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October 2007

Bluetits

What I want to know is this.  Is it possible to wear a bluetooth headset on a semi-permanent basis and not look like a complete idiot?

I can understand people wearing them when driving, and I suppose they are very useful if you are a courier, but is there any other excuse?

Put it on when you need it.  Take it off at all other times.

Thanks.


The same old...

One of the more enduring mysteries in football is how certain managers seem to pop up time and again in spite of their conspicuous lack of success.

Graeme Souness, for example, who was interviewed for the job of Bolton manager:

Graeme Souness was a candidate on our target list and he has now decided to remove himself from the interview process," said Bolton chairman Phil Gartside. "Having interviewed him last week, I know he would have been an exceptional candidate for the role."

He added: "However, I respect Graeme's decision to pull out of the process and I wish him well for the future."

Personally, I think he should stick to being a football pundit, and I suspect that fans of Liverpool, Blackburn, and Newcastle (amongst others) would agree.   Daniel Taylor in The Guardian has a theory about why Souness pulled out (The strange case of the resistible rise of Gary Megson).

Football is truly unique: which other industry would be so forgiving to men who have, on the whole, shown so many reasons against employing them?

In the peculiar case of Gary Megson, the supporters of Bolton Wanderers demonstrated what they thought of it by greeting his first appearance in the dug-out with calls for the chairman, Phil Gartside, to be removed from office and anguished cries questioning the new appointment in the strongest terms.

It is difficult to sympathise with Megson when looking at his appointment and the role of Mark Curtis, the agent appointed by Gartside to headhunt a replacement for Sammy Lee. For those who do not know him, Curtis has been the subject of complaints to the FA and Fifa and is one of relatively few agents to be disciplined by the football authorities, dating back to November 1999 when he was fined £7,500 for improper conduct, which included an illicit payment, when the 15-year-old Jermaine Pennant moved from Notts County to Arsenal.

For a long time he has also been the first port of call for anyone in football wanting to get hold of Megson, and he also helped to negotiate the finer points of his contract with two previous clubs. Souness was so shocked by Curtis's presence at his own interview with Gartside that he withdrew his interest, perceiving it to be a done deal, regardless of the fact that Megson's win-rate from his only other spell in the Premier League, with West Brom, stands at 15%.

Meanwhile, it seems that Souness thinks he has a better chance of replacing the recently sacked Steve Staunton as manager of the Republic of Ireland - but he's up against, er,  David O'Leary.  Well, at least he's Irish. 

I suppose Bryan Robson is missing from the "shortlist" because he has a job, but what about Glen Hoddle?  Or Peter Reid - surely he must be available?

Roy Collins in the Daily Telegraph was also not impressed:

After nurses, the most under-valued, under-paid group of British workers must surely be football managers, who earn little more than the minimum wage and who have as much job security as a one-legged lion tamer. On top of this, they show nothing but undying loyalty to whichever club they find themselves managing in any given month.

Look at Gary Megson who, after giving up six weeks of his busy, demanding life to try to turn around struggling Leicester (19th in the Championship when he left) felt he deserved slightly better working surroundings at Bolton. But did he receive the blessing of Leicester chairman Milan Mandaric? No, twice Mandaric refused Bolton permission to speak to him until justice prevailed.

We now await another tug-of-war as Mandaric seeks to appoint Iain Dowie, who surely deserves a fresh challenge after eight months brilliantly resurrecting the fortunes of Coventry (anonymously mid-table in the Championship). Dowie, you will remember, was ordered by a court to pay almost £1 million to his former chairman at Crystal Palace, Simon Jordan, after claiming that he was leaving to return north. His new club, Charlton, were indeed north of Palace but Jordan waived a compensation clause because he thought Dowie wanted to be closer to his family in Bolton. A move to Leicester would suggest he is planning to get there in instalments.

It shows how quickly change in football, because it's not that long ago that Dowie would have been favourite for the Bolton job itself - and frankly it's hard to see how he could be any worse that Megson.  Maybe he'll get his chance in a few months.


In Search of Perfection

ATV World are showing Heston Blumenthal's series In Search of Perfection on Tuesday nights.

I've only watched one so far, but it was a wonderfully bizarre program.

When Heston does sausage and mash, you won't be surprised that he goes to great trouble to source the finest organic pork and even travels up to the farm to see the happy pigs.  You probably also won't be surprised that he boils the sausages and then finishes them in a frying pan.

What might surprise you is that he doesn't believe that sausages should be 99% meat, instead preferring to include more 'filler'.  This is a traditional ingredient, and it gave rise to the joke about a German saying how much he likes English bread, but can't understand why we call it "sausage".  Obviously Blumenthal is not including as much filler as those mass-produced sausages, but he does feel that some is required.  And he's probably right.

