February 2007 Archives

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MySpace

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We all know that MySpace is rubbish, but I hadn't realised, until I went to play with it, just quite how rubbish it is. Considering its popularity, you might think that they'd make the damned thing a teeny bit user friendly.

You're stuck with default sections and to do anything neat at all, you have to hack around in CSS in a horrible manner.

Anyway, much buggering around with my site has resulted in this. I'm not proud, but it's better than 99.999% of MySpace pages in that it doesn't look garish and doesn't assault your good taste too much.

Next up is a bit of playing with Yahoo Pipes. But that may be a while yet.

The Bullet Trick

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I read Louise Welsh's first novel, The Cutting Room, and liked it, but the prospect of a new novel with a magician protagonist and set in the seedy part of Berlin amongst other places was irresistible.

The action takes place in three cities, London, Glasgow and Berlin.

As the novel opens, William Wilson is putting on a magic show in a seedy Soho club as the warm-up for some exotic dancers, all in celebration of the retirement of a Met detective. So far, so The Vice. But things take an unexpected turn as Wilson, who's a bit down on his luck to say the least, is persuaded to pick the pocket of the detective to retrieve a mysterious envelope. Things go a little awry and he has to make a sharp exit before gunfire intervenes.

We then jump back and forward in time between Glasgow now, and Berlin some time earlier. As I mentioned in my previous review, I can dislike this device, and early on, Wilson's life in Glasgow is so grim that you really want to jump back to the action in Berlin, where the cast of characters is more interesting.

In Berlin, we enter a dark world of seedy erotic clubs and magic, meeting a cast of decidedly sexy characters along the way, not least of which is Sylvie. And as the story picked up, jumping forward becomes less of a chore, and you find yourself turning the pages ever more quickly. I positively raced towards the end, so much did I enjoy it.

I notice that I've somehow skipped Welsh's second book, Tamburlaine Must Die, but I will return to it. Welsh really loves giving us the seedy side of the world, and it feels very real. I'd be amazed if this book doesn't make either a film of some description. It's crying out for it.

I've never been to Berlin...

Restless

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William Boyd is always worth reading, and this novel has done especially well. It's probably selling more than all his previous novels combined by virtue of it being on the Richard & Judy list. It was also shortlisted for the Costa Coffee Book Prize.

And you know what? It's really good. It's basically a spy story which flashes back between 1976 Britain as Ruth brings up her son on her own whilst tutoring foreign language students in Oxford. But her mother has revealed herself as not being Sally, as she thought she was, but Eva, an international spy.

The story jumps backwards and forwards as we learn more about the deeds of Eva during the Second World War, first in Europe and then in the USA. She's controlled by a mysterious man called Romer, and it becomes apparent that although events took place many years earlier, there's something that still needs resolving.

The trouble I sometimes have with books that jump back and forth is that you're more interested in one half of the story than the other, but Boyd is a master story teller and he makes sure that each part of the tale is as interesting as the other. You're always left wanting more and the book is a real page-turner.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

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Catching up with a few recent books still. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was the Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago - you can't miss the sticker on the cover telling you as much. The author, Paul Torday, also popped up on the Simon Mayo book segment a couple of weeks ago to plug this book too.

The plot is simple if mad. The much put-upon Alfred Jones works for a government fisheries department. One day he's asked if it'd be possible to breed Salmon in the Yemen. He laughs it off, but political willpower being what it is - lots of bad news coming from the Middle East - that government mandarins begin to see the "strengths" of the idea, and he's politely asked to get on with it and do the impossible.

The story is told in a series of diary entries, interviews, letters, interviews and even extracts from Hansard. It's silly, it's playful, it's sad and it's happy.

I really enjoyed this story, and you simply don't know quite what's going to happen despite even the least fish-aware person realising that salmon, as a rule, prefer the climes of the North Atlantic as opposed to those of the Middle East.

How could you not like a book called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen?

Blue Shoes and Happiness

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I read something recently that suggested that Alexander McCall Smith is able to knock out another No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novel in a fortnight or so. That's probably not quite the case, but he certainly is a one-man publishing phenomenon putting the likes of Terry Pratchett (in his prime) in his place. As well as this series he has two other series on the go at the moment, The Sunday Philosophy Club and 44 Scotland Street - neither of which I've read any books from.

But returning to Blue Shoes and Happiness, and Mma Ramotswe is investigating a case of blackmail amongst others. The mystery and crime elements of these books is practically irrelevant - reading these books is the equivalent of following the equivalent of The Archers set in Botswana. You have your regular selection of characters, a few misunderstandings, a few stories developed a little and not a great deal else. It certainly passes the train journey for a day or two.

Music in the Co-op

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So I popped around to my local Co-op to pick up a few essentials after work. Outside, a single unseen tinny loudspeaker was blaring out classical music.

Very strange.

I looked up, and thought that perhaps someone in a flat above was enjoying the music.

Then I found out what was really going on. It seems that kids hang out in front of the shop all day, and then come in for a spot of shoplifting. The shop is seemingly unhappy at this ever-so-slightly anti-social behaviour and has installed the speaker and music. Kids, it seems, don't like classical music. It's even louder than the volume that their mobile phones are capable of!

But that's not the half of it. It seems that the audio also contains those high-frequency sounds that only kids are said to be able to hear.

All very entertaining, although I'd have thought that your speaker might need to be capable of playing those frequencies in the first place, and I'm not entirely convinced about the Co-op's audio fidelity in this instance.

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Banned Books

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And speaking of The Independent - it has a new promotion running on Saturdays called "Banned Books." Each week you can buy one of "25 cutting-edge titles, censored classics and literary landmarks" for £3.49 with your Saturday Independent (at selected stores).

