January, 2010

3D

This afternoon, I’ll be watching Arsenal v Man Utd in 3D.
No – I’m not going to one of Sky’s un-named pubs which will be showing the game in 3D – instead I’ll be in the ground.
But with Avatar number one at the box office, and large numbers of exhibitors at the recent CES trade show showing off 3D TVs, the question must surely be when will 3D arrive and not if. Or is it?
When I was little, in my grandparents house I found and old box of photos from the turn of the last century. Obviously they were black and white, but they were stereoscopic images. Alongside the collection of photos was a viewer. You the photos in the viewer and one eye saw each photo – together giving the impression of 3D.
That’s still how it works today. With polarised lenses and the like in cinemas, or even using different colour lenses to display or remove information as in the old red/blue cardboard glasses.
The first time I remember television trying to do 3D was sometime around 1982. ITV was showing a series of films on Sunday afternoons – if my memory serves me – which largely dated from the 50s when one of the earlier 3D crazes had begun. You got your glasses with the TV Times and could watch the films in glorious 3D.
Not in our house you couldn’t. For starters, the edition of the TV Times that gave out the glasses was hard to get hold of, and then there was the small matter of our TV being black and white. I remember tuning in one afternoon to see what I was missing and realising that it was a dull western with a blurry image.
At the cinemas around the same time I could have watched Jaws 3-D or Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. I remember phoning up my local ABC (now a Tesco) to check that they gave out 3D glasses for the latter. But I didn’t go. It’s probably as well – the film’s awful (that’s why you’ve not heard of it) and the 3D was equally awful.
3D never died of course. It carried on improving, although seemingly largely limited to theme parks (e.g. Pirates 3D starring Leslie Nielsen) or IMAX films.
But now we’re in a new 3D age, where the technology has matured so far, that any certainly just about any animated film – and quite a few horror films – simply have to be made in 3D.
Nope – I still haven’t seen Avatar. Just that preview I described back in August. Indeed my 3D film going experience in its current incarnation is limited to that short, Coraline and Beowulf.
Those latter two films are set in slightly dark worlds which is just as well because the main issue I have with 3D is that it’s actually too dark. At the Avatar preview I saw, the vivid colours of the world Cameron has built were a bit “muddy” for me. Taking my glasses off, revealed how much light was missing.
And I should point out that I’ve seen all these films in state of the art surroundings.
Have I got especially sensitive eyes? I don’t know. I have 20:20 vision; not wearing contacts or glasses. But it’s clear to me that the picture is inferior even if we do get an extra dimension.
I’m fussy about things like visuals and sounds. I was once the only person in a packed cinema who bothered to complain that the film was being screened in the wrong ratio. Yesterday, nobody apart from me seemed to mind that the film was being shown in mono when it had clearly been mastered in Dolby Digital (or other) and the cinema was equipped with as much.
So to me, 3D films are inferior because they’re dark. And watching a film like that is a bit like watching a film on a sunny day in your living room with the light reflecting from your TV. You can watch a film like that, but don’t expect me not to draw the curtains.
Sky and TV manufacturers are now all racing to build 3D sets. They think that we’ll all want them in our homes. But I’m really not so sure.
Where do we stand in home entertainment? Well HD Ready TV sets are everywhere, although the technology moves apace and LED is to an extent replacing Plasma and LCD. And there’ll no doubt be OLED at some point too. But most of what people are watching on these TVs is not HD.
Sky’s current TV campaign is trying to drive that home. At best these TVs are being used to play PS3 or Xbox360 games in HD, and perhaps the odd Blu-Ray film. But only a relatively small number of people have HD either through Sky, Virgin Media or Freesat.
Freeview HD is due to launch any day now as the first Humax box becomes available, with the half the population being theoretically able to watch the World Cup in HD this summer. But there’s still quite a job to get people to actually hook up an HD source to their HD sets (and speaking personally – I’m not prepared to pay a premium for it).
Sound is also vital. People are less willing to install full home cinema sound kit into their rooms, leaving the irony of them having some fantastic pictures on their new super-slim sets, but awful sound. Sets that slim simply can’t put out good quality sound.
Buying a cheap receiver and plugging a few inexpensive speakers into it can make a colossal difference. But most consumers aren’t aware of that.
So now it’s onto 3D. I think the first question that needs to be asked is whether everyone is prepared to upgrade their sets again so soon? I’m not sure they are. HD Ready sets have only truly been mainstream for the last couple of years. And most have probably got another five or more years in them.
Then the next question to ask is whether you’re prepared to wear a special set of glasses at home to watch TV? I really doubt it.
3D has a wow-factor, but imagine the scene at home. You’ve found the remote, but not the glasses. Or you’ve got two pairs but not a third for the other family member. Sure they can go out and get more, but those ones your cinema sold you for 80p won’t work on your TV set.
There’s also the small matter that a single format hasn’t yet been determined for the home market.
I think that like the “fads” for 3D in the fifties and eighties, we’re going through another one now. With computer animation it’s actually somewhat easier to make a film in 3D so there’s a certain “why not” attached to doing so. You just have to render the “other eye”. And of course, they earn you more in revenue. But it’s a craze. And I think I’ll take a pass. There will be some excellent photos of people in pubs watching the Arsenal game though!

