Saturday, 28 February 2009

Blog's Off Line

There seems to be a technical hitch on the Blog and I can't access it at the moment.  They're probably doing some maintenance work or similar.  Not sure how long the outage will last, but I hope to send this "remotely" via email, to see if it gets through. 
It's a pity as this is our last full day in Bangkok and we will be off line from tomorrow as we travel to Phuket.  We've been assured that we have a connection at our place there, so I expect we'll be back for the new week sometime.
Enjoy the weekend and see you all soon.  :o)

Happy Birthday

To Marlis, whom we just met up with in Bangkok. We had a great time seeing you again and hope you have a super day.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Schools Unofficially Out

Truancy in London is getting worse, with nearly 11 000 (10 800) pupils not turning up to class, every day.

These record breaking figures are revealed despite the Government having spent more than £1billion on "anti-truancy measures", as the proportion of pupils bunking off across England rises for the fifth year in succession in 2008.

As the teachers used to be allowed to say: F- must do better.

As if...

Last Part


Why are some people ‘doublejointed’?

The actual number of joints in your limbs doesn’t vary except in cases of very severe developmental abnormality. But the ligaments that hold together the bones on either side of a joint do vary in elasticity from one person to another. The young, and those that regularly stretch these joints through gymnastics or yoga, can achieve a range of movement that appears unnatural to the rest of us.Truly freakish joint positioning, known as hypermobility is either due to misaligned or malformed bones at the joints or Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome which is an inherited condition that affects the structure of the collagen protein in the skin, ligaments and bones. There are also some people that have reduced joint proprioception, so the brain misjudges how stretched a joint is and does not signal the muscles appropriately.

Why does cake and bread go hard, but biscuits go soft when stale?

Whole books have been written on this. The basic answer for bread concerns the crystals of starch in the flour, which are gelatinised during baking (they take up water and become soft). This starch gradually recrystallises over a few days in a process called retrogradation, so that the bread becomes harder. The starch in biscuits also undergoes this process, but it can be overwhelmed by the effect of the sugar that is present in many biscuit recipes. Sugar takes up water from the atmosphere, and this is what causes biscuits that are left out to go soft. Cake can go either way, depending on the recipe, and both processes can be hugely affected by other ingredients in the recipe.

Can power be harvested from lightning?

Yes, although it’s probably impractical because of such problems as designing a capacitor to store energy from a fleeting burst of power.

Would helium balloons float upwards on a spaceship?

No, there is no ‘up’ on a spaceship, because there is no external gravitational field to tell us which way is ‘down’. In the absence of gravity there is no force to push or pull the balloon.

Would a metal plate in my head make it stick to magnets?

No, because metals used for prosthetic purposes such as titanium are nonferromagnetic alloys. So you can relax, and feel free to have a metal plate fitted to your head with no fear of being stuck to a magnet.

Is there mathematics in music?

Yes, there’s a host of connections between maths and music – from the relationship between the lengths of plucked strings and the notes they produce to the symmetry of Bach’s cantatas.

Can computers generate truly random numbers?

Yes, and it’s because heat in electrical components causes electrons inside to move around unpredictably. This behaviour can be captured electronically and digitised as a sequence of truly random numbers.

Why can’t chickens fly?

Wild chickens certainly can fly – and do. However, they have been selectively bred for size for thousands of years and are now too heavy for more than a short flap to the top of a tree. Free-range chickens also often have the flight feathers on one wing clipped. This makes them fly in a short circle, which discourages them from flying away.

Why do pigeons bob their heads?

The most likely theory is for the same reason that we move our eyes around – to stabilise the image of their surroundings while in motion. When a pigeon is walking on a treadmill, so that its environment remains relatively the same, its head does not bob. Not all birds bob their heads, though, so the issue is not yet fully resolved.

What exactly is an itch?

Itching, or pruritis, is caused by any light skin stimulation that is just a few microns in size. It probably evolved as a warning mechanism to prevent insect bites. An itch provokes immediate scratching because it’s the quickest way to kill a mosquito trying to give you malaria.

Can déjà vu be explained?

Haven’t we answered this question before? German workers in the 19th century suggested that déjà vu is a sort of cognitive burp. This occurs when the processes of sensation and perception, that normally occur simultaneously, somehow get out of sync. The modern take on this is that the ‘retrieval’ and ‘familiarity’ processes in the brain are not synchronised. But there are many othertheories, and no-one really knows, so at the moment the answer is no, it cannot.

Why do planes dim their cabin lights when they take off?

The reason is to acclimatise passengers’ eyes to the dark. This isn’t just for comfort, but is a valuable safety procedure. If the plane had to be evacuated in an emergency, passengers’ eyes would be better suited to the darkness outside.

Why do we have five fingers and five toes?

It’s probably nothing more than an accident. All tetrapods (the group of vertebrates that includes the mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) are descended from a pentadactyl ancestor. Pentadactyl means ‘five-fingered’ and this basic pattern has been preserved in all descendant animal groups. The common ancestor of the tetrapods was a lobe-finned fish living in the Devonian period, around 365 million years ago. The fossil record also shows fish with six and seven ‘fingers’ in their fins at around the same time, but there is no clear reason why the five-fingered form survived to become the template for land life. Possibly having fewer finger bones allowed each to become stronger and this helped when crawling out of the water. However, there is nothing magic about the number five and subsequent evolutionary pressures have driven many species to fuse fingers and toes together to form thicker, stronger hooves and claws that are better suited to their particular environment.

Why is my beer brown, but the head white?

The brown colour comes from malt, which is produced by allowing barley grains to germinate and then roasting them. A low roasting temperature makes a light beer. A higher temperature makes a darker beer. Just be thankful that you aren’t living in the 19th century, when some publicans tried to shortcut the process by adding concentrated sulfuric acid to their light-coloured beers, carbonising the sugars to produce an instant dark brown colour, and instant stomach problems in those who drank it. The bubbles in the head are surrounded by a film of liquid beer, but the film is so thin that it can’t absorb enough light to affect the colour of white light as it passes through. White light reflected from the surface of the bubbles also stays white, giving it its overall white effect.

Does cheese give you nightmares?

Any heavy meal before bed can make you spend more time in REM sleep and therefore dream more. But there is no evidence to suggest that cheese is particularly effective at causing dreams, good or bad. LV

What is the coldest place in the Universe?

The coldest place in the Universe is in the Boomerang Nebula, a cloud of dust and gases 5000 lightyears from Earth. It has a temperature of -272°C (-457.6°F) and is formed by the rapid expansion of gas and dust flowing away from its central ageing star.

Is talking to yourself really a sign of madness?

No, the phenomenon known as ‘private speech’, in which people talk aloud to themselves, particularly when stressed or alone, is perfectly normal.

Can dock leaves really sooth nettle stings?

No, the myth of dock leaves soothing nettle stings arose because of parents’ desires to find something close by with which to placate their stung child.

Why does clingfilm cling?

Clingfilm is either made from PVC or low density polyethylene that’s treated to make it stretch. When you unroll the clingfilm, some of the electrons on the surface of one layer get pulled away onto the adjacent layer. This creates patches of positive and negative electrostatic charge. Because clingfilm is a good insulator, this charge persists for quite a while. When you wrap the clingfilm around itself or another insulator (like glass) the electrostatic charge induces an opposite charge in the other surface and the two stick together. If you try this on a conductor, like metal, it won’t stick because the charge is dispersed.

Did the Big Bang make a bang?

