Sunday, December 16, 2007

Led Zeppelin - Mothership

Let me say straight away that I don't own this particular collection, will not own this collection in the future, and have no idea what is on this collection. Well I have really, but you know what I mean. I don't have to know or hear this music, because I've already bought it in various ways several times before, and I know exactly what it's like.
It's bloody brilliant, that's what it is.

No, really it is. Trust me on this.

Well, I suppose I'd better make the odd caveat here. If you really, really like Westlife, if you think the winner of X Factor is going to have a major influence on music today, if you think Rap music is a positive life enhancing genre or indeed think that a Club Mix Dance Compliation including the work of Billy Bunter is the dog's nads... then it is possible you won't like Led Zeppelin.

Tough... go away, I don't want you to like them.
But if you have any reasonable level of discernment and haven't heard this work yet in your lives (yes kids, I mean you) then get your lug-holes around this album and find out just who it is that a lot of today's popular beat combos are copying the style of. Marvel at the musicianship. Be awed by the vocals. Soak up the sheer power of the sound. Cliché time... if you only buy one CD for Christmas... make it this one. Take time to appreciate it. I doubt this level of musical brilliance will happen again for a long time to come.

Recommended, 10/10, you could buy it here.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Coheed & Cambria - Good Apollo...

There are quite a few things that are too long about this album. "Coheed & Cambria" for a group name is cumbersome and I can't ever remember it, I agree, that is my fault, not their's. But the album title in full is "Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness". Now that's just plain daft.
And then there's the music itself. It runs to over 70 minutes, which I agree is good value, but it's stretching my ability to appreciate this kind of music way too far.

In the old days (oh no, off he goes...) albums were 40 minutes if you were lucky. Just because they can be 73 minutes, that's no reason to make them that long, and this is a good example. Condense this to half it's length, it would be much better. Because it is good stuff.
Now, I do like prog. I liked Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and, um... Rush! Hmmm. So I'm happy with mad lyrics (yes, Anderson, I mean you!). But this is pushing it. This guy seems awfully angry with something, but the lyrics are impenetrable, so I'm not sure what it is he's mad with.

The album starts really, really well. Excellent, I started listening and thought I was in for a treat. But it's all a bit samey. It's good, but it all seems to merge into one very long splurge of the same thing. A good thing, but the same thing.

I think I'm quite glad I did buy this album. It was a bit of an impulse buy, and often they are the best. It has its faults, but overall it's a fairly enjoyable listen. Just don't try and decipher the lyrics, that's all. Phew. Oh, and switch it off half way through...

Recommended, 7/10, you could buy it here.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Scott & Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon

It all seems a long time ago that the USA and USSR were squabbling over who rules the world. I think we look back now and forget the importance the space-race had at the time. Kennedy famously promised to get a man on the moon by the end of the 60s. The Americans just made it, the Russians failed.
  Maybe you had to be around in the 60s to appreciate this book. As a child back then it was a simple race. The Russians got off to a good start, but in the end the Americans pipped them at the post.

This book, written in part by David Scott, a Gemini and Apollo astronaut who walked on the Moon, and his 'rival' Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space and who would have most likely been the first Russian on the Moon, clarifies the story of the race and why the result turned out the way it did.

The book is not heavy on technicalities, just enough detail is given for the reader to appreciate just how hard the task was, and just how demanding of the men and women involved.
Both men show commendable modesty when describing their achievements, and are generous with praise for their comrades, notably Scott flew in Gemini with Neil Armstrong, and Leonev was great friends with Yuri Gagarin.

There is a bias towards David Scott in terms of pages written in this jointly authored book. But where Leonov loses on quantity, he makes up for it in quality... quality of insight anyway. It seems the Russian effort hinged on the leadership and brilliance of one man, and when he died prematurely the whole pack of cards collapsed. On the other hand, Scott reveals how close on many occasions the American effort nearly resulted in disaster which would have put an end to their attempts too. To summarise, I think, the Americans were just plain lucky to make it, the Russians unlucky to fail.

Highly recommended, 10/10, you could buy the paperback version here.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Police Police?

Policemen. Yes, I agree, we do need them. We may not want them, but we do need them. It's a pity, but there you go. However, it seems that, like politicians, maybe wanting to be one should preclude you from actually being one.
    They seem to be going though a bit of a bad patch at the moment, don't they? They kill innocent people. They can't catch even children who murder other children. They drive very, very fast everywhere, but always seem to arrive too late. They cause other people to have serious accidents in their pursuit of trivial crimes.

They have become almost invisible, I guess they're all at the station doing paperwork. They're terrifically good at reconstructions of crimes, and of putting sobbing relatives in front of us in an effort to make us give ourselves up in a fit of remorse. One day's absolutely 100% rock solid evidence is tomorrows dubious pile of twaddle and lies.
It's not just our boys in blue in the UK I'm talking about, either. Think about the horlicks the Portuguese coppers are making of the McCann case.

So. I think that they need bringing to book themselves. Surely they can't continue to get away with this level of poor performance?  Police for the police then. That's not going to be easy to organise, is it?

But if there were some totally independent group (truly independent this time) watching over them, maybe, just maybe they'd get their act together.

Don't look at me, though. I would preclude myself on the grounds of prejudice against them. A lifetime ago they stitched me up like a kipper. I'm not going to forgive them. Ever. But maybe you'd like a go at it? There must be someone out there who could keep an eye on 'em?

When I was at secondary school, there was one boy in our year who stood out. Academically he was pretty near the bottom. Well, he did no work, he mucked about and disrupted classes the whole time. He was a big lad, he intimidated all of us, and some of the teachers too. I recall him reducing one poor (softy) teacher to tears.

It was quite a while ago, in fact the early 70s, and it happened to be that the 'Wacky Races' were first being shown on tv. Every week, this guy would run a book on who would win. We all had to (HAD to) cough up a few pence each, and got to pick a name out of the hat. Some poor S.O.B. would get Dick Dastardly! I never saw anyone get their winnings. Frankly, he was a big thick bullying pain in the backside.

Came the end of secondary school, most of us were off to college and so on. Where did this guy head? You guessed. He's probably a Chief Superintendent by now...

