Wednesday, 30 May 2007

I've come up with a new invention too. It's called a "computer". Royalties please.

Microsoft has produced a website for their new product concept, called "Surface". Essentially, it's a touchscreen interface that lets you work with documents and media directly, with intuitive gestures to manipulate them on the screen, rather than having to use a mouse or keyboard to get in the way.

So why am I bothering to mention this? Because, despite Microsoft's extremely flashy site (which, incidentally, is running as slowly as a snail in a bowl of treacle on this connection, and includes interestingly frustrating little design flaws like the inability to close a video until it's fully running), this concept is not remotely new. Jeff Han demonstrated such a device last year (do follow that link - the video is immensely cool), and the technology for doing it is fairly well established. All that Microsoft are doing is trying to produce a consumer-level device building on this same technology.

To be honest, I think they'll have difficulty. The mouse-and-keyboard combination is so fully integrated into computing at the moment that change is going to be difficult, especially for those sectors of IT which need to be able to type fast (read: every sector except pure graphical design). For some purposes, I don't doubt that this technology will be useful, and I definitely want one.

Just not from Microsoft. Especially as the intro to their flashy website gives you this absolutely priceless screenshot, complete with dodgy colour gradients...

Yep, buffering definitely does feel familiar coming from these people.

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Sunday, 27 May 2007

Picture of the Week: #21

I've been in Jersey for the past few days, hence the remarkably late post - I've backdated it to Sunday for consistency's sake (and because it is now technically Wednesday, which seems a little late). I don't really have the time or the inclination to go into much detail about it now (see, ye people, the microscopically-detailed account of my rather uninteresting life!), although several aspects of the whole experience are fairly likely to inspire a few posts in the near future.

What I will say is that this photo was taken at La Corbière, the furthest point to the south-west on the island, which really is a rather beautiful spot. The statue on the right commemorates a near-disaster nearby, when a ferry struck some rocks and sank (mercifully without loss of life), whereas the lighthouse, which stands on its own little promontory and is accessible by land at low tide, was supposed to prevent just such an occurrence. A fairly monstrous "D'oh" would appear to be in order.

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Thursday, 24 May 2007

The essay does not consist of the phrase "I am a fish" 400 times, either. I have some originality, you know.

It is currently 10 to 1 in the morning, and I am buzzing on caffeine. 100mg of the stuff, to be precise, delivered in two tiny ProPlus tablets just over an hour ago. I don't drink coffee, you see, or very much in the way of Coke or Red Bull, so I am very sensitive to this particular drug. Add in the fact that said tablets dump the caffeine into your system very fast, and it seems unlikely that I'll get any sleep for another hour or so at least.

It probably won't surprise you to learn that I'm not really much of a pill popper. If a doctor tells me to take something, I will, and if I have a really bad headache or pain that's stopping me from sleeping, I'll take a couple of paracetamol, but that's about it. The longest course of medication I've ever taken was for six months, I think, when I was taking antimalarial pills once a week, but I usually find that sleeping for a long time cures most things eventually without the need for chemical involvement.

So why is it that my brain is being the neural equivalent of a frisky puppy right now? It's because I have work to do. Specifically, the last tutorial essay that I have to write in Oxford. And given that I'm kind of tight for time right now, and that I only wrote my previous essay yesterday morning, I'm more than a little bit tired, so if I wanted to get this work done in time for the 10am tutorial tomorrow, artificial stimulation was really the only way to go. I've done this a total of twice before, once using "Kick", the horrible cheap Tesco equivalent of Red Bull, and once using ProPlus. When I say "Kick" is horrible, I'm not kidding. It tastes vile, as though the lovechild of a strawberry and a mango died a terrifying death in a bath of acid before having a truckload of sugar poured over its still-twitching body. But it does contain 300mg of caffeine and cost about £1 per litre, and this was all that I needed in order to write an entire essay in four hours after a long day. It was also just shy of the amount of caffeine required to experience caffeine intoxication, a condition in which you apparently get twitchy and paranoid. This sounds vaguely exciting for some reason, but I have yet to see what it's like.

This time around, I knew what I needed to do, and it worked. The tablets went down at about twenty minutes to midnight, and roughly an hour later I had added an entire typed page of very detailed notes to the essay plan, ready to be edited into a coherent whole. Well..."coherent" is probably pushing it, but it did at least come to a conclusion. The frantic speed at which I was typing had also slowed down, an indication that the peak of the caffeine high had worn off. A few more minutes to let it subside even further, and I should have the right balance of alertness and common sense to massage these notes into something resembling a logical argument.

Despite the fact that I'm comfortable with using a chemical method like this in order to boost my productivity, I find it incredibly odd how easy it is to entirely change my behaviour with two small pills. An hour and a half ago, I was slumping forward at my desk, unable to see which way the essay was going to go - now, it's about 20 minutes of editing away from being finished. Even though the physiology of my body has barely changed (I have been awake for just as long, and all of the physical effects of that, and of the stress I've been under these past few days, are still present), the subjective experience has changed completely. Nor is it some kind of illusion - the alertness I gained really did allow me to see what I should be writing about next. It does make you wonder how much of the everyday experience that we have is due to the world around us, and how much is due to hormones, to the chemicals sloshing around through our bodies' various systems, and to the substances that we poke into our faces.

