Friday 25 April 2008

Travel Trauma - Flying (Part Two)

My last post on the subject was about the trauma of checking in at an airport. Some people may think that I am being over dramatic when I say that the supposedly simple act of checking in is disturbing, but I would disagree. I am unlucky in this area – very unlucky. If something can go wrong, it will go wrong. If there is a delay of any kind you can guarantee that the delay will affect me.

So after the suffering involved in checking in, things start to get worse because the next stage in the tortuous process of getting from A to B in an aeroplane is of course, the dreaded security check.

Passing security for me has always been difficult. I’m not a naturally paranoid person but when confronted with an overbearing security person at an airport, that part of my mind that says “Relax. Take it easy. No problems here.” simply ceases to function. I am filled with paranoia. I know that I have done nothing wrong. I know that there are no firearms or explosive devices in my hand luggage. I know that the electronic devices I do possess are benign and that the majority of passengers will also be carrying similar items through to the departure lounge. So why do I feel so threatened?

Now the situation is worse. Security has been heightened in recent years because of the threat of terrorism and made the process even more harrowing for me. Now you cannot even take more than a millilitre of liquid through security.

Of course, with the increased security, every single passenger has to be checked more thoroughly than before, slowing down the process even more, leading to another pet hate of mine; queuing.

A typical security scenario is as follows:

Armed with my passport and boarding card, I walk up to the sign that says “Flight Departures” and see that there is no queue at the entrance. However, when I pass the entrance, I see the first two officials staring at me.

“Boarding card” says the first one with a scowl, looking at me as if I am a dung beetle that has just marched through a particularly nasty looking cow pat. I dutifully hand over my card, trying to appear relaxed. He scans it with his barcode reader and hands it back. My worst fears are realised as I stare past the man into the security room. There is a huge queue for the X-ray machines.

As I stand in the queue, I scan the room observing the passengers and security staff. Most of the passengers look worried. Most of the security staff look angry and belligerent. The queue spirals round to a single point at the end where a mean looking security person points to the next free X-ray machines.

Another security person asks each person in the queue if they have any liquids. Signs appear everywhere stating what each passenger should do before he reaches the end of the queue.

As I shuffle along, I notice that other passengers, some of whom are terrified of flying and extremely jittery as a result, are asking what they need to take off. “Should we take off our shoes?” asks one. “What about my belt?” asks another. The truth is we don’t actually know until it’s too late.

Finally, after what seems like hours, I reach the first security official who’s job it is to direct me to the X-ray machine. He stares at me as if I am a rotting piece of meat and points to the next available machine.

Waiting for me is another security guard armed with several plastic trays. “Take your coat off”, he orders. I obey and hand it to him. “Is there a laptop in that bag?” he asks. “Yes,” I reply taking it out. “What have you got in your pockets?” “Have you got a mobile phone?”

By this time I’m slightly flustered. I have nothing to worry about at all but I am sure that there is something that is going to get me into trouble. He puts my coat, laptop and bag onto the conveyor belt through the machine and waves me through the metal detector.

I stand there waiting to be ushered through and I immediately worry. Will it go off?

And the answer is: of course it will go off. Waiting for me on the other side is a huge unpleasant looking man with his arms folded. He looks like a night club bouncer and stands with his arms folded clutching a manual metal detector. Next to him is a fierce woman with the same stance.

When I walk through the metal detector I close my eyes and duck slightly. I don’t know why. It is an involuntary reaction from a part of my brain that I have no control over. Why do I do it? Do I think that something is going to shoot out of the metal doorway and impale me to the floor with a message “HE’S GOT SOMETHING METAL ON HIM. TAKE HIM AWAY FOR TORTURE!” It’s crazy and I have no idea why. It is a primeval instinct that I can’t fathom. And invariably it gets me into trouble whether or not I set off the alarm. The night club bouncer sees my reaction and probably thinks I have something to hide. So I always end up being searched.

Now these guys can be rough. “Empty your pockets” snarls the bouncer as he frisks me. “What’s this?” he yells pointing at my credit card case. I honestly have to resist the urge to say “It’s a letter bomb that’s about to go off.”