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Mike Mullane - Riding Rockets

This is one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read. It's tricky for me to know for sure that you'd enjoy it too, I guess that may depend on your age, and your interest in the American space project. But regardless, this is a truly very interesting book, lifting the lid as it does on just what it takes to get on board a Space Shuttle, not just from yourself, but from those around you too.
  And it turns out that what it takes is not particularly balls of steel, though they would help, but more, determination. Single minded determination to get to do and see what others will never experience... but at a price.

The book takes you through Mike's childhood obsession with space, the help he received from his disabled father, his fight with poor eyesight to get onto the programme, and the traumas his family suffered to keep his dream alive, and finally his moments of euphoria in space. And also the fairly awful truth of how the Challenger disaster could easily have been avoided if everyone at NASA had been pulling in the same direction.
But this is no dry description of his life, it's full of humour and a self deprecating exposé of his earlier non-PC self. The book has a lot in it about women's emancipation and Mike and his male colleagues reaction to it, which is 'historically' interesting when you come to think how recently his former views on the subject held sway.

Through all the fear, discomfort, pain, emotional upheaval and general angst that came along with his flights, I will also take away his marvellous descriptions of the nights he spent aboard the shuttle looking out of the tiny windows enjoying the view, listening to uplifting tunes on his walkman. He's done us all a favour by recounting just how wonderful the experience is, cos sure as eggs is eggs, not many of us are going to see it!

Highly recommended, 10/10, you could buy the paperback version here.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Philip Reeve - Mortal Engines Quartet

The Mortal Engines quartet is a set of four (duh) books for children, but I would recommend them to everyone - in the same way the Harry Potter books are a good read whatever your age.
I bought the first book for just 99p, a great marketing trick, because they must know that as soon as you've read one, you'll just have to buy the rest!

Remember when "Raiders of the Lost Ark" came out, and it was sold on the fact that the action never stopped? Well these books are the same. The pace is relentless, there are no dull bits, the story absolutely rattles along at full speed, chapter after chapter.

I'm reading these books to my son, and I often feel quite drained after twenty minutes or so. It's great stuff.

I could tell you a bit about the plot, but I wouldn't be able to do it justice. And the writing style is very high quality without becoming to difficult for the young ones. I'd say these books were for seven years and older.
The stories are set in the far future, after a great war has wiped out the world as we know it. In this future there is technical complexity, but certain things are missing that we would find common-place. And here's the big idea - people live on cities that trundle around on wheels. Yes. I know. But actually it all makes sense and you soon totally believe this could happen. Big cities prey on town, towns on villages. If they catch them they chomp them up. But some people still do live on the ground, and tensions grow between the two groups. And then there are floating cities who prowl the seas, underwater cities, cities that lurk in the Arctic wastes. People travel and fight using airships. America is a mysterious wasteland with no life... probably. I'm just scratching the surface. Oh, and there's quite a bit of boy-meets-girl, girl-hates-boy, girl-changes-mind-about-boy, boy-marries-girl. But not too much!

If there was a God then Philip Reeve should be as rich as JK Rowlings. These books are fantastic, action packed, remorselessly exciting, superbly imaginative. One small warning. They can get a bit bloodthirsty, which my 8-year old of course likes, but I suppose others may not. People die in these books. Quite a lot and in a number of gory ways. But please don't let that put you off unless you're a very sensitive soul.

Highly recommended, 10/10, you could buy them here book#1 book#2 book#3 book#4.

Friday, May 18, 2007

J.G. Ballard - The Complete Short Stories: v. 2

This is the second volume of a two book set of collected short stories by the great J.G. Ballard. Having thoroughly enjoyed the first volume, reviewed elsewhere, I was greatly relishing this second book. However, I admit to being somewhat disappointed so far.
So Far? Yes, because I admit I haven't finished the book yet. I'm writing this review now because I'm about to take a break from the book. I am Ballard-fatigued.

I will return and finish it. Maybe in a month or two. It is very enjoyable. There's just too much of it that is the same.

I mentioned in my previous review about sand. I think this volume goes slightly beyond a joke about sand. Every story has sand. it's everywhere, usually left over from dried up lakes or seas. Sand. Tons of it. And a lot of unhappy blokes. It's just too much.
In isolation the stories are great. Well... some start well and then just end, which is annoying, but it's all beautifully written and very imaginative. But too much sand. Way too much sand. Look... I'm doing it now... damn.

I mentioned in my previous review that I needed a dictionary to get the most out of this book, and indeed I bought one, but it was the wrong one. Despite having a similar number of pages to the Ballard book, it's still not big enough, it just hasn't got all the difficult words. I started to think he was making them up, but in fact these words do exist, just not in my 800 page concise  dictionary. So buy a nice big fat one to go with it.

Recommended, 7/10, you could buy it here.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Saving Power or Wearing Out Your Kit?

I recently had a letter published in my favourite computing magazine, PC Pro. The topic I addressed was that of whether powering PC equipment on and off does it any harm or not. I wrote thus:
"I have been following your campaign to get us to switch off our computer equipment with interest these last few months. I absolutely go along with you on this, and I have been encouraged to switch off even more of my equipment at night as a result.

However, I must say that I'd draw the line at my PC powering off relatively frequently during the day, not for any time wasting or ecological reasons, just simply because surely this must wear it out more quickly? I've noticed a couple of brief mentions in the magazine that PCs and monitors these days are happier switching on and off than they were, is this demonstrably true or does it just suit your argument?
It has frequently been my experience that it's at the point of powering up computer equipment when things go wrong. I'm no scientist, but surely the change from hot to cold to hot etc must put a strain on electronic equipment? Do modern TFT monitors mind going on and off frequently? Do PC processors suffer wear from the huge temperature changes as they power up and down?

I would be a total convert to the whole switch-it-off debate if you could persuade me there was no damage being done. Any chance of such a test appearing in the magazine?

They were very nice to publish the letter (well, an extract from it, actually), however I was somewhat dismissed as being someone who was harking back to the days of mechanical devices, and everything was okay now.

The following month, a like-minded soul had his letter published as a follow-up to mine, again questioning this assumption that things are okay these days.

