My Ballot Paper

Remember, under our STV system your vote is never “wasted”, so don’t be afraid to put outside-chance candidates before safer ones.

Let’s get some angry people elected!

While there are some great protest / grassroots candidates running in constituencies across the country, here in Ireland Mid-West-North-Central-Areyoukiddingme we are not well served for misfits. More nutjobs, I’m afraid. In fact it’s almost shocking, looking at the list below, to think that three of these people will be elected no matter what we do.

Here’s how I think we can can make the best of it:

 

2014 European Parliament election

Midlands–North-West

Party

Candidate

Description

Vote I’m Giving

Fianna Fáil Thomas Byrne FF somehow have the temerity to offer us not one but two candidates, when what we actually want is no more FF candidates. Ever. God no
Sinn Féin Matt Carthy Perhaps the ultimate protest vote, in that it’s the one the main parties genuinely fear. Could actually win. Something, but probably last
Green Party Mark Dearey I think it is time to let the Greens back in from the cold. While their support for FF in government was a betrayal, it was more idiotic than evil. Around Four of Five
Independent T.J. Fay He’s a little bit… eccentric. I don’t agree with all his ideas. But at this point, slightly oddball openness is infinitely preferable to another well-managed, professional politician. Infinitely. Number One! To signal that there is a vote for change
Independent Mark Fitzsimons We have not one but two cannabis campaigners on the ballot! It’s not an issue I feel strongly about, but I’ll vote for him for the sake of his honesty. Three or maybe even Two
Independent Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan The original cannabis candidate. And best?  Unfortunately Ming plunged in my estimation recently when he chose to speak up for climate-change deniers. Has just a few hours left to deny the deniers. Otherwise, nothing
Fianna Fáil Pat the Cope Gallagher That someone could serve FF under Haughey, Ahern and Cowen and then go to the people for re-election is just beyond me. I’d write 0, but a FF party worker would swear it was a 9
Direct Democracy Ben Gilroy Mad, bad, right-wing anarchists, treating selfishness like it was a sacred mission. And I’d still vote for them sooner than the major parties. But not really. Nothing
Independent Marian Harkin A sitting independent and noted community worker. Unfortunately, she believes in giving our money to people who sell pretend medicine. I can’t vote for that. Nope
Fine Gael Jim Higgins I will not vote for FG now – not even to keep FF out. Which, let’s face it, was basically the only reason to vote for them. That dance is over. Nada
Labour Party Lorraine Higgins And for the first time since I began voting, many years ago now, I will have nothing at all for Labour. Nil
Fine Gael Mairead McGuinness Even FG aren’t deluded enough to believe they have a chance of electing two MEPs. This is just a political machine exercising its cold metal limbs. Nothing
Independent Rónán Mullen Religious nut. No thanks
Fís Nua Cordelia Níc Fhearraigh Greens who were too idealistic – or perhaps to realistic – to go into government with FF. I like that! They will be my highest party vote. So about Third? Before the “official” Greens anyway.

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Keeping XP

Screenshot 2014-04-07 19.02.15

Windows XP caught frolicking on its last day of freedom

So goodbye Windows XP. You know, I’m actually sad. Since it came out in 2001 I’ve grown from being indifferent (“Windows 2000 in a dress”), through slightly awed (when Tablet PC edition introduced handwriting recognition that actually worked), to comfortable and complacent. For a long time there, XP was just the way things were, an everyday ubiquitous tool. After using it for over ten years there was very little about it I couldn’t mend, maintain, or make better. And now Microsoft have declared those skills redundant.

You can see their argument: They haven’t made anything out of XP for years now. Well yes but…

The thing is, there’s a big secret about IT. In the terms I’ll be using in the exam I should be studying for right now, information technology cannot provide a strategic advantage (Carr, Harvard Business Review 2003).

In lay terms: IT is for suckers.

When it all began, people thought that computerising a business would mean radically improved efficiency and so lead to greater profits. That seems to make sense, yet somehow it never did. You do increase efficiency, sure. But that almost never translates into more money. This is because very quickly everybody was able to invest in the same technology, levelling the playing field again.