They gave away the first in the series, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, on Saturday. I'm a sucker for a freebie, so of course I picked up a copy. Except that I'm not so sure that it has ever actually been banned. I'm pretty certain it hasn't in the UK - indeed I suspect that it's one of the few titles first published in the 1960s to have remained permamently in print. And while the film was unavailable in the UK for many years, that was never "banned" either. Stanley Kubrick simply withdrew it sometime after it had been released following a press furore over supposed copycat attacks, and never allowed it to be re-released or made available on video or DVD in the UK. Of course, nowadays you can easily pick up a copy and it comes around regularly on Film 4 and the like. Unavailable it might have been, but not banned.

I'm not saying that the book wasn't banned in other countries, and I doubt that the novel has been published in, ooh, North Korea or similar. But banned?

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Quiz TV Again

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A great piece by Janine Gibson in the Mediaguardian blog referring in particular to a Daily Mirror piece (scroll down). I wholeheartedly agree with it all.

Weekend Trips with The Independent

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Everyday The Independent shouts its environmental credentials, taking a sometimes very contrary view over what should be that day's headlines. I think their shouty issue-led headlines actually wear the reader out over time and they should be used a bit more sparingly, but it's fair enough that they bang their drum about what we're doing to the environment.

Which is why I found it very curious on Saturday to read some of the destinations that The Independent suggested would make great weekend locations. They included South Africa and Hong Kong amongst others. Surely, if you're going to fly half way around the world, even if you're offsetting your carbon footprint, you have some kind of duty not to just bugger off for the weekend but spend a bit of time there? You'll only be wanting to go back again at another time.

Carling Cup Final

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Up bright and early to head off to Cardiff to see Arsenal v Chelsea in the Carling Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium. The traffic was awful, and it took far longer to get there than it did a few years back when we drove up for the FA Cup Final (also against Chelsea). Leaving a short time later can get you into Cardiff a lot later than you might hope.

Anyway, unlike many poor souls including those stuck on trains, we did at least make it to the game on time, where we discovered our tickets were in the second row level with the edge of the penalty area behind one of the goals. Apologies for some of these photos - I didn't take my good camera on the basis that they might not have let me in with it (I'm getting quite fussy about the quality of my photos now).

Stadium

Arsenal's kids were completely dominant in the first half with Walcott scoring his first club goal.

You can read match reports elsewhere, but there was a bit of a scare with John Terry who was stretchered off to hospital but proved to be OK. Shortly after that Drogba scored and leveled the game. He then took the lead, and with lots of injury time to play, it all kicked off.

Here's my record of the incident. You can see Mourinho lead his people onto the pitch:

The fisticuffs kick off

And here's the melée a few seconds later:

More fisticuffs

Anyway, it all upset Alan Green terribly. We made a bid for a quick escape, and it was a painful journey out of Wales until the motorway cleared up and we could head home.

Boeing Boeing

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Boeing Boeing is a new production of a French farce dating from the sixties (and filmed a couple of times). Bernard (Roger Allam) lives in a Parisian apartment, and at the play's start we meet him with glamourous TWA air stewardess Gloria (Tamsin Outhwaite). But he has a secret. Aided and abetted by his world weary maid (Frances de la Tour) he is also betrothed to Gretchen of Luthansa (Michelle Gomez) and Gabriella of Alitalia (Daisy Beaumont). And as in the best of farces, circumstances come together when Bernard's old friend from the provinces Robert (Mark Rylance) arrives in town for a few days.

Rylance gives Robert a Welsh accent to accentuate his naivety - he hails from Aix-en-Provence - and his character soon finds himself close to a nervous breakdown but at the same time excited as the doors duly slam all around him.

The standout performance, however, has to be Michelle Gomez's Gretchen who has the most ridiculously over the top accent since Allo Allo, but she's fantastic at the same time.

Overall, this is thoroughly stupid fare, but an entertaining way to pass a Saturday evening - especially if you've just seen England lose dismally in Ireland on TV.

London in Maps

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I must admit that I'm complete sucker for maps. When in another city, the first thing I want to get hold of is a map. So I finally got around to going to the British Library's London in Maps exhibition this weekend.

It's an exhibition detailing the evolution of London maps from the earliest examples, which were largely detailed paintings taken from the perspective of a high hill over London, through the more detailed surveys which show just how much London's grown over the years. For so long London really wasn't much more than the "square mile" and places like the West End only became developed relatively late in the day.

Then of course there are those outlying parts of London which are now suburbia, but were once separated by farmland from the metropolis itself.

The exhibition isn't on for much longer, ending on March 4, but should you decide to visit, I'd recommend not going on a Saturday afternoon as I did. The big problem with a map exhibition is that the maps tend to require quite close inspection. That means that unlike an art exhibition where everyone can see the paintings as they collectively stand back and admire the works, you're instead trying to squeeze close up to see details. And when the maps are places you live and work in - i.e. London - everyone wants to examine them in yet more detail. That makes it a hard exhibition to really enjoy in much company.

Having said all that, it was fascinating and still well worth a visit if you get a chance before next week.

Lynx

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New Style Lynx Can

As you may well have seen in the ads, Lynx (website "temporarily unavailable") has a new style lockable can. You can see it in the picture above.

The idea is that you can twist the cap and rises slightly locking the spray mechanism. It's to stop the cans going off in your bag - something that can easily happen if the lid falls off, adding a pleasing smell to all your bag's other contents.

But can I just say that this new design is absolutely terrible. Maybe I've just got a duff can, but there are two major defects in the cans as far as I can see. First, the lockable section has an annoying habit of rising back up as you're using it sending the spray into the cap and not onto your body. Second, my can at least has now developed a fault and the spray's mostly going into the cap even with it fully open, and then trickles down the side of the can and onto my hands. Again, not onto my body.

As I say, my can might just be faulty - I bought it in multibuy offer at Boots, so we'll see how the next can works - but it strikes me as poorly thought through. Let's face it, new designs sell deodorant.

