Archive for November, 2007

Major clerical error

teddy on a bit

Jesus Christ on a bike.

British teacher, Gillian Gibbons, has  been jailed in Sudan for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad.

Is this part of a plot by the Sudanese authorities to foment more satirical Western cartoons?

And is this really the kind of legacy that the Prophet Muhammad had in mind?

Release Gillian Gibbons.


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Swiss is the life

Every morning I woke up, a cloud seemed to be floating at eye level fifty metres in front of me. As I walked towards the back entrance, the cloud would follow me, as I checked windows and unlocked heavy wooden doors.

It was the summer of 1987, and I was working at a Swiss hotel, perched halfway up a mountainside above the alpine resort of Davos-Platz, now famous for hosting annual World Economic Forum meetings.

Back in the 1980’s, an organization in London called Jobs in the Alps recruited young Europeans to staff the summer hotel season. Since I spoke half-decent French and a smattering of German, they naturally sent me to Swiss German-speaking Graubunden.

I was the night porter. It was possibly the best job I’ve ever had. This was a typical night’s work:

2100: Start work

2100 – 2330: Sell a few chocolate bars and stamps

Answer the phone and operate the switchboard.

Operating the switchboard was the only minor stressor of an otherwise summer breeze of a position. The stress partly stemmed from my less than rudimentary command of obscure alpine dialects. Many of these had their phonetic systems coated rooted in phlegm and melodic ululations. “But I don’t speak Phlegmatic” often came to mind.

Also, the switchboard itself was a spaghetti nightmare. Frau R, the diminutive hotel Kommandantess, had given me operating instructions on day one. Sadly, I had lost my bemused sketches detailed notes almost immediately.

Still, I managed to connect most people with their loved ones. Or possibly with someone else’s.

2330 – Being somewhat elderly, all the guests would be tucked up in bed by this time and I would have the main floor to myself. At this point, I was required to vacuum the main halls and dining area – this would take around half an hour.

2400 – Eat chocolate bar

Arriving back at reception, pull-along vacuum snapping at my heels, I was faced with a cascading array of Swiss chocolate delights.

For the first couple of weeks, I would limit myself to the slightly cheaper luxuries at the foot of the cocoa pile. By midsummer, however, my midnight feasts were focussed on the top-shelf, liquor-filled chunks of chocolate bliss.

0030- With silver wrapping paper scattered on floor, I would curl up on the camp bed in the reception alcove and sleep. Among all the other expat night porters in town, I was the only one allowed to doze off.

This supreme bonus gave me nine hours of free time from lunchtime onward.

0530 – Greet the morning floater (i.e. the valley cloud) and open all main doors.

0600 – Head to the kitchen. Draw a pot of delicious Italian coffee from the huge urn in the kitchen. Make toast, slather with fruit-laden jam, and repair to my alcove. Breakfast heaven.

0615 – 0800 – Cough up a few Gruezis to early risers. Sell a few stamps. Ignore phone.

0800 – Finish shift

0830 – Have cooked breakfast with the rest of the resident staff.

After this, I would go to bed for the rest of the morning, have lunch, and head for the mountains to hike all afternoon.

Nine hours of free time every work day? Where’s that phone number?

“Guten Tag – Ich bin Nachtportier. Ich kann sehr gutes Phlegmatisches sprechen!”


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For many years, I was anti-naps.

Not just mildly against. Vehemently opposed.

People who napped were wasting their lives away.

“Why waste normal waking hours being unconscious?” I would wonder.

Then, I had something of an epiphany.

Or, to use the exact scientific terminology, I dozed off a couple of times after dinner. For about twenty minutes.

The next day, I felt great: No grey fog of a morning. No mid-afternoon yawning marathons.

It was a bolt of enlightenment. Like a fully wakeful myoclonic jerk in the brain.

