Saturday, December 30, 2006

The rise and rise of fan-created random off ofs

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The 2006 edition of Lake Superior State University's Banished Words List is out. Sadly it doesn't include any of my latest pet peeves so I intend to bore you with them here instead.

'Off of'. An imbecilic, infantile and totally redundant John Wayneism, yet it's everywhere you look at the moment. I'm convinced people are deliberately shoehorning it into the most inappropriate sentences simply to wind me up. There are almost no circumstances under which it makes sense to say 'off of'. "Spin-off of x" or "rip-off of y" I'll grant you, but in practically every other instance 'from', 'on' or a single 'off' will suffice.

Just stop it or I'll bounce the Oxford English Dictionary off of your bonce.

If you type "for * fans by * fans" into Google you are treated to a mélange of 126,000 instances of fans of one thing or another claiming to have created something for other fans of one thing or another. It seems to be the stock slogan for people who don't do slogans, yet insist on christening their magazine, blog, TV show, podcast or whatever with one anyway. And they don't just slip it in subtly, they announce it with chirpy glee as though the audience won't have heard anything remotely like it ever before.

Worse still is the even more glib variation "for the people by the people" (247,000 Google results!). On second thoughts, this one is quite informative because it distinguishes media intended for the consumption of rabbits, but created by snails from that devised by humans for humans.

If you're really that desperate to adopt a meaningless tagline use this instead. At least add a bit of flavour to the mix.

Why bother? Is it not safe to assume that if you're running an extensive web site solely dedicated to Tony the Tiger collectibles and memorabilia of the 1920s that you're reasonably fond of the subject matter? Even if you're getting paid to produce content for a niche readership I'd imagine that you've been specifically selected for the job at least partly on account of your specialist knowledge - and hence interest - in that field.

'That's so random'. Have you noticed how absolutely everything is 'random' these days? Life hasn't spontaneously become more haphazard than it was previously, yet only recently have people become preoccupied with pointing out what appears to be a new discovery for them. Unless you write a daily script to rival the predictability of a Scooby Doo cartoon and hand it out a week in advance to anyone you expect to come into contact with, you can guarantee that some Muppet will look at you with a tilty-headed, quizzical expression and declare "that's so random.

For the record, this post was generated by an exceedingly formulaic mathematical algorithm developed at the beginning of the paleolithic era as foretold by a soothsayer during the Lepton Epoch.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Filtering Google search results by date range

Sunday, December 17, 2006 0

Supposedly we are able to use the operator 'date:3/6/9/12' to limit search results to only those added to Google's index within the last 3 months, 6 months and so on. In practice you may as well not bother because all this tweak does is return pages which include keywords such as "Date: 12 December 2006". Chocolate fireguard anyone?

An alternative, undocumented, super-secret operator you can use is 'daterange:[julian date]-[julian date]'. Huh? As defined by Wikipedia: "The Julian day or Julian day number (JDN) is the number of days that have elapsed since 12 noon Greenwich Mean Time (UT or TT) on Monday, January 1, 4713 BC in the proleptic Julian calendar . That day is counted as Julian day zero. The Julian day system was intended to provide astronomers with a single system of dates that could be used when working with different calendars and to unify different historical chronologies."

Right so Stephen Hawking has his bases covered, but how are the rest of us going to do the maths in our heads? We don't need to. We can use the Gmacker date range search, which will plug in the correct calculations automagically based on the number of days or dates entered. The problem is, using the daterange operator doesn't make a scrap of difference to your search results either. Great tip this is turning out to be, eh! I hope the likes of Likehacker are taking note. The recipe for a top tech tip: identify problem > offer solution > decide solution is rubbish and shrug shoulders.

Take a major, recent news story, for example, and apply the only-the-last-30-days modifier to the keywords entered: ipswich prostitutes "serial killer" "paula clennell" daterange:2454055-2454085. Now try the same search without the daterange operator. Either way you get 44,500 hits. That's precision fine-tuning at work.

Actually I shouldn't call the victims 'prostitutes' so we're told by the politically correct, feminist mob because it belittles the tragedy and demeans the women involved. According to these pedants it isn't useful to identify them in this way so that other sex workers will know to be wary, employ safety-in-numbers tactics, or get off the streets altogether. Also it doesn't help the police to be able to draw correlations between the targets enabling them - with the help of criminal psychologists - to build a profile of the killer.

They argue that if all the victims had been McDonald's employees, this facet of the case wouldn't have featured so prominently, or received so much media attention. I think the rest of McDonald's staff working in the area would beg to differ.

One commentator ratcheted the farce up another notch when she tried to sugar-coat the reasons some prostitutes were still walking the streets in Ipswich despite the heightened risks: like any other doting mothers they need to put in extra hours at this time of year to be able to afford Christmas presents for their children. Paints a cosy picture doesn't it, but in reality most of them are compelled to put their lives in jeopardy to feed their addiction to hard drugs. According to the BBC's victim profiles page, only one of them was a mother, and a heroin user.

Of course the sum of these women's lives shouldn't be defined solely by their chosen career path, but surely a dead spade is still a spade? Why does truth have to be the casualty of news reporting in this era of politically correct doublespeak?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Excluding trashed items from Spotlight search results

Saturday, December 16, 2006 0

By default, OS X's Spotlight results include whatever is lingering in your trash can waiting to be permanently purged from the system. This can be confusing if you're engaged in a seek and destroy mission because the files you banish don't disappear from view until the trash is manually emptied.

To fix this you can exclude the trash can from Spotlight's search results by dragging its folder into the 'Privacy' pane of its 'System Preferences' panel.

First though, before you can manipulate your .trash folder you must instruct Finder to reveal any hidden files and folders on your system. This can be done in any one of the following ways...

1. Use the multifunction system maintenance tool, OnyX. 'Parameters' > 'Finder' > tick the 'Misc. Options: show hidden files and folders' check box.

2. Open a Terminal (located in /Applications/Utilities) window and type the command, "defaults write com.apple.Finder AppleShowAllFiles ON" (without the quotation marks).

3. Double-click on Show\Hide Files to reveal your hidden files and repeat the process to hide them again.

Once you've outed your trash folder, visit your /Users/Username/ folder and drag .Trash into the 'System Preferences' > 'Spotlight' > 'Privacy' pane.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Bollardial impalement

Friday, December 15, 2006 0

Normally the merest mention of 'hilarious, must-see' YouTube movies has me yawning in record time, but when they feature an area of your home town you pass by almost every day, any old dross is worth a peek.

This one depicts screw-loose motorists trying to beat the bus-only automated bollard system we now have in place right in the city centre where traffic is at its most hectic.

The lengths some lazy chavs will go to to access a 'no park zone' where you are limited to crawling at a maximum speed of 2 mph due to the swathes of blinkered, Dawn of the Dead style shoppers spilling out into the road is staggering!

Suddenly sitting on a public bus in the midst of wannabe Tupacs blasting out gangster rap through their loud-speaker phone/MP3 players doesn't seem quite so bad. Whaddaya mean you're not in awe of them? They wear their jeans round the angles and swagger in time to the beatz. What more do you want? They're keepin' it real don'tcha know. There's no pleasing some people.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Tread carefully and carry a big ski pole, or two

Tuesday, December 12, 2006 1

Whenever I'm out exploring the countryside I see people - who clearly consider themselves to be serious, die-hard hikers - carrying ski poles. No skis, no snow, no dry ski slope, just the poles. I've always assumed this is some sort of cliquey, ramblers club fashion statement and left them to their own devices... besides, the Men in White Coats already have their hands tied rounding up Tom and Katie.

However, according to this wikiHow article, these Gandalf staffs come in very handy for testing potentially unstable ground, jimmying yourself out of quicksand quagmires, or can function as tarpaulin tent holder-up-erers should the heavens open unexpectedly.

Who'd have thunk it? I was also surprised to learn that the view of quicksand as portrayed in the movies is nonsense. Providing you follow a few simple guidelines you can take a dip in the gritty goop and survive to tell the tale.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Botched with NVU

Thursday, December 07, 2006 0

Oddly enough you can't snag a show-your-support badge like this from the NVU home page, only the 'made with' ones.

NVU is a streamlined, free alternative to the clunky Dreamweaver WYSIWYG HTML editor. Sounds great in theory doesn't it. In practice it's wonkier than a drunken giraffe bowlegged with rickets, totally incapable of performing the simplest of tasks - inserting a *gasp* ...table for instance.

It can't be argued that the glaring gremlins in this crippleware were unknown; people have been posting (and ranting) about them on the official support forum for eons. Nevertheless, there hasn't been the merest whiff of a bug fix release since June 2005 - in fact the project seems to have been cut adrift by all concerned.

Given this lack of activity you'd think the developer would be delighted to see someone breathing new life into NVU without asking for anything in return. But no, Kazé has offended his delicate sensibilities by taking what is essentially the stub of a promising open source project, improving it and re-distributing the code for the community at large to benefit from. Shame on him, dissin' the spirit of the open source movement like that!