Sky v Virgin Media

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Over in Broadcast (no link, sorry), Guardian Unlimited's Emily Bell writes that she thinks Sky has no intention of really launching a new DTT box and removing channels like Sky News and Sky Sports News from the Freeview platform. She believes that it's a move to muddy the waters around the time that Setanta are attempting to gain momentum with their deal to use Top Up TV to run subscriptions to their service.

Indeed she believes that Sky's proposals will be found ultra vires (yes, I had to look it up, even though I had a good idea what it'd mean).

I'm not so sure. Ofcom changed the rules last year to allow content to be scrambled on Sky's multiplex. However, Sky wants to change to a different broadcasting format, and that does require Ofcom approval. Here's what Ofcom says it's going to assess:


  • The potential benefit of a rapid migration from the current compression standard MPEG2, to MPEG4 which will ultimately increase the number of channels available on digital terrestrial television;
  • The potential detriment associated with a reduction in the number of channels received by existing set-top boxes or digital televisions;
  • The risk that existing set-top boxes or digital televisions might be incompatible with multiplexes broadcast using a combination of MPEG2 and MPEG4 coding;
  • The overall effect on consumer confidence in the digital switchover process.

I think the third of those is pretty important. But Sky has yet to actually table its proposals with Ofcom - that's why the suspicion that it's a spoiler remains there.

But we're back into the same chicken and egg scenario that DAB finds itself, as an intrinsically old codec is replaced by a newer smarter more efficient one.

Meanwhile Virgin Media and Sky are getting into a right old fight over Sky's basic tier channels - Sky One, Two and Three, Sky News and Sky Sports News. As things stand, it appears that these will come out of the homes of 3.3m Virgin Media customers at the end of this month. In five days' time in other words. Would Sky really risk that? They've already run those quite nasty ads warning Virgin Media customers that Virgin Media doesn't appreciate their programming.

But now the game's getting really dirty and nasty. There are likely to be a lot of disgruntled 24 and Lost fans after this weekend's episodes.

This is probably the highest profile dispute since Nickelodean pulled off Telewest for a short while a couple of years ago.

In the long term, I suspect that it'll actually hurt Sky more than Virgin Media. Perhaps a few subscribers will switch, but many will just get annoyed, perhaps download the missing episodes of those programmes meaning nobody gets any money for them or perhaps hand the money straight to the studios in the form of buying DVDs (a win-win in the case of Murdoch and 24).

Even if I was a Virgin Media subscriber who dashed out tomorrow and ordered Sky, it'd undoubtedly be weeks before they could come and set me up. That's quite a few missed episodes in the meantime. And quite a lot of missing advertising revenue for Sky.

And with Sky News potentially disappearing from Freeview in a few months, does the channel really want to come off Virgin Media too? There was talk in last week's Mediaguardian podcast that the current Sky regime doesn't care as much about the loss-leader that Sky News is, compared to previous ones. If that's the case, then the forthcoming rebrand of little watched Artsworld into Sky Arts will mean in the longer term. The channel doesn't even carry ads currently!

I suspect at this juncture that the dispute will be resolved, but both sides are playing some serious hardball at the moment, so assume nothing.

Why I Won't Be Getting A Playstation 3

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(At least not yet).

I got a PS One when they first came out - although I must admit I did win it. When the PS2 was released I'd reserved one at HMV and duly trooped down there on day of release to pick it up. I was very excited, and like my PS One, it still works to this day.

But Sony must be having a laugh with the PS 3. £425! We get it months after everybody else and it's so expensive? No thanks. Still the retailers seem to think that whatever limited quantity they are going to get are going to sell out, because they've been busy as usual ensuring that you won't just be able to buy the machine, but will be forced into picking up a "package" including their selection of accessories and games.

The most notorious of these was HMV's attempt to get you to buy a PSP as well in a package that cost well over £600. This brought them lots of bad PR all over the place, and now they're offering the machine on its own to people who pre-order.

Meanwhile Comet today emails me with details of how I can pre-order with them. I click through and read this:

"As soon we have confirmation from Sony of console, games and accessories allocations we will put together a number of great value launch packages. Please note that Playstation® 3 consoles that have been pre-ordered will only be supplied in packages and not stand-alone."

Great. Thanks, but no thanks. Even if I was willing to spend quite so much money on a system, I'll choose my own games thanks.

What I don't understand is why the stores feel they need to do this. It's not as though I'm going to walk into a shop, pick up a PS3 on its own and then wander home to look at its black shininess. I have to buy at least one game to have anything to do with it. I mean let's face it, I wouldn't just be buying it as a cheap way to get a Blu-Ray player.

Anyway, the bottom line is that you're going to need to spend well over £500 to get up and running, and that's a ridiculous amount of cash. It's also well over what other countries are paying, so as they say in Dragon's Den, "I'm out."

I am umming and ahing over getting a Wii I must admit, but then I remember both my PSP and DS Lite gathering dust at home, and I think better of it all.

New Band's Web Presence

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It must be awfully difficult being an up and coming band. Sure, making the records and touring must be hard work, but maintaining your online presence is truly daunting.

Since taking an advantage of an offer on the Virgin Radio site for a free track from the band Ghosts, I've ended up on their mailing list.

No problem - I did choose to go on it.

But at the end of the email they've just sent out plugging the download release of a new set of tracks and remixes, they list their online presences.

There's the official website: www.ghostsmusic.com

Then there's the Myspace page: www.myspace.com/ghostsuk

And the Bebo page: http://ghostsuk.bebo.com

And the Youtube page: www.youtube.com/user/ghostsband

And finally the page that says we haven't left the underground/alternative scene: http://www.ukundercurrent.com/

There's also the pages where you can collect your tracks paid for by SMS: http://ghosts.tunetribe.com and http://ghosts-sun.tunetribe.com

And I expect there's an unofficial fansite with forum and a Yahoo/Google mailing list somewhere too.

Phew. Never mind the tour manager, it's a full-time webmaster that you need these days.

Tesco

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Which supermarket do you use? Is it Tesco? The chances are it is. We've all heard that one pound in every eight of money spent in shops, is spent in their stores. Is this healthy?

