29 April 2007

Beats International - Dubya Be Good To Me

With apologies to Norman Cook...

Footage from last week, at a White House event for Malaria Awareness Day. Not the rebirth of the "robotics" dancing style, as Dubya seems to be trying for.

I would have posted this last week but the 'post to blog' function in Youtube seems to have gone haywire since Google took over Blogger, so I had to paste the html in manually.

27 April 2007

Great anti-binge drinking idea - let's prosecute parents for giving their kids a glass of wine!

Current top story (at the time of writing) on the BBC is that the charity Alcohol Concern has said that parents who give their kids alcohol in the home should be prosecuted.

I sometimes think that I'm living in a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers where almost everyone else in the country has been replaced by a low-grade moron who just wants to sleepwalk into the police state (or indeed the police station). "Yes, I'll come quietly officer... it's a fair cop guv... I plead guilty to not treating my kids like toddlers and trying to explain to them what responsible drinking is."

A Mr Don Shenker from Alcohol Concern was made to look stupid on the BBC Breakfast News when he appeared alongside a rep from the British Beer and Pubs Association to argue the case. Even the anodyne BBC interviewer managed to destroy Shenker's arguments. There is no evidence showing a link between the incidence of children drinking with parents in the home and going on to binge drinking later in life. There is a statistical link between alcohol abuse as a kid and alcohol abuse later. But how many parents are binge drinking with their kids? Not many, I suspect.

And (as the beer and pub guy pointed out) without CCTV in every home and an army of snoops to police it (which I'm sure John Reid would love) there would be no way of enforcing Alcohol Concern's proposal anyway. Really, if they're that worried about the dangers of alcohol, why don't they go the whole hog and argue that it should be banned - that we should introduce Prohibition? I'm sure John Reid would like that too. He could argue for massively increased police and homeland security expenditure on the grounds that illegal bootleggers were funding terrorism. It's a 'win-win', as the policymakers like to say. So watch out for that one in the next Labour (or Tory) manifesto.

At times like this one longs for the honest, no-nonsense professional drinker; Oliver Reed, Peter Cook, George Best. Those guys' lifestyles had a drawback, which is that they're now dead. But there's no way they'd have gone for bullshit like the Alcohol Concern proposals. And I also think it's quite unlikely that their liking for alcohol was caused by their parents giving them a glass of wine with their dinner.

24 April 2007


Technology correspondent Hal Berstram rediscovers an old friend...

It's 25 years since Sinclair launched the ZX Spectrum.

It was, for sure, the home computer of the early 80s. It cost £175 for the 48k version, which was a lot more money then than it is now (I could put you together a (very low spec) new PC for not much more than that nowadays), but that was an absolute price breakthrough for 48k, 'high resolution' graphics and a colour screen back in the day. Somehow, in the summer of '83, my parents managed to scrape the necessary readies for a Speccy and I was in business. I think after buying a couple of lame Space Invaders and Frogger clones (Hungry Horace anyone?) I bought Jetpac and never looked back. Thank f*** my dad didn't do his normal money-savin' trick and go for the 16k model - only about 2 games ever ran on it as I recall.

The Spectrum was severely compromised in many ways:

