Thursday, April 27, 2006

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Bridging the celluloid gulf

After attending another show biz party, my usual limousine failed to materialise and I was left stranded in town. What is a young luminary like myself to do when faced with such a predicament? Infra indignitatem aside, I decided my only recourse would be to phone for what the common people refer to as a 'cab'.

My butler is forever glued to that awful documentary revolving around the everyday lives of the *sniff* proletariat residing in cobble-clad Manchester squalor. 'Coronation Street' I believe it's called. One of the central characters, Steve McDonald, operates a taxi firm known as 'Street Cars' and I had seen his lackeys driving his fleet on numerous occasions. The phone number 0161 715 1515 is prominently displayed on top of each vehicle so unsurprisingly the digits had become firmly lodged in my psyche.

I tried ringing, but the number didn't seem to be in service, and after the sixth attempt I gave up. What kind of a taxi firm doesn't make sure their phone line is working on the busiest night of the week? A shoddy one! It will be an icy day in Hades before I call Street Cars again. Hmmff! I did get home safely that night, eventually, though wasn't best pleased at having to pay the pilot of my private helicopter double-time for dragging him out of bed to escort me back to the palace.

I'm not one of these poor deluded souls who can't spot the difference between fiction and reality so when Clark Kent's email address ( flashed on screen in an episode of Smallville I watched recently I didn't reflexively reach for the mouse to make contact.

If I was a bit feeble-minded and disposed to slipping into fantasyland I might have committed the address to memory and fired off a plea for help in the event of an emergency. It must be pretty handy to have a personal hotline to Superman after all. Say, just for example of course, my life had taken a literal downward spiral and I happened to have a wi-fi enabled Blackberry with me I could tap out a quick email like so...


I've got myself into a bit of a sticky situation and was wondering if you would mind lending a hand. What it is you see, I'm currently hurtling at breakneck speed towards the ground having fallen from the window of a hundred storey skyscraper and fear I could be in for a bumpy ride.

Anyway I'd be much obliged if you could see your way to catching me at the earliest possible convenience. I don't want to put you to any trouble of course, it's just that I'm wearing an expensive designer t-shirt and it would be frightfully disagreeable if I were to get it all blood-stained and messy.

Yours hopefully,


...and if I really had sent such a desperate message, which I definitely didn't, again just for example, I might get a response like...

From: Mail Delivery Subsystem To: Subject: Delivery Status Notification (Failure) Date: Tue, 25 Apr 2006 07:39:59 -0700 (PDT)

This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification

Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently:

Technical details of permanent failure: PERM_FAILURE: SMTP Error (state 9): 553 5.3.0 ... User Does Not Exist

You're not buying a word of this are you? OK, I confess; I did ask Superman to swoop to my rescue, and because he didn't get my message (probably because he's since switched to Gmail) I wound up splattered in a gooey pool of my own gore.

What you probably didn't see coming is that, in a Sixth Sense-esque he-was-dead-all-along twist, I'm typing this from the grave.

For anyone who hasn't yet seen The Sixth Sense, a major spoiler precedes this warning.
With hindsight I really should have emailed the original and best Superman, Christopher Reeve, whose email address ( was also revealed in the same episode of Smallville. He'd have known what to do.

Despite having joined the ranks of the unliving, which isn't as much of a handicap as you might imagine, I haven't entirely lost faith in celebrities and their ability to respond to their fans' correspondence.

Take Homer Simpson for instance. He has an email address ( and isn't afraid to use it. His courteous, convivial, wise and timely responses to fan mail bespeak a man of character esteemed with integrity and venerable lineage.

I think I'll add him to my AIM friends list.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Cracking RSS feeds with a sledgehammer

The way we stay up to date with our favourite web sites has evolved over the years. First there was spontaneous surfing, then came email newsletters, while today we have much more versatile RSS feeds. Whether you fall into the 'Rich Site Summary' or 'Really Simple Syndication' camp, RSS stands for super-efficient information delivery, when, where and how you want it.

Ironically software developers have taken this nimble content filtering system and made it overly complicated and cumbersome by urging people to engage it through specialised news aggregation clients. What on earth were they thinking? You wouldn't fire up web browser X expressly to perform Google searches and then switch to web browser Y solely to check out eBay, so why book yourself in for a logic bypass before embracing RSS feeds? Installing an extra piece of clunky software to access readily available, web-based information is commensurate with loading your fully-functional car onto a transport carrier and driving the hulking menagerie to the corner shop to pick up a bottle of milk.
Thankfully the whole world hasn't gone insane. Rmail takes this beautifully simple information-gathering technique and keeps it simple by allowing you to subscribe to RSS feeds and receive the updates via email. You don't even need to register to take advantage of the service; enter your email address and the web feed of the site you wish to track and you're good to go. No bloat, no fuss and it's 100% free.

