All Posts Filed in ‘Media

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Harry Potter One More Time

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John Gets His Copy!You see, you don’t need to queue outside a book shop at 1am on a Saturday morning to pick up your copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you can just have a lie in, walk to your local village supermarket and pick a copy up there!

Of course, I won’t be reading it, although my good lady will. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the fascination and wonder these books give to children – I read all about magic and wizards as a 9 year old when I read the Wizard of Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin. These books really captured my imagination and the plot lines bear a striking similarity to the Harry Potter books (a kid with magical powers, a nemesis that you just know the protagonist is going to have a battle with at the end, a school for wizards, not playing by the rules, the character growing up through the series and developing in much the same way as Mr Potter and so forth). But of course the stories are quite different.

However as an adult I find that mere escapism or fantasy in a book isn’t enough to keep my interest. I like to read a book that makes me think, challenges my brain and keeps me guessing up until the end, maybe even makes me learn something along the way. I want to relate to the characters, get into their heads – but I don’t particularly want to get into the head of children half my age!

Having seen the films and heard my good lady talking about the books I find the Potter tales a bit too predictable and obvious. However that’s just me. Many millions of adults have enjoyed reading these books and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s great to see people reading books (most of the adults I know don’t read books at all). Not to mention all the children that have had their imagination inspired and their minds opened to new and exciting possibilities in ways that only captivating books can.

I notice – ironically – that Ms Le Guin has now written a further 3 books since the trilogy I read was written. I’d be half tempted to buy the 6 and read them all the way through. Either it’d recapture some of the wonder I had as a child or I’d be disappointed that the wisdom of growing older has dampened that spirit in me. I hope it would be the former but sadly I suspect it would actually be the latter. Just like Harry Potter himself, once you grow up and lose that innocence and wonder at the world, you can never get it back.

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Mamma Mia – The Ultimate Abba Tribute

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Last year I mentioned how after years in the wilderness I finally became an ABBA fan. Well, I spent this weekend in London with some good friends and went to a show called Mamma Mia.

My Mamma Mia Ticket

To digress slightly, when I saw Quentin Tarrantino’s classic Pulp Fiction for the first time in the cinema, I knew absolutely nothing about it. I hadn’t seen a single trailer, didn’t know anything of the plot and didn’t even know who was in it (I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw then-time has-been John Travolta in it). And you know what? Not knowing anything about it and having no idea what to expect made the film 10 times better. As a result I try not to watch trailers for films – I prefer to go in with a clean slate and an open mind.

And so it was with Mamma Mia. I suspected it might be the story of ABBA in the format of a musical (I did at least know it was something to do with ABBA). I pictured scenes like the band trying to get a record deal and bursting into “Money money money…” at the drop of a hat. My preconceptions turned out to be quite wrong. It was in fact a story completely unrelated to the history of iconic band ABBA, it was about a girl living in Greece with her mother, about to get married, trying to figure out who her father is. And of course, the cast kept bursting into song and – you guessed it – every song was an ABBA classic!

It really was excellent. It was funny, emotional, entertaining, the dancing was excellent, the singing, the acting spot on, I really had a great time and thought it was superb. I’m the world’s worst celebrity spotter so I couldn’t tell you who was who (although I gather a good portion of the cast have been in The Bill* at some point) but they did a great job. If you’re even the slightest ABBA fan – which you will be, everybody loves ABBA – I’d highly recommend you go if you get the chance. I haven’t been able to stop their songs floating around my head since and that’s the way I intend keeping it!

* – Interesting note about the classic long-running British TV show The Bill. I used to watch it back in the 80’s and 90’s in the day of DI Burnside (or was it Sideburns?) and Tosh Lines and loved it. When I went to Australia last year imagine my surprise when it turns out that The Bill is extremely popular over there! They brought us Neighbours and we return the favour with the Bill – it’s a strange world.

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Something I Thought I’d Never See

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Like most people of my age I grew up with terrorism on my doorstep. “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland started long before I was born and while I won’t go into the history now it was something I never thought I’d see the end of.

Since my father was in the army at the time (the Territorial Army thankfully), he’d tell me about people he knew murdered at the hands of the IRA and I’d feel anger and fear. I’d hear about bombings, knee-cappings and the terrible things humans can do to other humans in the name of ideology. The hunger strikers in the Maze prison sacrificing their lives for what they believed in. British soldiers under such incredible stress that events like Bloody Sunday happened.

The problem was that both sides firmly believed they were in the right and nobody was ever going to back down. The hard line of the British Government back in the 80’s – who believed they were neutral in the conflict and were simply trying to maintain law and order in Northern Ireland and protect the people’s right to democratic self-determination – just served to bolster the IRA’s views. And likewise the actions of the IRA (and other republican movements) – who saw the British army as the enemy, colluding with the state forces and loyalist paramilitaries (it later turned out they were absolutely correct about the collusion) – such as the Brighton Bombing just polarised the British Government further.

