Blog equals M C Squared

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: April 2005

April's blog was the biggest yet. There was lots of grumbling about one thing or another, particularly the music industry, digital rights management, and poor use of grammar.

With an upcoming election there was even a bit of a political element to the entries, but rather predictably the coverage was more along the lines of Grumpy Old Men than Newsnight.

CRIKEY

Apologies if the blog's taking rather a long time to download today. I've just noticed that it's broken my record for the largest monthly file, currently weighing in at over 100Kb. That's one of the downsides of a fast internet connection: you stop worrying about file sizes. But how fast is "fast"? According to an article on the BBC's website which asks this very question, one French company is now offering a domestic 20Mb broadband service.

Think that's fast?

Nope. The folks at CERN, where the world wide web all started, need to shift large amounts of data around to support the Large Hadron Collider project that's currently being built. The data infrastructure will include a 10 Gigabit connection. This week, New Scientist reported that in testing they've successfully sent an average of 600 megabytes a second over it for a period of 10 days.

Now that's fast.

LOOK UP

There's also a bizarre article in the New Scientist this week about a way to lower supplies vertically down to inaccessible places on the ground without using a helicopter. You fly a plane round in circles and lower stuff down on a very, very long cable. I'd like to see it done, but you wouldn't get me to go for a ride.

LAUDE SING

Well I've got the lawn cut again. The arrival of summer continues - the house martins have arrived on the estate. That's the species of bird, not the Housemartins from Hull, of course. Although you never know.

LOOKED RIGHT THROUGH ME

This transparent screen meme is getting out of hand...

OH, WAIT

NASA have put back the launch of the space shuttle until July because they're not happy with the state of the external fuel tank - the big orange thing that the shuttle is bolted to. Whilst this is disappointing, I think it shows NASA's commitment to doing things properly and demonstrates that they're taking safety very seriously. I'm looking forwards to seeing the thing back in the air: I've seen two launches and the sight is just about the most impressive thing I've ever come across.

SPACED

After yesterday's link to Kevin Smith's review of Revenge of the Sith, here's a transcript of an earlier conversation between Mr Smith and Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, the team who brought you TV sitcom Spaced and romantic-comedy-with-zombies Shaun of the Dead. They are all true obsessive Star Wars nerds, and they obviously had great fun chatting. As this interview happened a while ago, there aren't quite as many spoilers in the article, but you may still want to put off reading the thing if you want your experience of the movie to be unblemished. Proceed at your own risk.

OWNER OF A...

A familiar song cropped up on one of the music television channels last week - or at least I thought it did. Yes's single Owner of a Lonely Heart has taken on a new lease of life thanks to someone called Max Graham playing along to it with a drum machine and releasing it as a dance track. Mmm, that must have been a supreme effort of musicial creativity; I bet it took at least ten minutes to put together. What's wrong with writing your own songs?

I blame Eric Prydz, personally. He took about fifteen seconds of Steve Winwood's song Valerie and played it at us over and over until all our resistance crumbled away to dust. The only reason Prydz's track succeeded was the video that went along with it, which was about as subtle as a sledgehammer. And even that was cribbed shamelessly from a scene in the film Perfect, where John Travolta goes to an aerobics class run by Jamie Lee Curtis.

Now everyone's doing it. One of the folks in the office lent me an album by Mylo today, which features a track called Need You Tonite, and the same thing's been done there: it's about half of Judie Tzuke's classic single "Stay With Me Till Dawn" but put through a flanger and a thumping drum beat added over the top. And while we're at it, do a search for "Mylo" on Google using "I'm feeling lucky" and see what you get. Yes, it's Mylo's official site, but what a bizarre domain name/record label name to pick!

I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING

The director Kevin Smith (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Dogma, Clerks, Chasing Amy...) has seen the new Star Wars film, and he has a simple message for the fanboys: keep the faith.

In fact, he's gone bananas over the latest episode of the Star Wars saga. He's posted a review on his website, and it's nothing short of ecstatic. Be warned, though: it contains major spoilers.

WE MUST BE CAUTIOUS

It seems that Warner Brothers have noticed that people were upset over their plans to "re-imagine" Bugs Bunny. CNN are carrying a story of how an 11-year-old boy helped to persuade the company that they were wrong. Warners have now announced that their new versions won't be quite as er, "creative" with the spirit of the original as they'd originally indicated. Sounds like another New Coke story to me.

A NEW HOPE?

NASA's new boss Michael Griffin is saying that he may "revisit" the decision to retire the Hubble Space Telescope by driving it into the Pacific Ocean. Will this prolong the agony for the HST's many enthusiasts (me included) or is it a genuine ray of hope? It would be a shame to lose the telescope that has given us pictures as stunning as this one, which is today's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

WOW

Sometimes the music industry does deliver value for money. I've just got the special edition of Beck's new album Guero. It comes in the lushest packaging I've ever seen for a CD, presented in a hardback book the size of a DVD case with a colour booklet of lyrics and an extra disc - a DVD of every track on the album in 5.1 surround sound. Very, very nice, and it sounds absolutely amazing.

WHOOSH (1)

As I mentioned on Linkbunnies, it's been an interesting day for the aviation industry with the first flight of the Airbus A380. Most of the reporting has been filled with superlatives, but if you were watching Chris Barrie's TV show on Channel 5 on Monday night you'll know that the A380 is quite a way off being the world's largest aircraft. That title goes to the amazing one-of-a-kind Antonov AN225 Mriya cargo plane, also known as the Cossack. It's an absolutely huge beast, and its six engines give it a very distinctive noise: I once heard it fly over my house, and knew instantly it was something unusual. I rushed outside with a pair of binoculars, and there it was - on its way delivering half a million pre-cooked dinners to Frankfurt.

WHOOSH (2)

Bored with the slowness of your ADSL connection? Perhaps you've tried alternatives? I'm not talking about dial-up, or even bongo drums; if you really want blistering data rates you've got to go for snails.

What's next? Powering your PC from a hamster wheel? Oh, wait - let's just forget I mentioned hamsters...

ICUMEN IN

They might not make a summer, but they're a welcome sign: I saw another couple of swallows on the way home tonight.

THEY'RE NOT LISTENING

It seems I'm not the only person who is fed up with the music industry's attempts to fiddle with how they sell us music - a practice which for the moment we'll call digital rights management or DRM.

According to the BBC, customers are frequently paying for downloadable tracks only to find that they can't play them on their machines. There's a particularly telling comment in the reader feedback section of the story: "The stupid thing about DRM is that it doesn't work - it's just annoying, and anyone with a CD rewriter can circumvent it." People are also being turned off net music stores because of pricing and disappointing sound quality compared with CDs - one reason I've never bought an album download. The article gives a more concrete reason, too: it quotes a price of £7.50 to download an MP3 of an album. Online retailers like Play, 101CD, CD WOW! and others will sell you the whole CD for about the same price, so there doesn't seem to be much point.

The BBC's story also prompted a discussion on Slashdot, which comes to pretty much the same conclusions, although it does make one or two additional points.