Last Friday, Shopping the Supermarkets concluded a week of programmes with a detailed examination of Tesco's attempts to get a supermarket into the North Norfolk town of Sheringham - somewhere I know very well.

They've been trying for years to get into the town, although there's a great deal of local opposition to the plans, not least because the town fears that many of the plethora of local shops will be forced to close when Tesco opens. The site Tesco has chosen would also mean that local housing, the fire station and the community centre would need moving. The community centre in particular would be moved much further from the town centre meaning that it's harder for the elderly who use the centre, to reach.

But the really big issue is a secret deal connived between members of a previous council administration and Tesco to ensure that no other supermarket group could use council owned land to build a supermarket. Not only does Tesco want to move into Sheringham, they want to ensure that nobody else is able to. Budgens put a proposal forward for a much smaller development, but it's been thrown out, as it goes against the seemingly legally binding agreement Tesco already has.

Now tonight, Dispatches took a close look at a number of further Tesco issues. Not least their dealings with local councils, who rarely can afford to fight them, their land-bank of space and even their ownership structure and offshore dealings.

While we wait for the Competition Commission's Inquiry to report, just think twice before you automatically next go to Tesco...

I Hate The Brits

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Wrote this last week, but I forgot to put it live, so better late than never. And there's yet more original research in this!


I hate the Brits.

I hate hate hate hate hate hate them.

I really don't like them at all.

Now this is completely irrational, and I can't exactly explain why. I suppose it's something to do with morbid fascination with awards shows, allied to the "you're all incompetents who have no idea about anything" attitude I take to most things.

I'm right you're wrong.

I think the Brits are the epitome of this in that they're nearly all elected by some jury of record company bigwigs. And is there truly is nobody more worth hating than record company execs (serial killers, despotic dictators and other evil people obviously excepted). They're overseeing the implosion of their own industry, and they're powerless to do anything about it. I wouldn't mind if you didn't have that feeling that they stitch it all up between themselves.

Then there's one award elected by the public. And that's the problem. The public are hopeless too.

Sure, there are some good bands that won awards. But you always feel that it's the big four sharing the bounty.

To be fair, a quick analysis of this year's winners actually reveals the following:

British Male Solo Artist James Morrison - Universal
British Female Solo Artist Amy Winehouse - Island (Universal)
British Group Arctic Monkeys - Domino (Independent)
MasterCard British Album Arctic Monkeys - Domino (Independent)
British Single Take That "Patience" - Polydor (Universal)
British Breakthrough Act Fratellis - Island (Universal)
British Live Act Muse - Warner
International Male Solo Artist Justin Timberlake - SonyBMG
International Female Solo Artist Nelly Furtado - Polydor (Universal)
International Group The Killers - Mercury (Universal)
International Album Killers "Sam's Town" - Mercury (Universal)
International Breakthrough Act Orson - Mercury (Universal)
Outstanding Contribution to Music Oasis - Big Brother (Indie - by SonyBMG internationally)

Giving the following summary:

Universal 8
SonyBMG 1
Warner 1
EMI 0
Independent 3

EMI score 0 on the day that they announce a profit warning. Oh dear. If Lily Allen had won any of her expected awards, at least they'd have had something.

But let's take a step back and consider the nominations too. Spending considerable time with Amazon's Brit awards list I can now reveal the following:

Record Company (Total Nominations, % Nominations)
Universal - 22, 33%
SonyBMG - 14, 21%
EMI - 11, 16%
Independent - 11, 16%
Warner - 9, 13%
Total - 67

Compare this with the 2005 world music market share (not British note, and I guess 2006 figures aren't yet available):

Universal - 32%
SonyBMG - 26%
Warner - 15%
EMI - 10%
Independent - 18%

Goodness - those are close numbers. There might even be a correlation there...

Of course, you could argue that market shares are bound to be broadly in keeping with awards, since Universal obviously has the most artists, they're bound to win the most awards. Strange that this doesn't happen in the film world, where the share of Oscars can be enormously at odds with what actually made money at the box office.

It's all very gratifying to learn that the football on BBC1 that night attracted more viewers than the Brits.

Five Live

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A very interesting piece on BBC Radio Five Live by Tim Luckhurst in this weekend's Independent on Sunday. He was an assistant editor of the station when it launched in 1994.

I'm not sure that I altogether agree with everything Luckhurst has to say about the station. The basic tenet of his argument is that Five Live has morphed from a proper 24 hour news station into something more of an entertainment station, and that it's now encroaching on the turf of "commercial chat" stations such as Talksport.

I have some sympathy for what he's saying. I think a case in point might be the recent Celebrity Big Brother final, to which Five Live went live, covering Davina's announcement as news (I'd be curious to know the logistics of that, since C4 was reportedly on a delay). The racism row notwithstanding, I don't think the finale of a gameshow is ever worth covering live. Do we need to hear the X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing winners live? No.

And I'm truly disappointed to learn that Brief Lives is having its own obituary written in April, along with Euro News. The former is an especially good programme, and it's sad to see it going - is it really only being broadcast very early on Sunday mornings now? I suppose that the argument for junking it is that Matthew Bannister now presents essentially the same programme - Last Word - over on Radio Four.

But I will defend Five Live a lot. I think the aforementioned Bannister, who usually presents the weekday morning phone-in show is a consummate broadcaster. And Simon Mayo presents one of the best shows on the whole station.

It's also worth noting that Five Live was predated for several years by Radio 5, featuring Danny Baker at breakfast playing music. It became more of a news station in 1994 after Radio 4 had become a rolling news service during the 1991 Gulf War. There was friction at the time with most regular Radio 4 daytime programming being "relegated" to LW. So in 1994, Five Live was born as a rolling news and sports channel.

