Friday, 29 February 2008

Currently, I share about a fifth of my music taste with the entire UK. Good to know.

There's something oddly pleasing about a huge amount of nicely-sorted data. This obviously doesn't hold if you have to sort through the data manually (I have very bad memories of the weeks I spent on Excel analysing my research project this time last year), but being able to pull up complex-looking summaries from a vast body of data is basically the geek equivalent of performing a perfect violin concerto.

The people behind Audioscrobbler - the database on which runs - understand this principle extremely well, and have incorporated some extremely easy ways of grabbing all sorts of statistics out of their database. For starters, they have a huge page of automatically-updating XML files, which you can download and use pretty much however you like.

Just to see how easy it was to do this, I spent an hour or so this afternoon hacking together a little Python script that looks at any user's most-listened-to artists, then compares that list to the most-listened-to artists in an entire country. The result is that you get a rough-and-ready comparison of your music taste as compared to, say, the entire United States. If you have a account and want to have a go, I've hosted it on the (somewhat rickety but still pretty good) Utility Mill site. Enjoy yourselves - and if you're curious, my username's "zsige". (Utility Mill restricts scripts to just 2 seconds of run time, which is often not really enough - try again if it doesn't work for you the first time.)

Given that I'm by no means an excellent programmer - and that therefore someone who was could do some considerably more exciting things with this technology - Audioscrobbler is clearly onto a winner. Sadly, their generosity doesn't seem to be typical. A quick Google search only turns up a couple of similar services (notably the BBC, which doesn't surprise me in the least), and most of the people who are putting their databases online are charging for it. That's understandable, but seeing the potential that Audioscrobbler has - just by limiting users to, on average, one hit of the database every second - I wish that we saw more people doing this.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to see what I can do with the BBC data...

Continue Reading...

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Unrealistic Life Ambitions #3: Appropriate Audio Camouflage

It's a standard element of the action movie. The square-jawed, all-American team of soldiers are creeping up on the nasty Arabic/Vietnamese/Russian/German (delete as applicable) mercenaries/terrorists, moving through the landscape in absolute silence. Apart from when they exchange patriotic encouragements, of course. Once they're in position, they ready themselves and prepare to fill the screen with some good old-fashioned explosions.

But wait! How can they know when to attack? They're silent and invisible, after all, so they can't exactly shout to each other. Well, this is where the famous Soldier's Bird Call comes in. Performed by cupping your hands around your mouth and bellowing "too-WEE!", this call that sounds absolutely nothing like any bird I have ever heard in my life is nevertheless capable of carrying vast amounts of information in a perfectly innocuous fashion. Within minutes, hapless goons are being gunned down to the sound of stirring music, and the world is close to being safe again.

The Soldier's Bird Call may be effective in the jungle - after all, there may well be birds in the jungle that do sound like that. However, it just isn't practical in pretty much any other situation. Consider urban combat. The only birds you're likely to see in a major city are sparrows and starlings, and they tend to just burble and twitter away instead of making any appropriate signal noises. Or how about when our heroes are infiltrating a bunker complex, probably through the air ducts? Any bird noises would trigger a hail of bullets from even the stupidest of evil overlords.

This problem can be solved remarkably easily, however. There's no reason why birds should be the default option for signal noises - humans aren't even very good at producing them. My unrealistic life ambition, therefore, is to create a successful movie in which people signal covertly to each other by simply imitating sounds appropriate to the environment. One day, we will see films in which the Marines landing on a quiet shore carefully imitate the sound of a coconut falling to the ground. One day, the agents infiltrating the base will simply shout "EVERYTHING IS FINE, NO NEED TO PANIC" in Russian when the bombs should be detonated. And one day, the policeman sneaking up on the house with the hostage taker inside will produce a perfect rendition of a washing machine with a handful of change in the pocket of someone's jeans. Surely we can bring that day closer.

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Thursday, 21 February 2008

Dear Advertisers...

  1. Stop trying to equate "People with healthy hearts eat whole grain" with "People who eat whole grain have healthy hearts".
    Seriously, it wasn't convincing the first time you tried it, Nestlé. At least then, though, you weren't single-handedly trying to start a campaign to get the entire country force-feeding itself your products.