I just don't think they are, and I again emailed them, thus:
"You mentioned my worry being a hangover from the mechanical world... well let me give you another similar analogy. With aircraft, though total flying hours is used to determine if a plane is worn out, what they really worry about is the number of landings. That big thump does more damage than cruising along for hours. Is it maybe not the same with switching electronic gear on and off?

Now then... "News" in issue 151... "But it does save £50 per year on power" when referring to Vista's default power settings... it won't save anyone 50 quid if in fact it shortens the life of the equipment... in fact it will cost a packet in terms of hours lost and hardware replacement. I would really like to see an electronics brainiac's response to this... like your article on what kills hard disks... surely the manufacturers do research of this nature... someone must know for each component what the actual damage (or not) of powering on and off does to each component?"

It would be good to get a definitive answer on this, as a recent tv programme highlighted just what a large carbon footprint making a PC causes. If we end up breaking them by attempting to save a little power, that can't be right can it?

Friday, April 6, 2007

Gene Kranz - Failure is Not an Option

When the USA found itself falling behind the Russians in the race for space back in the early 60s, there was a huge effort mounted to catch up. Gene Kranz, ex fighter pilot, got his job with NASA 'just' by applying, no interview, he was in. Thousands of highly competent guys like him took on the challenge, and of course we now know they triumphed, just managing to get a man on the moon before the decade was out.
This book if terrific. Kranz gives you a detailed insight into just how hard the task was, and just how close they came to disaster on many occasions.

His job was to get his controllers organised so well that any crisis that came along could be dealt with as quickly and accurately as possible.

This man worked on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects, culminating in the Apollo 11 moon landing itself, and the unbelievable saving of the Apollo 13 crew after their spacecraft blew up on the way to the moon.
Without him and men like him, the whole space project would have been a shambles. His ability to hold things together and organise his troops is inspiring. And his disappointment with his country for getting bored with Moon landings and pulling the plug on the project is painful to read.

This book ties in with my article here about how the USA could make itself look great again. Guys like Kranz must still be there, ready and able to do these fantastic things, for goodness sake why not let them have a go for Mars, what a glorious enterprise that would potentially be.

Highly recommended, 9/10, you could buy it here.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Personal History of Computers

A chronological list of the computers I've worked with:

IBM 370/135 (1975)

A huge great thing taking up a large air-conditioned room, protected by an air-lock and copious tac-mats. Made a hell of a racket, but had flashing lights and everything. A proper computer, not the mamby-pamby stuff we have now.

Main memory was 240k. Yes. The huge disk drives with removable multi-disk platters that weighed a ton held about 30Mb each. The console was not a screen, it was a teletype thing, producing reams of paper with gibberish on it. Programs were loaded from Hollerith punch cards, see here.

more info on the IBM 370 here.
NCR 8500 Criterion (1981)

I can't recall any of the spec of this thing, neither was there a lady in white included with the one I worked on. At the time I was totally into the thing, I was a systems programmer, tuning the beast and writing apps too. It had less flashing lights than the IBM, but it did at least have a screen for a console.

The disk drives were large heavy things that spun very fast. To change a volume you pressed a button and waited for it to slow down and stop, then open the lid, screw on a big plastic lid thing and wrench it off. Once, I opened it up and put on the lid, only to find it was still spinning at full speed... I was lucky not to break an arm or worse. The engineer told me this was impossible, due to an 'interlock' that stopped the lid opening while the drive was spinning. I've never trusted 'impossibilities' since!
Commodore Vic 20 (1981)

My then boss bought one of these for games, but asked me to write an accounting system for him, so he could claim it as a business expense. It survived a serious car accident and eventually I did program a simple accounts app for him, which I seriously doubt he ever really used.
Sinclair ZX81 (1983)

I bought mine from a mate for 15 quid, with the 16k ram pack as seen here... which was a total pain... any movement and the thing would crash the machine. I did once type in a huge program only to be unable to save it to cassette. The flickering caused by typing (it couldn't take input and do output at the same time!) was horrible.

Eventually I swapped it for a flash gun for my camera, a good deal!
NCR Decision Mate V (1985)

A lovely bit of kit, I wish I had one now. Built like a tank. I wrote a game of Breakout on it in Basic.

See my other blog entry on this here.
Apricot Xi (1986)

I used this as portable machine, the keyboard clipped to the back of the main unit, which had an extendable carry handle. The screen was quite light and easy to lug around too. It had a small hard disk, and a neat feature, the keyboard had a little LCD display above some keys, so you could program your own functions for them.

Small, but perfectly formed, I used it to telework, writing Accounting software in UCSD Pascal.

Amiga 1500 (1991)

I won one of these in a competition in the magazine "Air Forces Monthly". It was worth around a grand at that time. It was just an ordinary Amiga 500 in a PC sized case, its only advantage being that it was expandable, not that I ever did add to it.

I amassed a huge amount of software for this thing, games and serious stuff. It was fun to program, using a Basic like language called, um, Amos I think.

Hard disks and their controllers were pricey back then, so I never did go beyond running everything on two floppies. The drives were maddening, slow and they used to click annoyingly when empty, trying to detect if a disk had been inserted, bonkers.

I still have it, it just about works, though it's packed away in the loft these days. Not that I'm a huge gamer, but the Amiga did run my favourite game of all time, F/A-18 Interceptor. Looks awful now, but at the time this was the most fun I'd had in clothing.
Compaq Deskpro 4/33i (1993)

At the time I got my hands on this, it seemed like the dog's whatsits. It had an 'overdrive' chip fitted to it eventually, making it go a tad faster. A simple, compact and sturdy design, it lasted for years, and still works to this day, the last time I tried it anyway.
Compaq Contura 3/20 (1994)

I got my hands on about four broken models of this, and from them built one working machine. They had variously been dropped, run over (!), and caught fire. But there were just enough components to make one fully working laptop.

Though the battery has long since dies, this mongrel still works. It runs DOS and Windows 3.1 quite happily, and it's tiny hard disk has 'Stacker' running on it to double (maybe) the space. Now hard disks are so cheap and so huge it's funny to think such software was once de rigeur.
Various dull PCs, Reseda, Pionex, Premier. Bring on the clones. Many anonymous (for which read 'cheap') IBM PC clones followed, with ever increasing speed and memory as various Windows versions attempted to eat the hardware advances.