More than that, though, if simple things like my productivity can be altered through such straightforward means, where is the dividing line? What else could I change? Cases like that of Phineas Gage come to mind (WARNING: Fairly gruesome medical illustrations), where high-level things like personalities entirely change after one's brain is selectively damaged. This then starts to raise philosophical questions, such as "Where is the part of me that I call 'me' actually located?" Given that the essay I've been writing is about consciousness in the first place, this kind of thing has been running around my mind for a while.

Because I'm not an idiot, I have no wish to try some of the more exotic substances around, that can bend one's apparent reality in unpredictable ways. I think that I do now understand more why it is that other people experiment in this way, though. If the effects of such substances were predictable, what else could you do? What else could you create? And would the results be an experience that was in any way less "authentic" than that which you see every day?

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Tuesday, 22 May 2007

By the time you've finished reading this, you may as well have just got out and walked anyway

It looks from the news as though there's going to be a set of pilot schemes set up in the near future, in order to test the viability of by-the-mile road pricing. This is a plan that has been controversial to say the very least - lots of people seem to be regarding it as little more than a thinly-veiled attempt to wring more money out of motorists, and it inspired an enormous petition to Downing Street back in February. As it happens, I did sign that petition, and I did get an email from Mr Blair (or "me mate Tony", as I think I should refer to him - after all, he did email me...)

The weird thing is that today's news story, although it does mention the vast opposition to the road pricing plan, doesn't make much mention of the petition's first objection to the plan, which was that road pricing would involve satellite tracking of every single car so that the system could tell which roads they'd been on. That was definitely my main objection to it, and it looks like it was much the same for many others, but now it seems that the opposition to road pricing is being characterised by people who simply don't like the idea of paying more to drive.

I may as well put my cards on the table immediately as regards this issue - driving around is, regardless of what motorists will tell you, a dangerous, noisy and polluting activity. Within, the UK, 3,201 people died in road accidents in 2005, of whom only 52% were in a car at the time. To put that in perspective, it's an average of over 8 people per day, or one every 3 hours. Cars are responsible for 15% of CO2 emissions within the EU, and car ownership has been steadily increasing throughout the '90s to the point where there are nearly 500 cars per 1000 people. Unless things change, and soon, the roads are going to become even more congested and dangerous - and making driving cost more, provided that money goes back into developing public transport, is a good, market-led way of trying to avoid that.

(I'm aware that there are people for whom driving is the only option - those living right out in the sticks, or little old ladies without any other way of getting around. I'm also aware that it is not impossible to work out discounts and exemptions for special cases. It worked with the London congestion charge.)

Anyway, if it's a good idea to raise the cost of driving, why is it a bad idea to introduce road pricing? After all, surely that's a fairer way of doing it than simply using road tax - it means that those who don't drive much don't have to pay so much. And indeed, I would be fully in favour of road pricing schemes, if only it weren't for the extremely Orwellian concept of every car being satellite-tracked everywhere it goes. This is an incredibly bad idea on pretty much every level. First, the practicalities would be difficult. Would the car be allowed to move unless the tracking box had a satellite fix? Given that GPS units frequently take a minute to get going, or more in difficult terrain, immobilisation this will frustrate drivers who aren't used to having to boot up their cars. How about people who use an underground car park, making it impossible to get a satellite fix? The alternative is to let the car move without the tracker working - but how far? Would it suddenly die half way down the street if it wasn't sure where it was? More to the point, having a critical piece of kit being run by a computer is never a particularly good idea, and there's no such thing as a mechanical backup for a GPS system. (Unless you're planning on having a bloke with an Ordnance Survey map and a megaphone following everyone around.)

The cost is another issue. Satellite technology has got a lot cheaper recently, but a decent consumer-level navigation unit will still cost you over £100. And fitting these to what must be getting close to 30 million vehicles would not come cheap. What's more, the GPS system itself is not cheap to maintain ($750m per year, according to Wikipedia), so what's to stop the US military from charging as much as it likes, once this enormous and guaranteed market opens up?

By far the most important problem with a satellite tracking system, though, is that too much information is generated. In order for the Department for Transport to successfully charge everyone for their road usage, it will need to know which roads people have been on, and when. The implications for this - that the government instantly knows exactly where all of its citizens are (assuming that they drive), and where they have been for goodness knows how long - is simply terrifying. I've heard the argument advanced that this isn't a problem, because those who haven't been engaging in illegal activity have nothing to fear. However, even if you do trust the current government not to do horrible things with this information (for the record, I actually probably do), that's not the question that you should be asking. What you should ask is, "Do I trust the next government with this information? What about the one after that? And the next?" Imagine a situation where a future government, after, say, a major terrorist incident, decides that it needs to seriously clamp down on possible dissent. Do you want them to be able to look up in their database and find out that you drove to a "Troops Out Of Iraq" demonstration 15 years previously? As you can see, there are some very good reasons not to make this kind of information available.