    For those of you who weren't aware that were was a difference in the first place, it lies in the myriad ways you can confuse people with statistics. Essentially, the generic phrase "people who do action A tend to see effect B" implies a causal relationship, in which action A was the direct cause of effect B. However, the phrase "people with healthy hearts eat whole grain" reverses the action and the effect, implying no more than a correlation. And, as you learn on day one of a statistics course, correlation does not imply causation.

    There can be any number of reasons for a correlation. One is mediation - action A causes effect B, which in turn causes effect C. The other major one is moderation, in which effect C causes both effect A and effect B. In this case the moderating factor could well be "leading a generally healthy lifestyle". Either way, if there was any direct evidence that eating wholegrains actually made your heart healthier, you can bet that Nestlé would be touting it at full strength. The fact that they don't do this speaks for itself. I am sick and tired of shouting "who are these so-called 'experts' and what are their qualifications?" at the TV screen every time the advert comes on, and even more annoyed by the use of "everyday normal folk" telling us how important wholegrain is, as if to say "you can't trust these elitist scientist types". So just stop it, OK?

  2. Don't pretend that the latest magic ingredient in your face cream does anything more than make the skin swell slightly.
    Hey! Women of Britain! Once the very first wrinkle appears on your skin, you are officially OLD and HAGGARD. You need to target your A-zone (whatever the hell that means) to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, which can betray your real age!

    Luckily for these poor women, all the beauty companies in the country are working full-tilt to produce creams, containing ingredients with long names, that promise to reduce those pesky wrinkles and return your skin to the unblemished appearance of a six-year-old. After all, anything called "Boswelox" (yes, they did use a name as stupid as that) must be good! It sounds just like Botox, which everyone knows makes you look beautiful!

    First up, Botox is a ridiculous treatment. It involves injecting the most poisonous protein known to man (no, really) into your skin and hoping that it merely partially paralyses you rather than killing you outright. Secondly, if you rub anything into your face, the skin will look slightly fuller - mainly because, well, you've just rubbed something into it. That will naturally stretch its surface slightly, making wrinkles appear slightly less obvious. The fact that the effect will wear off again very rapidly is not one that the cosmetics companies are going to widely publicise.

    Thirdly, what on earth is a "Celebrity Beauty Editor"?

  3. Please display the following line in 16-pt text at the bottom of every new 4x4 advert: IF YOU LIVE IN A CITY, YOU DO NOT NEED A 4x4.
    Several years ago, there was an advert - I forget for which company, which shows just how poor it was - which showed a man driving his enormous cube-shaped 4x4 home at rush hour, deliberately going out of his way to drive over six-inch-high piles of sand on the side of the road. The advert ended with the tagline "you may have to remind yourself it's a 4x4". Recently, the same trend has been taken up by Volkswagen, with the advert for their latest enormous cube-shaped Tiguan. Showing a car cruising around an impressive computer-generated city, with flats and steps sliding around in a highly alarming fashion, the tagline is "at home in the city".

    If you regularly drive in a city - or, indeed, any reasonably urban environment - please be so kind as to tell me when was the last time that you were either forced to drive up a short flight of stairs, or had to sit sadly looking at a flight of short stairs thinking "gosh, I can't go anywhere now. I wish I had a 4x4." If, as I strongly suspect, the answer is "never", you may have been as puzzled as I was when seeing these adverts.

    Owners of 4x4s frequently claim that their cars are no more polluting than estate cars of a similar size, but that's only half the argument. 4x4s also block visibility (for the driver as well as other road users), are difficult to manoeuvre, are frequently fitted with dangerous bullbars, and are so enormous that they can easily block entrances and roads where a smaller car would be fine. Out in the countryside, you may have a reason for them - in the city, they're a downright liability, and it's irresponsible at best to promote a 4x4 solely on its city driving performance.

  4. Don't insult my intelligence. Those three reasonably attractive young women are not eager to text me and send photos.
    Slightly obscure, this one, unless you've been in the habit of watching the late-night Steven Seagal movies on channel 5 these past few weeks. Five only ever broadcast these ads past about 10:30pm or so, and with good reason - that's when the only people still watching TV are so addled with sleep deprivation and mindless Seagal-flavoured violence that they might possibly consider paying £1.50 a time to receive automated texts purporting to be from nubile young women in their area.