It's all a con, isn't it? The better the kit gets, the more resources the O/S requires, just in case you thought you could sit back and enjoy a PC for a few years. Not a hope - read 'The Subliminal Man' by JG Ballard.
Compaq Presario SR1539UK (2005)

And here we are with my current PC. As of now, March 2007, (update - now replaced, see below) it's just over a year old and as usual that initial rapture of a new super fast machine with acres of disk space has faded... I guess I need to weed out the rubbish and re-install XP to get back the performance, but what a performance to do so, can I be bothered?

Bought for 800 quid from PC World, I see now that better spec'd versions these days are a lot less, but it has been ever thus. It has an AMD Athlon 64 processor, but such is my addled state and to be honest boredom with the hardware side of IT, this means little to me.

It works, it's quiet, it does the job. If you'd shown it to me when I was working on and IBM 370/135, I would never have believed such a device was possible, let alone that I'd own one.

(awwooooga, awooooga, 'old man' alert... enough already.
Fujitsu Siemens Pi2515 (2008)

I treated myself to a laptop. Well... I'd finally got wireless internet sorted out, and I thought, why not... they're cheap now.

And it was... just 400 quid from Dabs. It's got a whopping 250gig hard disk, 2gig of RAM, and the nicest screen you could ask for.

Naturally Vista renders it as slow as can be, though not unacceptably so. I suppose.

I'm trying hard not to load it up with all the usual rubbish that eventually causes Windows to grind to a halt, so far so good.

Hate the touchpad thing, but then hate them on every laptop. Battery life is 2 hours, which seems par for the course, but never, of course, quite long enough.
Packard Bell iXtreme X5620uk (2010)

So, the old Presario (see above) started to feel a bit slow, and my little boy needed a PC for homework, so I looked around for a new desktop. Did hours of research on t'internet and came up with a couple of options from Dell and somewhere else I can't recall.

Just happened to be passing a PC World, so dropped in and said to the salesman, "you won't be able to, but can you match this spec and price?", and handed him my wish list. Off he went. Came back with this thing, and he beat the price by 20 quid.

Hmmm... Packard Bell... didn't know if I liked the sound of that... But what the heck, so I bought it and it's been perfectly fine ever since. Quad core, 4 gig memory, 500gig drive, it's quiet, so far reliable - does everything I want. Has Windows 7 64-bit on it, which is a slight pain as quite a few programs don't now work, and I can't get drivers for a few of my older peripherals, notably from HP, see article moaning here.
Acer Aspire One D255E (2011)

All this talk of tablets, Kindles, iPads etc etc got me thinking that I needed something to sit next  to me on the settee of an evening, waiting for the inevitable everyday questions to come up that you can look up the answers to on Wikipedia. I.e. cheating during Eggheads.

But my fingers just don't seem to work touch screens. My son has a touch phone, I can't get the bloomin' thing to do anything.

So I looked at unfashionable Netbooks, and, having consulted recommendations in PC Pro magazine, plumped for this one. And, showing commendable patience I decided to wait until I could get it for £200, which eventually I did, from Okobe.

It's the dual-core version, and is cute as a button. It's not fast, but the battery life is fantastic, screen vibrant and I love it. And it's red. Somewhere else in this blog you'll find a full review - see here.
Advent DT2410 Desktop
with an AOC e2343F LCD Monitor (2012)

Not strictly mine, as I bought this for my son's Christmas present, and actually I've hardly used it, as he is on it the whole time! Cost 700 quid from PC World (now 650!), worked well out of the box, and has been trouble free now for many months. Came with Windows 8, was not overly burdened with crapware, and has come up to all my expectations performance wise. Runs all his games faultlessly. I am quite jealous of it. Maybe one day he will hand it down to me...
  • Intel® Core™ i5-3330 processor
  • Windows 8
  • Memory: 8 GB
  • Hard drive: 2 TB
Lenovo G580 Laptop (2013)

Purchased from PC World for a not unreasonable £400 early in 2013 after many weeks of on-line and in-shop research. With two small exceptions it has been a successful purchase, and I'm using it now to author this piece.

It's quiet, it runs cool, the display is excellent, performance (i3) is acceptable, all in all, so far, it's looking like a good buy.

The two exceptions are, one of the pieces of crapware that it came with caused Windows update to fail, and fixing that was quite hard. And it also (out of the box) loses it's WiFi connection for a couple of minutes after Sleeping. Took me ages to figure out how to cure that, and I'm not alone... see the many forum questions about this!

During my research I read many, many laptop reviews, and in a huge number of cases folk say, For: Great Screen (or something), Against: Windows 8 - over and over again. Having used this device for a few weeks, if asked, I would say exactly the same.. Windows 8 really is an annoying thing... Microsoft should be ashamed. And fix it. Quickly.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Just what is Number One?

The other night the Missus went to sleep, leaning against me, on our settee. (Ahhhh.) Anyway, the TV programme that had sent her off finally ground its way to some sort of conclusion, and I was left with the remote to hand, but unable to move without disturbing her.

So, I started flicking channels like you do. And like you do these days with the remarkable number of channels to choose from, I found nothing whatsoever of interest. And, just to give an indication of how desperate the choices were, I ended up on Ceefax.

Now I know that Ceefax is a sort of free lunch, in that it's a miracle you can get data to flow alongside your TV picture... but it really is awful, isn't it? In these broadband days, it's just beyond the pale. Anyway.
Looking through the menu options I picked out Music. And then the Charts. And it struck me, not for the first time, that I had absolutely no idea whatsoever of what was in the charts. And that I haven't known what the number one song is for... well... months... in fact, to be precise, since they stopped showing Top of the Pops.

Now, the day they cancelled that show there was much rejoicing from the other members of my household. Because, for them, it signalled the end of a sustained period of great grumpiness on my part.
No longer would they have to sit through half an hour of moaning every week as I gave my (almost always) caustic comments on the quality of the acts they paraded before us on the show. Bloody awful, 99% of it. You know I'm right.

