Of Mice and Me

I may be offered a job this week. I can't take it.

It involves spending one month getting GBP7 an hour backing up data from "a few hundred" old laptops, and putting it on another few hundred new laptops. That's it. A month doing what I've spent the last week doing, and at the end of it GBP1000, no longer term employment, no prospects, and a missed chance to get some prospects.

I can do pretty much anything with computers, I can do most jobs that don't involve hauling heavy boxes upstairs or smiling, I'm one of nature's bloody-minded problem solvers, and I can work mornings, weekends or nights. What I can't do is throw away my one chance for a decent career.

On the one hand, GBP1000. On the other, a future of seeing the world, engaging with bright educated youth, and being constantly challenged in a subject I've been interested in since age 17.

You know how you often think of exactly the right thing to say half an hour after what would have been the perfect time to say it? The French call it "Staircase wit" - the witty remark that would have won an argument and made you look fabulous in front of everyone, if only you hadn't thought of it alone on the staircase on your way out.

Well I've got the opposite problem. I think of good things to say in situations that haven't happened yet. Things like:

* Trumpet Strumpet.

* Don't protest too much, or people will quote Shakespeare at you.

* Enoch Powell - Rivers of Crud.

* Yes I'm ashamed. And proud of it.

* The past isn't what it used to be.

* If you want certainty, you're in the wrong universe.

* Pride - a cheaper love

I hereby christen this phenomenon "Pavement Wit" - things you think of to say when there's no chance of using them.

There's at least two mice in my bedroom, and they're both deaf. I have an ultrasonic repellent plugged into the wall, which is supposed to drive them away with a high pitched shriek only they can hear. Which has no effect on them whatsoever.

The other thing about my mice is: they're always at ninety degrees to where I'm looking. Never behind or in front or diagonal - always a dark brown scampering streak out of the corner of my eye.

Oh, and there's some in the kitchen too. They seem to have developed a taste for curry powder, biting their way into the plastic sachets. Maybe we should bait the traps with vindaloo?

Filling out some forms today I learned some fascinating things about myself.

My Nationality is "British", but my National Identity is "English". My Country of Birth is "United Kingdom" even though it isn't exactly a country, and my Area of Residence is also "United Kingdom", even though it isn't exactly an area.

I'm also in the European Economic Area, which isn't the same as the European Union and doesn't include Switzerland. And my Ethnic Origin is either "White British" or "I prefer not to say".

So I'm glad that's all sorted out.

25 - Update

After another day getting backache and breathing ozone, I have:

* One computer that won't switch on at all. I don't know why.

* One computer that switches off every ten or fifteen minutes - unless I take all the RAM chips out. I don't know why

* One computer that would work perfectly if it's power supply wasn't in the one that works.

* One computer made from bits of the other three that (so far) works perfectly, if slowly. I don't know why.

In addition:

* One spare video card that causes any computer to crash.

* One spare power supply that won't work at all.

* One spare power supply that works for ten minutes at a time.

* One spare CD drive the ejects every time it's supposed to read. And five others I haven't tried yet.

* Three hard drives that either won't read or crash intermittently.

* A big pile of screws.

* A bigger pile of cables.

* A headache.

On a rough calculation, if mother and me were charging the going rate for all the work we've done, it would come to at least GBP1000. Plus maybe GBP500 for software. Plus GBP25 for a new DVD drive. Oh, and GBP1 for a CMOS battery.

It would cost GBP120 for a computer five times as fast with four times the RAM and ten times the hard disc space. It would also be a lot more reliable.

Anyway, it's now nearly five in the morning, I've spent the equivalent of one working week on this, and I never ever want to do it again.

At least until I get a new computer.


"24" is a deeply stupid Tv show about Jack Bauer, the man who singlehandedly saves Americafreedomanddemocracy from Muslimextremistterrorists - by hitting them repeatedly. The gimmick is that each season of the show takes place over a single 24 hour period.

In tribute to this iconic show, of which I have seen two and a half episodes, here is my 25 hour period.

My friend Simon M needs a computer. Over the years I've built three for him out of antiquated spare parts, and last week the latest stopped working. After a night's work I got it working perfectly - for ten minutes until the power supply blew up.

So, starting at midnight, the day's simple challenge is to fit a new supply and fix any other problems that crop up.

Problem: The old 150W power supply is burned out.

Solution: Replace it with a new 350W one. Mother happens to have two lying around.

