Thursday, December 14, 2006

Web 2.0 - should we wait for 3.0?

I really do want Web 2.0 to work. And I want it to work for people like me as well as the A, B and C-list bloggers and inventor-superstars.

I also want ZDNet UK to lead the way. I like them, I used to work there, and they still toss me freelance work from time to time. Their Web 2.0 makeover has all the elements it should to and ought to be really work if anything does.

But that site underlines the still-beta aspect of all this. Check my status: I've got a broken blog that won't let me post. I never send messages, I never get messages, and I've not taken part in any discussion.

And I'm still number 61 in their top 100 members.

Well, I suppose I can say that makes me a sizeable carp in that particular canal.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Save the Theatre Museum!

I can't believe they're going to close the Theatre Museum in London. It's right in Covent Garden, and it's one of the most fun museums I've ever been to.

Here's a photo from a visit some years ago, when Kitty and Hannah were obviously a bit smaller than they are now.

If you haven't been, go there. Soon. And sign the petition to save it.

It really is a fantastic place. There are interactive exhibits for children, workshop sessions on costume and make-up and the like, and a lot of really serious good archive material on the history of the London Theatre.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Corporate Anthems update

Never mind ZDNet, YouTube is where the corporate anthems action is now.

There's We Built This Starbucks, and Messe Dusseldorf.

And - they have the IBM Marching Song!

The return of IT Anthems?

Everyone is very excited about the relaunch of ZDNet UK, in "Web 2.0" Social mode. It's a major revamp, sort of a cross between LinkedIn and MySpace for geeks.

Tons of content has pulled through the filter into the new site, but there was only one question I wanted to know. Would it still have IT Anthems, the fabled web craze of 2002.

To my surprise, those classic cringemaking company hits are still there. The only Anthems page that shows up on ZDNet's search is the abysmal Apple page, including Apple is Baking Fruit and Apple II Forever.

However, Google search the site, and the others crawl out of the woodwork.

Here's the earnest harmonies of Honeywell and the upbeat Ahhh fujitsu.

Outside ZDNet, I see interest in Anthems has not died out. There's an academic paper from 2003 on the subject, from a Martin Corbett of the University of Warwick - partly researched from our site from the look of it.

And here's one I missed. Apparently, in 2004, a corporate anthem broke through into the "real" pop charts in Japan. It helped that the lyrics "We wil destroy houses! We will destroy bridge!" describe the work of a demolition company.

That one I want to hear.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

History Matters - the nation blogs

I just put this into the History Matters blog. They want to know what everyone was doing on 17 October. What they did for work, for play, and what they were reading. You've got two days to put your own diary in...
In the 1840s, the saxophone was invented. So was the concertina. Both have had a varied history since then, but have had little to do with each other.

I could claim to have brought them together at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London on 17 October, but I'd be lying.

The truth is that, as midnight struck, I was at the cloakroom, checking in a concertina I can't actually play, before hearing a performance by saxophonist Branford Marsalis - who certainly can play. I had the concertina for a Morris dance practice earlier on.

After the show I cycled home, past Trafalgar Squre and the Houses of Parliament, to Brixton. I read a little - a Patrick O Brian novel, about Nelson's Navy - and slept for three hours.

I work as a tech journalist, and on 17 October, I was covering the Smartphone Show at Excel. It was a long cycle ride there, but a nice route - I went through New Cross, past my old school, past the Hawksmoor church and the Cutty Sark at Greenwich, and under the Foot Tunnel. the tunnel is 100 years old, and I used to go through daily to my first ever job in 1977. Cycling is still forbidden, and people still scoot their bikes through it, as if that's not really cycling.

At the conference, the president of Symbian told a lot of press and industry that we are on the verge of a whole new world, that will be brought about by mobile phoens that can do email, web and video conferencing. They'll be more important than the PC he said and will wipe out world hunger (well he more or less said that).

History will no doubt be the judge.

Back home, I had tea with my family. I have three daughters and usually see more of them in a day than I am tonight.

I went to a book group. We'd been reading Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. None of us were very impressed. I think the book is over-rated because of its role in reversing censorship. As history, as a landmark, it's interesting, as writing it's interesting, but dated. There are plenty of better books out there.

The group consists of seven men, all with children, and all living within a mile of each other. We've been meeting for two years. We don't go very deeply into the books; we drink wine and talk.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Robot book is painful to read

We've all had the experience of reading a book someone has recommended - and hating it. It's still a surprise to plough through a book the Guardian describes as "A classic novel.. it reeks simultaneously of Candide, Player Piano and The Wizard of Oz", and find it unreadable.

There are spoilers here, but I wouldn't recommend the book to anyone, so don't worry. Roderick by John Sladek, is painfully hip, in a sort of 1970s way. This means it's full of throwaway remarks and Big Ideas, all referred to rather than explored, and overlaying and strangling an episodic story where nothing much actually happens.

Roderick himself doesn't even appear for the first hundred pages or so, because Sladek is too busy painting a tedious and un-funny picture of all the ins-and-outs of a small university, with pointless subplots about the Shah of Ruritania (he's rich, and doesn't understand Western ways! Ha ha!) and a bad poet and a poor student (he reads Lord of the Rings instead of Ring Lardner! Ho ho!)

When the story properly starts, I'm ready for the profound ideas. And sure enough, it's full of references to other people's thoughts on artificial intelligence. Name checks, that is, for the titles of books, or quick asides about golem myths. To be fair, Sladek has clearly done his homework. He works in so many, I never want to hear another one.

While that's going on, we get more of Sladek's ideas of what would be funny. And we get them all over again, because as we all know a joke is even funnier if you repeat it.

There's s a priest who's too busy running the school sports to do his job. Whenever he appears he's ordered another set of sports kit, with another amusing misprint. There's a doctor who's too busy playing golf and developing property. Every time he appears, he amusingly gets the name of his patients' medication wrong. How hilarious.

