Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Bark: He's as clumsy as he is stupid.

Sad news today. Admiral Ozzel is dead. Or rather, Michael Sheard, the actor who played him, has been shuttled up to the Super Star Destroyer in the sky.

I met Michael Sheard at a book signing in Farnborough about 4 years ago, and he was a really cool guy - full of anecdotes about the times he'd had at sci-fi conventions and stories about "the Appreciators". My friend Chris and I spent our whole lunch hour chatting to him; just for the hell of it. Probably one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet - and totally unstarry and down to earth, despite the fact of having had two of the most memorable bit parts in two of the most popular movies ever made (Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back, and Hitler in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). I'm sure that's part of it - he knew that he was never really a "star" and never pretended to be; though he really enjoyed the attention these cult roles gave him - and why not?

I think there's a strong possibility that I'll be watching The Empire Strikes Back tonight...

"My lord, there are so many uncharted settlements. It could be smugglers..."

Byte: Where have all the good games gone?

Yet again, I find myself in agreement with fellow gaming misanthrope Cobbett. What the hell has happened to all the good games? The answer: they're either still stuck in Development Limbo, or they're being held out of the UK market by publishers who couldn't give a damn about Europe...

There's absolutely nothing in the PC or Xbox release schedules this side of October that's really getting my juices going, and other than Starship Troopers.

I find myself reduced to buying imported DS games from America off eBay, and moderately intriguing budget games I never would've paid full price for. Though I approach X2 with some trepidation, considering that the enemy race are called the "Khaak"...

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Bark: Galaxy Death

Interesting Astronomy story on BBC News today. Nice to see that Astronomy is still considered to be a "sexy" science: Which is probably due to images like this one.

That's what two galaxies look like when they collide. Pretty.

When I studied Astrophysics and Space Science at university (now TEN years ago - damn, that makes me feel old) it was never mentioned that the Milky Way was going to merge with the Andromeda galaxy - I presume it's a relatively recent discovery - but we were told about galaxy collisions, and their effects on galaxy shape and star formation.

Everybody is probably familiar with the classic spiral shape galaxy:

What you're probably not so familiar with are the other shapes, such as bar spiral:

Elliptical galaxies:

Lenticular galaxies:

And Irregular galaxies:

We still don't know a huge amount about how or why galaxies form into particular shapes, (Wikipedia has one of the easier to follow guides of our understanding so far) but both the Elliptical and Irregular type galaxies are thought to be formed by the collision of two (or more!) galaxies - which brings about the rather horrible concept of a so-called "cannibal" galaxy...

Because gravitation is such a long-ranged force, galaxies can affect each other over mind-bogglingly large distances (millions of light years). Galaxies which collide eventually form into huge super-galaxies, with so much mass that they can influence other galactic objects, meaning that these cannibal galaxies swoop around the intergalactic ether, gobbling up smaller (and thereby vulnerable) galaxies. Thankfully, this process takes billions of years to occur, but it must be absolutely cataclysmic for the galaxies involved. I can only imagine the destruction wreaked when this kind of thing happens.

Just be thankful that we're not due to hit Andromeda for another 5 billion years, eh?

Bark: I've nothing to declaAAAARRRRRGGGGHHHH!"

Shamelessly cribbed from Jim Rossignol:

Mr Smith, a professional [human] cannonball, was launched head first across the border between Tijuana, in Mexico, and the US city of San Diego.

Well, it's one way to earn a living I suppose...

Friday, August 26, 2005

Bark: There are some things that you just don't need to know...

Edited highlights from a conversation I had over Google Talk earlier today:

Richard: "THE PRINCE: WEALTHY BRITISH FARMER LOOKS TO THE MOON FOR HELP. Tormented by fears of nanorobots turning the planet into "grey goo," and poisoning by genetically modified foods, Prince Charles fights science by embracing homeopathy, coffee enemas, organic farming, and now "biodynamics," which involves planting according to cycles of the moon and signs of the Zodiac. In a monarchy you are stuck with what you get, while in a democracy we can pick the best qualified among us to lead. But it's only a theory…"


Iain: _COFFEE ENEMAS_?????
"I didn't get where I am today without sticking coffee up my arse!"

