Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Merry Christmas

Well, looks like the bookmakers may be paying out tomorrow as we head for a white Christmas. My house is literally ten metres from the sea and in one night 6" of snow fell and lay. In the thirty years I've lived in Edinburgh I have never known snow conditions like this over Christmas. Normally by midday it has all melted and turned into muddy slush. But it's still here, and still snowing as I write this, half way through Christmas Eve!

Yesterday the conditions were so fantastic, that first thing, before the sun came up, my best friend Pauline skied the 4 miles from our front door, into the centre of the city to work, without once having to take her skis off! Now that is a first!

My achievement that day was to build a five foot snowman at the front door!
Merry Christmas to all my followers and readers, wherever in the world you may be at this time of year.

I will not be posting now until the new year, so this is wishing everyone a happy and prosperous new year.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Sub-zero Strathspey

The last outdoorsey trip of the first decade of the 21st century, and 2009, was a weekend mountain bike trip to Aviemore and the Rothiemurcus forest.

My best friend Pauline had travelled up on the early train on the Saturday morning, but I didn't follow until the 1630 train out of Edinburgh. The reason for this was because I had a prior commitment to help the kids from Portobello High School, who have been involved in the Young Enterprise Scheme since August. Saturday was their official trade day when the product they had designed and produced was to be ready to sell alongside twenty other schools. The venue for this year was not a good choice by the Young Enterprise organisation, being indoors at Balerno High School. Zero passing trade! However, I was very proud of my group who used their initiative and ventured outside into the village itself to sell their recipe book at the farmers market. No other school company did this. They were awarded 3rd place overall by the judges of the day.

The train journey up to Aviemore was very comfortable due to the enormous amount of space I had to myself. Because of the particular departure time I was aboard the National Express East Coast London to Inverness train, a proper train, as I like to call it.

It was dark by the time I arrived and met Pauline, and we cycled the short distance to the campsite on the outskirts of Aviemore. The ground was bare, and solid, and getting the tent pegs in was an effort due to hard and freezing earth. During the night the temperature plummeted, and by day break was still only at -5. The inside of my tent had a coating of ice from my breath condensing and freezing during the night!

As I impatiently waited for my water to boil on the stove, I was joined by a puffed-up little Robin, who delighted at munching on the bits of cheese we threw out for him. Undaunted by our presence he happily hopped in and out of our tents, rummaging for more scraps.

We left the majority of gear behind in the tents, and set off on the seven miles up to Glenmore. However, just two miles on we stopped at the Rothiemurcus cafe, called the Ord Ban, for a cappuccino, and to warm our frozen fingers by the log-burning stove.

A great frosty cycle to Glenmore followed, from where we trundled down to the shores of Loch Morlich to sit and have our lunch, all wrapped up, watching people walking theirs dogs along the frozen edge of the Loch. Next stop was the small cafe at Glenmore, that has been run by the same people I think since as long as I can remember. It was recently featured in Autumn Watch by the BBC for the fact that it has frequent visits by an enormous variety of birds, a number of red squirrels, and, in the dead of night, pine martins.

My favourite Scottish mammal has to be the cute red squirrel, and they visit the bird feeders all year round at the cafe, and you are almost guaranteed to see them. On this visit I was not disappointed, as two of them scurried about. And yes, this is one of my photographs! This is how close you can get to them.

After a warming bowl of soup, we headed out on the bikes round Loch Morlich on great forests tracks. The scenery was stunning, with spectacular ice crystals built up on every blade of grass and pine needle. Nature is truly amazing.

The track goes in many directions, branching off to the Lairig Ghru, or further on, to Loch an Eilein, but we veered north out of the forest, to eventually pop out at Coylumbridge and back onto the cycle track. A fast ride back to Avimore to pack up the gear and then we headed for the 5.30 train home.

Very cold but spectacular weather and scenery.

The company was OK too I guess.

