Narwhal Circus

…Will be resumed as soon as possible. I’m in bed with a bad cold.

Well I say bed, it’s more the couch, in front of the TV. Sipping a hot drink. I’m recording TV and updating my phone. In the oven, a whole chicken is roasting for dinner. It doesn’t sound much like hardship, and I have to admit it’s not. I’d probably enjoy doing this little – if I was doing it of my own free will.

But I’m cooking the chicken now because on Sunday I was too fuzz-headed to figure out how, and I haven’t written this blog – or done anything much else even remotely constructive – in days. I think the closest I got to creativity was a couple of rounds of the Game of Liff over on my friend Susan’s blog, and even then I faded out almost immediately.

That’s typical in fact. I don’t feel so bad – my inner ears are little diving bells, but there’s no other real discomfort – I just can’t concentrate. Not that I’m a paragon of laserlike focus when I’m well, it might be admitted, but now I’m all, you know, kind of

That was going to be a sentence that trailed off aimlessly, but while I was writing I honestly fell asleep. Weirdly, my attempt to describe reality became the reality. But I feel a bit better for it at least. Maybe today I can write something coherent.

Hoping you’re well.

Take Me To Your Media

Braun HF 1 television receiver, Germany, 1958
This is what my Media Centre PC doesn't resemble most

I’m still hiding in a happy kernel of geekery, away from a cruel and now markedly more expensive world. Much of last night was spent setting up the new old PC as what I expansively call a “Media Centre”. That is of course just fancy talk for a computer attached to a TV, worthwhile though since we got a wide-screen one. (Well, wide-ish.) My mother will appreciate this when she gets the hang of it, but things may be a bit confusing for the transition. I’d barely got her to stop calling the computer monitor “the TV”, now I seem to have arbitrarily reversed my position.

But I’m sitting here writing this on my knees. With a wireless keyboard on my knees, I mean. I’m not on my knees. And to clarify my clarification, I didn’t think that you thought I was writing this column on my knees, with a pen. I have the keyboard on my knees, but the words are appearing on the TV. Which is the sort of thing people liked to do in science fiction films. Cool. And simultaneously – as it is a fairly wide screens – I’m also catching up with episodes of QI on YouTube. (The one with Nina Conti the ventriloquist.)

Ideally the screen would have about four times the area, but this is actually pretty nice. If nothing else, it improves my work posture – from hunched over on the couch to sitting back on the couch. I feel slightly better-off already.

Seán Gallagher’s Open Secret

Three Thumbs Up

The national sport of Ireland is, as you know, Getting Away With It. Politicians like Haughey and Ahern were not popular in spite of their unexplained wealth. People want to beat the system, so they vote for politicians who beat the system.

What they get from that of course is a system beating itself.

So it’s not that people are tricked into thinking that Seán Gallagher has nothing to do with Fianna Fáil. They know it’s a pretence, and they are willing to play along with that pretence. They may tell each other that Gallagher represents a new, reformed party, or even a future alternative to it. But does he? Hardly. He’s close to the Construction Industry Federation, of all things. Lobbying group for probably the biggest bull in our whole economic china shop. All that’s new is the improved presentation, and Gallagher is all presentation. He’s not a successful businessman, but he plays one on TV.

Yet for many, he provides the perfect compromise: They can pretend they’re still voting to punish those responsible for our economic free-for-all, while actually promoting the party they believe most likely to bend the rules in their favour. It the same old politics of the man on the inside, the same old story of the state that subverted itself.

Doing The Digital Switchover

Photo of the RTÉ News Studio
RTÉ trying to look cool

We decided to make the switchover to digital TV, a year ahead of the deadline. Not, let’s be honest, for the many wonders this new technology brings. Nor for the early-adopter cool. No, it was mainly because of stuff in the attic.

You see up until now broadcast TV in Ireland has been on both UHF and VHF.

No? My God, do I have to draw diagrams? That means you need two aerials¹. And because our attic is small these are too close together, bouncing signals off each other. So any time you move one it buggers up reception on the other. In short, trying to get a good picture on all channels was about as much fun as being repeatedly stabbed.

So after we moved the aerials to get the attic insulated, I decided it wasn’t worth going through all that again, and that we should skip straight to the new technology. It’s not expensive. You may have heard you need a new ‘digital’ aerial. In fact you just need a UHF one, so if you’re already getting TV3 or TG4 you’ve probably OK. A very nice bonus is that the all-or-nothing nature of digital makes it a hell of a lot less sensitive about position. Even though ours is so off-beam it renders analogue channels in snowy monochrome, we still get a crisp digital picture.

Nor do you need a new TV, you can buy a digital tuner to connect to your existing set for less than €100. And if you rent one, then it’s the rental company’s problem. Ours was more than happy to swap our 21″ analogue CRT for a fairly nifty 26″ flatscreen at the same rent. (It has so many inputs!!!)

 In short then, approximate cost and hassle of switching to digital = Sweet FA.

So should you rush to join me on Saorview?² Yes if you have a bad picture, in which case the switch could make an amazing difference. Otherwise, nah. For one, it’s not guaranteed to work yet. You may find it ups and disappears on you randomly. (Though if it does, you should still be able to tune in the old analogue signal.) While HD is nice and all it’s not exactly a viewing revolution, and only Network 2 is being broadcast in HD yet. There’s 3e if you’re not getting that already, which justifies its existence by showing Futurama, and RTÉ’s new digital channels, which no one remembers asking for. And that’s about it – so far anyway.