There have been occasions when the female bouncer has been quite attractive. I would love to have the courage to say “Excuse me. Can the lady search me instead?” Thankfully I haven’t because I know that these guys have no sense of humour.

Having been searched, it is now time to pick up my coat, laptop and bag. I usually carry two mobile phones, an mp3 player, a camera and a PSP as well as cables, batteries etc. especially if I am on a business trip. This means that my hand baggage is tightly packed. What usually happens is that the person checking the X-ray machine is pointing at the image on their monitor, an image of my bag to be precise.

When the conveyor belt resumes, my bag comes out and is immediately grabbed by another burly bouncer who growls “Who’s bag is this?”

“Mine,” I squeak.

“Over here,” he snarls.

I have spent hours methodically packing my bag and now this brute is going to empty it, giving me the third degree in the process. He empties the contents of my bag in front of other relieved and amused passengers, asking me what each device is even though it is perfectly obvious. When he holds up what is clearly a digital camera and asks me what it is I have to resist the suicidal urge to say “It’s a lost Picasso masterpiece”.

He asks what every single item is and then dumps them all unceremoniously into a plastic tray and feeds them back through the X-ray machine. Call me paranoid if you like but this happens to me all the time.

On one or two occasions, mainly because of my failing memory, I have forgotten that I have a large canister of deodorant in my hand luggage. The last time this happened was actually two days ago in Johannesburg. I had been working all day and was about to catch the night flight. Naturally after a hard day in a hot office I wanted to freshen up but completely forgot that deodorant was now outlawed. The X-ray man saw this and when my bag emerged, he grabbed it and pointed to the bouncer gesticulating at my bag as if there was a bomb about to go off. I have no clue what he had said but when the bouncer took the bag, he yelled “Who’s bag is this?” in an extremely belligerent tone. Part of me wanted to just leave it. I had no clue why it had been singled out, having forgotten about the deodorant, and my paranoid mind began to work overtime. Had somebody planted something in my bag? Was I innocently carrying something highly illegal or dangerous? I somehow found my courage and meekly squeaked “It’s mine”

The South African bouncer was just like every other one I had encountered and dumped everything out of my bag. He then picked up the can of deodorant and shouted at me as if I were a very naughty child. “YOU CANNOT TAKE THIS.” He bawled, speaking very slowly and very deliberatley, holding the offending item up for everyone to see. I expected more but mercifully he left me to humbly repack my bag.

It is always a blessed relief to finally arrive in the departure lounge. I don’t know why but, like many people, I feel guilty when confronted by officialdom, even if there is nothing to feel guilty about. The sternness of the security people is purposely intimidating and I always feel that they are trying to provoke a sarcastic response out of me just to add some excitement to their day.

Not all security people are the same though. I have encountered some with a little bit of a sense of humour. At Liverpool airport, I walked through the metal detector and set it off. The security man stopped me, made me empty my pockets, frisked me and scanned me with his portable detector. When he had finished, he said “Let me look at the sole of you left foot.” I was still worried so I obliged. “Now the right one” he said. I lifted up my right foot and showed him the bottom. “Now both together” he said. My mind wasn’t working straight so I lifted up my left foot again before realising what he’d said. “Only kidding mate,” he said with a huge grin and patted me on the shoulder.

That was a nice gesture and made me and my mates laugh. I know it’s a serious job but sometimes a little humour breaks the tension somehow. It certainly would for me. I just wish more security people followed that example.

Thursday 24 April 2008

Travel Trauma - Flying (Part One)

I love travelling.

Actually that’s not quite true. I love arriving in a different country, ready to sample the cultural delights and immerse myself in the richness and diversity of the place. The problem is that I detest the journey.

I have been very fortunate in my life to visit many and varied countries through work and on holiday. Imagine my excitement when my company asked me to travel to South Africa for just under two weeks. I have never set foot on the African continent and only once ventured past the equator to visit Australia. I was delighted and slightly nervous but overall looking forward to the trip; until I remembered that I had a ten and a half hour long haul flight following a short hop from Manchester to Heathrow.

