Atishoo, atishoo, their pants fall down

Being caught with your trousers down is never good unless you have a truly spectacular undercarriage. Take the games industry as an example: First, Atari were caught by themselves, Sega and Nintendo. Then, Sony strolled in and caught Sega. Sony, believing themselves now to be invincible didn’t spot that their belt had snapped and were caught by Microsoft’s surprise software innovations such as achievements, Live! and a fantastic UI (which fortunately for them covered up their awful hardware reliability). Sony then got caught a second time by Apple in the mobile market. Nintendo didn’t read the tea-leaves from that and failed to spot that they’d lost a little weight and their pants were sliding down allowing them also to be well and truly snared by Apple and social gaming, mobile and otherwise. In fact, Nintendo were so unprepared that they ended up posting their first ever loss of 575 million dollars (46 billion yen). They simply didn’t see it coming: the world changed around them and they stayed the same.

Nokia's snake slide

Whoops. This particularly generous picture (thanks, Apple's Stocks application!) cuts off the previous few years. Let's just say that Mr Snake is happy because he's been sliding for quite some time...

To be fair, Apple caught a lot of people including the old behemoth of laurel resting and disjointed thinking, Nokia. When Nokia’s trousers fell, it turned out that they had a really, really small willy. Resting on one’s laurels is highly risky: it might be comfortable, but you’re shielded completely from what’s going on in the real world. It is laurel resting that leads one to believe that a 3D hand-held console is just the ticket and that a snazzed up Wii (Nintendo: ‘yesterday’s technology, today!’) is an inspired and brilliant way of continuing the run-away initial, pre-smartphone sales of the Wii. Of course, many people who bought a Wii used it once, perhaps twice, and then it gathered dust: their whizzy trick had no longevity because it was a gimmick that happened to fit the moment. Microsoft’s cost-reduced 360 and vastly superior Kinect didn’t help, either. Ultimately, though, any hand-held device that isn’t also an Internet connected phone is shafted for the time being which leaves Nintendo’s current head-in-the-sand approach looking foolish, to say the least. Trousers. Down. Again. I seriously doubt Nintendo’s first posted loss ever will be their last without a serious spectacles cleaning.

The toy industry is also not immune to thinking that the past way that they did business will be the future way that they’ll do business. Check out Skylanders. Honestly: it’s genius. If my daughter would only hurry up and age three years in the next few days, I’d buy one. For her, you understand, for her. And it’s got the toy industry all nervous-like because they can’t do software. They’ve tried, they’ve crashed and they’ve burned. Activision, though, well – they can do software. And now, it turns out, they can make hardware, too. It’s cheap, it’s easy, the margins must be awesome and in this connected, social media world of tomorrow, it’s what everyone wants: neat integration between the digital and the physical. They’ve built an on-going revenue stream where the average revenue per user has got to be outstanding, or I’m a Monkey’s Uncle. All those crap “new, from Character!” things you see advertised between episodes of Spongebob Squarepants on Nickelodeon? Flashes in the pan, and I’ll bet they know that too: sell it quick before the market fucks off over the hill forever. The global network and smartphones have changed the world and it’s now shake-down time for the slowcoaches and laurel resters.

You’d think that observing the speed at which everything related to our entertainment is changing would cause the prehistoric dinosaur industries like those that are punishing their own customers (I’m looking at you, Hollywood, you jerkwads. Honestly. Ultra-violet. What on earth are you doing? Will you not rest until you’ve pissed off every single customer?) to sit up and say “hey, we need to be a bit smarter here. Or at least a little more pragmatic.” The mere glimpse of new funding models for creative products such as Kickstarter should be causing them all to check their trousers but it appears not. They can live in the past in the present, but not in the future.

But I digress. Back to Nokia. Nokia, you see, know how to make good hardware. What they don’t know is how to make usable software. In fact, they believe that complexity is the key to ease of use; oh, that and unreliability coupled with bending over and taking it up the tradesman’s entrance from the carriers. Needless to say, they were totally unprepared for Apple’s entry into the market (as were the entire mobile industry, frankly). They perceived no threat and as a result, their shrivelled up little Nokia balls shivered on the breeze of foolishness. My love for Nokia started with the GSM 2110 phone many, many years ago back when you needed a reinforced jacket pocket to carry one. It ended with the N95: a triumph of hardware design over usability. I hated that phone more than an hour’s work with a thesaurus could adequately describe. It crashed. It ran out of memory. You needed The Force to find settings. It stopped taking calls. It failed to send texts. It was loaded with carrier “enhancements”. In short, it was shite.

But when it comes to trousers, you’ve really got to admire Microsoft. After everyone’s seen their chime and clockweights, they’re prepared to pull them back up and pretend that nothing happened. So long as you don’t get distracted by dying technologies such as C#, Silverlight and .NET, have the right book (Petzold), pick the primary API (Win32/WinAPI) that’s not going to be worthless in a few years then, well, they’re cool. Also, you have to recognise that Microsoft won’t fix their developer tools properly unless a big customer is in pain. They’d rather spend two years building a new one that’ll cause you to have to make massive investments in time and money to upgrade to rather than incrementally patch: in short, they have an incurable case of Shiny Box Syndrome. Still, all this aside, if they’re wrong, they appear to be smart enough to cut the old crap loose rather than flog a dead horse until it’s a pile of fossilising bones. This may cost a few developers their livelihoods, but as Spock said, the lives of the many…

Curiouser and curiouser, Alice

And it is out of this that an interesting alliance has appeared. So far, it seems to have been a whopping failure, but it is made of the right ingredients, I’d humbly suggest. Nokia build nice hardware — their new Windows phones look and feel great. A commuter on the 18:14 party train showed me his a month ago: it looks good! And, amazingly, it feels good too. The software is nice. It’s not “me too” like most Android customisations (especially Samsung’s: even the blind have to admit that there is more than a passing similarity to Apple’s innovations there), it’s different, it’s novel and it seems to understand that the way we work with our digital devices has changed thanks to a growing reliance on being connected to the global network at all times. Apple clearly have more things up their sleeves on this subject. iCloud is clever, very clever. As a customer retention device it’s the sneakiest for many years because it’s really actually rather good and, oh my, is it easy to set up and use. It’s still half-arsed in many areas (iWork files in iCloud on OSX? Dream on, suckers!), but it has hope if a post-Jobs Apple hasn’t flushed his values into the ground alongside him.

So Nokia’s hardware coupled with Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 looks like a match made in heaven. Hopefully they’ll get further than fondling each other’s boobs in this relationship. Even better, if the carriers don’t take advantage of their current weakness to cull their work at birth then the market will be a lot stronger for everyone if something groovy and different keeps Apple on their toes. But it’s too easy for this to all go tits up: we’re merely at the seedling stage here and it seems like everyone has their axes out to poke around with what seems, to an armchair general like myself, anyway, to be a really good strategic relationship.

Iceberging a strategy that seems plausible

Nokia builds and designs good hardware. It looks good. It feels good. Their software and recent marketing leaves a lot to desire. The marriage to Microsoft is, so far, rocky despite the heritage of Nokia’s CEO. The carriers are moaning (but they always do). The consumers are unsure or unaware. Microsoft, it seems, are not making nearly as much effort as they bloody well ought to given the importance to them that this relationship flies and Nokia have their usual hide-behind-the-sofa-in-embarrassment developer and customer relations running at full steam. If you can bare it, and you probably can’t because it’s so bloody awful, check out this keynote presentation from Nokia World 2011 in London. Skip to 2 minutes 15 seconds, sit back and… well, you’ll see. Try to endure the following 20 seconds without cringing. More cheese than a French cheese festival held in a cheese factory. There is a topping of additional over enthusiasm at 3:27 if you’ve not already exceeded your groan threshold by at least an order of magnitude. Nokia: I know a cuddly shark that can do a better job of evangelising than this guy. Contact me. I’ll put you in touch, he’s been seen in a nearby ocean and I have an appointment to see him again in May.

