Going for Gold

Groan…I must not watch rhythmic gymnastics…I must not watch rhythmic gymnastics… Only five days into the marathon which is the 2000 Olympics coverage, and the strain is beginning to tell. Thanks to the ten-hour time difference, I have spent the past week being lulled to sleep by the sound of coxless fours on Radio 5, and woken up by cheers from the badminton arena. My days are spent pouring over collated table tennis results on the Reuters news feed at work, and cheering as Britain passes the Bulgarians in the medal table. Thank heavens it’s only once every four years.

At least it’s in Australia – it would have been ten times worse had it been in Manchester, who were defeated in the final round of voting for the honour of staging the games. I still treasure the memory of the crowd in Manchester spontaneously bursting into Always Look on the Bright Side of Life as the news of their rejection came through. All credit to the Aussies though, for running what seems so far to have been a strikingly well-organised event: I doubt Manchester would have done quite so well, even in Moss Side would have offered ideal territory for the shooting competitions. Sawn-off shotgun from the prone position, anyone?

It’s weird how the Olympics capture such a hold on the collective imagination, when few of the sports which are popular the rest of the time take a full part: no golf or motor racing at all, while the top competitors in football and baseball don’t take part. But for me, the joy is less to be seen in these events, than in the ones which you rarely or never get to see: they flower briefly, enjoying a day in the sun, then vanish for another four years. Would you know what “double-trap” was if we hadn’t won the gold medal in it? It’s a miracle we manage to compete in shooting at all, since post-Dunblane, possession of anything much bigger than a pea-shooter has been forbidden. Similarly in gymnastics where the British women had to deal with the problem of possessing actual breasts, unlike most of the other competitors.

Which brings me to beach volleyball, which is the complete opposite, being a sport in which silicone implants appear to be part of the rigorously enforced, minimalist dress code. It’s not a game we can expect the Afghan Taleban to be submitting a team for in the near future. This Olympic version of Baywatch, all teeth, tans and tits, also features the best-named pairing of the Games so far – or at least, the couple most likely to be mistaken for a lesbian porno double act – the magnificently-monikered American duo of Holly McPeak and Misty May. Although for sheer class, you can’t beat another fog-influenced American, swimmer Misty Hyman.

Still, you can’t deny that beach volleyball actually is a sport, unlike certain I could mention – let’s just say that anything where marks are given for “artistic impression” and the like are on dubious grounds, at least until oil-painting and ballet become Olympic events as well. The decisions over which sports are in, and which are out, seem almost random: it’s clearly nothing to do with popularity (Graeco-Roman wrestling, anyone), but gratifyingly, neither are commercial or televisual potential apparently anything to do with it. Badminton is in; squash isn’t. Go figure. But who wants to watch athletics anyway? A sport with all the spectator appeal of horse-racing, as far as I’m concerned — the sprinters take three times as long to get ready as they do to race, while you might as well tune all but the final lap of the long-distance races. And as for race walking…what the hell is that all about? Hey, make it a three-legged race and have done with it. Me, I’ll be eagerly tuning in to the climax of the sail-boarding instead – that’s real sport…

War of the Robots: Robot Wars vs. Battlebots

Non-stop violence

What better way to wind down after a tough week at work than with a little mindless violence? And for the couple of years, the first dose on a Friday evening has been in the shape of Robot Wars, BBC2’s glorification of mechanised mayhem which pits radio-controlled robots against each other in a demolition derby of titanic proportions. There can be few finer sights than seeing a lovingly-constructed machine being reduced to shrapnel in under sixty seconds.

It’s originally an American concept, but only recently has it become the televised spectacle there, that it is here, where it’s regularly among the channel’s top-rated shows. The American version, Battlebots, is on The Comedy Channel, of all places, home of South Park, rather than a network channel, and this, together with the relative novelty of the show as yet, may help to explain why…well, to quote a housemate, “They’re a bit crap aren’t they, these Americans.” For it does have to be said: the British entrants have already been through several years of evolution, and it shows. Rather too many of the American ones look to be relying on “naive charm” as their major offensive weapon, and a robot capable of flipping the opposition, a common sight in Britain, would have a field day.

