Thursday, 29 May 2008

Exclusive: 'USA fined for Martian littering '

Detailed plans of Britain's next voyage
into space as revealed yesterday. It is hoped
that the 'chihuahua' will transport Britons
to Mars by the year 2020.

Hooray! We’ve landed on Mars! When I say we, I mean the Americans. And when I say landed, I mean guided an unmanned and heavily laden tea tray with legs on to the surface. The first pictures from the Phoenix scout craft were beamed back on Monday, showing in crystal clarity the terrain of our closest neighbour to be just as rocky, dusty and dull as many expected. This did not curtail the jubilant scenes from Arizona, with the mission’s staff clearly relieved that they still had a job after the craft was given a 50/50 chance of surviving the landing. ‘Welcome to Mars’ said NASA’s Mars chief Fuk Li, who is presumably overjoyed that this successful phase will ensure he is remembered for something other than his hilarious name.

All this is in stark contrast to the events of 2003, when Britain’s own version of the Phoenix, the pathetically named ‘Beagle’, was destroyed entering the Martian atmosphere, leading to misery inside the broom cupboard in the basement of a University building that doubled as mission control. Given that funding for the British Space Program is less than for the Eurovision song contest (at which we are equally as hopeless), I am dubious that it got that far, and am sure that even if our three-legged Beagle did make it out of the Earth’s atmosphere as claimed, it would have probably hit the Moon by accident.

Space travel just isn’t our thing. Whilst the other world superpowers were getting busy with the space race and putting men on the Moon, we were working on mop-top beat pop and winning the World Cup. Far more worthwhile, as the Beatles sold more records than NASA could ever hope to, and there is still a chance Paul or Ringo might get into orbit. Space exploration in Britain is treated as a bit of a joke; a few mad scientists with vain hopes of floating around in zero gravity. Its place in the media is reserved for the ‘and finally’ segments on the local news, where wannabe astronauts are seen launching rockets ‘into space’ from a quiet spot on Clapham Common. Britain should gracefully bow out of the space race. After all, it’s only another competition for us to potentially lose, or at best crash out in the quarter-finals.

For all its bells and whistles, from what I can ascertain, the Phoenix scout cannot actually do very much. It has an arm, with which it intends to dig down to reach a layer of permafrost, but may not be able to tell us a great deal once it has done so. Apparently, though the whole mission is geared around the ancient ‘life on Mars’ hypothesis, the Phoenix does not have the equipment on board to test for existing or past life. It is primarily concerned with finding ice just below the surface. Given that aerial probes have long since confirmed the existence of ice on the red planet, it seems that the half-billion Dollar Phoenix will do little more than to confirm that it is indeed frozen water.

Experts will argue that there is much more to it, and perhaps there is, but the pragmatic reality of space exploration has the unfortunate drawback of playing second fiddle to Science Fiction, which has given us far more excitement over the years than simply sticking a metal finger into the red rock of Mars, and is way more fun. It won’t be truly captivating for the public until we send someone there in person. I have a diary opening next week so will volunteer. Who knows though, perhaps in 200 years time, we’ll all be living the Mars dream. Elton John once sang ‘Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids’, but I am not so sure; I hear there is a lot less knife crime…

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Toffs and Trollies

'Does one know the way to John Lewis?'

A little while ago, my local Sainsbury’s closed temporarily for refurbishment in order to rearrange the store to resemble Jamie Oliver’s face. Instead, I was forced to go to ASDA. If you ever need to feel a little better about the state of your life, I suggest you visit. The trolleys may have minds of their own, but the check out staff for the most part do not, and as for the clientele, they are less ASDA and more ASBO. It was cheap mind you, and I felt strangely compelled to pat my back pocket accordingly as I walked back to my car. I also learned that ‘George at ASDA’ was not in fact a helpful man behind the cheese counter, but the designer tasked with dressing the nation’s council estates.