Nokia and Microsoft: as much as it pains me, the world needs you to get this right. Well, righter, anyway. Take this seriously for three reasons:

  1. Nokia, you make good hardware
  2. Microsoft, this is surprisingly innovative software: it’s up to the levels of the first iteration of XBOX Live! Without the groundbreaking leaps you made there, your users would never have forgiven the initial piss-poor hardware construction quality. Ok, it’s got some way to go to catch up with the feature set of iOS and Android, but still, it looks fantastic
  3. It’s different, in a good way. It complements Android and iOS wonderfully and we’re all better off with a plausible third contender in the market

It’s great not to just have Samsung running as fast as they can in Apple’s slipstream wearing Google’s ‘sneakers of no privacy’. So long as everyone can all stop suing each other for long enough then I believe, for what that’s worth, that the Nokia and Microsoft marriage enhances the entire mobile market significantly with genuine innovation. It’s good for everyone. But, and there’s always a but, it honestly looks from the outside that neither of them are sure it’ll fly so they’re planning accordingly: one foot in the door, but one foot out… just in case. My armchair general’s suggestion is this: no backup plans, no alternatives, go ALL IN, and do it now. And for crying out loud: make sure Windows Phone 8 can be installed on the existing Lumina range and take your developers — especially the small ones — with you. This delicate time is not the moment for Shiny Box Syndrome to destroy any goodwill built so far.

-~-

Unlike RIM, the Blackberry chaps, who, let’s face it, need to pull a gold-plated rabbit that shits miracles out of the hat in order to regain any semblance of success, Nokia has potential. There’s nothing wrong with their hardware and they’ve correctly, in my back-seat driver’s opinion, identified that their software strategy was the direct highway to nowhere. Teaming up with Microsoft looks exactly like the burning platform scenario their CEO was talking about in his 2011 internal memo/blog/whatever it was which is why it’s so baffling to see both sides noodling around rather than quite obviously pulling out all the stops. The opportunity is amazing and it reinforces option “3” in the three-most-obvious-outcomes chart: 1) fade into obscurity, 2) get bought (either by Microsoft or someone else) and 3) perform ‘tactical manoeuvre Apple’. I’m not sure I’d buy shares in Nokia on the back of the potential upside (although at 3.50 I might be tempted…), but I find myself with my fingers crossed. If nothing else, success would stop Apple from being the next laurel rester.


Update, June 2012: I take it all back. Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 is not compatible with existing Windows Phone hardware, thus, if you buy a state of the art Nokia phone this year, you’re screwed. I guess they have a mutual suicide pact in the phone market. Microsoft: you deserve the market share you’re going to end up with after this. Pity it affects everyone else. Nokia: seriously dudes, seriously, what the fuck?

Posted in Armchair general | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Twelve Spider Pile-up

Poor spider. If only he knew.

Mr Spider enjoying the early morning sun blissfully unaware that in just a few short hours he'll be involved in a TWELVE SPIDER PILEUP. Oh, the huge manatee!

My umbrella looks like a twelve spider pileup. Instead of the glorious press-sliiiiide-sproingggg action that it used to do when I deployed it, I now get a urrggghhh, griiiiind, thuhhhhd followed by the sprinkling and tinkling sound of little bits of metal falling to the ground. I love my umbrella. Not in a munching my way through a chocolate bra sort of way, but in a fifteen years of sterling service sort of way. Amazingly, for someone who barely remembers to leave the house dressed in the morning, I have managed to not lose this awesome device. It has travelled to many countries, it has been carried to London and back twice a week for half a year and despite my ability to go to the shops for some bog rolls and instead come back with a bottle of wine, some chocolates and a trifle, Mr Umbrella is still in my possession. The dictionary should define miracle as “Cobra’s umbrella still being with him”. It has protected me from the rain and has sprung to service at the press of a button. You don’t just throw away an umbrella like this, you nurse it through its final days and then, finally, when it is unable to unfurl its beautiful protecting structure it gets a burial and a suitable speech.

Mrs Cobras, of course, would slip it into the bin when I wasn’t looking if she saw just how much work is now involved to get the thing into a position where it is able to protect me from the British weather. It now involves a press, a manoeuvring of several bits of metal, holding one bit with one hand and springing it back whilst detangling some of the skeleton and then a brute force shove to deploy the two thirds or so that actually open. This requires three hands and the last time I counted I had one fully usable one and one that still aches after a bus tried to run me over the other week.

Part of the problem is that stuff like this is hard to find. Most umbrellas I have seen last a matter of months before falling to pieces (“they don’t make them like they used to”, etc., said the old man). Finding one as amazing as mine is a challenge of proportions that are matched only by finding a replacement wallet. I count myself lucky that for a third of my life I have had my umbrella to look after me. My wallet, on the other hand, I simply could not find a replacement for. I have travelled the world checking wallet stores (not specifically, you understand, I just happened to check for wallets whilst I was there so don’t think I went on a world tour just to find a new wallet) without success. Mrs Cobras achieved nothing short of a metric miracle when she found a replacement for me for Christmas. It took me two weeks to move in to it, but I have succeeded…

… although I’ve kept the old wallet. As a reminder. Why, who knows. It’ll sit there on the shelf still full of Chinese and Brazilian bank notes, old receipts and business cards for businesses that no longer exist until Mrs Cobras comes up with a nifty scheme for sneaking it into the bin without me noticing. I don’t know what it is about me and throwing things away. I’m not an obsessive hoarder, but I do – for some reason – believe that credit card statements from 1994 will, one day, have a value beyond laughter. This pretty much made the loft a fossil record: the further back from the loft entrance you moved, the further back in time you went. I had boxes and manuals for electrical devices that I have not owned for nearly twenty years. It took six car loads just to take the old boxes away (whilst doing this mammoth pre-baby-cobra tidy-out I discovered a plate that had the following things on it: a fork, some oven chips and a piece of tomato ketchup that was harder than steel. Given the style of plate, I date it to approximately 1995. If anyone can offer a plausible reason for me to be eating oven chips in my own loft when I have several perfectly serviceable rooms complete with furniture, I’d love to hear from you. I’ve got nothing.)

I’m pretty sure that when we finally move, despite 2010’s extensive clean-out, it will be a voyage of discovery and embarrassment one way or the other.

However, I am pretty sure that all the old “magazines” were safely carted away to the tip.

Pretty sure.

Posted in Miscellaneous rubbish | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

‘Tis the season to eat chocolate: The Universal Cake Recipe

Easter is pretty much here which means spring has sprung and nature is giving birth to a wonderful display of green.

Spring has sprung

This one looks quite good, but you should see the other 40 pictures I took whilst I tried to hold the blasted branch still enough to take a picture of it with a bloody phone. Click for a slight embiggening.