As I said yesterday, DRM just screws up an artist's work. It stops people listening to music that they have bought from the record companies. It's an inferior solution to what we had before, and it's profoundly annoying.

A simple question springs to mind: if the record companies are treating their loyal customers - the ones like me who are actually paying them for music - in such a shoddy manner that they're getting pissed off over something that doesn't even work, why are they doing it at all?

IS THERE SOMEONE THERE?

I've been running the SETI @ home screensaver since 1999. It's a distributed computing project that analyses signals recorded by the giant radio telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico to see if they contain evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Since 1999 I've analysed and returned about 1100 chunks of data, but I wasn't aware that anything in any of them had ever been flagged up as being out of the ordinary. However, I was sifting through my SetiSpy log last night and discovered that for last week, one of my results had an asterisk next to it. Yup - it looks like I returned a result deemed to be "interesting." However, my excitement was short-lived because the Gaussian I returned scored a paltry 6.832. The highest score for a Gaussian received up to November 2002 was 2.682e-17.

All the same, it's nice to see a green dot in amongst all the red ones in my results map.

CHECKING OUT

I got home last night to find Moby's new album Hotel waiting for me on the doormat. I got the two-disc version from Play.com - the second CD is called hotel.ambient and it sounds gorgeous. I actually prefer it to the main album, it's very chilled: just the thing for work on a Monday morning.

But once again the CD has an irritating copy protection feature, and once again it's been very shoddily implemented - this time, whoever produced the player program didn't even bother to enter the track names into the playlist function of the software. Just to make sure I get the message that I'm only allowed to listen to music I paid good money for on the whim of a multinational company, the lovely artwork and sleeve design has been compromised by a "copy controlled" sticker on the front that I can't peel off without wrecking the packaging.

And I resent having to feel grateful that they haven't screwed up the music too much. As I mentioned before, I have some albums that won't play on a computer - instead they run a software player that barfs out a 56kbps version of the content, and at that sampling rate everything sounds crap. The sampling rate for the player on this disc is 128 kbps/44kHz, so the music quality here is OK, but rather than feeling like I'm handling the carefully considered fruits of many months of creative labour, it feels like I've bought a piece of corporate product that leaves me feeling profoundly disappointed. Why are record companies still getting it so badly wrong?

And more to the point, why are artists still letting their work get screwed up like this?

OH, BELGIUM

I was sorry to hear that M J Simpson has been so taken aback by the reaction to his negative review of the Hitchhiker's film that he's closed his website and vowed never to write another word about Douglas Adams. I felt that a lot of what he said was correct, and his opinions have been echoed in other reviews of the film, too.

I was talking about the film with Rob this weekend and he asked me whether or not I'll still go and see the movie. I think I probably will.

THEY STILL NEED YOUR VOTE

I think I'm slightly disturbed by the fact that one of the " who should you vote for" websites will, if you enter "don't know" for every single question, tell you that you should vote Conservative. I think that fact signifies something, but I'm not exactly sure what...

I COULD DO THAT

Well, maybe not. There's a video going round the net at the moment of someone playing one of those amusement arcade dance games. You know the one: it plays music at you while you're standing on a platform and you have to perform dance steps by treading on the appropriate lights built into the platform's floor. It looks very difficult, but for one kid it wasn't hard enough, oh no. He decided he ought to be juggling three wooden clubs at the same time. I'm gobsmacked.

I'M BACK WITH YOU NOW

You may or may not remember that early this year I mentioned some old BBC footage of a very stiff-upper-lip television presenter who describes, to camera, his thoughts after taking a dose of a potent hallucinogenic substance. The film is occasionally trotted out as proof that drugs make you talk crap.

Well, don't say we don't give you excellent service here at the Head First Only Club, because I've managed to track down a website that has transcripts of the entire thing, complete with screenshots. It turns out that the reporter was actually Christopher Mayhew, who was Labour MP for Norfolk South until the 1970s.

Mayhew was describing the effects of a dose of mescaline given to him by the psychologist Humphry Osmond; when it kicks in, things get very surreal. For example:

"I know now that, er... my time and space changes... and that, er, soon, er, I shall go into a different time and a different space, which will seem instantaneous to you, I know, and therefore it will be as though I'm talking gibberish, as though I'd been here all the time... I quite see that, from your point of view that'll look nonsense, but, er, I do try and assure you that, from my point of view, between the time that I, perhaps, begin this sentence... and the time that I end it, I shall have gone...

(PAUSE)

A long time has elapsed, Humphry... "

Don't try this one at home, folks.

FASCINATING

Let's stay with the unusual for a bit longer. One of the International Space Station Astronauts made an interesting comment in last week's Aviation Week magazine. The outgoing Expedition 10 commander, Leroy Chiao, was talking about something he saw during his recent spacewalk:

"During this last EVA, I did see something interesting. As the Sun started rising after the first dark period, I looked out in the opposite direction of the Sun and saw a line of five lights. They appeared to be 'flying' in an echelon formation, except that 'No. 2' was offset. They flew past us fairly quickly. I don't know what they were, but I would guess that I either saw a constellation of satellites being illuminated brightly by the rising Sun, or they were bright lights on oil platforms actually down on the Earth, but with all the other lights around them washed out by the rising Sun."

DON'T DO THAT

Professor Jasper Rine is a lecturer at the University of California's Berkeley Campus. It appears a kid recently stole his laptop - probably trying to find out upcoming exam questions.

Theft is never a good idea, but in this case it was a really bad idea.

Really, really, really, EXTRAORDINARILY bad.

(Thanks to the WGB posse for that one.)

SOME PROJECTS SHOULD NEVER SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY

We may well have a permanently manned space station in orbit, but it's not the grandiose structure from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I remember when the future was all about flying cars, food and water for all, unlimited cheap electricity thanks to nuclear fusion reactors, and holographic televisions. But instead for some reason we've ended up with cars that have built-in karaoke machines.

Where's that Tardis? I'm heading back to the late 1960s...

I NEED PLENTY OF WHOLESOME NUTRITIOUS ALCOHOL

Ah, my favourite character from Matt Groening's cartoon series Futurama: he's fuelled by alcohol, righteously offensive, and has a tendency to burst into song when subjected to strong magnetic fields. Who wants a beige box when your computer can look like Bender the robot?

On the other hand, having a PC that shouts out "bite my shiny metal ass!" at regular intervals probably isn't ideally suited for an office environment. More's the pity.

THEY NEED YOUR VOTE

David "Screaming Lord" Sutch may have passed away, but the Monster Raving Loony Party are still going strong. I love the fact that the address of the Party headquarters given in the small print at the bottom of the page is a pub called The Dog & Partridge.

YOU ARE HERE

As you've probably already seen on Slashdot today, Google maps for the UK is now in beta. It looks nice, but I haven't seen anything that Multimap or Streetmap doesn't do already.

In fact, with Multimap you also get the local 5 day weather forecast for the place you're looking at, and you can often see an aerial photo as well. If you move the mouse over the photo, you get an overlay of the map information, which is really cute. Sorry Google, I think you've got a way to go.