Undoubtedly the station isn't as "newsy" as it once was, but a big and breaking story always gets priority treatment, and you only have to watch Sky News or BBC News 24 regurgitating the same old reheated stuff all day long when there isn't a big breaking news story to realise how quickly listeners would tire of it.

It's notable that only one third of Five Live's audience ever listen to Radio 4 (Source: RAJAR Q4 2006), so the majority of Five Live listeners are getting their news and information from the station. And I'd suggest that the relative success of Sky News and BBC News 24 has probably made the thinking behind the shift away from continuous news easier to do.

Quite what the impact of Five Live to Salford will be is hard to say. It won't make any difference to sport, which effectively comes from grounds for the most part anyway. But will all the broadcasters currently working across the day - Nicky Campbell, Shelagh Fogarty, Matthew Bannister, Simon Mayo, Peter Allen and Jane Garvey - all move up north? If they don't will their programmes come from London? Or will they leave the station?

I'd question their key news programmes moving anyway, since currently guests often appear across both Radio 4 and Five Live when they're in London (albeit that 4 and Five are in different parts of London). But a shift north will simply mean a lot more remote interviews, which involve a producer in London sitting a guest in the studio, while the interview is harder to carry out as there's no chance to see body language. A conversation in person is always easier than a conversation down the phone. When was the last time you got a job after a phone interview?

I think Luckhurst is wrong in his comparison of Five Live with commercial stations though. When he says commercial, he really means LBC and Talksport. The funding of Five Live to those stations is incomparable, and if he really thinks that Alan Brazil, James Whale or Jon Gaunt are have similar shows to any of Five Live, he really hasn't listened to that station. OK - I really don't like Stephen Nolan's programme on Five Live either - it can get all Gary Bellamy on you.

Personally, I don't think that Five Live needs to do a great deal to become its very best - a little less entertainment news, and fewer obvious phone-ins wouldn't go amiss. I believe it was John Simpson who was recently sitting in a Five Live studio for some phone-in or other who reportedly asked the presenter, off-air, why they'd just taken a particularly imbecilic call. He was told that there was no programme if they didn't take such calls.

The The

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No, not the band. But the current obsession with bands whose names begin "The ----."

It can't just be me, but there seem to be evermore of them - particularly in the indie/rock genre that my employer plays.

It's certainly true that there have always been bands with names that start "The". Most obviously bands like, The Beatles, The Beach Boys or The Who. Going back, it was perhaps more common to have the name of a star artist and their backing band. So we had Cliff Richard and the Shadows, and Freddy and the Dreamers.

Perhaps nothing really ever changes, but it does strike me that there are more bands beginning with "The" than ever before.

There's nothing like a bit of original research, and far too few blogs have charts or graphs on them. Here is the previously unpublished results of my 'study'. Since I have access to an electronic log of the nearly all the tracks played by Virgin Radio from 2003 onwards, I've examined whether the artist name of every track that the station's played and counted those that began "The". If the track was played more than once, then it's counted more than once. In other words, popularity of tracks counts. I then took that as a proportion of all the tracks played, to give me a "% The" score.

And here's the chart:

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A couple of things to say about this chart. First, I'll freely admit that Virgin Radio plays only a subset of all best-selling bands. You won't find too much pop, dance or R'n'B on the station. Secondly, there was obviously a brief surge of popularity back at the end of 2003 and start of 2004 with bands like The Darkness and The Thrills, but not to the same extent as currently. And finally, the number of plays a band gets is obviously down to how the station is programmed. But no Programme Director has ever gone out of their way to play tracks unpopular with the audience. Indeed regular research is undertaken to ensure that the audience does enjoy the music Virgin Radio plays. Oh and obviously Q1 07 is examing the songs played to date.

But I think that there's a clear indication that bands like The Killers, The Feeling and The Fratellis are where "it's at." "The" Klaxons have got it so wrong...

Next...

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We escape Valentine's Day, and this morning an email drops in my inbox: "20% Off Mother's Day Gift Ideas"

It's one after the other...

Commenting

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OK. I've been playing around with the commenting system on this site again. I know that in the past it's been a bit of a pain, and it's down to me to publish comments when I finally get around to seeing them.

I've used a plugin called CommentChallenge by Jay Allen to force you to answer a trivial question - indeed I give you the answer. In my view this is a little better than the average CAPTCHA systems used which tend involve some hideously deformed graphic that you're supposed to read. I hope that screen-readers, for example, can cope with this.

For the time being I've removed "Preview" as an option because it was giving me problems, and I've also removed the need for TypeKey on this blog. Although I liked it for many reasons, I'm no fan of having to register on lots of websites just to comment either. And unfortunately one of the limitations of MovableType is that it seems to insist that only "authenticated" TypeKey users can be "Trusted" and hence publish comments without intervention.

Incidentally, I hadn't realised how good the SpamLookup plugin for MovableType is. There are always a few comments that get forwarded onto me (in the form of an email telling me there's an unpublished message), but SpamLookup has been silently dealing with hundreds of spam postings without any intervention from me.

Penultimately, I don't seem to be able to get "Remember Personal Info" working properly. It's likely to be a Javascript issue that I need to look into a bit more. So apologies in advance for having to retype your name and email address repeatedly.

And finally, thanks to James for pointing out some issues with my RSS feeds. Hopefully they're all sorted now, and if you're reading this in Firefox (you are reading this in Firefox aren't you), you should automatically have a choice of feeds to subscribe to from the icon in the address bar, should you wish to.

In a few months' time, this blog will be five years old, so the time's coming for a complete redesign anyway. Will I attempt to shift from MovableType to WordPress? Who knows. But I will go through a bit of redesign. Time for some fancy new features I say. What I do know is that this website of five years ago still looked better than MySpace looks today. So there.

White House Printer

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Well according to 24, I've got the same printer as the White House! It does print lovely photos, and I highly recommend it, but I'd have thought that big offices would be more likely to have lasers rather than inkjets...

DRM Again

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A bit more on DRM. Sorry.