Only now to keep up with your competitors you have to keep on investing in your system, on a hamster wheel of hardware and software upgrades. That was never such a problem with filing cabinets. So bizarrely the technology may actually cost you more than you’ll ever save through improved efficiency - but you need it now just to stay in business. Nobody makes money directly from IT except the people who sell you the IT; Microsoft in particular have made billions and billions and billions and billions.

So I think they kind of owe us one.

It’s not that I don’t want to upgrade. I have a Windows 7 computer too and I quite like it. It seems fussy compared to XP, but it has some good points. I actually like a lot about Windows 8, despite its cool reception. Though Microsoft seem to have lost all sense of direction, their stuff has never looked better.

No, upgrading is just out of the question. Between my own devices and ones I administer for my family I am looking after four XP computers. At over €100 each, that’s far more money than I am either able or willing to give to Microsoft just now. And even if these computers can run Windows 7 or 8, they will not run it well. So I’d be paying them money to convert PCs that are fine into ones that are annoying.

Is there another way? Well yes. In a word: Linux. Two, possibly three of these computers will become Linux boxes now. High time too. But that is not for everyone, and I will want at least one of them to be able to run non-Linux applications like Photoshop. Can that be done?

I’m going to see, I guess… While continuing to use an unsupported operating system is not a course of action I’d recommend to anyone who doesn’t want to get their computer invaded, held to ransom by criminal gangs and used as a spam-vomiting zombie, how would you go about it?

Well there’s one safe way…

PLAN A

Don’t go online. It sounds a bit crazy now I know, but some of us still remember how computers were actually quite useful even before the Internet. If there’s a job you need to do that doesn’t actually require a live data stream it is perfectly feasible to disconnect. Your XP computer will be perfectly secure – forever!

(Well, you’ll still have the problem of moving your files onto and off it without getting it infected the old fashioned way.)

But if you really have to go online – say, you have no other computer – there’s…

PLAN B [>>>Not Recommended!<<<]

1. Stop being an administrator. Ridiculously, every account on an XP computer is an administrator by default. That means you can do pretty much what you like to the system. Unfortunately it also means that if you catch a virus while logged in as administrator, it can do pretty much what it likes too. It is far, far more secure to use a Limited Account. You may have to log in as admin to install software or other such tasks at times, but the security will be worth it. And if this is a family member’s computer that you mind for them, there’s a good chance that they won’t see any difference. Simply go to the User Accounts section of Control Panel and change the account type.

Unfortunately though there is some software that doesn’t like running without complete privileges, Adobe Photoshop being a particularly egregious example. If – like me – you need to work in Photoshop and then email the results, seriously consider logging out of your admin account and into a limited one before you go online. Ridiculous I know – Adobe and Microsoft really need to share the blame for that one – but far safer.

2. Tool up. When XP support goes, updates for Microsoft Security Essentials go with it. So if this is all you have in the way of antivirus you’ll need to upgrade. Currently I’m testing the different free options that are out there, and I’m really liking Bitdefender. This because it scores almost if not as well as the best available when it comes to detecting viruses, but demands very little of your system’s resources. In fact it seems significantly lighter than even Microsoft’s minimalistic solution, despite offering far better protection. Wish I’d used it years ago now…

3. If the OS can’t be updated, at least keep all your application software patched. A great tool to help with this is Secunia’s Personal Software Inspector, which checks the versions of what you have installed against its database of the latest ones, and lets you know when there’s an update you need. Sometimes it can even do the updating for you.

Apart from that, the usual rules still apply - just more so. Never use Internet Explorer (the version XP has is hopeless outdated now anyway), use Firefox or Chrome or… anything else. Make sure the device you use to connect to the Internet has some level of inbuilt protection like an NAT firewall. Only connect to known secure networks, not random Wi-Fi signals. Avoid visiting criminal corners of the Internet. Don’t install anything, ever, unless you’re absolute sure it’s safe. Be careful out there.

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The Fire-Engine of Castlerea

Roscommon. After driving for an hour we stopped at a garage to ask directions, and I noticed this. It dates from 1937. Chassis and V8 engine by Ford. Coachwork by… a blind guy with a headache, apparently. It’s long retired of course, but the garage owner said they still take it out for runs occasionally. Only short ones though, as it does about four miles to the gallon. The thing must’ve had to carry more petrol than water. Which is sub-optimal.

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PHP For Very Beginners

500px-PHP-logo.svg

I’ve been talking about PHP a lot recently, but so far I’ve said little about what it is and how it works.

