Random musings from the front line (well, more like the support trench, or perhaps the castle 10 miles away, supping Chateau Lafite with the General Staff) in the battle for curiosity, inertia, grammar and a Dachshund called Colin.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Googling the Earth

CLICK HERE for full size picture of my Dad's house - as seen from spaceToday is only the 7th anniversary of the founding of Google, that appears to be so succesful because (unlike other search engines), the front page of the website is purely dedicated to ... er .... searching the internet. Unlike Lycos it doesn't try and get you laid (Love at Lycos- what the ranting idiots at the Daily Mail called "Adultery.com"!), unlike Yahoo it doesn't offer pop-up-plagued web hosting, and unlike MSN, it doesn't try and take over your entire computer. However, behind the front page, Google has expanded to now offer email (Gmail), shopping (Froogle - geddit?), news feeds, blogging (er - Blogger), picture sharing (Picasa or Hello) and much more. BUT. There's now a new way to waste hours and hours online that I've just been introduced to. And I'm terribly sorry if you all know about it already. Yes, dear reader, I today found the delight, the wonder, the amazing resource that is... Google Earth.

Although it's only a Beta version at the moment, there's pretty much full functionality of the free version and it provides a half decent coverage of the land (rather than oceanic) parts of the planet. After downloading the program, and connecting to the internet, anywhere you choose (ie your house - as that's where everyone looks at first) can be located, zoomed into and examined. Most parts of the USA are incredibly detailed, as are major cities of the world, and most large European towns. In the bits in between, you can identify roads and groups of houses, although the overall effect is rather blurry (like a drunken airliner passenger looking out of the window). And the residents of Guildford have really drawn the short straw, as it was cloudy on the day when the satellite was allocated that particular patch of Southern England, and all you can see is a 100 square mile expanse of cloud tops!

Gibraltar with no labelling

Gibraltar with 'Keyhole' labelling selected

Nevertheless, it's still a very impressive program, as can be seen from the example in the top image. The picture is of a house in the USA, chosen not-quite-at-random, and you can clearly make out a white car in the driveway, a small swimming pool, balconies, gardens, nearby golf greens etc. And that was taken from miles above the surface, using civilian technology - just IMAGINE what the military versions can see. Google don't specify when exactly any given image was taken other than "within the past year or two", but my cursory examination of the Spinnaker Tower image shows it was taken in the last 6 months - probably around Easter.

Being Google (and therefore very fluffy), anyone can contribute towards the labelling of the various points of interest around the globe, using a bulletin board system (called Keyhole BBS). Completely unregulated and uneditable, unfortunately this can actually be a bit hit and miss, as the two images of Gibraltar (side by side above) demonstrate. In popular and interesting areas, images are completely swamped with information, some of which can be useful, but lots of which are not, and various parts of which are downright misleading. In the Falklands, for example, the islands are swamped with Argentinean propaganda slogans and placenames (Port Stanley is renamed Puerto Argentina, for example), and several random US desert airstrips are "positively" identified as being the mythical Area 51. As if the US Government would allow THAT to be displayed!

A Royal Naval frigate. The sailors on which are probably dressed as women, running up The Rock As you might imagine, all sorts of obsessives and conspiracy cranks inhabit the BBS discussions about Google Earth, and the "Military" board is particularly fun to read. However, the truth is that although the images of various air stations, naval bases and army camps are militarily useless, they are very interesting to look at if you are into that sort of thing, and it's amazing what you can find if you know where to look. So, in case you give a damn (which I doubt), if you zoom into the picture of Gibraltar, alongside the southern-most breakwater is a British Type 23 Frigate, with generators running (exhaust smoke, so no shore-supplied power connected) but not going anywhere soon (large gangway leading to the Flight Deck at the back). James Bond, eat your heart out!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Spinnaker Tower

