Thursday, December 15, 2005

15 December 2005: Conspiracy

The plot thickens.
  • The Daily Telegraph today reports that BetFair have given the FA a list of names of people involved with the huge amount of money bet on Harry Redknapp to become Pompey manager, causing him to become the bookies' favourite even while the media was still touting Neil Warnock as a shoo-in for the job. Apparently some names are quite high profile: "if you saw the list you would instantly recognise some of the names. They are fairly well-known figures in the football industry," say the Telegraph.
  • "You raise me up", the gentle Norwegian-Irish ballad covered by Selah, Josh Groban, Daniel O'Donnell and most recently Westlife (who managed to win the ITV 'record of the year' award with it, despite singing flat), is the subject of a lawsuit from Finnish writers Tommi and Karri Rinne, according to today's Independent. The Rinnes say they wrote the tune as a Eurovision candidate some ten years ago (surely it's better than Eurovision?) and so now they want liner note accreditation and a big lump of money please. Better not tell them the tune under discussion is itself a mild rip-off of the classic Danny Boy, I suppose.
  • Reuters report the words of the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said yesterday that there was no Jewish holocaust in World War II, it's just a myth perpetuated in order to promote sympathy for the Israeli state. Meantime the Toronto Star report that Rumsfeld, Cheney and the PNAC folks are trying to perpetuate the threat of a caliphate, an Islamic global government, which is what's going to happen unless the US stops it. (Do the words 'domino effect', 'Communism' and 'Vietnam' have any resonance?). So there are conspiracies on both sides.
  • And of course, let's not forget that Rory Delap is paid to play professional football.

Put all this together and what do you have? I'm not sure, but it seems something is clearly going on. My guess would be the Pope and the late Queen Mother are in on it too, along with Elvis in some capacity, and no doubt one of the Kennedy clan (Charles, perhaps? Maybe that's why he's in trouble with his party?).

Have you ever seen them all together? Exactly. I think we should be told what's going on. These are all issues covered in this blog over recent weeks, all coming to a head as we approach the end of the year. Perhaps this blog is the locus of the universe, the singularity by which reality can be defined. Anything written here will come true, and come together will all other things, quickly leading to Armageddon.

Or maybe I shouldn't have had those mushrooms for breakfast.

Postscript: Have you seen the most recent Bush quote? Interesting on many levels: reported by Capitol Hill Blue and relayed via numerous news services including the "Rock River Times" newspaper from Illinois, Bush was challenged recently on the legality of renewing the Patriot Act. He responded by saying "Stop throwing the Constitution in my face. It's just a god-damned piece of paper!" Just as well they have a written constitutionon instead of a living monarch. Tony Blair must get sick of having the Queen thrown in his face.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

8 December 2005: Gamble

As a side-note to the circus (which, if you missed it, has finally seen Pompey pay Saints an 'undisclosed' compensation sum or package for permission to talk to and appoint Harry as their new manager), Ireland Online (among others) reports that BetFair have had 'formative talks' with the English Football Association regarding Harry's appointment.

Those with a keen eye for words will have noticed that a lot of last week's blog touting Harry as Pompey's next manager (before Neil Warnock announced he was pulling out of the race) was based on two sources: firstly the fans on SaintsForever, some of whom actually do have inside knowledge, and secondly on the bookmakers, who at the time had Harry as very odds-on favourite and shortening all the time.

The reason for Harry's odds were the 16.5 million pounds bet on his return, a lot of which was placed before Warnock's announcement. In particular, one bookmaker took a £50,000 bet a couple of days before the Warnock thing, meaning although the press still heavily touted Warnock, the bookies were saying something totally different. Bookies themselves spread the risk: if someone places a huge bet at one particular bookmaker, that bookie will go to lots of others and place exactly the same bet, just in case they lose. As a result, most bookies have similar odds for most bets, and this was no different. One 50k bet meant Harry went odds-on at a time when he was nowhere near favourite. In other words, the person placing that bet god very good odds. 16-1, say? When the book opened, Harry was 100-1, but he'd come in since then.

So the rumour, let's state it, is that Harry or Harry-agent made a huge bet, whether it's the 50k or otherwise. SaintsForever has been awash with this for a few days, and now the papers are getting hold of it. It's no real secret why Harry left West Ham (but let's pretend it is and not mention anything about it here), but this dodgy deal seems far more public. Inside information, secret tapping-up talks between Harry and Pompey, a betting market saying something totally different to the 'official' line, and an amount of money placed that is larger than is placed on the Grand National.

Let's say that again, in case you missed it: the amount of money placed on 'who's Pompey's next manager' exceeded that which is placed annually on the Grand National. That's a lot. One Saints fan described it as 'the most crooked market I have ever seen.'

Upshot of all this:
  • Pompey have a manager who walked out on them last year because he didn't like the set-up at the club, but now he's back with the same set-up. Don't expect him to last beyond, or maybe even to, the end of the season.
  • Saints don't have a manager, and don't look like getting one imminently. Dave Bassett is currently in charge of picking bad players, annoying the press and moaning about the lack of stability at the club.
  • Someone - maybe a few people - have made a killing on this, and it's hard to think it wasn't down to some kind of inside information.
  • BetFair and the FA are discussing the possible launching of an inquiry into the highly unusual betting patterns.

You figure it out. It's a circus after all, and the show must go on.

Monday, December 05, 2005

5 December 2005: Circus

And just who are the clowns in the whole show?

The fans, most likely. The chant "what the **** is going on?" (to the tune of Cwm Rhondda) resounded around St Mary's on Saturday, not for the first time in Rupert Lowe's tenure as Chairman. While some clubs (Plymouth Argyle, for instance) plod along gently and harmlessly, bouncing between divisions and occasionally finding a genuinely good player (Mariner) or manager (Sturrock) who then gets poached by the big boys, nothing particularly bizarre or weird ever seems to happen there. The strangest thing was when manager Peter Shilton was suspended rather than sacked by nasty old Dan McCauley, but even that was resolved in a couple of days, and never led to the utter confusion of the fans. At Saints, it's a different story.

Chairman Rupert Lowe replaced Dave Jones with Glenn Hoddle because Jones was involved in a court case, and needed time off. Fair enough in principle, but when the case was resolved, do you think Jones got his job back? Of course not. Was he ever going to? No. Hoddle was later poached by Spurs, Rupert taking the roll-over-and-die approach in trying to keep him, and just moaned a bit about how bad it is when football clubs poach the manager of other clubs. (Not that he did that with Sturrock or Redknapp within a couple of years of saying those things, no, not at all). Strachan resigned halfway through a season because he needed a hip replacement which, incidentally, he's never had, and now he's manager of Celtic.

And now this. Harry wanted permission to talk to Pompey, Pompey wanted permission to talk to Harry. Rupert said no, because Harry is our manager. (This only a year after Rupert stated he didn't believe in the post of 'manager' and preferred to have a 'head coach' and a 'director of football' instead, and then appointed a rugby coach to the staff for no apparent reason). So Harry quit (sort of). Although he's still under contract, and hasn't resigned. He says. But he also says he's not coming back to Southampton and he says it's been the worst year of his life. And Rupert says he's as bemused as everyone else by it all, and his job is to respond to events as they happen (Press Conference quote from Saturday night). No Rupert, your job is to provide a little leadership and direction, particularly in times of crisis.

But then there's always been a suspicion Rupert has no clue at all, and has just been winging it all this time. Let's never forget Rupert's classic press conference (only last year, can you believe it?) when he was asked about a possible return of Hoddle as Strachan's replacement, and he stated:

There are always people looking to plant a Klingon blast on the Starship Enterprise. We've got our force shields up, but the Klingons are shooting at us. Every time they land a punch they are sapping our powers. Now we need to adopt the Invisible Shield until we have got the right man in place.

The fans aren't angry, Rupert, we're just confused. The clowns of this circus seem to be Rupert, Harry and the staff at Southampton FC, but considering the number of fans who show up every week and pay over-the-odds prices for Championship ( = division two) football, perhaps the clowns are the fans after all.

What the **** is going on? Who knows.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

1 December 2005: Management

Seems a while since I mentioned football on here. There's a good reason for that: unusually, both my teams are having 'nothing' seasons. Saints and Argyle float in mid-table obscurity in the second tier of English football, although Argyle are only a couple of bad results away from the drop zone (it was ever thus when they're in this division). No cup runs, no controversial happenings, no boardroom politics (at least, not since Argyle appointed the dull Tony Pulis whose only action so far has been to cancel the contract of fifty-seven year old zimmer-frame applicant Taribo West).

But over the last couple of days, SaintsForever has been going a bit crazy, which will worry Keith a little since he's short of bandwidth at the best of times. Is it just that we're looking for something to talk about? Maybe. But the news that Milan 'I hate all managers' Mandaric has sacked Alain Parrin as Pompey's boss has led to a flurry of speculation that the next manager might just be the same as the last one. According to BlueSquare (as I write this, at least) Harry is 3/1 on favourite for the job, having come in from 9/4 on earlier this morning. Media speculation continues to point to Neil Warnock giving up his beloved Sheffield United job (and the prospect of taking them into the Premiership this year) for the Pompey job (and the prospect of a relegation battle and quite possible relegation this year). Mmm, let me think for a moment, I wonder what I'd do if I were him?

