Monday, May 29, 2006

The ludicrousness of animal rights zealotry

Last weekend I was sheltering from the wind and rain at Damo's Spring barbecue when I got chatting to a couple of Australian vets, who are living and working in London. Vets are on a good wicket here - especially Australian ones. This couple were in the enviable situation of having two cars and two flats because both had jobs which came with a car and accommodation. Given that they actually wanted to live together, this had led to a strange decrease in their quality of life, given that no matter which flat they are living in they have to be up and out by 8.30am to move the other car out of the resident parking zone, or feed the parking meter. But that's not my point.

They were telling me that Australian vets are very much in demand in the UK becuase they have been trained to do surgery on live animals. There was a slight pause in the conversation at that moment - which they seemed to be expecting, I think they were used to it - before I said, "I'm sorry, are you telling me that an English vet student can be a vet without any surgical training." Yes they said. English vets never do surgery on a live animal until they are let loose on the world and people are paying for their services. I asked why, and they explained that because of the animal liberation movement, British vet students don't do surgery on live animals. Australians do, therefore, people running veterenary clinics like to hire Australians, who have surgical experience, over English, who do not.

So, I said, it's concievable that a caring animal liberationist protester could accidentally run over a fox on the way home from terrorising some poor farmer. They could carefully lie the wounded animal on a blanket - covering its eyes to keep it calm - and gently place it in the back of the car, and drive it carefully to the local vet. Once at the vet they could discover that the vet has never actually done surgery on a live animal before, and thus may be more dangerous to the fox than its original injuries. The couple nodded in agreement.

Friday, May 19, 2006

How do you hold a baby's coffin?

I have always thought that Funerals are quite fun affairs - death and loss aside. Sure, the whole mourning thing is very upsetting, but it is also cleansing and cathartic, and leaves you feeling better afterwards. And there is also the celebration thing: celebrating a life lived, hopefully well. I have thought this since the first funeral I attended - my Grandfather's, or my Great Aunt's, not sure - which united cousins and friends who I had not seen for years. It was, ultimately, a reunion party that left us feeling more positive, like the worst was over.

I thought that I was alone in thinking this. Or perhaps that it was just my family, because we were having a laugh in the funeral car about some of the ridiculously funny things that my Grandfather used to do and say. Some of these had names - "The Toilet Seat Incident"; or was it Aunty Thelma's epic travels in her own train carriage, or when she thought her nurse was a gypsy because he had an earring. It doesn't matter, really. The point is that all the stories were infectious and pretty soon we were in the comedy car. At one point I apologised to the driver for our extremely bad taste. He didn't mind. He said that the biggest emotional struggle for a funeral car driver is keeping a straight face when the rest of the car is laughing. He said they are usually quite funny drives.

And funerals can be quite sexy: everyone wears their best clothes; the women look all flushed and vulnerable; the men look all stoic, while betraying an emotional range they usually conceal; and of course teenagers discover a whole new set of adult emotions to experiment with. This I also thought was my own idea until I found thirteen films that agree with me.

Having made these observations over the years, it took today to gel them into the single idea that ultimately a funeral is a positive experience. Because today was the exception that proves the rule.

This morning I held Universal Wifey's trembling hand at the back of a crematorium, tears rolling down our cheeks to the droning lullaby of a Hindu Priest. The casket was ridiculously small - like a dolls-house toy - and it occurred to me that with something so small the usual funerary pomp just doesn't work. You can't have many flowers, because the casket is smaller than the bouquet. The coffin is too small for pallbearers, so it has to be carried by one person, awkwardly. A hearse is a ridiculous conceit when the coffin fits on a lap. And without the formality the whole event becomes horribly personal and intimate. And when there is only fifteen minutes of life to celebrate, nothing can offset the gutting misery of lost hope and shattered dreams.

Again, I thought that this might have been my own observation, until we were waiting to pay our respects to the parents and I saw the undertaker crack. Have you ever seen an undertaker cry?

Also published on

Friday, May 12, 2006

Is the world car as worldly as it seems

I like to buy good things. Once I have learned what to look for I try to buy the best I can afford - at the best price, naturally - and then use it until it is totally worn out. It feels like I spend my money more wisely that way.