Problem: The BIOS won't recognise the 18GB hard drive.

Solution: change around the six power connectors, four ribbon connectors and jumper switches until you find a permutation that works.

Problem: The BIOS won't recogise the DVD drive.

Solution: Replace the DVD drive with another one. I have a box containing six slow and obsolete DVD drives.

Problem: The BIOS thinks it's a CD drive.

Solution: Change to a different power socket, and plug in the ribbon connector upside down by accident. Why this should work, I have absolutely no idea.

Problem: The BIOS will recognise either the hard drive or the DVD drive, but not both at the same time. Seeing as I need to install the operating system from the DVD drive to the hard drive, this is slightly vexing.

Solution: Replace the 18GB drive with an old 6GB drive that's been sitting under a pile of discs for a month. The BIOS recognises both at the same time! Yay!

Problem: When installing Windows XP, the keyboard locks up. It happens every time at the same point and I can't work out why.

Solution: Install Windows 2000 instead.

Problem: When installing Windows 2000, the whole computer locks up. It happens each time at the same point. And I can't work out why.

Solution: Try several installation discs, including ejecting one just before a lockup and inserting another. This has worked before.

Problem: Still locks up.

Solution: Try another hard drive - There's an old 40GB one lying at the bottom of a cardboard box.

Problem: Nope.

Solution: Try the 18GB drive again.

Problem: Now the system won't recognise the 18GB drive at all.

Solution: Replace the whole motherboard. I happen to have a spare.

Problem: The new motherboard won't fit into the old case.

Solution: Connect everything up outside of the case, laid out on a table.

Problem: It won't switch on.

Solution: Go back to the previous motherboard. Maybe the real problem is that the ribbon connectors connecting the motherboard to the drives are old and broken. So, try new ribbon connectors.

Problem: No. It looks like the issue really is that I have three elderly and nonworking hard drives plugged into a working motherboard.

Solution: Visit Simon M to disembowel the other computer I built for him - as a temporary replacement for the one I'm currently repairing - and use the hard drives from that. This has the bonus that he cooks me lunch and we watch some splendidly crappy murder mysteries on cable TV.

Break: Get home exhausted and sleep for two hours.

Break: Wake up then sleep for two more hours.

Break: Wake up just in time to watch the UK premiere of he final two episodes of season three of House. Two hours.

Problem: Refreshed and alert, with the new (old) drives installed and seeming to work perfectly, the CMOS develops problems because it's battery is low. This may have been the underlying problem all along.

Solution: Replace the sodding battery.

Problem: Windows XP still crashes when I try to install it.

Solution: Try Windows 2000.

Problem: Some of the installation files won't copy from the disc, presumably because the disc is damaged.

Solution: Switch around my four copies of the installation disc, on the assumption that even if all four of them are damaged, between them they have all the installation files undamaged.

Problem: Windows 2000 eventually installs, and then locks up.

Solution: No idea.

Problem: The power supply seems to have just blown up.


I've been looking at the technical details of optimising video for putting on YouTube.

If you know something about computer video, this post may be useful to you. If you don't...it'll be roughly as interesting as a brochure of granite samples.

When you upload your videos to YouTube, you can use many possible formats for the video and audio streams. The video stream can be in MPEG1, MPEG2, DivX, XviD, WMV and several others, but not FLV.

The audio stream can be in WAV, AIFF, MP3, MP2 or the built in format used by WMV. It can be stereo or mono, and any of the common samplerates - 22KHz, 44.1, 48 etc.

However, YouTube will always recode what you upload into FLV - Flash Video, which uses MP3 for sound. The MP3 is always 22KHz, mono, and at a variable bitrate between 32kbps and 64 - okay for speech, but not great for music.

This means if the sound track of your upload is in MP3, it will be recoded into another MP3, a process which sometimes throws the sound out of synchronisation with the video.

It also means that if you upload a stereo file, you should be aware that changing it to mono can change the loudness of sounds that are panned left or right. If you're uploading a song, the vocals might become significantly quieter, or the mix different.

So, mix your song down to mono, and make sure it sounds okay before uploading. I'm not sure, but I think if your upload soundtrack is in MP3 at 22KHz, in mono at (say) 256kbps, this should reduce sound drift, and it'll sounds as good as it's going to get after recoding.

I think the video bitrate Youtube recodes to is constant, but I don't know what it is.

