Rejected Google Holiday Logos

May 26th, 2003

FARK's Rejected Google Holiday Logos contest is a hoot. My favourites are miles behind in the voting: Salvador Dali Day has attracted just 113 votes as of the time of writing, whereas Return of the King Day can only scrape up a mere 79 votes.

[Edited to add a link to FARK, rather than back to this page. Thanks to Zed for pointing out my omission.]

[Via Amygdala]

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Alfredo James Pacino

May 26th, 2003

Fametracker lauds the genius of Al Pacino. And, along the way, reveals that he was offered the role of Han Solo:

Now take a moment to imagine this: the young, pouchy-eyed Pacino reclining in the captain's seat of the Millennium Falcon, enjoying a moment with Chewie. Or the young, pouchy-eyed Pacino shouting "Hoo-wah!" as he zips like a frenetic elf up the ramp of the Falcon, trading blaster shots with attacking stormtroopers. Or the young, pouchy-eyed Pacino flying in like the cavalry in the film's climactic battle and, just before sending Vader's TIE fighter spinning madly into space, screaming, "Shay jello to my wittle vrend!"

Now, we're not saying that this would have been a better movie. But it sure would have been a more interesting one.

The article also notes the surprising fact that Pacino has appeared in just 36 films. Which sounds like a lot, until you consider that Ben Affleck has made 28 in the space of his first decade on-screen.

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It's true! Honest!

May 26th, 2003

User Friendly applies an old slogan to new(ish) technology.

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Matrix Reloaded speculations

May 26th, 2003

I've spent some time this afternoon catching up with the numerous Matrix Reloaded threads on rec.arts.sf.movies.

I won't go into any detail about the specific (spoiler-laden) theories being bandied about and my thoughts about the meaning of various … ah … oracular pronouncements by the characters, because it wouldn't be fair to put spoilers on a front page post. However, I do want to mention one point which has become clear: the extent to which the Wachowskis have scattered clues and hints about their storyline in the various tie-in products which aren't destined for the big screen.

I saw The Last Flight of the Osiris on Channel 5 the day before I saw Reloaded, and as far as I could see there were at best a couple of throwaway references to the Osiris in the film so I wasn't terribly worried one way or another at the way the animated story revealed some background information about the film proper. However, reading this post suggests that the Enter the Matrix video game provides much more substantial spoilers for the film, answering a couple of questions from the film itself, not to mention featuring an earlier appearance by someone Neo spots as he's on his way to meet with the Merovingian.

Perhaps by the time November rolls round The Matrix Revolutions will have explained all, but it irks me a little that right now the middle film apparently isn't complete as a narrative in itself. I read a Salon article (NB/- unregistered readers are required to watch a 15-second advert before gaining access to the article) the other day which proclaimed the multiple-medium storytelling approach of the Wachowski brothers as a new development in the art of storytelling, rather than just an attempt to grab some merchandising dollars while Matrix-mania was in full force. I discounted the article's claims of greater-than-usual involvement by the film's creative team as more pre-release hype, but having seen the film and read about the storyline of the game I can see the point.

The problem, as I see it, is that this approach leaves someone like me who has no interest in playing the videogame (and, come to that, no ability to do so unless I want to spend money on a modern games console which would soon be gathering dust alongside my Playstation) missing out on potentially significant details about the film's backstory. In my book, that's not playing fair with viewers of Reloaded. If we're not supposed to know anything about the man Neo glimpses in the restaurant, or why Neo could do what he did in the last five minutes of the film, why reveal it in the game? If we are supposed to know, it should be on the big screen. It's possible that it'll turn out that this is only a problem because the two Matrix sequels are opening six months apart, and that everything of any importance in the game will turn out to have shown up in the final film, but for now it's a pretty unsatisfactory position to be in.

Or is the fact that this bothers me enough to write a longish post about it just another sign of what a Matrix geek I'm becoming?


2001 and All That

May 25th, 2003

Ken MacLeod on 2001 and All That (or, Life before and after the End of History):


Karl Marx said that communist society would bear the birthmarks of the old, and Mikhail Gorbachev bore one of them on top of his head. Gorbachev rose to power as a result of the Chernobyl Reaction, which came about because the Russians discovered that their previous two leaders – Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko (these are three, but the third does not count) – were dead but still standing. They had been propped up every May Day on the Leaning Mausoleum, reviewing the workers and soldiers who marched past. The workers and soldiers carried large pictures of the leaders to help them remember who they were, and for many years, they did. Fortunately for them, President Reagan had by then forgotten who he was too.


Unfortunately Ken's permalinks are broken at the moment, so you'll have to scroll down to the entry dated Sunday 18 May 2003 to read the rest.

[Edited to add a link to Ken's site. Thanks to Zed for pointing out my omission.]