Click here for the official propaganda website. You'll notice no references to 'late' or 'farce'!Down South, near where I live, is one of the most impressive sights in the country, a civil engineering project that so neatly encapsulates everything that is right about modern Britain, and so much more that is wrong with it, that the building in question could almost be described as the British equivalent of a Francois Mitterand Grand Projet. This particular construction started life named "The Millennium Tower", as it was originally due to open in time for New Year's Eve 1999 (remember then?) but owing to seemingly endless wranglings about cost, construction timetabling, the local council's contribution and contractual negotiations, it still has not yet opened, and had to be renamed the "Spinnaker Tower" sometime in 2002. However, the last builder's crane was dismantled and removed last month and to all intents and purposes, it is now finished and ... despite the farce of its inception, I think it looks stunningly beautiful. But then I would - I paid for the bloody thing through vastly inflated Council Tax bills, so I suppose I have a sort of paternal indulgence towards what the local paper now calls The Tower of Dreams. There's even a Wikipedia entry about it - fame indeed!

Ever since the world's noisiest pile drivers started to pummel enormous metal tubes into the soft mud of the harbour in 2001, thus keeping everyone within 10 miles wide awake in daylight hours (great for wage slaves, not too good for shift workers), it became clear that the tower would dominate the city in more ways than one. Lo, in mid-2003, about half way through construction, the builders apparently pulled off a particularly dirty (but completely legal) trick, by saying to the council "It's costing us more than we thought so pay us more money so we make a profit".

The council, quite properly, replied "Piss off - the cost is in the contract, tough luck".

To which the builders replied "OK then, we'll walk away then. But then you'll have to pay back the National Lottery Millennium Commission the £10 million they gave you to build the thing".

Which, unfortunately, turned out to be correct thanks to a particularly badly written contract. Therefore, because the council had already paid this money up front to the builders, bizarrely it was cheaper to pay the builders' ransom demand, and finish building the tower, rather than doing what you normally do with rogue tradesmen and sacking them halfway through. And where did this extra money come from? That'd be the council-taxpayer then, thus ensuring that the 2004 council tax went up 26% in one year. Nice. I hope the directors and shareholders of Mowlem appreciate my generosity in funding their bonuses last year. But I doubt it...

Isn't it nice? Pay your council tax and enjoy, local types... (click on this photo for webcam image from BBC)

So, almost 6 years late, £9 million over budget (originally £16.5m, now £25m and rising!), the tower was due to open at a massive August Bank Holiday gala opening this summer. Local "heroes" (you know, 'kidz', local 100 year olds, nurses, lollipop ladies etc) were all invited to the official ceremony (and high rise party afterwards) and 2 days beforehand flunkies were even polishing the railings around the shiny new entrance hall into it. But guess what? No one had invited the Orwellian Thought Police of Tony Blair's New Britain - the all powerful Health & Safety Executive (HSE, not to be confused with BSE, but causing similar symptoms).

In what could be perceived as the ultimate in party pooping - the HSE decided that one of the two lifts wasn't safe as it "goes round a corner" (actually a slight kink) and they had never come across a glass lift that did that. So they couldn't give it a safety certificate. And therefore, despite the fact that there is another lift (with a certificate), and a working stairwell, and with 2 days notice, the council had no choice but to cancel the opening, and keep the tower closed to the public. Which it still is. So the poor 'kidz' have to wait another year. Tower of Dreams my arse.

Still, isn't it pretty?

Monday, September 19, 2005

Now Then, Now Then. How's About That Then? Etc

Click Here for Your Own Badge Via a fairly roundabout route (and I don't mean the traffic measures) I recently came across a superb site where - if you are between 23 and 33 - you can indulge in your wildest dreams and fantasies. What?! No no no, not that (besides, she's in her sixties now), what I mean is - thanks to a splendid fellow called Thomas Scott, you can get your own online "Jim'll Fix It" badge by clicking here. I used to be fairly obsessed with Jim'll Fix It, which (for the Americans/young/forgetful) was a long-running TV programme where ever-hopeful pre-teens wrote into an ageing former DJ called Jimmy Saville detailing their deepest held desires, and he would (on Saturday night TV) make them come true in front of an audience of several million jealous other pre-teens. I think I wrote about 3 or 4 letters to the programme asking for such sensible and eminently realistic items as "a million pounds" and "a billion pounds" and even "a puppy". The ungrateful eejit never used these letters on the show, and despite the fact that he would quite happily allow some deprived oik from Yorkshire to experience some inane activity such as 'visit London', or 'eat hot food', he never realised the televisual goldmine that would have resulted from me becoming richer than all my parents' friends put together, live on air.

