Tag Archives: internet

Blackout? How would I know?

Woke up this morning, as the old blues singers used to sing, got no electricity. Lights, kettle, toaster, even the central heating all off. Check the fusebox, but all in order there. Maybe it’s a power cut! Haven’t had one of those in years. Look out the window – no lights on in any of the houses in the street. It must be a power cut, or powercut, or blackout (he says in a transparent attempt to get as many searchable homonyms into one post). Excitement of same quickly replaced by fear as I realise that practically everything in the house, and my life, is totally dependent on electricity. No internet connection, as we have cable, and our computers are connected via a router anyway (oh for the simple old days of plugging your PC direct into your phone socket). No landline, indeed, as phone is of cordless variety. Can’t have a shower. Can boil water for a cup of tea, if I can find the matches. The only gadget working is my mobile phone, and that only because I remembered to charge it yesterday. But the web being down is the worrying thing. How am I going to get news about whether the power cut is local, regional, nationwide, global?? How would I know if there had been an alien invasion and the world is already at the green ones’ mercy? Note to self: invest in wind-up radio sharpish. And possibly wind-up internet connection.

Cover the kids with extra blankets and go back to bed. Not something I’d normally do but it’s the only source of heat. Turn on bedside lamp so that when (if!) electric comes back on I will know about it. Lay in the dark wondering at what point I should start to worry, call the landlord, call the council, call work, sign up with a ragged army of freedom-fighters to beat the invasion. Actually, thinking about it, if it was an alien attack, they would surely be clever enough to disable all electricity and web connections precisely so that nobody would know what was going on. Catch us underwears, as it were. They didn’t get our mobiles though – maybe they can’t control the batteries. But surely they’ll have the networks down any second?? Oh come on, it’s not aliens. There are no ships in the sky. So how did it happen? This is the 21st century. Are we rationing electricity now? Has the economic crisis brought us to this already? I blame Gordon Brown.

And then suddenly, with a flash of bedside table-lamp, a beep of cordless phone recharge and a whoosh! of central heating, everything snaps on again, at exactly 7am, as if someone at the National Grid had everything on a timer. Maybe that’s not far from the truth. The rationing of juice suddenly seems quite rational.

Normally I would be up, showered, shaved, dressed and working by now but I’m typing this instead in my pyjamas, with tea and toast, hoping it doesn’t all snap off again. My excuse is the house is cold, got to wait for it to warm up again before I jump in the shower.

Go straight to Twitter when turn on PC. Stephen Fry‘s latest tweet is at the top of my feed, referring to a blackout. His avatar, normally his cheery boat-race, is a black square. What?! Has the National Grid’s reach stretched to Twitter avatars too now? But he’s not in the midlands, surely? He lives in London, when he’s in the UK. Was this a national crisis? Hang on, I don’t think he’s even in the country. He’s travelling somewhere. It is a global crisis! The whole world is blacked out! It IS an alien invasion, and it’s still Gordon Brown’s fault! Actually, not – he’s blacked it out in protest against a draconian New Zealand copyright law. That sounds bad, but I have to admit I breath a sigh of relief. Such excitement of a Monday, and I’m not even dressed yet.

Posted via email from thoughtcat’s posterous

New SA4QE website

While everyone else has been stuffing themselves with turkey, my colleague Gombert and I have been hard at work over the festive period creating a brand new website for the Slickman A4 Quotation Event (aka SA4QE). This is the site we’ve run since 2002 recording the annual celebration in which fans of the author Russell Hoban write favourite quotes from his books on pieces of paper and leave them in public places. The site has amassed a substantial amount of content which was formerly arranged and displayed in a pretty limited way, plus the old site had all sorts of features that were just so 1997 (as they say), such as frames and odd little GIFs all over the place. The new one does away with all that by treating contributions as blog posts which are all labelled according to various criteria including date, book title, media, location and contributor – plus you can subscribe to the blog in any number of ways, and add your own photos and videos.

If you’re a fan of Russell Hoban, rediscover his words at www.sa4qe.com and perhaps consider dropping a favourite quote of your own on SA4QE 2009 on 4th February.

If you’ve never heard of Russell Hoban, you’re in for a treat – there are 350 fascinating quotes on the site from over 30 unique books, dropped by 70 people across 14 countries. So whichever way you cut the content, you’re bound to find something there that tickles your 4ancy.

