November 2006 Archives
November 30, 2006
£7,108.50? For an Aston Martin Vanguishtageguard? Driven by a guy who keeps writing them off and getting them machine-gunned, and thus has a positively negative no-claims bonus?
What, he's getting a huge discount for keeping it garaged every night? He's assumed to be parking it in the safest areas of town? They're considering Q's electrified handles as equivalent to a Thatcham Category LXXVII alarm? Or is 'secret agent' a perversely low insurance risk occupation, compared to, say, 'television producer'?
I can see only two ways this makes sense:
- Virgin insurance wanted a bit of free press, on reflection realised that a huge premium might not be the best story, and hence spun the figure down until it sounded vaguely plausible to them.
- I'm getting stiffed for insurance on my 10,000-mile/year Smart parked in G41.
Both thoughts are likely correct.
November 28, 2006
The last time I was in Glasgow, my combi boiler declined my polite requests to fire up and vent forth hot water, radiators for the supply of, leaving me in a situation of considerable chill. Now, in Dublin, my landlord/housemate and I find ourselves incapable of securing a supply of small wooden pellets.
Said pellets are something of a technological marvel, being formed from compressed waste sawdust, bagged, and (hypothetically) delivered to the likes of us. Thenceforth, they are poured liberally into a hopper which in turn feeds -- via a terribly exciting Archimidean-screw arrangement -- a surprisingly efficient burner/boiler system. Too liberally, it transpires, for we've run out of bags of pellets. Since the technology is (a.) relatively new, and (b.) Austrian, we've found ourselves unable to source additional supplies. For a week.
Upshot: it's fecking cold in the house. We're not quite at ambient temperature, but thanks to all the not-quite-fixed-yet draughts it's surprisingly close. On Monday I came home and immediately stuck my hand in the fridge, just to see whether there was any point leaving it switched on. It was hard to tell.
The existential joy of the pellet boiler system is that, since the pellets are formed from waste, burning them is considered carbon-neutral. Hurrah. However, since we can't track down any pellets to burn, we're left to celebrate to the sound of one hand clapping.
November 27, 2006
I'm having considerable success filtering off image-based spam, but I'm still seeing way more spam escape Mail's filter than I did three or four months ago. Which is to say, of the couple of hundred junk messages I see every day, about fifty are now getting through, when it was down to about three or four. This article gives some background on what's going on, and where this stuff originates. (via, via2)
Interesting, though, that his criticism appears to be centred around expectations of privacy. That is: when you're walking down a street, you expect (and, he implies, have previously had) a measure of privacy in terms of what you say. I'm not sure he's right on this -- not because one doesn't have an expectation of privacy in such circumstances, but because such an impression is already illusionary. Blanket surveillance is, however, a substantial shift.
To repeat my basic argument here: no, I've nothing to hide. But I reserve the right to absolutely have something I want to hide, at some unspecified date in the future. It is, I contend, the rôle of the people to watch their government, and not the other way around. 'If you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear' is a manifestly unsound argument.
I'm staying in a tricked-out eco-house in Dublin (watch this space -- it's recently been nominated for all sorts of awards). While it has hemp insulation, bamboo stairs, LED lighting, and a zero-carbon-footprint wood-pellet burner (of which also more anon), the landlord/architect/housemate only finished the place a few weeks before I rocked up. It's thus lacking some more-or-less common amenities, such as a television. Ironic, given that there was a crew here last week and the resulting show about the building goes out this Tuesday.
Otherwise, the lack of TV is less of a bind than one might expect. In part because Studio 60 isn't yet being shown in Europe, and in part because my brother-in-law thoughtfully left behind DVDs of the first series of Deadwood when he was last in Glasgow.
Made in 2004, Deadwood is an uncompromising Western, set in a gold-rush town in the late nineteenth century. It's entirely, wonderfully, gloriously, brilliantly well carried-off; supremely confident, nicely written, beautifully shot, magnificently paced (which I cannot say of every glossy-and-otherwise-excellent US drama -- Galactica, I'm looking at you) and with career-defining performances. Not least from Ian McShane, for whom Lovejoy is now some piffling little thing he did back in his early years; McShane is Al Swearengen. I can't wait to see the second series.