From now on each time I press a button or write a chunk of code in KompoZer and it does precisely what I expect it to I'll adopt a steely gaze, shake my fist and curse that menace to society.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Special - not Magic - K

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When it comes to dieting, isn't it amazing how some people can 'get it', yet at the same time completely miss the point?

Take this segment from the article above for example...

"Second of all, Special K cereal does not cause weight loss in any way whatsoever. It’s just calories. There are no weight loss vitamins, minerals, ingredients or magic fairy dust in it that makes it any different than any other calories. Sure, it’s low fat, and that’s always nice. Sure, it’s low in calories too, but so is everything else that’s low in fat. It is calories and nothing more.

Do you know what that means? It means that if someone is going to claim Special K makes you lose weight, or even just slightly helps you lose weight, you can equally claim that it makes you gain weight. Why? BECAUSE IT’S CALORIES. They control what your weight does, not specific foods. Eat too much Special K and you’ll gain weight no different than if you ate too many potato chips."

Personally I've never interpreted the Special K pledge ads as obliquely implying that anything otherworldly transpires to bring about weight loss when you eat a bowl of the cereal. Is it not more likely that people who assume otherwise are allowing their yearning for a quick fix to cloud their judgement and then kicking the cat when their misguided optimism is dashed?

Deriding Special K for its capacity to help people shed excess pounds - merely - by virtue of its low fat, low calories constitution is tantamount to accusing an aeroplane of deceiving its passengers because it can only fly with the aid of its wings and jet engine.

Of course you could indulge yourself with a mouse's nibble of double-chocolate gâteaux for breakfast and lunch for two weeks and still experience the same degree of weight loss, but that would hardly sustain you until tea time would it. The aim is obviously to devise a cereal that is simultaneously filling and healthy. The fact that it tastes like sawdust (I can relate because I get into lots of wild-wild-west bar brawls) only serves to backup the science behind Special K; it contains far less artery clogging gunk than a full English breakfast, hence substituting one for the other, over time, works wonders by reducing your paunch. Captain Pedantic, it's time to hang up your cape.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dogs can't look up

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I never thought I'd find myself having a heated debate about dog's capacity for grape consumption of all things.

I was standing in the park the other day waiting for his royal highness to finish watering the lamp posts when he came bounding over to me, suddenly distracted by the bunch of grapes I was eating. His tongue was sloshing back and forth so maniacally I suspect he must have mistaken them for mini Cadbury's cream eggs, albeit those rare-as-rocking-horse-deposits, green, rubbery ones. Not wanting to deprive him, I hurled a few in his direction and watched while he scooped them out of thin air like a lizard catching flies.

It was at this point I was approached by a complete stranger who was overly concerned that I was feeding my dog grapes. The conversation went a lot like this...

Park-loitering nutter (henceforth known as PLN): "You know you shouldn't give grapes to dogs."

Me: "Oh really, why's that?"

PLN: "You just shouldn't, it's not good for them."

Me: "Hmm, so do they have trouble digesting them properly or something?"

PLN: "Err... well... I don't know, but I'd stop it if I were you."

Me: "If us humans can eat them without keeling over with uncontrollable abdominal spasms I doubt very much they can be harmful to dogs."

PLN: "Well if you're happy to take the ris--"

Me: "Risk of what exactly? They're grapes not used heroine needles for Christ's sake!".

You know how sometimes posts sound funnier in your head? If this were someone else's blog you'd have to pay me to read this drivel.

Anyway, we went back and forth for a while longer, our voices getting higher and more exasperated with each exchange. For a fleeting moment I was struck by the absurdity of standing about in the waning light of a freezing cold November evening arguing about the intricacies of the dog-grape complex, but I wasn't going to let it go. I was dumbstruck (and more than a bit intrigued) by the notion that this guy was prepared to defend his stance so vehemently when he had no evidence of any kind - not even a dubious, hand-me-down anecdote from a three-times-removed demented auntie - that what he was proclaiming contained an ounce of truth.

What's the most ridiculous, entirely baseless advice you've had unsuspectingly foisted upon you?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Greetings from the north pole

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I learnt today that here in the Greatest of Britains (not any of the lesser ones), if you write to "Santa, Reindeerland, SAN 1TA" before the 13th December, Royal Mail will deliver your letter directly to the red-coated, beardy bloke himself and hang around long enough to return with his personal reply.

You can imagine how this must have come about can't you. Every year 56 squillion (give or take a few hundred) sprogs and sproglets scribble down their Christmas wish lists, address them to Santa at the north pole and pop them into the post box expecting him to make their wildest dreams come true. The posties can't stamp them with 'address unknown' and return to sender because they'd shatter the illusions of all those cutey-wooty ikkle kiddies and risk psychologically scarring them for life. Neither can they just bin them because then they'd assume Santa received their letters, but was too mince pie-eyed to care.

It microwaves the icy cockles of my ticker to think the big, bad, faceless Royal Mail are prepared to dedicate so much time and energy to serving the needs of our nations young'uns.

Does this happen anywhere else in the world?

Wake me up before you go go

If a movie is on very late I tend to schedule it to record with EyeTV, set my Mac to automatically shut down shortly after it finishes, and then go to bed. Nevertheless, very often I'll wake up in the morning to find my computer is still switched on because OS X's 'Energy Saver' utility has failed to act on my so-clear-Britney-Spears-could-understand-them instructions.

Since discovering that it only does this when it's in sleep mode, I've tried to make a habit of shaking my Mac back to life before catching some zzzzzs (gosh darn it I'm hip). Many times I'll forget because I like sleep mode and have it enabled whenever possible.

For a long time I searched for a way to coerce the two functions into playing nicely together. After much Googling I'd pretty much thrown in the towel, chalking it up to duff never-to-be-fixed software, when today I came across an OS X support article which explains why my beloved Mac isn't being allowed to rest in peace at the end of a busy night's recording.

Apparently you have to set your computer - which is already running - to start up moments before you want it to shut down. Considering how illogical this seems you'd think such a nugget of information could be imparted by way of a simple tool tip.

I wonder if doctors operate on the same principle when it comes to coma patients. "No I'm sorry, we can't pull the plug on your clinically dead daughter until she's fully awake and sitting bolt upright ready for action".

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Deciphering the indecipherable

Sunday, November 19, 2006 1

Sometimes the information you really want is only available on a single web site, and that web site happens to look like it was whipped up by a blind, drunk Thalidomide baby.

As much as you might like to, you can't just FTP into the author's web server and give them a stern lesson in web design. So what other avenues does this leave open to you? The easiest technique I know of is to 'zap' these bride-of-Frankensteins with a web page de-cluttering bookmarklet.

These are like favourites or bookmarks, except the hyperlink is supplanted by a string of javascript code. When activated (by simply clicking on them in your browser's toolbar or bookmarks archive) they perform a predefined action upon the web page you are currently viewing, or provide a shortcut to other web services, a thesaurus query engine for example.

The linked page offers a wide variety of bookmarklets designed for reformatting web pages to make them more readable and printable. Some apply individual changes, while others can be considered meta-bookmarklets as they aggregate the effects of many of the more specific ones.

To put them to the test I set out to find the world's most hideously, eye-stabbingly awful web site in existence. I don't know if Hayden Video Weddings is quite the pinnacle of web site indecipherability, but it must come pretty close!

Below you can see the before and after shots, having applied Jessie's multi-zapper (roll over the image to flip back and forth between the two).

Wow, that's what I call a make-under! Following an audit, the health and safety authorities stormed the Hayden Video Weddings HQ. Those responsible were heavily fined and strong-armed into redesigning the site to preclude subsequent visual assault (allegedly).

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Holy ear perforation Batman!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006 1

Whether you watch movies through your computer or on a traditional TV you will have noticed that there is often a dramatic contrast between the volume levels of the audio depending on what's happening on screen. The dialog can be so subdued the actors appear to be whispering making it impossible to determine what's being said, whereas the action sequences, explosions, gun shots and so on are loud enough to blow your socks off!

This is done deliberately and is known as 'dynamic range'; it's supposed to provide a more realistic interpretation of the natural soundscape. If you ask me it's enough to make you want to take Spielberg and his ilk by the throat and choke them to death.

In the cinema the projectionist 'works around' this issue by ramping up the volume to ear-splitting levels. Your head is usually ringing by the end of the film, but at least you'll know what it was all about. You're probably used to resorting to the same measures at home too, but not if your media playback software incorporates sound-shaping technology known as 'dynamic range compression'. This operates by standardising the extremes at each end of the auditory spectrum. In other words it amplifies softer sounds and dampens down louder ones so you don't need to keep your thumb poised on your remote control's volume button.

