For as long as I can remember I’ve been a fan of the Eurovision Song Contest. I recall, when I was young, being wowed by the spectacle and the amazing fact that it was a show being broadcast all over Europe, bringing so many different people together in a moment of continental hilarity. And in later years it was something special too; something that hit the nostalgia nodules of the brain just right, something different from all the usual crap on television, something gaudy and kitsch and unashamedly us. America couldn’t do this. This was Europe.Parties! People like parties! People all over Europe like parties! Not so long ago we had a party every year with people who wanted to sit through, eat, drink, and enjoy the Eurovision Song Contest. But now there are fewer people and less enjoyment. The competition is broken; it’s been corrupted by greed. Right now we’re at a point where the whole event is just a few years away from yet another in the long, long line of generic “talent” programmes designed to find the next star of limited interest, with practically nothing to distinguish it from some Simon Cowell-produced tedium. And that moment of continental hilarity has been usurped by one of political complaints and bickering.
Here’s what’s wrong with the Eurovision Song Contest:
1. The Jury Vote
It used to be just the national juries who voted. Then it was just the people who voted. Now it’s the jury and the people in a 50/50 split. And it’s not working.
When the jury used to vote it was at a time when people would accept that there may well be people who knew better than they did. We accepted it as much for that reason as the fact there was no practical democratic way to do anything else. The problem with a jury vote is that the members of the jury may not accurately represent the will of the people and, quite often, this was exactly the case. Luckily, there was no internet on which to complain. A second problem with a Eurovision jury is that it’s very easy to fix results. Juries are corruptible.
When the people voted we hit another problem which I want to address in my list of suggested remedies for fixing Eurovision. People vote for things they like but the things people like are borne out of the environment in which they live. People who hear nothing but folk songs will tend to prefer folk songs to disco. People who hear nothing but ballads might suffer a heart attack if subjected to thrash metal. People listen to music available in their countries and, to some extent, those neighbouring them; they become used to that type of music; it becomes familiar; it becomes unstrange. Scandinavian countries vote for Scandinavian-sounding music. Balkan countries vote for Balkan-sounding music. Former Soviet countries do as Vladimir Putin orders them to do. The UK and Ireland vote for one another. It’s not political voting but it is a problem when a large block of countries that share musical appreciation all make it through to the final.
Now we have the jury and the public voting. This is supposed to reduce that not-political political voting by adding in the weight of national juries who will allegedly vote on song writing and performance. But the juries are still swayed by their environment and they’re still corruptible. Worse: there’s little room for the surprise element. If the jury comprises five people, none of whom like love songs about women, then a sudden swelling in that jury’s nation’s people’s appreciation for love songs about women is going to have negligible effect; a potential 8 or 10 points might be reduced to a 2. This is bad enough in the final but the fact that the jury holds that same power in the semi finals too means there’s a high chance of very similar-sounding and arguably dull songs making it through to the Saturday; that clearly doesn’t make for interesting listening or viewing.
The Eurovision jury simply has too much power.
2. The Favourites
What makes a song or a group of songs the favourite or favourites in the eyes of the bookmakers? Do bookmakers have some inner sense of what European viewers are going to like? The answers are “simple analysis” and “no” respectively.Which do you think would be more likely to win a music competition? A song that’s been performed a few times in public in Estonia or a song that’s sold hundreds of thousands of copies in a dozen countries in the months leading up to the event? Oh, that’s a tricky one!
So, then, why has one song sold so well and the other hasn’t? The latter one probably wasn’t even released. It may not be performed by a well-known star. The artist possibly has only a small management team. He or she may not even have a record contract.
Essentially, some songs get a running start on the competition. It used to be something that happened on a Saturday night. It became a week-long event. But in reality, for some entries, they get months of advantage; months in which to be heard, months in which to become familiar, months in which to tip the voting habits of people and, worse, the too-powerful jury.
A competition with a foregone conclusion as to the outcome is not a competition at all.
Which leads me to my suggestions for preventing the death of the Eurovision Song Contest. These suggestions would turn the show back into something surprising, exciting, and entirely different from those ubiquitous, next “great” “music” “stars” shows. These suggestions would help to unite Europe in hilarity and mockery which are two wonderful tools for peace.