How, then, might a road pricing scheme work without this kind of threat? There's one very simple solution: make the data flow the other way. That's pretty much all you need to change. If, instead of information flowing from the cars to the system, the system told the car what it had just gone past, then privacy problems disappear. How would this work in practice? Well, consider what would happen if every car was fitted with a low-power radio transceiver, with a maximum range of about 20m. The technology for these is already pretty much commonplace, and therefore cheap, and it wouldn't be difficult to fit them all if it became part of the MOT to have one installed. Radio beacons could then be fitted along the nation's roads - for example, every time a speed limit sign was replaced or maintained, a beacon could be added to it. These beacons would broadcast a code for the appropriate type of road; then, whenever a car passed one, the onboard transceiver could record the road type and add an appropriate charge to a running total. At no point would data have to flow to the beacons.

Paying one's charge would likewise be fairly easy to do - if every Post Office, or better yet every petrol station, was equipped with its own transceiver then it would be trivial to make the car's onboard transceiver transmit a unique code, perhaps based on the car's numberplate and current date and time, and the total to be paid whenever a button was pressed. Paying this at the petrol station would authorise a similar code to be broadcast to the car to reset the total; instead of using an immobiliser, it could also be a requirement of the MOT to pay one's total. Notice that no information about where the car has been is ever sent to the central system, only the amount paid.

As you can probably tell, I've put rather more thought into this than is strictly necessary. I do think, though, that with the encroaching invasions of privacy in this culture, it is very much worth looking into alternative ways of dealing with problems that minimise concerns from the outset. The bottom line is that we all need to drive less - if we can manage to do that without Gordon Brown watching our every move, I'd be much happier.

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Monday, 21 May 2007

Picture of the Week: #20

The weather's finally decided to be nice again, so it's time for a summery photo.

Punting in Oxford is great fun, and not as difficult as you might think, although I did bounce off the riverbanks an embarrassingly large number of times when I was in control of ours. Legends abound about the practice - some think that there is an absolutely definite right end on which to stand (for the record, it works just as well whichever end you stand on, although most Oxford students will insist on the flat bit going in front), some feel that it is not a true punting expedition unless you also have enough Pimm's to refill the river if it becomes necessary, and some will, taking a scientific approach, attempt to cram as many people in as possible without sinking. Apparently six large rugby players can stay afloat, as can an Austin Seven car. (The car requires two punts, though, and probably without the six rugby players.)

All I know is that it's really quite difficult to get a punt off a tree root if you happen to get stuck...

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Saturday, 19 May 2007

Of course, all the Arnie movies are exempt from this classification. He gets a category all of his own. Or else.

I wouldn't call myself a film buff in any sense of the term - I haven't seen anywhere near enough of them to draw anything more than the most rudimentary conclusions about the art form as a whole. Luckily, rudimentary conclusions are what these essays are all about, so let's forge ahead regardless with a few sweeping generalisations!

It seems that scriptwriters are often cursed with the shocking inability to write about interesting heroes. Pick a film at random, and you're fairly likely to find that the hero character is just not that compelling as a person. Whatever qualities they may have, they're frequently overshadowed by the other characters. The fact that the other characters do manage to draw you in is particularly interesting, as it shows that the problem isn't an inability to write interesting character parts. As far as I can make out, the scale goes something like this.

I apologise for the rather poor image quality...haven't quite got the hang of illustration yet. Anyway, this scale applies to a surprisingly large number of films. Consider some of the best-known films around, for example the original Star Wars trilogy. Luke Skywalker is the epitome of the dull hero, from his sensible haircut, through his clothing choice (he is literally a beige character), right to his incredibly complicated motivation (MUST...KILL...VADER). Even the poor stormtroopers whose only role is to be hilariously bad shots are more interesting. Up one more point on the scale, we reach characters like Wedge Antilles, who actually manages to defy his classification by not dying sacrificially to save the hero, thus unfairly raising the audience's hopes of Luke being picked off instead.

Up again, and we reach characters like Han Solo and Yoda, who manage to be ethically or intellectually dubious (respectively), immediately giving them a bit of depth. Yoda also has the advantage of not being human, which is a shortcut to more entertaining characters if ever I saw one. Immediately above them we have a slight difficulty, as although Emperor Palpatine is technically the main villain, ranking above Vader, he's functionally the sidekick in terms of the storytelling. Personally, though, I reckon that technical ranking wins the day, giving us Palpatine's evil chuckling and ability to shoot lightning from his fingers (pretty darn cool) and Darth Vader's heavy breathing, voice, great dialogue and awesome chokey-thing (SERIOUSLY cool). You'll notice that I haven't included a mention of the comic relief characters in here so far, basically because mention of "comic relief" and "Star Wars" will inevitably lead to mentions of C3PO and Jar Jar. And no-one wants that.

The same classification applies to a lot of other movies, in part if not completely. Take a Bond movie - let's say Tomorrow Never Dies. Bond's always been a bit 2D, with his mission (Go! Save the world in another slightly different way!) not really changing between films, and his womanising, sharp-shooting, heavy-drinking character serving as little more than a plot device and an object for the audience to cheer about. His sidekick, though - in this case, Wai Lin, as portrayed by Michelle Yeoh - has a lot more going for her, especially as her character is considerably deeper than the carbon-copy Bond girls who usually get classified under "non-bit-part cannon fodder". But even she pales into insignificance next to Elliot Carver, as you've got to love the idea of a man starting a war and a military coup over broadcast rights, and he likewise isn't half as much fun as his evil assistants, Stamper, Gupta and the criminally underused Dr. Kaufman ("SCHTAMPAAAAAA!").

