January 2007 Archives

A Hypothetical YouTube Case


YouTube, it's reported, is working on an advertising revenue sharing mechanism that rewards creativity and generates cold hard cash for people who include advertising in their videos.

The offer applies only to people who own the full copyright of the videos that they are uploading to the YouTube website.

Right. But surely they're not suggesting that people upload material for which they don't own the full copyright currently do they?

Here's a hypothetical based on a discussion at work today.

A media owner puts up a video of a popular band. Someone steals that video and posts it to YouTube.

In my hypothetical case, the copyright owner doesn't spot that the video's on YouTube - they don't have the manpower to be constantly searching YouTube for new infringements. The person who stole the video, by the way, lives in the Cayman Islands or Cuba or Liechtenstein or somewhere else well beyond US jurisdication just for good measure.

The uploaded video is by a well known band and contains a popular new single. Something that many people are searching for.

The person who uploaded it starts earning $xx,000. We don't know how much, but there are lots of views of it. Lots and lots of views.

The cash gets paid out in whatever mechanism.

Then a year down the line, the media owner spots the video and gets YouTube to take it down.

Who's entitled to that cash? Can YouTube get the money back from our tax-exiled uploader. Sure, the account can be suspended, but it's not really that hard to open another, and get a new bank account for cashing future cheques.

The media owner not only wants that advertising revenue, but the share that YouTube earned and compensation since the video was never licenced for taking advertising, and if it did, it would want way more than that!

In this instance Google/YouTube probably pay the media owner off. But how many times can this happen?

Maybe someone at YouTube has to watch each video that's included in the ad revenue scheme to determine whether it belongs to someone other than the uploader. But how do they know? It's a new band the YouTube video watcher has never heard of. As the uploader I might be a bandmember wanting to promote my new single and well within my rights, in which case it's fine. Or I might be a keen fan who's broken the band's copyright even though he's just trying to promote it.

As far as I know the DCMA only stays in force while someone isn't monitoring everything that goes up. When they do start looking, doesn't that protection fall away?

Quiz TV


This morning's Guardian had a fantastically ascerbic column from Emily Bell about Quiz TV programmes, and in particular the appalling ITV Play channel and programme block that runs through the night.

I'll just give you a flavour of it by reproducing the last paragraph:

Michael Grade, the incoming executive chairman, should be judged on how he handles this. Given that he put quality programming at the top of his manifesto, he should shut down ITV Play immediately. It is not a case of climbing on the moral high ground, but recognising a sewer when you're in one and stepping out of it pretty smartly.

Hear, hear Emily.

This follows last week's Culture, Media and Sport Committee report on Call TV Quiz Shows (PDF). This report acknowledged that this new form of "entertainment" is simply falling between a rock and a hard place in terms of determining who should regulate it. The big problem with the chunky report is that it admits that it'll be for the courts to determine whether these channels and programme strands are actually free draws, lotteries or gaming.

"Our view is that they should constitute gaming as defined under the Gambling Act 2005." Note that this Act is not fully in force until September this year.

But "it seems to us that Call TV quiz shows should constitute gaming under the Gambling Act 2005, and DCMS and the Gambling Commission should consider this as a matter of urgency."

It seems that things are going to continue as before until September at any rate.

There are some intriguing details in the report that show, whether it's legally gambling or not, it displays all the attributes of gambling:

"We note with interest figures supplied by ITV, showing that 77% of entrants to ITV Play played fewer than five times a day but that the average number of entries played per entrant each day was six. A simple mathematical calculation shows that very high call volumes must be being generated by a minority of callers in order to produce an average call figure which is higher than the number of calls made by 77% of callers."

I also approve of the committees findings in respect of cryptic games - most commonly represented by games where contestants are invited to "add all the numbers." As things stand, there's no explanation that the game is cryptic and non-trivial, and even if a correct answer is arrived at, there is no explanation about how it was arrived at. The games companies claim that this information is commercially sensitive.

The committee calls for a requirement that solutions to such games are lodged in advance with Ofcom, and consideration should made as to whether brief explanations of the correct answer should also be broadcast. This is something that I wholeheartedly agree with.

I also believe that the displaying of odds for calls to get through is absolutely not insurmountable as the gaming companies claim. They know call volumes since that's how they determine which callers to take to air. Converting this into an onscreen graphic would be trivial.

"We accept that there may be practical difficulties for operators in displaying a figure purporting to show the odds of any viewer getting through to the studio by making a call at that particular moment, but we believe that they are not insurmountable. We are firmly of the view that there should be more transparency about the factual information on which a calculation of the odds would be based. At present, the variables which are the most central to the calculation remain within the exclusive knowledge of the broadcasters and producers and may be under their direct control. Their telephony systems register the volume of calls coming in and it is they who decide what proportion of callers should be randomly selected, and how frequently callers should be put through to the studio."

"It is doubtful whether the majority of viewers, let alone any first time callers, would be likely to
appreciate that their calls might be among as many as 6,000 calls made during one minute. We also doubt whether many viewers would appreciate that when the volume of incoming calls is low, the result may be that no-one is given the chance to win a prize until enough calls have come in to make it justifiable 'in simple economic terms'."

"We recommend that broadcasters should be required to display some recent historical information about volume of incoming calls, with an indication of the odds of being connected to the studio. The operators and regulators should together devise a model for prescribing what information should be provided and how often. We acknowledge that considerable care will need to be taken to ensure that the information given to viewers will indeed increase transparency."

Meanwhile ICSTIS, the regulatory body for premium rate phone lines, has published its own rules today. A summary is here (PDF), and the full document here (PDF).

They've determined three main improvements that they feel the industry can make:

1. Ensuring that presenters give spoken reminders of the price of calling at least every ten minutes.

2. Call providers should let callers know every time they've spent £10 on services every day, and let you know your cumulative call spend.

3. Greater transparancy about the chances of getting through to the studio or not.

At the moment, these are just proposals from ICSTIS, who's soliciting replies by 12 March 2007. I suspect that they're aware, as is the industry as a whole, that if they don't buck their ideas up, they're going to regulated out of existance.

One final note: a couple of TV reports into this didn't really make clear the fact that it's not so much people hanging on the phone interminably that earns that companies so much money, as the repeat dialling nature of these programmes. With research showing some people making a new call every 8 seconds, that's a lot more of a revenue spinner than spurious "holding."

TV On The Internet


As this week's BBC >Click show gets excited by the growth of TV torrenting, legal alternatives are finally presenting themselves.

The BBC is all ready to roll (I was a beta-tester back in 2005, although somehow failed to blog about it), but is having to go through a public value test. Ofcom last week published its Market Impact Assessment into the proposal.

As someone who works for a commercial operator, I completely understand some of the issues that Ofcom has, but I absolutely disagree with some of their headline findings/issues.

1/2. The concern that "series stacking" could lead to drop-offs in DVD sales. They're worried about people saving up whole series and watching them back in one go. I suspect that this'll drop from the 13 weeks to something like 4 weeks' availability. You have to allow more than two weeks to make the service useful for people on holiday. DVRs/PVRs with greater capacity are going to make this a non-issue in the longterm anyway.

Removing "series stacking" altogether, as Ofcom suggests, would be fundamentally against the public interest. The example of the 15 part Bleak House is given. This was a BBC made-programme with BBC Worldwide/2Entertain releasing the DVD box set. I suggest that it's unlikely that the full series would be released on a "to keep" basis, but the Ofcom report suggests that this shouldn't be allowable one way or another. Frankly, I'm perfectly capable (and often do) of recording an entire series and then consuming it in large chunks over the weekend or whenever. I'd like increased flexibility to let me do this.

