Chutzpah

May 6th, 2003

You probably remember hearing about various large American companies going bankrupt in the last year or so because they'd been lying about how much profit they were making. The names Enron and WorldCom probably ring a bell, yes? You might think that the management of these companies would be feeling a little contrite now they've been rumbled, but you'd be wrong. Both the companies named above are in the process of asking for tax refunds from the US government, on the grounds that the amount of tax they paid was based on inflated profits reports.

That's the taxes which were calculated on the basis of the misleading profits reports the companies filed themselves, remember.

Before anyone points it out, I'll freely admit that this is strictly speaking nothing to do with me. It's not my government that's being asked to give money back to companies which lied about their profits, and I don't own any shares in WorldCom or Enron. It's even possible that this sort of manoeuvre is entirely routine in the business world, and it's only the size of the corporations involved and the spectacularly newsworthy way they went belly-up that even makes these latest developments worth reporting. It's just that it's such a mind-boggling notion that a company should claim refunds of taxes which were only payable in the first place because the company's managers told a pack of lies that I thought it worthy of a mention. The word "chutzpah" seems wholly appropriate.

[Via Rebecca's Pocket]

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X-Men 3 news

May 6th, 2003

Dark Horizons has some good news about an actor who will be showing up in X-Men 3, but balances this with a not entirely unexpected confirmation from Bryan Singer that he would prefer to direct a few smaller films before attempting another SFX extravaganza. Which doesn't rule out his signing on as a producer, but does open up that whole question of who the fans would trust to direct that tricky third film.

Me, I hope the studio keeps dropping barrowloads of money off at Singer's front door until he gives in and agrees to direct another X-Men film just as soon as someone can come up with a good story.

(Incidentally, I deliberately didn't name the actor is talking about returning for a very good reason. If you haven't seen X-Men 2 yet, do not visit the link to Dark Horizons above.)

NB/- the Dark Horizons link above is to a frame, and may not take you directly to the appropriate news page. If you find yourself at the main news page, you need to look in the archives for the news page for 5 May 2003.

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My Tiny Garden

May 6th, 2003

My Tiny Garden is a beautifully presented gallery of images of the wildlife in a typical garden. The photography is excellent, but what really makes the site is the terrific job Jay Dykes, the site's author, has done of using Flash to create a responsive, attractive user interface. (I could do without the ladybird or whatever it is that crawls across the page, but that's just me.)

[Via #!/usr/bin/girl]

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What Comics Can Teach You About Being A Real Girl

May 6th, 2003

What Comics Can Teach You About Being A Real Girl: Part 1:

Comics are full of great role-models. They have really pretty hair, and they flip it around all the time, and they always take the time to Put Their Face On and Look Their Best . And they're all on great diets, too, you can tell by the way their internal organs have shrunk. And there's more! They have their own individualized codenames, sometimes even their own titles, and when they kick butt, fight evil, right wrongs, defend the innocent, discuss complex moral dilemmas, and only get the guy if they want the guy, they do it all in a very feminine, Taking Back The Girly Toughness way that is very inspirational and cool. We could all learn a lot about being more complete, attractive women from these wonderful Girly Heroweens, and here are some basic tips to help you get started.[...]

3. Self Defense. All Girls should be able to defend themselves from unwanted attention. Good Girls may not use lethal weapons for this, but are encouraged to get so good at Martial Arts that it's purely academic. Naughty Girls should not be quite so good at Martial Arts – he can't pin you down and be entranced by your heaving bosom if you're too good at it to be pinned! – but are permitted sexy pointy weapons. Not by law, obviously, but we here at the Girly Perfection Institute are working on that. A Bad Man lawyer can be flown out to you if your relentless quest for girly perfection lands you in trouble with those mean ol' policemen.

[Via Bookslut - see entry for 6 May 2003]

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Administrivia

May 6th, 2003

Just a quick note to say that my hosting company is taking the server which hosts this site offline at 1500 BST for an upgrade. The work is expected to take about thirty minutes, so in theory the site should reappear shortly after 1530 BST.

