Social Media Award Winner

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Gyrating Bananas

Know your internet memes, Canadians
Among all the news stories hitting the headlines this week about young girls heading off to Syria to fight against Islamic State, or potential terrorist attacks thwarted by undercover police stings, one act of cyber-terrorism, or rather, hactivisim, which went almost unnoticed, caught my beady eye.

I guess this was because it happened in Canada, and unless there is something dramatic that involves heroic security guards at the houses of parliament, news from the nice neighbours across the Pond does not make it big over here.

It might also be because the act was itself pretty darn hilarious, so hard news sites have found it difficult to report on without indulging in a little bit of headline hamming or spurious photos.

Basically, since Friday, people wanting to log onto official websites for Canada's Parliament, its Supreme Court, the city of Ottawa and the Ottawa and Toronto police forces have been occasionally greeted by what the New York Times can only describe as a "a gyrating, anthropomorphic banana" or, more frequently but less amusingly, an error message.

According to the reports secreted in the bottom of newspaper columns, the strange banana shake was prompted by a hacker or a small group of hackers supporting the cause of an Ottawa teenager who was charged last spring with making hoax telephone calls throughout North America.

Along with the banana, the group/person called Aerith, who claimed responsibility for the hacking, posted statements denouncing the city’s police and provided personal information about the lead investigator and the city’s police chief.

I do not applaud the dissemination of private information about individuals, who are only doing their jobs as far as the law is concerned, but I do applaud someone who can make a statement so well and so widely, employing a favourite internet meme to put the message across.

Fans of the gyrating banana referred to so obliquely by the NYT will know that this was the famous 'Peanut Butter Jelly Time' banana, a heavily pixellated dancing flash animation from c. 2000-2001, which asked: "What time is it? It's Peanut Butter Jelly Time".

The internet - what a mine of information it is, not all of it useful - also informs me there is an emoticon developed for people who wish to insert a dancing banana into any emails. Thankfully I have not updated Blogspot with this, or I may have been tempted to insert it here.

A more famous parody would be Brian Griffin's attempts to cheer up Peter by performing the PBJT dance.

Family Guy Brian Griffin and Peter Griffin
I did want to see the gyrating banana dancing across official Canadian websites, but so far I have had no luck. But right now, all I want is a big piece of bread, smothered in grape jelly and peanut butter. It is 4:30. So surely, SURELY, it must be peanut butter jelly time - somewhere? Probably in Ontario.

I'm off to Canada.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Flaggin' mansions!

My defence of Ed Miliband last week got a storming response on Facebook, not all of it polite, but it certainly raised quite a few issues.

Since then, I have discovered two things: 
  • Someone has started a petition to remove Myleene Klass as the face of Littlewoods
  • Some Labour MPs (and ex MPs) will fall into the Mansion Tax bracket.
Let's deal with Littlewoods first. Personally, I like Myleene Klass. She was very sweet to my mother at a party we went to (her family are friends of our family) and she spent 20 minutes trying to explain how to use a digital camera to her. Anyone who has enough patience to teach my tech-illiterate mother how to use a camera has to be a good person, in my book. 

However, since her tirade against Ed, which I think was a thoroughly misguided and ill-informed topic for her to tackle, more than 8000 people have signed this petition on There has also been a counter-petition for her to not be dropped, which has so far generated 590 supporters. 

I don't think Littlewoods should drop her, but a media-savvy PR at the firm should sit down with their face of the brand and explain to her that the target audience for Littlewoods is not likely to sympathise with people who have to shell out £1.8m for a garage.

Next, Emily Thornberry, a thorn in the side of Ed Miliband. There must be something about the man that means every week, a woman will publicly berate him or cause him embarrassment. Last week it was the turn of this woman in her £2m+ mansion, who tweeted a picture of a house in Rochester, swathed in England flags. In case you have been living in a bubble/not in the UK, here's the tweet:

That Thornberry Tweet Rochester
I can't help feeling a slight twinge of guilt when I read about Emily Thornberry's tweet. Sure, the people living in this house are unlikely to have felt any sympathy for those wealthy people complaining about the mansion tax, so they'd agree with Miliband on that. But they should not have to stomach the upper-classes sneering down their noses at them, publicly, on twitter.

People who have bought Thornberry's lame excuse: "I have never seen so many flags on a house, this is what I meant" are obviously living in cloud Kitten Land, where everything is beautiful and people tell the truth.

