Monday, April 30, 2007

30 April 2006: Mascara

Saw an interesting claim on an advertisement in the middle of Takeshi's Castle this evening.

Rimmel London are selling some mascara that not only makes your eyelashes look bigger, but towards the end of the commercial it features Kate Moss, having applied said makeup, walking across the street, a taxi stopping as she crosses, the voiceover claiming the look to be "traffic stopping."

OK. How do they know?

I have to assume, given that the commercial has not been challenged or removed by the advertising standards agency, that these claims are true. Which means field tests must have been conducted with some subjects wearing the Rimmel mascara and some subjects wearing a nasty inferior product. The subjects must then have been told to stand in the middle of a busy street and a statistically-relevant number of the first group of subjects must have survived the bloody carnage that followed.

I don't know about you, but it sounds more fun to watch than Bridge Ball to me.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

26 April 2007: Doves

Chapman Only Wins One Award At Own Ceremony

The 38th Annual Steven Curtis Chapman Awards last night proved successful for artists Chris Tomlin and Aaron Shust, while leaving Chapman himself to reflect on the fact that he might have to start producing new material in order to win any awards in the future.

While Shust headlined the big awards for 'Best Song' (My Savior, My God) and 'Best Songwriter', Tomlin carried off a total of six 'Stevies', including 'Artist of the Year' and 'Male Vocalist of the Year', carrying on his 2006 success where he won everything that Casting Crowns didn't.

"Like wow," said Tomlin, a Texas man who says he spends his time writing and recording songs.

Shust, meanwhile, garnered his first successes at the 'Stevies' on the back of the massive radio single 'My Savior, My God' which last year spent about 3000 weeks at number one in the various charts that reflect downloading and radio play.

"My mum used to let me sing into a turkey baster when I was three," he said as he accepted his award from someone on the stage. "Fortunately my producer gave me a real microphone when it came to recording the recording. What? Braves lost in the ninth after being three nothing up? Oh fiddlesticks."

Shust denied reports that he really is Sanjaya from American Idol.

It wasn't all male-dominated, however, as Natalie Grant proved, doubling up as awards host and winner of 'Best Female Vocalist', an award she also won last year, probably for the same song. Amy Grant also won one of the little awards down at the bottom of the page for a video or something.

"There are other women here tonight, honestly," one of the Grants told reporters at a secret telephone Press Conference. "And no, I'm not related to Hugh Grant. Or Cary Grant. How did you get my number, anyway?"

Group of the year Casting Crowns won the award for 'Group of the Year' and stated they were "looking forward to meeting Rob at Kentish Town in June", referencing reports that Rob will be attempting to heckle the band into singing "Is this the way to Amarillo" during their forthcoming London concert.

Chapman, meanwhile, had to suffice with a minor credit on 'Instrumental Album of the Year', a far cry from the days when he would win every category (including all the female ones) whether or not he actually released any material during the year.

"It's good of them to name the awards after me," Chapman said, speaking through a cheap megaphone from the back of a rented three-wheel motorised watermelon. "Now stop following me."

In other awards, Kirk Franklin won 'Urban Recorded Song of the Year' for "Imagine Me", encouraging this reporter to dig out his old gospel/hip-hop crossover album and maybe even a do a little Stomp. Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber won a 'Stevie' for some vegetable-related children's material, although their winning album did not contain the controversial song that encouraged children to only eat bunnies. The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything stayed true to their word and did not win anything.

The Steven Curtis Chapman Awards are also known as the Dove Awards or the GMA Music Awards.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

18 April 2007: Higher

And up it spirals... The above appears to be a twenty-five year high for the pound against the dollar, and by the time you read this it may well have spiked even further. Sheesh. Haven't these people heard of profit taking? Surely it'll be back below $2 in a day or so when the momentum gives out?