A few years ago, we featured on How2 the world's smallest radio-control helicopter, an amazing little thing called Pixel made by a chap called Alexander Van De Rostyne. It was tiny, fluttered around with astonishing stability, and while Alexander had been a bit tricky to coax over from Belgium he turned out to be thoroughly charming on the day. Fun all round. The only real problem was that Pixel had cost thousands of dollars to build and was a one-off labour of love.
Alexander was subsequently involved in the commercial Piccolo r/c helicopter kit, which with a rotor diameter of a foot or so was a somewhat different beast to the Pixel family, but still pretty darn small -- though strictly for outdoor use. Now, however, all this has changed -- PicoZ is a Van De Rostyne-designed microhelicopter for indoor use, sold through the likes of Firebox for the princely sum of £30.
Picture the scene, dear reader: I had cause, recently, to purchase flowers for an acquaintance who shall henceforth be known herein as 'Flossie.' This, however, presented a conundrum. For while I'm not so crass as to believe that anybody doesn't like flowers, Flossie is not exactly a 'girlie' girl. 'Say it with flowers' hardly seemed right; I elected to say it with sub-miniature infra-red controlled brushless DC-motor driven direct-drive (collectiveless) aerial machinery. Works for me.
The PicoZ (the box is labeled 'PicooZ,' thanks to some licensing snafu, and at least one website refers to it as the 'PiccoZ' too) is an absolute joy. Which is to say, it's a frisky little blighter with an apparent suicide streak when it comes to walls, corners, door frames, and going-behind-the-fishtank. Thirty minutes' charging provides about ten minutes' flight time, by the end of which the throttle control is nicely linear and some measure of hover stability can be achieved. There's no cyclic control -- the helicopter is trimmed to fly slowly forwards, with the right stick controlling tail rotor bias (there's a separate trim control which more-or-less stops the poor little thing spinning around crazily, once you get it right). Draughts are disastrous, and Flossie's Pico needs a tad more noseweight to make sufficient headway -- apparently, there's considerable variation from one unit to another on this.
Nevertheless, I'm astonished at the thing's general stability. Flying it is challenging rather than frustrating, and hence it's immensely satisfying when you manage to land on, say, the chair you'd intended rather than in the lampshade, on the cat, or whatever. So far it's proving surprisingly robust, too.
Genuinely one of the best toys I've ever seen. It's no surprise they keep selling out at Firebox... I must remember to pick one up for myself, it's right up there in 'must have' territory, and there's a growing mod community. I should also note that Flossie was appropriately thrilled.
November 22, 2006
CITV's 2001's wanted.com notwithstanding, Swap Shop has been off the air for about 25 years. Apparently, there's a festive one-off in the offing:
In a similarly nostalgic vein, Noel Edmonds will be reunited with Keith Chegwin, Maggie Philbin and John Craven for a one-off edition of Swap Shop to trawl through 30 years of Saturday morning children's television.
I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this. Most likely I'll be in Dublin anyway, and the point will be moot.
November 21, 2006
This is one of my current colleagues in Dublin, talking about going to the loo in a restaurant in China, shopped by 'friends' in Chicago. Don'cha just lurve being able to hide in the sidestreets of the global village?
November 17, 2006
As expected, OFCOM have indeed published new regulations banning junk food adverts on programmes aimed at children. This isn't the reason why ITV have stopped producing children's programmes, but it is the pretext under which that's happened.
Save Kids' TV, as ever (not yet updated).
November 16, 2006
November 15, 2006
November 14, 2006
Paul Thurrott has had an interesting experience with Apple support and a troublesome MacBook, which appears to have been resolved amicably, even with faintly embarrassing offers of restitution from Apple.