3. Ofcom's worried about the audio book market and classical music market in regards to the BBC's non-DRM'd audio proposal. It's obvious in the BBC's proposals that what they're really talking about is continued availability of the kinds of programmes that are currently podcast.

The irony here is that the audio book market is burgeoning, yet somehow needs protecting. Much of the content they're using is already BBC-based, with BBC Audio now one of the biggest players in the field. As things stand, once an afternoon play has been broadcast on Radio 4, unless it gets a repeat or very occassionally, a commercial release, that's the last it'll ever be heard of. If the writer's famous enough, it might eventually show up on BBC 7, but that's for famous actors and writers only. If the BBC can get the rights, then what's the problem with making this programming available? Frankly, I'd actually pay for some of this unattainable material, but at the moment, there is simply no outlet. Even the likes of Audible are only really interested in high profile comedy and drama releases by big names - usually

And the classical music scaremongering is record company driven. I don't believe that the BBC was proposing this anyway, but Ofcom is trying to put a clause in to prevent it one way or the other.

As a correspondent aks in this morning's Guardian, "Is it Ofcom's job to stifle public service innovation?"

In the meantime, Channel 4's "4OD" has launched, and I've also tried out Sky's Anytime service. I haven't so far bothered with Five's service since there's no free programming on it from what I can tell.

The big problem with these services is that they each require a separate application to be installed - even when there significantly shared elements within the services, in particular the peer to peer technology from Kontiki.

4OD is largely paid-for rental of programmes, with the odd freebie given away. Since I'm not really predisposed to pay £1.99 for an episode of Deal or No Deal, I've only watched very little on it. Actually, just an episode of Trigger Happy TV that was free.

Meanwhile over on Sky Anytime, you get different freebies depending on subscription, as well as various pay per view opportunities.

Neither service is too clear about the fact that it is peer to peer technology, and like others, I found it really difficult to kill the sharing once I'd closed the applications. You really shouldn't have to be manually killing individual processes. Downloading movies can really ruin your general internet experience. I couldn't find any kind of throttling option with either piece of software.

Finally there's the fancy new cool kid on the block - Joost (née The Venice Project), from the people who brought you Skype. It's only in beta at the moment, but first impressions are pretty good with a user interface that doesn't take too long to get to grips with. You can also close the program properly when you're done (I'm always suspicious that I'm eating bandwidth when I've not shut the programme down fully). Joost is very different in that it streams almost immediately at a pretty good bit-rate. But there is a relatively minimal programme offering just now with behind the scenes of music videos and episodes of The Album Chart Show predominating. Worth watching!

One thing that is going to affect the UK market is the current prevalance of capped downloads.

In summary, the question is whether or not I'm willing to pay for a programme that went out free to air on television? The answer in most instances, even for a keen viewer like myself, is not. If I miss something, I tend to think of it as my own fault for not setting the video/PVR or being able to see it online. The US market is the one to look at, where viewers can indeed catch up with Lost or Heroes online with limited commercial interruption. And the same programmes are also available ad-free on iTunes for a fee. Which model is going to work?

The other big question is how to get that content from our PCs to our TVs in an easy manner. Yes plenty of half-decent video cards have video outs, but that's a solution involving wires, and we're living in wifi homes these days. Apple TV is a start, but there's plenty of room yet to improve things. That's not much use if I want to catch up with TV on the BBC's smallish player.

Ryszard Kapuscinski


Sad to hear that veteran Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski died last week. I first came across him when I started reading Granta many years ago. To be honest I was intrigued by a magazine that came in a paperback book format. But two writers from those early editions really stood out for me: James Fenton's reportage from his times in Vietnam amongst other places, collected in the book All The Wrong Places; and Kapucinski who's reporting came from absolutely all over the world.

There are loads of books by him, but maybe ones to start with include The Soccer War (only one part of the book), and his more recently published The Shadow and the Sun detailing his time in Africa.

The remarkable thing about Kapuscinski is what he was able to do at a time when Poland was behind the Iron Curtain, and freedom of travel was not something bestowed lightly by the State.

As befits the man, there are obituaries all over the place. But here are ones from The New York Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times.

Granta's put an interview conducted with Kapuscinski on its website along with a piece from 2004 (also reproduced in a shortened version in this weekend's Guardian Review).

Finally, worth noting is a curious piece in Slate. We know that American journalism is holier than thou, which in many respects is why much of it's so dull. But Jack Shafer does argue convincingly about the less glorious side of Kapuscinski's writing. Still Shafer does say that fats are "invited to pour benzene over my naked body and set it afire with e-mail."

Multiple DVDs


I really am getting fed up with DVDs being constantly re-released in Directors' Cuts or whatever, with additional extras all the time.

Case in point is Alexander, the Oliver Stone film. Now I didn't think it was all that bad - certainly better than most gave it credit for. It came out a double-disc DVD of the theatrical release. This was swiftly followed by a single-disc Director's Cut which actually shortened the running time a little (although additional material was included, other footage was cut), and didn't give you all the extra features that the first release had.

Seemingly Oliver Stone has been unable to leave the film alone, and we now have Alexander Revisited: The Unrated Final Cut. Running to 220 minutes, it's by far the longest version - 45 minutes longer than the original theatrical release. This is seemingly the final version of the film.

Calling it "Unrated" isn't especially accurate, since it'll have to be rated to be released in this country. Films can be released unrated in the States, but that's not really relevant to a British audience.

Stone is glad to have had the opportunity to release this new version according to the press release. As well he should be. Why didn't he get it right for the Director's Cut? Actually, why didn't he get it right for the theatrical release?

Anyway, we get to the nitty-gritty of the whole thing when we learn "The DVD release date of Alexander: Revisited is timed to leverage audience anticipation of '300,' the action-packed theatrical release from film and comics visionary Frank Miller."

Look forward to the HD-DVD Supreme Edition of Alexander, and the Total Edition on Blu-Ray, available in a couple of months' time.

Back To Square One


If it weren't for the fact that I'm going to be at the match, I'd be tuning in to BBC Radio Five Live Sports Extra this Sunday to hear an alternate version of the commentary.

As this piece explains, back in 1927 from the first radio commentaries, each week's Radio Times would publish a chart of a football pitch which was divided into eight squares. The commentator would describe the action, while a second voice called out the grid numbers so listeners at home could appreciate where the ball was. The phrase "back to square one" is famously said to come from this system, although a ball played back could equally have ended up in square two.

This week's Radio Times has reproduced a version of the said chart, but it and the accompanying article are also available online.

(I may record the coverage anyway, radio anorak that I am.)

Channel 4 and the Celebrity Big Brother Dabacle

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Channel 4 was created in the 1981 Broadcasting Act. Its programming remit, which has remained largely unchanged, was cemented in the 1990 Broadcasting Act, with the station required:

[to] contain a suitable proportion of matter calculated to appeal to tastes and interests not generally catered for by Channel 3 and that innovation and experiment in the form and content of those programmes (should be) encouraged.

The service was also to offer "distinctive character."

Today, if you visit its website, you'll see that it's primary purpose according to the 2003 Communciations Act:

The public service remit for Channel 4 is the provision of a broad range of high quality and diverse programming which, in particular:

(a) demonstrates innovation, experiment and creativity in the form and content of programmes;
(b) appeals to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society;
(c) makes a significant contribution to meeting the need for the licensed public service channels to include programmes of an educational nature and other programmes of educative value; and
(d) exhibits a distinctive character.