As sound is made up of wave-like changes in density, it’s impossible to hear anything in a true vacuum. Even so, the early Universe wasn’t a vacuum, being filled instead with hydrogen and ionised gas. The resulting sound of the Big Bang would be far too low-frequency to hear directly, but using real cosmic data and boosting the frequency, cosmologist Professor John Cramer of the University of Washington has simulated the sound, which can be heard at

How do you create artificial gravity in spacecraft?

Studies of astronauts on long missions have shown that prolonged exposure to weightlessness weakens muscles and bones, prompting scientists to seek ways of generating artificial gravity aboard spacecraft. Even before the first space flights, visionaries such as Werner Von Braun suggested making spacecraft spin to create a centrifugal effect that feels like gravity. But experiments in the 1960s and 1970s revealed that rotation rates greater than around 2rpm tended to make people feel nauseous. This was bad news; such a slow spin rate meant that to generate an effect that could mimic Earth-like gravity, a spacecraft would need a diameter of around 450m. Engineers are still trying to solve the problem, but have had limited success. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has experimented with a ‘gravity gym’ – essentially a man-sized spin-dryer that astronauts can climb into to experience a short period of artificial gravity. The rotation rate must- be higher than the spaceship – 23rpm – so nausea is still a problem. There are other ways, such as making the spacecraft permanently accelerate at 1G or building a vehicle so large that it naturally generates its own gravity. But as yet both methods are far beyond our technical abilities.

Six of the Best

Government research has shown that some parents believed corporal punishment was an "effective method of control" when they were at school. They said the decision to outlaw physical chastisement contributed to a decline in discipline.

The comments, in a study backed by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, comes just months after a fifth of teachers called for the cane to be reintroduced to restore order in the classroom.

So, if everyone is in agreement, why is there a delay then?

More at TTel.

Corporal punishment, including the use of the cane and ruler, was abolished in state schools in 1987 and 1998 in the fee-paying sector.

Ha, Ha

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Wendy Richards (Eastenders) has died at 65.

I was aware she had twice beaten cancer scares in the past, but it seems the third time was once too often. Poor woman.

Ropey Connection

Posting and today's cobblers may be a bit erratic as our connection has been intermittent and we seem to be experiencing a few problems today. Funny, it was only yesterday that I commented on how problem-free the service has been since we've arrived.

Kiss of death; that's what I have...

Anyway, we'll do our best but we're off into town for perhaps the last time this visit and so all the good stuff may need to wait until tomorrow. Hang on, what "good stuff"?

Security Guard at Supermarket

Queuing up at the Maximum 10 Items Only check out, the guy behind me clearly had more bits than permitted.

A security guard counted the number and politely asked him to re-queue at a more appropriate till. Excellent.

Another Hotel Requirement

And while we're at it, all hotels should keep a book/sheet of popular destination stamps at Reception for guests to buy and use to send post cards to wherever.

This avoids all the unpleasantness at post offices. *shudder*

What Hotels Need

What with ever more stringent rules and allowances regarding baggage at airports, why don’t hotels keep a set of scales for guests to use, say in Reception, to pre-weigh their luggage and save all the hassle and fines for excess weight at the last moment.

It can’t be that difficult or expensive to provide and I’m sure it will be of great help to many.

Walking the Dog, Nearly

In the foyer of our hotel, they have a water feature and within it, two tortoises (or is it turtles? I can never tell the difference) who happily play in their watery pad.

It’s perhaps a bit restricted, so at least once a day, the staff get them out and let them walk around Reception. :o)

Left Hand Drive

With my fascination for spotting south paws, this is of big interest (but probably only to me ;o)): The praying mantis is the only known insect that shows a left-"handed" preference.

How Unsurprising

Speed camera offences rose from 262 000 in 1996 to 1 865 000 in 2006, while the number of speed cameras in England and Wales rose from under 2 000 in 2000 to more than 5 500 by 2006.

Top Award- A Ticket

Cheers to Tomus for this story- it sounds just like the UK.

A good Samaritan bus driver who helped push three people out of the path of a pick up truck not only ended up seriously injured but also with a ticket for jaywalking for his efforts.

Assisted by another chap, the driver of the local bus helped two elderly women cross a busy street during a snowstorm in Denver, but when the truck approached, he selflessly pushed all three to safety. However, in doing so, he suffered bleeding in the brain, broken bones, a dislocated shoulder and a possible ruptured spleen.

Now Colorado State Patrol have issued him with the citation, saying that despite bus driver's intentions, jaywalking contributed to the accident.

From Yahoo News.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Wise Words

Remember the bus slogan campaign that pissed off a load of bible beards?

"There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

You can now get them for your car as bumper stickers.

If only I had a car...

How It Really Is

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Nearly There


Why have humans evolved to have less body hair than apes?

The only hairs that humans have completely lost are the vibrissae, or sensory whiskers. The rest of our bodies are actually covered with very short, very fine hair called vellus. The difference between humans and apes lies in the relative proportions and distribution of vellus hair compared with our longer, darker hair (known as terminal hair). There have been many different attempts to explain the relative hairlessness of humans, but so far none have achieved general consensus. It has been suggested that our hair was lost during a semi-aquatic period of our prehistory, that it was lost to allow improved cooling from sweating on the hot African savannah and even that we didn’t lose our hair until Neanderthal man started wearing clothes about 200 million years ago. This is all speculative however as hair doesn’t fossilise well so we don’t even know for sure if hairlessness is unique to humans.

Why can’t seagulls fart?

I can find no published study or even an oblique reference to the myth that suggests they might not! Seagulls, and birds in general, have a single opening called the cloaca, which serves for removing both the waste products of the kidneys and the intestines. This has a muscular sphincter to hold it closed, much like the anus. The bird’s digestive tract, though shorter than ours, still contains bacteria and these bacteria will produce gas. When the gas pressure exceeds the elastic strength of the cloaca sphincter, the result must inevitably be a fart. Possibly the reason seagulls might have acquired a reputation for never farting is that when a seagull poops in mid-air the person below suffers the immediate consequences. But with a mid-air fart, who’s to know?

What exactly is 20:20 vision?

If you have ‘perfect’ visual acuity, you have 20/20 vision, as measured by the standard eye chart devised by a Dutch ophthalmologist called Dr Hermann Snellen in 1862. The charts, which are still in use, have a single large letter at the top and lines of progressively smaller letters below. The first figure refers to how far away (in feet) the person whose vision is being measured is sitting or standing from the chart. The second figure refers to how far away a person with good vision would have to be and still be able to read the same line of letters as the person being tested. If you had 20/30 vision, a person with perfect vision could read at 30 feet the same letters that you can just make out at 20 feet. These distances are now generally expressed in metres, so that ‘perfect’ 20:20 sight would now be written as 6:6.

Could a human genetic mutation produce a superhero power?

No, genetic mutations just cause a gene that codes for one amino acid chain to code for another slightly different chain.

Do opposites really attract?

No, people are likely to choose partners who are similar when it comes to three of the big five personality traits – agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness, extraversion and neuroticism.

Do lions purr?

All members of the cat family purr, although the Pantherinae subfamily – which includes the lion – can only purr while exhaling.

Are some people born lucky?

Luck is random, or it isn’t really luck. What changes from one person to another is our perception of luck and good fortune. Professor Richard Wiseman, Focus contributor and author of The Luck Factor has concluded that some people are better than others in acting upon chance opportunities and adopting a relaxed attitude that is open to new experiences. The very fact that these people think of themselves as lucky, tends to mean that they interpret their life in an optimistic way that exaggerates the effect of good luck and downplays any bad luck.

How many cigarettes would I have to smoke to become addicted?

