Thursday, December 20, 2007

Behold, I've found Jesus!

Thursday, December 20, 2007 1

...and appropriately enough he's a sandman; well his preaching always used to put me to sleep. See how I casually threw that folkloric reference in there to demonstrate how culturally aware and quick-witted I am? Golly-gosh-darn-it, I even astound myself sometimes. All the while you've been looking for signs of the surfalicious one in toasted teacakes he's been chillin' with his homies on Maspalomas beach, Gran Canaria, just outside the Varadero Centre.



Also basking in the afternoon rays a few feet away are The Simpsons reenacting their infamous couch scene pose. Does anyone know if it's the same one which appeared on Digg about a month ago, or at least another creation by the same artist? If you look closely at the full size image you can see this one is looking a bit worse for wear, though I'm surprised it's still recognisable at all after the pelting it received from the previous night's downpour. Whatever he glazes them with must be pretty potent stuff.



The artist put the finishing touches to this one shortly before I snapped it so it's still in pristine condition. Absolutely stunning work; such a breath of fresh air after mooching through the tacky tourist tat paraded alongside Playa Del Ingles. Not an ornamental, peelable, banana-male-member hybrid in sight thankfully!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Hmmm-vee

Wednesday, December 19, 2007 2

A particularly captivating episode of Brian Dunnings' Skeptoid podcast entitled 'SUV Phobia' (transcript available on the linked page) kick-started my rusty neural cogs. The crux of his argument is that it's fallacious and naive to scapegoat SUVs for their supposed poor fuel efficiency and excessive output of carbon emissions because many of them "are mechanically identical to conventional cars"; they are manufactured by slapping an overbearing, gangster-bling style shell over the top of the chassis of a typical family car. This really surprised me because until now I'd allowed myself to be hoodwinked by the shallow aesthetics of these performance hulks.

Brian goes on to apply the same logic to GM's H2 Hummer as it's essentially a cosmetically tarted up Yukon, but in defending SUVs in general, I think he skirts over the critical fact that the Yukon is far from an eco-friendly springboard on which to build a mechanical sheep in wolf's fur. I won't pretend I know the first thing about cars - I Googled the Yukon because my stubborn preconceptions wouldn't let me acquiesce to the possibility that Humvees may not be the vehicular incarnation of pure, unadulterated depravity.

A comparison chart of 1042 vehicles ranked in order of fuel efficiency compiled by Corporate Knights Inc., a Canadian corporate responsibility watchdog, seems to confirm this. Re-sort the Excel data in order of annual fuel consumption and the various Yukon models emerge as some of the worst offenders, occupying positions 788, 821, 875, 881, 897, 934, 949 – 951, 979-983, 1004, 1005, 1022 and 1034-1038.

So while Brian's other unduly slammed candidates mostly fair exceptionally well in the low emissions/fuel consumption stakes I uphold my recommendation that all Hummers, military spec or otherwise, be banished from civilian roads, crushed and dispatched to Room 101 in gleaming, miniature, cubic parcels festooned with pretty, little bows. Environmental considerations aside, we all know the caliber of low-lifes who drive these road-hogs, and this alone should be just cause to obliterate them (the vehicles, the owners, or both - I'm not going to quibble over the minutia).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Cushty Canaries?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007 0

Despite all Gran Canaria has to offer, the impression I've returned to Britain with is predominantly one of aesthetically pleasing - though crumbling - shopping plazas full of dodgy Arabs hawking fake electronics at too-good-to-be-true prices. For reasons which escape me, electronics boutiques make up a third of all the businesses on the island - the other two thirds comprising 'international' restaurants (aimed at mindless Brits who don't find it at all odd that they've spent over 4 hours on a plane and flown thousands of miles to eat pie, chips and mushy peas and drink pints of Boddingtons) and purveyors of tacky tourist knick-knacks.

Drop your guard for a split nanosecond by revealing the most fleeting gesture of curiosity in something in the window of one of these out-of-their-time bazars and you're doomed. You'll be pounced on by a greasy wideboy replete with perma-grin and Euro symbols in his eyes. Then begins the patter; "Ah, I see you have a camera. Would you like to buy a camera, sir?" Letting them in on the secret that you already have a camera won't deter them. Next they'll want to sell you some useless gimmicky peripheral for it. If you don't bite their hand off at the first offer, the price will be slashed in half, and half again following the next rejection until it reaches a figure you could expect to pay in Jessops who aren't exactly known for their giveaway prices.

To them, if you've stopped to look at their merchandise they've already done you a favour and it's your duty to return it by letting them talk you into buying something you don't want. Tell them you're not interested, or you're just browsing, and you'll be interrogated within an inch of your life. They actually take it as an insult, or at least feign deep offense to make you feel guilty enough to change your mind.

One shop owner went so far as thrusting a video camera into my hand (which he claimed I could snap up for a meagre 20 Euros) and commenced dragging me into his den by the elbow to seal the deal. A dozen textbook scams played through my mind as I struggled to shake him off. I wondered if he was going to stage a clumsy fumble and blame me for dropping the camera on the concrete paving slabs and then demand compensation for the damage, sell me an empty shell or go for the fail-safe maneuver of stringing me upside and shaking my pockets empty. As it happened I somehow managed to walk away unscathed and unpickpocketed. "Can I interest you in a top quality Sony radio?", he pleaded desperately as I shuffled away into the distance. Ironically I was in the market for a radio, which was precisely why I stopped to gaze through his window in the first place.

Where they're going wrong is that they've spectacularly failed to associate their heavy-handed haranguing of potential customers with these walking-wallets scarpering for the Guanche caves. British people (who make up a large bulk of the tourists in the Canaries, I can't speak for the Germans) don't like to be told what to buy and when. If we want advice we'll ask for it. Likewise, if we've decided to buy something we'll attract your attention, cross your palm with silver and be on our way.

Clearly your current sales technique needs a drastic overhaul. You're not going to arrive at such a dramatic epiphany by yourselves so let me make some suggestions...