(Actually, if I were him I'd write a couple of books criticising everything about UK football, especially all the referees, and retire on the proceeds, spending the rest of my life lying in a hammock made of pure silk and eating pasties on a small beach on the Hawaiian island of Maui. But that's me.)

Speculation is rife partly because Harry is staying quiet about the whole thing, and neither he nor Rupert have publicly stated that they would like Harry to remain manager. Of course, after Harry left last year, Mandaric bad-mouthed Harry in a big, big way, but that doesn't seem to matter now. The situation seems to be this: the Pompey scenario has simply opened the lid on the deep troubles within Saints right now. Even if Harry doesn't go back down the M27, we now know that there is a big gap between Harry and Rupert, therefore probably between Harry and Clive Woodward, therefore probably between Harry's gang (Kevin Bond, Dave Bassett, Denis Rofe) and Rupert's gang (Woodward, a few of the directors and the recently-departed Simon Clifford). Harry's contract runs out at the end of the season, he hasn't been offered a new one, and he doesn't seem to want one anyway. Harry would be happiest with a directorship down at AFC Bournemouth, and it seems that is how he'll end his footballing days.

So whether or not he ends up at Pompey over the next few days, it seems his days at Saints are numbered anyway, probably with quite a small number. Old-school east-end Harry doesn't fit with Rupert, Clive, the PLC and their new football, we've known that for a while, but now it's coming to the surface and one way or another, it seems that something's up down at St Mary's, and it's quickly coming to a head.

Maybe we are just looking for a story in a boring season, but hey, guess what? The Sheffield Today sports section today reports Warnock is about to turn Pompey down. Since I began this blog, Harry has come in further with the bookies to 7/2 on to be the new Pompey boss.

Something's afoot.

Edit: Within two minutes of posting, Harry's odds shorten to 6/1 on.

Friday, November 18, 2005

18 November 2005: Adventure

Light relief from this AKTing lark is provided by occasional teaching and guidance for some undergrads learning languages such as Visual Basic, Java and, from next semester, probably Javascript.

One of my duties is to set and mark weekly labs and semesterly assignments. For the current bunch of second years, this means I get to choose what their object-oriented programming project will be. Ah, the choices, the choices. Could I go back to my MSc and steal the vehicle project which so clearly demonstrates subclassing? No, because it's tedious and boring. How about a theme park, where the rides, rollercoaster trains and customers are all objects interacting with each other? No, it'll probably require a fancy animated front end. Be a good one if they were learning Flash, though. So eventually I settled on a heavy extension of the project covered in chapter seven of the BlueJ book: write a text-based adventure game.

Now this, for me, is great fun. Brought up on the BBC Model B with its many limitations (how on earth did we survive with just 32k of RAM? I mean, really??), I quickly developed a taste for 'interactive fiction' as it was known. Colossal Cave, the model for them all, was ported across to the Beeb by Level 9 and provided me with many happy hours in a twisty maze of passageways, all alike. Acornsoft's Castle of Riddles and Philosopher's Quest were also great fun and quite challenging, while Scott Adams' Circus I just recall as being highly frustrating in terms of both the game quality and the extremely poor parser. Then one day my sister brought home the best game I ever played: L, the Mathemagical Adventure.

This was a school game, educational software in its early form. I knew a little of these games from 4Mation's efforts such as Granny's Garden and Flowers of Crystal. But this was different altogether. Here we had a sensible text-only GUI that didn't try to overpower me with teletext-style graphics, and the gameplay wasn't full of random monsters and clueless puzzles. The game fitted together wonderfully well and while certain puzzles I would still regard as too difficult (the clues to play 'three blind mice' on the piano were obscure, to say the least), it was sufficiently enrapturing to grab the attention of almost anyone who played, and keep their attention as the game unfolded. And the best thing was, I learned without even realising I was learning. At the time I didn't even know about Fibonacci, but I quickly worked out that the only telephone numbers that worked were 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 etc, and figured out that you add the previous two numbers in the sequence to get the next one. I had no idea about normal angles, but the billiard table made perfect sense to me. A collection of bats explained to me what a triangular number is, a hole in a boat taught me about icosahedrons, a computer apparently running its own version of L taught me about recursion. I didn't know the significance of the names like Neumann, Crowther and Woods, Martin Gardner but I learned as time went on. I knew about square roots, so the drogo guards weren't a problem, but if the combination for the safe lock is a perfect square and a perfect cube, what can it be? Some scrap paper enabled me to figure it out one Sunday morning while eating a bowl of cereal. I was learning, and I never even knew it. Congratulations to the Association of Teachers of Mathematics for providing an environment where it was so fun to learn, I didn't know I was learning.

So back to today, and the undergrad assignment. While I don't expect the Squirrel Adventure to challenge L or even Circus in terms of its complexity, it's been worthwhile just to bring text adventuring to a new generation. I've barely seen any since the early 90's days of 'Guild of Thieves' and 'Fish' on my Acorn A3000 machine, and even then the pictures were starting to become more important than the text descriptions. Adventure games today mean something more like Trogdor's Peasant Quest (albeit a little more sophisticated - maybe GTA San Andreas is a better example) so it's therapeutic if nothing else for us oldies to get back to the roots of the adventure game.

Who knows, maybe this is the start of the textual revolution?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

12 November 2005: Budget

Small piece of good news from The Planetary Society: the Voyagers may be safe.

Some of you may remember my rant about the Bush administration cutting budgets and directing NASA policy such that, among other things, the Voyager probes were to be cut off, despite Voyager 1's proximity to the edge of the Solar System.

Now it seems that the Senate and House Appropriation Committees have passed NASAs 2006 budget and sent the bill off to the White House for Mr Dubya to sign. The Planetary Society website explained the Voyager position a couple of days ago:

The Society also advocated that the Congress direct NASA to continue operating the Voyager spacecraft, now on their way out of the solar system. While the appropriations bill doesn’t mention Voyager specifically, it gives NASA re-programming authority, and that authority is expected to be exercised in favor of continuing the Voyager mission.

All this on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Voyager 1 snapping those stunning shots of Saturn's rings. Maybe there will be a happy ending to this story after all.

Friday, November 11, 2005

11 November 2005: Tipping

Today is a day for remembrance, as at 11am we all stop for a couple of minutes and remember the war dead, particularly from World Wars I and II. It's also a day for working at home due to the Zepler building still being sealed off (although rumours are rife that we may be allowed some kind of access at some point next week). And it's a day for football, as I play my first five-a-side game of the Veteran's League season, hoping to pull 'ECS Footie' somewhere above mid-table obscurity this season.

And less important than all is a sad piece of news reported in The Times last Saturday, which I only just saw this morning. It seems that some killjoy Canadian scientists have further destroyed the notion that life in Devon can be occasionally interesting by announcing the results of their study into the physics of cow tipping. Not only would it take between two and five people to exert the force needed to tip your average moo-moo over, but they also state that when cows do the sleeping-standing-up thing, they're actually only dozing and would be easily woken. Therefore, you'd need a well-organised team of very quick-working cow-tippers to have any hope of success, and since this particular sport is the exclusive preserve of those leaving country pubs at chucking out time, there's little hope of them being well-coordinated enough to be able to perform such a task.

Now, this is all well and good, except for the fact that I've seen it first-hand. Growing up in rural Devon with a window that overlooked gently rolling farmland on the southern slopes of Dartmoor, you don't see much happening at any time of day, let alone after dark. But sometimes, just sometimes, you'd look out around 11.30 and see a couple of torches flashing around in a field over on the other side of the valley. Fascinated, I would continue to watch while the people - usually around six or seven in number - would walk unafraid towards some cows with the clear idea of tipping. Normally (actually, the vast majority of times) the cows would run away, thereby showing that they were not asleep in the first place, or perhaps were dozing as the Canadian study suggests. But on one occasion it happened: a cow, seemingly standing up, did not move as two tippers closed in. They got close, reached out their hands and pushed hard, while their companions shone their torches on the scene, lighting it up for anyone to see who happened to be looking. And yes, the cow did go over: not in the hilarious Del Boy fashion most people assume, it just kind of stumbled over, legs wobbling as it woke up and tried to right itself. The movement of the torchlight suggested laughter from the companions as the cow got back to its feet and ran off up the hill away from its assailants. The tippers then returned back in the direction of the main road and that was that.

So that's my cow-tipping story. Deeply unexciting, and probably backs up the Canadian study more than anything else, except it clearly shows one thing: cow-tipping is a sufficiently well-known 'rural myth' that it will be (and is) attempted by someone, somewhere on at least a semi-regular basis. And yes, it does work, at least sometimes: this letter to Canada's National Post offers an alternative view of the physics of it all. The problem, of course, is that the original scientists did their work based on a particular model of physics and theoretical analysis: they didn't actually go out and try it empirically. Would have saved them a lot of time if they had, but hey, that's the nature of scientific research.