Donna D'Errico shows her credentials

There are a number of other differences, both in the presentation and the content of the show. While Robot Wars has the cheerfully ignorant Craig Charles, Battlebots opts for something which looks more like a regular sports show, with two (mildly sarcastic) presenters in the studio, to deliver the almost inevitable stats without which no American sport is complete. Both shows have a lady in the pits, and this element is a definite win for the Brits. Even though Phillipa Forester has gone to have a baby, her replacement is still better than former Baywatch bimbo, Donna D’Errico. However, the American version does hit back with nifty little segments showing the builders “at home”, in their garages or dens, even if usually this does only confirm that they need to get out more.

For the Battlebots contests themselves, there is an announcer in the “ring”, like at a boxing match, though woe betide any robot with a tricky name, as he has a nasty tendency to slaughter them – Mjollnir, Thor’s hammer from Norse mythology was rendered as muh-JOLL-neer, which I don’t think is right… There are also no house robots with which to contend (not even the entirely useless ref-bot introduced in this series of Robot Wars, but there are rather more in the way of booby-traps, including a vicious double circular-saw with a camera mounted between the blades, which gives an interesting perspective.

The two episodes of the American edition I watched didn’t appear to have much in the way of a tournament, though there were vague references to one a little bit down the line. Interestingly, while Robot Wars has only one weight category, with a maximum limit, Battlebots has several, up to and including some super-heavyweight creations which are undeniably impressive. I also enjoyed the ten-man…er, ten-machine Robot Rumble, a free-for-all which certainly proved to be eventful, if perhaps not quite as skilfully controlled as a traditional head-to-head contest!


It’s not, in the end, fair to compare Battlebots and Robot Wars in their 2000 incarnations, since it’s obvious that four years of network exposure will lead to more interest and entries than a rookie show on a cable channel. There have been a couple of attempts before to pit British and American robots against each other, and the lack of American experience has been obvious. However, before we get too cocky, perhaps we should remember how we used to regularly win the Ryder Cup too… I’ve no doubt that the Americans’ day will come.

That Petrol Emotion

My, what an interesting week. For a while there, I felt like I was inhabiting a 70’s TV series (remember Survivors?), with the entire fabric of the country about to collapse into anarchy and chaos. No such luck, however, even if the petrol companies obviously were not trying too hard to get the tankers out the gates.

Esso’s response to the crisis

I can see their point, even if the (hastily changed) decision to increase the price the same day the blockades finished must go down as one of the stupidest in the history of capitalism. They do all the hard work, take the risks and make a couple of pence profit. The government comes along, in its wide-brimmed hat and platform soles, smacks them around a bit and rakes in 60 pence on every litre. That’s the kind of mark-up any pimp would be proud of. They bleat about how it’s an “environment tax”, to dissuade people from using their cars but, to extend the metaphor, would you give credence to a drug lord justifying who jacks up the price of heroin and says it’s for your own good? You need to stop people wanting to use their cars, by removing the need (how many mega-malls have the government allowed to be built outside of towns?), and giving them alternatives, in the shape of a good public transport network. I don’t have a car – haven’t had one for five years or so – because it’s simply not necessary in London. But if I still lived in Forres, it would be a necessity.

It was almost inevitable that sooner or later, people would say “enough’s enough”. Seeing the French complain, at lower tax rates didn’t help, and nor did the general perception that huge piles of public money are being poured down the drain in Greenwich. If we’ve got so much cash to throw around, why are we taxed so heavily? Fair question. It’s been seen by successive governments as an easy cash-cow to milk, with each Chancellor squeezing the udders ever tighter, each budget jacking up the price a bit more. But unlike booze and fags, fuel is now – as we’ve seen – essential to everyday life. [Booze is merely essential to get you through everyday life…] It’s hard to see why petrol should be so heavily taxed when, for example, electricity isn’t.

