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Web development truths

Anyone can be a web developer, right? Wrong. During the dot.com boom of the late 90s, any old jack-the-lad was claiming that he was a web developer, ranging from 14 year old nephews (known in the industry as Nephew Technology – used by company directors to produce their website in acts of blind faith in untrained schoolboys) to pensioners with way too much spare time on their hands. The dot.com crash of 2000 sorted the men from the boys as those who really didn’t have any genuine skills at all lost their jobs or customers, whilst those who did know what they were doing were more likely to retain theirs.

“Red Herring” websites that cost an incredible amount of money but at the end of the day proved to be little use to anyone became a thing of the past. The Emperor had finally seen the true nature of his new clothes and was no longer willing to pay over the odds for poor results.

I survived the dot.com crash by not getting involved with any of the silly companies that sprang up at the time, instead choosing to make reasonable money and consistently getting better at what I do. People can now easily see the value in my skillset and experience when they brief me for projects. But along the way I’ve learnt a few home truths, which I am not afraid to tell customer both new and existing when I need to:

“How much is a website?”

Never EVER ask a web developer this question. Imagine yourself walking in to a car showroom and asking the dealer – “How much is a car?”. Ludicrous isn’t it? The dealer can’t possibly tell you how much a car is because the price of cars ranges from £5,000 to £500,000 depending on what sort of specification you require and how much you’re willing to spend.

It’s exactly the same with a website. Before a web developer can even give you a ballpark price for developing a new website project, he/she needs to have a reasonably detailed description of what you want it to do.

If you don’t know what a website can be capable of, then they will be more than happy to present options to you, in much the same way as a car salesman will explain the meaning of the obscure acronyms you read on a car’s option list. You may not know what a car can be capable of, so ask the salesman, he’ll tell you. The same applies to web developers, although obviously not on the subject of cars.

You have to tell them what you want, only then can they tell you what it’s going to cost. Not all websites are alike. They don’t come in a set range of flavours. Almost every single website in the world is unique. You’re basically specifying a customised product, with a customised cost.

Fast, Good, Cheap – Pick Any Two

This is golden rule number 1 when constructing a brief for a new project or an extension to an existing project, and it’s by no means specific to website software. Think about it carefully: If you want a good quality product in a hurry, it’s not going to be cheap. Alternatively, if you’re still in a hurry but don’t want to spend a lot of money, the product isn’t going to be particularly good. Lastly, if quality and low costs really are paramount, then you’re not going to have it finished in a hurry. Personally I recommend option 1 followed by option 3 as I’m a perfectionist and actually find it quite difficult to produce something that’s not “good”.

Few companies, at least of the size that most web development agencies operate at, can offer all three, and those companies who claim to be able to do so often just try to sell you a pre-packaged website solution that probably won’t be directly suitable for your purposes, which then of course brings the “quality” factor back into question – are they really offering all three after all?

“I want to be able to update it myself”

This is, has always been, and always will be the biggest double edged sword in the whole website arena. It sounds like a marvellous idea doesn’t it – a website that the owner can control and update themselves with no programming knowledge or dependence on the web developer required. Cynics may well claim that web developers don’t like to produce such products because it subtracts from maintenance contracts, and to be honest there is an element of that, but it is by no means as extensive as you might think.

Principally, the simpler something becomes, the less flexible it also becomes. Again, this is not specific to web development projects, it applies to pretty much all software and hardware products that require some sort of human interaction, from Microsoft Word to your washing machine.

Let’s change the brief here to “I want it to just wash my clothes by pressing a button”, when you’re buying a washing machine. Imagine a washing machine with just one button – “Wash”. Sure, it would wash your clothes, at a fixed temperature and with a fixed programme, and for a lot of people this would be fine. It’s simple to use and virtually foolproof. But woe betide it ruins your Club Monaco wool-knit t-shirt because the programme was unsuitable, because then you would need to change how the machine operates when washing such garments. You need another button. Suddenly the machine has become twice as complicated as it was before.