I've had my share of support issues with Apple gear, and while my experience hasn't been universally positive, it has averaged out at 'better than I expect' -- ie. really not bad. While Thurrott's right to query whether his experience was a result of his blog having rather large traffic, I can vouch for the latitude with which Apple's 'executive relations' team operates. While I have put quite a lot of Apple gear on TV over the years, I don't believe that had anything to do with the outcome of this particular story:
I once had a bit of a issue with a refurb Titanium PowerBook that, after a couple of failed repair attempts, went back for a refund. Subsequently it was refurbished again and resold, but (surprise!) it ended up failing in exactly the same way, yet again. This I know because after it was repaired it was shipped back to me, rather than to the then-current owner. Which was a tad of a faux-pas, though I've heard equally bad (indeed worse) stories concerning other big laptop manufacturers.
At the time I happened to have the direct number of Apple's Exec Relations team in the UK, so I rang them. They were initially gobsmacked and somewhat suspicious. Once they'd checked their records, however, matters were put right extremely rapidly and, I think, to the satisfaction of all concerned. It wasn't a happy episode, but the high-level customer services people went a long way not to leave a sour taste. They certainly lost money on that particular sale.
Avoiding problems in the first place is clearly the best plan, but multiply a tiny fraction by millions of customers, and you're going to get non-zero failure cases. What's really important is how you deal with those. This is, of course, why I'd buy another BMW (Mini), but will never touch another Mercedes (Smart). Listening to the customer and addressing the problem will beat lying and not fixing things, every time.
Notwithstanding the genuinely atrocious bandwidth I'm seeing via Clearwire here in Dublin, tonight I tried to buy a VOIP handset for use with Skype. Now, I've been merrily sending parcels from Amazon and Apple hither and yon, to wherever I'm next going to be when I'm in the UK, but there's a clash between Skype's store's quoted delivery times and my travel plans. OK, so I'll just buy stuff via the Ireland store, and have it delivered to my work address. Er... no. Your billing address has to be in the delivery country, sorry.
But... but... the whole point is that I can call... oh, never mind.
The inappropriately-named Clearwire, by the way, is a Dublin-wide wireless internet service, operating over some whacko proprietary extended WiFi protocol. It's a commendably zero-configuration set-up, and I'm seeing excellent bandwidth within Dublin -- I had 150Kb/sec coming down from the Trinity SourceForge mirror, for example. However, connecting to sites outwith Ireland is another story. I'm seeing up to 98% packet loss, 2500ms ping times, and net throughput of about 1.5 Kb/sec to my server in Los Angeles. It's not even sufficiently stable to maintain an FTP control connection.
Yes, I'm on with tech support about this. Doing the various bandwidth tests and pinging different bits of the network, it looks to me like I have an excellent connection to their system, but either their upstream bandwidth is hopelessly inadequate for their customer base, or they're traffic shaping like crazy. As in 'let's make the traffic shape look like a flatline.' I suspect a bit of both, but frankly I don't care. If support can't solve it, I'm handing the box back. Neat tech, but at the moment it doesn't work.
November 13, 2006
It's only fair to mention that my chum James (not shark-hunting/Vaudeville-producing James, another one) has had his submission confirmed: he is now the holder of the Guinness World Record for the greatest number of people standing inside a single soap bubble, at twenty-five. The attempt took place during the BA this year, at Inspire in Norwich. Yay James!
Click through this lot, and tell me that 'underwater dance class' isn't an ongoingly giggle-worthy source of hilariousnessesess. Dare you.
Whilst I shivered in my unheated Glaswegian flat last night, barely a half-brick's throw away the great and the good of (Scottish) media were making non-alcoholic merry at the (Scottish) BAFTAs. Dry, evidently, because of some indiscretions and heckling last year, and the BBC's inexplicable intention this year to broadcast the event, albeit after a judicious cooling-off period.
It's a sign of the respect and affection with and in which we hold these noble (Scottish) awards that today's Media Guardian does not, in fact, mention them at all. Presumably, the thought of sending an actual hack all the actual way to the actual (Scottish) Glasgow was viewed as terribly gauche.
Interestingly, there's precious little on Technorati today, either (am I the only Scottish media blogger currently working in Dublin? Surely not?). Credit due to 'Laura' (surname unknown, though bizarrely we do know she's a Libra) for pointing up the Screenplay winner (Run Tony Run!). Otherwise, there's a thundering silence from basically everywhere.