The only observation I've made in all of this is that it's not interest rate rises that cause the pound to spike, but the promise of interest rate rises. In January, the face of BoE raised rates to 5.25% and took everyone by surprise: the pound spiked for half an hour and then was back down to where it was before. Now we have the almost certain prospect of rate hikes in about two weeks' time, and so everyone has time to salivate about it, thus pushing the pound up and up.

Meantime McDougal notes that one of the creators of Drupal, the freebie content management system that appears to be the only thing left of John Kerry's 2004 election campaign, is named John VanDyk and he appears to list his hobbies as 'squash hunting and raising children'. In that order, presumably. And if you've no idea what squash hunting is, click here to find out.

Who says there's nothing to do in Iowa?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

17 April 2007: Cable

Yup, there it is - the magic two-dollar pound. It initially happened about 9.30 this morning, while I was at Mauro's getting the six-weekly mop chop. It happened again, for less than 30 seconds, at 10.20 (or 9.20 if you're Reuters), and rumour is that it'll be up there for good later on today. Why?

Mainly because UK annual inflation rose to 3.1% last month, which took a few people by surprise, not least the Governor of the Bank of England (one Mervyn King) who, for the moment, has to put his game of minesweeper aside in order to write a letter to the Government explaining why inflation is above 3%. (Answer: people are buying lots of stuff. I'd have thought it was pretty obvious.)

This has consequences beyond just the Governor's ability to play computer games. It means that people are spending lots, and the standard way to make people spend less and thus bring inflation down to the target figure of 2%, the Bank of England will raise interest rates to 5.5% in early May. Thus people with mortgages will have to pay more and so have less to spend on milk, petrol and furniture (apparently those three are the main causes of the latest inflation hike), thus demand drops in comparison to supply, and the pressure for prices to rise is lowered. And so inflation drops. And that's that and everyone's happy. Except for homeowners, of course. And a few other groups...

The thing about high interest rates is that it makes Sterling a rather attractive proposition for foreign investors. Nice high returns on investment mean that people are, this morning, selling their dollars and buying pounds instead, thus pushing up the pound-dollar rate (nicknamed 'cable' for some reason I can't fathom) to the $2 mark and beyond. Weak inflation data is expected from the US later today, especially from their housing sector, and that's expected to take the rate firmly beyond the $2.00 mark by close of play.

And while the $2 pound is good for us personally (Gloria this morning said "shame we didn't wait another week to do our latest transfer") it's bad for UK industry: nobody from another country really wants to buy from the UK when, effectively, our pound-priced products are just getting more and more expensive in their own currency. And it's a bummer for the tourist industry too: US visitors are much less likely to come when they don't get a lot of pound for their dollar, especially when you consider how expensive London already is as a destination. At least if they're not buying milk, petrol and furniture it might help inflation go back down.

So there it is, a landmark for my Dollars java program but very mixed news for the UK economy. Of course in really important news, a haircut at Mauro's still costs £8 but in the second major shock news story of the day, Mauro exclusively revealed to our reporter that his shop will cease to be as of next March: the fourteen-year contract is up and he's going to get a little van and do mobile haircutting instead.

Now why aren't the BBC carrying that as their top story?

Monday, April 16, 2007

16 April 2007: Dollars

Working on UIMA right now, which isn't particularly interesting - the core product seems to be rather like GATE except slightly better organised. The idea is that you feed in a document or ten, and it will annotate the text of said document according to whatever you want it to pick out - sentences, nouns, titles, specific words, even grammatical constructs from which you might be able to determine the meaning of the document. Then we write it out to some kind of file (probably RDF in our case), stick it in a triplestore and call it 'semantic annotation'.

The advantage of 'semantic' annotation, rather than just regular full-text indexing is, well, say you wanted to look up documents that were about or contained reference to the current US President. Instead of doing the standard search on the word 'bush' and thus coming up with all manner of references to gardens, rock bands and the broadcast centre for the BBC World Service, you instead do a semantic search, thus getting only references that refer to, say, 'person:Bush', thus narrowing down your results to include a couple of US Presidents, a Florida Governor and the singer of 'Wuthering Heights'. Maybe the tagger is smarter: maybe you could in fact search for 'president:Bush' to narrow it still further. So anyway, that's what I'm up to.

