Category: Unbelievable

Jaw-dropping, stunning, can that be the case? You know, the synonyms for the word.

Review: Prometheus: don’t waste your money or time on this film (updated)

OK, so this is a review, and it contains spoilers. Though that raises the question of whether you can spoil a film that is irredeemably bad in the first place.

To begin:
I had high hopes for Prometheus. I love the original Alien film – as I’ve blogged here previously, its script and screenplay (and design and direction) are timeless marvels. The fact that it was made pre-personal computers (so that all the computer interaction is utterly clunky to modern eyes) is actually a blessing, because it lets you focus on the thing that is always fascinating in a good film – the interplay of the actors, the things they say and do, and the plot.

If you want a hilarious dissection of the first half-hour or so of Prometheus, do enjoy yourself by going over to Digital Digging, which starts by looking at it from an archaeologist’s perspective, and then just the perspective of someone who wants people to behave a little more rationally than just “that hole looks dark, I think I’ll stick my head in it and then turn the light on”. The comments (especially the dimmer bulbs transported over from Boing Boing) are worth a laugh too. Bear in mind, of course, that some day those people will be eligible to vote. You could also enjoy James Whatley’s post on the many WTFs in the script.

Focus, always focus

But I want to focus on those elements that Prometheus missed, which are the essential things of a successful film. In part it’s because I’d like to be able to imagine what a good screenplay would look like, but also because it’s only the very worst of things that shows you quite how badly things can be.

I now discover that one of the screenplay writers worked on Lost. Oh, the TV series that threw off loose ends and never bothered to tie them up endlessly, and sprawled over seven series before gasping over the line? Sure, that would be a discipline for writing a self-contained film. Not.

Not that a film has to answer every question. You can’t. In a screenplay, some things just have to be accepted: why someone is a stepchild, why they are rich, why there are a bunch of pods that seem to just be sitting there, where the blue light that plays over them came from. (Answer: from The Who, who were rehearsing in the studio next door. Sorry, did I spoil that?)

I knew in the first moments of Prometheus (which I watched in 3D at an Imax – I told you my hopes were high) that something was very, very wrong. Why? The music. Whereas the original Alien runs violin bows up your back, this was playing jolly major chords as though you’d just accomplished something. How can a film that’s going to discover the makers of the Alien going to be jolly? That’s all wrong.

Cut to a scene with SuperOffWorldMan drinking something and curling up and dying and his DNA all splurging into the already rather fecund streams around Iceland. Er, why? Why does he need to do this in order to seed the planet? Eh? This is not explained, and while it’s OK to have some things be mysterious, it would be nice to feel they fit into a broader picture. Later we learn (after being told “you can’t cast off hundreds of years of evolutionary theory”) that human DNA is a 100% match with mateybloke’s. Which raises the question rather forcefully of the whole animal kingdom and the preservation of DNA and genes throughout the entire phylogeny. Seriously: if you’re going to play around with science in a film, try not to insult those in the audience who might have even a vague scientific knowledge, because you’re going to piss them off. None of the science in the whole thing was the least bit convincing. None of it. It’s not even worth bothering writing why it wasn’t. None of it at all is how scientists behave – that is, thoughtful, rational, reflective.

Next moment I knew this was a wrong ‘un: Noomi Rapace, as an archaeologist, finds a cave (how? Not explained) and shouts down a Skye valley to another archaeologist. If you’ve ever gone anywhere in a valley of any description, then you know that you can’t shout down them and expect anyone to hear a damn thing. But, magically, blokey down in the valley does. Though by the time he’s made it up the valley, she’s tidied it all up and dated it. Uh-huh.

Space stupidness

Some space stupidness follows; my heart sank as I saw that the Prometheus spacecraft is meant to have a crew of 17. Seventeen people. Now, that might actually be what you need to run a spacecraft. However, for a film it breaks a key rule.

Rule No.1: how many characters?: people can only follow a story with a maximum of seven, perhaps eight, characters to worry about. Seventeen is a bus load. (Alien: seven people. Friends: six people. ThirtySomething: six people. Mad Men: six people, plus a few who come in and out – Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, Bert, Pete, and the wives and some of the others.) Do not try to write more than six people into your script unless you absolutely have to have the seventh. (Stuff Magazine’s Mat Smith, who has been to see it twice – he’s a man of some taste – says that he still doesn’t know who some of the people are.)