The image below is a screen capture of VLC's 'preferences' panel. It shows that ticking a box (well leaving the default setting alone actually) is all that is required to enable DRC.

'Normalisation' is another audio-taming feature often built into more advanced media players. It homogenises wave forms by applying a consistent gain ratio in conjunction with an upper volume cap.

Below is another screen capture of VLC's slick GUI. This one depicts its 'extended controls' panel, located under the 'window' menu. As before it's not difficult to guess how the 'tool-tipped' function operates.

So that's your DVDs covered, but what about the video content you record through your computer's TV tuner? If adding sound effects to a blog wasn't really irritating I'd insert one of me hitting a brick wall here. No audio manipulation gizmos of any kind are to be found in the EyeTV software, though I have an alert configured to give me a nudge the instant this situation changes.

Maybe the TV Volume Regulator could be configured to work with computer audio output. Still I'd rather wait for a software solution.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Samsung branches out... into ED-209 style automated killing machines

Monday, November 13, 2006 0

Are you a dictator with conscription woes? Are your troops getting a tad too obstreperous? Maybe their trigger fingers are aching from all that rapid fire annihilation and their performance is suffering as a result? Why not usurp your whole motley crew with a legion of the all-new, bleeding edge Samsung isagRs.

In the blink of an eye the isagR will identify your adversaries, lock them into its sights and pulverize them before they have chance to shout, "Chicken Supreme and Buffalo Wings for two". I jest of course; the sentry's patented, precision pattern recognition and infra-red detection technology ensures not a single hair on a civilian's head will be ruffled.

Who'd have thunk Samsung (in conjunction with an institute of higher education) would be the ones to militarize Korea's demilitarized zone. Oxymoron anyone?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Pick 'n' mix RSS feeds

Sunday, November 12, 2006 0

If you subscribe to a high traffic blog or news web site through an RSS to email service such as R-Mail or RSSFwd, you won't be a stranger to a bulging inbox.

No matter how much you love a particular site you're unlikely to want to read absolutely every article posted to its RSS feed. Some sites will give you a range of tweaked feeds to choose from (one for each tag or a 'best of' round up for example) allowing you to selectively filter the information you receive, while with others it's a case of 'one size fits all'. This tip explains how to whittle down the updates you receive from the latter using Gmail's automated email filtering feature.

The idea is to instruct Gmail to instantly delete any emails from a specified sender containing keywords which describe topics you aren't remotely interested in.

To get started visit gmail.com, click on 'settings', 'filters' and then 'create new filter'. Enter the email address of your RSS-to-email provider in the 'from' box. If the name of the site you have chosen to receive RSS updates from appears in the subject line of each email you can enter this in the 'subject' box. If not, put it in the 'has the words' field instead along with any keywords you wish to blacklist.

Let's look at an example where you want to sieve email which uses only the title of the article or blog post to identify it within the subject line. Let's say you subscribe to 'Evangelism Online' and 'Godsquad' and you want to vanquish certain emails dealing with scary topics you can't face.

Here's what you might like to enter into the 'has the words' box: ("evangelism online"|godsquad) (darwin|"other religions"|"atheism on the rise"|"common sense"|dawkins|allegory|langenort|sweden|"the da vinci code"|evolution|southpark|durex|"brokeback mountain"|"separation of church and state"|logic|science|scepticism|"oblique spheroid"|"spongebob squarepants"|"walt disney"|"faith no more"|"john lennon"|reality|"elton john"|diversity)

This string identifies all content originating from 'Evangelism Online' OR 'Godsquad', AND which contains ANY of the keywords/phrases listed between the second set of brackets.

When you're happy with your operator string, press the 'next' button, put a tick in the "delete it" checkbox and jab the 'update filter' button. If you already have some rogue emails festering in your inbox, you might want to tick the 'also apply filter to x conversations below' checkbox.

From time to time you can check how effective your filter is proving to be by casting an eye over your deleted items folder. The messages that have skipped the inbox will be easy to pick out because they will still be bold (as is the case with unread email).

Friday, November 10, 2006

Taking out the G-Trash

Friday, November 10, 2006 1

It's funny how you can put up with niggling annoyances and learn to muddle through, and then as soon as you throw a tantrum a solution presents itself entirely out of the blue.

Today I stumbled upon what is known as Gumbmug, phonetically speaking. No idea where the name comes from, but being down with the latest web trends I'd guess it stems from the tendency to drop the vowels from words so you've got more chance of bagging a unique trademark. Well whatever, what it does is gives you back your Google by blacklisting notorious e-drool such as Shopbot, Dooyoo and so on, thereby tipping the spam-to-genuine-content ratio in your favour.

Seasoned Googlers will know you can achieve the same thing with Google Classic all on your lonesome, but then who wants to append "-inurl:(kelkoo | bizrate | pixmania | dealtime | pricerunner | dooyoo | pricegrabber | pricewatch | resellerratings | ebay | shopbot | comparestoreprices | ciao | unbeatable | shopping | epinions | nextag | buy)" to every single search query? This by the way is advanced Google operator shorthand for 'don't link me to any sites which contain these words in the web address'. Even keeping this string close at hand for copy/paste purposes is no substitute for Gumbmug seeing as a static list wouldn't take into account the emergence of new webscurge upstarts, or remove banished sites if they one day decided to provide information that anyone cared about.

Let's have a tinker then shall we. A search for "wireless mp3 player" returns 91,300 results in plain old Google, while the same search generates only 25,400 hits via Gumbmug. Eureka, that's what I call progress! I have a new home page. In the rare event of actually wanting to run a price comparison check, I'll pick one 'screen scraper' and visit it directly. They're extremely useful in the right context of course.

I'm not usually one to lose myself in a tirade of strong language, but gosh darn it, sometimes a webapp gets me so excited I just can't help it. My apologies for the four letter words.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

MiggyTrack

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When it comes to offering personalised search tools, Rollyo are no longer the only game in town. Google are hungry for a slice of the pie and aim to claim a sizable portion by way of their newly uncorked Co-Op webapp.

With Co-Op you get pretty much the same deal, except under the bonnet (or 'hood' I suppose :p) you'll find Google's own search engine rather than Yahoo's, you're supplied with a wacky, instantly forgettable URL to link to your widgets and you're given more scope to categorise your web-foraging offspring.

To check out the hue of the grass on the other side of the fence I've thrown together a custom search widget which queries eleven of the top-ranking Amiga game database web sites. Not that I'm obsessed or anything silly like that.

I was pleasantly surprised to find it's a nice shiny emerald green. The start pages are distinctly uncluttered as you'd expect from a Google Gooey, you can opt to eradicate all adverts (as long as you're not operating as a commercial organisation) and there are plenty of advanced options to keep the most demanding tweakers happy. For now the race is too close to call. Do the front-runners have any competition?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

My First Search Engine. Porn and spam sold separately.

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Statistics show that 98.54% of the content on the internet is worthless dross, yet we still have to wade our way through it to get to the good stuff. Perfect example: whenever you search Google to locate a trustworthy review of a piece of tech gear you're considering purchasing, it spews out wads of irrelevant shopping spam sites which - purely by chance of course - contain the word 'review', even though no opinions, positive or negative, are imparted within their pages. Typically this fluff populates the first few pages of Google's output, pushing the genuine content deep into obscurity.

One workaround would be to identify a handful of reliable sources for each kind of information you require, bookmark and search them individually. Better still is Rollyo; a newish, startup web gizmo which provides the means to tailor your search results to suit your personal preferences. It does this by allowing you to 'Roll Your Own' categorised search filters. For instance, you could create a health 'Searchroll' by entering the URLs of up to 25 top-rated health-focused web sites, which when queried would only return content produced by these previously vetted sources.

Here are some I rolled earlier...


Help yourself and let me know if you found them useful.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Our cannon fodd... er, distinguished superhero soldiers are "plenty smart"

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Since hearing about John Kerry's cringeworthy "stuck in Iraq" goof I've been Googling away to discover if there is any truth behind the accusation he didn't make. I have to confess I've always believed in the 'stupid grunt' stereotype, but according to some credible studies I'm dead wrong.

I can't possibly imagine how I arrived at this conclusion. These people are perfectly content to be herded into the world's toilet to fight a farcically unwinnable war for no logical reason, under the auspices of an incompetent leadership (who at least have the common sense to never have served in the military themselves) for a salary they could earn flipping burgers in the comfort of their own home town. It should have been clear to me from the start that what we're dealing with here are no less than Einsteins-in-the-making!

Except when you see a group of soldiers holding up a "hilariously misspelled" sign supposedly as evidence that Kerry is clueless about the intelligence of the infantry serving in Iraq, you have to wonder. You'd have to be pretty dim to swallow the GOP-spin that Kerry - at the 11th hour of the midterms - would deliberately set out to alienate the swathes of the American populace who are either serving in the armed forces, are related to someone who is, or who pretend to support the troops while secretly thinking they're idiots for throwing their lives away on a wild goose chase they don't fully understand.

