Five things first-time visitors should know about Thailand

Thailand is one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations, and it’s one of my favourite places.

Regardless of your interest — be it exploring temples, fine dining, water sports, jungle trekking or bar-hopping — you are more than likely to have a good time. But there are a few things you should know before you set out.

Continue reading Five things first-time visitors should know about Thailand

Getting tough on air ragers

I’m pleased to report that a judge  in the United Kingdom has taken a tough stance over misbehaviour onboard an aircraft.

(jet2.com)

According to The Telegraph, a man who took control of the intercom on a Jet2 flight as it was about to land in Tenerife and shouted “What does it take to get a —-ing drink in this place?” has been jailed for seven months.

Continue reading Getting tough on air ragers

Forget the stereotypes

The French are arrogant, the English are miserable, Scots are tight with their money, Australians are boorish drunks, Italians are dangerously passionate, Americans are loud know-it-alls …

Munich Hofbrauhaus
Not all Germans wear lederhosen and play in oompah bands. But some do.

If you agree with any of these statements, then you’re guilty of buying into stereotypes. While it’s true that stereotypes develop from a grain of truth or experience, they too often get exaggerated and disguise a very important fact about humanity.

Continue reading Forget the stereotypes

Boaty McBoatface sails again

The last time the British public were asked to name an oceangoing vessel, they voted overwhelmingly to call a research vessel “Boaty McBoatface”.

(P&))
(P&))

Undeterred, or perhaps inspired by that, P&O, the UK-based cruise line, has announced that it wants its passengers to help name its next ship.

Continue reading Boaty McBoatface sails again

The F word

Before I start, I want to say that I love Thailand and the Thai people. I’ve lived in Bangkok and would do so again if the opportunity arose. And, even though I’ve just finished a holiday there, I am keen to go back as soon as I can.

The sky train (BTS) in Bangkok
The sky train (BTS) in Bangkok

However, there’s one thing that always concerned me when in lived in Bangkok, and it surfaced again on my most recent visit.

Continue reading The F word

Little white lies


This website wasn’t accessible earlier today, so I went to the customer help page on my host’s website.

When I typed in my problem, it came back with an automated message saying the company was aware of the problem and its “entire staff” was working on fixing it.

Really, I thought? From the CEO to the cleaner, they were all focused on getting this blog up and running. It must have worked, because here I am again.

A few months ago, I received an email from my bank telling me that they were closing my branch office and moving my account to another branch further away from where I live. Why were they doing this? “To serve you better,” the missive said.

Of course, I thought, it is entirely in my own interests that I now have to travel further — including crossing a busy highway — to get to my bank branch. If there were another reason — say, for example, that the current building was scheduled to be demolished (which seems to be happening now) — surely they would have told me.

These are just two examples of the simple lies we hear or read every day. From big corporations and governments to individuals, we are hooked on lying.

From “that looks great on you” to “no taxpayer will be worse off” or “this won’t hurt a bit” our lives are full of lies.

And the reasons vary from not being bothered to find out the truth to believing that a “white” lie doesn’t hurt anybody.

In fact, the average person lies 20 times a day, each and every day. (I just made that statistic up. It could be true, but it’s probably a lie. I’m no better than anybody else.)

The real truth is that nobody tells the truth. Not all the time. And when we don’t know when somebody else is lying, and we don’t care when we do, then we really do have a problem.

Do I know you?

I received this email from a real estate agent in my hometown of Brisbane.

email from estate agent

While it was a nice gesture to get in touch, the reality is that we’ve never actually spoken. Yes, it’s been that long.

The message went on to say that a lot of her clients had been requesting “updated appraisals” of their properties and wanted to know whether I’d like one too. I doubt the first part – real estate agents only tout for business when things are slow, not when a lot of people are contacting them* – and the second part simply baffles me. I don’t own any property in Brisbane.

A few months ago, I received an email from a cruise company booking agent telling me how nice it was to speak to me. I replied, politely, pointing out that I hadn’t actually spoken to her, I’d booked my trip entirely online. At least she had the good grace to reply with an email beginning: “Sprung!” She went on to explain that it was a form letter she sent to all her clients.

The thing about email and social media apps are they allow you to send personal messages to people you’ve never met and know very little about.