Rule No. 2: pacing. This film doesn’t have it. There’s no obvious motor. Yes, we know that it’s an expedition, and we in the audience are all on edge expecting an alien to jump out; but that’s not the same as a motor, the reason why you keep watching. In thrillers, it’s called the Macguffin – the excuse for keeping you interested. (So in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol it’s the stolen Russian nuke codes, for example. Doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the film – you already understand that stolen Russian nuke codes are probably something you want to be unstolen, or grabbed.) In Prometheus, what is the Macguffin? What are you waiting to find out? You’re never sure, and that’s a key weakness.

Rule No. 3: tidiness. If you drop hints about events or people, don’t then drop them. So Idris Elba, having emerged from the sleep things, decorates a Christmas tree, because they’ve missed a whole load of Christmas parties. Aw. Except that’s the last reference to Christmas or parties. We don’t learn whether he’s a party type, or whether Christmas has some deep meaning, or what.

Rule No. 4: character. This is so important. Idris Elba again: he’s the captain of the ship. This should in theory mean that he can tell anyone what to do in order to keep the ship safe. If he can’t do that, then he’s just another Red Shirt. But we never find out which he really is, because he never has the sort of confrontation with Charlize Theron which would tell us what he thinks of their relative positions. Only that he would like (and gets, apparently) a shag with her, which doesn’t actually advance either of them as characters; although it does tell us that he’s perfectly happy to leave the bridge uncrewed while two of the crew are marooned off-ship, leaving them effectively without radio contact. So, basically, a completely crap captain. Except that at the end he then becomes big brave captain, prepared to try to wallop the departing alien ship. Why? What? When did that change come about? And how exactly did they choose him in the first place, if he’ll abandon the bridge like that? The character makes no sense. You can’t predict what he’ll do at any time – although I did realise after a while that it would always be “the utterly stupid thing”. Someone been attacked by an organism off-ship? Let them on! Someone attacking the crew down below at the ground hatch? Open the hatch a bit more so you get a good look – don’t want to close it off or anything. Hell no.

Rule No. 5: consistency and plausibility. Cite above: Idris Elba and his wandering characterisation. (I blame this on the script, since his Luther and Stringer Bell were so powerful.) Cite 2: plausibility. Not explained: how do the archaeologists know that the star formation is… how the hell do they know anything, actually? Why does the “invitation” turn out to be a pointer to what we are led to believe (perhaps wrongly, mind) is a military dump?

And while we’re on the military dump thing: another part of the plotting/pacing/plausibility thing is that at no point do the characters get together and try to figure out what’s going on. In Alien, after the alien escapes, they gather and plan how to catch it; after Brett gets done, they gather again and plan what to do. See? Talking. A council of war. Some discussion of quite what they’re dealing with.

Update: Rule No. 6: script. I was reminded of this by this tweet (if you can’t be bothered, it says: “Ok, yes, Prometheus was awwwwful. What a disappointment. I feel like I need to scrub the black goo out of my brain by watching Contact.”

Damn, yes. Contact – the film in which we discover aliens beaming messages to us instructing us how to build a rather large and scary structure – has one single exchange which deals with questions about faith and belief and existence far better than anything in the whole of this film.

So the setup in Contact is this: Jodie Foster (rationalist scientist) is debating with a reasonable, but religious fella, about how you can “prove” things in religion, and whether science can prove everything (she maintains it can). Foster’s father, we’ve already learnt, is dead.

Religious fella: “Did your father love you?”
Jodie Foster: “Of course!”
Religious fella: “Prove it.”

What a line. It’s the sort of line that completely floors you. And of course it floors Foster. That’s great scriptwriting – create a situation where the viewer is drawn in, and then leave them in the same place as your main character.

Doesn’t happen in Prometheus.