Richard: "The use of coffee in enemas for detoxification purposes is well known. It is a common herbalogical remedy that has been suggested by holistic and alternative medicine professionals for many years."

"The effects of a coffee enema are different than a saline enema. The most important difference between a saline enema and a coffee enema is the presence of caffeine in the coffee. Caffeine, theophylline and theobromine, combine to stimulate the relaxation of smooth muscles causing dilatation of blood vessels and bile ducts. The effects of having a coffee enema are not the same as drinking coffee. The veins of the anus are very close to the surface of the tissue. The caffeine is therefore absorbed more quickly (and in higher concentration) than it is in when coffee is drunk."

I would rather not think too carefully about this.

Iain: no...

that's probably something I never needed to know

Richard: Although I do like: "The effects of having a coffee enema are not the same as drinking coffee. "


Iain: quite.

Just thought I'd share the horror with you.

Bark: From the sublime to the ridiculous

What do you see when you look at a JCB? A metal monstrousity of awesome destructive power? A builder's tool of immense proportions? Or just a glorified yellow tractor? Or, perhaps, do you see a potential ballet partner?

Glorious lunacy from Lucky Kazoo. Make sure you check out The Expressionless Girl while you're at it.

Byte: TechnoSquirrel

GENIUS. I want one.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Byte: In defense of the internet user

There was a very interesting program on Channel 4 on Tuesday night about how a 14 year old boy used internet chatrooms to construct a very elaborate and outlandish fantasy, which very nearly ended up with his own (self-provoked) murder.

Clearly, this is an exceptional, if not perhaps unique, case: there was, of course, the very famous German case of a cannibal advertising on the internet for victims. Incredibly, someone replied, and was indeed killed and eaten...

In the face of such sensationalist coverage as Channel 4's program on Tuesday, it would be very easy to think that the internet is full of dangerously psychotic people (not to mention predatory paedophiles), that it should be banned and you shouldn't let kids near it. (I can see the Daily Mail writing up the headlines now) Though, to be fair to Channel 4, the program makers *did* try to inject a sense of proportion into the final segment of the program - trying to make clear just how unusual a case it was - but for people who didn't watch the whole program, it appeared to be dangerously unbalanced against internet use by children.

This has to be addressed. The Armin Meiwes cannibal case was between two adults who were acutely aware of what they were doing - regardless of how deranged it was. The problem in the case of the two children isn't just that "John" was a complete fantasist, nor that "Mark" was so naive that if you told him that the word "gullible" had been taken out of the dictionary he would have answered "Really?". "John" was clearly out to hoodwink "Mark" - just because he could - and that's not what I'd consider normal behaviour. The fact neither his parents nor "Mark" were able to spot this is, in my opinion, the crux of the matter. At just 16, "Mark" didn't have the life experience to spot a con, but "John"'s parents should have noticed a change in his behaviour - and should have taken firmer action when his school work began to become effected.

Is it responsible parenting to allow a 14 year old child access to the internet for up to 12 hours a day? Note that these 12 hours are above and beyond the normal school day. Ignorance of what they were doing is no excuse, either. You might not be able to watch people for 24 hours a day, but as a parent, you have a duty of care to your progeny. Which means you shouldn't be letting them stay up all night on internet chatrooms without you knowing...

The vast majority of kids using the internet probably don't need to be supervised. If anything, they're probably more internet-savvy than their parents (which is part of the problem) - but in the cases where interest turns into behaviour-modifying obsession, parents have to exercise their control.

99.99999999999% of people on the internet are completely normal, stable people (albeit half of them are assholes... Just half? - Generic reader) who don't pose a danger to you, your kids or your dog. A few simple precautions here and there, plus a bit of interest from parents in seeing what their children are doing would go a long way to preventing bizarre cases like this from happening.

