The Snow In The Summer or So-So


Fri 01 Dec 2006

Who wants to be in Amorica?

The FARCE has unveiled its new citizenship test, which will ask questions about the structure and process of democracy, FARCE-style. Example questions and model answers follow:

In all seriousness, we wonder how many existing residents of the failed colonies could pass the test without further revision. Anyway, here's Het Grauniad on UK-FARCE ties.

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posted 01 Dec 2006, 19.28 +0000

Mon 04 Dec 2006

Education (not) for hire

Aston University has told the NUS: get stuffed. The organisation, based in north Birmingham, has decided that it can do better things with its £23,500 annual membership fee. During the vote - which split 55-45 against continuing membership - the national squad bussed in a coach-load of staff to flog the benefits to the students. They may as well sent a John Major-o-gram, who would just have turned up, spent ten minutes in the corner, and left. Aston will join Edinburgh, St Andrews, Dundee, Southampton, Sunderland, and Glasgow as entire universities outside the NUS. Imperial London, long-time refusniks, voted last month to return, while UMIST rejoined following its merger into Manchester Uni. The NUS has consistently refused to accept the Open University, claiming (with some validity) that this would make the institution by far the largest. We note that neither the NUS nor University Challenge wants to be associated with Open, and wonder which will blink first.

And now for something completely different. From the letters page of to-day's Indytab:

Previous correspondence has referred to Mark Hucknall's grading of sudoku puzzles as being somewhat arbitrary, but on Saturday (2 December) he excelled himself by grading the same puzzle as both intermediate and advanced!

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posted 04 Dec 2006, 19.27 +0000

Fri 08 Dec 2006

Save the coach; save the world

A very good proposal in George Monbiot's column in Het Grauniad this week. He's backing Alan Storkey's proposal for an enhanced coach network. Rather than have massive hubs in city centres, put them at key motorway junctions, and extend local transport out to meet them. Then, on busy stretches of motorway, and in urban areas, create dedicated bus and coach lanes.

So rather than construct a new Digbeth coach station in Digbeth, the best site for Birmingham would have been in Aston, just off the Expressway. In fairness, Birmingham is not so bad. It's places like Oxford, where Monbiot describes the streets as built for ponies, that would most benefit from a coach parkway.

It's a stupendously good idea, and I can't see any logical objection to its implementation. But giving some prestige to the coach will not exactly line the pockets of the car and plane lobby; it's no wonder that the current profit-obsessed government dismisses it out of hand.

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posted 08 Dec 2006, 19.23 +0000

Sun 10 Dec 2006

Pop the Question

Time to hand over to that expert on all things to do with popular music, Dr. Pop.

One of our regular readers asks after that well-known bore band, Ill Divo. Behind these four people lies a rather familiar hand: that of the well-known bacon fan Simon Cowell. His approximate brief was:

Find me four people who look so good even the straight men will fancy them a bit. It helps if they can hold a note, but it's amazing what we can do with a bit of multi-tuning.

Though classically trained (as opposed to being trained for musical theatre,) the Ills record from the popular music canon.

A very similar group, G4, emerged from the 2004 series of X-Factor (broadly similar to Pop Idle, but even more shit); they lost the final, but won the support of Piggy Cowell, and have had two hit albums, with even more threatened. The X-Factor winner doesn't enjoy Piggy's support, released his second album in October, only to see it chart at position 169.

I strongly suspect that the marketing success of Ill Divo and G4 have inspired Cowell to throw even more faux-classical slop at the Grate British Public - see the previous entry Choir Of The Year for most of the gory details. Angelis is his entry into a fast-crowded market, complete with appearances on Blue Peter. They'll be releasing a version of Sarah MacLachlan's Angel, and might yet make it a decent hit here, albeit in an inferior cover.

We have a tie, team

In a question posed to last week's chart commentary, Quirks asks if two records by the same act have ever been back-to-back in the top 40. Indeed they have, and my search doesn't have to go beyond Vera Lynn, who held positions 9 and 10 in the first ever chart, and it happened twice more in the remaining seven weeks of 1952. After singles sales increased from a few thousand to a few million per week during the mid-50s, the event became rarer, and is now (very roughly) a once-per-year phenomenon, of interest to list obsessives but few others.

