Friday, December 31, 2010

A rare film review post

I don't much care for film. Sad but true. Most movies could easily be packed into one hour, and so they should be. And it would be cheaper if they were on tv. So they should be. I mostly find films too long.

But Christmas is the season for watching movies, I guess. So this year I've relented and watched a few on DVD.

1. The Toy Story set:

I bought Buddy a box set of the Toy Story movies. I watched the first one. Meh. Napped through the second. And watched the third. Brilliant. Dang if that wasn't one of the most well-constructed, sentimental, and perfectly paced films I've seen in a long time. Funny, too.

This broke our one-family Disney boycott (for their support of more restrictive copyright laws).

2. In Bruges

After we went to Bruges (that's in Belgium), people kept telling me I should see In Bruges - a tale of two hit men hanging out in (yeah, you guessed it Bruges). Even people who know I don't like films told me to see this. When I saw the DVD going for cheap in a supermarket, I bought it and just finally got around to watching it. It finishes up pretty gory and there is certainly some silliness in props and plots, but boy does it capture Bruges. It was like a video memory of our little trip to Bruges - if we'd gone as Mr Pink and the rest of the Reservoir Dogs crew.

And it was well worth it for just for the Belgian joke (I won't spoil it) and a hilarious case of mistaken identity. If you've ever been to Bruges, I highly recommend this film - it'll remind you of all the precious moments you spent in the old town. Like - oh look - a gun fight where we had lunch or awww a suicide/murder moment where we stopped and let Buddy play. He had such a lovely time on that slide.

Down the chute

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Things to do in London with time on your hands

The writing has been on the wall for some time. It was in red, in parentheses and had minus signs out in front. The public sector purse has run dry. The money's all gone. It was fun while it lasted, but like a sailor on shore leave we blew through it all on fripperies and whores (i.e. consultants)*.

Of course, it's not actually as bad as all that. Projected spending cuts are only taking us back a few years in terms of public sector spending. And let's face it, when certain regions of the UK have over 70% of their GDP as public sector spending something is seriously unbalanced. It isn't sustainable.

But where I work, and I work on the public pound, they are taking an axe to the payroll. I haven't had my P45 (pink slip) yet, but let's just say I don't see where I fit in the new organisation. Which is a shame, as I'm doing some really good work and I am excellent value for money (I would say that, wouldn't I). That doesn't mean things can't change or that there maybe still isn't a place for me where I work, but it does mean that I'm not there for just any job. No individual is indispensable, but staying on the same path isn't the only way to achieve what you want.

So what will I do with time on my hands:

1. I will take a step back from public life to concentrate on spending more time with my family. And I mean that with depth of sincerity of any politician...

2. I will become a kitten farmer**. When we were in the market for a new cat, I couldn't believe how much a regular old cat went for in London. Or how hard it is to get a cat from a shelter. We had to go through a RIGOROUS interview process and pay for the privilege before we got our (excellent) cat from Battersea. All I have to do is drive to the regions and pick up a breeding pair and in a matter of a couple of months, I'll be raking in the cash. Plus, there will be an infinite array of cute kittens which I shall capture on video and post to my blog for advertising revenue. I hear that the Internet loves kittehs.

Otis as a kitten

3. I will become a reality tv star. With more and more channels all the time, there's more and more need for reality tv. And I'm more than ready. The Vol-in-Law thinks we may be a bit boring for a reality show, but I don't think so. I'm sure we'll learn to play up for the camera. And we have a cute kid who I can teach some cute catch phrases - he's already saying "Watchyou talkin' bout?" and "Go on, go on" - two catch phrases that have worked well in sit-coms. Plus, all those kittens!

4. I will finally take the plunge and pursue my dream career of country music star. I will not let my lack of musical talent hold me back. I will be wearing a lot of fringe and beaded shirts and exotic skin cowboy boots. Oh yeah.

5. I will market my skills elsewhere. My passion for better governance is unabated. And since I love what I do and love working with a lot of the people that I work with - the passionate and inspired ones anyway - both inside and outside my current organisation, I want to keep on doing that. And I'll find a way.

* actually that isn't entirely true - there was some genuine improvement as measured by the targets and PIs which were determined centrally as well as some good local stuff, too. But this performance was often bought at a high price without much in the way of sustainability if the money's all gone.