I am by the way posting this to both my blog and my Facebook profile by sending an email to a single Posterous address. Posterous has a new feature called AutoPost to Everywhere which looks intriguing. Let’s see if it works…

Posted via email from thoughtcat’s posterous

Reading: could do better

As a lapsed gamer, references on the YakYak forum to ‘leaderboards’ have generally gone over my head, but today I found the term used in a context I could relate to. Adding the ‘Visual Bookshelf’ application to my Facebook profile I got up to a total of 57 titles before starting to struggle (and if it hadn’t been for the marvellous Russell Hoban I doubt I could even have reached 50 so quickly). To be fair, I’m sure there are more. At least I hope there are, as the application (somewhat fatuously) has a leaderboard, at the top of which is some bloke called Mark Woodland who looks like a member of Deep Purple and claims to have read 4,291 books. I suppose when you think about it, it’s not that amazing really. He looks to be in his early forties, if Facebook profile pics are anything to go by, which they aren’t, so even if he’s been reading for a total of 40 years, that’s an average of two books a week – a fair number, but not, I hear, impossible. I’ve never been a promiscuous kind of bloke in any sense, choosing and reading books like most reasonable people have personal relationships – waiting for a good one to come along rather than blindly jumping into them, enjoying their company, learning from them, giving them time to see what they have to say, savouring their secrets. Certainly I’ve re-read several books many times. Still, 57 does look a bit feeble for someone who’s been reading for 30 years. As Woody Allen (bless ‘im) said in the wonderful Love and Death, ‘It’s the quality, not the quantity, of your sexual relations that counts. Then again, if the quantity falls below once every two and half years, I would definitely look into it.’

On love, TV, Ugly Betty and The Apprentice

Today’s Grauniad Weekend magazine publishes a letter – well, some of it – I wrote them about this article from last Saturday, in which their resident marriage counsellor Luisa Dillner advises a reader concerned about the lack of time she’s spending with her boyfriend. Time couples spend watching TV together, asserted Dillner, ‘is passive [i.e. doesn’t count] unless you fight over the remote’. As my letter explains, this runs contrary to my own experience. TV is actually pretty interactive as shared activities go. Whilst this is especially so when you’ve got children and thus no time or energy to do anything more strenuous with your evening than flop on the sofa in front of the box, I found it to be the case even before I started breeding. Then again, when you’re of a writerly persuasion, anything seems pretty interactive after several hours spent staring at a wordprocessor – except for the web, of course. When I say the magazine published ‘some of’ my letter, I mean they cropped the last sentence: ‘The real threat to couple time and interaction these days is the internet – unless you communicate by instant messenger, of course.’ And I speak as a two-PC family.

Anyway, back to TV. Although I haven’t blogged about it (much as I’d’ve like to), in recent months both Mrs Thoughtcat and I have spent many happy hours glued to Ugly Betty and The Apprentice, respectively laughing and raging at the screen together in about equal measure. It is a shared experience and the better for that; your partner sees things you didn’t see, you talk about them, you learn from it; you find common ground; it gives you something to talk about. And given that we spend every evening in front of the TV anyway with our dinner on our laps (actually a far healthier setup than sitting opposite each other at table moaning about our days, or saying nothing at all), you notice when what’s on is actually any good, which in 2007 is rare.

The excellence of these particular two shows have almost restored my faith in terrestrial TV of late. The former is brilliantly written (especially those episodes by the acid-tongued Henry Alonso Myers) and superbly acted, and even if it’s completely frivolous is still weirdly compelling. The Apprentice meanwhile is just plain riveting: despite being fundamentally flawed – every week Sir Alan Sugar opens the show saying ‘This is not a game’, but of course it is, it’s a bloody TV show – the format and structure are plain genius. A 60-minute Shakespearean drama plays out weekly, complete with dramatic arcs everywhere they should be. The prelude: here is your mission, should you choose to accept it! Act 1: the teams set about preparing, with rumblings of controversy! Act 2: the task is carried out – usually badly by at least one if not both teams! Act 3: the teams convene at Sugar HQ, and the winners and losers are announced! Act 4: while the winning team get on with being pampered or going out partying, the losers sit whey-faced for a gripping dressing-down by Sir Al! Act 5: the team leader brings in his chosen scapegoats, the three wrangle to convince us that black is white and, our bums on the edges of our seats, Sugar fires the team leader! Then, finally, the chorus plays us out as this week’s loser is driven away into the horizon and professional oblivion.