The truth is, she was taking the proverbial and - do not deny it - she said what many of us were thinking, especially when we saw TV footage of the man emerge from his house, cap on head, less than 100% fit and covered in tattoos. To be honest, I believe people should be allowed to fly their flags without being branded as anything by anybody, but when I saw him, my first thought was 'this is exactly the person I thought would live there'. Then I realised, guiltily, that someone else lives in a yellow house and flies the flag daily, without censure: 

Buckingham Palace
Who was I to criticise? I was no better than Thornberry. But I am just a person, not someone in public office, let alone a Labour personage living in a lofty house in North London. Her comment and the motive behind it smacked of upper-class snobbery. It smacked of Toryism of the Old School kind, not the kind that is pandering to UKIP. It reeked of Middle England putting the educational boot into the rest of us. And therefore Miliband was right to give her the boot, too. Oh, wait, sorry, yes, "accept her resignation". 

If Labour wants to prove it is for the people, for the masses, then its party members better start looking at their own lifestyle rather than criticise that of others, especially the voting public. Because it won't be too long before someone sets up a petition against the entire Labour shadow cabinet - and their £2m houses - and then we are left with nothing credible that can stand against the grinding, terrible machine that a Con-UKIP truce would bring.

However while I may not be able to pay a tax on something like this BIG WHACKING HOUSE unless I become a former prime minister, I am still convinced that if I did own a £21m house in a prime central London location, I would have more than enough equity and/or free cashflow to be able to pay a tax for the privilege.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In defence of Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband, Labour Leader

I can hardly believe I am doing this but I agree with Ed Miliband.

In a week where he has been lambasted by celebrities, the media and politicians of all flavours, it is harder to praise the man than to bury him.

My old debating coach used to tell me it is harder to stand up for an unpopular cause than to decry one, and as I have always relished a challenge, I am unafraid by what might follow.

Ed Miliband is right.

While Myleene Klass may claim that £2m will just about get you a garage in London, and the media may agree, I would like to ask the normal, working people of London and the South East whether they live in a £2m garage.

It is my experience - 15 years as a financial services journalist, not as a celebrity commentator who reads the papers occasionally and listens to BBC Radio 4 - that the majority of people live in homes worth far less.

The average house price in the South East, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics and the Halifax House Price index, is somewhere between the figures these bodies have provided of £485,000 and £355,630 respectively.

That's a far cry for £2m - a figure skewed by the media and celebrity-rich areas of Kensington, Kingston, Chelsea, Putney, the City, Canary Wharf penthouses, Wimbledon Village, Dulwich Village, some parts of Clapham and Islington, and some parts of Golders Green and Finchley.

For the rest of us oiks, who slum it out in Brixton, Streatham, Peckham, Lewisham, Mitcham, Morden, Hackney, Newham, Hammersmith, Walthamstow, Balham, Norwood, Norbury, Thornton Heath, Hackbridge, Camberwell, Elephant & Castle, New Cross Gate, Lewisham, etc etc etc, well house prices just ain't anywhere near £2m.

We'd be grateful for a £2m garage, sure, but we are normal people who like normal houses that we can afford to maintain. If we were so desperate to live in an area that only had £2m garages, then we'd need to be paid seven-figure sums to advertise clothing catalogues.

But we don't. We are nurses, teachers, shop workers, journalists, pencil-pushers, council workers, administrators, bus drivers and the self-employed.

According to data from the Council of Mortgage Lenders, these normal people here in London and the South East have an average loan size of less than £250,000. Here's some statistical data to stick it to the whinging rich who have actually NO idea what real people earn or experience.

"First-time buyers typically borrowed 3.90 times their gross income, more than the 3.83 in the previous quarter and the UK average of 3.46. The typical loan size for first-time buyers was £212,000 in the second quarter, up from £200,000 in the previous quarter. The typical gross income of a first-time buyer household was £55,000 compared to £52,500 in the first quarter.

"Due to higher house prices within London compared to the UK overall, there was a continued shift in the mix of properties bought by first-time buyers in London towards more expensive properties. In the second quarter, 63% of first-time buyers bought properties priced at more than £250k, up from 57% in the first quarter and 51% in the same period last year. This was significantly higher than the UK overall level of 17%."

Yes it is true that house prices are higher in London - but as with all data, this is skewed by the super-rich areas where a dog kennel costs £70,000. This is not the experience of the vast majority of the population, for whom a £2m mansion is far above what any length of inflation and upward pressure on house prices could hope to achieve. 

Even if my own five-bedroomed house were to show house price rises of 600 per cent in the next 50 years, it could not match the £2m mansion tax proposed by Labour.

Now I am not agreeing that it is a good policy. But it may be a way to show that Labour is getting back to its roots - tax the rich and give to the NHS (and yes, if you have a £2m house you are going to be more wealthy than the majority of the UK population. Get out of your cars and go have a look at some of the poorer neighbourhoods around you).