Which leads to the secondary question: who on earth funded their study in the first place? And were they pleased with the results?

Monday, October 31, 2005

31 October 2005: Charts

Westlife hit number one with their new exciting hit "You raise me up".

I refer interested parties and Selah fans to the blog I wrote a few weeks ago. And no, they didn't even bother doing the second verse. My feelings have changed a little since writing that blog: at the time I wasn't sure what to think about Westlife hijacking the song for the mainstream market, now I get the impression they've made the song feel quite cheap and plastic. Particularly given the fact it's a song you can really belt out, and they choose not to. Ah well.

Meantime us Mountbatten/Zepler building residents need to head in to the uni at 10.30 today for a meeting where we'll be told the latest situation regarding the fire and the contingency plans in place. The antibiotics are starting to kick in, so I'll wrap up and head in, find out how bad it really is, and where we all go from here. Last media reports suggest half of Mountbatten is completely gone, but the admin section more-or-less survived intact, and Zepler is fine: AKT may have fared better than a lot of the other groups, some of whom will have lost everything.

Anyway, better shower up, pop another amoxycillin and head in.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

30 October 2005: Fire

Large boom early this morning. Woke me up, and I briefly wondered why there was a firework going off so early. The the antibiotics and painkillers kicked in again and took me back to sleep.

When I woke up again the radio, internet and phone calls began coming in with news. Big explosion and fire at the university. No casualties reported as yet, but there are twenty-two fire engines and over a hundred fire-workers at the scene as I write this. And the thing is this: it's our buildings. BBC Solent are reporting that the part of Mountbatten that fronts on to Salisbury Road, is totally gutted. The other part of Mountbatten, containing admin offices such as the nerve-centre of AKT, is under severe threat and Zepler (my haunt) would be next.

Reports are that lots of postgrads and researchers have already lost years of work. Not sure if mine, or that of AKT more widely, is included: there's probably a good chance the fire is being contained before it takes the rest of Mountbatten, but it's ongoing. Staff and students are said to be gathering at the scene, and I'd join them, except I've been in bed with infected glands, ears and tonsils for a while and feel dreadful. Maybe I'll feel up to heading down there later, and find out who's lost what. The only good side seems to be that very early Sunday morning is the best time for this to happen: very few people present.

Still, as the firefighters get it under control and things begin to become clearer, we'll continue to watch and see what's gone, what's left and where we all go from here. An unexpected turn for this AKTing Lark, and not a welcome one.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

19 October 2005: Broader

As Wilma (the hurricane, not Mrs Flintstone) coils dramatically and seems to be preparing to smack into south-west Florida on the weekend, and as bird flu advances inexorably across eastern Europe, and as Saddam faces trial (at least until they adjourn) for murdering his own citizens, I found myself shocked by something a little less global in its range this morning.

I went to the student shop here on campus and found myself putting my purchased sandwich and ball of string (I need it to hang my chilies up to dry, ok?) into a black plastic bag that proudly displayed, in big white letters, "BULLDOG - Broadband from Cable & Wireless". I nearly dropped my purchases in shock and disgust. I mean, they were on the TV show 'Watchdog' just a few weeks ago, under fire from hundreds and hundreds of complaining viewers, and were questioned as to why they hired so many sales people yet had a vastly under-staffed support network. This meant that when a new customer signed up for their super-fast broadband service, and suddenly the phone stopped working, say, or the broadband speed was no faster than it had been before, they had no means of even logging the problems, let alone having anyone available to fix the problems. Followers of this blog will know exactly what I'm talking about. Bulldog responded, in front of a national television audience, that they weren't actively seeking new customers nor were they doing any kind of aggressive marketing campaign, instead they were ploughing their efforts into their support network and getting things fixed.

Which explains, presumably, why their web banners are over all the big ADSL sites and why they're spending money making plastic bags instead of getting our broadband up to the speed they promised me when I first signed up for their load-of-old-rubbish service. I will say this: the plastic bag does its job well, far better than their ADSL service. Perhaps they've found their niche?

But beyond that is the news that broadband will soon be brought to us by hot air balloon. No, not a joke, at least it's not the first of April: apparently its going to be better, and cheaper, than satellite broadband. Radio links on high-altitude balloons have already been shown by the University of York to give download speeds of 11Mbps (ten times our Bulldog speed, and that's when it hasn't lost the connection), and they think speeds of up to 120Mbps should be possible and commercially available within three to five years.

And that got me thinking: perhaps the plastic bag wasn't a bag at all, but a mini hot air balloon being trialled by Bulldog as part of their dodgy alternative. Fill it with the hot air from their sales reps, fit it with an old CB radio from the 1980s that keeps cutting out, and there you have it: Bulldog's vision of high-altitude broadband.

Which reminds me, whatever happened to that Ofcom investigation into Bulldog?

Update: within an hour of this blog appearing, The Register reports that Ofcom has cleared Bulldog on two conditions: firstly that they fulfil their pledge to improve customer services, and secondly that they give 'a material level of credit' to those who suffered the poor service. Also, any more spikes in complaints will result in a re-opening of the investigation. Maybe I should send the plastic bag to Ofcom as part of their evidence?

Monday, October 10, 2005

10 October 2005: Predictable

What I said.

And this year, it didn't even go to a fifth game. Braves blew a 6-1 lead in the eighth inning of game four and that, extra innings later, was that.

Glad I was in London and didn't actually see it.

Monday, October 03, 2005

3 October 2005: Selah

Last autumn it was Florida rather than Louisiana that got pounded by the hurricanes. Four hurricanes, one after another, pounded into the Sunshine State, three of them criss-crossing such that they all hit the Orlando area.

Regular readers will know I am a keen listener to Z88.3, a Christian music station based in Orlando but available worldwide over the web. During the hurricane onslaught, I found the Z to be quite compelling listening, particularly as they doubled-up the on-air presenter line-up and hunkered down in their reinforced building as the storms passed directly overhead and their generators just about kept the station on-air. And as the broadcasts continued, an oft-repeating song on the playlist was a hope-filled number called "You Raise Me Up". Written and originally recorded by Norwegian/Irish band 'Secret Garden', and most famously covered by Josh Groban, this version was recorded by Christian vocalists Selah. (Video available on Yahoo here.) The song combines the flavour of a negro spiritual with the feel of an Irish hymn, and it crescendos in a manner a little reminiscent of Bette Midler's version of 'Wind Beneath My Wings'. The lyrics are spiritual without being overtly agenda-pushing and as I listened again and again, I understood what this song would be meaning to those hidden away in hurricane shelters, listening to their transistor radios.

You raise me up so I can stand on mountains,
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas.
I am strong when I am on your shoulders,
You raise me up to more than I can be.

When you don't know if your home, family and entire life is about to be literally blown away in the wind, those words of supernatural oversight brought hope to many, regardless of their religious affiliations. So it's fair to say I became a fan of the song.

Then Rob told me about 'The X Factor'. I don't watch the show, but it seems to be Pop Idol by a different production company. Last week some kid was on there and auditioned by singing "You raise me up by Josh Groban". Not only did the judges (even Simon Cowell) say they all liked the song, but they even played Groban's version a little bit. This week, they did the same and played even more of the song. Rob began to get a little suspicious and launched on to Google to see what the judges were trying to do by pushing this song into the public eye. Did one of them perhaps have a hidden agenda?

Step forward Louis Walsh. Producer of some of the more bland bands on the marketing-rigged teenage pop scene, Walsh has a great deal to do with Boyzone spin-offs Westlife. And guess what their next big single release is going to be? That's right. You can here a clip of it on Westlife's official website and listen to how they can't - or don't seem to be interested in - hitting any of the high notes. No wonder The X Factor is giving the song a good plug right now. How much free advertising does Louis want?

And the funny thing is, when Rob told me about this last night, my reaction was silence, followed by the words: "I really don't know what to think about that." And I still don't. I think it's a good song, with a good message, and I'd like it to be in the public eye. But there's part of me that thinks, "not Westlife, please." And there's another part of me that says, "but that's my song from the hurricanes last year." And yes, that's selfishness, but without the element of hope-in-the-midst-of-hopelessness, this song just becomes another overly sentimental power-ballad. Selah's original recording was in part to raise money for African medical and hospital projects, and it became a beacon of hope in the hurricane strikes of last autumn. That was what made it a good song, as much as the song itself. Context provided the strength, and that brought the song meaning for me.

If it turns into the Christmas number one for Westlife I'll be happy for them, and for Secret Garden. But the whole thing seems a little too cheap and plastic for my liking, even by the standards of the British music industry today. I may be biased, but even without the hope context, Selah's vocal performance makes Westlife's sound like my dad after four shots of Laphroaig. They should just release Selah's version with Westlife miming.

Now, what are the odds on the Liberty X covering 'Voice Of Truth'?

Thursday, September 29, 2005

29 September 2005: Repeat

This blog suffers a little from seasonal repeats. Just like turning on BBC1 at Christmas and seeing Mary Poppins or Zulu, arrive at this blog in late September/early October and you'll find me talking about the Atlanta Braves.

