided to keep it simple - I'm going to take a photo every day. For the benefit of my addling memory (and the amusement of others), I'll have an online photo-scrapbook for 2008 - hopefully with 366 images. At the same time, it'll give me the opportunity to take more photos. Hopefully there'll be some good ones in there.

You'll see a button appear at the top of the page in a few days time, once I've got some images to show. Obviously the gallery will increase in size over the course of the year, thus resulting in a longer download for you. Be warned. I just hope this project doesn't chomp up all my bandwidth, but it should be an interesting exercise, along with being a good way to look back once we get into 2009.

Jeez, that sounded like I was wishing my life away...

Other articles on the subject for those who are interested: Link 1, Link 2, Link 3

del.icio.us links of the day:
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