Saturday, May 28, 2005

28 May 2005: Prison

Unusual for me to link to a messageboard thread, but this one contains word of warning. Never become a mailman in California. Sheesh!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

26 May 2005: Monobrow

Bill Bailey sings a tribute song to the monobrowed purveyor of ultimate filth, a song that begins thus:

"Beautiful ladies in danger,
Danger all round the world,
I will protect them,
Because I am Chris De Burgh....
Beautiful ladies in emergency situations."

Apparently, it's all true. And she's only eight.

All together now:
"Kill kill kill kill, kill the trolls,
Look under the bridges, that's where they hide."

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

25 May 2005: Daily

It has not escaped the attention of numerous correspondents that despite the name of this Blog, I actually refer to AKT rather less often than I refer to politics, football, baseball or even emailing the Pope.

OK, I admit it, my daily life in Bay 10 of the Zepler Building isn't usually sufficiently interesting to merit inclusion in the exciting non-stop roller-coaster of fun that is this blog. I arrive around 9, do some coding or paper-writing, talk to Gloria for a bit over lunch, work some more in the afternoon then go home. Gym and football is often woven in there, as is the occasional meeting. Sometimes, if I'm just doing coding that day, I'll work from home. Thus rolls along the PhD research, this AKTing lark in its day-to-day form.

Presently, however, I'm working on a non-thesis-related piece of research, and it's made me realise that my daily routine is neither normal nor mundane by the standards of most people in the world. In particular, I've been looking at the writings of a number of fellow-bloggers, specifically those in Iraq. While my job is simply to build tools to do some automated natural-language extraction from their pages, it's hard not to glance at the content of the pages as I flick through them with my efficiently-constructed Java and Perl tools. And then you realise, it's not just an academic text extraction system, we're actually dealing with real lives here. Individual lives, people with families, upbringings, histories, favourite places, favourite ice-creams, aspirations, perspectives, cynicism, hopes and fears. No shortage of fears.

The daddy of them all is Salam Pax. He started blogging back in the days of Saddam and was openly critical of the regime, his only hiding place being his internet identity and assumed name. As the war came, he continued, describing daily life in the middle of the war, ostensibly for his friend Raed who couldn't always read his emails, but increasingly for a global audience who began to pay attention. I first heard of him when William Gibson spoke in glowing terms of this brave blogger who was describing the war with an incisiveness none of us outside Iraq could begin to imagine. Pax, naturally, read Gibson's blog and for a couple of days there was some drool-inducing mutual appreciation, but overall Gibson was right: "My man Salam. I'm a total fan. Tells it like he sees it, and sees it like I can't." Salam's thoughts can now be read here.

Raed started his own blog, of course, and soon others popped on to the scene as the 2003 Iraq invasion quickly became the most-diaried war of all time. Riverbend, G, Alaa and the rest soon joined in, often referencing each other both in virtual and real life, leading to a fascinating intermeshing of community viewpoints, and many of them continue today. Some blogs make political points, some make religious points, some flat out make it all up, but almost all of them do something which television reports can't: they tell you what it's like to live a daily life through all this. What's it like to hide out in a small room with no electricity but still have a cellphone and a charged-up laptop with internet access? What's it like to have the security forces search your house so frequently it becomes something you prepare for? What do the frightened residents of Mosul and Basra have on their MP3 players and in their kitchens during these days? How about their pet cats?

The strangest thing is when you come across blogs that have clearly finished. Latest post usually quite a normal one in the context of the blog, but maybe dated September 2003 or January 2004. Some move on to new places (such as Salam), some ended their writing as the 'overthrow' phase of the military action drew to a conclusion and, most movingly, some finished because the author of the blog was blown up in a terrorist act or military push. It's often hard to tell because the blog just stops - just as you feel you're getting to know the person, reading their archives, suddenly it stops - and then a couple of days later, studying a totally different blog from the same timeframe, you read that such-and-such was killed and you think, oh, so that's what happened to them. And the friend you just made is gone, like that.

