March, 2005

Dr Who Recommissioned

Dr Who’s already got a second series (free reg. reqd.) and a Christmas special.
I’d suggest that Mediaguardian’s spin on Ecclestone and Piper not returning is a fuss about nothing since, as the article says, there’ll have been options for at least one more series written into their contracts at the outset.
[UPDATE] Erm. It seems my “suggestion” is wrong and Ecclestone has actually quit with reports that David Tennant will be stepping into his place.
This raises a couple of questions:
1) Why did he take the role in the first place if he wasn’t up for doing at least a couple of series? You don’t normally go into a recurring series with the aim of leaving so quickly do you? Unless that was the plan all along.
2) And why did his contract not stipulate more work than that? In the US options for a five year stint would be normal, although actors can get out of it early, they’re not popular if they do so!

60% Digital

Ofcom have today reported that digital TV has reached nearly 60% penetration.
In the last quarter:
Sky has grown by around 2.5%
Freeview’s grown by 17.3%
Cable’s gown by 0.5%
Pretty obviously, Freeview’s driving this forward. And there’s still not a real free-to-view satellite option since there’s no way of getting cards to watch ITV, C4 or Five if you’re not a Sky subscriber.
In the meantime, the cheapest TV at Argos with integrated Freeview is £269 in a 28″ widescreen TV. No television smaller than this includes an integrated digital decoder. So if you don’t want something as big as a 28″ telly, you have to get a separate box if you shop at Argos.
The same is true at Dixons where they’re called “interactive digital TVs”. And at Currys the cheapest set with integrated features is £323.
Unbeatable wasn’t much help either.
Indeed I’ve not been able to find any televisions less than 28″ that have a Freeview adapter built in. All those smaller sets and portables will be obselete in less than five years in some places, unless they have a set-top box added to them. Manufacturers really need to wake up to this fact because it makes a mockery of any proposed switch-off that I can’t replace a portable TV at the moment with something that’s even the smallest bit futureproof.

Penguin Lost

Penguin Lost is the sequel to Death and the Penguin and third of Andrey Kurkov’s translated works following The Case of the General’s Thumb.
We rejoin Viktor, who has returned from the Antarctic where he fled in place of Misha the penguin at the end of the first novel. Things have changed, and he starts work for one of the new breed of politicians facing an upcoming election. But Misha’s gone, and he has to track the Penguin down. The wild goose chase takes Viktor from Kiev to Moscow and then to deepest darkest Chechnya.
As ever, the world is both real and surreal. Choices are simply made, and although all manner of things happen to those around him, our hero is blessed with a certain amount of luck to avoid the pitfalls that await at every turn. So there are glamorous, and not-so-glamorous women, and strange men who drive 4x4s around the former Soviet Union.
A Matter of Life and Death is the next Kurkov book up, having just been published in hardback.

Snobs

Snobs, by Julian Fellowes, is a story set in a world that I’ve not entered in contemporary fiction. Think the world of Jeeves and Wooster. Think the world of those people you’ve never heard of in the diary columns of Associated Newspapers’ publications. Think of the nonentities whose marriages are afforded lavage multi-page coverage in Hello magazine.
Yes it’s the world of old-money and the titled. We follow a character who one feels might be based around Fellowes himself. He’s an actor who has a haughty public school sensibility about him and feels very comfortable with the kind of person who lives in a house that others pay an entrance fee to visit. And then there’s the social climber who marries into the family for money and the title, but not love.
Things go predictably wrong, but the novel’s slight and the tragedies are not immense. Money is not an over-riding concern of anyone in this book, but status is. And without status, you are nothing.
I thought it was an honest portrayal of what must surely be practically an endangered species. I did pick up a few tips about etiquette should I ever find myself in such splendid surroundings, but otherwise, the plot doesn’t really linger. It’s light hearted fare that gives you a little taste of how the other half live. Go out into the world with your head held high, your back straight, and a solid belief in yourself. That’s what I took from this book – not that I’d paint it as a self-help manual or anything.