Roderick's step-parents seem like they're going to be intersting, but like every other character in this book, they turn into completely contrived cyphers for punning jokes, and unlikely plot developments. They turn out not to be what they appear - but who cares?

I've made it to the end of the first of the books paired here - partly because I remember laughing out loud at The Muller-Fokker Effect as a teenager. I don't think I'll last through the second part, Roderick at Random.

Luckily, it's a library book. Unluckily, it's fallen apart. A previous reader must have found it as hard going as I did, and got stuck. I can't see any other reason why the book should fall open - and apart - at page 54.

Broadband crisis over

As predicted, my broadband is now seriously boring. For the last two weeks,my download speed has hovered around 6M, and uploads around 400k (speed measured at ADSL Guide).

I've retired TalkTalk's SpeedTouch as my router only needed a bit of time to get used to the new provision. I've needed to reboot it about once a week, which is irritating by no big hassle. ut I hope they improve on it though.

The phone service is working all right -- except for one day when the 1471 feature packed up. I also now have two VoIP phone lines permanently available.

If I was thinking of going to TalkTalk now, I probably wouldn't (unless I was on an exchange which had definitely been unbundled some time ago) but I'm staying put now it's here - unless something awful happens.

That's all.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

TalkTalk - the boring phase begins

After yesterday's excitement, it looks like I'm going to be setting down to routing broadband niggles like the rest of the world.

Yesterday, broadband seemed to be available at a nominal 8 Mbit/s but slower real speeds of course. I checked the speed at ADSL Guide and apparently had 120k (for comparison, the GPRS phone connection I've been using for the last fortnight gives me 33k at the same site).

Then the connection went, Then it came back And so on. All very normal for day one of an unbundled service. When it went off for a lengthy period, I phoned TalkTalk, and discovered the problems everyone else knows - I've had to go back a generation.

TalkTalk won't do a lot of support unless you use their equipment - a USB-connected
Alcatel/Thomson SpeedTouch. This is the old-fashioned frog, used by BT for a long while, in a new casing. It takes broadband and makes it look like fast dial-up, and won't do all the things I've been taking
for granted like sharing the Internet round the house.

I'm up for trying anything new (old), and it does seem unfair to expect them to help with unfamiliar equipment over the phone (even if it's a lovely Fritz box, with good diagnostics, that's been working happily for months). So I've installed the USB modem and - lo and behold! - I'm getting 2.9 Mbit/s over it.

My support guy tells me it's possibly due to attentuation in the house - the SpeedTouch may be less fussy and work with a weaker signal than the Fritz. I'm not sure, but that means the next thing to do is try the Fritz in the master socket...

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I'm back online

I've been at ZDNet today working, among other things, on ZDNet's and Techworld's coverage of today's TalkTalk news.

I saw a post from one user, saying: "Today after three months hell, I'm cancelling my contract with TalkTalk and going back to AOL". Won't he be surprised, eh readers?

Anyway, I just had a call from home, and then some IMs. Seems like the service is back up again.

Apparently we even got a courtesy call from a TalkTalk engineer: "I'm standing right next to a BT engineer, and we wanted to make sure it works before he goes home." I wonder if that was in the exchange? I thought no-one but BT OpenReach could set foot there.

Finally, as I head for home, I can see just how naive and foolish I am. I'm already wondering what speed I've got!

TalkTalk's LLU failure -- the final nail

Here's proof that TalkTalk has failed at LLU, from the Guardian:

Dan Gardiner, an analyst at Bridgewell Securities, said while customer
numbers connected by TalkTalk were in-line with expectations, "the most interesting feature of today\'s statement is the admission that only 20,000 of its customers have been migrated onto its unbundled local loop platform so far."

"This is considerably less than our forecast and will have a significant impact on Carphone\'s costs."
That's right. 625,000 signed up. 421,000 are on broadband, so 200,000 are waiting, and costing TalkTalk in callcentre costs and (one expects) eventual cancellations.

Of the 421,000 customers connected, only 20,000 are potentially profitable. The other 400,000 are on BT Wholesale connections. So TalkTalk is buying 400,000 broadband lines from BT, and having to give them away for nothing.

The only way out is to move people to unbundled lines. And it is failing to do so.

Why TalkTalk's troubles will get worse

Carphone Warehouse has announced results today, including a £70 million loss on its TalkTalk division, which retails BT's broadband while putting its own equipment in phone exchanges to offer "unbundled" services. The company is hoping that the long-term investment in local-loop unbundling (LLU) will eventually offset the loss from buying wholesale broadband form BT, and supporting customers who a.

Carphone thinks LLU will save it from the troubles its broadband offer have created. I don't agree.

Here's one news report:
In all, the group had penciled in a 160 mln stg investment in the broadband business, most of which will be spent on putting its own equipment into BT Group local exchanges.

So far, it has 'unbundled' 370 of these exchanges, and the group said it remains 'well on course' for having a presence in 1,000 exchanges by May next year.
Elsewhere, we hear Carphone Warehouse has "had to pay to use BT services while it waits for its own high-speed internet access into homes to be fitted" (This is Money). So LLU will save the day?

Not as far as I can see. My two weeks speaking to various people within TalkTalk leads me to the conclusion that TalkTalk simply does not have the back-end systems or organisation to manage LLU. The systems and bureaucracy within the company are separated from each other, and cannot talk to each other, which will lead to massive over-spend, since every fault will incur vastly more cost than necessary.

TalkTalk's internal systems are broken up and Balkanised at least as badly as BT's were in the old days of British Telecom. In the old days, British Telecom's telephone faults could sometimes go unfixed for days or weeks, while BT's departments passed the buck amongst themselves. One division would be convinced the fault was in the local loop, while another believed it was in the house. Neither would do anything, because they believe it was someone else's problem.

BT has learned from that problem. TalkTalk is repeating it.

To someone in TalkTalk's Faults department, An LLU problem looks like an unfixable "cease order" that can only be traced to BT. To the LLU department, it looks like one of theirs, but maybe it's to do with the account creation?