A Prophet and Up In The Air

What links these two films? Absolutely nothing, although both were showing in the Curzon Mayfair last week, I only saw A Prophet there. For better of for worse, I saw Up In The Air in my local Cineworld. They offer very different cinema going experiences, yet not at a colossal price differential.
I’ll get onto the films themselves shortly, but I really should visit the polite environment of the Curzon chain a little more. The print we saw of A Prophet was digital, and the sound excellent. The only issue I had with the cinema was that their soda machine had broken. This would be a greater problem at Cineworld, but the superior Curzon-goer is more likely to take a glass of wine into their screen. Personally, if you’re seeing A Prophet in the cinema then bear in mind it’s two and a half hours, and you might want to think twice about drinking too much of anything.
At Cineworld, Avatar still seemed enormously popular, with everyone else seemingly wandering around with 3D glasses. Knowing how popular the cinema is, I pre-booked my tickets in advance. Sadly of the three machines printing pre-booked tickets in the cinema lobby, only two were working, and neither would print my tickets. When I asked a security guard who was diligently searching everyone’s bags as they entered the cinema (although had been absent as I walked in with my bag), he told me to go to the front of the long queue where someone printed out my tickets for me. And unlike previous visits to this cinema, the number of people working behind the concessions stand meant that I was served pretty quickly there.
The only downside was that as the adverts and trailers began, it became clear that I as only hearing mono sound from the speakers behind the screen. The speakers all down either wall were off. That might have been a problem with the ad reel, so I waited until the ads ended (including one proclaiming the power of cinema advertising with its flat sound and scratchy print).
When the film itself began the sound problem hadn’t been fixed, so I found the only person available and asked him. He immediately phoned the projection room saying he’d get on the case. I left him to it, since I didn’t want to miss anything. Sadly, the sound never was fixed. I saw Up In The Air in mono.
Final grades:-
Curzon Mayfair: A-
Cineworld Enfield: C+
(And I’m being generous because I think sound is a vital part of any film and far more important than things like 3D).
Onto the films. French cinema is evidently having a good time in making sprawling epic crime dramas. Last year we had the two parts of Mesrine which was excellent although it could have been released as a single film with some length cut. At least the DVD which has just been released contains both films.
A Prophet is one of those films that really is worth going into knowing as little as possible. We follow a young Arab – Malik – as he begins to serve his first prison sentence in an adult prison, starting a six year stretch.
In the prison, are two main camps – the Muslims and the Corsicans. It’s the latter group who grab Malik and tell him he must either murder someone for them or be murdered himself. What follows is based entirely around the choice he makes here. The performances throughout are excellent and with the exception of a couple of scenes set outside the prison I found a little hard to believe, it was all very real.
If you enjoyed Mesrine or the Italian film, Gomorrah, then you must see this.
Up In The Air is something entirely different. Quite light in flavour but with a slightly offbeat humour, we follow the life of George Clooney’s corporate firer. He jets in to different businesses where it’s his job to make people redundant. That’s his only job. But he tells us at one point that he spent 322 days the previous year on the road. And this is his life. He dreams of reaching 10 million frequent flier miles; an achievement only reached by six people previously. He actively dislikes his dismal little apartment that he spends as little time as possible.
As is the way with these things, his world is shaken up when Nathalie (Anna Kendrick) joins his firm and persuades their boss that her video-conferencing firing should be adopted. They’ll save vast amounts of travel expenses. Not something that Clooney’s character wants.
Along the way Clooney has met a kindred spirit in the fantastic Vera Farmiga who plays Alex. Soon the two are having a liaison set in hotel rooms across the mainland USA as and when their schedules collide.
How it all plays out is fun and while it’s not a gag-fest, there are some laugh out loud moments.
There’s one thing I was left wondering: why had American Airlines and Hilton seemingly partnered up with this film since the life is presented as soulless. While both companies are presented efficiently, a scene where Clooney queue-jumps at a Hilton check-in because he’s a high-ranked member of their corporate scheme leaves me cold.
It’s all about the status and getting the “carbon fibre” card. While the film essentially presents it as lifeless, it doesn’t totally paint an awful picture. Clooney’s flights are on time, and there are never any problems with his rooms.
Up In The Air has had some so-so reviews, but I really liked it. And Farmiga is absolute fabulous in it.