But, blimey I miss it. Not because it was any good. No. But because it's part of life. Since I was a nipper, I've always watched it. When I was at school I'd record the charts in my diary. I'd know what the top five songs were, every week. When I was a teenager, Pan's People were just about the best thing on TV. You look back now and wonder why, but back then they were, and that's that.

And over the years (okay, increasingly rarely) there have been great TOTP moments. I've bought loads of CDs on the strength of a performance seen on the show. But key to the whole thing was that countdown. Just what was the most popular song of that day? It didn't matter that complete garbage managed the feat... bloody irritating frogs, talentless boy bands, Cliff Richard... the thing was you did know. Like the weather. You watch the weather forecast, it's not always nice weather, but you knew what to expect.

And now... I'm not prepared to go hunting around trying to find out who is number one... I just want someone to tell me at the end of half an hour of dross. I don't know why, I just do. Is it too much to ask?

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song

This book is a hugely enjoyable read for anyone, like myself, with an interest in the Beatles and their oeuvre. Though it could be argued that close examination of their lyrics may detract slightly from the pure enjoyment of listening to the songs, I think after all this time to have new insights into their work is highly rewarding.
The author has tracked down at least an interpretation of pretty much all their songs here. Through interviews with people around at the time, and bringing together things said by the group during this period, there are quite a few revelations on what exactly they were banging on about.

He even manages to track down some of the subjects of their lyrics, for example the Lucy of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

The book is well written, well researched, and has some great pictures of the group.
It's not all gushing praise either, the author does tell it like it is about some of their less wonderful work. And it's interesting to read how often Lennon was dismissive of his own work on many occasions.

Highly recommended, 9/10, you could buy it here.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Kate Rusby - 10

Kate Rusby is simply a joy to listen to. If you'd said to me a few months ago that I'd be happily listening to olde English folke music, lyrics about cows and men conscripted to serve before the mast, and general old-world unhappiness, I would have thought you mad. But I am. And it's all down to Kate's voice and guitar.
I haven't looked, but I fully expect that other reviews of Kate say 'voice of an angel' somewhere along the way... because it's true. Made all the more appealing by the Northern edge to her singing. It's perfect for the songs she sings.

"10" is a compilation of moments from the first 10 years of Kate's career. The songs are all folk, and the production, singing and playing are beyond reproach.

I went to see Kate play live recently, and she can knock this stuff off live just as well as here on record, she is an extraordinary talent.
I can't praise this album highly enough. If you want to hear someone on top of their game and you like the folk vibe, buy this album, you will not regret it.

Highly recommended, 9/10, you could buy it here.

J.G. Ballard - The Complete Short Stories: v. 1

I don't normally take on books with nearly 800 pages. I know... I'm an amateur. But the truth is I find it really hard to keep my enthusiasm for a book up if it, um, overstays its welcome.

I'm currently reading all the Harry Potter books to my little boy, as a bedtime story. First book, if anything, too short. Second, about right, third - okayish, fourth - bit of a struggle, and now I find myself with number 5, ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") is way to long... again, over 700 pages. It's good... but it's getting to be a trial.
So, I was concerned about this book, but it turns out I shouldn't have been. I've sped through it, barely a dull moment, and immediately ordered the second volume.

J.G Ballard did write one of my favourite all-time books, the autobiographical "Empire of the Sun". And he's written a whole raft of interesting novels over the years. Here we have dozens of short stories, all written in the early sixties.
They are, in the main, not science fiction as such. But nearly all contain an 'other-worldliness' which I find quite remarkable. They take place in, perhaps, parallel universes, where things are very like the world we know... but not quite the same.

Several stories take place in "Vermilion Sands", a haunting and mysterious place. in fact, sand is a common theme in this collection. There are an alarming number of stories involving sand dunes stretching into the distance, the sea long gone, a theme thoroughly explored by Ballard in the 1966 novel "The Drought".

Ballard's stories all seem to be hot and dry. They are inhabited by men, mostly disturbed by something, seeking something, escaping something. They are superbly imaginative, beautifully told stories. Just occasionally they just stop inconclusively in that irritating 60's way, but the majority come to a satisfactory conclusion.

They are wordy. In fact, and I'm not kidding, I've ordered a little dictionary to have by my side while read the second volume, because some of his vocabulary is way over my head.

Ballard is a treasure. Here we have bite-sized morsels of his genius.

Highly recommended, 8/10, you could buy it here.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

How To Run The Country?

I think there's enough evidence now to show that democracy doesn't really work that well. I mean it's not awful, but it's far from perfect. There's been a lot of death and destruction to get us to democracy, which has been a jolly good thing to achieve, but is there any reason to rest on our laurels and not try to go one better?
In principle, democracy is absolutely fine. No arguing with that. However, there is one obvious flaw, and that is the people who do the voting. They keep getting it wrong.

Bush. Two terms in office. One term was carelessness. Two just shows the voters don't know what they're doing. Similarly with Blair, he seemed a reasonable cove to start off with (well, not to me, I never liked him) but it soon became apparent he was as bad as the rest, indeed possibly worse. When you're that dangerously self deluded, you really shouldn't be allowed near the reins of power.
So, how to make it better. You can see democracy in action these days most clearly in the ubiquitous TV phone in vote. All too often (but not always... there's always a fluke correct result now and then) the wrong person wins things like Big Brother or the endless dancing competitions.

And again on TV you can get to see the general public at their worst. The Jeremy Kyle Show is a good example. As a piece of entertainment it's hard to beat. I have to actively stop myself watching it, because once you've started you can't take your eyes off the screen. The participants are SO awful... basically it's a modern day freak show. But there's an endless supply of these people, and they've all got the vote you know.

In life, at every turn, you're asked to prove yourself before you're allowed to do tricky things. 'O' levels. 'A' levels, a degree before you can apply for a job. Interviews. Driving Tests. Applying for a loan.

How is it, therefore, that you can be allowed to vote without having to prove in anyway that your knuckles are not scraping the ground, and that there is at least a minimum number of brain cells buzzing around your noggin with which to make this important decision.

