Alex’s first cinema visit

Alex and I went to the cinema yesterday morning. He’s two and a half years old now, and his attention span is now long enough for him to sit through an entire movie (Monsters, Inc., Shrek, Beauty And The Beast, etc.) at home. I thought that he would find the process of watching a whole film in a big dark room, on a big colourful screen, interesting and entertaining. And he did!

We saw Finding Nemo. He spent most of the time sitting in my lap. We shared a cup of juice and a small tub of popcorn. He found it a “little bit scary,” especially the trailers, which grab all the exciting bits from upcoming films and condense them into a series of two-minute visual assaults. During the scary bits, he would raise his hands over his eyes and peek out through his fingers. He liked the turtles, and thought they were flying through the water–flappy flappy.

He got a little bit distracted when he noticed that the film was showing on the glass pane of the projection booth at the back of the cinema, but apart from that he sat perfectly still for well over an hour and a half, and he was entranced by the whole experience. After the credits rolled, and we had left the cinema, he commented that “dada fish name Marlin; dada Alex name Martin!”

(We’re definitely going to have to do this again. In future, though, we’ll probably try and skip the trailers, because they’re just too intense.)

CarpetRight? CarpetWrong.

Warning: Rants and moans ahead.

Well, I’d like to say that the end of last week was a pleasure and a delight, but it wasn’t. In fact, it flat out sucked.

I’m glad to say that this wasn’t because of the New Job, which I started on Thursday. The people at New Job are all friendly, and I’m already enjoying the technical challenge and working in a completely different problem domain. But circumstances outside of work conspired to put a major downer on the last three days.

The Bike Thing

First of all, there’s the Bike Thing. I ordered a bike from a (nearly) local bike shop last week. It’s only three miles from our house to the New Job. Richard B very kindly lent me his bike a couple of weeks ago so I could see how long it would take me to cycle the distance, and the answer was 15 minutes there, and 20 minutes back. Given that the alternative is a 35 minute trip by bus and on foot, I’d almost be crazy not to cycle to work.

Anyway, when I ordered it, the bike shop confirmed that their distributor had the particular model in stock, and that it would be delivered to them on Monday or Tuesday. My plan had been to take Alex into town in Wednesday, pick up the bike, buy a bunch of accessories (including a child seat and helmets for us both) and then to cycle back home. Big adventure, lots of fun for us both.

No go. Tuesday came, and I called the bike shop to see if it had arrived. It hadn’t. They were still pretty confident that it would arrive soon, and they promised to call me as soon as it came in. On Wednesday, Alex and I took the bus into town anyway, did some shopping, and visited Scott and Ange and baby Kyle. All the while I was hoping that bike shop would call, and that we’d be able to cycle back after all, but it never happened.

Thursday morning came, and I had to take the bus-and-feet to work. As it happens it was a splendid autumn morning, crisp and sunny with plenty of dry leaves to kick through, but I was still disappointed that I couldn’t cycle the route.

On Friday afternoon I called the bike shop again and asked what was up.

“Oh,” they said, “it went missing. It looks like the distributor sent it to the wrong shop. These things happen from time to time.”

Any hope of it being re-routed so I could pick it up at the weekend? Er, no.

“The distributors have sent us out another one. It should be here Monday or Tuesday of next week…”

Great. Because I’m now working a full five-day week rather than four days part time, that means that even if it arrives when they say it will, I probably won’t be able to pick it up until next weekend. My faith in suppliers delivering goods on time is not running at a particularly high level right now, so I’m not confident of this scenario actually playing out. If they don’t have it in on Tuesday, I’m pulling my order, and I’ll get the bike somewhere online.

The Ankle Thing

My mood on Friday wasn’t helped by the fact that I was limping around with a painfully throbbing bruised ankle. The Ankle Thing happened when we were re-assembling our bed on Thursday evening. Our bed is huge and heavy, made out of fifty whole pine trees and held together with bolts and studs made from pure neutronium. Stick some tracks on it and you’d mistake it for a Challenger Tank.

Long story short, as we were putting it back together, Alex took too close an interest in the proceedings. Abi and I both yelped and pounced to stop one half of the bed from falling on his head. Doing so, we allowed the other (heavier) half to fall on both our left ankles. I think we were damn lucky it didn’t break any bones.

The Carpet Thing

Personal injury seemed depressingly appropriate for a day that had otherwise been dominated by the Carpet Thing.