I've been using Rmail for several months now and couldn't imagine going back to trawling my regular online haunts for changes. It's had the most marked impact on the way I monitor Digg for new tech stories. Whereas I used to load up the Digg home page and open all the stories I was interested in reading in a new tab until I'd caught up with my previous session, I now let the geekery come to my doorstep.

The title and description of each story to hit the front page is emailed to me as an individual message. Gmail tags them with the 'Digg' label and they are immediately archived to keep them separate from my more personal correspondence. When I've got time to catch up, I click on the 'Digg' text link in the sidebar and read the stories sequentially. I always know where I left off because I delete the email associated with each story after I've read it - perfect for those occasions when you can only spare 10 minutes at one sitting. It makes a heck of a lot more sense than lining up 40 tabbed articles and hoping that Firefox doesn't crash before you have chance to absorb them all (something it's been doing a lot since I 'upgraded' to version 1.5). You'd think Session Saver would help, but on many occasions it seems to develop an impromptu case of goldfish memory syndrome leaving you high and dry.

If you've got your own blog, it's also possible - by inserting a short snippet of HTML code - to offer visitors the means to track your latest ramblings via Rmail without leaving your site. Seeing as you aren't required to know anything about RSS feeds to subscribe to them in this way, even the technically challenged will be able to keep up to speed.

Don't roll your doe eyes at me Yet Another RSS Aggregator/Client/Reader/Grabber/Organiser/Widget; your days are numbered.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


The things you learn about deaf people from TV schedule coordinators

Having one of those silly little job thingies to go to first thing in the morning, I tend not to stay up all night watching TV. Forgo your "awwwws, really it's OK"; rarely there's anything good on during the wee small hours anyway so I don't feel too deprived. That said, under a blue moon anything can happen. The other night there was a film showing during the graveyard shift which piqued my interest so - having regained my composure following this reality-assaulting mishap - I set my computer to record it.

When I settled down to watch it the following night I was disgruntled to discover that the lower right corner of the screen was obscured by a prancing pixie. He was waving his limbs about vigorously and feigning interest in the plot by means of exaggerated facial expressions; sign language I believe it's called.

If it was subtitled, deaf, or hearing impaired people could read the script to stay in the loop, and everyone else could disable them to fend off unescapable eyeball ensnarement. But oh no, that would be far too logical; let's instead have a drama school drop-out rooted in the corner of the screen throughout the film thesping his way through an overly hammy rendition of Feel-Good Community Theatre for Junior Schools. Why the transition? Surely much of the dialogue (and a sizable chunk of screen real estate!) is lost in translation. I find it hard to believe deaf people prefer this mode of delivery.

Why is it you never see 'signed' films being shown during the day? Are we to believe that deaf people by virtue of living in a silent world are all somehow blighted by photo-sensitivity disorders, sleeping during the daylight hours and awakening from their crypts to watch TV as soon as the sun goes down?

Maybe when the TV execs get together to discuss the upcoming schedules they reason that they can get away with showing celluloid detritus at night because there will only be deaf vampires watching who, also by virtue of being deaf, have poor taste and so will watch any pap you throw at them.
The next thing I learnt about these deaf, jobless (they're unemployable too apparently - that's another reason they don't need to sleep at night) night-crawlers is that they're a bit simple. This I gleaned from watching a scene in which the protagonist went on a date with the girl of his dreams and didn't commit any major faux pas. He was so chuffed with the outcome he skipped around a field, jubilantly waved his arms in the air, and clenching his fists in triumph shouted, "yes, yes, yes, woo-hoo", or words to that effect, as a footballer might after scoring a goal. To convey this intricate and subtle emotion to the deaf (and therefore dimwitted) members of the audience, our screen-squatting pixie mirrored the actor's celebration, albeit with the vigor of John Coffee walking the Green Mile for the last time. Good job too; without him filling in the blanks, the hapless deaf viewer might have missed this nuance of the narrative.

And what about all the work which goes into creating the right ambience? If two lovers are on screen watching the sun go down from a candle-lit balcony overlooking an idyllic seashore paradise you can really do without having some muppet flailing about in the periphery like a drowning puppy. Look up 'mood killer' in the dictionary and I bet you this scenario will feature in the definition.

Despite his best efforts, the signer didn't ruin the film for me - I decided it was drivel long before he got the chance to boil the blood in my veins to the point of a lethal eruption, turned it off and unceremoniously deleted the file.

To be fair to him, he wasn't entirely without redeeming qualities; he did have the good grace to vanish from the screen whenever the cast fell silent after all.