Problem is, it's a pain to implement. No disrespect to the UIMA folks or the Apache developers, but for someone coming to this from cold I've found it hard enough to even get through the walk-throughs, let alone understand the processes enough to allow me to develop my own solutions. In fact, if I hadn't spent a good amount of time on GATE a couple of years ago, I might well be totally lost. Took me almost a full day just to get the thing fully and correctly implemented into Eclipse, what with all the extra downloads and additional bits here and there.

The whole process reminded me of the first time I dabbled with J2EE and spent days just downloading stuff I didn't understand and faithfully following walk-through tutorials, performing ANT deployments and editing XML files that were a mystery to me. I came out far more confused that I'd gone in, and didn't understand why it was so much more complex than the PHP and ASP alternatives that I was used to. And the thing is, I'd made servlets before and fully understood that. Only later, after discovering an actual 'Hello World' JSP, was I able to build up from there and realise that half the stuff I'd done in the initial tutorial hadn't been required, it was just a way to keep the programmer from having to write code.

So that's my gripe. I don't want to be saved from writing code by means of complex helper applications and Eclipse plug-ins, OK? Give me the code, whether it's OO, script or even something XMLish. I understand stuff like variables, data types, arrays, branching, looping, subroutines, classes, recursion, regular expressions and all that stuff. I'm happy with client-server constructs, port connections, messaging. But when I'm faced with new stuff - and lots of new stuff at that - it throws me. Chunks of UIMA seem to be about nice GUI forms that you fill in to make the background XML file: why can't I just make the XML file myself? Answer: I can, but it's not how the tutorials take you, and I need tutorials since I'm coming to this pretty much as a starter. So I go through the tutorials, and then figure out how to translate it into the lower-level concepts I'm more familiar with.

So I'll battle on, but wish things could be simpler. One of the best things I programmed recently was dead simple: a short java application to sit on the desktop and tell me the current exchange rate between the pound and the dollar, so we can figure out when is best to transfer funds to the US (for things such as student loan payments and root beer). It's short but elegant, multi-threaded, web-enabled and runs in the background, only popping up when important events occur, such as heading towards the two-dollar pound. Which, it seems, we may be not far off accomplishing as I write this...

I just wish the Reuters website didn't insist on calling it BST when they're actually giving the time in GMT.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

4 April 2007: Death, Privatised

Imagine that, living among the djinns. Taylor wished the court had just given him community service like most people got for minor offences like speeding and driving through a shop window. It had been a heavy night, a bad night, but surely he didn't deserve treatment like this.

He wandered down the dark street, the solitary sodium lamp ahead glowing starburst in the thickening fog. It had stopped raining, but the fog was hanging low, making him feel safe, somehow secure. A blanket.

His mind went back twenty-four hours. Celebrating with Jake and Tenbo in the Frog And Afterlife following the crunching victory of his Calamitous Rangers over the neighbourhood rival Caskets Albion in the annual 'National Warmonger Championships'. Taylor himself had played a significant part in that victory, managing to start three small conflicts in west Africa and getting a bonus for converting a civil war to an international incident in south-east Asia. He had been particularly proud of that one.

That really justified the whole change, too. Ever since Death had been privatised, the rates had just gone up through the roof. Now Taylor and the other Civil Servants in Death's organisation had been broken up into separate corporations, each of whom sponsored sports-style competitions to increase the overall rate of human death. War was the favoured method, although smaller specialist companies had emerged which developed the niche markets such as natural disasters and pandemic diseases. One of the privatised companies, Utterly Facile, had specialised in causing the deaths of quite utterly stupid people, and had been so successful that even the human population (those who remained) had begun publishing the so-called 'Darwin Awards' in honour of them. Utterly Facile had won 'Best Original Methodology' at the Gravey's five years running, and were still the talk of the town. But this day had been the championship of the big boys. The War Premiership. And Taylor, Jake and Tenbo had led from the front as the Calamitous boys had come up winners yet again.