Airports frustrate any enthusiasm out of me and this trip was no different. When I woke up on the morning of my trip last week, I was dreading it.

Let’s forget the initial anxiety about turning up in Johannesburg with no luggage; that’s a risk I’m used to. I always take steps to combat that particular threat by carrying extra clothing in the hand luggage, particularly in the underwear department. Of course it does mean that your hand luggage is heavier, which in turn means that you end up arriving at your destination smelling like a sumo wrestler’s jockstrap but that’s acceptable. The chance of you ever again having to meet the poor bugger who has to endure your slowly festering travel attire is pretty slim.

Checking in can be traumatic. These days, what choice do you have? You can either stand in a massive queue of other equally stressed travellers or you can use the instant check-in machines. What a choice. If you choose the queue, the chances are that you will end up shuffling along for an hour, constantly looking at your watch, terrified that you are going to spend so much time there that you may miss your flight. The closer you get to the end of the queue the slower it seems to move. In front of you there is invariably a family of first time travellers who don’t know what to do, or the world’s most anxious or idiotic traveller who is so ill prepared that they can’t find their ticket or passport when their turn arrives. And as you crawl towards the front of the queue, numerous fellow passengers find the automated check-in machines working in fine form. If you choose that option, you end up getting the one machine that refuses to acknowledge that you exist. The exchange between man and machine goes something like this:

Machine: “Please scan your passport or show me a credit card so that I know who you are”

Me: Puts credit card in slot

Machine: “Can’t read that card, mate. Got another one?”

Me: Digs around looking for another card. Puts new card in slot.

Machine: “Can’t read that card, mate. Got another one?”

Me: Rifles through all remaining cards trying them one at a time.

Machine: (In response to each) “Can’t read that card, mate. Got another one?”

Me: Presses screen at point where it says “Try passport”.

Machine: Sits there waiting. Does not respond.

Me: Pokes screen repeatedly fifty times, increasing the pressure and becoming angrier with each prod.

Machine: “Please scan passport”

Me: Puts passport in slot

Machine: “Where’s the passport”?

Me: Spends twenty minutes trying to position passport in right place

Machine: “Hello Mr Plastic Mancunian. Scanning for flight.”

Me: Waits another ten minutes.

Machine: Sorry Mr Plastic Mancunian. I can’t find you. Goodbye”


Helpful Airline Employee: “Sir, let me try”

Me: Hands over passport trying to hold back tears.

Helpful Airline Employee: Presses “Passport” and puts passport in slot. Works first time.

Machine: “Hello Mr Plastic Mancunian. Scanning for flight.” Ten seconds pass. “Flight found”

Me: “AAAARRGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!! That didn’t work for me.”
Helpful Airline Employee: “You should be fine now”. Leaves

Machine: Waits for helpful employee to leave vicinity. “There are no more seats available on this flight. Terminating”

Me: “AAAAAARRRGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!!”. Looks at queue for check-in which now has nearly three hundred people in it.

And the worst thing is that this is just the first part of the trauma of flying.

Friday 11 April 2008

Rhubarb Rhubarb

The thought of rhubarb makes me heave. I can’t help it. I was forced to eat it as a child by irresponsible and sadistic infant and junior school teachers who assumed that I was play acting as I retched when spoon fed the foul substance. Was it so difficult to see that I was clearly in a state of distress? Those teachers are in my black book – even after all this time. What they did was unforgivable and cruel.

Sadly this kind of appalling behaviour was prevalent in the sixties and seventies. The teachers thought they knew better as they shoved all manner of disgusting foodstuffs down our throats; prunes, damsons, figs, dates, liver – the list was endless. But for me, the worst by a light year was rhubarb.

It is the only food of any description that makes me throw up. The taste is revolting and activates a cataclysmic chain reaction deep within my abdomen. Not only does it taste revolting, it looks utterly repulsive. And it is poisonous (well the leaves are anyway).