  • the keyboard. I mean, it was better than the ZX81 membrane keyboard, but not by much. I wonder if anyone ever learnt to touch type on it. Actually it would be great to sell a laptop with a retro 'Spectrum-style' keyboard and see if anyone bought it. I'd probably get rid of the diagonal rainbow stripe across the bottom left though.
  • It did have 8-colour capability, but to cut costs the screen mapping allowed each 8x8 character square to be one of two colours - a foreground and a background. This meant that in a game like Manic Miner for example, Willy (who I think was white) would turn the green hedge he was walking past white - and then it would go green again once he'd gone past it. This 'colour bleed' was annoying but was helped by the fact that most of the TVs we had were so crap that you couldn't actually see what colour the aliens, or whatever, were anyway. A plus side to this was that not much of the RAM was needed to hold the screen memory - unlike the BBC micro where screen mapping could take up to 14k (depending on which screen mode was used).
  • the sound. It was about as good as the PC's internal loudspeaker. Amazingly, a few of the games I had for it featured (8-bit) speech synthesis.
  • no disk drive capability (at least not until Amstrad took over Sinclair in the mid 80s, but by then I'd moved on to the Amiga anyway). There was a thing called a microdrive which I think was a high-speed tape interface, but it was complete bollox. But that was Clive Sinclair for you. He was - we are told, and I've no reason not to believe it - a genius, but his basic schtick was to design consumer products that were weedy and flimsy looking enough to get you laughed off the street unless they were so cheap that everybody bought them anyway and there was safety in numbers. I once saw someone commuting into Chelmsford on a C5. But only once.
  • the thermal printer. One guy at school once handed in his homework on one of these. I think the teacher said something like, "I don't normally accept a till roll as homework".
But all of this was more than outweighed by the pluses. It was the best games machine of the time, bar none (well I'd have to make one exception - Elite was better on the BBC micro than the Speccy. But other than that...) It had 48k of RAM, which was more than the BBC Micro (although not as much as the Commodore 64). Them was the days.

To sign off, here are my 5 top games picks on the Spectrum (in no real order):

  • Halls of the Things (an early classic from Design Design software, the guy behind which has a page here.)
  • Jetpac (once played non-stop for about 36 hours)
  • Elite (still great, even though the Spectrum version had a lot of the ships taken out of it)
  • Splat (this sure was a weird one. Hard to describe)
  • Psyclapse/Bandersnatch (these never actually came out, but acquired iconic status, and hence have been included for sheer comedy value. They caused the collapse of Imagine Software, which had been running an advertising campaign for them for about 6 months in the computer press before they went under. The games were going to feature specially designed hardware and would, we were reliably informed, be the Best Games Ever. It was a sad end for a great company!)
In a few years it'll be the next great milestone - 25 years since the Commodore Amiga. Time marches on...

18 April 2007

It's arrived! (But there's a sting in the Mail...)

Well, Twin Peaks season 2 has arrived, all the way from the good ol' US of A. The packaging has attracted some criticism on the reviews at amazon.com, but it looks OK to me - well, no worse than the first season, anyway:

I haven't actually watched any of it yet as I'll have to refresh my memory by watching the first season again, but it's nice to know that I can at last consign my set of ageing, decomposing VHS videos to the charity shop.

There was a sting in the tail though... customs duty (as the set came in at $43.97 including postage and packing, which, even given the collapsing dollar, is a little above the duty-free import limit of £18. VAT was only £3.92, but the Royal Mail slapped an 'International Clearance Fee' of £8 on the package. I've done some digging around and this is a flat rate fee levied on all packages that are imported from outside the EU above the £18 limit. But get this... it doubled from £4 to £8 on 2nd April!

It's bloody daylight robbery and I have emailed Royal Mail to ask them what the f*** they think they're playing at, and how a 100% increase in a charge like this can ever be justified by the underlying economic costs of doing... whatever it is they say they're doing to justify the charge (processing the mail? I thought we were about 150 years past the point when the receiver had to pay the postage.) As the banks are currently finding out, the Office of Fair Trading likes to hear about businesses that are levying charges out of proportion to any economic rationale.

I'll let you know if I get any explanation out of the Royal Mail and if not, whether the OFT takes this up. In the meantime my advice to people importing Region 1 DVDs to the UK is:

  • try to keep the total cost below £18 (why is this limit never raised? Probably because HMRC likes ripping us off at an increasing rate - a more subtle version of what the guys in the Post Office are doing.) As the pound's now into '$2 and upwards' territory (thanks Dubya), this should become easier and easier.
  • if you can't keep the cost below £18, the 'International Clearance Fee' is a flat £8 (unlike VAT), so you're best to go for the biggest single shipment possible if you can.
  • If you know someone in the States and can get them to send the package to you marked 'gift' then your tax free allowance goes up to £36 [why??]
That's the limits of my knowledge on this subject, but if anyone else has any tips, feel free to get in touch. Now then, time to arrange the long weekend viewing session...

