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Charles on… anything that comes along

Tuesday 30 October 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 11:41 pm

From the end of the Sopranos back to the beginning

So, the Sopranos has finished. That last scene? I’ve changed my mind from what I originally thought - which was that Tony Soprano gets knocked off. (Cut to black before the titles? Surely that’s the “You don’t even know it” of getting whacked, right?)

Except that after reading an interview with the series’ creator David Chase, who resolutely refuses to discuss that ending, I realise that he’s doing something different. Chase admits that in the last scene, he’s trying to take you inside Tony Soprano’s head: always having to look around, evaluate threats, see whether someone who’s in or just come in is someone looking to shoot you or your family or whatever.

And to those who think that the people in the last scene have all appeared before in much earlier episodes, Chase says no - none of them has. The two black guys walking in? They’re not the people who tried to kill Soprano way back in series, um, 1 - no, because one of them got killed (by the other). They’re just two black guys walking into a bar, in New Jersey. The guy at the bar who keeps looking over and then goes mysteriously to the toilet? Just someone at the bar who goes to the toilet. Nothing special. And he’s not Phil Leotardo’s cousin.

So I now think that the ending is just that - an ending, a cutting short, but not of Tony Soprano’s existence, simply of the telling of the story to us. This is what it’s like for him, inside his world, his head; and now goodbye to you. Some people call this “the audience getting whacked”, but I don’t think that’s quite right either; it’s putting the cap back on the lens and moving away.

(Update: TVblogger says there was an alternative ending - more of a shuffling of the scenes - which creates a credible story too.)

So I’m watching the entire six series from the start again (I’ve already got to series 3, almost to the fantastic Pine Barrens episode). And I’ve been struck by something: though everyone tends to think of the Sopranos and all the made guys as strutting across the stage, bigger than everyone else, what Chase and the scriptwriters keep reminding you is that they’re not big players at all. Big in New Jersey, maybe.

Example: in series 3, episode 9 (”The Telltale Moozadell“), Chris Moltisanti, the new part-owner of the revived Lollipop club, turns down an offer of a cut on Ecstasy sales in the club: “that’s federal, they’ve got task forces and all that on it,” he says, dismissing the potential deal.

And in an earlier (much earlier) episode, when Moltisanti has stolen a boxload of expensive watches from a UPS truck, he’s admonished by Tony Soprano: “that’s a federal crime, that”. (Or something. Can’t find the exact episode just now.) Don’t mess with that stuff, Soprano is saying. Stay away from federal. Keep it small.

The point being that the Sopranos are big fish, but only in their small pool. New Jersey’s border are the limit of their ambition. They’re not smart - “shut that thing off,” Tony Soprano says to one of them who’s at a computer - “those cookie things make me nervous” - and they’re racist (Soprano warns off a black or half-caste guy who is interested in his daughter). (Wikipedia has “ineptitude of the [Sopranos] mobsters“, which is quite amusing.) They’re small people with really quite small ambitions. Sure, you’d not want to come across them on the streets of New Jersey, or anywhere for that matter. But they can’t spread any further than building contracts, or other things. They’re small-time.

Which of course leads to my favourite scene of all from the whole lot, from Johnny Cakes (episode 8 in series 6), when two of the goons attempt to shake down the newly-opened Starcostachef coffee franchise, explaining that “a donation” to the “neighbourhood security fund” will stop painful things like bricks through windows or, God forbid, injuries to the manager they’re talking to.

“Guys,” the manager replies, “you can threaten me all you want, but every last bean is in the computer, and they can see everything in head office. If I take anything out for you, I’m gone and another guy comes in and it’s the same story.” Damage to the store? Head office won’t care.

The goons go outside and the smaller, talky one spits: “It’s over for the little guy.”

In a sense perhaps they are the perfect metaphor for all of our lives. Which, I guess, is what makes the series so compelling.