Two in the top 10 is somewhat rarer, and I don't recall the feat happening since the Manics released two different singles in the same week in 2001. These spring to mind:

04/03/01 - Manic Street Preachers (8, 9)

26/12/93 - Meat Loaf (7, 8) - Riding high with his Bat II album, and the company with the rights to Bat I stuck out a single. The previous week had also seen two Dina Carroll recordings in the top ten; such duplication hadn't been seen since the 60s, according to Dr. Fox. (This chart is not archived at the UMD; readers may search for James Masterton's commentary.)

14/2/93 - Whitney Houston (4, 5) - That Bloody Song comes down from its million-year run at the top, and meets the Chaka Khan-covering follow up. (UMD chart for this date is the MRIB / Network Chart / NME one, which coincidentally had the top five, albeit in a different order.)

31/12/89 - New Kids On The Block (9, 10) - Their first single, a very moderate hit in summer 1989, is re-activated, and encourages double-purchasing with their recent number one. Beware of ten-year-olds bearing gift vouchers. This week also saw Jason Donovan featuring on Band Aid II (1) and his solo release (2).

14/8/85 - Madonna (1, 2) - In the nine-month period from May 85 to February 86, Madge had eight hits, all of them making the top five. Two from each of the Crazy For You and Desperately Seeking Susan soundtracks, two from the Like a Virgin album, and two re-issues from her first album, Madonna. Inevitably, there was some overlap - for much of the autumn, there were two or three hits in the top 20.

7 and 14/7/84 - Frankie Goes To Hollywood (1, 2) - With a new format of Two Tribes coming out every three weeks, the song remained at the top for two months. More formats of Relax were issued over the summer, prompting a turn-round from 31 at the start of May back to number 2 in July. It really was all downhill for the group from here.

Other notables include:

24/11/91 - Bryan Adams (34, 35) - One was There will never be another tonight the (rather good, and somewhat forgotten) third single from his album; the other was the tremendously overplayed lead single, taking a remarkable drop. (No UMD chart for this week)

24/1/83 - Jam (36, 37, 38, 39) - On the group announcing its split. (UMD chart is the NME top 30.)

16/11/96 - Oasis (34, 36, 38, 40) - The group had released two boxes for fans to put their singles in, and printed more copies of the CDs to fill the boxes. The remaining five releases occupied places down to 55. Creation had run a similar promotion in June 1995, leading to Oasis's six singles to that date all charting between 44 and 53.

With record companies happy to delay singles by weeks and even months so they didn't overlap, this sort of thing has become much less common. It will be interesting to see what happens when the physical requirement to chart is removed.

As for the strangest start to a chart show, let me bring up a piece of Regionalia! Back in the early 90s, BBC Radio Scotland had the contract to broadcast the Scottish Chart, which was simply the UK national chart with sales from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland removed. This was a far smaller sample than the national chart, and was subject to both regional variations and volatility arising from the paucity of data.

In this era, CIN's charts issued tied places where the estimated sales for two records were within 0.1 copies of each other. There would be a tie for position at least once a month, including one remarkable case of Joint Highest New Entries. Almost inevitably, the chart twice began with a tie for position 40, so host John Collins would begin with an announcement that this week's Top 40 contains... 41 songs! You don't get that sort of value-for-money from JK and/or Joel.

A similar tied places rule is in place to this day, but is rarely applied - the population sample has expanded from 70% to 97% of singles sales, and sales are now estimated to the nearest 0.001 copies. Since leaving Radio Scotland in 1993, the Scottish Chart has been networked across the country by independent radio stations, on-and-off; the chart currently broadcast is based primarily on airplay.

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posted 10 Dec 2006, 10.19 +0000

Tue 12 Dec 2006

The condensed review of books - Conrad Black

In the London Review of Books, John Lanchester writes on the downfall of Conrad Black of Crossharbour. He compares the lead players to characters in Coriolanus, suggesting that we cannot feel any sympathy for them. He has a very good point: Black began his career by purchasing half-shares in two small-town weekly newspapers, and restructured their staff so that there was one journalist to two advertising salesmen.

Lanchester recounts the strange circumstances of Black's takeover of the Daily Telegraph, conveniently not disclosing his limited cash flow, or the promise he had recently given to be squeaky clean in his business practices. No, he gave then-owner Michael Berry some money for a part-stake, with a promise from Mr. Berry that Black would have first refusal on any more shares that came up for sale, and a further purchase would grant him outright control of the paper.

