Thursday, 30 November 2006

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Special - not Magic - K

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 gateaux 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, 28 November 2006

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Dogs can't look up

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, 26 November 2006


Greetings from the north pole

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?
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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, 19 November 2006

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Deciphering the indecipherable

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-Frankenstein's-monsters 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, 14 November 2006

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Holy ear perforation Batman!

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.

Ticking the 'A/52 dynamic range compression' check-box in VLC's preferences panel 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. Within VLC's 'extended controls' panel, located under the 'window' menu, you will find a 'volume normalisation' audio filter. As before it's not difficult to guess how the tool-tipped check-box 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, 13 November 2006

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

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 pulverise 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 militarise Korea's demilitarised zone. Oxymoron anyone?

Sunday, 12 November 2006

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Pick 'n' mix RSS feeds

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, 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, 10 November 2006

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Taking out the G-Trash

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, 9 November 2006

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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 sizeable portion by way of their newly uncorked Co-Op web app.

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, 8 November 2006

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My First Search Engine. Porn and spam sold separately.

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.

Tuesday, 7 November 2006

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

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 like Zamzar 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, 2 November 2006

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Backup your entire Blogger blog in under 2 minutes

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 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 (link now dead and not saved by, 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: 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.