** an ethical kitten farmer, not a news-at-6 type kitten farmer.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

He wants to be bad

I used to be a performance management guru. No. Really. Anyway, one of the things that I really stressed was communicating performance expectations. You can't expect people to perform to a certain standard unless you tell them what that standard is. Too often there's an un-communicated ideal, and it's really no surprise when people fail to live up to that.

But I'm not saying that it's easy to articulate that, as managers or teachers or team members we often don't know exactly what we want. Or as parents. For the boy, on a day to day basis, it's hard for me to remember to spell out exactly what kind of behavior I want. But yesterday, I did and I was rewarded with a good boy.

The boy had been begging to see Peppa Pig's Party, a play for children staged in a central London theatre. Peppa Pig is a popular cartoon in the UK, featuring a precocious little piggie and her little brother George, Mommy Pig, Daddy Pig and a array of friends (Suzie Sheep, Pedro Pony, Danny Dog). If you haven't seen it, here's a nice bootleg clip from YouTube.

It was heavily advertised on buses and even a flier on the door to his nursery. I made some vague promises about going to see it, but the boy knows our track record on such things and continued to make a fuss. I finally caved in and bought tickets for the 28th of December (and just as well I did, as only seats with 'limited view' were still available). I showed him the ticket receipt. I marked it on the calendar. I think he was almost as excited about Peppa Pig as he was about Christmas in general.

The night before, I was set out my expectations. That we had to get out on time so we could pick up our tickets at the box office. And that this meant he had to get dressed without argument (a common problem). He had to be very good and not run off while we were in town. And that during the performance he had to stay seated and be quiet.

The next morning he begged to get dressed. He stuck with me through complicated Underground line changes. He stayed seated on the train. We arrived slightly ahead of schedule and picked up our ticket. He didn't run off when we got to Piccadilly Circus, although he did check out the map (his latest obsession). He did ask for a light up toy they were selling at a concession stand, but since he'd behaved so well through our labrynthian travels through the many stairs of the grand old subterranean Criterion Theatre.

We got to our seats so early, I thought there might be trouble, but the Peppa Pig spinner I bought for him kept him occupied for the half hour we waited for the show to start. Ridiculous amount of money well spent.

spinner we bought at Peppa Pig's Party

He sat quietly throughout the performance. A little too quietly perhaps, as there were many calls for audience participation and when I was singing and clapping he told me to stop. "Shhh, mommy quiet," and he held a finger over his mouth. And "Stop singing,".

Afterwards he asked for a Krispy Kreme donut when I stopped into a local store for some ibuprofen. (The performance was good but it was loud.) He was good in the bookstore and good on the long-ish walk to Green Park (a station from which we could travel without complicated underground changes). He had a tiny melt-down in Fortnum and Mason's (a luxury food and hamper store) which meant we didn't buy any over-priced fruit candy or Turkish delight which I'd had my eye on. But we had a lovely time opening all the sample pots of select teas and smelling the darjeeling.

We had a brief little wander through Green Park, feeding the pigeons with the leftover from my donut (too sweet and icky). And when the donut was all gone, we turned on the spinner and they took off with a woosh. It turns out that pigeons are very scared indeed of small boys wielding Peppa Pig light up spinners.

feeding the pigeons in Green Park

For a three and half year old boy on a big day out in town on the busy streets of London he behaved incredibly well. And I told him so. And later on that night, I told his dad, too in his hearing about how impressed I was. But that's when his conduct took a turn for the worse. He was clearly upset by this. It's as if he doesn't mind being good when it suits him, but he'd rather have the reputation of a bad boy. Can't imagine where he gets that.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas lies


I was never sure how I was going to handle the whole Santa Claus thing with a child. I like Santa as a concept in "Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus" kindness in people's hearts kind of way. But I don't like Santa in the "We must all tip toe around this great fiction and go to great lengths to preserve this collective lie or else it will ruin Christmas" kind of way.

It's clear that the nursery the boy attends has gone to some great lengths to fill their heads with tales. The boy has come back talking of "Father Christmas" and if he's coming and when he's coming and nothing at all of Santa. I have indulged in a little bit of "maybe Santa will bring it" when he pesters me over some longed-for toy.

Of course, I did issue some big whoppers this Christmas. One in particular over the Fisher Price Imaginext Space Shuttle that's been heavily advertised over the past several months. I did buy him the space shuttle, but unfortunately the boy spotted it and wanted it straight away. "Sorry," I said. "That's a present for another boy, but maybe you'll get one. Maybe Santa will bring it." There were a lot of tears, but eventually the boy gave up. "That's for another boy," he said a bit forlornly and eventually stopped mentioning it at all.

Except when I asked him what he was getting for me. "What do you think Mommy wants?" I asked. "A white space rocket," he replied confidently.

On Christmas morning the Space Shuttle was opened and I snapped the moment of reveal. I may be reading too much into it, but I think something on his face isn't just the joy of receiving the longed for toy. I think there's a bit of "I knew it! This was for me all along."

Christmas morning

The biggest lie of all
I did tell another Santa related lie at Christmas. This was on a trip into town. We were riding the Underground. The boy loves to sit on the flip down seats on the Northern Line. And near the flip down seats by the sliding doors is the passenger alarm. It's red, it has a pull down handle and it must be down right near irresistible to a little lad.

Here's what happens if you pull the passenger alarm. The train stops. The driver must leave the driving box at the front and traverse the length of the train to investigate and re-set the alarm. And then he/she must weave back through all the cars and people and their luggage to get the train moving again. It causes delay. It makes the driver grumpy. It makes the passengers grumpy. You may be fined, and you might well be subject to some kind of withering announcement over the train loud speakers. And you will definitely be the subject of some under-breath mutterings of a most unpleasant nature.

But the boy didn't know all that. All the boy knew was that it was an interesting looking contraption which begged tactile exploration.

"Hey, Buddy - don't touch that!" I lurched forward and covered it with my hands. As he was trying to pry my fingers away, we were attracting the horrified stares of our fellow passengers who all wished to get to their destinations without any further delay.


"Well, uh - because..." and I faltered. If I told him that it would make the train stop would that just make it a more attractive proposition? Would he just long to pull it even more? All that power, making the train stop. I could see the worried looks around me as fellow Londoners understood my predicament.

Improper Use

"Because if you pull that, Santa will DIE."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ice to the eskimos

ice lit up, originally uploaded by London looks.

This morning I accepted a package from a failed delivery to a neighbour's house. Normally I'm happy to do this, but today it was against my better judgment given that package was HUGE and took up a substantial portion of my tiny house's entrance way. I had fears of it lingering in our house over Christmas.

The box said it was an 'air cooler' a little portable air conditioner, but obviously what was inside the box had to be different. After all, we've had record cold lately and although today was the first in a while that it's been above freezing for a bit, I'd hardly say it was tropical. I relented because it was probably somebody's Christmas present or a whole bunch of Christmas presents and I'd have hated for it to go back to depot turning me into the Grinch who stole Christmas.

Thankfully my good deed was rewarded when a few hours later my neighbour (who, this being London I would not have been able to pick out of a line up) arrived to pick up his giant parcel. He was surprised by the size and told me "I ordered this one because our house is very hot."

I must have looked at him strangely. "It's hot in our house," he explained "it's not good for me."

OK. Merry Christmas, I said.

It really was an air conditioner. Ordered in December and apparently to be used in December in the snowiest coldest December in London in living memory.

I was imagining that they're running some kind of marijuana/cannabis farm inside their terraced house to produce such heat. Otherwise, just open a window, my friend.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks and its most visible champion, is under house arrest on a beautiful country estate in the east of England. He's wanted for questioning in Sweden in relation to complaints of sexual assault.

In my day to day work life, I'm a proponent of open government. More open data, more open governance, more open, more open, more open. But clearly there are limits*. But where those limits are is not clear. People like Julian Assange and other open government activists are playing an important role in campaigning for more openness. They are muck-rakers and there can't be significant change without stirring up a little muck.

But how much muck is too much? And oughtn't there be a little discrimination in the muck that's stirred? When millions of cables are released, there's no way either the leakers or the publishers of leaks can have read them all or made a decision about the value, importance or rightness of releasing the information. My natural instinct, even as a proponent of openness, was that this was wrong because it lacked thought. And wikileaks has a history of publishing data without sensitivity, failing to redact individual names, even in cases where being identified might mean death.