The same applies to “update yourself” websites (the proper name for which is Content Management System, or CMS). I can provide you with a form with one single text box that allows you to change the content of a paragraph on your website. No problem, you just type the text and the paragraph is updated. But now you want to change another paragraph, and not only that, the paragraph is on another page, and furthermore you want to add an image and change the text colour and add a few links. But at the same time, you don’t want to have to know anything about HTML. Herein lies the problem.

Now you have two options. If you want your content management system to become more complex to satisfy your growing needs, you either need to start learning HTML (the markup language that’s used to define the layout and content of web pages), or you need to invest more money into the CMS in order that you don’t have to. One route is obviously more expensive than the other, and each have their disadvantages.

With the first option, many people fall into a common trap known as Microsoft Word, but the trap also applies to other HTML-producing software. Microsoft Word, a popular item of software on most peoples’ computers, claims to be able to export normal Word documents as HTML files. This, for the most part, is untrue. It may well be able to product HTML files, but the HTML it produces is the most god-awful excuse for markup code that’s ever been seen, and this is not just a personal opinion, this is one of those Internet-wide truths that everyone (bar perhaps Microsoft) accepts. Yet it’s all too tempting for website owners just to simply cut and paste Word HTML into the CMS and expect it not to completely screw up their website.

The point here is that allowing people to include their own HTML on their website empowers them to do a wide range of very powerful things. It also allows them to do some very bad things. If you want to manage a complicated website yourself, then you’re going to have to learn how to do some complicated things, including learning at least basic HTML that’s sympathetic to the site’s design and style, rather than how Microsoft Word thinks it should look.

The second option is also not without disadvantage. There is no end to how complicated your CMS can get in order that you don’t have to learn any HTML, and therefore there is no end to how much money you can sink into it just because you don’t want to have to “know about programming and stuff”. This is good for the likes of me, but bad for you. In some cases people spend more money on the CMS so they can then spend their own time updating the site themselves than they would have done paying their web developer to make the changes for them under their maintenance contract. There’s a point at which updating the site yourself simply ceased to be cost-effective.

It is necessary to strike a balance between allowing the CMS to automate and you to provide your own creative input by using HTML. The web, despite its apparently simplicity to the average user, is getting more and more complicated by the month underneath. If you want to be involved with controlling the back end then you too will need to become more complicated and technically literate. If you don’t have the skills for this, are not willing to learn the skills for this, or if it otherwise scares you, then leave it to someone else who does have the skills and isn’t scared to take advantage of it.

Rhydio customers should note that this quasi-rant is not aimed at anyone in particular – I just sometimes get this feeling of tremendous dread whenever I hear the immortal words “I want to be able to update it myself” :)

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Student tuition fees

In light of the recent shennanigans concerning university tuition fees, here’s an idea I’ve had which from the outset at least seems very fair. We all know that there are a lot of wasters who go to University and never really work hard, whilst at the same time some people work exceptionally hard and deserve the best degree at the end of it. Yet all students from both ends of the spectrum are subject to the same tuition fees and also the same tuition subsidies (as students don’t pay all the fees, the LEA pays a contribution too). How is that fair? Well, it’s not, really, and it’s set to become more unfair if the tuition fees go up.

So here are the main issues, at least in my view:

  • Too many students are going to University these days, often to do useless, “Mickey Mouse” degrees (media studies, leisure and tourism studies, etc.)
  • Many of these students have no intention of actually doing any work, whether that means they get a degree or not.
  • Whether a student succeeds or fails, they still use the same financial resources to pay for their course, both from the LEA and their own pockets.
  • Many students from poorer backgrounds cannot afford to attend University, even if they are exceptionally bright.

So here’s my idea: How about some sort of “discount” system that’s directly linked to A-Level grades? I believe there’s a system in use at the moment called “UCAS points”, whereas when I went to University it was just A-Level points. I don’t know about the exact system that UCAS points use, but let’s for the sake of argument assume that they are interchangeable with the former A-Level points system, in that for every grade you receive two points, so an “A” grade would get you 10 points, a “E” grade would get you 2 points, and a “U” grade none at all.