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Minipayments?

May 5th, 2003

Apple's new music store (which isn't selling to customers whose credit cards show a non-US address, unfortunately) is charging just US$0.99 per track. As anyone who's followed the long story of the quest for a viable micropayments system knows, credit card company transaction charges are sufficiently high that using a credit card to pay such a small charge isn't worthwhile for the vendor. So how does Apple do it? Jonathan 'Wolf' Rentzsch thinks he knows how.

Basically, a credit card transaction falls into two stages – authorising the transaction, then capturing (i.e. transferring) the funds. These two stages don't have to happen at the same time, and could in theory take place several weeks apart. According to Rentzsch, when you use your credit card to pay for your first track Apple could in principle seek authorisation for a higher charge (say US$9.90, or ten tracks-worth of charges) then if you don't make further purchases they'll just amend the value of the transaction when they seek to capture the funds. Sometimes you'll only buy a couple of tracks before they capture the funds, in which case they'll lose out. If you've bought ten tracks by the time they capture the funds, they've rolled up to ten transactions into one and only pay one transaction charge.

It all sounds pretty logical, but I see a small problem. According to Rentzsch's account of how these transactions work, at the authorisation stage the merchant "tells" the credit card company that the cardholder has authorised them to charge a sum (in the example above, US$9.90) to that account, which means that the customer's credit card balance is effectively increased by US$9.90. Now if Apple adjust the sum at the capture stage, this will be fine as the amount the credit card company thinks has been spent will reflect the amount the customer thinks he/she has paid. However, in the interval between authorisation and capture there's a discrepancy between what the customer thinks Apple are charging him and what the credit card company think he's being charged. Unless Rentzsch's assertion that the credit card company adjusts their customer's balance at the authorisation stage is incorrect, Murphy's Law tells us that somewhere along the line this is going to lead to someone going over their credit limit without their realising it and turning round and blaming Apple for authorising a greater charge than the customer thought he/she was paying.

Granted, the sums involved won't be large – not to mention that the notional figure of US$9.90 is purely for illustrative purposes and may not reflect the amount Apple actually charge – but it's the principle of Apple charging a sum to the customer's credit card which is different to that which the customer thinks was charged that presents a problem. It's possible that the small print in whatever agreement you accept at the music store when making a purchase covers this, but even if that's the case I can see some very bad publicity coming Apple's way over this. It might be better for them to be upfront about charging, say, US$10 to your credit card and making it clear that you have X days to spend the balance. But that doesn't sound half as inviting as "US$0.99 a track!"

[Via plasticbag.org]

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As Others See Us

May 5th, 2003

Steven Poole interviewed William Gibson in Saturday's Guardian. Unfortunately Poole exhibits some of the customary lapses when a mainstream reviewer speaks to a science fiction writer – for example, until Gibson came along apparently science fiction "[...] had been largely about exploring other physical worlds" – but there's enough good stuff here to more than make up for that sort of nonsense. For example, I didn't know that one of the forces which nudged Gibson towards the idea of depicting virtual environments was his perception of his limitations as a writer:

"When I started writing I had a problem of physically moving the characters around," he confesses. "I could do Joe in his room, but getting Joe down the stairs, into the cab and on the plane to Chicago was too much. I think in the very first short story I wrote, I came up with the conceit of a character replaying recorded memories of an ex-girlfriend, and it was marvellous for me because he'd recorded these bits at random, and it was just like these total jump-cuts, and every time I hit a jump-cut the Ballardian ante went up, and I thought, 'This is great, I can do the whole thing and he's actually sitting at his desk!'"