The file you upload can be anything up to 100MB, and up to ten minutes long.

Whatever video resolution you use, YouTube will recode it to 320x240, so it's a good idea for your upload to be 320x240 too. That way (a) you don't waste bandwidth uploading pixels that won't appear onscreen. (b) you have to wait less time for YouTube to process your upload and most importantly (c) you can use your megabytes to encode your 320x240 film at a very high bitrate, making it nearly lossless, meaning the degradation caused by YouTube recoding it to FLV will be minimised.

That is, if you give YouTube the best picture quality you can, it will look better when they've finished with it. If you're encoding to an MPEG4 format (probably DivX or XviD), 2000kbps CBR is as high as you need to go. You can go higher, but bitrates above 3000 can make the picture worse by carefully encoding visual noise in the picture, which lower bitrates would ignore.

Incidentally, Google Video can accept videos at 640x480. I'm not certain what bitrates are best, but personally I think 2000 is fine here too.

All YouTube videos are 320x240 pixels. However, when you embed one in your blog, the default size is 425x350, and they display at the same size on YouTube's own site. This means:

(1) The video is displayed scaled up by an awkward proportion, which has the effect of reducing picture quality.

(2) The right hand side of the video will be cut off on a Blogger blog, because the space allowed for blog entries is slightly narrower than the width of the video.

It looks like this:

See how the right hand side is cut off? And no, that is not me singing,

Why does YouTube choose do this? I have no idea.

However, you can change the display size, either to make it fill up the width of your blog without cropping, or to display in best picture quality without resizing.

The code to embed a video is provided by YouTube on each video's page for cutting and pasting, and looks like this:

<object width="425" height="350"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/LOO67TPIsdY"></param><param name="wmode" value="transparent"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/LOO67TPIsdY" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" wmode="transparent" width="425" height="350"></embed></object>

See that there are two mentions of width being 425 and height being 350? The first time refers to the dimensions of the "box" which contains the player for the video clip. The second gives the size of the player.

To make the clip as large as the blog column, change both widths to 400 and both heights to 300. This will also make the video display slightly better, because the scaling factors are "neater" - 400 is 320*1.25 and 300 is 240*1.25. You're making the video window larger by a quarter, instead of the default of almost-but-not-quite a third.

Like this:

To make the clip display with the best quality, set to the widths and heights to the dimensions of the FLV file - 320x240.

Like this:

If you're posting YouTube clips somewhere that doesn't have Blogger's narrow columns, you might consider making the width 640 and the height 480 - double in both direction. This will make bad quality video look worse, but will give you a nice big window.

Chasm in the Clasroom

I could write about how I've spent the last week swearing at various computers, spending almost the whole of a seventy two hour period in one room. At the end of which I had (a) a beard (b) a home studio and (c) two more computers sitting outside waiting for my attention.

Or how I spent two hours this morning immobile in a mechanical chair while two demure Indian women in masks and latex tortured my mouth with a variety of frightening metal implements. Suffice it to say I now have three more fillings in my teeth.

But no. I thought, seeing as I'm planning to gamble everything I have (and a few things I don't) on going back to school, I'd post something educational.


Human Biology:

Molecular Biology:



Women's Health:


Religious Studies:



Citizenship Studies:

Fire Drill:


Nature Study:

European History:

And finally, my particular favourite. American History:

En Attendant Bloggo (Act Two)

There's a famous line about how in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. There's a less well known rejoinder that everyone will be a tiny bit famous all the time.

Sometimes it feels like everyone can be a microcelebrity, by appearing on "reality" television, putting mp3s of them singing on MySpace...and keeping a blog.

Some use their blog to collect things. Music, videos of people diving into swimming pools, or news reports about what happens when police officers get a new toy.

Some intend to educate, about the fine lines between pornography, legitimate art, and extreme silliness, vital info on great cultural icons, or how strange people are most amusing.

Against the odds, some actually do educate, about the history of Indian mathematics, how to play the bass guitar, teaching English as a foreign language, customising your computer, and what environmentalism really means.

With the internet's democratisation of political discussion, there's no shortage of blogs offering indispensable insight, exposing the anti-American bias inherent in the liberal media elite, proving that atheists worship Satan, and that the lib'rals are the true bigots. One of these is satire, but which?

While you're working that one out, you can download a selection of really bad Hollywood films, but it's good because they're free.

