Stet by Ria Bacon

Monday, January 31, 2005

She abjures blog explosion

At last I put off blog ranking,
For twice ten weeks
The daysman of my thought,
And hope, and doing;
Being ashamed thereof,
And faint of seeks
And minutes viewing, wrought
In its pursuing.*

*With apologies to Thomas Hardy

Where's the "any" key?

Back to work. Dressed for an arctic expedition, ready for the sub-zero temperature of my office. R2OB1 is sitting opposite me swathed in her scarf and pashmina, going for the Peruvian Sherpa look.
Power on
Keyboard failure
Press F1 to continue

Maybe I just need some coffee ...

Friday, January 28, 2005

Make Poverty History

Fighting chronic compassion fatigue
I can already hear the groaning through the modems, "Not another campaign for Africa!", "We've already done Africa!" or even "Why bother?" Fair question when you consider that despite continuous aid, life in African countries is getting worse. Is there a hole in the bucket? Nope. The first problem is debt relief. At the end of year gathering of the Jubilee 2000 coalition in London, Nigerian campaigner Skidd Ikemefuna gave a simple example,
Human slavery may be over but economic slavery is certainly not over. Check this out! Nigeria borrowed $7 billion and as for today has repaid $15 billion and now owes $30 billion. What is this, if not economic slavery?
The aid money is used to pay back interest on loans. So the lending governments and financial institutions actually manage to make aid a profit-generating activity. Nice work if you can get it. And to think that usury used to be a crime.

A lot was made of the successes of Jubilee 2000, but I think its biggest achievement was making more people aware of the problems faced by developing countries. Since then, there have been more promises of debt relief and more talk of new 'new' initiatives for Africa, the latest led by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (=UK Finance Minister). All well and good and I applaud his vision, but then in my case he's preaching to the converted.

So who does he need to reach? How about all the bloggers out there who complain about corruption in the developing world, standing on your own feet, America first, capitalism is the only system that works, bleeding hearts, suck it up, etc. etc. etc. Many of them appear to be sports fans, so how about this? Let's play one-on-one. I start with 30 million points. You're at minus 60 million from all the previous games our grandparents and parents played. Your hoop is at knee height and 3 metres wide. My hoop is on the ceiling 20 metres up and is covered with a perspex shield. Ready?

It isn't the raving nationalism that gets me, it's the hypocrisy. You want free trade? Ok, but make it fair trade and cut the massive export subsidies used in rich countries. See more details here. Go on, DuWayne, it's a Christian site! The point is that with trade justice, nobody's asking you to pay more, just set the rules so everyone can play.

The worst that can happen is that there's a potentially high risk of hearing Bono trying to say something deeply heartfelt and like really meaningful, y'know what I'm sayin'?

Thanks to Gordon for putting me on to Make Poverty History. See? It works! Spread the word...

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Snow and Mosquitoes??

Imagine the scene. A small child sleeping fitfully under crumpled bedclothes. Silence. Zoom in to a head shot. High-pitched whine fades in and out. Child listlessly swats the air without waking. Another high-pitched whine, which stops abruptly. Pull back. Silence. Zoom in for close head shot to see a mosquito feeding on the child's cheek.
Woke up this morning to see a light dusting of snow on the rooftops. Right by the window frame was a mosquito. I splatted it. So even in zero-degree temperatures we still have mosquitoes. I had come to expect them during the hot months but this year we've been killing mosquitoes almost every day. There are regular public awareness campaigns here in Rome, warning people not to create breeding places for mosquitoes by leaving any standing water outside. Well, it's not working this year, that's for sure. Even when we were away for almost two weeks at Xmas, they were waiting for us on our return. I guess they'd gorged their bellies before we left and lived off the reserves.

I really hate mosquitoes. They're one of the proofs that God doesn't exist or else that s/he just doesn't care that much. Maybe it's from having lived in malarial zones where their bite can lead to far worse than itching. Still, the idea of a parasite sucking your blood is repulsive to anyone, I'm sure. And guess what? Only the females have the long thin proboscis needed to bite. Males have small mouth parts and live off plant nectar. Aww, sweeties.

Mosquitoes have been around for some 30 million years and have had time to develop their hunting and feeding skills to a science-fiction level of precision. They can track you down with chemical, visual or heat sensors (I'm seeing Predator here) and when the female sticks her proboscis in your skin, her saliva functions as a local anaesthetic and contains an anticoagulant to keep the blood flowing freely until her belly is full (I'm seeing .... Aliens?). However, the saliva is also the means by which malaria is transmitted, a disease responsible for over a million deaths a year.