Still on the bread theme, you might also be surprised that this recipe (which appears in modified form in The Times) calls for mass-produced sliced white bread:

Lay 6 slices of sliced white bread on baking sheets. Place them in the oven and leave for 30–40 minutes, until the bread is an even dark brown colour throughout. Break up the bread and put it into a large bowl. Fill the bowl with cold water and set aside for at least 1 hour.

Drain the soaked oven-baked bread pieces into a colander set over a bowl, then squeeze the bread to extract as much water as possible. Pour 400ml of the toast- flavoured water into the jug containing the spice mix, stir and place in the fridge to chill.

Yes, that's right, the bread is used to make toast-flavoured water.  Not an ingredient that I'd ever have considered....   

You also wouldn't be surprised to learn that he went to great trouble to find the best treacle for Treacle Tart.  What you probably wouldn't have expected was that after all of that he would decide that none of them was as good as Tate & Lyle's Golden Syrup.

I guess he knows what he's doing, but eccentric doesn't even begin to describe his approach to food. 


51 channels?

Just over a year ago I mentioned that the BBC would be launching several new channels in Hong Kong and elsewhere.  Those channels (BBC Knowledge, BBC Lifestyle & CBeebies) are now available in Hong Kong, but apparently that's only the start of it (according to The Guardian):

The BBC's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, is to launch a further 30 channels internationally, as well as a high-definition outlet and an on-demand service in the United States, as part of the next stage of its aggressive expansion plan.

The launches, which will be based on four thematic brands - BBC Entertainment, with shows such as Doctor Who; BBC Knowledge, featuring programmes such as Top Gear; BBC Lifestyle, with What Not To Wear; and children's outlet CBeebies, featuring the Teletubbies - come on top of 21 channels it already plans to launch before the end of this financial year.

I hadn't heard about the 21 new channels, let alone the 30 more.  That would be the Doctor Who channel, the Top Gear channel, the Michael Palin channel, and so on, I presume.

A high-definition channel would certainly fit in well with Now's strategy, as would an on-demand service.

Meanwhile, my attempts to subscribe to these 3 new channels, have not been terribly successful.  PCCW appear to have designed their phone system so it is impossible to speak to someone, and instead they encourage you to subscribe online.  Which is all very well, but this system cannot (as far as I can tell) let you know how much extra you will have to pay for the additional channels.

The problem is that they have all manner of strange offers, based upon combinations of channels and the total monthly payment, and they don't provide customers with a breakdown of how much they are paying for each channel.  Also, I would be upgrading from BBC Entertainment as a a single channel to "the BBC 5" (it includes BBC World, which I don't need, as it also on Cable TV).  No price is quoted for that on their website.

I'd be quite happy if I could choose channels online and see the actual price I would pay, but they don't seem to offer that service.  I have always suspected that they do this deliberately, so that if you really want a channel you pay full price rather than waste time talking to them on the phone.  I'm not going to fall for that one.


Free stuff, absolutely no catch

It seems as if it's impossible to sign up for a credit card or a pay-tv or broadband service - or almost anything which requires a long-term contract - without getting a free gift.  Banks give stuff away if you meet certain criteria (my favourite current offer is the one gives you a free plane ticket if you invest a minimum of HK$5m.  As if someone with that sort of money is desperate for an economy class ticket - yes, you heard that right - to London...).

For subscribing (or re-subscribing) to a bunch of channels on Now TV, I qualified for three glittering prizes (tickets to Camp Disney on a randomly generated day, a Discovery Channel backpack, and a 9" football-shaped mini TV).

Er, thanks.

Thanks for nothing, as it turns out, because I didn't actually end up with any of these highly desirable items.

I received a letter telling me that I needed to go to pick up the 'gift' from a redemption centre within 30 days.  I went to lovely Mongkok.  There was a queue stretching right out of the front door of the building.  I went home again.

Even better was a gift from a large bank.  Off to the redemption centre I went, piece of paper in hand.

There was a notice posted on the door of the obviously closed office, stating that they had run away to TST and hoped that I couldn't be bothered to go there and pick up my gift.  OK, I made up that last part, but they had moved without any warning.


Simple jobs made difficult

Changing a fuse should be easy, right?  Not in my kitchen, it isn't.

The kitchen has a built-in fridge, washing machine and microwave oven (all from the same manufacturer).  Which is all fine and dandy, but which idiot decided that each appliance should have its own electrical socket? 

Fuses are designed to blow if there is a problem, and it is supposed to be very easy to replace them.  Isn't it?

Well, replacing the fuse is easy, of course, but to get at the plug you need to pull the appliance right out.  Each appliance has its own purpose-built slot, so you can't easily get hold of them - or move them from side-to-side - to ease them out.  The fridge is huge and almost impossible to move, and of course washing machines are deliberately designed to be very heavy.  OK, so the microwave is a bit easier.