  • Mark your goods at the fixed price you'd be willing to sell them for, not ones which allow you to slice and dice them to the power of ten to make it look like you've been brow-beaten by a wily haggler.
  • Don't slap extortionate price tags on three-generation-old technology like cassette walkmans. What on earth is your angle here anyway? Nobody wants to buy this stuff so they're never going to engage in a bartering situation allowing you to play the amenable, fair shop keeper. If people see that one item is overpriced they'll assume all your stock is a rip-off and they'll spin on their heels in a heartbeat. Maybe we're supposed to see retro gear and high prices and think 'collector's item'?
  • Displaying fake iPods alongside the real thing doesn't present consumers with freedom of choice; it only serves to make us think that you've found a more talented counterfeiter, yet still have duff stock to shift.
  • Always put price tags on your goods. By not doing so you may as well display a flashing neon sign which reads, 'I've got something to hide'. Sensible people will not approach you to ask the price of an item because they know that once they do they'll be trapped like a fly in your sticky web.
  • One day even stupid people will have heard of eBay and you'll be up the creek without a rich mug to swindle. This one isn't so much a tip as a dawning reality I take great pleasure in bringing to your attention.
  • Quit it with the faux camaraderie and congeniality. Friendly strangers fall into one of six categories, none of which you should aspire to; cold-callers, paedophiles, muggers, rapists, politicians and bible bashers.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Poles apart

Tuesday, October 16, 2007 0

Since the expansion of the EU in 2004 Britain has witnessed an influx of an estimated one million Polish immigrants. If you dare to point out the repercussions of this open-gate policy you're branded a Daily Mail reader and reminded of the enormous positive contribution these forward-thinking economic migrants make to the country.

Well I've been unfortunate enough to find myself living with a Polish couple, who, granted are determined to improve their economic and social standing through sheer hard work and dedication, though only at the expense of everyone else around them. Yes, it's true, they are dedicated to spending as much time in bed or feeding their faces with other people's food while pretending to seek employment.

They spend what little money they have on booze and cigarettes and then have the gall to complain with utmost sincerity that life here is so harrrd when they can't afford to pay the rent and the meanie of a bus driver won't let them travel for gratis. One of them did have a jarrrb for a short while, but getting all the way to Cheadle proved to be so harrrd that she decided she needed a holiday in Poland to recuperate. We live in Cheadle for christ's sake; her work place was practically on the door step!

And somehow it's the Brits who have a reputation for being 'whinging POHMs'.

I realise that right now I'm not exactly helping to shake off this stigma, but who wouldn't want to vent when you find yourself living with two slobs who do nothing but boil tomatoes and a variety of other pureed sludge and fornicate at 100+ decibels in rotation morning, noon and night and then leave you to clear up the mess?

One of them asked me if I thought the landlady might be kind enough to return their deposit when the inevitable happens and they are asked to leave, you know, if they "explained the situation". What, that you're selfish cretins and expect other people to pay for you to wash and tumble-dry one t-shirt at a time and share the bill for your long distance phone calls to Poland whilst you refuse to so much as empty the bin or wash a solitary cup? Yes, I'm sure she'll be nice as pie, the epitome of empathy. I know where I won't be when she returns to collect their rent at the weekend and the proverbial hits the fan.

If only us lazy Brits (hang your heads in shame, you know who you are!) could adopt their slavish work ethic this country might not be in such a mess.

...and you thought I was going rake up that xenophobic Daily Mail article about Polish people claiming child benefit for kids who aren't even British residents didn't you. Wouldn't dream of it.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Sunglasses; the cause of and solution to all of life's problems

Sunday, June 03, 2007 1

When it comes to protecting your health what you need is clear, practical advice from medical professionals. With this in mind isn't it wonderful that scientists have taken all the guess work out of avoiding skin cancer?

Ophthalmologists recommend wearing sunglasses when outdoors because they help to cut the level of ultraviolet radiation penetrating the eyes. This makes perfect sense because excessive exposure to UV light can cause an assortment of nasty ocular ailments such as cataracts, pterygium, photokeratitis, snow blindness, macular degeneration, and a whole host of eye cancers.

Right, so why wouldn't you choose to cover up your peepers? Well perhaps because wearing sunglasses - as well as warding off cancer - may cause cancer. This is supposedly because the artificial darkness tricks your brain into thinking you're not in danger of being fried by the sun's UV rays and so doesn't instigate the production of the melanocyte-stimulating hormone which thickens and tans your skin as a shield against the sun.

That sounds plausible enough... but fails by a country mile to beat the previously accepted notion that allowing intense sun rays capable of turning your skin a blistered shade of bright crimson before emulating reptilian ecdysis isn't such a good idea. Health advisers are always banging on about daubing your skin in sun cream, but you don't put any in your eyes do you.

I don't know about you, but I'll take a pair of healthy eyes, normal vision and a big dollop of skin cancer with sprinkles and a cherry on top.

While sunlight can cause cancer it is recommended that we absorb enough of it to upregulate the manufacture of vitamin D which facilitates a range of vital bodily processes - those that maintain healthy bone structure and sustain our immune system for instance.

So while we're catching some rays to top up our vitamin D supplies we should cover up to prevent accelerated skin aging (aka skin photodamage) and skin cancer. Hiding away inside from the sun like a hermit would be the ideal solution except that it contributes to seasonal affective disorder and leads to vitamin D deficiency which has been implicated in the aetiology of many forms of cancer.

Sunbeds can be used to combat SAD and increase vitamin D synthesis. Tanning salons will even throw in your choice of malignant melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancer such as squamous or basal cell carcinomas for no extra charge, while we destroy the planet with our clown-sized carbon footprints.

EyeTV MP3 playback

I may be stating the obvious here, but as it's not mentioned anywhere in Elgato's FAQs I thought this might be worthy of a tech tip entry.

EyeTV (at least version 2 anyway), as well as playing back externally created video files is capable of opening MP3s. So what? you may be wondering. Well this means that if music and podcasts can be opened with EyeTV, they can be paused, fast-forwarded, rewound and generally monkeyed around with using the remote control which comes with your TV box/stick, and this will be helpful to anyone who doesn't sit right next to their computers while they listen to audio.