By purchasing the journal on the cheap, and taking advantage of Rupert Murdoch's battle with the print unions, Black was able to turn the Telegraph into a cash machine very quickly. Though the paper improved markedly, its editorial line became vitriolic in its anti-European stance. Lanchester argues that Black's Telegraph lost the inclusive "One Nation" wing of the Conservative party. I'm not sure about that; the 1983 and (especially) 1987 intakes were vigorously right-wing, wanting to out-Thatcherite Thatcher. It is certain, though, that the Telegraph's continued denigration of John Major's attempts to be more cuddly, and its support for unelectable numpties (Iain Duncan Smith, anyone?) harmed the Conservative party beyond measure.

Lanchester also points out that Conrad Black relied on libel laws to surpress criticism. Our libel laws are so biased that they encourage an over-confidence in the rich men who rely on them, he argues. But his main conclusion is that Black was seduced by the idea that he could magic a few noughts onto the end of his worth, and though he only had the income of a millionaire, he acted like a billionaire. In that, Black is like many people from less wealthy backgrounds, having a four-figure income, but spending as if they had ten times the amount.

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posted 12 Dec 2006, 20.03 +0000

Wed 13 Dec 2006

I predict ... the end of the year!

Mystic Mug writes: Hullo! Seven cup replays last night, and the situation was as follows. If exactly two matches go to extra time, or exactly one was resolved by kicks from the penalty mark, Mr. Weaver would score 10 points for a spot-on prediction and leapfrog Mr. Mel for the victory. Any other result - fewer extensions, or more - would leave Mr. Mel ahead.

On the night, Millwall and Bradford didn't trouble the scorers during normal time, but were split during the extra half-hour. Torquay took advantage of an injury to a Leyton Orient defender to score their second goal of a 2:1 win nine minutes from time, and that was as close as we got to a second match into extra time.

So Mr. Mel wins this year's jackpot prize of £4.08, with Mr. Weaver coming just a couple of points behind. The final results are published, and show that Mr. Pokery's late charge has put him into third place.

This Mug is off to save the world from the perils of rushing into things without adequate foresight, but will return for a special sporting contest later in 2007. Toodles!

Mystic Mug

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posted 13 Dec 2006, 19.34 +0000

Sat 16 Dec 2006

Card or No Card

One of m'learned friends points out a way to game a data-mining exercise by entering at a quiet period of the day. An obvious idea, at least for those who apply more than about three brain cells to the concept, but seeing as how that qualification excludes 83% of all people with this particular data-mining card, a viable option.

A brief public service announcement: if you receive an email offering you a £60 voucher for sending the email on, ignore it. It's a hoax.

But let me break the first rule of blogging, actually do some research, and present a potted history of the card.

The data-mining concept with electronically-stored points began in the late 1980s, with the invention of Free Airmiles, a method of earning discounted (or free) airline travel by spending money on other things. Other airlines swiftly introduced their own data-mining programmes, offering similar rewards.

The first supermarket to offer a data-mining card was Superquinn, an Irish chain. The concept spread across the Irish Sea, with Tesco launching its programme in February 1995. There were strict restrictions - the scheme didn't count any transaction of less than £10, and points expired after just three months. However, there was a wide range of Bonus Points available, to people who puchased additional items.

Of course there were apparent miscalculations. Phil Calcott profited from one such gaffe. He was a Worcester man who, in early 1997, spotted that he could buy bananas at 39p per pound, and receive bonuses worth 42p per pound. He gave away his produce, rather than selling them on for 10p per pound, to quadruple his profit. A spokestrolley said on 14 January 1997, The offer is not a mistake. We have been more generous than usual with this one, but we are pleased with how it has gone - and it still has almost a week to run.

Or the tale of Ben and Annabelle Reddick, who had enough points for a flight to Edinburgh, but wanted to take their three children. Mr. Reddick popped into a shop in Chippenham, and bought £160 in pasta - that was enough to pay for the trip in Free Airmiles. We saved about £70 on the fares, he told the Daily Hell in June 1997. Some of the pasta was sold at a car boot sale.

The company's traditional rival, JSainsbury, piloted its own data-mining card in selected large stores during 1995. The final launch, in June 1996, removed the expiry date, and reduced the minimum transaction to £2.50. It also allowed vouchers to be used in other places - pubs, cinemas, even exchanged for Free Airmiles. The cards were reissued in 1999, in what JSainsbury called the largest plastic print run ever; the scheme was merged into a multi-retailer concept in 2002.