WAY OUT

I've had a chance to watch the Star Wars: Revelations fan movie I mentioned earlier in the week. It has its moments, for sure, but it suffers a little from having a cast who look for the most part like they just escaped from a Star Wars convention. And I don't mean that in a good way (yes, it's that link again.) There's not much in the way of plot, corny dialogue a-plenty and cheesy soundcard MIDI versions of the music as well as a few jarring edits and the occasional flash of extraordinarily bad acting.

But:

I have to say that the special effects are pretty impressive. In fact the effects are better than most movies could deliver as recently as the 1990s. There's a lot of green screen work and virtual scenery, some very nice CGI of cityscapes and space battles, and if you've got a net connection that will let you download 250Mb of Quicktime movie in a reasonable amount of time I'd say it's worth a look.

YOUR RESCUE SQUAD IS TOO EXHAUSTED

The catchiest piece of music I've heard this week has to be Bjork's "Army of Me" as remixed by Doctor Syntax 'n' C B Turbo vs. Rivethead which I heard on last Friday's edition of Mixing It. Imagine Bjork's original song being kidnapped by a gang of Morris Men who then wander off down the road with it and you've got the basic idea. I found it most amusing hearing a bunch of guys with bells and sticks jumping up and down, singing "and if you complain once more there'll be an army of me..." Great fun.

The track is going to be available on an album of cover versions of the song released by Bjork's record label. Bjork picked 20 versions to go on the album from more than 600 submissions, and the results will be released next month to raise money for UNICEF. Order your copy now and help raise money for a good cause.

EVIL, EVIL IS HIS ONE AND ONLY NAME

And I reckon this is where he gets his stuff. Just about the only thing they don't appear to sell is sharks with frickin' laser beams coming out of their frickin' heads. But you can buy the laser beams.

Apparently there's a book, too.

Obligatory TMBG comment: did you know that Dr Evil's theme is by They Might Be Giants?

THERE IS A GOD

I love this story. It just has the perfect balance of karmic righteousness and immense stupidity coming together to produce a profoundly satisfying result.

THERE IS A FAULT IN REALITY

For some people, William Shatner's famous message of "Get a life!" on Saturday Night Live never really sank in. The science fiction fan has always had a bad reputation - even worse than people who write computer viruses, it seems. You may think that the Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons is just a comedic device, exaggerating real behaviour and turning it up to eleven to get a laugh. Er, no. His behaviour is mild by comparison to some of the folks out there, believe me. And it's not just guys, although the field is predominantly male. For instance, I sent Justin at Linkbunnies this link to a rather scathing review of attendees at a recent Star Wars convention. If you've come here from Linkbunnies, you know that already, of course.

Okay, conventions have always been a bit of a soft target. You may even have seen films like Galaxy Quest, Trekkies or Free Enterprise that send up such behaviour (and Shatner plays a big part in that last one - I can sense a theme developing here). But attendees do rather bring it on themselves, poor dears. For instance there's Jay Maynard, the guy I blogged about last year who made his own glow-in-the-dark just-like-the-real-thing TRON costume, despite having a figure - well, more like mine than like Bruce Boxleitner's, I'm afraid, and I was not made to wear skin-tight Lycra. A mate of mine once saw a couple of people in full Klingon regalia - including prosthetic bumpy head makeup - getting into a cab at London's Euston station one weekday afternoon.

I can understand teenagers getting up to this sort of thing. As I blogged back in September 2003, at the age of 18 I drove a Dalek down Kensington High Street, and in my case I can claim that I was doing it for charity. But sadly I've recognised that there comes a point where it's no longer cool or fun to do stuff like this. If I tried these days, I'd just be sad. More to the point, Rebecca's kids Rob and Ruth would subject me to harsh and merciless ridicule.

Then to cap it all I saw this news article about a bunch of fans who decided to reenact the tanker chase from the end of Mad Max 2 on their way to a convention. As you do. On a public highway. Needless to say most of them ended up getting arrested.

So the big unanswered question of the day is this: what is it about SF that does this to people?

PROBABILITY LEVEL OF ONE TO ONE

The BBC's website has put up the cast list for the next eight episodes of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The new series starts on Radio 4 on May 3rd, and features guest appearances from Stephen Fry, Griff Rhys-Jones, Sir Patrick Moore, Miriam Margolyes, Jane Horrocks and June Whitfield. Jonathan Pryce returns as Zarniwoop, too.

The site also mentioned that a "US comedy legend" will be contributing, but doesn't say who. I suspect it's a reference to the "East River Creature", as there's a comedy actor called Jackie Mason. This Jackie Mason, in fact. We shall see.

PANTS ON FIRE

Here's a site that should come in useful in the next couple of weeks: Channel 4's election fact checker. To give you a flavour of the place, have a look at this page, which checked the claim of George Galloway, of the Respect Coalition: "We're the busiest political website in the country."

Sounds like a challenge, and Channel 4 took it. They checked with a web research company called Hitwise which collects data from a selection of ISPs covering 8.4 million users in the UK: a fairly decent statistical sample. According to Hitwise, the Respect Coalition's market share of web traffic to political sites turned out to be 3.32%, not only lagging behind the Green Party (7.6%) but also the UK Independence party (4.53%).

Does somebody want to tell George that it looks like the Tories are the most web-oriented, with a market share of 33.7%?

AN APOLOGY

It's my fault.

I said Spring had arrived, and a day later the view at the back of the house looks like this:

It's gonna be a stormy evening.

SPRING IS SPRINGING

I saw a swallow perched on a telephone wire on the way into work this morning. That's the first one I've seen this year. My colleague Ricky saw some house martins at the weekend and his wife thought she heard a cuckoo. Spring might finally be arriving as the horse chestnut trees at the side of the main road through the village are covered in leaves. I noticed that the trees round the corner, which are always among the last to sprout, are finally covered in a haze of green and it's actually nice outside at the moment. I've even got the windows open.

DON'T MESS WITH THE MANAGEMENT

All the way through my career I've never considered myself as having much management potential. A career in management has never appealed to me, but at least after reading a psychology article in the Guardian today, I won't be worrying about the fact any more. According to research carried out by Surrey University, three of 11 personality disorders (PDs) were actually more common in managers than they are in disturbed criminals. It's not reassuring reading, but it might explain a few things.

AUTHORS AND READERS

From my work perspective, the other really interesting headline today was the news that Adobe, who make the Acrobat reader software that you probably have on your computer, are to buy Macromedia.

I've been using both companies' products at work for over ten years. Macromedia are best known as the people who make Authorware. I'm afraid it won't help you write your first novel (although you'd be amazed how often people make that assumption): it's software used for developing computer-based training and I've used it since version 2 came out. Macromedia are also responsible for Shockwave, Flash, Dreamweaver, and Director, which are all software packages used in the production of multimedia content for CD-ROMs and the web. If you surf the web, you'll see their stuff all the time.

As for Adobe? Well, they make Photoshop, which is (and has always been) ubiquitous in the graphics industry. For professional use there really is no option - you have to have Photoshop. Unfortunately Adobe's products are not cheap, so Photoshop is outside the scope of most home users. My latest Dell at home came with a limited version of Paint Shop Pro, which is broadly similar but I've never liked the software and I don't even think I've run the program yet. Instead there's the GIMP, which is short for the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It's an open-source graphics suite, and it does a fairly good job of matching Photoshop's basic features.