What Hollywood wants

But no, that’s all ignored; instead Hollywood wants what Hollywood gets, which is a daft action movie, with loud noise and unscary creatures, unexplained motives (I couldn’t figure out what Fassbender’s android was meant to be doing at all) and a refusal to deal with stuff like plot in favour of stürm-und-drang. Kids might enjoy it, but I think that actually kids can tell the difference between lazy scripting and good scripting.

If I hadn’t been told this was an “Alien prequel” (which it can’t actually be, because it’s not the same planet – the number differs, there isn’t an astronaut in the pilot chair, it hasn’t been attacked by an alien, there isn’t a message warning people off) nor that it was made by Ridley Scott, then my expectations would have been much lower; I might have tolerated it, but I’d still have thought that it was crap, with stupid behaviour and cardboard characters who don’t do things real people do.

Let’s leave with this, from Red Letter Media, which asks most of the questions that I couldn’t be bothered to ask.

What was that black goo – was that different to the sparkly green goo… Why did Ridley Scott let his 12-year-old son do the makeup for the old man… How did the old man know where to point where the scientists were when he did the introduction…

And so on. There are tons of unanswered, and unanswerable questions.

Remember how Britain took over the internet in 2000 by getting it all to run on Greenwich Electronic Time? No?

Something on Twitter reminded me of this. This was written for the January 27 2000 edition of The Independent.

Technology Editor

Britain’s Greenwich meridian could become the new reference point for time over the Internet, after two rival groups of British businesses resolved their differences over whose measurement they should use.
Greenwich Electronic Time (GeT) will be a powerful brand which could guarantee that companies based in different countries doing business deals could be certain of when they happened.
With more and more time-sensitive data being exchanged – such as online stockbroking and consumer purchases – it is increasingly important to be able to confirm when transactions take place, said James Roper, chief executive of the Interactive Media in Retail Group.
“Who owns a product at what time if you buy it over the Internet?” said Mr Roper. “If you don’t agree about what time it is, you could find that there is a time during which people think they own it – and if both of them then try to sell it you could have real problems.”
By using GeT as a single reference time, confirmed by a network of super-precise clocks around the Internet, Britain would be “at the forefront of Internet development,” said the Government’s newly appointed “e-envoy” Alex Allan, the former British High Commissioner to Australia.
Comparing timestamps of online transactions has already helped to track down fraudsters, said Ian Collins, managing director of Cybersource, which provides the software that powers many e-commerce Web sites. Extending GeT further would help to do that in future, he said.
Yesterday’s launch saw the unification of two factions that had threatened to split the initiative before it started.
The Prime Minister Tony Blair initially launched GeT on January 1 – but it did not then have the essential backing of the London Internet Exchange (Linx), which represents the major Internet service providers in the UK.
Linx, whose offices lie on the Greenwich meridian, had planned to launch its own Greenwich Net Time earlier this month – but was persuaded not to by lobbying from the Government and other industry bodies. Instead the two merged their efforts to produce the single brand.
The Internet already has a network of clocks which are meant to contact each other and confirm their time by connecting to other precision clocks, usually running on “Coordinated Universal Time”, a global standard adopted in 1982.
A key step in promoting the GeT “brand” will be the availability of free software from its Web site at which will enable businesses and users to ensure that their computers are in tune with GeT, and to timestamp e-mails and Web transactions against them. That software should be available in the next three or four months, said Mr Roper.


Great idea! (Well, inside the civil service it seemed great. I thought it was a pile of nonsense. After all, you already had UTC, coordinated via atomic clocks over the net.) What could possibly go wrong?

And then in August:


