Monday, 31 December 2007

Picture of the Week: #52

It's kind of fitting that the last PotW of the year is another late one; at least it's in the right year. I'm staying with the theme of "my sister puts up far too many decorations", but at least they're tasteful. This particular decoration is on the kissing bough hanging up at just the right height for me to smack my head on it every time I walk past. We've had several adventures with these in recent years, especially as I've slept in the same room in which they hang. Many's the time that I've looked up and wondered whether I'd be able to get out of the way if this heavy ball of holly and ivy decided to plummet towards my head.

Luckily, though, that's yet to happen, so I've taken the opportunity to go Christmassy again. We may have as long as possible to go until next Christmas, and I may therefore be about to re-enter Grinch mode. So I think I'll make the most of it. Have a great New Year's Eve, people - see you tomorrow for a review of the year.

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Monday, 24 December 2007

Best if he tells it in his own words.

68Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.
69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.

Luke 1:68-79 (NIV-UK)

Merry Christmas.

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Sunday, 23 December 2007

Picture of the Week: #51

I know this picture's not very festive, but I have an annoying tendency to forget my camera every time I'm going off to do something Christmassy. Luckily, I think this should at least fall under the "interesting" category.

These four photos are all of the same table. The table in question is in the waiting room at my local train station, which is where I was yesterday on my way back to Oxford for the day. First up, it's a weird place to put it. There's no apparent reason why there should be a table in the waiting room - there's nothing on the table, and no chairs around it. It seems to be just taking up space. Secondly, although I'm no judge of these things it looks practically antique, and leaving it among the commuters seems like a poor idea, to say the least.

The other strange thing about this table (and I hope you can see this - the picture quality's not great, thanks to my having to use my phone's camera) is that it is absolutely covered in graffiti (see my earlier thoughts on this subject here). The cheap-looking yellowy gold paint has been systematically scraped away, regardless of the security camera that was up in one of the room's corners. Whether this indicates that the locals are psychotically aggressive towards tables or simply very, very bored is a question I'm not going to try to address, but I do think it's interesting to see what people have thought worthy of note.

People's names figure prominently - "Andre" and "Luke" both wanted everyone to know that they'd been there - but there are also celebrity names ("Bowie"), words that bored travellers had seen on their packet of sweets ("Trebor"), or just insults without any context (one of the heaviest-carved words is "slut"). The whole table is practically a work of art now. It records what was on the minds of the people waiting for their trains, who they were, and in some cases their state of mind at the time.

More generally, it's testament to the fact that no-one cares whether it's covered in graffiti. To that extent, it's a sign of mindless destructive tendencies running completely unchecked - but at the same time, the fact that no-one's gone further than simply scraping the paint indicates that there are semi-official acceptable and unacceptable levels of vandalism.

To the people who have "edited" it, it was nothing more than a way to pass the time. Now, though, it's a social document. Not bad for a cheap piece of woodwork.

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Friday, 21 December 2007

Today, a simple blog post. Tomorrow, THE WORLD!

There's been something of a glut of superhero movies over the past few years. On the whole, this has been a bad thing - comic books thrive on having short, simply-told stories in each issue, which makes it a bit difficult to both introduce the character and tell that story in the same film. (This is, incidentally, why sequels to superhero films can be better than the original. I found X-Men 3 to be much more fun than the original movie, largely because we didn't have to be walked through the interminable backstories of what felt like fifty different characters individually.)

One of the good things about superhero films is that they generally have the I-want-to-be-them factor. All it takes is for one character to have an incredibly cool ability, and suddenly the film has an effect way beyond its running time, as the audience gets to imagine what they would do with that ability. The film producers are almost certainly aware of this (it's the key to selling vast quantities of merchandise), but this doesn't explain why they always give certain types of power to certain roles in the film. There are some pretty subtle reasons for this - I'll go through them one by one.

(By the way, I'm aware that most of these creative decisions are actually made by the writer of the original comic book. I'm focusing on the films because my experience of comic books is precisely zero.)

Super-Strength/Apparent Invulnerability (Good/Evil)
Possibly the simplest type of power, this can be possessed by either heroes or villains. The difference between them lies in the way in which the power was obtained. Heroes have intrinsic strength - either they were simply born with it (Superman), or they got it accidentally (The Incredible Hulk, or Spiderman - he gets increased strength as a side-effect of his other powers). Either way, they're taking control of a power over which they had no control in the process of getting it. Villains, on the other hand, generally become super-strong through deliberate mechanical or chemical means. Bane from the Batman series is completely off his face on the Venom drug, for example; Mr Hyde (yes, this counts - see the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) is another result of a chemical, while Doc Ock (from Spiderman) uses mechanical arms.

I think the reason for this difference is to equate "naturalness" with goodness. Bizarre though Spiderman's abilities are, the fact that he didn't deliberately obtain them is contrasted with villains who are constantly trying to become better, faster, stronger than everyone else. This is quite a weird attitude, given the American Dream ethos that pervades the whole idea of comic book heroes. I think it may be trying to suggest that yes, the aim of improving yourself is paramount - but there are things that you do not do to get there.

Increased Intelligence (Evil)
Although some heroes are intelligent (Batman is a great detective), having abnormally good intelligence is universally a sign of evil, especially when mixed with insanity. Edward Nygma (The Riddler) becomes immensely clever by draining other people's brains into his own; Lex Luthor (from Superman) is a criminal megalomaniac whose machinations would just never work if he was thick as two short planks.

Many good characters, on the other hand, go right to the other end of the spectrum. Frankly, anyone who fails to realise Superman's identity after so many years' contact with Clark Kent must surely be a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic (naming no names, Lois). Superman himself, although immensely fast, usually punches his way out of trouble or brings a bigger weapon to a fight rather than coming up with a more intelligent solution. This anti-intelligentsia attitude is quite strange coming from the US of its time (you'd expect it more from a Communist country) - but it does seem oddly prescient, given some of the attitudes around today. (See this post for some more hopeful recent news on this front.)

Insanely Stupid Powers (Good)
Villains may sometimes have daft gimmicks, but with a few exceptions it takes a hero to have an impressively stupid power. Cracked (warning: text not really safe for kids) says this far better than I could...

Invisible Pain (Evil)
Yeah, sure, heroes will sometimes beat villains into a bloody pulp, but they do it in a way that's entirely visible - probably some kind of back-handed way of saying that they're honest and wholesome, although I'm not sure the villains involved would see it that way. If you want real comic-book evil, look at any character who's capable of causing immense pain without any physical contact or outward signs. This one is surprisingly wide-ranging, actually. The main person-to-person attack from Independence Day's aliens? Terrible pain inside one's head as your brain is taken over. The most painful spell in the Harry Potter universe? The Cruciatus curse, which leaves no trace whatsoever. For that matter, the Avada Kedavra curse leaves its victims unmarked, too. Even Darth Vader, the ultimate in cool villains, was capable of Force-choking someone in a completely different room.

Yes, like that.

Flight (Good)
We'll skip over using mechanical means to fly here, as that's not really a superpower per se. Being able to just fly, without apparent aid, is almost entirely restricted to heroes. Superman's the obvious candidate, but there are more recent versions, too (Nathan Petrelli from Heroes, for example). Interestingly, characters who have the intrinsic means of flight because they have wings or flying magic aren't necessarily good; look at this Order of the Stick for an (admittedly non-movie) example. This may be another example of heroes being "natural" and wholesome - flight is undoubtedly an incredibly cool power, but it has to be from the right source.

Shapeshifting (Evil)
Not a very popular power, for some reason (I don't know why, I think it's awesome), shapeshifting is almost entirely the preserve of villains. Mystique from the X-Men is thoroughly evil, as is the T-1000 from Terminator 2 (a movie that isn't based on a comic book but looks exactly as if it was). This one is at least pretty easy to understand - heroes are supposed to stand up for truth and justice, neither of which can happen if you can't be sure of everyone's identity.