What was startling was how few people it took to bring everything to a grinding halt, and the speed at which the crisis exploded was also very encouraging to any would-be revolutionaries. The modern approach of minimising stocks may be efficient, but if the chain of supply breaks down, for whatever reason, you’re stuffed. When Thatcher took on the miners, in the last comparable action, she prepared by making sure coal stocks were built up in advance. With no such chance this time, the crisis rapidly exploded from nothing. And so much for the Blitz spirit — fist-fights on forecourts, panic-buying in supermarkets, the works. Hell, I even went to the bother of killing my neighbours and salting their corpses in the cellar for emergency consumption. I’ll miss them…

I find Blair’s refusal to bow to the protestors also very interesting, given his government’s willingess to accede to the demands of the far more violent anti-hunt lobby. I always thought democracy was about the government doing what the people wanted. Silly me. I’ll end with a quote: “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.” Which radical expressed such anarchic views? Karl Marx? Che Guevera? Mao Tse-Tung? Nope. Abraham Lincoln, in his 1861 inaugural address. Somehow, I feel politics, and politicians, have changed in the 140 years since, and not for the better.

Hold the Front Page!

I am, in general, a big fan of technology. But let me add a couple of important qualifications to that statement, for experience has tempered my enthusiasm markedly. I discount what might be called “selfish technology”, which is anything that improves things for you, while irritating everyone else. Mobile phones are the most obvious examples, and I’d also add those little folding scooters to the same category, having been nearly mown down – on the pavement, I might add – by some idiot yuppie more often than I’d like to remember. And can anyone over the age of 18 ride one of those things without looking a complete twat? I think not.

The second caveat is that the freakin’ stuff must work. Few things are capable of causing more irritation than lame gadgetry which fails to function in the intended manner. It should serve man, make progress through everyday life a bit smoother, yet some cases appear to have the opposite effect. My Walkman, for example, has been teetering on the edge of breaking down for the past year – never reliable, yet never quite faulty enough to merit buying a replacement. It’s one of those “soft logic” players, and this is perhaps the problem, since the buttons are so sensitive that stepping off a kerb can cause it to switch on, off, or change the direction of play. When this happens four times inside two minutes (beep-reach-in-switch-on-beep-reach-in-switch-on), I start to dream happily of the day when it ceases to work altogether, and I can take it out of my pocket, and introduce it repeatedly to the nearest hard surface. For the moment, it usually responds, at least temporarily, to a hard slap. So if you see an individual who appears to be punching themselves in the heart, Fight Club style, that’ll be me, releasing a bit of tension by smacking the shit out of the recalcitrant beast in my breast pocket.

Every bit as irritating is my current nemesis, a piece of software excrement called Front Page, which I have grown to hate with genuine venom over the past month or so. It is supposed to be an aid to web designers, allowing the easy creation and maintenance of pages and sites. If you still believe this after working with it for a few months, you probably also think that paperclip thing in Word 97 is an endearing character. I’ve never used Front Page and already loathe it, because it has reduced people I care about to the brink of tears. When I witness intelligent human beings reduced to nervous wrecks, by psychological terrorism on a CD-Rom, I get mad.

I am, I admit, biased, having learned HTML from the bottom up – Front Page is thus, to me, a redundant piece of software, doing nothing I can’t, and what it does, it does with a startling lack of efficiency. Just as a one-line Word document bloats up to 20K, so the output from Front Page is grossly top-heavy, with unnecessary tags and entire sections which are only of significance to…Front Page. If you want to try and debug the results, it’s hard to pick through the badly-formatted verbose garbage. For someone who hasn’t been grounded in HTML first, it must be almost impossible. Even more insidiously, it has a nasty habit of corrupting pages written by other methods. It tries to seduce them to the dark side of the force, by inserting additional code, or simply over-writes them with its own version, doing so without telling the user [It strikes me that if something arrived from the Phillippines and did this, it would be referred to as a virus — but since it comes from Seattle, it’s called a Microsoft product, and will probably be compulsory before too long.] Trying to prevent it doing so appears to be futile: it may be the first piece of software with an ego coded into it, which refuses to tolerate the existence of any other method of working.