Suggestion #1: Jury Vote Power Reduction
The final will be more interesting if more interesting acts are in it. A final where every other act is just another version of the same thing doesn’t hold the attention. To this end the jury should have reduced voting power in the final and severely reduced voting power in the semi final. I would suggest 35% of the vote in the final and only 15% in the semi final. Give the odd choice of the Latvians a chance at continental fame on the Saturday night! Let Europe come together in open-mouthed awe at what Slovakia decided best represented their chance at glory. A surprise will get people talking more than an inevitability. This still means that countries are more likely to vote for songs that sound similar to what they hear – the classic “political” voting issue – but the next suggestion should help to lessen that problem somewhat.
Suggestion #2: No Pre-Released Tracks
Only allow tracks to be performed that have not had a release prior to the contest anywhere in Europe. This removes a great deal of the advantage of familiarity giving songs a more even starting position. This doesn’t stop hardcore fans from listening to the songs or viewing the video, sharing it, raving about it, and it won’t prevent a clever PR firm from working some viral marketing magic into promoting their artist’s track. But it makes it harder; it won’t just be about throwing money at promotion for fear of a viral backlash. It gives the smaller countries a fairer crack at the whip. It makes the final interesting for more casual viewers as everything will sound new.
Suggestion #3: Helping The Big Five
The big five countries – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain – rarely fare really well and it’s hard to put a finger on the reason why. Part of it could be a sense in Europe that despite forking up most of the money for the production of the contest these countries don’t really deserve to be there. It’s difficult to counter that. Another reason could be one of unpreparedness for the final; unlike the other entrants on the Saturday evening the big five (and the hosts) will only have performed in dress rehearsals and in front of smaller audiences. It shouldn’t make too much of a difference for good artists but it might do. I would suggest getting those big five and the hosts to perform in the semi finals too (but without the ability to be voted upon, obviously); this gives them a chance at some Eurovision week exposure and experience in front of the arena crowd. It’s not much but it could help and without a little help there’s a danger that those big five nations could become disenchanted with the event and that would mean the death of the Eurovision Song Contest.
The interest factor in Eurovision is slipping for me and if the contest doesn’t halt its slide towards being an X Factor or Pop Idol clone then that interest will vanish entirely. It needs tweaking to bring Europe together and the show needs to be about eye-opening entertainment, just like it used to be.
Times are hard if you're a large chain of coffee shops still facing a bit of public backlash over tax avoidance. Do you just wait it all out, relying on the media to find something new to get their teeth into and the laziness and short memory of the average consumer? Or do you try something to entice the customers back from Costa? Do you, perhaps, provide free front row seats to the latest sport sweeping the nation: Giant Street Skittles? Do you hope that the lure of big names from boules crossing over into the high stakes street sport world will bring in the coffee-lovers in sufficient numbers to offset compensating families for the inevitable skittles-related fatalities?
No, you wait it out, of course.
For #WindowWednesday curated by
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I'm always looking for ways to improve the world – sure, not everyone approves of my eugenics experiments and the way I recently tampered with the planet's grasses in an attempt to bioengineer flame-resistant cattle (I still firmly believe that ordering steak "well done" is one of the leading causes of unrest on Earth) – so I was immensely pleased to stumble upon a demonstration taking place in Manchester last weekend where it seemed they shared my ambitions.
I tried to determine just how it was that they were planning to improve things but couldn't spot a mad-scientist-looking individual amongst the throng. Eventually, though, I did see a gentleman holding up what appeared to be step one in the group's masterplan. I stopped him.
"Throw the tories out?" I asked him. "Interesting. Interesting. And then what? Robotic dictatorship? Benevolent… or otherwise?"
I pointed at the paper he was holding. "Throw the tories out," I said, reading it out loud for him but adding a definite article as I felt it was missing one. "No population pacification through cloud-seeding flights? No regional competitions to win liberty points? Womb-based citizen training?"
"Yeah, throw the tories out," he agreed with a puzzled look.
"Is that it?" I asked.
"It's a start," he replied, flashing me a nasty smile.
I pondered his response for a second. "But then they'll be unemployed," I said. "That hardly seems like a better world at all. Who will fill the important niche role of a self-serving group of the barely tolerable heaping misery on the masses with scant regard for anyone else?"
"That's where the trade unions come in," he said.