I was reminded of this excursion recently when I heard that ASDA held the second biggest share of the UK grocery shopping market. They are overshadowed only by TESCO, whose titan-like grip on British (and increasingly world) shopping poses as big a threat to our planet as Climate Change. In fact, environmental and economic experts estimate that by 2100, rising sea levels will have covered 80% of the Earth’s landmass, and the remaining 20% will be covered in nothing but TESCO express stores.

This got me thinking. Assuming the lower paid, working classes of this country are reflected in the demographic seen at ASDA, then this comprises a huge proportion (17% to be precise) of potential voters in the next general election. Class has been put in the spotlight of late with Labour’s attempt to paint the Tories as ‘Toffs’, planting two activists in Top hats and tails during the much publicised run up to the Crewe & Nantwich by election.

Also in the news has been the resurgence of the debate over MP’s expenses, which, entirely paid for by the taxpayer, can amount to twice the salary of each MP and include furnishings for their second homes in London. To standardise these expenses and justify all the gold-plated kitchen sinks in Westminster, a list has been compiled using prices from John Lewis, the department store that also operates Waitrose. This is hardly a reflection of everyday British retail, and ensures that unlike most of the population, MP’s can enjoy the finer things in life. As such, whilst the Prime Minister reclines in his John Lewis hot tub, he should think twice about throwing accusations of ‘Toff’ at other parties and takes a moment to consider that many ‘ordinary people’ might consider his party to lead a privileged existence too.

There does of course exist one obvious solution. In an effort to help level the playing field, MP’s expenses should from now on be calculated against prices at ASDA……

Monday, 12 May 2008

'Tis the (end of) Season'

Derby County celebrate their first ever
Premier League title in an alternative
reality at Pride Park on Sunday

And so the curtain goes down on another Premier League season. In an afternoon totally orchestrated by Sky TV, kick off at the JJB stadium was delayed in order that simultaneous split screen pictures from Stamford Bridge could be beamed to every Manchester United fan in the Home Counties and beyond. In the studio, dozens of possible permutations were enthusiastically hypothesised. Jamie Redknapp was particularly buzzing, although he is still new to punditry and will have to endure a few 0-0 draws on dreary Monday evenings in Middlesborough before he becomes lobotomised like some of the rest. Ray Wilkins, who looks more and more like a potato every time I see him, is a good example of this.

It was put to Wigan boss Steve Bruce before the deciding game that some had questioned his allegiances, and that his managerial integrity was in question. The three-time title winning Manchester United captain and ingratiating friend of Alex Ferguson, with an obviously burning desire to some day return to Old Trafford, was of course quick to dismiss these rumours. The real question of his managerial credentials should have been why, as a defender himself, he still employs the stumbling calamity that is Titus Bramble

All Chelsea could do to prompt a frantic dash with the trophy down the M6 was to score a goal or two at home to Bolton, something that pretty much everyone else had achieved at some point in the season. A Manchester United win would see a second successive title for Alex Ferguson’s men, and so any impartial viewers’ hopes of a nail biting finish rested with Wigan putting a stop to United’s dominance. To their credit they gave it a good go, they defended sternly and Heskey came close to scoring on two occasions in the second half. The afternoon belonged to the defending champions however, with a penalty in the first half converted by Ronaldo, whose behaviour was more toddler-like than usual, followed by a strike from none other than Ryan Giggs, who secured his tenth league winners medal with the club fifteen minutes from time and nearly caused Fergie to choke on his gum with excitement.

Meanwhile in West London, the news filtering through from Wigan gave Stamford Bridge an atmosphere akin to a funeral, and was compounded when Bolton equalised in injury time. Indeed a funeral march may have been an apt choice as some of the Chelsea players left the field, a chance for the fans to pay their last respects to the likely departure of Lampard, Shevchenko and possibly Drogba in the summer.

At the bottom of the table, Fulham continued their impressive run of form to ensure Premiership survival, beating Portsmouth away from home. Victory for the West London club resulted in heartbreak for Reading and Birmingham however, whose valiant efforts saw them both score four and win their respective games only to be swallowed up by the relegation quagmire that drowned Derby sometime back in September.