I’m sure there’s a place for such programs, to take the hackwork out of generating large volumes of code – and I’ve heard some good things about Dreamweaver, which is a little more expensive, but apparently superior. But my bad experiences have left me feeling highly suspicious of the overall benefits. It seems to me that, just as with guns, radioactive material and Backstreet Boys CDs, access to the current generation of HTML editors should be limited to those who can prove a genuine need for them. The rest of us should stick to writing the stuff by hand; it may leave the Net less graphically groovy for a bit, but in the long run, it will turn us into lean, mean coding machines rather than coached potatoes.

Escape From New York

Yes, a very pleasant weekend in New York, thank you. I’ll spare you the details – you’d only get jealous – but do want to mention a couple of airport incidents, which shed an interesting light on bureacracy and those that enforce it.

#1. On the way into America, you have to fill in a visa waiver form, stating you’re not a war criminal, drug baron or are coming to America to engage in “moral turpitude” (a great phrase – if I ever find out what it means precisely, I’ll let you know). You also have to give your address in America, which is where I hit my problem: I was being picked up at the airport, so didn’t know the precise address. When I realised this, I naturally spent the rest of the flight sweating in terror – though that might have been to do with the Better Midler movie they showed as inflight “entertainment”…quotes used advisedly.

Lining up to go through immigration, I speak to one of the queue-shepherds, resplendent in full immigration uniform, and explain the position. “Well, you can’t leave it blank. Just put down a hotel,” she says. “The Marriott’s the usual one,” she adds helpfully. I look quizzically at her to see if she’s serious: yep, she is genuinely suggesting I put down a complete fabrication. In somewhat shaky Biro, I do so, carefully noting what she looks like, so I can shriek “It was her! She told me to do it!” as they drag me away in chains. Needless to say, standing in front of the immigration official was somewhat nerve-wracking – every second, I expected “So which Marriott Hotel is it then?” to come from his lips — cue chains, shrieking, etc. Of course, it didn’t and this terrorist entered the USA without leaving a paper trail – I felt somewhat Carlos the Jackal-like. But it just goes to show how easy it is to bypass regulations. Which brings me to…

#2. Thanks to a couple of Chinatown shops clearing out their stock of laser-discs at $10 a time, my hand-luggage was pretty solid on the way out. They made me put it on the scales, and it weighed a bit more than the 13 lb limit…okay, it was actually 25.8. “Too heavy,” they said. I take the laser-discs out, and hand the bag over. It’s weighed, and is deemed close enough to pass. I leave the desk, go round the corner…and put the laserdiscs back in my bag. I board the plane with no further difficulty.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done this – on a previous occasion, I took stuff out of the offending case, and put it in my jacket pockets. Thus, honour was satisfied, the regulations were seen to be obeyed, and life proceded on after a slight annoyance. But you do have to wonder what the point is – why bother? I can understand an overall weight restriction covering all your baggage. I can even understand a volume restriction on hand luggage, since there’s a limited amount of space in the cabin. But within those limits, why should it matter whether your hand luggage weighs one pound or twenty? Of such things – the meaningless enforcement of petty regulations – are air-rages born. It’s interesting that the airlines put all blame for such things on the passengers, despite:

  • banning smoking, leading to stressed-out nicotine addicts
  • plying customers with drinks in a reduced-pressure atmosphere which enhances the effects of alcohol
  • cutting back the air circulation to the bare minimum, especially in economy
  • giving passengers – this is not an exaggeration – about two inches more room than slaves had while they were being shipped from Africa.

And slaves didn’t have to endure any Bette Midler movies either. Of course, there’s no excuse for berserk incidents involving passengers trying to open doors, and so on. But it might help if the airlines took some action to prevent the causes, as well as bleating about increasing punishments for the offenders.