Wednesday 24 October 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:17 am

LifeLeague says: we’re not spammers. Except there’s no way to get off the mailing list

At some stage in the past someone - not me - thought it would be a good idea to add my name to the mailing list for LifeLeague. (It’s an anti-abortion lobbying group. Or “pro-life”, if you prefer.)

This sort of thing happens a lot. PR company buys in mailing list from middle person who assures them that all these people have expressed enormous interest in receiving all sorts of junk on this topic. Especially if those on the list are journalists, whose appetite for rubbish filling their inboxes is, as is well known by all PR folk, both endless and legendary. Our lives aren’t complete without 15 emails about subjects we once wrote one story about five years ago filling our inbox ahead of the much more important Facebook updates, and meaning we go over our mailbox quotas and have to delete emails in the manner of someone bailing out a boat.

Anyway. Lifeleague’s email contains the following bold statement:

Unsubscribing from The LifeLeague e-newsletter

Those of you not wishing to receive our e-news and e-alerts can immediately unsubscribe yourselves by clicking here or replying to this email (write the words NO ENEWS in the subject box). Thank you so much.

Which basically creates an email from your address to unsubscribe@lifeleaguenews.com with the subject - and they set it up, so blame them for the capitals - “PLEASE UNSUBSCRIBE ME FROM THE LIFELEAGUE MAILING LIST…”

Yeah, well, I tried that. Still keep getting the emails. Tried it again. Still got them. (No acknowledgement either that the original was received.) I tried emailing every address I could find on the email, threatening.. er.. this.

No response.

It all makes a mockery of LifeLeague’s proud claim at the end of its email that The LifeLeague Are An Anti-Spam Organisation.

You know what? If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably spam. I’ve filtered them all directly to junk, but it’s still annoying. Equally, I could head them off at the pass (via Gmail’s spam filter), but again - they put me on their list. They could take me off.

And so the message gets lost in the medium - one is so annoyed by the spaminess of the messages that there’s little chance of reading them except to find some sort of anti-LifeLeague story.

Tuesday 23 October 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 1:45 pm

Ye gods: raised voices at the Telegraph?

Noticed on MediaGuardian (free registration required, I’m afraid):

A row about integration between the Daily and Sunday Telegraph has sparked the resignation of the daily paper’s newsdesk forward planner.

Anil Dawar left the paper on Friday after a series of increasing demands from Tim Woodward, the news editor of the Sunday Telegraph, and the paper’s editor, Ian MacGregor.

One source said that increasing requests from the Sunday paper culminated in a “robust exchange of views” in the newsroom at 7.30pm on Thursday.

Dawar reportedly told Woodward that he had already worked an 11-hour day for the daily and did not want to put in an extra couple of hours for no pay for the Sunday.

And who can blame him? Forward planning is hardly the most rewarding job in the world anyway - get it right and nobody notices, get it wrong and you get buckets of poo poured over you from above and below.

While I have thought that Will Lewis has the right idea in general for the Telegraph papers - get them web-oriented before the market grabs you by the scruff of the neck and forces you to - the number of people leaving the Telegraph is now reaching ‘abandon ship’ levels. At the Independent unofficial 21st party the other week, it seemed like every other face either had or did work at the Telegraph, and those who had left seemed less, um, tense than those who were. Lots of shaking of heads and muttering about the, um, situation. The Telegraph is not a happy ship, and trying to force 7-day intergration isn’t helping matters.

The interesting question of course is whether the Guardian will try the same with the Observer. Except it looks likely that it won’t; instead, people will focus on writing for the website (aka Guardian Unlimited), which means less banging of heads together in the newsroom. Well, some heads. The question I keep asking which isn’t ever quite asked is, how does the BBC do it? It has correspondents writing across multiple media; the only thing they don’t do is file for a daily or Sunday paper, but aside from that it’s constant bulletins and blogs and web pages and stuff.