Take this example of good parenting: (The 5th post down)

Pardon me for hijacking the thread, here..

But, Brion - if you don't want your mother to know you were up and on the computer at 3:29 in the morning - DON'T post on a forum that she reads.


[ post edited by Faydra ]

Kudos to you, Faydra. Brion, your pwned!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Byte: Talk isn't just cheap - it's free.

Well, it's worthless most of the time, anyway...

Google release yet another Beta, this time for an Instant Messenger - Google Talk. As IMs go, it's pretty basic - though I consider that to be a good thing, when you look and see just how flabby MSN Messenger has become. After a reboot this afternoon, GT took a second or two to sign in and start up. MSN, on the other hand, took nearly THIRTY. Rubbish.

Of course, practically no-one is using it yet - my only contact as yet is Mr Cobbett, who pointed me in its direction this very morning - though that too can be seen as a plus point: the contact list isn't flooded with people you added to your MSN list on a whim and who then never talk to you... I fully intend to use it to replace MSN as a bloat-free IM with a very discreet contact list; especially on my machine at work.

Being a Beta, it's sure to accumulate more features as time goes on - hopefully a contact import feature from other IMs, preferably one that allows you to just import selected contacts - not a blanket import of everything...

I hope that they don't ruin the looks too much, though. Currently the interface is very clean an unobtrusive. Let's hope they keep it that way. I particularly like the auto-formatting of text: i.e. making text bold or italic if you surround the string with *'s or _'s at each end.

You may find it worth a download, if you don't mind having yet another IM on your machine...

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Bark: All's well that ends well...

I had a bit of an inauspicious ending to my holiday in France today. Firstly, it was pissing it down. Secondly, I had to drive myself to the airport (not really knowing the way), as Fleur's sister Colline didn't feel like driving there AND back. Additionally, I found out on the plane that the wonderfully direct Mo Mowlam has died, from reading my complementary copy of The Telegraph. (Not my normal choice of paper, but they don't seem to get The Guardian in Switzerland, and given the choice between the Telegraph and the Daily Mail...) Finally, when we got to Heathrow, the ground staff mislaid my girlfriend's luggage: doubly anguishing when you consider that it contained her entire supply of epilepsy medication.

We went through the whole palaver of logging a mishandled luggage report with the very helpful BA staff at Terminal 4; they were genuinely understanding and pulled out all the stops when we told them that the bag contained essential medication. I wasn't particularly hopeful of ever seeing the bag again - all the stories I've ever heard of missing airline baggage have been of it being filtched by someone with light-fingers, and them never seeing their property again - so I was most surprised (and relieved) when a courier turned up at just after 8pm with the luggage in hand, completely intact.

I'm now going to endeavour to type up the rest of the blog entries I wrote up by hand in my holiday pen and paper journal. Hope you didn't miss me too much while I was gone... (What? You were gone? - Generic reader)

Friday, August 19, 2005

Bark: La derniere nuit

In 24 hours I'll be home, hopefully either typing this up, or playing the French copy of Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn I found today in Belfort (which I bought to help widen my French vocabulary - plus I wanted to replay it, and this version was on DVD, and only 15 Euros for the game and the Throne of Bhaal expansion pack)

It's been a great holiday, but in many ways I can't wait to get home. Mentally, it's very tiring to have to concentrate and try to decipher a foreign language 24/7 for three weeks. Ideally, I'd need another week off to recover from my holiday and get used to dealing with people speaking my own language again. That said, it'll almost be good to get back to work. It seems like it's been an eternity since I've seen my friends there. It'll be good to catch up - plus I reckon I'm going to be very popular with the girls in my team for bringing back a huge selection box of Swiss chocolate for the team to share...

