Tag Archives: grauniad

Virgin Media now giving no choice over TV on Demand

The following is the text of a letter I’ve sent today to Guardian Money:

This morning I got up and as usual put on the Cartoon Network channel for my children on our Virgin “TV Choice On Demand” service. Instead however I got an on-screen message saying I had to pay to subscribe to this service. This seemed to be a fault, as TV Choice On Demand has been included in the “medium” TV, phone and broadband package I’ve had with Virgin for the past 20 months. I rang to report the fault but was told that in fact Virgin had now decided – at no written notice – to withdraw TV Choice On Demand from the medium package, for which I am paying £28 per month. An “upgrade” to the XL package (i.e. to the service I was getting until yesterday, albeit with some extra channels thrown in) would cost an extra £7 per month for 3 months rising to an extra £17 per month thereafter. When I complained, I was all but told I should be grateful for having had the TV Choice service free for the past two years, when in fact what Virgin are now doing is charging me the same monthly fee for fewer services. Although I feel this is unfair, I may not have minded quite so much if I’d been given adequate notice and therefore a real “choice” in the matter. Ending a service overnight so that your kids are suddenly prevented from watching their favourite cartoons unless you fork out more is sharp practice of the lowest order.

Yrs etc.

Posted via email from Thoughtcat’s Posterous

April fools

This week’s April Fools’ Day is already starting to look like old hat (my excuse for not posting on the day itself being that I was in London – working, not protesting, although sympathising with most of the protesters, while thinking it was a shame that Barack Obama’s first visit to the UK couldn’t have been more of a celebration).

Even so, my favourite was the Guardian’s story that it would no longer be available in print but only on Twitter, with every story compressed to 140 characters. This included its 188-year news archive: “JFK assassin8d @ Dallas, def. heard second gunshot from grassy knoll WTF?” The claim that “Currently, 17.8% of all Twitter traffic in the United Kingdom consists of status updates from Stephen Fry” may well not have been a spoof, and the paper gets extra marks for its combination of the Guardian and Twitter into “Gutter” and then with WordPress into “GutterPress”.

Later in the day the Guardian also published a useful round-up of April foolishness (I didn’t spot the upside-down YouTube pages, probably because every time I tried getting on to YT on Wednesday my T-Mobile broadband blocked it with its new content lock feature which I had to unlock by entering my credit card details – quite why YT content is classed as dodgy I don’t know).

My second favourite fool was the BBC’s item on the rising cost of tea, which, being the BBC, was so well done (or just so conservatively done) it was frighteningly plausible. The only other “may actually be true” candidate I spotted was a report on a comparatively obscure website that the Leonard Cohen songs Suzanne and Bird on a Wire were coming soon for the Guitar Hero video game (maybe next year I’ll remember to do a spoof combining the game with my version of Hallelujah and call it Ukulele Hero).

I’m sure there were many more but that’s all I saw. Oh, and apparently over at SA4QE there was something silly about a new dating service for Russell Hoban fans called SA4QrelatE, but I shouldn’t imagine too many people were taken in by it…

Anyone for a Starbucks instant? Not me

Zoe Williams reviews Starbucks’s latest offering, instant coffee, in today’s Grauniad.

The verdict? ‘Not even as nice as Nescafe.’ Which is saying something.

Also, to describe (as Zoe does) Starbucks’s’s’s regular coffee as ‘hot and wet’ is, in my opinion, generous.

I doubt on the strength of that review that I’ll be bothering. Where there’s no real stuff available (and let’s face it, making decent real coffee is expensive and/or messy), for me it has to be Douwe Egberts. (That website incidentally is spooky, featuring a virtual bloke ‘serving’ you from behind a coffee shop counter.) Here’s my recipe for the perfect cup of instant:

1. Put large heaped teaspoon of Douwe Egberts Pure Gold into a mug. Add brown sugar to taste.
2. Boil a kettle and leave it to stand for a few seconds.
3. Pour a little of the hot water into the mug, just enough to cover the coffee and sugar.
4. Swish it round until coffee and sugar are more or less dissolved.
5. Pour in cold milk until the mug is about 2/3 full.
6. Put mug in microwave for 1 min on full power.
7. Top up with more hot water and stir.