Telekinesis (Evil)
Now, this one I just don't get at all. Telekinesis is undoubtedly the power I'd choose if I could, and yet the vast majority of characters with it are evil. Magneto of X-Men fame effectively has this power, albeit only over metal, and is entirely devoted to taking over the world; even he pales into comparison to Sylar (Heroes) and Phoenix (also X-Men), both of whom are murderous psychopaths. Bizarrely, when we go outside the world of comic books this doesn't apply at all - the Force from the Star Wars series has a major telekinetic component, as do many Harry Potter spells. Even stranger, the mechanical form of this power (antigravity) is not only a staple of science fiction, it frequently pops up as a good or neutral element of comic books. Quite why an intrinsic power should be evil in this case, while a mechanical one is acceptable, is very unclear.

As it happens, I don't think I'm likely to end up with any of these powers any time soon. However, if I did, the world would have to watch out - as with film characters, the evil ones are just more interesting than the good ones. Now if you'll excuse me, I just have to take a few gold bars out of the Bank of England while looking like Elvis...

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Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Picture of the Week: #50

Yes, I know, this one's very late too. The reason for this is so unbelievable that I'm not even going to bother putting it on the Internet - suffice to say that I was planning to take a photo much like this last week anyway, so I reckon it'll do.

My family would probably be very quick to tell me that I'm rather Grinch-like when it comes to Christmas. I cannot stand Christmas movies, or Christmas specials of otherwise acceptable TV shows in which everyone ends up gathered around the Christmas tree looking misty-eyed. When I was living in Oxford last year, my house had absolutely nothing Christmassy about it. Contrast that with my sister's student house, which sported a tree and little lights everywhere, and large Lego toys scattered over the floor.

Unsurprisingly, it's also my sister who's decorated the tree this year. For the past few years she's been running the operation with ruthless efficiency, stringing popcorn chains instead of tinsel and allowing nothing within half a mile of the branches unless it's either a) red, b) gold or c) vaguely rustic-looking. To top it all off, there are currently slices of orange drying on the radiator, ready to add that extra fruity note to the decorations.

Much as I mock, though, I have to admit - it does look very good. My Grinchy exterior may just be melted by the time Christmas Day rolls around.

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Thursday, 13 December 2007

Male perfumes all smell of industrial alcohol mixed with old leather, for some reason. I'm not really tempted.

The Christmas season is approaching (some would say that it's been here for the past few weeks), and it's amazing how much changes to reflect that. Obviously shops start putting up expensive yet oddly tasteless displays, and the radio starts playing "All I Want For Christmas Is You" on endless repeat, but there are some other, more subtle effects.

(Incidentally, it was around this time of year in 2005 that Madonna began following me around. Seriously, "Hung Up" was playing in every single shop I went into when on a Christmas shopping expedition. It made a bad experience considerably worse.)

One of these effects can be seen in TV adverts. For most of the year, there's a decent spread of different types of adverts. There's plenty of cars, food, clothes and so on being constantly offered for our consideration, and even if they're not very good adverts they're usually at least comprehensible.

At Christmas, however, things suddenly change, as the perfume market goes into overdrive. Apparently, it's around now that the perfume companies start to realise that they don't stand a chance of recouping all their losses over the year (don't believe me? When was the last time you bought perfume because you wanted to buy it, rather than as a gift for someone else?) and immediately hire an ad agency to remind everyone that now would be the perfect time to send a loved one the subtle message that they don't smell so good. Result: endless perfume ads, filling every advert break until the audience screams "ENOUGH with the perfume! Try to sell me a car or something!"

Perfume ads wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that it's rather difficult to describe a smell through a purely audiovisual medium. This leads to some, shall we say, inventive messages being sent to the viewer. Unfortunately, they do leave themselves open to misinterpretation. For example...

Hugo Boss: XX and XY

Intended message: Our perfumes for men and women are very different. Sexily different.
Actual message: Wearing our perfume will cause you to have a slightly surreal boxing match with your partner.

Chanel No. 5

Intended message: Our perfume suggests wealth, fame...and love.
Actual message: Go and watch this non-existent film which is suspiciously similar to Moulin Rouge!

Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely

Intended message: A gentle and beautiful perfume by a gentle and beautiful woman.
Actual message: Check it out, this woman is rich, good looking and wearing beautiful clothes. You aren't. Sucks to be you, eh?

David Beckham's Instinct

Intended message: This perfume, like its creator, is strong, impulsive and natural.
Actual message: You knew that this man was reasonably talented and mind-bogglingly rich. But did you know that he was reasonably talented, mind-bogglingly rich and extremely pretentious?

Armani Code for women

Intended message: Men will be helplessly transfixed by your beauty if you wear this perfume.
Actual message: Do you ever feel like men only want you for your warmth, charm, intelligence and personality, rather than your body and your apparent extreme wealth? We can fix that easily!

Is there such a thing as an acceptable perfume ad? I reckon there is. We start by showing a reasonably attractive-looking person spraying a little onto their wrist, then sniffing gently. Then they look up, and say "Yeah, that smells nice. Kind of flowery."

I'd buy it.

None of the videos included here belong to me, so they're not included under my CC licence. I can't see the companies involved complaining about their adverts being seen by more people, though.

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Sunday, 9 December 2007

Picture of the Week: #49

The more observant among you may have noticed that this isn't your average view-out-the-back-of-the-house photo. That's right, there's a tractor there.

Oh, and a large fluorescent yellow helicopter. More specifically, the Essex Air Ambulance. We get helicopters overhead quite a bit (I can recognise a military Chinook by sound alone), but I think this is the only time I've seen one in the field, and it's certainly the first time I've seen the Air Ambulance. There's quite a few of these around the country, and I think they're an awesome idea. They're certainly well-used - the Essex one claims to be in use 3-5 times per day, and must have saved countless lives so far. If and when I eventually start earning a regular income, I'll certainly be contributing to their £105,000 per month operating costs.

Helicopters in general are very odd things, really. Aeroplanes are strange enough, but at least there's something vaguely understandable about the idea of making something go fast along so that it will also go up. I've been re-reading Conan Doyle's classic The Lost World recently, and can't help but wonder what someone unfamiliar with helicopters would think if they had been watching when the ambulance lifted itself gently off the grass the other day, spun on the spot and drifted off over the trees. Perhaps they'd have described it in the same kind of style that Conan Doyle uses to describe his protagonist Malone's first view of dinosaurs - a monstrous beast, the ferocious blades on its upper surface beating furiously as it struggles into the sky.

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Tuesday, 4 December 2007

All together now: Tooooooons. Games! EEEE-mail...

A brief word of warning: This post is going to be pretty much incomprehensible if you're unfamiliar with the source material that I'm talking about. Yes, more so than usual. Sorry.

Anyone who spends any more time than is absolutely necessary on the Internet is likely to have come across Homestar Runner at some point, even if just in passing. For a site without a vast amount in the way of content, and with zero advertising, this is pretty surprising. In fact, the entire site bucks the trend of almost everything else you'll find online - it hosts only Flash cartoons and games, all of which are created in-house, allows no user input whatsoever, and has retained the same basic design for years. Oh, and its creators make their living off it. Did I mention the complete lack of advertising?

So how does a firmly Web 1.0 site survive on a Web 2.0 internet? One possibility is that success simply begets success. HR has been running for over seven years now (for comparison, Google has been live for about eight), and consequently has a massive merchandise-purchasing fanbase. That kind of thing ends up being self-perpetuating. The other reason, and it's one that the site's fans would heartily agree with, is that the content is extremely good. Given the vast numbers of Flash cartoons floating around on the web, and their generally remarkably poor quality, it's refreshing to find a series full of well-animated and funny films and games.

The factor that I didn't mention just now is the characterisation. That's because the characters are undoubtedly the weirdest part of the site. Whether we're talking about nice-but-crushingly-dim Homestar, aloof and incomprehensible Pom Pom, or just plain disturbing Señor Cardgage, the HR universe is populated with people who make no sense whatsoever. That's partly because there's never been a formal character roster, with new faces being introduced as the story demands it.