It's interesting that at about the same time as Steve Jobs becomes a sudden convert to going DRM-free, the BBC Trust reports back its conclusions to the BBC's on-demand proposals and in particular the iPlayer.

One of the key things they want the BBC to ensure is that DRMd material is platform agnostic:

As proposed, the TV catch-up service on the internet relies on Microsoft technology for the digital rights management (DRM) framework. The Trust will require the BBC Executive to adopt a platform-agnostic approach within a reasonable timeframe. This requires the BBC to develop an alternative DRM framework to enable users of other technology, for example, Apple and Linux, to access the on-demand services.

Around the 'net there's a lot of harrumphing at this with plenty of people moaning that the BBC shouldn't be sticking DRM on their material at all. We [British licence payers, that is] have paid for it so we should get it. Well things aren't as simple as that are they? The BBC licence but don't own a lot, if not most, of its broadcast material. And even programming they do own, they sell on DVD - Bleak House for example. Do we want to kill this income stream and force the BBC to raise the licence fee more than it is being raised?

The other problem is that the BBC wouldn't be allowed to stick its content out un-DRMd even if it wanted to. That's what this whole Trust thing has been about. As Ofcom's Market Impact Assessment highlighted, the BBC entering this market affects other TV channels' business models regarding selling downloads, as well as third party companies such as iTunes. Indeed they were terribly worried that content that the BBC might easily be able to give away free such as book readings, plays or classical music (out of copyright, performed by in-house orchestras) might affect, say, Audible, much of whos British content is actually BBC stuff "re-purposed" to use a horrible Americanism.

But on the other side of the argument, there's also a technical one, with lots of discussion running on the BBC Backstage email list. Indeed, they've just released a podcast featuring an esteemed colleague of mine. Is it possible to come up with a DRM system for Linux - an operating system that by its very nature is open source? As it stands, the DRM being proposed and likely used in the launch phase of the Iplayer, is Windows.

There just isn't an easy solution to this. If the BBC released material free-to-air, the BBC Trust and Ofcom would stop on the basis that it's anti-competitive and distorting the market. But if the BBC does release DRMd material, it'll either not work on everyone's computers (read Macs and Linux in the short-term), or will be in some bizarre "Open Source" format which will immediately be hacked.

The thing is that if material does appear in a DRM format, the same material will be released to world in a non-DRM format too, because some people will want that. I want to catch-up with last night's Eastenders. Great - the BBC Iplayer lets me do that. But hang on... I want to watch it on my PSP on the train. Ah. The DRM wrapper on it won't let me do that. I'll find a torrent instead and drop that through PSP Video 9. Voila! I can now watch it on my PSP because that's what I want to do. It's a technically fiddly process, and not as neat as just downloading in PSP format direct from a website, but depending on the value of the content to me, I might well go through that process. It's unlikely that the BBC will be releasing "Complete Season" box-sets of Eastenders (although scarily, they are doing this with Casualty), although UKTV Gold does show episodes. And there's a value to them in some overseas territories.

We live in an age where you can do a lot more with content than you were once able to. We're just going to have to accept that people will try to do more, and change our perceptions of what you should and shouldn't be able to do with something.

Right - I'm off to fill out the BBC Trust's On-Demand consultation questionnaire.

Sky's New Tactics

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First Sky announces on Virgin Media's launch day that they're pulling off Freeview and encrypting their channels with their own box to serve premium content.

Now we learn that Virgin Media cable customers were shown this advert over the weekend. It suggests that Virgin Media (or "ntl:Virgin" as the ad would have it) is "doubting" the value of several Sky channels including Sky One and Sky News. It then helpfully provides a phone number to allow viewers to phone up the Virgin call centre and complain.

Now this has to be a pretty low down and dirty tactic.

Every few years, the various channel owners and distributors have to sit down to hammer out how much revenue, if any, the channel owner should be paid by the distributor who collects subscriptions. For example, MTV might get 25p per customer per month for each Sky Digital subscriber who takes a package that includes that channel.

This is a game of hardball negotiation. Recently there have been stories that Flextech is likely to take a significant cut in the amount Sky pays it for its channel package that includes Bravo, Living, Trouble and Challenge. Flextech is, of course, now owned by Virgin Media. The amount payable is reported to be falling from 40p per subscriber per month to perhaps as little as 10p. That could have a serious impact on the channels' profitability.

In the meantime, it now seems that Virgin Media is playing tough in negotiations in how much Sky gets for some of its channels - namely Sky One, Sky News, Sky Sports News and Sky Travel.

Sky's taking public, what is really just another business negotiation, in the form of this ad.

I'm sure that the timing of these very public slanging matches is entirely coincidental. The question is now whether or not Ofcom moves in to calm things down and sort these issues out. Persoanlly, I don't think Sky's doing itself any favours.

[UPDATE] Ofcom's now investigating following complaints.

A Couple of Great Articles This Morning

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I'm still struggling with my free Chinese Phrasebook that came with this morning's Times (if you bought it in a WH Smith), but in the meantime here are two excellent pieces from today's Guardian.

First up is a G2 cover story on the Gillian McKeith. Now I've never seen an episode of You Are What You Eat, but I've seen all the spin-off foods on supermarket shelves and clogging up space at Holland & Barrett. Some of this "nutritional" information that's being spread about really needs debunking, and Dr Ben Goldacre - he really is a doctor - is the man to do it. And one of his Bad Science readers has forced McKeith to drop her "Dr" title on the basis of how her "PhD" was acquired (distance learning via a non-accredited US institution).

The other piece is a full page in Media Guardian about the rise of quiz show gaming on the radio (free reg. required). This is something I was moaning about only the other day, as it became clear that Chris Tarrant's return to commercial radio was as a presenter for one of these shows. Personally, I'm staggered that a professional broadcaster like Tarrant would agree to present such a low-rent show. Granted, I haven't heard it yet, but we're still talking about a genre of programming that relies solely on listeners paying to play. Gambling, in other words.