That way you get a nice creamy top and good temperature and consistency, and although it’ll never taste quite like the real thing, it does still taste better than a Starbucks 🙂

Posted via email from thoughtcat’s posterous

George Bush – he’s not dead yet, you know

The Guardian Weekend magazine has a questionnaire thing called Q&A; it puts to a different celebrity each week. The questions – some serious, some less so – are always the same, with the exception of the downright cheeky but irresistible ‘How often do you have sex?’, which only sometimes gets answered. (It’s not actually clear whether the interviewees get the choice of answering the question – although of course they can’t exactly be forced to – or the mag only asks it in the first place at its discretion.) Anyway, one of the other questions is ‘Which living person do you most despise?’ Unsurprisingly, most people answer ‘George Bush’, to the point where one reader recently wrote saying the question should be changed to ‘Which living person apart from George Bush do you most despise?’ Last week however, Streets frontman Mike Skinner’s reply was ‘Boris, idiot mayor of London’. Given that Boris Johnson has never, to my knowledge, started a war on a false premise which has seen thousands killed, I thought this a tad harsh, but then that’s the problem – Bush has set the bar so high that to name anyone else (apart perhaps from Tony Blair or the truly disgusting Robert Mugabe, who gets off lightly) just seems ridiculous. This week a reader comments on Skinner’s choice, saying that since Bush’s ‘demise’ last month the respondents to Q&A; are clearly finding they’re having to use their imaginations a bit more. But this reader (not to mention the Weekend letters editor) seems a tad confused, since last I heard, being voted out of office does not rule you out of being a living person, so I feel we can expect George to turn up in Q&A; for some time to come. Then again, Bush never really counted as a fully-alive human being for the whole of his presidency, so maybe not… although of course that would disqualify him from being named by all those Q&A; respondents over the past eight years, so we can’t have that. Anyway, I’ve written to the Guardian Weekend magazine to make my feelings clear.

Posted via email from thoughtcat’s posterous


Further to today’s earlier post (I know, you don’t get one for weeks and then two come along at once!), if I say so myself I seem to be doing quite well on the published-letter front this week, with this pithy comment on this article from last Saturday’s Grauniad. Such a serious subject too – the facetiousness is shocking.

Something else that was funny about both letters was the responses I got after emailing them. Not all papers use an autoreply, but when they do these are fairly boring, just saying basically ‘thanks, do not reply to this, your letter will be considered for publication, goodbye’, so it was curious that the Observer’s one rounded off with the words ‘It was good of you to take the trouble to write’ – which I’m sure is someone’s idea of being nice but does come across as rather weary and not a little patronising. Then again, there are surely worse ways of telling the vast majority of correspondents that their particular bizarre rant hasn’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of appearing anywhere near the paper.

Then, when I sent the Guardian one, an even stranger thing happened. All newspaper letters pages tell you to enclose, in addition to a full postal address, a contact phone number. They publish neither, but I’ve always assumed the latter is required in case they want to print the letter but something ambiguous in it needs clarifying quickly, or they want to edit it and need to check with you(!) that you’re happy with the edited version. Certainly on all the occasions I’ve written to papers none has ever rung me up to say anything at all, even when they do go ahead and publish it, invariably in edited form. So imagine my surprise when, a few minutes after sending the pithy one about sperm donation – the sort of letter, to be fair, one frivolously tosses off with little real expectation that any room will be found for it in such an august organ – my mobile rings and a lady who sounds a bit like a librarian thanks me for it and tells me with not so much as a dirty snigger that ‘we are considering it for publication in tomorrow’s paper’. How very civilised!