[Via Amygdala]

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The Matrix Reloaded Reconsidered

May 24th, 2003

I've just got back from a trip to the cinema to see The Matrix Reloaded again.

On a second viewing some of the elements which bothered me first time round were less jarring – in particular, I appreciated the sheer kinetic fun of the Burly Brawl a good deal more now that I wasn't surprised at how computer game-like some of the graphics were.

Actually, all the major fight scenes went down more smoothly this time. I've noted this with other films which make heavy-but-imperfect use of CGI humans in the foreground. The first time I saw Blade II the surprise of seeing how unnaturally the CGI vampires moved in a couple of the fight scenes would jolt me out of the story for a second. Second time round I wasn't surprised, so I could appreciate the overall choreography of the fight scenes. (The exception to this rule is Attack of the Clones, in which the use of CGI versions of the three principals in the arena scene still bugs me every time I see it.)

As for the talky scenes which I felt had passed me by a somewhat first time round, I was much better able to concentrate on them this time round. I didn't come to any sudden realisation that I'd fundamentally misunderstood things first time round, which is encouraging – I'd have been upset if I'd missed some major plot point – but with foreknowledge of the way the story was due to develop a couple of the earlier talky bits (I'm deliberately being vague, because I wouldn't want to spoil a single minute of the film for anyone who still doesn't know who/what Neo encounters this time round) worked really, really well.

Overall, my repeat viewing pushes The Matrix Reloaded up from a score of 8/10 to 9/10. I'm still thoroughly unconvinced by Zion and my objections to the resolution of a certain situation Trinity found herself in stand, but I can appreciate more clearly now that the Wachowski brothers have done us proud. Instead of treating us to a formulaic rerun of the first film's best bits with slightly bigger explosions, they've done a good job of taking their original story off in an intriguing direction.

The 7th of November can't come soon enough.

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Pale Blue Dot

May 23rd, 2003

Earth as seen from Mars.

The image of Earth and the Moon is probably what'll get most attention – and it should, because it's a strikingly unfamiliar view of our pale blue home – but the first image, showing both Earth and Jupiter and their respective natural satellites as seen from Mars orbit, is the one that really floors me.

Every person you've ever heard of, every historical event, over thousands of years of human history and the rise and fall of countless civilisations, happened on just one of those little dots in the blink of an eye, when seen from a cosmic perspective.

How can you fail to be just a little curious about what stories there are to be told about all the other balls of rock out there?

[Via MetaFilter]

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We Find Ourselves … Guilty!

May 23rd, 2003

From the Department of Kooky Ideas (US Division, Economics Branch): the way to get "better" verdicts in jury trials is to pay jurors handsomely where an appeal is rejected, since this "proves" the original jury did their job properly. Conversely, you should fine jurors for reaching a verdict that is later overturned, because clearly they were slacking. Even if the original decision is overturned only because new evidence is discovered, or because of a subsequent confession. Because we all know that the only sensible way to attack any problem is to figure out a way to jury-rig the situation so that it's driven by economic incentives.

(What's most worrying about this article is the prospect that somewhere in the Home Office a political advisor is reading that Slate article and starting to compose a memo to David Blunkett…)

[Via Ignatz, via The Sideshow]

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May 23rd, 2003

I think the title of this eBay item says it all, really: A Really Horrible Mom & Baby Cat Lamp Yikes.

"Yikes" indeed…

[Via web-goddess]

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The Matrix Reviewed

May 23rd, 2003

Tonight's excuse for the lack of posts is … The Matrix Reloaded.

I'm in two minds about the film. On the one hand, there's no way it could match the impact of the first film, especially given that Reloaded is very much the middle third of a longer story and just ends in mid-story. There's a fair bit to admire, to be sure. The special effects are magnificent, though there are occasional lapses; the infamous Burly Brawl (aka Neo-fights-dozens-of-Agent-Smiths) looks at times horribly like a video game. The Wachowski Brothers have written an ambitious, complicated story which assumes that the audience not only knows the situation they set up in the first film, but is prepared to ask itself how much of what they think they know from the first film is right. The many elaborately choreographed fight scenes look terrific. There were moments that left me giggling with joy – the Burly Brawl may not have looked photorealistic 100% of the time, but the concept was fun enough and Hugo Weaving obviously enjoyed playing an evil bastard.

The major problem I had with the film was that it was so poorly paced, with everything stopping for talky bits way too often. True, some of those talky bits were tremendously important to the plot, but I still found myself wanting to press a fast forward button. Perhaps they'll make a better impression on me on the inevitable second viewing, or when I see The Matrix Revolutions. The other big problem I had was that the film's depiction of Zion didn't convince me one little bit. I don't see how Zion as depicted works as a community, or how it got that way given where they started out from. Finally, I hated the way the writers got Trinity out of (pause while I figure out how to say this without spoiling anything) the tight spot she got into in the last fifteen minutes.