A wee treat to finish in this 25 second video from the weekend;

Monday, 14 December 2009

Terms & conditions

I'm sure that everyone who reads this blog has, at some time or other, bought a product or service online. Just before you get to the checkout to enter your payment details, having made all your decisions in the online shop, you are prompted to tick the box that you confirm you have read, and crucially, agreed to, the terms and conditions.

Do you ever read them before ticking and agreeing?

No? Then beware, and read on.

I am going to tell you of a story that is about a company that makes money by exploiting a loop hole, and our trusting naivety.

Recently I responded to an advert on MSN's homepage, where you are redirected to after signing out of Hotmail. The advert was offering a health product sample, free of charge. At first I was suspicious, after-all, nothing is every truly free, is it?However, I then discovered I had to pay for postage and packing, which being from the US was around $11, so I felt encouraged because I was paying for something.

I proceeded to the checkout, ticked the terms and conditions, and paid for the postage.

It took just over two weeks for the product to arrive. I tried it out, didn't like it, threw it away, and thought nothing more about it.

Another two weeks later my credit card statement arrived. There on my statement was the $11 for the postage, followed by a date two weeks later of a further charge of $131.

Furious, I contacted first, my own bank credit card division, then, with the information provided, contacted the company in the United States.

To cut a very long story short, I was guided back to the terms and conditions, and there, hidden away, far down the page, was information that said unless I unsubscribe by returning the product, unused, within 14 days, I would be billed $131 non-returnable "membership", and thereafter a further $84 per month.

And yes, I have been billed the $84 since!

And to add insult to injury, affiliate companies, that is, in their definition, companies that pay to advertise with them, will also charge you a fee for membership to their companies! And I didn't even know about that at any point!

By ticking terms and conditions you agree to all this! And you have no way of stopping it, because you have not returned the product, unused, within 14 days!

And this is legal!!

I contacted the UK Office of Fair Trading, and the equivalent US version, the FCT, to be told there's absolutely nothing they can do. They can continue to bill me, legally. And get this, even if I cancel my credit card I can't get out of it because of the original agreement!

All because I agreed to the terms and conditions, without reading them!

So next time you see that box . . . READ THE TERMS & CONDITIONS!

I did some digging into the company as well;
They operate via another company, who provide call centre services and distribution to many companies.
I tracked them down to an office in Des Moines, Iowa, advertising on their website that they can help companies with "new ways of capital growth..." Indeed! You'd think the FCT would chase them down, wouldn't you? Well, further research led me to their registered head office . . . in Nicosia, Cyprus! They have a US trading address in Aurora, Colorado, but no contact telephone number, surprise surprise.

So they gather in roughly $200 for an outlay of around $20 total.
They then distribute their virtually worthless product from a warehouse adjacent to De Moines International airport, receiving their orders for shipping worldwide from the call centre, and go on to avoid the majority of US corporate tax, as they are registered in Cyprus!

Neat, isn't it?! And thoroughly immoral.

The Royal Bank of Scotland credit card retail dispute centre have told me that 85% of their work at present is with companies like these . . . and they are on the increase!

Just when the banks are trying to cut costs and recover, there are criminal minds out there ripping everyone off, and sleeping quite well at night, thank you very much!

Buyers beware!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Box

This is a new film starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, written & directed by Richard Kelly and based on a short story by Richard Matheson called "Button Button".

Richard Kelly's last successful outing was back in 2001 with Donnie Darko, which I enjoyed immensely. Richard got the gig thanks to his best mate Drew Barrymore, and since then hasn't done much with any success. I wont offer my opinion on this cosy set up for now, but he is currently in development with another new film called "Fade".

Here's the synopsis for The Box;
Norma and Arthur Lewis, a suburban couple with a young child, receive a simple wooden box as a gift, which bears fatal and irrevocable consequences. A mysterious stranger, Mr Arlington Stewart, delivers the message that the box promises to bestow upon its owner $1 million with the press of a button. But, pressing this button will simultaneously cause the death of another human being somewhere in the world; someone they don't know. With just 24 hours to have the box in their possession, Norma and Arthur find themselves in the cross-hairs of a startling moral dilemma and must face the true nature of their humanity.

