Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lights, Camera, Geek

It's an old family tradition (3 years old to be precise) that between Christmas and New Year I assemble a DVD slideshow movie of the best of the Family Stan photographs from the year.

Every year I get more ambitious, which is fine because every year the technology to support the ambition gets better.

Firstly the soundtrack. Linux has a wonderful range of free toys in this area.
  1. Download the video containing the tune you want from youtube using the youtube-dl application.
  2. Extract the tune from the video using mplayer
  3. Use the dvd:rip application to extract a file from a DVD of Stanetta's church play. This contains numerous stills and pieces of her dialogue that I cut into separate files for later use.
  4. Use the rather wonderful Audacity application to mix the tune with samples of dialogue. I could have played with this for weeks.
I couldn't find anything in Linux that came close to Windows Movie Maker, so I used that to organise the still pictures into order and set up transitions between them.

It was then I realised that I had done this in exactly the wrong order - you really shouldn't mix your soundtrack until you know how long your video is going to be.

To finish the job I burned the finished movie onto DVD using Microsoft's DVD maker.

Hopeful next year someone will have produced something that does all of these operations in one neat application. But next year I'll want to be even more creative with the year-end movie. Animation ? 3-D ? Guest Stars ? Behind-the-scenes DVD extra features and interviews with the cast?

Looking at the finished movie I was reminded that I've had a cracking 2008. Business has been lousy but everything else has been just wonderful.

Happy New Year to all my readers and may 2009 bring you the vast majority of what you think you want and all of what you need.

Stan xxx

Monday, December 29, 2008

Join the IT Crowd

I can't stand one particular advert on TV. And I'm worried it's the just the start of a new trend.

There's a worried man. You can tell he's worried because he's hamming it up like a silent movie actor. He's in a cramped black-and-white room. The bills are piling up and he's afraid of losing his job which totally sucks. His sexy but fickle wife is probably going to run off too. Oh, woe is he.

But wait ! He's signed up for some IT courses and we cut to a confident man striding in living colour from a big house towards his big car (presumably after being a total stud with his wife). The advert ends with him driving off contentedly towards a satisfying and lucrative job in IT.

The reality is more disappointing. The industry is in retreat. In the 1990s any bozo could have parlayed a few basic IT skills into a significant living, and many did. But things have changed. The industry is in retreat in line with the world recession, and there is a significant and growing supply of cheap offshore labour. This hits old lags like me hard, but it's even worse for people just starting out.

For example, imagine you are attracted by the starting salary for Junior Database Administrators (around £25k) with the prospect of doubling that when you get experienced. You work hard to pass the required exams in your free time (one year if you are clever and hardworking).

Unfortunately to get your feet on the ladder you are competing with a large number of Indian guys and gals who have IT degrees and are significantly cheaper and usually more polite and smarter than you are. Eye-wateringly cheap if they don't even have to leave India. Database Administrators don't need to be on the same continent as the machines they tend and the machines don't need to be on the same continent as the people who use them. I've worked with a client in England whose machines were in Holland and whose administrators were in India.

So basically your qualifications buy you a lottery ticket to compete with the entire world to get a job with a shrinking salary that is unlikely to improve either your finances or your sex life.

My message would be that if IT interests you, then get stuck in and compete for whatever jobs aren't being outsourced by being more persuasive, cleverer and harder working than any other applicant. I've enjoyed working in IT and I hope you do too. But don't give any money to these people selling dreams. All you'll likely get is a list of qualifications (you could have got this by googling "IT certification") and a standard recruitment consultancy service (there are thousands of these - or try and phone whichever agency has the job you fancy).

I don't like the fact that these people are profiting from fear and selling something you could get for free (and which might not be worth much anyway). I hope they crash and burn and I won't ever have to sit through similar adverts ever again.

Some hope. The coming Depression is likely to lead to a lot more more fear and I suspect that profiting from it will become one of the few growth areas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

In the Big City

You need to do a minimum of three court observations before they let you loose on a court as a new magistrate. As my day-job didn't need me yesterday, I went to the nearest big city to see what Justice looked like over there.

The Magistrate Court in that city is new and immense with 17 active courtrooms on the day I visited. This contrasts sharply with the 2 courts I'm used to.

The lady in charge of the rota of 450 magistrates met me once I'd cleared security and took me into the Magistrates' common room. Here were 50+ of her charges drinking coffee, reading newspapers and having animated discussions. I decided I'd like to see an actual trial, so she found a suitable courtroom and introduced me to the chairman who was delighted to allow me to observe, although he did insist on teasing me about the number of "poultry rustling" trials I'd have to sit through in my country courtroom.

As it turned out I can't think of many differences between the procedure or workload of the big city court and my court in the outer suburbs. We have after all got the same Guidelines and the same issues with alcohol, drugs and lousy driving.

I certainly envied the camaraderie of the large common room, but the many small, modern courtrooms had a bit of the feel of the multiplex cinema about them, except that the chairs disappointingly did not have drink-holders in the arms.

The observations have been useful. I've seen how things actually work rather than the way they ought to work. I've seen defendants and victims have a slanging match they definitely wouldn't have wanted the Magistrates to see. And I've seen the way three different legal advisors have banged heads together to move things along so that the Magistrates just need to show up and do their job.

I'll let you know if I ever do get a "poultry rustling" case, but for now the only poultry I'm concerned with is the one I'm going to cook with all the trimmings tomorrow. Hope you all have a Merry Christmas.