Except that this may be your first brush with owning a widescreen TV – or at least, one with a widescreen signal to match. I’d like to say this makes sense of the whole thing, but it’s still a mess. You were used to films being letterboxed on your old 4:3 TV. Now you have to choose between programmes being cropped, stretched, or pillarboxed. And you must choose, because not everything looks best the same way. And you must not choose stretched. Goddamit people are fat enough these days.

Any other cons? Well on this set at least there’s a very noticeable delay when you change channel. Maybe you get used to that. And you’ll need a new Saorview-compatible DVD player to record from the digital signal, so factor that in when calculating… well, calculating the expense the government is putting you to for as yet no very clear reason.

  1. You may prefer to call them antennas.
  2. We call it Saorview, from the Irish Saor, meaning ‘Free’, and the English View, meaning ‘Radharc’.

The TV Is Watching Back

So a company in San Francisco has come out with a TV that watches you. Via a built-in Internet connection it reports on what you’re viewing and returns Web content that relates to the programme you’re trying to watch, and – for all I know – vice versa.

I should sue.

Western Civilization

That’s from a webcomic I did – in 2003.

My idea was actually a more advanced version of what San Francisco company Flingo is offering. They don’t have a camera built in so that you can participate in the televisual experience. Their offering just monitors your viewing to provide you with information about the programmes you’re looking at, and to provide you with better-targeted advertising. Imagine – targeted advertising! Where’s my wallet?

At least my dystopia rewarded you for being observed:

Western Civilization 2

The strip was called Doubt.It, basically because I’d just bought this web domain and I wanted to use it, but it saw print under its “real” name, Western Civilization. I liked that comic, even if trying to do it every day made for some really crappy drawing.

It’s ages now since I’ve done any comic, when I think about it. Maybe one day.

President Of Popular Opinion

Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne speaking at a publ...
It's not even plugged in. He can only talk into microphones now.

Well that was a bullet dodged. Gay Byrne for President. Wow.

Some background here for the overseas reader – in Ireland we elect a President to do nothing. Unlike the American President who is head of both, the Irish President is head of State but not of the Executive. In other words they don’t make decisions at all, they are quite literally there just to look pretty. Well, look stately I suppose. They are meant to be a figurehead for the country, standing above the tooth-and-claw world of politics. Like royalty, but without having to pay for their whole extended family. The Constitution requires them to agree with government policies and never say anything controversial.

Someone thought that this was a job for Gay Byrne?

Gay Byrne was for decades the biggest figure in the Irish media. He hosted both the most popular daily radio show and – by far – the most popular weekly TV chat show. All live. Since his retirement it’s taken at least three other presenters to cover for him. He is is a well-loved, avuncular figure with a twinkly eye who embodies some of the best aspects of Ireland. Some. He can also be irascible and strongly opinionated. I invite British readers to imagine a Terry Wogan with… moods.

As soon as people have calmed down a bit they’ll realise the idea was as mad as a yoghurt with spanners in it. What were the chances of Gay Byrne getting through a seven-year Presidential term without telling the government where to get off?

Zero. There was no chance of that happening. Thank God he turned the nomination down. He would have made Hugo Chavez look diffident.

Electric Car Wars

Nissan Leaf at Tokyo Motor Show.
Fill it with your mighty juice

In an exciting clash of great British institutions, the Guardian’s George Monbiot has taken the BBC’s Top Gear to task over their review of electric cars. You can guess most of it – Top Gear promotes all that threatens safety and the environment, the Guardian takes life too seriously and should relax once in a while. Both these things are true.

Monbiot is wrong though. I watched that episode, and I don’t think it set out to grossly mislead. Yes, the Nissan LEAF running out of power in the city of Lincoln was staged. But everything about the program with the exception of the laptimes – and I’m not even sure about those – is staged. They drop pianos on Morris Marinas, any caravan they come near inexplicably catches light, and if they get an electric car you can be sure the battery will go flat. The programme is blatantly childish, and this is part of its attraction.

“But the point is that it creates the strong impression that the car ran out of juice unexpectedly,” claims Monbiot, “leaving the presenters stranded in Lincoln, a city with no public charging points.”

Well I for one did not get that strong impression. I saw it as Clarkson and May taking off without considering how they were going to charge up, like fools. It was silly, but it highlighted some practical problems with electric cars – problems programmes with an environmental brief are perhaps too happy to make light of in a different sense. To be out of charge in an electric car could make you long for the simple days of a hike with a can to a distant filling station.

Is there any real danger of that? When new, the LEAF has a claimed range of 160 km (100 miles). And though in practice you’d rarely if ever be charging from completely flat, a full recharge at ordinary voltages for Europe will take around 8 hours. (A figure of 11 hours under some conditions was mentioned on the programme, but that does seem to be misleading.) This isn’t actually bad at all. It means it’s capable of a daily commute of anything up to a hundred miles each way if you can recharge at work, which sounds like more than almost anyone would ever want. However it’s not allowing for the unexpected – which always happens. So for a comfortable margin of error you really want to be travelling only half that far, at least until a network of fast-charging stations becomes a reality.

But that’s still absolutely fine for about 90% of the journeys that cars actually make. So when the Top Gear team conclude that “electric cars are not the future” (and that that future is – somehow – hydrogen), they’re clearly wrong. Already a practical proposition for a lot of people, the electric car is the present.

The future is probably no cars at all.