The only thing funnier than the bonkers Daily Mail is its equally over-the-top readers. Take a look at this report on how M&S’s £10 Meal Deal – which includes a bottle of plonk – is apparently unwise because it encourages couples to share a bottle of wine a night.

This “British Liver Trust”, whatever that is, is doing itself a disservice – by attacking people who drink a little more than clinically advisable (which is itself sensible given we have to live in Brown’s Britain) it’s ignoring the far bigger problems of cheap booze and girls-drink-free that start the problem in motion among teenagers.

Four or five units a night “unwise” for men? Perhaps – but not by much. And the side benefits of regular drinking – optimism, joie de vivre, the way the world looks better through the bottom of a wine glass when your house is worth less than your mortgage, your taxes go unthanked into countless New Labour schemes, and a raft of services from rubbish collection to road repair now have to be paid for direct from your pocket – make the tiny additional risk to your digestive system worthwhile. In fact, they make living worthwhile.

Besides, most middle-class couples I know would regard the offer as giving them an EXTRA bottle to drink in addition to the one they’ve already got out of the garage…

Did ANYONE actually throw a Windows 7 party?

My word. I’ve only just seen the actual video Microsoft made to promote its “Windows 7 Launch Party” campaign, and I’m utterly flabbergasted at just how excruciatingly awful it is. It’s destined to be a true cult classic, even if the spoof versions are almost as funny.

We have a term for this in the marketing biz: “Adland”. Adland is that strange place agency people go where the reality distortion field around the product is so vast you think people will actually behave as you want them too. Whose idea was it? Who at Redmond actually thought people would think it cool to sit around each others’ kitchens and use Windows 7??!! They’re in Adland.

First off – the over-obvious nods to “diversity”. Yes, white folks, Windows 7 is so cool that black people will enjoy partying with your elderly relatives! And what’s great, too, is that everything’s so “informal“! In fact, the younger woman is so certain of this she uses the word “informal” at least seven times during the video.

But the best part – the most self-consciously, toe-curlingly, mood-strainingly terrible part – is the dialogue and the forced actions of the actors trying to pretend their laughter is a natural occurence.

These lines are actually spoken:

“It’s best to install Windows 7 several days in advance of your party”, with approving nods around the kitchen table.

“Of course, you don’t actually have to do all the party activities to use Windows 7.” – and the astonished gasps when the geeky white guy says he did THREE activities… holding up three fingers to demonstrate his counting ability. Whoa!

And how about that unintentional slip by the older woman:

“Of course, it’s all up to us (correction) you.” As if the embrace-and-engulf strategy had accidentally been put in the script and she corrected herself.

And how about this for data security policy: “It’s best to just leave your computer on and let people mess around with it!” Remember, it’s INFORMAL.

Then near the end:

“Of course, the serious part. Decide what you’re going to do a few days in advance, watch the videos, read the handouts” – oh, this sounds a bit FORMAL!

And the black guy: “It’d help me to remember I’m not a salesman at this party.” Bet he is in real life though; he’s not going to get rich for his acting ability.

Anyway, as they say in the video, “Have fun out there!”

Taking the blows

There’s nothing like having your own punchbag. I’ve just bought a “man-shaped” one, “man-shaped” here having the expanded definition of men with no arms, legs, or head and whose bodies resemble an upturned skittle. (And who are capable of levitation.)

The fundamental skills common to most boxing-derived fighting styles – stances, striking, and keeping your guard up – can be practiced with any weighty object. You can even have a go on a wall if you think you’re ‘ard enough. But the one I’ve just installed in my garage is the best kind for Krav, because it swings around: it’s a moving target.

Set it swinging, and you’ve got something marginally resembling the kind of big drunken bloke you’re most likely to be randomly attacked by, allowing you to practice all the basic blows against its marked targets.

The jab. The uppercut. The roundhouse. The hammer. The sucker. The open fist. The closed fist. You can headbutt it, elbow it, block it with your forearm; this guy just hangs there and takes it.

But because it’s suspended, you can practice kicks too. (My weak point; I’m so inflexible at the moment I can’t form a right angle with my legs.) The forward kick. The back kick. The roundhouse kick. The kick and spin. Even blocks. You can set it spinning and fight around it, a basic Krav technique. You can even go down on the floor, spinning on the small of your back, fighting upwards.