I do have a few regrets this holiday: Namely not being able to take photos from the top of the Eiffel Tower; nor being able to get a complete set of Force FX Lightsabers (Anakin Skywalker's, Darth Vader's and Mace Windu's) from an amazing comic and sci-fi trinket store in Paris's Latin Quarter (even though the total cost would have been around 450 Euros); I also regret not killing more bastard-bitch mosquitos, but as I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I need to preserve them as evidence in my legal case against God. So that's a minor regret compared to the lightsabers.

My final evening in Alsace has been made interesting (and slightly smelly) thanks to the fact that we have no water, because of quite a large fire earlier in the village. The fire appliance attending the scene (from what I saw, a burnt out car, and the burning crops in the field it had taken refuge in) has used practically the entire water supply for the village until tomorrow: only a plaintive dribble is coming through the taps - there's no water pressure left in the village reservoir at all. So we can't even flush the cludgeys. You can fill in the blanks from here, right?

Just another reason to be grateful to be returning to the mosquito-less urban sprawl tomorrow evening...

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Bark: Service!

Yesterday was very much a day of two halves. The first half being spent sitting around eating and drinking, and the second half being spent... yes, you guessed it - sitting around eating and drinking. And like a football match between two very attack-minded teams, the second half was much better than the first half.

For the first half we visited one of my girlfriend's cousins, Marie-Paule and her family for a very British barbeque: i.e. it was pissing it down, so the cooking was done in the garage and we ate indoors...

Marie-Paule and her two teenage daughters were nice enough (despite their Harry Potter obsession); the problem was Marie-Paule's husband, Michel. If you've ever played the introductory sniper level in No One Lives Forever, where you have to protect the deaf American ambassador in Morocco, you'll remember Cate's comment about him: "This guy is too much!"

That's how I'd sum up Michel. He was like a manic-depressive, but without the depressive part. On Speed. Add to that the bottle and a half of Corbieres that he drank, he was like a Spinal Tab amplifier: He went up to 11. I had to graciously decline his offer to play petanque on the grounds that I would've thrown one of the metal boules at his head JUST TO SHUT HIM UP.

Next time I'm taking a baseball bat.

It was a relief to drive home; just in time to go out again. Fleur and I were treating her parents to dinner at Au Petit Paradis, the finest restaurant in the area. Situated unassumingly in a tiny rural village, within an old mill (the disused grinding stones stood impotently next to an external wall), it gives little indication of the quality of the food inside. The inside of the building itself is beautiful: all of the supporting wooden beams for the structure are exposed, and there's a fantastic feeling of light and space. Our hostess for the evening, Marjorie (I discovered from reading her bracelet) was equally enchanting. She was very much my type: in her early 20's, slim and sleek of figure, not too tall, with shoulder length dark hair, brown eyes, sharp features and a wonderfully warm smile. Seeing as the restaurant was practically empty (only three tables booked for the evening), she was very attentive, without being overbearing, topping up our glasses just before they ran empty, with a discreet "Service!" after every time I thanked her. I could have sworn that she was trying to get me drunk, due to the rapidity with which she was refilling my glass; though that may well have been wishful thinking on my part. She was painfully cute...

The food was spectacularly good. For entree I had a King Prawn tempura, served tomate a la folie. Tempura is one of those really simple dishes; so simple that it's really easy to get horribly wrong. This one, however, was perfect: Light, crisy batter, without a hint of oil to the taste. The tomato dipping sauce was delicately spiced (a touch of paprika and a hint of Worcester sauce, I think), and the bed of sliced tomatoes the prawns were served on were seasoned with a little salt and finely trimmed chives: Not a natural herb I'd associate with tomato, but it worked surprisingly well.

I chose the main course purely on account of never having tried the meat before - pigeon. I'm certain that the pigeon I ate last night hadn't been sourced from Trafalgar Square, as it was absolutely delicious. It was served just a touch pink, stuffed with spinach in a "croustillant", which is a very well done wrap of filo-style pastry, but only a sheet or two thick - not "en croute" like a pie. The taste is quite hard to describe. "Gamey" covers a whole multitude of sins when it comes to describing meats beyond the traditional sphere of beef, pork, lamb and chicken, but it somehow fails to do pigeon justice.