Insert your own topical tasteless joke here. Or click the picture for an only mildly less scary video clipBut the BEST thing about the show was the theme tune. For years I have had random snippets of lyrics going round my head, but thanks to the marvellous people at TV Cream, I have just heard the music for the first time in about 15 years! Wow! As Proust would say, nibbling on a madeleine, lost in an evocative reverie, "Bloody Hell, that brings back memories". So, in order to revert to your childhood, click here for the best 1 minute and 12 seconds you'll have today. Why not do the right-click-'Save Target As' thing and put it on your iPod. In fact, why not make it your mobile ringtone? It beats that fucking frog. In all their songwriting days, I don't think Lennon & McCartney ever came up with such lyrical genius as "Your letter was only the start of it, one letter and now you're a part of it. Now you've done it, Jim has fixed it for you. And you and you". Not even Mozart, in his most creative moments, added a backing line of "ba-de-ba. Ba-de-dah" behind his concertos. How's about that then?

Wake up Maggie, I've got something to fix for you.But what of the man himself? Now knighted (there's a fact to make the original founders of the great Orders of Chivalry rotate in their ornate graves) , Sir Jimmy Saville OBE is, I'm slightly amazed to hear, still actually alive. Looking a bit like Rod Stewart, I saw a fly-on-the wall documentary about him once when he claimed he hated all children, but that was originally a ruse recommended by his mother only to avoid any possible accusations of "interfering" with the kids. But in fact, over the ages, he did in fact learn to genuinely hate children. What a heartwarming story! He also lived with his mother his entire life until she died, and even to this day, keeps her bedroom exactly as it was when she passed away. And the only thing anyone ever remembers him doing (other than Jim'll Fix It, and your Dad claiming he was once a DJ on Radio 1) is that he advertised going everywhere by British Rail trains at the one time when they were truly the worst mode of transport in Britain (and that includes Austin Maxis). Oh, and he smoked huge cigars.

So here's to you, Sir Jimmy. Eccentric, cigar-smoking, dead-mother-worshipping train spokesman. Who never gave me that bloody money, but was resolutely not a kiddy fiddler. Cheers.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Jones! Bowden!

Sir Michael of VaughanWell, I'm knackered. I haven't been able to keep my eyes off the TV. I've neglected my job, social life, healthy eating drive and bank balance - but it's all been worth it because at 6.14pm, after a farcical 13 minutes of "bad light", England finally regained the Ashes. Ignoring the slightly regrettable, but eminently refreshing tabloidisation of the sport for one moment, I honestly think that this has been one of the best-natured, spellbinding sporting spectacles ever seen in my lifetime. The players have been polite to each other, the sport has lost it's public school image, and amazingly even after 5 matches, of 5 days apiece, the entire series was decided in the final afternoon of the final test. There were heart stopping moments, displays of amazing sporting brilliance, more twists and turns than a snake's orgy, and entire matches resting on quirks of fate, rain clouds, umpiring irregularities and dropped catches. And it was fantastic.

Paid about a twentieth of what a footballers are. But twenty times better as human beingsAnd what a memorable end to the series. Warne and McGrath playing their last match against England. Pietersen (who actually applied for Australian citizenship but was turned down, so he came to the UK) scoring his maiden century to draw the game. Richie Benaud commentating for the final time in the UK (what is Billy Birmingham going to do now?!). The Ashes being in English hands for the first time in 16 years. And, unfortunately, the greedy money churners at Sky TV winning the television rights until 2008.

I'm not a sporting journalist. Or even a journalist. But well done England, and well done Australia. And thank you, Her Majesty's Meteorological Office.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Viz. Childish. Not as Funny as it Used to Be.

I am in no state to write about anything. I tried, but Desktop Richie kept on telling me that the cricket was even more nail-biting than the last time. So, with apologies for the "cut and paste" nature of this post, and the crude childish humour contained within, here are the best ever letters to the scatological, puerile rag that is Viz. Sorry, if you're civilized....