However, while we're mentioning graphics packages, let me just say that for viewing, compressing, basic resizing and stuff like that, I couldn't do without Irfanview.

IS THAT IN THE SCRIPT?

According to Slashdot, some folks couldn't wait for May 19th, so they've made their own Star Wars movie. Unfortunately the slashdot effect has kicked in, and their website appears to have given up the ghost under all that traffic. When I get a chance to see it, I'll let you know what all the fuss was about.

STANLEY, WE MISS YOU

There's a lot of interest in film director Stanley Kubrick at the moment. Newsweek have a review of the immense coffee-table tome the Stanley Kubrick archive on their site. The book looks mouth-watering, but it costs £70. For me, Newsweek's review really brings home just how much Kubrick's skills are missed: in my opinion, 2001: a Space Odyssey is still one of the top 5 films of all time, and Steven Spielberg's heavy-handed treatment of Kubick's treatment for AI only convinced me how much we missed by not having Kubrick around to direct it.

I found an interesting interview with Kubrick's widow Christiane in yesterday's Observer magazine, and it's a fascinating read. Kubrick didn't really play celebrity games and never went in for public appearances; as a result, the reputation he developed was eccentric and often unfounded. To say Mrs Kubrick is less than pleased with John Malcovich's latest film is an understatement. Malcovich, you see, is playing Alan Conway - who went round London conning his way into society events by pretending to be the famous director - in a new film called Color Me Kubrick.

BEST OF?

Channel 4 did yet another "top 100" programme last night. However this one was actually quite interesting, or at least the bits I saw of it were - just not always for a good reason. The show counted down the top 100 albums of all time. I was expecting not to agree with some of the choices, but I was more than a bit surprised that the bit on the show about Human League's Dare (they started the programme, coming in at 100) made absolutely no mention of the album's producer Martin Rushent (or if they did, I must have been distracted for a moment.) At the time the album came out I seem to remember he handled the musical side of production almost single-handed.

You could tell a lot about the demographic of the voters from the results, too: at a guess, old fogeys like me had much less influence than the misguided loyalties and obsessions of the, ahem, younger generation. How else can you explain any Oasis album topping Led Zeppelin IV? Oasis are still little more than a Beatles cover band, in my opinion.

How come Moon Safari by Air got picked, but Kind of Blue by Miles Davis wasn't even in the top 100? Mad!

How Eminem's the Marshall Mathers LP could possibly be considered superior to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme leaves me speechless, but how anyone can consider Urban Hymns by the Verve to be a better album than Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, Tommy by The Who or Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen is beyond me.

I dunno, kids today...

THAT WAS THE WEEKEND...

Well, the weekend seemed to go past in a flash. It always does when I head up to Solihull, but I had a good time all the same.

There was some local drama on Saturday night when a derelict hotel up the road caught fire and we had fire engine after fire engine rushing past the house. In the wider world, both FA Cup semi-finals had predictable results; the BBC announced that David Tennant will be the next Doctor Who; Paula Radcliffe had to stop for a wee during the London Marathon but still came in first; and Black Books won the Bafta for best sitcom, hoorah!

WORK UNIT

I was back in the office today, although I can't say I feel much better. Yesterday I didn't even blog the fact that my system completed its 1000th work unit for the SETI at home software. I must have been ill. I'm just glad it's Friday tomorrow.

SMILE

I found a site yesterday based on a single, really cute little idea: give a complete stranger a disposable camera and ask them to take a photo and then pass it on to someone else. The camera has stamps and a return address on the bottom, to enable it to be returned to the folks at RandomPixel. When the camera comes back, they develop the pictures and post them up on the site. There haven't been any updates to the site for a while and so far, most of the pictures are from the SF Bay Area, but I like the idea a lot.

PURR

This is how I got my cat fix today. If you're drinking anything, watching the "Stealth" video may make bubbles come out of your nose. It's the sort of thing my Siamese cat Cooper would have done, had he a) thought of the idea and b) decided it wasn't too demeaning to actually perform in front of someone with a video camera.

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, THE WEIRD DEMAND TO HAVE SOME BOOZE

Ain't it cool are reporting that the film of Hunter S. Thompson's book The Rum Diary has got a director at last. The good news is they've made the perfect selection: Bruce Robinson, the director of Withnail and I. I don't see how they could possibly have made a better choice, and I am really looking forwards to seeing the results.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY BUFFY

Yes, it's Sarah Michelle Gellar's birthday today. She shares a birthday with guitar legend and occasional hurdy gurdy player Ritchie Blackmore as well as the actors Adrien Brody, Julie Christie, Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Carlyle, Rod Steiger, and Sir John Geilgud. That's a pretty talented bunch of people to be sharing a birthday with.

AND AS FOR SPIKE...

Within half an hour of writing the last entry I discovered that fellow Buffy alumnus James Marsters is playing the Fleece and Firkin here in Bristol later this month. It's probably just the apophenia kicking in again but the discovery deserves at least a "crikey" all the same. Both dates are sold out, but if you're interested he has a CD available.

There seem to be more and more actors turning to music these days. Perhaps the most amazing example I can think of is Keanu Reeves's now-defunct band Dogstar, who got to play the Glastonbury Festival in 1999. Bruce Willis set the trend in the 1980s. Minnie Driver has an album out. Billy Bob Thornton has been doing music for a while, too - he's pretty good at it, in my opinion, and he's got a new album coming out soon. Kevin Spacey toyed with the idea of turning to music full time after making the Bobby Darin biopic Beyond The Sea, and then of course there's Russell Crowe.

(Fx: Wind whistles through the bushes. A tumbleweed rolls by...)

Not with me on that one, huh? Okay, moving swiftly on...

ZAPPA

Germaine Greer writes about Frank Zappa in today's Guardian. I hadn't realised just how much stuff of Zappa's there is waiting to be released: hundreds of albums' worth, by the sound of things. Greer's reflections on FZ's more, er, difficult music struck home, because these days I "get" a lot of music that would have seemed like noise to me ten years ago. Is it part of growing up, a sign of increasing maturity, or am I simply becoming tone deaf? I refuse to answer that question.

THE DREADED LURGI

As you may have gathered from reading Sunday's entry, I've been feeling rather out of sorts for the last few days. In fact I've been feeling terrible since Friday. I ache so much it's painful to move if I've been sitting still for more than a couple of minutes, my temperature's going up and down like a yo-yo, and I feel completely run-down and lethargic. I have to do something about this and get back to work, so I've dragged myself out of bed and am sitting at the keyboard trying to stay awake. It's been a bit of a struggle.

So to give myself something to do, I decided to research the etymology of phrases that we use in English to describe those ill-defined ailments that strike from time to time. The first one I picked, the dreaded lurgi was easy, as I already knew it came from an episode of the Goon Show. Given Spike Milligan's Indian background, it wouldn't surprise me if he borrowed the word from a local dialect, and indeed there's an Indian company called Lurgi, although they seem to be part of a German conglomerate. Deciding that this was more than enough information, I moved on to some of the other expressions I've heard used and liked:

Out of kilter: according to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, kilter or kelter is "good condition, health, or spirits" so the meaning is pretty obvious.