In the Media Guardian piece, contributors say that they'll have a higher level of trust with listeners than TV shows like The Mint. Why? This is exactly the same, except it's on the radio, and by the sound of things, it'll be in more peak time than most of the TV shows are. Times are tough in the radio advertising market, but this is not the way to go - it's short termist, and loses all the trust listeners to radio stations do have.

One mistake in the Guardian piece is that the author has been taken in by a station's name - Classic Gold Digital (my emphasis). While it certainly does appear on DAB radio sets, it's a station that's mainly heard on AM stations around the country. They're no more or less "digital" than any other station. Statistics from the DRDB about how many DAB radio listeners there are in the UK are spurious. On average, 16% of radio listening is through a digital platform (around half of which is DAB listening).

[UPDATE] Returning to the Goldacre piece:-

Andrew Collins is an excellent writer who maintains a blog. I read the first volume of his memoirs a few years ago. These days he's a fine radio presenter on 6 Music, he's film editor of the Radio Times, and a columnist on Word magazine. I respect him an awful lot.

However, he has profoundly different views to me on people like McKeith. If you've got a while, read his thoughts on the Goldacre article, and most importantly, make sure that you read all the comments underneath. Collins returns frequently to address those comments.

It's interesting to try to understand how the "other side" thinks, and how rational person might be so mislead. Still, when was the last time you fundamentally changed your views on something on the basis that a pile of commenters were oppposed to you? I guess what actually happens is that your views become ever more entrenched.

Annoying Beyond Belief...

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Think of the two most annoying and irritating people you can. Really, really irritating people. We're talking the kind of people that make you long for the sound of fingernails on a blackboard.

Got them?

Now check out the back of this week's Review section of the Independent on Sunday. Here are the two people you [should have] thought of. Don't bother reading it.

Tag

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Via Velorution, I loved this short film:

The music's still a temp track seemingly, and there's an ealier cut (in colour) also on YouTube.

It reminds me of a great French short called Argent Content featuring rollerskating bank robbers.

Lots of bullet cam shots and plenty of central London in this video.

Sky on Freeview

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Well. Very interesting news about Sky getting properly into the Freeview act. Sky currently has three channels on Freeview that show Sky News, Sky Sports News and Sky Three. The first two are as you'd expect, but the third was essentially created for the Freeview platform to highlight Sky One shows a little later. So the new series of 24 won't reach Sky Three until later in the year.

Today Sky's announced that those three channels will become four using MPEG 4 compression, and they'll be offering some premium content including Sky Sports, Movies, News and probably Sky One. We won't know for certain until the official release comes out.

To watch these channels will cost viewers cash, and they'll also need to buy a new box, because the encryption that Sky will use will be similar to the very strong type that the Sky Digital satellite system uses.

The reason for this sudden rush? Well Setanta, the up-and-coming sports TV channel has bought the rights to one of the Premier League TV packages next season, and they'll also be offering it via Freeview - seemingly for £10.99 per month. Of course, that's a lot less than what Sky Digital costs, but then you get fewer games, and Sky has the best pick.

All very exciting, but is this as smart a move as it might at first seem?

Well there's already a pay-TV option on Freeview - Top Up TV (TUTV). Seemingly, it's doing OK, but it recently changed its model fundamentally since Five took back much of its bandwidth to launch Five Life and Five US, meaning that TUTV had to move to a PVR scheme involving subscribers buying new boxes that automatically record programming for viewers to choose to watch later. Quite how successful this has been, we don't really know.

Then there's BT Vision which is a Freeview box with a broadband internet connection built in. Premium content is streamed via broadband, and you can pause and rewind etc. This also requires its own box.

As mentioned, the Sentanta channel will soon be fully running on Freeview (at the moment it's a sort of PPV offering). It's not totally clear yet, but you will need a box capable of taking some kind of a card. This is a different type of box to current TUTV boxes or the forthcoming Sky box.

And when Sky launches the new service on Freeview, the current offering of Sky channels - in particular Sky News - will disappear from sets, something Sky's acknowledged today. That's going to hurt Sky News in particular quite hard, and give BBC News 24 a good ratings bump. In many respects, this move alone will really annoy a lot of viewers.

So why's Sky doing this? Well the fortuitous timing sees the announcement come on the day that Virgin Media launches. This also neatly trumps the one real advantage that Setanta had until now - the opportunity to reach Freeview customers with their sports offering. And it seems Sky wants to start earning cash from Sky News. Although as long as Sky News remains "in the clear" on satellite, we know that's not really the case. Murdoch is just taking this one on the chin for other ends.

Will this work in the long term? I'm not at all sure. Sky has great marketing muscle, but there are an awful lot of boxes in the market that aren't going to replaced with shiny new Sky ones. And suddenly Freeview gets even more complicated for consumers with multiple box offerings for things like Premier League football.

If I was Michael Grade at the moment, I'd take a close look at the spectrum available on Freeview - perhaps buy out and close down TUTV - and use some of the additional spectrum to relaunch the ITV News Channel. Failing that, Turner might want to consider doing something with CNN. There's an opportunity there I reckon.

Sky's been able to do this, incidentally, because of a change in the rules that Ofcom made last year which didn't seem to attract much attention at the time. Prior to the rule change, Freeview multiplexes B, C and D were not able to carry pay TV. B is owned by the BBC, while C and D are owned by National Grid Wireless. Sky is on C...

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow

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You may have noticed it snowed today. At least it did if you live in England or Wales. Here's a photo of said snow that I took earlier.

Snow in Enfield

Anyway, the local news on BBC1 this evening had the usual travel chaos/schools closed story that's par for the course on days like today. But it ended with a scene showing a mum clearing, possibly as much as a centimetre of snow from her bricked drive. On said driveway was parked a Mitsubishi 4x4.