Okay, I don't know exactly how to test if someone is fit to vote, but I'm sure we could come up with something. Maybe we don't completely disallow the stupid from voting, just weigh their vote less. And I'm not talking about educational achievement here... no, we need to test someone ability to think it through. Some very 'clever' people may well fail the test.

Last night I caught a snippet of a program on Blair. Apparently president Chirac said to him that if he (Blair) continued to support the Americans and went to war on Iraq without the support of the UN, then little Leo Blair would grow up not thanking him for it. This stopped Blair in his tracks... but only momentarily. Maybe he should have thought about that bit of wisdom a little longer.

I realise hindsight is 20-20, but it seemed obvious that war on Iraq would end in tears. Maybe Blair, therefore, would fail my democracy test. Maybe I would. But if we thought the process out really well, we'd end up with a better government, I'm sure of it.

Democracy is great, but MORE THINKING is required. Don't you think?

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Shawn Mullins - Soul's Core

Like many, the first time I heard this chap was when he had a minor hit with a track off this album, "Lullaby". The song had a spoken verse and a sung chorus, and it was the voice that got you in both cases. Shawn must smoke a lot of cigarettes... That song is not entirely representative of the album... the other songs are sung straight, and most are of a quieter one-man-and-his-guitar nature.
The thing I guess I like is the sheer American-ness of it all. Not saying I like America that much, just the exotic nature of his voice and the lyrics.

He's telling a story of his life in the States, touring around, playing "coffee house gigs". It sounds so great and romantic, which I can imagine it isn't really, but stuck in the rainy UK that "travelling from town to town" sounds warm and exciting and just fun.

The voice though... hear him say "does the dishes"... every time I smile.
There's another minor hit on this album, "Shimmer", which is pretty noisy stuff for a folk-rock singer. But my favourite track is perhaps the quietest on the album, "Twin Rocks, Oregon". The lyrics are just great, and it's difficult to imagine the narrative of the song didn't really happen to him. It's genius.

Highly recommended, 9/10, you could buy it here.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Devendra Banhart - Niño Rojo

It must be great as an obscure artist to have one of your songs picked up and used in a national TV campaign. I've bought two albums recently because my Missus fancied them, having heard just a snatch on an advert. (The other one was Jose Gonzalez.)
    A song from this album "Little Yellow Spider" was featured in an Orange advert. I can't say it provoked me to go and find out who it was, but the Missus was probably correct to do so, and then she talked me into buying the album.

I've often found that the albums
you end up liking the best are initially quite hard to take. And the opposite. Again, that Jose Gonzalez album we bought, put it on and immediately loved it from start to end. Trouble is, a few weeks later it's gathering dust. I still like it, but it's appeal is fading fast. Not so with Devandra. First hearing, didn't like it at all... but it's starting to grow on me.

It's very hippy. In fact if you view the two videos that are included on the CD, you'll discover it's VERY hippy indeed. To me it sounds like Donovan impersonating Marc Bolan. It's very mellow. It rarely gets more complex than a solo voice and a guitar or two. None of this is meant as criticism, it works very well. There are some truly inspiring moments along the way, and a few you could live without. 45 minutes passes without too much trouble.

Thing is, I keep getting to the end and starting it again. I'll give it a week and get back to you. I'm expecting to be addicted by then, or alternatively thoroughly sick of it. But at the moment, I'd give it a thumbs up.

Recommended, 7/10, you could buy it here.

Surveys on DriveArchive

Every few months I conduct a survey on my DriveArchive site about motoring related issues.

Here are a few results from recent times:
Near where I live there are several stretches of road where they've dropped the speed limit from a very fair 40 down to a totally stupid 30. You can tell it's daft because (nearly) everyone semi-ignores the new limit, except when the old Bill is about, not because we're law breakers, but because it's plainly daft. You wonder who makes these changes, and why.If today's road tax was collected not by a yearly lump some but by a small percentage on the cost of fuel, wouldn't that be fairer? The more miles you do, the more you contribute to the upkeep of the roads, and if you're a low user, then you contribute less.
Question: There are signs for eveything these days. How about when a speed limit changes, they put up a large sign for a few months explaining themselves?Question:  Wouldn't it be fairer to collect road tax from the price of fuel rather than a yearly sum that everyone pays, regardless of annual mileage?
agree: 58.1%
don't care: 25.6%
disagree: 16.3%
agree: 77.5%
don't care: 3.9%
disagree: 18.6%

Speed cameras. They may be a right pain, but maybe they do sort of work. But the truly galling bit, surely, is where the fine money goes. It goes into the coffers of the coppers, and they spend it on... erm, well, who knows? So, wouldn't it be better if the cash generated from speeding offences went somewhere better?Is it not blindingly obvious (ho ho) that drivers should have regular eyesight tests to maintain their driving license? And that the interval between tests should decrease as age increases, until it's on a yearly basis? It wouldn't require a huge effort to turn up somewhere, read a distant numberplate and be allowed to continue driving. I see so many drivers who clearly cannot see where they're going.
Question: Would it improve the way you feel about the police generally if speeding fines went straight to, say, Children in Need?Question: Should there be a regular eyesight test to maintain your driving license?
agree: 52.8%
don't care: 16.7%
disagree: 30.6%
agree: 82.2%
don't care: 11.1%
disagree: 6.7%

Is it me, or is nearly every white van man and small lorry driver you see these days using his mobile phone as he speeds between jobs or deliveries? I was recently nearly run off the road by a lorry carrying a huge mobile home, where the driver was breezing along with just one hand on the wheel, one holding his phone.I'm not sure about the laws governing making a mess on public highways, but it seems to me that the you ought to be heavily prosecuted for making the surface of a road very slippy and dangerous. Yet in rural areas you are always coming across muddy bits of road which could be, and probably are, lethal - especially given a drop of rain.
Question: Would you like to see even more stringent rules on mobile phone use for people obviously conducting business in this way?Question: Maybe the police would be making driving safer by keeping an eye on road surface abuse rather than getting so picky about speed limits?
agree: 82.9%
don't care: 9.4%
disagree: 7.7%
agree: 66.7%
don't care: 23.3%
disagree: 10.0%

If you want to participate in a survey (no signing up required) then visit here.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Beatles Discography

I love the Beatles. Always have, always will. I grew up with their music, and though it has become a cliché and must bore the pants off the youth of today, there has been nothing to touch them since.
    My Amazon based Beatles aStore might be of use to you.