Third-placed player Safeway had brought out its card during October 1995, and made moves to convert it into a fully-fledged payment card. This never took off; neither did Safeway's attempt to get customers to do their own bar-code scanning. The programme was more trouble than it was worth, and was axed during 2000.

Asda never really bothered with a data-mining card, running a limited scheme in 19 stores; this was axed in 1999, just days after the company was bought by Wall Mart. Northern rival Morrison's had run a pilot project during 1996 and 1997, but decided against a roll-out to all its stores. Waitrose, of course, wouldn't be seen dead with this sort of nonsense. The scheme spread elsewhere on the High-street - noiseagent W.H. Smith launched its card with great fanfare in 1997, and discontinued its card with much less fanfare at some point around 2003. Chemist Boots continues to offer a 4% rebate.

The grand-daddy of all these schemes is the Co-operative Group's dividend payment. These days, it's administered electronically, and is based on spending in Co-op stores, but also attracting bonuses for loans, savings, or taking out insurance with the group. The dividend is paid in cash, at around 1% of spending, or 0.1% interest.

Is it worth the reader's while having a collection of these cards? With a few exceptions, the dividend is little more than 1%; it is alleged that there are offers sent directly to the homes of data-minees, but I only have a single source who has received such offers.

Do remember that the main point of these projects is to build up a profile of an individual customer, so that they might be enticed to spend more than they otherwise would. Each reader will need to weigh up their personal priorities - saving a couple of pence in the pound, or protecting their privacy.

Full disclosure: this website has precisely one data-mining card, the 1996-issue Midday With Mair Loyalty Card. Somewhere, we've still got its prime benefit, the useful supply of Free Air.

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posted 16 Dec 2006, 10.49 +0000

Nol way!

So, I was brushing up on Nolwenn Leroy ahead of her appearance on TV5's Acoustic programme this week-end. Winner of France's Star Academy 2 in 2002, trained for part of her life in Africa, second album, should be a good show. Oh, and listening to Leroy's music helps prevent falls, according to a research project in Dallas. Old people in nursing homes are less prone to falls if they listen to ten minutes of music per day, and the work of Nolwenn Leroy is better for the balance than a diet of Mozart.

You see, you just don't get this effect from winners of X-FACTOR. They all make people fall over, if not from sleep, then from a rush to get to the loudspeaker and turn them off.

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posted 16 Dec 2006, 16.55 +0000

Fri 22 Dec 2006

The Last Post (2006)

Time to update The Last Post, with the last posting dates for 2006. Even though the 25th falls on a Monday, the most awkward date for the delivery operation, dates were ludicrously early - 19th December for first class, and the 16th for second class. When the 25th last fell on a Monday, back in 2000, the corresponding dates were the 18th and 21st. To put it another way, the first-class posting date in 2006 was the same as the second-class date in 1998. Truly, the Royal Mail is achieving less, and charging more.

But you're not here for the commentary, merely the pretty graphic.

Last posting dates, 1996-2006

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posted 22 Dec 2006, 16.58 +0000

Fri 29 Dec 2006

Look back at Correspondents Look Ahead

Stephen Sackur hosted Correspondents Look Ahead 2006, which went out on 30 December 2005. There was also a listener phone-in, which we're not reviewing.

The panel each began by offering a single prediction: Frank GARDENER, the security correspondent. Increasing condemnation of al-Qaeda, and an export of brutal jihadists from Iraq. I don't think either came to pass.

Carrie GRACIE, the China correspondent, went for China to become number 4 in world GDP, ahead of the UK and France. According the the International Monetary Fund, this has happened, albeit by barely 0.2%, which may be within the margin of error.

Caroline WYATT of Europe said that there would be a year of navel-gazing over immigration and integration. This was obvious, but still true.

Justin WEBB said that the Failed Colonies would psychologically pull out of Iraq, and declare victory. The first came to pass, the second did not.

James ROBINS, diplomatic correspondent, said that there would be increasingly strident and bellicose grumblings against Iran, stopping just short of military intervention. It was bad, but never that bad.

Stephen SACKUR, host, tipped the chop for Charles Kennedy. Spot on.

First substantive discussion was on the environment; WEBB said that nothing would be done by the military junta, but posited the evangelicals might force their hand by declaring the preservation of the creation to be a good thing. An interesting idea, and one that is taking place in some congregations, but not one that has yet dominated policy. GRACIE said that there's no mechanism for the Chinese to enforce their rules, other than bringing bad publicity on their heads. ROBINS said that India wanted the industrialised world to pay, and WYATT told that the French don't discuss their Kyoto requirements.