I confess that I have since written another (actually serious) letter to the Guardian about something else entirely, although whether I’ll score three in a row remains to be seen (tomorrow or Tuesday, perhaps – watch this space). I haven’t had a phone call, anyway, so maybe they’re on to me. Either way, I won’t go into detail on it just yet as there’s a long story behind it which deserves a post all of its own – regardless of publication in the Grauniad, or indeed any newspaper at all.

Stay sharp

This article from last Sunday’s Observer on razor blade technology caught my eye, as I’m one of those blokes who never seems to get shaving right somehow. I generally feel as if I’ve got a five o’clock shadow the whole day long, which wouldn’t be so bad if I were some hirsute hunk of mediterranean persuasion, but in my case it’s simply because I can never get a very close shave without either using a new blade every time, which would cost a packet, or going so close I’d lacerate myself. Or, more likely, break the razor, not on my steel-strong stubble but against my jaw from over-enthusiastic pressure of the handle. Attempts over the years to grow a proper beard or even some designer bum-fluff leave me looking simply as if I haven’t bothered to shave rather than in any way cool.

The article incidentally covered the issue of grip, Gillette seemingly having an entire department devoted to the way men hold their razor and how this has supposedly changed over the years as new ‘thumb skills’ have crept into everyday behaviour with the advent of texting and gaming. Personally I think this is bollox, along with most of the other stubbly issues discussed such as blade angle, sharpness and inter-blade clog factor which Gillette claims to be researching on an almost 24-hour basis, as if shaving were an emergency service rather than the daily chore it actually is.

Further, in a comment almost worthy of doublespeak, the company maintains that the reason modern blades created with technology to rival NASA’s go blunt so quickly is that they’re just so sharp – more so, supposedly, than a surgeon’s scalpel. Brilliant. My beard may be that bit tougher than it was when I started shaving a couple of decades ago but in those days you could rely on a blade to last at least five shaves, if not six or seven, thus a packet of four would last you a month (your honour). These days a packet of four Titanium Quattro blades (admittedly for a razor by Wilkinson, who mysteriously declined to take part in the Observer feature) costs £5.85 and you’re lucky if you get two decent shaves out of each one. I put my reflections on the risibility of Gillette’s claims in a letter to the Observer, which they have published today (under the heading ‘Sharp practice’). Then again, I suppose you have to hand it to Gillette for adverts which have taken the dullness off the edge of shaving (even if not the razors themselves).

The reason I can rattle off the price of a packet of blades, incidentally, is that a couple of days ago I went out to Sainsbury’s and bought some. I hadn’t bought razor blades from them before and went firstly to the bathroomular accessories section. While this might seem the obvious place to go, a while back my regular supermarket, Waitrose, in an uncharacteristic fit of kowtowing to some new mad health and safety standard, suddenly took all their razor blades off their shelves and replaced them with funny little laminated, emasculated versions of each brand, which you put into your basket in place of the real thing. That really did lack an edge, I thought, but when you got to the till the cashier would ring their bell to summon a colleague who would scurry off to retrieve the real blades. All of this seemed rather a palaver, and clearly Waitrose felt the same way, since a couple of months later the authentic items were back on the shelves again.

Thus I thought, optimistically, that Sainsbury’s and all other supermarkets had probably followed suit; however, they had not, or at least this branch hadn’t. Shaving foam, after-shave and moisturisers were there in front of me, but no blades and not even any laminated bits of card in their place which I might bring to the till. Weirdly, there was no sign saying anything helpful like ‘For safety reasons, razor blades can now be found wherever’ or ‘Please direct all enquiries about the purchase of razor blades to our Razor Blade Manager Mr George Whittle’ or whatever, so I wandered around for a bit, unsure of where I might find them (cleaning products? feminine hygiene? delicatessen?) before spotting them behind a counter with other controlled substances such as cigarettes, spirits, CDs and batteries. There then followed several minutes of toing and froing as a supervisor had to be summoned, not to verify my age (even though the signs ask you to ‘please be flattered if we think you look younger than you are’) but to actually ring the bloody things up properly. I mean, honestly… the youth of today may be up to no good but I can’t seriously see a Gillette Fusion presenting a menace to society. We all know how ‘sharp’ they are.