While we're on the subject of mainstream reviewers trying to avoid calling a piece of work "science fiction", I can't resist pointing to a particularly nice example from the As Others See Us section of the current edition of Ansible:

Patrick Gale's review of the new Margaret Atwood novel admires her 'gleeful inventiveness' in imagining unheard-of wonders like 'rats genetically spliced to snakes' or 'pain-free chickens developed to produce only multiple breasts', yet deftly avoids calling this sc**nce f*ct**n: 'In Oryx And Crake she makes a welcome return to fantasy. She would probably chuckle at that and murmur "if only" for, like The Handmaid's Tale, it is less a fantasy than an imaginative projection with a rational foundation in current facts.' Gale's other acceptable code phrase for the genre that dares not speak its name is 'dystopian myth'. (Waterstone's Books Quarterly)

[Via linkmachinego]

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The Longaberger Building

May 5th, 2003

The Longaberger Building in Newark, Ohio might just the strangest office building in the world. How would you like to go to work in an eight storey wicker basket?

Still, it must make it very easy for their receptionists to give directions over the phone to would-be visitors. I mean, you're certainly not going to mistake it for the next office block down the street…

[Via web-goddess]

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X2 Reviews

May 3rd, 2003

I've been reading a few reviews and Usenet posts about X-Men 2 today. I came to the film as a SF geek and occasional comic reader, but it looks as if the fans have mostly come down in favour of the sequel too. Jon's review is the best fannish review I've read, a lucid analysis of the film's many strengths which notes several pleasures the film offers long-standing X-Men fans.

One review which really struck a chord with me was that by Stephanie Zacharek in Salon (NB/- readers without a Salon Premium pass will have to sit through a 15-second ad before gaining access to the review itself), which noted how much fun Mystique was:

But I'm most entranced by Romijn-Stamos' Mystique, that scaly, growly blue Amazon with red hair and eyes to match. Who could love a girl like that? She's one of the borderline "bad" mutants, having aligned herself with the wily, misguided Magneto (himself a Holocaust survivor — nothing is black and white in the world of the X-Men).

Yet Mystique, who rarely speaks, is completely arresting. Not just because her painted-on blue costume is sexy (it is), but because her silky, half-reptile, half-feline way of moving is simply hypnotic. Even the way she fends off opponents with her impossibly long toes is fascinating. Mystique slinks through "X2" with the mysterious allure of another movie anti-heroine, one from long ago: Irma Vep, the center of Louis Feuillade's silent 1915 epic "Les Vampires." Irma Vep (played by the legendary French actress Musidora) is a cross between a jewel thief and a vampire; her form-fitting black outfit, a unitard that clings to her rounded tummy and thighs, was shocking for 1915, but it works today, too, as a symbol of the mingled threat and promise of womanly sexuality.

Mystique, like Irma Vep, is all threat and promise, tiptoeing about in her various disguises, but she's most magnificent when she's simply being herself. Romijn-Stamos plays Mystique with an enviable physical confidence. Her movements are her line readings: They tell us everything we need to know about her without using anything so mundane as words. She slinks through the movie as if she were on a covert mission to sneak off with it, leaving us (not to mention its director, its writers and its other actors) blinking in disbelief and wondering, "Where did it go?" Romijn-Stamos has "X2" in her pocket. It may be the first big blockbuster of the season. But on her, it leaves nary a bulge.

I wouldn't quite go so far as to say that Romijn-Stamos stole the film – Alan Cumming would put up quite a tussle for that honour – but I can't help thinking that in a world where Jennifer Garner's Elektra is going to get a spin-off movie and they're still trying to put together a Catwoman movie it's just not right that Rebecca Romijn-Stamos' magnificent Mystique is stuck in a franchise where she's destined to remain just part of the bad guy team.

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Matrix Reloaded "reviewed"

May 3rd, 2003

Ain't It Cool News reviewer Neill Cumpston has seen The Matrix:Reloaded and he'd like to share a few of his thoughts with us:

MATRIX: KINGDOM OF ASS-KICKING

Jim-Jammity Jesus Krispy Kreme Christ on a twat-rocket, this movie blew me apart and put me back together only after I'd got put back I felt like I had thirteen dicks and they'd all gotten blown by a surfer chick with 26 heads (2 mouths on each cock). I will see it ten times and if I see Star Wars George or that gay Batman director butt-hole any time during the ten screenings here comes Mr. Punch.

