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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Name that tune?

Apropos of nothing, I'm trying to track down a favourite ballad "It's going to be a straightjacket Christmas again", but I can't remember who it's by and Google can't help me. While I recover from the terrible discovery that there's something Google doesn't know, can anyone help me?

At first I thought it was by Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers, the artistes behind the country and western masterpiece "If I'd Shot Her When I Met Her I'd Be Out Of Jail By Now". But it's not.

UPDATE. Turns out that the chorus running through my head is all there is. It's an advert for a non-existent album called "Cowboy Dick's Christmas Special" by the American Comedy Network. God knows where I heard it. Anyway, the song is actually called "Looks like a straitjacket Chrismas for me" (the other song is called "There's no mistletoe down on death row").

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Oh you pretty things

What a wonderful, wonderful find. Further confirmation of my theory that the real/virtual divide is rather permeable.

We're all familiar with the fascinating emergent behaviour that is blurring the boundaries between movies and games. Kids play games such as Halo, where they can log in from around the world and battle it out. My sons and I have excellent fun taking our clan in battles on servers around the globe. Then, some people decided to use the game as movie set. They began to write scripts and act them out in the game. A well-known example, again in Halo, is the Red vs. Blue series. At miniscule cost, but maximum imagination, the games has been repurposed as a shared creative space.

The game designers did not have this in mind when they created the game yet now and entire genre of machinema is growing, developing in crazy directions and capturing interaction and inventiveness that makes our current mainstream media look like, well, current mainstream media actually. I can't imagine any circumstances under which my eldest son would rather watch Pets Win Prizes or Coronation Street rather do what he was going when I got home from work yesterday, which was building a movie set out of Lego so that he and his best friend could make their own Halo movie. They were using the superb Boinx iStopMotion to capture stop-motion video via a JVC camcorder and firewire, then using iMovie to edit it and add laser (etc) special effects using the Virtix plugin. One of their plans for the weekend is to figure out how to add a soundtrack they are making in Garageband.

The genre moves on.

A guy has created his own talk show. No big deal. Except that he interviews the guests on a network of XBoxes playing Halo2. The guests (who are real) join the in the game as other space marines on another planet. While the guests are being interviewed, space marines and aliens are battling it out around them.

You have to see it to fully appreciate it. Run, don't walk, to This Spartan Life.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The new Gatwick gamble

I was flying out of Gatwick yesterday when I came across an interesting new torture for travellers. You have to admire these people: it is fiendish in its simplicity yet generates amazingly high levels of stress and anxiety. Here's how it works. At North terminal departures there were four or five long and tedious lines for security but there was one very short line at the right hand end. I started walking towards the short line. As I got closer, I could see that there was a sign and a guy standing there, but couldn't quite read it. Closer still, and I realised that it said that you could only use the line if you had one piece of hand-baggage only (women excluded, of course, as gigantic sleeping-bag-alike handbags do not appear to count under this rule) and, and here is the diabolical twist, it weighed less than 8Kg. Who the hell knows whether their bag weighs more or less than 8Kg? Like most true born Englishmen, I don't know a kilogram from a hole in the ground so I was stopped in my tracks. Mentally regressing to the last time I had to think in S.I. units, my reasoning went like this... I know that a kilogram is 2.2 pounds. But what does 2.2 pounds feel like? I know the standard measure is a bag of sugar, which I remember from Weightwatchers. OK, does my bag feel like it weighs more than a bag of sugar? Definitely. More than four bags? No, I don't think so. Wait. I know that my laptop weighs 5 pounds. Or does it? Why do I think that? Did I read it somewhere? OK, suppose it weighs 4.4 pounds, that would be 2Kg. There's no way that the rest of my bag weighs three times as much as my laptop. Yet my bag does feel quite heavy, because I've got the power adapter, plus my book which is a hardback ("The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" (Mark Haddon)) and quite a thick folder of documents that I need for my meeting later on. No, that couldn't take up 6Kg could it? I mean, my phone and iPod don't add up to much. What do car keys weigh? I've got a lot of keys on my key ring. After a few minutes of this I hadn't moved. Eventually my nerve failed and I joined the long line, paralysed by the fundamental English middle-class nightmare: I might have felt embarassed had I gone in the short line and been turned back. Then I noticed that guard on the line did actually have some electronic scales by the door. OK, should I risk it now? Being turned back by an inanimate object -- the scales -- is fine in my twisted calculus of Englishness. I doesn't bother me at all. Hold on though, I had to get up early this morning and I didn't sleep very well last night. Perhaps I'm not thinking clearly through lack of sleep. Better stay in the long line. A woman who was three or four places ahead of me in the long line decided to go for it. Perhaps she was American or something. Anyway, she stepped out of the barely-moving long line and walked (rather brazenly) over to the short line. The guard directed her to put her bag on the scale. I could see the quivering red LEDs of doom from where I was standing: 8.65Kg. She was 650g over the limit, a measly one and a bit punnets of minced beef from Waitrose. (I'd remembered that they were 500g by now, as trying to figure out whether The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night weighed about the same as a punnet of mince or not). The defeated traveller started to trudge disconsolately baack to the long line. But oh no: she had transgressed the unwritten rule of emergent behaviour in English people. She had got out of the line. Now she wanted to come back. We were all cringing inside for the poor woman but, as the imp on my shoulder reminded me, I was one person closer to getting through security. Phew! I've decided to call this interesting variant on the prisoners' dilemma the travellers' dilemma. In the prisoners' dilemma, there are two people. Prisoner A and B have to decide whether to co-operate or not. In the travellers' dilemma, there are N people and N-1 of them have to decide whether to co-operate or not (they are not allowed to speak to each other, only to exchange odd glances of sympathy) with the Nth. We decided not to. She went to the back. Well done Gatwick: maximum humiliation for minimum effort.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