The way you do this is identical to the procedure for opening third-party movies; by clicking on the 'Open Quicktime Movie' option under the 'File' menu. You see this is obviously the killer clandestine feature Elgato don't want you to know about because, erm... oh you know, for all sorts of nefarious reasons, probably.

Another inconspicuous feature you may be unaware of is that if you keep pressing the increase volume button on your remote control after EyeTV's volume indicator hits its maximum notch, you can continue to boost the volume by ratcheting up your OS's volume control. Most sensible people would normally stop at this point, but apparently not me.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Geek criminals should be made to work harder to earn their jail cells say Finnish courts

Monday, May 28, 2007 0

Mikko Rauhala, the owner of a web site where instructions for circumventing CSS DVD copyright protection were posted will not be prosecuted. The decision made by the Helsinki District Court resulted from the adherence to a 2001 amendment to European copyright laws that state it is only illegal to defeat "effective technological measures".

Knowledge pertaining to outwitting DVD copyright protection has been widely available on the internet since 1999, and a plethora of idiot-proof applications designed to automate the process are merely a mouse click or two away, rendering CSS barriers defective.

You've got to marvel at the Catch-22 of this judicial loophole. Cracking copyright protection is only illegal while it's too tricky to accomplish. As soon as someone susses out how to do it, the protection can be deemed ineffective and the perpetrator of this heinous crime against society walks free.

I'm hoping the same laws apply to bank robbery because my local branch of Barclays has this really flimsy safe and the only security guard patrolling the area always leaves his post at 9.00am to buy a bacon sarnie from the greasy spoon next door.

Hey, if everyone does it, it must be OK. ;)

Monday, May 14, 2007

Uninventing the search engine

Monday, May 14, 2007 5

Don't you hate it when stuff just works? It's predictable and boring, and if you ask me, anything falling into this category should be sabotaged immediately to spice things up a little.

Many web coders clearly share my view because this is precisely what they've been doing with their previously accurate, efficient and dependable search engines.

Take Googles' Image Search for example. Imagine your typical day; you're surfing the web when a sudden impulse to track down a picture of Spiderman wrestling a T-Rex grips you with full force. You visit Google Image Search and type in the keywords 'spiderman', 'wrestles' and 'trex'.

Now you wouldn't imagine there would be all that many depictions of such a scene so it would be reasonable to expect a return of say less than half a dozen hits at the most. Well you'd be wrong; supposedly Google currently indexes 1030 images of the web-shooting wonder getting down and dirty with the "last and largest known carnosaur".

It's curious that amongst these 'hits' are images of King Kong, random politicians, The Simpsons, Bambi, fish corpses and Wacko Jacko's face embedded in a slice of toast, but none of them remotely resemble what I actually searched for.

The fact that there are lots of pictures containing isolated wrestlers, spidermen and dinosaurs might indicate that Google has applied the OR Boolean search operator to my query rather than the more useful AND one. This isn't the case, however; if you click on the 'Advanced Image Search' link you'll see that the keywords are automatically entered into the "find results related to all of the words" box to demonstrate which kind of search I performed prior to reaching this page. Just to confirm, clicking the search button again at this point returns exactly the same set of irrelevant flotsam.

It could be that I'll never ascertain for certain if Spider-Man (yes, I know that's the correct way to write it) ever unleashed the Pumphandle Michinoku driver II on a 43 foot long, 7.5 tonne 'tyrant lizard king'. It's no laughing matter.

That's just a drop in the ocean. All kinds of search engines across the board are falling prey to Boolean vandalism; software repositories, forums, recipe databases - the list is endless. The digg coders are prime suspects. Try probing it for stories involving two of the widest prevailing bedfellows, the 'llama' and 'blamange'. Go on, guess how many hits there are for this keyword combo. 89! That's eighty-nine, EIGHTY-NINE!

It appears that contrary to the norm, you can crowbar the AND operator in between them to narrow down the field, but why wouldn't this be the default setting to begin with as it is with Google? (well, the text search element of Google anyway). You wouldn't dial 999 to report a crime and when asked, "which service do you require" reply police... OR a florist please, either will do. So why would it make sense in any other context?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

"Where Have All The Vampires Gone?"

Thursday, May 10, 2007 2

University of Central Florida physics professor Costas Efthimiou has employed elementary mathematics to lampoon cliche vampire folklore as portrayed in popular literature and Hollywood. According to the prof, if - starting in the year 1600 - the first vampire sunk its fangs into one human per month, and that human subsequently metamorphosed into a vampire and went on to feast on another human, the entire human population would be eradicated in under two and a half years.

Well I have a different theory which demonstrates how unbeknownst to the majority of the populace, humans and vampires currently co-exist in perfect har... well a close approximation of a harmony of sorts.

According to European, Chinese and Indian legend, vampires suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder which manifests in the insuppressible impulse to count particles of grain, sand, sawdust, rice, poppy seeds and a variety of other multitudinous identical items. To keep the bloodsuckers occupied and out of mischief should they rise from their coffins to feed, people would scatter such pacifiers throughout graveyards. They'd be so engrossed in the task of gathering them all up that before they could shriek "bright light, bright light!" the sun would begin to ascend in the sky forcing them to seek shelter until the following night where the process would be repeated Groundhog Day stylee.

This technique is effective in warding off achluophobic vampires, but not so much against the newer breed of vampire that have evolved to withstand sunlight and walk shoulder to shoulder with their unwitting victims.

Keeping these blighters in check is one of the few things we have the reptilian humanoid Illuminati (or Global Elite) to thank for. You see, these extraterrestrial prison warders - otherwise known as the Babylonian Brotherhood - from the constellation Draco compete with the daylight vampires for human blood (the hybrids sired through cross-breeding with humans consume it to transform themselves from reptiles to hominids, duh!) and so it is in their interests to assure the survival of the species.