Top 15 letters to Viz

1. Could the Home Secretary explain to me how biometric checks on iris patterns and fingerprints are going to help keep tabs on Muslim cleric Abu Hamza?
Les Barnsley, Barnsley

2. "One pound a week will supply water for an entire village in Tanzania" says Oxfam. So how come United Utilities charge me twenty pounds a month for my three bedroom semi? The fleecing b@st@rds!!!
Tracey Cusick, Cumbria

3. How come rap artist Dr. Dre can use the 'N' word on his multi-million selling albums and win a MOBO award, yet when I used it at my son's football match I was asked to leave the park? Once again, it's one law for the rich and another for the poor.

Reg Ashcroft, Bradford

4. So HMV consider Andy Williams and Dean Martin to be "easy listening" do they? Try telling that to my mate Andy. He's been deaf for 20 years.

5. They say "you can't judge a book by its cover". What nonsense. The last edition of High School An@l that I bought featured a young lady stuffing a big one up her bomb-bay on the front page, and this turned out to be an excellent indication of the contents.
Mark Roberts

6. According to Nietzsche, "That which does not kill me makes me stronger". I'm sure my grandad would not agree. He suffered a series of massive strokes in the early '90s which have left him an incontinent vegetable for the past 12 years.
A Thorne, Sandbach

7. It's uncanny how some of these old sayings are true. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder", said my wife as she waved goodbye to me on the way to spend a month with her mother.Since then I have grown
quite fond of my next door neighbour. I actually gave her one on the living room carpet this morning.
Christopher Hampshire, Bristol

8. The recent suicide of Harold Shipman has thrown up some interesting questions. For a start, does Shipman killing himself take his official tally up to 216, or does it count as an own goal? Where does this final score place our national champ in the world league table?
Magnus, Sheffield

9. The government says that there are nearly 50,000 people with HIV in Britain, a third of who do not even know that they have it. Is it just me, or is it a bit harsh that the government know and haven't told the poor sods?
John Campbell, e-mail

10. Never mind ventriloquists like Keith Harris and Roger DeCourcey. What about Professor Stephen Hawking? I saw him on telly blathering on about galaxies for hours and I never saw his lips move once. Genius.
Mike Woods, e-mail

11. With reference to that series "Manhunt" where a group of soldiers try to hunt down Andy McNab. Why don't the producers include a couple of Iraqis in the hunting team? They found the tw@t quickly enough the last time he played hide and seek with them.
Shuggie, Email

12. It's all very well Meg Ryan getting her kit off for her new film, but why wasn't she doing it twenty years ago before her puppies hit the pan?
Alan Pick, Kingston-upon-Toast

13. I would like to thank Darren of Chelsea for not coming to Australia with Jenny. She is a great sh@g.
Thanks again.
Baz, Bondi

14. Hats off to the witty burglars who stole my entire CD collection with the exception of "There is Nothing Left to Lose" by the Foo Fighters. I hope that when sentencing, the judge takes into account their splendid sense of humour.
Chris Scaife, Jesmond

15. Hats off to the American police. They arrive at Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch to arrest him a mere six months after he admits climbing into bed with young boys on worldwide TV. Perhaps they should get some faster cars.
Gary Illinois, California

Friday, September 02, 2005

Advice From The Young (at) Heart

They don't write them like they used to....

Last week, as part of my road trip, I popped in to my old university college and noticed the Domestic Bursar, an old friend, wandering across the Quad, although he appeared to be a lot older than I last remembered him looking. Catching up quickly on our mutual news of the last 5 years, he told me that he had recently had 3 heart attacks, had married his third wife (who was 30 years younger than him) and was imminently retiring to a cottage in Dorset.

He also told me a story about when he was lying in his hospital bed, having had his 2nd heart attack, with tubes and wires emerging everywhere from his body, surrounded by "machines that go ping". His son, a sportsman of some note, had flown back to his bedside from some foreign competition and arrived late at night to see his possibly-dying father. Gently waking his dad, the son knelt down close to his bed and leant forward to say something. Dad's malfunctioning heart filled with pride and loving anticipation, as he wondered what caring thoughts his eldest would whisper in his ear.

"Dad. Do you want me to wipe your computer's hard drive?"

As they used to say in Rome, patris est filius. He is his father's son.