Or we could spill over into books. A number of fans (yes, I count myself among them) have been hoping for quite some time now that Harry Potter would just get on with whatever he has to do and then simply shut up so that we can watch more of the hilarious antics of the Weasley family, with particular reference to the as-yet rather undeveloped Ron-Hermione pairing. This has, admittedly, largely been sparked by Harry's discovery of teenage angst, particularly as it applies to LIBERAL USE OF THE CAPS LOCK KEY, back in Book 5...even so, the character simply doesn't have as much going for him as does pretty much anyone else around.

Harry Potter does show, though, that certain elements of the scale can be inverted or confused for better effect. Fred and George Weasley, for example, are very well-written comic relief characters, and Snape, with his evil/good/evil/good character, is rapidly becoming a far more interesting figure to watch and consider than almost anyone else. Or we could go back to the world of films to see other examples - Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep shows that it's entirely possible for the main character to absolutely ooze coolness, even if Lauren Bacall is trying her very hardest to steal his scenes. Even Disney has subverted the normal order to good effect in The Lion King, by making Scar a very cool yet intensely evil main villain, way above the only characters that could even remotely be considered his sidekicks. Similarly, that film has blended the comic relief characters with the hero's sidekicks in order to create Timon and Pumbaa, to great effect.

So if films are better for abandoning elements of this plan, why is it - or at least much of it - still so prevalent? I was talking about just this question with a friend the other night, who suggested that it's because we like 2D heroes, we like having a simple good-vs-bad storyline, and that it's just easier to root for the hero if he doesn't come complete with complexities. I think there's something in that. Eric Burns suggests something similar in the genre of comic books, as a reason for why comics don't sell anything like as many copies now as they used to. And yet, Burns acknowledges in that essay that complex characters and dark storylines are more interesting, from a literary as well as an intellectual standpoint - the story is better, and it engages your brain.

I'm not going to claim that it's necessarily a bad thing for films and books to go down the simple route - as much as anyone, I get times when I simply want to switch off my brain and be spoon-fed entertainment. I do think, though, that the mechanics of popular entertainment, where profit is the main concern, can lead to writers taking this soft option too often. Just remembering that there are fascinating things that can be done by changing a few underlying structures can reap great benefits - let's hope that we get more people willing to take the risk.

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Friday, 18 May 2007

But rock music must be evil! He proved it! With a flowchart!

As you may well have heard, Jerry Falwell died the other day. This isn't going to be a post about him, though, because I knew very little about him. The only things that I am going to say are addressed towards those who:

  1. Seem to be idolising him; the man said some extremely stupid things and gave the impression of being rather unpleasant in certain ways.
  2. Appear to be crowing over his death. Guys, he just died, that's more or less the definition of bad taste. Cory Doctorow, one of the posters to Boing Boing, has managed to fall several places in my Personal Estimation Scale (all the way from "pretty cool guy overall" to "bit of a jerk") with a single, staggeringly insensitive post like this, and he's not alone in his views by any means. Whatever else Falwell was, he was also a person, and should get respect for that reason if nothing else.

What I did do after hearing this news, though, was have a browse around various topics associated with the slightly nuttier end of Christianity. I always regret doing this, really, as it takes up a lot of time (you'd think I had exams coming up or somethi...oh) and tends to leave something of a bad taste in the mouth. It is a valuable practice, though, as it lets you work out where you stand on controversial topics, forces you to take a position one way or another, and provokes you to look up the Biblical support for each side so you can see whether their interestingly kooky views are actually valid.

And, of course, it can be pretty entertaining. It was as part of these wanderings that I came across possibly the epitome of slightly nutty Christian literature - Chick tracts. Named after (and produced by) Jack Chick, who Wikipedia tells me is a reclusive 83-year-old Independent Baptist, these little tracts are apparently fairly well-embedded into American popular culture. There's certainly a lot of them. Each one generally consists of a few pages telling the story of someone either a) struggling against the forces of this world, and especially against one particular person or organisation, in an attempt to convert others, or b) doing precisely the opposite. The tracts unfortunately share some of the same failings as the (previously-mentioned) Josh and Jimbo, in that the story is usually very simplistic, and is resolved by the end, either one way or another; as such, although they're interesting as a cultural phenomenon, they're not going to win any literary awards.

Aside from aesthetics, the problems with Chick tracts come in two main forms: their theology and their fact checking. As far as the theology goes, I don't think there's too much being said that's actually wrong - it's much more that Chick is dealing with topics that are so big, there's very little chance of fitting everything into a short tract, so you end up with an extremely restricted and simplistic view of some very important topics. Look at Scream, a tract specifically talking about Hell, for an idea of what I mean - Chick selectively uses the parable of Dives and Lazarus, and extrapolates it entirely literally, using only a couple of passages from Revelation (yes, Revelation, the book that is packed solid with metaphorical and semi-metaphorical symbols, and which requires a whole lot of context to make any sense of it) as supporting text. What you end up with is a tract that presents an intensely complicated issue as one that is very simple, and gets rid of careful Biblical study in favour of getting a big emotional response. (And let's not forget some of the distasteful themes going on here - the rather unsubtly Hispanic stereotype arsonist dies very early on and gets no mention, because we're concentrating on the square-jawed Caucasian fireman. Oh, and Bob Williams's moustache is simply not right.)