Saturday 20 October 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 1:26 am

BusinessWeek shows you just how financial folk can rip you off: the Bear Stearns example

BusinessWeek has a fantastic piece of reporting, which is jaw-dropping in its detail, about two hedge funds at Bear Stearns which imploded with the credit crunch - in many ways, which set off the credit crunch - and the amazing misplaced confidence that its chief showed.

Always assuming it was just misplaced confidence, Not anything else.

Here’s the article. (Or, the print version on one page.) Now, a hedge fund takes money from clients, then puts it about in ways that will make more money. And for that, they charge fees: 20% of profits and 2% of the actual money staked. Sorry, invested. No, I mean “under management”.

The names of the funds? “Bear Stearns High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies fund” and “High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Leverage fund”. Sounds copper-bottomed, right? In fact, these were funds which borrowed against any assets they had on the most astronomic scale:

[Ralph] Cioffi [who set up and ran the funds] also used a type of short-term debt to borrow billions more; in some cases he managed to buy $60 worth of securities for every $1 of investors’ money. But he made a critical trade-off: For lower interest rates, he gave lenders the right to demand immediate repayment.

This was trading in stuff like collateralised debt obligations - CDOs - which are basically slices of lots of mortgages and other debts. You hope they’ll keep paying in the long term. But actually they’re just a “dumber investor” strategy. CDOs with high yields are likely to come from debts which aren’t likely to survive over the long term. Such as mortgages to people with rubbish credit records, to whom you sell mortgages which start low but then reset to much higher levels. They’ll either abandon the mortgage or sell out of it, and that’s that part of the CDO blown; its bond element stops working. (No doubt that’s factored in to CDOs, but they got the numbers wayyy wrong. There was misselling up and down the chain.)

As the accountants for the company, Deloitte, said on its 2006 accounts, about one-third of the “assets” were actually just thumb-in-the-air guesses by the funds’ managers.

Except of course that’s not how they put it.

Deloitte warned that a high percentage of net assets at both funds were being valued using estimates provided by Cioffi’s management team “in the absence of readily ascertainable market values.” Deloitte went on to caution: “These values may differ from the values that would have been used had a ready market for these investments existed, and the differences could be material.” In the case of the High-Grade fund, 70% of its net assets, or $616 million, were being valued in such a manner, up from just 25% in 2004. For the Enhanced fund, 63% of net assets, or $589 million, were “fair valued.”

Jeez, where’s the Plain English campaign when you need it? Not that seeing that (likely well-buried) warning would have helped; the report on the 2006 accounts didn’t come out until May 2007, by which time the funds were already on the way down.

What’s amazing, reading the story, is how this worked like some sort of con trick. You set the fund up with some quick borrowing (from Barclays, which retained the right to call it all in any time it liked; no doubt it had some vigorish on the proceedings). You hustle - sorry, carefully select - some rich people to invest in the funds. You hustle - sorry, negotiate - with some people to buy or sell some sort of lumped-together who-knows-what load of financial stuff. And don’t worry about a market downturn - won’t happen. You use that to borrow more.

It’s a house of cards. Politicians and financiers worry that people don’t have enough trust in the stock market and financial institutions? That we put too much into property? When you have banks and credit card companies charging absurd amounts with questionable legality for being “overdrawn”, and financiers who’ll sell you stuff because they’ll get a commission for years to come even while your investment doesn’t pay back even what you put in, and people like Ralph Cioffi can run vehicles called things like the “High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Leverage fund” (which just calls out for a bit of deconstruction, eh?), then damn right we aren’t going to trust financial institutions. You have to earn trust. These people aren’t even trying.

Thursday 18 October 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:36 pm

No comment. Apart from to say that Ryanair are a load of…

From Out-law.com:

An advert for budget airline Ryanair has been banned by the UK’s advertising watchdog after it made misleading and unfair comparisons with online travel agent Lastminute.com. The advert broke rules on truthfulness and comparative advertising.

