29 June 2010

Welcome to the USA!

After yesterday's post about the questions we foreigners have to answer before being allowed into the USA, I half-expected to be barred from entry when I arrived a few hours ago.

Luckily, the passport control official didn't appear to have read my blog and contented herself with taking photographs of my fingerprints and eyeballs. She also asked whether I had brought any food with me, to which I confidently replied "No" - while guiltily wondering if I should tell her about the bottle of duty-free Scotch in my hand baggage.

"Welcome to the United States of America"
The notice bearing this legend may have been as huge as it was well-meaning - but it didn't prevent them from violating every civilised principle of queuing (waiting in line) that we Brits hold dear.

Every now and then - and for no apparent reason - 20-30 US citizens would be allowed to jump ahead of us foreigners in the queue/line, presided over by officials in red blazers who helpfully explained for the benefit of non-US citizens that "this is how we do things in the USA".

The people I felt most sorry for were a French couple - because, even though we got the word 'queue' from them, anyone who's ever been skiing in France knows that they don't get the principle of queuing either - and very stroppy they became about the way we were being treated.

Anyway, the net result of this was that, although Virgin flight VS001 arrived more or less on time, I had to 'wait in line' (as our American cousins insist on saying) for the best part of an hour and a half before finally coming face-to-face with the US passport control officer, who (thankfully) seemed happy enough to accept the carefully completed questionnaire (yes, you still have to do it on the flight as well as online) that I handed to her with my passport.

Blogposts on last year's visit to the USA

28 June 2010

Is the US landing card the most ridiculous questionnaire of all time?

I'm flying to New York later today and, for the first time, have had to apply to the US Department of Homeland Security for clearance in advance under its ESTA scheme (Electronic System for Travel Authorization).

An unexpected bonus was that I've at last got my hands on a copy of the ridiculous questions I've previously had to answer (in a state of total bemusement) during the flight - as I've often wished I could photocopy them to show to my American friends.

This is because fellow passengers who are US citizens don't have to complete such forms and therefore have no idea of the sheer absurdity of the questionnaire that we foreigners are busy filling in to prepare for our encounter with passport control on arrival.

Now that I've had to do it online, I'm finally able to share it with those of you who pay the taxes that enable your government to pursue such penetrating investigations on your behalf.

You might also like to know that the hard-copy version, which was never handed out until flights were well on their way across the Atlantic, included the helpful instruction that, if any of the answers was 'Yes', we should report immediately to our local US embassy.

Do any of the following apply to you? (Answer Yes or No)

A) Do you have a communicable disease; physical or mental disorder; or are you a drug abuser or addict? YES/NO

B) Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offense or crime involving moral turpitude or a violation related to a controlled substance; or have been arrested or convicted for two or more offenses for which the aggregate sentence to confinement was five years or more; or have been a controlled substance trafficker; or are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities? YES/NO

C) Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were you involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies? YES/NO

D) Are you seeking to work in the U.S.; or have you ever been excluded and deported; or been previously removed from the United States or procured or attempted to procure a visa or entry into the U.S. by fraud or misrepresentation? YES/NO

E) Have you ever detained, retained or withheld custody of a child from a U.S. citizen granted custody of the child? YES/NO

F) Have you ever been denied a U.S. visa or entry into the U.S. or had a U.S. visa canceled?YES/NO If YES, when and where?

G) Have you ever asserted immunity from prosecution? YES/NO

P.S. To these, I would like to add two more questions of my own:

H) Do you think anyone in their right mind would expect persons involved in moral turpitude and the like to answer 'Yes' to any of these questions? YES/NO

I) Do you think that the printing, distribution, collection and processing of these questionnaires is a valuable use of US taxpayers' money? YES/NO

25 June 2010

Where can you get a backwards-pointing baseball cap?

For reasons explained the other day, I obviously didn't watch any of the longest tennis match ever played at Wimbledon.

But I couldn't help noticing on the news that John Isner was wearing a backwards-pointing baseball cap.

It reminded me of a friend who, on on a ski holiday in the USA, became so irritated by the sight of skiers wearing baseball caps back-to-front that he went into a sports equipment shop and asked if he could buy a backwards-pointing cap.

He claims that his request was taken seriously by the shop assistant, who explained that they didn't have any and helpfully suggested another shop in the same street that might have some in stock.

But it is, I suppose, just possible that the shop assistant was joking too.