30 points therefore equates to three “A” grades at A-Level, or 6 “A” grades at AS-Level (i.e. excellent grades, proof of hard work and commitment). Let’s then say that if you get 30 points (or more), you receive a 100% discount on your contribution to your university tuition fees. If you get 6 points (three “E” grades), you get a 20% discount. If you receive three “U” grades (zero points), you receive no discount at all, assuming of course a university will take you with those grades (stranger things have happened).

This system would bring the following benefits:

  • Students who work hard during their A-Levels are rewarded with a cheaper education, for they deserve it. They are more likely to make the best of the opportunity presented to them.
  • Students who don’t work hard during their A-Levels are not rewarded as much. It will be more difficult for them to got to university, but the incentive is there.
  • Students who don’t work at all at their A-Levels aren’t rewarded at all.
  • I know it’s generalising, but it’s normally safe to assume that people who don’t work hard at their A-Levels aren’t likely to bother to change their ways when they get to university, and so having no discount on their tuition fees may well deter them from going to university at all, it would be a waste of everyone’s time, including their own. They would be better off starting their career at 18.
  • Bright students from poorer backgrounds who would not normally be able to afford a university education would then be able to because of the large discount they would receive from doing well at A-Level.
  • The theory that if you work hard, you will be rewarded will be restored, rather than the current system of rewarding people whether they work hard or not.

Obviously, I can’t have possibly covered all the angles here because I don’t know the education system well enough and I never will, but don’t you think that at least initially it seems like a reasonably sensible idea?

But then, as with everything that’s “reasonably sensible” in this country, those very words mean that it and nothing like it will ever even be tabled, much less implemented. That is, however, a rant for another day. Probably tommorow.

The only disadvantages I can see with this is that it may be necessary to raise the standard tuition fees in order that those with low or no discounts are able to subsidise those with high or complete discounts. At the end of the day, universities still need a certain amount of money in order to operate properly, and if they just take A-grade students then they’re going to be a bit short of dosh. That’s a problem for an accountant though.

Don’t like this idea? Too right wing? Think I’m ill-informed about such matters? Sorry about that, but I’ll write whatever I like here.

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United they lose

BBC SPORT | Football | United they lose – quite right too, finally someone stands up and actually says “no, actually, they’re wrong”, because I am frankly sick of this country treating footballers like gods, no matter how petulant or arrogant they become.

Rio Ferdinand failed to take a drugs test, his problem, the England does NOT have the right to hold the national team hostage in order to bail him out. Playing for the national team is a privilege and most certainly not a right and yet they treat it like it’s their birthright, manipulating it however they see fit. It’s apalling.

As the author states, it may be a cynical question, but would Ferdinand have been quite so absent-minded if his appointment was for a fashion shoot or a lucrative newspaper interview? The same would probably apply to each and every member of the England squad. Actually playing football seems to be an ever diminishing part of the average day of a “professional” footballer.

Let’s just look at today’s news to see exactly what these “professionals” and “celebrities”, that get so much attention from the media and the public, actually get up to. I think you’ll agree with me when I question exactly why we should be worshipping these people on a daily basis:

Now, can someone please tell me why this “sport” is held in such high regard in this country? If you ask me, it needs to be banned, thus killing about 100 birds with the same stone. That’d give footballers something to complain about.

It is however refreshing to learn that I’m not alone in my opinions on this.

Oh, and please BBC, let’s not have another day when Rio Ferdinand’s ugly mugshot dominates the front of your news site for the WHOLE DAY. Good god, with all that’s going on in the world, all you can think of is getting maximum exposure for pictures of $CELEBRITY.

o_|/ Football.

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David Spedding

My affable and trusted friend David Spedding took his own life on September 23rd. I only found out at about 7.30pm yesterday evening after a mutual acquaintance, having agreed with various members of #aber that his recent absence from any of his usual online haunts what somewhat unusual, called his parents and was told the terrible and frankly shocking news. Citing “financial difficulties”, his father reported that he took an overdose of prescription drugs.