I let him carry on with his march then and shook my head sadly. Their plan needed a new banner; one that read A World Very Much Like This One Is Likely might do the job. And lasers. A really good plan needs lasers.
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Last weekend we decided to head off up north (or “oop north” if you’re an inhabitant of the wildlands beyond Hampshire) to take in our annual Super League game in Yorkshire. Travelling up north involves driving in the car and it’s far enough away to warrant a stop en route so – with a printout of a map of England (other countries are available), two compasses, and a ruler – I used an old trick from my days studying Engineering Drawing (before it became Technical Drawing (before it became Graphic Communication for my exam (which I got a B in, thank you very much))) and drew a perpendicular line exactly halfway between Portsmouth and Wakefield to identify the ideal place to halt, have a stretch of the legs, and possibly take in some sight of interest.
I quickly realised this was only of any use if the roads between the two destinations were absolutely straight and, since they’re not, reverted to Plan B of closing my eyes, plonking my finger down somewhere between London and the Midlands, and hoping for the best.
My index finger landed on Milton Keynes and a shudder rippled down the length of my spine. First time’s just a test, I told myself silently, and prepared to pick again when I spotted the word Bletchley nearby. In the back of my mind there was a whirr of dials and cogs and a memory made itself known: Bletchley Park. Codebreakers. World War 2. Alan Turing. Enigma.
A quick search confirmed that Bletchley Park was indeed in Bletchley (cf. Leeds Castle) and we had our mid-travel pit stop arranged!
Your first experience of the secretive nature surrounding Bletchley Park comes in trying to find the place. Up the A5 we did travel until we saw a brown sign directing us towards our destination. We followed it and then saw another sign. We followed that one and then hit a roundabout where there was no indication where to go so picked an exit at random. A few minutes later with no signs at all we turned around and headed back. We saw a new sign and followed that until we reached another junction with no obvious indication where to go. About to pick a route at random again I just spotted at ground level, half-covered up by grass a small sign with an arrow pointing the opposite way. Nice try, Bletchley Park, but we finally found you!
Bletchley Park itself was not what we were expecting. But I don’t really know what we were expecting. Probably best I just describe it. Huts and buildings, a mansion, a lake, a post office… all either in a state of decay or having been brought to life and stocked to either appear as they would have done in the 1940s or display historical information. But also: people working in some of the buildings, office space rented out to companies, the top floor of the mansion a corporate area; all this to bring in revenue for the place – which we had no problems with at all, in case you should think otherwise – but it did lend the place an odd feel. Typically, when you look around a place of historic interest you see it in the company of tourists but at Bletchley if someone doesn’t have a sticker on their top then there’s a good chance they’re from a local I.T. company or estate agents or something similar. Again: nothing wrong with this, but it makes Bletchley Park stand out from other days out.
As part of this whole half-tourist-attraction, half-business-offices arrangement everything feels very open; if the door’s not locked or sporting an entry-code system then you can pretty much wander wherever you like. Time it right and you can walk around for half an hour without seeing another soul. The contrast between the freedom of Bletchley Park now compared to how it must have been during the war is difficult to imagine. Unless you’ve got a good imagination. I do. Oooh! That’s quite contrasty!
In terms of things to see at Bletchley there are several locations decorated in the style of the time of the height of its most famous operations; authentic and replica pieces of vintage equipment are present in significant numbers. The buildings themselves (not including the mansion) aren’t stunning to most people architecturally-speaking – no gothic arches, no art deco motifs, etc. – but I’m not most people (if I don’t cut down on food intake I might, however, one day be most people) and love the utilitarian designs in the compact, squared-off constructions. The basic paint schemes on the buildings contrasted wonderfully with the vibrant greens of the grass and blue of the sky on the day we visited. If it’s overcast or night when you visit then it will look differently. But you probably worked that out.
Other points of interest in the visit include the lake – very peaceful – and the two exhibitions showcasing Winston Churchill memorabilia and vintage toys, both of which leave you feeling refreshed after a severe dousing of nostalgia even if you weren’t alive during the period. Well, they did for me, anyway. Perhaps this is evidence of past life regression. I wouldn’t count on it, though, being as there’s no such thing. There’s also a working post office where you can send secret mail to the Nazis if you so wish. Although, I’m assuming you don’t so wish because you’re not an idiot. One of the first areas you’ll probably walk through are the floors dedicated to some of the history of codebreaking at Bletchley where you can see some rebuilt versions of the machines used to help crack Enigma; if you’re a fan of vacuum tubes, cogs, dials, switches, and wires then this will fill you with joy. If you aren’t a fan of those things then you’ll still like it but your joy will remain at a sensible, not-a-weirdo level.