The fact-checking is the more worrying aspect of these tracts, as it doesn't seem to actually exist. You won't have to look too hard to find some...err...interesting assertions made, but let's flag up a few particularly flagrant ones. The tract Are Roman Catholics Christians? (take a wild guess what Chick thinks), for example, claims that the Catholic Church teaches that anyone denying transubstantiation should be burned as a heretic. The word actually used in the relevant decree, though, (and the one quoted in the tract) is "anathema", which simply meant an extreme form of excommunication, still leaving open the possibility of returning to the church. More entertainingly, the same tract claims that the "IHS" letters seen in several places in Catholic churches are a direct reference to pagan religions, claiming that "In Egypt, the IHS stood for their gods...Isis, Horus and Seb". Even if Chick doesn't know that IHS is actually an abbreviation for Jesus' name, you'd have thought he'd have noticed that the Ancient Egyptians didn't write in English. But apparently not. Chick's historical knowledge is also shown to be slightly suspect in The Attack, in which he claims that (a rather poorly drawn) Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in a highly principled stand against the ungodly power of the Pope, as opposed to because they wouldn't let him divorce Catherine of Aragon (which seems rather more likely). He also manages to conveniently forget that the Protestant Elizabeth I burnt considerably more "heretics" than "Bloody" Mary I ever managed.

If the small details are cringe-worthy in their inaccuracy, the wider topics covered are absolutely hilarious. Dark Dungeons shows, in true fundamentalist style, that Chick doesn't actually know the first thing about Dungeons & Dragons (nor do I, I hasten to add, but at least I can do research into people who do). Even better, though, is Angels?, in which we learn of all the evils of rock music, which are orchestrated by a Vulcan in a sharp suit. Sorry, I mean Satan. Anyway, he's apparently "turned millions into rock-a-holics" via "the church of Rome" (I would love to see Pope Benedict rockin' out at Glastonbury, but somehow I don't think it's going to happen), and the only way to get out of this self-destructive cycle is to burn everything associated with it and dress in a suit. (Not a sharp Satanic suit though.) I don't think I should have to point out how weird this whole concept is - yes, there have been many musicians that went in for sex, drugs and rock n' roll in a big way, just like in most branches of popular entertainment down the years. That's what having everyone idolising you will do. It doesn't mean that the music itself is evil; Chick has jumped so far to his conclusion that he'll probably be competing in the next Olympics.

As with Josh and Jimbo, there's clearly good intentions behind these efforts (even if they come across as rather unpleasant). Indeed, Chick's tracts aimed at those who are already Christians have some good stuff in them, even if it is mixed in with some of the fruitcakitude mentioned above. What's more, I don't doubt that some people have come to faith in Christ through them. But, until Christians can communicate better, and until this communication can enter the public consciousness in the same way, the only image of Christianity that people are going to see is the fire and brimstone, the offensive Falwellisms, and the people engaging in endless moral panic without ever actually living for Christ.

Continue Reading...

Monday, 14 May 2007

This is how novels get started, isn't it?

I was doing a bit of shopping earlier today, taking advantage of the brief break in the almost endless rain we've been having recently. I'd only just got into Tesco and was heading down towards the bread aisle when someone started speaking over the Tannoy system.

I could have sworn they said "This is a staff announcement...would Raymond Chandler please contact Customer Service immediately, thank you."

Needless to say, this produced some rather odd mental images.

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Sunday, 13 May 2007

Picture of the Week: #19

I apologise if your browser has only just recovered from the last time I did this...but it's time for another slightly-chopped-up panoramic shot. This won't happen if I ever stop being incredibly stingy and buy a full Flickr account, but for now you'll have to make do with Photobucket.

This was taken at the St Ebbe's Leavers' Dinner yesterday. It's an opportunity for the church to say goodbye to everyone who's graduating and moving on this year...although it was indeed fun, I'm not feeling like I'm going just yet. This is because there's the small matter of final exams to take.

We do not talk about these.

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Saturday, 12 May 2007

Oddly, none of them are even slightly lemony. Or demonic, in fact.

Back in early 2006, a Flash video appeared online, telling the story of an epic battle between most of the major characters in popular culture from the last few decades. That video was called The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny (quite a lot of violence - not suitable for those squeamish about cartoon blood and gore). Not surprisingly, given the amount of sheer awesome contained in this video, it swept across the Internet, and was seen by a fairly ridiculously huge number of people (2.5 million on Weebl's Stuff alone, and 9.3 million on Newgrounds so far).

The attention that The Ultimate Showdown received was entirely warranted - it's a great movie. What a lot of people tend to forget, though, is the large body of other work that the song's composer and performer has produced. This person (yes, it was just one person doing the whole thing) is Neil Cicierega, also known as Trapezoid, or more famously as Lemon Demon. He currently has 3 CDs out, and if his CD shop was based in the UK I'd be seriously considering buying at least one. As it is, for the purposes of this post I'm going to have to rely on the free material that he's made available.