Out of sorts: this expression doesn't seem to have a clear derivation, but might be something to do with feeling that one's fate or fortune was suffering, and causing a similar suffering in one's physical body.

Peaky: the word seems to date back to at least the 16th century. The meanings given in the dictionaries I looked at included wasting away, sickly, or white faced.

Under the weather: the definition I found for this one refers to a sailor's station at the weather bow of a vessel - the side of the ship to windward, where he would be pitched and tossed and covered in spray, a generally miserable experience.

Weighing up all these descriptions, I've come to the conclusion that I'm not feeling peaky or under the weather. Out of kilter is getting there, but I've plumped for out of sorts as sounding just about right. Hopefully I'll feel better tomorrow.

BRICK BY BRICK

There's a story on the Beeb's website today about my favourite toy: Lego. I still have a crate of the stuff, and when my sister comes to stay we've usually ended up with it spread all over the living room floor. It has a timeless appeal, and it's remarkably therapeutic.

It's also not cheap. However when the article says "A discontinued Star Wars set is asking £340" I'm pretty sure that what the writer actually meant was that "someone was asking £340 for a discontinued Star Wars set." It's either that, or the Lego technic range has introduced some pretty stunning AI features without me hearing about them. You never know.

OH, FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE

I can feel a rant coming on. Sorry. :-)

Despite Lynne Truss's book being a best seller, it's done nothing to curb the spread of bad English in the media. In fact, I've recently seen people confusing curb (to restrain or cut short) and kerb (the side of the road). What's wrong with these people?

I know I frequently commit grammatical errors on this site, and I admit that my knowledge of the English language is far from perfect. In fact I learnt more about grammar from Latin classes at school than I did from my English classes. But at least I make an effort to be correct. Even I know when some things are blatantly wrong, and with reading the web a lot more than I used to, I see things every day that really set my teeth on edge.

For example, I hope that somebody will explain to the BBC's writers that you insure something for a sum of money (that you will get paid if anything happens to it) but that you ensure something will happen to an object or person. I know American English makes no distinction between the two spellings, but it's bloody annoying when people do it over here.

It appears that nobody at the Beeb - or at least nobody at BBC News 24 who writes the captions appearing underneath people being interviewed - can distinguish between principal (meaning most important or highest rank) and principle (meaning a fundamental truth or law) either.

It's almost as bad as the use of the apostrophe in it's. Yes, in other cases an apostrophe is used to indicate belonging, such as Chris's copy of Fowler's Modern English Usage, but when it's used in "it's" and "there's" it means that there's a missing letter. Let's be clear: it's is short for "it is" or "it has" or even "it was" but NOT "belonging to it." I'm not a member of the apostrophe protection society, but they have my heartfelt sympathy.

And while we're at it, according to Fowler the recommended usage for number plurals is now to follow the same rule as for other plurals and omit the apostrophe, so we should write "back in the 1960s" not "back in the 1960's." There are still people out there who don't know you don't need an apostrophe in plurals, and it's amazing how many of them are greengrocers. I saw a perfect example of the greengrocer's apostrophe on the way home on Friday: a sign that read "Egg's £1.50 a doz." It's very common, too: just have a look at that last hyperlink to see some really dreadful examples of apostrophe abuse. Good grief.

Yes, I fully respect that folks have a right not to worry about things like this. And I'm sure they'll respect my right to regard them as too dumb or lazy to make the effort to get it right - and to view everything else they do in the same light. OK, rant over. Let's get back to our regular programming.

SEETHRU

I quite often drop by Sam Javanrouh's site to look at his photos. He's an extremely talented photographer based in Toronto, Canada, who recently won the Bloggie for best photography in a weblog. My favourite picture in his recent stuff has to be this one of his see-through laptop. He takes stuff with a variety of cameras both digital and traditional, including a Lomo Kompakt Automat (the camera on the desk at the left of the laptop.) One day when I'm rich and famous I will buy myself a Lomo. One day. Until then I'll stick with the cameras I've got at the moment. I get by.

I've really got into photoblog sites. Another good one is No Traces - I particularly like the long exposure photos that Bob takes, and I recommend having a trawl through his archives. He's got a fine eye for composition and an amazing technique. Then there's Dockwalker Images, a collection with some extremely impressive black and white photography. Again, I've spent quite a while looking through earlier images from the site.

I suppose after all this talk of photography, I should post one of my own humble efforts, so here's a picture from my last trip up to my home town, Lytham St. Annes. It was taken with an Olympus digital camera, in colour, and the only thing I've done with this is to resize the image for the blog because the original is much too big. Hope you enjoy it.

Lytham Windmill

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

Optimus Prime? Pah!

When I commute to work on Monday morning I want to be driving one of these!

CUTE

Can I just say that I'm still very pleased with my new Netgear router? It's passed every test I've set it so far: it works fine with MSN messenger and video links, setting up encryption on it was a doddle (once I'd remembered to enable the same key on the router as I'd put in the wireless cards) and, most importantly, it's the recommended choice of fluffy little kittens. Everyone say ahhhh.

WHAT THE...

Most bonkers thing I discovered today is a Flash animation that Hitachi have produced that explains how the new technology they've developed for hard disk drives will work. Remember, their drives have just broken the information storage record, as I mentioned back on the 5th of April: see below under the heading quart and pint pot.

The animation is - well, describing it too deeply would spoil the fun, but it does do a very good job of explaining the paramagnetic effect (one of the reasons why there's a physical limit to the amount of information you can store on a drive) and how Hitachi's new drives manage to cram more data in regardless. And it's great fun.

FOCUSING ON THE MOVIES

I freely admit I'm a movie geek. If you've read much of the rest of this site, you've probably already formed that conclusion on your own. I like reading on the net about films and film makers, and today I've been reading an interview with Charlie Kaufman. I have quite a few films on DVD that feature screenplays by Mr Kaufman: Being John Malcovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

What really got me interested in Kaufman's interview was his comment that he doesn't actually watch many films any more, because he's lost interest. He feels too impatient, and says "I want to watch a film in which it feels like there’s something at risk, that’s not a package." I think this reflects one of the problems I have with watching a lot of modern films, in that I usually find them totally predictable. Once I've figured out what direction a film is going in, there's a lot less motivation to stick through to the end and watch it happen. It's probably also explains why I enjoy the films of Kaufman's screenplays, because the predictability isn't there. The resolutions he employs are satisfying, yes, but usually unexpected.

I believe that there's a simple reason why cinema has become so predictable, and it's all down to the way film companies test a movie before it's released. Marketing companies use techniques like focus groups, in which a group of viewers sit down with the marketers to talk about what they liked about the film, and what they didn't like. The film can then be "tweaked" to remove the annoyances and enhance the stuff people liked. This goes a long way to explain why the typical Hollywood film these days has a happy ending, features a good-looking, non-threatening cast, and a plot that frequently involves car chases, explosions, and all the other movie clichés. One reason why Kaufman's screenplays appeal is because they seem free of this influence: as I just said, his stories are often very unpredictable.