It has links to Beatle books and CDs, DVDs and Videos.

I recently completed buying (well re-buying, replacing the old vinyl) all the Beatles albums. I can't imagine you'd be disappointed with any of them... whether you're young or old. You don't need me to tell you they're all classics, in one way or another. It's amazing how rough the early albums were, and how sophisticated and in some way 'heavy' the later stuff became.
To visit the store, click here,

and here is their discography, not completely comprehensive, just the UK album releases:

Probably not much of interest to anyone but me, but the above discography is XML, formatted using CSS, my first foray into this new world.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The New Vauxhall Astra

This article is "reprinted" from my DriveArchive site, to visit click here.

The Astra discussed here is a 1.7 CDTi. Now, I've never driven a turbo diesel before, and I was half looking forward to it, half not. I knew from diesel evangelists that it would be quick, and economical. But I also knew that it would sound like a tractor and wouldn't rev. In all respects I was proved correct, but I was surprised just how much these expectations were true.
When the turbo kicks in this thing flies. Despite having driven many sports cars, I cannot recall a car with so much poke from 40 to 70 MPH. My young son calls it 'silly speed' not being able to differentiate between speed and acceleration.

"Engage silly speed!" he shouts from the rear, and I put my foot down and you do feel that push in the back as the car pulls away.

But it does sound like a tractor at slow speeds. I had thought that maybe with all the technology that has no doubt gone into this engine, they might have been able to avoid that clatter, but no. I suppose you do get used to it, but driving slowly is not great fun for a driver who cares about these things, which I admit I do. Once you're up and running things naturally improve, but it's still a bit rough compared to a petrol.

The payoff therefore must be fuel economy? Well yes... so far the car has averaged 50 MPG. My previous car of a similar size managed 40, so it is a significant improvement, but not a massive one. Maybe I "engage silly speed" too often.

So, it accelerates well, but, and it's a big but, it's really hard to accelerate smoothly. From a standing start the turbo effect is hard to get used to. Nothing much happens, then it kicks in at a certain level of revs, you shoot forward, change gear and the whole thing slows up until that rev level is reached again. I admit I have not as yet mastered the art of keeping it 'on the plane' and achieving a lurch free journey. Drive it less aggressively and it's fine. Maybe I'm expecting too much.

The outside. Nothing to complain about there, it's a nice looking car. Somehow it looks like an Astra, but looks new too, which is good. It certainly looks better than the old Astra, and for me the new Focus manages the opposite compared with it's predecessor. The alloy wheels are a faff to clean, too many spokes.

The inside. It feels very, very solid. It's low on cup holders and places to keep "stuff", but the glove box is big and the dash quality is good. No rattles. The CD/radio is excellent, in fact this car has the loudest distortion free sound system I've ever experienced, put on "The Darkness" and go deaf.

The headlights, which on this particular car don't look-around-corners as on the adverts, don't seem that great on main beam. And they do look like a bunch of cheap plastic torches. The brakes are fantastic, disks all around with ABS, really good. Handling in normal circumstances is fine, I haven't thrashed it around a track, and it hasn't got low profile tyres, but for every day it's good.

The boot is ample, rear seat legroom is adequate. Seats are comfy, certainly a little firm at first and slightly slippery, but they have caused no problems on long journeys. Parking is easy, visibility is reasonable to the rear.

The handbook is appalling. It's so full of stuff about things you haven't got that it's of little use. Everywhere they tell you interesting features, but then you discover that you haven't got that option. As this car was already quite pricey I wonder just how much it could have cost if all the gubbins mentioned was actually installed.

Overall I like it, though I think I'd like a good big engined petrol version more, and I'd live with the inferior fuel consumption.

If I had over 20 grand to spend, the Astra Sport Hatch VXR 2.0i 16v Turbo would do just nicely...

This article is "reprinted" from my DriveArchive site, to visit click here.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

NCR Decision Mate V

The first Personal Computer I ever had the chance to use was a bit odd. I expect the vast majority of folk from that era, the late 70s, were exposed to the IBM PC. But I worked at a company who, quite unusually, had all NCR computer kit. And so when the first personal computers came along it was natural that we should get the NCR version of this new and exciting toy. (Back then NCR were quite big, I guess a lot of you would only know them for cash tills. IBM were the BIG cheeses of those times.)
    Here it is. 8-bit. Black and White. CP/M operating system. Huge great floppy disk drive, which held next to nothing on them. No graphics, just text.

I loved it.

It weighed about half a ton, being very solidly made of metal. It was a neat and tidy design. Things were (cliche alert) simpler back then.

The truly great bit of design was the way you extended the machine. Unlike PCs then (we called 'em "Micros", actually), and now come that, you didn't need to take the case off to add expansion cards. Oh no, nothing as crude as we are now used to.
No. Around the back of the machine were slots. Expansion cards were metal boxes, maybe the size of the fingers of your hand, which slid into the slots and engaged with the socket deep in the machine. Simple and effective. You could add memory, network adapters, all the usual stuff. How the system we have now won out I don't understand. Oh, yeah I do... these cartridges must have cost a fortune!

Does anyone have a working version of this beauty? I hope so, somewhere. Let me know, please.

And there was not a huge amount of software available. Especially games. But I was addicted to a text based platform game. Across the screen were various levels with ladders between, made up of ___ and H and | symbols. You were an O (I think) and using the cursor keys you climbed an jumped to the top of the screen. Simple, addictive. Anyone know what this game was called, and can I get a copy anywhere?

ahhhh... I'm so happy... recalling this game made me go and look on t'Internet, and eventually I found what I was looking for... the game was called Ladders, and some fine chap has ported it into Java, so experience my first PC gaming experience here.

Friday, February 9, 2007

PC Pro Coverdisks

I've been reading PC Pro magazine since the dawn of time, it feels like. If you subscribe it's cheap as chips, and is always a good read. (No, I don't work for them!)
Plus, it always comes with an interesting coverdisk, either a CD or more likely these days a DVD.