Don't shoot the messenger
As repulsive as mosquitoes, sorry, female mosquitoes are, they are only the carriers of the parasite that causes malaria. (Ha! Maybe God does have a sense of justice.) The real cause is the protozoa plasmodium, that is a single-celled "animal" with no organs. Imagine that? Eating, digesting and expelling without any innards. Sounds pretty messy to me. Once you've been bitten by an infected Anopheles mosquito, the plasmodium heads for your liver and starts rooting around, replicating and infecting. You won't know until the chills and fevers come on. "If left untreated", I was warned, "the infection may eventually cause convulsions, coma, permanent neurological damage, and/or death." That "and/or" suggests you have a choice. You don't.

So what to do? The cheapest and most effective preventative is a chemically-treated mosquito net over your bed ... and DDT sprayed on the housewalls. Yet people we worked with in West Africa could not be convinced that mosquitoes were the source of malaria. There was a kind of fatalism about infection and many shrugged off malarial attacks just as we do the 'flu. Popular opinion was that malaria was caused by too much exposure to the sun or the results of heavy rainfall. What can we say? Even the etymology reveals European ignorance: mal aria, bad air. It was only a little over 100 years ago that the real cause was discovered.

Brrr! Now we're scratching and shivering.

Mosquito in the snow

P.S. You may not like Microsoft but you've got to admire Bill's generosity (1, 2).

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

And you think YOU'VE got no one to talk to?

I attended a ceremony this morning with five language simultaneous interpreting. It was fun switching from one language to another, although I missed the punchline to the only joke of the day because I was on the Mandarin channel. I wonder if the interpreters are chosen for the quality of their voice - all five this morning had really warm voices. Another thing that I noticed was the lack of any umming and erring. It's not natural but it does sound very professional.

Do you know what the "big 5" UN languages are? I hear all of them every day, and quite a few others too. Yet when I start surfing for fun or research, English is so omnipresent that other language websites rarely come up without specific searching.

According to Mark Abley , English is "the Wal-Mart of languages: convenient, huge, hard to avoid, superficially friendly, and devouring all rivals in its eagerness to expand."

Out of the 6 800 living languages spoken in the world, most will have disappeared by the turn of the century. The BBC article romanticized Abley's research in Australia:

Somewhere on the remote Timor Sea coast of north Australia lives Patrick Nudjulu, one of three remaining speakers of Mati Ke.

It is problem enough that one of the other speakers doesn't live nearby and speaks a slightly different dialect. But the 60-year-old Aborigine also has to cope with the fact the other speaker is his sister - who traditional culture has forbidden him from speaking to since puberty.

It's a tragi-comic image: a grumpy old man crouching on a rocky windswept shore, mumbling to himself in a language no one else understands, "and mother always liked you more".

Strangely, Mati Ke is not listed by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), although there are plenty of other languages where only one single speaker remains. It seems a little insensitive when they write "One speaker. Elderly. Nearly extinct". But I guess they're referring to the language, not the speaker.

In the SIL FAQs they don't mention that their main activity is Bible translation, working together with Wycliffe International. I worked with SIL in Papua New Guinea when I was 19. For me it was a great way to visit remote villages and meet people so far removed from my own life experience. It didn't take me long to realize, however, that the angst-ridden Finnish missionary I was accompanying was far stranger than the locals. He would squat for hours in the timber frame of the half-built house in which he and his family would live for the next 20 years, rocking on his heels, clasping his hands and praying with the missionary right stuff: zeal. He reckoned it would take 20 years to complete his mission: to translate the Bible into the local language, even then only spoken by a few hundred people.

[more on this another time ...]

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Brazilian Orgasmatron and why I hate Enya

Saturday morning found me at the beauty parlour for a facial. While I was waiting at the reception, I noticed a big banana-yellow sarcophagus standing upright in an alcove. It looked new and shiny, with Brazil! written above a picture of a topless Brazilian carnival dancer (that's not going to harm my google ranking, is it?). Concetta, the boss, explained that it was a "golden shower" (maybe not in English, Concetta) for an all-over sun-free tan. Apparently it's the thing for those who care about tanning (see FAQs here; helpfully plagiarized here).

What struck me was the tanning booth's close resemblance to Woody Allen's infamous orgasmatron. Perhaps it has a dual setting...

Enough... my facial.

Arriva la tortura!