Seriously, I’m not saying I revel in watching people get fired, far from it, but when that person is so utterly deserving of it, it really is undeniably satisfying. I would almost have applied for the next series myself if I didn’t think I’d be eaten alive in the board room – not by Sir Alan, he doesn’t scare me at all, but by the other contestants. Those people really would sell their own grandmothers to succeed. (Except for Lohit, who was just too nice to win.) Personally I found the final disappointing – Sugar, confirming everyone’s prejudices about UK business, plumps for Simon, a 12-year-old white male Cambridge graduate with a rich dad and yellow socks, when he could have had tough, independent single mum Kristina. But at least the brilliant Tre nearly made it and that other cow was nowhere to be seen.

*sigh*. The missus and I have no idea what we’re going to do with ourselves on Wednesday and Friday nights from now on. Maybe surf the web and IM each other?

A selection of Thoughtcat’s YakYak posts

As I think I’ve mentioned once before, I occasionally post to YakYak, a forum ostensibly for fans of cult video game firm Llamasoft (my own Llamastory can be found here) and gaming in general. I’m a very lapsed gamer myself, but the community is fantastic and the forum has a great talkboard called Bleatings where like-minded personages can chunter over any subject under the sun. If it seems to Thoughtcateers that I hardly ever blog these days, check out the following links. Most of them consist of a short, pithy post quoting a news item or similar, and I post them there as opposed to blogging because chances are high someone will chip in with a pithy response in return. (It is a talkboard, of course, but forums are more like having a conversation in a pub, which I never have in real life because I never go to pubs, whereas blogging is more like running your own newspaper in the days before newspapers had a comments facility. Even though blogs also have a comments facility. Whatever.) What interests me most is how these responses can blossom unexpectedly into great long discussions… it’s good to talk!

8th April: Come on, admit it – you blubbed (at Channel 4’s 100 greatest tearjerkers list on TV the previous night)
21st April: Ban this filth!
21st April: Ow! AKA accidental ridiculous self-injury (possibly too much information here)
28th April: Hilarious comment on the earthquake in Kent! (all in good taste)

Okay, that’s enough YakYak posts – Ed.

All good pubicity

What is it with typos at the moment? One that seemed too good to be true turned up in the Guardian last Wednesday in a report on a (stupid) survey about ‘guilty reads’: ‘85% of those surveyed admitted to having an author they turn to for sheer gratification, but whom they might not admit to reading in pubic,’ it read (er, my italics). I posted this to an existing thread on typos at YakYak just after I discovered it, keeping a screenshot of the offending article as I did with the Prescott story below as I thought the Grauniad were bound to pick up on it. I even emailed their letters page hilariously pointing out that maybe it was having to read the books ‘in pubic’ that caused the respondents to feel awkward – I mean, the mind boggles, doubly. But they didn’t print the letter and even as I post now the typo still hasn’t been fixed, so we must presumably conclude that it wasn’t actually a typo in the first place.

Seriously, the idea of ‘guilty reads’ irritates me. How arrogant and/or insecure do you have to be to worry about what other people might think of you from the book you’re reading? It reminds me of something a friend once said to me years ago when he was studying English at university, or not long after: ‘I’m reading The Hound of the Baskervilles at the moment, which falls into the category of what I call “good-bad books”.’ I hadn’t been to university (more’s the pity) but even if I had I would still have been annoyed by the categorisation. These people seriously need to get a life. It’s a bit like dancing when you’re not a very good dancer – you spend all your time worrying that the other people on the dancefloor will think you’re making a tit of yourself, when in fact all they’re worried about is whether they look a tit or not. As soon as you realise this, you start dancing properly.

YakYak incidentally, which has received passing mention here before, is a great internet place where I hang out a good deal of the time. It’s principally a video gamers’ forum – I’m not a gamer myself but I was when I was a kid, and YakYak was started by one Jeff ‘Yak’ Minter who was a childhood hero of mine – but its ‘Bleatings’ board is a bit like a pub full of Really Good Blokes (I include women in that) where you can bring up anything, chunter about it and get decent advice. It’s one of the reasons I don’t post here as often as I’d like (i.e. I’m more often posting stuff over there): blog something and although it’s rewarding in itself, most of the time you feel as if you’re talking to an empty room, but post instead to a well-populated discussion board and you get a response more or less straight away. The two ostensibly differ because the board has a limited ‘community’ of readers and posters, whereas a blog is technically open to the whole world. In reality though a blog’s readership is also a community – just a looser, more casual one. Then again, there is a subtle but important difference between a blog post and a forum post – hard to put my finger on exactly but I wouldn’t post this entry, for instance, to YakYak or probably any forum – not because it’s off-topic or deeply personal but because I’m thinking out loud, really, and airing an opinion rather than looking for a response. Which probably answers my own point about empty rooms. I’ll go away now.

