Thursday, July 13

A rather strange exchange on a mailing list I'm subscribed to, in a conversation I started about Ribena:

Nothing's wrong with Ribena itself, though I have never tasted it. Consult Adrian's webpage at http://www.gen-mars.freeserve.co.uk/about.htm, near the bottom where he purports to to be in possession of (I quote) "1 empty glass of Ribena Toothkind (chilled)".

The possibilities are not quite endless, but there is some room for speculation. Is the glass chilled? Why is an empty glass chilled? Is an empty glass of Ribena Toothkind really an empty glass of Ribena Toothkind or just an empty glass? Perhaps the Ribena was chilled in order to drink it, and after the contents of said glass had been consumed the glass (chilled via a "contact chill") was secreted away in some sort of null-entropy box in order to preserve it's chilled-ness.

6:00 PM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, July 12

I'm in a very good mood at the moment. Two of my most-loved things (three, now that I think of it) are just about to find a new lease of life:

The Outer Limits: I'd been intending to write about the general unfairness of the Outer Limits series. Unlike pretty much every other TV series, nearly all of the episodes on the Outer Limits had the bad guys winning. A nice change, but it made for depressing viewing - time after time, I watched the Earth being blown up, or the hero dying, or the hero's girlfriend dying, or America being blown up (hey, wait a second...)

Anyway, the point is that a new series of the Outer Limits is about to be shown on Sky One in the UK, so I'm very pleased (especially since Stargate finished its run a few weeks ago).

The Incredible Machine: Back in the days of yore, when we didn't have any of these fancy-dan 3D graphics accelerators, 2D games ruled the roost and puzzle games actually involved using your mind rather than steering Lara Croft to push two buttons in a row. And the master of those 2D puzzle games was The Incredible Machine, where you had to assemble together unlikely-looking Rube Goldbergian contraptions from monkeys on bicycles, cats, buckets of water and lasers to complete various tasks. It spawned two sequels, and now Sierra is going to launch Contraptions: Return of the Incredible Machine.

Babylon 5: 'Nuff said. I don't want to go on about why I like Babylon 5 so much - go and read what I've written about it in the past from the bottom shortcut bar. While Crusade, alas, was cancelled it seems there might be a second B5 spin-off featuring the regular actors (you have to scroll down to find the relevant bit).

11:15 PM | permalink | discuss

Normally I'm all for automation in the interests of efficiency and reducing time-wasting. However, in some cases the system breaks down. I had to go out and get some passport photos done this morning (now, I do think that personal IDs should be replaced with automated biometrics, but that's completely another story...). Last time I went to get passport photos, I was traumatised by the whole experience. The nearest passport booth to where I live in is the foyer of a supermarket and it's pretty cheap. On stepping inside and putting the money in, a voice boomed out:

"Welcome to the Instamatic Photo system! Please select your choice of passport photo here. If you wish to retake your photo, press..."

As soon as this happened, I started looking wildly around for a mute button, or failing that, the loudspeaker so I could administer a healthy blow. That didn't work, so I started to cringe as a group of kids started laughing about something while the photo booth gabbled on. I tried to get the experience over as quick as possible, and once I was out I used my perfected 'innocent loitering' technique to hang around the booth for my photos while pretending not to be waiting in the first place.

I've never gone back to that booth since - instead I just printed them out whenever I needed them from home. Unfortunately, today the colour ink ran out so I had the photos done by a real, living person, and it was an altogether more pleasant (and expensive) business.

Technically, it's not automation at fault here since the automated photo booth is still cheaper and just as good. However, it just goes to show that designing user interfaces is as important for everyday automation as computers.

I found a particularly useful and funny essay I wrote a while back, entitled A Bluffer's Guide to Essay Writing. I never fail to find it amusing that the 'fill-in-space' conclusion will always win the judges over. Check it out (saves me from writing any more today, anyway).

A very impressive mapping website of the entire United Kingdom - I managed to find my own road in one minute (and no, I'm not going to tell you where it is). Thanks to ReaperLog.

11:45 AM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, July 11

While I was determined not to watch Who Wants to be an E-millionaire on Channel 4 last night, on the basis that the contestants were likely to be a pretty poor bunch, I unfortunately caught the last fifteen minutes and my fears were confirmed.

It seems that the hapless entrants have one minute to win over the audience and the panelists with a very short talk. This had me in stitches since it was staged like some kind of quiz, with the entrants standing on a 'hot-spot'. A loud buzzer cuts them off at the end of their minute - often in mid-speech. The last guy was so eager to impress, it was painful. He was a very serious young lad from Oxford University with a pretty useless concept, but what struck me was that he kept on shifting about and gesticulating with his hands. This reminded me of a fact I was told that people who wave their hands about a lot aren't good speakers since they can't express themselves through their words alone.