I simply cannot believe it.

David, known affectionately amongst his friends as “Parp”, made me laugh every single day, to the extent that I keep a soft cloth handy to wipe down the phone or the computer monitor after I’ve spluttered over it resulting from abrupt and violent laughter. David was a TV journalist, and commissioned me to arrange his work on a website, the future of which is currently uncertain.

By sheer luck the fact that we contacted his parents last night meant that we did not miss the funeral, which was today. Up until that point, no-one of his friends had been in touch, and his parents had no idea about how to go about contacting us. Had we left it another day, we would have missed it.

So after learning of this yesterday evening, I was up at 5.30am and I was down in Salisbury this morning, along with three further representatives from #aber plus a mutual friend. We chose not to attend the Wake, as the family don’t have the first clue as to who we were. Instead we chose to have a quiet lunch in a local pub, over which we shared memories, laughter and respect.

Amongst David’s many qualities was his finely tuned perception of people. He knew who were idiots, and he wasn’t afraid to tell them. He also knew who was genuine, and forged close friendships with them. He never suffered fools gladly, something for which he received a lot of grief, usually from, unsurprisingly, fools who considered themselves in a position to judge the integrity and honesty of another when they had no such qualities themselves.

I really hope you are in a happier place now David. I shall miss you terribly, things simply won’t be the same without you.

Rest peacefully.

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Selectively Observant Christians

I’m ripping this off Marc, but that’s okay because he ripped it off his (very cute) mate Chris, who no doubt ripped it off from somewhere else. I therefore include it with little to no guilt. Oh, and it’s quite quite splendid.

Laura Schlessinger is a US radio personality who dispenses advice to people who call in to her radio show. She pronounced that homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22 and cannot be condoned in any circumstance. This is what one listener allegedly wrote in a letter to her:

Dear Dr. Laura

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to follow them.

a) When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord Lev. 1:9. The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

b) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

c) I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

d) Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighbouring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

e) I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

f) A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?

g) Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

h) Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev.19:27. How should they die?

i) I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

j) My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev.24:10-16) Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and un-changing.

Your devoted disciple and adoring fan,

Jake

Class. Fuck off selectively observant christians. Unfortunately that covers about 99% of all christians. Still, it’s their fucking problem, not mine.

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Hi Mum

Sorry I’ve not written lately. Ever since you left things have been very hectic for all of us, we’ve not really had a chance to stand by and be affected, which is of course what you wanted. Christmas was obviously upon us almost immediately, and that was a little strange. Chris and I did got the decanter you asked for, Dad absolutely loves it, it’s taken its place where the canary used to live. Chris found it in Selfridges of course. We went to Colette & Keith’s for Christmas Day, which was nice. Eric wanted to make a speech at the dinner table about what had happened and how much we all missed you, but he couldn’t, his voice stuck and his eyes filled with tears. It didn’t matter though, we all knew what he wanted to say.

It’s funny, imagining the house with you, Wooster and the canary in it seems very strange now. It’s quite surreal, very little has changed inside the house, and yet it’s as if it’s always just been Adam and Dad living there. Dad bought a telly for the bedroom, making it the 5th telly in the house, between just the two of them! Dad has also bought a new boat, he sold the Laser and bought a Solo and he’s met a whole new group of blokes down a the sailing club, it’s almost as if the Solo sailors form a sailing club of their own. He keeps inviting me to try it out but of course I probably never will.

Chris went out to Canada on the weekend before Christmas, as usual. However, as you know I went out to join him on January 5th, which made Christmas more bearable. Hrishi and I met at the airport, and I got upgraded to business class! Hrishi of course then got upgraded to first class, but we won’t talk about that. Canada was really really splendid, a fantastic place. A friend of mine says that he’s yet to meet someone who didn’t like Canada and he’s absolutely right. Chris bought the apartment off his parents while he was out there, and so it’s ours now and we can use it every year, so the trip to Canada is going to be an annual event. It’s a shame you never got to see it, as I know you and Dad were planning to go one year very soon.