The kids surrounding her suggested that she was about to embark on the school run. Still it inclement weather, I guess that 4x4s come into their own don't they? I couldn't stop laughing when she then said:

"I have tried to get out of my garage driveway as you can see. But I've managed about six inches and now it's stuck."

How Many Video Players On A Single Page Can You Get?

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Well? The answer according to the new-look mirror.co.uk is three! One on the left, one on the right, and a big one in the middle!

A word of advice - don't try playing them all at once. The planets get into alignment or something and bad things happen...

Roy Greenslade at Mediaguardian shares his thoughts on the new multimedia aspects of the site. He's not a happy man.

[UPDATE] As a commenter on Mediaguardian notes, if you open the site in Firefox, it tries autoplaying both the side videos together leading to a complete mess as both videos play in the same screen on top of one another.

Radio Gaming

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Lots of excitement from Unique about them getting Chris Tarrant back onto commercial radio to host a series of programmes called Small Price 2 Pay.

Tarrant is quoted as saying: "I am very excited about this new project for digital radio, where once again I find myself in the hot seat, giving away big cash prizes to listeners."

Well it's digital radio in that Classic Gold Digital is broadcast on digital platforms as well as AM where most of their audience remain. But I'll let that lie.

But let's find out more about the format of this sensational new show. Playing lots of music and having banter with the audience is it? Well yes. But that's not really the raison d'être of the programmes.

It's a reverse auction with the lowest unique bid winning. As all the terms and conditions make clear, this is a pay to enter "competition" - effectively the radio equivalent of one of those hideous overnight Call TV Quizzes that I've been railing on against recently. The difference here is that they've got a big name to host the programme - ITV Play only really has an ex-Big Brother contestant in comparison.

And this is gambling. No ifs, no buts.

Is there a free entry route? I can't find it. Is it necessary to only accept bids via premium rate numbers? Of course not, but that's how profits and prizes are paid for.

Do the organisers, Million-2-1 Ltd, have to register with the Gambling Commission? That's not at all clear, although it would seem to be the case that this will be true once the Gambling Act comes into force since there is no free entry.

Personally, I find it sad that radio's following television down this murky path of generating revenue via "gaming" mechanisms.

Google Maps On Your Mobile

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Google Maps on Windows Mobile

Google recently introduced an application for Windows Mobile phones that lets you view Google Maps neatly and quickly on your mobile phone. This is a great little app which is wonderfully useful. No longer will I have to remember to printout a paper map before I set off somewhere new.

On GPRS, the maps load quickly, and they're a lot better than the feeble ones I can get via Orange. I once tried relying on them in the depths of Suffolk and walked a good half an hour out of my way as a result. Then I lost reception... but that's going to be a factor here too!

Visit google.com/gmm on your mobile device to download the 600k application.

Just as well that I'm on an eat-as-much-as-you-want data plan! With the Gmail application, I'm getting few quite a few MB a month on my mobile these days.

To Be DRM'd or Not To Be DRM'd

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Steve Jobs has posted a long piece on the future of DRM in music. It seems that he can see the writing on the wall, and he ends the piece effectively arguing for the abolition of DRM ("It wasn't out idea guv! The record companies insisted on it.").

There's a certain amount of self-interest here. Apple has become something of a monopoly with its locked system of players and the iTunes music store, and it's in Europe where the rumblings about the possible illegality of this situation are causing some concern, with Norway most recently saying that the current state of affairs is illegal.

So Apple is turning it back on the major record companies, with Jobs helpfully pointing out that 2.5 out of 4 of them are European owned. Apple would drop DRM, he say, in a "heartbeat."

Of course the current state of affairs is unsustainable. More people are realising that their mobile phones are effective music players but that their current collections need to be either re-ripped, bought again, or they have to go through a laborious burn-to-cd-and-then-rip process. Profits from the iTunes music store are never going to be enough to sustain Apple - their future remains hardware. So get ahead of the curve now.

Of course there is some disingenuousness about Jobs position. I have an eMusic subscription that offers me a fixed monthly ration of unprotected mp3s to download. So it would seem to me that Apple could already sell any track that currently appears on eMusic (all from independents - not the majors) DRM free already. Yet as far as I'm aware, the latest Barenaked Ladies album has DRM attached if I buy it from iTunes but not if I buy it from eMusic (By the way, I do have issues with eMusic as well. Their one credit = one track approach doesn't work too well if an artist has filled their album with 20+ songs compared to a classical album that might only be 4 tracks).

So Apple needs to put their money where their mouth is and remove DRM from tracks that don't need to have it. Then they can put a little logo on those that do still have DRM attached that could become the

[Update] Steve Page of the same Barenaked Ladies that I used as a random example above blogs about this very story. As a band who sell USB keys with unencrypted mp3s to fans, he's more than happy for iTunes to ditch DRM on his band's stuff as soon as they like. The physical new album, incidentally, Barenaked Ladies Are Men, only came out this week in the N America, and arrives in UK stores next week. I've had it since last year I think! (Oooh. Just seen that they're playing Hammersmith at the end of March. Must sort out tickets!)

Screenwipe

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Hurrah! Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe is back, and the first episode featured Ian Rowland, the acknowledged master of cold reading. He was part of a sequence that tore into one of the most exploitative programmes currently being made - Psychic Private Eyes - in which vulnerable people are told complete bollocks by so-called psychics who are effectively lying to their "victims" whilst making entertainment programmes at the same time.

Oh, and in today's Guardian Brooker writes about why he hates Macs. Sit back and wait for the flack. He's completely right of course!

News About Someone Else

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I always like to keep abreast of news of my namesake.

It Was National Gorilla Suit Day The Other Day

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(Obviously - that'll have been "national" in the sense of US national - but nevermind)

Gotta Love Dave Barry

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He live blogs 24 each week, and boy is he a prolific blogger by the way...

But there's a great quote from him about the Superbowl which is being held in Miami this Sunday:

"[The Superbowl is] the biggest sporting event in the world, unless you include other parts of the world."

(via Mediaguardian)

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