On a first viewing, The Matrix Reloaded contains lots of eye candy and cool moments, certainly enough to make it worth a look. It's probably worth a second viewing, so as to permit me to concentrate on the talky bits and the various nuances of plot I undoubtedly missed first time round. However, I wish the Wachowski Brothers had got their way and the last chapter of the story was out next week, so the viewer could better judge how much better the story works when seen in the proper context.


Palm Pleasure

May 21st, 2003

I didn't post anything yesterday because I spent much of the evening fighting with my new toy, trying to transfer my diary entries from my old Palm. Eventually, thanks to some helpful advice from the denizens of comp.sys.palmtops.pilot, I found a program called Filez which allowed me to beam the various data files across without any extra hardware.

Now my Tungsten T has my data on board it feels as if it's really a PDA, rather than a pretty toy. (Next up, look into buying a MMC/SD reader so I can transfer MP3 files back and forth between my iMac and my Tungsten T.)


Meet Cow Tse Tung

May 21st, 2003

Cows With Guns is a very, very silly song accompanied by an ever sillier Flash animation.

That's silly in a good way, of course.

[Via MetaFilter]

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A Cosmic Database

May 21st, 2003

Dr Alex Szalay is helping to build a virtual observatory – one which aims to sift through the terabytes of astronomical data which have been collected by major astronomical projects over the last couple of decades. (NB/- New York Times link – free registration required.)

Early signs are that there are plenty of surprises hiding in that morass of data, particularly where the computers can cross-match data from different projects. In an early demonstration of the software, the developers found several brown dwarfs – failed stars which didn't quite have sufficient mass to ignite a nuclear reaction and are therefore quite cool and dark – which astronomers who had already reviewed the data had completely missed.

It's not simply the neat technology which makes this project noteworthy, it's the degree of cooperation between teams of observers which permits comparisons (and discoveries) to be made that the individual teams couldn't make alone. This sort of system won't ever replace flesh-and-blood astronomers, but it's a hell of a way of wringing as much information as possible out of everyone's observations. Once there are hundreds of teams sharing their data, the possibilities grow exponentially.

[Via Techdirt]

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The Truth Is In The Matrix

May 19th, 2003

I knew that Will Smith had turned down the role of Neo, but until I read yesterday's Observer I had no idea that David Duchovny had also passed on it. (Scroll down to the last part of this page, headed "10 1/2 things you should know about The Matrix.")

You know, I can definitely see Duchovny as Neo. That could have worked.

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Van Helsing's Hobby

May 19th, 2003

In honour of the week in which the last ever episode of Buffy will be transmitted in the US, I bring you a very strange thread from soc.history.what-if which starts out fairly straightforward but somehow spirals off into a very British discussion of how to calculate the value of a kill, the reason the EU mandated the use of the StakeCam by any Slayer who wanted her kills officially recognised, a dreadful pun, and the odd passing reference to Miskatonic U's reputation as a party school. Inspired lunacy, every word of it.

That's a good thing, you understand…

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He Was A Crook

May 19th, 2003

For no particular reason – except that a link at linkmachinego today reminded me of it – may I direct your attention to one of the most venemous obituaries you could ever hope to read: Hunter S Thompson's obituary for Richard Milhous Nixon:

Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing — a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that "I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon."

I have had my own bloody relationship with Nixon for many years, but I am not worried about it landing me in hell with him. I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better person for it. Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.

Nixon laughed when I told him this. "Don't worry," he said, "I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you."

It was Richard Nixon who got me into politics, and now that he's gone, I feel lonely. He was a giant in his way. As long as Nixon was politically alive — and he was, all the way to the end — we could always be sure of finding the enemy on the Low Road. There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard.


I know that's quite a lengthy quote, but it's only a small part of a much longer article and it only gets better as Thompson goes on to paint a picture of a sorry interlude in American political life.

Happily, modern Britain hasn't had a Nixon. Margaret Thatcher inspires positively Nixonesque levels of loathing on the left, it's true, but no matter how much you detested her policies it's hard to argue that her premiership debased the very office of Prime Minister the way Nixon's forced resignation did the office of President of the United States.


Palm Woes

May 18th, 2003

I haven't posted as much as I might have this weekend because I've been playing with my new toy: a Palm Tungsten T. My old Palm IIIx was getting a bit slow and short on memory, and besides it wouldn't connect to my iMac unless I bought it a new cradle/HotSync adapter. I'd been backing up my IIIx to my old PC since my iMac arrived, but that clearly wasn't an ideal solution in the long run, so I decided it was time to make a change.

The new hardware is very nice: the Tungsten T uses an ARM processor which is much faster than the old Dragonball CPU Palm used in their first few generations, the colour screen is very bright and sharp, and the fourfold increase in memory (plus the ability to store files on Multimedia/Secure Digital Cards) means that it should be a while before I run out of space to store ebooks, spreadsheets and MP3 files in my shirt pocket.