(Before looking at what Cicierega's been working on, it's worth noting that he's been way ahead of the curve when it comes to sensible music distribution - he's using CDFreedom, which makes CDs available as MP3 downloads with no copy-protection at all, and is trusting his customers not to go pirating them. And given that level of trust, I very much doubt that many people are doing so. It seems that the major labels are finally cottoning on to the fact that this is a good idea, too, which only took...ooh, quite a number of years. But I digress.)

Cicierega's free music (and may I note at this point how flippin' difficult the name Cicierega is to type) is available to download off his site. I have 4 of his tracks in my music library (one of which is Ultimate Showdown) and they're all funny, whimsical, well produced and cleverly written. Ode To Crayola is one of them - a celebration of colourful crayons, in case you hadn't guessed. Cicierega seems to have the gift of writing about pretty much nothing at all and making it into a very entertaining song. Indeed, one of his songs - Word Disassociation - literally consists of almost nothing but unconnected words strung into a long line.

Talking about Word Disassociation leads us into the real gems in the Lemon Demon music collection - his music videos. The Google Video for WD can be found here; if you haven't seen it yet, do take a minute to do so, as it's very cleverly shot and will leave you with a smile on your face. There's several other live-action videos around, including a fanmade one of the song Marketland, but possibly even better are the Flash animations by Too Much Spare Time Animation, also known as Andrew Kepple. His music videos include When Robots Attack, a funny and thoughtful description of what would happen if the peaceful mechanical devices we all know and love suddenly rose up and crushed us all (something we've all wondered from time to time, I have no doubt), and Geeks In Love, the subject of which you can probably guess! There's several others, but the one I would point you to above all others is the Halloween-themed Bad Idea.

Obviously, because of the Halloween theme, this movie might not be suitable for everyone - it does feature the living dead, after all, and it gets a bit graphic. If you've got the stomach for it, though, it's brilliant. The animation is superb, a good step up from the earlier I've Got Some Falling To Do (which is itself a great piece of work). The artwork in general is likewise impressive, blending a number of different visual styles very effectively, and it's held together by the wonderful lyrics with their understatement of the year, "Maybe this was a bad idea..." I think the reason why it's so successful at what it does is that both Kepple and Cicierega have exactly the same aims in mind. The song's ending shows clearly that they worked very closely in order to make the song and video a single unit, rather than one obviously coming first, and I suspect that a similar process informed Ultimate Showdown. This is, in fact, an excellent example of how the Internet sometimes leads to entirely new forms of entertainment, taking previous concepts and turning them into something that is highly original and much better than either on its own could have been.

And if you're looking for even more novel combinations of previously-encountered entertainment genres, you can't do better than Potter Puppet Pals.

Once again...not my video, so not under my CC licence.

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Thursday, 10 May 2007

Practical and tasty, the perfect combination

It's another single-link post for you today I'm afraid. Again, I wouldn't normally do this, but then again, OH GOOD GRIEF I WANT ONE OF THESE SO MUCH.

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Tuesday, 8 May 2007

There is a fifth, I suppose, but it does fall on the 1st of May 93843

Playing around with numbers is, unfortunately, one of the activities to which you're more or less doomed if you're a reasonably methodical and technical type of person. (I'm aware that the technical term for this is "geek". Don't hate me because I'm stereotyped.) The internet does make it surprisingly easy to indulge this type of activity, especially if you combine it with more concrete concepts such as the date. This leads me to the main point of this post, which is to say that this coming Saturday is my next Prime Day.

Prime Days are an idea that surely can't be original to me, although I can't say I've ever heard of them before. Essentially, you first need to work out how many days you've been alive. This would usually be somewhat tedious, but luckily the internet allows you to do such things in a flash with handy tools like the Online Age Calculator - it turns out that, at the time of writing, I'm 8049 days old. Then all you need do is compare that number with a list of prime numbers. Here's an excerpt from the list - it indicates that the next prime number above 8049 is 8053, so my next Prime Day is 4 days away. They're obviously not very widely spaced, so I'm not planning on doing anything special - it's just one of those little mathematical tweaks that make things marginally more interesting.

Even if Prime Days aren't all that amazing, there's a couple more types of day along the same lines which are rather more fun. For those interested in nature, there's the Fibonacci Days. The Fibonacci sequence is the one that everyone learns in secondary school - it pops up all over the place in nature - and its numbers get progressively further and further apart, meaning that they're sparse enough once you're into larger numbers that things get a little more interesting. In my case, my next Fibonacci day, calculated by the ever-useful Online Days Added calculator, will be the 13th of April 2015. One for the diary, then.

Probably the most interesting (and certainly the rarest) of this type of events must be the Perfect Days. The perfect numbers are very much few and far between - indeed, given the normal lifespan of a person, you'll only ever get four Perfect Days in your entire life. My first two went past at a time when I wasn't really in a position to notice much - 6 days old and 28 days old - and the third, at a year and a bit, wasn't much better. My fourth and final Perfect Day, though - day 8128 - will fall on the 26th of July this year. I'll try to keep an eye open and report on whether my numerological gymnastics are reflected in the events of the day!