We’ve seen a tremendous amount of the family since we got back from Canada. Chris and I have visited Collette and Keith; Alexa and George by ourselves, and La Famille Atkins with Dad and Adam, not to mention several evenings with Sandra and Eric, both at their house and in our flat. I never thought it was possible for a family to become closer than we were already, but it seems I was wrong. Mike went back to Canada a couple of weeks ago, after having spent a few weeks with Sandra and Eric. Emma of course went back shortly after New Year.

An extraordinary thing happened when we were at Collette and Keith’s. Whilst we were watching Harry Potter, I had all three kids around me. Isobelle was sitting next to me, and I had Alice on one knee and Harry (who the girls now call Harry Potty to reflect his current level of housetraining) on the other. The part of the film where Potter finds the mirror that shows you what you want came up, and the girls explained its purpose to me. I asked them what they would see in the mirror if they looked in it, and they said the predictable things that small girls so. Harry Potter then looked in the mirror and saw his dead parents, smiling at him. Alice then turned to me and said “do you miss your Mummy?”. I looked at her briefly, quite astonished that a 4 year old girl would be aware of what had recently happened. “Yes, I do”, I replied.

Dad’s been doing his annual trade shows over the past few weeks. It’s always a busy time of year for him which I think has helped him a great deal. Unfortunately I had to pull out of the France skiing holiday a couple of days ago, which I know dissapointed him terribly. I really wanted to go, and I know how important it was to him because of course you won’t be going, but I’ve just got too much work on at the moment as it’s a busy time for me too, ever since we returned from Canada both Chris and I have been rushed off our feet. I’m taking him to the pub next week anyway, he’s asked for the usual array of country and western CDs for his birthday.

Chris and I bought another car, quite unexpectedly really. It’s a 12 month old BMW 530i sport with a custom paint job and loads of options. Chris found it by chance and we both fell in love with it. The old green BMW was part exchanged for it because it had started to cost money, as old cars do eventually. I was sad to see it go, and strangely enough I still miss it, despite its replacement being worlds better. I’m not sure why that is. I was never very good at seeing cars go, remember the time I was in tears when the Fiesta was towed away? That seems so long ago now.

It all seems so long ago now, and yet it’s less than three months. Indeed, three months ago you were in hospital, and had been for ten days. You weren’t very well, but your recovery was still very much on the cards. At that time I simply assumed that you would get better. It wasn’t until 4 days before you went that I truly realised how serious everything was. How naiive. Having said that, when I did realise how bad things were, I don’t think everyone else did. It was almost as if I overtook them. But even then, the Monday before you went, I believed that there was still at least another week or 10 days to go, even though I knew that you were going to go. But it wasn’t to be.

Strangely enough, I woke up 30 minutes before you died. For no reason. I just woke up, and then went back to sleep. You were still alive then. The next thing I remember was a car coming round the back of my flat, which I assumed was Sue, but it wasn’t. There was a banging on my back door, and I jumped out of bed and flew back the curtains to see the shapes of two blokes outside wearing green wax jackets. It certainly wasn’t Sue.

“Mum’s passed away”, said Dad, after first having spent a few seconds reading my exasperated face. I’d flung open the door knowing exactly who it was, and exactly why they’d come. My pupils must’ve been the size of braille dots. I cried.

I showered and shaved, and put the kettle on. Dad and Adam went to the loo. It was pouring with rain outside, and it was still before 9.00am. I phoned Chris, who immediately made arrangements to come down from Manchester. We set off for the hospital in two cars, your Micra and my blue car, Chris had the green car up north.

There was the usual parking mayhem at the hospital, cars hanging off grass verges and on double yellows. I found a patch of grass to park on, and stood in the patch of grass behind it as Sandra and Eric approached, saving it for them. They parked up and got out, Sandra was already in tears and she went to hug Dad. Adam wandered off into the foyer of the hospital wing whilst Sandra hugged me, crying. “You know I’ve always been your second mother don’t you”, she said. Eric looked at us both with watery eyes, probably unable to say anything, which of course is a first for him!

