Saturday, August 23, 2003

Worst. Premiership Side. Ever?

Why didn't we just lose the playoff final and stay in the First Division? And off to Old Trafford on Wednesday. Still, at least Sunderland have now given us a fixed target of ineptness to aim at.

On the lighter side, I can't be the only person to think that Roman Abramovich would have made a good Bond villain. I certainly won't be surprised if, one of these days, Stamford Bridge suddenly slides open to reveal a missile solo. 'Ah, Mr Ferguson. I've been expecting you.'

Cliche prediction

Now, I like making predictions (and then forgetting I ever made them when they don't come true) so here's another bit of Formula 1 speculation: If Fernando Alonso turns his pole position in the Hungarian Grand Prix into his first ever race win, I'd give good odds on ITV's commentator James Allan heralding Alonso's approach to the finish with a cry of 'Can you hear the drums Fernando?!'

No comment

It's on the Internet! It must be true!

Aware that in the past Ozzy had hidden subliminal messages in his music, I started watching episodes of “The Osbournes” suspecting that he might try to do the same with his television show. Lo and behold after just two and a half seasons my dedication reaped dividends. While listening to the third episode of season three backwards, which I had tape-recorded, I found a scene in which Ozzy mumbles, “This show is scripted.”
Is Ozzy fake?

Androgyny

Anthony informed me of the existence of the Gender Genie, that can supposedly tell whether a piece of writing was created by a man or a woman. His results from using it seem to show that it's broadly accurate, but trying it out on ten pretty randomly selected sections from this page gave me an exact 50/50 split between 'male' and 'female' posts which undermines his argument that it's 'too easy' to do it on my blog because of the posts about football (a post about football was one that got a 'male' result, though)

Anyway, as I'm bored I tried it out on some other bloggers - ten random (or as random as I could make them) selections from their front pages were sampled and the results were:

Green Fairy: 90% female, 10% male
Peter Cuthbertson: 50% male, 50% female
Ryan Beatnik: 30% male, 70% female
Oliver Kamm: 50% male, 50% female
Iain Coleman:45% male, 55% female (I didn't do 20 samples, it just couldn't decide on one of his, but felt his maiden speech to Cambridge City Council was made by a woman)

At which point I gave up as I don't really think that this proves anything, or even allow for many silly jokes. Given these results and what Anthony found I'd suspect that either the system has a slight bias towards seeing writing as female, or political blogging tends to be written in such a way that makes it more 'feminine' (at least according to the Genie) than 'normal' writing. Given that the feminine weighting in the algorithm used by the genie is applied to possessive words, and political blogging can use more of this than regular writing - there's lots of use of possessive terms to denote ownership of opinions etc and perhaps this throws out the scale.

Or then again, someone might do the same thing using slightly different samples from the people I've tested and get the exact opposite results.

Friday, August 22, 2003

Without the web

We'd never have sites like Chris' British Road Directory. I can't decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but at least it's keeping someone busy. Though I do wonder just what the 'Motorway Simulator' does, especially if you run one of the 'Fantasy Motorways'.

His Dark Materials on stage

I missed the original announcement of this, but a friend of mine got the National Theatre's programme for the Autumn series yesterday which includes a stage adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials directed by Nicholas Hytner. It's divided into two parts (which makes me wonder where the divide will be - between The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass would be my guess) each being shown staged separately but there'll be joint performances of both parts on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It's running from December through till March, though I suspect that run will be extended if it's a success. Considering the source material and the fact that Hytner's directing, I'd be very surprised if it isn't a success.

Hopefully, I'll be getting tickets soon, so expect my opinion of it here in a few months time.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Ladies and Gentlemen, start your swingometers!

We finally have a date for the Brent East by-election - Thursday 18th September. Just four weeks to go...