So the celebrations rolled into the early hours, the drink flowing freely, the revelries unending. Then the bet had come. Fifty deaths before chucking out time, the old man on the barstool said. Who could manage that? Fifty in just under forty minutes. Faces had turned away. Nobody thought it was possible.

Taylor had just laughed at first. The old man had smiled back, a knowing smile, eyes piercing from their setting in many years of wrinkled flesh. Grey, thinning hair and a scraggy beard, the upper lip moved with the smile, revealing yellowed teeth, decaying. You'll do, he said. You'll do it.

Taylor had taken the challenge. Jake shook his head, Tenbo just said no way man, no way will you get fifty. Two hours, maybe, and you could get something going in Kashmir, but forty minutes? No way.

But Taylor had been swept up in the moment. The drink, the adulation of the day just gone, the look in the man's eyes. Fifty wasn't many. Not too many at all.

He stumbled out of the bar into the night air. Fifty not many. Fifty ok. He went to the window of the Estate Agent and looked at the properties on offer. Iran was starting to look a hot bet for the summer, and Sri Lanka was on special offer. But the place was shut. Of course it was shut! It was three in the morning. What an idiot. How was he going to get anything before half past if all the shops were shut?

Only one thing for it. Taylor ran home, got in his '98 convertible Vauxhall Catastrophe and sped back to the High Street. Fixing his old jousting pole to the front, he got back in the car and turned it to face the Estate Agency window. Turn of the key, into gear, down with the accelerator...

Looking back on it now, a day later, he had to admit it hadn't been the wisest move. He'd smashed through the window successfully but the police had arrived before he'd been able to even get the ticket safe open. He awoke in the cell the next morning with only patchy memories of the night before. The win, the pub, the bet, the old man's eyes, haunting.

The magistrate had been harsh, he thought, especially as it was his first offence and he *had* been working all day in the public service. But no mercy, there was his sentence, a month in the City of Djinn. Living in among the alcohol players, the squatty evolutionary off-shoots of his own species. The Gin boys, with their fog, their little caravans, their disgustingly wide lapels and flowery ties. Taylor shook his head in disgust, stared at the empty street and wondered if he should get back to the motel.

"You didn't do it then," said the voice. A creak in the tone.
Taylor turned and saw the old man's eyes right in front of him, piercing, tiny diamonds of intensity embedded in the pale layers of folded skin.
"No, I didn't," said Taylor, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Funny, that. I was just about to set off World War Three when the police came."
"So I win," said the man, the yellowing grin appearing at the corners of his whiskered mouth.
"Yes," said Taylor brightly. "You win. Now get stuffed, I'm going home."
"No, no," replied the old man, holding a hand up. "You don't see, do you?"
"See what?"
"I win, so I get your body, you see."
"Umm, no, you keep yours. It's done the rounds, hasn't it?"
"But I wish to have yours. With yours, you see, I can do my job more successfully. This body was okay as a starting point, but I need to work among the major players now. I don't have a lot of time left. Your body is mine."
"Look," said Taylor, "It's mine, how can you claim it? I never agreed to those conditions, that was never the bet."
"I'm afraid it was," replied the man, red scorched hands drawing a folded piece of paper from the pocket of his long, black coat. Taylor read the document and saw his signature at the bottom.
"I need it, you see," continued the old man, "I need your body. I need your position in Calamitous. If I can infiltrate from there, then maybe I still have time. Maybe there's still a chance for me to stop everything, to sabotage from within."
Taylor looked at the man, and then back to the paper. Next to his own name was the scrawl of the old man's hand. He looked closer but couldn't make it out.
"Who *are* you?" asked Taylor. The old man's grizzled face leaned in closer as he whispered his reply, barely audible.


Postscript: Saw the title of William Dalrymple's travel book 'City of Djinns' on the shelf and out came the above.