It may also be a way of raising some much-needed revenue to shore up our ever-flagging deficit. 

I've sat through Budgets and Autumn Statements which each year tell me how great the government has been in cutting the deficit and getting us out of a recession, how austerity has helped us get back on our feet. 

And each time the figures get smaller, the achievement gets narrower, the prospect of being a country with no debt gets further away. This is called clever accounting by some, or wishful thinking by others. 

A proposed £2m tax on property - a theory by the way - might be a very convenient political football for a party that is already taxing people in council houses and on the lowest earnings ladder.

These people fall below the £10,000 a year limit for auto-enrolment into a pension. They have no savings. 

They literally live in garages - prefabs and tiny homes run by councils. And if they should dare to have one extra bedroom - maybe a spare room, maybe a room that their family uses, or maybe a grandmother looks after her grandchildren at weekends - they get taxed.

Let's repeat this slowly so that people understand: 

Labour has proposed to explore a £2m mansion tax on the wealthiest sectors of society (sorry upper middle class, yes you are more privileged than you believe you are).

The Conservatives are forcing the poorest people in society, the financially vulnerable, the people relying on food banks, and often the least educated, out of their homes into smaller properties or taxing them for daring to have one more room than they need.

Instead of jumping on a fashionable bandwagon and slating the Labour leader, why not sit back and actually think about these things: 

Social equality
Raising people out of poverty
Helping the excluded.

If you advocate any of these things, you cannot take anything the Tory party says to ridicule Ed Miliband seriously.

This is the Tory party that doesn't know whether or not, or how much, it will have to pay the EU. First it doesn't owe them, then it does, then it managed to halve it, then it managed to not halve it but in fact will repay it "at its own convenience".

So basically it worked out a debt repayment plan, just like many of the poorest people in the UK have to do daily just to get by.

Ed Miliband is right. The Labour Party have their party members' interests at heart. Their policies are getting back to the real everyday struggles of normal people, the people that the Coalition has forgotten. 

Think before you leap and end up alienating we people, the normal people, the average people. 

Because we are the voters, the majority of voters in the UK and we want someone who actually will represent us. 

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Plump from the Pump(kin)

Let's get some pumpkin pie!
I love this time of the year; golden leaves crisping and curling into brown on the pavement and fine morning mists that send shivers up the spine. Not for nuttin' did Keats praise Autumn as the 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness'.

The other week I was in Norfolk with my mater dearest and the 'stubble plains' of the poet were clear to the eye. As for the mellow fruits - the pumpkins were almost ready, sitting in their fields waiting patiently for the harvest. It was a delight to the eye and tantalising to the tastebuds.

Now as much as I hate Halloween, I love pumpkins. They're such awfully good fun to make things with. But this time I think I bit off more than I could, literally chew.

It is now day six of our pumpkin and it does not appear to be diminishing fast. I have tried to use all sorts of recipes and invent some more just to use it up, but this one large beast we bought for £1.50 from Tesco just doesn't want to give up easily.

The reluctance of the pumpkin to disappear reminds me of one of my favourite fables, about the Little Pot that Wouldn't Stop. The story goes something like this: Once upon a time, a little girl lived alone with her grandmother at the edge of a village. They were very poor, the poorest of the poor, so the little girl promised her grandmother that she would do lots of work to help raise some money for food.

Being a good little girl, she did what she was told and all day from dawn to dusk, she helped to clean, sweep and tidy up a house belonging to another old woman. In return, the old woman gave her a little pot. No coins, but a little pot.

She said: "All you have to do is ask the pot to give you food, and it will give it to you. When you have had enough, say 'Little pot, stop'." The girl brought it back to her grandmother, who clipped her round the ear for being so dumb as to bring back an old, rusted pot instead of much-needed money.

The girl ran outside. While she was there, some people visited the grandmother and wanted food. Deeply embarrassed at having none, she thought she would try to ask the little pot to give her food. It did. Steaming hot broth filled the pot - but kept on filling it.

"No, no" cried the grandmother, as the broth spilled over the top and into the fire.

"Stop it now", she yelled as she and her guests scooped up their dresses and stood on chairs to escape the torrent that was streaming across the floor.

"No more please!", she screamed, as the broth started to flow down towards the village. Hearing the commotion, the little girl waded towards the pot. "little pot, stop" she commanded, and all the broth disappeared magically.

Well it's a little like that in my household, except the pumpkin isn't multiplying magically, for which my insurance provider should be grateful. At least, I think it is not growing magically. We have already had six servings of pumpkin soup and a short, sweet pumpkin fruit loaf. I roasted the seeds with some celery salt and paprika to make a healthy snack.