GARDENER suggested that Gulf oil states don't want prices so high that there are moves away from oil. ROBINS and WYATT said that Russia got the soft soap because of its oil wealth. The panel suggested that this wasn't to be the year of nuclear power - ROBINS correctly spotted that the UK would go nuclear but reluctantly.

Turning to Iran, GARDENER suggested a lot of talk, much behind-the-scenes action. ROBINS said that the United Nations would get involved, in spite of the loss of tactical advantage. Both were correct

A significant pull-out of forces from Iraq looked likely a year ago, and GARDENER was positive. He split the Iraqi nationalists from the imported fundamentalists, suggesting the latter group followed the same ideals as al-Qaeda. WEBB proposed a phased withdrawal, even if the resistance continued, by accepting greater losses. This did not happen. ROBINS said that prochain ancien British prime minister Mister Tony Blair needed some troops to come home. True, but still not happening.

GRACIE says that her listeners on the World Service are deeply hostile to the policy of the junta; ROBINS says it's antipathy to the policy, not the individual people. WEBB talked about the insularity of the Yankees, and said that there would be little progress towards Palestinian independence. SACKUR wondered what Ariel Sharon's policy would be - this programme was made just days before his career ended. GARDENER said that the region would become more polarised, which did come to pass.

Terrorist threats, and GRACIE said that there would be a debate about where to draw the line between protection of civil liberties and the prevention of terror. The debate raged, with stunts from the government to keep fear high. WYATT said that the main worry was the discontented young people in the suburbs, waiting for an ideology. ROBINS quoted Mary Robinson, that the west has lost the moral high ground. WEBB called this utterly ludicrous, made a false equivalence between Iraq 2002 and the modern-day Potomac Basin, and claimed that the provinces were free and successful.

WEBB and GRACIE indulged in a slanging match about the international responsibilities of the FARCE and Red China, with WEBB airing more separatist propaganda. GARDENER brought the discussion back to reality, that human rights was the one remaining moral figleaf, and was ruined by abuses. GRACIE says that it's as much about perception as reality, and Red China is winning.

There was a round of People To Watch. GRACIE nominated Sven-Goran Erikkson. England hadn't beaten Sweden in 37 years. Keep counting; last we heard, Sven was turning down the manager's job for the FARCE team.

GARDENER asks: what happened to Osama bin Laden. Good question.

ROBINS named former Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong as the next UN sec-gen; he was right that it's Asia's turn, but the job went to Ban Ki Moon. Alex Pettifer of the Stormbreaker movies would also be big.

SACKUR tipped John Sentamu, archbishop of York and future Celeb Big Brother contestant, and W. Rooney, football player. The first £100 million footballer?

WEBB tipped Barak Obama as a possible Dem VP candidate, and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to prop up the Castro regime, or that of his successor. Castro remains alive, but does get support from Sr. Chavez. Mr. Obama would be right as VP, not president just yet.

WYATT tipped Nicholas Sarkozy as a pop-up presidential candidate in France, and Audrey Pulvar, the only black newsreader on French television. She's good, but she's no David Pudjas.

A trade deal in 2006? No, said ROBINS, but the positive deals on Africa will help. That Russia takes the G8 president doesn't help, as ROBINS claimed the Russians see Aricans as sub-human. WYATT said that M. Chirac was a stumbling block. WEBB suggested that the christian right might keep Africa on the agenda, and GRACIE that the Chinese saw political advantage.

Attention turned finally to the World Cup. WYATT said the Germans were prepared, especially for crowd disturbances and security. WEBB said that he would re-read Proust, but didn't understand baseball at all.

Gadget of the year? SACKUR nominated the $100 wind-up laptop.
ROBINS - solar panels, to save money.
WYATT - the bicycle, to get healthy and save oil.
GRACIE - a gadget finder.
GARDENER - personal stereo down your glasses frame.
WEBB - the personal technology consultant, a plumber for high-tech questions.

Forget the predictions that were way off beam, concluded SACKUR. We'll not give him that much cheat, but will suggest that the panel was more right than wrong.

That was Look Back at Correspondents Look Ahead. The next installment will follow next year.

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posted 29 Dec 2006, 12.23 +0000

older writing... write to