On love, TV, Ugly Betty and The Apprentice

Today’s Grauniad Weekend magazine publishes a letter – well, some of it – I wrote them about this article from last Saturday, in which their resident marriage counsellor Luisa Dillner advises a reader concerned about the lack of time she’s spending with her boyfriend. Time couples spend watching TV together, asserted Dillner, ‘is passive [i.e. doesn’t count] unless you fight over the remote’. As my letter explains, this runs contrary to my own experience. TV is actually pretty interactive as shared activities go. Whilst this is especially so when you’ve got children and thus no time or energy to do anything more strenuous with your evening than flop on the sofa in front of the box, I found it to be the case even before I started breeding. Then again, when you’re of a writerly persuasion, anything seems pretty interactive after several hours spent staring at a wordprocessor – except for the web, of course. When I say the magazine published ‘some of’ my letter, I mean they cropped the last sentence: ‘The real threat to couple time and interaction these days is the internet – unless you communicate by instant messenger, of course.’ And I speak as a two-PC family.

Anyway, back to TV. Although I haven’t blogged about it (much as I’d’ve like to), in recent months both Mrs Thoughtcat and I have spent many happy hours glued to Ugly Betty and The Apprentice, respectively laughing and raging at the screen together in about equal measure. It is a shared experience and the better for that; your partner sees things you didn’t see, you talk about them, you learn from it; you find common ground; it gives you something to talk about. And given that we spend every evening in front of the TV anyway with our dinner on our laps (actually a far healthier setup than sitting opposite each other at table moaning about our days, or saying nothing at all), you notice when what’s on is actually any good, which in 2007 is rare.

The excellence of these particular two shows have almost restored my faith in terrestrial TV of late. The former is brilliantly written (especially those episodes by the acid-tongued Henry Alonso Myers) and superbly acted, and even if it’s completely frivolous is still weirdly compelling. The Apprentice meanwhile is just plain riveting: despite being fundamentally flawed – every week Sir Alan Sugar opens the show saying ‘This is not a game’, but of course it is, it’s a bloody TV show – the format and structure are plain genius. A 60-minute Shakespearean drama plays out weekly, complete with dramatic arcs everywhere they should be. The prelude: here is your mission, should you choose to accept it! Act 1: the teams set about preparing, with rumblings of controversy! Act 2: the task is carried out – usually badly by at least one if not both teams! Act 3: the teams convene at Sugar HQ, and the winners and losers are announced! Act 4: while the winning team get on with being pampered or going out partying, the losers sit whey-faced for a gripping dressing-down by Sir Al! Act 5: the team leader brings in his chosen scapegoats, the three wrangle to convince us that black is white and, our bums on the edges of our seats, Sugar fires the team leader! Then, finally, the chorus plays us out as this week’s loser is driven away into the horizon and professional oblivion.

Seriously, I’m not saying I revel in watching people get fired, far from it, but when that person is so utterly deserving of it, it really is undeniably satisfying. I would almost have applied for the next series myself if I didn’t think I’d be eaten alive in the board room – not by Sir Alan, he doesn’t scare me at all, but by the other contestants. Those people really would sell their own grandmothers to succeed. (Except for Lohit, who was just too nice to win.) Personally I found the final disappointing – Sugar, confirming everyone’s prejudices about UK business, plumps for Simon, a 12-year-old white male Cambridge graduate with a rich dad and yellow socks, when he could have had tough, independent single mum Kristina. But at least the brilliant Tre nearly made it and that other cow was nowhere to be seen.

*sigh*. The missus and I have no idea what we’re going to do with ourselves on Wednesday and Friday nights from now on. Maybe surf the web and IM each other?