Last month we ordered new carpets for our upstairs. We bought them from the CarpetRight store in Edinburgh’s Seafield area. We got a good deal on some very nice wool Berber carpet, and also on some Odor Eater underlay (padding). This particular underlay was attractive to us because Alex is prone to fits of vomiting whenever he is even slightly ill, and we’re going to have another baby to deal with in a few months’ time. When it comes to keeping the house free of smells, we need all the help we can get. Plus, the Odor Eater underlay range was being discontinued, and we got it at £4.99 per square meter.

Things started to go wrong the week after we had ordered the carpet, when a rep was supposed to come out and measure the upstairs rooms for fitting the carpet. We were told he would be there on the following Thursday morning, when Abi was at home. Well, the Thursday morning came and went. Abi called CarpetRight to ask where the rep was, and was told that he wouldn’t be out until the afternoon (at an unspecified time), and that we must have been mistaken about assuming he would be there in the a.m.

We weren’t pleased with this. Alex doesn’t like being cooped up in the house all day, and Abi had no intention of staying around to wait for the rep to show up. We told them to reschedule the measuring visit for the next Thursday, when Abi knew she would have to be at home all day anyway to supervise our joiners, who would be fitting new stair railings, banisters, and cupboard doors.

The second appointment went okay. The rep showed up eventually, as did the joiners (whose idea of a working day seems to extend from 11:00 to 15:00, or 14:30 on a Friday). About a week later we got a call saying that our carpet had arrived at the Edinburgh CarpetRight warehouse, and that we could arrange a fitting date. We did so, requesting a date several weeks ahead: Thursday 6th November. This would give us plenty of time to paint all of our door frames and skirting boards, varnish the new banisters and doors, and to move the upstairs furniture into the garage. Getting booked in for fitting date that far ahead was no problem. Would it be in the morning? Yes, it would.

As planned, we spent most of last weekend and much of the days at the start of this last week painting, varnishing, disassembling beds, and shifting bookcases. By Thursday morning the upstairs was completely empty, our garage was completely full, and our living room had turned into a three-person bedroom. Making your way from the kitchen to the front door involved ropes, climbing harnesses and the assistance of highly trained Sherpas. Also, the presence of sharp, pointy gripper strips on the stairs and in some of the rooms meant that it wasn’t safe for Alex to be upstairs any more.

Needless to say, Abi was looking forward to the carpet fitters arriving early and finishing within the estimated half-day, so that she and Alex would be able to get out of the overcrowded living room for a while.

The morning progressed. No sign of fitters. At about 10:30 Abi called CarpetRight. They seemed surprised (again) that we were under the impression that someone would be out to us in the morning. They told her that the fitter would be out by about 12:00 or 12:30. They eventually showed up at 13:30.

This in itself would have been bad enough, as it had ruined the plans Abi had for the rest of the afternoon. But towards the end of the fitting, Abi happened to notice the underlay the fitters were putting down. It was not the Odor Eater underlay we had ordered.

Naturally annoyed, Abi called CarpetRight to ask what was up. After speaking to a variety of underlings, she eventually spoke to the manager, who said that they had run out of the Odor Eater underlay, and that was why they were installing an equivalently priced product. He dismissed her with a trite apology, and the claim that there was nothing they could do about it now.

Abi was in tears when she called me. I was pretty damned upset about it, too. First of all they inconvenience us by not showing up on time, and then they replace part of our order with something completely different without notifying us. Okay, so the underlay isn’t visible, but it doesn’t have the odor-absorbing properties we ordered. It may be equivalently priced, but it is emphatically not an equivalent product. Would they have bothered to tell us if the colour of carpet we ordered wasn’t in stock, or would they have just come round and tried to install some old lime green rubbish they happened to have in the back of their warehouse?

When I left for work on Friday, I forgot to bring the receipts and contact names and numbers for CarpetRight with me, and Abi and Alex were out of the house for the whole day. It wasn’t until this morning that I was able to call CarpetRight to press our complaint further. And this is where the whole situation gets even more annoying…

I spoke to the manager, and reminded him of our situation. I asked him what he was going to do about it. He said there wasn’t anything he could do, and besides, they had installed an equivalent product, so what was I complaining about?

I explained that the underlay that went down may well be equivalently priced to the Odor Eater underlay we ordered, but it wasn’t an equivalent product. He said that we should have been called to tell us that the Odor Eater material was no longer in stock. He even said that he had a list of names of customers who had ordered it, and who had been called to notify them. Our name was on that list. Our name had been checked off as having been called.