The ad appeared in the national press, headlined “Robbed by Lastminute.com?” It showed a picture of a burglar with “ONLINE AGENT” written on his top. Lastminute.com complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) that the ad was misleading and, together with the cartoon robber, “denigrated and discredited” its business.

Ryanair denied the claims. It argued that Lastminute.com was not authorised to sell its flights and that, in selling Ryanair flights, Lastminute.com was in clear breach of the conditions for use of Ryanair.com, which restricts use to “private non-commercial purposes.” Ryanair also accused Lastminute.com of inflating the prices without consent and without informing passengers.

The ASA said that Ryanair failed to provide evidence to show that Lastminute.com overcharged customers and had therefore not substantiated the claim “Robbed by Lastminute.com?”

“We concluded that the claim in conjunction with the image of a robber misleadingly and unfairly discredited Lastminute’s business,” said the ruling, published today.

How remarkable that Ryanair should do something which should be ruled misleading. Also at Out-law.com:

Oh, my. I’m going to have to lie down in a darkened room. Well, it is night time.

Tuesday 16 October 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 4:11 pm

Mail: sorted; cause: SQLite corruption; prognosis: good; thoughts: hmm..

OK, all my woes are sorted. Kevin pointed out that what I was experiencing - the most amazing number of repetitive crashes - was due to corruption of the SQLite database that Mail 2.1 keeps its records of, well, everything in. (It lives in a file called “Envelope Index” in your /Library/Mail folder. Don’t touch it yet!)

This can get corrupted - say, if you have a crash (like I’ve had from time to time). Or, possibly, if you used beta versions of MailTags (as I did, without making backups. You should make backups when using beta stuff? Oh.)

There is a method of curing it, as laid out at HawkWings (which, thought not updated, is a great repository of stuff about Apple’s Mail).

  • Zeroth, you quit Mail.
  • First, you back up your /Library/Mail folder.
  • Then, you throw the Envelope Index file into the Trash. Go on, it’s broken anyway (and you can get it back if you really want it.
  • Then, you open Mail again. “Hey, there’s no mail!” it says (or similar). “Shall we import some?” You say: yes, go ahead. It will chunter. Oh, you should have something to do while this happens. I had the odd few tens of thousands of message to import and it took about 30 minutes.

After this, you should find that things work OK. Treat it gently - and, if you want to be extra careful, turn off junk filtering until any IMAP mailboxes have synchronised - and then you should be good to go.

I’m still stunned that a failing in Mail can have such a widespread effect (or maybe a whole stack of files got corrupted in a crash, and the Envelope Index was one of them). It also points up the problem with relying so much on a single file for the information about your email. Though I guess that’s better, isn’t it, than having all your email actually inside a single database.

Next stop, Leopard!

Monday 15 October 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:20 pm

Mail 2.1: could we have some better IMAP, please? Because 33 crashes in 6 hours is too much.

As days go it’s been a bit like this, a bit like that. Today, Apple’s Mail crashed on me 33 times between 10.49am and 4.46pm. That’s six hours, including one hour when I was away at lunch. That’s five crashes per hour, though at some stages it was launching and then crashing at once on relaunch.

First was the wonderful answer to my problems, as provided by jp (hello, St Louis!): there’s something about Mail which can corrupt everything around it, including other programs, the “paste” function across applications, browser downloads. That’s quite some problem, eh?

The solution: quit Mail, grab the ~/Library/Mail folder, drag it to your desktop (or anywhere), launch Mail, and then click “Cancel” when it says “Hi there, let’s import some mail or just have a wild time”. Then drag the folder back (saying yes, replace the newer folder), and launch Mail again. Return to nirvana. (It’s nothing to do with the ~/Library/Caches/Mail folder: they’re for stuff like HTML mail you’ve looked at.)

That’s fine. Except for this crashing thing. Which was caused by the fact that while I was thrashing around over the weekend, I thought that I might try this interesting menu option for the mailboxes called “Rebuild”.