It’s been a long six months of injuring ankle then shoulder; this thing will help me get back to a strength and speed that approach something respectable before I return to Krav class.

There are only two things you can’t practice with it: escaping from locks and holds, and taking on multiple attackers. Wonder if I should install two?

Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle

I’m now a third of the way through Neal Stephenson’s grand cycle of Europe (and America too if you include Cryptonomicon as the fourth book after the trilogy) and enjoying it.

I don’t read much fiction these days, sci-fi even more rarely. But Stephenson’s moved on from his Snow Crash and Diamond Age phase of pure sci-fi – and anyway, he always transcended the author (wrongly) credited with kicking off cyberpunk*, William Gibson, in the same way Gibson was eclipsed by Bruce Sterling. Stephenson is roughly the same height above Sterling as Sterling was above Gibson.

For Gibson was, ultimately, a bullshitter. Brilliant with language, fantastic with storytelling (his short stories, written when he was a young man in his 30s, remain terrific twenty years later) but he was making stuff up: knock it, and it didn’t sound solid. Gibson never used the Internet, had no mathematical smarts or engineering training. His work, while poetic and artistic, never had technological rigour. You could feel the electrodes on your forehead, smell the ozone burning off the batteries, but you’d never learn how any of it worked.

Stephenson, by contrast, is a true Geek. An expert Linux user before it was cool, you can finish a Stephenson feeling confident that, if sucked through a wormhole to WWII-era Philippines or the court of Louis XIV, you’d actually know what to do and how to behave. Anyone who publishes an entire book about booting up a Unix desktop (OK, so it was a Wired article first) knows a thing or two about technology.

Stephenson’s got faults – as he slyly admits, calling his eight-book sequence “The Baroque Cycle”. This is not minimalist writing. Vast chapters are devoted to exchanges of letters, diarist musings, extended descriptions of places and people, while nothing much happens as narrative: this is literature for the pleasure of reading, rather than the excitement of storytelling. You’re not experiencing a narrative, you’re experiencing a world. It’s less reading a novel, more playing Second Life.

But that world he creates – by meandering around in a vast forest of verbiage, never quite getting to the point – is absorbing. You don’t just smell the shit in 17-century London streets; it flies off the page and hits you in the eye. Unexpected outcomes, like a heroic figure spending years as a galley slave, happen with regularity, constantly keeping you off guard; events you thought had happened turn out to have been cyphers for the events that really happened. And so on. In short, it’s a lot like real life.

The fourth book, Cryptonomicon, was published years before the trilogy (and I read it around ’99 I think) but Stephenson keeps the nods to the future non-obvious most of the time, maintaining a distinct non-McGuffin-ness that most Hollywood producers could learn from. There is a lack of depth to characters, their personae being defined by their circumstances of birth and world events they get caught up in, rather than innate characteristics. But perhaps that’s how it really happens. Most great events happen to other people. Few Englishmen even noticed the French annexation of Britain, or the Norsemen some centuries prior, or … in the same way, the Great Fire of London and the Revolution of 1688 are presented as canvas, not oils. London, after all, was then just a sizeable village; there was nothing in Britain to match Venice, or even Madrid, still less Versailles.

And Stephenson makes it real. I think I’ll plunge into Book II (Confusion), but I warn you Neal: I expect a bit more narrative this time, or I won’t make it to System of the World.

* Gibson the founder of cyberpunk? Yeah? Ever readJohn Brunner’s “Shockwave Rider”? That was where it started.

Whatever you do, don’t feed starving Africans

Excellent article on why giving food aid to Africa simply distorts the incentives that’d let them help themselves. It’s rare today to see journalists actually saying the difficult things – thanks to Britain’s newfound culture of yob speak and mob rule – but perhaps this represents a turning point.

Spirit of ’79

It’s deja vu all over again! I can’t help but feel heartened by the tsunami of strike action about to hit the UK. Because just like the Winter of Discontent of my childhood, a Labour government – nominally Socialist and in support of a unionised workforce – is getting the crap kicked out of it by unions. Strikes, strikes, ballots, and more strikes, every place you look.

And once again – as if anyone seriously needed further proof – the myth of New Labour, and the lies of Socialism in general, are in steaming bloody chunks on the beaches. Strike, you trumped-up over-indulged public sector posturers, and together let’s make Brown’s defeat next year a truly crushing one.