There’s also the mansion – at least, the ground floor of the mansion as upstairs is rented out to businesses – which, although fairly spartan, still retains some idea of the splendour of the place. Lovely, large rooms and impressive windows throughout. The ballroom is particularly nice and there’s a very grand skylight over a side-room off the main hallway.
And, finally, one of the highlights and difficult to miss, the visitors’ car park with its authentic 1940s-style parking bays for cars four feet wide that necessitated me telling my wife to get out before I parked to give us a fighting chance of being able to open one of the doors and squeeze out.
So tnat’s our visit to Bletchley Park recounted. Three hours there on a lovely, clear, bright day was just about right for us. If you bring a picnic (there are plenty of places to sit down and eat), join the organised tour, have kids, or are a slow walker or reader then you could easily add another couple of hours and still not see everything. Lovely place, ideal stop, and something a little different from a museum or typical stately home.
There’s not a lot to say about this shot that shouldn’t be obvious from the photo itself; it’s a lovely outfit and shoes too, of course, but it’s the attention to detail in matching the colours with the brightly-coloured road markings that helps this stand out. The lipstick even matches the purse; very clever design for this.
"Is this the queue for Iron Man 3?"
"I… Sorry? What?"
"Iron Man 3. Robert Downey Jr reprising his role as Tony Stark in a mechanical suit. Sequel to Iron Man and its follow-up, Iron Man 2. Iron Man 3."
"You're joking, right?"
"About this being the queue for Iron Man 3."
"A queue by the side of the road?"
"A couple of benches and us lot sitting here in the sun?"
"It's not that unusual."
"I think you'll find it is."
"I was only asking."
"What's going on George?"
"This lady here wanted to know if this was the queue for Iron Man 3."
"Iron Man 3. With Roger…"
"…Robert, yes, Robert Downey Jr."
"Never heard of it."
"Apparently it's a sequel."
"Ooh! Did you tell her no?"
"Yes, Edna, I did tell her no. I told you no, didn't I?"
"Yes you did. Well, thank you for your time anyway."
"That's okay. Iron Man 3. How odd."
"Is she leaving?"
"Didn't she want to see Star Trek Into Darkness then?"
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I’ve had the pleasure of catching some of Ancient Aliens on the Military History channel (because where else other than a channel allegedly devoted to historical matters of relevance to the military would you expect to see a programme attributing every polished pebble and cave marking to an intergalactic civilisation?) and, yes, it’s been as ludicrous and hilarious as I suspected.
Still, as much as I’ve laughed at it a thought did cross my mind: would it be possible to make Ancient Aliens even more enjoyable?
And the answer, of course, is alcohol.
For every sentence that starts with the word “could” to which the answer is “no” (could an alien civilisation have built this series of tunnels in Peru?): take a shot.
For every sentence that starts with the phrase “is it possible” to which the answer is “no” (is it possible that these strange markings in Brazil are the same as these similar markings in Egypt?): take a shot.
Every time Giorgio A. Tsoukalos appears on screen: take a shot.
Every time Erich von Daniken is mentioned (but author of “Chariots of the Gods” Erich von Daniken has another, more sinister interpretation): take a shot.
Every time there’s a pause after “someone” before “or something” is added (are these tunnels natural or were they fashioned by someone… or something?): take a shot.
Every time some piece of historical evidence of aliens “mysteriously disappeared” (but shortly after his death the evidence he had been collecting mysteriously disappeared): take a shot.
Every time two possible answers are given to a question and neither are true (are angels really winged visitors from Heaven or could they be aliens?): take a shot.
Every time you hear that “the answer is clear” or some preposterous answer is preceded by the word “clearly” and you’re still puzzled or busy laughing: take a shot.
Every time some actual science is used to dismiss one conclusion and then leap to the alternative of “aliens”, disregarding all the many other plausible options: down a pint in one.