It's a triumph of form over function.  Yes, it looks neat and tidy to have the plugs and cables hidden away where you can't see them, but no-one has thought about changing the fuse.  Won't happen, right?

Surely there must be a simple solution?  I'm not an expert by any means, but couldn't they, er make a hole (like the ones they have in most desks these days) for the power cable, so that the plug could go into an accessible socket?  Or how about some sort of arrangement where the plug itself doesn't have a fuse but you have a fuse or circuit-breaker somewhere else.  Somewhere, you know, accessible.


Anti-theft devices

I went into to a stationery shop to buy a toner cartridge for my printer.  A thimble-full of ink for only HK$100 - thanks very much, people who design printers.

What amused me was that the shop had used plastic ties in an attempt to prevent customers from stealing these hugely over-priced items.

Which was not very effective, because

  • This is a stationery stop, so if you really wanted to cut the plastic it's not exactly a problem to find a pair of scissors.
  • An even simpler solution is to open the box, and take out the toner cartridge.  The box is still securely attached to the fixture, but the toner cartridge has gone.  Yes, you can do this - I opened the box to check that it was the right cartridge.  Then I put back and had to ask the staff to come with their special pair of scissors so I could buy it.

Good thinking, that man.


No time

Help!  I think I'm running out of time in the day to listen to all the podcasts I download.

Football Weekly (from The Guardian) is now twice a week, and the BBC has started to offer many more shows, including the News Quiz, the Jonathan Ross show, and even The Archers.

As luck would have it, I can just about keep up, in because Danny Baker's All Day Breakfast Show (ADBS) is temporarily on hold - they started charging for it at the start of September, and then suspended it after a week.  I don't fully understand what is happening here, but the basic problem appears to be that iTunes don't offer the facility for paid podcasts. 

You can get round this (as happened with Ricky Gervais) by doing it as an audiobook, but allegedly they can't be updated every day.  Wippit, the company behind ADBS, tried to make it available for download themselves, but apparently their server was not up to the job.  I waited and eventually paid £2 to get the first week's shows through Audible, and that worked OK, but it's not as simple as having iTunes download it automatically.

Meanwhile, Danny Baker has started another free podcast - this one's a football show with Danny Kelly.  The two of them both started out as rock journalists, and both are real football fans (Baker supports Millwall, Kelly supports Spurs).  They have worked together on various radio shows (on Radio 5, Talk Radio, Virgin, BBC London, and any other station that would hire them) over the years, mainly ranting about football.  Last season Danny Kelly was doing football podcasts for The Times (which I hated), but this is much better - they clearly enjoy working together, and I certainly enjoy listening to it.

Baker & Kelly (as it is called) is still available free via iTunes, though they are talking about charging for it.  I'd happily pay for it, but they need to find a convenient way to do this.

As for the (free) BBC podcasts, well I've never listened to the Archers, and I'm not about to start now.  However, I did enjoy listening to The News Quiz in the days when Barry Took and Simon Hoggart were in charge (particularly in the days when there was a Private Eye team), and Sandi Toksvig seems to do OK.  Apparently the current series is the 60th.

I've also enjoyed what I have heard of the Jonathan Ross podcast.  Again, he appears to be having a good time (and who wouldn't, given the amount he get paid by the BBC). 


Worse than London and New York?

Another one of those surveys that seem to work wonders in getting free publicity.

It was in Friday's Independent London's public transport is world's best (no, really) and Sunday's SCMP London ranked above HK in transport poll as well.

A survey that voted London as having the best public transport system in the world has been greeted with disbelief in Hong Kong - which ranked fifth.

A survey carried out by Web travel site T********** of more than 2,000 travellers around the world found that people outside Britain believed London had the best taxis and the best public transport system in the world, despite the fact that the London Underground had two days of strikes earlier this summer and suffers regular delays.

New York came in at second place, followed by Paris, Washington and Hong Kong. Los Angeles was voted as having the worst public transport.

Travel Industry Council executive director Joseph Tung Yao-chung said he was shocked Hong Kong had "only ranked fifth".

I can't find any explanation as to how the results were calculated (and 2,000 people is not a very large sample size).  Was it simply that more people voted for London or New York than for Hong Kong, or is this based on a comparison of scores given by people who had visited combinations of cities?   I might think that New York has a better public transport system than Athens, but actually I'm not qualified to judge.

Even for two cities I know well (London and Hong Kong) there is no objective way to measure which is best.  London certainly has a more extensive network of underground and overground railways, but in HK the population is more concentrated in certain areas, most of which have very good MTR or KCR services. 