I think there comes a point where you think that never should so much attention be paid to your face. It just seems so excessively obsessive. It also seems to operate like some kind of punish/reward mechanism: first cool creams, then scalding vapour; first excruciating squeezing, then a soothing massage. The massage seemed to be a Sisyphean struggle, fighting against the inevitable, smoothing away wrinkles on my forehead and flooping the loose skin upwards. Give it up, girl: gravity gets us all in the end.

E fini la tortura!
Well she may have stopped squeezing at this point but I was still suffering from exposure to Enya. Why do I hate this music? Where to begin? The slurpy strings, the numbing predictable tweeness of the Oirishness, her voice - whiney, tremulous, waif-like frailty, faux sincere, faux hesitancy, it's all so false! Devoid of any soul. Where's the rousing spirit of the Chieftains or the purity of Sandy Denny?

The production is just awful. It's as if on their mixer, in the place of a quantize button, there's a big beige button marked "blandize". They kept pressing it until every trace of human feeling had been wiped out. And that's how I felt after an hour of listening to Enya.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

New word ©

I read a blog a few days ago where a mother was astounded by the reality of her baby growing up . She had signed her daughter up for nursery or gym class (I don't remember exactly) to start when she was nine months old. "I can't believe she will ever be nine months", the mother wailed. Oh yeah, been there...

... which reminded me of a neologism I coined five years ago when my daughter was a baby: pregret. My definition is the feeling of anticipated nostalgia in the future. E.g. Parent to baby, "I'm going to miss how you were when you were a baby."

I've submitted it to Langmaker and hope to hear it in use before the end of the month.

How about you? Is there anything you pregret?


Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Rain at last

At midnight there was a single low growl of thunder and the rain began to fall, absorbing the cloud of pollution that's been hanging over Rome for the past ten days. It also reduced the incredibly high level of static electricity in the air. Every time we got out of the car recently, our hair was standing on end as if we'd been clasping a van der Graaf generator.

The down side is that rain in Rome is as bad for traffic as snow is in London or Paris. Crosstown traffic slows to gridlock because people act as if they're driving in a completely different environment. This is particularly true in Italy where people treat their cars like their shoes, swinging out into oncoming traffic just to avoid a puddle by the roadside.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Life's too short to stuff a mushroom

Shirley Conran's epigraph to Superwoman is as true today as it was 30 years ago. Here's the high and low points of my day.

Woken by small boy. Freddo, mama. I'm bibbering. Stripped him off and showered him down. Stripped bed and loaded wash #1. Dressed both kids. Made their breakfast. Made their school lunch. Brought tea to Mr B. Hung up wash #1. Put in wash #2. Saw kids and Mr B off to school. Take out wash #2. Set wash #3 on timer.
Go to bank. Queue for 20 minutes at the "rush counter" (sic). Withdraw 800 Euros.
Go to post office. Queue for 30 minutes. Pay utility bills totalling 799 Euros. "Result happiness", said Mr Micawber.
Pick up kids. Shiver in playground then go home.
Cook, put away washes #1 and #2, hang up wash #3, have dinner, bathe kids, put kids to bed, clean kitchen, empty and reload dishwasher.
Set up wireless home network with no manual.
To bed, having reconfigured both desktop and laptop to the point where neither computer will acknowledge the other nor connect to the Internet.
Toss and turn, tormented by dreams of being automatically assigned a stable IP address in my neighbourhood network but being chased by an ad hoc set up with a default SSID.

I'd rather stuff a mushroom...

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Rome: closed city

Appearances can be deceptive: that blue sky turns hazy at midday, with lovely orange-pink sunsets around six. All thanks to the incredibly high levels of traffic pollution. People have been complaining of sore throats and itchy eyes and now we know why. In The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones claims that Italy has the highest number of cars per capita in the world. I find that hard to believe when I think of the omnipresence of cars in the US. Still, there are too many cars here in Rome. Last week, the city council reintroduced a system of partial restrictions, allowing alternate odd/even licence plated cars each Thursday during rush hours. The stats from the first day showed around 14% fewer cars than normal. However, this was obviously not enough to combat the current spell of pollution as a total ban was imposed on Sunday.

There we were, happily driving round southern Rome to the Cinecittà 2 shopping mall, blithely unaware of the ban until I glimpsed an electronic message sign just before we arrived. something something traffico bloccato blah blah 15:00. "We better hurry up and get home before 3", I thought. No, explained the Benetton shop assistant, the ban is until 3. Oops...

We were lucky not to have been one of the thousand people fined yesterday. And we haven't paid our road tax yet (eeek!).