Elsewhere, as a two fingered salute to Thaksin Shinawatra, owner of Manchester City, Sven guided his team to an impressive 8-1 defeat in what is likely to be his final game in charge, and with so little to play for, with their holidays imminent, Liverpool’s match with Spurs was presumably played out in Flip flops.

Everton secured fifth place to ensure European football next season with Yakubu proving himself quite the opposite to the total waste of money and (considerable) space his acquisition seemed to spell.

Cue the summer break then, when the tabloids crank up the rumour mill with wild transfer speculation. I am told, for instance, that Elvis has just signed for West Ham.
Elsewhere, Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan plans to strengthen his squad by selling everyone he owns, apart from Michael Owen.

Finally, I would like to propose a moment of reflection for Derby County. An epitaph of their catastrophic season was beautifully delivered via text message upon the final whistle to my brother from his friend at Pride Park. It read simply ‘Crap.’

MyFace, Spacebook...

An article i wrote for a website some time ago....

//Accept friend invitation?//


Facebook, Bebo, Myspace. What do these words say to you? Some will have no idea, and probably guess that they are pop groups vying for this years Christmas number 1 spot. For the majority of people in the 15-40 demographic however, they are as common in daily vocabulary in the same way as words like ‘Big Mac, ipod and tomtom.”

For those at the back, the aforementioned are websites. Social networking sites to be more precise. They were designed with the sole intention of linking people together more easily and efficiently. The idea is pretty simple; first set up an account (your profile). This is done by answering a million questions from what music you like to whether you would prefer to sleep with Brad Pitt or Jonny Depp. You then upload a photo, and search for some ‘friends’.

This is where it becomes interesting. Most of us could probably write our list of real friends on the back of a fag packet. I mean, the word friend suggests someone you ring up on a daily basis, someone you meet with at the pub/gym/church/S&M club, right? Wrong. If you give yourself over to the online dark side, then prepare to completely change the way you operate. Even with casual use, a slightly geeky thirty something with no real friendship group in real life, can notch up a good 60 friends within a month using one of these sites. He enters the e-mail address of his one drinking buddy, whose list contains another 5 people he went to school with. A click of the mouse here and there and e-presto, he has 7 friends. These people in turn have mutual acquaintances and before you know it, our once greasy recluse seems at first glance to be more popular than the Pope.

Sites such as Facebook can be both a blessing and a curse. A sceptical friend of mine remarked how invasive she felt the site was. This is all too true. When I first joined up, I reviewed my page and began realising the extent to which my life could become a published article. I don’t necessarily want everyone I have ever known knowing about everything I do from here on in. I’m not saying I lead a double life like Batman or Clark Kent, but we all have a past. The main problem is that these sites bring our past, present and sometimes future colliding together in one potential online pile up. One comment typed out of turn, and before long, the worldwide rumour web starts spinning.

You hear more and more of marriages and friendships being destroyed through malicious web untruths, and while I know gossipers have always existed, they have now been given an extension of the tongue with a boundless audience. One badly timed post on someone’s profile can effectively ruin him or her. There are stories about potential employees’ online behaviours being under surveillance so as employers can ascertain whether or not their new receptionist is or ever has been a hooker.

I totally disagree with the notion that you can suss out any given human being on the strength of their Facebook page. For one thing, their comments may not be a true reflection of what they think, but instead a contrived ploy to either glorify themselves or to put others down. We must remember that unlike audible conversation, typed comments can be carefully mulled over for hours before utterance, and are immortalised in digital ink rather than the comparitively forgiving timescale of sound waves. Secondly, the list of one’s friends should be taken with a pinch of salt too. Whilst I have very few contacts on my profile that I would not gladly go for a drink with at a moment’s notice, others accumulate friends they don’t even know faster than their laptops accrue viruses.

