Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Poignant Parallel

I watched an excellent joint BBC/PBS documentary last night called 'How Vietnam was lost'. It focused on two events from October 1967 that marked a change in mood in Joe American Public's reaction to the Vietnam war.

The first incident was the senior brass' reaction to a poorly planned and messily executed US offensive, which saw two companies ambushed 30 miles north of Saigon. Out of 142 Americans on the patrol that morning, almost 70 were killed, with almost all the rest receiving serious wounds. Yet the story of an American victory was spun and even the Generals presenting silver stars and purple hearts to the survivors of the action refused to acknowledge the truth of the situation.

Stitched around this story was the student occupation and police intervention at the University of Wisconsin in Madison as Dow Chemical - makers of napalm - set up shop to interview graduate recruits on campus. The students, originally intent on peaceful protest, were beaten from the building by club wealding local police who had no sympathy whatsoever with their ant-war sentiments.

Initially, the media and political reaction to the students' actions was hostile. The police may have been neanderthal in ther approach, but it was the students - and the faculty who supported them - who were branded as the enemy of the US.

The contemporary interviews were fascinating. The students and professors come across as erudite, balanced and wise. Almost four decades on, the police officers' necks are still wider than their heads.

The parallels with what's happening in Iraq today were implicit but startling. Whether you're British, American or belong to one of the dwindling number of other nations supporting the coalition, it's hard not to be supportive of our troops on the ground, but easy to question the motives and morality of their being sent there in the first place. Dubya's 'war on turrr' - seems, like Vietnam - to be built on shifting sands and an utterly no-win situation.

Just over a week ago I stood in front of Washington DC's Vietnam War Memorial. Tourists were out in force, so it didn't have the quiet haunting impact I'd expected. But there's something stark and challenging - and entirely unglorious to that smooth reflective wall, etched with 58,000 names of those who never returned. 'Futility' was the word that stuck in my head as I walked away. I hope we're not thinking the same about Iraq a few decades down the line.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Land of the free....service not included

Just back from an excellent trip to the US. I had a great day with a client's team at a rum bottling plant near Baltimore - never has a team been so 'up' from a SAP implementation in the history of the world; I then spent a priceless few hours in the archive of NASA researching a history piece - great to get my hands on source material that hadn't been touched or looked at for years; and finally I clocked up more than 20 miles of walking getting myself orientated with DC for a profile piece I'm writing on the city.

So, three jobs in three and a bit days - none warranted the airfare on their own, but taken together, it was money very well spent.

Now that can't be said for all my spending stateside. I found more and more that I've got a real problem with service charges - especially when they're just expected, not matter what level of service is offered.

Across my short stay, I was presented with a series of bills all including a service charge of 18-25 per cent - and then on occasion, the people presenting me with their estimation of how good they were lingered for a further hand out.

An example: I arrived in Washington about 7.30pm on Thursday after spending my day at the bottling plant 30 miles north. I know only one person in the city and had arranged to meet him for lunch the following day. So, after a walk down to the White House - so that I can say that I've been there - and a trawl through the shelves of the local Borders, I came back to my room and ordered a chicken sandwich. In addition to the price, the hotel added 25% mark up for tray delivery and a further 18% for service. The guy who delivered the goods then hung around expecting me to part with a few more $$. Err...... sorry mate. My room was one floor up from the kitchen, right beside the lift. Frankly, next time, I'll collect the sandwich myself.

The following day I was in a restaurant on my own for breakfast. First of all I was ignored. Then I was placed on a table that hadn't been properly cleared from the previous occupant. There was a buffet beside my table: I grabbed a yoghurt and a croissant....one croisant. But I felt like indulging myself and so when the waitress finally realised that I actually wanted to eat food and drink coffee - and not just be a charming if somewhat dissolute addition to their furniture - I ordered eggs benedict at $13 a pop, along with coffee and juice.

The coffee was disgusting and almost cold before anyone bothered to bring any milk. The eggs were good though the sauce wasn't home made. But the potatoes served with it tasted gritty and metallic. I was in a hurry so didn't really scritinise the bill 'til I got back to my hotel room at the end of the day. I'd been charged $32. - $13 for my eggs benedict coffee and juice; a further $13 for the 'buffet' (one yoghurt, one croissant) and $6 service on top. The service was shit and the food horribly overpriced.

If you want to be rewarded for good service, EARN it - don't just expect it. I really liked DC, but found too many people in the service industries too complacent about turning a buck without putting in the effort. Compulsary charging for service that doesn't meet expectations just leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth of the consumer.

Friday, June 16, 2006

£250 a day limit?

I've just walked past the World Bank HQ here in Washington DC - and d'ya know what? Yep, it's got an ATM in the lobby........Well, it made me giggle.