So, What is PHP?

It’s a programming language, used to greatly increase the capabilities of a website. In this way it’s very comparable to JavaScript, and can even be seen as its complement. Both are ‘scripting’ languages. Unlike ordinary programs which are written in human-readable code and then ‘compiled’ to the binary instructions that computers can execute, scripts stay human-readable. Their code is executed by an interpreter program. With JavaScript, that program is your Web browser – any script in a web page you view actually runs as a program on your own computer. PHP however is interpreted by the PHP program, and this must be installed on the computer where the web page is held – the web server. For this reason it’s described as a ‘server-side scripting language’.

PHP files are a lot like HTML web pages, but also contain these PHP instructions or ‘scripts’. In normal Web browsing, the user requests a file by clicking on a link to it. If this is HTML it is sent directly to them, to be rendered on the screen as text and images by their browser. If it’s a PHP file however it is sent first to the PHP interpreter on the server. Here the scripts it contains are executed and the results – which are always HTML – inserted into the document where the script used to be. Now entirely HTML, it is sent to the user’s browser to be rendered in the usual manner.

So What Can They Do There, These Scripts?

It’s really just a programming language like any other. If you already know one of the more popular ones – C++, JavaScript, Perl – it will all look pretty familiar.¹ So you could use it for any computational purpose imaginable (it is ‘Turing complete’, as the theorists say). I wouldn’t though. What makes PHP special is not so much what it is as where it is: Sitting between the HTML and a database on a web server, allowing one to talk to the other.

In this way PHP can take requests from a website user, turn them into SQL or some other database query language, and format the results of the query as HTML to send back to the user’s browser where they can be displayed. As I mentioned in the previous post (and the one before that), this is a hugely powerful and flexible technique that can be used for untold purposes. While pages of search results would seem an obvious example, that’s just the nursery slopes. Systems as complex as Facebook are built in PHP. And systems that are good too.

¹Don’t worry if you don’t, there is much you can do with PHP without knowing any programming at all. Thanks to the likes of WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and many more, you can install and run a PHP-based site without speaking a word of the language.

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System Of An Upload

cms-learning-curve

When considering what Content Management System to deploy today, one question needs to be answered first.

Why not just use WordPress?

WordPress was created to be the software behind the popular blogging service¹, and only a few years ago would have been dismissed as little more than that. It was never conceived as a general-purpose content management system, but designed with the singular goal of getting a person’s words and pictures onto the Internet simply and quickly. The thing is though, that is the core functionality of content management. Do it particularly well, and you’re onto something.

Combine that solid core with the ability to add functionality and you’re really onto something. Though invented for blogging, conversion into a different sort of content management system – say a gallery, a forum, or an e-commerce store – is available through third-party plugins. There is a staggering ecosystem of (the last I checked) nearly 29,000 of these. Consequently WordPress has become the most popular CMS in the world. And not by a margin – almost by an order of magnitude. Sixty percent of all content-managed sites use WordPress, one in five out of the ten million most popular sites on the Web. I’ll give that a second to sink in.

But by the same token, using something so well-accepted feels almost like copping out. We’re students of this technology, we’re assumed to be on the cutting edge. What’s the point in being just part of the crowd? There are innumerable content management systems out there. Many use the same attractive PHP + MySQL open source formula. Others again are based on ASP, Java, Perl. Some are even designed specifically to create online galleries, which is certainly closer to what our client needs than a blog is. But while these are worth looking into, the requirements go well beyond just the presentation of images. There is a great deal of text that needs to be easily and well presented, and a dedicated gallery system might not envisage that. The client also needs to manage membership, promote upcoming events, and automatically archive past ones. We will need something extremely flexible, and WordPress scores highly there.

But it’s not alone. Joomla¹ is also designed to be extended – it seems particularly rich in image galleries – and unlike WordPress it was a general-purpose CMS right from the start. It will have to be on our shortlist, especially as the team has had some experience with it in the past. Perhaps the biggest mark against it is that, with only around 6,000 available extensions – about a fifth of what WordPress offers – it just seems less likely that the functionality to meet our client’s needs will be readily available.