A good concept but presented in a very muddled up fashion by the director. It's almost as if he lost his way half way through and became confused himself with what he had actually written! It makes what was an original simple story, into something way too complex, and tries to be too clever, only to end up utterly confusing with scenes that had no meaning in terms of advancing the story.

However, it is very stylistic, circa mid 1970's, and has a sci-fi theme and style to match the sci-fi theme and style of the era, which did work well. It very much borders on a B-movie look, and almost, but not in a good way, gets away with it. I'm also pretty convinced that the casting of Cameron Diaz was a box office decision, as her performance in this is awful. She is very wooden and comes across as if she has just emerged from acting school, if she ever went, detached entirely from the film. A lot of that I feel comes down to the pretty bad and clunky dialogue, and poor direction. Donnie Darko it aint.

Frank Langella however puts in a great performance as the disfigured Mr Arlington Stewart.

Great story premise, but the suspense became laughable I'm afraid. It also failed to wrap up and satisfy many loose story threads at the end, delivering only what we had worked out for ourselves half way through. It was going well, almost, right up to when Mr Arlington Stewart returns with the $1million. From there on it overdoses on 70's style science fiction, and slides at ever increasing speed down the ramp to oblivion.

You can see there's an attempt to delve into the human psyche, and it almost manages it, but almost is not good enough I'm afraid.

The answer is obvious in that we should not press the button on The Box, but I'd go a step further and say, save your money and don't bother even going to see it.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Fade in:

As I said in a previous blog some weeks ago at the end of the last film shoot, I am deep into writing a new film again.

And now I can report that it was with great joy, that at 3.30 this afternoon, I wrote the satisfying words "The End", and thus completed the first draft.

This has been a tough one to write. The subject was very complex in terms of medical terminology, and I had to get it precise.

And I'm no doctor. Though after all the research in the past few months, I feel ready to take my hippocratic oath!

The script is an adaptation of 148 pages of a book, so in a lot of ways the structure and the dialogue was already worked out for me. However, as I wrote, it was difficult not to write exactly what was written in the book, word for word. It kind of draws you in, and before you know it you're not thinking anymore.

That sounds strange doesn't it? Surely I'm meant to write what is in the book? It's difficult to explain, but put simply the written word doesn't always lend itself to the visual story. It also drains you of creativity, reading the book over and over, and when that happens, you'll do anything other than write, even stopping to watch the TV programme Neighbours!

I start the process by thoroughly researching what went into the original book, and at times research things mentioned that I want to embellish a bit more. My next stage involves a rough noting down of the actors that will populate my film, starting with the main lead. I find it helps if I assign a real world actor to this character, as close to my vision of him as I can think of. On this occasion it was Scots comedy actor Steven McNicoll. I can then picture him moving, and speaking, and at times, rather spookily, he will speak to me! No, I'm not going mad, and it doesn't happen very often, but if you get the character just right, the writing becomes easier, and you can't write fast enough to keep up with your imagining of his acting. That is a blessing, but very rare.

When I'm casting it on paper I must also consider the budget restrictions of getting the film shot, and at times this can be frustrating, for as a writer and director you don't want these limitations. But it can also be useful in keeping the story lines tight.

Then I structure the film, storyboard it in my head, then on paper. It must flow, and be easily understood by the audience. It's all very well me understanding it, after all, I'm coming up with it in my head, but getting that onto paper that can then be shot, edited and finally viewed and understood as you first imagined it, well, that's the tough part.

Finally, I write, keeping my notes of the characters, their genders and traits, the structure, locations and who's who at which location etc, close by.

Three weeks on, and it's done!

I will now leave it for a few days, review it fresh next week, and then once I'm satisfied with the first draft, I'll send it to the producer and the team. Hopefully before the end of the year, feedback and any alterations will reach me, and I start again, on draft two.

Writing is re-writing as they say.