Nicotine addiction is assessed using the Fagerstrom Test. This is a short questionnaire that principally assesses how many cigarettes you smoke a day, and how soon after waking you smoke your first cigarette. It takes more than a single cigarette to become hooked, but addiction in young smokers is typically established within a year of first experimenting with tobacco. LV

Why do clouds float?

The updraughts of warm, moist air that form clouds as they cool also serve to keep them in the sky. The total amount of water in a typical cloud weighs as much as 200 bull elephants, but it doesn’t crash down to the ground because the water is broken up into tiny droplets and ice crystals. Even the largest dropletsonly have a radius of 0.1mm. A droplet of this size falling freely would experience so much air resistance that its maximum speed would be a mere 30cm/s, but in a cloud the downward speed is balanced by the upward speed of the rising air. Only when many such droplets coalesce can they become big enough to fall as rain The air speed necessary to keep clouds ‘floating’ depends on the type of cloud. Flat, spread-out stratiform clouds are formed and supported by weak air currents rising at only a few centimeters per second. Cumulus (or convective) clouds, which are the ones responsible for heavy rain and storms, contain bigger droplets and need updraughts of a few metres per second to support them.

At what point does space begin?

Amazingly, more than 50 years after astronauts started exploring space, there’s still no internationally recognized legal definition of where they have ventured. NASA traditionally awards anyone who reaches an altitude of 80km ‘astronaut’s wings’. During the 1960s eight pilots from NASA’s X-15 experimental rocket plane were awarded this accolade, like the astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes, with pilot Joe Walker twice reaching a height of more than 100km in 1963. Most experts agree that missions to this altitude constitute genuine spaceflight, and it may yet become the legal standard, with lawyers in Australia in 2002 becoming the first to adopt 100km as the definition of where space begins.

Why do our noses run when we eat hot food?

A runny nose is normally caused by streaming eyes draining through the tear ducts into the nose. The watering eye’s response is mediated by the trigeminal nerve, which is the main facial nerve and has branches in the mouth, nose and eyes. The response probably evolved as a way of flushing the eyes and nose of irritants. With hot food, that irritant is the capsaicin oil; in cold weather, the drying effect of the wind is to blame.

How slow could I waterski before I’d sink? (I weigh 65kg)

A back-of-the-envelope calculation based on Newton’s Laws of Motion gives a figure of 20km/h. The lift force that keeps you up is a reaction to the force that you have to exert to move water out of the way as you travel through it. Its value depends on your speed, the area of ski in contact with the water, and the angle of attack of the skis with the water. From water-skiing photos and films it looks as though a typical angle of attack is around 15°, which gives a speed of 20km/h to just keep your weight up. Don’t take this figure too seriously though, as it doesn’t allow for frictional drag, bow wave effects or ski shape. It seems to fit with experience, however, and also with the claim that an elite K-4 kayaking team could tow a light waterskier at a record speed of just over 20km/h.

Why do humans laugh when tickled?

Most species respond to tickling or other light touches by withdrawing to avoid the attack on the vulnerable area. It appears that we learn to laugh at tickling as children only when we perceive the tickling as a mock attack that is actually an act of personal closeness. Interestingly, recent research by the cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore has shown that we can’t tickle ourselves, no matter how hard we try.

Do fish drink?

Yes and no. While freshwater fish absorb more than enough water by osmosis through their gills, saltwater fish do drink because they lose water by osmosis.

Are Inuit loos made of ice?

Inuit toilets are just the same as yours or mine. The closest most Arctic people get to an igloo is watching Nanook of the North on DVD.

Can giraffes swim?

Yes, the BBC’s Big Cat Diary crew has filmed a giraffe swimming a short distance in Kenya’s Mara river.

Does playing music to plants help them grow?

No, there are a few plants that will react to sound vibration, for example Mimosa pudica, but musical appreciation is a different thing entirely.

Does peeing on a jellyfish sting really ease the pain?

No, urinating will probably cause even more ‘nematocysts’, tiny spring-loaded harpoons that inject venom under your skin, to fire!

Why do all planets and moons spin?

The reason is tied to the origins of the Solar System as a primordial Sun surrounded by initially randomly swirling clouds of dust and gas. Pulled towards the Sun by gravity, these clouds became denser, with internal collisions leading to a preferred direction of motion. Like water spiralling round a plughole, the collapsing clouds swirled in this direction at an ever-faster rate, eventually becoming dense enough to collapse under their own gravity and form spinning planets and moons. The one exception is Saturn’s moon Hyperion, which seems to have undergone a very violent impact, turning it into a potato-shaped rock that tumbles chaotically through space. RM

How do we know the speed of light is the same for everyone?

This is the assertion behind the theory of special relativity – and it’s not obvious. The speed of a train may be 200km/h to a stationary observer, but 400km/h relative to a train coming the other way. Einstein’s claim that the speed of light is the same for everyone, regardless of how they’re moving, was confirmed by experiments at CER N in Geneva. Sub-atomic particles were accelerated to 99.975 per cent of the speed of light, but when the speed of light they emitted was measured, it turned out to be 300,000km/s – the same as when the particles are stationary, as Einstein predicted


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A portable device to turn your bread into toast without the need for electricity. Or a toaster. Genius.

It works by spreading the heat (produced via nanotechnology using molecular-sized tubes of carbon) with the unique iron-like ceramic unit until the bread is toasted to a suitable brown, crispy taste. Like conventional toasters, it takes two to three minutes to toast the bread- although it is slower as only one side can be toasted at a time.

The concept has been dreamt up by Korean designer, Kim Been, and although still only in the preliminary stages, it is hoped it could be available in shops in Britain by the end of the year.

Yo, Respect

Following a British survey ( to find the world's "most respected person", the people have spoken.

And boy, does it speak volumes. Number three, Jade Goody? Please, please, please- what are you people on? There are some other duff stinkers in the top 20.

Have we really become so vacuous and shallow minded? :-(

Top 20 most respected people in the world

1. Barack Obama

2. Nelson Mandela

3. Jade Goody

4. Sir Richard Branson

5. Sir Terry Wogan

6. J K Rowling OBE

7. Phillip Schofield

8. Sir Alan Sugar

9. Dame Judi Dench

10. Sir Michael Parkinson

11. Dame Helen Mirren

12. Jamie Oliver

13. Angelina Jolie

14. Sir Elton John

15. Cheryl Cole

16. The Queen

17. Kylie Minogue

18. Lady Thatcher

19. Lorraine Kelly

20. Stephen Fry

A Boy Names Sue, Too. Nearly

Some delightful names given to children by their parents with a sense of humour; depending on which side one is standing:


  • Barb Dwyer
  • Pearl Button
  • Ray Gunn
  • Helen Back
  • Stan Still
  • Jo King
  • Lee King
  • Terry Bull
  • Mary Christmas
  • Max Power
  • Paige Turner
  • Sonny Day
  • Tim Burr
  • Teresa Green
  • Will Power
  • Anna Sasin
  • Chris Cross
  • Doug Hole
  • Justin Case
  • Barry Cade


  • Anna Prentice
  • Annette Curtain
  • Bill Board
  • Carrie Oakey
  • Dr Leslie Doctor
  • Dr Thoulton Surgeon
  • Dr Payne
  • Les Plack
  • Priti Manek
  • Dr Sumey

Quick Download

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I was curious about Bush's forthcoming speeches and wanted to see how many errors they would contain...