On this morning's Today programme (Real Audio), Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson wasn't prepared to say anything. So when Channel 4's chief executive Andy Duncan appeared at a live press conference in Oxford (where he had been scheduled to speak as part of a media conference), all eyes and ears were on him as events surrounding the current edition of Celebrity Big Brother grew ever larger.

And of course he defended the programme. Two of the contestants had been spoken to he said, and we'd be able to see this tonight ourselves. What? Last night's ratings not big enough Andy?

Whilst issues of racism or bullying are absolutely the kind of issues that a public service broadcaster such as Channel 4 should be covering as they're incredibly relevant in today's society, is it fair that a "contestant" in a "game show" is abused? Yes, these truths do need to be confronted. But this isn't some kind of fly on the wall documentary; this is taking place in a television studio in an environment concoted purposefully, almost wholly for entertainment purposes.

Is there racial abuse going on in the "house"? Probably. Is there bullying going on? Almost certainly. Are some of the contestants going to be demonised on leaving the programme? Certainly. I'm not watching the damn programme, so I can't comment from an enormous position of knowledge. However, I've seen the same clips lifted for news items. Selective, perhaps, but then the whole conceit is based around selective editing with "story editors" and producers putting "packages" together for the edification of viewers.

Yes, the 30,000+ complaints to Ofcom has been based around organised protests. Even Ofcom makes it easy for you with a direct link from their main Complaints page. But that's not to belittle the genuine feelings of thousands of people in this country.

I expect that that the hyenas will be out tomorrow evening for the eviction, baying for blood in a display that brings to mind what it must have been when public executions took place regularly at the Tyburn gallows. That kind of sight is as gruesome as a "posse" of News of the World readers (is that the correct collective noun?) attacking a paediatrician mistaken for a paedophile, or the people who stand around outside the Old Bailey to shout contempt when a serial killer is on trial.

What is clear is that Davinna McCall is thoroughly ill-equipped to handle an interview in the circumstances we now find ourselves in.

In a self-serving piece of publicity, the Carphone Warehouse pulled their sponsorship of the programme this afternoon. Whilst I've no doubt that Charles Dunstone really does find the recent turn of events in the programme sickening, as, I'm sure, many of his employees do, let's not forget that the programme's notoriety in recent years has built upon shock tactics. So he knew what he was letting himself in for when he agreed to the sponsorship. Still, this will at least give Channel 4 a little more pause for thought as they probably lose millions of pounds as a result. And I trust that the brand won't return as a sponsor when the regular series starts up again, as it surely will, this summer.

We've had domestic violence and racism now. So what's next Channel 4?


The premium rate voting lines for Big Brother are all for pure profit. As a commenter on the Media Guardian Organ Grinder notes, this just stirs people into voting for Shilpa the contestant at the receiving end of all this. So more cash for Channel 4 and Endemol, the producers of this programme (I don't know precisely how the revenue is split - please let me know if you do).

I suggest that the profits at least get diverted to some kind of race relations or bullying charity. [UPDATE] They now are being donated to the charity chosen by the eventual winner. And they're getting rid of the crowd element of the eviction.


One thing that really annoys me over this whole ridiculous incident is that Channel 4 is singularly failing in coming forward to openly talk about what it has aired in the last week. I've just watched the network's own excellent news programme, and the channel was unwilling to put someone up to talk about the issues. That's an unconscionable failure - they absolutely have to be willing to defend their actions. It's not for government to determine what's aired fortunately, but this does mean that someone has to step up and face the criticism. Think of everything that the BBC has faced over the years. At least the Director General or Chairman was always willing to step up and take the flak if need be. Andy Duncan may have feebly faced a press conference earlier, but he, or someone equivalent, should have faced Jon Snow on the Channel 4 News tonight. I, and every other viewer, expect nothing less.

You know, I'm really annoyed that I'm writing all this about such a trivial and worthless programme. There really are more important things in the world going on.

Hot Fuzz


Hot Fuzz is the new Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright film. You know? The people who brought you Shaun of the Dead, and more importantly, Spaced.

This time around we have Simon Pegg's diligent Sgt. Angel being transferred from the Met, where he's showng everyone else up with his tremendous drive and arrest rates, to rural Gloucestershire, where things aren't conducted at quite as high pace as they are in London... Or are they?

Nick Frost plays PC Danny Butterman, in a station full of archetypes, including "The Andys" (a pair of CID detectives that have strolled in from the set of Life on Mars), Olivia Coleman's double entendre-laden Doris, Edward Woodward's citizen liaison (a nod towards The Equalizer with his character) and Jim Broadbent's inspector. Every face is recognisable, including various townsfolk ("Sandford" is described as a village, but feels more like a small market town to me. It does have a branch of Somerfield after all), not least of which is Timothy Dalton's pantomine villain. Such is this team's star in the firmament at the moment, it feels as though Pegg only has to pick up the phone and familiar faces sign up immediately.

A series of "accidents" happen around and about the place, but only Angel (or Angle as Adam Buxton's local journalist would have it) is seeing the real truth. There's something darker going on in Sandford than the possible threat of hoodies or the living statue that keeps appearing in the townsquare.

There are pop-culture references aplenty, and here's hoping that they'll get their own subtitle track on the DVD when it's released. But the film is probably just a bit slow for a comedy. It's one hour fifty-six minutes long which is just about half an hour too much. It's the middle bit that needs cropping where there's a fine line being trodden between knowing nods to melodrama, and attempts at, well, actual drama.

There are plenty of laughs, although they don't come as frequently as I'd have liked. And some of the cinematic devices used are little well-worn, like the fast-cuts used to indicate Angel's incredible work ethic.

The finale is great fun though, as we get what's essentially the finish to a film like Bad Boys II (referenced directly more than once) but in a quiet English village. It's a pistol packing sequence that's pastiching (the again referenced in dialogue) Straw Dogs as well as genre Hollywood fare.

Overall, it's absolutely worth seeing, but is perhaps a little off the best form I know that this team is capable of. That said, it's a level higher than most garbage that passes for comedy on our screens. Roll on La Triviata should it actually happen (Did Jonathan Ross mention it in his interview with Pegg before Christmas? I thought he did).

Channel 4 Not Dumbing Down


I've got an apology to make.

I may have lead readers of this blog in the past to believe that Channel 4 has "dumbed down" with vacuous programming filling up most of primetime after the worthy stuff has gone out against the soaps.

(Take a bow "The Search", the latest feeble attempt to mimic the success of The Da Vinci Code, by being a weekly quiz show that globe trots around the world with a pretty young cast of competitors (plus one or two oldies) solving trivial clues to help crack a code. If it sounds like the recent "Codex" you'd be right. The only difference is that this time they get to step outside the British Museum.)

But I'm wrong. Yes - the days of Dance on 4, or primetime opera may have long gone, but Channel 4 is currently broadcasting something that's nearly as epic as Andy Warhol's film Sleep. After midnight the channel starts to stream live coverage from the "Celebrity" Big Brother house, and invariably, if you're flicking around after the witching hour, they're asleep. Now some might say that it's because this year's contestants are so dull that they've nothing to do except sleep, and Big Brother's producers managed to so screw up this year's edition by re-introducing Jade Goody et al, that all the potentially interesting people left. But I say they've done us a favour.

The other night I was flicking between E4 and E4+1 and exactly the same thing was on both channels. The same people sleeping in pretty much the same positions.

If that's not art, I don't know what is.

Disclaimer: I loathe and detest Big Brother - I'm attempting irony here. Much of what I've included above, I've learnt from talking to people and reading online. I certainly wouldn't recommend people actually watch the regularly scheduled programming in primetime on C4 or E4. Instead, can I perhaps suggest learning Chinese on CCTV-9. Zai jian.