For those who don't follow baseball, it's quite a remarkable story: the Atlanta Braves were, for a long time in the 1980s, a load of old rubbish. In 1990, they finished bottom of their division with the worst record in the whole of baseball. Then in 1991, with the same management staff of Bobby Cox, John Schuerholz and Leo Mazzone, they added a couple of young players and suddenly began winning games. Young pitchers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz had break-out years, Glavine winning the Cy Young 'pitcher of the year' award, and the Braves won their division. They then went all the way to the World Series, losing narrowly to the Minnesota Twins in the final inning of the final game.

The following year, with much the same team, nobody expected them to win their division again. The Dodgers and the Giants were much too good, surely. Not a bit of it: the Braves won quite comfortably, leading from the front, and suddenly people began to take serious notice. Again a close World Series loss meant a sad end to the post-season, but the pattern was set. The Braves were a team who won their division.

And so here we are, fifteen years later, and the Braves have won their division every year since. Fourteen in a row (the 1994 season was shortened by a strike and never finished), and while most of the players have changed (only Smoltz remains of the original '91 miracle team), the Holy Trinity of Cox, Schuerholz and Mazzone remain in charge, bringing through a seemingly endless stream of young players who come in, do supremely well and lead the Braves to yet another division title. This years crop of rookie wonder-kids include catcher Brian McCann, infielders Wilson Betemit and Pete Orr, outfielders Kelly Johnson and Ryan Langerhans, pitchers Kyle Davies and Blaine Boyer. Oh, and right fielder Jeff Francoeur, who played only half the season but ranks third in the Majors in outfield assists, and for a long time was hitting over .400, feats that earned him a solo-slot on the front cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.

So, on Tuesday night, the Phillies lost and the Braves beat the Rockies, thus confirming the fourteenth title in a row. And here's where it gets weird. Next week, the post-season playoffs begin between the various division winners, and the Braves will do a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation into the most useless team of non-hitting, weak-pitching baseball players you'll have seen since watching the first half of movies like The Natural, Bull Durham and Major League. Yup, just like last year, it'll be Tumbleweed Week.

The Braves used to enjoy post-season. They'd fight through the NLCS and get to the World Series, usually losing a close encounter (1991, 92, 96) or, once, winning it (1995). Since losing to the Yankees in a series of blown opportunities in that '96 series though, there's been something of a shift. They've only made the world series once in eight tries since then, and even then (1999) they lost in four straight games to the Yankees. In the last few years, they haven't even made it to the NLCS, losing in the division series, often to the wildcard team. And in these games, they seem to just roll over and die, blown away like tumbleweed in a light desert breeze. They win their division every year, but the fact is this: they have not won a World Series game since 1996. That's almost a decade ago.

I know, I know, this is a good team, it's full of youth and hunger, the players know how to battle and know how to win in tough circumstances. Andruw Jones leads the league in home runs and RBIs. John Smoltz and Tim Hudson are two of the best pitchers in baseball right now, both headed for the Hall of Fame. But then you look at how the playoffs are lining up, and you realise the Braves will probably be playing a five-game series against the Houston Astros next week, who will send Pettite, Oswalt and Roger Clemens to the mound to pitch for them, and suddenly you remember losing to them at the same time last year, and the mountain grows in your mind.

I hope it's different, and maybe it will be. But the pattern is set: Braves win their division, then turn into lollygaggers. Right now, we don't need Andruw Jones or Tim Hudson or Jeff Francoeur.

What we need is Francisco Cabrera. And maybe a bat named 'Wonderboy'.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

27 September 2005: DuncMcRae

What do washing machine sales, backpacking holidays in New Zealand and a list of non-denominational churches in Iowa have in common? Me, apparently.

Yesterday, while searching for some very old Pasoti pages to prove a point, I ended up Googling myself, or more specifically my online 'DuncMcRae' persona, and was surprised by what came up. Top of the list was a recent syndication of this blog to LiveJournal, followed by the to-be-expected hits of This AKTing Lark and good ol', which I've barely updated since going round the world in 2002/03. But then the weirdness begins.

A few are understandable. I'm DuncMcRae on Pasoti, so there are some Plymouth Argyle pages, and Judith Owen's website needed an email address (which they published!) so I gave them my spam-happy account details. But then it gets very weird.

The legendary photograph of Gareth bravely eating grilled cow saliva gland in Buenos Aires is quoted by several posters on, whatever that may be, in some kind of competition to discover disgusting things eaten in Argentina. have a section on Kelvin MacKenzie and seem to have treated the Spinners story as a factual report, which surprises me since the story details the ongoing power struggle for the British government between Bill Gates and the Teletubbies.

Most wonderful, though, is the (possibly soon-to-be-vanishing) 'Washing Machine' search page at The website sadly no longer exists, but Google's cache of the page clearly reveals that my round-the-world diary site is the fourth best place to look for cheap washing machines online. Fourth? Yes, sadly my e-commerce washing machine enterprise is being beaten by Kelkoo UK and a couple of Scottish cottage-letting agencies.

Try the same trick on MSN or Yahoo and you don't get anything as interesting, although for some reason they both link my name with a call-girl page from Kaitaia (New Zealand), which I didn't click on to find out more! Given that the most fun I had in Kaitaia was watching Premiership football live at 4am on Sunday mornings, I'm not sure where they got that from. Maybe the Wayfarer Motel had a lot more going on than I knew about?

Either way, it just goes to show that Google remains ahead of the competition. Any search engine that can use me to link Argentinean cow saliva glands, Plymouth Argyle and online washing machine sales is worth its place as my default search engine.

Now, didn't I have some work to do?

Friday, September 23, 2005

23 September 2005: Pulis

Plymouth Argyle have appointed Tony Pulis as their next manager.

The fans on Pasoti are evenly split on the appointment, which frankly has been the worst-kept secret in football for the past week. The problem is this: Pulis makes his money by creating teams that are tall at the back, hoof the ball as far up the field as they can and hope someone can get on the end of it. If they can't, his team will aim for a nil-nil draw. Historically, his teams have had a lot of nil-nil draws.

More worrying is this article written by Bristol City fans when Pulis was appointed manager of Stoke. Pulis, formerly City manager as well as Bournemouth and Pompey (before 'Arry got hold of them), not only plays the worst kind of football with the sole aim of finishing no higher than 16th in the league every year, but he also seems to foster bad relationships with the club, the board and the fans wherever he goes. City fans warned Stoke supporters to "prepare yourselves for bizarre signings, even more bizarre press conferences with comments bearing no relationship to the evidence played out before you, and a manager-led backlash against you when it all goes wrong."

But most worrying for me is that it seems Argyle have just stepped back exactly fifteen years and six months to the spring of 1990, when the manager was sacked and after a short, unsuccessful caretaker stint by John Gregory (whatever happened to him?), the board appointed one David Kemp as manager. Over the coming weeks he managed to sell, release or alienate all the talented footballers at the club (he was the one who released Tynan, remember, not to mention Summerfield, Stuart et al) and bring in players of non-league ability such as Mark Fiore, Andy Clement, Adam King, Mark Quamina, oh my goodness the list is endless and is frequently published on Pasoti. Kemp's ambition (if you could call it that) was to stay up by playing 'hoof it as far and as high as you can' football, usually in the vague direction of non-entity players such as Robbie 'The Elbow' Turner, Paul Robinson and Morrys Scott. The fans left in their droves, the results went downhill fast, and after a successful (ie we didn't go down) 1990/91 campaign, it went further wrong in 91/92 and Kemp was rightly sacked after managing just one away win in eight months. Shilton/McGovern came in, brought good football and good results, but it was too little too late. Kemp had already done the damage, and Argyle went down. Thanks to him and Dan Macauley, it took twelve years before Argyle got back to again play in the division now known as 'The Championship'.

My point? Pulis' appointment seems to mirror Kemp's in many, many ways and while he may keep Argyle up, I see no more ambition than that from Pulis or the board from now until the day we die. And it's sad to say that on the day he's appointed, and I hope I'm wrong. I really do.

Oh, and did I mention who has been appointed as Pulis' assistant?

Yup, that's right. It's David Kemp.

God have mercy on our souls.

Monday, September 19, 2005

19 September 2005: Moon

NASA have announced they're going back to the moon.

Why? Did they leave the oven on or something?

Postscript: busy times mean fewer blogs, but updates include the news that the Cathedral event was well received, I'm now an uncle for the second time (congratulations to Chris, Ali, Matt and new baby boy Jamie) and I'm engaged. Blogs have been taking second stage, and I apologise.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

13 September 2005: Ashes

England won the Ashes. (In case you somehow managed to miss the blanket coverage in the UK news.)

So despite the busyness of life generally, the downtime of the Citeseer server specifically, the impending fuel crisis in the UK (I'd better be able to get to the Cathedral on Thursday) and the fact that it's the middle of September, the cricket took centre stage yesterday as it has done increasingly over the summer. The fact is this: cricket doesn't get any better than this, or any bigger than this. This is it.