The thing is, I could understand both points of view. If a foreign army was occupying my country, walking the streets of my town arresting people that I knew, beating them and intimidating my family I’m damn sure I’d stand up and fight them. But likewise, as a Briton we had to do something about the sectarian violence on people who considered themselves British – you couldn’t just turn a blind eye.

In short it was a horrible situation and I could never see peace because there was never going to be a solution that satisfied everybody. And it was clear that no amount of military might or firepower could quell a sustained guerrilla campaign of terrorism. The Russians couldn’t do it in Afghanistan and the British couldn’t do it in Northern Ireland.

Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams side by sideAnd yet here we are, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams (whose voice used to not be allowed on BBC TV so an actor had to do voice-overs if you can believe it) sitting side by side declaring peace. How did that happen?

Well it wasn’t by “bombing them back to the stone-age”, it wasn’t by sending in more troops. It was by bringing the troops home. By letting terrorists go free from prison. By politics and diplomacy. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for the families of the thousands of people who lost their lives over The Troubles seeing murderers walking the streets. But the reality is that if you want to have lasting peace this is a sacrifice that people have to make.

I can’t imagine the peace after the first and second world wars would have been easy to take for those who lost loved ones, but it was a price that had to be paid because the alternative is much worse. And that was the case here. It’s easy to look back in the history books, see when the second world war ended and imagine that someone flicked a switch and life went back to normal. What you don’t see written about is how people got over their bitterness (most didn’t, they just had to bury it and carry on with their lives). The difference for me and people of this time is we’ve lived through it and can see how hard it was and the tremendous loss of life. Generations from now when the Troubles are summarised in history books peace will have seemed inevitable and quick in coming and a picture like the one above will no doubt be in the chapter headed “Lasting Peace Declared” or something similar.

But we should never forget how hard peace is to come by, and how precious it is. It saddens me greatly to see the same mistakes being made by the Americans in Iraq. My definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome. I guess that’s the insanity of war.

I’ve never been on holiday to Ireland and it’s a place I’ve deliberately avoided on principle for many years. I think it’s about time I booked a trip over soon. And I never thought I’d say that.

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A Glut Of Good Music

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I haven’t bought a CD in ages. I’m one of these old fashioned sorts who likes to actually buy real CDs that I can put in my CD rack and play on my real CD player (especially the one in the car). I know I can download everything off the net, play it on my iPod and computer, but I still like actually having the real thing with a nicely printed inlay! But over the last few months I haven’t seen anything I want to buy, it’s just been a quiet period for good music.

All this has changed with the release of albums from Bloc Party, The Shins, The Kaiser Chiefs, Arcade Fire, Maximo Park and Idlewild – all bands I’m a big fan of. However it’s Idlewild’s album I’ve been waiting for with the most anticipation.

Warnings and Promises by IdlewildAs I mentioned in My Top Albums of 2005, their previous offering Warnings and Promises was and remains one of my favourite albums. For anybody “lucky” enough to have been in my car while this album’s been playing (which it has done pretty solidly for the last 2 years) they’ll be able to testify how much I like it. I love to deliberately throw in the odd off-key note and really give it everything on the high notes just to keep them on their toes!

Their latest effort, Make Another World, has all the making of another classic for me, I’m learning the words already! Most of the time when I really love an album, the follow-up tend to disappointment me. I’ll keep comparing it to the previous one which is on a pedestal and therefore can’t be matched – unfair I know but hey, that’s what most women do with men! 😉 But I’m liking this one so much I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to sit it up on that pedestal alongside and hit those high-notes with frightening irregularity while driving to work! I pity the fool who has to hear it…

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My Life Without (The) Sky

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A couple of months ago I bought a new TV that happened to have an integrated digital decoder. This meant that I could receive Freeview which is, perhaps not surprisingly, free. I've had a Sky Digital subscription for the past 6 years and at £40 a month it occurred to me that if I could live without it, I'd have paid for the TV in two years.

On thinking about it some more I realised that the only things I actually watch on Sky (which contains several hundred channels of mostly rubbish) are The Simpsons, some Spanish football and the odd Premiership match. Oh, and a couple of series like Stargate SG-1 and it's cousin Stargate Atlantis (well, we've got to get our sci-fi fix). Since The Simpsons and things like Stargate can be downloaded from file sharing networks for free (as we did with Lost Season 2 – we devoted an entire weekend watching all the episodes back to back – I only wish the ending was worth it!).

Freeview has 30 or so channels including Sky Sports News which meant I could still watch Soccer Saturday from my sofa when I was feeling lazy. So I decided I'd cancel Sky and see how I got on without it. Now that's not as easy as it sounds.