Potted History of HBO

Aye, it's another long and "cut & pasted" post, but it's a good article in TTel:

The executives at HBO took a year to make up their minds about David Chase's new drama. The pilot episode had been subtle, complex and dark. Were audiences really ready for a show about a mob boss in the throes of a midlife crisis? Then there was the name. The Sopranos? It sounded like a show about opera singers. They suggested some more explicit titles: Family Man, The Tony Files, Made In New Jersey. But Chase wouldn't budge. Eventually, against some of their better instincts, they gave the series the go-ahead.

When the first set of scripts came through, their worst fears seemed fulfilled. In one of the early episodes, protagonist Tony Soprano was described as taking his teenage daughter on a college road trip, during the course of which he beats then fatally strangles a former colleague turned FBI informant. The executives were aghast. 'We called David in and said, ''We can't have the hero commit a brutal murder this early in the series! Are you nuts?" ' says HBO co-president Richard Plepler. 'He said, ''That's what it is. That's the show I'm making.'' We thought about that for a while and said, ''OK, you're right. That is the show you're making. And it's a great show.'"

The discussion was to prove a turning point both for The Sopranos and HBO. Chase had the go-ahead to pursue his vision for the show without further interference from the executives. It would soon become an unprecedented critical and commercial hit. HBO, a subscription-only US channel hitherto known for showing films and live sporting events, had discovered a formula for success which would become their template for the next 10 years. Television would never be the same again.

'HBO had decided to put their faith in David Chase,' says Matt Weiner, the creator of Mad Men and a former writer on The Sopranos. 'From then on, whether it was Sex And The City or The Wire, they would allow the creators of the shows to pursue their own visions. They realised that was the only way to make shows that were truly unique.'

A gangster who sees a shrink to cope with his Oedipus complex was just the start. There was the Manhattan columnist who candidly discussed her sex life over lunch. The gay stickup man who robbed drug dealers. The pathologically offensive comedy writer. The two Kiwi musicians living in New York. The vampires. The dysfunctional undertakers. The foul-mouthed Hollywood agent. These were just some of the improbable and unique characters that HBO brought to our screens over the past decade. Since the late Nineties, the channel has produced a run of shows proving that television didn't have to be immediate, disposable or trashy in order to be commercially successful. It could be intelligent and complex too.

The Sopranos, Sex and The City, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under, Rome, Band Of Brothers, Entourage, Deadwood, Flight of the Conchords, Oz… All have raised the creative bar for all forms of popular entertainment, showing that television at its best can equal the artistic merit of the greatest movies and works of literature. Along the way, they have provided commentaries on some of the biggest social and political themes of our times, explored and defined new cultural movements, pushed the boundaries of televised sex and violence and used a great many swear words. Their programmes have attracted audiences far beyond the 30 million Americans who subscribe to the channel; they are watched on DVDs and foreign channels across the world.

In short, HBO has been the most significant pop-cultural phenomenon of recent times. That they have found success across such a broad spectrum of television genres suggests some form of creative alchemy. But those in charge insist it's rather more mundane than that. 'As a subscription-based channel we don't have to chase advertisers and huge viewing figures like the big networks do,' explains Michael Lombardo, president of HBO's programming group. 'In fact, I don't know that any of our shows would have sustained themselves on a network. We're lucky that we're not under pressure to build big shows. We're just trying to build on quality.'

This simple policy is one that had helped the channel to enjoy 10 years of uninterrupted success. But in recent times it has shown signs of faltering. Over the past two years, there has been a scandalous regime change, flagship shows have ended and the new team has struggled to find anything to replace them. Their biggest challenge is trying to match up to HBO's own illustrious past.

HBO began as the dream of Long Island entrepreneur Charles Dolan. In the summer of 1971, as he cruised to France on the Queen Elizabeth II, he came up with the idea of a pay-cable channel. At the time, those major networks Lombardo refers to – CBS, ABC and NBC – accounted for 97 per cent of all television watched in the US. Dolan thought there might be a way of creating a subscription channel that people would actually pay to watch. If he attracted enough subscribers, he wouldn't need to battle it out with the network behemoths for advertising revenue. He concluded that uncensored, uninterrupted films would provide the biggest attraction for viewers. Having recently sold his small cable company to Time Inc., he used the proceeds to set up Home Box Office. On a stormy November night the following year, the channel was transmitted for the first time to just 365 homes in Wilkes-Barr, Pennsylvania. The first film it showed was the appropriately named Sometimes A Great Notion. Today, there is a plaque in Wilkes-Barr commemorating the occasion.

Initially, the networks dismissed HBO as a small experiment destined to failure. But gradually, the channel began to creep across the country, attracting more subscribers and investing the proceeds in buying the rights to major sporting events. They became the first television channel to regularly use satellite transmissions, beginning with the live broadcast of the 'Thrilla In Manila' – Muhammad Ali's heavyweight championship fight with Joe Frazier in 1975.

The networks began to take notice. HBO might not have been competing for advertising but it showed signs of nibbling at their audience figures. Over the next decade, they began to air prestige concerts with major crowd pullers such as Barbra Streisand and Bette Middler and by the Eighties it was an unqualified commercial success. But when president Michael Fuchs announced that they would create their own slate of original programmes, the industry scoffed at his hubris. How could HBO hope to make television shows that audiences would pay to watch? It would have been simpler to stick with the tried and tested formula of sports and movies but Fuchs had bigger plans.

A loud, garrulous figure himself (he was once described by Esquire magazine as 'the man who ate Hollywood') he wanted his channel to be more than just the home of other people's content. He envisaged HBO as a brand; not just an alternative to network television but a form of entertainment that was too cool to be without. The films, sports and concerts remained the major attractions but these were complimented by original dramas, edgy sitcoms and exclusive stand-up shows by the likes of Billy Crystal, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams. The unusual mix began to attract a new audience, for whom HBO was almost a hip lifestyle accoutrement.

Keenly aware of this, the writer and comedian Garry Shandling brought his radical new idea for a spoof talk show to HBO in 1991. 'Garry came to us with this format which would mix fiction and reality and be filmed entirely like a fly on the wall documentary,' says Plepler. 'It was like nothing we'd heard before and we loved it.'

The Larry Sanders Show, which first aired in 1992, broke the mould for sitcoms. Long before Steve Coogan had invented Alan Partridge, Shandling nailed his chat-show host alter-ego as a vain and deluded monster. The superficial preoccupations and giant, destructive egos of the Hollywood entertainment industry were brutally lampooned. Chief among Sanders's team of sycophantic underlings were sidekick Hank ('I mean, Larry is a wonderful guy. He's kind, funny, rich – my God, he's the boss. I'd date him if I could') and producer Artie (Artie: 'Hello, oh great one.' Larry: 'Are you talking to me or my ass?') There was no warmth, no pathos and no laughter track. It did everything a sitcom wasn't supposed to. And it was a gigantic hit.

It first aired on HBO in 1992 and during the course of its six-year run, it was nominated for 56 Emmy awards. Suddenly, HBO became the first place that in-the-know writers, comedians and producers would take their ideas. 'HBO is like heaven,' Garry Shandling told fellow comedian Dennis Miller in 1992. 'It's a comedy Valhalla. Not only do they hire you but they let you be happy.'

The comedy community had embraced HBO as its natural home. Soon, the drama community would do the same. In 1997, HBO produced Oz, its first hour-long drama series. Set in the fictional Oswald State Correctional Facility, it stunned audiences with its portrayal of drugs, violence, homosexuality and male rape. The language was relentlessly coarse and it dealt with themes such as ethnic and religious conflict with caustic realism. HBO fully exploited its status as a subscription channel to show material far too extreme for traditional American television.