Perhaps Mr Kaufman is one of the few people in Hollywood who know that in many instances focus groups don't actually work; 80 percent of new products or services fail within six months when they've been vetted through focus groups. They seem to be loathed by many of Hollywood's leading directors and writers, and with a success rate like that I'm amazed anyone still uses them. The whole point of Kaufman's movie Adaptation is that the protagonist gives in to the focus-group approach as the end of the movie spirals down to a conclusion which throws in every damned cliché you could think of. It's gloriously cynical; perhaps the only film I've seen in the last twenty years that outdoes it is Robert Altman's The Player, which was written by a very gifted writer called Michael Tolkin.

Films like that are few and far between. There seem to be fewer and fewer films out there that make me go "wow!" when something happens that I'm not expecting. Bizarrely enough, one film that I have high hopes for, one that I expect to take me by surprise, is George Lucas's final episode of the Star Wars saga, Revenge of the Sith. And I realised when I read the interview with Charlie Kaufman why this is: it's because I know there isn't going to be a happy ending. I know a lot of the characters are going to come to a nasty end, even the nice ones.

So I will be going to see Revenge at the cinema when it comes out. I know it's George Lucas's baby, I know he's not interested in what anyone else thinks about his movie, and I know that what we're going to get is fairly unlikely to have been compromised by anyone else's marketing input. Whatever response I have to the film when I see it, Lucas himself is to be applauded for achieving this. It's just a shame that it requires obscene amounts of money to get yourself into the position where you're allowed the privilege of doing what he does.

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT

After my Linksys router fell over three times in as many hours last weekend, I'd had enough. I bit the bullet and ordered a replacement. My Netgear DG834g arrived yesterday, and I've been up and running for the last day with it. And let's emphasise the phrase up and running, because it's striking in comparison to the previous piece of kit. It lets me access sites that would cause the Linksys to fall over: for example, for some reason I never managed to identify, surfing the discussion board at science fiction writer William Gibson's site would make it fall over within three minutes, without fail. Or rather, with fail - oh, you know what I mean. The Netgear also seems to cope easily with things like file transfer on MSN messenger that made the Linksys grind to a halt. This weekend I'm looking forwards to trying out things like video links to see if that's more successful as well. Watch this space.

The Netgear is tiny, and even though the original got very good reviews it's been updated and modernised. The version 2 that I have is about 2/3rds the size of the Linksys, and much nicer-looking; you can tell the Netgear folks have given consideration to the fact that these things often spend their time sitting in a corner of the living room. One minor niggle is that it doesn't have an on/off switch, but I can live with that. It does come with a funky little stand that lets you mount it vertically. How will it perform in the long run? I'll let you know, but I did considerably more research before I shelled out for this router and so far it looks like I made the right choice.

JUST PLAIN WEIRD

It seems that biodiversity on Earth has cycles; every 62 million years the number of species on Earth plummets. Nobody knows for certain why this should be, but the graph is quite convincing. I just hope we're not due for one of those 62 million year dips any time soon - for some strange reason the Register's story didn't raise the question. I think it would have been the first thing I asked.

GOOGLE COOL

My earlier articles this week might sound like I've been having a bit of a go at Google, but no malice was intended. Indeed, I don't know what I'd do without it. Certainly, getting my Masters degree would have been a lot harder without the search capability that it offered. And today I read about a new feature, currently in beta, that will make Google even more useful. It seems that when you search for a specific fact, Google Q&A will provide the answer there and then without you having to click on a link and read the associated site. That could be a hugely significant application - if it works properly, Google could be on to a huge winner.

GOT MILK?

There is more evidence in the news today that a "Mediterranean" diet rich in vegetables and fruit and low in saturated fats can help us live longer. The sort of diet in question is one involving lots of vegetables, fruits and cereals, quite a lot of fish, and not very much in the way of dairy products or meat. Considering there was a story in the news earlier in the week that men should avoid drinking milk if they want to minimise the likelihood of developing Parkinson's disease, it's not been a good week for the dairy industry.

DARK MATERIALS

You know what it's like - you start reading the news headlines before you've had breakfast and they all seem to be about food. Today's example is Galactic Pancake Mystery Solved which wasn't about food at all, of course. It was about a branch of physics called cosmology. For me, there is no better indicator of the positive side of human nature than the efforts we make to understand what's going on out there in a deep and meaningful way. In my opinion, one of the most positive things Pope Jean Paul II achieved during his papacy was to admit that the Church might have been wrong to condemn Galileo - although it was hardly an apology. Despite pressure from religious circles that still continues today (just do a search on the word creationism, for example), people are working to find out how things really work. I don't understand why this should be thought of as a bad thing: searching for the truth should be something we all contribute to, in everything we do.

So, have we come any closer to finding out the truth of the Universe since Galileo? The answers are often surprising. When I was at school I decided that the underlying concepts in physics couldn't get any more bizarre, but of course they did. Back in the 1930s people began to realise that the amount of matter they could see in the Universe wasn't enough to explain why it behaves like it does. There wasn't enough stuff around for gravity to hold it together, and even though Galaxies rotate very slowly they should be flying apart in the same way that a milkshake flies out of a blender if you don't keep the lid on (we're back to food again). As a result, we now have theories to explain what we see that include the existence of things like cold dark matter, although as we can't detect it directly it's a bit difficult to prove it exists, let alone investigate what it's made of. There are also competing theories that explain what we see by suggesting that the force of gravity changes at large distances from normal matter, and the scientific approach involves looking more closely at something to see if it behaves according to predictions made by one theory or another. Whichever theory matches the predictions more closely becomes more likely as the "true" explanation of what's going on. Today's headline is interesting, because it gives more credence to the theory that cold dark matter does exist. We shall see...

I WANT ONE

I often link to articles in the Wikipedia online dictionary (there are two links in the previous section, for example) so I was delighted to hear that it's soon going to be available on CD-ROM or DVD. I will be queuing up for that one, I think.

WAY TO GO

It looks like Hunter S. Thompson's ashes will indeed be fired out of a cannon during a ceremony later this year to honour him. The cannon will form part of a permanent memorial to the good Doctor. How else could the man who invented Gonzo possibly go out?

D'OH! (1)

Fans queueing for the premiere of Revenge of the Sith outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre in LA have been told the premiere will be shown at the ArcLight complex up the road instead. Whether this is a publicity stunt remains to be seen; the fans being interviewed mentioned that a similar story broke a few months before each of the last two Star Wars films came out.

D'OH! (2)

And as we're using Homer's favourite catch phrase, here's more than you could possibly want to know about The Simpsons.

GET FIREFOX

After all this discussion about pop-ups and pop-unders, I found out today that a new extension to Firefox is in beta testing. According to CNet, this will improve Firefox's ability to block things still further. Have you made the switch yet?

IS ADVERTISING GOOD OR BAD?

Remember yesterday I mentioned the fact that Google offered me "best prices on new swingometers" when I searched for stories on Peter Snow's favourite toy? That got me thinking on the amount of advertising we're subjected to every day, and pondering whether advertising is good or bad. It wasn't an easy call.