Vending Machine Chips

Picture yourself. You’re two thirds of the way through a journey in deepest, darkest north Norfolk. You’re tired. The train leaving London was packed solid due to the fact that it’s the first train out of London that allows Saver tickets. So when you arrive at Norwich station and see a chip vending machine, you just have to give it a go!
There are very few things that I know about vending machines, but chief among them is that the contents tend to be pre-packaged. So that’s cans and packets. You also have your drink dispensers which basically work by adding hot water to a variety of powders to lesser or greater success. But chips is a whole other proposition. The machine, filled supplied by McCains, is supposedly filled with non-oil cooked chips. Instead hot air seems to be the method of heating the food up. Images of hairdryers pointed at oven-chips came to mind.
The machine’s probably been there ages, but I’d certainly never noticed it before.
Anyway, I inserted my pound and waited. As advertised, you got a 45 second countdown as they were prepared. Then you wait for the red light at the bottom to stop flashing before you remove the cup. The red light dutifully flashed before stopping, and I warily looked for a cup. None was to be seen. Then I saw the bottom of a cup in the roof of the dispenser. As I pulled, loads of chips jammed in with the cup came through as well. The cup itself was three cups together, and inside were something like six or seven individual chips at the bottom of the cup, none of which seemed to have been especially heated through.
A pound wasted, and my suspicions about the possibilities of a chip vending machine remain well-founded.
I had a look around to see if anyone else has had some experience with these machines. He
re’s a blogger
who seemed happy enough with her experiences, and that was back in 2003. Someon
e else
mentions satisfaction in passing.
This cached page from 1997 (!) suggests that the machine is that old and has won awards! And apparently there are also Pizza
dispensers…

Digital Carmarthenshire

Just caught the BBC Ten O’Clock news report on two Welsh villages going 100% digital from midnight tonight. All is well and good, with barely a single dissenting voice. But I scanned the setups pictured in the report and they all seemed suspiciously simple. We saw TVs with two digital boxes under the screens. So can any of these homes now tape one channel and watch the other?
And as the man from Which magazine said in the report, the government has not said that it’s going to give out free boxes to everyone across the rest of the country. I’d suggest that in this “experimental” village, boxes have been supplied to all homes and for every TV in each of them. Will this happen on a nationwide basis? And why should I have forked out for a box while my cheapskate neighbour gets one free. Difficult issues to be faced.

Nebulous

One of the things that I did manage during my epic journey (below) was a chance to listen to the rest of Nebulous, a comedy science fiction series that aired on Radio 4 earlier this year. I really enjoyed it, and hope that it gets a CD release because I could listen to it a few times! Some great running gags throughout the series and some very clever ideas.

