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March 25, 2003

Get Your Daily Freeware Here

Well, maybe not daily. For some reason, there's no pdf browser plug-in included in Mac OS X. So for a year, or thereabouts, I've been laboriously downloading pdfs and opening them in Preview before trashing them. Of course, someone has stepped into the breach and provided a neat little plug-in. It's not as advanced for IE as for other browsers, but none of you are using IE for Mac any more, are you? (via Mac OS X Hints, which is essential reading in any case.)

Meanwhile, iChat's a bit of a stone soup program. It's not bad, but it could really do with a couple of carrots, in the form of iChat Enhancer, which allows you to increase the size of the text entry box so that you can see an entire sentence at once. Unless U R monosyllabic txtng teen. And it's even tastier with some tomatoes, such as iChatStatus, a program which changes the status in iChat to show what's currently playing in iTunes. Pointless but very cute.

Posted by Alison at 01:42 PM | Comments (1)

March 18, 2003

What to do While You're Waiting for War to Begin

Well, if you haven't already seen it, you could do a great deal worse than watch the Bremner, Bird and Fortune Xmas Special, Between Iraq and a Hard Place. The entire thing's available online (in RealPlayer), and very funny it is too, though it makes uncomfortable watching in places for career civil servants. (via Hixie's Natural Log)

Posted by Alison at 11:11 AM | Comments (0)

March 17, 2003

The Perils of Licensed Game Designing

Greg Costikyan has been ranting about the current state of the computer games industry. One of the conclusions was that people working on licensed product can and should use that as an opportunity to produce meritorious work. (Think of the only pin table ever to make a profit, The Addams Family).

When you have small children, people give you family games. A close friend gave us "Clangers: the Board Game" for Christmas. She knew we liked board games, and knew I liked The Clangers. It was an obvious present. My theory is that the people who make licensed board games know that.

Yesterday, it being Sunday afternoon, we played it. There's a board, with a number of spaces onto which you put round cards with a dustbin lid on one side and a picture of a character or event from The Clangers on the other. There's a deck of cards with the same picture on. There is also a sound chip that makes a squeaky clanger noise. Each person in turn takes a card from the deck, turns over a dustbin lid; if they match, they get to keep them both and press the sound chip.
The person who ends up with the most cards wins.

OK. So for an amount of money -- I'm guessing £9.99 here but it was a present -- you get something which has less gameplay than Pelmanism (pairs). Plus, Pelmanism is played with a deck of cards that you probably have around the house anyway. The main fun of Pelmanism -- hoovering up all the cards that you remember the locations of but your opponents don't -- is gone, because you don't get to choose your targets in this version. Also, the fact that there are four cards of a type in a deck is a feature of Pelmanism, not a bug; I'm always amazed at pairs decks produced for small children that only have two cards of a type. As with the Clangers game, it makes it very much harder to hit on a correct answer by chance.

The Clangers game does have one extra-special feature; some of the photos are very, very similar but not quite the same. So you pounce on a previously turned card with glee only to discover that it's Tiny Clanger pointing the other way. This does cause hilarity, but it's not really a benefit of a family game.

You do, of course, get a squeaky clanger sound chip; just the same ones as are inside the squeaky clangers, only much less cute because it doesn't have any clanger around it.

We had to work through the card deck about six or seven times to make all the matches; we were well through our second pass before getting a single match. Overall, Marianne got bored and distracted. I was amused by thinking about reviewing it on the blog. Jonathan repeatedly pressed the squeaky clanger sound chip, which may get pressed into service in all manner of other board games, and Steven endured the game with a pained expression. He's not the greatest fan of multi-player board games at the best of times, and this won't have helped.

Update, 27 April 2004: I've amended this review, removing some unkind thoughts about Susan Prescot Games, who made the Clangers game. Why? Because I got an e-mail from Susie Prescot, saying how sad she was that we didn't like the game, that licensed game designing is a perilous enterprise (which is of course true), that her development time and choice of images was limited, and that her daughter loved the game and Oliver Postgate liked it. It was, in fact, quite rotten of me to be nasty about a small game company; I love games of all kinds and I've known all my life what a difficult industry it is. I'm sorry.