If you've ever watched CNN, you've probably seen the "advertising is good" advert that runs whenever they've run out of adverts to show. The argument runs along the lines that when you advertise something, more people buy it, which means that the manufacturer makes more money and can offer it to you at a better price. OK, I can see how I need to know that something exists before I go out and buy it. And I can see that people buying more of something means that the manufacturer benefits from economies of scale and gets a better return. But that last bit about passing that return on to the customer - that doesn't always happen, does it? In reality, the people who get the most benefit from advertisements are the people selling the product being advertised - why else is your inbox stuffed with spam every morning?

I mentioned the IBM advert yesterday with Lee Majors in it. I liked it. There are adverts that I enjoy, and they make me laugh. Every advertising agency wants their latest creation to be talked about in the pub tonight, but precious few of them are. I might come across one every three or four months or so. But consider the amount of adverts I'm exposed to in that time and you soon realise that's not a particularly viable success rate. And quite a few of the adverts that I have enjoyed are for products that I'd never buy: not just IBM's laptops but also Carling Black Label (Arden and Frost's adverts are still fondly remembered), the Citroen C4 or the Renault Clio and Guinness to name a few. I'm sure you have favourites of your own. So even if we enjoy an advert, we're not always sufficiently motivated to go out and buy the product it's plugging.

You'd think that this would worry advertisers, but it doesn't seem to. These days, they claim advertising is more about brand awareness than it is about selling a product there and then.

Yeah, right.

Put simply, this means that companies want us to be continually exposed to their major brands to make sure we don't forget that they exist. Fine - but after a while it starts to feel like you've got a spoilt child following you round, screaming "Me! Me! Me!" all the time. Companies still pursue brand awareness because, for the moment, it works - the spoilt brat usually gets what they want for a while. But there are increasing signs that people are thinking of turning round and giving the kid a quick slap.

I give you exhibit A: the popularity of Personal Video Recorders like TiVo. They caught on because people realised that they could use them to skip through commercial breaks. I don't blame them: the amount of advertising on US TV stations in particular is ludicrous, and it's all down to network greed. But don't expect the television networks to pass up all that money just because TV commercials don't work any more, because they'll just drop adverts in favour of an even less palatable approach: product placement.

Then there's exhibit B: people trying to derail the advertising process altogether. People are beginning to realise how much value is being placed on advertising and that it's being carried out at their expense. After all, in the simplest terms the idea of designer clothes is to get people to wear an advert. The first time I saw clothing made by Tommy Hilfiger I laughed - I thought it was a joke. It wasn't surprising to me that Naomi Klein's book No Logo singles out the Hilfiger brand for special treatment. The book has become something of a bible for the anti-globalisation movement, and while there are still people out there who will proudly wear the latest logos, it's not such a popular pursuit these days. Big brands spend millions of pounds on media campaigns and these days people are beginning to ask whether the money could be spent on something more productive. But even the big companies' spending pales into insignificance when you find out that the main campaigns for the 2004 US presidential elections blew $600 million on advertising. Was it really worth it?

And exhibit C: sometimes, companies don't stand up well to close examination of the sort Morgan Spurlock gave to McDonalds.

Or what about exhibit D? The advertising industry has its own awards ceremonies. Kinda like the Oscars, but without the public interest. In effect, advertising has become its own little world, in which the consumer doesn't count at all.

Advertising is so prevalent online these days - I'll bet this is one of the few web pages you've read today that has no adverts on it - that not only are consumers becoming immune to it, they are actually beginning to find it annoying, and they're fighting back. I don't know if you've noticed, but there's a war going on.

The thing about computers is that there's a proportion of the user community who can write programs - who'd have thought? So when programmers find their computers doing things they don't like, they write programs to change things. They may be something really simple like an extension to your web browser: one of the features I love the most about the Firefox web browser is its Adblock extension - if a web page has an advert, I can remove it from view altogether just by right clicking on it. I can prevent certain sites from running javascript so I don't get pop-ups (strangely enough, some advertisers still haven't got the message that pop-ups or pop-unders are bad, despite most browsers now giving you the ability to block them.) And I can run programs like Ad-Aware and Spybot that actively hunt down and erase the tracking cookies that advertisers use to monitor who sees their adverts.

That doesn't mean to say the battle online is being won, though. Instead, consumers are effectively finding themselves in the middle of an arms race between advertisers and developers. For instance, results from Internet search engines like Google and Yahoo are now skewed and manipulated by advertisers trying to get their wares as high up the table of results as they can. It doesn't matter if what you're looking for isn't a retail product: if you do a search for anything, some marketing numbskull's little pet project will offer you "best prices" on it - provided that somebody else's campaign hasn't hijacked your search in order to tout their stuff first. The great shame is that we still have to endure the results. Because - of course - the online experience suffers as a result. Which is what draws me to the inevitable conclusion is that advertising, in the forms it has adopted these days, is bad. There's too much of it, it's too aggressive, and it fulfils a limited and ineffective purpose. The only thing of which I'm certain is that however bad advertising is now, things are only going to get worse.

I have a dream: wouldn't it be better if marketing people just showed their stuff to each other and left us alone? I doubt it would make much difference to the sales of most products and - God forbid - a product's success might actually return to depending on whether or not it was any good.

QUART AND PINT POT

More stuff in the news this week about disk drives, as Hitachi set the record in information density on a hard disk at a stunning 356 Mb per square millimetre. The Beeb reckon it won't be long before our personal gizmos and gadgets have a Terabyte of storage (that's a thousand Gigabytes, by the way.) Given the amount of junk people put on their mobile phones these days, I'm not altogether sure that this is a good thing; Paris Hilton would probably agree.

HERE WE GO AGAIN

So, the election is set for May 5th (so I'm sure it won't be long before one of the news networks digs up a numerologist to pontificate about the significance of the date 05-05-05) and the campaigning has already started. At the forefront of the election coverage once again is the BBC's Peter Snow who will no doubt be thrilling us on election night with a revamped swingometer to show who voted for whom.

As an interesting side note, searching for "swingometer" on Google earlier offered me loads of adverts offering "best prices on new swingometers" but Google seem to have twigged - all the hits I got just now were actually relevant.

Still, swingometers or not, the prospect of an entire month devoted to television news coverage of the forthcoming election fills me with so much enthusiasm that I will probably get to finish off all of the books I'm reading at the moment.

CAN WE REBUILD HIM

I don't know if you've seen the latest IBM advert on telly in the last week or so - it's plugging biometric security on portable computers, and ends up with two characters in an airport lounge discussing the merits of having a bionic finger and trying to make the appropriate sound effect as used on the 1970s TV show the Six Million Dollar Man. At this point, the passenger sitting next to them lowers his newspaper and demonstrates what he thinks the correct sound should be. You guessed it, it's Lee Majors.

Biometric security of this sort has long been touted as a really good idea. But today The Register was carrying a rather dubious sounding story about the downside: a gang of carjackers in Malaysia who allegedly hacked off the finger of a bloke so they could nick his biometrically-protected Mercedes. Sounds like an urban legend, but there's no mention of it on Snopes so far. I think I'll stick with a key, thanks.