I'm pretty sure there's never been an issue that hasn't contained something worth at least evaluating, and frequently there have been amazingly good things, software I now use on a daily basis. (No, really, I don't work for them!)
Because I'm sad, I've taken to cataloguing the Full Product software on these covermounts, which generally are the most useful things on there. And now I've knocked up a web page for this info, which you might find useful. If there's anything you're after I guess their back-issue department might get it for you. (No... really... I don't...)

The site is here.

Saturday, February 3, 2007


I run a site called DriveArchive. Let me explain.

DriveArchive is a bit like FriendsReunited, only for cars. Or lorries, buses, motorbikes, any sort of vehicle you like, which has a numberplate.
It's free to use, you can go along and search for a vehicle without registering, so why not pop along and give it a go now... oh, but before you go...

Obviously the chances of you finding a particular vehicle are quite slim. There are a heck of a lot of vehicles in the database, but then in the real world there are a LOT of vehicles... but I guess FriendsReunited once had very few people on it, and look what happened there. What the site really needs is for YOU to add some data when you visit.

If you go and have a look for a particular vehicle (might be one you once had, might be one you own now) and it's not there (or especially if it is!) then please add a record for it... you know it makes sense!

Registration is free and easy, minimum details I need are a name and an email address, to enable me and hopefully other owners to reach you (though note that your email need NOT be visible on the site for this to happen.)

Try it, what the heck, go to DriveArchive now...

Friday, February 2, 2007

To Infinity and Beyond!

When I was a kid I used to think Americans were just great. They were the top bananas of the world. I couldn't have cared less that behind the scenes they were just as a big a bunch of dingbats as they are now, I just considered them THE people to be.

Why? Because of the Space Race. Which they won. Comfortably.

It was a two horse race. The Yanks vs. the Ruskies. We got all the anti communist propaganda, sure, but that didn't matter in the end, because the Americans actually did win. Their men stood on the Moon.
This picture of Buzz Aldrin was stuck on my bedroom wall for years.

To me it represents a massive achievement, and if you read about the landings in any depth, you'll discover it was a considerably more dangerous exercise even that it appeared at the time.

(I can heartily recommend Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth if you're interested.)

The thing was, the Yanks were doing it for no 'nasty' reason. It was all good. How you could fault them? Okay, it was a propaganda exercise on their big enemy, the Russians. But there was no (apparent) great military advantage to their quest. It was simply exploration, pushing the boundaries, seeing what could be achieved.

And they achieved it.
Seems to me their problem of late is that no-one seems to like 'em any more. Clearly the Muslim world have got a beef, and it doesn't much matter what it is, they have, and it would be tough to explain some of America's recent actions to their biggest fan without starting to feel a bit uncomfortable.

But say they were preparing to go to Mars. Just for the heck of it. Lots of media coverage, lots of excitement, lots of reasons to admire those Yanks. Young men sitting in bedrooms around the world, making models of the spaceships and glued to the telly-box, watching, fingers crossed, as the astronauts do their thing.

Preferable to them watching CNN and planning their next terrorist attack.

Give us all something to admire you for again. It worked before. It would work again.


If you happen to live on the Isle of Anglesey, North Wales UK (as do I) then, if you are a motorist, I hope you find another site of mine useful, AngleseyMotoring.

It's a very simple site, it contains links and contact details of many motoring related businesses and services on (or near) the Island.

There's a list of all the garage main dealers, and independents, as well as a host of service companies, and finally a lot of general motoring links, for example to traffic cameras and weather forecasts.

It's free to use, so try here, AngleseyMotoring.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Queer Religion

You've almost got to feel sorry for the religions currently struggling to get exempted from homosexual equality laws. I mean they're stuck with this God-awful book of rules, written a particularly long time ago, most of which the majority of us would now regard as twaddle.
I mean there's good enough stuff in there I suppose, 'thou shall not kill' etc etc, stating the obvious... but it's the rules they didn't quite think through back then that kind of jar nowadays, isn't it? The whole gay thing being a glaring example.

So you have the rather unhappy vision of men in religious uniforms on tv, desperately trying to fudge around the fact that they're supposed to be jolly good sorts all around, but they just happen to belong to this organisation that doesn't tolerate gays. Hmmm.

We cannot exempt them, surely? They're a dangerous minority now, trying to exert their will on the majority using the same sort of tricks as astrologers.

The irony too, I suspect, someone correct me if I'm wrong here, but they probably work in organisations which contain higher than average numbers of homosexuals. Which is fine. Just ironic.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Cuppa Soup

People were looking at my a bit oddly yesterday. I was stood with the other parents waiting for our kids to emerge from school. No one said anything, they just did a double take. My 8 year old was not so kind. "What's that on your nose?" were his first words to me. I'd spent the morning painting a ceiling, so I guessed it was a bit of paint and made light of it.
But it wasn't paint, it was tomato soup. I'd drunk a mug of it just before I left, and somehow left a great long streak of orange all up my nose.

Is this the onset of old age? Have I now got to check myself for unfortunate food stainings every time I go out? Probably. It's all downhill from here then.

And I was thinking, from now on I don't want anyone else to die. (Soup to death... how did that happen?) Anyway.
I was listening to James Taylor, who I love, and I thought, he's older than me, one day it'll be on the radio that he's gone and I'll be so upset. So, no, I don't want a single person on the whole planet to die before I do.

After I'm gone, do what you like, I don't give a monkey's.

So... no more dead. Not even people I don't like. Not even, say, Tony Blair, who I consider a complete plonker. Pity he hasn't got the same attitude as me, huh?

The thing about Tony of course, is that he's only a weeny bit older than me. I'd prefer it if people making those tough decisions to be way, way older, then you can fool yourself into thinking they know what they're doing. They will have passed through the clumsy phase I'm now entering, and emerged all dignified... they will have slowed themselves up a bit, and gained gravitas.

People my age, like Tony, well I know what he'll be like... he'll make mistakes, he may even turn up at a press conference with an orange streak down his nose... you mark my soup. Words. Sorry.