Next, I began to notice that sleep was all the rage. Sleep, it seems, is the new wonder drug.

cat nap 4

For a start, that midday nap appears to reduce heart disease. From this BBC article:

“A six-year Greek study found that those who took a 30-minute siesta at least three times a week had a 37% lower risk of heart-related death.”

Sleeping longer can also make you slim. Sleeping for just five hours a night gives you a 50% greater chance of being obese.

Only six hours of kip still ups your chances of a thickening waistline by 23%.

This is unrelated to exercise levels, gender, alcohol, or depression. However, chances are it also correlates massively with an extra two hours of wakeful sedentary snack fests.

cat nap

As well as keeping your vital signs active within the body beautiful, sleep also makes you smarter. Anecdotally, we are all aware that a long drool into a pillow can seemingly turn us into mental giants, but science is fully on board with this argument.

Research at a German university shows that we do indeed figure stuff out while sleeping.

“The volunteers were shown a number puzzle in which was embedded a ‘hidden code’ revealing the answer, the journal Nature reports. Those kept awake overnight reportedly had far less chance of solving it.”

Presumably, this means that sleeping on the job will now incur generous bonus payments, rather than carry a work-shy stigma.

“Hey, George has nodded off in his soup again. Must be working on that new strategic development. I’m gonna recommend him for another corporate commitment award.”

“Yeah, that guy really puts the mental effort in. Sure puts us alert, wakeful types to shame.”

cat nap 3

Sleep also keeps us from reverting to our more anti-social proclivities. This is noted by Dr. Melissa Clouthier, citing Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who states that sleep deprivation creates a state of mind “as if the brain is reverting to more primitive behavior.”

Naturally, for kids, diverging from normal sleep patterns can have profound effects.

A survey, cited in New York magazine, of 7,000 Minnesota high-school students found the following:

“Teens who received A’s averaged about fifteen more minutes sleep than the B students, who in turn averaged eleven more minutes than the C’s, and the C’s had ten more minutes than the D’s.”

And, surprise surprise, kids who start high school at 07:30 achieve far lower grades than those starting at 08:30. After making such a switch, one high school found massively improved SAT results among their top-achieving students.

cat nap 2

Here, in Canada, political and educational movers and shakers were cackling manically in their slumber.

“Just think,” they dreamed. “If that’s the effect of starting at 08:30, just imagine what political mileage we can gain by keeping them in bed all morning.”

To capitalize on this meaningless grade boosting learning opportunity, one Toronto school plans to start classes as late as 11:30.

Hah, before you know it, they’ll be letting kids show up whenever their smart sleeping schedules deem it optimal for their pedagogical needs.

Hang on a second, what’s this from England? A 24-hour school? And Australia.

Naturally, the blogosphere is fully conscious of the properties of sleep. Blue Soup , Dark Sociologist , and Work at Home Mom Revolution are clearly attuned to the need for productive slumber.

Now, as we trudge up the stairs towards zedtime, many of us will be turning to the Bard for a spot of light soporific reading.

Here’s one Shakespeare quotation on the getting-stuff-sorted-outability of sleep (but put a bit better):

“…the innocent sleep, / Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,”

Goodnight and sweet dreams.

wap nap


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Dinner party

Many thanks to Aiglee for this meme nomination.

“The idea is to work your way through the eight phases of the dinner party, answering all of the questions on the way – being as honest and creative as you wish. Once your homework has been completed, please nominate any number of bloggers to host their very own “virtual” dinner party.”

1) The Dinner Party Theme
You have decided to hold a dinner party. When writing the invites you clearly state that fancy dress must be worn. Assuming that cost is no issue, who or what would you dress up as, and why?

Well, the dinner party would take place on a circle of rocks at the top of Sutton Bank in Yorkshire. Fancy dress? I have no idea. I’ll go as a black bear. Why? It’ll keep the wind off.

2) The Invitations
This dinner party is for 6 people (including yourself), you are allowed to invite any 5 other people (either past, present, real or fictional), who would you invite and why?