Another myth, I'm told, is that people don't join the army because they quite like the perk of being given free reign to bully and murder foreign baddies, civilians or whoever happens to be available at the time. I expect IT technicians don't choose to work in the IT industry because they like working with computers either. I'm wrong about a lot of things.

Convert owt to owt (ish)

You can't have failed to notice the current web 2.0 trend of taking commonplace computing tasks online. Everything from virus scanning and making backups to writing documents can now be performed from within your web browser; the advantage being that you can take your 'applications' with you wherever you go and never have to worry about updating them (or paying for them in most cases for that matter).

One of the latest tasks to be given the online treatment is file conversion. What stands out about web services Zamzar and Media Convert is that they'll have a stab at converting pretty much any kind of file to an appropriate, alternative format. This is ideal for those of us who only convert a file once in a while and can never remember the name of the application you need to process one thing or the other when the need arises.

The downside is obviously that whatever you want to convert, first has to be uploaded, and then downloaded in its altered state, so how useful these services are to you will ultimately be determined by the speed of your internet connection.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Backup your entire Blogger blog in under 2 minutes

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For my next party trick I'm going to show you how to perform an entire backup of your Blogspot (aka Google's Blogger) blog in three idiot-proof steps.

This technique requires no software other than a web browser so you can put your offline site sucking tools back in their box. Neither will any template modifications or configuration alterations be necessary. Your backup will consist of a single html page containing every entry ever published in sequential order, a handful of miscellaneous css files, plus any images you have posted, no matter where they are hosted.

Should disaster strike you won't be able to use your backup to instantly restore you.blogspot.com as you might with an automated import script, but likewise this would be the case if you instead chose to follow Google's tortuous advice, or employed an offline browser (which I should point out would save multiple copies of the same posts in addition to all kinds of superfluous fluff).

Here's the procedure...

1. Scroll downwards through the list of dates in your 'blog archive' sidebar until you reach the year in which you began posting and click on the link.

The URL - minus the spaces which have been inserted to trigger word wrapping - in your address bar will look a lot like this:

http://kookosity.blogspot.com/ search?updated-min= 1999-01-01 T00%3A00%3A00Z&updated-max= 2000-01-01 T00%3A00%3A00Z&max-results=13

2. The URL in this example instructs Blogger to display all the posts created between the first day of 1999 and the first day of 2000, though if you extend the 'updated-max' date to reflect the date of your most recent post (or just set it way ahead into the future) and boost the 'max-results' limit to include all your entries you can force Blogger to cram everything onto one page.

3. Make your adjustments, press return and then save the output in "web page, complete" format (if you're using Firefox) to a safe place on your hard drive.

The result will look identical to its online counterpart so can easily be absorbed by the naked-eye (as opposed to an RSS interpreter for example). Beats pulling rabbits out of a top hat, eh.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Farepak who stole Christmas

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 0

I can't decide which of my two favourite recurring themes to file this under; it's a toss up between 'everyone is stupid except me' and 'unloading the emperor's new clothes'.

Prior to going bust this month, Farepak, was the best-known Christmas hamper and food/gift voucher supplier in the savings scheme market. The idea is that you set up a direct debit to issue monthly payments to the company, and then as Christmas approaches they issue you with either a modest hamper or the privilege of purchasing overpriced food or gifts from their own store. In effect they operate as a bank who profit from investing your money, but don't reward you with interest payments. Not only do they not pay you any interest, you actually pay them for sitting on it.

Believe it or not this bizarre scam appealed to thousands of people. Some thought it was such an ingenious concept they even signed up to become proselytising agents for Farepak. I expect they're having second thoughts now the company have gone into administration leaving them high and dry.

Of course it's atrocious that Christmas this year is going to be pretty much null and void for these low-income families (while the managing directors of this crooked firm stuff their faces with luxury mince pies and port at the Hilton), but you've got to wonder what they were smoking when they agreed to pay Farepak to take their cash. Even if they'd stuffed their savings under a mattress and let it gather dust it would still be there by the time Christmas rolled around. Rocketry it's not.

What have they got against grown-up money? The fact that it can be spent anywhere, or that - providing you don't shop at Harrods - 100 pennies equals a pound?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Disciple of Zod, Non, lives...

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...and equally shocking, speaks. Quite a feat for a mute alien whose only notable utterances are grrrr and uhhrrr!

Superman The Movie director, Richard Donner, had already completed 75% of Superman II when he was unceremoniously dismissed from the project by producers, the Salkind brothers. He was replaced by UK director, Richard Lester, who was at the time better known for his involvement in a slew of embarrassingly cheesy 'comedies' and his collaboration with The Beatles.

To Superman fans he is the anti-christ; the clueless usurper who transformed their beloved Man of Steel into a camp caricature. For Lester to be credited with the director title it was stipulated that he would have to be responsible for at least 51% of the Superman II footage. To meet this demand he set about re-shooting Donner's scenes, laying waste to decades of the hero's esteemed heritage. Lester's vision incorporated a number of excruciating, slapstick, pantomime routines, some unfathomable dialogue and at least one major plot hole.

Ever since its release, Superman purists have been petitioning Warner Brothers to allow Donner to restore his far superior cut of Superman II. Only recently did they concede to these pleas for sanity to prevail - it is due for release on 28th November this year!

While searching for a definite d-day on the IMDB message boards I stumbled across some insightful posts by, none other than, erm... Non, aka Jack O'Halloran.

Jack kindly gave up some of his time to answer a mixed bag of fan questions. A few tidbits I managed to glean from his replies include...

~The actor has spoken to Bryan Singer about the possibility of himself, General Zod and Ursa appearing in the sequel to Superman Returns.

~How the caped crusader regained his super powers after relinquishing them so he could become a mere mortal and be with the love of his life, Lois Lane, will be revealed in Donner's cut.

~In response to suggestions that Donner was fired due to creative differences or an inability to work within the film's budget, Jack insists that neither statement is true, but doesn't offer any other explanations even when pressed.

~Lester is an ice cream cone, Donner is a banana split.

Seeing Jack spring from nowhere to mingle with the proletariat got me wondering how many more celebs may have graced us with their presence on the IMDB forums. I decided I'd trawl the net looking for clues, construct a staggeringly protracted list of them and post it to my blog. People would travel from far and wide to witness the spectacle and I'd be awarded a Nobel prize for writing the most cunning blog entry of the 28 known universes. Then I thought, "sod it! - it would take forever and life's too short".

For more details of Donner's cut of Superman II refer to this Wikipedia article.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Free TV guide and scheduler for UK EyeTV users

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Prior to EyeTV 2.0 we were stuck with the default EPG (or electronic programming guide), tvtv, a premium subscription service. Now a subtle new feature allows you to switch to a totally free alternative known as DVB Guide.

The advantage with using an EPG rather than, say Radio Times online, is that you can schedule recordings with a mere two mouse clicks, plus the information is instantly accessible because it's retroactively downloaded to your computer. The alternative can be a real chore: find the show you want to record, click 'new recording', give it a name (and optional description), set the date, start and finish time, select the right channel and click OK.

Here's how to ditch tvtv:

1. Open up the 'EyeTV Programs' menu by poking the rectangular button in the upper right corner of the virtual remote control.

2. Select the 'Channels' panel and highlight all the ones you want to receive listings for via the EPG. You can hold down the shift key and click on the first and then last item to choose all of them, or hold down the option key and click individual items to highlight a non-contiguous range.

3. Click on one of the downward pointing arrows in the EPG column and change 'tvtv' to 'DVB' within the drop down menu.

4. Switch to the 'Program Guide' panel, right click and select 'Update DVB Guide'.

To schedule a recording you would either browse the listings for a show or type its name into the Spotlight style search box, select it with a left click and then push the 'Add Schedule' button.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Lemmicide

Thursday, October 05, 2006 1

'Cos I'm dead clever I've known for a long time that the popularly held belief that lemmings commit mass suicide as a means of self-regulated population control is a myth. What I wasn't aware of until now is the origin of this legend.

As it happens it's all Walt Disney's fault - well more accurately it's the fault of people who watched the 1958 Disney nature documentary 'White Wilderness' and didn't listen to the narration carefully enough.

The film depicts a herd of lemmings mindlessly plunging over the edge of a cliff and into the 'sea'. Despite being good swimmers, the critters are unable to battle against the 'tide' indefinitely - rendered immobile through exhaustion they eventually drown and are seen floating in a watery grave.

The rodents' behaviour wasn't captured in-situ, the 'sea' was really a lake in Canada and their leap of doom was all staged - the poor creatures were actually hurled to their deaths by the producers. Nice, though we shouldn't be too surprised considering how the same animation house dispatched Bambi's mum more than 20 years earlier.