Another thing that gets my goat is those who actively seek a person’s ‘friendship’, acquire it, and then never get in contact. I mean, you wouldn’t introduce yourself to someone at a bar, shake their hand, and then blatantly ignore them having sat at their table would you? In my mind, people should stop hiding behind the online shroud, and treat socialising online the same as they would in the dying habitat of the real world. Only last week, I had a friendship request from a guy I have not seen since school, and even then I barely knew him. Despite him actively seeking my approval, I saw him days later in the local pub. I recognised him from his picture, as did he with me, but he avoided my eye contact and did not even approach me. Needless to say, I wimped out royally, accepted his request for fear of being deemed rude, and shall probably never speak to him; online or otherwise. So much for the increased ease and simplicity of social networking. It was much less confusing when it all took place down the pub….

Handbags and Gladrags

I have literally just set up this blog page so the first few posts may be a few weeks old or possibly longer as they have just been sitting burning a hole in my hard drive!
After Sir Alan Sugar’s tumultuous reign at Spurs, he remarked that all footballers were ‘scum’, and that most of them would probably be in prison were it not for the sport. An extreme view perhaps, but I certainly agree with the sentiment.

I am writing this with last week’s farcical scenes from Stamford Bridge fresh in my mind. There are of course farcical scenes emanating from Stamford Bridge and every other Premier League ground on a weekly basis, but this week’s winner goes to the visiting Genii of Manchester United, and their two-man vigilante gang of Ferdinand and Evra.

Firstly, after being substituted, Rio childishly lashed out with his foot at a wall that was cleverly disguised as a woman, in a manner about as threatening as a Derby striker. The wave of ‘ultra violence’ then continued post match, when for reasons unknown but seemingly inherent to French footballers, Patrice Evra launched himself at a ‘civilian’, who, considering his employment as a pitch side security guide, would have probably knocked him out had the fight not been split up (or exacerbated? It is not clear) by a mob of United players and coaching staff. And the reason for this pathetic behaviour? Yes, United had lost. It is precisely how I myself would have acted, had I been six years old and defeated at Tiddly winks by my brother. The only difference here, apart from that Tiddly Winks is a game of immeasurably more skill and finesse, is that we are not talking about children.
Fully-grown men’s acting in this way is disgraceful, and when coupled with the iconic status they hold to the nation’s young it becomes completely indefensible.

Professional footballer. Analyse the term. They play football, and by definition they are paid for it. It is their profession, and automatically demands a degree of professionalism right? Wrong. In the same way rock stars in the 70’s were plied by the record companies with as many drugs and women as needed to keep them sated, footballers are so heavily mollycoddled; surrounded by cars, Gucci sunglasses and Girls Aloud members to the extent where they feel immortal and certainly not subject to the same rules and regulations that govern the rest of us. I realise I may sound a little jealous (I concede I have a soft spot for Ferraris) but it angers me that this particular demographic are not reprimanded heavily enough for their habitual displays of petulance.

Let me put it in this way. I am a successful solicitor, I work a defence case, my client is found guilty, I smash up the bench and call the judge a c*nt. Consequently, I lose my job, my wife, my friends and my licence to practise law. Rightly so.

I am a Premier League footballer, I get riled by the smug defender whose leg I tripped over (deliberately), I stamp on his legs to gain retribution, I call the referee a c*nt, I receive a yellow card, I finish the game, get fined a morning’s wages (£4000) and go home to my adoring model wife. Hardly seems fair does it?

A case in point; though the incident was uniformly condemned, Eric Cantona received a mere one season ban for his attack on a fan at Selhurst Park. To put it into context, if a plumber attacked his customer in this way, it would probably have carried a five-year jail sentence as assault.

The exorbitant wages paid to players and the comparatively low fines for misbehaviour are also instrumental in promoting this behaviour amongst these young men. If I had the chance to punch a particular bloke from my office knowing full well that the most I would receive would be a ticking off and a 50 quid fine, I would take it, and probably every week.

The intrinsic ego of the modern day footballer must be reigned in. The salaries must begin to be capped worldwide by FIFA, and referees and managers must take a harder line with offenders who persist with childish behaviour similar to what we saw at Chelsea last week.,. Professional football needs to start becoming exactly that, before it descends even further into pathetic childish pantomime.

So, given his contempt for the game, perhaps the FA should hire Sir Alan to issue an ultimatum; behave or ‘you’re fired’.

Pete Grant