You see that last sentence? The one with "story" in it? Yeah, that's where things get even more confusing. There is no story to the site as a whole. Of course there are storylines within each cartoon - usually, anyway - but there's never more than the most cursory of nods to continuity between them. Now add in the fact that the only ongoing series - Strong Bad's emails - runs at the same time as the one-off cartoons but is not related to them in any way. This leads to a huge back catalogue of minor characters, who appeared once for a specific gag and now get dragged out for an otherwise meaningless cameo every few episodes. Oh, and some of them (all the Cheat Commandos, for example) don't exist within the HR universe itself, but their own contexts are sometimes introduced to a completely different story.

Feeling lost yet? It gets worse.

As there are no humans in the cartoons (with some notable exceptions - we'll get back to them later), it would be tempting to assume that HR takes place in some kind of parallel universe, and all the weirdness is present because none of it is supposed to make sense in our context. The problem with that idea is that all the action very clearly takes place within our own world. The Strong Bad emails are real emails, sent in by fans of the site and used as raw material. Real-world people are referenced (Homestar does an impression of Ronald Reagan in one cartoon), US dollars are used for money, the internet is the same one that we know, and cars and buildings are recognisably from the human world. (With the possible exception of the King of Town's castle, but then the King is so incredibly weird he can get put into a separate category all by himself.)

Because of this duality, when humans started being introduced it produced a very strange vibe. In some cases, it was OK. The puppet videos, featuring Little Girl, were different enough to the usual content for it not to matter; similarly, the hair metal band Limozeen are so cartoonish anyway that they don't raise any hackles. It's Crack Stuntman who really sets my teeth on edge. Stuntman is supposed to be the voice actor for one of the Cheat Commandos, the show-within-a-show. Introducing a voice actor to a cartoon universe has some comedic promise, but the problem is that Stuntman apparently had to a) be a human, and b) interact with the usual cast. Suddenly the jarring strangeness of the HR universe became all too apparent - it couldn't be a colourful cartoonish alternate world if it actually was the world.

Once the idea that Strong Bad et al. exist within our world takes root, certain aspects of the characters begin to slip out of joint. Take Strong Bad's way of escaping his current life, for example. When a fan asks him whether the country of Strong Badia has a space programme, Strong Bad makes one up on the spot, creating a spaceship out of cardboard boxes and a CD player with "woosh" sound effects. Within the assumption that Strong Badia is in an entirely fictional universe, this is just pleasantly silly, but as soon as we realise that it's in our world, it becomes a child's fantasy in a world devoid of children. Strong Bad becomes either delusional or just child-like, which then jars with his generally adult-like behaviour in other areas.

Horrific though it may be for Strong Bad, the situation is considerably worse for some of the other characters. Coach Z, whose entire personality is based on his lack of any social skills or real friends, changes from a slightly pathetic comic relief character straight into a desperately lonely and depressed person. Strong Sad, supposed to be filling the "punchbag" role, suddenly seems extremely vulnerable when faced with his violent and psychopathic brothers. Marzipan (who has a great name) now seems to be trapped in a relationship with someone so recklessly stupid that he is a danger to himself and others. The list goes on, and even applies to the characters corporately as well as individually. For example, whenever a theatre of any kind is required by the storyline, the action moves to a deserted high school auditorium. Why it's deserted, who the usual students are, and why the characters are bothering to put on a show when there is no audience are all very worrying problems once we see HR in the context of our world.

In the end, does it matter? Not a huge amount. The cartoons are still funny, and frequently manage to either effectively satirise elements of popular culture or simply incorporate them into a silly story. I do think, though, that the site's owners are treading a fine line. If you haven't understood a word of this post, now imagine trying to understand the cartoons themselves; it takes a huge investment of time on the part of the viewer to get up to speed with the site's concept, and anyone who overthinks it is likely to, as I have, see the cracks in the stories and the worrying elements behind them. The creators are risking alienating new viewers, and in the process risking the next generation of merchandise-buyers.

For now, though, I'm just going to enjoy Strong Bad relentlessly mocking his viewers every week. Because really, is there any more to comedy than that?

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Sunday, 2 December 2007

Picture of the Week: #48

As you may be able to tell from the large ship-like object in the background, this photo was taken by the sea. In Harwich, to be precise, one of the busiest container ports in the UK. The large, whale-tail-like object in the foreground is something that I didn't expect to see in such a modern trade centre; it's the end of an anchor, concreted into the ground at the seafront, right next to an old lighthouse (behind me when I took the photo).

Whenever something new and exciting comes along, there's a tendency to pay so much attention to that new thing that anything before it gets forgotten. This frequently leads to history repeating itself; no-one apparently learnt from Vietnam that it's a bad idea to pour troops into a situation from which there's no obvious exit, for example.

With that in mind, I really like the way that the people of Harwich have had the good sense to put something as simple and as important as an anchor in their midst, as a monument to the past; it's within sight of the vast Chinese container ships and the towering cranes, constantly yet quietly reminding everyone there that this is where it all came from. And, perhaps one day, all that will be left.

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Saturday, 1 December 2007

Next stop, Vegas...or maybe not.

I've recently been introduced to Gpokr (a very Web 2.0 site, complete with diagonal stripes, lower case titles and a marked aversion to including all necessary vowels), which is essentially an online poker site. Now, I know that online poker is immensely addictive, destructive and illegal in a number of places. Happily, though, Gpokr doesn't use real money.

Although you might think that this takes away some of the atmosphere, I'm not sure there was very much to get rid of in the first place. Poker is the type of game that should really be played either in smoke-filled seedy bars, against people called "The Kid" or "Slow-Eye Johnson", or in exclusive Monte Carlo casinos against James Bond. Call me a purist if you like, but I don't really think you get the same feeling from clicking the "raise" button to put a .gif image of some chips onto a green oval. It's a similar story with the names of the players - I'm just not intimidated by someone called "xxxbiggCHIPwinnrxxx".

Not having real money does change one thing, of course - no-one really cares if they lose. It's not remotely unusual to see people going all-in on their first hand at a table and losing the lot, then suddenly and mysteriously appearing back at the same table with another $1,500 and doing it all over again. Having unlimited chip refills is probably mainly to blame, although the very many people with multiple accounts don't help either. It would make even the most generous person suspicious to see "sUpErPlAyEr-1" vanish, to be replaced seconds later by "sUpErPlAyEr-15"; it's the online equivalent of returning to the table with an extravagant moustache and saying "Pheel? Who ees thees Pheel? I am hees looong-loost cousin, Antonio!"

Still, it's a fun diversion for a while. It's also a great way of letting me know that I should never, ever take up professional gambling. How do I know this? Well, in roughly two weeks my total net losses have come out to $5,050.

Not a sound investment, really.

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Wednesday, 28 November 2007

It's possible that this [CENSORED] was [REDACTED] from [REMOVED], I suppose

I'm in a rather interesting situation right now.

You see, I'm about to sign a contract. This contract will mean that I'm working for a company, but I won't be employed by them. In fact, technically I'll be self-employed, but I'll have no customers or clients. So I'll have to declare my own tax information and so on, despite the fact that I'll be receiving a wage.

Except that it won't be a wage, because I'll be working on a basis that precludes the possibility of hourly payment. It's performance-based, but the level of performance isn't measured in anything more than the most cursory way.

On top of all this, if it sounds like I'm not giving much away, that's because the contract also stipulates that I'm not allowed to say anything about the company in question. "Anything" in this case means exactly what it sounds like; taken literally, the text of the contract says that I can't make any form of comment by any medium whatsoever about any aspect of the company for which I don't work but which still pays me a non-performance-based performance-linked not-wage.

Honestly, you make simple enquiries about employment opportunities and before long you're sounding like Jason Bourne...

No, it's not drug-running, prostitution, pornography or anything to do with the security services. Calm down, for goodness' sake.

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Monday, 26 November 2007

Picture of the Week: #47

I'm not sure how long the lovely evening sunlight's going to last now that we're heading towards December, but I reckon it's worth making the most of it. Please ignore the incredibly straggly-looking flowerbed at the bottom of the picture. My family has never really had a reputation as a group of amazing gardeners, being very much of the "let it take care of itself" school of plant care. Well, honestly, if it's incapable of holding its own in our garden it shouldn't be there in the first place, should it?