The fun and games this weekend have mostly been on the software side. I've some three years-worth of diary entries, addresses and To Do lists on my IIIx, and I very much want to retain them on my new PDA. However, there's a problem. My old Palm can't be connected to my iMac, and my old PC can't see the docking/charging cradle which comes with my Tungsten T because Windows 95 doesn't support USB, even though my PC which has the necessary hardware and BIOS support came with Windows 95 pre-installed. (More accurately, Microsoft changed their mind about supporting USB in Windows 95 when it became clear that witholding support for USB would be a useful way to encourage users to upgrade to Windows 98.) My first thought was that this shouldn't be a major problem: the Palm Desktop software runs on both my PC and my iMac, and I knew perfectly well that it had Export and Import options. I did a HotSync on my PC to create an up to date copy of my diary, notepad, to do list and address book, then used the Export option to create a "DateBook Archive" file containing all my diary (or "DateBook", to use Palm's terminology) entries. I transferred that file to my iMac, fired up Palm Desktop for OS X, activated the Import option – and got an error message noting that as this was a file from Palm Desktop for Windows I should have exported the data in Comma or Tab Separated Value format instead. Which would be fine, except that the Windows version of the Palm Desktop doesn't offer any export option but "Datebook Archive"…

I've googled for conversion utilities for DateBook Archive format files, but found nothing at all. So far, a post to the relevant newsgroup has yielded one reply from a poster who clearly hadn't read my original message properly and another saying, in essence, "buy a USB adaptor for your old Palm" – which was pretty much the conclusion I'd come to anyway. I'll take the latter course of action if I absolutely must, but I'd much prefer not to since such adaptors cost at least £35 and I'd be using it precisely once.

Isn't it irritating when your new toy and your old toy won't play together nicely?


Faking It

May 18th, 2003

It's good to see that, in a world where annual sadism-fest Big Brother 4 is about to hit our screens, this year's Golden Rose of Montreux went to Channel 4's good-natured, thoroughly sympathetic Faking It. It'll never become a national obsession the way Big Brother did, but it's an idea that might just have longer legs, provided that the producers can just resist the temptation to jazz up the formula.

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Giant Microbes!

May 18th, 2003

Who wouldn't want a plush toy in the shape of a Giant Microbe?

[Via - see entry for 14 May 2003]

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iTunes Music Store

May 18th, 2003

Although I posted about Apple's iTunes Music Store the other week, it was only yesterday that I actually got round to downloading the updated versions of iTunes and QuickTime which enable full access to the store. After all, as I don't have a US address on my Visa account and therefore couldn't buy tracks anyway there was no great hurry. Even so, once I'd fired up iTunes 4 I couldn't resist clicking on the little green Music Store icon, just to see what the store looked like and how well integrated it was into iTunes, which I've found to be a very nice way to rip CDs to my hard disk so I can use my iMac as a jukebox.

Having browsed the iTunes Music Store for a while and played a few free 30 second previews – which is all non-US users can do for the time being – I'm torn between being very excited and very, very worried. Excited, because Apple have done a very good job of making it easy to navigate the site and (insofar as I can tell without actually being able to make a purchase) buy tracks or entire albums. Worried, because even though the catalogue isn't as extensive as I'd like – there are a lot of Prince albums missing, for example – I can see my credit card balance suffering considerable stress if I ever permit myself to make purchases from the forthcoming European version of the site.

Browsing the iTunes Music Store reminds me a lot of the way I feel when I browse Fictionwise looking for e-books. I mean that in a good way, for the most part: I really like being able to buy individual short stories or novellas as well as entire collections of shorter work. However, there's a downside to Fictionwise, and it's one which applies in spades to Apple's newest venture.

A lot of the ebooks which I'd like to buy – particularly newer material at novel length – is only available in various "secure" formats which serve to make it harder for me to retain access to the books I've bought when I change computers, and which I therefore boycott on principle.

Which is, of course, an even bigger drawback when it comes to the digital rights management system Apple is using for the Music Store. At Fictionwise there's still a reasonable amount of material available in non-protected formats for me to buy and retain as long as I have a Palm which can read .pdb files or a desktop system which can read ASCII or PDF files. As I understand it, at the Apple Music Store the choice is between Apple's AAC format, which incorporates various copy protection measures, and nothing. It'd work out nicely just as long as I keep using the iMac I have now, but what happens if I buy a different Mac, or if I decide to switch to Linux, or – heaven forfend – return to the warm, welcoming embrace of Uncle Bill? Even if there's a Windows version of Apple's AAC format, will I be able to move my library of legally purchased music to my next computer? I fear not.

Which means that when the launch of iTunes Music Store (European Branch) comes round, I think I'm going to have to pass.

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