The iYawn – In Case You Hadn’t Heard

Apple as a company is incredibly skillful in the way it essentially manipulates the media surrounding the launch of one of its new products. And the media justs lets itself be manipulated.
Apple certainly designs beautiful products that take design in consumer electronics to the next level. And their corporate muscle has managed to open doors, as we’ve seen with the iTunes store, in spite of the relatively poor user experience of some of their software (come on – you don’t really like iTunes or Quicktime do you?).
So what do we have in the iPad? Is it a game changing device? Does this mean the end for all other netbooks or e-readers? Should Amazon, Asus and Samsung be running scared?
Not really.
Unless I’ve really missed something, they’ve built a more powerful than average netbook, but left off the keyboard (although you can get one as an optional extra!). I’m typing this on a rather gorgeous Asus UL30A. It’s bigger than the iPad. In fact it’s 13.3″, but it’s awfully slim. They key thing is that it has a lovely keyboard. Typing an email is a breeze. That’s not really the case on touch screen devices is it? When was the last time someone sent you a long email via their iPhone? You can tell – because iPhone users, like Blackberry users before them, seem to love to brag about the device that they sent their message from. While this particular netbook is somewhat better powered than most with a CULV processor (and to be fair, more expensive than some iPads), it’s also very easy for me to type on my Samsung N110. And the Asus gives me 12 hours on WiFi incidentally. What I’m really trying to say is that as a user interface, the traditional physical keyboard has yet to be beaten.
The iPad certainly cheaper than I was expecting with prices starting at $499, but with Apple being Apple, don’t just run that through a currency converter to get the UK price. For starters, there’s going to be VAT on top. And quite probably other import duties. To see what I mean check out the prices of the basic MacBook at the moment. In the US it’s priced in the Apple Store at $999 which according to Google is £618. Yet Apple’s UK Store charges £816 for the same computer. In the absence of any international pricing just yet, I’d suggest at least £399 if we’re incredibly lucky, and up to £499 if we’re not. For the base model without 3G.
What’s really curious is the huge jump in prices between the ones with space for a SIM card and those that don’t. While you can buy a USB stick for your laptop for around £15 on pay as you go, Apple seems to be charging $130 for adding that functionality. I wouldn’t pretend that a stick out of the side or back of your netbook or laptop isn’t a little unsightly, but that’s a lot to pay to make it “sightly.”
I’d suggest that it’d be more sensible to just go out and buy one of those aforementioned 3G sticks and pop it into your iPad. But unfortunately, rather than shipping with a traditional two or three USB ports, the iPad comes with none. You’re going to have to buy an adaptor to get things into it.
That’s certainly going to make transferring data onto it really easy from USB sticks and the like, just a little bit fiddly. You’d better hope you’ve got good online reception if you want to move your data around, because you’re probably going to have to do it wirelessly.
Getting back to those price points for the 3G versions – the data packages will be extra. Do you really want to take out what’s effectively a third internet subscription. You already have your home ISP and you mobile package (which, if you’re interested in this product, will definitely include data). You might even already have a third subscription in the form of a Blackberry if you keep calls and email separate. Do you have a lot of cash burning a hole in your pocket right now? Well we have come out of the recession. But you might still have to cancel that gym membership.
At least that processor should let you do – you know – more than one thing at a time.
Nope. No multitasking. No leaving your Twitter application running while you do something else.
And it wouldn’t have killed to put a little camera in the top would it? You know – for Skype and similar.
What about reading books on the device? Well I’ve not been happy with any of the products I’ve seen on the market to date, and I still have severe reservations about most people even wanting to read on an electronic device. I honestly don’t see bookshops going out of business because of this (Bookshops may well go out of business, but that’s because of the price cutting Amazon and the supermarkets are able to achieve – but that’s another story entirely). I’ve been through the arguments before, but in essence books are more to me than bits in some memory somewhere. And I own rather than licencing them.
I’ve no doubt that some will want one for reading the paper, or books. But it’s a damned expensive ebook reader. I’ve always been dubious of taking things like the Kindle or one of Sony’s devices to places like the beach, or your bath. I certainly wouldn’t go near one of those places with this. Indeed, I’m not sure I’d want to get it out on a London bus or tube. And those other e-readers use e-ink which means that you’re power supply is going to last for ages. I’m not convinced that’s the case with the iPad, with Jobs claiming a 10 hour life. There are going to be some dull journeys home when, because the device was on the work WiFi network all day, the battery flattened when you wanted to get back into your novel for the journey home.
Look – I’ve been especially negative about this. And that’s probably been brought on by the sheer frenzy of everyone desperately wanting to be excited by whatever Apple bring out; the hostility is a little unfair. But the “Cult of Jobs” brings out the worst in me.
I’ve no doubt that they’ll sell enough to make it worthwhile – it can’t be less popular in the UK than Apple TV can it? But this is not going to be a massmarket device. Most people are going to be better off with a Dell Mini, or a Sony E-reader; a PSP or even an iPod Touch. Some will have great uses for it; I can already imagine that some professional photographers will immediately be buying one to display their wares in place of big albums of photos. The style conscious will want one to leave around on their Danish designed coffee table just next to the Bang and Olufsen remote.
If I get a chance to play with one, I’ll jump at it. It’s an unquestionably beautiful device. Yet for all that, I’m really not sure what it’s offering me that I haven’t already got.
In the end, I just don’t see this as being a broad appeal device. If it was a little closer to Lenovo’s IdeaPad U1 in functionality, then I can see it. Sadly that device has a predicted $999 cost, an awful lot for a netbook, however well designed, so it could be a while yet.
It does, as Steve Jobs pointed out, make a very lovely digital photo frame though*.
* If you buy the stand accessory.