This is (another) way the world ends

There's clearly a strong eschatological bent amongst the commissioning editors of Horizon, given their tendency to stick in the regular 'and here's another way we're all going to die horribly' edition amongst the usual programmes on various frontiers of science. But, it gives regular employment to Bill Paterson and Brian Cox, the official Voiceovers of Doom, so it's not all bad.

Tonight's edition - Averting Armageddon (originally shown in January) - was firmly in that vein, looking at the various methods scientists have discussed for destroying or deflecting any asteroids that could collide with the Earth. Of course, it suffered from the problem all discussions of this type have, which is that it's very hard to get people to take the idea seriously when the only asteroid they've found that may well hit us won't do so until 2880. Though, given our propensity to leave major global decisions for later generations to handle, I wouldn't be surprised if there's no real action on that until late 2879.

It is one of those areas that while it's not the sort of subject you want to think about too much, you're glad that someone somewhere is thinking about ways to stop it from happening. Watching some of the scientists involved in the field does give you the feeling that some of them would like to discover an asteroid that was going to hit us in the near future just so they can say 'See? I told you my work was worthwhile!'

Spot the difference

Kate Moss plays a poledancer in the latest White Stripes video - I believe it's one of those interactive videos where there are prizes for the viewers who can actually tell the difference between Kate Moss and a pole.

Jeff Goldblum Syndrome

Watching M*A*S*H yesterday made me realise that Alan Alda is one of a select group of actors who have what I like to refer to as 'Jeff Goldblum Syndrome' - the ability to age without it noticeably affecting how they look. With most actors, when you see them in an early role your first remark is usually on the lines of 'wow, is that so-and-so? They look so young' while, when one sees an actor with JGS your reaction is more on the lines of 'oh, that's so-and-so. Bloody hell, they don't look any different - are you sure this was made 30 years ago?'

Goldblum is the most notable of the JGS actors (which is why it's named after him) for not only does he look the same in every role, he's pretty much playing the same role in every one as well. There's hardly any difference between his appearance from the seventies through to today. Other actors with JGS include the aforementioned Alan Alda, Richard E Grant and Steve Martin (though JGS doesn't affect his hair) but I'm sure there are loads of others out there - anyone want to suggest someone?

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Suicide is Painless

I bought the first season of M*A*S*H on DVD the other day (anyone who wants to buy it might like to know it's available at Asda for just over a tenner) so I've been watching quite a bit of it over the last few days.

It's strange to think that it's now thirty years since these episodes were first transmitted and that we're now further away from them than they were from the Korean War they depict. However, they haven't really dated, partly because they were already set in the past when they were made but also because they have a feel that's radically different from other TV from the seventies with really high production quality. You can tell it has its roots in a Robert Altman film as it keeps a lot of the mobile camerawork, multi-strand dialogue and naturalistic acting that's a mark of his films, though interestingly he didn't have much to do with the TV series.

There's an awareness of the darker side of war present from the start, which is quite amazing in itself as when it was first transmitted in 1972, the US was still mired in Vietnam yet here was a TV series that portrayed the US Army as the centre of a web of corruption, staffed by officers who were openly critical of the idea of war. The word 'alcoholic' is never actually spoken yet Hawkeye's dependence on alcohol is pretty clearly indicated in several episodes, while no secret is made of the fact that Trapper, Henry and Frank are all married yet openly conducting affairs while in Korea. The closest modern parallel I can think of would be one of the American networks launching a TV series based on the movie Three Kings around now.

In these early episodes the characters are also quite similar to their original depiction in the film (I haven't read Richard Hooker's novel on which the film was based, so can't comment on the resemblance there) though interestingly the actors cast in the roles don't bear much of a resemblance to their film counterparts (with the exception of Gary Burghoff's Radar, who was of course the only actor to reprise his film role on TV). Frank Burns is the only character to have been notably altered, from the intense brooding of Robert Duvall on film to the pompous buffoon Larry Linville portrayed on TV, though it's an understandable change to make him a lighter character for the TV series as there would be a limit to how often a Duvall-esque performance could be used for laughs on a TV series.