Continuing the old political philosophy of keeping the plebs happy with circuses, the council allowed football fans to drive to the stadium, as long as they could show their tickets for the match.

P.S. The city council is setting up a servizio di carpooling, but judging by the dead links and non-existent pdf files on the site, I guess it's gonna be a long time coming. Step 1: preliminary discussions on perks for committee members (council family members inclusive) ...

(Another) Perfect Day

I open the windows, throw open the shutters and groan,
"Not another fucking perfect morning!"
Morning in Rome
Winter is so much easier in Rome than in northern Europe. Ahhh ... fresh cornetti and a doppio espresso and then I'm ready for anything, or at least a trip to the supermarket with two unwilling children. I only managed to persuade them to come by saying I needed their help to get the ingredients (chocolate!) to make brownies for my birthday celebration this afternoon.

They love cooking with me. When they first started, I instructed them that the first thing to do was to choose the music. So now we boogie round the kitchen in our matching aprons while we cook pancakes or pasta together.

Today, we cooked to
Onda Sonora: Red Hot & Lisbon.
Onda Sonora
We skipped the fados and boogied to Bonga Angola.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

"Abu Bert" avatar controversy

I've got to give it to invadesoda, he's got a gift for provocation. This title is how he presented our "frank and open exchange of views" on BloggerForum where the unprecedented outcry of shock and fury exploded across the Internet (how'm I doin', invadesoda?). All credit to him though, as he posted the full exchange on his blog.

Whoring's too good for you

With the huge rush of interest in automatic blog referrals, I've seen lots of comments about becoming addicted to BlogExplosion, BlogClicker & Co. And I have to admit I got sucked in too. But I rarely do more than glance at each blog, just get on with something else while waiting to move on to the next site. The same thing happens with my "visitors", judging from the stats. I feel a bit of an idiot, waiting to click the fish, hat or car, as if we're actually being used as part of a global psychology experiment. I'm sure there are other test groups made up of rats, pigeons and monkeys. They get a peanut each time they wait and click the right image - I get a "mystery prize" of five more credits. Who's the smart one?

Another comment that's doing the rounds is, "I'm such a blog whore!" That's giving whoring a bad name. At least there there's more discrimination on each side. But maybe I'm wrong...

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Commercial overload

Try and do some research these days on google and chances are you'll have to click through pages of sites trying to sell you anything contained in your search string, like
african animal trypanosomiasis
for less at eBay!
All right, that particular example is an exaggeration; real scientific research is amazingly easy to do, in fact. I can track down articles published in an Indian journal by simply copy/pasting a line of text. So I can't complain about that.

Anything that can be sold, however, is a different matter. For example, I wanted to find out more about Milton Banana, the Brazilian drummer who set the standard for the bossa nova rhythm and the samba nova crowd. I was listening to Thievery Corporation last night and realized how repetitive their bossa loop was. Milton Banana's own drumming is an ever-changing mix of subtle drum and cymbal; no two bars are exactly the same, as if he's part of a mathematically-generated random rhythm program. But he's not. He's simply a human musical genius.

Back to googling for more info.: you try it, try and find something about Milton Banana that is on a non-commercial website. I also wanted to put a link to samba nova, to give more information, but guess what? There is a perfume with the same name. I get the feeling that, in a similar way that words and phrases are copyrighted and trademarked (e.g. I'm lovin' it), what was a means of learning new things has become another means of selling stuff. As if buying has taken the place of thinking. Perhaps this should be a new definition of our species, homo emptoris.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Of all the gym joints in all the towns in all the world

Ooof! Just back from the gym, my first visit for three weeks and it shows. I only managed to do half of my regular programme, custom designed by Leonardo, my personal trainer [pfff]. I made sure not to overdo it since I know what that's like. When I started last year, I couldn't bend my arms for a whole weekend. Oh yes, everyone had a good laugh at me trying to put my jacket on with straight arms. But who's laughing now, flabbies?

I was alone in the gym today, apart from Leonardo, who was busy updating his personal organizer. Not even Paulo the Poser was there. You certainly couldn't miss him as he strides into the gym in his itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny black lycra shorts and tight black T-shirt. Big desert boots with hiking socks and a black skullcap make up the rest of his outfit. He's very friendly but always clears the benchpress immediately so that he can load up the bar with the biggest-looking weights and push it up and down ten times. Then he's off again for a chat with the receptionist. I swear, I've never seen him do any other exercise.