To achieve this end the Illuminati have been remotely controlling vampires through the use of advanced brainwashing neurotechnology. With their penchant for frenzied bean-counting and parasitic jugular-mauling in mind they have been coercing the pliable vampires to sublimate their urges with (arguably) less destructive occupations. Hence we have swathes of apparently human creatures hell-bent on becoming traffic wardens, chancellors (of the exchequer), tax inspectors and inland revenue administrators.

To wrap up, we are artificially being kept alive today by the very existence of penny-pinching, Neo-Nazi, public servant vultures (aka sedated vampires). It's obvious really if you think about it. I dare anyone to propose a flaw in the theory.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Coloureds still getting a raw deal

Sunday, April 15, 2007 0

Is this happening where you live? Have Mr Green, and his inseparable buddy, Mr Red, been unceremoniously punted from their pedestal? There were riots in the 50s when the blacks were treated as second class citizens, but today, apparently it's OK to discriminate against reds and greens.

The ones in my locale used to perch proudly atop a tall post at either side of the road separated by a zebra crossing. Waiting to cross, pedestrians and LED shepherds faced one another directly. They made eye contact and had mutual respect. From their lofty position they could be seen by everyone from a hundred yards away. They were so well placed you could drop your gaze to check your flies are fastened and still a deft flicker of their bulbs would register in the corner of an eye alerting you that it's safe to cross.

The system worked so logic decrees that it must be scrapped. The pedestrian (or pelicon) crossing lights in my home town have all been replaced with kerb-facing, waist-high LED boxes. Consequently if there are a few people waiting to cross, the lights are entirely obscured forcing you to guess if you're likely to be squished into the tarmac should you decide to make a move. Call me crazy but isn't this counterproductive given that we now live in a compensation culture, nanny state climate where aspiring to be good little, rule-abiding, safety-conscious citizens is the order of the day?

Let's make a leap of faith and assume you can actually see one of these new white elephants. You're going to look a complete prat gawking at it like a snake charmers' transfixed pet, rather than casually watching the traffic flow whilst keeping your eyes peeled for a colour change.

It must have cost a fortune to ditch all the old - yet perfectly adequate - lights in favour of these new contraptions, so common sense would suggest that they must bring with them certain benefits. There has to be a rational explanation for implementing such an expensive scheme on a town-wide scale. The trouble is, I don't have the slightest inkling as to what it might be.

Edit: Seeing as this enthralling post has sparked such impassioned debate, I thought you'd be chomping at the bit for an update...

The local council - in recognition that these waist-high LED boxes are, for all intents and purposes, invisible to all but the person standing immediately next to them I presume - have installed an extra 'cross/don't cross' box a couple of feet above the existing ones on either side of the road. All it will take now is for a team of basketball players to move into town and they'll be shunted right back to their original locus. Stay tuned for more sensational pelicon crossing news!

Something I hadn't noticed about the new system until now is that the audible 'it's safe to cross' bleeper signal has been canned, so blind people have even less of a clue when to cross. Are they expected to wave their white sticks into the unknown and only make a move when the twang made by passing cars hitting it ceases?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Oooh those naughty banks are right rotters!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007 7

Money Saving Expert of TV and radio fame, Martin Lewis, has been harping on about reclaiming exploitative bank charges recently. Barclays, for example, charge you £35 each time you fail to pay back your credit card balance on time. Financial analysts with letters after their names have established that it only costs the banks £4-ish in administration charges to process these deficits so the rest is just beer money.

Despite the hefty charges, the same people are continually going into the red and so have been racking up fees totaling many thousands of pounds. Martin has put together a template letter for you to fill in and submit to your bank to reclaim the unjustly pilfered funds and people have been doing this in their millions throughout the country.

This is all well and good, but it's a lot of hassle so I'm here to offer my guide to good money management. Can I have a drum roll please?

...

OK, here goes. If you spend more money than you've got in your bank account, the figure on the bottom line of your statement becomes negative and that's bad because the bank tells you off and takes more money you don't have. The secret is - wait for it - to only buy stuff when you can afford it. That way the numbers on your statement stay black and you don't end up living on the streets.

Now of course there are worthy exceptions to every rule. Say you've got an arrangement for money to be automatically deducted from your account to cover essentials like rent or mortgage repayments or bills and then unexpectedly you lose your job. It's the ones who spend £100 on a handbag and then are shocked to discover that they're broke. No, more than broke, they're severely bankrupt.

Which is another rant in itself. In Britain, if you become very, very bankrupt and have no way of getting back on an even keel (besides getting one of those job thingies, being frugal and paying back the money over a long period of time) you can opt to just right off your debts and start afresh. You're barred from owning a credit card for a while, but other than that you're free to go on another shoe shopping spree at Harrods the next day. Handbags and shoes? This is all starting to sound very sexist isn't it. I didn't mean it to. Just as many men are useless with money, and the ones with handbag and shoe fetishes are the absolute worst offenders.

To sum up (Congratulations if you're still awake. If not, you smell and your nose looks a bit funny and you can't hit me for saying so because you'll never read this): that £35 fine is supposed to be excessive because it's intended to act as a deterrent. You agree to it when you sign the credit card contract with your bank so it's a bit rich to moan about it now. Banks exist to make money. If you don't have any invested with them they can't reinvest it elsewhere. They aren't going to give you money for nothing over and above the 0% interest 28 day repayment policy (which they also profit from) out of the goodness of their hearts, so don't give them the satisfaction of reeling in your debts.

Anyway, look on the bright side. It's only money - it's not as if Barclays are going to come round to your house and repossess your legs is it?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mmmphumpph

Tuesday, April 10, 2007 0

Have you ever watched a film and found it almost impossible to fathom what the heck is going on because the cast all sound like they're trying to annunciate their lines around a giant gob-stopper? Could it be that they've all been held captive in the Marlon Brando school of method acting for the past decade?