Initially, my instinct was to use Drupal. Also designed from the start to be a universal content management system, this one has put even more emphasis on flexibility. So while with WordPress you can have a usable blog virtually the moment it’s installed, Drupal is at first confusing – all you have is a framework, with few features except basic database and user management. Useful functionality is added by downloading and installing “modules”, over 25,000 of which have been contributed by the community, very comparable to WordPress’s 29,000 plugins.

But while plugins and modules might sound like two ways of describing the same thing, there is an important conceptual difference. WordPress extensions are very much goal-orientated. If you wish for example to add gallery functionality to your site, you compare the galleries available and plug in the one that best suits your needs. Drupal modules are function-oriented. To add a gallery, you consider what additional functions it would actually require – image management, display, cataloguing and captioning for example, possibly also resizing and retouching – and add modules for those functions. You’ve got a huge smorgasbord of features to avail of, what you mix is up to you. Such a level of flexibility is both challenging and exciting. A much more precisely customised result should be possible with Drupal, and this is why it is considered by some to be the best CMS of all. But the learning curve is also infamously steep (see illustration). I have to admit that this is part of the attraction. I’ve built several sites based on WordPress and it presented little challenge; the Drupal one I started over two years ago is still far from finished. It definitely represents the greater learning exercise. But that is not the objective today. Even if the team could become sufficiently skilled with Drupal within the timescale, it seems likely that that time could be better spent.

Plus, with Drupal skills being relatively hard to come by, future site maintenance would inevitably be more difficult. Perhaps a clinching argument in favour of WordPress is that, as by far the most popular CMS in use today, future maintenance and improvement should not be a problem. Indeed as an open source tool with both a strong community and the backing of a commercial interest, WordPress would seem to combine the best of both worlds in terms of support.

I wish we could use all three just to see which came out best, but the postgrad workload is too heavy for that. We should be making our decision shortly. For now though, my money’s on WordPress as the one most likely to deliver the client’s requirements without excessive drama.

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¹WordPress the open source blogging software, sometimes also referred to as WordPress.org, should not be confused with WordPress.com, whose business model is the hosting of WordPress-driven websites. Both the software and the hosting service are managed by the Automattic company. An aside: Though basic WordPress.com blogging is free – this site uses it – the feature set would be too limited for our client.
²Actually they style themselves “Joomla!”, but I have a strict policy on companies that expect you to shout their names. This policy being: Shush. 

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The Machines That Make The Web

CMScartoon1For our next project, we don’t just make a website. We make a way to make a website. Ya may have noticed the Web has transformed drastically in the last few years. Well OK maybe you haven’t noticed. Transformation is pretty much the norm for the Web. But in a short time there has been a sea-change behind the scenes. Or a scene change beneath the sea. One of those. To be clear, this ain’t your parents’ Web.

Twenty years ago when HTML was new-born, most pages were just text with a few code words (called “tags”) laced through. You could type a page into a computer by hand, upload it to another computer called the web server, and voilà, you had a website. Or more precisely, you had a document sitting on a server. Someone typed the address of your page into their browser, the software on the server sent them a copy of what you uploaded. Done. Things were simpler then.

You can still do this indeed. It’s easier than you will be imagining to create a basic website. What’s considerably harder is making a page someone will actually look at. Constantly-changing, information-rich things like Google search results or Facebook timelines or eBay auctions clearly aren’t waiting around as static documents on a server somewhere. Nor are they being typed up on demand by millions of underpaid interns – though that is an entertaining thought. All such modern sites have one thing in common: a database.

This really means no more than putting your information into tables so it’s logically organised and accessible, but the difference that makes is enormous. Say you’re looking for a particular car, a blue Golf around ten years old, for less than about 2,000 eurodollarpounds. Imagine having to read through the details of hundreds and hundreds of used cars arranged in no particular order. You’d settle for the first one you found. Hell after an hour you’d settle for a burnt orange Daihatsu three-wheeler. But if the info is in a database the computer can do the tedious work for you, instantly winnowing that huge list down to the few that meet your criteria. Most excellent; this sort of thing is why we keep those darn machines around.

And a huge proportion of modern websites also work this way. Instead of sending out static documents on request, new software on the web server takes the visitor’s input, queries the database for relevant information – which could include images and other media as well as text – and pours the results into a template to create a custom page. And that is what it sends back to the visitor – a document that didn’t even exist before they asked for it.