I was also uninspired by the music on the radio, The Commodores' Three Times A Lady. Beuuch! How are you supposed to break a sweat with that on? It took me back to another gym in another town, Abidjan, in the Piramide building in Plateau. The gym was in the basement, without windows and only dimly lit by fluorescent bars. It was well-equipped though and a popular place for the under-employed youth to hang out. Some of them must have spent a LOT of time there, judging by their huge pumped-up bodies. But what they loved above all was an old cassette with Whitney Houston singing that song from Bodyguard . They would all stop pumping and grunting and sing in franglais falsetto,
end aiiiiieeaiiiieeaiiii weel olwez luuuuv yeeww!

Born Slippy

Perhaps this Underworld title is a better description of Silvio Berlusconi's true nature, rather than the love songs that he wrote in 2003. Example from Col cuore in gola:
With my heart in my mouth
Because your love is everything to me
I know you may make me suffer
But I'll never let you go
Even if I have to fight
I will love you until the end.
(Note the persecution complex; more below)

Another more appropriate song might be one of my children's favourites from nursery,
Slippery fish, slippery fish,
Splashing in the water.

At which point I come to the reason for this post. I see that in eight out of the twelve trials in which Berlusconi has been directly accused, the statute of limitations expired before the final sentence was due.

For what it's worth, the short cavalier (trivia note: he collects statues of Napoleon) climbed 15 places to number 30 in Forbes' list of the world's richest people in 2004 . Forbes allows you to "track this person"; another example of new technology leading to irrelevance. Why would I want to track Berlusconi's ranking among the world's richest people? Just because we can do it doesn't mean we should.

Slippery fish, slippery fish,
OH NO! he was eaten by a octopus!


Monday, January 10, 2005

Television rots your brain

The truth is out. Patrick Le Lay, the head of French channel TF1, one of the largest television channels in Europe, describes how the job of TF1 is to sell stuff. It's a commercial channel, so that's Ok. But what about the viewer?
Nos émissions ont pour vocation de le rendre disponible : c'est-à-dire de
le divertir, de le détendre pour le préparer entre deux messages. Ce que nous
vendons à Coca-Cola, c'est du temps de cerveau humain disponible.
(Source: Télérama)
So there you have it. The role of TV is to soften up your brain for those cute and clever ads. In Italy, of course, even the ads suck. And all the money goes to Berlusconi anyway, owner of four-fifths of Italy (his brother owns the rest).


10 000 prostitutes

Have to take the movies back to the co-op, Monsieur Hire and Dogville. Didn't watch either of them. I can't seem to get engaged by films these days. Once the kids are in bed and we've cleaned up, I prefer either to do something creative, like make music or twiddle on the computer, or just unwind with a glass of wine and a bath. A movie is neither demanding enough nor relaxing enough. "Get something like Godzilla next time," Mr B. suggested. Maybe he's right.

It's not all our fault, though. I mean Monsieur Hire is a miserable attempt to garner sympathy for a peeping tom, because in French that's not as dirty as in English (?). It was written by Georges Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, a man who boasted of having "had" 10 000 women, almost all prostitutes. He told his wife, "You were born the day I met you."

Y a plus rien à dire !

And Dogville? The acting is as wooden as the scenery. Even my beloved Lauren Bacall is hopeless, disclaiming her lines as if she were Lady Macbeth.

Song of Choice

Thinking about the subject of Saturday's post, a song came to mind, Song of Choice. It recounts a warning to those who choose to ignore the rise of fascism, that you should keep your eyes open to the first signs of danger.

In January you've still got the choice
You can cut the weeds before they start to bud
If you leave them to grow high they'll silence your voice
And in December you may pay with your blood

So close your eyes, stop your ears,
Shut your mouth and take it slow
Let others take the lead and you bring up the rear
And later you can say you didn't know.

I heard the song originally by Dick Gaughan, an excellent Scottish folk singer; however, I see on his website that it was in fact written by Peggy Seeger. It is perhaps a sign of the timelessness of the words that made me think it had been written by Gaughan in the 1980s. Then seeing the name Seeger made me think of the first folk revival of the 1950s, but I was wrong again. It seems to have first been released by Peggy Seeger as a B-side single in 1977. Peggy's own website doesn't give any more details than that. Nevertheless, its call to attack intolerance whenever it shows itself is as valid today as it ever was.