And finally, no gay man is complete without his Madonna fixation, his pierced right ear (or is it the left? I can never remember), and his blog. But there is variety - some collect pictures of handsome men, others write about sex all the time...and some watch an awful lot of porn. Alphabetically.

Talk Amongst Yourselves

I sometimes wonder if all the computers in the world are broken, or just the ones near me.

For the last week, I've had an increasingly slow and unreliable network connection. This morning I had no network connection at all. And this afternoon, a computer that won't even switch on.

In addition to the two others on my floor that won't switch on, that I've been meaning to repair.

So, for the next few days I'll be messing around with screwdrivers, CDs, dongles and USB peripherals, but strangely silent.

Fingers crossed, back soon.

Not Good

Some say bad things come in threes. So here's a post of three bad things.

The gig was a rather qualified success for the performers, a borderline success for the organisers, and a disaster for me. To see why, here Kapitano's list of things to remember when putting on a concert:

(1) If you advertise a gig as starting at 8pm Saturday and running through to 1am Sunday, do not expect the audience to arrive at 8pm sharp and stay till 1. Most will arrive around 9 and drift away around 11.

(1.1) This means the first act will play to those other bands who've turned up on time, and the last will play to a dozen drunks who want to avoid going home.

(1.2) There will always be at least one band who turn up late. They will not realise that this inconveniences anyone.

(2) If the aim of the gig is to raise funds, charging GBP5 on the door won't work. It will make people stay away - in droves. Charge GBP1 on the door and find other ways to get money out of punters once they're already inside.

(3) When choosing a room, location of venue is important, but don't forget about acoustics. A room that smears any music into an impenetrable soup of reverberation is not good, no matter how well placed in the town it may be.

(3.1) You should check out the sound of the room before you book it. Duh.

(4) A friendly sound engineer is nice. A cute sound engineer is also nice. But an experienced sound engineer is what you actually need.

(4.1) Do not let him place the speakers next to the microphones, as this causes feedback.

(4.2) If possible, place the mixing desk in a position that lets him judge what the audience are hearing, so he can compensate. This is the point of having a mixing desk in the first place.

(4.3) A good sound system is worth the effort. Or rather, a lousy one isn't worth the effort.

(5) There will be delays. There will be delays. There will be delays.

(5.1) Your neat timetable will not match reality. Acts will go on too long, there will be endless faffing about between sets, pointless discussion and vacillation will take up time, and at least one act will feel the need to explain each and every song at great length before playing it.

(5.2) Soundchecks take longer than you expect. If you expect them to take longer than you expect, they will take longer than that.

(5.3) Expect the last act to go on one hour after they're scheduled.

(5.4) Yes, I know you think this gig is different. You think it's well planned and you've taken everything into account. You haven't. There will be delays.

(5.5) If you have five bands booked and no spare time, booking a sixth at the last minute is not a good idea.

(5.6) When a band agree to cut their twenty minute set to ten minutes, be aware that it will actually last half an hour.

(5.6.1) Musicians are egoists and liars - they will "forget" to cut down their set, and play extra songs if they think think the audience is with them and you don't stop them.

(5.7) Musicians cannot accurately judge the mood of the audience from the stage.

I'd spent the last week putting together a series of backing tracks. They had strong, definite beats and simple, unambiguous tonality - there was no time to make anything fancy.

Played through the big speakers I couldn't hear the beat I was supposed to be synchronising to, or discern the tone I was supposed to be harmonising to. I had six songs, but gave up after three.

Others told me I sounded fine. Exactly why people should think obvious untruths are comforting I don't know. If you're going to take comfort, it's got to be in something at least halfway plausible.

I have a friend, MK, who I've known for twenty years. For the first nineteen of these, all we did was occasionally perform oral sex on each other when his (heterosexual) lovelife was in trouble. He was always getting dumped, or getting involved with women who messed up his life simply by being so messed up themselves.

We weren't really friends, but he called it friendship so he didn't have to call it sex. He had other men but they never lasted - he always came back to me.

All this time he'd been drifting in and out of drug use. Cannabis, ecstasy and occasionally amphetamines. For the last year he's been desperate to give them all up, get a job and sort his life out. I gave whatever encouragement and advice I could - he said I was the only real friend he had, the only one who understood him.

Now he really has given up all the drugs, and the tobacco, and got a job...and plunged headlong into alcoholism. I've seen it happen before, though not this quickly, when one dependency gets smoothly replaced by another.