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Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Kick-off's at eight, and yes, I will be watching. Unfortunately.

It's nothing personal, England - I just kind of hope that you don't beat Croatia tonight.

I've posted before on the subject of football, and how it doesn't hold a candle to rugby as a spectator sport. I still stand by that assertion, but it is nevertheless possible to get a good football game, and it is definitely more fun than American football, footage of which I saw for the first time this week. (Why does association football come out on top? Well, imagine a form of rugby where all the players perform amazing feats of skill and strength for about ten seconds, then have a little break and a chat. It's not a sport, it's a live-action version of Mario Party.) International football tournaments are certainly capable of producing good entertainment - even if the game itself suffers from the higher stakes involved, the atmosphere, crowds and inevitable outbreaks of violence make it fun to watch.

There is a downside to this, however, and it's that I get far too into it. I end up glued to the TV as England struggle to hold onto a 1-goal lead going into stoppage time, or worse, repeatedly fire shots against a seemingly invincible goalkeeper in a desperate attempt to make up a 1-goal deficit. Then one of the players does something stupid (yes, David, we still remember) and it all goes downhill, spiralling into a morass of depression and despair.

Does it sound like I'm making a huge fuss about nothing? Of course it does, that's exactly what I'm doing, and that's precisely why it's a bad idea for England to get into tournaments like this, especially when their performance is so variable. Man for man, the England team is undoubtedly one of the best in the world, and on their day they can be brilliant, but because they're also capable of being one of the worst teams around, it just adds to the stress.

So play as well as you can, England, and enjoy it while it lasts. But...if Croatia beats you tonight...don't be annoyed if I'm not too cut up about it, OK?

UPDATE 10:13pm: So, you know what I was saying about the desperate attempt to make up the 1-goal deficit? Yeah, that was a pretty convincing object lesson. Have a nice relaxing summer next year, boys.

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Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Coming up next on "Phil Inadequately Covers Inflammatory Topics"...

Ever since the publication of The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray, a much-cited and highly controversial book on the subject of intelligence, the question of how race and intelligence interact has been simmering away. It looked for a while as though it had largely blown over, becoming fodder only for the odd dinner-party conversation and white supremacist rally. However, a couple of weeks ago James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA's helical structure, created a storm of publicity with some extremely poorly-judged comments:

"All our social policies are based on the fact that their [Africans'] intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.

As if that wasn't enough to send the world's media into a frenzy, he followed it up by claiming that although it would be nice to think that people of different races are equally intelligent, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true." Now, before we go any further it's important to note that Watson apologised just a few days later:
"I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. I can certainly understand why people, reading those words, have reacted in the ways they have. [...] To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief."

A good retraction, certainly, and a necessary one, but the damage was already done. No-one remembers the mitigating language of this retraction, and the media feeding frenzy had already begun, leading to people suggesting that perhaps his first set of statements had actually been true. So what, in this horribly difficult topic, is true? (I knew that psychology degree would be useful for something.)

Most of the controversy around The Bell Curve centred on just one fact that its authors highlighted, and I'll reproduce it here. Note the language very carefully - this fact doesn't necessarily mean anything more than it directly says.
In general, Asians tend to score more highly on IQ tests than Caucasians, who in turn tend to score more highly on IQ tests than Africans.

However much anyone dislikes it, that's a pretty sturdy, reproducible scientific fact. However, the problems arise when people assume that its ramifications are much larger than they actually are. Let's go through the conclusions that we can draw from this one fact - and those that we can't.

IQ might not mean anything in the first place.
Critics of intelligence testing have maintained for years that IQ is nothing more than a measure of how well people do on intelligence tests. It's certainly the case that general intelligence, or g, is a controversial concept. It is produced by running a procedure called factor analysis on the scores obtained by individuals on various different types of test; although this procedure does tend to show one main factor driving performance in all of these disparate areas, my experience of factor analysis is that it is almost infinitely malleable and subject to interpretation. If you know what you're doing with the data and can choose suitable settings for the analysis, you can make it say practically anything.

That said, it's not ridiculous to suggest that people who are good at one cognitive task may well be good at others, and it's not impossible to put a single number on this ability. However, because this number will necessarily be a summary of various different results, all of which have their own margins for error, I would be extremely wary of any study which claims to show that tiny differences in IQ are in any way important. An employer who chose to hire someone because his IQ was one point higher than that of another candidate, regardless of any other information, would rightly be regarded as an idiot; why, then, do people suggest that IQ can, by itself, let you draw sweeping conclusions about entire populations?

The differences that we're talking about are minuscule.
One of the difficulties that statisticians find when trying to summarise information about populations is that people vary immensely; the "bell curve" referred to by Herrnstein and Murray is the Normal distribution, a probability distribution that describes natural variation in a population. Now, when these distributions for the IQ of different races are plotted on the same graph, they overlap hugely. Yes, the peaks are at different positions; however, the bulk of the area under each curve is shared with at least one other curve. This means that it's completely impossible to determine someone's race from their IQ, and more importantly, it means that the variation in IQ within each race is considerably greater than the variation between the races. Your chances of accurately estimating someone's IQ from their race are consequently not great.

"But Phil," some of you will (probably) say, "you've admitted that there is a difference between the races! Surely that has practical application?" No, it doesn't, because no-one ever deals with entire populations at a time. We deal only with individuals, and as it's pointless to try to estimate an individual's intelligence from the colour of his skin, the entire question seems moot.

"Race" doesn't necessarily mean very much.
How do you determine someone's race? By the race of their parents. Already we're veering dangerously close to circular reasoning, as the race of the parents is determined by that of their parents, and so on and so on. In the end, either we're all Neanderthals or similar, or we have to determine a cut-off point - and the fact that this is never determined in this type of experiment means that there is great difficulty in being certain that the race definitions of participants mean anything at all. Researchers tend to get around the problem by getting participants to report the race that they consider themselves to be, which means that there's even more fuzziness in the results.

It is incredibly difficult to create a culturally unbiased intelligence test.
Assuming for a moment that researchers did manage to come up with fully acceptable definitions of "intelligence" and "race", how would you go about testing that intelligence? If you use different tests for different groups of people, it's very difficult to draw any conclusions about the comparison of the results; if you use the same test, it will mean nothing to people who aren't familiar with the subject of the questions. Even if researchers use non-verbal tests, like Raven's Progressive Matrices (incidentally the only intelligence test that would also make an awesome name for a band), there is no guarantee that the test paradigm is going to translate across cultures.

To give you an idea of what I mean, imagine that you're a member of a small Ethiopian tribe and have never had to take a school test in your life. If someone shows you a picture with a number of patterns and asks you to select the "correct" pattern to fill in the gap, is it really going to immediately occur to you to complete it in line with logical syllogisms? Because the test can only record "success" or "failure" for each attempt, a "failure" could mean either "was incapable of making the required logical inference" or "was unfamiliar with the concept of abstract logical inferences", and this confusion enormously complicates the conclusions.

The correlation between IQ and success in later life is not as conclusive as it appears.
There is indeed a correlation between IQ and job success, earnings and so forth. However, the first thing to remember is that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. There may be other factors - good nutrition or ability to cope with stress, say - which moderate both IQ and other successes. Secondly, the correlation is not perfect; having a high IQ is by no means a guarantee of later success. And thirdly, the definition used for "success" is itself culturally biased towards the type of society where prosperity is the ultimate goal. Use "satisfaction" or "happiness" and things might be very different - take Ghana, for example, which is apparently in the top 40 countries for happiness but barely makes the top 150 for GDP per capita.

Possibly the most depressing thing about the storm over Watson's comments is that many people wanted to close down the debate entirely, suggesting that this entire topic is somehow off limits. Obviously I don't think that's correct; censoring debate not only means that important topics never get thought through, it also makes them the sole preserve of those who would use them for their own ends.