Tsunami photos: before & after

Images to make you gasp at the extent of the destruction, particularly those of Banda Aceh.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Allah knows best

When I picked up my paper this morning, my eye was drawn to the headline, "The tsunami was the will of God. Allah knows best", attributed to "Muslim leader". Inside, the paper quoted a range of religious leaders' reactions to the tsunami, all of whom described the event in fatalistic terms. Iqbal Sacranie's comments were more considerate and constructive than the Buddhist representative's:
What might have precipitated the tsunami was a lot of people coming together who had the karma for a short life and, to an extent, this is perhaps a reflection that these areas were over-populated.
By highlighting the Muslim leader's comments, the paper was exploiting the latent islamophobia that has grown over the last few years. It may be a good way to attract the reader (it worked for me), but it is the little digs such as this that lead to prejudice becoming culturally accepted.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Friend of Dorothy

Just passed a couple strolling along Circo Massimo, each with a telefonino clamped to their ear. It made me wonder why they weren't with the person on the other end of the "line" rather than with the person next to them. The mid-30s guy was probably talking to his mother, "Mamma, listen, I know you've made my favourite dessert but there's this great new shoe store just opened in Testaccio and a few of the guys from the gym are meeting up there after work ..." Anywhere else and he'd be labelled a friend of Dorothy; in Italy he's just a regular Giovanni.

Padre Pio ©®$™@$

When I visit other offices here at work, it's surprising how many people have religious pictures around them. Some are large-sized prints of a demure Mary and child floating in the stars with bright beams of light radiating from their edges. Back-lighting always does wonders for a woman, I think.

The most common image, however, is of Padre Pio. He's everywhere in Italy and in every form. Even Italian lorry drivers are ditching topless pin-ups for more spiritual reminders of the afterlife. Perhaps a wise idea when you consider driving habits in Italy.

The Vatican marketing department has obviously taken a leaf out of Disney's "brand everything" philosophy, so that you can collect Padre Pio stickers, babybottle holders, plastic cups, scratch 'n' sniff cards. Ok, I made that last one up, but the range of products at my corner kiosk is a lot more than the traditional books and videos on offer at Catholicshopper. I guess the Vatican needs to crank up the money-making machine to pay for their recent legal costs in California.

I'm not going to tell the story of Padre Pio: see here for a pro account and here for the sceptic's view. For my own part, I waver between fascination at what is a wonderful anthropological example of a belief system in full force, and head-shaking pity for the obvious exploitation of people's fears and credulity.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

La Befana

Today is Twelfth Night, also known as Epiphany, the day when the wise men are believed to have visited Jesus. In Italy, it is the most important day for children because it means yet more presents, this time from La Befana, a witch, or to give her a more honest description, a post-menopausal woman with a hang-up about housework.

Excited children leave notes by the chimney with their wishlist for the Befana. The next morning the good ones get what they asked for (as long as it wasn't the Barbie laptop, 80+ Euros), while the bad ones get a lump of coal. These days even the coal is usually made out of sugar, so everyone's a winner.

The legend of the Befana goes back to the wise men. In a rare historically documented example of men asking for directions, the wise men stopped at the Befana's house on their search for Jesus. (Come to think of it, given that they turned up 12 days after the event, they must have wandered around for ages before finally admitting they were lost.) The wise men asked the old woman to join them on their quest, but she refused, saying she had too much housework. And so began the myth of the obsessive-compulsive post-menopausal woman. She later changed her mind, but the wise men were long gone. Realizing she might have missed out on something big, she ran round giving presents to every child, just in case it (surely only boys?) was the Christ child.

Hmmm, a pretty flimsy tale if you ask me. Fabrisia has more on the story, particularly the pagan origins, which seem a lot more plausible and woman-friendly. Fabrisia has received many awards for her site, including the Pagan Order of Merit. Unfortunately she hasn't taken note of the Crap Midi Files Award for Intensely Annoying Websites. Aaagh! Where's the STOP button!!

To finish the story on the home front, we didn't celebrate Befana, since we'd already had Sinterklaas on December 5 (Dutch tradition), a birthday on the same day and then a double Christmas with each set of grandparents. Basta!

Spine design

My kids wanted to watch Peter Pan after lunch today and turned out most of the cupboard trying to find the cassette. While we were putting them back I noticed that video cassette covers followed the convention of books, that is, the spine text in English and Dutch goes from top to bottom, whereas in French, Italian and Spanish the text direction is from bottom to top. This is why I separate language groups on my bookshelves so as to avoid cricking my neck when reading the spine text, swinging my head from the right to the left side. Chinese and Japanese are easier on the neck muscles, reading straight down.