As we all know from Wikipedia, Easter is when we celebrate an event that occurred two millennia ago when a Greek tourist tripped over a carpet in a Rome museum and knocked over and destroyed a pyramid of nearly a thousand chocolate Fabergé eggs worth over a billion Sestersii. Three days later, a team of master Roman chocolatiers successfully assembled enough eggs for the exhibit to continue, but as Cicero exclaimed “the Greeks will be paying this debt for twenty centuries or more”. Even now, over two thousand years later, no museum accident has come even close to the scale of the Rome incident and it has become traditional to mark the occasion by eating chocolate eggs. Indeed, in Italy, so important is the event that it has been illegal not to eat chocolate at Easter since the 1854 Antiquities Remembrance Act. 1854, coincidentally, is when Russia launched the first ever artificial satellite into orbit. Well, it was according to some children on the telly this morning quite clearly demonstrating the need for a good education. Incidentally, the other team on the same program guessed 1996. Even the presenter couldn’t keep a straight face, so outrageous these suggestions were. We don’t need no education, right?

Recipe Blueprint

Ahhhhh, how cute!

Anyhow, there is no law that requires chocolate to be eaten in egg form so perhaps you would like to consider a cake. After becoming overwhelmed by literally one request and as a service to all mankind, I pull back the curtains on the recipe for…

THE UNIVERSAL CAKE THAT EVEN A FIVE YEAR OLD COULD MAKE.

I know this is a fact because I made it at that age according to the original blueprint to the right. I make no apologies for the appalling organisation of this document, I was little.

Right, let us get cracking. I will assume that you have a kitchen with an oven in it and some basic utensils and tools such as a mixing bowl, wooden spoon and a set of scales. If you don’t then shame on you. Go out and buy them. I would show you a picture of what a Pyrex mixing bowl, some scales and a wooden spoon looks like but frankly… call your mother if you need help. It’s probably about time you did anyway.

Now for some ingredients. Let’s first get a sense of scale. Here is a fucking delicious chocolate cake I made a couple of weeks ago.

Hmmm... chocolate!

Hmmm... chocolate! Lots of chocolate. Oh my, yes. Queue here for your allotted drooling time.

This cake is huge. It weighs the same as a MacBook Pro. The ingredients listed here will make this cake with various leftovers. Honestly, if you can’t make a delicious cake from this mix, you suck.

Method

Shopping list
  • A kilogram of self-raising flour1
  • A kilogram of caster sugar (but ordinary granulated is fine)
  • Half a kilo of Clover (or butter, but clover is – wait for it – half the saturated fat! Yey! Health cake!)
  • Half a dozen or so medium or large free-range eggs
  • Some vanilla sugar or vanilla essence

If you want to “chocolate it up”, which of course you will, then get some cocoa powder. You can also add coconut, ground almonds, dried fruit, food colouring or even bees if you wish.

1 Two things: 1) yes, it’s all metric. Like it or lump it, we’re in the 21st century now, folks and 2) get “no-need-to-sift” flour and save yourself a lot of hassle.

How accurate do I need to be?
When I say 200 grams, do I mean it? Well, to within 10 to 15% or so, yes. So don’t worry yourself about a few grams here or a few grams there. Life is too short. Worry instead about how much fruit you’re going to have to eat and how much exercise you’ll need to do to repair the damage your cake is going to do to your organs.

Here is how this recipe works in summary: it’s the egg’s weight in flour, sugar and some buttery stuff all mixed together and cooked at 200 degrees for a “while”. It’ll take you 10-15 minutes to make the cake mix and 22 minutes (for mini-fairy cakes) to around 40 minutes (for a whopping über-cake) to bake and 10 minutes to cool enough to eat immediately. More if you’re icing it.

Now in more detail: Weigh some eggs. Let’s weigh three eggs as that makes about 20 or so fairy cakes or the chocolate layer of the above über-cake. Say that the weight was 200 grams. Now add 200 grams of sugar and clover to the mixing bowl. Beat (that is “stir hard and fast” like you want to give it babies) until these two ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Now prepare 200 grams of the self-raising flour in a separate bowl. Add one of your eggs and about a third of the flour to the existing mix and beat. Repeat until you are out of eggs and flour. If you were making a bigger cake, say a 4 egg cake, the you would add each egg with a quarter of the flour. See? Easy!

Then you can add “all sorts of shit” such as, say, four tablespoons of desiccated coconut or a couple of heaped teaspoons of cocoa powder or some ground almonds. Perhaps you might throw some vanilla essence in or half a teaspoon of green food colouring. The world is your oyster, although I wouldn’t recommend oysters.

Now put your cake into a cake tin. Put in the centre of a pre-heated oven and cook for “about 40 minutes” (but: for Fairy Cakes (non-poncy cup-cakes) 22-23 minutes will do ’em and it’s about one tablespoon of cake mix in each paper thingie). I say about because you will need to interact with your cake here. After half an hour or so, take the cake out and sliiiiide – not stab – a sharp knife into the middle. If the knife comes out covered in goo, the cake needs more time, so give it another five minutes and check again. Remember: be careful, you don’t want your cake to end up looking like Julius Caeser on the afternoon of the 15th March, 44BC. If it is still cooking after 50 minutes then you forgot to switch the oven on.

Baby Cobra Helps

Baby Cobra helping in the best possible way by keeping snakes and giraffes away from the kitchen.

After cooking is complete allow the cake to cool at room temperature before icing it. I present two forms of icing here: chocolate death and simple water icing. I personally can’t stand butter based icing – I think it is too rich and weird. You wouldn’t spread butter on your ice cream so I don’t see what place it has, uncooked, on a cake. Still, you might disagree.

Of course you could also consider a jam filling and icing on top. Should you be doing this, then you’ll want to scale down the below recipe for chocolate death icing or it’ll be thicker than a house-brick.

Chocolate death icing

Chocolate Death Icing ingredients

Just some of the artery clogging ingredients of the chocolate death icing.

You will need half a litre of double cream and about half a kilogram of cooking chocolate. For the cake above, Mrs Cobras and I used a fifty-fifty mix of plain and milk chocolate. Put the cream in a saucepan and heat until boiling. Turn down the heat until simmering and add the chocolate a bit at a time until it is all melted in. Take off the heat, put in a bowl and whisk the living daylights out of it for five minutes or so. Now let it cool until it’s super thick. This might take a few hours so feel free to accelerate the process using the ‘fridge. Finally, scoop the delicious, thick chocolate icing all over your cake. Finish up by sprinkling a crushed flake, mini-mars bars or Cadbury’s mini-Creme Eggs all over it. Phwoooooar!

(As an aside, we tried a cake that used white chocolate in this icing. It turned out awful. It’s like chewing on a stick of butter – it’s not recommended. Cake looked nice though, just tasted… lardy.)

Simple water icing

A breeze to make. Your biggest problem will be misestimating the water requirements and as a result you are likely to end up making too much. Ingredients for this are: water, icing sugar (buy a kilogram, you’ll have some left for the next cake then) and some food colouring and perhaps vanilla essence. If you are really daring, you can replace some (or all) of the water with schnapps or some other highly alcoholic liquid. Put some icing sugar in a bowl, I have no idea how much, oh, say 200 grams. Add a bit of water, colouring and whatever and then mix up. It should be quite thick so if you added too much water, add some additional icing sugar and keep going. Going backwards and forwards between not enough and too much water should leave you with plenty of icing to do your cake. Top off with sprinkle thingies or large chunks of chocolate.

Cake Is Served

Serve with wine, enjoy, then jog 2 miles and double your five a day fruit allowance for a week.