A bizarre trend for delivering rapid-fire, hushed dialogue through clenched teeth seems to be gripping Hollywood at the moment. It's so prevalent I wouldn't be at all surprised if we soon decided to adopt lip reading as the official international language of celluloid. I catch these antiquated black and white classics on obscure Sky channels where the entire cast meticulously project the script like microphoneless thespians performing in a Roman ampitheatre, and have to wonder where it all went wrong. The days when TV and movie producers were cognisant of the relationship between clarity of dialogue and audiences actually being able to comprehend the plot are long gone.

Rafts of modern TV shows may as well be scripted in Swahili as so much of their dialogue is also getting lost in translation. If subtitles aren't available, often I'll just throw in the towel, and according to 'The joy of subtitles', an article by the Beeb, I'm not alone. I wonder how many of those six million people using subtitles in the absence of any hearing impairment also keep their trigger finger poised over their remote control's rewind button.

The theory the author postulates to explain the phenomenon indicates why we're just as likely to encounter duff dialogue clarity sitting in a cinema as we are watching a DVD or TV show at home through a traditional TV with tinny stereo speakers.

Even with the best audio system money can buy, on a few occasions sitting in cinemas I've had to restrain myself from grasping for the rewind button in a futile attempt to unravel an indecipherable line. Duh! Mummy always said I was special. ;)

Thursday, April 05, 2007

If Johnny told you to jump over a cliff...

Thursday, April 05, 2007 1

GPS systems often direct motorists down blind alleys or across otherwise unsuitable terrain because, after all, they are only mindless machines. They lack the intricacies of local knowledge and that all important human trait, common sense.

Not the end of the world you might think since no car is going to force you to go where you don't want to. You see they all come fully equipped with a clever fail-safe device called a driver who interprets the computer's suggestions and then decides the best course of action to take. For instance, if your TomTom urged you to plunge your £96,000 Mercedes into a river...

Monday, February 26, 2007

Me 2.0

Monday, February 26, 2007 0

What is it with all these new 'bleeding edge' web technology upstarts churning out useless online services people neither want nor need just to get in on the Web 2.0 'revolution'? Take Tumblr for instance (I wish that was a typo, yawn).

It's pitched expressly towards Webizen X who allegedly has a burning desire to post unblogworthy information, in a blog format. Stuff like disorderly scraps of half-baked ideas and other miscellaneous, incoherent flotsam and jetsam. The urge to verbalise neural hairballs when exhibited by infants or psychiatric patients is known as echolalia. Apparently in the Web 2.0 sphere it's called a 'tumblelog'.

Something else I can't quite wrap my head around is why this theoretically untapped cluster of niche publishers require a separate software solution in order to find their voice. Start a blog, turn off any snazzy features, disable comments, fill it with copious fragments of nothingness, and hey presto, you're Tumbling!

So how do they work in practice? Well the Tumblr FAQ proudly points us in the direction of Project.ioni.st by way of example. See what they've done there? (again!)

I swear if the likes of Davidville (the inventive chaps responsible for Tumblr) keep this up I'm going to dislodge a spoke or two and re-patent the whl (or should that be whe.el?) just to make them look silly.

...and if you think you've tasted the bottom of the barrel, think again.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Subscribe to podcasts without iTunes

Saturday, February 24, 2007 1

Lots of people don't like iTunes and would rather not use it to keep up to date with their favourite podcasts. I'm one of them.

One alternative is to subscribe to RSS podcast feeds using an RSS to email service such as Rmail. You can do this by submitting the feed as you would with any ordinary blog feed. The MP3 files themselves aren't attached to the emails; what you get instead is a description of the episode as it would appear in iTunes, along with a direct link to the MP3 file so you can decide whether or not you wish to download it.

Create a podcasts folder to save your audio in and you have the most lightweight, portable, platform-independent podcatching client available.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Energy saving ace in the hole unveiled

Tuesday, February 13, 2007 4

The business manager of Hazel Grove High in Stockport, England has shaved £16,000 off his schools' £100,000 per year energy and water bill and slashed its 530 tonne carbon payload in the process.

How was this possible? You'd expect some fairly imaginative and dramatic compromises to be implicated wouldn't you. If you guessed that they've revised the dinnertime menu so as to feature nothing but salad and sandwiches, or ditched the traditional boiler-powered heating system in favour of an exercise-while-you-learn personal heat-generating programme you'd be way off the mark.

The solution - as proposed by an eco-friendly 'hit squad' - was to switch off their 500 computers when they weren't in use i.e. after the kids' home time, at the weekends and during school holidays when not a soul would be on the premises to even consider making a single key press.

Pure genius! If you're in the market for a cushy career change you could do much worse than becoming an energy consultant.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ultimate Mac hack: turn your iPod into an MP3 player!

Monday, February 12, 2007 0

Pin back your ears, this is a Kookclusive! Thanks to Isaac Huang and his new application, iPodDisk, you can now access songs stored on your iPod via OS X's Finder. When plugged in, your iPod appears alongside your other drives and folders through the magic of iDisk drive emulation. The mounted drive can be explored with non-iTunes applications, copied from and used as a launchpad for the playback of MP3 files... just like a real digital music player device.

Readers should note that iPodDisk doesn't enable you to also copy music to your iPod - the emulated drive is essentially read-only. If in future revisions Isaac can somehow manage to wangle his way around this impasse, I can really see this iPod thingy taking off. Call me crazy if you like, but I envision the iPod enjoying a worldwide mainstream adoption and going on to become the world's best-selling range of digital audio players. You read it here first!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

'Friendly fire' muppet is a hero!

Sunday, February 11, 2007 0

Nearly four years after Lance Corporal Matty Hull was gunned down in a gung-ho fly-by shooting in Iraq, 'POPOV36', the trigger-happy pilot responsible, has been identified as Colonel Gus 'Skeeter' Kohntopp.

Despite evidence of numerous grave errors and the conclusion of a British Army inquiry - "that procedures were not followed" - neither Kohntopp or his still unnamed wingman, 'POPOV35', have been disciplined. On the contrary, Kohntopp has since become a full colonel (at the time of the incident he was a lieutenant colonel), been "awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service as the chief of A-10 mission planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom" and promoted to the esteemed role of 'top gun', the man in charge of training hundreds of fresh-faced US pilots in the fine art of ground attacks.