We never received any such phone call. We have had no written or other communication from CarpetRight about the fitting, other than our copy of the initial order receipt. I told the manager that this was the case. I also said that if we had known that we couldn’t get the Odor Eater material, we would have ordered cheaper underlay. It’s possible that we wouldn’t even have ordered the carpets from CarpetRight at all, but from one of their competitors.

The work order and receipt the carpet fitter gave us states “Odor Eater” underlay. If Abi hadn’t noticed that the wrong material was going down, we wouldn’t have known of the switch at all. Am I overreacting, or does this look like a deliberate deception?

It was only when I started talking about Trading Standards and Small Claims Court that I seemed to be getting through to the manager at all. I asked if he would be willing to give us a partial refund or discount on the underlay. He said that he can’t give any discounts on underlay. (Never mind that the underlay only makes up about a quarter of the total bill.) But here’s what he did come up with:

If we go back to the shop and select a cheaper underlay material, then he will arrange–at his cost–for the fitters to return, lift the newly laid carpets, take up the current underlay, replace it with the cheaper material, and then give us a refund for the difference in price between the two types of underlay.

Is it just me, or is this not quite sane?

We paid £4.99 a square meter for the current underlay. The cheapest underlay they have in store is £3.99 a square meter. The fitter laid 45 square meters of underlay, so we could expect a £45 refund.

Assuming (charitably) that they can reclaim 80% of the more expensive underlay that went down, that’s 9 square meters of £4.99 underlay down the toilet. That’s a £44.91 loss right there, before you even look at the cost of the fitters. They took about three hours to set down some new gripper strips, and lay down the new underlay and carpet. They wouldn’t have to replace the gripper strips, but they would have to lift up the carpet to get at the underlay. Let’s say that it would take them three hours again to do the job. I don’t know how much carpet fitters cost, but I doubt if they’d work at anything less than £20 an hour. So that’s another £60 gone from CarpetRight’s books.

But wait! Here’s another wrinkle. While I was trying to get the manager to explain to me how this scenario works out cheaper than just giving us a simple refund for the difference in price, he said that the carpet fitters don’t cost him anything.

This might be true if the carpet fitters worked directly for CarpetRight. In that case, he could press them into service when they didn’t have any other jobs on. Their manpower would be already accounted for on the monthly payroll.

But this is not the case. CarpetRight subcontracts carpet fitting to independent fitters. This allows them to indulge in the slimy business practice whereby if you, as a CarpetRight customer, have a problem with the fitting, you have to take it up with the fitter yourself. As far as CarpetRight is concerned they wash their hands of you as soon as they supply the carpet to the fitter.

So how can CarpetRight say that they can get the fitting services for free if they have to get an independent contractor to do it? If this is true, then they must have some kind of agreement in place that I’m sure the Inland Revenue would love to hear about. This kind of practice is precisely what IR35 legislation was brought in to prevent.

And I haven’t even touched on the question of what we’re supposed to do in the meantime. Are we supposed to live with our house in disarray until the fitters can come back and do the job? Or do we move all the furniture back, only to have to shift it all when they return? I can give the answer to that one: we’ve already put everything back in place, and we have no intention of moving anything again for some time. I reckon it took us the best part of 7 hours to get everything back to (almost) normal. And that’s not including injury time.

(Compared to all of this, the fact that the fitter didn’t even take away the fitting waste with him, but instead left strips of carpet trimmings and underlay all over the upstairs, is almost small a factor to mention. But hey, I just did anyway.)

Am I pissed off? You betcha. Has this ruined my weekend? Damn close. When I called CarpetRight this morning, I was looking for a partial refund in compensation for giving us the wrong underlay. Something in the region of £50 on a total order of over £800 would have been reasonable. But now they’ve got me angry, and I’m going to lay the smack down instead:

  • It’s time to Turbo. The Managing Director of CarpetRight PLC is John Kitching. The phone number for CarpetRight’s head office is 01708 525 522.
  • Edinburgh Trading Standards will be getting a letter explaining our situation and our complaint. I’ll make sure to send a copy to Mr. Kitching as well as the manager of the Edinburgh Seafield branch.
  • I think the Inland Revenue ought to know about the cozy little arrangement CarpetRight has with its subcontractors. In case it’s just the Edinburgh Seafield branch that’s in potential violation of IR35, I’d better send a copy of the letter to Mr. Kitching as well.
  • Did I mention Small Claims Court? I think I did. I believe the fee for filing a claim is £27. Cheap.
  • Hey, CarpetRight PLC is a publicly traded company! I could buy some stock and then go and make a nuisance of myself at their AGM!
  • The road outside CarpetRight Edinburgh is a public byway. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind me standing outside occasionally with a sign and leaflets warning people not to buy their carpets there, would they?
  • I wonder how high up the Google search rankings for the word “CarpetRight” this blog entry can climb? It’s a shame Google doesn’t allow negative advertising, because it looks like “CarpetRight” might be a relatively cheap keyword to buy advertising space on.