I don’t mind this tailored spam, because it’s sometimes amusing and it’s usually easy to get rid off. I may wake up with 50 emails in my inbox, but I can delete 46 of them within a few seconds.

What really bemuses me, though, are those poorly executed phishing scams. They are full of spelling mistakes and awkward phrases, and they usually revolve around a vastly improbable scenario. As if I really am the beneficiary of the will of the widow of a Nigerian army officer.

The disturbing thing is that they must work on someone, or they simply wouldn’t exist. As PT Barnum probably never said, there’s a sucker born every minute.

 

* On the subject of real-estate speak, I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard or read the phrase: “There has never been a better time to buy.”

 

 

Sticks and stones

We all face criticism in life. The healthiest thing to do, of course, is to brush it off. But sometimes it gets a bit too much.

I’m thinking about a situation about four years ago when a television program dedicated 12 minutes of its one-hour running time in an attempt to eviscerate me over a few tweets I’d exchanged with the show’s host.

All is fair, I thought, until a young woman co-host, who I’d never met, started making comments about what my reaction might be to seeing her on the screen. I won’t repeat what was said, but it was highly defamatory.

I was encouraged to take legal action, but I didn’t because I knew that to do so would only draw attention to a show on a community station that had a very small audience. Better to do nothing than to give publicity to somebody who didn’t deserve it.

I was reminded of this tonight while reading some comments on a Facebook post linking to this piece I wrote about the shrinking size of airline seats. (Please read it and let me know what you think.)

Here’s the comment:

Facebook comment
Facebook comment

Now, I don’t know who Ian Staples is, and I really can’t complain about being called a “fatty singleton” in any jurisdiction where truth alone is a defence against libel.

But I do buckle at being called a “moron” by somebody who makes a plural by using an apostrophe.

 

 

Sean of the dread

There’s this guy I run into every few months and each time we see each other, we have a chat.

I know quite a lot about him now. He’s from Ireland and he works as a teacher of children with special needs. I’ve also met quite a few of his colleagues, and they are all very nice people.

There’s just one problem that makes it uncomfortable for me each time we meet. For the life of me, I can never remember his name.

It became especially embarrassing on our last encounter, because he called me out on it. “You don’t know my name, do you? I remember your name, but you don’t remember mine!”

He’s right and I really have no defence. He’s a red-headed Irishman and his name is Sean — which is probably the first or second name you’d guess for an Irishman.

But the thing is that I only now know that his name is Sean because I wrote it down. I hope to remember it next time I see him without having to consult the notebook in my pocket.

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to discover why it is that I have trouble remembering Sean’s name.

According to a newspaper story based on some actual scientific research, there are three possible reasons that may work alone or in conjunction with each other.

The first is that we often usually have no way of associating people’s names with their physical characteristics, so we can’t use one of the most popular memory tools.

The second is that often so focussed on ourselves when we meet people that we don’t listen to what they have to say, even when they tell us their name.

The third reason is that we don’t care because we  don’t expect to see that person again, so his or her name is dispensable information.

Since I’ve already seen Sean at least three times  in the same place, and he really is a  bloke who’s worth talking to,  I really should start to care.

The next time I see him, though, I’m definitely going to ask how it is that he remembers my name.

By any other name

The song in this video is called Cool For Cats. At just over 2 minutes 30 seconds, it’s a taut, quirky pop anthem that was quite popular when I was a lad (although may be considered slightly politically incorrect today).

If you search for the song online, you’ll almost certainly find it credited to Squeeze. But that wasn’t the name of the band when and where I first heard it.

In Australia, the band led by songwriters Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook was known as UK Squeeze, because apparently there was already an Australian band called Squeeze in the late 1970s. Finding any information about them on Google is a little difficult, however, so perhaps the name change was in vain.

Around the same time, while international audiences were enjoying the laugh-a-minute movie Airplane!, Aussies (and people in New Zealand, South Africa, Japan and the Philippines) were watching the same thing, except it carried the title Flying High!

These are not isolated incidents. Along with many other companies, film distributors and record labels have often renamed their product for a different market. Sometimes it’s because it clashes with a local copyright or trademark or because the foreign name is inappropriate (it may be a slang or swear word, for instance.)