Technology Editor

A high-profile scheme launched by Tony Blair in January to make Greenwich the reference point for “Internet time” has run into a dead end. It cannot work with Microsoft’s Web browser, used by the vast majority of Net surfers.
Now, the team behind the “Greenwich Electronic Time” (GeT) initiative are wondering if they will ever be able to persuade people to use their product.
“Overhyped? Er, that would be true and fair I suppose,” said James Roper, chief executive of the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG), one of the scheme’s backers. “We have encountered a nightmare of problems that were so compounded we hardly knew where to start.”
Announcing the plan to create “Greenwich Electronic Time” (GeT), at the start of the year, Mr Blair suggested it would put Britain back at the centre of timekeeping in the new millennium just as the invention of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) did during the age of sail.
But the reality has proved rather different. The GeT team had suggested in January that within four months they would offer free software for PCs which would be accurate to 0.003 seconds against an existing world standard set by atomic clocks.
Instead, the project only last week produced the first version of its software – and The Independent found that it can display times on the same screen which are out of sync with each other by nine seconds or more.
The problem stems from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, used by more than 80 per cent of Web surfers. Computer code within the program behaves unpredictably, creating the differing time display. But the software giant shows no signs of changing its product to please Mr Blair or the GeT team.
“You would have to ask Microsoft why their version of their own software doesn’t do what their published details say it will,” said Keith Mitchell, executive chairman of the London Internet Exchange (Linx), who is exasperated by the mismatch. “I don’t know why it doesn’t.”
The failure is another embarassment for the Government’s repeatedly proclaimed desire to make Britain an e-commerce capital. Last week the House of Lords passed the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill, which has been criticised by business and consumer groups for infringinging on civil liberties. A number of Internet companies have said they will relocate outside Britain to avoid the email and communications snooping that the RIP Bill allows.
The flaw in GeT is caused by differences between Microsoft’s version of a computer language called “Java” and the public standard created by Sun Microsystems. Microsoft is being sued by Sun for breaking its licence to use Java in the browser. No resolution is in sight.
The GeT team had hoped that their system – backed by a network of atomic clocks around the Internet – would rapidly become a reference point for all sorts of online transactions. which backs the scheme, suggested last week that it could be used to help people doing online share dealing, gambling and auctions: these, he said, could hinge on messages which would have to be time-stamped to an accuracy of less than a second from a central reference point. The Government’s “e-envoy” Alex Allan, said it would put Britain “at the forefront of Internet development”.
Instead, despite the non-appearance of GeT, electronic commerce has snowballed this year. Online gambling, sharedealing and auctions are all booming, used by millions of users worldwide.
“The world is muddling through,” insisted Mr Mitchell, “but the volume of transactions compared to their potential is still small.”
The same applies to GeT, though: its present network of atomic clocks could handle “tens of thousands” of users, said Linx. That compared with projects like Napster, which has an estimated 20 million people using its software.
The GeT project, meanwhile, was reluctant to publicise the release of the first version of its software in case too many people try to use it: there are fears that the atomic clocks would be unable to cope with a large volume of demands for the time.


Oh God, you have to believe that I was just astonished at how bad that was. And how fundamental the mistakes were.

Still, we don’t have that sort of idiocy any more in the civil service or government. Do we?

August’s mortgage details mean estate agents earned £241 per *office*

Estate agents typically get about 2% of a house sale, don’t they? Hang on, it’s 1.5% + VAT. (They don’t get to keep the VAT, of course – it’s passed on to the government.)

OK. Now notice that mortgage lending rose by barely anything in August:

Mortgage lending rose by just £143 million last month, a mere two percent of what was advanced in August 2007 and the weakest growth since the series began in April 1993.

Of course, the mortgage won’t be the whole price of the house – but it’ll typically be quite a large slice. Let us, for the purposes of a vague argument, assume that in fact in those mortgages, a full 50% of the house sale price was actually covered by cash (from the sale of the previous property in the chain, say).

That means that estate agents got 1.5% of £286m. In other words, £4.29m, in August.

Not bad, you think? Except that that’s for every estate agent across Britain.

And a 2006 figure tells us…

According to latest statistics from UK Property Shop, publishers of the online National Directory of Estate Agents, the total number of offices of UK estate agents and letting agents now exceeds 17,800. There are over 14,700 offices providing estate agency services with property for sale, 10,000 offices providing letting agency services with property to rent and around 1,100 offices offering student accommodation.

OK, so they’ll have turned their hands to letting, and we’re ignoring commercial property lettings and sales (not that those are anything to cheer about, I hear), and closures since then. But if those figures have stayed anything like static, then the average estate agent in August brought in from house sales a grand total of…


And of course, that’s allowing (generously) for the mortgage being quite a small part of the house sale (50%). Rank it up higher – say, to 90% of the sale price – and you’re getting £133 per office. It hardly covers the bill for the electricity.