Having listened to an interview with Julian Assange this morning on BBC Radio 4, I can see how the organisation is, as ever, a reflection of its leadership. Mr Assange apparently lacks discretion or sensitivity.

I don't know the details or the truth of the allegations of sexual assault. But I do know this: Julian Assange is a prick. A prick either without much sense of irony or a supreme sense of irony (my organisations does not encourage leaks, he says - and that organisation is called, ummm - WikiLeaks). When Mr Assange and his legal representatives complained of his personal information being leaked by the Swedish prosecutors, I had to do a double take.

But his claims this morning that having to be electronically tagged as part of his bail conditions was 'emasculating', really took my breath away. Yes, that's right - the primary concern here is his healthy sense of masculinity. And he seems to dismiss the seriousness of the allegations by suggesting this is all just a big misunderstanding - that his alleged victims were in a 'tizzy'. Silly women. Clearly, they must be confused, don't they know what a privilege it is to be assanged? After all, many other women have been very 'generous' to him. How many we don't know, as a "gentleman doesn't tell." As one Tweeter observed, a gentleman may not tell or count, but a gentleman DOES wear a condom when requested.

All heroes, perhaps especially revolutionary heroes, are necessarily flawed characters. It does take an enormous sense of self to take audacious risks like those Mr Assange has taken. I still believe that openness is important and work to support it every day, but I can't help but think that the more the founder of WikiLeaks exposes himself, the less helpful he is to the cause of openness.

*and yes I do recognise the irony of preaching openness from a pseudonymous blog. But this isn't a secret blog, it's just an approach I take to help me keep my work and personal lives a little separate.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Frosty's on his way

We went out in the garden today with grand aspirations of snow man. It was pretty cold out there, so we settled for a squat, evil snow robot instead.

But even though freezing conditions and more snow are predicted for the coming week meaning that Frosty the evil robot snowman might have lasted til Christmas or beyond - his life, as well as his stature was short. "Let's kick him!" the boy said. But I held off the tide of destruction just long enough to grab the camera to give our creation some digital posterity.

tearing down the snowman

Then we (well, mostly the boy) threw snowballs.

This one didn't get me:

didn't get me

But this one did:

This one did get me

Saturday, December 18, 2010

snowy walk

snowy walk, originally uploaded by London looks.

The heavens opened and dumped a truck load of snow on London. Again. The perfect day for staying home or perhaps only venturing as far as the local cafe. But we had agreed to meet the boy's grandparents at the Imperial War Museum. Since they'd come down all the way from Scotland* it seemed churlish to cancel.

Actually the Underground was running ok and the boy was a little trooper through the snow. And he loved seeing the rockets and planes and tanks and stuff.

*not sure how they're going to dig their way back into Scotland


The boy has a natural sense of curiosity that we wish to foster and nurture. But there are limits to what we will encourage. These are experiments where we've had to draw the line. Although sadly, lines were drawn too late.

1. Plastic forks AND crayons in printers
2. CDs jammed into a PC drive
3. Two DVDs at once into a combi TV-DVD player*
4. Milk on a laptop keyboard
...and the latest...
5. Poker chips in a wii disc drive**

fixing the wii

*when we finally bought a new and multi-region DVD on the cheap and hooked it up to the tv-dvd combi machine it took great offense at being supplanted and coughed up both the jammed DVDs - a minor tech miracle.
** UPDATE: After one failed attempt to fix the wii - I gave it one last try and it seems to be working. Turns out there are about 8 screws in a wii console that you really don't need at all.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Cowboy Knight

The Cowboy Knight, originally uploaded by London looks.

It's the nursery's Christmas party today, and they demanded that the children arrive in 'fancy dress' (American translation: costume). I knew I had two costumes I could pull together at short notice - cowboy and knight. I could have done pirate,too - but that would have taken ironing - so that was immediately ruled out.

I asked the boy "Do you want to be a cowboy or a knight?"

His response: A cowboy knight.

Well, of course.

Never mind that he looks a bit like he's headed to a costume ball of a white supremacy group raising money for 2nd Amendment rights protection, I'm sure it will be a lovely Christmas party.