If you try to cancel Sky they'll put the pressure on to try and keep you thereby lowering their churn rate. It's a well known fact that you can get Sky for half price by threatening to cancel, getting offered it at half price for three months, then doing the same in three months time. Oh, call during the week if you want to try it out! But if you really want to cancel then you have to battle through a half-hour gauntlet of hard-sell. I didn't want that because I knew I could be tempted to keep it. So I did the decent thing…

…I told them I was moving to New Zealand! Within 3 minutes it was cancelled and they were wishing me good luck. Although it would be 4 weeks before they actually turned it off. And that happened to be Monday of last week.

So I've had over a week without Sky and it's been tough going cold turkey. I've missed the sound of Homer Simpson saying "D'Oh!". I've missed several good football matches. And I've missed randomly flicking through the music channels. Initially I wanted to pick up the phone and be re-connected, but now I'm realising that there are plenty of other decent things to watch, and more importantly there are many more interesting things to do than watch TV!

Of course it could be that I'm in such a good mood that finally the vastly under-rated yet hilarious Garth Marenghi's Darkplace has been released on DVD that I'm pretending life without Sky will be okay. Only time will tell…

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It Just Never Makes Things Any Better

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Back in 1998 I had the pleasure of spending a couple of weeks travelling around Lebanon:

lebanese-visa

I have to say it was one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring and friendly places I’ve ever been. The scenery can be breath-taking, from sandy beaches to mountains to forests to deserts, it’s got the lot. There are ancient ruins built at the height of the Roman empire (which means they’re the biggest) including the largest standing columns on earth. My jaw was on the floor looking at some of these monuments in Baalbek. And the people were not what I’d expected at all. After years of war I thought I’d find people with their heads down, battle-hardened and bitter. But I found people young and old with a bright, optimistic outlook on life who were amazingly friendly and more westernised than me! In fact I’d rate the people I met above New Zealanders on the friendliness scale – and that’s saying something.

But the one thing I took away from the trip was that the picture I had in my head before going of what Lebanon was going to be like, especially with the friction with Israel over the border (which I went to – quite an intimidating area with all the razor wire and UN troops) from the western media was completely different to what I actually saw. Up until then I assumed that people like the BBC would bring you the truth but there’s no such thing as the truth, just someone’s opinion on a series of events. And they won’t necessarily be your opinions if you’re there on the ground. Plus the media have to watch what they say, they can’t go taking sides – even if they’re right – especially against large, powerful nations, so they take the middle ground. It was eye opening to see things first-hand without the media bias. Don’t believe all you hear!

john-over-beirut

However the fact that Lebanon was no longer a place to be feared and looked to have a bright future with Israel pulling their troops out, peace throughout the country and Beirut being rebuilt made me happy. Lebanon deserved a break from once being the Paris of the Middle East to a war-torn nation. The people deserved it.

So it won’t surprise you to learn how sad I was to see it all kicking off again. I’m not going to take sides and say Israel are wrong for bombing Lebanon (which they are – Hezbollah having munitions in civilian areas? ask yourself who’s telling you that’s the truth and if it’s just an excuse), and I’m not going to say it’s wrong for Hezbollah to launch rocket attacks at Israel (which they are – what do you expect to happen if you do that?). The time for saying who’s to blame is long passed. After decades of terrorism in Northern Ireland it was abundantly clear that at some stage or another people were going to have to just stop fighting and move on. No amount of bombing, military presence, arrests or anything was going to stop it. You can’t make one side give up by intimidating them – especially when it’s on their home soil.

It doesn’t matter who throws the first stone. If someone gets hurt, then retaliates and someone gets hurt on the other side, then it just goes on from there from one side to the other. For every civilian that gets killed in an Israeli bombing raid you’re creating more Lebanese who hate Israelis. For every rocket that kills an Israeli you’re going to create more Israelis who want blood spilled to even the score. It’s human nature. And it’s completely self-defeating.

It’s disappointing to see the international might of countries like the USA and UK just standing by watching without attempting to intervene. Although to be fair, Israel is a nuclear power who don’t have to listen to people like the USA if they don’t want to. But if Israel end up occupying Lebanon again then you can expect many more years of war – and it’s so obvious that’s the outcome it amazes me the Israeli leaders think it’s the best approach to meet their goals.

I just feel badly for the people. It’s always the innocent civilians that get caught in the crossfire in situations like this. If someone was bombing my town and my family was killed, you can bet I’ll pick up arms against them. And I won’t care if what they’re doing is just in their eyes, my hurt and pain will motivate my revenge plenty. And since violence begets violence, it’ll never end. And if I can think that way, then so can anybody, no matter how friendly, positive and hospitable they are. War is easy. Peace is very very hard. Never take the easy option.