Although I tend to shy away from qualifying anything I say on this blog with "this is just my opinion" - obviously it's my opinion, otherwise I wouldn't be writing it - I'm going to make an exception in this case because this is a hugely complex topic. Hopefully I've contributed to it in some way, but clearly I haven't said everything that there is to say, and nearly everything that I've written could be challenged by other research. Please do make the effort to look into it further; important topics require careful consideration, and the best outcome we can hope for is that, rather than hiding from the subject, more people will do just that.

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Monday, 19 November 2007

Picture of the Week: #46

The decorators have been and gone in our house, and the chaos has recently subsided. A bit, anyway. This has given my dad the chance to dig out some of his old music collection, and for the past week the house has resounded to Paul Simon, Randy Stonehill, Ry Cooder and Larry Norman. Now, this should give you a clue as to what on earth the above photograph shows. Have a guess, then look behind the cut to see if you were right.

If you guessed "part of a record turntable", you are both correct and very vague. Specifically, it's the edge of the turntable, right next to a little strobe unit. It's a very clever little bit of kit - the strobe flashes at exactly the right frequency so that when the turntable is rotating at exactly 33 1/3 rpm, one row of the reflective squares on its edge appears to be standing still. (It's the wagon wheel effect, if you're interested.) When the turntable is switched to 45 rpm, a different row stands still. It's an ingenious way of calibrating the equipment, and because it's not software-driven, it doesn't crash...

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Friday, 16 November 2007

Bee-deep doop ba dap DAP, dap...

It's quite hard for me, just at the moment, to get things done. This can be attributed to a lot of things; the cold weather, my lack of transport, three unreasonably busy years, they all stack up.

Short-term, though, the main reason why I'm not getting much done has to be VirtualNES. If you're of an age, like me, such that the Nintendo Entertainment System was the must-have gadget when you were six years old, you will undoubtedly remember the strange fascination that this grey plastic box held for so many small children. (Mostly boys, it has to be said, but let's not go stereotyping here.) The graphics may have been basic, the controllers rickety, and the game cartridges requiring someone to blow very hard into their undersides for some reason, and yet the NES was capable of keeping innumerable kids quiet for hours on end.

Sometimes, of course, this led to problems. Terrifying demonstrations of what people can do when given a NES and too much free time are all over the web; see this duel between two masters of the original Super Mario Bros. for an example. The hardware, too, has ended up being used for purposes way beyond its original design - for example, musician Alex Mauer has released two albums on NES cartridges, using the sound chip on the console to produce all of the music. Whether this is an artistic travesty or an exciting way of using retro technology is a question that I'll leave up to you.

The NES was undoubtedly a brilliant piece of work, as were many of the games made for it. And when many of those games are available online, to play for free, it seems that now we have a perfect opportunity to revisit them, to recapture some of that magic. The legality of the site is, I admit, questionable at best - I'd be surprised if their carefully-worded disclaimer protected them from much in the way of litigation - but while it's around, it's a great chance to see what all the fuss was about. And if you can play the first couple of levels of Super Mario Bros. 3 and not be entirely hooked, you're made of stronger stuff than I am.

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Thursday, 15 November 2007

Space Chase nearly made it into this post, too. Be thankful that it didn't.

One of the things that I always used to like doing when I was younger was to flick through the Radio Times' film section, searching specifically for the films with one-star ratings. Why? Because star ratings, useful though they are, are deep magic.

This may be difficult to believe, but it's true. A scale that looks like your average five-point rating scale actually conceals considerably more nuances and subtleties than you might think. Now, towards the top end of the scale this is less true; there's not very many five-star ratings, considerably more four-stars, and a veritable ocean of three-stars. This is as you would expect - a three-star rating is usually labelled "average", so the normal statistical workings of the bell curve come into play. It is as you descend into the lower reaches of the star system that things start to get strange.

The reason for the strangeness is that a film needs to meet a certain (albeit small) level of quality to make it to two-star level, but there is no such requirement for one-star level. The obvious result is that the one-star rating is applied to everything below two-star standard, and this is a large and varied assortment. Join me as we move down through the various levels of awfulness.

Bad Films
Plain old bad films can be produced in a number of ways - too much money spent on special effects and too little on script is a favourite one, but other very simple things like poor acting from just one person can easily push a perfectly good movie right down into this classification. In a sense, this type of film is the worst - it's bad enough that you don't want to watch it again, but not bad enough to be interesting. Most summer blockbusters are perfect examples. Remember Alien3? The film started out poorly by trying to pretend that it wasn't a second sequel (a superscript in the title? Really?), then compounded a horribly slow script with a performance by Sigourney Weaver that clearly said "I don't want to be here", producing a film that made you desperately try to erase it from the franchise. Come to think of it, most sequels fall into this category; how I wish I could live in a world where The Matrix was never given a sequel, let alone two.

Mindless action flicks are in this section too. I saw the end of Steven Seagal's Half Past Dead last night, and yes, I freely admit that I watched it solely because of the title. Well, that, and the fact that a man called Morris Chestnut played the main villain. How can you not love a film starring an actor called Morris Chestnut?

Quite easily, it turns out. Seagal's movies are entertaining in their own way, I suppose, but once you've seen him blow up the enemy complex while apparently preserving a deep respect for the environment and the ways of the US's native peoples once, you don't really need to see it again. Unless you're really into the theory and practice of martial arts, the action sequences have nothing you haven't seen a thousand times before, and if you do know the faintest thing about combat then they just get ridiculous. (Anyone in my living room last night would have heard "She's standing in the middle of an open hallway! Why don't you just shoot her?" being shouted rather loudly.) As such, they aren't good enough to be decent pieces of cinema, and not bad enough to be funny.

So Bad It's Good
The hallowed island of awesomeness, this is a very special place. For a start, it lies in a different place for each person (I fully expect that you're going to violently disagree with at least one of my opinions in this post); what makes it even more special is that it's impossible to find it unless you're not looking for it. Even the laziest film-maker who can't be bothered to get a decent script or actors doesn't try to shoot for So Bad It's Good, he's trying to produce something as good as possible within the very low standards required.

The difficulty in reaching this nebulous category is reflected in the difficulties found when trying to define it. Poor characterisation, scenery, effects or acting aren't enough; the disparate elements have to combine to produce something that's either funny, or poignant, or have some other completely unintended effect. Take Ebirah, The Terror of the Deep (or Gojira, Ebirâ, Mosura: Nankai no daiketto, to give it the original Japanese name), for example. I've only ever seen the dubbed version, and this has only added to the hilarious awfulness of the finished product. Godzilla and Ebirah, the giant lobster of the title, have a duel in the ocean by throwing wobbly animated rocks at each other, Mothra, the giant moth, comes along to help, and in the midst of this four poor young Japanese actors try to work out what on earth they are doing in the middle of this cinematic travesty. The dubbing was apparently carried out with only four voice actors, meaning that "Eh?" and "Uh?" make up a very significant proportion of the dialogue, and the enormous chorus of dancing girls worshipping Mothra for no apparent reason are able to say nothing other than "Moth-a-raaaaa" for the duration of their inexplicable scene. The finished product is very highly entertaining and causes you to laugh throughout the whole thing. The only slight snag is that it was supposed to be a thriller...

So Bad It's Bad
This is a very sad category. Films where the director simply wasn't trying, or everyone takes themselves far too seriously, are very likely to find themselves here. It is in So Bad It's Bad that you'll find action stars who reckoned they were capable of directing or screenwriting (step forward again, Mr. Seagal). Also present are no-budget hack-and-slash thrillers, "teen comedies" which are neither comedic nor appealing to teenagers, and Death Train.

Death Train is deserving of special mention here. It's another film that I watched only for its title, which was handy as there's no way I'd watch it for any other reason. Nominally a suspenseful action film, it starred Pierce Brosnan with a bizarre attempt at an American accent, trying to get on board the eponymous train in order to disarm the nuclear bomb on board. If that actually sounds quite exciting, allow me to list some reasons why it wasn't.