Real Dan Lyons gets it right on the Real Steve Jobs health question

Amidst all the back and forth about Steve Jobs’s health, and whether it matters, Dan Lyons – aka Fake Steve Jobs – has hit the nail totally on the head by pointing out (on his real blog) that calls like Jobs made to Joe Nocera of the New York Times aren’t accident. They’re totally planned. And for Jobs to demand that the conversation’s content should be off the record is more control:

How many times do you think Jobs rehearsed that opening line before he dialed (or had Katie Cotton [queen of Apple PR] dial for him)? I’d say he practiced it one hundred times. And I’d say Katie was definitely on the line with him, though she probably pretended not to be. Furthermore, I’d bet a signed dollar bill that Apple recorded the phone call, just in case Nocera decided to run the stuff that Steve gave him under their “off the record” agreement.

And more:

If down the road it turns out Steve was [purely hypothetically, you understand] lying and someone from the SEC or some lawyer in a civil suit wants to find out what was said in that conversation, they’ll have to subpoena Joe Nocera, and the New York Times will fight that request. Even if Joe Nocera wants to tell the world what Steve Jobs told him, he can’t. He made a deal. He went off the record. Even if Steve turns out to be lying, Joe Nocera is stuck.

Thus Steve Jobs gets to protect his stock price and give Wall Street the message that he wants them to hear, and should any of this turn out not to be true, well, Steve and Apple now have Joe Nocera and the legal department of the New York Times to act as their ally and firewall.

It’s really well-argued and to the point. He also asks: what would happen if Steve Ballmer were to do the same? He’d get roasted in the press. So why does Jobs get an easy ride? Because there are tons of unthinking Apple fans who will descend on any site that they think doesn’t accord their beloved company the vast amount of praise they think it deserves. And that can be a pain to deal with.

And John Gruber is, for once, totally wrong, because he’s not a professional journalist. Lyons is, and he knows the ins and outs. Gruber says:

Lyons is implying that if Jobs is actually fine, then there’s nothing he shouldn’t be willing to talk about on the record regarding his health. But that’s only true if the full story isn’t the least bit embarrassing or private. In Jobs’s case, it seems clear that whatever it is that’s been bothering him this year, it is related to his digestive and intestinal system. Even if he’s recovering fully from this problem, set to live a full life for decades to come, is it any wonder he might not want to speak on the record about digestive problems like, say, extreme diarrhea? diarrhea? Fuck that.

But that misses the point about why Jobs made the call at all, if he didn’t want to explain it. If you want to tell people, tell them. Don’t do it in this off-the-record sneaking about way.

Plus, you’re wondering how Jobs knew to call Nocera? Because Nocera had obviously been calling Apple asking for its response. Word filtered up. That was totally planned.

Couple of other interesting things: Lyons says that Apple was always completely closed off to him:

For what it’s worth, [John] Markoff [at the New York Times] may be one of the only hacks left that Apple PR can count on. A couple of the guys at Fortune used to be considered friendly until their colleague Peter Elkind produced a botched hatchet job on Steve Jobs earlier this year. It’s likely that Apple has now gone dark on everyone at Fortune as a result. Goatberg is friendly to Apple but he’s a gadget guy and doesn’t do news, and anyway the Journal went after Jobs on options backdating so they’re likely on the Katie Cotton shit list too. Forbes? Um, right. Even before I created Fake Steve, Apple wouldn’t let anyone at Forbes do any interviews with anyone at Apple. We had a whole bureau in the Valley, 30 miles from Cupertino, and for ten years we didn’t set foot inside Apple. They’d send us review units and that’s it.

Two things from that: how is Lyons going to fare reporting on technology – including Apple – at Newsweek, where he’s replacing Steven Levy, who used to get stuff ahead of time? Will Apple be able to hold its nose and give him the early interviews and time to play with the gadgets, or will he be stuck in the outer darkness like, I don’t know, the most-viewed online paper in the UK?

And secondly, I can imagine it could be pretty dispiriting being a journalist in San Francisco trying to get an interview with Apple. Imagine it just going on and on like that. It’s a company with serious PR issues – and the weird things is it thinks it’s doing just great.