And now it seems I've moved seamlessly from being fuckbuddy thinly disguised as only real friend...to honest to goodness only real friend. Suddenly he doesn't want sex - he wants the conversations that were always the excuse for sex.

For the last six months, mother has been suffering from pain and swelling in her right leg. Diagnoses from various doctors have ranged from arthritis to water on the knee. After a PET scan yesterday, it seems bloodflow to the leg is being progressively cut off by a tumor in the pelvis.

In three months she's scheduled to have an operation to remove the tumor, and in the meantime is under strict instructions to lose three stone in body fat to make the operation easier.

Seven years ago she did just that - lost three stone overnight when a tumor was removed from her stomach. Another fortnight in her system and it would have killed her just by growing larger.

My parents told me these bare details only very grudgingly, as though I were too young to deal with the situation, or being close to death were somehow a shameful secret.

I was making lists of things that would have to be done if she died. Maybe my father was doing the same - he never said.

It's Personal

To get into university, I need a write a "personal profile" - a description of myself that tells the admissions officer why I deserve a place on the course. This is a little odd, because all I actually need is:

(1) Qualifications that show I'm probably capable of grasping the subject matter. In this case, that's a degree in an unrelated subject. Why a degree in art (for which I have no ability at all) should prove I'm competent to study linguistics, I'm not sure, but there you go.

(2) The ability to speak and understand English. Though this criterion is, in my experience of academia, only applied to those who speak English as their native language, and waived for those who speak it as a poor second tongue.

This isn't Political-Correctness-Gone-Mad(TM), it's business - overseas students pay up to three times as much as British nationals to sit in the same classrooms.

(3) Which brings us to the most important requirement, the ability to pay the course fees. Well, actually it's the ability to pay 25% of them before starting the course - in effect an entrance fee. I can delay the other 75%, but don't get awarded the degree until it's all paid.

Anyway, I do need to fill in a personal profile. It doesn't need to be accurate, and I doubt whether anyone will read it, but it's there.

I also need to find two "referees" - people prepared to write a paragraph or two, declaring that I'm fit to do the course. These statements also don't need to be accurate, and I doubt anyone will read them, but they need to exist. Presumably they prove that I know at least two literate people.

In short: To get into university, I need only money and a small amount of paperwork, the function of which is to pretend it isn't just about the money.

I've got four computers in my bedroom tonight.

One I spent the whole weekend repairing - I'd literally just got it to work when the internal power supply blew out. A new one could be a cheap as GBP5...if 150 Watt supplies hadn't ceased production five years ago.

One is an elderly 450MHz machine that's built like a battleship and correspondingly heavy. I de-mothballed it to serve as a temporary replacement for the one that blew up - until such time as someone has a measly GBP100 to spare for a shiny new one.

One is a 3GHz single-core affair, souped up with fancy sound and graphics cards, to be used for video editing and music. or it would be if it didn't show the blue screen of death every five minutes.

And then there's this here laptop, with semi-functional keyboard and intermittent wireless connection.

So, like Richard Moby Melville wrote, "Everything is Wrong". Though I think he had the global economic infrastructure in mind.

I thought of a word to describe someone who surrounds themselves with dysfunctional technology: Klapped-out-omaniac.

In three days I stand on a stage and sing - after three well regarded bands have already played, and to a crowd (well, audience) who will be quite drunk by then. Nervous, me? No!

At least I have a set worked out:

World U Want - My techno-ed up version of a trashy Devo song, rewritten to appeal to an audience of environmental campaigners.

Riverrun - A rap I wrote six years ago, just to see if I could write something where every line was a pop culture quotation - a song with, in a sense, absolutely nothing original in it. It may be slightly worrying that I've since written several such songs.

Army Dreamers - The best of my Kate Bush covers. And so I'm told the only one recognisable as one of her songs.

Friends of the Earth - Originally by Kamakura, it seemed appropriate.

Heretic - A series of biblical stories, shoehorned into rhyming trochaic tetrameter. Or "hip hop", if you prefer.

Half a Stone - Written for Songfight, rejigged as a big bombastic piece of mindless techno-rave that will hopefully constitute a "big finish".

Oh yes. In a moment of madness I offered to record all the sets. The organisers can't see how providing bands with recordings of their performance is a way of keeping them friendly. From which I cunningly deduce that they've never been in bands themselves.