We walked into the hospital to catch up with Adam. He was standing in the entrance hall crying into his hands as random old ladies sat on the benches staring at him. I was quite composed at this point, although I can’t for the life of me think why. We walked up the same stairs that we’d all walked up every day for the previous three weeks, knowing it would be the last time we’d ever do it. You were still lying in your bed in the ward, with the curtain round you. The nurses greeted us with solemn faces, and we made towards your bed.

As the curtain was pulled back by the nurses I laid eyes on you, and immediately froze. There was a young girl at the back of the room who had come to visit her grandmother. I looked at her, and all the blood ran out of her face, and I immediately knew it was because the same had happened to my face. She obviously had known what was behind the curtain. Someone’s mother had died and her family was on their way in, and here they are. What an awful thing.

I turned round 180 degrees on my heels, my shoes squeaking on the hospital floor, and walked back out, staring straight ahead with watery eyes. Eric was behind me and I walked into him, nearly knocking him over. I walked past him and he grabbed me and followed me out. In the corridor my vision blurred and I lost my balance, Eric propped me up and I was quickly ushered into an office.

Inside the office I said some very naughty anglo-saxon four letter words and I sobbed desperately. The sight of you lying there, lifeless and still, had been a real shock to me, for which nothing could have ever prepared me for. I don’t know how the others did it. Dad was there when you went, and so obviously he’d seen you before, but Adam and Sandra hadn’t.

After a few minutes I was alright again, angry at myself if anything. Eric and I went back into the ward and this time I wasn’t scared of what I saw. There were no tubes, there were no machines, there were no fans, and there wasn’t folders full of notes at the end of your bed. You were lying down, with just one pillow. To your side were pictures of us, and the two pictures of the cats from when they were kittens that usually reside on top of the telly. It was quiet, except for the general hospital murmur coming from outside the curtains. I said goodbye, but not before I begged you to come back.

The formalities followed, Dad being ever practical. Within 48 hours we had everything arranged, we had been to the registrar of deaths in Weybridge and the funeral was all organised. The tributes from all our friends came flooding in from all over, Dad eventually ran out of space to put up cards. The news spread like wildfire, over the following fortnight I received calls and e-mails from people that I’d not spoken to since I left school. People came from far and wide to the funeral, and packed out the little church in New Haw.

I miss you so much. I’ve not cried since the day you went, but I cried this evening. I’m a little stressed at the moment for various reasons, and I think this may be contributing to it. Everyone warned me that it might take a few months to come through.

I have to go now. I started a new project today for a new client, and it’s very important. I will write again soon, I promise.

xx Stuart

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The Lord Of The Rings

Watched The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on DVD with Dave yesterday. I had no idea what this film was about before, all I knew was that it was “some sort of fantasy”, and absolutely nothing more. I didn’t even know that it was related to The Hobbit (which I read as a child). So when Dave said “watch this inordinately long film that looks a bit hippah” I eyed him with suspicion. But I watched the film, and I was very very impressed and I enjoyed it immensely. Splendid characters, splendid locations, splendid scenery, splendid acting and splendid music, an absolute ten out of ten.

I was a little surprised by the ending as at that point I didn’t realise that all three films were one big long story, I thought they were self contained stories within the same world and with the same characters, so I said “oh” at the end of the film, but no matter, Star Wars is the same and that’s in six bloody parts. Talking of Star Wars, there was an amazing amount of similarities between the films. The storyline is generally the same and there are some very obvious equivalent characters. For example, Gandalf is obviously Obi Wan, Saruman is Darth Vader, Sauron is the Emperor, Frodo is Luke Skywalker, the Uruk-Hai army is the Clone army, the Fellowship is the Jedi Council, the tree people are the Ewoks; the list goes on. Lord Of The Rings obviously predates Star Wars, so I reckon some influence from it crept into Star Wars at some point.