These problems are real and so far TalkTalk has "declined to comment" on the above.

I asked the PR agency for comment; instead my request got treated as a nag from someone "playing the journalist card" and al I got yet another illustration of TalkTalk's troubles.

As a journalist, my special treatment extends to someone from TalkTalk, called Sat, actually phoning me (imagine that!). He promised to sort it out.

Two days later, I phoned him back and guess what? Can you guess? "It's an LLU issue, sir." He has a colleague called Jonathan who can deal with that. Two more days, and I haven't heard from Jonathan.

Today is the date when LLU promised me the problem would be fixed -- that was a promise made on Friday by someone called Ken, that Kevin Parkin (or Perkin?) would have it resolved in "72 working hours".

As I say, the story is that TalkTalk's problems extend well beyond its difficulties in delivering IPstream DSL services from BT Wholesale. LLU seems to be beyond its ability.

BT has been slammed for failing to support LLU properly, which can't be making things easier at TalkTalk LLU, but TalkTalk LLU seems to have an impossible position within TalkTalk as a whole.

I believe that Carphone Warehouse is heading for an even bigger broadband loss and an even bigger remedial investment when its LLU troubles become public.

Oh, and if that's not enough, Carphone wants to buy AOL UK, too. That should be aumusing.

Friday, October 06, 2006

BT and TalkTalk play pingpong with my head

If possible, things are worse today. How much worse? Well imagine holding simultaneously for BT and TalkTalk on two mobile phones. Then speaking to them simultaneously. And being told at the end that your phone will be back on again by next Wednesday. Probably.

I was on the phone for three hours to TalkTalk, alternately on hold and talking to their Faults department. Eventually, they repeated the story that I was cut off because of a "cease order" from BT. This was different from the order that they had through Opal Telecom to unbundle the line, and they couldn't tell me who it came from. I had to phone BT.

I was told, again, that the only way to get service back was to speak to BT. Once again, I reacted with disbelief; my advisor (David, a patient man who admitted he was learning the system and said that my account was the most complex he had seen) went away to get more information. He told me that I would need to start a new contract with BT (that wouldn't start for ten working days) and would then tie me in for three months, before considering changing provider again.

According to his records, it's just that some other provider, not TalkTalk, has requested BT to cease providing my service.

It took a long while to get this clear, but that seemed to be the position of TalkTalk's Faults department. But, I said, I had already tried the BT route yesterday, and ended up at TalkTalk's local loop unbundling (LLU) department, who assured me that it was just a line in the exchange that needed fixing.

So David agreed to transfer me across to TalkTalk's LLU again.

While that's going on, I dialled the BT number, on another phone. I then had TalkTalk's hold music ("We have got to get it together") in one ear on a T-Mobile phone, and BT's (Grieg's Morning) in the other ear, courtesy of O2.

Eventually, someone at BT called Phil answered. This time, he said, oh yes, there WAS a cease order on this line. He couldn't tell me who from. He couldn't see who from. But I just had to say the word, and he could set me up with a brand new line. Like David told me, it would take 10 working days, and I'd have to stay with BT for three months.

By this time, TalkTalk's LLU department has answered the phone, and there's a man called Richard in my left hear, hearing half of my conversation with Phil from BT. "No, sir, don't do it," says Richard. "BT aren't even involved in this."

I tell Phil from BT that he's offering a rather extreme answer (espceially if he can't tell me for sure why I'm cut off). I tell him I'll get back to him, I hang up, and I carry on my talk with Richard from TalkTalk.

He disagrees completely with his colleague David, from TalkTalk's faults department. He says there's no other phone company involved, and all I have to do is wait for his department to sort it out and fix the fault. He can't actually see what the fault is: "sometimes we plug a line into our equipment and its dead on arrival". Someone at the exchange wil be able to make it work, he says.

I ring off. I've had three hours of "We have got to get it together".

While I'm on the phone, the post has come. There's a letter from TalkTalk. It's addressed to me, but it has a different account number, which I've never seen before.

The letter speaks to me as if I am a new customer, and says "In our attempts to connect you to TalkTalk, there's been a small hitch. Unfortunately, BT has advised us that it is not possible to put a TalkTalk connection through on the telephone number we currently hold on our records." It suggests that I've given them a wrong number (no), I've got a new telephone number that isn't in BT's database yet (nope), or I'm a cable customer (no again).

I go back to TAlkTalk's LLU department. I get someone called Ken -- he knows who Richard is. Now, Ken is interested to have two account numbers for me. In fact, that's putting it mildly. He's flipping from screen to screen on his system, seeing things he didn't know were even possible. He calls in a senior colleague, Kevin, who has superior powers.

Keven suddenly realises what's happening. Apparently it's not a fault. It's an admin glitch. My line isn't cut off, but it's not shown as active. It's not disconnected, it's in a "limbo state". Kevin has taken his laptop into his office, Ken tells me. Kevin can fix it.

From Ken's tone, the owrds "laptop" and "office" are enough to make Kevin a superior being - and from my time in open-plan offices, I know what he means.

Ken tells me it will be fixed, and I can call him back if it doesn't come live. And he gives me Kevin's number.

When should I call? Well, it should be live in "72 working hours". That's sometime around Wednesday lunchtime. So on Day 15 of the problem, TalkTalk might fix the administrative error that started the trouble.

That is, if this error really was the cuase of the problem. I'm still not convinced.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Heart of Local Loop Darkness

TalkTalk is excelling itself with incompetence and overloading. Call its Faults department and - if you aren't told they're busy so call back later - it takes around 30 minutes to connect you to someone who may know nothing about local loop unbundling and broadband.

Yesterday (my eighth day of no broadband or telephone) was a classic. I was assured that I had been disconnected because of "instructions from BT". I tried to get more of an explanation - as this made no sense according to my understanding of the way local loop unbundling works. BT has indeed switched their service off - the problem is that Carphone Warehouse's subsidiary, TalkTalk's sister company Opal Telecom, should be providing a service but isn't.