Which is a pity, because thanks to BAFTA Scotland itself (persevering in publishing the news, even if nobody appears to give a damn), we know that:
- Mechannibals did not win the Entertainment award. Which is something of a relief, in most respects, though ultimately not as funny as the other outcome might have been. & ---
- My friend Debs won Best Documentary for her Richard Dawkins film, Root of all Evil -- The Virus of Faith.
Yay Debs! I had lunch with her yesterday, and everything! Woo!
November 8, 2006
Ben 'I am the new Renaissance' Hammersley has a new gig, as multimedia reporter for The Guardian. Given that we like his writing and love his photography, is there any doubt that we'll appreciate his videos too?
That rumbling noise you hear in the background somewhere is conventional media wondering if it just missed something, then going back to sleep again.
We're filming right now. Er... that wasn't the plan. But hey, what are you to do when the Futureheads rock up in Dublin, their PR people say 'yeah, they'd love to film a piece for your inventions strand,' and then they turn out to be really quite excited about geeking out about something absurdly mundane and domestic?
Answer: the production team spends the night painting and sewing props and writing scripts, you drag in a director from one place and a crew from another, find a camera (no, the one with charged batteries!), and on you go.
So... we're underway. Excellent!
Plus, it makes me feel slightly less bad about tomorrow, our first 'proper' day. For which I need my presenters not to have had any sleep. At all.
I'm a bad person.
November 7, 2006
November 6, 2006
Utter genius -- blender manufacturer Blendtec posts carefully-crappy videos of their products blending cans of Coke, marbles, and a rake handle. The video are all over YouTube, with 100,000+ views -- cheap and effective advertising? There's more than a touch of Look Around You about the clips, particularly the brilliantly cheesy music.
November 5, 2006
The landlord and I have been discussing the dishwasher, which he inherited from the builders:
"Have you any idea what the buttons do?"
"I was hoping you might have worked it out."
"Hmm. Well, so far as I can tell, this red one sets it to leave a liberal coating of small particles of grit all over the mugs and glasses."
"Right. What about the green one -- is that some sort of eco programme? Oh, but then, you'd expect the red one to wash better..."
"...whereas the green one seems to do a better job, yes. But yesterday I opened the door in the middle of a green programme, and the water was cold."
"But there wasn't any grit?"
"How about looking for manuals online? And what about that button that appears to be labeled with a stylised mushroom cloud?
"Woo! I found a video of Bosch engineers cleaning the filters!"
"You can hear the zoom button on the camera. And the captions are in Comic Sans."
My search was not entirely successful. Bosch/Neff have a support site (unlinkable, since it's inexplicably behind an https cookiewall) from where one's supposed to be able to download PDFs of instruction manuals, but so far as I can tell it doesn't actually work. And yes, I tried Virtual PC and an old enough version of IE that it usually does the job with brain-dead sites.
Back to the Fairy liquid, then.
November 4, 2006
Recap: as a condition of their broadcast license, UK channel ITV is required to show children's programmes. The original thinking was to provide commercial competition for the BBC, and this has been the situation for more than 30 years. This year, however, ITV have cancelled or failed to renew children's production for 2007 transmission, and dropped the hours they show to the bare minimum, comprised principally of repeats, animation, and US imports. Simultaneously, they've been arguing with regulator OFCOM about reducing the required hours.
The pretext for this is that advertising revenues are down across the board (unless you're Google), and there's a voluntary ban in the offing concerning advertising 'junk' food to children which, it is said, would render the situation commercially hopeless. Not that it's been running at a profit for the last decade, but hey.
From my perspective, whatever happens in the regulatory world is somewhat irrelevant, since children's production outwith the BBC is essentially dead anyway. Oh, there are odd little pockets -- things like Me Too! in Glasgow -- but in general there's precious little going on. The days of being even vaguely a children's specialist have gone. We were nearly all freelance anyway, and we've all had to move into other areas to keep paying the bills. Several have left TV altogether, or are trying to.