Posted by Alison at 10:23 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

March 16, 2003

The Golly Sweater

Max spotted that the photo of me from 1983 showed me wearing a sweater with the Robertson's Golly on it, and commented that you couldn't buy one of those now.

In fact, you couldn't buy one of those then; it was a handknit by my mum. I absolutely adored that sweater, and of course I wouldn't for one second dream of wearing it today, and find it difficult to imagine I ever did. It's one of those Past is a Foreign Country things. Like lots of British children, I had a collection of the Robertson's badges (my favourite was the astronaut), and a golly at home (not one of the soft toys that has survived).

Even in 1983, that sweater was distinctly edgy; wearing it was a political statement about the way in which the desire never to offend tends to sweep up lots of perfectly innocent bits of everyday life, like favourite children's books about outwitting tigers and eating more pancakes than are good for you, or children's tendency towards the over-literal. Or, indeed, golliwogs. A completely wrong-headed political statement, but there you go. I was young.

And what of the books? The story in Little Black Sambo isn't racist, but the names and illustrations appear racist to modern eyes. There's a version,

Little Babaji, where the names and illustrations have been changed, but everything else is identical. Epaminondas is harder; this may be the most perfect read-aloud story ever, and all little children love it. (Sara Cone Bryant, who collected this tale, was an expert on telling stories to children). But it's set in a time, and a place, and the cadence of the story is dependent on the dialect in which it's told. Perhaps we have to let these things go.

Robertson's eventually gave up on their trademark golly, because it was no longer any damn use as a marketing device. And I'm sure the sweater wore out long ago.

Posted by Alison at 09:41 AM | Comments (2)

Vast Imaginings

I just want you to know that neither of my children have ever done anything quite this weird. The really scary thing about this tale? It's seven years old.

Posted by Alison at 12:32 AM | Comments (1)

March 14, 2003

Cricket Commentators Seek Freelance Work

The Guardian's over-by-over commentary on India vs. New Zealand is taking a surreal turn today. (via Simon Bisson's LiveJournal, where opinion is divided as to whether this is a comic relief special or whether the over by over commentary is always like that).

Posted by Alison at 02:22 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

So, how do you record Real Player streams?

So, what sort of person needs Audio Hijack Pro? Well, it does a few things, but the key one is this. It grabs the audio output of any other Mac OS X program, and then records it to MP3 (or AIFF, for those with large hard drives) in real time. You can also enhance the sound using all manner of post-processing. If you want.

But if you're like me, you've spent the last year looking at all manner of tempting online audio streams and internet radio stations, and thinking 'gosh, I'd really like to have some of that stuff available to listen to on the iPod; but it's just so hard to convert streaming audio to MP3.' There you go. I can't, off the top of my head, think of a more life-enhancing bit of shareware.

Posted by Alison at 12:00 PM | Comments (1)

March 12, 2003

Why, it's not even May yet

My favourite line of journalism for some time, from David Aaronovitch writing in the Guardian yesterday:

What rational being would not prefer sex with a stranger to attending the Welsh Labour conference? In Swansea?

Posted by Alison at 01:34 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 11, 2003


So, there I was, about ten o'clock last night, sitting around, watching Buffy, as you do. And I suddenly thought, "you know, it's possible that what I'm suffering from is glandular fever" (Mono, for Americans).

I've just spent thirty seconds googling, and I'm broadly certain (...fever, check, swollen tonsills, check, enlarged lymph nodes, check, general debility, check, achy limbs, check, initial acute phase lasting 7-21 days, check, ongoing illness and tiredness, check, often initially confused with bacterial tonsillitis, check...) I'm seeing the doctor later today in any case, but as there's no treatment I'll just be asking them to do tests and talking about how I can organise my life so that I can rest enough to knock it on the head. Er, preferably without taking any more time off work, either.

Update: the doctor said 'well, it may well be glandular fever, or it could be any one of a range of pesky viral infections that don't go away. And it might be something more serious, so we'd better give you a whole pile of blood tests. They'll probably all be negative.' And he told me that not resting is likely to make things worse. Hmm.

Posted by Alison at 10:02 AM | Comments (6)

Care Patchwork Quilt

Avedon writes about plans to cut US after-school care funding, and the gap between school hours and working hours. In the UK, a recent Strategy Unit report on childcare concluded that we need 180,000 more childcare workers.