"BT made us do it," said the TalkTalk Faults guy, sounding more and more strange and otherworldly. "They don't tell us why, they give us instructions." TalkTalk hears voices, you know.

In the end, after I'd asked for more information once too often, he hung up on me (that's a first for me) leaving me to call the BT number he gave me. Sure enough, BT confirmed that my TalkTalk Faults person had indeed been talking utter rubbish.

Was he just making something up to get rid of me? Or is it just that TalkTalk's back-end systems are poorly designed and overloaded, and I got one of the army of new call-centre staff it's taken on, who simply couldn't make sense of what the system told him?

I've got a recording of the call, which I'll put online when I'm not connecting by GPRS (as I have been for a week now).

Today's call was a little better, though massively longer. I had a total of two hours on hold music, while I took my daughter to school and chatted with another unbundling victim at the school gates. There's clearly serious trouble at the Tulse Hill Exchange (8674 code).

When I got back, still on hold I tried to pick out the tune on the concertina. I'm never going to get good at this, but it's nice to have something to play along to. "We have got to get it togetherm now!"

I checked my email. I'm tying up two mobile phones here, to do voice and data that should be on my landline.

Finally, TalkTalk answered. I spoke to someone who actually understood unbundling, and agreed that what I needed was for TalkTalk to get Opal Telecom to send BT OpenReach (they stil own the exchange and have the keys, basically round to fix the problem. I'm priority one, apparently, because I've got no phone or broadband.

They still can't put a date on it though. That's because TalkTalk is completely overloaded and, I increasingly feel, incompetent to handle unbundling.

It's ironic really, because eight years ago, I was cheering on the efforts of Oftel ( as Ofcom was then) to force BT into unbundling. BT argued that it would cause chaos, but we knew unbundling was the only way to get fast broadband and choice.

A smiling BT engineer in Christchurch Road directed me to the Tulse Hill Exchange and put the BT case again, much more convincingly. "Unbundling? Ha ha!" he said.

The exchange, in New Park Road, is an old building, with racks visible inside. It is strange to see the centre of my communications universe, and find it so barren and desolate. The lights are on, and someone is walking around upstairs.

Apparently they've got plenty of other lines to fix before mine though, because mine's still dead.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

TalkTalk Troubles

You're going to tell me I shouldn't be relying on a cheap broadband service. But over the last month, it's been fine, and I do have backup methods onto the net.

So I shouldn't complain too much when TalkTalk started to creak, and left me with no phone or broadband for nearly a week (so far).

Two weeks ago, I had a letter saying "We're sorry you're leaving." I checked, and they said it was sent in error, as my exchange is being upgraded to TalkTalk equipment.

Last week, the broadband, and then the phone, stopped working.

Since then, it's been like my early days on Demon/BT broadband, in the era when nothing could happen without a BT engineer, and everything was uncertain. Phoning TalkTalk gets little help or response. It takes half an hour to get through, after which they take a mobile number and call you, so you can hold on their bill for another fifteen minutes. Or they take a mobile number and promise to text you when they have information - and don't.

When you speak to someone, they can't tell whether you have an account or not, they don't have records of previous calls, they try to shunt you to the "faults" department, and so on.

After five days, I get a (possibly) definitive answer. There was a problem caused when they upgraded the exchange. Why is it taking so long to fix? And why couldn't they tell me that in the first place? No answer.

So what am I doing? I'm talking to you over GPRS - I've got a Nokia E61 (nice Wi-Fi enabled phone) with an O2 SIM. It's giving me dial-up speeds.

As the TalkTalk hold music says "We have got to get it together". They surely have....

Monday, September 18, 2006

Bollywood... with Morris Dancing?

Not only my kind of film, but Bride and Prejudice seems to be one of the few that can cross the demographic of my family - though there weren't enough Orcs in it for Rachel.

It's got fabulous dance numbers - I haven't seen any real bollywood films, but they reminded me of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers - and plenty of direct quotes from the original Jane Austen. In fact, with the whole strand about arranged marriages worked in very intelligently, an Indian update of the story probably works better than an update into Western society.

And, as a bonus, the Rutland Morris Men appear in it, including an amusing Bollywood style out-take during the credits.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Space Psychosis and Medieval Castration

I saw two shows in one weekend: a musical about space psychosis with Kitty on Saturday, and a theologian getting castrated at the Globe with Ali on Sunday.

The Dust Collectors was a lot of fun. A completely new musical, put on for a week in the wonderful South London Theatre, dealing with the troubles of astronauts returning to Earth.

This was a theatrical experience you'd be unlikely to get anywhere else, and it went down well with me and nine-year old Kitty. It had some serious strands, some very funny parts, good songs and great choreography. And - amateur theatre gold dust - lots of talented people ,working really hard and having fun.

In Extremis at the Globe Theatre, was the story of Abelard and Heloise, dramatised by Howard Brenton. Theological debate, or love story, or both? They sort of wove together, and the play really worked well - though was Brenton unfair to the mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, chief enemy of Abelard's rationalistic approach to religion? Bernard came on like a fundamentalist freak, and Abelard was a one-man mini-Reformation - and yet, you could see the other side of the arguments... good play.

And it had the kind of comedy business they do well at the Globe.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Best Goose Weepie of All Time?

I found Fly Away Home in a Helston charity shop for 50p. We all watched it again, for the first time since 1997, a few days before Kitty was born.

It's a family animal weepie, a genre which I have seen far too many of in my time, but it's head and shoulders above the brand leader of that pack, Free Willy. It's got wonderful nature filming, good acting from Anna Paquin and Jeff Daniels, and a story that pulls the usual emotional stops, but leaves some things understated. And it's - sort of - true.

Right from the off, you're rooting for Amy (Anna Paquin). The movie opens and (more or less) closes with long sequences from her viewpoint, where the sound goes away, replaced by music. In that, it's very reminiscent of the fantastic Black Stallion, also directed by Caroll Ballard.