17 April 2007

How long can Mike Read continue to torment radio listeners?

I don't normally post a review of a TV programme before I've actually watched it, but at 9pm tonight Channel 4 is showing a documentary called Get Your Act Together With Harvey Goldsmith. Goldsmith is the music promoter responsible for Live8 a couple of years back.

The subject of tonight's programme is Mike Read, whose bid to become London mayor attracted a bit of attention from giroscope a few months back. I have no idea how his campaign is going, but in the meantime he's set up a radio station called Big L which is broadcasting from above a building society in Frinton-on-Sea, Essex. It could almost be a remake of Twin Peaks, where the one-armed man famously said that:

We lived among the people... I think you say 'convenience store?' We lived above it... My name is Mike, his name is Bob.

So who's Bob gonna be? Bob Harris? Can't be, he's still got a proper job on Radio 2. No, let's make it "Diddy" David Hamilton. Pour some quick-drying cement in my ears quickly...

Big L is losing £50,000 a month according to the listings in Radio Times (having said that I don't believe that necessarily, as they didn't even manage to spell "Mike Read" right). It's gonna be an absolute classic. You only have to read the Big L website to know that these are people who make Smashey and Nicey sound like the late lamented John Peel:

This is Big L 1395, the Heart & Soul of Rock & Roll... no corporate playlists, no pre-programmed PCs picking the music, no frequent repetition... If Jerry Lee Lewis feels good next to Amy Winehouse, then we'll play it.

I'm sure Jerry Lee Lewis would love to feel good next to Amy... but she'd probably kick him in the balls. Which is what listeners should do (metaphorically) to these Big L DJs.

To be fair to these guys, modern commercial radio certainly is utter cack, but there's no way a bunch of old Radio 1 and 2 DJs can fix it. You can't fool me. I've read The Nation's Favourite. Snooker on the radio? That was people like you (DLT, to be precise).

Hey Benny Voller: could you do a review of Big L on your new blog? It might even rival Classic FM for sheer mediocrity.

16 April 2007

Problems with MicroCrap: the personal and the global

Science correspondent Hal Berstram smashes an easy target...

It had to happen. Approximately 18 months after building my PC, the goddamn thing stopped booting into MicroCrap XP Professional. No real idea why. It was an intermittent fault but became increasingly regular until it happened every time; the boot sequence showed the XP splash logo, then a black screen with a (movable) mouse pointer, but nothing else. Possibly a hardware fault? I checked all the connections, but MEPIS Linux loads fine, so it's a weird hardware fault if so. After eventually finding my XP Pro CD I fiddled around with the recovery console, thinking I might be able to repair the installation; before I knew it my C: drive had become E: and I was downloading 73 security updates from MicroCrap central. Seems to take most of the day, even with broadband. On the plus side, at least it boots up now OK.

Could have been a lot worse though... I could have been running Vista. If you read nothing else this year, do read 'A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection' by Peter Gutmann of Auckland University. If you haven't got time to read it all, here's the "executive executive summary":

The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history.

Vista has the rare distinction of being the first operating system in history to do less things, less well, than its immediate predecessor. One could call it the Gerald Ford of operating systems; except Vista can't walk or chew gum at the same time. It's an absolute dog's breakfast, and the fact that thousands of copies of it are being sold every week gives the lie to the notion that capitalism is in any sense an optimally efficient economic system. It is doubtful that anyone would voluntarily shell out on Vista were they not forced to by Microcrap's machiavellian licensing policies. It'll certainly help both Linux and Macintosh gain market share although either of them have a mountain to climb if they are to displace Microsoft as the market leader. Still, one can but hope.

For my part, when the current PC finally dies, it'll almost certainly be a Linux machine I replace it with. I'm through with the MS bullshit.

11 April 2007

Arse through the letterbox

Not literally (it would have to be a very small person for their posterior to fit through our letterbox), but rather, the 'election communication' from Braintree Conservatives.

Nothing about anything that's actually going on in Braintree district, except a few photographs of new local amenities under the heading 'Work completed so far'. One of the amenities is Braintree swimming pool, which, as you'll see, is still very much under construction rather than 'completed'. Nice work, guys.