So yes, from knowing nothing about Lord Of The Rings to being very impressed within the same 4 hours is a remarkable feat, and while I’m sure a second viewing will benefit my understand greatly, I think I understood the majority of it first time. It’s quite verbose (which is probably why it’s so bloody long) and this is helpful. Other films like Dune and Bladerunner require 10 viewings before you even start to follow them correctly. However, the best was yet to come …

Immediately afterwards we watched The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in the cinema. Now this film really blew me away. The first film was excellent, but this was mind boggling. They obviously poured quite a lot of the profits from the first film into this one because it was truly staggering. The second part of the long trilogy, it picked up exactly where the last film left off, and no doubt ended exactly where the next film will start from. This film was a lot darker than the first one, there were no meadows, or happy clappy hobbits drinking ale and dancing round tables, of children laughing at fireworks, this was the nitty gritty, the “Empire Strikes Back” part of the story.

My favourite bits were the gigantic battle outside that castle in the cliff, and then the attack by the tree people on Saruman’s war factory, with the bursting damn and everything, truly amazing, how they filmed these things is beyond me. Actually it’s not, I know it’s all ILM hocus pocus, but even so, this is going to take some beating. Mostly the same characters were retained, except without Boromir and with the addition of Smeagol, the comedy Jar Jar Binks character but actually done well and is highly relevant to the story, instead of being a gratuitous action figure model designed to make children laugh.

Go and see it. Twice.

By the way, if you think I’ve misunderstood or missed parts of Lord Of The Rings, it’s because I’m an absolute novice. I know there are a lot of people who’ve been fans for most of their lives, whereas I only discovered it yesterday. Cut me some slack :)

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Transport Common Sense

BBC NEWS | England | 5.5bn transport plan unveiled [related talking point] – this of course includes the much needed £2bn road improvement package targetted at five major routes up and down the country, including the M6 from Birmingham to Manchester. While this is a splendid idea and a jolly good slap in the face for the government and that idiot Alistair Darling who’ve had to cave in after 5 years of persecuting motorists, no amount of money thrown at the roads is going to work on its own. It needs to be coupled with:

  • Massive improvements in the rail network: This is an obvious one, but seems to have somehow eluded the logic of most politicians over the past 20 years. The railways need to become cheaper, faster and more reliable. Only once this has happened will people start to get out of their cars, simply taxing motorists to death will not work, ever.
  • A driving re-training programme: Much of the danger and congestion on the roads today is caused by dangerous and ignorant drivers who consider the highway code and traffic laws to be a set a quaint suggestions that only learners have to obey in order to pass their tests. Speeding, about which the police and the government are obsessed, only plays a comparatively small part. The highway code needs to be brought up to date (as it still lives in the 50s and has no concept of things like three lane roundabouts) and then once that’s done it needs to be made law, and enforced rigorously. I reckon 40% of drivers would then be considered unroadworthy and could have their licenses revoked. Name one other scheme that would cut traffic levels by 40% in one go.
  • Teleworking: I know that I am privileged for having been able to work from home over the past two years. I understand the concerns of company management over staff working from home, not everyone is as disciplined as me and of course there will be people who take the piss and skive off. However, these are obviously the people that you don’t allow to work from home. But that doesn’t mean that nobody can, it’s just a case of carefully picking the staff to afford the privilege to.
  • A change in working practises: However, radical corporate attitude change doesn’t stop with teleworking. This obsession with “nine to five” has to go. There should be no such thing as “rush hour”, especially not in our 24 hour soceity. The problem with the roads is that they’re not overburdened per se, it’s that they’re overburdened twice a day for a few hours. Employees should be allowed far greated flexi-time, and indeed if I could change the world I’d create three “commuter shifts”, forcing a third of the workforce to work from 7.00am to 3.00pm, another third to work from 9.00am to 5.00pm as normal and the final third to work from 11.00am to 7.00pm. This would spread the rush hour demand over a much longer period, easing congestion at “peak times”. It seems perfectly simple to me.

It doesn’t stop with roads. It doesn’t even stop with rail. It stops with common sense.

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