Threat Level By Email System Unsafe?

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I mentioned the other day that MI5 is now offering to send out threat levels via email. What I hadn't realised until helpfully pointed out by Spy Blog, was the terribly unsafe system they were using. The BBC has the full story.

Reconstruction of Waterloo


OK - I know that it was a light-hearted piece about a proposed "merger" with France back in the fifties, but I did laugh when a clip showed a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo was shown, and the po-faced phrase "Reconstruction" appeared on the screen to prove we weren't watching actual footage of the 1815 battle.

Radio Comedy


Today's Media Guardian leads off on a big piece about the state of play of radio comedy in this country at the moment. The piece is titled "Why Radio Comey Is a Joke", although all it seems to do is question whether quite as many radio series are making it through to TV as they once did.

Little Britain and the Mighty Boosh get mentioned, but I've got to say, getting your series onto TV does not in my view make it a success. Just A Minute is regarded as a great success (I can take it and leave it in small doses), but it's had more than one failed attempt to crossover onto TV. And I'd never want to see I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue crossover. The fact is that it's a complete misconception that a comedy series is only successful if it moves across onto the small screen.

Yes - many series have taken that route to lesser or greater extents. But the very nature of radio means that comedy can, and does, work in a different way to television.

As it happens, the article isn't anti-Radio 4 as the headline might have you believe. However, if comedians are just rushing to TV in the hope that they can get a DVD into stores in time for Christmas, then more fool them.

And Ed Reardon or whatever might have been able to appear at any time in the last ten years, but that doesn't mean that they're not worth putting on now. comedy doesn't have to reinvent itself every moment. A funny programme is a funny programme.

ITV Play In Breach


In Ofcom's latest Broadcast Bulletin (pdf), ITV Play is found to be in breach for the first time for one of their games.

In one of their "tower games" callers were invited to identify "things you might find in a woman's handbag." The sample answer was "mobile phone." Correct answers (well answers that received prizes) from callers included "contact lenses", "driving licence" and "plane tickets." I suppose you might find plane tickets in your bag once or twice a year at the airport, but nonetheless someone did guess it.

But it was the unguessed answers that were revealed at the end of the competition that drew the complaints. Several people complained that "raw/rawl plugs" was perhaps a tad unfair as an answer, while a further person also suggested that perhaps "balaclava" was unreasonable. What kind of women carry those things around in their handbags? DIY enthusiasts? Terrorists?

Ofcom has rightly upheld these complainants, although I note that in its defence, ITV Play said that other possible answers that were guessable included "rubber bands" (perhaps), "directions" (a bit metaphysical that), and "false teeth" (does anyone put false teeth in their bag as opposed to, say, their mouth?).

I think that the problem with these games (aside from the fact that they're effectively lotteries based around guessing games that should either be banned or classed as lotteries publishing their probabilities accordingly) is that viewers take them to be broadly along the lines of Blankety Blank or Family Fortunes with popular answers being searched for when in fact they're randomly chosen from dictionaries and encyclopedias.

The quicker this kind of TV gaming is outlawed, the better. It's not really what our terrestrial broadcasters should be doing. Mind you, I think that viewers should be regularly reminded of the odds of winning Lotto on the BBC National Lottery shows too, rather than spurious "prize fund" stats.

In days to come, we'll no doubt look back at these clips in awe and wonder, the same way we look at old ads proclaiming the benefits of cigarettes or alcohol. This September's Gambling Prevalence Study is going to make fascinating reading.

Incidentally, Nick Cohen in yesterday's Observer is worth a read.

A Kind of Addendum


A short aside from the previous piece on Apple. In the presentation, Jobs pointed out that Apple had got more than 200 patents on various parts of the iPhone. And a recent Audi A6 TV ad talks about how it has taken out more patents than NASA has ever taken out for its new car (9,621 filed).

Am I the only person who thinks that extreme numbers of patents are actually a really bad thing? I mean are there 10,000 different components actually in a new car that can be patented?

Apples Are Not The Only Fruit


OK. I know every website, newspaper and blog in the world has already commented on Apple's announcements yesterday, but I just had to get a few things off my chest.

First of all, I want to know why everyone practically has orgasms about new Apple launches. I mean CES has been taking place in Las Vegas this week, and everyone and their mum has been launching some new hardware device. But this gets the cover of The Times, a full page in The Guardian and countless TV and web reports.

It seems that in an increasingly secular world, the new Messiah for some is Steve Jobs (when really they should be worshipping Jonathan Ive CBE). Maybe he should trade his black T-shirt for long flowing white robes.

From a rational point of view, it seems that a hi-tech company has announced two new products: a mobile phone, and a television set-top box. But the phone looks really cool and comes from the people who brought you the iPod. And the set-top box links up with your home network.

Lets look at the phone first, since that's what everyone else is doing. It's cool. It's desirable. It's got some very neat features. It won't be out in Europe until at least October. And then it may not be on your network. Cue fights between UK networks to get dibs on it, since not inconsiderable numbers of Apple devotees would undoubtedly switch networks to get one.

So what's wrong with that? Well, a few things. I've got a Windows Smartphone. It's one with a stylus, but without a keyboard, and it's, well, OK...ish. It does some stuff brilliantly, and that's why I have it. It syncs perfectly with both my work and home computers which means when I recently lost my phone, I could get up and running with all my contacts and calendar information restored immediately. It too has a big screen, and a largish surface area.

Whilst my phone is undoubtedly thicker that the iPhone, it does share one characteristic, and that's that most of the top surface area is a screen. And screens need protecting and get dirty.

If you buy an iPod - particuarly something like a Nano - you almost certainly need to protect it with some type of case or "skin". This is all the more so with a device that is effectively glass on one side. You're not going to be able to put it with your keys in your pocket or wherever. Suddenly not so slim.

If I hold my screen up to the light, it's covered in fingerprints and marks. I'm always polishing the screen with my shirt tail. This is a phone that I'm supposed to use a stylus with rather than my fingers don't forget. The iPhone is going to get mucky.

I suppose that I'm disappointed that for a phone that's the size of a regular iPod, the disk size is only the same spec as a larger capacity Nano. Regular iPod users aren't going to be able to fully replace their devices with this phone. And while a widescreen is lovely (and something iPod should already have had), that memory's sure going to get eaten up if you download many films. Speaking of which, has anyone yet seen any of these on the UK iTunes store? More of this is a minute.

Nokia and Sony Ericsson's Walkman latest music phones already come with 4GB. They're bound to be 8GB too by the end of the year.

Finally, the iPhone is big. Really big. But it'll sell plenty.

Onto Apple TV. From a broader point of view, this is a device that I want to buy. It could be the link between my PC and my TV that I've been looking for. I'm still hoping to find a way to get TV back to my, that doesn't involve unscrewing my PVR's front cover and removing the hard drive, but at the moment, I'm making full use of a Divx/Xvid enabled DVD player to watch downloaded television.

Apple TV links iTunes on my home network with my TV to let me see video, as well as music and photos played back on the set. Sadly, it's next to useless for me for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it's broadly HD-only. In fact the PAL version only really requires a widescreen set, but with only HDMI and component outs, it's not enough for those of us clinging onto perfectly good TVs that don't have better connectivity; a scart socket for example. HDTV doesn't have the penetration here that it does in the States. I'd have specced the device differently for the UK, but that's not something Apple gets into as far as I can tell.