  • The film opens with a nuclear bomb being set off in the middle of Germany, presumably incinerating several million people. The hand-wringing and "oh how terrible" speeches last all of two minutes, then we're back into action, making this perhaps the film with the largest unnecessary body count in the first act ever.
  • The villain of the piece is Russian and played by Christopher Lee. He wants to set off the bomb to restart the Cold War. This plot was tired and overused before the Cold War even ended in the first place.
  • I know I've already mentioned it, but: Pierce Brosnan's American accent. Why would you do that, Pierce? Why?
  • The ending is not only contrived, it is also completely devoid of tension. When your film leaves the audience thinking "Huh. So they didn't all die in a nuclear holocaust. Well, there we go," you know you've got a problem.

If you thought that a film starring Brosnan, Lee, Patrick Stewart, Terrence Hardiman and several other quite good actors couldn't fail to be good, allow me to introduce you to the reason why this film is So Bad It's Bad.

Good Grief What On Earth Were They Thinking
Oh no, SBIB wasn't the last category. There are other films, worse than that. And it is into this classification that Hercules in New York proudly strides. A film that must be the product of either a drunken bet or the drunken gambling away of the entire budget (alcohol was definitely involved at some point), never before has a film been so very, very impressively bad. Arnold Schwarzenegger, almost sinking his career before it began, provides the perfect justification for closing the international borders with his portrayal of Hercules - yes, Greek demi-god Hercules - and his adventures in New York. Arnie was dubbed in the original release, but that couldn't save the movie; if anything, it's better when you can hear his oh-so-authentic Greek accent ("NO VUN IZ SUPEEERIOR TO HAERCULEES!"). The film also boasts repetitive and over-frequent fight sequences - there's only so many times you can see Schwarzenegger push people around with a plank before it gets dull - and, in a great moment of glory, manages to take the crown from Point Break in the category of "Least Convincing Day-For-Night Sequence Ever Filmed".

If you can't work it out, Day-For-Night is a cinematic technique in which "night" scenes are filmed in broad daylight and filters are used on the camera lens to make it look as though it's actually night-time. In Point Break it simply doesn't work - the night surfing scene is spoilt by the fact that the sun's reflection is clearly visible in the water, and everyone is glowing in the sunlight. In Hercules in New York, they don't bother with the filters. Interior scenes, which clearly were filmed at night, are intercut with exterior scenes bathed in golden sunlight, the only concession to the concept of night being that one of the characters is holding a lit torch. This is way beyond bad - this is jaw-dropping.

And this sequence leads in to what is quite possibly the very worst - and most brilliantly hilarious - scene ever committed to film. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...the bear attack.

No, I don't own this video, obviously - it's part of the film. Do I have to tell you people everything?

Hey, look on the bright side. There's nowhere to go from here except up.

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Monday, 12 November 2007

Picture of the Week: #45

Not a lot to say about this one (except "sorry it's a day late again"). I was wandering across some of the local fields (or "private parkland", as its owner informed me - I felt like giving him a long lecture on the public footpath system and why it was to everyone's advantage, but decided not to), and thought that this was too nice a picture opportunity to pass up. Autumn really does provide some of the most beautiful light, and when that's tied in with the local landscape it provides some awesome natural sights.

Now, if it wasn't so darned cold all the time, it'd be perfect...

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Thursday, 8 November 2007

Unrealistic Life Ambitions, #2: Dadaist Song Titles

(Ooh, a repeating blog feature that has actually repeated. That was unexpected.)

If you watch any TV at all, you can't have failed to notice the adverts for new albums that are sometimes produced. Generally voiced by Mark Goodier (in the UK, at least), all of these adverts follow much the same formula: the voiceover lists the names of the standout tracks that are going to make you want to buy the album, accompanied by either a) clips of the band in concert, b) parts of their music videos, or c) abstract bits of artwork.

Even if the artwork option is chosen, the audio will be part of the track that's just been named. And here's the key part: the clip used will always be at the point where the lead singer bellows out the name of the song. If the album in question was a collection of Bruce Springsteen's hits, for instance, part of the voiceover might go like this...

Voiceover: Featuring "The River", "Murder Incorporated, and the smash hit "Born to Run".
Bruce Springsteen (in concert): 'Cos tramps like us, baby we were booooorn to ruuuuuuuun!

There's nothing wrong with this, as such - it's just a bit dull, that's all. Clearly, there's a consensus among advertisers that this is the only possible way to advertise an album, so even if the visuals are really interesting, the audio will be completely predictable.

I say it's time this was stopped. And I know how to do it, too. My unrealistic life ambition is to start a successful rock band - so successful that we can eventually get Mark Goodier to do the voiceover for our TV adverts - without ever mentioning the title of any of our songs anywhere in the lyrics.

Overly ambitious, you say? Not at all! If countless bands can produce tracks whose lyrics consist of nothing but the song's title (taken from because the people without a sense of humour at Wikipedia had the terribly bad taste to delete the article), and if the Flaming Lips can produce songs like "The Wizard Turns On...The Giant Silver Flashlight And Puts On His Werewolf Moccasins", then how hard can it be? You can expect to hear our tender rock ballad "Seamus Heaney Recites The First Three Thousand And Twenty Digits of Pi" any day now.

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Tuesday, 6 November 2007

What's in YOUR wallet?

My debit card expired the other week. I know, I know...this isn't really the most fascinating of topics ever addressed. However, due to a lucky combination of circumstances (1. I didn't put it into an ATM after it expired, so it didn't get eaten; 2. I tend to take almost anything to pieces), I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to dissect the old card. I'm not certain what I hoped to achieve with this activity, but no matter - it successfully wasted several hours, and hopefully you'll find it entertaining too!

A couple of quick notes before we start. First, this post is full of photos. The files aren't huge, but they do load at 800x600 resolution (I'm using the cheater's version of thumbnailing, I'm afraid), so I'm putting all of them behind the cut. If you're on dialup, you may wish to wait until you've found some broadband, or you might be here some time!

Secondly, for goodness' sake don't try this at home unless a) you're using one of your own cards, b) you are absolutely certain you won't need it any more, and c) you completely destroy it afterwards. Identity theft is a major problem nowadays; you'll be able to see what steps I've taken against it later in the post. If that's all OK, on we go with the dissection!

The only things that you'll need for this operation are:

  • An expired credit or debit card
  • A pair of ordinary kitchen scissors
  • A penknife, or Stanley knife, or at a pinch just very strong fingernails

The first thing that I did was to make three horizontal cuts across the card, making sure one of them went through the card number.

This not only helps to make the card number illegible, it also makes it much easier to peel off the card's layers. As far as I can make out, the card is made of at least 7 layers; a central white core, with one hard coloured layer and two layers of transparent film on either side. The two transparent layers are pretty much impossible to separate except by accident, so you can treat them as one; they carry most of the important bits of the card. Specifically, the magnetic strip is part of them, so that's what I tried to remove next.

Scoring a line with the penknife didn't work too well near the edge...

...but it did work right in the middle, making it easy to peel off the magnetic strip in both directions. There was much more resistance at the edges, so I reckon either the glue is stronger there or the layers are sealed more closely.

The text under the strip reads "3 Track HiCo Black Magnetic Tape"; for those who are wondering what that means, scan through the FAQs from I had no way of reading the contents of the tape itself, but I imagine it holds just the card number.

With the magnetic tape's possibilities exhausted, I moved on to the middle segment of the card, and removed the film carrying the hologram. This produced the only completely unexpected aspect of the card...

There's a bird hiding under the film! It's etched into it somehow, making it entirely invisible until the film is removed; I think it's probably a security measure, as it would be fairly obvious that the card's now been tampered with. That's supported by the fact that the bird looks very much like the one on the hologram. It's also visible on the film itself:

The code numbers under the hologram (0 C E 2) return no meaningful hits in a Google search, so they're probably an internal reference to the type of hologram required.

The next thing to come off the card was the film from the bottom segment:

No great revelations here, although it's interesting to notice what's been removed; most of the Visa logo is intact, but everything silvery has gone. Much of the metallic shimmering effect on the card's surface remained, so that must be part of the coloured layer.

Here's the card with most of the transparent film removed from the front. It looks like there might be something drawn on the top segment...

...but on closer examination I think it got there while I was peeling off the film; it does look rather like a fingerprint. Incidentally, this photo shows more clearly how all the silver colouring has come off with the film; the two layers of film are also apparent.