A race of dwarves and giants: visualising income inequality

The scary thing about the following is that it’s now an underestimate. So, start reading:

Imagine that we live in a world in which, owing to genetic mutation, income translates directly into height. The richer you are, the taller you are. Then imagine that the entire population of Britain marches past you, in the course of an hour, ranked in order of their income. What sort of procession would you see?

After three minutes the walkers would be 2ft tall. After a quarter of a hour they would still be dwarfs, of about 3ft; they would reach 4ft after 24 minutes. You would have to wait until 37 minutes before a person of average height, about 5ft 8in, walked by. In the final quarter of an hour, abnormally large people, more than 7ft in height, would start appearing.

With three minutes left, people of twice average height would be passing by. In the final minute, the figures would be giants 30 yards high. Yet even they would not be the biggest. In the hour’s closing seconds, a small number of super-earners would walk past: each would be earning pounds 1m a year or more – and thus each would be at least 235 yards tall. These freakish beings – top barristers, leading City analysts, a few chief executives as well as stars in the entertainment industries – are the products of a society that is increasingly organised in a new, freakish way.

This comes from “How fat cats rock the boat“, by Charles Leadbeater – when he was deputy editor at The Independent. Guess when it was written?

November, 1996. Since then, income inequality has got worse.

It’s one of the most insightful pieces I’ve ever read on how celebrity culture feeds on itself:

In theory competition should make it more difficult for a small elite to charge excessively high prices and make monopoly profits. Yet in fact more competition helps such elites. In highly competitive markets there is a premium on perceived value – on standing out from the competition by looking distinctive; after price, the biggest influence on consumer choice is brand. So those people and companies that are particularly good at marketing, advertising and self- promotion will tend to do better, everything else being equal. Success will breed success, celebrity will beget celebrity.

Thus, in television a handful of comedians have cornered the market in light entertainment, becoming a self-perpetuating elite. And, of course, celebrities like to deal with other celebrities; that is a symbol of their status.

If you are a film celebrity, you want your divorce handled by a celebrity divorce barrister, your hair done by a celebrity cutter, your home decorated by a celebrity designer and so on. As well as being more competitive, however, markets for many goods, whether they are computer games, books, films or legal services, are becoming more international. And larger markets mean larger rewards for the people who win. Being a winner in a purely local market – a school sports day – might bring you a small cup; winning in a global market – the Olympics – brings you vast rewards.

Remember, this was all before the rise of magazines like Heat. But it shows why they rose: because we focus on those at “the top” or near it, and that attention begets more attention. But it also has dramatic effects on income inequality.

New Freedom of Information regulations: a waste of money on their face

One of the topics that I feel strongly about (even though I’ve only used FOI very briefly) is Freedom of Information – and in particular the FOI Act. And now the government’s stupid idea of effectively lowering the ceiling of enquiries that can be made by putting a higher price on civil servants’ time.

But the charity Public Concern at Work has calculated that bringing in those changes will cost at least £12 million:

Using figures published by the Government which suggest that it costs officials between £1 and £2 to read a single page, the charity calculates that it will cost £7.2m for one official in each of the 100,000 public bodies to read the new rules and guidance restricting FOI requests and a further £5m for them to think about them.

Their response to the suggested new regulations is worth a read:

In particular, when looking at the benefits it is important to recognise that freedom of information requests bring real and substantial savings to the public purse. This is because they deter waste, inefficiency and fraud across the public sector. One example from the wider public sector mentioned in Don Touhig’s Commons debate on 7 February was the Yorkshire Post’s story about a shower for the Chief Constable that cost £28,000

Great stuff. Perhaps an FOI request to find out who came up with the new regulations and whether they did a cost-effectiveness study on it?

And I like the cut of PCAW’s jib. I wonder if they’d look at the case for freeing our data?

A little more Olympics (bear with me, watch the bollards)

So, with the budget having somehow quadrupled, what does Hugh Muir in (I blush) the Guardian suggest?

And so to money. Is there anyone who doesn’t think we submitted a bid with figures massaged to impress the IOC, or that the IOC didn’t know that?