Worse than that is the media you play through it. Looking at the specs, it's clearly aimed at either video content you've authored yourself - perhaps in Final Cut Pro or Premiere - or more likely, downloaded via iTunes. For us in the UK, that's not really enough. iTunes has minimal video content available, with either a selection of music videos or a handful of Pixar shorts to watch. I'm not sure how video that was encoded to be played back on an iPod is going to look on a 40" HD plasma anyway.

So I'm still looking for some kind of device to play back my music, movies and photos on my TV via my network. Actually, I suspect that it already exists, and that I should have picked up one of those Xboxes that were on sale for £49 at Argos the other week.


A fascinating piece on the Communities Dominate Brands blog, explaining the real complications Apple face in becoming a major player in mobile phones. In particular, the diverse European market where there are upwards of 100 different operators that need to be dealt with, each of whom has their own requirements. The Orange logo and Vodafone Live buttons are both mentioned. Well worth a read, and be sure to read the comments and the author's responses to those comments. Yes, I know it runs to something like 12,000 words as it stands - perhaps a fifth of a 240 page novel. But it's worth it!

Threat Level By Email


I noted the introduction of the UK's very own threat level last year when MI5 introduced it. Almost immediately, the threat level jumped from "Severe" to "Critical". A few days later it dropped back to "Severe" where it's been ever since.

Well now the BBC is reporting that MI5 is going to allow us to register on a website for email updates when the threat level changes. This is obviously really important, because we all need to know immediately when the threat level changes and what can be better than, er, sending out emails?

Maybe they should have a texting system too. They could charge you £1.50 an update and use the funds to help pay for the ID Card system. Better start saving now for those big IT project cost overruns.

Obviously MI5 hasn't bothered putting - oh - an RSS feed of this up. But then email's probably quite forward thinking. Obviously they really should be working on their widgets. That's what all the cool kids are doing now. And links to all the various IM systems - you just send a message to your "friend" Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller (head of MI5) and "she" IMs you back the threat level. They probably ought to set up a Myspace page too, then we could all subscribe to their blog to keep us up to date. And if they had a Flickr page, I'd could make them a friend and keep on top of the latest wanted photos that are out there.

One way or another, if we're going six months between threat level changes, I suspect that the news media will report it, and I won't be reliant on having a Blackberry about my person.

Frustrations With ITunes

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Please do let me know if I'm doing some obviously wrong, but I've got a bit of an issue with iTunes that I can't solve without using a workaround.

I have iTunes on a work computer (ahem - don't tell our IT department) and also on a home PC. I like to listen to podcasts. I understand that iTunes will only sync to podcasts on one PC, so I've chosen my home machine. But sometimes I like to download an up to date podcast to listen to on the way home.

I can't sync to my work machine, but I can drag and drop individual podcasts from iTunes to my iPod. Except that the tracks then don't show up under the iPod's Music or Podcasts (or Audiobooks) menus in iTunes. They've vanished - even though I saw some transfer activity as I drag and dropped.

Not only that, but you can only find these orphaned "songs" under the Songs menu on the iPod itself. In other words - they're there on the device, but you can't see them via iTunes.

That's a bit of a problem, because in Apple's infinite wisdom, it seems to have neglected to include a "Delete" function for songs. I quite like to delete podcasts after I've heard them to keep things nice and tidy, and I'm not always near a PC to do this.

But now I have audio on my iPod that I can't see through iTunes and can't delete on the iPod. My Nano could quickly fill up this way.

My workaround is a little program called Yamipod which seems to let me explore my iPod directly, find these orphaned podcasts, and delete them.

I guess it's a bug, and searching Apple's forums suggests that I'm not the first to have this issue. Suggestions included starting afresh by restoring my iPod to factory settings! Except that some of my "music" (in particular Audiobooks), I've archived off to hard drives to keep my PC clean. Plus, that's not a very neat solution is it?

And while I'm at it, why is it so hard to rip spoken words CDs and have them displayed as Audiobooks? If you buy an audiobook on iTunes or through Audible things are fine, but I tend to either have mp3s to transfer or CDs to rip. The only route seems to be renaming files as *.m4b rather than *.m4a files and "deleting" the music files while re-importing the folder with the *.m4b files. The reason that I want to have Audiobooks separately managed is that it keeps the menus clean for when I'm looking to listen to either spoken word or music, and it ensures that I don't have chapters of books turning up mid-shuffle. Audiobooks also automatically bookmark where you've got to. Actually, Audiobooks is a bit of a mess with all the chapters placed into a single folder rather than being able to choose "Titles" and then "Chapters". And yes, I do "Join Tracks" when I rip a CD to minimise chapter points.

I've only recently started to use iTunes fully by linking it to an actual iPod, so I'm a bit surprised that some relatively basic things are so complicated to achieve considering Apple seems to release new versions of iTunes on a very regular basis. This isn't all just because I'm using Windows is it? Is all sweetness and light in OS X?

The Sky At Night


There's much coverage about The Sky At Night celebrating it's 650th edition yesterday (well, very early this morning actually) in the fiftieth year of its broadcast, and the fact that Sir Patrick Moore is annoyed that the programme went out at 1.55am without any fanfare.

Well of course, even by Sky At Night standards, that's pretty late. But nobody seems to be mentioning the fact that it gets repeated at the somewhat more respectable 12.30pm this Saturday on BBC Two, and a couple of airings on BBC Four, including this evening at 7.30pm. You can also watch the programme online.

More than that, it seems that the big show is going to be in April when the programme really is 50. Co-presenter Chris Lintott explains as much in his blog in an entry from a few days ago.

The Times Is Green Today


If you bought a copy of The Times this morning at WH Smith, then you got a free copy of The Rough Guide to Saving Energy - a 64 page booklet sponsored by Sky (sister company to The Times) who are running a Green Britain initiative this week.

The booklet bears a "stamp" that reads "This book is carbon neutral. See carbonneutral.com for details."

All very good. A shame, then, that to package this book, each copy of the paper had to come shrink-wrapped. Plastics, of course, are notoriously hard to recycle, and shrink-wrapping a newspaper is one of the less necessary packaging requirements.

Someone Leaked 24...


You can bet that people at Fox are furious at the moment. This weekend, the first four hours of 24 were leaked and there are plenty of torrents of the episodes around. The four episodes are airing next weekend over two nights to kick off season/day 6.

It seems that they came from a DVD of the episodes which Fox is due to release after the show's aired. Quite why the episodes are being released this way is a little unclear. I know that each season's boxsets are enormously popular, but that tends to be because a lot of people like to get the story over and done with relatively quickly rather than wait months on end to get to a resolution.

Anyway, DVDs need to get produced early and a group got hold of a copy, ripped it, and put it on the net. I'm guessing that Sky are also going to be a little upset over here, although I'm a little surprised that Sky is airing episodes a week later in the UK, and they're spreading the first four hours over two consecutive Sundays meaning that we'll be two weeks behind the States. Not a lot, you might think, but plenty enough reason to, ahem, use other techniques to watch episodes.

Anyway, must either go to bed or get back to my (Divx/Xvid enabled) DVD player...

Crystal Palace v Swindon Town


Crystal Palace v Swindon Town, FA Cup Third Round

We went to watch this epic third round FA Cup tie yesterday afternoon. I'd not been to Selhurst Park before. It's obviously a ground (and a club) that's seen better days. When we got to the visiting fans ticket booth there was a largish queue and not a lot happening. It seemed that there was a shortage of tickets. Not a shortage of actual space - there were only just over 10,000 people in a ground with a capacity of over 26,000. No, they hadn't actually printed enough tickets to sell to people. In other words, they'd underestimated the number of Swindonians who'd actually bother to show up.