The last bit of film-peeling took me back to the middle segment, in order to remove the signature strip. This was very much like the magnetic strip, especially in that there was something underneath...

In amongst the "VOID"s (I think it's fairly obvious by now that the card's void for purchases, really) there's a line of text reading "Oberthur C.S.3 89302 12/04". (The same text as appears above the magnetic strip and to the right, in fact...have a look at the third photo in this post.) While this produces no Google hits, there is a company called Oberthur Card Systems. So now we know who made the card; what the "3" means is anyone's guess, as is the "89302 12/04". (I got the card in 2006, and I doubt it was sitting in a warehouse somewhere for two years; it's also not a patent, as US Patent No. 89302 is for an "Improvement in Felt Suspender-End".)

Moving on, then, we come to the chip, of Chip&Pin fame. It popped out of its recess with very little force, leaving nothing behind and remaining remarkably intact.

I find it a little worrying that the chip came out quite so easily; the fact that it's the only component which is obviously glued in also seems strange. The film was held on to the plastic very strongly, so what's stopping the chip from being held in the same way? Anyway, it does mean that we can get a good look at the chip itself. It's very, very tiny, with the vast majority of the recess being taken up by the contacts. Each one of these connects to a gold wire (probably gold, anyway), which in turn connects to the chip.

I peeled off the contacts fairly easily, although the central one was much more troublesome, and in fact left a lot of residue on the chip itself. That made it difficult to see properly, and obviously with something so tiny it's difficult to see any details anyway. Time, then, to dig out my dad's old microscope!

The chip's very blurry because we're looking through the glue, although the wires are clearly visible. I'm not certain whether the little circle is a feature of the chip or merely an air bubble. By zooming in, we can see it more closely (along with some of the chip's surface).

We can also see a close-up of the joint between the chip and the wire...

...and part of the circuit on the chip's surface...

...and the (surprisingly detailed and pretty) surface of the glue...

...and the joint between the wire and the contact pad (or where it used to be, anyway)...

Either there was no joint at all between the contact and the wire (and contact was made through pressure alone), or the contacts were created already attached to the wire. I have no idea how that could have been done.

That's all the dissection that I carried out. The only thing left to do was to provide a bit of scale, so you can see just how tiny the chip is...

Here's the final dissected card with its components around it.

Remember I talked about identity theft at the beginning of the post? Here's where you find out how to avoid it...

Nice and simple!

So what does all of this mean? Well, it's clear that credit and debit cards are certainly very sophisticated little bits of plastic - I was surprised at how many different bits go into them, and how much of the visible detail has clearly been assembled rather than simply printed. The chip, in particular, is a beautiful little piece of engineering, and even things like the glue have unexpected details. On the whole, it's a great demonstration of one of the rules of life, as brought to us by the wonderful xkcd: "You can look at practically any part of anything manmade around you and think 'some engineer was frustrated while designing this.' It's a little human connection."

Continue Reading...

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Picture of the Week: #44

This is the Meadows building of Christ Church College, which can only mean one thing: I've returned to Oxford. Sadly not for more than one day, though; I came up for a friend's birthday, and as the day after was lovely and sunny I decided to hang around for a bit. I have absolutely no idea what the plant is that's had the bad taste to throw itself over the wall in a passable imitation of a very gory murder. But as it's on part of Christ Church, one of the largest, richest and frankly most obnoxious colleges in the whole city...hey, who cares?

Of course, I'm referring to the college as a single entity, and not to its students, many of whom are perfectly nice people. Just thought I'd clear that up. In really tiny writing.

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Wednesday, 31 October 2007

We can solve this with SCIENCE!

It's fairly common nowadays to hear people complaining about the deteriorating standards of science in our society. We're constantly told that the numbers of students taking science subjects at university are dropping, that society favours people who use their gut feelings rather than evidence (that would be truthiness), and that this is caused by Christianity's dislike of rationality. (Incidentally, if that's true, I'd like to know why scientists vastly outnumbered arts and humanities students in my university's Christian Union.)

Amongst all this doom and gloom, it would be easy to assume that there will be no scientists anywhere in our society in just a few years, and that we'll turn into a society of yokels. This would be a pretty daft thing to assume, however. For a start, numbers of science graduates in the US have actually increased in recent years; moreover, even though students are more likely to be turning away from the traditional sciences now than they were a few years ago (see this BBC article for the figures), the numbers of students going to university at all are constantly and dramatically rising, meaning that we're still going to have considerably more scientists in this country than, say, ten years ago.

Possibly even more importantly, though, the attitude towards science that's seen in the media has been constantly improving recently. I think this can best be shown through the medium of US crime dramas.

(What? I happen to like US crime dramas.)

The example that springs to mind immediately is CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Whereas crimes were once solved on TV by maverick detectives who threatened suspects, shot their way out of trouble and drove fast cars, CSI has introduced a format in which the slightly nerdy characters back at the lab take centre stage and save the day. Indeed, characters who get too emotionally involved in the case frequently get reprimanded, not because it goes against the usual way of doing things, but because it doesn't help. The show doesn't portray its geeky characters half-heartedly, either - Gil Grissom, the CSI team's figurehead, is a hardcore nerd, into insect life cycles and other bizarrely obscure subject areas.

Grissom is a very likeable character, not only because he gets the job done well, but also because he clearly loves what he does and is very passionate about it. CSI very rarely goes deeply into the personal lives of its characters, mainly because we simply don't need to see them - we see enough of them at work to know what they're like as people, and to make the audience root for them. It's a similar story in more recent series Numb3rs.

I'd like to take this moment to point out quite how much I hate the mixing of letters and digits in the middle of a word. I tend to pronounce Numb3rs as "Numbthrers" in protest. Regardless, the show itself is very entertaining, and this is largely due to Charlie, the central character. Charlie is a mathematician, frequently consulted by the FBI on cases where mathematical analysis is necessary. It's proper maths, too (as much of it as I can recognise, anyway), and as long as the audience can overlook the frankly staggering number of cases that happen to involve mathematical analysis, it's accessible and entertaining.

The rest of the show is good too - Megan, the team's resident psychologist, holds up her end of the science admirably, and the other characters see the use of science as a useful tool, rather than belittling it as nerdy. Charlie and Megan, like Grissom, are passionate and clearly intelligent scientists, who have fully-developed personalities and make their specialities look both useful and - dare I say it - cool.

I can't point to definite figures proving that these shows, and others like them, have increased public appreciation of science, although this article from the BBC certainly suggests that this might well be the case. I think it is likely, though, that science is seen by the average person as having a much higher status than we're sometimes led to believe - and that the predicted collapse of all reason and thought is not going to happen after all.

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Sunday, 28 October 2007

Picture of the Week: #43

I've just watched the original Star Wars movie again, so I don't think there's any point in pretending that I'm not in full-on geek mode. (Although I will risk the nerd wrath by saying that Star Wars really isn't as good as it's made out to be. Mark Hamill could only have been more wooden if he was made of chipboard.) Geek mode is an interesting phenomenon, which can be manifested in a number of ways. See above photo for an example.

The idea behind the photo's not mine (I got it from this Flickr image pool), but I think it's quite a cool effect. Is it obvious that I've been spending a lot of time indoors recently?

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Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Are snarky blog comments the online equivalent, do you think?

WARNING: I accept no responsibility if you go off and draw on someone's wall, then get prosecuted for it, OK? Nothing in this post should be taken as an endorsement of committing criminal damage, and you're on your own if you're daft enough to do so. Now that's out of the way, on we go with the post.

London may be an incredible city, right up there among the greatest cities on the world - and yet, I really can't get very excited about it. The vast majority of times I've been there, I've actually been going somewhere else entirely (the bizarre British transport network means you more or less have to go through or around London if you're going anywhere at all), and I don't have much desire to go there any more often.

One of the major reasons why I dislike London is the view I get when I go there. The train I have to catch comes in to Liverpool Street Station, and the last mile or so of track before the train gets there is surrounded by some of the most impressively ugly and run-down buildings I think I've ever seen. There is one bonus, though; the brick walls of the railway cutting are always covered in graffiti.