The only mention of this phenomenon that I could find was inaccurate, stating that the difference in orientation was between North America and Europe. That's clearly not the case, as my kids' video collection shows. Most other hits on the subject were about technical book binding instructions. I'd be curious to know about the text direction in other languages.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Toga party (cost: five million pounds)

In his latest article, Jonathan Freedland takes corporations to task for their miserly donations to the tsunami relief initiative. At first I thought it was a little tasteless to criticize what are, after all, good deeds in a crisis, but then I did the maths. According to Freedland,

Vodafone announced it would be giving £1m and matching all staff donations. A million pounds is a lot of money to you and me, but not to Vodafone, to which it is pocket change. The company's annual profit, registered last May, was £10bn. [...] Put another way, Vodafone has given a mere one tenthousandth of its annual profit. (Not its total revenue, mind, which would be a larger figure, just its profit.) Think of your own annual income, after you've paid off all your expenses.

Just basing the calculation on my take-home pay, without deducting my living expenses, would result in a few cents/pence. It really puts into perspective the stinginess of Vodafone and other corporations.

As if that wasn't enough, Freedland mentions Philip Green's 50th birthday party, which cost five million pounds. Five million pounds?! I thought Roman Emperors were excessive, but then they did rule a third of the globe. Philip Green is head of British Home Stores, for God's sake (that's like Wal-mart without style). I imagined Green as Nero, an exemplar in excess, when by googleous serendipity I came across more details of the party:

Three days of partying, costing £5m, reached a climax with a toga party where Mr Green dressed as Nero and Tom Jones and Rod Stewart provided live entertainment.

Now that's real class, eh? Like Onassis' bar stool coverings made from whales' foreskins.

A Roman panorama

View from the lunch table
Shortly before Xmas, a webcam was installed on top of our building, ostensibly as part of a weather monitoring programme. However, I've become addicted to tracking the changes in the sky, watching the hot air balloon rise and fall over Villa Borghese. The satellite feed of global weather movements from the Naval Research Laboratory in California is even more impressive. Unfortunately for you, our webcam seems to be available only on our intranet and I don't want to infringe any copyright by posting snapshots of the feed, so instead I'm posting an excellent photo by a friend here at work*. It shows the edge of the Aventine, St Peter's in the distance, the synagogue, Circo Massimo, the Palatine, the Colosseum and finally Villa Celimontana and gardens. This is our view when lunching on the terrace.
* The original photo is 1.03 Mb, with incredible detail.

My favourite words

The British Council, another of my many former employers, has published the results of a survey of the world's favourite words in English. While I was cooking last night, I started thinking about my own favourite words. Cooking has some nice ones, for example spatchcock, which would be a good name for a brutal henchman, I think. In my cooking last night I had to blanche the endives, rather a good name for a southern belle skit: Blanche Endive burped loudly as she placed the empty gin bottle on Bud's nightstand.

Kith and scud are also great-sounding words. And who can deny Scunthorpe?

Blog in the shape of a pear

"Ria, Ria, Ria," sighs my Blog Optimizing Business adviser, Bob. "You've got to have more focus, darling. Content focus is the key to a cross-pollination of creative properties in multiple media formats. What? More people will read it, darling."

Well I prefer Erik Satie's approach. Keep it short and humorous. If you want focus, buy a telescope.


I am with you all ways

The creator of these pictures explains how he was inspired to start:

I was awakened in the middle of the night with a clear, vivid impression that the Lord wanted me to do some special drawings -- drawings depicting ordinary people in their everyday environment . . . . with one important addition: the presence of Jesus Christ and His involvement in those routine activities.

Now I admit I really loved the pictures, as in laughing out loud, but then I'm an unrepentant atheist who's going to suffer the agony of eternal damnation ...

In the meantime, I thought of giving the pictures captions. I'll start. In the bank teller picture, Jesus is saying, "That's it. Nice and easy. Keep your hands where I can see them and no one will get hurt."


Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Another winner

The inspirational Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest plunges new heights with a superb opening line from Dave Zobel:
She resolved to end the love affair with Ramon tonight . . . summarily, like Martha Stewart ripping the sand vein out of a shrimp's tail . . . though the term "love affair" now struck her as a ridiculous euphemism . . . not unlike "sand vein," which is after all an intestine, not a vein . . . and that tarry substance inside certainly isn't sand . . . and that brought her back to Ramon.
The winner of the Detective category, Joe Polvino, also came up with a beauty:
Detective Micky Blarke arrived on the scene at 2:14 am, and gave his cigarette such a severe pull that rookie Paul Simmons swore the insides of the detective's cheeks touched, but the judge indicated that that amount of detail was not necessary in his testimony, and instructed the jury to disregard that statement.
Ahhh ... Such unadulterated talent makes one's heart consume itself in sclerotic envy, like when Ginny Armstrong was the first in our class to have a Katie KopyKat doll. And she got the first breasts too! Life's so unfair ... she sniffled elliptically.