Of course, the power of DVD means that there's one excellent benefit - you can watch all the episodes without a laugh track. I first watched M*A*S*H in the eighties when it was repeated on BBC 2 without the laugh track and once you've seen it without it's very hard to watch it with the laugh track (the way Sky One shows it) mainly because it was made on location, rather than in front of an audience, so the laugh track is clearly added in but also because many of the jokes aren't as obvious as most sitcoms so there's often a gap between punchline and laugh which then obscures the next lines.

Well, I have some time to kill now, so I'm off to watch another episode - I just need to start rationing my watching of them a bit because Season Two isn't released until October.

And for my next trick...

David Blaine is going to spend 44 days sitting in a cage by the Thames and you can watch the whole thing live on the web. It's another one of those 'stunts' that makes you wonder just how many people would pay good money to access watchingpaintdry.com if it was marketed to them as being the fashionable thing to do.

(For those of you who want to stay in touch with the latest fashions and trends, I understand that repeatedly smacking yourself in the head with a hammer is going to be the in thing this Autumn.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Rogue Pollster

Of interest to us poll anoraks amateur psephologists, Anthony has an interesting post on the different methodologies used by the different polling companies to produce their results.

One point that I think is worth making on the different results is that while the methodologies can produce a variability in the reported results which is especially notable now when different companies place different parties in the lead, when viewed together they can show what the current trends in voting intention are. For instance, polls over recent months have shown Labour losing support but the voters that are deserting Labour are moving to the Liberal Democrats or Others rather than to the Conservatives.

To my mind, watching the trends over time is a useful way of firstly, noting who's winning the current arguments and what way voters are moving in response, and secondly, they provide a good way of spotting what may be rogue or 'blip' polls - the latest Guardian/ICM poll which shows Labour gaining votes from the Conservatives against the current trends of the other polls may well be a rogue poll (though it may also herald the start of a new trend). The important thing is that if a company has produced a rogue poll in one month, then it's results for the next month may then overexaggerate any trend as it corrects itself.

What would be useful, of course, is a Poll of Polls averaging out the data from the four companies to give a better perspective of the trends over time. I don't know if Anthony's patented Gnome Industries election swingometer can manage that though...

Lapdance Island

As I seem to be getting a number of visitors looking for information on this, I suppose I ought to let people know that I've been informed that the latest edition of Broadcast magazine (not available online) says it's a spoof, as I suspected. Thanks to Matthew for letting me know.

Of course, the question now is what's the purpose of this spoof and who's behind it? The obvious connection is to the fact that Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker have recently delivered their latest pilot to Channel 4, though it seems just a little too obvious to be a Morris/Brooker idea.

Update: Here's the full article (thanks again Matthew!) - subscription site, so here's what it says:
E4 Reality Show is a spoof 19 August 2003 09:49
"Lapdance Island: 10 male contestants. 40 lapdancers. You can look - but you can't touch." These catchphrases can be heard on almost every ad break on E4 - gearing viewers up to believe that this is the next reality TV series.
However Lapdance Island is in fact a spoof for a new comedy series, The Pilot Show, where members of the public become the stars of the show as they willingly put themselves through embarrassing auditions in an attempt to get on TV.
Other spoof programme ideas include a "real-life Truman Show" where people are asked to give up their lives forever and a prisoner of war camp in Guantanamo Bay. Adverts placed in newspapers and on E4 should ensure a great number of wannabe TV stars apply.
The 8x30-minute series, commissioned by E4 head of programmes, Murray Boland, is due for transmission on E4 in September and Channel 4 shortly after. The series is produced by Damon Beesley and executive produced by Rob Moore.
It's probably just me who thinks the name 'Damon Beesley' is disturbingly similar to 'Nathan Barley', right?

It's a long shot, but it might just work...