Lately, however, there has been a trend to homogenise names. The skincare product known as Oil of Ulan in Australia for decades was renamed Oil of Olay quite a few years ago, presumably to fit in with international manufacturing and marketing demands. Especially in the internet age, it is cheaper to produce something with just one label and one advertising campaign.

In the UK, the American animated TV series Top Cat became Boss Cat to avoid confusion with a local comic character, and there was outcry  when Marathon chocolate bars became Snickers and Jif bathroom cleaner became Cif to fall into line with the European name (despite, in my opinion, Jif being a far more fit-for-purpose name).

There’s a list on Wikipedia of names that are different in different markets, including a tweak to the title of The Avengers, the superhero film, to distinguish it from the great 1960s British TV series of the same name.

But does changing the name make a difference? Probably not. Shakespeare’s theory that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet is, I believe, backed up by reliable data insofar as roses have different names in different languages yet remain essentially the same.

 

 

 

 

The wrong stuff

 

 

Exactly what do you think you are doing, Brett? If only I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that.

The most recent was yesterday, when a colleague asked me why I am writing this blog. The answer I gave was that it was to exercise my writing muscles, to write about things that wouldn’t have a place in the newspaper I work for, and to stretch my brain in different directions.

In the course of a working week, I commission and edit opinion pieces about world events and politics, and I write editorials about all manner of, mostly serious, matters.

This blog is my space for relaxation, a sandbox where I can attempt to discover a different voice that may eventually propel me in a new direction. Subject and style-wise, it may be all over the place, but there is some method to this madness.

As part of this process, I’ve been thinking about what it is that makes certain commentators, be they newspaper columnists, radio “shock jocks” or  television pundits, more popular than others.

If only, many a writer has thought recently, I could be as successful as Katie Hopkins, the former British reality TV star whose column has just been poached by the Daily Mail from The Sun.

Make no mistake, Hopkins and her like are not being paid for sober, well-considered analysis of world events. They are being paid to provoke people — to promote a certain type of extreme public opinion. The people who agree with her lap it up, and a surprisingly large number of people who hate what she is saying are nonetheless addicted to hearing her say it.

So: how to become the next Katie Hopkins — or, Bill O’Reilly or Alan Jones or Andrew Bolt or Jeremy Clarkson?

The first trick, I’ve been told, is to be able to say things you don’t actually believe. Or, at least, to amplify the things you do believe (or ideas you sometimes toy with) to the point that they get attention. And this idea goes back a long way.

In his 1729 pamphlet A Modest Proposal For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick – 1729, generally referred to just as A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift argued that the poor should eat their babies. Now, Dr Swift was not really advocating cannibalism among the lower classes, but he sure got a lot of attention — for himself and for the issue he was writing about — by saying so. Nearly 300 years later, A Modest Proposal remains on the reading lists for many university writing courses.

Katie Hopkins is no Jonathan Swift. When she calls the thousands of Syrian refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean on leaky boats and find a safe haven in Europe “cockroaches”, and claims the famous photos of the dead toddler, Aylan Kurdi, were staged, it’s not clear whether she believes it or not. If she does believe it, then I pity her for lacking a human soul. Like Swift, she’s saying it just to get attention, but unlike Swift’s readers, her core audience is likely to buy into her one-dimensional, send- ’em back-to-where-they-came-from argument than actively contemplate the issue and possible solutions to it.

The great thing about being Katie Hopkins is that you don’t have to do anything about the world’s problems, except moan about them in an attention-grabbing manner. But you do have to learn how to sleep soundly at night.

As for me, I’m happy to noodle about here as a means of self discovery and, I hope, provide some entertainment or food for thought for others.

English as she is written

One of the most common complaints received by newspapers and news websites is that their standards of English are slipping. Often these complaints come from other journalists.

It is true that newspapers and magazines — let alone humble bloggers — can no longer afford to hire vast armies of sub-editors and fact-checkers, and mistakes do slip through. But it’s also the case that some of the “errors” pointed out by readers are not technically errors at all.

The thing is that there is not just one version of English. The differences between British English and American English are well know, but just about every country where English is spoken and written has its own version. Indian English varies from Australian English — both of them incorporate unique words and usages — and the Canadians seem never to be sure whether they want to follow Oxford or Webster.