    Having not tried out the service for myself, I'm unaware of the mechanisms behind this enterprise. I know, though, that if I were running it I would set up one big computer to send out predetermined text messages - possibly written by any struggling writers who wouldn't mind being paid in cigarettes and beer - which consistently mail-merged the name of a town near the customer into a standard form. Ten minutes of wandering round the darker corners of the internet and you'll also have some photos to send out, resulting in a vast income for almost no effort.

    I have a hard time believing that anyone, no matter how starved for attention, actually believes that the insanely expensive texts they're getting are from beautiful young women who really, really want to get to know them better. It would save money on the advertising bills, therefore, if you just dressed up the computer in a low-cut top and surrounded it with heart-shaped balloons. You'd tap the nerd market, definitely. "Ooh, a dual-core Xenon server...with extra RAM?? That is so hot."

Food for thought, eh, advertisers? Now, if the people making the TV programmes themselves could show some improvement too, I might not have to resort to snarking about them online to get some cheap entertainment. A worthy goal, I feel.

Jeep picture by click, taken from Morguefile. Used under the terms of the Morguefile licence. Wholegrain logo taken from Nestlé's site The image is not licensed, but qualifies as fair use for this purpose. Neither image is re-released under my CC licence.

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Monday, 18 February 2008

Ironically, I'd never visited the site before it was "taken offline". You can bet that I've seen it now.

You may have seen in the news that Wikileaks, a site for whistleblowers to anonymously post confidential documents, has recently been shut down by denial-of-service attacks, a fire and a court injunction.

The idea of a site like this is certainly a little odd, and I'm amazed that it isn't already buried under thousands of joke articles from secondary schools - things like "Joe Bloggs is GAY!!!11 Evidence attached...". Strange or not, though, it's a great idea. Sometimes it is considerably more important for information to get out than be hidden, even if it may be personally inconvenient for some. The concept of providing an anonymous and worldwide utility for sharing this information is immensely powerful.

Given that the documents being leaked were frequently of a very sensitive nature (for example, one of them detailed loads of operating procedures at the US's very own gulag, Guantanamo Bay), it's not surprising that eventually something bad happened to it. I have to say, just getting DoS-ed would have been bad enough - to get hit with a fire and an injunction at the same time suggests that someone got very angry with them indeed. Anyway, the court ordered Dynadot, Wikileaks' ISP, to remove the DNS information related to the site. The URL now points at a blank page. It's all over.

Well...actually, no it isn't. Either the lawyers who drew up the injunction have absolutely no idea how the internet works, or they knew they couldn't compel Dynadot to actually delete all the files, or they secretly didn't really want to get rid of them. Whatever the reason, only the DNS information - and nothing else - was deleted.

For those of you who don't know what DNS means, it's the system by which a URL is converted into an IP address. The servers around the world that host websites can only be identified by their IP, and DNS is nothing more than a way of making those IP addresses human-readable. This means that Wikileaks is still online, and still working away happily. All you need to know is the IP address of their server, and presto, you've just performed the world's easiest workaround. If that wasn't enough, the world's geeks now know what's going on, and the entire site is being downloaded en masse by thousands of people who will not let it vanish.

So, until the court realises what's going on, you've got a great window of opportunity to browse around all the documents that no-one wants you to see. Point your browser to and spend a happy day digging.

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Thursday, 14 February 2008

It's about stalking, OK? The version commemorating Biggie Smalls had more romance than this...

Google very nearly managed something very special today. Their Valentine's Day logo was the following:

This lovely little picture came extremely close to convincing me that maybe there's a little bit more to Valentine's Day than the manic laughter of greetings card salesmen and waves of fluffy pink teddy bears clutching roses. Perhaps sometimes it doesn't result in people serenading their loved ones with awful songs. And perhaps some people can see past the horrific tackiness and cut right to the beautiful, meaningful core of the whole operation.

But why break the habit of a lifetime? Let's instead continue what I did last year and present something which, just like this whole excuse for a holiday, isn't anywhere near as romantic as everyone seems to think it is. Enjoy.

This video is not remotely my property, so it's not included under my CC licence.

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Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Anyone who saves this list to their hard drive has clearly stolen it from me...

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been entangled in thousands of lawsuits, ever since it decided to sue as many illegal downloaders of music as it possibly could. Never mind that this tactic has resulted in a net loss of income (lawyers are extremely expensive, they're really not discouraging people from downloading in any great numbers, and it's doubtful whether downloading had any appreciable impact on CD sales in the first place), it's also required them to advocate measures that are so ridiculously strict that they will never be enforced.