Bakers, to your marks… Get set… COOK!

Posted in Cool stuff | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Zombie Apocalypse

Braiiiiiiiins

Zombie, here, is not looking for dogs. Dogs will be one of the great survivors of the zombie apocalypse. This is because they are spectacularly stupid. Years of domestication has selected for mindless obedience. The net result is that even the hungriest zombie would avoid dogs. Despite the risks associated with having delicious braiiiiins, we really, really don't want this to happen to us.

We all know that the zombie apocalypse is coming, but when, exactly? Well, if the movies are anything to go by, I would say quite soon. Indeed, if you can bear it, it probably makes sense to hang around teenagers as they seem to have the best plans for dealing with zombies shuffling around looking for delicious, succulent braiiiiiins to feast on. Assuming you survive the apocalypse then you will be wanting to get down to the serious business of rebuilding the human race. Where will you start? Obviously there will need to be an awful lot of sex to get the population growing again (something every nerd with a zombie apocalypse emergency rucksack is relying on) but there are considerably more practical issues to deal with, like fire, for example. Could you light a fire with nothing but two empty lighters to rub together? After the shops have been cleaned out, you are going to need to know some basics that the general population have been ill equipped to deal with for some decades now: a basic survival ability that is degrading rapidly.

I got thinking about this when I read Rome Sweet Rome on Reddit. Go read it now, it is a cool short story in which an entire battalion of modern marines ends up 2000 years back at the time of Augustus Caesar. Armed with Apache helicopters, armoured vehicles, rockets, guns and all sorts of other modern magic they could clearly wipe the floor with roman soldiers. Well, for a while, anyway, because all that incredible equipment is one fuel tank away from being utterly fucking useless. I was curious, what of today’s technology could I, personally, reproduce if I was one of the lucky few that survived the brain harvesting of a zombie apocalypse?

Fire, I can do. Half-arsed shelter I can do. And with fire, I can boil water, wash, drink safely and I can cook. Starvation will eventually allow me to kill animals for munching on so from a basic “ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin’ alive” perspective I think that I am ok. But what about electricity and all the wonderful benefits that it brings? What about antibiotics? Aspirin? Paracetamol? Cement? Could I make pottery and bricks? Could I refine oil? What about steel? Or iron, even. Do I even know what iron ore looks like? What about measuring temperature, making machines to move about in, assist with farming or press grapes?

Grapes for wine

I drunk these grapes in their alcoholic form over a delicious dinner just months later.

In fact, on the subject of grapes, could I make wine? Yes, actually, I could, but that is thanks to Mrs Cobra’s parents showing me how. Without the rest of the modern kit and knowledge, though, it is pretty safe to say that my expected lifespan would take a plunge back to that of the late middle ages which probably means I would be living on borrowed time. At least I would have something nice to drink, though, whilst I made my own coffin.

We live longer and happier lives because of scientific development. Our knowledge has expanded and we have gradually done away with superstition and magic and moved towards learning about how the universe around us works and how to harness that knowledge. However, as science advances, the ability for the average person on the street to understand how everything actually works is decaying at a huge rate: the gap between what we use and our ability to comprehend it is growing. Nobody I know is going to be baking silicon and making their own microprocessors. Likewise, it is beyond all but a precious few minds to figure out how to make a modern car work if it breaks down. Twenty years ago, many blokes were capable of stripping down a car to the bone and putting it back together again1. Armed with a Haynes manual, every detail of car maintenance was within your grasp. These days, it is all one massively complex sealed unit with a million times more computing power than the US space program landed men on the moon with. There goes basic mechanics as a general skill that many people had.

Use the brain, Luke

The Internet age is robbing us of something else: the need and desire to have this knowledge either in our brains or written down on paper. Be it a zombie apocalypse, deadly virus, alien invasion, super volcano, massive asteroid strike or surprise dinosaur renaissance, as a survivor you will have to bootstrap humanity without Wikipedia to help you out. Today, the average group of survivors would be lucky to do better than a twelfth century lifestyle. However, thirty years back, it might have been the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Thirty years back from there the gap might have only been a hundred years, if that. Building radios, generating electricity, making pots and pans, creating and using metals, harnessing steam power and all the benefits from them was within the grasp of the average village sized group. With a few non-battery powered books (you know, the ones made of paper), the range of possibilities was even broader. Such understanding is important. Knowing how things work provides a better quality of life.

Modern times are turning us Joe Sixpacks into sheeplike users and operators, not creators, engineers, inventors, researchers and mechanics. We make nothing, but we use everything. Rest assured: your Facebook, web browsing and smart phone using skills have no value at all when you are a lone beacon of hope in a world ravished by brain nibbling zombies. I’ve moaned about this before from the perspective of computers and in the context of my hopes for the Raspberry Pi. Should they ever deal with the supply issues that will allow me to get my mitts on one I hope to find a device build around encouraging learning, building and tinkering that doesn’t frighten a new generation away by smothering them in a bible’s worth of API documentation before they can stick their name on the screen.

Oooo – it’s clouding up

We are increasingly dependent on technologies that we do not understand. In turn, these technologies are dependent on other technologies that we also don’t understand, and so on. Your contact list and email are probably stored in a data centre in the states somewhere rather than in your head or on paper. This blog is served to you from an old bunker at Karlsruhe Baden-Baden airport in Germany. If “The Cloud” (which, let’s face it, is really 1960s terminal-mainframe architecture reinvented2) fails then you’re potentially screwed on at least nine levels.

Now, I am not some sort of Luddite. I love and have embraced the cloud, but I wouldn’t lend it my wallet, rattlesnake or kidneys. I would, though, allow my life to be enhanced by ensuring that my contacts, calendar and a whole bunch of important files are available to me anywhere on the globe where I have an Internet connection. I also love knowing that I can edit this document on several devices and it will automagically be up to date in seconds. Neat. But none of that stops me from taking responsibility for my own encrypted multi-site backups and you can rest assured that I carry hard copies of everything that really has value to me. In the near future a breakdown of either the Internet or your chosen cloud services could render you utterly stupid. Something to look forward to, eh?

-~-

A lack of understanding breeds dependency. It allows the few to control the lives of the many with increasing ease. Whilst most of us will never need to reinvent any of the fundamental technologies that we rely on for comfort and happiness, understanding the very basics of how they work is, I believe, critical to both maintaining our freedom and preventing magic and superstition from reasserting its position in our lives. Knowledge is, and will remain, power. Don’t let your little bit of that power vanish into the Internet.


1 But not me. I can barely change a light bulb.
2 This was a time when computers were real big and real expensive. Thus, many people used one bug computer from lots of dumb terminals that were merely screens and keyboards. Without the mainframe they were connected to, they were useless… which is how you might feel if everything you require is on the Internet and you have no Internet. In the meanwhile, your cloud service has your balls (or boobs, or balls and boobs) in their hands and your ability to work without them falls like a body into a mineshaft.

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Five no trumps. What could go wrong?

Four hearts

This was meant to indicate the bridge bid 'four hearts'. It ended up like this. Someone, save me if it is not too late. Tooooooo laaaaaate!