Breaking Up Your Podcasts

What’s the best length for a podcast?
That’s a bit like asking, “How long is a piece of string?”
The recent RAJAR MIDAS data showed a wide range of opinions:

What this shows is that there’s no consensus. I listen to podcasts that can vary between a couple of minutes and nearly two hours. So I tend towards the belief that it really does depend on the podcast.
At Absolute Radio, none of our podcasts lasts over an hour. That’s because we’re a music station, and once you removed that (and advertising) from a programme, no matter how much the DJ speaks, the show isn’t going to be all that long.
But what if you’re a speech station? Five Live have recently started effectively podcasting the entirety of two different programmes, each running for two hours. Danny Baker’s podcast began back in September when his new Saturday morning show started, while the Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo podcast began a couple of weeks ago when their new Friday show began.
In both cases, the BBC has decided to break the programme up into two parts. But there’s a problem with this.
By default, iTunes only downloads the most recent podcast available. If you subscribe to, say, a daily podcast, but only run iTunes a couple of times a week, then it’ll only download the most recent edition. With the BBC putting out two podcasts in swift succession for Danny Baker and Kermode/Mayo, most people will only automatically download the second “hour” of each programme.
I noticed as a listener this week that Simon Mayo has started suggesting that you “adjust your podcast settings” if you’re only getting one podcast.
The problem with that is that it’s incredibly unintuitive in iTunes, the most popular podcasting software by a long way, for users to do this.
You might start by looking at in Edit > Preferences menu, or Advanced. But you’ll look in vain. Right hand clicking on a podcast won’t help. Nor will attaching your iPod and trying to navigate via that.
No. You have to use the Settings button at the foot of the page, uncheck the Use Default Settings check-box, and choose Download all from the dropdown (You can also just adjust your overall defaults to change iTunes behaviour for all your podcasts).
itunes
iTunes is a fairly awful piece of software. It’s bloatware, and much of it is completely unintuitive. I had to use Google to discover this functionality. No wonder that nobody’s in a rush to explain exactly what to do.
Somebody at the BBC has almost certainly noticed that their programmes’ second parts are downloaded far more than their part ones. But I’d attack the problem another way, and simply offer a single download. Yes – that probably means 30-45 MB instead of 20MB per podcast. But does that make much difference? Yes – I know the chart above shows that nobody wants 1 hr plus podcasts, but lots of your audience only getting half the programme is not a good solution.