The movie doesn't suffer from the two-dimensional "bad guys" who are probably the most irritating feature of the animal weepie. In the other movies, the bad guys try to kill the whale, dolphin, dog, bear, reindeer or whatever animal the film's about; they usually try to kill the child hero (who's such a whingeing brat you wish they'd succeed). They also endanger the local environment with their evil money-making schemes.

At the end of these movies, the bad guys lose, of course. They get punished. But these are kids' movies, so nothing really bad can happen to them. Nine times out of ten, at the climax of the movie, the bad guys fall in the water. And that's it.

Fly Away Home has a game warden who's not a bad guy - he's against developers but tries to play by the rules. And at the end, a developer just sighs and turns off his JCB. Much more satisfying, much more true.

How true is the movie in the factual sense? I was disappointed to find that Amy is completely invented. There was no girl-with-no-mother, who led her geese to freedom. That whole part of the story is constructed - including a childhood in New Zealand to explain Anna Paquin's accent.

But the dad is based on Bill Lishman, a real sculptor, inventor and pioneer. He was involved in the film, which came out only three years after he really did lead a flock of geese from Canada to the US (a story which apparently everyone else heard of but I missed somehow). He "imprinted" geese for the film, to follow the actors, and the planes they used. His Operation Migration is now working with Whooping Cranes.

I'm impressed by the speed with which they got the story together, and got the film made.

And there's something else. The video box tells me it's the "RSPB's Flim of the Year". I can see that, and the RSPB does sell DVDs, but does it have a film of the year every year? What other movies got the award? Chicken Run? The Birds?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

What a heavy printer!

I'm having a high time this week, entering product reviews and writing news stories at ZDnet.

Here's the highlight so far. Misreading the units in the publishing system, I accidentally published a review (now fixed)which shrunk a Lexmark printer to about six inches high, and increased its weight to 66kg.

Yes. That was the highlight.

Amusing, wasn't it?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

TalkTalk comes through

This morning, I'm a happy bunny.

Yesterday, TalkTalk definitely had problems, but today everything is looking good. This morning, I tried the router again, and it was connected. The password I put in yesterday was working just fine.

There's no technical issues to make this different from other broadband, and at least two of my routers work (the basic old Netgear and the Fritz box).

The Fritz box's snazzy diagnostics tell me I'm getting the same 2 Mbit/s that Pipex was giving me (though the line is actually capable of 8 Mbit/s). But I'm not grumbling.

Just to check things fully, I made a call to Tech support, feeling somewhat embarassed to make a call with no actual support problem. I got connected in about one minute and had a useful conversation. f

Apparently, there were "technical problems with the phone system" yesterday, that cut people off. I had a clear and coherent conversation for two or three minutes today and didn't see any trouble. I asked about the speed and got a sensible answer. I'm getting 2 Mbit/s because they're currently using the BT equipment. By the end of next year, TalkTalk, with "unbundling" hopes to upgrade its own equipment in the majority of exchanges, and will send me a letter when this happens.

My friend in the callcentre tells me that TalkTalk has already upgraded about 30 percent of its customers.

On the basis of this - I say go for it. If you can dial a phone and enter a password to your router, and if saving £20 a month is meaningful, TalkTalk's technology and support seems adequate so far.

The parcel at the Post Office? That turned out to be a re herring - some spring bulbs that are due to be planted now.

Monday, August 21, 2006

TalkTalk is in overload

I thought the fuss about talkTalk was hyped. The company is promising free broadband, and the media's been full of predictions of doom. The call centres can't possibly keep up etc.

I thought it couldn't be that bad. My finances are such that saving 23.44 a month by not using Pipex sounded a good idea. And a couple of preliminary calls to TalkTalk support got a quick and helpful response. Pipex has been pretty slack at cutting its prices or improving its service, too. So I took the plunge

The switchover date was when I was on holiday of course. And so I got back yesterday, to find the Pipex account is closed, but the TalkTalk one isn't working yet.

There's a parcel at the Sorting Office, which I think is a TalkTalk modem (did I ask for one?) and by the time I realise this, the Sorting Office is closed till tomorrow. But surely, one of the three ADSL routers I have in the house will work?

TalkTalk has a sensible and useful option to get your username and password from an automated (free) phone line. I put those into my ADSL router, and it doesn't work. Maybe there are other settings which I should change, but there's no chance of finding out. Any calls to the helpline get answered within a minute, which is great. Four or five times, I get through to someone in an Indian call centre, and give them my phone number. The bad news is that every single time, I get cut off at that point.

It's a new failure mode in my experience of call centres. The other side of the world, a patient army of people is picking up calls over and over, taking the caller's phone number, then hanging up when the line drops.

So for today at least, it's off to the friendly Internet cafe on Brixton Hill. I guess I'm still better off than the call centre operators.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

"I am the sword of the Lord, and pestilence is my sister"

It's a summer of pre-destination here. The book group's been reading Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, the classic anti-war book in which Billy Pilgrim flits through time, living his life in a strange order and finding that, from this perspective, everthing is inevitable, sweet and tragic.

I last read this at the age you should read it - late teens. This time round, I was surprised to see how "literary" the book is. This should be no surprise as Vonnegut is an old-school literary author who believes - or at least hopes - in the power of books to change things. So every other page, it seems, has references to books, books and more books. From Celine, to Charles MacCay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions.

He fall foul of one of the problems of books, and the loving way he quotes them. As well as his personal experience, he goes for the facts about Dresden to a book, possibly a brillian one, but it's a book by David Irving, whose status as a historian is now blown. So we don't quite trust the history, but Slaughter House Five is still a great book.

Not quite so taken by the next cult classic, but once again, it's all about pre-destination and evil. I've heard people raving about James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner as a book which punctures the self-righteous and skewers religion (something Vonnegut likes to do as well). Written in the nineteenth century, and set in Scotland in the eighteenth century, it's the story of someone who "knows" he is justified by faith, not work. It doesn't matter what he does, and he winds up committing horrible crimes.