Obviously, this is the kind of thing that you shouldn't take too seriously. There's nothing inherently special about our number system, or mathematics, for that matter - in fact, maths is probably the only subject where all of the phenomena discovered are natural consequences of the entirely arbitrary system we've chosen - but those consequences have been very important to a huge number of people throughout history. This is just my way of getting involved. And, of course, it's also going to be my way of becoming fantastically rich by selling mathematically-themed greetings cards. It will happen. Oh, yes. It will happen.

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Sunday, 6 May 2007

Picture of the Week: #18

Somewhat surprisingly, flicking through the current crop of Pictures of their respective Weeks, it seems I haven't posted any photos of Univ. That should be sorted now, though, with an unusual (but I think rather pretty) view of the University's oldest college. (Yes, it is, whatever Merton and Balliol might think.) This was taken in the early evening, looking South from the top floor of Univ's Goodhart first-year accommodation block. The bonus of taking it from there is that you can't see the said accommodation block, which is really rather unattractive. Don't say I never do anything for you, dear readers.

(While we're on the subject of photos, take a look at the photo of Nicolas Sarkozy in this article...then compare him to the picture of this lesser-known public figure. Uncanny, no?)

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Saturday, 5 May 2007

Maybe it would work if I had actually read any Austen other than at gunpoint

I always find it amusing when my room fills up with odd things. I tend to go in phases of having interesting objects accumulating at high speed - last term, for instance, it was gadgets (I still have a pair of walkie-talkies on the floor) and careers information (if you ever want more information than could ever be required about jobs in the IT industry, you have only to ask). This term, it seems to be books.

I don't get much of a chance to read, usually, as Oxford terms are very busy and the Internet always seems more attractive in the free time that I do have. Now, though, there's several things that can catch my attention when I'm taking a break from essays. To begin with, there's The Pirates! in an adventure with Communists, a thrilling tale of adventure, politics and ham on the high seas. I've got about half way through that so far, and it's awesome. Observe:

'I much preferred that nice Mr Darwin,' said the pirate with a scarf.
'Me too. At least he didn't look like a cat crossed with a monkey.' The Captain let out an indignant snort. 'But he's a paying guest. And I suppose it's not really the done thing to run through paying guests.'
'No, Captain.'
'And stuffing him into a cannon and firing him into the sun would probably be out of the question as well?'
'I don't think the Pirate King would approve,' said the pirate with a scarf ruefully. 'You know how seriously he takes the issue of good manners.'
'Damn our piratical code of hospitality.'
'It can be a burden, sir.'
At the other end of the scale of literature currently roaming freely across my desk, I have what may well be the two books that those who know me would be most surprised to see. These are Josh Harris's Boy Meets Girl, and (sigh) Lauren Henderson's seminal work Jane Austen's Guide to Dating. Here's a sample of each. Try to guess which one's which. Oh, and which of the two I bought for myself...

Sample One
The rush of romance was intoxicating; but eventually, as with all highs, the fervor levelled off - illusion gave way to reality. Although Matt had told her that he had left his old life behind, Julia discovered that he was still living sinfully and secretly partying.
Sample Two
A man needs to feel that he is courting you. Let him worry about where to take you on the next date, and whether it will be somewhere you will like. And let him pay for at least the first few dinners. If he's a nice guy, he'll like it. It makes him feel manly, chivalrous and protective, all of which are qualities you want to encourage.

Go behind the cut to find out the answer to this puzzling question...

Not very tricky to work out, was it? Sample one is Boy Meets Girl, sample two is Jane Austen's Guide to Dating. One other question to leave you with: how on earth does one "secretly party"?

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Friday, 4 May 2007

Actually, if anything this could be more entertaining

Following on from Wednesday's post about the local elections, the results have now come in. Most of it's pretty depressing - OK, everyone, you can make a statement about how you don't like Labour, but did you really have to give the Conservatives that much power when you did so? - but it's the results from the Scottish Parliament that I find rather interesting. The seats won break down like this:

  • SNP - 47
  • Labour - 46
  • Conservative - 17
  • Liberal Democrats - 16
  • Others - 3
Given that this gives us a total of 129 seats, 65 are needed for a majority. This means that, in order for any party to hold any meaningful power, there will have to be a coalition. The fun part comes when you realise that, apart from Labour-SNP (and that's likely to happen shortly after pigs not only fly, but also learn to ice-skate over Hell), no two-party coalition can reach this figure. No majority for you. And this puts us in the situation where, even if Scotland doesn't get the chance to break away from the rest of Awesomeland the UK, there should be enough petty power-squabbling and infighting to ensure that politics up there should easily be interesting enough anyway. Good times, good times.

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Thursday, 3 May 2007

On the other hand, I suppose they could sue half the population of the Earth. It could work.

If you've had your head in a bucket for the past few days, you won't have heard about the HD-DVD Title Key fiasco. Essentially, a keycode that allows you to break the copy-protection on the new high-definition DVD standard was found by a hacker going by the name of "muslix64". Even if your intention is to back up an HD-DVD that you have legally purchased, or even to watch it on your equipment rather than the equipment that the technology producers want you to use, it is technically illegal to break copy protection in this way.

(Incidentally, it is also illegal in this country to copy a CD to your computer's hard drive. I expect dawn raids on everyone with a copy of Windows Media Player within the next couple of days.)