Whilst I feel like a fallback to the British empire saying this (hahaha! We once had an empire!), I must express my enormous disappointment about the severe lack of bridge players these days. I think of it as a national disgrace. Bridge is a wonderful game for four players that is specifically designed to maximise the drinking and snacking capacity of those four people as they enjoy an evening in. Bridge achieves this miracle by ensuring that one of the four players is always free to pop to the fridge or open a new bottle of wine. Frankly, it is sheer genius that was probably created around the fact that knocking out several gin and tonics is not a trivial affair. It requires concentration and effort and this can severely disrupt a four player game. Bridge, therefore, rocks and rolls.

Quite why I cannot find the two local people that I need in order to start regular bridge nights is, therefore, utterly beyond me. So. For the three people from Cambridge who will feel obliged to read this blog post after I have spammed it to Facebook and Google+, two of you need to contact me about an evening’s bridge playing. I will supply snacks, gin, tonic and lemons.

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What does this button do?

“The only ‘intuitive’ interface is the nipple. After that, it’s all learned.”

Well, restring my guitar, this is interesting in a “come back and haunt you” sort of way. The gist of the article is a bloke from Samsung saying “Apple? Release a TV? They don’t frighten us.” Well, bloke from Samsung, 1) they should frighten you because they understand something that you do not: how to put the customer in the centre of the experience and 2) I really hope that you have a truly magnificent three piece suite as there’s a slight possibility that you are going to get caught with your pants firmly locked in the down position. I own a Samsung television, so I can speak with the armchair-general authority of a customer. Here’s my feedback:

  • The buttons on the front are touch sensitive and cannot be seen or used unless the sunlight is so bright that you can’t see the screen. Indeed, we owned the panel for a year before even knowing that they were even there (more on that later)
  • As is so often the case in this digital age, configuration requires an unnecessary number of screens and buttons to operate with too many layers between related actions. This, coupled with duplicate, obfuscated methods of achieving the same thing but in a different way leads to incredible frustration making any adjustments to the device. In fact, it gets to the point that you think “oh, fuck it” and just leave it on whatever freaky setting you’ve ended up configuring and you’ll never touch it again
  • The remote controller is far, far too complicated. I can program machine code on four different CPUs, one of which I can pretty much do in raw hexadecimal due to not having an assembler back in ’82. However, I’d rather rub chilli-peppers on my testicles than do that out of choice, so quite why Samsung believe that rocket-science complexity was appropriate is a mystery to me and Columbo. Was the layout designed by letting drunken baboons throw things at a whiteboard? Perhaps they believe that users rate their television’s quality by the number of buttons that there are on the remote?

Captain Rattles McCoils

Concorde: marginally easier to use and configure than most modern televisions, although to be fair, Captain Rattles McCoil is going to find it rather hard to open the throttles.
Original picture by Christian Kath before I ruined it by adding snakes

I’ll let them off the backlight bleed because it’s not that bad, but I won’t let them off all this “app” crap, weird Internet configuration rubbish and other features that I care so little about that I can’t even be bothered to mention them. The only person to start any of those features up is my daughter when she found the aforementioned buttons on the front of the TV that Mrs Cobras and I didn’t even know existed. We couldn’t work out how Baby Cobra had switched the bloody telly off just by pawing the front. It took me a fair while to undo the reconfiguration that a 12 month old managed to achieve in seconds. Clearly all this was mentioned in the documentation, but really, reading the supplied manual is an exercise in willingly choosing to have broken glass rubbed in your eyes.

Then there’s the habit the thing has of changing mode all by itself depending on what’s going on with the attached HDMI devices. Its mode change is never to a sensible one, like an active input, it’s always to white noise or a blank screen. A journey through the documentation (hahahaha! Documentation, my arse) and menus made me want to give up in despair. I couldn’t figure it out. Hell, I wrote a multithreaded highly parallelised client-server run-time programmable architecture for MMOGs in C++ in the noughties but can I figure out how to use my own television? It appears not.

So, Chris Mosely, AV Product Manager from Samsung, your problem is that like so many companies before you, you believe your own PR department. This is rarely a good move and may suggest an acute dose of resting on one’s laurels. You may well have 10,000 people working on R&D and you may well have fantastic panels and acceptably reasonable design and presentation of your devices, but if your customers cannot figure out how to use the bloody things, your time is wasted. Just like the pure, unadulterated joy I felt when I was able to move from my Nokia N95 (what a pile of utter shite that was from a UI perspective) to an iPhone, if Apple release a TV, the thing that they will get absolutely positively right is the entire user experience: end to end. You will not need to have a doctorate in UIs just to use it. It will work. Out of the box, which in itself will be a wonderful thing to unpack. And it will be a pleasure to use. You may well have some of the best panels but they do not auto-configure meaning manual configuration is the only choice. I gave up. One of my friends gave up. We’re not fundamentally stupid people, but in the end, your amazing 10,000 person researched panel is sitting in my living room poorly configured because you, like Nokia before you, are thinking more about the hardware than the user experience.

You’re not alone, though, Chris, in this live, rolling train wreck of buffoonery: take the other components of my AV system such as the amplifier/receiver thing that even a musician who works with this stuff couldn’t figure out, oh, and that was supposed to configure itself. “Front left speaker missing”. No it fucking isn’t. It’s right there. Look: there is a lamp on the top of it. See? In fact, the only device in the whole pile of incompetence that doesn’t deliberately make your life a misery is the XBOX 360 and you wouldn’t believe how painful that is to admit given the super-duper-low build quality. The UI on that is a pleasure to use – which is good, because it sounds like a jet engine when it is on and my first one blew up (but not before it had scratched several 50 quid game disks beyond repair).

It has taken my wife and me an unacceptably long amount of time to work out how to use the four remote controllers that we need in order to make our viewing monstrosity function and Chris, I blame people like you. You’re so obsessed with the performance of the engine that you’ve not noticed that the steering wheel is triangular, facing the rear of the car and is in the boot. You, and others like you, have fooled yourself into believing that your average person cares two decomposing sparrow’s balls about the screen quality being slightly better than anyone else’s. They don’t. They care about it working, being easy to use, looking reasonable and working acceptably out of the box without having to fiddle with six sliders that mean nothing to anyone except A/V experts. On top of this, most customers won’t place it correctly, won’t view it from the correct angle or height and will leave it on whatever rubbish configuration it ships with and thus wouldn’t be able to spot the panel’s supposed superiority anyway. It is about time that the manufacturers of the electrical devices that we use in our day to day lives started from the user experience and worked backwards. This is why Apple continue to shit on incumbents in various markets – invariably there are better specified devices out there in all fields, but none of them just BEG to be touched, held and used. None of them capture the owner from purchase onwards.

Of course, it’s unfair to pick on Samsung exclusively because we’ve all seen worse. So Samsung only win tonight’s RUNNER-UP PRIZE. Which is me calling Chris Mosely a “Nucklehead McSpasatron”. It’s the prize at keeps on giving! In second place it’s Panasonic. Their DECT phone, which I have the misfortune to own, has the second worst user interface I have seen in my life. I honestly believe that it was designed as a practical joke: there is simply no other rational explanation for something so stunningly awful. They win an entry in my Panasonic DECT phone’s internal address book in the unlikely event that I can ever figure out how to do it. Put your hands together, folks, for Panasonic! Yeeeeaaahhhh! But really, and the reason we are all here tonight, is to welcome to the stage our GRAND WINNER. *tears open envelope* Oh my! ladies and gentlemen! Our winner tonight, by a country mile, is ANGELCARE and their outstandingly complex Baby Monitor! Nominated because two adults couldn’t configure it WITH the manual, when sober and with a good half hour in hand and also because it could ship with just three easy-to-use buttons and a knob instead of a complete micro controller based “interface”. The judges felt that it showed over-engineering at the user’s expense to levels that will be talked about for decades to come. Speech! Speech!