Ten years ago there were several of the "new towns" with no rail connection, but since then we have had the Tung Chung line (Tung Chung & Tsing Yi), West Rail (Tuen Mun & Yuen Long), the Tsuen Kwan O line and Ma On Shan Rail.  Oh, and the Airport Express.  Oh, and the Disney Resort Line.  Oh, and the KCR East Rail extensions (to Tsim Sha Tsui & Lok Ma Chau) Yes there are a few places left, such as the west/south side of HK Island, parts of Kowloon around Kai Tak, and (I suppose) Sai Kung, but not that many (at least in population terms).

In the same period of time, London has had the Jubilee Line Extension, the Heathrow Express and Tramlink.  Did I miss anything?  OK, let's be fair - two long delayed projects do now seem to be planned - Gordon Brown finally gave the go-ahead for Crossrail last week (so it might be finished by 2018) and Thameslink 2000 has also recently been approved (a bit late, as the project name tells you). 

Which is marvellous, of course, but most of the rail system in London is still old and overcrowded, and I don't think that anyone would seriously argue that services on the London Underground are better than the MTR or that the overground rail services in London are better than the KCR.  

Also, London was judged to be the most expensive, and there's no doubt that Hong Kong has a huge advantage there (though an off-peak Travelcard in London is pretty good value for money).


End of the geek affair? I think not

Apple have come in for a lot of criticism recently over the iPhone.  First for reducing the price so soon after launching it, and then for issuing firmware updates that have done bad things to phones if people did naughty things that Apple didn't like.

Jack Schofield in The Guardian wonders if the iPhone could mark the end of the geek affair with Apple:

The teaser ads posted in New York showed an open lock and a headline: either "The best devices have no limits" or "Phones should be open to anything". They must have mystified a few people, but Apple fans had no doubt what they were about: Nokia was exploiting the furore over last week's iPhone firmware update. This not only plugged a bunch of security holes, it wiped out users' unapproved applications, and "bricked" some phones hacked to unlock them from AT&T.

How galling to see Nokia promoting its N Series phones with lines like: "Open to applications. Open to widgets. Open to anything. So go ahead and load it up. What it does is up to you."

But there was no deceit on Apple's part. Right from the beginning, its chief executive Steve Jobs had told Newsweek: "You don't want your phone to be an open platform," and that AT&T "doesn't want to see their West Coast network go down because some application messed up". (Except that AT&T encourages people to run apps on its other smart phones.)

It seems remarkable that so many people could either fail to get the message, or could somehow convince themselves that Apple didn't really mean it. The answer, I think, is that Apple has been a personal computer company for 30 years, and everybody knows you can run whatever applications you want on your own computer. The iPhone was launched at a computer event (MacWorld), it runs a computer operating system (OS X) and it does computer things like web browsing. How could it not be a computer?

Yes, but what is a computer?  A PSP has a web browser built-in, so is that a computer?  Many phones use operating systems of one type or another.  Of course you can look inside and say that it has the potential to do this or that - but at your own risk.      

Yet people do try to hack almost every device imaginable - particularly games consoles, which are also clearly marketed as "closed" devices on which you can only run specific games.  Indeed, the business model for games consoles is that the hardware is sold at a loss and the software is highly profitable.  The iPhone business model is similar - you have to subscribe to a plan from a specific carrier (AT&T in the States, O2 in the UK) and Apple get a share of that money.  So of course Apple will try to prevent people "unlocking" the phone.      

I'd have thought that the hackers will be back before long with another way of unlocking the iPhone, and Apple will release another firmware upgrade (and so on).  Doesn't the same thing happen with the PSP?  Has it become less attractive as a result?

[...] Apple [..] has already dropped the Computer from its name, and is becoming a consumer electronics company. Yes, it still sells Mac Pro tower systems that can be expanded at will, but the bulk of Apple's computer sales are of relatively closed portables and the iMac, which is basically a large portable with the keyboard detached. The Mac mini and Apple TV designs, all the iPods and the iPhone show a company increasingly in love with sealed boxes designed for consumers, not for geeks.

Of course, this was always Steve Jobs's way. The original 1984 Mac - which succeeded Steve Wozniak's "open" Apple II design - was a sealed box with no expansion slots. It was intended to be an appliance, like a Maytag washing machine or drier. "And have you ever heard of a Maytag users group?" quipped Jobs (tinyurl.com/yu5x8l).

There's nothing wrong with this idea, of course: the number of ordinary consumers is very much bigger than the number of people who want to tinker with their systems. But Jobs may just have gone a bit too far in locking down the iPhone. This could mark the beginning of the end of the geek love affair with Apple.

Now I'm getting confused.  If Apple have been making well-designed "sealed box" products for 20+ years, why would anyone be surprised by what they've done with the iPhone?  It's a consumer product that is sold with an airtime contract, and if you don't like that then don't buy one.  People are buying them, and some of those customers will be "geeks" (whatever that means) who will know exactly what they are getting.