Chris Albrecht, the head of original programming in whose hands creative decisions were put, was a former stand-up comedian with a clear vision of how HBO should operate. 'We are the closest thing there is to a television patron,' he said in 1997. 'Through the ages, that's how the best, purest art got made. You give people money and they paint. You don't torture them with details. Not if you want brilliance. Not if you really need them.'

David Chase had been working in television for more than 25 years, enjoying moderate success as a writer on mainstream hits such as The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure. He was in his fifties by the time he wrote a pilot for The Sopranos and pitched it to several network stations. A dense and complex proposition, Chase described his idea as a real-life Simpsons. 'I guess I was just thinking the attitude and the comic dysfunction and the vulgarity of The Simpsons,' he said. 'I also started thinking about it as Twin Peaks in the Jersey meadowlands.' But network executives weren't ready for such an esoteric pitch. Chase was told that the title was confusing, the protagonist unsympathetic and the themes excessively dark.

Eventually, he showed the script to Albrecht who disagreed. 'I said to myself, "This show is about a guy who's turning 40",' Albrecht recalled. 'He's inherited a business from his dad. He's trying to bring it into the modern age. He's got an overbearing mom that he's still trying to get out from under. Although he loves his wife, he's had an affair. He's got two teenage kids… He's anxious, he's depressed, he starts to see a therapist because he's searching for the meaning of his own life. I thought, "The only difference between him and everybody I know is he's the don of New Jersey".'

Even when the initial pilot episode received a lukewarm response, HBO decided to commission a full series. 'We saw in David [Chase] an auteur with a story he wanted to tell,' explains Michael Lombardo. In most other forms of entertainment, 'auteur' had become a dirty word. Since the excesses of the Seventies, Hollywood had endeavoured to marginalise so-called 'creative visionaries' in favour of business-minded executives who would treat films like commercial ventures. Meanwhile, HBO was doing the exact opposite: putting all its faith, and a great deal of its money, into the hands of passionate creatives like Chase.

The success of The Sopranos outstretched anything HBO might have anticipated. At its peak the show attracted 18 million viewers and was syndicated to channels across the world. It won numerous Emmy and Golden Globe awards and was declared by many critics as the greatest drama series of all time. Structurally, it broke new ground: its central character, Tony Soprano, was a murderous and corrupt anti-hero. Its narratives were often ponderous and its plots deliberately left unresolved. It was wilfully cryptic and refused to spoon-feed impatient viewers with neat storytelling devices. In fact, it defied almost every convention of television drama.

'We were allowed to be increasingly experimental in our writing,' says Matt Weiner, who served as one of the series' chief writers. 'Only on The Sopranos could you write long silent sequences in which the characters said nothing. One page of silence costs the same amount as five pages of dialogue. But silent scenes are often the most revealing.'

The show's huge commercial success had a knock-on effect on television as a whole. Mainstream channels were now emboldened to attempt more ambitious dramas. In subsequent years, the likes of FX and Fox would build improbably thoughtful shows such as Nip/Tuck, The Shield, House and Lost around their own anti-heroes.

HBO strove to stay ahead of the competition. 1998 had also seen the launch of Sex and the City. While it might not have attracted the same level of high-minded critical acclaim as The Sopranos, it blended a superficial mix of sex, gossip and fashion with more thoughtful commentaries on sexual politics and identity.

At the other end of the scale there's Baltimore-set police drama The Wire, which debuted in 2002. While its dense, sprawling take on urban decay and institutional corruption was unable to attract the same viewing figures as The Sopranos, its critical success was enough to secure it a five-year run on HBO. 'I pitched The Wire to HBO as the anti-cop show, a rebellion of sorts against the horseshit police procedurals afflicting American television,' says the show's creator David Simon. 'I suggested that they could further enhance their standing by embracing the ultimate network standard and inverting the form.' It was the sort of abstract pitch that would have been laughed out of any other television channel.

Over the course of five series, The Wire carried out a near-forensic analysis of the modern American city. Critics lined up to heap it with praise, widely comparing it to the literary works of Dickens or Dostoevsky. Even presidential candidate Barack Obama named it his favourite show, citing gay stickup man Omar Little as his preferred character. 'That's not an endorsement,' he explained. 'He's not my favourite person, but he's a fascinating character.'

Not all HBO hits were quite so earnest. In 2000 the channel invited Seinfeld creator Larry David to create an innovative sitcom based on the hilarious trivialities of his own life. Just as The Larry Sanders Show had done eight years beforehand, it broke new boundaries for a sitcom. David persistently affronts all those who surround him: he cack-handedly offends a friend by commenting on the large size of his child's penis at a pool party; he is caught by his best friend's parents watching pornography; he gets out of jury service by telling the judge he is a racist; and he fights with Cheers star Ted Danson over a shirt. Largely unscripted and relentlessly controversial, there was little to suggest it would enjoy much popular appeal. Not only was Curb Your Enthusiasm soon hailed as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, it was also home to probably the most obscene language ever heard on television.

Identifying and nurturing unique talent seemed to be HBO's greatest strength and central to this was Chris Albrecht, who was made CEO in 2002, along with his head of original programming, Carolyn Strauss. When Entourage creator Doug Ellin approached the channel with his idea for a Hollywood-based comedy drama in 2001, it was Albrecht who spotted his potential. 'The channel didn't like the idea at first but Richard and Carolyn somehow spotted something that was worth working on,' says Ellin. 'Most networks would have passed on it straight away but he took the time to help me until it worked.' James Bobin, the British co-creator of the deadpan musical comedy Flight of the Conchords, explains: 'Carolyn and Richard had great taste, they didn't just commission everything. But once they decided they liked you and your idea they gave you the freedom to go and make it without interference. They always said, ''We don't know what we want until you show it to us".'

Albrecht's relationship with key talent had rendered him almost indispensable to the channel. But at 3am on Sunday May 6 2007, Albrecht's glorious reign at the helm of HBO came to an ignominious end. Having flown to Las Vegas on a private jet to watch Floyd Mayweather fight Oscar De La Hoya from a ringside seat, Albrecht had spent the evening drinking heavily. Once he'd watched Mayweather win the fight he was seen reportedly clutching his girlfriend, Karla Jensen, by the throat with both hands in the MGM Grand's car lot. Two police officers spotted the incident and arrested Albrecht, charging him with battery. The officers noted in their report that Albrecht had drunkenly explained that Jensen had 'pissed me off'. As the inebriated executive was taken to the police station, the officer also reported that 'Albrecht informed me he was the CEO of HBO.'

The unseemly event led to HBO's parent company, Time Warner, asking him to step down from his role just two days later. 'I have been a sober member of Alcoholic Anonymous for 13 years,' he told HBO employees in an email announcing his sudden resignation. 'Two years ago I decided that I could handle drinking again. Clearly I was wrong.'

Industry insiders leapt on the scandal as a signal of an impending demise at HBO. The Sopranos had ended; within a year, The Wire would do the same. Rival channels were on the rise. Cable channel AMC, previously the home of movie reruns, followed the HBO model by moving into original dramas. Their first hit was Mad Men, Matt Weiner's lush depiction of Sixties advertising executives, which HBO had rejected years previously. It cleaned up at last year's Emmy and Golden Globe award ceremonies. Old rivals Showtime managed to create a critical buzz with shows like Weeds, Dexter, The Tudors and Californication.

Meanwhile, HBO struggled to make an impact with the ratings or the critics with John From Cincinnati, the show which inherited The Sopranos time slot. A bizarre mix of surfing, quantum physics and supernatural drama from Deadwood creator David Milch, it baffled viewers and was cancelled after one series. In Treatment, a five-nights-a-week drama starring Gabriel Byrne as a psychotherapist, attracted a mere half million viewers when it began at the start of 2008. Historical drama John Adams, which cost $100m to make, was launched as a flagship series for the channel but only managed to attract around two million viewers.