Don't dooce me

The BBC just picked up on this term, meaning, "losing your job for something you wrote in your online blog, journal, website, etc." The definition comes from and is dated 26 Feb. 2004, but the term's been around a lot longer. An excellent account of being dooced is on I've added one or two other links (see right) to work-related blogs.

Gordon bust a wee gasket yesterday about another BBC article that played down the significance of blogging. It's perhaps difficult to maintain a sense of perspective when ABC News calls bloggers "People of the Year". Yet the truth is that the most common working instrument in the world is more likely to be a hoe and not a keyboard. (In case you forgot, a hoe is used for digging the ground, not for polishing your bling bling.)

As I commented on Gordon's post, very wisely I might add, "when the wind is whistling round your ankles, which would you consider the greatest innovation: indoor plumbing or the Internet?"

For now we see through a glass, darkly

First day back in the office, keyboard failure and 17 °C, so I spent the first hour in my coat fiddling with the cables running under my desk. Maintenance has been busy over Xmas and I now have a shatter-proof screen on my window. You might imagine that they would have cleaned the window before applying the film, but no, they stuck it straight on top of years and years of grime. This means of course that the window can never be cleaned! Can you believe it? Not that it has been cleaned for a very long time. The reason is that two years ago, a group of secretaries pestered the maintenance service until they sent someone to clean their windows. He fell off the ledge and died. Since then no one dares make another request.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Golden Bull winners

The Plain English Campaign recently announced the winners of the Golden Bull awards, given for the worst examples of gobbledygook. My favourite is by TriMedia for a press statement by CEO Chris Schwartz about a partnership to promote Captain Scarlet.

The combination of Gerry Anderson's creativity and state-of-the-art high-definition animated production and production facilities, Sony's global strength in providing a one-stop global solution to develop Captain Scarlet product iterations across all media platforms, ability to define and launch a business management strategy leveraging Sony's market strength in each category and our ability at TriMedia to converge the film and music worlds independently with vertical and street marketing expertise will prove to be of great benefit for all involved. I believe that a cross-pollination of creative properties in multiple media formats with a vertical market approach allows companies to maximize the return for their investment in creative properties and talents and will prove to be the economic engine for our industry in the future.

It's just a doll, fer crissakes!*

The Plain English people have a gobbledygook generator that could come in handy for all you young thrusting executives out there. My favourite contribution to our meetings is to nod thoughtfully at someone's suggestion and say, "but isn't this just the tip of the iceberg?"

One last gem from the Plain English site, from a document for a bricklaying NVQ (National Vocational Qualification), describing the act of laying a brick in a wall:
... to install a component into the structural fabric.

*[sniff] It's only because I was never allowed to watch ITV (commercial channel), only Blue Peter on the BBC.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Happy New Year? Non me ne frega niente!!

Without ever having been a good girl scout (Baden Powell's Scouting for Boys put me off forever), I had been prepared for our return from our Xmas break. The fridge had pancetta, yoghurts, and sausages for the kids. Unfortunately, I had unplugged the fridge...

So there we were on New Year's Eve, my best laid plans gang aft agley, and almost every shop and restaurant closed by six. We popped round the corner to Di Pietro's, thinking to eat in there but they were already winding down and only offering what was on display for take-away. Shortly after I'd made my order, the boss came out to greet me. He insisted I wait for the new suppli and fish in batter (I forget their name); that was ever a mistake as it took forty effing minutes! While waiting, I was treated to an early evening display of fireworks, metaphorically speaking, as the boss exploded and shouted down the phone to a customer, "Happy new year? I couldn't give a fuck!! You ordered two trays of lasagne so you're bloody well paying for it!"; to a waiter, "Why the hell were you away so long? Clear up that goddamn mess back there!"; to the guy who served me, "What do you think you're doing, giving her the chicken cacciatore? Don't you know her kid can't have that? Mother of God! Get some plain roast chicken out here now!"

This last was for my benefit. When il patrone had stormed off, the poor waiter actually apologized to me for making the mistake. The way the guy treats staff you'd think they'd want to stab him in his bed. Yet they were back at work the next morning, New Year's Day, business as usual.