Er, me, actually, and pretty much everyone who last year on the TV and so on was burbling about the £2 billion cost of the Games.

A meaningful budget is now being drawn up

Oh well, that’s helpful, isn’t it? Will this one include VAT?

and when it is unveiled politicians and the media will scrutinise it. So they should. But let’s be mature about it. Staging the games will be messy, costly and turbulent, but isn’t that a price worth paying if it means that shamefully neglected communities will have better infrastructure and life chances than they have had for generations?

As the comments after the article say – no, it flipping isn’t. If you want regeneration, why not just pay for it because you think the area deserves regeneration – not using some idiotic flatulent games in the wrong place. Flipping heck, Manchester would have been the perfect place for it. Always assuming they’d got rid of the bollards from hell. Watch them in action:

And then Ken Livingstone weighs in. Nobody thought the congestion charge would work, he says. (I did, actually, Ken. It seemed an obvious and brilliant way to apply road charging.) Everyone still asks: why not just regenerate the place? And nobody answers.

The athletic Iraq: why the Olympics make me feel like Cassandra

Last year, I wrote some unkind things in mid-2005 about the Olympics: making points such as

  • how weird it was that nobody asked the “Yes, but” questions before the Olympic bid (July 6 2005):

    is it just me or is it weird to be listening to the 1 O’Clock News and hear the interviewer start asking questions to the MP for Newham, such as “Won’t you be left with a lot of white elephant stadiums afterwards? I mean that’s what has happened at all the other places..” and to get interviewees saying “I’m not really sure that’s the best use of £2.4 billion…”

    Where were all these people before? Steamrollered into submission, told to keep a lid on it until the bid was over?

  • that ads in its favour were from vested interests like airlines and construction companies (June 17 2005):

    If London is cursed by winning the Olympics, those companies will get pots of money – travellers coming here, and of course all those stadia that will have to be built on the recently-levelled spaces where people used to live but have been rehoused. (Has anyone mentioned this? No?)

    So you know why the companies are in favour of the Olympics: whoever loses, they win. Hence, they advertise, and urge people who haven’t heard any sides of the argument to “Back the Bid” and text their “backing” to some daft number. No number to text your opposition to, you’ll notice.

    And about the losers: ah yes, that would be all the people who live in London. Because if Seb Coe succeeds, then they’ll all get higher council taxes to pay for the “regeneration” (more like, to line the construction companies’ pockets). And that’s about it. Given that they don’t really want the stadia, though they’d like better rail and public transport services, Londoners don’t really have any reason to like this bid, in my opinion.

  • that we needed (and got) a Stop The Bid site (Jan 22 2005), much good it did us:

    I don’t want London put into hock and the lives of millions of ordinary people upset for a reality TV event involving celebrities and micro-celebrities and non-celebrities who may or may not have taken drugs, in order eventually to provide a load of training facilities that will be in the wrong part of the country for the majority of athletes

  • that getting the Olympics will destroy Hackney Marshes (Jan 5 2005), where the marvellous Blur-soundtracked Nike football ad was filmed (can I get a YouTube link? Can I?):

    It’ll leave the city hugely indebted (the Games always do), and won’t really provide the sort of facilities that allow up-and-coming athletes need – which is a wide variety of sports facilities. The really good will soon excel and can then be picked to compete and train at a higher level, at better facilities which don’t have to be in London. Plus what about the adults? Aren’t we trying to keep them fit, to avoid the Evil Of Obesity?

Since then, what has happened? The alleged costs have ballooned, by at least 17.5% – oh, yeah, sorry, VAT, must have forgotten, silly me! Still now you’ve signed the contract, sorry, for cash, what? – towards £8 billion (shall we say that again? Quadruple what was being said 18 months ago)and finally, some commentators are starting to pick up on it. Andrew Rawnsley suggests it will be another Dome:

Who in their right mind is going to want to holiday in London in the congestion and security hell that will be the capital city in the August of 2012?

Just as with the dome, supporters of the Olympics say they will regenerate part of London. I’m all for the regeneration of the East End, but you didn’t need to do it by bringing this overblown, ludicrously expensive spectacle to town.