Angelcare can collect their prize from the prize-dispensing machine below. It should be a breeze to use as its user interface was designed by consultants from Panasonic, Sony, Sharp, Nokia and Samsung with additional help from the chaps at Microsoft who designed the Ribbon Interface. The overall project management was provided by the same people who built GIMP’s “UI” and the documentation is helpfully provided in a bloody great book in 45 languages (including Klingon and ancient Egyptian) which is printed in Times New Roman 1.5 point.

Prize Giving Machine: Angelcare's winning trophy is nearly in their hands!

Well, this machine looks easy to use. Of course it could have just been one button labeled "Give me my prize, you bastards!" However, given the expertise involved in its design, it should be pretty straightforward, right?

User interfaces are important. If that seems like a statement of the bloody obvious, you should consider just how wide the gap has become between your fingers and the operation you intend to perform in modern appliances. Angelcare1 won the prize because of their spectacularly non-obvious interface: without the documentation, it is close to impossible to figure out the operation of the device. They came down with a particularly serious case of “mode-fever”. It’s easy to explain with an example: in an old telly you would have a couple of knobs (teeheehee, I said “knobs”) to control contrast and brightness. On this interface, the gap between fingers and operation was zero. You could twiddle them one at a time or both at once and it was a doddle to adjust it to your liking. Furthermore, it was so easy that you’d do it all the time to counter light changes, programme type, etc. Generally, therefore, you were looking at an appropriately configured device. The finger-to-operation gap on my Samsung TV is broad enough to require a suspension bridge. Angelcare’s is so vast that you could slip three planets in and we’re not talking plutos here, either. There is no need for this gap. A good user interface uses itself and you barely notice its presence: “Don’t make me think”, as Steve Krug titled his book on human-computer interaction. The obsession with hardware over user experience will end and it will continue to end badly for some who will go down still baffled as to why. Nokia are still figuring out to get out of their rut after Apple creamed them (although letting someone else handle the UI is a good step).

I’m baffled as to why it isn’t obvious that making your customers feel stupid, frustrated, or angry makes incredibly bad business sense. I have a list of manufacturers or devices that I wouldn’t recommend to my worst enemy and my friends are likewise armed with their experiences and stories. Things go wrong. No device or interface is perfect. However, if the overall experience doesn’t net out positive, then ‘Tellafriend’ causes incredible damage especially in this modern, connected social networked world.

-~-

Apple may or may not be releasing a television at some point. I hope that they are. I know that it will be expensive, but people’s time and happiness is highly likely to be worth enough to bridge the gap. If it happens, companies like Samsung are likely to get caught with their pants so far down that you wouldn’t be able to find them with the Hubble telescope. The aftermath as everyone attempts to catch up should end up being a positive thing for the consumer who, one day, may even be able to configure and operate their own devices. Wow, eh? Won’t that be incredible!


(PS – special mentions in these awards go to Britax for the “documentation” that shipped with their otherwise superb Cow-moo-flage car seat. Mrs Cobras and I were simply speechless. It might as well have been in invisible ink. Despite our love for the product, as a result of the documentation, I’d think twice about recommending it to anyone: hell, even I could write documentation that would be at least two orders of magnitude cooler than theirs even if I was drunk)

1 I feel I ought to say that we wouldn’t have been without the Angelcare device but really, did it have to make such an effort to make us hate it? Reconfigurations were a waking nightmare. Oh, and how’s this for irony: at the time of writing, their link to their awards goes to a page not found. They can feel free to collect their award from me any time they wish if they need content on that page.

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Book Club

The first rule of Book Club is that we talk about Book Club as often as we can because books are cool. Recently, I read The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It was forced on me by my friend whose family the Cobras stayed with over christmas. Thick enough to beat someone to death with, I regarded it with suspicion. The Lord of the Rings books are also that thick and they are unbelievably verbose. Let’s face it, no matter what you think of ‘em, you have to admit: Tolkien uses 1000 words where 100 would have done and that makes it hard work. You have to put in effort to read those books. I want the pages in my book to turn themselves. Not because there is some freaky octopus-spider mutant thing doing it, but because I’m so tied up in the book that I’m reading that I simply don’t notice the pages go by. I want to see the book. In short, I want suspension of disbelief. I want to be there. In the book.

Blast, it seemed so real until then... Snowdrops!

... and I thought I was really there for a moment before reality was piddled away achievement by achievement

Begrudgingly, I looked at the back of the book’s cover. Meh. Medieval this, cathedral that, castle here, church there, blah blah blah. Well, frankly, on a scale of 1 to unexpected orgasm, my parts didn’t even twitch. Let’s face it, it didn’t exactly look like my field of interest. However, everyone around said “oh, that book is amazing, you won’t regret it”. So, with a Caipirinha passing by every minute or two I read the introduction and begun.

There is then a “scene missing” of about ten days. I remember the story, I remember the characters, I remember the tears, the smiles, the laughter, the sadness and I can picture all the major scenes. I saw that book as though it was a movie or as though I was there. I don’t, however, remember turning the pages. This book simply read itself. I sat in front of it and absorbed it. Isn’t that amazing? To me, that’s a sign of a brilliant author penning a fantastic story using incredible structure and economy of words. Nothing was wasted: each and every page contributed to the experience… and I must say, what an experience. If you have not read this book, I recommend it: it gets five out of five snakes on the Cobra rattle-scale.

If a book, which is just a pile of paper bound together with glue, can take me to another world with such effectiveness, why is suspension of disbelief so hard to achieve in computer games? With the book, the author must construct the renderings in my mind. He must put faces, expressions and emotions into the characters that are so effective that I don’t notice that black ink on white paper is what’s doing it. That’s hard and it is a skill that I simply do not have. I’ve tried to write fiction before with no success (at one point, I wrote 30,000 words of a novel that was so fucking bad that it is eclipsed by Vogon Poetry by fifty furlongs and a country mile). I guess I could practice, but even looking at my previous efforts makes my eyes burn.

Books aside, I just don’t understand why computer games represent such a challenge; modern graphics can draw scenes of incredible fidelity, render characters with extraordinary emotional depth and modern computers are powerful enough to model the physics and dynamics of a world to such accuracy that not only can it look real, but it can feel real.

One of the rare occasions that I felt true suspension of disbelief in a computer game was Elite on the BBC micro. Written in ten or so thousand bytes of memory and relying on emergence like you wouldn’t believe it created an environment that you could fall into with such ease that it should probably have carried an addiction warning. Even though the graphics were shudderingly bad by today’s standards, they were utterly remarkable by what was believed to be possible at the time. It was 3D! THREE-DEE! That’s one more dee than two-dee. And I had a spaceship! At last! In the quarter of a century that has slipped by since, Moore’s Law has held true and by jingo have we moved on. Yet, in so many cases, the characters in computer games are wooden, their personalities stale, their interactions totally implausible and the environments they inhabit feel wrong… for some reason. Then, in the few cases where I do fall into an environment, there are a stack of things to remind me that I’m playing a computer game. Things like achievements popping up on the screen, menus, odd statistics and unrealistic measurements like some arbitrary “health value”. In fact, in most cases, the whole UI represents a constant reminder that I am playing a computer game and not part of a world. Of course, this doesn’t even touch on being jerked from absorption by poorly disguised technical restrictions. Why is there an invisible barrier here? Why can I pick up that rock, but not that one? Why do I need a key to open that clearly rotten wooden door when I could knock it down with a sneeze if the artwork is supposed to be even remotely accurate?