Of course, HBO's business model means that not all their shows have to attract the 18 million viewers The Sopranos enjoyed at its peak. But, more significantly, none of the recent series have managed to attract anywhere near the same level of critical acclaim, column inches or plain water-cooler eulogising as their predecessors.

That said, there have been some quiet critical successes of late. Generation Kill, a shockingly vivid miniseries set in the Iraq war from the makers of The Wire, was a hit last year and is currently airing on the FX channel in the UK. True Blood, a vampire series from Six Feet Under's Alan Ball, has been similarly praised and will air here on FX in the summer (Channel Four will show it later in the year).

The future promises such diverse fare as Atlantic City, a period gangster series from Martin Scorsese and a US remake of Shameless from ER producer John Wells (for more, see box). Plepler and Lombardo have also held talks with the Coen brothers about a possible western. Will any of these be the next Sopranos? Michael Lombardo says he neither knows nor cares: 'There is no magic formula to unearthing the next great show.'

Take a Pew

A chair has just been sold for £19 million. OK, so it was once owned by Yves Saint Laurent (although what that has to do with the price of fish is anyone's guess), but you can still only sit in the thing. Although I doubt very much that anyone will be sitting in that- ever.

Good luck to the new owner(s) but the phrase more "money than sense" certainly springs to mind.

More at TTel.

How Many Times?

Will we see this clip being used in conjunction with some clever dick adding new subbies? I suppose the phrase "grammar Nazis" has to have its origin somewhere and whilst not a new idea, this still made me smile. Enjoy.


On average, the production of each fourteen square feet of tinfoil requires the destruction of the habitat of one poor spider monkey.

Edy- Happy Birthday, Burd

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As the title suggests, today is Edy's birthday and we're sorry we can't be there to help celebrate. However, we'll be meeting up in Phuket in May, so get practising on the beer front as we'll make up for it then.

Hope you have a super day and Brendan spoils you horribly- you're worth it.

PS: Bren is on the RHS, OK?

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Thanks to Hanna For This

Work is not always required... there is such a thing as sacred idleness, the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected.

- George McDonald

I would be assisting the cause vigorously had I still been in employment. :o)

Oi, You Povs Up North

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How's this for a deal with DFDS? Two for the price of one, with a mini cruise from Newcastle to Amsterdam for two nights at only £69. Includes two nights on board ship, coach transfers to and from Amsterdam city centre and an Amsterdam Mini Pass.

What are you waiting for, it's only for March, so get your skates on.

More Tips to Save on Your Next Holiday

Taken from TTimes:

1 You already know the minibar is out. Use it as a fridge for all your 7-Eleven purchases (beer, champagne, iced coffee, Perrier, G&Ts) instead. You can even have fun irritating the hotel by asking them to empty the minibar before you check in . . . It’s your room, after all.

2 Don’t bother with EasyJet’s speedy boarding. It just ain’t worth it.

3 Never simply roll up at a hotel unless there’s plenty of choice in the area. “Walk-ins” are usually charged the highest rates, especially if the front desk knows you don’t have another option. Phone to book first — and ask for a discount (always worth a try).

4 Cut back on the adventures without cutting back on the adventures by booking a spot-the-difference discount alternative. Tribes’s new brand (01728 685971, ) offers stripped-back versions of its classic itineraries at truly bargain prices — India’s Golden Triangle tour has dropped from £1,465 with mints on pillows to £580 without. Also try Explore’s (0845 013 1539, ) new Back to Basics brand, which offers a 10-day tour of India for £365, excluding flights.

5 SeaFrance is the cheapest way to cross the Channel. Book on the Rodin or the Berlioz, the (relatively) posher of its fleet and reward yourself with a full-service breakfast in the Brasserie. Appropriately, the continental is much nicer than the full-cooked. We can’t speak for lunch or dinner . . .

6. . . and fill up the tank before you drive onto the homebound ferry. Even with the new pricey euro, it’s much cheaper.

7 Comply with Ryanair’s relentless rules and regulations. The no-frills carrier claims to offer the lowest fares, but only if you stick to no frills. This means checking in online with no hold luggage, only one carry-on bag (including anything bought at the airport), paying by Visa Electron (who has one of those?) and taking your own sandwiches (which will be much nicer anyway). Don’t buy any scratchcards from them — you’re better than that.

8 Make lunch at breakfast. It’s thieving, technically, but no hotel worth its bacon and eggs is going to object to you making a nice cheese and ham roll or two from the breakfast buffet. And it means you can lunch on the go: excellent if you have 14 museums to tick off.

9 Except, of course, lunch is cheaper than dinner: so if you’re treating yourself, do it by day, not night. Five-star hotels, in particular, offer bargain lunchtime set menus. Even three-star Michelin jobs will have deals.

10 Before you book any flight, do triple-check that there isn’t a cheaper alternative on

11 Change your credit card. Most credit cards add a loading charge of about 3% on purchases and up to £5 every time you use an overseas ATM. Abbey’s Zero card is the only one on the market that does neither.

12 Hard-core Gore-Tex wearers need that £500 tent, but we summer long-weekenders don’t. We swear by the Eurohike family pack from Millets ( ): with a roomy four-person tent, a double and two single sleeping bags, ground mats and a double air mattress, you’ve got the freedom of the countryside for only £100.

13 Now you’ve got the tent pack, where do you go? Avoid camp-site fees by going wild camping in the countryside. Snag: it’s not legal in England and Wales (except on Dartmoor). Solution: make for Scotland or Dartmoor, where you’re actively encouraged to get out there and commune with nature in the raw. Visit and for details.

14 Brussels, not Paris, for a romantic weekend. The bureaucrats are away, hotel rates are cheaper and so is the food. Unless you dine at Comme chez Soi, which you must. We’re sorry.

15 Catching an overnight train is fun and saves the cost of a hotel. The Elipsos Trenhotel ( ) runs from Paris to Barcelona and Madrid, with one-way fares in a four-berth couchette from £64pp; a two-berth sleeper, with ensuite shower and loo, three-course evening meal with wine in the restaurant car, and breakfast, is from £142pp. Or there are City Night Line trains ( ) from Paris to Berlin, and Artesia trains ( ) from Paris to Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome. All are bookable through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070, visit ).

16 Book an apartment instead of a hotel. A week in the four-star Le Cavendish, just off La Croisette in Cannes, for a family of four will set you back £3,100 this July. A week in the chic, two-bedroom apartment Le Versailles, also just off La Croisette and booked through , costs just £759 for the same week.

17 Or go for the halfway house: the apart-hotel. All rooms have a lounge area and fully equipped kitchenette. Citadines ( ) has apart-hotels in 22 countries: from £80 per night in Brussels, sleeping four people.

18 Never buy a round of drinks in a five-star hotel.

19 Pay nothing to call home by using Rebtel ( ). It’s rather complicated . . . while overseas, enter the UK number you want on the Rebtel website. It will give you a local number in return — if you’re in Barcelona, for example, it will be a Barcelona number — and when you dial it, you’ll be connected to the UK number you want to call.

Tell the person at the other end of the line to hang up and redial the number on their screen, and as soon as they do so, you’ll be connected for free, while they’ll pay only for a local call. We’ve tried it and it works, but God knows how.

20 Save on car rental by joining a loyalty scheme. Signing up is free, and for once it pays to tick the box allowing them to send you their newsletters, as members can get discounts and upgrades — and, best of all, don’t have to queue up like losers at the airport rental desk.