Oddly, not much of this shows to the public yet, in part because unless you happen to have children of the right sort of age, children's TV is something you remember fondly and assume is still there. I spent a day last week trying to convince people at an exhibition that How2 was (a.) an ITV production, not BBC, (b.) one of mine, and (c.) cancelled. Their initial response is denial, and the public debate is still at that stage.
It's somewhat shocking, then, to hear what the discussion really was between ITV and OFCOM, as reported in Media Guardian in an unusually BBC Onlinesque single-sentence paragraph style, and quoted here for those who can't be arsed to sign in:
It is well known that ITV asked Ofcom if it could reduce its commitment to children's television from eight hours a week to just two.
What is not so well known is that ITV's original scheme was to ask if it could air around 80 hours in total throughout the year.
It wanted to pack these hours around the run-up to Christmas and Easter.
The radical move was proposed because the two periods are the most lucrative for the broadcaster.
However, the move would have left ITV1 with no children's shows for the majority of the year.
It is understood that sources at regulator Ofcom indicated it would turn down such a request. So instead ITV asked if it could to air just two hours a week.
ITV will reveal how much children's programming, what kind of shows, and how many will be repeated in its statement of programme policy to Ofcom at the end of the year.
There is speculation that it might air half an hour of pre-school shows each weekday morning, with the afternoon block dropped or greatly reduced and the rest of its commitment airing at weekends.
If that speculation plays out, ITV's long and proud tradition of children's drama and factual programmes will be at an end. Don't think that equivalent shows can be found elsewhere, either -- the satellite channels have never produced much within the UK. I say this with some conviction, mostly because it's already happened.
Children's viewing habits are changing. But they're not choosing to watch less home-grown, high-quality programming. It's simply not there any more.
Link: Save Kids' TV.org.uk.
November 3, 2006
November 2, 2006
I am, evidently, a BAFTA-nominated producer. OK, so it's BAFTA Scotland, but it still counts. Kinda.
Scroll down to 'Best Entertainment': 'Mechannibals' -- well, that was me. Making it was also, as the regular reader will recall, the least fun I've had in TV since I started. I'd love to say that an award nomination makes it all worthwhile, but you know what? It really doesn't.
Still. Wish us luck for the ceremony on the twelfth. It'd be deeply ironic if I won for a show I can't bear to watch.
November 1, 2006
Glasgow Prestwick Airport -- perhaps better known as 'Troon International' -- is quite possibly the worst airport through which I've flown. I'm not a hugely seasoned traveller, but I was once nearly arrested in pitch darkness at East Midlands at 2am (they'd turned off the terminal lights), and earlier this year was trapped in a small departure lounge at New Delhi, the principle feature of which was a total lack of escape potential from the worst sewage smell I've ever encountered. What, then, can Prestwick possibly do to earn my nomination? Let me see...
- There's a Ryanair Dublin flight at 06:50 on Monday morning. This is not a good time, given that a taxi to Prestwick costs £35 (ie. usually more than the flight), the trains don't start for another couple of hours, and hence one pretty much has to drive.
- Also leaving at or around 07:00 are flights to Pisa, Paris Beauvais, Stanstead, and Prague. Also Ryanair. All of them. Given that the only airline using Troon International for more than two flights a day is Ryanair, this strikes one as spectacularly inept planning.
- Ryanair typically put on about seven check-in staff.
- One of the check-in staff is brilliant (top tip: the older lady with the greying hair). The others we've timed at three minutes and thirty seconds per passenger. We've had plenty of opportunity to check that figure.
- 3:30mins × 100 people on a 737 ÷ 2 check-in lines (if you're lucky) = 2½ hours to check in the whole plane. For a 45-minute flight. If your check-in lines don't include the lady with greying hair, you're not going to make it unless you rock up at 4am.
- Did I mention that the check-in staff are surly, uncommunicative, and more intent on chatting with each other than helping passengers? Oh, you guessed, huh?