For example, it is technically illegal to rip a CD to the hard drive of your computer. No court would ever convict someone of doing this, as it would immediately trigger lawsuits against Microsoft, Apple and pretty much everyone who produces a software music player. That hasn't stopped RIAA spokesmen from claiming that this stupid law should be enforced.

The business model on which the RIAA operates, in fact, is so bizarre that no other organisation would dream of acting so oddly. To illustrate this, let's see what would happen...

If The RIAA Ran Starbucks

  • Coffee could only be purchased in approved Starbucks cups.
  • These cups would have special lids fitted, printed with "THIS COFFEE IS FOR THE EXCLUSIVE USE OF ITS PURCHASER. DO NOT LEND, GIVE AWAY OR SELL THIS COFFEE."
  • Removing the lid would be punishable by a fine of up to £5,000.
  • Starbucks employees would roam the streets, looking for people drinking coffee. If they found any, they would demand to see the receipt for its purchase, regardless of the coffee's vendor.
  • Street stalls selling coffee would have to pay a fee for every cup they sold, even if the coffee's producer had nothing whatsoever to do with Starbucks. If the producer then signed up to the Starbucks Financial Redistribution Programme, they could reclaim this fee, but only if they submitted the correct paperwork. (Sounds implausible? Read up on how SoundExchange works.)
  • Tea would be viewed with deep suspicion.
  • Starbucks would begin a major marketing campaign against the practice of buying a large cup of coffee to share ("coffeesharing"). Starbucks executives would claim that every cup of coffee they did not sell because of this practice was, in fact, "stolen" from them. No proof would be offered that anyone actually does this on a large scale.
  • Posters would be produced showing sad, thin African people, with the caption "Because of coffeesharing I can't make a living."
  • Other posters would be produced with lists of coffee producers who apparently want stricter legal protection of coffee. Several of the producers on the list will have gone out of business many years previously. (Again, too ridiculous? Ahem...)
  • Starbucks would lobby Parliament for the right to put "Coffee Enforcers" on every university campus, whose job it would be to go into students' rooms and search them for illicit coffee.
  • Laws would be introduced that prevent anyone found to have shared a cup of coffee from ever going into a cafe again, regardless of the cafe's owner. (Obligatory link.)
  • Anyone entering a cafe would first have to watch a compulsory two-minute advert about the evils of coffeesharing, directly comparing it to violent theft.
  • The inevitable lower sales of coffee would be pointed to as proof that coffee is being stolen from Starbucks, and that stricter laws are required.
  • Proposals would be floated to enforce a tax on every teaspoon sold, in order to "reimburse" Starbucks for "lost revenue".
  • Everyone will accept all of the above measures as somehow normal...

Continue Reading...

Monday, 11 February 2008

If you happen to know any MPs, see if you can get them to propose this as an early day motion...

Observation #1: Professional wrestling is fake.
Pro wrestling has been rigged for a very long time. Even before Vince McMahon publicly admitted that matches in the former WWF were more pantomime than combat, it was tacitly acknowledged - although vehemently denied in public - that the winners of wrestling matches were determined in advance.

The degree to which the fine detail of matches is planned probably changes on a match-by-match basis - any really big and widely-televised match is probably planned out to the nth degree, whereas a smaller match in a local promotion is more likely to be improvised by the wrestlers on the spot. However it's done, this doesn't change the fact that the storylines are planned out weeks in advance, and even if a wrestler doesn't like the fact that they will have to lose a match for the story to progress, they have very little choice in the matter.

Observation #2: The results of most Commons votes are known beforehand.
Within the House of Commons, hung parliaments are very rare. The last time all parties failed to achieve a clear majority was 1974, and even that was cleared up within the year. Most governments in the UK, then, have the ability to pass whatever legislation they like. Even if the Lords don't like it, parliamentary ping-pong can only last so long before the government gets bored and invokes the Parliament Act to push it through. A sitting government losing a vote, in fact, is so rare that when it does happen the opposition can usually make a very strong case for the government's resignation.

Effectively, therefore, unless a vote is extremely controversial (detention of terror suspects, for example), the ruling party will definitely win it. The voting process may be entertaining and even gripping, but it's known beforehand.