21 Eat off the streets. No, not literally, but street food can be the freshest, tastiest option in more adventurous cities: go to the stall with the longest queue, have what everyone else is having, and if it looks like a tarantula on a stick, it is a tarantula on a stick.

22 In the developed world, where tap water is safe, buying bottled water more than once isn’t just extravagant, it’s vandalism — you’re creating rubbish for no reason. Refill as you go from any handy tap, and if anyone looks disapproving, tell them you’re an eco-warrior.

23 Always buy a local travel card. Some, such as the I Amsterdam card (£43 for 48 hours; ), offer not only unlimited travel on public transport, but also restaurant discounts and free entry to museums and galleries. Others, such as the New York Metrocard (£18 for seven days; ) and London’s Oyster, just cover transport: a lot smarter than forking out for cabs.

24 If you think car-hire companies are having a laugh with their excessive excess charges — and who doesn’t? — outsmart them by insuring the excess at Europe for a year costs £49.

25 Or don’t rent at all. Hitchhiking is the cheapest way to travel, but it can be dodgy. With you can cyberthumb lifts all over Europe, and there’s the chance to check out the driver first by phone and e-mail.

26 Backpacker hostels aren’t only for spotty teenagers. Many of them are infinitely cleaner, cooler and better located than the cost-equivalent hotel. And the best ones offer doubles and family rooms as well as dorms — so you can pretend you are young again without actually having to sleep in a bunk bed.

27 A local guide can make the most of a city — but who wants to pay for one? Global will hook you up with a volunteer guide who will show visitors their favourite hidden corners simply for the love of it (though it’s good manners to buy them a coffee).

28 Boycott the Heathrow Express until they cut the silly price.

29 Snatch a copy of the local free listings magazine when you arrive in a new city. They might not read as beautifully as this newspaper, but they’re packed with promotions and deals for restaurants, attractions and theatres.

30 Book your airport parking the day you book your holiday. A summer-holiday fortnight at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 long-stay car park costs £98 if you book it now. Leave it until departure day and it’s £198. For reliable, often startling airport parking price comparisons, check .

31 French motorway hotels are brilliant and cheap if you need a stress-free stopover en route to the Med. Check out , , and, if you’re a tiny bit posher, before you set off.

32 Come to think of it, British motorway chains aren’t half as horrid as they used to be, either. Dare we recommend Premier Inn ( ), with its clean, functional family rooms from £50? And a nice Little Chef breakfast? No — not unless you happen to be passing the Popham branch on the A303, near Basingstoke. That’s the one Heston Blumenthal has got his hands on.

33 How often do you find that getting out to Rome with your favourite no-frills airline is just £9.99, plus taxes, but the return is £149? Answer: shop around for the best pair of one-way flight deals from different carriers.

34 Beware the concierge who earns commission from his recommendations. It’s worth double-checking with the local tourist office or the man in the street.

35 Read the travel section at . Its tabloid style can be disconcerting, but it does what it says on the tin. The FlightChecker mini-site is particularly useful, listing hundreds of no-frills flights by price rather than destination.

36 Do the Louvre ( ) on the first Sunday of the month, or on July 14, and it’s free (saving £32 for a family of four). Many other cities and museums also have monthly free days.

37 No-frills airlines are now a worldwide phenomenon. Flying to Kuala Lumpur? Air Asia ( will hop you to Langkawi, Bali or Borneo for less than £20 return. Get a Bond-villain-style overview at

38 Every parent knows breaks in school hols cost a packet, and head teachers are dragons about taking the kids out of class. They have discretion to allow absences for an educational trip, though — which could mean anything from seeing lions to searching for fossils on a Dorset beach. Far be it from us to suggest cooking up “improving” side trips to avoid having to pay rip-off rates — we’ll simply leave the thought with you.

39 Collect miles. No problem if you don’t fly a lot: by using an affiliated credit card, or joining supermarket schemes, you can collect them on everyday spending. The oldest of the lot, Air Miles, now also includes all taxes and fees on its free flights. Sign up at , and .

40 And while we’re busy handing over all our personal details, sign up for airline and hotel mailing lists. What’s a bit of junk mail and overfriendly marketing if it gets you a heads-up on sales and deals?

41 The earlier you book a flight, the cheaper it is, right? Not for charters. If they have empty seats a couple of weeks before the flight, and they often do, they slash fares until the plane is full. Cancun for £200, anyone? Keep a beady eye on , and .

42 allows you to sleep, for free, on other people’s sofas. Amazingly, it works, and the site now has almost a million members.

43 You can pay an absolute fortune for your Eurostar trip. Or, thanks to the “Paris from £59” button on its home page, you can see at a glance when the cheapest fares are and plan accordingly.

44 For a real adventure on the cheap, work your passage by crewing on a yacht. Many private owners need extra hands on voyages: they’ll often teach you the ropes as you go, and rarely charge (though you’ll usually chip in for food). Cast off at , and , which has a great range of trips from the Med to the South Pacific.

45 If you’re booking a trip through a travel agent, never take their first price. They make their money on commission, so they’ll always have added something on for their profit: the more complicated the trip, the bigger the mark-up.

46 Check out transport from the airport into town before you leave home. Airport taxi ranks are the biggest rip-off zone in travel, awash with licensed bandits who’ll overcharge and then gouge the hotel for commission on delivering you. It’s a bus or a train for you, my dear.

47 Order your currency online, at , for example. The rates are infinitely better than at the airport and, for a fiver, they’ll deliver it to your home or office as well.

48 Avoid Alton Towers, Chessington, the London Dungeon and Madame Tussauds. If it’s between them losing business and you staying afloat, too bad for them. They shouldn’t charge so much. And your children will be equally as happy building a den in the woods. Won’t they? No? Ah.

49 Don’t avoid Alton Towers et al, then. Type the name into Google followed by “special offer”. Guess what? You’ll find lots of special offers. Myvoucher is also a good hunting site for deals.

50 Put our website, , into your favourites. It’s the year of the canny traveller, and you can read all about it on our site.

Some pretty good advice there, but not all so good.

11- Not true, Nationwide do the same and also offer commission free wedge out of the ATM if you use your debit card. LOADS better than the Abbey.

12- Camping is NOT a holiday.

19- Erm, Skype, people.

37- What have we been saying all along?

42- What? Dossing on someone's couch is a holiday? Stay at home you tightwad.

44- Ensure you don't get seasick- it will spoil everything.

45- I'll leave that one to Hanna...:0D

47- Again, open up an Nationwide account and simply use your cash point card at the ATM for free. Less risk than travelling with too much cash and you can check all transactions on line.

50- *cough*

Ryanair Making Headlines

Taken from TTimes, some of the more "interesting" news made by the cheapo airline over the years. We're fans, as you pay for what (or not) you get, but they're not a patch on the superb Air Asia.