The momentum has grown through the summer, from the defeat in the first match right through England's close victories and almost-victories to yesterday's thank-goodness-Warne-dropped-that-catch moment, which would have seen the series probably go the other way. The nation is captured, perhaps more so than when England won the Rugby World Cup a couple of years ago: this happened here, in England, against the number one team in the world, and it was the first time we've beaten them in a series for eighteen years. And the sad thing is, that's it.

In many ways it's a shame. Football takes over - Champions League tonight - and there's no more cricket (apart from a few county games) until the winter tours of Pakistan and India, and next summer's series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Not quite the same. And what's worse is that those games will only be on Sky's subscription-based stations. The eight-million-plus audience of yesterday will be reduced to a little over one million next summer, and the interest will wane, just as it has done with boxing and rugby league over the years. Yesterday was not only the last day of the greatest series I've ever known, it was the last day of cricket on normal TV in the UK. No more Richie Benaud, no more leaving for three minutes to show some minor horse race, no more having to finish at six o'clock so they can show The Simpsons. No more cricket, except for the highlights on Five, presumably with Jonny Gould and John Barnes providing commentary?

It's a shame, and I mean that - it's shameful - that the cricket authorities have opted for money over exposure, without realising that you need exposure to bring the next generation of fans to the game. Without TV coverage, I'd never have followed the disastrous Ashes series of 1989 and thence every tour since. Test Match Special is good, but you need the pictures. Unless something is done, this will be the end of cricket in this country, at least as a major sport. Short-term gain outweighs long-term health, say the ECB. What does that say to today's young fans?

Yesterday was a climax, and after every climax there is a coming-down. I just fear for how far English cricket will fall from this great, perhaps final, height.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

6 September 2005: Sacked

Bobby Williamson is no longer Plymouth Argyle manager.

Bizarrely, the media don't seem to have picked it up yet. The Argyle board issued the Press Release at 9.30pm, it's now 11.10 and the BBC website and Sky Sports News seem unaware that Bobby has won the Sack Race in this year's Championship. Still, they'll catch up.

Can't say I'm too saddened by this. It's sad that it didn't work out for Bobby, and it's sad that he wasn't able to keep up his early promise, seeing the team to victory in the third tier of English football a couple of years ago, and a good start to last season. It all went wrong from there very quickly and Argyle only stayed up by three points last year. This year has been worse by all accounts: although the defeats haven't been heavy, they've been comprehensive, and suddenly the selling of players like Graham Coughlan and David Friio seem quite short-sighted given the way the previously successful team had been built around that solid backbone through the formation.

Wise heads on Pasoti note that Jocky Scott taking temporary charge may not be for the best: those who attend reserve games and training sessions report Jocky, until now the team coach, is nothing short of abusive towards the players. Some believe he, rather than Bobby, has been the problem. But the timing of the announcement (late at night, a long time after the last game) perhaps implies an imminent appointment. Tony Pulis, John Gregory, Peter Reid and even Paul Sturrock are the names being banded around. We'll see what develops over the next few hours and, perhaps, days.

Frankly, as long as it's not David Kemp I think we'll be fine.

Addendum: 11.19 and Sky Sports News have a two line report with a few seconds footage of Bobby shouting on a touchline somewhere. AFTER the report from the Chester - Grimsby game in the basement division. Great stuff.

6 September 2005: Resolution

A number of correspondents (two is a number, right?) ask what happened about Bulldog.

All very strange, as it happens. After the final call to their various support desks, who as usual promised the problem would be resolved and I'd receive a phone call within forty-eight hours, I gave them three days rather than the standard two before deciding enough was enough. However, due to younger sister's wedding in Devon, I didn't have time to call and cancel that Friday morning before jumping in the car with Gloria and Martyn and heading off down to the cream country. Do it after the weekend, I thought.

So I was surprised when Rob called later that day with a message saying "I assume you called BT because our phone is now working properly." I hadn't called BT. Bulldog had fixed it. Without calling me, of course, but they had fixed it. Or the faeries had got into the exchange and fixed it, which frankly seems just as likely.

So what to do? My desire is to leave Bulldog because of their poor service, but we'd have the hassle of returning to BT and paying signing-on fees to join Force9 or whoever for broadband, which would be the same price as we're paying Bulldog. We still have cheap Bulldog for another few months before we start paying the full price (albeit reduced because we can't get over 1.2Mbps on the broadband), so we'll leave it until Christmas and then see. Meantime they seem as reliable as Pipex (which is to say: not very, but certainly no worse) and, swallowing pride, we're staying with them. At least until they screw up again.

Last week we got the most apologetic grovelling letter I've ever seen on letter-head paper, as Bulldog promised they'd make things better in the coming months at least five times in as many paragraphs. Sweet of them, but I'd have preferred one saying "sorry for screwing you around and lying to you on at least five occasions, we'll give you another month for free."

Maybe I should call them...

Thursday, September 01, 2005

1 September 2005: Back

Back to the desk today, back to applying algorithms by Messrs Kleinberg and Chen to the Citeseer metadata, back to big fat data transformations, web services and the other myriad little parts that there currently are to my PhD research. Also back to the gym, in early training for what hopefully will be a half-decent stab at the London Marathon, back to the steady diet of Z88.3 and KFOG on the internet radio, back to routine. And you know what? I love it.

Martyn and Rob have both moaned about going back to work over the last couple of weeks, but I'm thoroughly enjoying it, far more than I thought I would when I began almost two years ago. The research isn't quite what I thought I'd be doing but it suits me well, and I'm enjoying the teaching far more than I ever thought I could. (Perhaps it's because it gives me the opportunity to prove I know more than my students, although even that isn't always the case.) Gloria begins work today too, at the school up the road, meaning we get to see each other far more often, although I'm at a loss as to what to do with my lunchtimes given there'll be no webcam chats any more. As I write, the sun shines outside and the temperature will be a pleasant 22 or 23 for the next few days. Things are going well, and life seems good.

I say 'seems' because it's hard to get past the news from elsewhere in the world. New Orleans seemed on Monday to have survived the worst of Katrina's wrath due to said hurricane deciding to slow down and turn right instead of smacking into the heart of the French Quarter. Now, though, it's starting looking like something from Bangladesh or Mozambique: hundreds, maybe thousands dead; water and sewage mingling poison in the streets and pipes; mass-scale looting and evacuations. You know something's very wrong when they start evacuating people after the event.

Beyond that, over a thousand dead in the stampede in Iraq caused by suicide bomb rumours. No bomb, but proof that rumours can be even more deadly. And in case everyone had forgotten, there's a famine in Niger that rivals anything seen in our lifetimes, and the World Food Programme is way short of its relief target, having received almost no new donations in the last two weeks, according to Reuters. With the focus of the media currently shifted to Louisiana, it's hard not to fear for the residents of Niger.

And that's the problem when things seem to be going to well at home. We think and pray for those suffering, and I do think that's of value. We give to appeals for the tsunamis and the famines not just to clear our conscience, but because it does make a difference. But life goes on here, just as there, and routine is simply how we go on living our lives. And if we're happy, all the better.

It's just sometimes hard to know what to feel, and what to feel guilty about feeling.

Monday, August 15, 2005

15 August 2005: Tension

How can people say cricket is boring?

Martyn, Kevin and I are in the living room, shaking with tension. We sit here watching England trying to get the final Australian out, twenty-two balls left to go. If England win, they go two-one up in the series. If it's a draw, Australia have a very good chance to come back. The whole summer could hinge on the next ten minutes.

Twenty balls left. Flintoff beating the bat consistently. Just get one to hit the stumps, Freddie. Another one screams past the outside edge!

"We can't draw this one now!" screams Martyn. He must be tense, he's wondering out loud how much contact lens solution it would take to poison me.

Three overs to go. That's eighteen balls. Steve Harmison snorts another one past McGrath's nose. And the next one he just digs out.

"So tiiiiight!" screams Martyn. I don't think he's talking about his trousers.

Rob returns down the stairs for the finale. He doesn't care for the cricket, he's just waiting for it to finish so he can watch Scrubs on the TV.
"What's the score?" he asks. "A draw's bad, isn't it?"
"Only considering we've dominatined this game," says Kevin.
"We're not going to do it," Rob replies. He sits. Shaking.

Twelve balls to go. Lee pushes out a Flintoff yorker.
"If he doesn't get this person out, he's gay!" declares Rob. Damning stuff indeed.

"How was he?" I scream as the ball thumps Brett Lee's front leg pad.
Not out, says Umpire Steve Bucknor.

Seven balls to go. Lee pushes the ball and it just reaches the boundary. Huge cheer. McGrath on strike for the final over. Steve Harmison to bowl.

"We need contrived quotes," says Rob.
"Left anvil bone of the inner-ear," suggests Kevin.
"Is a yorker a ball that lands close to the cricketer?" asks Martyn.
"Yes, even I know that," says Rob. "Can't we put a decent bowler in?"
"That was leg-side," says Kevin, utilising a cricketing term for the first time in a while. "Lee is on strike."