Why, oh why, doesn’t this come with a huge red warning saying DO NOT USE THIS ON IMAP MAILBOXES IF YOU VALUE YOUR TIME ? Why doesn’t it come with any warning at all? Why is it there?

Thing is it’s really, really dangerous if like me you have any number of messages in any single IMAP account and you rebuild it. Doesn’t matter whether you’re connected to the server or not, but you’ll have a bad time. Like, really bad. As in, Mail will fall over after, having deleted all the IMAP messages (and possibly attachments) - you didn’t know it will delete everything? Oh yes - it tries to repopulate the mailbox.

Unfortunately, Mail stinks at repopulating big IMAP mailboxes. Mine’s about 300MB (judging by the two-week-old backup I’ve put in place which somehow doesn’t include 2007 but, well, I’ll get back to it). I got really sick of it falling over. Really sick. Really really sick. To the extent that I was writing messages cursing the programmers in the “What were you doing when this happened?” questions which they’d certainly not want to show their mothers.

But it doesn’t make sense. Would Apple really let something out the door which is so screwed up? Why can’t it figure out downloading 300MB of stuff?

(Later… hmm, well, Mail 3.0 in Leopard looks pretty nifty. I can see that one might spend the entire day there.)

Filed under: — Charles @ 12:08 am

Think you’re an Apple genius? Diagnose my Powerbook’s problems

While wrestling with a cold I’ve also been wrestling with my computer, which since last Tuesday evening has been acting completely weird. I know I’ve said this a few times, but this outranks those. This is complete unusability.

Basically: replying to email crashes Mail. That’s why I haven’t been replying to people. Apart from a brief window on Friday when it worked, it’s been screwed. Every attempt to reply crashes. *Every* one. *Every* time. It’s kinda annoying. Plus I can’t do any browsing. Now, that’s serious.

Relevant bit of the crash report, in case someone out there can parse these things:
Thread 0 Crashed:
0 libobjc.A.dylib 0x90a40100 objc_msgSend + 32
1 com.apple.mail 0x0004bb34 0x1000 + 305972
2 com.apple.mail 0x0004b090 0x1000 + 303248
3 com.apple.mail 0x0004af60 0x1000 + 302944
4 com.apple.mail 0x0008a370 0x1000 + 562032
5 com.apple.AppKit 0x9383fc4c -[NSApplication sendAction:to:from:] + 108
6 com.apple.AppKit 0x9389a4b8 -[NSMenu performActionForItemAtIndex:] + 392
7 com.apple.AppKit 0x9389a23c -[NSCarbonMenuImpl performActionWithHighlightingForItemAtIndex:] + 104
8 com.apple.AppKit 0x93899ce4 -[NSMenu performKeyEquivalent:] + 272
9 com.apple.AppKit 0x938998c4 -[NSApplication _handleKeyEquivalent:] + 220
10 com.apple.AppKit 0x937a3408 -[NSApplication sendEvent:] + 2944
11 com.apple.mail 0x0003363c 0x1000 + 206396
12 com.apple.AppKit 0x9379ad10 -[NSApplication run] + 508
13 com.apple.AppKit 0x9388b87c NSApplicationMain + 452
14 com.apple.mail 0x000871d8 0x1000 + 549336
15 com.apple.mail 0x00087080 0x1000 + 548992

It’s completely perplexing because it all works fine if I log in as another user. Oh, bad preferences, you say. Trash them, start again. Except:

-why should bad Mail preferences mean that my browser (Camino) doesn’t work? It won’t load pages. It starts and never, ever, ever finishes. If I try to close a window or tab, it crashes. Those prefs work fine, in another user space.

-Why would it mean that Voodoopad won’t make a link from a page?

-Why would it mean that MarsEdit won’t create a new post when I type Apple-N (which means “new” in pretty much any application)?

-Why can I load any web page I like in Webkit-oriented apps, like NetNewsWire (which still soldiers on, untroubled)?