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Snow Patrol At Leeds Millenium Square

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I went with my girlfriend and a couple of friends to see Snow Patrol play on Saturday night at the Millenium Square in Leeds. We turned up a bit early so went for something to eat in a nearby Thai restaurant (where I proceeded to eat the finest salad I’ve eaten in my entire life – in fact it may well be the finest dish I’ve eaten in my entire life, but that’s another story). We stuck our heads out the door a couple of times to make sure they weren’t on – although that salad was so good I’d have happily missed the gig to lick the plate clean.

Once the food was eaten we went across the road to the venue. I saw Embrace play there last year and once again was surprised how many people you can fit in the square. It wasn’t too long before they came on and started playing some of their trademark songs.

Snow Patrol on stage

We weren’t too far away from the stage and were pretty close to one of the speaker towers so it was a good vantage point (and as we were near the edge we managed to avoid most of the glasses of beer being thrown around).

Snow PatrolThey played a selection of songs mostly drawn from their current and previous albums with one from their second.

Gary, the lead singer, had lost his voice on tour and this was the second gig since they started up again so he apologised for the quality of his singing! To be fair he was a bit croaky to start but within a couple of songs was happily hitting the high notes!

I was really looking forward to seeing them as I’ve listened to Final Straw over and over since it came out – an instant classic. Then their new album Eyes Open came out and it’s even better!

They certainly didn’t disappoint – they played really well and the stage banter was entertaining too. Before I knew it they’d played their last song and it was time to go home. On a hair related note I see he decided to cut off his long curly locks in a John Conners way, but I’m sure he wasn’t copying me. 😉

Highlight of the evening? Ben drove us and when he parked outside the venue he said “do you want the bad news or the bad news?”. With little choice I replied “the bad news”. It turned out the bad news was that he’d dropped his car keys down a drain! So in true MacGuyver style we had a look in the back of his car and found the shoulder strap for a bag. We broke the spring clip off the end to leave a small hook-shaped end. While one held the drain cover up Ben reached his arm down into the abyss, hooked the keys and brought them to the surface. Success! And nobody got hurt!

Key rescue MacGuyver style!

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John Likes ABBA – 20 Years Too Late!

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I remember ABBA. Judith Wilson used to live along the road from us when I was a kid and when I was over at hers one day when she brought out an ABBA record. I’d never heard of them at that point and don’t really remember if she played the record or just looked at it (come on, it was 20 years ago!). But they clearly didn’t make an impression as I never made a point of listening to them again.

Sure, they were on the TV loads over the years, at discos, weddings, films and so on – it’s impossible to escape from them even now. I just didn’t pay much attention. So last year when I was doing some redecorating I picked up the ABBA Gold CD from my girlfriend’s collection (it was closest to hand), put it on and was hooked. I never realised what a great band they were! And even more surprising was that I already knew all the words and could sing along immediately. I instantly understood why someone once wrote a PhD on the music of ABBA (I saw a program on the BBC about it years ago).

I’ve been working hard on the next version of John’s Background Switcher (which is in beta, contact me if you want to join in the testing) and fired up Media Player. I wasn’t sure what to listen to so just picked the first on the list – which was 2 Unlimited. Since that was terrible, I chose the next which was of course ABBA – and once again I’m reminded how good they are! Excellent coding music borne out by some of the work I’ve spent the weekend doing – including the much requested anti-pants filter. One of my colleagues was doing a PowerPoint presentation and my background switcher had decided to select a photo of a pair of pants on a moor as his wallpaper, much to his embarrassment! So as of the next version you can put in a list of tags and no photos containing any of those tags will be chosen – so no more photos of random children on your desktop!

Now, if I could just get ABBA to reform and record some new material – I know all their songs already…

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The Price Of Petrol

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As I was filling my car up with petrol I noticed a handy converter to show me how much petrol is per gallon from the price per litre. As you can see it’s a bit out of date, despite looking relatively shiny and new:

highpetrolprice

Just goes to show how expensive running a car in the UK is getting. Or maybe it’s a marketing ploy to make you think it’s not quite as expensive as it really is relying on the fact that most people need a calculator to add up!

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The Fruits Of My Labour

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I just had a look in the folder on my laptop that stores all the photos downloaded from Flickr by my Background Switcher and I was really impressed. No, not by my software, but by the sheer high quality of photos its downloaded over the last few months.

JBSDownloadedThumbnails

There are 466 photos in there taking up 162MB of hard drive and my switcher’s been either looking at specific groups or the most interesting photos of the current day. There really are some amazing photographers out there and without Flickr I’d never get to see their work and be inspired by what you can do with a camera.

Sure, the internet can make the worst parts of human nature accessible to anyone, but it can also showcase what creative things humans can be. Flickr may just be a piece of software but a paintbrush is just a piece of wood and some hairs stuck together and look what you can do with that!