It's a very densely fibred meat - like a very good cut of beef - and very strongly flavoured: somewhere beyond duck and approaching boar in "gameyness". It went very well with the balsamic vinegar sauce and the wonderfully pretentious vegetable accompaniments - a courgette mousse and an aubergine "fondue" (i.e. a baby food-like paste). I'll definitely be trying pigeon again, though.

Seeing as I was in a really decent French restaurant, I just had to plump for a dessert of Creme Brulee. Predictably, it was the best I've ever had - bar none. I really love vanilla, and there must have been a whole pod in my serving. It was glorious. It even came with a scoop of "fromage blanc" (white cheese) sorbet, which was as unusual as it was delicious. All in all, a fabulous dinner; albeit one that made me feel like I wanted to explode, after spending practically the entire day eating.

No wonder I went to straight to bed (for 12 hours). Still, at least the local mosquitos didn't make a meal of *me* last night. Not a single new bite. Maybe they realised that I'd done enough eating for everyone yesterday. Or maybe they just don't like pigeon...

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Bark: Of moustiques and men

I'm afraid I've got some bad news. I'm giving up Code Monkeying and semi-professional videogames journalism, and instead I'm going to devote the rest of my working life to my new calling. Namely, exterminating every lasting fucking mosquito from the face of the Earth.

Whilst I love holidaying in France, if there's one thing I'd like to change, it's the mysterious attraction I seem to hold for the local "moustiques". I'm averaging four bites per night, and I'm pretty sure that the couple of kilos I've lost since arriving here can be accounted for by blood loss alone. And that's after factoring in the weight of the box and a half of plasters I currently have adhered to my itching wounds.

I noticed in the news recently that our beloved Dubya has weighed into the evolution debate by siding with the "Intelligent Design" fundamentalists and supporting its teaching alongside Darwin's Theory of Evolution as "Science". Educating them back to The Stone Age, eh, George? Well, I suppose it's cheaper than using bombs... Sorry, Georgie, but the very existence of the mosquito puts a nail into the coffin of "Intelligent Design". I don't think making a creature that lives directly off another's blood is particularly intelligent design; do you? Especially when the bites bloody HURT so much. Any moderately intelligent deity would have designed the mosquito to bite painlessly (in both execution and after effect) and suck FAT, not blood. Not only is fat a better bodily medium for storing energy than blood, but you could end the obesity crisis and put the majority of cosmetic surgeons (as evil a group of bloodsuckers than mosquitos) out of business in one fell swoop.

Think of it: Millions of tiny little liposuction agents flying around the most popular holiday spots of the world. Not only could you work on your tan, but improve your figure at the same time! That's intelligent design, not having a malaria-spreading hypodermic needle on wings. The mosquito; definative proof of the non-existance of God. So maybe I shouldn't exterminate them after all. I'd just be throwing away valuable evidence in my class action against religious fundamentalism.

Which reminds me. You know how Karl Marx once said "Relgion is the opiate of the masses"? If the masses need opiate, then we should forget religion, and just give people heroine. I suggest we find out the addresses of all the weak-minded people unable to cope with the fact that there's no God, no afterlife and no such thing as an immortal soul and put it in their water supply. Then all the "Believers" will be too fucking stoned to mess up the world and leave people capable of rational, scientific thought in charge. Then we might use the Earth's resources to globally improve the standard of life and colonise other worlds, rather than systematically try and fuck this one and everyone in it into a cocked hat. Heh. I love being a sociopath. If only more people were like me...

Anyway, I was *meant* to be giving you an update about my holiday, which is now into its final week. Other than being systematically drained dry by mosquitos, I've had a fine time.