I would love to know which masochist spotted a rhubarb plant and thought “Now there’s a strange looking piece of vegetation; I think I’ll stew that”. That person is one of my least favourite people in history. Without that person, my sadistic infant and junior school teachers wouldn’t have rammed it down my throat and instilled in me a morbid fear of school puddings.

Saturday 5 April 2008

The Business Bull

One of the things that annoys me about meeting and listening to businessmen is the crap that they speak. There is a whole new vocabulary in business that when assembled together form sentences and paragraphs that are barely comprehensible to the speaker, let alone the poor fools who have to try to understand them.

The philosophy of this business banter is to try to impress the person on the other end of the conversation. In many cases this approach works and you see two people using cliché after cliché in a discussion that is unfathomable to the majority of rational people. I’ve listened to many such engagements and have been flabbergasted, not only at the diversity of the vocabulary and phrases used, but also at the fact that somebody actually appears to know what the conversation is about.

Simple descriptions have vanished. Simple words are extinct in the world of business. Buzz words and phrases have evolved and rule the world of business exchanges and the disease has spread to magazine articles and documentation. It’s a completely new language. It’s unbelievable.

In some cases, these people have actually invented new words, amalgams of existing business words; words like anticipointment which apparently describes situations such as a massive deal that was expected to be sealed is more likely to be lost. Who would be impressed if their boss came up to them and said “There’s a possibility of anticipointment with the Fairfax contract”?

Here are some of the phrases I’ve heard at my own place of work that make me feel like vomiting in disgust:

Black belt programmer
Blame culture
Fire fighting
Knowledge procurement
Knowledge transfer
Living document
Mission critical
Out-of-the-box thinking
Out of the loop
Team player
Technical architect
Technical innovator
The big picture
Touch base

It’s not difficult to find more outrageous phrases if you look hard enough on the internet. Here are some of the best (most vomit-inducing) I’ve stumbled across:

Alpha geek
Best of breed
Core competency
Customer focussed
Digital hygienist
Gap analysis
Intellectual capital
Principle centred
Proactive flexibility
Strategic paradigm
Thought shower

It’s not difficult to create entire sentences loaded with these phrases. I found a couple of bullshit generators and came up with the following “mission statements” (sorry should have mentioned that in the above lists):

We envision to professionally supply scalable products to exceed customer expectations

We exist to seamlessly negotiate mission-critical leadership skills while continuing to globally coordinate high-payoff methods of empowerment

We reinvent architecture synergies

It is our mission to unleash robust solutions

Our priority is to synergize rogue technologies

We capture innovative paradigms, procure customer-centric knowledge and produce best of breed performative topographical and sustainable infrastructures for mission critical solutions

That last one was all my own work. Can I have a job?

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Art for art's sake

What is art?

I’ve asked myself this question over and over again and have yet to come up with an answer that satisfies me. Officially, the generic word “art” is used to encompass anything that is pleasing to the eye or the ear or invokes a deep sense of positive feeling within a person, be it a painting, a sculpture, a play, a story or a piece of music.

Before I crank up a gear, I am aware of the old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that different objects will summon a variety of emotions and feelings in different people. But I have to ask the question: Is it just me or are “contemporary artists” just extracting the urine?

Let me start with arguably the most controversial topic in modern art: the infamous Turner Prize.

The Turner Prize is named after Joseph Mallord William Turner, an Impressionist painter who died at the age of 74 in 1851, and was recognised as a talented artist. In his lifetime, he painted several masterpieces, including Eruption of Vesuvius, a truly magnificent image of the famous volcano exploding in all of its extraordinary fury as helpless people watch in astonishment and terror. When I look at the painting, I know exactly what I am witnessing; the imagery and colours combine to present a superb representation of the experience of the sheer ferocity of Mother Nature at her most destructive. I would happily hang it on my wall and stare at it with a positive feeling of awe and splendour.

Turner’s name is now part of history and naming a modern art prize after him is an honour and will help to preserve his name in the archives of history. The Turner Prize was first presented in 1984 and is a competition organized by the Tate gallery for what is loosely termed “visual” artists under the age of 50. In 2002, the prize money for winning this prestigious award was £40,000, not a sum to be sneezed at for a young contemporary artist.