In other words, how could bad prefs in one app affect so many others? That makes no sense. It must be something else.

I discovered, inter alia, that my machine is affected by the “dead lower RAM slot” problem, though the Apple guy didn’t say if it would be covered by my Applecare (which is still live). (Can’t like to the lower RAM slot page - my browser will kill the system if I try.)

But if that’s the cause - given I still have 1GB of good RAM in here, which is plenty on this 1.67GHz PPC Powerbook - why doesn’t it affect other users?

There have been a couple of days when this has run fine - but this morning I came down to find that the browser had locked, unable to load, and crashed and nothing been right since then. I’ve warm booted, cold booted, shut down, shut down and taken the battery and power cord out, restarted, logged out, logged in, and done everything I can think of to fix it.

Help me, lazyweb. My machine is ill and needs your help. You’re our only chance.

Though I’ll tell you one thing. It’s a good thing Leopard is only 12 days away (by best estimates). This machine gets a backup and clean wipe the day I get my hands on that install disc.

Friday 12 October 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:29 am

I’m not vain, just investigating my output: journalists (and PRs), tune into Journa-list

Thanks to Bobbie for pointing me (and every other hack on the nationals) towards the endlessly fascinating Journa-list.com (foolishly, they haven’t set it up for http://journa-list.com - come on, people), which

is an independent, not-for-profit website that makes it easy for people to find out more about journalists and what they write about.

Oo.

It is the first UK website to offer a fully searchable database of UK national journalists (who write under a byline), with links to their current and previous articles, and some basic statistics about their work.

It allows you to build up your own tailored list of journalists whose views you respect and trust. You can search through their back catalogue of articles, and link to other articles on the same topic by different journalists. And, if you want, you can be alerted each time any of them writes an article.

That’s scary, right? No, no, for PR people, it’s brilliant. Sort of. We’ll come to its failings (which are few) in a second.

Right now there is no website that pulls together the work of individual journalists and aggregates it to make it easy to search and link. If you search on the internet for a journalist the chances are you’ll find one of three things: a link to an article of theirs on a news website, a brief bio on the news website (or, if well known, on Wikipedia), or their own website / blog (very rare in the UK).

So, who you got in there, eh?

It contains all journalists from 12 national newspapers - The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Mirror, The Sun, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, The Sunday Mirror, The Observer - and BBC News Online. The site can only index those articles which have bylines. We started indexing the articles in May 2007.

That May start date means that it doesn’t have that much authority, but hell, you have to start somewhere. (Possibly they’ll be able to work backwards and add content from earlier, using search engines or something.)

Here’s my profile:

Charles Arthur has written...
  • More about ‘apple’ than anything else
  • A lot about ‘linux’ in the last month
  • More bylined articles than the average journalist

Based on 44 articles since April 2007

Well, OK, sorta. If you look up Katharine Viner, though, you’d think she was a bit of a waster: one article since May. Except that disguises one thing: she’s the features editor on the Guardian, so wields much more power than you’d think from her “output”. That’s the weakness here: it only measures what can be measured - which is words and length and a rough parsing - not influence, which is more important in many regards. Plus it doesn’t include blogging, which has some influence too, surely.

Still, it’s a good start by the Media Standards Trust.

Monday 8 October 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:01 pm

The curse of Radiohead strikes X-Factor again

Not that I’m watching it or paying attention or anything. But just to say how relieved I am that the guy who was in the final 24, and in the final 6 of the solo singers, who chose to sing Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ in his best baritone voice (”Oymmm a crrreeeppp… oym a werrrrdooooo…”) got binned.

As regular readers will know, if you haven’t got Thom Yorke’s voice or the requisite teenage amount of self-loathing, you oughta stay well away from that song. A trillion high school and college fresher Americans loved it, but most people can’t make it sound right.

(How apt that the song on my iPod as I write is Radiohead’s “Just”.)

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