- The whole process is, of course, complicated by Ryanair's customer-hostile policy of requiring payment for checked baggage. In the event that you've not prebooked this, of course the check-in desks can't take payment -- that requires a trip to a different counter, with its own lengthy queue... which (obviously, ahem) doesn't have a luggage conveyor. Hence, having coughed up the dough, one must rejoin one's original check-in queue to actually check-in the bag. Most customers find this process entirely delightful.
- Once one's shuffled through the check-in queue, one joins the security check queue. Which is even longer, and slower. There are two scanners, but before one reaches them Prestwick insists on rifling through one's hand luggage. By hand. They're quick (ie. cursory), but 500 people trying to get through security within a one-hour window, with three staff on, gives them only about 20 seconds each.
- They confiscate all fluids, creams, gels, etc, as per current UK regulations ("Arrgh! Lipsalve!"). If one wishes to keep one's containers, however, they'll empty the contents... into a large bin. With all the other fluids. Because, clearly, if you're confiscating liquids on the grounds that they might be explosives, mixing them together can't possibly be dangerous, right? Sigh...
- At the scanners, one must remove belts, shoes, laptops, and outer jackets (including, on occasion, cardigans), and remember to place everything in the right stacking order in the minimal number of trays, since each machine has a stock of only about six.
- All laptops are swab-checked. I haven't seen any exceptions to this, yet have never had my PowerBook swabbed at any other airport.
- Having collected one's belt, shoes, laptop, outer jacket, bag, cash, wallet, phone, boarding card, and so on, one's left hopping around trying to redress oneself, with 300 people right behind all intent on missing their flights.
- The only route from security to the departure lounge is through the duty-free shop, the layout of which is specifically and carefully designed to impede progress. In particular, light and easily-dislodged items are cleverly placed at bag-height, in order that they be most readily knocked off the displays.
- Once through the duty-free gauntlet, the route through the departure lounge to the gates is similarly blocked... by seats.
- The seats are almost all covered in chewing-gum, and give every appearance of having been thus disfigured since velour was thought to be modern.
- The screens displaying gate numbers are, usually, illegible.
- Gate staff can't be arsed to help point one to one's flight.
- The tannoy is only audible from outside security (ie. while waiting in line for an hour or so), or from inside departures (ie. while running). While one's actually in security one can't hear a thing. Hence, one never hears one's flight called, and only ever hears 'Absolutely final call, get your arses down here now!'
- The staff who take one's boarding card have an amazing knack of doing so without breaking off their discussion with their colleagues, and hence without realising that they entirely block one's path to the aircraft.
- On one classic occasion, I emerged onto the tarmac to find no trace of the requisite Boeing. I'd walked a hundred yards across the airfield before discovering that they'd hidden the damned thing around a corner, in the opposite direction.
- The customer service desk opens after the early-morning rush, and closes before the end-of-day return flights land. Go, as they say, figure.
- The word 'dead' should not, I contend, ever appear in any slogan pertaining to the airline industry.
Given that even Cardiff manages a charmingly petite and stylish little number in the airport stakes, it's hard to comprehend how Troon manages to cock the idea up quite so completely, but I do have a theory: I think Glasgow Prestwick (sic) Airport was bought lock, stock, and barrel from the Soviet Union, circa 1985.
That would explain the predilection for creative queue-optimisation techniques (ie. optimising queues for extreme length and sloth). It would explain the surly and disinterested staff, who merely ape the local accent (but seriously, given that the population of Troon is approximately 74 and eight goats, who'd know if they were way off the mark? Any old Scottish twang would suffice). It would explain the byzantine layout and passenger route planning, designed around the concept of trapping customers in duty-free and, at all costs, barring their onward progress to their flights, lest they realise that the aircraft are, in practice, painted outlines designed to fool American spy satellites. It would also explain why the Pisa flight boards down the end of an extremely long corridor that appears to stand zero chance of ever reaching an aircraft, given that it's heading in entirely the wrong direction.
Troon International Airport is, I contend, a cold war-era throwback, communist mecca, and Stalinist trudge-fest. So there.
For those who've struggling this far, the good news: as of this month, Aer Lingus have restarted their 08:00 flight to Dublin, from Glasgow Airport. Oh, happy day.