The thing that's really interesting in all of this is that there's always an assumption that what families need is a single childcare solution that pretty much covers the relevant hours. Although nearly all families use mixed care solutions in practice, much of the planning is based on the assumption that childcare is reliable, stable, and delivered by a single carer. And, for the most part, ours is. Nevertheless, if everything goes according to plan, then over the course of this year, we will have sourced childcare for our kids from:

a childminder, a day nursery, an after-school club, the school's own breakfast club, informal childcare from our parents, a paid babysitter, friends babysitting as a favour or in swaps, ditto relatives, and of course various paid and unpaid creches.

Oh, yes, and that old stand-by, using our own annual leave to cover gaps. And this is all pretty normal.

Posted by Alison at 12:08 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 06, 2003

And So To Bed

I cannot put my children to bed. Or rather, I can put my children to bed, but not so it sticks. Now that Jonathan's in a bed, rather than a cot, he can get out. And then he can go anywhere he likes. That would be Marianne's bed. Which would be ok if he went to sleep, but in fact they laugh, giggle, talk, play, fight and scream. For hours, punctuated by my putting Jonathan back in his bed periodically, and him shouting 'but I donwanoo gotobed' and getting up again straight away.

We don't need a bed for Jonathan; we need a cage. Which reminds me of one of the Great Mysteries of Our Time. Why is there a cage in the Sunnydale High School library? I mean, I know it's a book cage. Why would anybody want to cage books? They're a lot less dangerous than toddlers.

In other news, I raped Mike's iPod, thereby causing me to acquire mp3s of a lot of albums I used to own, and a fair few that I still own but had not got round to ripping yet. Also a lot of dodgy 90s easy listening. Mike, orderly person that he is, bought an iPod only after calculating how much space he'd need to rip his entire CD collection. I, on the other hand, thought '10GB of music; that's enough for anyone', and was, well, sorely mistaken.

But the rot has already set in; I've just ordered Gattaca after being reminded of its existence by listening to the soundtrack, and I've decided to go see Michael Nyman at the Royal Festival Hall in June.

Because having a lot of pirate music on your system reduces the amount you spend on music. Didn't you know? For example, Lilian pressed Lemon Jelly's Lost Horizons on me a few weeks ago. I'm going to take Marianne to their kids' matinee on Saturday, and I'm pretty sure I'll buy both albums and at least one piece of merchandising tat while we're there. I even have it on good authority that there are dancing moose.

Finally, I celebrated Flylady's "Reduce Your Credit Card Debt" week by doing more discretionary spending of money I don't have than I think I've ever done in a single week before. I don't want to say too much more until I'm holding it in my grubby hands, but the note in the coffee column about waiting to buy a Powerbook is just so last week.

Posted by Alison at 11:48 PM | Comments (5)

March 01, 2003

Department of Running Into People Unexpectedly

It had all been very difficult. So at the end of the day, I rang a colleague. "Fancy a drink?" "Not half," she replied. The closest pub was too full, and as we reached the second closest pub we ran into Debra Kerr. So there we were, two minutes' walk from my office and two hundred miles from hers. "Alison! What on earth are you doing here?" she exclaimed.

It turned out that Debra, Lucy Huntzinger, Alun Harries, Linda Krawecke, and Lucy's friend Trish were preparing to astonish Martin Smith later in the evening. Lucy had come over from California specially as a surprise for his 40th birthday party on Saturday. He was duly astonished, though with Martin, it's often hard to tell.

The party, at Avedon's, was jolly; Lucy had persuaded us in AIM earlier in the week that we should get a babysitter, so we attempted to remember the art of conversation. It's possible Buffy was mentioned; we wondered if we were the last people on earth to watch it and everyone else in the room looked around briefly and said 'yes'. I explained my problem with Willow, which is that her hair is dyed an extraordinary shade, and she's too unworldly in the first series to dye her hair. Joseph Nicholas then turned up doing his Willow impersonation, with his hair dyed an improbable shade of cheap magenta. Much reference was made to recent Guardian articles on turning forty, and we observed that Martin looks much older than Mike, but possibly not much older than Mark Fishlifter.

Posted by Alison at 07:14 PM | Comments (3)