Then I made pumpkin pudding and a large pumpkin pie, which I have put into the freezer. Then I cut up dozens of chunks to put into the fridge in a container. Still there was about one third left of the pumpkin. I made pumpkin mash alongside our dinner on Monday. Yet the pumpkin hadn't diminished discernibly.

On Tuesday, I made a spiced sausage and pumpkin casserole. Still a large chunk of the pumpkin remains. I made more pumpkin soup last night - when will this orange madness end?

Tonight I will attempt pumpkin rissotto - but that still leaves me with the remainder of the pumpkin AND a pyrex tub full of pieces.

All I can say is that pumpkin was probably the best £1.50 I've ever spent. I hope I don't get sick of pumpkin before we've eaten the pie.

Please little pumpkin (giant enormous bargain pumpkin), STOP.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Caveat Ambulator

Oh no! I've fallen over while using my phone!

Regular readers of the Mermaid's rants will know that one of her pet hates is people who do not look where they are going. Whether it is because they are simply letting their imaginations wander down tangled forest paths or because they are wrapped up in a newspaper, I get frustrated when their meanderings end up with near-collisions.

Recently - over the past few years I should say - my very British tutting, sighing and sometimes foot-tapping has been reserved for the moble phone gazers. People who are spending far too much time attempting to answer a text or finish a message on facebook, and thus spending far too little time paying attention to the road.

I've narrowly avoided an umbrella spike to the upper body unmentionables this week, because a man was engrossed in what looked like a BBC news interview with Jeremy Hunt. Now I have nothing against Jeremy Hunt as a person. But if his ferrety little face prevents someone from paying attention to what they are doing with a steel-point umbrella, then I do take issue with it.

Last week, a woman on the phone, with pushchair afore her and a toddler behind her, didn't notice her child was attempting to get back onto the train, because she was too busy telling "Kaneesha" that "If he thinks that I am going to sit down and take it just because she's my sister, then he's got another think coming."

And not to mention the innumerable times common-sense commuters have been held up at the ticket barrier because people in front have been absorbed by erudite textual conversations, such as "what are we having for dinner tonite" "Pizza" "OMD we had that last night u gtb laffing. U got jokes". Yes I was reading it over his shoulder. No, he didn't get his train pass out in time and we all waited behind him patiently. Sort of patiently. There was a lot of tutting. It was me.

Having ranted on many occasions about this perambulatory phenomenon, I was glad to find my gripes justified by claims statistics this week.

According to a pan-European study from SquareTrade, the majority of phone-damage incidents in the UK and elsewhere have occured because people were Wexting - the word I have coined to refer to "Walking and Texting".

The study also claimed 86 per cent of Britons have tripped, stumbled, walked into a lampost or wall because they were distracted by their mobile devices. As someone who has been often frustrated at every corner by an oblivious walker, I am not surprised by the statistic, but I am somewhat disappointed that I have never witnessed immediate Karma. It would be so good to say "I told you so", even if I hadn't actually told anyone so, unless a sharp London "tchah" and kissing my teeth counts. (It doesn't, apparently).

However for all those who, like me, wish for the good old days when people watched where they were going, and left poor lamposts and walls to mind their business without being walked into, we can take some comfort.

The SquareTrade study has revealed that, in a league table of mobile mishaps (yes, this is a thing and I have seen it), the Mediterranean countries are the worst offenders.

Greece, Italy and Spain have "the clumsiest mobile phone users in Europe".

The UK is only ranked sixth in this Darwinian table. Out of 12 countries, you can probably guess which country came in last - Germany. There's probably a law against using a phone while walking. I know there's a law against wearing a mask in public unless it's specifically on a known holiday. I can't tell you how I know this, but suffice it to say that my career as Spiderwoman didn't go anywhere after a stopover in Munich.

Quoted by SquareTrade were several dumbnuts, I mean, survey respondents, who detailed their mobile-related injuries. My two favourites.... with my commentary

“I have walked into a low-hanging tree branch and almost knocked myself out while tweeting.”
Birds have been tweeting since the dawn of time, and they are surprisingly good at not hitting their heads on branches. There is no excuse for you!

“I walked into a shop window and I’ve also fallen over using my phone”
TWICE? This person is a repeat offender? How far down the IQ spectrum do you have to be to achieve such moronity - twice! Walking into a shop window is stunning enough; wouldn't you be doubly cautious the next time you are texting and walking outside of the safety of one's own padded cell? I guess not.

I can only hope they live in Greece. Because if they live in the UK, I'm going to have to emigrate to Germany. With or without my mask.