It's hard not to be affected, even in what is really an academic exercise in text processing. And it makes me realise more and more just how amazing daily life is for all of us, whether we recognise the fact or not.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

24 May 2005: Lucas

No, I haven't seen Episode III yet. And I don't think I'm going to.

Opinion, of course, is split, as it usually is. There's a general feeling that the special effects are, on the whole, very good; meanwhile the conversations between Anakin and Padme are bad, and George Lucas can't write such scripts. Beyond that, opinions are split.

Scott says it's "awesome" and "answers every question". But this, of course, is the man who follows American Idol quite fanatically.

Rob says it's "the worst film I've ever seen" and that "Lucas could film himself in a toilet for two hours, market it as a Star Wars movie, and it would be a hit." It's hard to disagree with the latter, but can the former be true?

Last summer, we sat down in our house to watch a movie on DVD. It was shortly after Martyn moved in, and was indeed the first time I'd watched a movie with him. (The previous nearest was the duck-on-the-head football incident reported in one of my Ur-blogs.) Martyn has ever since held the opinion that I am overly-critical of films. No, not all films. Just the one we watched that day. It's name? 'The Last Samurai'.

Now, I can tell a number of you have already gone into convulsions at the very mention of the name. The Last Samurai is easily, without question, the worst film I have ever seen. Even that piece of poo that Martyn and Dave watched the other week ("Quicksand") was slightly better, which is saying something for a film that, despite having Michael Caine in it, still managed to be very poor indeed. But at least it was an attempt at originality. The Last Samurai was so utterly derivative that at times you could have been watching scenes taken directly from 'Braveheart', 'Dances With Wolves' and even 'Karate Kid', for goodness' sake; indeed there were moments (such as the arrows flying through the air) where it was identical, shot-for-shot. As I pointed out at the time, there were some differences in the script: in Dances With Wolves, the native woman's husband had been killed by 'a white man', rather than the central character personally; but hang on, if that is the biggest difference, then what's the point in even watching it? I spent large chunks of the movie (before I got up and left the room entirely) just starting at the wall because I simply couldn't bear to watch it. It was that bad.

And was I alone in this? No. Radio Five Live ran a competition at the time, which invited listeners to complete the sentence: "The worst thing about The Last Samurai is...". The winner was both clever and yet at the same time quite depressing.

"The worst thing about The Last Samurai is that it probably isn't."

Thankfully, it looks like this last Star Wars probably is. But I still won't go to see it. Sorry, Jainhollie!

Friday, May 13, 2005

13 May 2005: Glazed

Richard Scudamore, the Chief Executive of the Premier League, says that Malcolm Glazer's takeover of Manchester United will have no affect on any future TV rights deals. Although the contract with Sky is up for renewal next year, Scudamore says that Glazer would have to garner support of fourteen of the twenty Premier League clubs in order to break up the cartel and allow clubs to deal with their TV rights on an individual basis. And that, says Scudamore, isn't going to happen.

Richard, you know what? That's not the point. Everyone, including the normally on-the-ball BBC, is talking this morning about how Glazer has gone into debt in a big way to fund this takeover. And how is he going to recoup the money? Ticket price hikes, merchandising (which, incidentally, Manchester United have no control over - they've sold their entire merchandising operation to Nike and thus have no say these days) and getting more money for the TV rights. But Sky aren't going to pay any more, and the Prem clubs aren't going to vote for a move that's financially bad for the vast majority of them. Thus everyone assumes Glazer wants to break up the cartel and sell United's TV rights on his own.

No! It's nothing to do with the TV market! At least - it's nothing to do with the UK TV market. You know where the biggest Man U fan base is? Not Manchester (ha ha!), nor even Surrey. Try South-East Asia. Of course, the Premier League also sell their overseas TV rights as a bundle too, but you know what that means? It means I was last week able to watch the Saints - Crystal Palace game at 3pm on a Saturday on ESPN StarSports Hong Kong over the internet (cough). I watched Crouchy's sending off and Higgy's last-minute equaliser, and his over-the-top celebrations given Saints needed a win not a draw. I saw it, live. On the net. On the net, BBC.