This is the sequel to the MATRIX Movie that came out four years ago and after seeing it I can say I could have waited another four years it is that fucking good. This movie is a pillowcase with soda cans inside that beats the living mule-fuck out of you but you're all like, "Bring it on honky tonk" because the beating feels like summer and Halloween and Cheetos at the same time. This movie is Mad Max's shotgun-gun from ROAD WARRIOR, only it shoots ass-kicking only at jocks. This movie is tits!

Question:is this a brilliant satire on the occasional over-enthusiastic AICN reviewer, or a straight account of Mr Cumpston's reaction?

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The rise and rise of little voice

May 3rd, 2003

Julie Burchill is not impressed with Madonna's disdainful comments about the Pop Idol generation.

Madonna is right to be glad that she made it before "manufactured" groups started to strut their sassy stuff. But not because she's too good to cut it among the new crop of singing starlets; on the contrary, she's not good enough. With a twin who boasted the same rinky-dink whine, she might have made it as a Cheeky Girl, but no way could she have aspired to join the excellent Liberty X. In S Club, she'd have been Tina, the "dancer", not Jo, the ordinary looking Essex girl just out of her teens with a voice that can already evoke Sarah Vaughan. She doesn't have the sweet harmonies of an Atomic Kitten or the smouldering soul of a Sugababe. She is, in fact, a novelty act who happened to have the shrewdest marketing moves; it's as if the Smurfs had been masterminded by Machiavelli.

Not good enough to be in Atomic Kitten? Ouch!

I don't buy Burchill's argument that the process of manufacturing a pop group has much to do with the singing talents of the candidates, but it's perfectly fair to point out that Madonna's fame rests on anything but her musical prowess. Credit instead Madonna's choice of producers, her adroitness in spotting a musical trend to jump on, her sheer determination that she was going to be a star, and of course her willingness to shock the squares.

At times the net result has been terrific – The Immaculate Collection contains a run of memorable pop singles – but it would be better if Madonna decided to quit now, instead of providing us with a bad single for every good one she came up with in the 1980s.

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X-Men 2

May 3rd, 2003

And tonight's excuse for not posting any worthwhile links … is that I was out seeing X-Men 2.

The Executive Summary: unless you're completely allergic to superhero movies, you need to go and see this film. Soon. Tomorrow.

Bryan Singer & Co got a great deal right first time round, but weren't quite able to cut loose because a) they had to find time to introduce a bunch of characters, explain the extent of their powers and fit in a decent plot, and b) famously, they were on a limited budget by the standards of superhero action movies. The latter limitation is the one that tends to be mentioned in reviews of the sequel, but it was the former problem which really made life difficult for Singer, and made his achievement all the greater. (The self same problem afflicts science fiction writers, who frequently have to spend a great deal of time in a novel spelling out their world's background. Which is one of the few justifications for the ever-expanding page counts and sequelitis in modern SF novels – but that's a tale for a different posting.)

This time round, Singer wastes no time explaining who Magneto is, how his views differ from those of Professor Xavier, or outlining the history which created a bond between Rogue and Wolverine. Instead he dives straight in and starts making life difficult for the X Men, as a mutant makes an assassination attempt upon the president of the United States. In the wake of the attack General Stryker, who is in charge of Magneto's prison, is given permission to launch an assault on Xavier's Academy. This gives Singer the opportunity to stage one of the highlights of the film, with Wolverine going ballistic and various mutant pupils reacting to the attack in their different – and sometimes highly entertaining – ways. In the aftermath of the attack, the X Men and Magneto form a reluctant alliance to stop Stryer from pressing home his advantage.