My girlfriend and I spent the first week with our Canadian friends, Chris and Tanya, showing them around the region, taking them to Strasbourg, Basel and Mulhouse, as well as spending an entire afternoon sampling the delights of the local E. Leclerc (the Alsacian version of Sainsbury's, if you will). Much fine wine and great continental beer was consumed, and a good time had by all. I already have a bottle of 1997 Sauternes (a wonderfully sweet white dessert wine from Bordeaux - cost: around 20 Euros), a bottle of 2001 Chateauneuf-du-Pape (15 Euros), a bottle of 2001 St. Emillion Grand Cru (13 Euros) and a bottle of 2000 Hautes Cotes du Nuit (a gift - estimated value: around 20 Euros) packed in my bag for the trip home. For the uninitiated, when it comes to French supermarkets, when you want to find an equivalent price for a bottle of fine wine, you don't use the exchange rate. Typically, to get the price in Sterling, you take the price in Euros and multiply by two... So I've got some fine drinking waiting for me when I get home.

The last week Fleur and I spent in Paris. Despite (or perhaps because of) being a Brit, I have to say that Paris is an astonishingly beautiful city. Unlike London, it didn't have all of its character bombed out of it by the Nazis (See? There are advantages of being cheese-eating surrender monkeys). We went on a Grand Tour (by foot) down the Seine from the Gare de Lyon all the way down to the Eiffel Tower and back, taking detours down the Champs Elysees, la Place de la Concorde and the Latin Quarter. I took literally dozens of photos ("Photo opportunity!"), which I can't wait to look at full screen at home (most of the detail is lost on my painfully small LCD on the digital camera). My favourites will undoubtedly be of the Eiffel Tower (I took some beauties from directly underneath the tower itself). It's a magnificent piece of engineering - such lovely symmetry - it's hard to believe it was just meant to be a temporary addition to the Paris skyline. The best photo I took, however, was probably of the Notre Dame, whilst the contrails from two planes formed a symbolic cross in the sky overhead. Whilst the concept of relgion is anathema to me, and I detest everything the Church (and religion in general) stand for, I couldn't let such a perfect "Kodak moment" pass by; to have the grandness and symbolism of the cathedral below mocked by the pollution left by two constructs of science and knowledge flying free of the ignorance perpetuated in such buildings - it was too delicious an irony to be left unrecorded. A "believer" would have an entirely different interpretation, naturally, but that's their prerogative, I suppose. I'll post the picture when I get the chance.

Other than our "Grand Tour" (looking at the map afterwards, I estimated our route had taken us about 20 kilometres - we'd walked the entire day, and I have the sunburn to prove it!), we kept ourselves busy: We visited the National Natural History Museum's "Grand Hall of Evolution"; the Louvre (which is simply stunning: we only had time to see the Greek, Roman and Egyptian sections - it would take days to see it all); the City of Science (which included a tour around a 1950's diesel submarine); the Pompidou Centre of Modern Art and a tour around Amelie country (Montmartre). The weather was fabulous too. It was a wonderful week. It was a shame that we weren't able to do the Eiffel Tower itself (it was far too busy - though my vertigo is secretly grateful), but I still got some nice shots of the city in Montmartre and from the top of the Pompidou Centre. I expect we'll come back to Paris some time out of tourist season and do "la Tour Eiffel". Despite my terrible head for heights, I'd love to go right to the top of it - though not necessarily taking the stairs all the way... good exercise though that may be.

The final week of my holiday is tentatively scheduled to be spent seeing friends and relaxing from our hitherto hectic schedule. I fly back on Saturday evening (when this will inevitably be typed up), giving me just a day before I have to return to work. I'm *almost* looking forward to it (given the lack of mosquitos in Lightwater, and the new work I'll be doing setting up a Management Information database). I'm felling fully recharged and ready to stretch my grey matter again.

I've even started writing a sci-fi short (to take my mind off that aching gap in my brain left by World Of Warcraft withdrawl) - though whether this one will languish as unfinished as all my other short stories remains to be seen. I've gotten through four books (two Heinlein, one Robert Rankin and one Phillip K. Dick) since I've been on holiday, and I've got that urge to write again. Which makes this an ideal point to conclude this blogged missive. Just for the sheer ironic juxaposition value...