As interesting as this is, the film has been misinterpreted. The narrator refers to the lemmings' compulsion to keep moving, not to engage in hari-kari. Their goal is to migrate away from their current densely populated habitat where food and space are scarce. They dive bomb en bloc into the 'sea' because they have poor eyesight and so mistake it for a lake which they would otherwise easily be able to cross on their pilgrimage to the Great Valley (TM).

"...and so is acted out the legend of mass suicide and destruction of a species it would seem to be", the film concludes.

This is the answer to the opening precis:-

"In this land of many mysteries it's a strange fact the largest legends seem to collect around the smallest creatures. One of these is a mousy little rodent called the lemming. Here's an actual living legend. For it's said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the arctic and as often happens in man's nature lore it's a story both true and false as we shall see in a moment."

It doesn't mean an avalanche of suicidal lemmings intentionally sacrifice themselves to allow the Chosen Few to stretch their legs and swing a cat or two.

You can watch the critical segment of the film here and read more about the mockumentary here.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

USBatteries

Tuesday, September 26, 2006 0

Knowing how flaky built-in MP3 player batteries can be I decided to buy one which runs on replaceable AA power. This way the whole device wouldn't have to be trashed if the battery alone gave up the ghost.

With USBCells you can have the best of both worlds. Flip back the cover on these 1300mah AA NiMH batteries and you'll find a plug which can be inserted into a standard USB port to recharge them - in other words, they're a battery and charger rolled into one compact package. The process takes 5 hours; you'll know when they're ready to rumble because the LED light will switch off.

USBCells cost £12.99 for a pack of two including VAT and delivery.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Postal movie distribution; a solution looking for a problem?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006 0

So I don't get any smart alecks pointing at me and laughing at my utter stupidity, I'll start this post by saying, I've got to be missing something here. These services must exist for a perfectly logical reason, I'm just too dumb to see what's staring me in the face, dancing a jig and singing, "here I am, look at me" at the top of its anthropomorphic voice.

Right, with that disclaimer firmly in place I've given myself free reign to be as simple-minded as I like and get clean away with it.

You've all seen these companies that specialise in sending you x number of DVD movies through the post for a fixed monthly fee. You compile an online list of must-watch-before-I-die movies, hand over your credit card details and wait for the first one to drop through your letter box. When you've seen it, you pop it into the prepaid envelope, bung it in the post box and they send you the next one in your queue. No more visits to Blockbuster, no more late fees, no hassle and lots of cheap movies. Great stuff, hallelujah!

So why is this considered revolutionary? People have been beaming movies straight to their TVs via Sky and cable for years now... all without the aid of Postman Pat. I'm not talking about setting up a subscription to Sky Movies either. I mean the 'Box Office' movies where you get to pick and mix what you want to watch by tapping a few buttons on your remote - the charge appears on your phone bill and the movies are 'delivered' instantaneously as if by Jedi mind trick.

Only recently did the music industry get its act together by adopting - rather than fighting - the Napster distribution model. So far their 'gamble' has paid off. Piracy is still rampant of course, but lots more people are choosing to purchase their music instead of stealing it. Any previously untapped revenue generated through this channel, above and beyond £0.00, I'd say is a bonus.

The movie industry has timidly followed suit in a limited way because movies are so much more cumbersome to punt around cyberspace. Imagine how fat your 'toobs' would have to be to stream, or otherwise disperse, video data via traditional, non-swarming mechanisms. Nevertheless, it strikes me as odd that Tinseltownians and movie distributors are expending so much energy debating the issue at all when Sky and cable make bandwidth issues irrelevant.

All Warner Brothers, Sony, Miramax et al need to do is grant the TV networks permission to close up the time frame between a movie appearing at the cinema and it being available to buy or screen in people's homes. Either way the studios would be employing an intermediary so that can't be the issue. Presumably the consumers who are in the habit of renting movies aren't concerned that they don't get to keep the physical discs so this is surely a moot point.

I just don't get it.

Friday, September 15, 2006

ABC explains it all

Friday, September 15, 2006 0

Anyone - even whole nations - can make an honest mistake, but re-electing George Bush after enduring four years worth of embarrassing faux pas and horrifically inept foreign and homeland policy decisions is nothing short of criminally stupid.

Two years later I still wonder how the hell it happened. I've contemplated all kinds of wacky scenarios from alien mind-control technology to ballot tampering (OK so envisaging this one doesn't require a supreme leap of faith).

When I stumbled across an ABC News poll taken in February 2004 it all became clear; context is the key. The survey examined the percentage of Americans who believe that selected biblical parables are literally true.

The most unsettling disclosure has to be that a whopping 60 per cent of the participants stated they believe the story of Noah's ark and the great flood really, truly, actually happened exactly as depicted in the old testament.

Let's take a moment to step back and consider some of the finer details of this tall tale:-

Sprightly 500 year old Noah (along with his wife, sons and their wives) spent 120 years - using nothing more than primitive hand tools - building a 450 foot boat. A boat which is significantly longer than the largest wooden vessel ever constructed - the 338 foot Pretoria schooner-barge, which incidentally broke apart and sunk in 1905 during a violent storm.

In a time frame of only 7 days Noah loaded 30 million different animal species (including prehistoric ones!) and sufficient sustenance to keep them alive into the ark and sailed around for a year and a day until the flood water receded.

Experts with too much time on their hands have calculated that this would take approximately 35 years to accomplish and each animal would have to be squeezed into a space the size of a golf ball. This, of course, is assuming all the animals had previously been gathered from around the globe and were waiting obediently on the shore ready to board the ark - a feat other analysts believe would take a further 684 years!

Once bath time was over, the same merciful, benevolent god who wrought this carnage upon the entire animal and human population conjured a rainbow in the sky as an everlasting symbol of his covenant with Noah (he promised not to obliterate any of his creations again, even if he was having a really bad day). This is why rainbows appear to this day whenever the heavens open on a sunny day, don't you know.

60 per cent.

Yep, I can believe the same people elected a borderline retarded chimp in a cowboy suit to rule the richest, most powerful nation on earth.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Virtual jukeboxes

Thursday, September 14, 2006 0

The web is currently abuzz with talk of an evolving breed of push-button, 'two-dot-oh' services that allow you to name a tune and have it streamed to your computer instantaneously and for free (as opposed to those that feed you music deemed similar to the bands or artists you type in). This is predominantly thanks to the people behind BlogMusik, a new French outfit who have adopted the concept and slapped a cutesy iPod-like, Flash interface on top to get the fad-followers salivating.

BlogMusik draws its content from Radio Blog Club, which in turn taps into music uploaded by bloggers. Every genre of music is catered for, some of it belonging to multi-platinum selling artists and some the work of unknowns.

Common sense would suggest that unless the copyright holders of this material are receiving royalties from BlogMusik et al, they are likely to be breaking the law and will soon be squished into oblivion by music industry watchdogs. If this is true, the case against them must be progressing treacle-treadingly slowly because similar well-established startups such as Streampad, Fine Tune, Webjay and The Hype Machine look pretty healthy to me. Maybe the limitations imposed by the streaming protocol serve to bolster their legitimacy? I don't buy the, "it's hosted in France so anything goes" tack. Could it be that such technology is considered less of a threat to the music industry because people will still want to own physical discs, or at least digital files which can be transferred to any device and played anywhere?

While it is possible to rip the music you listen to through BlogMusik (you only have to search your computer's internet cache for .rbs files and rename them to .mp3) it remains to be seen if anyone will be inclined to do so considering the low bitrate of the music files made available.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Real Player radio on demand

Tuesday, September 12, 2006 0

Earlier in the year I wrote a post explaining how to go about converting web-based, Real audio radio streams into a more portable format. Since then a new-ish Mac application has emerged to streamline (see what I did there?) the process even further.

In the spirit of granny-proof Mac software, Stream Recorder does everything for you without asking any complicated questions or pestering you with inane dialogue alerts and requires no ancillary software. There are no parametres to tweak before you begin recording; you simply drag 'listen again' links into the application window and leave it to generate an MP3 file, which can then be transferred to your not-necessarily-Apple-branded MP3 player.

There's a clue in the title of the app, but for anyone who hasn't yet had their first coffee of the day, Stream Recorder captures audio in real-time so it's prone to connection drop-outs unlike the Flashget / HiDownload / Net Transport / Mass Downloader plus Switch method (which involves downloading .ra files via a resumable download manager before converting them locally).

That said, it performed flawlessly when I tested it with two three-hour, 32 kbps broadcasts. It could be that the application has some sort of built-in blip recovery gizmo in place, but as I haven't experienced any yet I can't be certain one way or the other. If not your recordings are no more susceptible to premature coma than they would be if recorded using better established software like Audio Hijacker - on several occasions whilst 'hijacking' BBC radio streams, Real Player has ceased transferring data and Audio Hijacker hasn't known how to pick up the ball again.