I’ve got the time, and I’ve got the resources. CarpetRight has got it coming.

New job tomorrow

After a couple of days off to compose myself, I’m starting my new job tomorrow. I’m kind of nervous, which is normal, I suppose. I’m also kind of narked that my friendly not-quite-local bicycle shop hasn’t got my bike for me yet. By bike, it’s a 15 minute commute to the new place. By bus and foot, it’s going to take me about 40 minutes. Still better than the hour+ it took me to get to my old work, but disappointing in an I’ve-put-on-how-much-weight-since-April? kind of way….

Kyle Matthew Sutherland


My brother Scott and his wife Ange have had their baby! Kyle Matthew Sutherland was born at 23:07 on Saturday 1st November, weighing in at 9lb 9oz / 4.37kg. Monster! (And to think that Scott called Alex the “Chubster” when he was born…)

Congratulations to Scott and Ange, and a big welcome to Kyle.

True Crime? Robert Crais vs. Activision

About halfway through October news broke that award-winning crime author Robert Crais had filed suit against Activision, publishers of the forthcoming game True Crime: Streets of LA. Reports of the lawsuit seemed to be based on a press release from Activision, and a variety of newswire Chinese whisperings. Not exactly a set of concrete facts, but the common thread was that the suit centred on the character of Nick Kang, hero of the True Crime game. Robert Crais alleged that Nick Kang was a carbon-copy of Elvis Cole, the detective hero of most of his novels.

The case caught my attention for three reasons. First of all, I’m an enthusiastic videogamer. Secondly, I’m interested in matters concerning copyright and intellectual property. But most of all, I am a huge Robert Crais fan. LA Requiem is one of my all-time favourite books. The ending made me cry. Books don’t usually affect me that strongly.

My feelings about the case are mixed. At first, my heart sank. Looking at the USA from the outside, it appears increasingly (and depressingly) easy to bring a lawsuit for copyright violation, or trademark or patent infringement. The Recording Industry Association of America has recently been instrumental in giving such lawsuits a bad name by using them to extort money from copyright infringers who can’t afford the legal fees to defend the matter in court. Even when it’s not a matter of individuals trying to stand up to corporate juggernauts, such as in the case of SCO versus IBM, outsiders generally look at the case, see the enormous sums of money being claimed, and dismiss the plaintiffs as greedy opportunists.

When I thought of Robert Crais bringing suit against Activision for copying Elvis Cole, I thought of the hundreds of fictional detectives that crime writers have created in the twentieth century. How many tough guy detectives did Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler spawn? How many amateur sleuths followed in the footsteps of Miss Marple, or Lord Peter Wimsey? Perhaps more so than any other genre, modern detective fiction relies on a common pool of characters, conventions, and expectations. The twentieth century detective has been shaped by the great authors in the field, and it would be almost impossible to construct (let alone market) a mystery that didn’t draw on this shared history. If authors started suing each other for creating characters that were too similar to their own, the crime genre would be dead within a year.

When I first started reading Robert Crais’s novels, I was struck by the similarity between Evis Cole and Joe Pike, and Robert B. Parker’s heroes, Spenser and Hawk. Spenser and Elvis Cole are both tough, wisecracking ex-cops with a crusader mentality. Hawk and Joe Pike are both strong, swift, deadly, don’t say much, and have a habit of showing up and providing life-saving assistance when Spenser and Cole need it most. Wow. They’re cut from exactly the same cloth. So did Crais rip off these characters from Parker? And if he did, is this a matter of paying homage to a master, or a matter for the courts?

There’s a blurry line here. On one side of it you have writers building on common archetypes to create original works, and to enrich the genre. On the other side you have situations where a derivative character is genuinely reducing the market value of the original. But as soon as you start talking about “market value,” you’re back in a grey area where the opportunity for overstatement is rife, and accusations of money-grubbing pop up like hyperactive meerkats. So even if there is a case to answer, the very action of pursuing it may be damaging to the plaintiff’s cause.

This seems to be what happened with Robert Crais. Shortly after the lawsuit was announced, the discussion forum on his web site had to be closed because of outraged videogame fans flooding the board with obscene messages and insults. If you have a look around the web for news of the lawsuit, you will run across large numbers of inflammatory postings and hateful comments attacking Crais for taking this action.