That's more or less where the whole issue would have ended - HD-DVD isn't a particularly widespread technology yet, and in any case you need to have a certain degree of technical knowledge to use the keycode - but for the fact that the AACSLA, founded by a whole bunch of big tech companies, started sending out takedown notices under the US's incredibly flawed Digital Millennium Copyright Act in an attempt to stop the key from getting out into the public awareness.

If the material that they had been trying to stop had been, say, a 50-page PDF detailing complicated instructions, this strategy might have worked. When it's a number, though, that makes things rather trickier. You simply can't stop a 16-digit number from being transmitted across the internet, especially if you're a large technology consortium with a poor reputation for concern for customers who's made it very clear that you don't want it transmitted. This leaves us in the situation where knowledge of the number is growing by the minute - BoingBoing reported at 3am this morning that 368,000 sites were listed on Google as containing the keycode, up from only a couple of thousand the day before.

And what of the AACSLA? They've resorted to the only option available to them - they're changing the keycode and making everyone who's bought one of their players download an update so that it won't work with the code that's currently being copied at lightning speed. Of course, the fact that they're not changing anything else means that muslix64, or one of the many, many other intelligent young people with computers who now knows about this whole issue, can now extract the new keycode and start the whole business off again.

Oh, and the other option that they've also taken is to spin the issue to a ludicrous extent - go to their homepage (linked earlier) and count the number of times they use the word "attack" in reference to the code. This isn't an attack on their players - it adds functionality to them, rather than taking it away. All that it does is remove a restriction that was never going to stop serious hackers anyway, but does seriously inconvenience the general public (and you'll note that their solution will inconvenience the public even more). This kind of thing really does give the technology industry a bad name.

And by the way, Uncle Phil is about to Make Arithmetic Fun again. Multiply the entire population of the world by the number of pigs it would take to give everyone a ham sandwich. Then multiply your answer by the land area of the Isle of Skye (in square km). Lastly, multiply your result by the magic number 23.01122527.

Give your answer in hexadecimal.

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Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Thank you! Thank you! You've been a great population!

Tomorrow there's going to be a whole heap of local elections going on all over the country. I hadn't quite cottoned on to this fact, because I'm inside the Oxford bubble - we're not electing anyone here, so despite it being May I didn't consider that elections might be happening somewhere - but it turns out that about half the population of the UK are going to be able to go to the polls in England, not counting everyone who can vote in Wales and Scotland. (Obviously, we're not actually going to get over 30 million people voting. This is a democracy, after all, which means that no-one cares who runs the country.)

I bring up Scotland because the results could be particularly interesting there. The Scottish Parliament is up for election - currently no one party has overall control, so it's run by a Labour/Lib Dem coalition. That could all change though - the SNP has been sounding very optimistic about its chances. And this is important because one of the SNP's key election pledges is to hold a referendum over Scottish independence.

I don't really hold any strong political views either way on this issue - I don't have the facts at my disposal, and I don't know how likely it is to even happen. What I do think, though, is that Scotland should definitely become independent just because it would be absolutely hilarious. For a start, there would be the fact that of the three local nations that historically have fought each other for a laugh - England (as it was then - now, the remaining part of the UK), Scotland and France - Scotland would now be the only one without nuclear capability. Or indeed much of a military at all. Any and all Scottish influence would immediately disappear from the UN and pretty much all other international bodies.

More amusingly still, we'd have to come up with a new name for our own country. The term "Great Britain", which is itself a major part of the UK's full title, came about through the Acts of Union of 1707, which would of course now be superseded. This would be the perfect opportunity to demonstrate our potential as a country, our new-found motivation, and the fact that we never really needed those hangers-on up North anyway. I reckon "Awesomeland" or "Kingdom of Scotlandsucks" would be the perfect way of building new relations with our new neighbours.

There would be some problems, of course, such as the loss of most of the medals the UK ever wins in the Winter Olympics, but on the other hand it would be a good opportunity to put together some Awesomeland teams to get rid of the weird situation of the Home Nations getting to compete as separate entities in things like the World Cup. We'd lose the Lions as well, but again, we needed to update our image anyway. I reckon we ought to name the new team after something that really reflects our country, while still striking fear into the hearts of all around us. A bulldog on a motorbike playing awesome riffs on an electric guitar sounds about right, although I suppose that would be quite tricky to chant at sports matches. While we're about it, a new flag would be in order too. This would be the right time to incorporate the Welsh dragon into the flag, as it's been a bit left out so far - that could also do with an update, though, so now it should probably have angry eyes and lightning bolts above it. And flames all round the edge of the flag. Now that's a flag you'd actually want to raise.

The sheer oddness of having to present a passport to get across the border would definitely be fun, although not as amusing as watching those tourists who are already completely confused over the precise geographical and political relationships between England, Scotland, Britain, the UK and London get even more tied into knots by the knowledge that they're now moving between entirely different countries. Scotland already issues its own money, which is, although usually acceptable at large shops and Post Offices throughout the UK, so weird-looking that no-one's at all familiar with it, so that's not going to be any great change. They're welcome to it, really.

Basically, I don't know why we haven't already split up the Union. So may opportunities to make everyone's life that little bit more entertaining. (Even if it also becomes considerably less convenient.)

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