Three cheers for the Telegraph! Three cheers for the Times! Three cheers for the Independent! Three cheers for the Financial Times! Three cheers for the Mail! Three cheers for the Express! Three cheers for the Sun! Three cheers for the Mirror! Three cheers for the Star! Three cheers for the Sport!

Look, yesterday, Peter leads with 'three cheers for the Guardian' and today he's been named the 'website of the month' in the Diary. I figure this is a test to see if all the other papers follow suit...I'm just getting in first with all of them before everyone else figures it out and joins the rush.

It's going to be a long season...

So, with the first set of games out of the way there's a distinctly Northern feel to the top of the UK Bloggers fantasy league with British Spin's Real Politik top with 80.28 points, closely followed by Iain Murray's Spartak Brockley Whins on 75.47 and Jez Smith's Deportivo La Yorkshire on 71.44.

And at the bottom, with a frankly pathetic 5.95 points is, erm, me. At least Wolves are ahead of Bolton in the real Premiership...

Monday, August 18, 2003

Things you thought you'd never see

Peter Cuthbertson saying 'Three cheers for The Guardian!'

Coming on the same day as England winning a test match against South Africa, it's all a bit confusing. Yes, I know we're a lot better now than we were a few years ago, but I'm from that generation who (to quote Drop The Dead Donkey 'think England Test Collapse is a single word.'

The Last King of Scotland

I found this article by Giles Foden, discussing how he came to write The Last King of Scotland and why he became so fascinated with Idi Amin. There's an interesting little section in it:
Was Amin mad? "This proves I'm not mad," he said to foreign secretary Jim Callaghan in 1974, introducing him to the hostage, Denis Hills, whom Callaghan had come to rescue. Maybe so, but as Callaghan told me in conversation, once Hills's release was secured, Amin took the soon-to-be British prime minister for a terrifying spin in his jeep through Kampala.

Things got worse. More people were killed, the economic crisis deepened. The prime minister that Callaghan replaced, Harold Wilson, was presented with a plan to assassinate Amin but rejected it.
It seems that it wasn't just David Owen who suggested assassinating Amin then. Owen's comments about the proposed assassination come from when he was Foreign Secretary, towards the end of Amin's rule in 1978-79 rather than back in 1974-76 when Wilson was Prime Minister. As Foden mentions having talked with Callaghan, who was Foreign Secretary then, one wonders if they originated with him or if they just came from some anonymous person within the Foreign Office.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Taking Ladbrokes to the cleaners

I always enjoy stories of bookmakers and their 'friends' playing with the markets to try and get a coup over one of the big companies. Yes, the ethics of the whole thing are a bit murky, but there's something that appeals to me about the way they keep their nerves ice cool even when huge sums of money are being thrown about and odds are being recalculated (usually in someone's head - all the best stories are from before computerisation) almost by the second. Of course, it's probably not too much fun to be caught up as a regular punter in the whole thing.

In their article on the life of Glasgow bookie John Banks, who died recently, The Observer details an interesting example:
A story told by one of Banks's racecourse employees of the time, Jim Murphy, sums up that period. As much as (Ladbrokes supremo Cyril) Stein tried, Banks was one step ahead. Stein was using another bookmaker to send money back to the course to affect the market, but Banks worked this out and decided to do something about it. At one Newcastle meeting, a Banks horse, Thika, was down to run. The night before the race, Banks instructed McAllister to ring the suspect bookie first thing in the morning. (Banks' right-hand man David) McAllister was to place a bet of £100 on Thika. If Banks was right about the bookie's links with Ladbrokes, the bookie would be sure to contact Stein to tell him about the bet. Banks was expecting Stein to put two and two together and make five. And he was right.

It was the early stages of betting at the track and Ladbrokes reps were running around the ring backing Thika. One approached Banks himself, asking for £2,000 at 7-2. Banks played coy and laid 7-2 to £50. This made the rep even more certain that Banks was backing his own horse, so he asked for £2,000 at the new price of 3-1. Another £50 was laid. The price was now 5-2. Once again Stein's man went in, asking for '£5,000 to £2,000'. 'It's a bet,' said Banks.