Three balls to go. Wide down the leg-side, what a waste.
"Rubbish," says Rob. "England are rubbish."
Next one sails through.

One ball to go.
"One solitary single ball," says Mark Nicholas on the television.
"One solitary single enormous tautology," says Martyn.

Lee digs it out. Australia get the draw.

"Rubbish. If Alex Ferguson was there, he'd be throwing football boots around about now," says Rob.
"Shut up, Rob," proclaims Martyn.

Game over.

Friday, August 12, 2005

12 August 2005: Losing

++++ All the latest from Leaside Way as Bulldog continue their strident efforts to lose another customer ++++

Our phone still doesn't work, of course, and nobody has got back to us within 48 hours. The funny thing is, when I phoned up their support desk, I spoke to the same guy as on Wednesday - he remembered my name too, perhaps meaning there is some small value in having a name you always have to spell out over the phone.

Phone tech support:
"I'll make a new ticket for you. I'll mark it urgent. Someone will get to you within 48 hours."
- If they don't?
"I'll follow it up myself on Monday and check the progress."
- What about wednesday's ticket?
"We don't have access to the database. You'll need to call customer support for that."
- OK.

Customer support:
Got through at 4.23pm, on hold.
Answered at 4.48.
"Just checking... All your tickets are closed, which means the problems have been resolved."
- Really? That's strange, because our phone still doesn't work.
"I'll just have to put you on hold a moment."
"Well, they've closed all the tickets. They may still be working on the problem, to find out you'd have to phone technical support."
- What number is that?
"Same number as you dialed, option two."
- They're the people I called earlier, they said they don't have access to the database.
"Well, their database is more detailed than ours, so they can tell you what's going on."
- They said they can't do that.
"Not my problem."
- OK, thank you.

Although I paraphrase slightly, the man was still quite rude. Glad it's an 0800 number and they're paying for the call.

So, given that we won't go back to Pipex, has anyone got any suggestions for an ADSL company with a decent deal for unmetered 1Mbps access?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

11 August 2005: Cohn

A correspondent points out the news story that can be found at

This concerns Marc Cohn, singer/songwriter who won a Grammy in 1991 for his debut album ('Marc Cohn') which featured the hit 'Walking in Memphis', later covered disastrously by Cher (and apparently renamed by her 'Walking in Mem-pherrrs'). Cohn is a reluctant performer and even more reluctant recorder: his debut was followed by 'The Rainy Season' in 1993, 'Burning The Daze' in 1998 and we're still waiting for the fourth. We were promised last year, then early this year, then definitely later this year, then perhaps early next year. He does have a new live album out ("Live '04-'05") - his first official live effort, although the bootleg 'The American Landscape' from an early Hamburg concert is made from an official recording. You can find the new one here or on iTunes.

The story is that on Sunday night, after doing a concert in Colorado, Cohn and his band were driving along and suffered an attempted car-jacking. The jacker had a gun, and shot at the car, a bullet hitting Cohn in the head. Astoundingly, he's fine and has gone home after being released from hospital - meantime police have apprehended the shooter, so that's good. In a statement Marc said he felt lucky to be alive, but he's understandably cancelled the remaining dates on his sparse summer tour, at least until he recovers.

The official unofficial Marc Cohn fansite, Move Real Easy, has a forum on which I'm an occasional poster, and that's understandably been flooded with best wishes for Marc and his family. I certainly hope he recovers soon. Partly because I think his music is some of the best mix of the singer/songwriter tradition, gospel, blues, soul and straight-up rock, but also because I've yet to see him live: I missed the 1998 Camden concert, his only in the UK during the last eleven years, and am determined not to miss the next. His music is well-written, well-produced and sounds great recorded; live, he is superb, as you'll discover if you get hold of the new live album or any of the myriad (and actually Cohn-endorsed) bootlegs that are out there.

Anyway, I've not much more to say on this, except that I'm glad he's ok. And if you've still no idea what I'm talking about, here's a clip from Amazon. Happy discovering.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

10 August 2005: Support

Well, 48 hours passed and no contact from Bulldog concerning either the phone or the broadband service. Who'd have thought? Time to start phoning their support desks again...

Phone support:
"If a ticket is already open, it's not our problem, you need to speak to customer services."

Customer services:
"Extremely high call volume, please try again later." Click.

Broadband support:
"What's the problem exactly? Has someone been through first line support checks with you?"
- Yes.
"Can I put you on hold?"
"Your line is only capable of holding 1.5 Mbps. You'll get a five pounds discount per month because of that."
Same price as Pipex for the same speed, then.
- Why weren't we told this before?
"No idea."
- OK, thank you.

Customer services:
"Extremely high call volume, please try again later." Click.

Customer services:
Got through and put on hold at 9.19am.

10.14am a helpful lady answered:
"Support problems are not our department, they shouldn't have put you through. It's just a way for them to get themselves off the hook, because we're not technical people. However, I'll just go and check the tickets... all the tickets have been closed. No broadband either?"
- Only 1Mbps.
"I'll check... yes, that's right, you can only get 1Mbps on your phone line. Now, about the phone: you need to call telephone support again and open a new ticket. I'll leave a note for them saying you've called customer support who were unable to help."
- And what if we want to cancel, given that the broadband is no quicker than Pipex and the phone now doesn't work?
"You need to phone BT and request a 'return to donor'. Then call us or email us and request a cancellation. Do it that way round and you can keep your phone number. Good luck!"

So, back to phone support:
"Can I have your BDOL number? Your name? Can you spell that for me please? And your home phone? And your mobile?"
- Hang on, don't you have this stuff already?
"I don't have access to the system, I'm just writing an escalation email to a senior engineer for you."
- OK.
So he won't see the note from the customer services lady then.
"I'm sorry you've had these problems, we're referring it to a senior engineer as a matter of urgency. As a result of this, someone will get back to you within 48 hours."
- And what if they don't?
"They will get back to you within 48 hours."

Somehow I doubt it. But we've pretty much decided to drop them anyway. If they miraculously pull their fingers out and give us a phone service we might stay with them, simply because so far their 1Mbps service has proved more reliable than Pipex's. But the customer service is so bad, and the initial claim of 8Mbps not even close to being matched, it is probably worth going back to a BT-based service just as a way of voting with our feet.

Lessons learned today?
(1) Bulldog do not do line checks to see what your phone line is capable of holding.
(2) Bulldog engineers (if they exist) do not respond to support problems, they just close the tickets.
(3) Bulldog Customer Services are not technical but are actually more helpful than anyone else.
(4) To re-migrate to BT, you need to ask for a 'return to donor' before cancelling with Bulldog.
(5) Don't plan anything else for the morning if you need to call Bulldog Technical Support.

I somehow feel the need to take a bath.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

6 Aug 2005: Bulldog II

Quick update for those following what we're sure will turn into a soap opera worthy of Channel 5.

Yesterday was the day we were promised someone would contact us (but how? Our phone doesn't accept incoming calls!) regarding both our non-working telephone line and our non-properly-working 8Mbps broadband connection. Naturally, there were no calls nor were there emails. So I called them again.

Phone dept first:
'Oh, sorry,' said the nice lady, 'someone should have contacted you within 48 hours of reporting the fault'.
'Well, they didn't.'
'OK, what I'll do is email the fault direct to the management and mark it as priority. Give me your mobile number and you'll get a call within 48 hours.'
'You mean they'll call me over the weekend?'
'Oh. No. 48 working-week hours. So probably Tuesday.'

That'll be almost a week without the phone. But maybe they'll call, who knows? And why was she emailing the management anyway? Surely an engineer would have been more useful.

Next up, the broadband helpdesk:
'Right sir, I've looked at the ticket that was opened and it says that your low connection speed was due to the initialisation of the line not being completed. They completed it this afternoon and closed the ticket. You should have full speed internet now.'
I checked, there and then. Even restarted the modem. 1Mbps every time.
'OK sir, in that case I'll open a new ticket for you, I'll just put you on hold for a second.'
Click. I was cut off.
I called back:
'Hello, I was just speaking to one of your colleagues and was cut off. Here's the situation...'
'OK sir, I'll see what has happened to that ticket he was about to open for you. I'll just put you on hold.'
Click. Cut off again.
I called back again:
'Hello, this is the third time I've called. Please don't cut me off again. Here's the situation...'
'Right sir, well I can see that a ticket has been re-opened for this. I'll just put you on - '
'No, you don't have to put me on hold. Just let me know what happens next.'
'Well, someone will be in touch in the next few days and will be in touch to sort out the problem.'
'OK, but they can't call us because our phone isn't working either. Can you take my mobile number and call me on that?'
'We've already got it I think.'
*Tapping of a keyboard*
*Out-of-tune humming*
'Right sir, can I take your mobile number?'

And that was it. Neither original fault fixed, both our original calls apparently ignored. And so the questions remain...

Will we ever be able to receive phone calls again?
Will our broadband speed ever get above 1Mbps?
Will we give up and go back to using carrier pigeons?

Tune in again next week for more exciting Adventures with Bulldog.