This ‘new software’ on the web server is called a Content Management System, or CMS. You create the templates that dictate how your pages will look, you put the information into the database, but the CMS mixes them together and serves them to your website visitors. Modern ones even give you tools to create those templates and an interface with which to enter your information. A good one is as easy to use as a word processor – like the one I’m writing on here.

A content management system is what we need for the ‘team thesis’ I spoke of. We could make our own one using PHP, a popular language for writing code that runs on web servers, but the objective is not to show off our coding skills. The objective is to deliver a real working solution to a real working client. If we were consultants here, we’d recommend they use an existing CMS, customised for their needs. So that’s exactly what we’ll do for them – choose the best for their needs, and customise it to suit them even better. There is a huge range of great ones available.

The question we face now is, which?

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THIS IS NOT A RESOLUTION

Apologies for the long absence. I will try to blog more often in 2014, but I can’t promise a return to regular service. My MSc is becoming far too demanding now.

It’s not the workload exactly, though that is… not insubstantial. It’s more that as it continues, the course lays greater and greater emphasis on teamwork. We had a project to complete in every module last semester, and now we are facing into the most important one of all. Known, with unnerving simplicity, as the ”The Major Project”, it is effectively our Masters thesis.

Can you imagine that, those of you who have postgraduate degrees – thesis by team? Your group assessment of Sylvia Plath’s earlier work? Your collective opinion of mediaeval Italian prosody? Weird.

And for me, alien. I simply have no experience of working in teams. I am a loner – to the point at times of social dysfunctionality. I’ve always been self-employed, generally liaising only with an editor, often being left entirely alone to do my art thing.

I’ve never even played team games. Sure, they try to make you in school. But you notice what they forget? To tell you how. It’s like you’re meant to be born knowing the rules of soccer or whatever. So sport as I understood it largely meant standing in the cold, wondering what the hell was expected of me. Occasionally a crowd would thunder in my general direction and, yes, then there might be some instructions. But even these would tend to be lamentably short on detail and clarity.

Idea note_20140102_024447_02

While I’m here, can I mention something else to sport-obsessed educators? Children don’t learn teamwork from adult-size sides. Eleven or fifteen kids is not a team. lt’s a pack.

Thanks in part to this misguided introduction to cooperation I was a pretty hopeless team player at first – and especially, leader. You know the saying “I never ask my people to do something I couldn’t do myself”? My variation was to never ask anyone to do a thing I hadn’t done already. But I think I’ve learned to relax and trust people more.

Which leads me back to my point. Working for myself, I can justify taking a break in all sorts of ways. Maybe I need it, maybe I deserve it. Maybe I just feel like it – I’m the boss after all. Now compare that to a teamwork situation where not only my own degree, and hence my future, depends on the work I put in, but the futures of three or four other people. That’s a whole different standard of pressure.

So between now and the end of June, I guess I’m going to be keeping it pithy.

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Save The Senate

Logo of the Oireachtas of Ireland

Logo of the Oireachtas of Ireland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s not try to avoid the obvious here. The Seanad is an embarrassment. It’s astonishingly, intrinsically and indeed deliberately unrepresentative. It is a pawn of the executive, a sinecure for the superannuated, an affront to democracy.

But it’s something.

Embarrassing and undemocratic, because our Senate is fascist through and through. I’m quite serious. Its structure was inspired by a social theory called corporatism, applied under Mussolini’s government and endorsed enthusiastically by the Papacy as an alternative to the danger of electing socialists or communists.

The idea was that instead of voting in the traditional area-based way, members of society would be represented according to the role they played. So there would be workers’ representatives and bosses’ representatives, and instead of strikes (which would be illegal) they would reach agreement in parliament. It all seems rather sweet and naive really. If you overlook the fascist bit. It’s also fantastically paternalistic and condescending. Rather like communism, you don’t get to elect lawmakers directly. You elect people who elect people who elect people.

Well OK, one sort of person is considered sufficiently mature. As a university graduate, I get to vote directly for a Senator! We’re smart. The rest of you, you’re all represented by your trade union or your business organisation. And if you’re not an employee, an employer or a member of the graduate professions, well I guess you just don’t belong in the ideal world of Pope Pius XI.