22 June 2010

Harrriet Harman's reply to today's Budget: not bad, but still room for improvement

Having missed George Osborne's first budget speech since he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, I was rather suprised to discover that excerpts from Harriet Harman's reply as Leader of the Opposition had already been posted on YouTube before anything had appeared there from the Chancellor himself.

Earlier in the afternoon, I'd also noticed that there'd been a few comments on Twitter to the effect that she'd made rather a good job of it - with some suggesting she did well enough to make them wonder why she wasn't standing in the Labour leadership election.

And quite a lively performance it was too, though my initial reaction after a single viewing was that the pluses were outweighed by the minuses. Other anoraks may like to check the comments against the actual video.

Pluses:
  1. Excellent example of how effective 'yah-boo' politics can be in getting positive reactions from your supporters (for more on which, see HERE).
  2. Well crafted script with plenty of examples of using techniques like contrasts, rhetorical questions and imagery (e.g. the 'fig leaf' sequence) to attack the LibDems.
Minuses:
  1. Adapting Vince Cable's most famous line of attack on Gordon Brown came across as contrived and arguably unwise (unless, of course she wanted to remind people of the 'Stalin to Mr Bean' jibe in the second video below).
  2. Her eyes were more or less continuously glued to the text, with only the occasional split second glance away from it.
  3. Very little variation in pace and tone.
  4. Repetitive gesture with left hand became monotonous and distracting after a while.
  5. The pitch of her voice made me wonder whether, if she were to run for the full-time job of leader, she could benefit from some voice coaching along the lines of that undertaken by Mrs Thatche after she became leader of the Conservative Party (for more on which, see HERE).


The line Ms. Harman borrowed from Vince Cable's attack on Gordon Brown:



And, for a video of Gordon Brown adapting a line from Bill Clinton and the hazards of so doing, see HERE.

21 June 2010

World Cup referee treats 100% of a player's communication as 'non-verbal'

Regular readers will know that, like Olivia Mitchell and Martin Shovel, I'm underwhelmed by 'experts' who exaggerate the importance of body language and non-verbal behavior in communication (for more on which, see links below).

If ever proof were needed of how risky it can be to take Mehrabian myth (that 93% of communication is non-verbal) seriously - and take it a slight step further by treating 100% of it as non-verbal, look no further than the sequence from yesterday's World Cup match between Brazil and the Ivory Coast, when the referee sent a player off for not hitting an opponent in the face.

Repeated action replays, backed up by the BBC's panel of pundits, confirmed that the referee was not even looking at the two players involved when the 'incident' occurred (and nor, apparently, were his assistants). So he, or whoever it was who communicated verbally with him about what had supposedly happened, jumped to the wrong conclusion that anyone lying on the ground clutching his face must have been hit in the face - and waved his red card at the innocent Kaka.

Or perhaps the referee actually sent Kaka off for something the player communicated verbally in response to being falsely accused.

As it appears that any appeal to FIFA by Brazil is unlikely to get very far, we may never find out what the officials thought was going on.



(N.B. An earlier attempt to embed a YouTube clip of this particular sequence failed as a result of it having been barred by FIFA for 'copyright reasons'. If this one stops working, please let me know ASAP so I can try to find another one).

Other posts on body language & non-verbal communication:
Other World Cup posts:

17 June 2010

Time to level the playing field by moving the goal posts

No, this isn't another post about overused management metaphors. It's a serious suggestion to make life more interesting for football fans.

Not enough goals?
As I've been away for nearly two weeks, I haven't seen any of the World Cup matches so far. But I have been fascinated by media complaints about the shortage of goals - not because I think it has to do with the peculiar ball being blamed by the pundits as much as with the long-standing failure of the football authorities to update the rules in line with the way the physique of players has changed over the last 150 years.

Time to update Victorian rules of the game
I've long felt that the watchability of various sports could be greatly improved by recognising the fact that many of the rules are the legacy of the Victorian obsession with writing rules down in the middle of the nineteenth century - since when there have been few attempts to update them in line with physical changes in the population over the past century and a half, let alone with a view to making a particular sport more interesting to watch (a notable exception being Rugby League's break away from Rugby Union).

Tennis, for example, unlike squash, has persisted with allowing players two attempts at serving every time they serve, forcing spectators to sit for hours on end until one or other of them 'breaks serve' as a necessary condition of winning the match.

Abolish the second serve, and tennis-players would have to make some interesting strategic decisions at crucial moments in the game - and we'd be spared the tedium of having to wait for however long it takes for one of them to break through and win a game when they're not serving.