Thoughtcat in Private Eye (again)

Oh, now this is getting embarrassing. After years of having everything I sent them sent back (albeit with their wonderful ‘Sorry, no thanks’ compliments slips), I score two Private Eye submissions in a row with a contribution to their Order of the Brown Nose column of a recent item in the Guardian. There seems to be no online version of it, but every Saturday at the back of the main paper the Grauniad has a ‘Pleased to meet you’ column in which a reader talks about their love for the paper. This is fair enough in itself – newspapers, TV programmes, radio shows, even websites (occasionally) do give people something to hold on to in their lives, and can thus generate Real Love. But this one was nauseating – two flatmates claimed that their own passion for the Grauniad was such that, if there was no food in the house on a Saturday morning but they had £1.40, they would forego breakfast and spend the cash on the paper. I could almost have stomached it if the pair in question had been destitute – I’m a longtime fan of the oriental proverb about buying a lily and a loaf of bread with your last penny – but come on, these are employed, fortunate, middle-class people, for God’s sake! Anyway thanks to this latest display of media desperation (on behalf of both the paper and the readers in this case) I received another cheque for £10 from messrs Pressdram Ltd this week. If I keep on at this rate I’ll be a millionaire in 961 years.

All good pubicity

What is it with typos at the moment? One that seemed too good to be true turned up in the Guardian last Wednesday in a report on a (stupid) survey about ‘guilty reads’: ‘85% of those surveyed admitted to having an author they turn to for sheer gratification, but whom they might not admit to reading in pubic,’ it read (er, my italics). I posted this to an existing thread on typos at YakYak just after I discovered it, keeping a screenshot of the offending article as I did with the Prescott story below as I thought the Grauniad were bound to pick up on it. I even emailed their letters page hilariously pointing out that maybe it was having to read the books ‘in pubic’ that caused the respondents to feel awkward – I mean, the mind boggles, doubly. But they didn’t print the letter and even as I post now the typo still hasn’t been fixed, so we must presumably conclude that it wasn’t actually a typo in the first place.

Seriously, the idea of ‘guilty reads’ irritates me. How arrogant and/or insecure do you have to be to worry about what other people might think of you from the book you’re reading? It reminds me of something a friend once said to me years ago when he was studying English at university, or not long after: ‘I’m reading The Hound of the Baskervilles at the moment, which falls into the category of what I call “good-bad books”.’ I hadn’t been to university (more’s the pity) but even if I had I would still have been annoyed by the categorisation. These people seriously need to get a life. It’s a bit like dancing when you’re not a very good dancer – you spend all your time worrying that the other people on the dancefloor will think you’re making a tit of yourself, when in fact all they’re worried about is whether they look a tit or not. As soon as you realise this, you start dancing properly.

YakYak incidentally, which has received passing mention here before, is a great internet place where I hang out a good deal of the time. It’s principally a video gamers’ forum – I’m not a gamer myself but I was when I was a kid, and YakYak was started by one Jeff ‘Yak’ Minter who was a childhood hero of mine – but its ‘Bleatings’ board is a bit like a pub full of Really Good Blokes (I include women in that) where you can bring up anything, chunter about it and get decent advice. It’s one of the reasons I don’t post here as often as I’d like (i.e. I’m more often posting stuff over there): blog something and although it’s rewarding in itself, most of the time you feel as if you’re talking to an empty room, but post instead to a well-populated discussion board and you get a response more or less straight away. The two ostensibly differ because the board has a limited ‘community’ of readers and posters, whereas a blog is technically open to the whole world. In reality though a blog’s readership is also a community – just a looser, more casual one. Then again, there is a subtle but important difference between a blog post and a forum post – hard to put my finger on exactly but I wouldn’t post this entry, for instance, to YakYak or probably any forum – not because it’s off-topic or deeply personal but because I’m thinking out loud, really, and airing an opinion rather than looking for a response. Which probably answers my own point about empty rooms. I’ll go away now.