They want you to steal the music

This is what a friend of mine told me today: he was sitting around chatting with his wife and a couple of our mutual friends and for some reason the conversation came around to The Comic Strip Presents episode "GLC". As you may (but probably will not) recall, this was a rather funny episode of that great series (first broadcast in 1990) in which a heroic Ken Livingstone takes on an evil Margaret Thatcher. It has fantastic title track by Kate Bush called "Ken". It is by far and away my favourite Kate Bush track as well as his, and he hadn't heard it in years. Having enthused to the assembled company about how good it was, he punched it into iTunes, fully intending to buy it to play to them there and then. There it was for 99 cents in the iTunes US music store. He tried to buy it, but couldn't, which is why he called me. But I couldn't help. It's not listed in the iTunes UK music store, and as I am domiciled in this sceptr'd isle the same as him (ie, have a UK-issued credit card) I couldn't buy it either (he thought that I might have US credit card, which is why he called me). This infuriated him: here's something he wants to buy, but is not allowed to buy it, presumably because of something to do with copyright and licensing deals. I have to say that I've been thwarted by iTunes too: it's not perfect. I wanted to buy some AC/DC and they're not on iTunes either (nor is Led Zeppelin). In fact, when I went to use it last time it was to buy an album that I'd just read about it the Saturday Telegraph review section but I discovered that it was the same price as the CD on Amazon, so I ordered the CD! Given the choice, and if not it in a rush, I tend to order the CD of stuff I want because when you load it into iTunes you can code it at a higher bit rate than the Apple Music Store and, of course, without the DRM. Anyway, back to the story. My friend googled "Ken" to see if there was anywhere else to buy it from, but after a few fruitless minutes he gave up. He even went to the official Kate Bush web site, but said there was no obvious way of buying any of her music from her. So he did what any normal person would do and found it on a filesharing network and downloaded it. What an absurd industry: it is actually easier to "steal" something even if you want to, fully intend to and even try to pay for it. How on earth did this benefithim or Kate Bush? What do EMI think? That he was going to go online and pay fifteen quid for for fifteen year old CD in order to get one track a week after he wanted to play it for a friend? I say that copyright should run for a fixed time -- say seven years -- and then that's it. Whatever Kate can make out of her song in that time then good for her. But after that, tough: back to work. If someone other than EMI or Apple can set up a web shop where people can buy and instantly download a good quality properly mastered and coded version of her songs, then good luck to them (and good luck to the world economy, which would thereby increase). Ah well, you might say, copyright is the only thing that stops artists from starving, so you have to respect it and quit bitching about it. Really? When I was first told that the song "Happy Birthday" is copyrighted, and that those well-known starving artists AOL TimeWarner earn $2 million per annum from it, I assumed it was an urban legend. But astonishingly, it's true. Copyright is supposed to be a balance between the interests of society and the interests of artists. Its purpose -- in the utilitarian sense, which is the only sense I recognise -- is to increase the net welfare. It is no longer doing this, and has as such run its course. For the sake of everyone, it needs to be destroyed in its current incarnation and redeveloped for the modern age. Serendipity: while hunting around the Internet, I did find the ukelele version of Wuthering Heights, which was thoroughly enjoyable. P.S. Just in case Kate Bush or anyone from the British Phonographic Institute (whose name tells you everything you need to know about their enthusiastic embrace of new technology -- they were formed not in 1873 but in 1973) is reading this, my friend has put his 79p in escrow (on top of my fridge) and they are welcome to collect it whenever may be convenient.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Tossing tips

We get a 100 business people in a room and ask them all to toss a coin. Everyone who gets heads stays in, everyone who gets tails is out. Now there are 50 people left, so we repeat the experiment. Let's say 23 people are left. So we repeat the experiment, and now 12 people are left. Do it again and seven people are left. Once more and four people are left. A final toss, and three people are out and we have a winner left in. We get the winner to write a book "Coin Tossing My Way" or the "Zen of Coin Tossing" or whatever and we sell it at airports. Plenty of people want to know how to get six heads in a row, and since most of the population are mathematically and scientifically illiterate (not to mention just plain stupid), they will buy the book, thinking to themselves "Here's a guy who really did get six heads in a row, I can learn from him and do the same". Far-fetched? Not really, since that's what most of the business books I saw at the airport last week seemed to be. They are books written by winners that discount any element of luck or chance and attribute success entirely to the subject's inherent talent, vision and so on. Charles Cohen, of Beenz fame, wrote a book called "Corporate Vices: What's Gone Wrong with Business?". I happened to have invited Charles to Singapore for a seminar I was organising a couple of years ago while was publicising the book. His thesis, as I remember it, was that people think that some companies are run well and some are run badly so they buy business books from the ones that are run well hoping to learn the lessons. In actual fact, all companies are run badly (and have been ever since the invention of the joint stock company, when the interests of management and the interests of shareholders began to diverge) but some are just plain lucky. They become the winners, and so everyone else looks to them to replicate their special sauce. I was reminded of this reading one of the book reviews ("The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism" (John C. Bogle)) in this month's Financial World. Apparently, this book claims that capitalism is falling apart because enterprises are run for the benefit of their incumbent management rather than their shareholders. Charles is even more of a visionary than I thought.