Ryanair calls bloggers 'idiots and lunatics'
Ryanair slams 'Thomas Crooks' for overcharging

Stranded by Ryanair: the rant that became a book
Ryanair closes check-in desks
Mobile phones take off on Ryanair
Old newspapers on Ryanair

Michael O'Leary - rebel with a cause (profile)
Ryanair's £16 debit charge
Ryanair - only five airlines will survive in Europe
Ryanair hits back over oxygen failure claims during mid-air emergency
Ryanair would have made Eve pay for her own apple
Ryanair risks big fine over adverts
Ryanair ordered to pay damages to steel band ‘terrorists’ thrown off jet

Ryanair chief flies into a rage over green taunts
A fair price for Ryanair fares?
Booted off a Ryanair flight with the wrong ID
Is Ryanair the least family friendly airline?
Ryanair sues Europe over airline state aid
ASA ruling over Ryanair's claim that plane beats train
Ryanair drops ‘1p flight’ before it is outlawed by EC
Ryanair denies uses faulty scales to weigh baggage

Yes, you with the double buggy. If you want to see your kids again, cough up...
Travel light or pay warns Ryanair
Ryanair's £61.84 flight to Berlin (excluding 1p airfare)
Ryanair sues government as a million face delay
Ryanair's wheelchair levy 'covers fuel costs'
O'Leary: when I stuff BA, I'll quit

Ryanair apology for ejecting eight blind passengers
There's method in O'Leary madness says professor
Ryanair tops BA as Europe's most popular airline
I'm going by 2008 says O'Leary

Ryanair price hike after losing wheelchair ruling
Ryanair lottery sidesteps UK gambling laws
Ryanair says you can go on holiday with nothing but hand luggage. Who are they kidding?
Fasten your seatbelt - it's a marketing ad from Ryanair
Belgians revise laws to save Ryanair flights

Ryanair says it cares for you

Ryanair tops list of shame
Cost of flying to Europe drops a record 22 per cent
BA v low-costs: now it's war

Coming Soon, Live Bushisms

Bush is to embark next month on an international speaking tour aimed at making him loads of dosh and reshaping his battered image abroad. The former president, but on-going bumbling oaf, plans to make about ten speeches over the next year- the first of what he hopes will be many more, at various venues in the US, Canada, Europe and Asia.

Unlucky Canucks, he is to deliver his first speech on 17th March in Calgary, Canada, which will be held in a convention centre before a mostly business audience, but the press will not be allowed to attend. The brochure promoting this cobblers reads:

“President during a period of great consequence, George W Bush shares thoughts* on his eight momentous years in the Oval Office and discusses the challenges facing the world in the 21st century.”

No doubt there will be many to watch him falter through similarly, carefully pre-written and re-written lies and more guff, but let's hope they check their shoes at Reception. Actually, let's hope they don't- those snow boots should pack a pretty powerful wallop.

And I can't wait for his tour of Iraq...

*That'll be a quick speech then...


“People complained about the title Slumdog Millionaire in Mumbai. But what about the feelings of millionaires like me?”

- Frank Skinner

Pantomime Time

Great commentary from TTimes on the Jack Straw decision:

Jack Straw is the man who invented the Freedom of Information Act, and he loves it. Adores it. Can’t get enough of it. He came to the Commons yesterday to tell us that his Act was one of the most rigorous, the toughest, in the world. So far 78,000 requests had been granted. He gushed – there is no other word – about his own belief in our right to know everything.

I waited for the “but”. It took five pages. It seems that case number 78,001 posed a tiny problem. This was a request for the Iraq War Cabinet minutes. Both the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal had ruled that they should be released. But Mr Straw could not agree. He must block this. Otherwise Cabinet ministers would feel that they could never be honest again. This veto wasn’t about secrecy or the war: it was about saving democracy.

“Disgraceful!” shouted renegade MPs.

Mr Straw explained why this was like Magna Carta but more important. “The concomitant of collective responsibility is that debate is conducted confidentially.”

Ah yes, the concomitant. What a barrister word. Mr Straw only uses them when he feels defensive: yesterday they surrounded him in crenellated walls. As the “buts” and “concomitants” built up, Labour MPs melted away. The Lib Dems were mob handed and there were dozens of Tories. Behind Mr Straw the acres of green leather spread out to the horizon. Soon there were only eight Labour MPs.

The Tory “attack” was hilarious. Dominic Grieve, the silkiest silk ever, tried to score a few “touché” type points, but then admitted that he thought Mr Straw was right. A smile flitted across Mr Straw’s face.

“I’m fascinated that the coalition that supported the Iraq war seems still to be in existence,” David Howarth, a Lib Dem, noted drily. Mr Straw and Mr Grieve glowed at each other concomitantly: only they understand the Magna Carta.

Next to Mr Straw, Andrew Mackinlay bounced up and down like an enraged rubber ball. Others on the Labour side were more eloquent – all but one opposed Mr Straw – but Mr Mackinlay’s attack came directly from the heart and, as he spoke, his feet beneath him did a distraught cha-cha-cha. It was “breathtaking” that Mr Straw, a major backer of the war, had taken this decision. “It really is appalling. It is a bad day for Parliament when you get the synthetic anger from the Opposition, cosying up, the Privy Council club closing down debate and discussion on things which must be revealed.”

Mr Mackinlay’s feet fumed. “I bear the scars of having trusted the Prime Minister on this matter and I will take to the grave the fact that I regret having listened to the porky pies and the stories. I will regret it to the day I die.” He thumped his heart. “I should never, ever have trusted them.”

Mr Straw got up to give a concomitant-type answer. As he opened his mouth, Mr Mackinlay shouted: “And I never will again!”

Traditional Customs Dying Out

The survey of 2 000 Brits offers an insight into changing British life over the past few decades, revealing which habits are dying out and which have stood the test of time.

Sunday Best clothes, traditionally reserved for wearing to church, topped the list of customs falling by the wayside.

A mere six per cent of Britain's under 25s have ever made the effort to wear them on the traditional day of rest.

Playground games like hopscotch, skipping, hide and seek and conkers are next at risk with just 13 per cent of under 25s having tried or even seen them.

May Day celebrations such as Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen and dancing around a Maypole are on the way out with only 13 per cent of the young aware of them.

And taking afternoon tea is heading for extinction as a custom too with just 14 per cent of the under 25s ever sampling the traditional cuppa, cucumber sandwiches and cake compared to the majority (55 per cent) of over 65s.

Keeping a diary and writing letters to family and friends is also waning with just 15 per cent of young people putting pen to paper.

They are instead communicating through email, social networking sites and blogs.

Two thirds (65 per cent) of under 25s are registered on Facebook, MySpace or Bebo and 56 per cent regularly write a blog.

Harvest Festival church celebrations of the food grown on the land are also alien to the modern generation with less than a quarter ever taking part.

Three in four young Brits have never played once popular parlour games like blind man's buff and charades.

The vast majority now prefer more solitary computer-based pastimes with 47 per cent regularly playing Wii games.

Just 38 per cent of the under 25s are au fait with Elevenses nowadays but one in five enjoy a weekly curry night.

While over half of all Brits (55 per cent) still enjoy seaside holidays in this country, traditional attractions are falling by the wayside.

Victorian favourites like Punch & Judy shows and donkey rides are unfamiliar to over half (55 per cent) of the under 25s.

The activities taking their place include water sports like surfing, riding jet skis and water-skiing with 15 per cent having given them a go.

Shopping is a major modern day tradition among the young with two thirds (67 per cent) enjoying the January sales, 38 per cent hitting the high street on a Sunday and 28 per cent attending farmers' markets.

Other modern day traditions among the young include Halloween parties (33 per cent), pub quizzes (22 per cent) and hen and stag dos abroad (20 per cent) rather than the traditional bash the night before the wedding.

Voting on the Eurovision Song Contest or reality TV shows like X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing is another new ritual for one in five.

But some British traditions have at least survived intact over the years.

We remain a nation of roast Sunday lunch eaters with 81 per cent still partaking.

Over half (55 per cent) still take British seaside holidays, 47 per cent watch a Christmas pantomime, 39 per cent attend a Bonfire Night display and 21 per cent enjoy a weekly fish and chip supper.

Taken from TTel.