POSTSCRIPT

I was searching for something just now, and Google pointed me at a research paper entitled External high frequency oscillation in cats. Just don't ask.

GOING UP

No, I'm not talking about the price of oil. The latest contender for the world's tallest building is under construction in Dubai. At somewhere around the 700 metres mark, it's nearly as tall as Toronto's CN Tower. The Guinness Book of Records distinguishes between several different types of construction when it talks about what's tallest; buildings, structures, towers, masts - they've all had entries in their day. I've not provided a link to their site, though, because it's so badly designed it's not worth the effort. Whatever they classify the Dubai building as, I bet there'll be an amazing view from the upper rooms. Personally, I won't be impressed until we get the world's first kilometre-high building.

PROPER ACCENT

Channel 5 are showing Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Saturday evenings, starting right from episode one. So in a few weeks, we'll encounter that bizarre cross between the Prince of Darkness and Billy Idol known as Spike, a.k.a. William the Bloody. He was played with no small amount of glee by James Marsters. Marsters hails from California, but by the time season four came around, his South London accent was so spot-on I know several people who were convinced he was British. Few Americans could deliver epithets like "Oh, bollocks" and lines like "Cuppa tea, cuppa tea, nearly got a shag, cuppa tea" with the required feeling that Sunnydale's favourite vampire managed. Mr Masters's performance made me realise that we've come a long way since Dick Van Dyke's legendary performance of a dodgy cockney accent in Mary Poppins. In the 1960's, many Americans should have been locked up for accent abuse. Any gallery of shame must also include Burgess Meredith pretending to be Commodore Schmidlapp in the Adam West Batman movie, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, and, er, well, just about any American TV show that featured a visit to Merrie Olde England - usually this involved getting no closer to Blighty than renting stock footage of Tower Bridge.

These days, when you see someone making an almighty mess of an accent it stands out like a sore thumb. For me, John Lithgow's bizarre impersonation of Griff Rhys Jones in Cliffhanger still stands head and shoulders above everything else I've seen in the last twenty years. I just can't blot out the memory, no matter how I try. I am reliably informed that Don Cheadle has been continuing the tradition in Ocean's Eleven, so I'm quite glad I missed that one.

I bring all of this up because The Guardian had an interesting article last week about how good folks are getting at doing foreign accents. Ewan McGregor was singled out for praise, presumably prompted by his performance in Robots although I watched him doing another very impressive American accent in Tim Burton's movie Big Fish last week. These days, though, it's not just acting that can involve deft use of a foreign accent. Ruth has been listening to the latest indie pop sensation The Killers quite a lot recently and I was convinced that they were from somewhere in the midlands, but it turns out they're actually from Las Vegas, Nevada. The Guardian article mentions the fact that Sean Connery ends up with the same accent in just about everything he's ever done, but fails to mention the even heavier script doctoring that used to go on to justify Arnold Schwarzenegger's accent. It lambasts Dick Van Dyke but fails to mention Lithgow, although it does quite rightly judge Dracula to be worse than Mary Poppins thanks to Keanu Reeves's bizarre accent. Marlon Brando comes out on top for them - but not having seen Mutiny on the Bounty I can't really comment. Given my experience with Cliffhanger, I'm not going to rush out and rent it.

Oh, and look at that list of "most convincing accents of all time" at the bottom of the article, and you'll see James Marsters made it to number three. Jolly good show!

SPOT THE CLICHÉ

While tromping around the net looking for stuff on dodgy British accents I came across the Movie Sound Cliché site, which is well worth a visit. It's packed full of my kind of trivia: for example, the next time you watch a western, and hear that mournful bird call just as the heroes get to the cliffs, you'll know that you're listening to a red-tailed hawk that was recorded back in the 1950's.

I also found this little snippet about Dick van Dyke's other career as a computer graphics artist.

FRESH CUT GRASS

Well, that's the lawn given its first cut of the year, the garden's been raked, and I got the first batch of weeding done. With the windows open this evening I can still smell the grass outside, and it's a lovely smell. It's always a sign that spring is finally on the way, and this weekend I think every garden in the street has seen a lawnmower. Rebecca and I even got down to the garden centre this afternoon to buy a few bits and pieces.

So I suppose it should come as no surprise that I turned on the weather forecast just now to hear warnings of hard frosts by the middle of the week. That will probably put paid to the magnolia blossom, then. It's been really good this year, despite the hard frosts in February. I hope the cold snap doesn't hit migrant birds, as it's usually this week that the swallows arrive for the summer; I thought I heard one this afternoon, but I couldn't see anything.

EYES TO THE STAGE, PILGRIM

In the last entry I was blathering on about the wonderful artwork of Frank Miller and how I couldn't wait to see the film of Sin City. Today I found a set of web pages that compare comic and film, and looking at the side-by-side comparisons it's amazing just how close to the book Robert Rodriguez and his buddies have got. Nice one.

IN A WORLD...

The current internet advert for the movie of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy takes a self-referential pop at the medium of the movie trailer. At one point, the voice of the Guide (the rather wonderful Stephen Fry) changes into something else, because, as he points out, trailers always employ "a deep voice that sounds like a seven foot tall man who has been smoking cigarettes since childhood." This advert prompted the Guardian to publish an entertaining article on the art of the movie trailer, and it's worth reading - not least because you'll find out more about that seven-foot-tall man, who turns out to be called Don Lafontaine. He's known as The Voice of God in the industry, and is credited (or blamed) for the fact that these days, most trailers begin with the words "In a world..."

Oh, and just in case you've been living under a rock for the last thirty years, this is what he sounds like when he's at work...

BADLY DRAWN, er, ANYTHING

I've always been a great graphics fan. I'm currently salivating over the prospect of getting to see the film of Frank Miller's SIN CITY, especially as the folks over at Ain't It Cool News have lost all rationality in describing just how good it is. Frank Miller's artwork is visually stunning, and I can't wait to see it translated to the screen.

But I also have a soft spot for really badly-drawn stuff, too. I'm not talking about naive painting here; the naive approach has become hugely popular in a kitsch sort of way, and the marketing of deliberate examples makes me feel that it's too much of an industry these days to qualify as truly bad. No, what I'm talking about is the stuff that takes graphics to a whole other dimension. Fortunately, there's even a name for it. I first came across the expression Nephew Art in B. Kliban's book Luminous Animals. In amongst all the cartoons there's a page giving a full explanation, and for all I know he may even have coined the phrase. It refers to the sort of commercial artwork that is so bad it can only have been accepted because it was drawn by the nephew of the person who runs the company that commissioned it.

I love spotting Nephew Art, and if you know where to look you can find loads of it during your daily activities. In recent years, however, my hobby has become threatened: desktop publishing systems are so ubiquitous that almost anyone can provide an almost-professional looking graphic or logo, even if it's only something they've put together using clip art, WordArt or some other dreadful package. So these days I cast my net further afield, which is how I came across the motherlode of all bad art - the Museum Of Bad Art. It's not good - you'll love it!

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