Sadly, the game was disappointing, with Palace quickly going a goal up. Swindon had a few opportunities, but by now the heavens had really opened and the game was becoming literally bogged down, although the pitch did hold up well.

Palace got a second and it looked unlikely that Swindon could mount a comeback. But with less then ten minutes to go, they got one, and there was a bit of a scramble to try and find an equaliser.

Crystal Palace v Swindon Town, FA Cup Third Round

It wasn't to come, but the performance hadn't been bad and fans around me, who'd been in good voice throughout, were relatively upbeat.

We went on to a pub to watch the Liverpool v Arsenal game, featuring two great goals from Tomas Rosicky and a fabulous individual effort from Thierry Henry.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian


Well I noted the other day that I hadn't read this book yet. Well now I have... obviously.

I must admit, for a book that's won prizes for comic fiction, I didn't find it terribly funny. It takes a serious-ish subject and handles it with a very light touch. But I'm not sure I'd go the whole hog and call it comedy.

Nadezhda and her sister Vera get upset when their father falls in love with and marries a Ukranian women who's significantly younger than him. She's obviously a gold digger who's just waiting to pop his clogs. But you probably know all this, since the entire world and his mum has read the book already.

It's an easy going read taking no time at all to fly through, and is a very believable portrait of a long settled Eastern European family in Britain. It reminded me of a Polish family I knew a bit at school, with a lot of very broken English spoken at home (you just knew that Polish was the lingua franca when I wasn't around at the house).

It happily saw me to work and back a bit this week.

Tomorrow's World Returns


Four years on - nearly to the day - and Media Guardian is reporting that Tomorrow's World is returning.

Well - sort of.

The programme itself isn't returning - just elements of it including the title sequence, and, well, the name. Effectively, the brand, then.

This is better than nothing, but not really that great. We're really crying out for a popular-ish science programme; something that can explain to the public what stem cell research is about, or what NASA's plans for a moonbase really mean. Programmes like The Gadget Show on Five are fine, but they're talking about devices currently on the market. What's coming around the corner? What are the issues in science today?

A popular Tomorrow's World would also allow Horizon to return to the higher ground from where it has fallen.

There's more at the BBC's Press Office.

I guess Maggie Philbin impressed after her appearance on It Began With Swap Shop over Christmas. I found that programme both interesting and nauseating in equal amounts, despite being an avid viewer of many of the shows. But I did wonder what had become of her, and why she hasn't been on television since (aside from the obvious fact that if you're female and over about thirty-five, you're over the hill for television presenting seemingly).

The Rush To Paperback


I was wandering around Borders the other day, just to see if they had any interesting books in the London branch that hadn't been in the Norwich branch. Not that I need any more books.

Anyway, they did have the hardback of Restless by William Boyd on sale at half price. Now I love William Boyd and have read nearly everything he's written, but never in hardback. Still half-price is always tempting for a novel that was only released in September.

While I was umming and ahhing about this, I noticed the same title in paperback on the big 3 for 2 table.

Wow - that's a quick sprint to paperback I thought. You might get a trade paperback at airports or available through the book clubs, but surely the mass market paperback shouldn't already be available.

Then I saw the other sticker on the cover. The one that didn't say "3 for 2".

The Richard & Judy Book Club. I don't know exactly what the rules are for it, but I think your title has to be in paperback. And in any case, if it gets selected, you rush out a paperback edition as quickly as possible almost certainly achieving, even in a popular author like Boyd, substantially more sales than you would otherwise.

I've noticed that in the past, Arthur & George and The Shadow of the Wind both published trade paperback sized titles to "qualify" for appearance. Maybe the rules have been tightened, or maybe publishers figure that they'll generate even larger profits from the mass market edition.

The Independent has the other titles that'll be clogging up the top of bestsellers list (and supermarket shelves) for the rest of the year (via Booktrade.info).

Very funny...


Scarily accurate...

The Ghost Map


The Ghost Map is a completely fascinating non-fiction title about two characters, who in 1854, managed to get to the bottom of the cause of one of the scourges of the age - cholera.

If you know where I work, then read the following paragraph, and even though it covers events a couple of hundred years before the bulk of this book, you'll understand why I found it especially interesting:

The fear of death's contamination can sometimes last for centuries. In the middle of the Great Plague of 1665, the Earl of Craven purchased a block of land in a semirural area to the west of central London called Soho Field. He built thirty-six small houses "for the reception of poor and miserable objects" suffering from the plague. The rest of the land was used as a mass grave. Each night, the death carts would empty dozens of corpes into the earth. By some estimates, over four thousand plague-infected bodies were buried there in a matter of months. Nearby residents gave it the appropriately macabre-sounding name of "Earl Craven's pest-field," or "Craven's field" for short. For two generations, no one dared erect a foundation in the land for fear of infection. Eventually, the city's inexorable drive for shelter won out over its fear of disease, and the pesthouse fields became the fashionable district of Golden Square, populated largely by aristocrats and Huguenot immigrants. For another century, the skeletons lay undisturbed beneath the churn of city commerce, until late summer of 1854, when another outbreak came to Golden Square and brought those grims souls back to haunt their final resting grounds once more.

The author, Steven Johnson, is a science author I hadn't previously read. He relates the dual stories of John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead who together, although not for the most part working together, found the cause of cholera. In particular, they identified a specific well in Broad Street, Soho, as being the cause of the outbreak.

This was against all medical understanding at the time, which was inclined to believe that the caused by miasma - or "bad air". This was broadly understandable, since as the picture Johnson so vividly paints early in the book, London was practically an open sewer at the time. A continually growing population was unable to deal with, well, its waste.

Water Pump in Broadwick Street

The book does a great job of explaining the background to cholera and details the events that led these two men to make one of the biggest medical breakthroughs of the age, and directly lead to the cleaning up of London, including the introduction of Sir Joseph Bazalgette's incredible sewars.

The book is accessible and tells the story fairly breathlessly over its 320 pages. Although I must say that it could probably have been edited a little further. Johnson does overwrite in places, and reiterates facts that we've already been told a little too frequently. In one instance he repeats something he's just told us two pages earlier.

But don't let these small points dissuade you from reading this book, particularly if you live or work in Soho where the story is just about completely set. It's a fine piece of local history in that regard too.

John Snow pub

John Snow was teetotal, so the fact that on the corner of Broad(wick) Street now stands a pub named after him, is something of an irony. Still, over the road is a resited pump representing the original well that caused the outbreak.

A Conversation


My parents have read a couple of books by someone who they said was quite good. I was curious to find out more, so I asked:

Me: "Who's the author?"

Them: "We can't remember."

Me: "What's the name of one of the books he wrote?"

Them: "We can't remember."

Me: "Can you tell me anything about the book? What genre was it?"

Them: "Some of it was set in Chile."

Me: "Isabelle Allende?"

Them: "No. It's a man. And they've got a British sounding name."

Me: "Can you tell me anything else about his books?"

Them: "No. But he's a lecturer at UCL."

Me: "!"

Them: "And he teaches Development Studies."

Me: "How can you remember detail like this, yet not remember either his name or the title of one of his books?"

Them: "He does the same subject as your sister. One of the books had 'Silver' in the title."

At this point, I go away and do a lot of Googling with the limited information that I have. I draw a blank. There are an awful lot of books with 'Silver' in the title.

My parents inform me that next time they're in the library they'll try to find one of his books and make a note.

The next day, I get a call from dad:

Dad: "He wrote for Spooks."

Me: "David Wolstencroft?"

Dad: "No."

Me: "How do you know he wrote for Spooks?"