Friday, August 05, 2005

5 August 2005: Broadband

So we're having problems with Bulldog. Who'd have thought?

Despite reading varying reports about their service (including some very bad ones from Blagger), the lure of 8Mbps broadband was too much. Total cost only five pounds a month more than we were paying Pipex for our 1Mbps service, too good to be true?

Well, maybe. Local Loop Unbundling (LLU) means many things, but mainly it means companies other than BT are allowed to have control of your telephone line at the exchange. As a result of this, these companies can offer upgrades that BT as a whole can't (or don't) and thus you can get faster ADSL internet. Bulldog began LLU on our exchange back in June, so after a short period of wavering due to the mixed reports, we decided to go for it.

Bulldog took control of our phone line on Wednesday. Hurrah! And guess what? Our broadband speed is exactly the same as it was before - 1Mbps. The only difference is that now our phone doesn't take incoming calls. You try to call us, you'll get through to 'BT Answer 1571', which I'm sure is a surprise to BT since we have nothing to do with them any more. We can make outgoing calls, but that's it.

So Rob and myself have spent a lot of the last two days on the phone to Bulldog's various technical supports. Apart from a lot of 'our line is very busy, please call later' recorded messages and a number of 'not my department, mate' real people, it does seem that they won't be able to get anyone to talk to us for 48 hours about the phone, and quite possibly never about the broadband.

My instinct is that neither problem will ever be fixed, and we'll leave Bulldog at the end of our initial month. Maybe they'll surprise me, but reading the testimonies on Blagger makes me fear we may have to go via Ofcom or even the small claims courts to get our phone line back. Still, we'll see... only three days in...

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

2 August 2005: Steroids

Mike Downey in the Chicago Tribune is a bit angry in yesterday's edition. And rightly so.

Rafael Palmeiro, only the fourth baseball player ever to reach the twin peaks of 500 home runs and 3000 hits (and Viagra's national spokesman in the US), has been suspended after a positive steroid test. He denies intentionally taking drugs, but in this age of frequent testing, stringent rules and public cynicism, how can an athlete of his experience not know what is and isn't going into his body? Major League Baseball said at the beginning of the year they were going to clamp down very hard on drug use this year, and it's not as if Palmeiro wasn't under the spotlight following last year's accusations from Jose Canseco.

A quick reminder: Canseco, former big-hitter with the Oakland A's and half of the infamous 'bash brothers' with Mark McGwire, wrote a book entitled 'Juiced' last year in which he claimed a number of top baseball players, including himself, had all taken steroids at various times. McGwire, Juan Gonzalez, Jason Giambi and Pudge Rodriguez have all had clouds hanging over them this year because of that - and of course Balco's cloud covering Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield et al. But Palmeiro was a little different. Canseco's testimony regarding Palmeiro was that he, Canseco, had personally injected steroids into Palmeiro's body; Palmeiro meantime testified under oath before congress that "I have never used steroids. Period. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never." And he threatened to sue Canseco.

That was March 17th. We're now in August. Palmeiro has still showed no signs of legal action beyond his initial threats. And now this. It's hard to disagree with Mike Downey when he asks who do you now trust, Canseco or Palmeiro? Palmeiro may now be focusing on the issue of intentional use of steroids but that means two things: (1) he is still gaining physiological advantage from having measurable (and banned) amounts of steroids in his system and (2) it pushes this to a question of trust: the drugs are in his body, the question now is can you trust his word and his word alone that there was no intent? To me, that's less of a question. He should know better, and he should know what's going in and out of his body.

So he's banned for ten days. Pretty much any other sport would have banned him for two years, of course, but baseball is still dancing around the issue - eleven years after the strike, Bud Selig and his merry men are still walking in fear of controversy and any kind of scandal that would damage the game. They're getting there, slowly, but it's still hard not to be cynical about what should be a great game and one I still enjoy immensely. Sammy Sosa's corked bat was carefully spun but frankly was a disgrace to the sport and called into question the great 'Run for 61' home-run chase of 1998 where Sosa was beaten, coincidentally enough, by McGwire. Barry Bonds has been missing from the San Francisco Giants all season, and won't play again until at least next spring. On the year they introduced tougher drug testing, too, who'd have thought it?

Makes me wonder if the only player not taking anything in baseball is Julio Franco. Officially 47 years old this month (ha ha, he's 50 if he's a day), he continues to hit home runs, field athletically and even steal bases. He leads more "oldest player to..." categories than anyone else. His regimen? Raw egg whites and orange juice for breakfast every day ("pro-tee-in, it has lots of pro-tee-in"), a pro-tee-in shake for lunch, lots of carbohydrates before the game and no doughnuts. And lots of gym work too... he did a slot for TBS Xtra last year that can be viewed here. Andy Van Slyke (former Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star) accused Julio of being on drugs last year:

"Julio Franco is 46 years old -- I've got to believe he's on it." -- Andy Van Slyke, on whether or not Braves first baseman Julio Franco is on steroids.

"Tell Andy Van Slyke he's right -- I'm on the best juice there is. I'm juiced up every day, and the name of my juice is Jesus. I'm on His power, His wisdom, His understanding. Andy Van Slyke is right. But the thing he didn't mention was what kind of steroids I'm on. Next time you talk to him, tell him the steroid I'm on is Jesus of Nazareth." -- Julio Franco.

Van Slyke's mistake, of course, was his initial statement. Sportspeople on steroids typically don't live to 46, thereby proving that Julio is the only guaranteed clean player in the entire game.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

26 July 2005: Plymouth

"Characterless, tacky, depressing and disappointing" are just some of the criticisms leveled at the city.

So says a BBC news article reporting the disappointment of visitors to the historic, beautiful city of Plymouth. *cough*. Beautiful, really.

Apparently some foolish people have been trying to attract tourists on cruise liners to Plymouth, attempting to sell its natural harbour and naval history. And the tourists, perhaps understandably, have been less than impressed. "We still have an image of a quaint seafaring town with lots of history and character. What we get is none of that. Instead a moderately impressive natural harbour and not much else," says another visitor.

This is because Plymouth is a city where people live and work, a city bombed to pieces in World War II and rebuilt on a very low budget afterwards. Some of the most striking parts of the city are those that were not repaired (Charles Church, for instance), but unfortunately most of the city was. The naval heritage means not only does Plymouth boast a large nuclear naval base (oo, let's visit that, mommy) but that Union Street is famous for providing 'entertainment' for visiting sailors down the years in the form of both licensed premises and of course the world's oldest business. The dockyard is the mainstay of the town's industry and financial income, although the current 'tourist' push is attempting to add a second. Plymouth is dirty, smelly, over-stretched and has a chav scene rivaled only by Portsmouth.

But here's the thing. It's home for me. I remember the smell of fish in the early morning down at the Barbican, fresh catches from the little trawlers that used to populate what is now the Marina. I remember playing with the remote-control boats at the park up on the Hoe, how you could get five minutes for ten pence and how I never thought it was long enough. I remember lunch at Perilla's chippy (or the restaurant, if we were feeling posh or it was my birthday), Ivor Dewdney's large traditionals (which frankly have got smaller over the years, and it's not just me getting bigger), Christmas shopping followed by afternoon tea at La Croquambouche (sugar frosting on tall glasses of coca-cola, mmm!), nights out with friends that ended with a visit to Cap'n Jaspers or a stroll up to Devil's Point to watch the boats in the Sound and August's shooting stars.

It's all changing, of course. The Barbican is much improved since the development of the Marina and the Aquarium, and even Cap'n Jaspers has moved from the little caravan to a more permanent kiosk. The Drake Circus shopping centre, a shameless rip-off of West Quay except without one of its key bookends since Allders went bust, promises to offer you shopping in exactly the same stores as before, except now they're all in one place and under cover. Plymouth Argyle have three-quarters of a very good-looking all-seater stadium, and council leader Tudor Evans has promised news on 'Phase Two', the replacement for the Grandstand and Mayflower, before the start of the new season (better get your skates on Tudor, Aug 6th approaches fast). And all of it designed to take Plymouth away from its post-war look and into something more befitting the city of Francis Drake, Michael Foot and Trevor Francis.

But no matter what they do, the tourists will be disappointed. Partly because there's no beach (really, there is no beach, although you can go swimming at Tinside if you like), but mainly because Plymouth isn't - and can't be - the quaint fishing village and tall ships harbour that visitors want it to be. It's home to a quarter of a million people with strange Janner accents and that isn't going to change.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Footnote: thanks to Rob for the original link, what were 'ee doing looking at a Plymuff page, mate? You'm finkin' uv goin' down vere an' tryin' a foo pasties?

Monday, July 25, 2005

25 July 2005: Repeat

That time of year again.

I was about to post a quick note featuring the Tour De France, a short non-specific update (possibly rant) about my work and an endorsement for the new Hillsong album that I got last week. Then I looked at the equivalent post from a year ago and realised it would be almost identical, right down to the Tour winner.