Conclusion #1: Pro wrestling and British parliamentary democracy, in terms of victory conditions on a day-to-day basis, are functionally identical.

Observation #3: Turnout in elections is currently very low by historical standards.
Why this should be isn't completely clear, but it's almost certainly partly due to a lack of interest in politics. Why should the public care about a few hundred men and women jeering at each other like schoolkids every Wednesday?

Conclusion #2: In order to increase public interest, as well as mixing things up a little, all Commons votes should be replaced with a wrestling match between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, or between any subordinates that they nominate.

Immediately, politics would be so much more fun. Instead of calling "Division! Clear the lobbies!" before a vote, the Speaker would pull on a black and white striped shirt and shout "Are you rrrrrready to ruuuuummmmbleeeeee?!" The dispatch box in the centre of the chamber would sink into the floor, to be replaced by a ring (for really serious votes, it would undoubtedly have to be a Hell in a Cell match). Gordon Brown would nip down the road to Downing Street to get his costume - I'd suggest going with a gimmick like "The Highlander" - while David Miliband got the crowd warmed up by climbing the turnbuckle and sticking two fingers up at the Tory backbenchers.

The party whips wouldn't normally have any trouble keeping backbench MPs in line, but if MPs felt really strongly about an issue, then they could influence the result. All you'd need would be a stack of folding steel chairs near the ring. If any Labour MP wished to rebel against the government, he'd have to grab a chair, wait until Gordon was busy applying the Mandible Claw to David Cameron, then whack him across the back of the head. Meanwhile, other rebel MPs would be distracting the Speaker over in the far corner so that he didn't stop it. Just one rebel wouldn't do a lot - just like in the Commons at the moment - but enough of them could do some serious damage.

It's possible that holding one's opponent to the mat for a count of three wouldn't have quite the same air of dignity about it that "The motion is carried" has. However, if the same attitude shown in matches were to spread into the rest of parliamentary business, the day's record in Hansard would be far more entertaining.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): It is clear what needs to be done: intercept in court so that we catch, convict and imprison more terrorists. Does the Prime Minister agree that we must not put off endlessly what needs to be done?

The Prime Minister: The Honourable Gentleman opposite seems to know what needs to be done, and he is eager to see it done. But the Opposition seem unable to grasp the simple fact that the real terror here will be seen this Monday night, when the Honourable Gentleman will feel that terror for himself. For it is then that he will see a cell! [cheering]

All we need now is Michael Portillo and Jeremy Paxman doing the commentary, and we've got a ratings winner on our hands.

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Saturday, 9 February 2008

The best part is that half of the players clearly don't know the words...

This year's Six Nations tournament is into its second weekend, so obviously I've been glued to the TV. Even though the rugby itself has been great so far (France vs Ireland this afternoon was a cracking match), one of the bits that I enjoy most has got to be the national anthems before kickoff.

Singing national anthems is second nature to our cousins across the pond - indeed, any readers or casual surfers coming across this post from the States might find it difficult to understand why it's anything at all special, given that they have their anthem before every single baseball game, every single American football game, at the beginning of school each day, and pretty much any time they can shoehorn it into the proceedings. For us dour Europeans, who don't have quite the same wide-eyed idealism about our countries as do the Americans, singing the anthem is a comparatively rare activity. So we really make it count.

For those unfamiliar with the Six Nations, it's contested between the Home Nations (England, Scotland and Wales), Ireland, France and Italy. Each team has its own unique anthem - or in the case of those greedy Irish, two anthems - and we'll look at each in turn (and in no particular order) to see how they could be improved.

Wales: Land of my Fathers

Although technically Wales is the land of at least some of my ancestors, I've never felt any great connection to it. I have to say, though, that this is one heck of an anthem. It builds nicely through the verse, hitting a fantastic climax (go to the one-minute everyone join in. Gwlaaaaaaaaaad.....GWLAAAAAAAAAAD!) and has just enough swagger to allow some fist-pumping.

The downside is that, because it's written in Welsh, the words mean absolutely nothing to me. (I have the sneaking suspicion that they don't mean anything full stop, actually.) Wikipedia assures me that it recounts the actions of brave patriots who fought for their country, but given that the last line of the chorus apparently translates to "O may the old language endure", I'm not sure it makes much sense. Sounds more like a song about a really fired-up Welsh teacher making sure that no-one gets their "ll" sound mixed up with their "ch" sound. Good tune - words could be better.