Bigger goals for taller goalkeepers
The rules of football date back to the 1850s - since when, data from Western Europe point to an increase in the average height of males (including, presumably, goalkeepers) of one inch (2.54 centimetres) every 25 years.

If the average height of today's goalkeepers is about 6 feet (183 cm.), their average height when the rule about goal posts was laid down would have been 6 inches (15.24 cm.) shorter at 5 foot 6 inches (167.64 cm.).

For the area defended by goalkeepers to provide the same challenge to them as when the rules were originally laid down, today's goal posts should be 6 inches higher and further apart than they are now - the obvious result of which (see below) would be more goals and a far more entertaining game for spectators to watch.

16 June 2010

Ethnic cleansing beyond the grave in former Yugoslavia


After ten days on a friend's yacht, I can report that the Croatian coast (above) is just as beautiful as it was on my last visit there about thirty years ago when it was still part of former Yugoslavia.

But much has changed. Gone are the pictures of Tito in every shop. Gone too are the empty shelves at what passed for supermarkets.

But you don't have to look far to be reminded of the horrors presided over by the late Franjo Tudman, the first president of the new Croatia, in breaking away from Serbia and the remnants of former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

A taxi driver boasted of having spent a windfall legacy on Kalashnikovs to insure himself against any further trouble from the Serbs.

Areas of 'ethnic cleansing' were marked by empty crumbling houses in areas where Serbs had had once been unlucky enough to live.

Most chilling of all was the sight of neat rectangular tomb stones standing out from the rocks on a beach at the edge of an othewise picturesque Croatian cemetery - evidence that, when when it comes to disposing of Serbs, 'ethnic cleansing' went a step or two beyond the grave:


4 June 2010

INTERLUDE: Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible


As I'm about to go sailing along the Croatian coast, there won't be any new postings for a while. I'm definitely not taking a laptop - and extortionate mobile roaming costs should make it easy enough to resist the temptation of blogging from my iPhone.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible - i.e. in the middle of June - when I very much hope that regular visitors will come back to the blog.

When I was last on the Adriatic coast, I didn't realise I was in a place called 'Croatia' and every shop and official building you went into had a picture of President Tito on the wall to remind you who was in charge. So some thoughts on how things have changed since the demise of the former Yugoslavia might be worth blogging about when I get back.

MEANWHILE ...
As for normal service being resumed as soon as possible, you have to be of a certain age to remember the gaps in BBC television output during the 1950s - before there were any other television channels, and before management had realised that blank spaces between programmes could be filled up with the endless trailers of the delights in store for us that we have to out up with these days.

So we had to watch INTERLUDES, which meant enduring some very boring films of a repetitively revolving potter's wheel (above), rotating sails on a windmill, waves breaking on a beach, etc.

One notable exception was the 51 mile train journey from London to Brighton in 4 minutes - and serious anoraks can inspect a selection of other action-packed interlude footage HERE.

3 June 2010

Cameron's prime-ministerial debut at PMQ and his choice of a worrying adverb

For collectors of historical political speaking occasions, here's David Cameron's first effort on the receiving end at Prime Minister's Questions for you to inspect.

The worrying adverb
Regular readers will know from previous posts (see selection below) that I've long been critical of the way the Labour government spent thirteen years tinkering with the House of Lords - but systematically avoided doing anything at all to democratise the way its members are selected.

I was therefore very concerned by what Mr Cameron had to say in response to the first question about 'the other place' - for which scroll in 1.26 minutes - where you'll hear the PM referring twice to his support for a "predominantly elected" House of Lords.

Where did 'predominantly' come from and what on earth is it supposed to mean?

Or is he just giving us advance notice that, for all its talk of a major constitutional reform package, the new government is going to be as pussy-footed as the last one was when it comes to removing the undemocratically selected miscellany of former MPs and party cronies from their cosy retirement home in the other place?

P.S. 'Wholly or mainly elected'
Since posting this, I'm grateful to @DuncanStott for informing me via Twitter as follows:

Tories favour "predominantly" elected Lords (80% I think), LDs favour fully elected. Agreement says "wholly or mainly elected".

This may explain Cameron's choice of adverb, but I can't for the life of me see how anyone with a democratic bone in his/her body can justify 'mainly elected', let alone the arbitrary invention of figures like 80%.


Previous posts on the House of Lords: