January, 2005

Huygens/Cassini Cameras

I learn from listening to Material World on Radio 4 that the digital camera on the Cassini and Huygens probes have lower mega-pixel ratings than the average mobile phone (Cassini is 1 mega-pixel and Huygens, much smaller) – and of course they’re black and white. Obviously this is a combination of things like data rates and available time to transmit (in the case of Huygens), as well as what was available to put on a probe in 1997.

Plug-in Air Fresheners

Over the years, on more than one occassion, I’ve bought one of those plug-in air fresheners. The only thing is that it forms such an unimportant purchase that when I next visit the supermarket and decide it’d be a good idea to buy a refill, I can’t remember the brand I bought before, and so have to go for the full kit with another plug.
Consequently, I’ve got a collection of three different brands of plug-in air fresheners, excluding that one being advertised on TV at the moment with a built in fan. However, even with this range, when I went out and bought a refill, it didn’t fit any of the models I already had. You’ll be pleased to hear that by dint of a little funnel, I transferred the perfume from one bottle to another, switched the “sponge rod” type things which pass the liquid out, and hey presto, my lounge smells like a mountain fjord or whatever. (Actually, it’s probably as well that I don’t get hayfever at this time of year).


Please feel free not to read a word of this entry. OK – so you’re actually free not to read a word of any entries on this site. But this one is particularly unworthy since it’s really to get something off my chest – a hideous journey home last night.
I’m out with friends in Clapham and leave at around 10.50pm getting to Clapham Common tube station at 11.05pm. I know this because I’m aware that this gives me plenty of time to reach Kings Cross station for my 00.06 train home.
I glance up at the electronic indicator board to see when the next train is, but for northbound trains it isn’t displaying anything. The southbound board does indicate trains, but to be honest lack of information isn’t all that unusual, and I stroll down the platform to take a seat. There are very few people there. Pubs are just beginning to close up, and in any case, Clapham’s more of a bar sort of place, and they’ve probably got another hour or so. Indeed when the first southbound train arrives, it disgorges lots of people who look like they’re still intent on having fun.
Then the indicator board puts a train up. It’s due in 13 minutes. That’s a long time. I do some mental arithmetic and realise that I should still reach Kings Cross where I have an overground train to catch, with plenty of time to spare. For a moment it occurs that it might be preferable to head up to the top and jump on a bus towards Stockwell since it’s only two stops away and I change lines there. But I don’t really know Clapham that well and I certainly don’t know which bus I’d need to catch. Anyway, it’s 12 minutes now, so it’s not so long to wait. A couple more people have joined me on the platform.
I’m passing the time away listening to music, when the indicator board flashes CORRECTION and goes blank. Maybe the train’s only a couple of minutes away? More southband trains pull in, empty lots of young people intent on having fun on a Friday night, and pull out.
The board remains blank, and there’s no rush of wind, or hint of oncoming lights to show an imminent arrival on my line.
But then the board flashes back into life. 13 minutes! It’s groundhog day! It’s now 11.15pm, and I now have to wait until half past for a tube. It’ll be tight, but I can just about do it. Two stops to Stockwell, jump onto a Victoria Line train and if it looks iffy when I get to Kings Cross, I’ll stay on until Finsbury Park where the journey from underground to overground is shorter and I can probably just meet the train. In fact it’ll be fine. When the train arrives at half past, I’ll still have the better part of 45 minutes to get to Finsbury Park and catch my overland train home. I had been hoping to pick up a takeaway at Kings Cross as I’m famished. But to be honest, the thought of missing the midnight train and having to wait a full hour until the last train is something that really doesn’t appeal to me.
But I’m dreaming. I’m still sitting at Clapham Junction and it’s now 11.25pm. At least the minutes are now ticking down.
I’ve just compared my watch with the minutes on the board. And the ones on the board are going slower. What’s more, we’ve seen about six trains head southbound so far, and none have felt the need to return. It’s only half a dozen or so stops down there. Surely one of them could have been turned around by now?
The platform’s getting really crowded now. Those places that do shut at 11.00pm have cleared out their clientele. And seating is at a premium. There are some “characters” around. I’m trying to remain calm.
Now the board’s switched off again with just two minutes to go. But here’s the train. It’s 11.36pm. It’s still doable.
In the carriage it’s standing room only but in no time we’re at Stockwell where it’s a quick trip across the platform to see…
… a Victoria Line train shut its doors and leave.
OK – no problem. The Northern Line was obviously playing up, but it’s not midnight yet, so Victoria Line trains should be reasonably regular. The board is saying nothing. Then it pings into life.
13 minutes.
You’re kidding? Nope. So another 13 minutes go by as I stroll up and down the platform purposefully. At 11.55pm a train finally rumbles into the platform. Nearly an hour after I started this trip I am precisely two stops away from where I began. I start doing some more mental arithmetic and realise that I’m screwed. There’s no way I can make my train from any station. When we reach Kings Cross, the train I wanted to catch has gone about three minutes ago. I went up to check, but it had. There was no way I was going to make the connection further down the line at Finsbury Park. And if I’m going to have to kill an hour somewhere, it’s better to do it at Kings Cross than Finsbury Park. Sure, you have a selection of people with interesting lines of employment, but I picked up a copy of The Guardian (with free Groove Armada CD) and settled down to a leisurely Burger King meal.
My 01.06 train departed on time and surely now my horrible evening was over. The trains at that time of night don’t stop everywhere so that speeds things along. We pulled into Palmer’s Green and stopped. And waited. And, isn’t that the driver walking down the middle of the train past me?
After ten more minutes, the driver was back, and talking to us over the intercom (which was more than the station attendants at Clapham Common had bothered with when we’d waited over half an hour for a train). It seems that some of the doors aren’t working, and the only way to alert the driver is to pull the emergency cord. He’s fine with us doing this, although he does have to reset the cord each time.
In the carriage in which it was pulled.
But my journey very shortly is at an end, because we reach Gordon Hill with no more incident. It’s 01.40am. Door to door this trip across London has taken the better part of three hours. But finally I can go home, to bed.

Chain Reaction – Alan Moore

Chain Reaction has been a fascinating Radio 4 series in which a celebrity pick’s someone to interview, and the following week, interviewee turns interviewer and chooses a new guest.
People this series have included Jenny Eclair, Mat Lucas, Johnny Vegas and Stewart Lee. Lee was interviewing comic book writer Alan Moore this week. Alan Moore was someone I used to read an awful lot (The Ballad of Halo Jones from which the graphics at the top of this page were, er, borrowed, was an old 2000AD strip penned by Moore).
I hadn’t realised until I heard this that Watchmen is 20 years old this year. And as it happens, on an entirely different Radio Five programme, the director Paul Greengrass spoke a little about his upcoming film version of it. Well I say that he spoke about it, but he couldn’t really say much at all and just said that sets were being built etc. He was really in because The Bourne Supremacy is out on DVD this week.
Of course Moore probably won’t even see the film as he’s famously disavowed all involvement in the film industry, and he recounts as much in his Chain Reaction interview (it’ll stay on the BBC website until Thursday 3 Feb). He also mentioned a Constantine film, based around the character who I believe Moore originally created for Swamp Thing, and who was then spun-off into Hellblazer – the early editions of which I used to read.
I kind of knew that this film was coming (there are an awful lot of films based on comics right now), but this was the first time I’d checked out the website. Since Keanu Reeves plays John Constantine, I was curious to hear his English accent.
Er, no.
He seems to have become American. I guess that voice work is not one of Reeves’ stronger suits. As for the trailer, well it looks trailerish. Can’t say that I was exactly overwhelmed, but it’s a long time since I read the comic, and we’ll have to wait for the finished film. (And the Farrelly brothers are remaking Fever Pitch, a non-fiction book that was already a fictional film, set against the backdrop of Arsenal’s extraordinary 1988/89 season. The new film is set against the Boston Red Sox season seems to encompass their world series win this year. )

The Desk

It’s the TV show that Soho’s glued to. It’s the show that Mediaguardian will be disecting to within an inch of its life tomorrow. It’s The Desk – new on BBC4 tonight! (Why do they get their own website away from bbc.co.uk?)
It’d be unfair to comment on the first show – mainly because I’ve been typing here whilst watching it. But so far, so OK. The “five to watch” was as off the wall as one might have expected with only James Hawes new novel being vaguely recognisable. OK – so I’m not up on the German edition of the FT. But Tocotronic anybody? Maybe that’s my problem and reflects an anglo-centric playlist at work.
But it’s early days – let’s wait and see. There’s certainly no escaping Tyler Brulé.

New Phone

I can’t claim ownership of this but it makes me chuckle.
Next time a friend or colleague is wowing you with their new state of the art mobile phone fresh from the box, pick it up, weigh it in your hand and comment on how light it is. But then add sagely, that of course it’ll be heavier once it’s been fully charged…

Johnny Carson

Obviously one of the big entertainment news stories of recent days has been the death of Johnny Carson – the king of the late night talk show.
Here in Britain of course, we’re not quite as knowledgable about Carson as Americans since the show basically didn’t get shown here. How many Briton’s realise that Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining is quoting Ed MacMahon introducing Johnny Carson nightly on The Tonight Show.
Anyhow, this is a roundabout way of pointing the interested listener to a piece of entertaining audio from the Paul Harris Show on KMOX (a great show by the way which sadly isn’t webcast – I have to make do with occassional mp3s that Paul Harris puts up). He has a great interview with a guy called Mark Evanier which last a good half an hour – so is quite a download. As well as having some fascinating stories about Carson, there’s a bit which British listeners will be familiar with. Most will be familiar with the famous encounter that Michael Parkinson had with Rod Hull on his TV show. And we all know that Parkinson’s hostility towards the act was not fake. Listen to Carson’s take on Hull in the middle of this audio (Yup, Emu appeared on the Johnny Carson show!).


I’m a massive Wong Kar Wai fan, so it was inevitable that I’d be dashing out to see 2046 (well maybe not quite dashing, since it opened a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve only just seen it).
The genesis of this film has been well reported with its gestation taking a good five years (I believe it’s true that he made the magnificent In The Mood For Love after he’d begun 2046).
Tony Leung is the star – well actually Christopher Doyle’s camera work is the real star – and he’s accompanied by some Chinese cinema’s most stellar (and most beautiful) names. We’ve got Gong Li (from Shanghai Triad amongst many others), Faye Wong (from one of my favourite films, Chungking Express, also from Wong Kar Wai), Ziyi Zhang (recently seen in House of Flying Daggers, but also, of course, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and the peerless Maggie Cheung (from numerous films including many Jackie Chan films including the Police Story trilogy as well as a several previous Wong Kar Wai films including the aforementioned In The Mood For Love).
The plot is not easy to explain. Leung is a writer who makes his living writing pulp columns of a sleazy nature. He lives in a hotel adjacent to room 2046 (2047 in fact). But it’s the occupents of room 2046 who capture his attention as we progress at a stately pace through the latters years of 60s Hong Kong. He narrates the story back to us, from the viewpoint of his science fiction story set in the year 2046 when “nothing changes”.
So that’s pretty clear then! If that attempt at a plot synopsis isn’t clear enough for you, then you’re probably not going to like this film.
It’s meandering and ponderous, and very touching. As I say, it looks incredibly beautiful with nearly all the shots having something or other so close to the camera that it’s out of focus, so that we appear to be discrete voyeurs viewing the scenes as they play out. The music is exceptional as usual. I find that I just about always have to pick up the soundtrack to a Wong Kar Wai film – usually a blend of the familiar and the unusual. This was no exception, and on exiting the cinema, a swift trip to the Picaddilly Circus Virgin Megastore (previously Tower Records) was called for.
NB It’s probably worth not doing what I did, and arriving late to buy your ticket at the Curzon Soho, condemning you to the seats in the first couple of rows of screen 3. To say that you’ll get a cricked neck is putting it mildly, and if you happen to be unfortunate enough to have a seat on the end of the row (say 11, 12 or 13) then it might be worth coming back another day.

Good News, Bad News

David Wolstencroft has been busy about the place plugging his new novel, Good News, Bad News. I heard him with Mark Lawson on Radio 4’s Front Row, and he was also with Simon Mayo on Five Live (I missed this, and hoped to catch on the BBC’s Listen Again feature, but they don’t do Simon Mayo’s show beyond the previous episode – I was trying at the weekend. As it happens, the Beeb are updating their player today and tomorrow, adding loads of additional programming to the player. I look forward to experimenting with it after 5.00pm tomorrow).
Wolstencroft was one of the writers and creators of Spooks, so it doesn’t take an enormous leap of faith for me to give his book a try, especially as it’s based around spies.
The setup of the novel is that there are two characters that are both working undercover in the same tiny photo booth in Oxford Circus station. Neither of them initially realises that the other is also a spy. The opening of the novel sees the two characters toss to decide who makes a phone call from a booth. One wins, and one loses – he makes the call. The phone box is hit by an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade – if you didn’t know, you haven’t been watching enough Ultimate Force).
The action then jumps to two days earlier and I was suddenly wary that the novel was going to be enormously limited. Fear not – it isn’t. I was pleasantly surprised by what then occurred, which I won’t spoil here.
The novel is grittier than Spooks with fewer young handsome agents and designer clothes. It’s a bit more Le Carre than Spooks, but not completely so since the action moves around a pace, and I feel sure that if you stopped and thinked about it too hard, you’d spot a few flaws. But I can’t complain and it’s entertaining fare.

Jerry Springer – The Legal Action

This is all getting completely out of hand now. An organisation named The Christian Insitute is claiming that it’ll be taking the BBC to the High Court as it has “violated” its Royal Charter.
I’m actually scared by the sway that some of these organistations are having on our liberty and freedom of expression. I don’t think that they have any power, but if you keep bashing away at something, cracks tend to emerge after a while. If I were at the BBC, I’d be commissioning a fairly swift repeat of the broadcast on BBC4 (for whom it was originally commissioned according the Private Eye).
My biggest worry is self-censorship as these groups hammer away at a media that’ll eagerly lap up and support this nonsense. I’m thinking of the Daily Mail and Daily Express here. Just look at America where the vaguest sight of a nipple on free to air television is enough to bring hundreds of thousands of dollar fines.