It's meant to be a prototype "modern" novel, with an unreliable narrator, literary games and more. And, well, yes, all of that is there, but it's not exactly a great read. It's a brilliant idea, and it's fascinating. But as a book, it's got some drawbacks.

1. It's not exactly a page-turner. The structure means you are reading the same events over twice, once told by the editor, and once by the narrator. You know how they turn out, so for a large part of the book, you are (or I was) thinking "get on with it!"

2. The narrator is a dick. This could be an interesting device, but the chilling, deluded seral killer Wringhim is Mr Pooter, who doesn't know how ludicrous he is. Sometimes Hogg goes for comedy (when Wringhim says "I am the sword of the Lord and pestilence is my sister" to his jailors) but mostly he falls between two stools...

3. ...because the theological points aren't that great either. OK, justification and predestination are dangerous ideas. We get the picture.

The history of the book's unpopularity and popularity is interesting. It fell out of favour, and came back in a big way since the 1940s. I think it's due to slump again, as we start to see it as a sort of Frankenstein-esque fable, that's a bit heavy on the moralising.

It does come with an excellent little foreward, which helped me out - it was just the potted summary of the religious and political background to life in Scotland in about 1700.

OK than -- next up on the pre-destination-go-round is The Time Traveller's Wife, by Audrey Niffeneger. No problems with readability there.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

See this play: Stay With Me

I know people always think their mates' plays are the best. So you won't necessarily rush out and see this play on my say-so. But you should.

"Stay With Me" is a youth production, first put on at the South London Theatre. Now it's transferred for a four week run at the Greenwich Playhouse.

It's youth theatre, but not kid's stuff. The actors are great, the directing is good, and the script really gives them something to get hold of. It's two plays, set on the same dates, towards the end of the Second World War. In the first play, a group of young Jews and a Gypsy are waiting in a concentration camp. In the second play, a group of English schoolchildren are trapped in the cellar of their school when a doodle-bug hits.

There's pathos and raw emotion, a surprising amount of humour and - perhaps more surpsising - theology. Where is God in the concentration camp? Who still believes - the boy who keeps the faith, or the boy who says God is not there? Or the boy whose heart says "You can't stop yourself falling in love. You can't stop your heart beating." ? And is it possible for the dead to talk to the living?

There's more information here, and booking details are on that page. There's also comments on the Time Out site.

The Greenwich Playhouse is in a pub, next to Greenwich Station. Get there!

Friday, July 28, 2006

St Anne's Anniversary

It's fifteen year's since St Anne's Community Centre and Church opened in Soho (the church itself dates back longer). Since Ali worked there for several of those years, we were invited to the party.

And what a great do! We had the fabulous London Gay Men's Chorus who know how to put their heart and soul into a performance, and a bunch of groups and organisations who have made a home at St Anne's.

"We have about 100 people in Church on a Sunday morning, and about 1,000 people come through the Centre in a week," said the Rector, Clare Herbert. They're an interesting bunch of people too.

The London Gay Men's Chorus, by coincidence is celebrating its fifteenth birthday, and we heard them the day before their party in Heaven. Were they on good form? You bet!

I want their CD , "Make the Yuletide Gay" for Christmas.

And then there were other performers, including Carmen Miranda, and a brilliant singer of Spanish songs.

A great night out....

Monday, July 24, 2006

School Holidays means...

The first "proper" day of the school holidays is here, and for a home-working dad, that means a trip for Monday breakfast to the Brockwell Park Lido with the girls.

And that means a Sunday evening spent getting their bikes back into shape. There are few things I like better than spanners, patches and rubber solution.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


So the weekend before last, I went to two memorial services.

One was for Martyn Emery, a friend in the IT industry who died suddenly in his forties, while working away from home. He was a man full of life, liable to argue for the mischief of it, and always coming up with another big plan for the future.

The other was for Gerda "Pytt" Geddes, who taught my Tai Chi teacher, Andreas. I never met her, but she's had an influence on me... and has died aged 88, leaving a not-quite movement of students and followers.

Martyn's memorial was in a church in Brockenhurst, decked with flowers for a wedding the next day, and at a hotel nearby. The event was full of people who wanted to remember him, and felt shocked to lose him.

Pytt Geddes' memorial was in a full lecture theatre at The Place , a contemporary dance colledge in London, where all the students learnt Tai Chi from her. Afterwards about 100 of us went to Regent's Park, and did Tai Chi in her manner. It was very different remembering someone who lived to fulfill more of what she could do.

I didn't have any great observations or revelations from the two services, except for a feeling that life is for living, and sharing. I've spent a lot of time not being in touch with people I know and like, just because I'm not all that good at it.

I'd really rather be enjoying what I do, and sharing it with people I like. So if this might be you, and I haven't been in touch - feel free to make the first move.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

"This used to be the best football pitch in Brockwell Park"

Wednesday is my middle-aged triathlon: I cycle to the park, do Tai Chi, and swim ten lengths of the pool. This morning, as I arrived at the Lido, I met a man who remembers it being built, in 1934.

As a boy he had mixed feelings, because the Lido was built on the best football pitch, - the flattest part of Brockwell Park. He changed his mind later, when mixed bathing came in - first introduced in Peckham Rye Lido, apparently - and you could see girls in their swimming costumes.

Last week I was sharing the pool with two ducks. This week it was a bit busier.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A robot horse in Islington

Sometimes this blog goes slack when there's other stuff happening elsewhere.

Here's a robot horse I met in Islington the other Saturday. There's another clip at the London Pride blog.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Heatwave's over

Hard to believe it was 30 degrees in London at the weekend, now it's colder, and wet again.

But here's one of the best bits of that weekend. Cycling to Islington was hot work on Saturday afternoon, but there was a burst water main on the Walworth Road, just before the Elephant and Castle.

What could I do but cycle right through the fountain? Bliss!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Exterminate, says the Dalek Bunny

My evil brother Davros is visiting, from his secret base hidden in the Far East. His experiments have turned his daughter's harmless toy into an evil killing machine.