Dad: "I remember reading his biography at the back."

Me: "Hang on."

I do a quick IMDB search on Spooks to get a list of writers. I know that Howard Brenton of Romans in Britain fame is also a writer, but don't know many others.

Me: "Ben Richards?"

Dad: "Yes!"

I do an Amazon search of Ben Richards.

Me: "The Silver River?"

Dad: "That's the one. There's another set in Chile."

Me: "The Mermaind and the Drunks."

Dad: "That's it!"

I go away contented and in the knowledge that I have many many unread books at home, couldn't resist popping into Waterstones yesterday and availing myself of their current 3 for 2 offer, and have many more titles I still want to read. Oh well. Ben Richards may well be joining the pile.

The Prestige


Obviously, I picked up The Prestige following thre recent release of the film version. But I've yet to see that, instead preferring to read the novel before the movie made or ruined the story for me.

The book begins in a modern day setting as Andrew Westley visits Kate Angier to find out why she's sent him a journal. It soon turns out that both are related to a pair of stage magicians from the 19th century who developed a hatred for one another.

Then, via the mechanism of these journals and diaries we read first Alfred Borden's and then Rupert Angier's life stories in their own words. As they improved as magicians, they invented ever more elaborate tricks until both achieved something incredible.

I don't really want to say much more about the book except to mention that you will find it in the SF section of your bookshop. There are some very strange things about this story.

Pan's Labyrinth


Pan's Labyrinth is one of those films that I just knew I'd like before I saw it. I could have been setting myself up for a fall, but it's safe to say that I didn't.

Set at the end of the Spanish Civil War, events take place in a mountainous region as Captain Vidal moves a garrison of his troops along with his new wife and stepdaughter into a remote retreat in order to take on the rebels living in the hillside. His wife is pregnant with a child he believes to be a son - something he's desperate for. His stepdaughter, Ofelia, has not taken to this vicious military man and takes solice in her books filled with fairy tales.

But things begin to come to life for Ofelia as she first meets a fairy and then is introduced to Pan (or the Faun as he is in the original Spanish title - El Laberinto del Fauno) in his labyrinth - an ancient stone construction that sits nearby. Pan sees that she has special powers but must test her before she can fully join this fantasy world.

In the meantime, Vidal is setting about mopping up the weakened rebels, despite the secret help of Mercedes the housekeeper and the local doctor.

To say that this is a strange story would be to do the plot a disservice, but you quickly get completely wrapped up in procedings. It's a wonderfully beautiful film to look at, and is evidently something the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro has been working towards from Cronos through to more recent films like Blade II and Hellboy. I was completely won over and loved this film.

Everything that's wrong with the Evening Standard

Paul Temple and the Sullivan Mystery


Paul Temple is one of those radio detective serials, the likes of which no longer exists today. The radio serials were broadcast between the 1930s and 1960s with a number of different actors and actresses playing Temple and his wife Steve. Even if you're unfamiliar with the series, you almost certainly will be familiar with the programme's theme tune, Coronation Scott by Vivian Ellis (I recommend the Naxos CD Elizabethan Serenade for this and similar piece). Over the last few years BBC Audio has been putting out audio CDs of the serials that still exist in the archive. But despite regular rotation on BBC 7, I hadn't really listened to any of these series until now.

Paul Temple and the Sullivan Mystery is actually a 2006 production for Radio 4 using the scripts from a story that's now no longer in the archives following its original 1947 production. It's an eight parter, and since the "Previously on..." recap style is a recent invention, it's amusing to hear Temple and one of the protagonists going over the salient plot points each episode to bring listeners up to speed.

To give a truly 1940s feel to the production, the producers have added a very slight crackle to the production to give it an old-fashioned "feel". It doesn't detract in the slightest, and of course all the actors and actresses speak awfully properly.

I won't get into the story here, but it involves nefarious dealings involving a mysterious pair of spectacles. Let's just say that there are few dead bodies en route to the conclusion. Great fun!

Books in 2006


I see that I'm not the only person who gets fascinated by The Guardian's regular table of bestselling (or fastselling) books across the year. Grumpy Old Bookman has a good analysis to read alongside The Guardian's own.

What does it tell us about the state of British book publishing in the UK? Well first and foremost, it tells us the power of Richard and Judy with numbers one and two amongst many others featuring in the list. What's interesting is that people are buying these books without even necessarily watching the Richard and Judy programme on which the titles feature. Of course, I've never even seen one of their book programmes, but have bought titles that have featured. The difference is that I've not bought them because they featured, but for other reasons. Indeed, as I've said before, I find a cover with a Richard and Judy sticker, slightly more embarrassing that reading a porn magazine in a church would be. Nonetheless, there's evidently a safety net that the Richard and Judy "marque" offers prospective readers.

Casting my eye down the list, I notice that I've only read one title (nearly three years ago now), and own a second that I've yet to read - The Historian. I quite fancy reading A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, but there's always something else to buy in its place. And I will probably pick up Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze? at some point as I own the other three (yes - three) titles in the series.

Otherwise, I can only say that it explains an awful lot about the limited lists of titles commonly available in supermarkets. Although given how much supermarkets are getting in on the bookselling act, I wonder how much they're actually being shaped by supermarket book buyers.


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Have you listened to new digital radio station theJazz yet? I must admit that I haven't much, since although I can take or leave jazz, I do need to be in the mood to spend much time listening (Mind you I am tempted to get the newly remastered Beiderbecke trilogy including a CD of the fine accompanying soundtrack by Frank Ricotti which kind of mimics Beiderbecke. But I digress).

What I do know is that jazz listeners are a notoriously picky bunch when it comes to the quality of the audio they're listening to. So I find it baffling that theJazz, sister station to Classic FM, should launch in glorious mono! Yup, because there are now eight stations on Digital One*, along with 30% of the bandwidth going over to TV over DAB, there's not enough space for a stereo service. So instead, there's a fine mono one! Simiarly, pop service Core is also now mono. Oneword and Talksport have always been mono, leaving just Planet Rock, Classic FM and Virgin in stereo (the latter two at the higher 160 kbps). DAB's the future kids!

Interestingly, the now online only Jazz FM (unless, curiously, you live in the Severn estuary, where it's on DAB) actively promotes a high bitrate stream in conjunction with Real.

I'm sure that with the recent official adoption of AAC as a DAB codec, services will slowly begin to morph over to this more efficient use of bandwidth as radios capable of playing the new codec begin to reach some kind of critical mass. At that point, services will be able to drop back to mono. Sadly, given that there are something like four million DAB sets in the market, with none of them currently able to use AAC, it's going to take quite a few years to move consumers over to an improved codec. I'm not holding my breath.

In the meantime, I'd love to know what the real feedback has been so far in the UK jazz music community about this new station. Is quality really important?

*Home to my employer's service. I am of course, like everything on this blog, speaking in a personal capacity, and my views don't necessarily reflect those of my employer.







Transport Prices

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It's a bit galling to read today that fare increases in train travel are drawing criticism. Yes they are awful, but come on, we've known about them for months. So moaning on the day they go up is pointless.

Still I do have sympathy for tourists in London. Anybody from out of town is getting really stung on the Tube now unless they have a tracking device Oyster Card. A Zone 1 fare has gone up from £3 to £4 if you pay cash. It's only £l;1.50 on a Pay As You Go Oyster Card. But of course tourists and visitors who don't buy a Travelcard are pretty unlikely to go to the hassle of filling out a form and paying the £3.00 "refundable deposit" for the card. And if they do, they'll inevitably leave London with credit still on the card - cash that they're unlikely to get back.