I’m A Photographer – Not A Terrorist

I'm A Photographer Not A Terrorist-5
At midday today, I went to Trafalgar Square along with what must have been a couple of thousand of other photographers to protest that “I’m A Photographer, Not A Terrorist!
This is an event that will surely have hundreds of photos coming out of it. There were no speeches per se, but lots of group photos (something that’s quite hard to do with photographers since they all want to be taking the photo).
A few of my photos are here, with the rest over on Flickr. A BBC report of the event is here.
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Henning Mankell

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One of my favourite authors, Henning Mankell, was in London this week to promote his new novel The Man From Beijing. This isn’t a novel set around his most famous creation – Kurt Wallander – but is a thriller set in several countries including, of course, Sweden.
Mankell was interviewed by Stefanie Marsh of The Times (the event was put on by their Times+ club in association with Waterstones), and she did a pretty good job even if she came across as very nervous.
Henning Mankell-3
Nervous is something that Mankell certainly isn’t. He seems to relish this kind of event, beginning with an interview before he told a couple of short stories. We now all know that the sound of the Big Bang is B-Flat.
Then there was a Q&A section with no shortage of questions all of which Mankell happily answered. The one question he said he was expecting (and he got it) was about which of the actors who’ve played Wallander he’s liked the most. He ducked the question to an extent although he did point out that both Swedish actors who’ve played him were actually chosen by him.
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There were a fair few Swedes in the audience, and at least one German too. Let’s hope there weren’t too many Portuguese there, because he labelled them as being very gloomy (this followed a discourse on the British seeing the Swedes as gloomy and vice versa).
Mankell lives for much of his time in Africa and he has some very strong feelings about it. And I must admit that I took to heart the fact that if we watch one less hours of TV an evening we end up with two weeks extra a year.
Finally the evening ended with a signing and I got my copy of The Man From Beijing signed by Mankell.

I’m A Photographer – Not A Terrorist

Photographer - Not A Terrorist
This weekend there’s a (hopefully) big demonstration of photographers protesting against the vast misuse of Section 44 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2000).
This essentially allows police to stop and search anyone in a specified area. Since those areas include much of London, that effectively means anybody in the city. Fine. Nobody likes terrorism.
But in practice that has meant way too many innocent tourists, photographers and others being considered “suspicious” just because they have a digital camera.
You probably have a digital camera about your person now. It’s built into your phone.
Are you a terrorist? Should you be able to go about your business taking photos of whatsoever you choose?
This is a free country after all. Or it used to be.
All over Soho I noticed that posters promoting the demonstration appearing all over the place. I certainly plan on attending this weekend.