Here Kohntopp can be seen proudly posing for the cover of the autumn 2005 edition of Pearls and Rubies, a local Boise magazine. Inside, ironically, he claims that "My best piloting experience has been flying the A10 in Iraqi Freedom. After all the years of training, to go to war and use my experiences to help dispose Saddam from power was the epitome of my career". Clearly putting this minor blip behind him hasn't posed too much of a challenge. The hypocrite goes on to preach: "Honour your values and be true to yourself. You have to live with your actions so make them worthwhile to your loved ones and this great nation".

His best pal and neighbour, Eldon Anderson, goes so far as to call him a hero and accuses the British media of making a fuss about nothing and failing in their duty to show sufficient support for the US-led war on terror.

Meanwhile, in a pitiful damage limitation exercise, PM Tony Blair has said he "deeply regretted" the distress caused to Matty Hull's family by the inquest delay. Apparently the MoD "acted in good faith". That is aside from colluding with the Pentagon in lying about the very existence of the video in the first instance, and then pretending that it couldn't be released to the coroner because it contained highly sensitive classified material, which, if leaked, could pose a serious threat to national security.

All things considered it's a farce worthy of a Blackadder script! No doubt backwater redneck, Eldon Anderson, and his ilk will still need this wholly absurd anti-Americanism thing explained to them.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Of warm mice and screwdrivers

Thursday, February 08, 2007 1

In winter my extremities (fingers and toes) swell up, itch and ache like hell due to poor circulation. The condition is known as Raynaud's and it's a pain in the posterior. To combat the vasospasms which cause your blood vessels to contract (vasocontriction) and reduce the blood flow, you have to induce the opposite phenomena (vasodilation) by keeping warm. I tend to blast my wrists with the hand dryer in the toilets, or run hot water over them.

You can't spend the whole of winter in the toilets so another solution is needed. That's why I bought the *commence breath-holding, drum roll* Thanko USB Warmer Mouse II. It may seem like an odd strategy considering it will only defrost one hand at a time, but it actually makes sense because the wrist you're putting pressure on by using a mouse all day long is going to be the point at which blood flow constriction is at its most severe.

So, the mouse arrived from Hong Kong, worked pretty well-ish for a few hours and then all of a sudden the cursor movement became highly erratic. The very nice, helpful Brando people promised to send me a replacement, and in the meantime I decided I'd dissect the ebbing rodent to see what makes it tick. Despite me using a screwdriver to open it up, I didn't unscrew any screws with it. There aren't any on the external housing so the mouse has to be broken open by force to see what's inside.

To the left you can see a view of the mouse with the top part of the shell removed. The heating element consists of a thin fibrous mat with a copper strip attached at either side. Each strip is connected to the innards of the mouse by a single red wire.

I'm probably asking too much for such a cheap device, but I expected to find some sort of oil-filled miniature radiator under the hood so was underwhelmed by this scrap of material which will only radiate heat into the centre of your palm.

To the right you can see what's under the second layer of the shell (the heating element is segregated to prevent damage to the circuitry). The red wires have been cut to remove the heating element.

The only other aspect of the design worthy of note is perhaps the switch built into the USB cable. This is used to enable or disable the heat function so the mouse can also be comfortably used in summer. It does its job, but I think it was silly to place it so close to the mouse itself because it gets dragged around like a dead weight as you navigate. I might end up Blu-Tacking it to my desk when the replacement arrives.

Maybe I'd be better off buying the Finger Mouse. No awkward wrist positions or pressure should equal no constriction, though I wonder how you stop the cursor flitting back and forth across your screen like a ping-pong ball while you type. None of the reviews I've read mention this.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Autoasphyxiation can be fun kids

Wednesday, February 07, 2007 1

As a rule Mondays are not worth getting out of bed for, except the one just gone was marginally better because it marked the return of Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe.

He spent a good chunk of screen time divulging the intricacies of the BBC's programming code of conduct. Unsurprisingly they take a dim view of advocating behaviour which might induce harm to minors. As an example of a cartoon you're unlikely to catch on CBeebies (tot's TV from the BBC) we were treated to a clip of The Magic Noose in which the narrator explains that by putting their heads through the eponymous tree-mounted hoop, children can be spontaneously transported into the realms of a kiddy nirvana.

I know child murderers come in all shapes and sizes, but this is certainly a novel modus operandi. What I'd like to know is if it's for real, and if so, when, and on what channel it was broadcast. Google searches reveal next to no information about it, and even YouTube which is home to video snippets of every other form of retarded depravity draws a blank.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Business applications are the devil's work

Monday, February 05, 2007 0

Anyone who spends a significant amount of time managing great wads of data for a living will know exactly what I mean. Business applications are clearly designed by robots who will never have to use them, for people who spend 8+ hours a day pleading with the retched things to do as they're told.

Take the Oracle E-Business Suite for example. Firstly it's designed to run inside a web browser which, let's face it, wasn't the most forward thinking decision ever made considering most corporate users are obliged to use Internet Explorer on their AOL-style, walled garden systems.

As if that wasn't bad enough, it's a Java application. Yes, the same Java home users hastily disable altogether on their home computers to avert a psychologically damaging web based encounter with one of these toe-curling applets. The same Java platform human web designers abandoned back in 1996, 1. because everybody hates them, and 2. because they have the resource guzzling clout to bring a small country to its knees.

And every little task takes so damn long to carry out. Pressing the print button won't print a purchase order. Oh no, that would be too easy. There's a whole chapter of the manual dedicated to the procedure. Once you've done it a few times, you can do it with your eyes shut, but that's not the point. Why does it have to be so longwinded? Is the intention to evoke a sense of penitence? Are the Catholics behind it?