In each case Stream Recorder churned out a 163mb MP3 file encoded at 128 kbps. This seems to be the application's default - and unalterable - setting, though as you're unlikely to find web audio streams encoded at a superior bitrate I don't see it as a limitation. Well unless, at the other end of the spectrum, you're running low on flash memory capacity.

One feature I would like to see included in future releases is a timer to indicate how long a stream has been recording. Oh and it wouldn't hurt to drop the redundant, obligatory association with the iPod. Otherwise Stream Recorder gets a big thumbs up from yours truly.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Flash some flesh and boost your blog traffic

Thursday, September 07, 2006 0

Promoting your blog offline isn't easy; billboard and newspaper real estate is expensive, while radio and TV air - or screen - time is totally out of the question for most hobbyists. To really make an impact you have to think outside of that dog-eared old box marketing schmucks are forever jabbering on about.

So what would be the most cost-efficient and persuasive medium through which to foist my message onto the unsuspecting public? My own body of course, it's perfect! It's mine to do what I want with and - according to the local police force's log book - gets plenty of exposure.

As long as I wear my boob tube and never change my blog's URL I'll have a source of high-vis self-publicity for life.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Cash on Delivery

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Here in the UK we have this half-baked, government-run get rich quick scheme called 'child benefit'. To qualify for this handout you don't need to be homeless, destitute or disabled, only to be the guardian of a child under the age of 16, or a 'big kid' under the age of 19 who is in full time education. Your first-born sprog is worth £17.45 a week and any additional ones earn a bonus windfall of £11.70 a week, all tax free. Child benefit isn't means tested in any way so a billionaire duke - in the eyes of the law - is just as entitled to it as an unemployed, wheelchair-bound single mother. I'm sure some of their ilk must claim it too as statistics reveal that child benefit is taken up by nearly 100% of the eligible population.

Rewarding strangers for exacerbating Britain's overcrowding crisis will cost tax-payers an estimated £10.153 billion between 2006 and 2007 (according to the HM Revenue & Customs Spring 2006 Departmental Report). It makes me wonder what other luxury items it's possible to claim compensation for. For instance, is there a champagne allowance I'm not aware of? I hope so - why should I spend my own money when I could liberate some of yours?

A stick sharpened at both ends

For years experts and amateur observers alike have been debating what does and doesn't constitute art. Personally I don't understand why the issue is considered by so many fence-sitters to be unfathomable, so I'm going to lay the matter to rest right here and now.

A composition is definitely not art if putting it together requires no creative talent whatsoever. There, done, it's that simple. If the opposite was true anyone and everyone could be considered an artist and the word would immediately be expunged from the dictionary; 'human' already covers every member of the populace.

Quintessential to this pretentious, manufactured is-it-isn't-it tug of war is Kira O'Reilly's Inthewrongplaceness. Let's get real here: this work of whatever consists of a deranged naked women hugging a dead pig for four hours. No Kira, it's not about "pigginess, unexpected fantasies of emergence and interspecies metamorphoses", it's a larger-than-life warning against the perils of 'care in the community' programmes. Yes dear, the experience may have left you "making fiercely tender and ferocious identifications with the pig as stand-in, double, twin, doll and imaginary self", but that doesn't make what you're doing art, does it.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The science faction of re-animation

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At a loose end I found myself watching a schlocky gore-fest of a horror film called Re-Animator. It features a goofball scientist who capitulates to his unhealthy obsession with reviving the dead by injecting them with what looks like a radioactive magic serum. Of course this being a comedy-horror, his hapless subjects aren't returned to the land of the living in prime mental or physical condition; they are transformed into zombiefied, slathering imbeciles. They develop super-human strength and plunge headlong into murderous rampages - some even do so without their heads!

Aside from wishing I could have the 90 minutes I invested watching this trashy nonsense refunded, the film got me wondering if the events portrayed really are as far-fetched as they first appear. No, bear with me. We know doctors are able to defibrillate patients back to life shortly after their heart has stopped, so the real brain-teasers are:-

What is the shelf life of a human or animal corpse? If they're brought back after, say, 10 minutes, will they continue to function normally? What is the cutoff point?

Can internal organs be substituted for man-made contraptions in order to keep an organism alive? If so, which ones are viable?

Is it possible for a decapitated brain to retain consciousness? How long for, and under what conditions?

The following research aims to answer some of these questions:-

As far back as 1940 the Russians were killing and resurrecting dogs in the name of science. This video demonstrates the artificial sustenance of a heart and lung when isolated from the body, the mechanical resuscitation of a dog whose blood has been drained to bring about the cessation of heart, lung and brain activity, and the reactions to various stimuli of a dog's dismembered head! The ill-fated canines weren't the only sick puppies in this scenario! As a dog lover it turns my stomach just thinking about it. A Wikipedia article on the experiments can be found here.

More recently a US scientist claims to have yanked a three-hour-dead dog back from the other side. The procedure entailed draining the dog's blood thereby forcing the heart to shut down. A cold saline solution was then pumped into its blood vessels effectively lowering its metabolism to bring about a state of 'suspended animation'. After three hours had elapsed blood was pumped back into the dog and its heart was defibrillated.

Again in the US, a similar method has been used to save pigs from - artificially induced - certain death. The doctors are now seeking approval to trial the technique using human car crash and gunshot victims. Let's hope if they get the go-ahead they'll let their wounds occur naturally.

The freaky case of Mike the Headless Chicken goes some way towards explaining how the body of a bird adapts to life without a head.

For some truly disturbing human examples refer to this article.

You won't be laughing when your pickled undead head is languishing in a jar on the mantelpiece... [Dr Evil little finger to the corner of the mouth thing] or will you?

Friday, August 18, 2006

I won't tell you again!

Friday, August 18, 2006 0

Movies You Should See is a Podcast You Should Listen To - it's so side-splittingly funny you won't mind being told what to do in the least. In each zany, ad hoc episode Richard Smith, Allison Downing, Mike Dawson, Craig Bevan and Tristan Ofield attempt to make the case for why your life won't be complete until you've watched the elected movie of the week, assuming they can remember what it is.

Mostly though you shouldn't need much cajoling. Unless you've been living under a Wi-Fi Enabled Rock, you won't be tuning in for advice, you will have seen the plugged movies dozens of times and bought the accompanying lunch box and posing pouch. To be honest, if you're not familiar with the movie up for discussion you'll feel like an Alien in New Yorkshire. The crew do provide synopses though they're often quite scanty, so relying on the podcast as a celluloid divining rod isn't recommended.

A more appropriate title might be, 'If You Haven't Seen Star Wars Go Out & Buy It, Stick It In Your DVD Player, Thoroughly Digest It & Then Come Back & Listen to Our Podcast', but that wouldn't roll off the tongue quite so smoothly, and would only apply if they were pimping Star Wars, which they haven't yet. This is by no means a criticism, it's meant as a helpful tip to ensure you get the most out of the show.

Movies You Should See's meandering, ADHD-addled style is what makes it so compelling. It's like earwigging on a pub conversation, except the participants are still sober and know what they're talking about because they're in the biz themselves. The off-topic rants and did-you-know? tidbits are as entertaining as the planned-ish discussion points.

For instance, the recurring ITV-dialogue-mangling segment has me in stitches every time; to make movies more watershed-friendly the British network, Independent TeleVision, like to dub over any language they - in their dubious wisdom - consider offensive. Well, to be fair to them I think sometimes it's the case that they simply opt to broadcast official, alternative, TV-friendly versions of movies. Whatever the source of the edits they're trivia gems. One of my favourites comes from Caddy Shack: with a swish of the almighty Wand of Political Correctness the line, "hey everybody, let's all get laid" becomes, "hey everybody, let's go take a shower". Unsurprisingly expletive-littered gangster films are butchered to a greater extent. I don't care whose company they find themselves in, hardcore Mafia bosses do not use phrases like 'melon farmer', 'muddy funster', 'flip you', 'jeez Loueez' or 'forget you'.

It turns out that this meddling isn't restricted to audio; ITV/whoever even went so far as to edit the text on the sandwich board John McLane is coerced into wearing in Die Hard With a Vengeance to read "I hate everybody" rather than "I hate niggers". This fouls-up the significance of the entire scene because he was specifically made to stroll through Harlem - home of The Brothers - where he would inevitably find himself on the receiving end of a jolly thorough bottom spanking.

I've always been fascinated by the decision making process involved in cutting certain scenes from movies, and the way creative editing can radically alter the narrative and character development. All this is covered in depth, as is the reason director's cuts are sometimes little more than spurious marketing gimmicks concocted to sell you movies you already own.

MYSS is a refreshingly rough and ready blend of quick-witted banter, insightful observations and analysis and insider film production geekery (did you know the pioneering, pre-CGI arrow-eye-view shots in Prince of Thieves were created by simply attaching an arrow to the side of a camera mounted on a track, sliding the entire rig towards its target and then speeding the whole thing up?). There's nothing else quite like it.