The critique of Labour, focusing entirely on national rather than local issues, has to be read to be believed. I'm reprinting it below, with annotation:

"Since Labour came to power this Government has increased taxes [to pay for public service investment which the Tory leadership says they will maintain], controlled immigration seems to be a thing of the past [actually this government has introduced even more draconian immigration laws than the last Tory government], our countryside has been bulldozed over, the roads move towards gridlock [anyone apart from me sense a contradiction in acting building in the countryside whilst simultaneously saying we need more roads?] and our Police have their hands tied with red tape [oh for the good old days of the seventies when the cops were free to beat up homosexuals and ethnic minorities with impunity]. The march towards a federal Europe carries on regardless of what people think. [The first vaguely true thing they've said - but are the Tories planning to pull us out of Europe? No.] ... It's time for Tony Blair to go in the national interest." [amen to that... but what's it got to do with the local elections?]

I'm posting this garbage back to Tory campaign HQ with some choice comments attached to tell them exactly what I think of it. Still, at least they've bothered to send something through. I've had sweet F.A. from Labour. Or the Lib Dems. We haven't even had a bleedin' poll card.

Local elections give me some difficulty as the Green Party doesn't normally have enough money to put up candidates for the district council so we are left with the standard three parties. I normally vote Labour, if only to try to keep the Tories out of the council. It's a bit hopeless here though. This is an affluent part of Essex, and anyone could stand on the Conservative ticket and get elected - for example Peter Sutcliffe, or indeed Jeremy Bamber, the guy who is doing time for killing his family in Tolleshunt D'Arcy, just down the road from us. In (very) idle moments, I sometimes wonder if Battlestar Galactica actor Jamie Bamber, who plays Lee Adama, is distantly related to Jeremy? He is English, although he has an American accent in the series. Which is weird, because James Callis, who plays Baltar, is allowed to have an English accent. But then why would anyone in the "12 tribes of Kobol" speak English anyway? I guess that just shows the extent of American influence.

The fact that 'a long time ago in a galaxy far far away' English just happened to be spoken is a key issue for Star Wars as well, although not for Star Trek - although I'm always amazed the number of civilisations the Enterprise encounters who speak perfect English. Then again, a 45 minute episode of unintelligible alien languages wouldn't be very entertaining. But they could always subtitle or dub it. Sorry, this has gone way off the point... 'arse in a letterbox 16:9 ratio', anyone?

09 April 2007

Blog Review #19: Contrary

It's been a pretty quiet Easter for me really... my assorted activities have included gardening in the back garden and gardening at the allotment. I was glad for some 'real' reality, including digging, weeds and all the rest of it, rather than spending my life at a computer screen. Which is why I haven't done any posts for a few days.

Somewhere along the line, I realised that I hadn't done a blog review for several weeks and after about 10 clicks on the 'next blog' tag uncovered nothing but sheer garbage, I got lucky - if you can call it that - with Contrary. It's a right-wing blog from a guy in Texas called Gary, who is "a product of fast women, slow horses, and warm beer." Sounds almost like the English aristocracy, in a funny way. The blog caught my eye because of the most recent post (as of 10 April) which links to a story from the Sunday Telegraph claiming that the BBC has cancelled a documentary on Private Johnson Beharry's Victoria Cross "because it feared it would alienate members of the audience opposed to the war in Iraq."

I just don't believe this, frankly. Why would people who are opposed to the war in Iraq complain about a documentary film focusing on a British soldier who was awarded the VC for rescuing injured comrades under heavy enemy fire? It's not Private Beharry's fault that Tony Blair took us to war in Iraq. So it must be that either the Sunday Telegraph is talking bollocks (very probable), or the BBC has seriously miscalculated (possible). Either way, it's unfortunate.

The rest of the blog contains a fair share of patent right-wing bollocks (for example, 'Blame Democrats for military shortages':

It’s puzzling to see the media ignore the disastrous cutbacks in our armed services that took place under Bill Clinton, and the extraordinary efforts of the Bush administration and Hunter’s committee to beef up our military.