Next year will be different. The research is already quite different to a year ago but it should be long-finished and well into the writing-up process by the fourth week in July 2006. The Tour will have a different winner (Basso and Ullrich have to start favourites, but I would still watch out for Valverde, Mancebo and Popovych, and who knows what Vinokourov is capable of if only they can get him to calm down for five minutes. He reminds me a little of Marco Pantani - attacking like crazy off the front one day, paying for it big time the next day - but also of a young Lance Armstrong, who pre-cancer had a habit of launching major attacks and occasionally winning stages, but never looking like a serious contender.) Hillsong will no doubt release another live album, but you need some continuity in this world. But it all got me to thinking, how different is the world today from how it was a year ago?

This Monday morning, life goes on, different headlines from a year ago, but the no new topics. It is London that walks in fear this year, Egypt is counting its dead and yet another suicide bomb in Baghdad has claimed lives this morning. Elsewhere in the world, Mike's cousin is about to be impeached for vote rigging, Helen Clark has called elections in New Zealand for September (she is the most disliked leader I've come across since Thatcher in some quarters, although those quarters are almost exclusively farmers to whom she's not been the kindest), the UN estimates Mugabe just made 700,000 people homeless in Zimbabwe (what a thoughtful leader), the Niger crisis shocks but nobody seems to be doing anything about it and India have released a man they held in prison without trial for fifty years. Wow, and we thought Guantanamo Bay was harsh. And that's all just today's news.

No doubt this time next year there will be a similar set of headlines, maybe not as dramatic, maybe more so. But we learn to get on with our lives, realising that we can't carry the burden of it all on our own individual shoulders, and that we don't have to. It's just worth occasionally reflecting, as I did this morning, on how some things never seem to change year-to-year, and some things change enormously but somehow just seem to stay the same. I guess Solomon was right all along: there truly is nothing new under the sun.

Happy thoughts for a Monday morning. Anyone want a little yellow pill?

Thursday, July 21, 2005

21 July 2005: More

Looks like more transport bombs in London.

Today was going well, too. Decent results from some experiments and half a paper written already. England holding the upper hand in the first morning of the Ashes and nice afternoon weather. And now this.

As of 1.45, nobody is quite sure what's happening. Gunshots? Undetonated explosives? A nail bomb? Someone running from the scene? There's a number 26 bus parked pretty much right outside Shoreditch Tabernacle on Hackney Road, roof intact but nobody near the scene, implying the police may still think there's an explosive on board. Two weeks on, three tubes and one bus. Hard not to think it's connected.

"No reports of casualities," say the services. We can only hope.

Added 3.15
Looks smaller and much more minor than first feared, although there are still large enough exclusion zones around the incident sites that you wonder if there's still something waiting to go off, and police do seem to be confirming that they've sealed off the hospital at UCL and are trying to hunt someone down in there.

But consider this. Between eight and fourteen people were killed by suicide bombers already in Iraq today. The Algerian ambassador was this morning kidnapped in Baghdad. John Simpson described his quarterly visits to Baghdad as getting progressively worse - in fact, a 'descent into a bombing quagmire'.

I don't know why, but I just felt it important that that information was presented too.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

13 July 2005: Lance

Yesterday was a slow day. In between the news filtering in on the arrests made in Leeds and the continuing steady release of the names of the dead, there was little to grab the attention of a researcher doing the world's most boring results analysis.

The problem, simply put, is this: I've made a system that tells you that the author of paper A is (in the opinion of the system) also the author of papers B and C, but the author of paper D is different, despite having a similar name. No, I'm not going to tell you how I did it, but I am going to tell you that the most boring thing in the world is checking these results. You (or at least I) have to go through the average of 500 papers on our local Citeseer mirror, and check whether the ones the computer joined up should in fact be joined up ('precision', and it's pretty good at that), and also which ones it should have joined up and failed to do so ('recall', and it's less good at that, although still not bad). So I spent many many hours yesterday ploughing through page after page of paper details, trying to match this author to that author and discovering that one Dr Fred Harris of the University of Reno has a corpus of papers that seems almost immune to my little system and is single-handedly dragging one particular set of results into the ground.

Yes, that's right, it was that boring. So I went to OLN's website to get the Tour De France audio (as I have done for the last four years) only to find CBS (for some bizarre reason) have required them to take it down. So off to Eurosport, home of the monotone charms of David Duffield, and their audio stream, which is comfortably my second choice to the giants who are Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen (sample bingo card here). Anyway, to my delight, Duffield is back in the studio in London this year and one David Harmon is sharing commentary duties with Sean "It certainly is" Kelly and Christi "I'm married to former top cyclist Phil" Anderson. Still not the depth of interest or the sheer fun that P&P bring, but the Eurosport newbies do at least talk about the racing, which is more than Duffield ever did. Yesterday it was not always easy to determine exactly what was going on, but it was clear Mr Lance was up to something, and the main rivals were struggling to survive.

So rushing home at 7pm to catch the ITV2 highlights (with Phil and Paul, of course), it quickly became clear that Team Discovery are feeling pretty good about themselves and Lance himself is quite determined to stamp his authority on the race early on. The footage of Lance telling his team-mate Popovych to step up the pace, followed by the immediate fragmentation of the lead group, was quite astounding, as was the way Lance himself kept attacking and attacking in an attempt to rid himself of his final three companions. In the end, Valverde (a Tour rookie, no less) was the only one with him at the end, and he managed to out-sprint Lance. Dramatic it certainly was.

So that was only the first day in the really high mountains, there's another today and then a couple in the Pyranees over the weekend, and if Lance can keep it together he'll win a seventh straight. But the future seems to be emerging, and who wouldn't bet against one of Valverde, Rasmussen, Mancebo and Popovych taking Lance's crown next year. Or maybe, just maybe, this year. Either way, today's climbs of the Madeleine and the Galibier should keep me interested as my trawls through the grey wastes of experiment results continue.

Now can somebody get me a coffee?

Obscure observation #73: Eating a spearmint-flavoured extra-strong mint followed by a nice cup of PG Tips makes the tea taste like malted Shreddies.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

7 July 2005: London

10.56 and it doesn't look good.

Far from being the power surge at Aldgate that they originally reported, it looks like it's a co-ordinated attack. And what a day for it too, with all the security being focused on Edinburgh.

To start with the BBC and Sky News were saying a minor explosion had been caused by a power surge on the tube network between Aldgate and Liverpool Street, and the Metropolitan Line was going to be shut for a bit. Then they said there was a second explosion at Edgeware Road, way round the other side of the West End; while they said that they showed pictures from Kings Cross with ambulances and fire engines outside. Looked like the power surge had spread down the lines somehow, although nobody could figure out how.

Then Sky News showed a still of a double-decker bus lying in pieces near Russell Square, and we knew there was much more to it than that.

Latest reports talk of at least three bus explosions, at least three tube explosions, and Sky News beginning to report fatalities. I just messaged Rob and Gareth to compare notes, and all thoughts seem to converge on one key question:

Is this our Madrid?

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

5 July 2005: Live

Plodding, lacklustre, sleepy, "not exactly foot-tapping", say the critics. (Yeah, well, neither's Wagner, what are you doing to do about it?)
I'll not take any money from it, says Dave.
Roger didn't come in at the right time in Money even though he wrote the song, says Martyn.
He certainly can't sing any more, says me.

Still, it was a good thing just to see. For a line-up that had been together since 1968, it's pretty amazing that they're all still going. The Who, bless 'em, only have half their original line-up left, as do The Beatles, and for some reason Macca doesn't seem to invite Ringo to drum too much these days. The Stones are still doing pretty well, but they weren't there, were they?

I suppose the most amazing thing was that it was something I never thought I'd see. I mean, I never expected the Floyd sans Roger to every do anything together again. And while it may be exciting to dream of a reunion tour and a new album, it somehow seems even less likely now than ever. That was it. The End Of Pink Floyd. Enjoy the moment. (And the archive stream from AOL.)

The performance itself was less relevant, but it was still good, bass-playing and Roger-singing-verse-two-of-Wish-You-Were-Here apart. Floyd obsessives naturally begin to ask particular questions about the performance -- who was in charge, Roger or Dave? Was Roger's guitar actually plugged in on Wish You Were Here, given that his part was also being played by Tim Renwick in the background? Who sang the harmonies on 'Breathe' (rumour is Jon Carin was playing keyboards off-stage and singing too) and why didn't Rick get a mic? (Martyn suggests it was Roger who said 'no, Rick, no mic for you' and Rick responded with 'ok Rog, just stop hitting me please'). And the writing of 'Make Poverty History' on The Wall was a very good touch, symbolic on numerous levels, and made sure it didn't become a Floyd thing to the detriment of the overall aim of Live8 - simply by being there, playing under a 'No more excuses' banner, was enough to tell anyone who knows even the slightest thing about Floyd that it's time for G8 to step up and stop what is effectively slavery in the 21st century.

The question is, will those with the power to change things take any notice? Or have they already concluded that the world is run by corporations, not governments, and they no longer have the clout to do anything about it? Or, even more twisted and scary, the corporations actually control the governments?

George W. Bush already said this week that a growing economy is more important than a habitable planet. Those aren't the words of a human.