I refer confused readers to the blog I wrote a few weeks ago. Technology allows the streaming of live sporting events across the globe on a subscription-paying basis. Major League Baseball have a very solid implementation of this business model. Glazer knows that south-east Asia has greater access to high-speed broadband internet than anywhere else in the world, and what's their favourite sporting brand? Manchester United. That's where he's going with this. That's where he - and any other sports organisation with such a following - is going to make money. And that is my only fear with this takeover, that somehow Glazer will turn it into an internet success. That's my fear.

My hope, as always, is to see Man U relegated to the conference and have to play Exeter City in a relegation dogfight down there.

By the way, congratulations to Gareth and Helen on the arrival of Imogen Louise.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

12 May 2005: Proportion

No, I didn't blog about the election result. Why bother? It was thoroughly predictable, even several months ago, that Tony would be back in with a reduced majority. The exit poll suggested it, and (for the third time in a row) got it pretty much spot on. Just about the only interesting fact is the curio that of the three leaders fighting this election, only Charles Kennedy will be a party leader in the next one.

Well, ok, one more interesting fact emerged, and it's one that something needs to be done about, but nobody is going to do anything about. Let's look at the final vote share in this election:

  • Labour 35.2%
  • Conservative 32.3%
  • Liberal Democrat 22.0%
  • Others 10.5%

Now let's look at the number of seats won, and thus the power share in the next Parliament:

  • Labour 356 (55.2%)
  • Conservative 197 (30.5%)
  • Liberal Democrat 62 (9.6%)
  • Others 30 (4.7%)

So Labour gets a working majority with only just over a third of the votes. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, get pretty much 2/3 as many votes as Labour, yet less than a fifth the number of seats. Unfair representation? Well, here's an example: in East Sussex, there are eight seats. Labour won four of them, despite actually coming third in the overall vote in East Sussex. Reminiscent of Thatcher's days, where in 1987 she got only 10% of the vote in Scotland yet was returned as leader.

So why will nothing ever be done about it? Simple really: for all its failings, the 'first-past-the-post' system has one major consistency: it favours the party in government in a big way. Now Labour, in the 80s and 90s it favoured the Conservatives. Who has the power to change the system? Only the government. And they like the system because it favours them.

The only way it will ever be changed to something less unfair (for instance, the Alternative Vote system, the Single Transferable Vote system or even the Let Everyone Vote Raving Looney They Can't Be Worse Than This Lot system) is if a government knows it is in danger of losing the next election and feels that a proportional system would help limit its losses. There is a window of such opportunity right now - there won't be again for a while after this Parliament - so Labour MPs are putting pressure on their leadership to do something about it.

Will Tony do anything? No. He's probably too busy planning the next war with his coalition buddies well in advance of officially making any decisions.

Postscript: Blogger's spellcheck astounds me yet further by saying it didn't recognise the word 'blog', and did I want to replace it with 'bloc'. I mean, of all the places in the world I'd expect the word 'blog' to be recognised...

Monday, May 09, 2005

9 May 2005: Publishing

Rejected by yet another publisher? Fear not! You too can get your paper published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

At least, that's what The Scientist are reporting. Apparently, one David Egilman had a research paper rejected by JOEM, and disagreeing with their assessment that it was not of interest to the journal's readers, he contacted the marketing department and paid them to print his paper as a two-page advertisement. He included a feedback form in which readers could submit how interesting they found the article (and they did indeed find it interesting). And that's how you do it.

Of course, it helps if the company funding the research paper (Dow papers) is also indirectly tied to the journal in question, and you also need the money to fund the advertising space. But still, the precedent is set: I'm thinking of taking out a slot in Nature for a short paper titled "Six Months In Search Of Impact Ratings", in which I wrap my ongoing search for valid qualitative bibliometrics as a short story featuring a brave yet underqualified mouse named James and his battle against the big bad cat of normative scientific procedure. Or something. I think the MIT boys should try it with their paper too.

And come to think of it, maybe this is the best way to get Six Months In Search Of A Curry published after all.