Make a simple mistake and there's no going back. If you've committed your changes you can't simply return to a field and, let's say, replace an A with a B. It's not uncommon to be confronted with ever so helpful tool tips like, "I'm sorry, you've made your bed and will have to lie in it (complete with accompanying Nelson-ha-ha). To adjust this field you must clamber up all five peaks of the Kangchenjunga mountain range with a ten tonne boulder strapped to your tender bits, leap through a dozen flaming hoops whilst balancing a kerosine-soaked chimpanzee on your nose and play the Lithuanian national anthem backwards with a bagpipe fashioned from a dodo's digestive system when you reach the summit". That's a genuine quote.

Fashionista favourite, 'random', is currently being shoehorned into every conceivable sentence in a vain attempt to sound chic, but if ever there was an appropriate occasion to use it, it's to describe Oracle. No two clicks are ever the same. Sometimes they'll action a change. At other times the same two clicks will cause your session to spontaneously terminate.

More infuriating still, getting a change to stick, or coercing a field to accept a keystroke, often requires you to enter a seemingly unrelated menu, untick a box, save your work, exit the menu, re-enter the menu, re-tick the box, save and withdraw from the menu again and finally return to the field you want to stick some trivial bit of information in.

To make doubly sure everything goes smoothly it doesn't hurt to offer up a small sacrifice (a hamster or goldfish is fine) to an effigy of the divine Oracle god.

Link checking with Firefox

OK, so checking your blog or web site for dead links is never going to be glamorous or fun. Really the best you can hope for is to make the tedious process as painless as possible. I checked several hundred links in a matter of minutes with the aptly named Firefox extension, LinkChecker, and didn't blub like a baby once so I reckon we're on the right track.

Unlike most other link checkers this one embeds the results within the very page it's probing in real time in the form of multi-coloured highlights. Invalid links become red, valid ones turn green, forwarded, forbidden or otherwise inaccessible ones get a splash of yellow, while skipped ones are greyed out. Because these colours emerge sequentially and piecemeal(ially) you can manually test and fix broken links as the extension continues to chug away in the background.

If your pages contain links that you'd rather not have tested, maybe because they are sure to work, or connect to internal sign out, delete et al commands, you can opt to exclude them from testing. Note that while the exclusions list refers to 'keywords', they do not necessarily have to appear in linked text. Entering domain or sub-domain names works just as well providing you don't include any dots as they seem to confuse LinkChecker.

You might find that some links are automatically skipped despite them not containing any of your banned words. I assume this is because the extension respects rules declared by robots.txt files. How thoroughly decent and considerate. Pfft!

That aside my only other gripe is that it fails to skip excluded links if they happen to be internal anchors - something about the # symbol seems to be knocking it off balance.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Subscribing to blog labels or categories

Sunday, February 04, 2007 0

There will be times when you're only interested in receiving RSS blog updates which revolve around a particular theme. Many blogging platforms allow you to monitor individual categories via RSS even if their feeds aren't immediately apparent. Below I've compiled a list of the URL structure required for each kind of blogging software...

Blogger - http://blogname.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/default/-/label/

Drupal - http://blogname.com/personal/subjects/label/feed/

Expression Engine - Reliant on individual blogger configuration.

Movable Type - Bespoke configuration required so feeds vary.

MySpace - Don't care and you shouldn't either. Nothing has ever been written on a MySpace blog that's worth reading.

Serendipity - http://blogname.com/rss.php?version=1.0&category=4 (hover over the category link in the sidebar to reveal its ID number)

TypePad - Depends on the way the blogger has configured the software.

Vox - http://blogname.vox.com/library/posts/tags/label/atom.xml

Wordpress - http://blogname.com/tag/label/feed/

Additions, corrections and any other feedback would be very welcome.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Gmail speed-up tips

Saturday, January 27, 2007 1

Occasionally Gmail can trip itself up while interpreting all that behind the scenes javascript and this can lead to delays when serving up your emails. If you're as important and popular as I am you'll know 0.7 milliseconds isn't acceptable - you want your information now! Below you'll find some steps you can take to squeeze that last drop of juice out of your Google web mail:-

1. Disable the chat feature by clicking on the "standard without chat" text link in your inbox's footer.

2. If half measures aren't for you try switching to "basic HTML" mode.

3. Not quite bare-bones enough? For the Amish Gmailers among you there's always Mobile Gmail. You could even make it pop out of your browser in its own incy-wincy, ickle phone sized window. This is handy if you want to stay in the loop at work without drawing too much attention to yourself. You can keep your pseudo phone pinned on top of all your other applications using PowerMenu / reSizer (Windows) or Afloat (Mac).

4. Visit your 'settings' menu and on the 'general' page select 'No snippets - Show subject only' to disable inline previewing of email content. Chances are you'll know if you want to open up an email judging by who it's from and what's in the title. There's no need for information overload.

5. If you don't use your Gmail account for chatting, disable the chat history feature located under the 'chat' tab of your settings menu.

6. Move a tab to your right and opt not to 'show my web clips above the Inbox' to exterminate distracting sponsored link fluff. Even when customised, this is a poor substitute for RSSFwd if you ask me.

7. Activate keyboard shortcuts under the 'general' settings tab to eliminate all that incessant flitting back and forth between keyboard and mouse when performing common tasks such as archiving mail or composing a new message. The only thing missing from this time-saver is a quickie delete key combo. Considering Google's history of playing hide and seek with the delete button in the actual GUI this doesn't surprise me.

8. If you already know you're using a Gmail compatible browser you can skip the automatic browser check in future by accessing your inbox via this URL.

9. Pages will render faster if your inbox isn't clogged up with excess mail so make sure you archive anything you want to keep and chuck out the rest. Otherwise reduce the number of 'conversations' shown on each page by tweaking the 'maximum page size' option under the 'general' settings tab.

10. Spring-cleaning your inbox will increase the relevance of your search results but putting it in the microwave probably isn't advisable.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Slimming World voodoo

Wednesday, January 24, 2007 7

At work I'm enveloped by talk of red and green days, 'Syn values', food optimising and 'free' foods. This is the language of Slimming World, one of the major British weight-loss groups. Ultimately the plan hinges upon the assignment of 'Syn values' to 'non-free' foods ('free' in this context means those you can eat by the bucket load to satiate your hunger whilst consuming relatively few calories). Members are allocated a Syn budget which can be flexibly spent in whatever way they see fit providing they don't break the bank on any given day.