The message came for the Ladbrokes men to put more money on Thika.

'What's the price now?' one asked Banks. 'Three to one,' he replied, and turned his back to face the members' enclosure. The price started to go out to 4-1, then 5-1 and Stein's employees panicked. One of them got on the blower: 'The horse is drifting now, what should we do?'

'Of course it is drifting, Banks must have backed it at starting price. Put more money on,' was the office's response. Thika trailed in down the field. Stein and Ladbrokes had been routed.
I'm curious - do free-marketeers see that as a fair use of the markets for a profit or a fraudulent manipulation? I'm not really sure, but I've had a very long night/day and I need to think about it after I've had some sleep before I'll come to an opinion I can trust.

Morrisian

It's probably just me, but doesn't this headline from the News Of The World - He hacked off my hair and covered me with ink while I slept - sound like something that would be uttered by Chris Morris as one of the headlines on either On The Hour or The Day Today?

Enoch Powell on a pogo stick

Found via a post on soc.history.what-if, but the Statesman or Skatesman website has limited itself to pictures from our own reality, including the aforementioned Mr Powell on a pogo stick, Cecil Parkinson as a downhill racer, and James Callaghan on a skateboard.

And next I shall destroy his Fortress of Solitude! Mwahahahaha...

Is British Spin's secret identity really that of mild-mannered former newspaper editor Peter Preston? The similarities between Spin's piece on newspaper reaction to the Hutton Inquiry from Wednesday and Preston's piece on the same subject in today's Observer tipped me off, but then I also realised that Spin is known for his typos and Preston was a former editor of The Guardian (from the pre-spellcheck days) and so probably knows more about typos than anyone else in the world.

Come on, it's the silly season - anyway, I've seen people trying to claim that Atrios is either Gene Lyons or Sidney Blumenthal, so why shouldn't we have a British version?

News before it happens

Would it be easier if they were all called Bob?

I realised something reading this Washington Post story on the California election - most of the leading candidates have rather long surnames. Out of the leading seven candidates, only Simon and Camejo have short names, then there's Ueberroth (9 characters), Huffington, Bustamante and McClintock (10 characters) and, of course, Schwarzenegger with a whopping 14 characters. It's often been said that candidates with shorter names have a better chance of being elected (though like many bits of political specualtion it's hard to prove) but this election does seem to be an opportunity for the 'big names' to stand up and be counted. Though, according to this list of California's Governors, the state has had a few Governors with rather long names, mostly back when the Spanish were in charge but there was the 10-character Deukmejian in the 80s.

But, just to throw this open, if we take the two leading candidates (Bustamante and Schwarzenegger, according to the polls) they have a total of 24 characters in their surnames. Anyone know of an election between two candidates with longer names?

Idi Amin

The post I wrote about Idi Amin was a bit strange this morning - I found that article about the organ transplants on BBC News and then less than an hour later they announced that he'd died. As Tetsuo wrote in the comments 'Why is it the bad guys always seem to live a really old age?' and I think there was a sense of disbelief when it was announced that Amin was dead - you always expect people like that to stay alive, as though they're taunting the rest of us. I think there was a similar disbelief when Pol Pot died a few years ago.

Peter also has a selection of some of the stranger moments of Amin's madness in the comments. As I suggested there, Giles Foden's book The Last King of Scotland (Amin also believed that he was destined to become King of Britain and that the Scottish people loved him) is an excellent portrayal of the madness of Amin and the chaos Uganda descended into under his rule, but it also does illuminate how this man got to his position of power over Uganda and how people got sucked into his insanity.

There's plenty of stuff in the news today about Amin, but one of the more interesting revelations has been David Owen saying he suggetsed having Amin asassinated. Assassination as a way of solving the Amin problem is one of the subjects Foden's novel deals with and confirmation that it was discussed at a high level of government adds to the understanding of what was happening at that time.