Southwold

Back in 1979, we went on a family holiday to the little Suffolk village of Walberswick. This was only our second holiday away. Until then we’d only visited our grandparents in Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast. Since Walberswick was only a little further down the coast from our usual summer haunt it should have felt very similar, but because we were staying in an unfamiliar holiday cottage, it was much more exciting. All the more so, because that summer saw an epidemic of greenflies, and the air was so thick with them as we arrived that the windscreen wipers were on as we drove up in our Renault 12.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, the sometimes juvenile B3TA had an interview with Tim Hunkin. Hunkin, as you may or may not know, was the writer and illustrator of The Rudiments of Wisdom that used to appear in the back of The Observer magazine. Sometimes I read it, and often I didn’t, being slightly too esoteric for a child my age. He went on to make a couple of great series for Channel 4 – The Secret Life of Machines. He and his colleague, who’s name I forget, would explain how stuff worked. Do you know how a telephone actually works? Well he’d explain it. I still vividly remember his semaphore system for sending a fax.
So Hunkin is an interesting character. In the B3TA interview he talked about these things and others. In particular, he mentioned the machines he builds now, and how many are on show Under the Pier in Southwold. So I resolved that a trip to Southwold was in order.
It’s important to know that I don’t own a car. If I did things would have been a little simpler. So I consulted Traveline to help me plan my trip. Awkwardly, Southwold doesn’t have a station, so it was a question of a train from Liverpool Street to Halesworth from where I’d need to catch a bus.
To give myself a decent amount of time in Southwold I needed to start early. So on Saturday morning I dragged myself out of bed early, and headed off out at 6am to get to my “other” local station – that is to say, a mile away from me, from where it was a quick trip into London, arriving there at 7.00am.
The train onwards towards Lowestoft was a surprisingly small three carriage affair. But then this is an unusual route. Unfortunately by the time we reached Witham it was obvious that there was a problem, and we were stuck for around half an hour. As I was in no rush to get anywhere and indeed had been banking on some quality “reading time” I wasn’t unduly annoyed, although I was aware that the bus on to Southwold was a connecting service, and any serious delay was likely to jeopardise that connection.
But the delay did allow me to eavesdrop on some of my fellow travellers. In particular, a young woman had boarded at the previous station and now she was making a call on her mobile in quite a nasal voice.
“Hello. It’s Kimberley. Unfortunately I’m going to be a little late into Ipswich. Sorry. See you later. Bye.”
Then when the delay was prolonged she made a further call, again apologising to a certain degree.
She also made a call to the national enquiries helpline asking about services out of Ipswich later that afternoon and on to a different part of Essex.
Between these calls, she was spending a considerable amount of time topping off her makeup.
Now it’s difficult to explain why my mind raced to one inevitable conclusion about what her profession might be. She obviously wasn’t calling friends, this was a work call. She might have been a temp, and surely that would have been the natural conclusion of a call made at the start and end of work hours, but this wasn’t the thought that went through my mind. I was picturing a working girl who travelled around Essex and Suffolk on trains, unusually servicing her clients during the day.
I never found out, obviously. But I was soon arriving in the small town of Halesworth where, significantly, there was no waiting bus. I was only five minutes after the time the bus should have been there, but a further twenty minutes brought no sign of it. And the next bus wouldn’t be along for two hours, along with the next train. What to do?
I didn’t have a map, but using my innate natural sense of direction, and thinking that Southwold could be no more than a few miles away, I started walking down the main road out of Halesworth. I’d reached a mini-roundabout that notably had no signs indicating Southwold, when I saw a bus heading to Norwich. Not the direction I wanted then… So much for that “natural” sense of direction.
I tried surfing to Streetmap and Multimap on my hi-tech mobile phone, but with a rapidly failing battery, this was proving to be a lost cause. I trudged back to the station and decided to explore the town centre for another hour until the next bus arrived. Halesworth is quite a nice bustling Suffolk town with few chainstores, but suspiciously did have an Organic Coffeeshop which began to make me suspect that I wasn’t “in the country” to the same extent that I thought I was. A quick look in the estate agents’ windows confirmed this view.
But it was time for the bus to Southwold, and, being certain to arrive at the bus-stop a good fifteen minutes early, I was soon in Southwold. It turned out to be eight miles away, so if I’d managed to set off in the right direction, and had been wearing appropriate footwear, I’d have got to Southwold in exactly the same time – but knackered.
It was quite a nice day, although not as sunny as I’d hoped, and as it had been in London the day before. But I was soon walking along the promenade, with its brightly coloured beach huts (did I really hear someone talking about them costing £50,000 to buy one?).
The pier is small and not nearly as twee as it could be. The Under the Pier Show, it must be explained, is not actually under the pier. It’s about half way down. But the machines are great. The Rent-A-Dog allows you to go on a typical dog walk through Southwold. The Doctor wrote me a prescription, and the Instant Weightloss machine appealed. I also managed to pick up a copy of Hunkin’s Experiments, via a vending machine, needless to say. All in all, it’s well worth a visit.
Southwold overall is not the cheapest place to live. Aside from tourism, there’s a working harbour. And it’s also home to Adnams. There’s a suspiciously high number of Antiques shops, and the restaurants look slightly better than you find in the average seaside town, with the corollary that there are fewer fish and chips shops. But I did find a real remainder bookshop with actual books that you think have been remaindered rather than printed specifically for that purpose. Needless to say I bought a stackful.
I did head off out to the harbour area where real boat building was taking place, and fisherman probably actually work. I was thrilled to see that the main feature I remember of my holiday was still there – the ferry across to Walberswick. That is to say, a rowing boat that takes tourists and others across about 50 metres of water for 50p if I read the sign right. The incredible thing is that I think it cost 50p when I was last there! The place where inflation stands still? Er, probably not, considering the sort of people who live there now.
My trip back was smoother than my outward journey. Well, aside from the half hour delay on the train. And then there was the unfortunate toilet incident. As I mentioned before, the train was a three-carriage affair, but of recent design, and consequently full allowance had been made for disabled travellers. Indeed by occupying a special seat for disabled people, I got lots of extra legroom. I should hasten to add that had someone boarded the train who actually needed the seat I would have leapt up to offer it.
The onboard toilet had full access, and had a door that slides open in a semicircle so that a mother and pram could get in, or a wheelchair. When I got to it, a mother with a pram and her father were outside it, but they were just sitting in an unfortunate place. I pressed the button to make the door open Star Trek-style, when I realised that there was a woman already in there. I quickly pressed the button again to close the sliding door and looked aghast at the father next to me who was now wearing a toothless grin.
“They should have a lock on these doors,” I said.
Fortunately, curbing my embarrassment, the woman inside had been washing her hands. I offered profuse apologies and went in. Inside I realised that you have to press one button to close the door, but crucially, you must press a second button to lock it. Not my fault then. And overall it was less embarrassing than the time I came hurtling along a bridle path in some woods adjacent to a golf course, and rounded a corner to find a female golfer squatting on the path in front of me. Some skilful wheel skills and some fast peddling along with a shouted “sorry” limited any further embarrassment that time.

Controlling Science

The BBC World Service has just begaun a new series, Controlling Science, examining ways in which 11 Sept has changed the way science works.
The first episode, broadcast this week, examined the way the US has become much stricter on Visas to the point at which foreign students no longer want to study there, and top ranking scientists are either unable to travel there, or remain stuck once they get there.