Hugh Jackman's Wolverine is still the star of the show, but Famke Janssen's Dr Jean Gray and Halle Berry's Storm get more to do, as does Rebecca Romijn-Stamos' Mystique. Of course, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are as rock-solid as ever as the leaders of the two mutant factions, with McKellen's Magneto even better than last time: more seductive and (scarily) with more of the good arguments on his side. Brian Cox makes a memorable Stryker, and Alan Cumming is hugely impressive as the timid but tremendously powerful Nightcrawler. Of the new major characters, only Kelly Hu's Lady Deathstrike is a slight disappointment, featuring strongly in only a single – though admittedly very impressive – fight scene.

Basically, everything Singer's team did right last time round is done well again this time, only more so. More action, more plot, bigger consequences. With more money to spend and the chance to develop a nicely complicated plot, Singer has delivered a sequel which improves on the original in every way. I can't wait to see what he does with the inevitable third film in the sequence.

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It rained less under a conservative government

April 30th, 2003

Driven by sheer "vainglorious hubris", the Guardian took pity on the Tories and convened a brainstorming session to come up with a way to relaunch the party. Naturally, they chose to let their readers in on the panel's deliberations and conclusions.

Look, logo, name

Karmarama's new look for the party was red. The message behind this was, they explained, "Why blue? Why not red?" In other words, we are not hung up on colours and old allegiances, and neither need you be. Surprisingly, we all thought that this was brilliant, suggesting a party that was open to change.

Then we changed the party logo, the current one being described by Rachel as "a nasty whooshing thing, like something by a regional train operator". We forbore to remind her just who had brought in regional train operators, and studied instead Karmarama's idea of a fist with the thumb up. Dave explained that this Conservative hand could then be used in a variety of situations, wittily expressing Victory, Sod Off, Cooperation etc. We bought it.

But what about the name? Tim argued that Conservative was a deeply unpleasant word. Ed retorted that Labour wasn't nice either if you had spent 24 hours in it giving birth. Tim suggested the Freedom Party but the rest of us said that we weren't born yesterday.

"Do you have to have a name?" Karmarama asked. "Can't you just call it Tulip or something?" Now, this isn't so far-fetched. The Italian left forms the Olive Tree Alliance, so perhaps the Tories could become the Oak Tree, a symbol of sturdiness, longevity and annual renewal? But this is Britain, land of satire. Imagine what a well-placed dog would do next to an oak.

So we settled for "the conservatives", no off-putting "party" and all in friendly lower case. Oh, and an objection to be lodged very time the word "Tory" is used by the BBC or ITN.

I have to say that my first reaction to this piece was to loathe the emissaries from Karmarama, the advertising agency which volunteered to help out. My second reaction was to laugh out loud at the last stage of the process:

Finally, a leader

The group agreed that there should be one. In which case, said Karmarama, it ought to be someone like Gary Lineker. We demurred, following a desultory discussion taking in Richard Branson and Anita Roddick. Then Gordon told us that the polling evidence showed that the man that women would be most likely to vote for was… Bill Clinton. "It's all about women," he added, "they make or break leaders."

Bill Clinton? With Alan Clark dead, we could only think of one sexy, bad man. John Major. We passed.

[Via Amygdala]

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Smut trading outstrips music trading

April 30th, 2003

Wired News discovers that the various file trading networks aren't half as reliant on swapping music as they were. Unsurprisingly, porn has (ahem) outstripped music as the hottest commodity to trade.

(What would be truly newsworthy would be a communications medium where porn didn't end up being big business.)

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Periodic Table of Dessert

April 30th, 2003

The Periodic Table of Dessert by Andrew Plotkin.

The subtitle – A Scientific and Rigorous approach to patisserie — in Full Color – is about right. Not only does the chart cover all the delights you'd expect in a serious look at desserts (Chocolate, Ginger, Coffee, Banana, Grand Marnier), but Plotkin even finds room for such essential, yet oft-overlooked, elements as Little Silver Balls and Poppy Seed. And finds them just the right place in the sequence.