Where were the mystery fans standing up for their favourite writer? I couldn’t find any. They were probably silenced when the Robert Crais message board closed. It shouldn’t come as news to anyone that videogame fans vastly outnumber mystery fans on the internet.

But what is the opposite side of the issue? I said I had mixed feelings about the lawsuit. In fact, Crais himself summed it up in a posting he made to his fan mailing list:

‘A video game titled TRUE CRIME: STREETS OF LA was recently brought
to my attention. The creators of this game have admitted it was
patterned after my Elvis Cole/Joe Pike novels. Those of you long
familiar with my work know that I guard Elvis and Joe closely. You
know that I have turned down well over thirty offers to sell the
film and television rights to these characters and books. They are
not for sale. They may not be used without my permission.

‘To quote a character from THE MONKEY’S RAINCOAT, where it all began:
“He accepts the duty of protecting what is his.”‘

These characters are his. Crais has been very public about the fact that they are very close to his heart, and that he doesn’t want them abused or diluted by film or television. If he was in this for the money, he could have made heaps by selling the movie and TV rights. He hasn’t.

He is not precious about selling rights in general, though. In fact, one of his other novels, Hostage is apparently in pre-production right now with Bruce Willis in the lead role, and Crais himself writing the script. He is protective of Elvis Cole and Joe Pike specifically.

In proceeding with legal action against Activision, Crais could be perceived as trying to block them from bringing the game to market just so that he could make more money from selling the Elvis Cole game rights at a later date. But I really don’t think this is the case. I believe he is genuinely trying to protect his own characters, rather than trying to make a fast buck.

As a content creator myself, I understand this position and I am sympathetic to it. If I had a set of characters I had carefully nurtured for over ten years, I’d be protective too. If the developers of True Crime have admitted that they based the characters on Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, and never told Robert Crais about this or asked for his permission, then he has every right to be upset, and to try to stop the game from being published until he gets the situation sorted out.

I’m glad to say, though, that there appears to be a happy ending to the whole story. At the weekend, Robert Crais sent another message to his fan mailing list:

‘As reported in the last newsletter, I filed a lawsuit against
Activision, Luxoflux, and game designer Peter Morawiec based
upon Activision’s upcoming release of a videogame titled TRUE
CRIME: STREETS OF LA. This lawsuit was brought because of
several articles(1) and interviews published on gaming websites,
and what appeared to me to be similarities between the game and
my Elvis Cole/Joe Pike novels.

‘Activision’s and Luxoflux’s open and honorable response both
surprised and impressed me. They allowed me and my lawyers full
access to a special ‘unlocked’ pre-release version of the game,
provided a complete game ‘script,’ flowcharts of game action,
and provided all-important clarifications to statements that had
been attributed to Mr. Morawiec (turns out the guy was a fan of
my work, and was simply expressing his admiration). In short,
they did a damned fine job of defusing what could have been an
ugly situation.

‘Based upon our review of those materials, we have concluded that
Activision has not infringed upon my copyrights. Accordingly, I
have dismissed the lawsuit against all parties. I want to thank
Activision, Luxoflux, and Mr. Morawiec for the cooperative
nature in which they brought the case to a quick conclusion. Cynics please note: No money exchanged hands.

‘And, lastly, be advised that I spent several hours reviewing
this amazing game. It rocks.’

I’m glad that this was resolved without going to court. I’m glad that Crais was satisfied that his characters weren’t stolen. I’m glad that videogame fans who have been looking forward to playing True Crime won’t have to wait to get hold of it. I’m glad that the game’s developers won’t have to watch their hard work taken apart in court.

And yet…it bothers me that a matter like this came to lawyers at twelve paces. Why did Crais have to bring a lawsuit in the first place? Did he make informal inquiries at Activision, or did he go straight for the big guns? If he made informal inquiries, did Activision refuse to answer them satisfactorily, so that he had to force disclosure through legal action? If Activision was so “open and honorable” after the lawsuit was filed, why were they unable to resolve the whole issue before it got to that point? Is Crais’s message a true reflection of an amicable settlement, or is it pure spin to try and hide a potentially embarrassing retreat after a too-hasty legal attack? Even though no money changed hands, I’m sure that the terms of the settlement will prevent both parties from discussing the matter any further.

Like I said: mixed feelings. I can see both sides of the issue. I’m glad that both parties appear to have walked away happy. But the very use of lawsuit tactics is going to gnaw at me for some time.

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