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.