Graffiti is something that I find endlessly fascinating. I have no idea what the motivation for it might be; perhaps people want to leave their mark in some way, to make sure that people know they were there, or maybe it's just a destructive urge. Regardless of the reasons for its production, graffiti is certainly very noticeable, so we might as well pay attention to it. I've ended up classifying it into a number of handy categories.

  1. Destructive Graffiti
    Graffiti that defaces something underneath, as opposed to being placed in a blank space. This can sometimes be motivated by humour rather than a simple urge to cause damage; scratching out letters on signs comes under this classification, and frequently it makes me think that the only thing wrong with it is a lack of a sense of humour. (If it was actually funny to change "Swimming Pool" to "Swim-in- Poo-" then I'd be behind it all the way. This is how it's done.) If it is actually purely destructive - scrawling "Gaz woz ere" across a piece of art, for example - then it's pointless and shouldn't be encouraged at all.

  2. Tagging Graffiti
    One step above simple destruction, but still not very interesting, we have the scrawls that you'll see on walls everywhere, telling anyone who's remotely interested that someone called Barry, or possibly a street gang called B3, passed that way at some point in the near past. Why any of us would want to know this is unclear. Generally, this type of graffiti consists of nothing more than a name or a couple of letters, with no decoration and a single line of a single colour. I have absolutely no problem with people being prosecuted for criminal damage if they're caught doing this, although I'd prefer it if the charge was "devastating lack of taste".

  3. Message Graffiti
    Theoretically better than tagging, this type of graffiti involves people writing a slogan or an attempt at humour on the tempting blank surface before them. It's better than the previously-mentioned types to the extent that there is some point in it, some thought behind it; however, the problem with it is that the point is frequently remarkably stupid. There is no point whatsoever in writing "Troops Out Of Iraq" or, worse, drawing an Anarchist symbol on a wall. The intention behind the graffiti may be admirable (although that's doubtful in the case of the Anarchists), but no-one is going to be convinced one way or the other by seeing your scrawl. If anything, they're going to be turned off the message. Comedy sometimes works better, but again, only if it's actually funny. To be more precise, Good Morning Lemmings is acceptable. Bill Stickers Is Innocent is acceptable. Pretty much anything related to genitalia and bodily functions...not so much.

  4. Arty Graffiti
    The only type of vandalism that I really like is when the graffiti artist took the time to make something that looks good. Oddly, this can take place even when the theme of the graffiti falls under one of the above categories - some great street art is nothing more than a tag, just executed very skilfully. The large, colourful bits of 3D-looking writing that you'll find in many underpasses are particularly good, and there's plenty of examples of great wall art here, as well. (Don't be put off by the URL...)

I find it very sad that some people, especially those in authority, don't share my views on artistic graffiti. Only today it was reported by the BBC that the town council in Tower Hamlets is going to paint over some of Banksy's great stencil work, calling it an "eyesore". I think this case is particularly sad, as Banksy is one of those graffiti artists who can get away with doing humour and politics in his work, because it's just so well executed - see this painting on Israel's West Bank wall, for example.

Whether graffiti is seen as art to be celebrated, harmless fun to be ignored or dangerous vandalism to be clamped down upon, it's very clear that it's going to continue. And I'm going to keep an eye out for it and keep appreciating it whenever I'm forced to go back into London.

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Sunday, 21 October 2007

Picture of the Week: #42

In order to allay any fears that you may have - no, I have not bought a sniper rifle, and no, you are not going to see more photos like this, just with crosshairs and some important political figure under them. Honest.

The reason that this photo looks as though it was taken through a scope is quite simple - it was taken through a scope. A spotting scope in this case, though, which happens to be the perfect accessory if you're going to take up digiscoping, the practice of taking photographs of whatever you're looking at in your telescope.

Contrary to what you may have heard, small telescopes have more uses than simply in voyeurism and political espionage. They're also very useful for birdwatching, amateur astronomy and general looking at nature, none of which I do on a very regular basis, but all of which are kind of fun. So, given the opportunity of sticking a digital camera against the eyepiece, I'm going to do it and see what happens. I think it adds some good qualities to the image. Now all I need to do is find something slightly more interesting to photograph. I hear Menzies Campbell is off on a round of pub golf in Swansea tonight...

Step 1: Combine photography with politically-slanted libel
Step 2: ???
Step 3: Profit!

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Friday, 19 October 2007

It's very important to give this kind of geek something to do. Bad things happen otherwise.

For some reason, the market for video games appears to be filled with people who don't actually want the games that they've bought. No, what they wanted was something nearly the same as their purchase, but not quite. Welcome to the world of game modding.

According to some sources, the earliest mod was a Castle Wolfenstein chop job called Castle Smurfenstein. Quite why the author of this game felt the need to replace Nazis with Smurfs is unclear, although I suppose the Second World War would have been over rather faster if all we'd had to do was assassinate Papa Smurf. Anyway, since then barely a game has been produced that hasn't been modified extensively by its purchasers. Even console games haven't escaped, thanks to gadgets like the Action Replay, allowing gamers to modify the system memory's contents.

The difference between using an Action Replay and modding a PC game is fairly simple - an Action Replay can only modify things that are currently in the game, whereas a PC mod can introduce entirely new things. That said, sometimes Action Replays can be used to discover things that the developers put into the game but subsequently didn't use, to the embarrassment of the game's distributors; Rockstar's revelation that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas contained an unfinished sexual mini-game (the so-called "Hot Coffee" feature) is one obvious example. (Incidentally, the outcry over that issue strikes me as very odd - the whole game requires you to kill, maim and steal from various other people, but it's unacceptable to show simulated consensual sex on-screen?)

Obviously, then, PC mods are the most flexible type, and some people have seriously gone to town on changing their games to look like they wanted. Developers, for their part, have responded in a remarkably positive way. All of the fairly recent games in the Microsoft Flight Simulator series have had an open structure explicitly designed for users to make and fly their own planes; some of the Jedi Knight series, among many others, have options in the main menu for importing mods; and then, of course, we have the Half-Life games.

Half-Life and its sequels, easily some of the most popular and critically acclaimed games ever made, are also built on well-documented engines that make it very easy for other developers to make entirely new games on top of the old ones. The classic success story here is Counter-Strike, a mod for Half-Life that was so incredibly successful, Valve (the original publishers of Half-Life) ended up bundling it with Half-Life itself. Other mods have had similar successes - Garry's Mod, built on top of Half-Life 2, is such a useful tool that it's now being sold commercially. (And it's been used for some awesome bits of fan art, too, notably the webcomic Concerned.)

As you'd expect, the open-source community has got in on the action too, as people have created open-source remakes of brilliant games like Liero. (Many of you are now saying "I've never played Liero." To you, I can only say: Your youth was not complete.) Gusanos is one such remake, and of course it has also been modded extensively. Any game that, casting you as a homicidal intelligent worm trying to kill all your opponents, also provides you with a ninja rope, a lightsaber, and the ability to shoot lightning, must be worth playing.

Ahh, wonderful.

Now that we've established quite how awesome the concept of modding really is, take a moment to wonder why it's not present to the same extent in other software. Programs like Microsoft Word do accept "add-ins"; Windows Media Player can have extra visualisations and information processors; and yet, there's very little widespread use of these functions. The only program that comes to mind with an equivalent level of extensibility is Firefox, and that's open source, so it's much more to be expected. Perhaps software publishers are afraid that they'll lose custom if they don't have control over their products; however, gamers aren't avoiding new games in favour of mods. Rather, they're enjoying them even more.

It's entirely possible that the effect of not allowing full modding is to drive customers to completely different products. Music fans who want lots of functionality (such as full Ogg Vorbis support) don't try to mod Windows Media Player, they download Winamp; customers dissatisfied with Office download OpenOffice. And, of course, there's Linux - arguably, the closed nature of Windows has been a spur for developers to look elsewhere if they want the best performance from their programs. Whether that's true or not, it's definitely something to think about.

In the meantime, I'm off to fly an X-Wing through the middle of Tower Bridge.

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