The media shouldn't be ignoring it; they should be congratulating Bill Clinton for managing to balance the US federal budget, and excorating George Bush for plunging the budget into record deficits in a desperate attempt to keep the US economy moving. Of course Bush needs to boost military spending, and keep boosting it, to give the impression that the country (indeed the whole civilised world) is in a permanent state of total war; this, in turn, allows the president to destroy civil liberties and prepare the population for the extinction of whatever semblance of democracy still remains. Gary helpfully throws in an Abe Lincoln quote to show us where we're heading:

Congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs and should be arrested, exiled, or hanged.

Substitute 'members of the public' for 'Congressmen' and you have the current US presidential mindset.

As well as the politics, there are some other topics highlighted on Contrary. One is the right's current handy tool, Islamophobia. For example, there's a truly bizarre post on Islamic toilets:

...Among the code of practice for using an Islamic toilet is the rule that an individual must relieve themselves as infrequently as possible... Talking to or greeting others is forbidden while on the toilet.

Rather than looking at the real reasons behind religious extremism - from whatever religion it might emerge - this kind of post just tries to make out that the Islam is some kind of freak show, made up of brainwashed lunatics who are either stupid, or fiendishly malevolent. Of course, one could make an equally strong claim about evangelical Christianity, or Roman Catholicism. If one was that way inclined. Which fortunately, giroscope isn't.

Finally, there are various attempts at comedy on the site. Most of these aren't at all funny to this observer, although I did find the suggestion that Hillary Clinton is an ACLU mole very amusing. The idea of the right getting worked up about such a centre-right, pro-war establishment figure as Mrs Clinton as some kind of radical threat to the status quo in the US had me in stitches. If nothing else it does suggest that if a real radical left movement does emerge in the States, the right will probably miss it completely. One can only hope...

03 April 2007

That (Region 1) gum you like...

Oh happy day!

Twin Peaks Season 2 is finally out. Well, in North America anyway. No sign of a Region 2 release yet, but with George Bush's economic policy pushing us towards $2=£1, who's complaining? I got season 2 from Amazon for a shade over twenty quid including delivery. It will take about a month to arrive, apparently, but we've been waiting since DVD was invented, so no worries. The kind of garbage that has made it to DVD in the meantime, while Twin Peaks season 2 stayed on the studio shelf, is just beyond belief. Many of us thought the studio would never release the bugger. Or that Lynch was blocking release because he was too pissed off with the second series (the first one came out about 5 years ago). But fortunately, what goes around comes around... (sneaky quote from the pilot episode there - which I gather was never made available on DVD in Region 1 due to copyright problems. You poor bastards!)

The discrepancy between Seasons 1 and 2 of Twin Peaks is pretty major. Season 1 is a miniseries really... it's the (feature-length) pilot plus just 7 45-minute episodes. Season 2, on the other hand, goes on... and on. 22 episodes, not all of which are first rate but nonetheless I have been lovingly cherishing my decaying videotapes since 1993 and I'm sure many of you have too. And you can bet your slice of cherry pie that the giroscope posse will be putting together a long weekend viewing session with unlimited coffee and 'donuts' as soon as that DVD boxed set arrives.

In the meantime I've still got to get it together to see David Lynch's latest magnum opus, Inland Empire. More reports back from Another Place when I do. To finish, I can't resist giving you one crazy link examining the backwards speaking in the 'black Lodge' to look at. Time was the internet was full of this stuff, back in 1990-91 when www hadn't been invented and all there was was email, usenet and gopher. Them was the days. My personal favourite from the aforelinked website:

Lodge Meeting Scene (cut 2 - reversed dialogue)

Original line: 'this is a formica table'
Reversed line: 'Let's rock' or 'get a shamrock'

Yeah, right. Lynch suddenly rediscovers his Irish roots? You can go way, way too far up your own...