Development and design philosophies appropriate for the creation of meaningful, plausible virtual worlds are a subject of their own entirely which, mercifully, I’ll ignore today. What it boils down to is that I want a Holodeck. I want the Matrix in my living room. I want to visit a virtual world and be there.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a plan. It has been cooking for nearly half my life. Let’s hope that I don’t die with it, eh? I am, after all, getting old.

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The youth of today

Elderly Snake With Pipe

Grandma, go get my gun. I'm going to town.

Iremember when I was a youth of today. Then, today becomes yesterday, then yesterday becomes the 80s and the 90s and with a radio retune to BBC Radio 4, I find that the only rocking drugs I am doing are paracetamol and ibuprofen and Gin and Tonics are the perfect drink for almost all occasions. As for clubbing, well, more often than not, these days I am in bed asleep before they even open.

I still feel young, but I can’t help but notice the odd change or two. I find that some modern music annoys me enough to change the radio station. I have started talking about the good old days when tunes had lyrics, people were nicer and the summers were longer and warmer even though that’s probably all bollocks. As well as turning me into a miserable old bastard, age has also delivered some unwanted physical changes. I get two day hangovers – an absolute outrage that mere words cannot explain. I completely fail to function if I don’t get enough sleep. I started to get a little beer belly (although having baby cobra put an end to weight gain). But most noticeably, I found my first grey hair.

Everyone gets grey hairs. This time last year, I had three. Now, I am losing count. Speaking of hairs, I now have hair where I didn’t have it before. The last time this happened it was puberty which was the beginning of a wonderful voyage that involved girls’ boobs and bottoms and legs and things. This time, it is a voyage into electrical appliances that I NEVER THOUGHT I WOULD EVER OWN (and frankly, didn’t even think existed) like a nose hair shaver. I mean, COME ON, a NOSE HAIR SHAVER? Then there are the hairs that grow ON my ears. That’s right, pop-pickers, ON, not IN. Mrs Cobras occasionally grabs one and pulls it out when I am hugely unprepared. The eye watering ZING has ensured that I regularly now hunt down and exterminate the longest ones to save myself the agony. I feel like I am de-evolving; a hypothesis supported by my increased enthusiasm for bananas.

So imagine my surprise when some teenager recently asked me if I was old enough to buy the mini-bottle de vin rouge which I sorely needed in order to fully enjoy the train ride home. I giggled politely until I realised that she was serious. I convinced her otherwise, fortunately, but it amused me that the last time that I was not legally able to purchase alcohol there was a USSR, portable music players held one album and were the size of house bricks, computing devices were not cool under any circumstances and the word Facebook was generally preceded with the words “LOOK OUT” and immediately followed with a book. In the face.

My, how time flies. It is 2012 and I still don’t have a rocket pack or flying car. Honestly, what are scientists doing with their days?

Oh, and I have a hairy toe, too. How the hell am I supposed to shave that? Try to contain your rampant feelings for this.

(PS: it will be my birthday soon, I will be in my “early 40s”. Feel free to send me gifts. I shall be baking a cake the size of a mill wheel that will need so many eggs that there will be hens that can’t walk for a week)

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Big beer, little beer, glass of wine

Big Fish, Little Fish, CardBoard Box!

Grand poisson, petit poisson, boîte en carton...

So Mrs Cobras and I were at a hotel in Montpellier recently sitting at the bar (go on, act surprised, if you can) trying, unsuccessfully, to get Baby Cobra to sleep whilst waiting for the restaurant to open. This bloke in his 60s came up to the bar and said to the barman, painfully slowly:

“Laaarrrggggee glarrrrssseee oooovvvvvv wwhhhiiissssky.”

Meanwhile he’s frantically illustrating ‘large’ by doing a vertical version of the big fish, little fish, cardboard box dance. Then, to reiterate (mostly because he misinterpreted the barman’s look of astonishment as non-comprehension) he said: LAARRRGGGE. GLAAARRSE. WHISKY. Honestly, it was like an episode of Father Ted. This time he used the international student sign-language for drinking alongside Big Fish to ensure that the barman couldn’t possibly miss the two key elements of his order: 1) drink, 2) large. I was a gnat’s chuff away from helping out and adding the “s’il vous plaît” for him but managed to resist, mostly because I had just paid OVER SEVEN FUCKING EUROS FOR A BEER and my wallet was in a state of shock.

The barman replied, in what I thought was a class-A act of sheer genius, “Yes sir, of course. Which whisky?” whilst passing his hand along the quite respectable assortment that they had. He scored additional bonus points for speaking better English than the – now slightly deflated – customer.

All this just begs the question: how can you get to that age without knowing how to say please, glass and whisky in French? How? And why did he think that patronisation on truly BIBLICAL levels helped? And did he not realise that he looked a mammoth Nuckle-head McSpazatron1 with his dances? I have danced better than that when there was almost no blood left in my alcohol stream and this guy was sober at this point. He let down big fishes, little fishes and cardboard boxes all over the world with his feeble efforts.

Anyway, as a clearly much needed service, this third article on learning French will concentrate on what you, yes, you, need to know in order to avoid being dangerously sober the next time you are in France. Hopefully, it will spare you the embarrassment of demonstrating that a pair of testicles on a hill of springs can dance better than you can.

Since you are a discerning drinker, you will probably be sampling the wine first so let’s crack on with a brief example before delving into the details of the verbs, nouns, adjectives and other grammatical jigsaw pieces you will need in order to get utterly roasted. Oh, and don’t worry, I promise not to use any grammatical terms without explaining what they are in words that won’t require a dictionary; I can’t remember what an adverb is, par example, but I am sure that it is most important. Let’s start with a picture. Some say that a picture is worth a thousand words. They are wrong. This one is worth, oh, eight words, but it should get you started:

The mediterranean looking nice at sunset

You almost certainly know more about French pronunciation than you think you do. When you buy a bottle of Pinot Noir, do you order pie-knot-know-ear or do you order pea-know-nwahhhh? Likewise, when you see a chav in a Renault Clio zoom by with green neon under-lighting, do you mumble something involving some bad, bad words and renn-alt or those same bad words followed by renn-oh? Lesson one, therefore, is if there is a consonant at the end of a word, you do not pronounce it. Vin, the word for wine, is therefore pronounced “vah”, not “vinn”. The only general exception to this is if the following world begins with a vowel. In these cases, you can run the two words together joining the consonant into the vowel. That sounds complicated, so let us illustrate with a petit example. “You have” in French is vous avez. You can pronounce this as two separate words “voo” -gap- “aveh” or, you can join them together and say “voozaveh”. What you can’t say is “vooze” -gap- “aveh”. So, lesson one’s appendix says “pronounce the consonant only if you are running it into the vowel at the start of the next word”. The footnote, here, is that “H” in French is not pronounced at the start of a word so bear in mind that H words tend to begin with a vowel once you have mercilessly chopped the H off guillotine style. The Americans, I understand, use this as an excuse for pronouncing “herb” as “‘erb”, but they’re not fooling anyone.