“A new kind of ghostwriter”

This article in yesterday’s Guardian brought a smile to my face. Novelist Jim Crace, famed for writing books involving (and quoting) authors who don’t actually exist, has slipped into a surreal life/art overlap after finding that Amazon has attributed a non-existent book to him. Even better, the title, Useless America, is one that even Crace couldn’t have made up. Even even better, Crace also sheds some light on the value of Amazon’s sales rankings when placing his own order (for one copy) sends the ranking up 60,000 points.

While looking for the errant novel on Amazon incidentally I found another oddity in Crace’s catalogue, a book called “Free Sampler”, costing $75. I look forward to more of these sorts of things happening in the future as books and technology vie for control of the world.

Life’s too short for Second Life

I’m fairly slow on the uptake in a lot of areas, so it’s little surprise that the first time Second Life registered on my radar was on Friday, thanks to a report on Channel 4 News that people are starting to trade such significant sums of money on the virtual reality game that the Treasury is thinking about taxing it. Channel 4 ran a bit of the game in which they’d created a representation of the TV studio complete with “avatars” of themselves, although since the studio is already pretty hi-tech and Jon Snow, bless him, in common with most people on TV, already looks a little unreal it was hard to tell which was which. Other screenshots of avatars flying and sitting around greenish landscapes looking cool impressed me sufficiently to go straight to my laptop and get a (second) life for myself, although this has turned out to be somewhat less straightforward than Channel 4 made out.

I downloaded the software and signed up, choosing “boy next door” from a range of basic avatar templates (mostly because he looked the least stupid – there was even one with a fox’s head, which I couldn’t quite work out) and scrolled through a list of possible surnames including Abattoir, Picnic and Barbecue before settling on the relatively normal name Charlie Richmond. Don’t go rushing to your own Second Life however to look me up, as for reasons which will become clear you’ll probably find me half-naked, without a penis, hanging limply somewhere dull and obscure with the word “Away” above my head (in other words, even less of the life and soul than normal).

The last time I played a computer game as such was Tomb Raider about four years ago, and although I’m vaguely aware of the look of other games released since, Second Life looked to me just like Tomb Raider except instead of moving a pneumatic woman with a pistol in each hand around a jungle, my character was now a black shadow who wobbled about with nothing in particular to do in a landscape which seemed mostly to consist of a heaving carpet of multi-coloured pixels, a bit like a badly-tuned TV. Occasionally my head took on the same strange texture, which was distinctly unnerving, but I carried on, moving Charlie down a hill towards other black shadows with names above their heads like Fontaine Tangerine and Millicent Sugarbeet (actually I wondered whether SL had modelled the names on incidental characters from Russell Hoban’s books like Boumboume Letunga, Fister Crunchman and Hermione Thrust, although I doubt it).

Some of these characters were walking about and others had “Editing appearance” hovering over their heads but others were just standing there typing onto invisible keyboards. As I drew closer to the group things like “Hi” and “Hey Charlie” and “take ur cloths off belinda” started scrolling in the bottom corner of my screen. I couldn’t work out how to take part in these conversations at first although since the most interesting comments were things like “How do I edit my jacket?” and “When does this orientation shit end?” I decided I probably wasn’t missing much. Still, it was nice when I did get into my first conversation with a bloke called Kaye and a woman called Britchling, remembering that there were actually real people just like me behind their flickering avatars. My character’s head was still occasionally buzzing like a bad acid trip and I had some trouble editing my own appearance, as either my laptop or modem connection made everything happen sooooo s-l-o-w-l-y, but after a while I got a nice red shirt and pair of blue trousers for myself. “Charlie looks like Spiderman,” said Kaye. “lol,” said Britchling. To me however the other two were both featureless silhouettes so I couldn’t gauge whether they looked equally silly or not. I edited my appearance some more, deciding to start with underpants in an effort to be thorough. To do this involved “creating new underpants”, something I’ve never attempted before, although the supposed control I was given over the length and appearance of said hinterwear seemed misleading as no matter what I did, Charlie appeared clad in white long-johns. I tried editing my facial hair instead, but with similar lack of success, my character ending up with eyebrows that took up half his forehead and a five o’clock shadow whether I wanted it or not.

I gave up then, deciding beauty is only pixel-deep, and walked around the landscape a bit more, negotiating peculiar structures both practical and decorative and from time to time bumping into the odd person named after a member of Santana and a root vegetable. Someone had “Ask me for free furry avatars” hovering over his/her/its head, while elsewhere two identically-clad women were standing looking at some small white shapes on the ground. “Are those pieces of paper?” said one. “I’m trying to put them together,” said the other, “which is exceedingly difficult.” An object on a pedestal said “touch me to see your height”, so I did so and found I was 6’5″ – a truly second life indeed; the real life me would be craning my neck to look myself in the eye.