So, when we are trying to write for an international audience — as the web more or less dictates that we do — we need to be careful not to choose words, phrases and forms that might confuse some readers. I have a friend who is very fond of the word spruik. It, roughly, means to “talk up ” something or promote it vigorously. Sadly, though, it’s little known outside Australia, so it can’t be used in print in the country where my friend now lives. It works the other way around too, some words that are perfectly acceptable in America, for example, are considered quite rude in Australian English. I can think of two examples, but I won’t use them here.

The one constant in every place it is used, is that the English language is evolving. So what what is seen as a mistake by some readers may, in fact, be a reluctant concession by writers and editors that times are moving on. In the early 1980s, when I started in journalism, a colleague had trouble accepting that the word gay now meant homosexual to more people than it meant happy. He tried to resist the change — to the point of putting quotation marks around the word (possibly as a signal of disapproval) — but he had to finally concede the point.

Having said that, I am still holding out against some changes  in English usage. Call me a pedant — go on — but there are some things up with which I shall not put.*  Here are a few:

+ Unique. This is an absolute. Something cannot be a little bit unique, it either is or it isn’t. Why is that distinction important? Because if we don’t accept it, the language is diluted and we no longer have a useful single word to describe something that is one of a kind. Why use four words when you can use one?

+ Refute. To refute something is to prove it to be untrue. It does not mean the same as deny, although an alarmingly high number of writers think it does.

+ Collide. A collision involves impact between two moving objects. A car cannot collide with a tree, but it can hit it.

I know I can’t hold back the tide, but can we please cling on to these three, er, unique words?

One last thing: Muphry’s Law (yes, Muphry, not Murphy) states, more or less, that any article about correct English usage will inevitably include at least one error. I look forward to hearing from you when you discover mine.

* Actually, I’m cool with ending sentences with prepositions.

Where there’s a Will …

It has all the makings of a mystery novel. It involves death, deception and detective work over four centuries.

The mystery is: Who wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare?

The most obvious answer, and the one still most widely accepted, is that William Shakespeare, the actor who moved from Stratford-upon-Avon to London and strode the stage in the late Elizabethan age, wrote the plays still performed under his name.

By modern conventions, the man who wrote Hamlet, Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest and so many other great plays ought to have been a celebrity.

Yet we know very little of the so-called Bard of Avon, except tidbits from a few official documents (including a will that leaves his “second-best bed” to his wife) and the fact that the early printed collections of those great plays bear his name.

Over the years, scholars and sleuths have nominated other, better-known figures as the author of Shakespeare’s play, ranging from the renowned playwrights Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe (who was killed in a barroom brawl before many of the plays were written) to Sir Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.

The Stratfordians – those who support Shakespeare himself (and thus the “Shakespeare industry” in Stratford) – say many of the arguments against their man are based on snobbery. Because Shakespeare was not of the Elizabethan elite, a noble or a court insider, and because he only had a grammar school education, they feel he couldn’t have written the plays. Perhaps, like many a modern writer who sprang from nowhere, he was simply a genius. (Besides, the Stratfordians say, grammar school education in those days was a lot more rigorous than now.)

The debate has become a little more intense in recent times with the emergence of a new candidate for authorship – Sir Henry Neville.

In their book, The Truth Will Out, academics Brenda James and William Rubinstein argue that Neville was everything Shakespeare was not – wealthy, well travelled, well connected and well proportioned (his friends apparently called him Falstaff).

James apparently came up with Neville’s by appplying code-breaking techniques to a Shakespeare dedication – but Rubenstein wisely advised her not to rely on that for her sole evidence. (Codes, like market research, can prove anything.)

Instead, they have compiled a series of facts about Neville’s life that fit the authorship claim – including favourable references to his forebears in the history plays and a document written by him that seems to be an outline for Henry VIII. They have even identified the reason for the change in tone in Shakespeare’s plays from 1601, which is when Neville spent time in prison.

Whatever the truth of the matter, one book will not settle the argument. For many, Shakespeare will always be Shakespeare.

Still, after all this time, does it really matter who wrote the plays? Royalties are not an issue; can’t the words just speak for themselves?

References:

Richard Woods, Focus: Is this an imposter I see before me?, Sunday Times, October 9, 2005. (Site may require registration).

Team Uncovers the Real Shakespeare, The Australian, October 6, 2005. (Link may be expired).

 

(Originally published at debritz.com on October 9, 2005)