A green car, please
Of course, unless you had a terrible quantum accident and live outside of London in the 1970s, you will never order a wine by colour much in the same way that you don’t order “a green car” or go into a restaurant and ask for “a meal”. Wine, like anything wonderful in life, comes in all sorts of delicious varieties and you should make it your mission to try as many as possible. My favourite, as my regular reader will know, is castle nine-popes. (The exception to the order-by-colour is the vin de la mason, the house wine, where you might order a litre of the stuff and ENJOY IT ALL! Muuuhahahahahahahahaha!)

Now we know how to say “wine”, we will need to know les couleurs. Rouge, blanc et rosé for red, white and rose. Pronounce these rooge, blanh and rose-eh. That é sound is ‘eh’. In French, adjectives (describey words) that depict size or weight go in front of the noun just like English. But, colours and everything else go after. Thus, in French, it is a large wine red rather than large red wine.

C’est facile, oui? (It is easy, yes? C’est is an abbreviation for ça est)

So, will sir be wanting une bouteille (a bottle, pronounced ewn boo-tay) or just un verre (a glass, pronounced uh verr)? Clearly after all this effort, a mere GLASS won’t be sufficient, so let’s put this all together in one glorious order for a bottle of red wine (it is France so you are probably eating either beef or horse thus red is most appropriate):

Je voudrais une bouteille de vin rouge si’l vous plaît.

Ohhhh, sneaky new words added! Literal translation:

I would like a bottle of wine red if it pleases you.

Nice, eh? Anyway, after your meal you will probably end up at the café-bar next door. You will go “for a coffee” but of course you will be drinking beer. Your excuse will, eventually, be something along the lines of “but I want to sleep tonight” or “but decaf isn’t proper coffee.” But that’s not important right now, the matter of the beers is.

Une bière, s’il vous plaît, Monsieur (pronounced: eewn bee-air, seelvooplay, muhsyurre).

Note that we have said Monsieur, not garçon as you may have seen in some woefully badly researched movies or television programmes2. Why? Because garçon means “boy” and it is incredibly, incredibly rude. Unless you want Michael Winner’s Special Sauce in your beers, be polite and use Monsieur. It translates to about 50% Sir and 50% Mr.

You may be asked if you would like une petite bière ou une grande bière. You may like to pace yourself with small (petite, pronounced pet-teet) 250ml beers or you might perhaps like to “be English” and dump 500ml down you at a go. Either way, you should know that small is about a half pint and large is about a pint. Give or take the odd twenty millilitres. “But Cobras!”, I hear you ask, “I was buying peas the other day and I purchased petit pois, NOT petite pois!” This vegetable related conundrum does indeed uncover a viper’s nest, and I would be delighted to field that question. In French, nouns (things) can be feminine or masculine. This, despite the gender related words, has bugger all to do with male and female. The army, for example, is feminine in French. However, this does have an impact with words like “the”, “a” and describey words like little, big and what nots. You may have noticed the presence of the odd “une” in the above examples to indicate “a”. Here’s a tedious table to explain all this:

  Masculine Feminine Plural
A (indefinite article) Un Une Des
The (definite article) Le La Les1
1 Why? Well, take the example of “les couleurs” for “the colours”. In French, the ‘s’ at the end is not pronounced so this alternative is used to clearly indicate we’re talking about colours as opposed to a colour. It’s the same in many cases in French: “my friend” and “my friends” translate to “mon ami” and “mes amis”. I rarely need the latter, but it’s important to know.

Top Cobra3 tip: Not sure whether it’s ‘une’ (ewn) or ‘un’ (uhh)? Just touch the ‘u’ or ‘l’ and then say the word afterwards. If you make it smooth, nobody will be able to tell which one you used. All being well, they will assume that you got it right.

With words like little, though, that e for the feminine has a significant impact: from lesson one above, we know that petit is pronounced ‘petty’. Petite, on the other hand, is ‘peh-teet’. Oooooooo, nasty. There are some rules, but generally, you will learn from what sounds right and fortunately it is not a crime in France to get it wrong unless you’re in Paris where you might get the piss taken out of you but that’ll mostly be out of earshot. You will be forgiven. Laughed at, but forgiven. However, my takeaway advice is to avoid using the word cat or dog in any context and you will sidestep the embarrassment of getting the gender of those two mixed up (yes, the meaning does change into what you think it does… but which is which?).

Enfin, voici un tableau de mots et de phrases pour tes soirées: (Finally, here is a table of words and of phrases for your evenings out. I use ‘tes’ as opposed to ‘votre’ because I like to think we’re friends after all this time)

I would like … a beer, a glass of wine, a bottle of wine please Je voudrais … une bière, un verre de vin rouge/blanc/rosé s’il vous plaît
Can I have another beer, please? Encore de bière s’l vous plaît
The bill, please L’addition, s’il vous plaît
No, I have not had too much wine Non, je n’ai pas eu trop de vin
Can you get me a taxi/ambulance please? Pouvez vous appelez-moi un taxi/une ambulance, s’il vous plaît
Nearly eight Euros for a pint? Are you insane? Près de huit euros pour une bière? Etes-vous fou?
OK, I will go and drink somewhere else. Ok, je vais aller boire ailleurs.
Yes, and the horse you rode in on. Oui, et le cheval que vous montiez?
‘tion’ in French, like in L’addition, is pronounced “see-on”.

Next time we will look at the past tense so that we can talk about what little we can remember about our evening out on the tiles. We will also discuss what Michel Thomas calls “handles”: two verbs that you can use to get you out of all sorts of trouble by ensuring that you rarely have to remember how to conjugate any verbs; handy after a few jars, right? À la prochaine!

Les Cobras
(PS: There are other articles in this poorly researched series)

1 This wonderful insult is from the Spongebob Squarepants movie. See it. It rocks and it features PLANKTON!
2 Much in the same way that British meant cockney for so long in American movies
3 Well, not quite a Cobra tip, more a Michel Thomas tip that I’ve ‘borrowed’

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Tuesdicoccus Daylori

Tuesdicoccus Daylori

He's moved out from our place leaving us with just the usual rivers of Baby Cobra bogies.

Germs, germs, germs. The Cobra family have had so many of them this year that we were beginning to think that we had value to medical research. Of course, we blame Baby Cobra: she is a germ magnet. A cute one, but a magnet for microbes nonetheless.

The latest round of infections have attacked first Baby Cobra, then me, then Mrs Cobras, then me again and then Mrs Cobras for a second time. All in the last eight weeks. And all symptoms starting, Mrs Cobras observed, on a Tuesday. Clearly, this germ carries a calendar as well as a selection of nasty symptoms. It’s best that I describe the symptoms with a picture rather than words to avoid further misclassification of this web site (you should see how many people find me because their hovercraft is apparently full of eels):

Three terrible symptoms

Even with MY artwork, this should be obvious... oh, and the first two often happen simultaneously.

We have an official name for this germ: Tuesdicoccus Daylori. We feel that it is appropriate. As much as we hate this particular miniature misery machine, we have come to know it and we feel that it has come to know us, too. A sort of human-germ relationship that works on the basis that symptoms won’t kick off, say, at 8PM when boarding a Ryanair flight from Germany, but will start once we are safely home and the heating is on. For that ALONE, Tuesdicoccus gets a tickle of thanks. However, as much as we appreciate the infection-delay that allowed us to survive a packed flight with an eleven month old baby, we’re done now.

So, please Mr Daylori and your millions of little brothers and sisters, it has been interesting and slimming, but can you move out now? I’ve packed your suitcases for you.

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