Scotland: Flower of Scotland

The fact that the Scottish don't actually have an official national anthem doesn't stop them from belting out Flower of Scotland as loudly as they possibly can. The lyrics are much more stirring than those for Land of my Fathers (probably), and manage to sum up the general Scottish national character very succinctly - burning and ceaseless hatred of the English. The entire song is about the Battle of Bannockburn, which took place in 1314. One might suggest that a national anthem is an ideal opportunity to celebrate the good times in your nation's history; given that Flower of Scotland appears to suggest that Scotland's peak of civilisation was almost 700 years ago, I find it something of an odd choice.

That said, the tune's all right. Getting the bagpipes in was a good choice, and you can successfully both march and sway along with the rhythm. Overall, it gives a good impression of a battle hymn, but that doesn't prevent it from also being just a little bit dull.

England: God Save The Queen

Oh dear. In the words of the wonderful Bill Bailey, "God save the Queen? Why should we invoke a [air quotes] 'non-specific' deity to bail out these unelected sponges?"

To be fair to the England team, they're making the best of a bad job here. Lawrence Dallaglio does at least put some effort into it (fourth from the left). The problem is that God Save the Queen is incredibly difficult to sing with gusto. There's practically no rhythm, the tune is too slow, the chorus comes in on a high note that always catches everyone out...really, I could go on. The worst part is that the lyrics assume that everyone singing (a) believes in God (or a god, at least) and (b) thinks highly enough of the monarchy to ask God to protect them. If you don't believe that (personally, I'm fine with (a) but wobbly at best about (b)) then you're either lying to yourself or you don't care what you're singing. Either way, not a good choice for an anthem.

Could be worse, though. They could have chosen Rule, Britannia!.

France: La Marseillaise

Oh, all right, that isn't the French rugby team. I couldn't find a decent video of the rugby team singing La Marseillaise on Youtube, so you'll have to make do with the football team instead. Not that that will be a problem, as you could get a performing monkey to sing La Marseillaise and it would still sound awesome.

This anthem has the very definition of a stirring tune. It's just the right length, it goes quiet in the middle so you can build up to the final few lines, and even if you have no idea what they're singing, you can still sing along with the "marchons, marchons" bit.

Actually, it's probably better if you don't know what they're singing. Here's the official translation of the first verse and chorus.

Arise you children of our motherland
Oh now is here our glorious day!
Over us the bloodstained banner
Of tyranny holds sway!
Oh, do you hear there in our fields
The roar of those fierce fighting men ?
Who came right here into our midst
To slaughter sons, wives and kin.

To arms, oh citizens!
Form up in serried ranks!
March on, march on!
And drench our fields
With their tainted blood! which the only real response is "errr...want to sit down for a minute?" Seriously, if you've ever seen a more over-the-top national anthem, I'd like to hear about it. The one bright spot is that - most unusually for the French - they aren't singing about slaughtering the English.

Despite the bloodthirsty nature of this anthem, I think it still works better than almost any other I've heard. The words complement the kill-em-all nature of the tune, and just so long as the players don't take it too seriously, it makes for an awe-inspiring way to start a game of rugby.

Ireland: Ireland's Call/Amhrán na bhFiann

Yes, this video is in French. Handily, though, the uploader has put the lyrics on-screen, so you can sing along.

Unfortunately, this won't help you if you're trying to sing Amhrán na bhFiann ("The Soldier's Song"), as it's in Gaelic. The lyrics are apparently slightly militaristic, but not excessively so; it's longish, but not too long; the tune's OK, but nothing special. That pretty much sums up this anthem - it's not bad, but instantly forgettable. It could do with spicing up, frankly.

Or, they could chuck it away altogether and use Ireland's Call instead. The first thing to note about this anthem is that it was specially commissioned for the united rugby team fielded by Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That, in itself, is incredible. To get any kind of unity together between two nations whose differences have been so severe that violence has raged for years between them (differences that were admittedly pretty much entirely the fault of the British) is fantastic, and not so long ago would have seemed about as likely as a joint Israeli-Lebanese basketball team. The unity shown in this way is echoed by the anthem, which is one of the most joyful I think I've ever seen.