At the same time though, the Senate can’t actually do anything. In framing the constitution of 1937, de Valera wasn’t going to create a power system to rival his party machine. Arguably it was a sop to the Catholic Church – which unlike communism actually could threaten democratic government. The Senate can say what it likes but it can’t stop a law passing or force any amendments. It can just delay a bill.

Unless the Dáil considers it urgent, and suspends even that power.

We should be glad I guess that it’s both powerless and undemocratic, and not just one of those things. But what it should be of course is neither. Whether directly elected or appointed by lottery (actually a better idea than it sounds), it must be constituted in a way that represents people equally. And it should have powers. Not to rival the Dáil’s authority of course, but sufficient to oversee legislation.

We speak of the checks and balances necessary to democracy, but in practise we ignore them pretty much completely. We have a winner-takes-all system of government. When you’ve got the Dáil you’ve hit the jackpot. Take the opposite extreme: In the US the executive is elected directly, entirely independently of the legislature. The legislature itself is divided into two houses of almost equal power, watching each other. These three branches plus the judiciary keep power balanced. Sometimes rather closely balanced as we’re seeing right now, but balanced.

Our system looks a lot like that, but the resemblance is almost wholly superficial. Despite being directly elected, our President is virtually powerless. The executive is elected by, and from among, the party or parties that win the Dáil (House). Finally, the Senate is packed with the executive’s nominees. So it’s true to say that the deadlock currently besetting America wouldn’t happen under our system. But that’s because under ours, the President and the Senate would be Republican too.

An Irish Taoiseach is as close to a dictator as it’s possible to get under the rule of law. Party discipline ensures cabinet assent. Except in rare cases of a minority administration, his will is inevitably carried out by the legislature. Only the judiciary is truly independent, and the circumstances under which they can review legislation are highly circumscribed. So it’s true that abolishing the Senate won’t remove a lot of government supervision. Just the little bit we had.

And once it’s gone, once all power is finally vested in the Dáil, do you seriously think they’ll ever give it back? We need a parliamentary system with more checks and balances, not fewer.

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Let Us Not Deny The Autumn

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National Drug Problem Festival

Guinnessmap

Well it’s certainly one view of the country

How many people would drink Guinness if it were not for its association with Ireland?

It might still be a known product, sure. Its following in Africa for example probably has little to do with its Irish origins. But for most people, the images of beverage and country are almost indistinguishable – despite it being owned by British-based Diageo. If you strip away the associations with Irish culture – or what people suppose to be Irish culture – what are you left with? No tradition, no fun-loving attitude, no music and mystery. Just a black drink with a bitter taste and weird texture.

Diageo should ruminate on this. Without the Irish market, there would be little enough market for Guinness.

Ironically these thoughts are prompted by an effort to regain market share in Ireland. I say share; I doubt that Guinness has declined much in total sales, but it remains associated with the more relaxed, conversational drinker. The biggest growth sector – the young, excessive drinker – prefers cider, lagers, alcopops, Buckfast. Any old shit in fact, as long as they can drink a lot of it quickly. It’s hard to drink Guinness quickly. The “Arthur’s Day” programme of concerts by fashionable and/or obscure bands is clearly aimed at attracting the younger crowd. But it threatens instead to kill the goose.

The debate continues elsewhere about what restrictions should be placed on the promotion of alcohol, whether it’s right to aim it at the young through sport or art or even entertainment. That’s not really the problem here though, so much as the sheer scale of Diageo’s vision. The original “Arthur’s Day” was a one-off celebration of the company’s product and history. No one objected to that. Where they overstepped the mark was in turning it into an annual event, virtually a national holiday. That is going a bit far now. Already they push the identification of brand and country to extremes, even to the point of using the national symbol for their company logo. But declaring a new feast day, that’s acting like they own the place.

It’s not a national holiday of course. It’s an enormous alcoholic drink promotion in a country that has an enormous alcoholic drink problem. Such a big event inevitably brings the issue to a head. (I’m sorry, it was unavoidable.) Guinness wants to project an image of Ireland as a land of happy drinkers, where the worst social consequences of alcohol use are perhaps a comical hangover, perhaps a jaw that aches from too much talk and laughter. And not, say, spousal abuse and suicide.

If you feel like registering your disapproval, you could visit the Boycott Arthur’s Day Facebook page.

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