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.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Big Book of British Smiles

Tuesday, June 06, 2006 12

There are times when I'm astounded by the cultural acuity of some our 'special' relations, the Americans. Recently I came into contact with a group of US exchange students through work. We met and broke the ice by making small talk, as you do.

"How are you enjoying your stay in the UK?" I enquired. A predictable opener, but you've got to start somewhere. After commenting on the miserable weather (fair point I thought), they turned their attention to the British populace.

"Your teeth aren't as bad as I expected them to be", one of them chipped in, and the others tipped a synchronised nod of agreement.

"What was she wittering on about?" my inner voice demanded of my grey matter (it didn't have a clue incidentally). The Brits are renowned for exporting football hooliganism, underage (and overage for that matter) binge drinking and grudgingly providing a cushy refuge for a parasitic, out of touch monarchy, but I didn't know we were in any way defined by the state of our knashers.

It would also likely be news to the highly astute Swiss guy who characterised us as follows...

Being British is about driving in a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, and then travelling home, grabbing an Indian curry or a Turkish kebab on the way, to sit on Swedish furniture and watch American TV shows on a Japanese TV.

And the most British thing of all? Suspicion of anything foreign.

(Swiped from an email circular I received. The original source is believed to be a British tabloid rag)

As diplomatically as possible I asked Dolly, Britney or whatever the air-head's name was what she meant. Big surprise! She couldn't tell me, despite being certain that the British somehow have 'bad teeth'. After an awkward, shifty-eyed moment or two we moved on.

Ever since I've been wracking my brains trying to come up with an explanation. In case you didn't know, the UK is part of one of the richest, most well developed continents in the world. Our health care system leaves a lot to be desired, but - believe it or not - we do have the odd qualified dentist knocking about the place (often in a luxury sports car though that's another issue). So why on earth should the teeth of British people be markedly different to those of Americans, or at least appear that way to foreigners?

My best theory so far concerns the dissemination of British history in American schools. Could it be that the Elizabethan period is the only one covered? Let me explain; it was during this time when the sugar trade spun into overdrive, having first been imported to England from the Atlantic island of Madeira in 1319. Because the availability of super-sonic jets, helicopters and speed boats was limited, any goods that had to be shipped from abroad cost a small fortune, and consequently could only be indulged by the upper classes and nobility. Said toffs got hooked on the stuff and - in the absence of sensible hygiene practices - sure enough their teeth turned black. Rotten teeth soon came to be associated with wealth, hence they were seen as a status symbol; something for the rich and poor alike to aspire to. This wacky fashion fad became so pervasive that people would actually have their teeth artificially discoloured to convey an air of sophistication. I kid you not.

In 1598 a German traveller by the name of Paul Henter popped round to Queen Elizabeth I's pad for tea. I expect he couldn't help noticing that her mouth had become a festering, abscess-filled cess pool populated with putrid stumps which presumably had once been teeth. Nevertheless he was more subtle than me (the wimp was probably fretting over losing his precious head to the blade of a guillotine) and so only cautiously pointed out that her teeth were black, "a defect the English seem subject to, from their too great use of sugar".

Could this single quotation account for the British bad teeth myth? Probably not; our propensity for sugar is apparent throughout history. For instance, Charles Dickens makes reference to it on 102 separate occasions within his collected works. Dickens' novels, which indubitably feature a statutory levy of dentally-challenged street urchins and undesirables, have since been turned into screenplays and exported to the far reaches of the globe. This can't have helped to diminish the cement-like bond between the English in particular and rotten teeth.

In any case, to make sure I wasn't missing some unique feature of the American way of life that serves to specifically protect the teeth of its inhabitants I set about comparing the World Health Organisation's oral health data for both the US and the UK (yes, it's been a very slow day). I shouldn't have been in any doubt; after all Americans consume more sugary, nutrient-deficient gunk than any other nation on the planet (their supermarkets are death-traps - I know, I've shopped in them) so why should we expect their teeth to be in superior shape? In reality they're not, evidenced by the fact that tooth decay is the second most common disease in the United States. Tooth decay is actually a huge problem globally, but that doesn't detract from the home truth that it's no less of an issue in the US.

To demonstrate this we can compare the DMFT (an indicator of the prevalence of Decayed, Missing and Filled Teeth) statistics between countries. For 12 year olds living in the UK this equates to 0.9, while the figure for 12 year olds living in the US is 1.75. The global average is a marginally healthier 1.61 (source). The significant caries index is a more recent yard stick used to assess the extent of tooth decay. The 'SiC' Index for 12 year olds living in the US is identical to that of 12 year olds living in the UK (when the figures for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are averaged) (source). This 'disparity' is hardly grounds for bundling us all off to Ripley's Believe It or Not! Maybe the abundance of oral cancer is a better predictor of general mouth ickiness, and the Americans run rings around us in that department. Nope, the figures don't bear this out either. The US has an incidence rate of 1.66 per 100,000 people (source), whereas the UK average is 1.035 per 100,000 people (source).

That's settled then. Americans are watching black and white period dramas set in Blighty in days of yore, and shrewdly intuiting that the closest we come to encountering modern dental care is wrenching out owie chompers with a length of string and a slammed door. Cor blimey guvnor, I think I've cracked it! Would you Adam and Eve it?

Of course we've been stereotyping the Americans for years so you could say we deserve what we get. I disagree; it's perfectly fine for us to pigeonhole them because our labels are founded on genuine observations garnered through personal experience. I won't apologise for drawing conclusions from the fact that a hefty chunk of the US electorate voted George W into office, twice!

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