As someone in one of today's papers points out, if there are five of you, and you want to make a single trip across the middle of London, and you don't have Oyster Cards, you're almost certainly better off taking a cab than jumping on the tube, since your fare is most unlikely to be more than £20.

This Life Blah Blah Blah


So tonight sees the return of This Life with This Life +10. Many people around and about my age are desperately looking forward to this. Today's Guardian has an article explaining why, for a certain generation, tonight is event television.

And yes, I'll be joining them. But once again, I'll really hate myself for it. It's a bit like buying the Mail on Sunday for the free DVD. You'll really hate yourself in the morning for giving in to them for some average Michael Caine film.

When This Life was first shown, everybody seemed to watch it. Except that's not actually true. Not that reading the papers (well The Guardian and The Independent as I did) you'd notice. I remember at the time getting awfully upset about the amount of coverage a mediaocre BBC2 soap was getting. It may have been popular in the metropolis, but the audience figures weren't stellar, and certainly never troubled the ratings charts. Well OK, it did well on BBC2, and the same's true today with Catherine Tate or Extras getting the coverage, while Green Green Grass or My Family are actually the country's most popular comedies. Actually, I suspect it's The Vicar of Dibley. 'Nuff said.

This Life was a programme very much of its time, and looking at it then, as now, I don't think it relfected enormously well on anybody.

You see, I absolutely hated every single character on the programme. There wasn't a single person that I had any sympathy for whatsoever. Egg had, well, a bloody stupid name for a start. And then he just mucked around writing a book or whatever with little obvious means of support. Milly was just obnoxious. Miles was a prat. Anna was the kind of person you'd actually cross the M25 on foot to avoid. Warren disappeared for reasons that weren't obvious, although he did get the best line at the end of the second series.

I hated all those scenes with the faceless psychiatrist. And more than anything, they were just a bunch of whinging winers who had a great life but cared only about themselves and nothing else.

So why did I watch? Well, why does a heroin addict continue shooting up? It's a soap, and all soaps are addictive. That's why soap writers are so good. Still, I did smile when Amy Jenkins' books only did moderately well. Wikipedia has it that her first was a great success, but "second biggest debut" is probably a tad misleading, and her second novel certainly didn't do as well. Indeed, she hasn't really gone on to anything great since.

The actors have done OK, with Jack Davenport popping up all over the place, most pervasively in the dreadful Pirates of the Caribbean films. Daniela Nardini always seems to be in those two-part crime dramas on ITV - at least when Martin Clunes or Caroline Quentin are unavailable. Still, I look forward to her Servalan in the curious Blakes 7 "podcasts". Andrew Lincoln is regularly found on television, although I couldn't stand more than about the first fifteen minutes of the first episode of Teachers, and Afterlife leaves me cold despite really rating Lesley Sharp.

I have to rely on IMDB for the others. Amita Dhiri seems to have played two different characters on Holby City amongst other things. I thought I'd not seen Jason Hughes on TV again until IMDB informed me that he plays a regular on Midsomer Murders. That explains why I'd not seen him. Luisa Bradshaw-White (Kira) seems to have had regular roles on Bad Girls and Holby, again passing me by. Ramon Tikaram (Ferdy) was most recently in that series on Five that nobody watched - Tripping Over. He seemingly also had a role in Ruby in the Smoke over Christmas, but I don't remember him in that.

Finally, there's Natasha Little, who was probably one of the reasons I did stay with This Life as long as I did. She's usually to be found in costume dramas these days (or playing herself in a costume drama in Extras), although she also had a run in Spooks.

So not a bad haul, but you could probably say the same of any soap filled with young people. I should probably exclude the cast of Hollyoaks from this generalisation, as I'd really hope that casting directors are steering as far clear of it as I am.

But it's not the be all and end all. Yes, I'll be watching this evening, but I'll be flicking over the BBC Four pretty soon afterwards to watch The Thick of It. Hugh Abbot's "gone to Australia" so we get the opposition in this one. Can't wait.

Comparing PVRs


Well - PVRs or DVRs - whatever the correct phrase is.

"Sky+ has changed my life!"

This is a phrase you hear all too frequently. This must be a truly wonderous invention then?

Well, having now experienced it first hand, I must admit that it is really pretty good. But you know what? Some things are done better by my £94.99 PVR (Now £79.99) - a Digifusion FVRT95.

What I'm not going to compare are channel options. Obviously this is pretty important, but I'm examining the technology here.

Why Sky+ is better:

  • Well it's got a dual tuner. So you can watch one thing and record another. Indeed, you can record two programmes and either watch one of them or playback a recording simultaneously.
  • Sky support. Aside from a dodgy box initially, I've not suffered any technical difficulties with my Sky+, but at least I know that the Sky R&D department is busily working on bug fixes and improvements all the while. Access Devices who worked on the excellent software on my Digifusion have gone bust which may mean seeing no more upgrades for my device in the future.
  • Series link. I think that this might be coming with Freeview Playback, but I've yet to see the definitive list of specifications.
  • Programme reminders that pop up during trailers to let you either remind you of a programme or set a recording for it.
  • Texting Sky+. Or setting your PVR via the web. Pretty useful; very cool.

Why the Digifusion is better:

  • The programme guide is neater. A minimised screen of what you're watching remains on the screen when you're browsing either your recordings or the programme guide. Sky+ stops your viewing altogether if you want to do this. You also have to go into a setup option to turn off the muzak that accompanies the guide by default.
  • Skipping. Advertisers and commercial broadcasters hate this. Indeed I note that in the Freeview Playback marketing logo guidelines (p17 of the PDF), companies are specifically from promoting "functionality that enable viewers to skip or fast forward through advertisements." Wow. You certainly wouldn't want anyone to know that you can fast forward the ads would you? (Don't forget that ITV actually wanted speeds limited as part of the Freeview Playback spec.) Well Sky+ lets you go up to 30x when fast-forwarding. My Digifusion lets you go 48x, or even better, skip a preset number of minutes altogether. I have it set at 3 mins which means I can avoid seeing the ads completely.
  • Easier access to pre-recorded programmes. I'm really not sure why Sky+ doesn't have a button to take me directly to the "Planner". Instead I have to go to TV Guide and then press Green. On my Digifusion, I can get straight to this list in one button press.
  • Radio is on the programme guide. I'm really not sure why Sky+ doesn't offer this. They're given the programme details and they charge stations to be on the system. So why you can't see anything apart from the current programme is beyond me. This also makes it harder to record radio programmes as it's back to the old-style VCR manual timer-recording process.
  • Programme info for other channels without switching over. Sky+ insists that you either go to the programme guide or switch to the channel to see the info. My freeview box may only have Now & Next without opening the guide (although I can still watch TV doing this) but I can read a description of other shows without leaving my current one.
  • Displaying programmes set to be recorded in the programme guide. Very simply, shows are highlighted in red if I hit "R" and similarly un-highlighted if I press the button again. For some reason Sky+ doesn't offer this.

To be honest, aside from missing a second tuner and obviously the channel choice, my Freeview box offers some serious improvements over Sky+. The graphics aren't quite as neat, but they're not bad. And I can think of a few extra changes I'd add - a series link facility, and the ability to specify how many minutes early to start a recording eg. 1 minute before the scheduled start.

But it's really pretty damned good.

Happy New Year by the way. I spent it watching Charlie Brooker's excellent Screenwipe which included the best wrap up of UK TV I've seen or read this year (OTT's isn't bad, but I don't agree with everything they say. Maybe I'll write more on this another time).

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2007 listed from newest to oldest.

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