The lyrics, far from concentrating on battles and war, simply state that the singers are Irish, that they're standing together in unity, and that they're here to do their bit for their country. Even for someone like me, who's not a fan of patriotism in pretty much any form, this is touching and inspirational. The music, too, is great - Celtic music always sounds good, and you can practically dance to this. Oh, and the Irish have clearly been taking lessons from the Welsh and French about singalong bits, except they've made them even easier. All you have to remember is to roar "IREEEEELAND! IREEEEEEEEEELAND!" approximately in tune.

And it has a key change. A key change. When your national anthem could practically win Eurovision, you're onto a winner.

So, have we learnt any lessons from this study of the anthems? Probably not. But hey - the rugby should be good whatever the songs sound like.

UPDATE: Totally forgot about the Italians.
Italy: Il Cantio degli Italiani

Italy are the new boys in the Six Nations, having only been competing since 2000. They've certainly begun to make their mark, though, and got up to 4th place last year. In terms of the anthems, they're also well-represented, with this surprisingly jaunty number. The tune's nothing special, although it does have some good, simple lines in the middle that can easily be thundered by a crowd. More importantly, it's a tune that's very well suited to being played by a brass band, which makes it perfect for sporting events.

The lyrics aren't bad, either, but don't quite fit the music. The first verse starts out well, invoking history, mythology and the entire Roman empire, but then the chorus kicks in. Despite the military connotations, several thousand fans roaring "we are ready to die" doesn't exactly fill you with confidence about the performance of the team. If it was an anthem to be sung at a gladiatorial contest - particularly if it was sung by the gladiators - then maybe it would be OK. Given that no-one is really expecting the rugby team to go out and literally sacrifice themselves, however, it gets a bit lost. So, mainly good, but loses points for some bizarre imagery.

Continue Reading...

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Bananas are a Communist plot put in place by the Illuminati! WAKE UP!

If your time on the Internet is restricted only to the major news sites and Hotmail, the likelihood is that you're blissfully unaware of the wonderful strand of nutcaseness that runs through it. (Then again, if they're the only sites you visit, how on earth did you get here?) The nutcaseness takes several forms, but one of the most obvious is the vast weight of conspiracy theories. The "documentary" Loose Change, for example, has received wide viewing on Google Video and Youtube, feeding the obsession that certain people have with asserting that the US Government orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.

The comments section on video sites nearly always produces a rich vein of conspiracies and wild claims, and generally includes vague exhortations to the public to see the "truth" that has been covered up, probably by The Man or someone similar. My problem with these theories is not so much that they're entirely without evidence (or indeed logical coherence) - although generally they are - it's more that they're so incredibly unoriginal. If you're going to try to tell us that all we ever knew is a lie, why on earth are you doing it with turns of phrase that we've seen a hundred times before?

Much of the blame for this can be laid on The Matrix. Although a great film, it had the unfortunate side-effect of causing conspiracy theorists to take it as tacit confirmation of everything they'd been saying. Yes! The world is a construct! We've all been fooled into submission! If you would only see for yourself what is really happening, you would be free like me! The specific problem is that The Matrix used three specific pieces of imagery to denote humanity's slavery. They were:

  • Being asleep/unconscious
  • Being like domestic animals
  • Needing to "free their minds"
This has fuelled the conspiracy theorists, to the point where it's impossible to spend much time on the web before someone tells you to wake up, free your mind or stop being cattle/sheep. The stereotypical way of expressing this - so much so that it's become a cliché - is "Wake up, sheeple!"

My hatred of this phrase comes from several sources. First, "sheeple" is an incredibly ugly word, in the same league as "edutainment". Secondly, as described above the imagery is overused and old. Thirdly, it's extremely insulting. When did it become reasonable to suggest that anyone disagreeing with your position does not have a functioning brain? Or that they're not even human? What at first glance looks like an inspirational battle cry is really little more than a thinly-veiled crack at perceived stupidity.

I can't solve all of these problems, but I can at least help out with the unoriginality element. If you're going to insult me, you can at least mix and match the imagery that you use. To that end, I have crafted the Wake Up Sheeple Alternative Generator. It comes pre-loaded with a plethora of exhortations, on the themes of waking up, freeing minds, breaking shackles and many others; it also comes with plenty of descriptions of the person to be insulted, from various animals through to good old-fashioned idiots. Please feel free to experiment (and improve the code - it's in this page's HTML source code). Let us start the insult revolution here, comrades.

Wake up, sheeple!

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