If you want to sample MYSS without the 'commitment' of subscribing to the podcast I can highly recommend the Arnie-bashing special. It's hysterical from start to finish.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Is it a bird, is it a plane?

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Nope, neither, it's a web page masquerading as a Word document. Work Friendly is a free web service that serves one purpose; to aid and abet surfing on the job. It operates by channelling a web site of your choice through an authentic-looking mock-up of an MS Word application window. Because any graphics are omitted and text is reformatted to look entirely business-like no-one would know you're not slogging your guts out for your employer.

It's pretty much foolproof, but it wouldn't hurt to err on the side of caution - if you bite your lower lip and appear sufficiently harassed and downtrodden your boss will assume it's just another typical day at the office and leave you to it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Look out, the world's behind you!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 1

If I was into drinking games and took a swig every time a CTU agent asked to be "patched through" to someone in the TV series, 24, I'd be velly, velly dlunk.

Another good trigger would be the occurrence of dodgy logic arising out of a complete lack of understanding of what goes on beyond US borders.

Here's a great example from series 2, episode 6...

Tony: "You're doing business with a known terrorist [actually he wasn't, though his fiance was] and you're going to sit there and tell me with a straight face you don't know what's going on?"

Reza: "I grew up in London. I'm marrying an American girl, a protestant. So, if you're going to racially profile me, you should at least get it right."

Tony: "You ever hear of the Finsbury Park Mosque? It's considered one of the main recruitment centers for Islamic terrorists in the West [don't know about 'main', otherwise this is true]. Our main targets are European Muslims with Western educations, passports and the potential to blend into Western society. And do you know where that mosque is located? Your hometown, London. So tell me, Reza, how's my racial profiling going now?"

Reza: "I want a lawyer."

Tony: "No."

So to qualify as a terrorist these days you just have to live in a city where known terrorists gather to conspire? Of course London is so minuscule everyone lives under the same roof and is on first name terms with the Queen's Corgies. I wonder if this scene raised any eyebrows amongst US audiences. I hope so.

Actually London covers an area of 609 square miles and has a population in the region of 7.5 million. That's a hell of a lot of terrorists! Maybe we should be gearing up to nuke the place in the interests of public safety.

Incidentally, the Finsbury Park Mosque line was cut from the UK version of the episode - if the Imam had spotted it he would probably have threatened to set Allah (pox be upon him) on Tony.

Firefox, patch me through to my post button. Go, go, go!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Faunal ponderings

Monday, July 17, 2006 2

I've been giving serious consideration to bat poo.

Gingerly entering the Twilight Zone bat cave at Chester Zoo my first thought was, how am I going to survive this experience without getting plastered with bat guano? (the collective, scientific term for the droppings of seabirds and bats). I wasn't so much concerned that bat droppings make excellent gunpowder - I'd lived through the Manchester bombing after all. I just didn't want to get any in my hair.

Once my eyes had acclimatised to the dark I scanned the walkways for evidence of aerial bombardment of the faecal kind, and found none. That's interesting, I thought; I know from watching nature documentaries that bats are known to do their business mid-flight as well as when roosting. In light of our hypersensitive compensation culture I reasoned that people wouldn't be allowed to wander about in this environment without the protection of a helmet. Therefore until someone can prove otherwise I'm going to make the logical leap that these bats are trained to only fire when circling above peopleless woodland areas. Any stray payloads are likely genetically analysed and paired with the offending bat, who would then be punished by way of withholding fruit and other privileges like watching old Batfink re-runs on TV.

Milling around the rhino enclosures I was struck by another conundrum. There aren't any Vietnamese Javan rhinos at Chester Zoo, but they do make reference to them on the information panels dotted around the viewing area. One fact bite said there were "only 2-7 Vietnamese Javan rhinos left in the world". Two to seven. Just think, a single drunk safari tourist in a jeep could wipe the entire species off the face of the planet! This is shocking and depressing in itself of course, but why be so vague about the population count when it can be totted up on two hands? It can't be that they are dispersed throughout the country, roaming the wilderness in difficult to reach, unmonitored areas because I know they are all located in the same habitat, the Cat Tien National Park.

Wouldn't you think if there were so few remaining members of a species in existence they would be known individually by pet name, electronically tagged and guarded round the clock by an elite squad of Green Peace, animal-defense guerrillas? At the very least they should be allowed to unwind in lavish palaces, freely partake in on-tap beer and assorted delicatessen and have their every whim satisfied by a team of doting soubrettes. While they were reposing I'd expect a throng of gynaecologists to be feverishly instructing their sperm in all the best fallopian tube navigation/ovum penetration techniques to improve their chances of procreation.

Find out what you can do to help at the International Rhino Foundation web site.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The food industry is contaminating our cyanide!

Monday, July 10, 2006 1

I can understand people getting upset about food manufacturers foisting noxious additives and preservatives upon consumers through the consumption of supposedly healthy products, but this is bordering on farce.

Here in the UK we're about to embark on a major trans-fat crackdown. Trans-fat is man-made gunk produced by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil (a process known as hydrogenation). It's added to a vast range of food to prolong its shelf-life and stabilise flavour; a home run for the food industry, but certainly not for your arteries, heart or waistline.

So to stay fit and healthy you'll be anxious to know which back doors these sneaky trans-fats are breaching so you can nail them shut, right? Are supermarkets injecting the stuff into celery and carrots after the witching hour to evade detection? Nope. Get this. They're found principally in all the products you'd expect to make you obese when consumed to excess, namely fast food, chocolate bars, cookies, creamy gateauxs and so on.

On which planet is it rational to wolf down a Triple Heart-Decimator Burger with a jumbo side serving of Artery-Annihilating Fries from McLardy's and then get your knickers in a knot because your diet contains fat E as well as fats A, B, C and D?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Recovering 'lost' or 'forgotten' Windows passwords

Thursday, July 06, 2006 0

Give me a second to catch my breath...

...

Much obliged. Here I am sprawled out before a computer quivering from a mixture of exertion and trepidation. Sporting my Milk Tray, all-black, covert ops gear - with the aid of a set of ankle and wrist suction cups - I've just scaled the dizzying pinnacle of an office block, delicately scored and removed a section of glass and sneaked inside.

Still clamped between my teeth is a CD; it's an 'Ophcrack Live CD', "the fastest Windows password cracker". As I remove it from the opaque, foil-sealed packaging, the angel-devil tag team perched on my shoulders begin to quarrel over the pros and cons of inserting it into my office computer's CD drive to 'recover' the administrative password.

Not being privy to this information is seriously hampering my ability to perform all sorts of trivial operations such as installing the driver for my new printer and the Java plugin for Firefox. I'd be embarrassed to call tech support and have them traipse all the way over here just to enter the admin password. Besides, I'm sure they have more pressing matters to attend to... like watching rapping chimps on YouTube.

Actually, that's only half the battle. On several occasions I've bumped into one of the techies who happened to already be over here on an unrelated mission and asked them to do the honours, leaving them to get on with it while I'm away. When I got back, nothing had changed so I presume they were inadvertently distracted by a YouTubian limbo-dancing giraffe.

So you see my predicament. Do I keep on badgering the techies every time I need a 'i' dotting or a 't' crossing, or throw caution to the wind, run the Ophcrack Live CD and risk being lynched by the IT department's elite SWAT team?

That looked suspiciously like REM transpiring between the gap in my blinds. I'm outta here...

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The shocking truth about Fox News

Tuesday, July 04, 2006 1

I've always assumed Fox News is a cunning and deeply ironic satire of the Russian revolution - in particular the plague of chronic propaganda which seized the Soviet Union during this era.

Watching the documentary, Outfoxed has convinced me otherwise. Apparently Rupert Murdoch's 24 hours a day current affairs station is a genuine attempt at serious news broadcasting. Who'd have thunk it?

I doubt very much I'm the first person to have jumped to this seemingly logical conclusion. Bill O'Reilly parrots the mantras 'Fair and Balanced' and 'We Report, You Decide' so frequently and with such stony-faced conviction that you can only assume he's an actor playing the part of a Goebbels-esque caricature. How was I to know that ordering his prey - I mean guests - to 'shut up' and cutting their mics whenever they began to rattle his prejudiced, narrow-minded little world view wasn't all part of the pantomime?

In the light of this expose, clearly I'm going to need to revise my theory. As shocking as this sounds, could it be that Fox's function is to act as a shameless vehicle for republican disinformation? If that's the case I can only guess that Bill and his cronies are having a laugh at the expense of their oblivious audience. Why else would they ram the bare-faced lie 'fair and balanced' down their throats at every opportunity and in the same breath proclaim that everything is honky-dory in Iraq and George Bush will keep them safe from the bogeyman?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Up RIAA Creek? $19 may buy you a Paddle of Impunity (TM)

Monday, July 03, 2006 0

According to a recent Boing Boing post a pioneering new all-you-can-eat music buffet download subscription service is now available to anyone lucky enough to live in Sweden.