I believe it could be his undoing, as I think she will never forgive him.

(actually, we just put the voice box from a Dalek cake, from my nephew's birthday, inside the bunny).

My mid-life accordion

Appropriately hazy, here's the accordion I borrowed Wednesday. Some men get a Harley or a mistress, I can't afford don't want anything like that - I'm celebrating mid-life with an accordion.

It's a 12-base, two-octave thing, which any player will tell you is only suitable for children or rank beginners.

I'd been doodling at tunes on the piano, and in my mind I "knew" I'd pick it up and be playing instantly, to the admiration of my peers, this being a mid-life thing. In reality of course, I'm fumbling and stumbling at it.

My daughters think it's cool though.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Is Bill Oddie God?

He's got a white beard and he's tetchy. He sits on a sofa somewhere, where we can't always see him, and he can look inside every nesting box. He cares about every sparrow. He can't do anything to help them, but he feels for them.

He clearly loves the earth in all its richness, and all the creatures on it. He's pained and a bit angry about global warming and what we're doing to the planet.

In last night's programme he mused very effectively on depression and how the natural world can save you from it.

No doubt about it - the more I see Springwatch, the more I'm convinced that Bill Oddie is God.

Now, more advanced theology would then imply that Simon King, out there suffering amongst God's creatures in the Orkneys, is Jesus, and that makes Kate Humble the Holy Spirit. But maybe that's pushing the analogy too far.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Another round of mutants

Surprise - I loved X-Men 3! Yes, I know, I'm bound to like superhero movies. To me Tootsie is a superhero movie, with all that secret-identity crisis stuff.

But a second sequel, from a comic I overdosed on years ago? I read way too many X-Men issues. Characters would get killed off, and come back, have yet another complete new secret origin, have yet another doomed romance. Or were they really a shape-changing spy under mind-control from Captain America's dead sidekick? Read Wikipedia's entry on Wolverine ( go on read to the end), to see what I mean.

From the start of this series, I like the way the creators have picked up the mass of X-Men stuff, given it a good shake, thrown out anything they don't like, and played with the rest, while keeping faith with the basic idea behind it all.

What they end up with has moments of sheer corn. "We'll have to close the school," says Storm - and instantly, there's a knock on the door, and another scared young mutant comes in, looking for shelter.

But there are so many other bits where it just about gets to the mythic level I always thought was there under the spandex. And they've got the God-like, human presence of Ian McKellen (a lifetime of Shakespeare and he manages to say "What have I done?" without over-acting).

On top of all that, while playing havoc with the idols, they put in enough references to the stuff comic fans want to see (the Danger Room, the Sentinels - hey, there's a guy called Trask! - and plenty more). Only the sickest, saddest comic fan would go away unhappy.

And (unlike that Wikipedia entry) you do need to wait right to the end. There's a great little moment after the credits...

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Unicorns are not related to horses

Many people think that unicorns are related to horses - that they are simply horses with a horn.

Observations in the field reveal that the two animals are quite unrelated species. Look at their hooves.

While the horse has a single hoof on each foot, the unicorn has a cloven hoof, suggesting it is more closely related to the cow. Or possibly the goat - check the beard. It's much easier to imagine a two-horned species evolving a single-horned version, than a non-horned species growing one, isn't it?

This also explains the rarity of unicorns. Unlike horses, they are vulnerable to foot-and-mouth disease, and are often believed to be extinct.

Apologies for the quality of the photos - obviously, they were taken under dangerous conditions.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Lazing on a sunny afternoon

Kitty and Mackerel making the best use of a sunny Saturday in London. We're back from a week in Cornwall, with lots of family, lots of body-boarding, horse-riding and all the rest of it.

But home is the place to be.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"I need to find a library - fast!"

That's an immortal line - possibly the only immortal line - from the Da Vinci code. A friend woke up from a profound sleep in the cinema, to hear Tom Hanks say it.

Wouldn't it be a great campaign for our public libraries, infusing them with glamour and excitement?

Hanks and his assistant leap on a double-decker bus and find their way to "Chelsea Library" - a name chosen for familiarity to US viewers (did they reject the Manchester United Library?).

I hope that Dav Vinci Code fans will be following them there. It looks a very nice place, in Chelsea Old Town Hall,

I don't know what happened at the point of the film - and may never find out - but in my mind, I expect they browsed the fiction shelves, joined a book group, looked at the historic costumes collection, did a Yoga class, and went on a local history walk.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Webcasting killed the video star

Yesterday, I presented a live webcast, for Techworld.

We really did broadcast from a studio opposite the Houses of Parliament. I'm told we ousted David Cameron from the studio - as we had the first appointment - but I'm sorry to say I walked past him without recognising him.

If you're interested in mobile email - and Nokia's views on the subject - you can watch it.

I promise to wear a suit for the next one, and not to look so squinty - I had to follow things on that laptop and the text was way small.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Rachel's going to China

Rachel got the news yesterday, that she's going to China with school, this time next year. We're all excited, and are getting stuff organised.

Like getting her a passport. Poor deprived child - this is the first time she's been abroad, apart from a day trip to France with school. I don't think the school expected anyone to not have a passport yet...

Sunday, May 07, 2006

London stopped by elephant

The last few days, a giant elephant has been wandering round London, courtesy of French theatre troupe, Royal De Luxe. We saw it on its last outing and it was absolutely marvellous.

If you missed it, search on YouTube. You'll probably find more clips like the one above (it's not mine - mine aren't worth putting up).

Thursday, May 04, 2006

We changed the weather! Now what about the politics?

So we danced on May Day, and again on my birthday. All these fertility rituals should be having some effect, yes?

And so they are. Thursday was bright and sunny all day. Kitty was home because her school was shut for the local election poll.

We sat in the garden with the animals - and here they are.