The UK Radio Aid Question

The earthquake that the people of Haiti experienced nearly a week ago now was horrific, and it’s wonderful that at time of writing the appeal launched by the Disasters Emergency Committee has reached over £23 million.
Following the Asian tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, UK Radio Aid was a telethon of sorts that took place a few weeks later to raise money from the listeners of UK commercial radio. Most stations in the country took the programming from London, and according to the event’s Wikipedia page, more than £3 million was raised.
This morning, following suggestions from various people on Twitter, Radio Today published an opinion piece asking whether it was perhaps time for UK commercial radio to run UK Radio Aid 2.
The piece was written by Justin Kings, a radio consultant. He followed the piece up with an update to say that UK Radio Aid 2 would not be happening.
A polite email from Global’s Group News Director and PD of LBC, Jonathan Richards detailed why he felt that it wasn’t right at this time. Richards pointed out that Global was running DEC advertisements across its network of stations and that this was helping the DEC’s overall success in raising money. Given that Global is such a large part of commercial radio, its participation in a second telethon would have been essential.
Of course Global isn’t the only group running the advertisements. Since the advertisements were recorded at the end of last week, most of commercial radio seems to be playing them – voiced by John Hurt. Many stations are also running web advertising. The same is true for most other commercial media outlets who are giving up space and airtime.
I must admit that I agree with Richards and believe that while UK Radio Aid may have had an impact at the time, we wouldn’t be repeating it for entirely the right reasons.
It’s no secret that I have very mixed feelings about telethons in general. I suppose that I’m happy to put my misgivings to one side if I felt that they make a difference. I think that some of the major television telethons do make that difference. But they’re events that tread a very fine line; and sometimes they overstep that line coming across as crass and self-congratulatory.
There was undoubtedly an element of that in 2005 UK Radio Aid, with certain individuals perhaps being a litle bit too happy about being seen to be doing something.
Radio stations should certainly encourage their listeners to part with their cash and support the appeal. But is it really appropriate for a local station to take a service from London featuring “star names” that has little or nothing to do with that station’s locality? Even in a radio world of networked centralised programming, I’m not sure that it is.
Then there are the big name guests who might not be directly promoting their latest films or CDs overtly, but are benefiting in some way in kind.
Perhaps it’s the British sensibility at play here. In the US on Friday, most major broadcasters, including all the networks, will be airing a two-hour telethon backed by George Clooney. That might well get US citizens to donate when they might otherwise have not, but I’m not sure it’ll make a great deal of difference to British citizens.
Again, as regular readers will know, I find plenty of other charity work unsettling and unseemly. Why do we need a charity single? Can we not just give a couple of quid to charity without stroking popstars’ egos? Do I really need a badge or a ribbon to show my support? Can’t we save manufacturing costs of that t-shirt and just use all my cash?
Returning to radio – many stations do excellent work for their own charities and they fit that in well with their regular output. Listeners appreciate it. UK Radio Aid last time around didn’t really do that in my opinion, and stations would be better adopting their own ways to encourage listeners to give.
An aside: this disaster has taken place in January – a month in which many people find themselves short of spare cash following Christmas. Perhaps a campaign to get people to promise to donate once they’ve received their pay packet would be a good idea? Yes – the money is needed now. But it’s also going to be needed for many months and years to come.

Sky One After Harry Hill… Again

I don’t blame a presenter trying to maximise their value, but if reports are true, then Harry Hill is shortly going to be signing a deal with Sky One and leaving ITV.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
In March last year they were after Harry again, as well as Gavin and Stacey. That didn’t work out. But they’re having another bash. You just know that this is a bad idea. I won’t repeat arguments I’ve already made.
Of course, with Hill’s contract at an end, his management company, Avalon, will be doing their best. But this would undoubtedly be a bad move. And I speak as someone who subscribes to Sky One.
Have you seen the new Bill Bailey show on Sky One? I have. It has Joe Swash in it. Yes him.
I like Bill Bailey. And we know he, like Rory McGrath, is a keen birder. But this programme is awful. One epsiode was enough for me.
On TV Burp, Harry makes fun of lots of ITV shows, and belittles some of the really awful ones. But he quite likes the soaps really. How can you work for a network, most of who’s home-grown programming deserves the Harry Hill trademark sideways turn towards the camera?
Moreover, the next time someone at Sky is claiming that Sky One is the new HBO, remember that HBO has not become what it is today by “poaching” big shows from the major networks.
How about actually developing and creating your own comedies? I know that’s not easy, but it puts you on a much sounder footing in the long term.

Radio Times 10 January 2010

A little different this time around. I’ve just removed anything not worth bothering with.
That does tend to leave some channels a little bereft…
Radio Times 10 January 2010
So Lark Rise doesn’t make the cut. And that’s even though it was directed by Sue (Suzanne Ross/Michelle Fowler) Tully.
And isn’t The Choir an odd choice for Sign Zone – programming for deaf people. Isn’t that rubbing it in a bit?
And BBC Three must be at it’s… er… least bad for a long time!
As ever, best viewed large.