Of course, sometimes my obsessive search for good value can backfire. I ordered some Bang & Olufsen earphones online recently, but instead of buying them from Bang & Olufsen, I bought them on eBay, for a third of the price, from a guy who claims to be selling the OEM version. Of course, when they turned up they looked just like the Bang & Olufsen earphones, they fitted just like Bang & Olufsen earphones, and I must say, they even sound a lot like Bang & Olufsen earphones - much better than the standard ones that came with my MP3 player. Of course a lot of that comes down to the quality of the fit. But you see, they are not Bang & Olufsen earphones, they are just like Bang & Olufsen earphones. This message is hammered home by the brand name 'Like' written on the side. And because they are not the real thing, I feel a little ripped off.

It's a similar ripped off sense that my sister-in-law felt when her landlord finally replaced her washing machine, which promptly failed. When the warranty repair man came out from the washing machine company he said, 'This looks just like one of ours from the outside, except that we only make washing machines. We don't have a washer dryer - this is a Chinese rip off.' And so chinese rip offs have been on my mind lately.

Of course, I can always console myself that I once owned a Mercedes-Benz. I loved it - loved it enough to take pictures, as you can see - it gave me confidence at a time when I had none.

It reassured me, as I drove up to a job interview, that I didn't really need a new job. So I got the job, of course. And through that job, I met my wife, and her dad approved of the way I kept my car, and so on - life began again.

The Mercedes-Benz S class has, for generations, been the pinnacle of automotive development. They were consistently twenty years ahead of their time, and the biggest of the saloons - the Mercedes 300SEL 6.3, the 450SEL 6.9 and the 560SEL were frequently described as the best cars of their time. Mine was 26 years old when I bought it, and was the best value car I could buy at the time - it had the exact same specification as the 26 years younger, top of the range Holden Commodore (the large GM saloon in Australia) of the time, for a quarter of the price.

The cars were so good - and so damn expensive - because Mercedes-Benz built them up to their own standards, rather than down to the local standards. And the Merceds-Benz standard exceeded the local design rules everywhere on the planet. They were a world car.

But is the world car so worldly now? Mercedes' reign has certainly been under assault in the last decade and a half - first BMW rose to glory; now Audi is coming in from behind, snapping its jaws and making aggressive noises, and even the Volkswagen Golf is as much of a world car as the Mercedes ever was. So when, in the past, governments and expats would only ever buy Mercedes - because who on earth knew what a Holden Commodore, or a Kia Proton was back then - there are now a raft of excellent cars to choose from, and Mercedes is just one of them. (Case in point, our UK car is a Golf.)

In the face of this competition, Mercedes should be focussing on the strategy that made it so good in the first place - setting its own standards higher, and living up to them. It looked like it was doing so well with the new E Class - a superb piece of engineering, until it started having problems with its electrics. And the very sexy new S class was released, and then embarrassed when, in early March, Mercedes-Benz recalled 33,000 S class cars in China.

Nowhere else, but China. There was a problem with the evaporator lines and the fuel lines coming into conflict with eachother and causing leaks. The problem isn't really relevant, but the fact that it only happened in China is. You see, if the world car fails it should either fail worldwide, or fail in some specific localised component. It should not fail in a local market on a sub assembly so crucial as the fuel system.

How is this going to make the Chinese market feel. It's going to make it feel like Mercedes-Benz is shipping sub-standard product to market in China. It's going to send the message that China may be an important market to make money in, but it's not important enough to ship good product. It's almost as if Mercedes Benz is not waiting for Chinese counterfitters to copy its product with some sub-standard immitation, because it's heading into the marketplace to do it itself. And that's not on.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Sorry about the lack of punting here for the last month or so. We are both snowed under at work and home - Damien is entertaining relatives, and I got married, and am now trying to buy a house.

At the risk of driving you away though, I have had time to participate in a particularly lively discussion over at Anna's blog, and been universally critical over here.

And we'll be back to punting as soon as possible.