You would expect the ghost of J.M.W. Turner to be delighted that his name has been given to arguably Britain’s most famous art competition. However, I don’t think he would be happy at all. In my opinion, Joseph Mallord William Turner, a truly talented artist, would turn in his grave if he saw the candidates for the prize.

The Turner prize raises the debate about art every single year that it is held. I would challenge any person who thought that he could define art to think again given the incredible pile of old crap that candidates submit for this award.

Let’s look at some of the pieces on offer:

"Mother and Child Divided", which basically featured a cow and a calf sliced into pieces and encapsulated in glass cases. I mean, COME ON! What sort of critic would call that a work of art? If you want to see a cow and her calf butchered why not go to a slaughter house and see it first hand?

This pile of crap is “critically acclaimed”, a phrase that so-called intellectuals use to try to convince ordinary people that what they are looking at is not actually two sliced carcasses but in a fact a meaningful and significant masterpiece.

Do me a favour. Anybody with half a brain can see that it is as disgusting a pile of crap as you would imagine it to be. For heaven’s sake IT’S TWO DEAD COWS!

But that’s not the worst one. What about “The Lights Going On And Off”, a “work of art” that consisted of an empty gallery in which two lights go on and off repeatedly. Has the world gone mad? I can reproduce that in any room in my house. How on earth can somebody con even a half wit that this is art?

And what about "My Bed"? This monstrosity was basically an unmade bed, complete with condoms, dirty knickers, stained sheets and piles of rubbish strewn around it. If that is art then frankly I give up.

To me, “work” like this is just the product of an experiment to see how far people can go, fooling the art world that they are a serious genius. To me it is the work of somebody who is pushing the limits of credibility. Sadly the people being targetted are gullible enough to love the products, even though to the majority of people these pieces really are worthy of nothing more than mockery.

It all goes to show that the so-called elite of the contemporary art world are not pushing the boundaries of art; they are merely pushing their luck to the point where they are taking the absolute piss. So many people can see it. A few people agree with me and yet pretend to “get it” so that they don’t appear to be thick in front of the in crowd of art critics.

In fact, in many ways, art critics and art experts are just as bad.

I recently watched a programme on BBC2 where an art correspondent walked through a modern art museum describing the pieces of detritus hanging on the wall in a series of words and phrases that defied logic and belief. One particular painting by Jackson Pollock consisted of a grey canvas with random splashes of colour, dripped onto it in random patterns. I would have described it in the following words:

Pollock was obviously inebriated when he painted this piece. I would wager that he returned home from a bar, barely able to stand, and thought it would be a fantastic idea to throw a piece of canvas on the floor, open five pots of paint and pour the contents onto the canvas whilst giggling inanely.”

An art critic or expert would describe this painting in the most wonderful phrases, attempting to put himself inside Pollock’s head as the artist expressed his deepest fears and neuroses in an abstract model of pure expressionism that brought to life his innermost feelings and displayed them in a way that his public would identify with; of course the random splashes of red would represent his misguided anger at the unfairness and complexity of life; the black sprinkles would represent his fear as he tries to take control of the rage and succumb to its raw energy; the yellow trails of paint would symbolize hope that he could extract himself from the depths of despair and finally the blues and greens would signify the beauty of nature and life. The miasma of colours would be the struggle to exist and any philosopher would immediately identify Pollock as a true visionary who had captured the struggles of life in a single picture and force us all to contemplate where we are coming from, what our purpose is in life and how we are ultimately going to prevail despite the forces combating each other to prevent us.


Don’t be fooled. Art critics think they are intellectual and that the rest of us are neanderthals with no sense of understanding. Don’t be fooled and don’t listen to them. It is they who are the gullible fools and the contemporary artists are nothing short of conmen who extract vast quantities of cash from these so called intellectuals by pushing the limits of ludicrousness as far as they can go.

I suppose in that respect they could be called geniuses; only most of us are not fooled.