For a paltry $19 a year you are given free reign to chomp your way through as much copyright protected music as your paunch will accommodate safe in the knowledge that 'Tankafritt' will pick up the tab should you be sued by the RIAA.

That was the gist of the spokesperson's press junket wasn't it? :|

Sounds like a real steal (ho ho) to me, until casual file sharing is declared a crime punishable by jail time that is. Under these circumstances maybe Tankafritt will also supply a doppelganger to break rocks on your behalf.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Hello? Is this thing on?

Thursday, June 29, 2006 1

You've got your anti-virus package installed and it's greedily sucking up system resources in the background, but is it actually doing anything useful besides blinking and looking authoritative as it languishes in your task tray? You'd have to be crazy to track down and execute a live virus to find out for sure. Luckily there's some middle ground - it goes by the name of the Eicar test file.

This is a plain text file you create yourself by pasting an alpha-numeric string of characters into a Notepad window. If your anti-virus application is paying attention it will detect the presence of the 'virus' as soon as you save the text file to disk and offer to take action to extinguish the supposed threat.

When I tried it at work, McAfee kicked its behind into orbit a split second after it touched my desktop. Nice to know it's not just a pretty face.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Scannerless scans R go

Wednesday, June 21, 2006 1

If you occasionally need to digitise paper copies of documents and own a digital camera, but not a scanner, this service might appeal to you. It takes a snapshot of a document or whiteboard, cleans it up, re-aligns it and generally makes it more legible for screen reading. To this end it does an admirable job.

As I was more interested in scanR's ability to decipher and transform the characters found within an image to make them more accessible I decided I'd test the service using a pre-scanned article from a magazine rather than a photograph. The results were less than impressive. Highlighting specific parts of text within the generated PDF was very hit and miss, and the chunks I attempted to copy and paste in no way corresponded to my original selection. It is possible to extract all the text from a document and paste that into an editor, but a lot of painstaking massage would be required before you could do anything useful with it.

To be fair to them, nowhere on the scanR web site do they rave about their software's ability to perform optical character recognition beyond the functional level required to index documents by keywords. Nevertheless you'd expect this technology to go with the territory. It would be like buying a kettle only to discover that boiling water isn't an option with your chosen model.

It may not do proper OCR (or boil water for that matter), but you can't fault it for box-ticking, Web 2.0 zeitgeist. With its abbreviated/missing vowel chic scanR can't fail to be a hit with the hip txt-speak generation.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Can you give me a call to discuss it?

Friday, June 16, 2006 1

What is it with people who refuse point blank to reply to emails? No matter how quick and simple your enquiry may be they insist on turning it into a conference. While it's true my dulcet tones can be equated to aural manna, is it really necessary to force me to employ them quite so often?

Compare the two scenarios:

1. At your convenience and only when you have all the pertinent information in front of you, you email a question to someone. They respond to your enquiry once they've dug out whatever paperwork they need to refer to in order to help you whenever it's most convenient for them to do so. You both go on with your lives with minimal fuss. End of story, everyone's a winner.

2. You email someone with a question and they reply with a request to phone them instead, leaving you with a general office number. Grudgingly you dial the number and a secretary or colleague of the person you need to speak to answers. You explain who you are, what you want and who you need to talk to. They sound miffed because you're not calling to speak to them personally and resent forwarding your call. You hear a ringing tone again, but either no-one answers or you're greeted by a robotic recorded message. You either leave a message, in effect kick starting a spiralling game of phone tag, or ring back later.

If they're in their office and pick up the phone, once again you have to go through all the kerfuffle of explaining who you are, why you're calling and worst of all pretend to be interested in the well being of someone who is likely a complete stranger, and will forever remain one after you've hung up. You wait a moment for this information to register and then the person on the other end of the phone goes off to gather any paperwork relating to your enquiry while you hum, twiddle your thumbs and dream up creative ways of torturing e-phobes.

Because they've misheard some of the information you provided they haven't been able to locate the paperwork your query relates to so they return to the phone to ask you to repeat it. You give them the correct details and off they toddle again leaving you dangling on the line for what seems like an aeon or three.

Eventually you resolve the issue, exchange pointless social niceties and go on your way... until the next time he or she - who has clearly learnt nothing from the previous encounter - insists on repeating the process.

There are endless reasons why in many cases it's more practical to use email; confidentiality for one. When I want to ask my fashion guru whether Estee Lauder Pure Pops Berry Twist, Maybelline Water Shine Liquid Diamonds or Dior Kiss Luscious Lip-Plumping lip gloss would better compliment my fuchsia PVC super slinky mini dress I don't want to do it out loud in front of a room full of people. They might get the wrong idea.

Who on earth does all this faffing around on the phone actually benefit? Are these people earning commission from British Telecom? I know poor old BT are in for a rough ride what with Skype beginning to take off, but this is ridiculous. Bash out a quick email and we can both tick it off our to-do lists. Am I right or am I not wrong? It's one of the two.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Recorded Amiga Games

Tuesday, June 13, 2006 0

Recorded Amiga Games is the premier source for Amiga game speed run, long play and high score movies, and not just because it's the only one in existence.

The site serves to host video captures of exemplary gaming sessions immortalised by way of WinUAE's output feature. All genres are represented and the movies are available as either direct or BitTorrent downloads.

If using cheat codes and trainers to reveal all a game has to offer seems too much like hard work, this is the perfect compromise. Please note that I sound sarcastic only because the dial on my crankometer is stuck in the 'overkill' position. Honestly I'm a big fan of this project. I love kicking back with a mug of coffee and watching far superior gamers than I ever was making mincemeat of the end-of-level baddies who floored me way back when.

I've always been curious about what strange worlds and wacky inhabitants await beyond these merciless critters and how the loose ends will be tied up in the finale. I know I'll never have the patience, time or dexterity to plod through to the end of all these games myself so this is the next best thing.

I've even found myself checking out some of the games I thought were totally overrated just to see if they miraculously became more entertaining after advancing past the stage where I would typically be vaporised, beheaded or otherwise dispatched. They didn't actually (especially in the case of the Shadow of the Beast series), but at least now I know I wasn't missing out on anything.

In particular I was looking forward to savouring the 'closing curtains' sequences of many games for the first time. I was genuinely taken aback by just how feeble many of them are - even some of the ones annexed to the most highly acclaimed titles. The developers must have reasoned that since so few people will cross the finishing line, it's not worth the trouble of applying the same rigourous quality control standards to this portion of their work. Either that or they simply got bored or ran out of steam.

Whatever the reason, flashing a vanilla "The End" message on screen for a nano second before fading to black somehow doesn't strike me as an appropriate reward for spending countless hours plugging away at the same game into the wee small hours of the night. It's like getting to the final page of Lord of the Rings and reading, "...and then Frodo woke up - it had all been a dream".

I can appreciate the "journey, not the destination" approach to most aspects of life, but surely the budget would have stretched to a couple of party poppers and some silly string.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Tales from the crypt

Thursday, June 08, 2006 1

Are you spoilt, narcissistic, have more moolah than you know what to do with, and ready to kick the bucket in the near future? Then why not consider investing in the ultimate family resting place? For a mere £200,000 (or $372,000) you could be the proud owner of a palatial mausoleum constructed using the finest white granite set in Florida's charming and picturesque Daytona Memorial Park. Thrown into the bargain is a selection of tacky window dressings and architectural trinkets to include Greek pillars, chandeliers, intricate brass fittings and family portraits.

This is the entry level model; the deluxe tomb will set you back £300,000 (or $619,000). You could feed half the population of Ethiopia for that!

Hilda Peck who already has her plot staked out has no qualms about exploring her tomb-to-be:

"I don't feel any different, I'm not dead. Someday, I will be, but I won't know it. Everything is already done and I know exactly what it's going to be like even though I won't know it when it happens."

Well why bother then you silly wench? Put the money towards doing something which will actually benefit the living.

Lowell Lohman who runs this horror show attempts to justify his customer's self-absorbed decadence:

"As you see the weather across the country with floods and hurricanes, I think that's had a lot to do with an increase in mausoleums. A lot of families just don't like to be in the ground."

Have they never heard of cremation? Arrange for your useless bodies to be torched and be done with it. It's not rocket science.

Ironically, here in the UK we've been contemplating the problem of overcrowding in graveyards. Some of the possible solutions proposed include exhuming abandoned graves and recycling the space, adding extra bodies to existing graves and tacking on headstone engravings to commemorate the most recently departed, 'double-decking' whereby bodies would be stacked many layers high and upright burials as opposed to more traditional horizontal ones.

We don't have enough real estate to house the living so why we're digging our own grave when it comes to the dead is beyond me.

 
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