After a while I discovered gestures, and practised those for a bit, laughing and clapping at random, and then realised I could fly too. This was fun, although I mostly ended up miles from anywhere on an uninhabited stretch of coast, and whenever I clicked “stop flying” Charlie tumbled to the ground sprawling painfully, although he always managed to get up and start walking again with barely a tear in his virtual jeans. Charlie could also be walked through water without drowning and flown through strange beams of light without being fried, although paradoxically, often trying to get him to just walk through a doorway was more problematic, since the movement controls didn’t seem designed to get him to walk in a straight line anywhere, and if I misdirected him he’d walk into the wall instead and get stuck there until I walked him backwards again, to the right a bit and then tried again. Great chunks of time seemed to be spent just getting him to walk around places without bumping into stuff and extricating him from random objects. So much for virtual reality – why does it have to take everything so literally? I would’ve thought it was pretty obvious I wanted him to go through the doorway or around an object and not bash his nose on the wall or the obstacle in question. Artificial intelligence, exactly.

After an hour of playing, most of the people I met were still shadows and most of the landscape still psychedelic so, suspecting this was something to do with either my intermittent wireless connection or my laptop’s not exactly cutting-edge resources, I logged off and tried installing Second Life on my main PC, which I understood to be the faster and more powerful of the two computers. When I tried running it however I was told the software only worked in “32-bit true color” mode, which my relatively old machine apparently didn’t have (although this was the first I’d heard of it). I tried installing some drivers from the web but after some consultation with friendly geeks at YakYak it seemed I needed an actual piece of kit to be slotted into my PC, which was further than I was prepared to go even for virtual reality. I was a bit pissed off, this being the first time it came home to me that the PC that’s done me proud since 2001 was no longer up to some of the things life now demands of us.

So I went back to the laptop and, wavy head or none, spent a few more frustrating hours trying to work out the world of Second Life. I’d signed up for a free account so had no money to spend; this didn’t seem to matter in terms of clothes, which you could demonstrably “create” for yourself, or food, which Charlie never seemed to need no matter how long I walked or flew him around, or healthcare, which he never needed despite falling from the sky on several occasions. You needed money to buy land but I couldn
‘t be bothered to mess about with all that, still less be persuaded to pay the requisite $10 (real) monthly fee. Money did matter though in terms of the more intimate things in life: bored, I started searching for the much-trumpeted adult areas of the game, and teleported myself to a nudist beach where a generously-buttocked girl in a g-string was playing congas. Gamely I removed my own clothes, noting a distinct absence in the inter-leg region, like those old “Love Is…” cartoons. Walking towards us meanwhile was the owner of the resort (I knew he was the owner because he had “Owner” above his head), not only a fine figure of a man but one with an actual penis. When he occasionally flickered into a black shadow again, the penis mysteriously remaining in situ. “Where did you get your penis from?” I asked him. “Now there’s a leading question,” he replied, before saying “You can buy them or you can get horrible free ones.” I think that’s where my interest in the game ended really – I mean it’s bad enough encouraging people to pay real money to buy virtual land but what sort of cynical bastard designs a game where you have to buy your own penis?

In fairness, Second Life was quite addictive for about the first four hours, before I realised it’s shit, really. It’s kind of an adventure game without much adventure, or even much game, to be honest. Who’s got time to design virtual facial hair or create virtual underpants or earn virtual money to upgrade their virtual jacket or build a virtual sculpture on a virtual beach or buy a virtual penis in order to have virtual sex? That over a million people have now signed up for SL and major real-world companies such as Sony and Reuters (who I’d’ve thought should’ve known better) have bought advertising in the game and created offices which you can “visit” suggests some people are taking the whole thing a tad too seriously; no doubt indeed there are now entire organisations who insist as part of their corporate identity that all staff have an SL avatar and walk around a virtual replica of their office communicating with each other via the game instead of just by getting up and talking like the rest of humanity. It’s all rather worrying – SL’s “Linden dollars” may be exchangeable for real dosh (and at a fairly good exchange rate too), but no matter how much you earn there or how great your clothes are or how expensive your penis is, it’s never going to be an achievement you can translate into real life, is it? You can’t use it to attract women, or put on your CV “2003-2009: Constructed and administered an entire town in Second Life including multi-million-Linden-dollar industry in state-of-the-art cocks”, can you?

While it was a fun diversion for a little while, all Second Life did for me was remind me how much of a real life I need to get first.