Lengthy aside:-
We were voting for local representatives, but it all seemed to be about "national" issues, meaning the political survival of the Prime Minister and three or four individual Cabinet members.

Surely political posts ought to have something to do with thow well people do their job?

Basically, Charles Clarke appears to be incompetent, and John Prescott seems to be a drivelling clown (or are these media creations?). But they've been told they can continue if the local election result isn't too disastrous.

Similarly, the Labour Party goes on tolerating Tony Blair, as long as the "public" likes him.

So yesterday, we are told that our vote is the only way to have any affect on a bunch of increasingly arrogant looking people. And in so doing, we also determine the political future of a whole generation of local politicians, many of whom may not be nearly so self-seeking.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Speaking of May Day...

I finally saw the Wicker Man last night. It's a tricky film to watch because you already know the end. Everyone does. It's the first thing anyone tells you about the film.

Given that, I actually enjoyed it.

It's obviously cult stuff, so there's plenty on it at Wikipedia, and useful pages explaining what scenes were lost. It also comes in for its share of post-modern analysis "The blank, unstaring face of the Wicker Man is a tabula rasa for anthropological projection, and represents not a particular anthropology (such as pagan or Christian) but anthropology itself, " says a philosopher called Robert Farrow.

I think it's interesting that a lot of people take the "ancientness"of the rituals for granted. In the film, it's very clear that the island's rituals are Victorian-era reconstructions which have themselves become traditions.

There's lots of lovely traditions in the film - an excellent hobby horse and Beltane fires - but it's all been reproduced and engineered the first Lord Summerisle - who obviously read Fraser's Golden Bough (and so can you) - to get the locals to work for him. The film does talk about it being a revival of the ancient religion of the place, but there's a big nod to Victorian revivals.

Which is just like all ritual now. Are these activities ancient, and "authentic"? Are they done out of a "tradition" which might be only a few years old? Or are they "reviving", "reproducing" or "reconstructing" activity recorded 100 years ago - which might in itself be just a reproduction?

There's lots of good academic work on all this of course (try Ronald Hutton) but I also enjoyed a personal acount of it all -- The Magic Spring by Richard Lewis. In the end, we do the rituals we want to, respecting traditions and making our own.

May Day in Deptford had all of this rolled into one of course.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Milkmaids on May Day in Deptford

We celebrated May Day in Deptford yesterday, with the Deptford Jack in the Green, and Fowlers Troop.

My phone got set on low-res for some reason, so we'll start with a video of some milkmaids, dancing with garlands of silver on their heads.

for more May Day morris action, check the London Pride Morris blog.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Spring is here

Saturday couldn't have been better. The air filed with blossom and sunshine, I joined London Pride for dancing at a St George's Day Fayre in Acton.

The weather was perfect, the jousting and folk music was fun - and continued with an evening of blues and gospel, at the South London Liberal Synagogue in Streatham. Fresh from a gig at the Borderline, enthusiastic blues guitarist Simon Prager and Masha Vlassova - the Ma Rainey of Muswell Hill - gave us an evening to remember.

Saturday was more the kind of spring day you expect. An AGM at church, lots of rain, and we found we definitely have a hole in our roof. How are we going to pay to fix that? Simon Prager would have a song to get us through - probably from Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

First night - the show is begun

You all want to know how the first night went, don't you? Just fine.

We all knew our lines pretty well, the actions all happened the way they should.

The problems -- the first act is way too long (some of the audience didn't come back after the interval) and the funniest stuff is in the second act which is much shorter (so they missed a treat).

It would be a hell of a job to cut the play though, since the first act is a mix-up of Queen Elizabeth's paranoia and obsession, a hatchet job on Hamlet and some historical games.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

This might just work...

Let's get this in proportion. It's an amateur show. I've got 100 lines. There's other people there, who are doing great stuff.

It will be fine.

It's amazing how helpful it is to have props in hand too. We've got a splendid throne-like chair I borrowed, a quill pen and all sorts of bits and bobs.

Also, I've trimmed my whiskers to something a little more Elizabethan...

Monday, March 27, 2006

Bring back the 70s - we're all doomed here!

It's just like the 70s today at Judge Towers. The nation is reeling from (possibly) "the biggest industrial action since the General Strike in 1926, and we are all facing environmental doom (the Archbishop of Canterbury is telling us that our plane rides will kill poor people round the world - and he's right).

Kitty is home from school because there aren't any school dinners there, and she's watching the Goodies. (How lucky a father am I? The Goodies DVD was a present for my oldest daughter, along with a second hand phone form eBay. Not many fathers of 14 year olds get away with so little. )

It's like a time-warp. And the pronouncements of Margaret Beckett on the radio, are beyond satire. The government is taking global warming very seriously, so seriously that we're only doubling the capacity of our airports. It could have been much more, she says.

One week to curtain up...

... and the look you see here is not swaggering self-confidence. More the look of a rabbit in the headlights.

We're going for something a bit more "punk" in the costume and design. We've left the cosy clutter of the rehearsal room for the open stage.

And suddenly, we don't know our lines (or at least I don't).

Catch the look of terror as we have publicity photos taken.

Last night's rehearsal was pure misery - I never knew farce could be so depressing.

It was so bad I nearly didn't use tonight's rehearsal as a (perfect) excuse to skip a church council meeting. If you've been to a church council meeting, you'll know how bad it was.

It was so bad, I fired off a mean and pointless heckle at the stand-up comedy MC in the Theatre bar. I was on my way past the door, back to the rehearsal, and I heard him say "It's OK, you can heckle me," so I did.

I hadn't even been listening to the gig. In fact, I don't ever go to stand-up comedy. And I like the guy. And I said something so pointless it's not worth repeating.

I'm sure the show will be all right. Anne looks like she's enjoying it here. By next Tuesday, I hope to be thoroughly in the mood.

But at home, Alison is rummaging through the video shelf for The Goodbye Girl. You know, the film where Richard Dreyfuss plays an actor who's starring in a terrible camp Richard III, but his girlfriend still loves him....