01 April 2007

Guido goes prime time and gets (slightly) Fawked

I must admit to not keeping up with Newsnight every weeknight at 10.30 on BBC2, despite its status as the pre-eminent 'in-depth' political analysis programme on British TV. I do watch it a lot more than I listen to the Today programme, but that's because I almost never listen to Today - who needs John Humphreys impersonating a cross between's Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition sketch and a dalek at 7 in the morning? By 10.30pm, if I haven't already fallen asleep, I might just be ready for some politics - but I'm never ready for Jeremy Paxman. A post from Hal Berstram's 2005 election blog shows how he feels about Paxman, and that goes for us all here at giroscope - he has a jolly good time at the politician's (and the viewers) expense whilst very rarely securing any interesting political analysis as a result of his interviews.

Anyway, down the pub on Friday night someone at work noticed that they had seen Guido Fawkes, he of the most successful political blog in human memory, doing a piece on Newsnight. This seemed weird - a bit like if Bob Harris had invited the Sex Pistols into the Old Grey Whistle Test studio to do 'Anarchy in the UK' in 1976. But as Guido says on his blog, they gave him his own slot last Wednesday, with 5 minutes of airtime and a free hand over the content so he couldn't say no. The piece is on the BBC website. It's introduced with a rather snotty remark by Paxman (there's rarely any other kind of Jeremy Paxman remark of course) saying that 'Mr Fawkes insisted on concealing his true identity for this programme, despite the fact that his true identity is discoverable in two mouse clicks on the internet.' Well yes, but surely it's considerably more fun for both the viewers and for Guido if he isn't unmasked straightaway. Kiss never appeared in public without makeup on for the first few years, and I'm sure Guido is following in Gene Simmons's footsteps on this one.

Guido's basic point in his 5 minutes was that political journalists are too close to their political sources and therefore very rarely say anything interesting or penetrating about politicians as they don't want to rock the boat and get 'frozen out'. An example was given where Dave Cameron refused to speak to Sky News for six months after a rookie reporter pissed him off in an interview. I'd have had more respect for Dave if he'd refused to speak to Sky News ever, on the grounds that it was run by a fascistic oligarch who was trying to singlehandedly subjugate the developed world's media, but maybe Dave will pick up on this next stage of radicalism next month when Zac Goldsmith sends him the new edition of the Ecologist. I think it's true that sometimes relationships between 'the lobby' and the politicians are too cosy. But cases of 'freeze-out' have to be quite isolated, on the basis that the public would get suspicious of any front bench politician, from any party, who refused to give media interviews on a continuous basis. By and large, the politicians need the journalists as much as the journalists need the politicians; the mechanisms for politicians to get their messages across directly are limited (when was the last time any of you watched a party political broadcast for any reasons other than low-grade comedy? Or read a ministerial blog [like MicroBlair's, for example?]) and so, like it or not, they do have to talk to the media every so often. They don't have too much to fear anyway, as (a) they are mostly well-trained in how not to say anything important or career-threatening to interviewers, (b) interviewers like Paxman make it easy for them to get away without saying anything important by not letting them say anything at all; interrupting them constantly, following up their answers with non-sequiturs, etc. (See the Hal post for more on this.)

The second half of the Newsnight piece, where Guido did a live interview with Paxman (in shadow and 'down the line' from Westminster so as to keep his identity secret) was pretty excruciating, sadly. Michael White from The Guardian found reserves of charisma we never knew he had and reduced Mr Fawkes to an argument about whether he (White) had been at John Prescott's 68th birthday. Is this what people are tuning into Newsnight for? Who gives a fawk?

Fair play to Guido for going on the show live - it's probably terrifying - but by his own admission, he's disappointed he didn't manage to kick the cosy British political establishment up the arse a bit harder. I think Peter Hitchens probably made more of an impact with the Dispatches programme on Dave C last Monday - although of course he had 45 minutes (excluding adverts) to do it. I think a Guido Fawkes Dispatches would be a good idea, and hopefully someone from Channel 4 will be reading this and will Do The Right Thing (in between commissioning a documentary about the kid with a bicyle pump in his spine, or a gameshow presented by David Icke, or wherever the goddamn channel is at nowadays.)