Thanks, Andrew (via John Naughton); I feel like you’re channeling me. What makes me so silently angry on behalf of Londoners is the fact that they were never consulted; nobody told them the costs; nobody made the case publicly. It was imposed, by a quango of people looking to benefit in their own way from the money-go-round, not truly improving the daily life of poeple who live in this giant city. No wonder that Roy Greenslade said of a recent speech by Seb, sorry, Sir Seb coe that

Sebastian Coe, chairman of the 2012 Olympics organisation, spoke without imparting a single intelligent thought. I tried to take notes but he said nothing of any consequence whatsoever, and he said it several times over. It was unrelieved by wit or wisdom and was heard in total silence by a now disbelieving crowd…

Could it be because there’s nothing to say? Even if the Olympic Games pass off successfully (though you know the papers will be full of tales of incomplete stadia and things not done; they are at every Games, and we excel here at finding fault with the tiniest thing), their aftermath will be judged as a pain. Will they make more athletes? Will they make better athletes? What are the Games meant to do for us as a nation? Apart from move our urban furniture around to places we didn’t want it so the kids could try to get around the room without touching the floor?

Don’t get me wrong: I love sport, and exercise. But this behemoth that we can’t back out of is going to make a lot of people very, very unhappy. Trouble is, there’s no exit strategy for the Olympics. You just have to wait for them to end. Maybe I’ll start a “countdown until it’s over” clock in the sidebar.

North London taxi practices; Malcolm Gladwell on what blogs feed on; and searching for Wil Shipley

  • Prize For Stupidity

    Somewhere in the depths of North London, a young man falls over and injures his leg. He thinks it might be broken. He hobbles to the telephone and dials the number of his local taxi firm. Yes, that’s a real taxi, not one of our Big White ones. He then limps outside to wait for the taxi. Ten minutes later, it arrives, and he eases himself into the back seat.

    “Where to?” asks the cab driver, starting the engine and pulling off.

    “North Middlesex Hospital, please,” says the man. “The A+E department. I think I’ve broken my leg!”

    “Oh my god!” says the taxi driver. “You can’t be getting in taxis with a broken leg. Hold on a minute!”

    The consistently enjoyable NeeNaw (say it out loud) blog. The really scary thing is that this is true. The only amazing thing is that it didn’t happen in south London – I’d have found that easier to believe. (Seen at Nee Naw)

  • The Derivative Myth

    Has the level of self-regard in the blogosphere really reached such dizzying heights that it can’t acknowledge the work that traditional media does on behalf of the rest of us? Yes, the newspaper business isn’t as lucrative as it once was (although it’s still pretty lucrative). And it doesn’t seem as exciting and relevant as it once was. But newspapers continue to perform an incredibly important function as informational gatekeepers—a function, as far as I can tell, that grows more important with time, not less. Between them, for instance, the Times and the Post have literally hundreds of trained professionals whose only job it is to sift through the mountains of information that come out of the various levels of government and find what is of value and of importance to the rest of us. Why Where would we be without them? We’d be lost.

    Malcolm Gladwell – not normally a person one thinks of with a green eyeshade on – making the point about where blogs find their food. (Seen at

  • Dude, Kyle’s Not Here

    There are some really strange data, particularly in the search terms with which people find my site.

    I mean, sure, lots of people google, say, etrade (6.73% of all visitors on Friday, which means that they really, REALLY shouldn’t have screwed with me), and often people will just google wil+shipley (3.85%) instead of remembering my non-mnemonic url (

    But, how about the guy who was looking for custom+pimp+puppets? My first thought was, why’d this link to my site? And then, “What’s a pimp puppet? Is it just a puppet of a pimp? If so, why the hell does someone want one?” (Unless it’s named Frank.) The really bizarre part is the person didn’t find what he wanted, so he followed up by googling custom+made+pimp+puppets. Vive la diffrence!

    Wil Shipley (of Delicious Library) with a stellar runthrough of the weird Google searches that bring people to his site. BTW, does Kyle Orton like drinking? And where can I find naked women pirates? Wil knows. (Seen at Call Me Fishmeal.)