In order to do the maths (and tot up the number of Hail Marys you'll have to reprise should you overindulge) you must buy the Slimming World Food Bible (or 'Directory' as they would rather you called it) which lists the Syn values of 39,000 items of food and drink. Translating the nutritional value of so many foodstuffs by way of an undisclosed, cryptic formula seems like a heck of a lot of work, and, well, fruitless really when you consider that consumables are already labeled with the ubiquitous ingredients breakdown table... that is until you remember that someone is raking in a wad of cash by shrouding the whole shebang in mystery to engender a dependent member-base of regular contributors.

It wouldn't be quite so devious if the assigned Syn values appeared to follow some sort of logic. On the contrary, the rules seem arbitrary in many cases. For example, one lady I know stopped drinking her favourite flavour of hot chocolate because The Bible states that it has a higher Syn value than the flavour she has now resigned herself to buying as a substitute. The brand, calorie and fat content are identical. Another wacky curiosity concerns the mechanism by which the Magic Formula transmogrifies the nutritional value of foodstuffs simply by altering its constitution. According to the Slimming World gurus the same orange can be better or worse for your diet depending on how it is sliced, diced or blended. Nothing added, nothing removed, no evaporation or seepage. It's like the water into wine trick all over again.

To keep you guessing (and purchasing each new revision of The Bible), these Syn values are jiggled about and republished every two months. Unlisted Syn values for new or obscure products can't be requested by email "due to the huge demand from members", but, but you can call the Syns Hotline - charged at 60p per minute - to resolve your queries. Alternatively you can send product packaging by free post for analysis, and then - once you've unwittingly done Slimming World's detective work on their behalf - call their premium rate hotline to be rewarded with the fruits of your labour.

While "there isn't a particular formula for calculating Syns (if only it was that simple!)", you can use the members-only 'Online Syns Calculator' to calculate the incalculable Syn value of any unidentified products. "The Calculator takes into account all of the nutrition information, as well as considering if the product contains any Free Food".

Ahuh.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

PMP up the jam

Thursday, January 04, 2007 0

I didn't think Portable Media Players, mobile cinemas - or whatever you want to call them - would be my thing, but when you're given one as a present you've got to at least have a tinker before leaving it in the bottom of a drawer to gather dust. I think my indifference towards them up until this point can be put down to not wanting to carry an extra bulky device around with me - even the svelte new iPod videos are quite chunky when you have to factor in the size of a mini hard drive.

With mine this isn't an issue as it's flash based - it has 1GB of memory built-in with the option of boosting the capacity via an SD card slot. The unit also supports photo slideshows, MP3 playback and e-book reading so there's no need to have a separate unit for each function. While it does include a camera and even a video camera, you'd be daft to rely on either of them to capture the birth of your first-born or wedding.

It's one of those no-name - and hence no support - models, made in a Chinese sweatshop no doubt. You know, the kind you'd avoid like the plague if you were shopping around for electronic gizmos yourself. Despite this it appears to be a solidly constructed device. The clarity of the screen is excellent, the 'Intoom' GUI is highly intuitive and there's no sign of any 'Engrish' in the menu system (well 'accessory' should really be 'accessories', but that's just me being picky). Several instances of odd sentence structure aside, they (whoever 'they' might be) have made a passable job of translating the manual to English so it's very easy to suss out how everything operates if this isn't apparent through fiddling alone.

The default - and only - movie format the player can handle is DivX video with IMA ADPCM audio contained within an ASF wrapper, so not overly Mac or Linux friendly. These devices don't play nicely with non-Windows systems full stop because they can't be mounted as driverless removable media. While this makes the internal memory inaccessible, you can format an SD memory card in the player and then write to it via an external memory card reader, assuming you can find a video editing tool which will allow you to match the codec specs required by the device. My search has so far been in vain.

For now I'm using the Sunplus PMP Transcoding Tool at work where I'm practically intravenously plugged into my Windows box. Sunplus are the manufacturers of the chips which power a staggering number of these unbranded mobile MP4 devices. This is a massive bonus because the same core software is distributed with them, and therefore updates are easier to get hold of (though not from any single, official source). It also means that more people are using it, and sharing their experiences, tips and tech support online.

The latest version appears to be 0.9.2.0, which is available from Speed Digital. Unfortunately, unlike the older incarnations it's not an all-inclusive, standalone package; three codecs must be installed prior to converting any videos, namely Storm Codec, QuickTime Alternative and DivX.

Other people have had varying degrees of success with Microsoft's command-line utility, VidtoASF, Blaze Video Magic 2, Aplus Video to PMP Converter, the video conversion software which accompanies the kiddified RipRoar MP4 player, Wivisoft MP4 Video Converter, Boilsoft ASF Converter, Xilisoft Video Converter and Lesnar_mk's MP4 Movie Converter.

Something else I've learnt through my research is that you should never-ever-ever flash the firmware on these MP4 devices, unless it's a branded player with a specific model number and an official support web site where you can find a guaranteed-to-work ROM. And even then you shouldn't do it. The problem is that although many PMPs look identical, they are often made by different companies and according to varying internal component schematics. No single firmware ROM can take all this diversity into account, and your chances of finding an 'official' one are somewhere between Buckley's and none. Many intrepid flashers have naively embarked on such a treacherous adventure, and few have returned to tell the tale... or at the very least they've permanently toasted their players and had to buy a new one. Try taking a scrambled PMP back to the computer fair you bought it from for a refund and see what sort of a reception you get! They'll cut and run or change their trade name to avoid offering any after sales support when it's their fault your kit is DOA.

So it looks like I'm a convert; I've joined the video generation! Bus journeys will never be the same again. If I'm ever tempted to unplug my headphones and share the audio output with you, fellow commuters, feel free to lynch and launch me out of the top deck window. It's only fair.

 
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