Monday, June 12, 2006

I need a decent night's sleep!

A summer cold and unusually hot night time temperatures in this little corner of Buckinghamshire mean that I'm hot and grumpy this Monday morning.

Oh it's nice to be able to work in shorts and a t-shirt, but the temperature's already over 80 degrees in the office and in a country where air conditioning would be a total waste for around 11 months of the year, this heat makes it really hard to get any work done.

Still, I'm off to Baltimore and DC for most of this week - so our current UK weather is probably good preparation for my US trip.

That'll be a couple of days of contrast too. On Thursday I've got a day at a bottling plant where they're piloting a new multi-million $ SAP application to automate much of the process previously done manually. A day later, I've an appointment at NASA HQ to look at the whys and wherefores of the fire which kilked three astronnauts in a ground test back in 1967. Within two and a half years of the disaster, two of their colleagues landed on the moon with around the same computing power available as I have in my pocket calculator. How much more power do the guys have to hand at the bottling plant to make sure the right product gets in the right bottles and out the door?

Fiday night should see me partake in a most un-British passion of mine - taking in a baseball game.

I spent my 40th birthday watching the Yankees beat the Devil Rays down in Florida. For my second live dose of MLB, I'm planning to head to RFK to see the Yankees once more, this time against the Nationals.

It's just coincidence that I'll be seeing the Yankees again, as I've very much a fan of sports underdogs. So, as far as I'm concerned, I've got to be up for the home team.

Anyway, sweats now dripping off my nose, onto my keyboard....not an edifying sight!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Not the Weakest Link

The blog has been just a bit on the quiet side in the last week or so - partly down to trying to get some work done, and partly down to limbering up for my first appearance on national TV - as a contestant on BBC's 'The Weakest Link'. I finally recorded my episode last Friday afternoon - though it was well into the evening before I eventually got away.

The show is recorded at Pinewood Studios - and it was a bit of a nostalgic trip back, as I often visited Pinewood in the years when my father in law worked there as a neg cutter.

But last Friday was my business and I rolled up to the gate at about 2.15pm with more than a few butterflies in my stomach.

I almost bumped into the show's host, Anne Robinson, as I arrived. She'd just finished one show, and was heading out for some air with her entourage. She doesn't really speak to contestants, so not a word passed between us - and I don't think there was even any eye contact.

The next few hours were what TV game show recording is all about - boredom. The crew records three shows a day and as I was to appear on show 866, they've clearly got things down to a very fine art.

We were coralled in the green room with coffees, teas and sarnies (I really couldn't touch any food), until the next show had moved from the holding room into the studio (as I arrived, the first set of contestants were still on their high in the green room having just completed their recording, and were about to leave.). As show 865 moved into the studio, we were taken to the holding room - a yellow-walled, institutional waiting room. Over the next couple of hours we had our show clothes chosen by a pair of wardrobe assistants; had our make-up applied to cover the ravages of time and fate, and drank more coffees and water - and made a few loo trips. I have to say that the secret of my day was a couple of immodium before even leaving for the studio. It works wonders, honest!

Ben the assistant producer took us through our biog details (which provide Anne Robinson with the ammunition for her banter), but most of the time it was sitting around, getting to know the other contestants a little, and chatting to Becca and Marco, two of the show's 20-something, trendy-in-a-BBC-sort-of-way researchers.

We were the usual spread of contestants - 18 - 66; five male four female and covering everything from a dinner lady to a wheelchair-bound Mormon priest....with, of course, the obligatory student.

Finally, at around 5pm, we moved to the 'pre titles room' - the one in the picture above. Here, more sandwiches awaited, plus a thorough briefing from Ben, before the first bit of filming - the pre-titles bit when the camera zooms in on the contestants as we sit around and chat on the BBC's new sofas.

Probably 45 minutes later we finally entered the studio. All draped in black (the studio, not the contestants), with no audience and a quietly expert crew, we were taken through a technical rehearsal: - "Don't talk until the red light over the camera flashes..." "I'm Mark, I'm 42, I live in Princes Risborough and I'm a communications consultant."

There's no rehearsal with Anne. She arrives on set at the start of the show and launches right into it. No introductions, witty banter or relaxing words. Nope, the ice maiden image is retained from first to last and her guard really doesn't drop.

So, for the next couple of hours we recorded the show. The rounds are recorded in real time, but the voting off process is a two-stage affair, and Anne disappears between rounds to get cues from the production team on who to go after in the next round.

It was a fascinating experience, and one I really enjoyed being a part of. So how did I do? Well, BBC contractual obligations mean I can't reveal the result - or how I personally got on - until the show first airs. That's likely to be sometime between mid-July and mid-August. So, until then, it's my little secret.