This lad's concept was to build a website that would organise parties for 'young people'. Since apparently the average cost of each party would be 500 (!), the company would only get 15 return for each party it organised. Now. Exactly how many students do you know spend 500 on parties? Not many. Evidently our young lad has been hanging around with the richer sections of Oxford society. And let's see, you only get 15 per party? So, what, you've have to organise ten thousand parties just to get 150,000?

Luckily, the panelists didn't let this go by and questioned him on it. His lame duck response was that 'Well, uh, expand.' Why, I don't know about you but that won me over.

Possibly the most amusing part was when another panelist said 'Who's going to spend 500 on a party? I thought for a student party all you needed was cheap booze, and, uh, cheap booze?'

It was quite sad though, I have to admit, when two of the panel gave him 5 out 10.

Panelist: I'm not entirely convinced this is a viable business plan. 5 out of 10.
Oxford lad: (standing on hotspot, nods head seriously trying not to look upset) Hmm...

That said, none of the sites could've been particularly impressive since the highest scorer only gained 18/30 - or an average of 6 out of 10. A pretty poor bunch, all told, and in fact, one of them appeared to be impersonating Roger Daltrey by giving the camera the evil eye and showing off his Adam's apple.

I'll be sure to miss tonight's instalment.

1:39 PM | permalink | discuss

Good old Jakob Neilsen, the (in)famous web-design consultant, was on Sky News a few days ago. It was quite amusing since Sky News had got some ridiculously clueless 'new-media' woman in from the UK to shore up the home team and she ended up looking like a complete fool. During the course of the show the presenter visited a few sites and we saw Jakob cheerfully taking apart those who were foolish enough to have anything animated or - gasp - blinking - on their sites.

This new-media person belatedly tried to interject by arguing that the ticker-tape stocks info bar on FT was actually quite useful. Jakob had evidently heard it all before and proceeded to tell us about how the ticker-tape was a relic of primitive technology and that there are far better ways of presenting the information these days.

Now, there are two schools of thought about Jakob. The first is that he is a web-design god whose words must be treated as divine wisdom, and that while he might make unholy amounts of money by consulting, it's the company who's paying him that's at fault.

The second school thinks that Jakob just tells us what we know already (I mean, we all know that banner ads don't work, and that anything that blinks is a sure sign of an inexperienced webdev). Any web-designer worth his or her salt doesn't need to read Useit (his homepage).

Unfortunately, many web-designers aren't worth their salt. And through some strange coincidence, these web-designers are invariably in charge of major corporate websites (probably it's because they're so good at bullshitting) and proceed to make an almighty hash of everything. Which is understandably ridiculous when the very same company could go and ask for volunteers to do the same job, and they'd get a vastly improved website out of the deal (the volunteers get the experience and kudos).

Of course, Big Corporate people don't think in such ways and so they go and hire Jakob to cure their woes. Why, only thirty thousand dollars to make the problem go away? That's nothing.

12:03 AM | permalink | discuss

Monday, July 10

Just received Figments of Reality by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. I'd originally intended to interview Jack Cohen about his 'alien designing business' - he's an evolutionary biologist and helps to SF authors to design plausible aliens - for the Thinkquest site I'm doing, except he said that he was a little busy and it'd probably help matters along if I read his book first. So this is what I'm doing.

I'm a bit ashamed to say that I haven't read many scientific factual books for a while so it's slightly difficult for me to crank my brain up to speed, but I've found Figments to be pretty interesting. Their ideas about extelligence (analagous to what we'd call 'culture'), 'dream' and 'nightmare' games seemed pretty convincing to me. The book's general tone is slightly less formal than usual and there are regular dialogues between aliens who are reading the book (don't ask) for comic relief and inspiration. However, I've found that I'm rushing through the beginning of the book to reach the section about 'Universals and Parochials' - alien evolution, essentially. A full review will be coming along shortly.

A project which I've been meaning to do for some time is finally getting organised within my head. The whole weblog idea has been running along quite happily for a few years now, with only small variations. Occasionally we see stuff such as the Haiku blog and so on, but nothing really quite innovative. What I want to do is to tell a story using a weblog - I'm not sure how, but I know it can be done and I'm certain that I can make it gripping, as well as disconcerting for the reader. Hopefully it might even make people think about the nature of weblogs themselves...

Well, anyway, you heard it here first.

5:34 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, July 9

Is it me? Am I getting old, or am I not alone in finding that kids who collect prostitute's call-cards instead of Pokemon cards extremely strange?

At the supermarket yesterday, while we were at a checkout till I saw the strangest event. An old woman was clearly looking at the various checkout tills, presumably to choose the one with the shortest queue. Next to our till was one that was utterly deserted, and right in front of her nose. After about a minute of mulling this decision over, the old woman promptly decided to give the deserted till a miss and joined a longer one. Sometimes I wonder...

2:17 PM | permalink | discuss