This topic clearly merits further detailed study, including lots of … ah … fieldwork. I can feel my arteries hardening already…

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Lois M Bujold interviewed

April 29th, 2003

Lois M Bujold is interviewed by Mike Houlahan, a New Zealand-based journalist, and in the process compels me to add The Curse of Chalion to my wish list.

MH> In The Curse Of Chalion religion is a principal theme. What drew you to create your own pantheon and theology? Particularly, the choice of the theme of sainthood interested me — your definition seems to be deliberately at odds with a 21st century Western view.

LMB> Although Chalion has some roots in 15th century Spanish history, I wanted the book to be set in its own world. I wanted Chalion's Temple to carry out many of the vital social functions performed by real religions in our history, but I also wanted to come up with a theology that was non-dualistic, as I think dualism is a mistake. Although we can imagine good and evil as pure extracts as a thought experiment, they are never actually found that way in reality. So the five gods of Chalion were selected as a number that could not be divided evenly, because the moment you give human beings more than one of anything, they immediately try to set things in some hierarchy of value and position themselves on the "best" side, whether that actually makes any sense or not. Best for what? Of course, this immediately suggested a Chalionese heresy, where people re-invent dualism by selecting the most ambiguous of the gods to be the "evil" one, and they're off and running again. I play quite a bit in the novel with human nature versus reality, best two falls out of three. Also, in Chalion, I reverse the standard dualism of matter and spirit; their theologians are very clear that matter comes first and spirit grows from it.

As if I didn't have enough to read!

[Via Anita's LOL]

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"He's Not an Embryonic Fascist Leader…"

April 29th, 2003

From The Guardian's Diary column, quoted in full because it's just priceless:

A setback for the BNP's local election campaign in Medway, where one of its four candidates has been forced to withdraw. One Anthony James Holroyd, candidate for the Peninsula ward, has pulled out, reports the Anti Nazi League website, after his mother Stella discovered his plan, frogmarched him down to the civic centre and made him remove his name from the ballot paper just before the deadline for withdrawal. He's not an embryonic fascist leader, to adapt a line for Stella from The Life of Brian, he's a very naughty boy.

[Via Found]

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Fly Guy

April 29th, 2003

Fly Guy is a whimsical yet insanely cool Flash animation. A delightful way to wind down after a long, hard day at work. See if you can find your way to the tropical beach and hula dancer.

(Hint – try going up. Then keep going up. But don't be in too much of a hurry. Make sure you take a few detours. You wouldn't want to miss the chance to rock out along the way.)

[Via jann herlihy dot com]

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Newtie

April 28th, 2003

This will probably be utterly dull for anyone who isn't fascinated by American domestic politics, but I can't resist applauding a delightful evisceration of Newt Gingrich by Charles Pierce.

Pace, E.J. Dionne and Jonathan Alter, but there isn't a public figure alive more worthy of undistilled invective than Newt Gingrich, recently resurrected intellectual satrap of the unpleasant, the uninformed, and (very likely) the unshod. I know all of us good liberals are supposed to be battling this out in our shiny armor on the higher plain of our ideals but, sakes alive, how can we do this when somebody rolls back the stone and out staggers, blinking at the daylight, the greasy adulterous king of the Undead, come now to play the role of advisor to Emperor C-Plus Augustus and the rest of the lads and lassies?

Remember the heady days of '94, before Bill Clinton outmaneuvered Newtie until he left Congress wearing a barrel? Newtie – who has yet to learn that a string of adjectives is not an argument – was a towering intellectual figure on the landscape. [...]

There's more – much more – in that vein later in the posting: it's well worth reading to the bitter end.

[Via Avedon's other weblog - scroll down to the entry for Sunday 27 April 2003]

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AK vs iPod

April 28th, 2003

Never mind an iPod, I want a Kalashnikov with a built-in MP3 player.

[Via Charlie's Diary]

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