This is going to be difficult. I’d probably write a different list every day. I’m going to leave out luminaries such as Nelson Mandela and Mozart – I reckon they get to dine out at enough virtual parties as it is. Probably glad of a night in with a bag of crisps and a couple of movies. So, my five guests for this evening (with family on the fringes pawing at the food) are as follows:

Paul Theroux: for the traveller’s tales

Michael Parkinson: interviewer extraordinaire to get the best stories out of people

Louis Ferdinand Céline: for a token five minutes of deep literary discussion

Julie Walters: supreme raconteuse to keep any flagging at bay

David Hockney: to knock out a decent painting of the evening for posterity (with the sweeping landscape below Sutton Bank as background)

And, as the band (i.e. technically not one guest too many): 

Tom Waits: for light-hearted, cheery musical interludes

3) The Starter
You are preparing the menu, which dish(es) would you choose as the starter, and why?

Fresh mussels in garlic and white wine (my favourite)

4) The Main Course
Okay, now for the main course? and what drink would you serve with it?

Goan fish curry

Brown rice


5) The Sweet
Finally, the sweet. Which would you choose, and why?

English blackberry pie drenched with melted chocolate (because it’s very very nice)

6) The Entertainment
The dinner party has gone swimmingly, everybody has had fun, conversation and drinks have been flowing all evening. At the end of the meal you announce that everybody should perform their ‘party piece’ (no matter how strange or pointless). What party piece would you perform?

Well, strange and pointless would only scratch the surface. I could give a demonstration of just how surprisingly tuneless the human voice can be.

Or I suppose my owl impersonation is passably entertaining for a few seconds. Maybe I should call in the “band” at this point:

“Hey, Tom, time to give us a few songs, old pal.”

7) The End Of The Evening:
The party is over, everybody has gone home, the house suddenly feels empty and quiet. Your eyes fix on the hi-fi in the corner of the room. You search through your CD collection to put on some music as you want to listen to one more track before your retire to bed. Which track would you play?

One track? Probably one of the following:

‘Innocent When You Dream’ – Tom Waits

‘Wait for Me’ – Richard Hawley

‘A Rainy Night in Soho’ – The Pogues

‘Our Town’ – Kate Rusby

We’ll plump for The Pogues.

8) The Dinner Party Nightmares
Okay, so the “virtual” dinner party is over. Now for the real thing. Have you ever been to or hosted a dinner party during which something has gone wrong (either with the food, a guest or something else)?

My 40th birthday party was quite memorable. It was in our house, as I was still somewhat incapacitated by sciatica. So, I was lying on the floor on a yoga mat for the duration. Our next door neighbour had just broken his leg in two places in a skiing accident, so he was supine on a sofa.

Out in the back garden, the kids were sliding down the icy incline outside the kitchen. Unbeknownst to us, our youngest son was prompted (by the older and wiser sibling) to negotiate the slope while standing on a large inflatable rubber ring.

Naturally, the rubber ring immediately flipped him into the air. He then hit the icy slope teeth first. An incisor pinged out on impact. Another tooth embedded itself in his top lip. Much bleeding and screaming ensued.

All guests, cripples included, gamely rushed to administer aid.

There was no permanent damage other than to milk teeth.

Later in the evening, the smokers (including our skiing neighbour) gathered on the front porch in the chill February night. One guest, who had been caught up in the joys of babydom for too long, had opted for the fast track to a coma Merlot. Swaying unsteadily on her feet, glass and cigarette aloft, she lost her footing, grabbed the person next to her, and pulled our broken-legged neighbour down the sloping front garden, in a rolling flurry of limbs, casts, flailing crutches, and soaring wine glasses.

I hadn’t planned to spend my 40th birthday on my living room floor, but, in its own way, it was a night to remember.

The incisor was found in the spring thaw.


Tag nominations for this meme are these bloggers I’ve recently discovered:



Miss Rachel

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