Cherie Blairdo, or: Modesty is the best policy

Columnists are falling over each other to declare themselves either for or against Cherie Blair following the news this week that she’s invoicing the Labour Party for her £275-a-day hairdressing bill incurred during last year’s election, which runs to some £8,000 – more than one Labour backbencher spent on his entire 2005 campaign.

“Once you’ve had a £275 hairdo, it’s pretty hard to go back to a £50 one,” protests the Grauniad’s Hannah Pool, who by pure coincidence is the paper’s fashion correspondent. Isn’t this humbuggery at its best? Fifty quid is probably as much as my mum, for instance, has ever spent (or been able to spend) on a hairdo and I doubt I’m the only one who can’t tell the difference between their mum’s locks and Cherie’s.

Meanwhile, in the same paper (or at least, on the same website) Helene Mulholland defends Cherie on the basis that she’s damned if she does get her hair done and damned if she doesn’t, the latter because of her notorious bad hair days, starting with the morning after Labour’s original 1997 landslide when she was filmed opening the door to Number 10 to accept a bunch of flowers from a well-wisher having obviously just got out of bed, complete with a barnet that could have been designed by Salvador Dali.

The reality is that she and her husband were so popular at that time – and, apparently, deservedly so – that everyone loved her for answering the door with surrealist hair. Not even the biggest cynic could have begrudged that to a woman whose life had just changed forever, who’d been up all night celebrating, who had every reason to celebrate, who had just at that moment discovered the reality that she was no longer an ordinary person but now in the constant media glare.

Modesty tends to endear you to people somewhat more than ostentation, and if Cherie had spent a little less money over the years that followed consulting lifestyle gurus and a bit more time on the things that matter, she might instead have found herself taken to the nation’s hearts. This would have enabled her to have a bad hair day every day, saving the Labour Party a fair sum.

The whole story is the perfect metaphor really for the massive affection for (and trust in) New Labour that the government has squandered over the past decade. They could have had it all – instead they screwed us.

Today’s Sunday Times has at least two columns about Cherie’s latest mammon-friendly stunt. India Knight joins the ranks of (apparently exclusively female, and no doubt immaculately-coiffeured) hacks who are kissing Cherie’s bum so fiercely that the Labour Party will soon be in receipt of another Cherie bill, this time for an industrial vat of sore-arse cream.

Rod Liddle however says it all for me: “Aside from betraying the people who raised the money, it’s also betraying the people that Labour purports to represent. I mean, it’s hardly a statement of solidarity with the downtrodden masses, is it. Spending more than six times the (daily) minimum wage on a quick wash ’n’ blow dry pretty much every day for a month might strike some of Labour’s working-class supporters, if there are any left, as a tad extravagant.

“The Labour party is also skint, on the verge of bankruptcy. Poor Peter Kilfoyle MP fulminated when he heard about Cherie’s bill that this was double what he had to spend on his entire election campaign.

“Then there’s the presumption and the double standards. Quite clearly Cherie Blair feels she has every right to expect the Labour party — or someone, anyway, so long as it’s not her — to pick up the hairdressing bill. She seems suffused with a resentment that her various costs are not more frequently borne by the members of her party, or better still the taxpayer.

“She has been known to whinge that she incurs expenses merely through being the prime minister’s wife when, as everybody knows, because we keep being told, she is a Very Real Woman in her own right with an important and intellectually demanding job.

“However, disaffection with life at No 10 is quickly banished when there’s the chance to trouser vast sums on foreign lecture circuits, billed as the wife of Tony Blair. I may be wrong but my guess is that the filthy-rich denizens of Palm Beach’s Everglades club would not have paid £30,000 to hear a speech from some leftie, limey human rights lawyer who had just co-authored a massive — and massively boring — book on tort. As visiting attractions go, it’s hardly Jackie Mason, is it. They forked out because they thought she was Britain’s first lady.”