Stan xxx

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hallelujah Chorus

Yes, Clueless Stan did a huge piece on cover versions last week and totally neglected to mention the towering classic that is "Hallelujah", which is in the news again at the moment because some giddy girl from off the telly is doing it.

I liked this comment from YouTube "Cohen wrote it, Cale improved it then Buckley completed it." which is glib, rather simplistic but broadly accurate.

Leonard Cohen : "I filled two notebooks and I remember being in the Royalton Hotel [in New York], on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, 'I can't finish this song."

Cohen's superlative feat of songwriting is undeniable but unfashionably I don't rate any of his performances. Sounds too much like the record-player needs winding up to me.

He ended up writing 80 verses of the song and when John Cale asked for the lyrics, he chose 15 of those verses as being fit to fax.

John Cale : Best known for his work with Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. If you heard the song on "Shrek" that was John Cale's version. He saw the potential in the song and fashioned a masterpiece from the sloppy clay of Cohen's original idea. Notably his selection of lyrics are a lot more sexual and a lot less biblical than Cohen's. A lot more bondage, a lot less David's horn.

Jeff Buckley : If you heard the song in "The West Wing" then that was Jeff Buckley's version. A bit like James Dean's acting, it isn't what he does, it's the way that he does it.

His approach to the song is broadly similar to Cale's, but in the last minute or so he lays down an extraordinary coda that lays waste to any stiff-under-lip you might possess. He reminds you that "it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah".

It's even more heartbreaking when you know that Jeff Buckley drowned at the age of 30 after completing only one album.

It's odd that it's men that have had all the success with the song up until now. There is no reason why it would work any less well from a woman's point of view.

But forget about Alexandra Burke's version and listen to what Allison Crowe does with the song. Her voice couldn't be more different from the stereotypical "X Factor" empty plastic R&B diva voice. Here is someone who feels the music and communicates. Simply stunning - full of real power and enormous feeling. Big, big ploppy tears on Stan's keyboard.

Musical Trivia - it's in C Major. And it's the saddest song in the world. Go figure.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I was expecting you, Mr Bond

Stanetta is suffering. Every time (possibly an exaggeration) she switches on the news, she claims it's always people moaning on about the economy. Usually Robert Peston.

Personally I enjoy financial news. I love to hear people claim to understand why something good/bad just happened and why they think something better better/worse will happen in future.

In truth, these amazing human inventions called "Markets" have grown way beyond the point where mortal man can predict the future or explain the present. Modern economists are about as credible as Aztec priests trying to explain why the volcano is rumbling.

If there is any hope of understanding, you have to look at the past, and this is where the historian Niall Ferguson's series "The Ascent of Money" comes in. I'm working my way through the series on Channel 4's On-Demand Service and have just watched the excellent second episode about the history of Bonds.

The thirty second version of this is that the first bond market started to fund wars between city-states in Tuscany in the 1360s before going on to win the battle of Waterloo, lose the American civil war, make a fortune for the Rothschilds and bankrupt Argentina.

Prof Ferguson's 48 minute version moves nearly as quickly as that - he keeps it light, draws parallels, quotes specific examples and focuses in on the people involved rather than pretending that it's abstract Forces that are important.

Unfortunately, if like Stanetta you're overloaded with financial news just now, you'll probably be disinclined to spend time watching this series.

You should - it is possibly your best chance to understand what the flip is going on.

And it's important stuff. In my opinion the following is the most important current issue confronting the UK :-
"Banks and other lenders have issued about 6.5 billion pounds ($9.9 billion) and 10 billion euros ($13.7 billion) of bonds backed by the UK government since the state offered to guarantee them two months ago"
Are you in favour ? Against ? Or don't you understand the question? Maybe you understand the individual words of question but you can't understand why it's so gosh-garned important.

Governments are doing weird stuff with your money and a bunch of other money it hasn't printed yet. I think it only proper that a generous amount of screentime is given to people like Robert Peston and Niall Ferguson to explain it. Sorry, Stanetta.

Vote Stan.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Hamster Haven

I am pleasantly baffled by girls. Especially mine.

Stanetta's school chum was talking about hamsters. The conversation rapidly spiralled in a jazz-style onto the subject of hamsters on roller-blades and then into a freestyle improv on how you can spoil hamsters rotten.

Stanetta disappeared into her room after school, booted up her laptop and slammed out in hardly any time at all this amazing advert for "Hamster Haven - A place where your hamster feels at home."

If Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, where on earth do young girls come from?

Good work, Stanetta. Made me smile and made my jaw drop and my head spin. It'll be a sad day when you start making an ounce of sense.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cross My Heart And Hope to Die

I was really looking forward to writing a long piece mocking the pomp and circumstance and the airs and graces of my recent swearing-in. But I'm not going to. Much.

There was plenty of potential for mockery. For example, in attendance were four High Court judges and a Lord Lieutenant with a massive ceremonial sword and a High Sheriff, all with uniforms out of "Duck Soup". I knew what the judges did for a living, but it took some serious wikipedia to work out how the other guys filled their days.

The venue was a massive contrast - a rather cramped modern lecture theatre at the University of Stanster. We were packed in so tight that it was difficult to stand when it was our turn to swear our oaths. Early on I dropped a piece of paper on the floor, but I couldn't have ducked down to get it without appearing to commit an act of gross indecency on one or both of my squashed neighbours.

Fortunately the speeches were brief and soon I was standing and swearing my non-religious version of the oath (hold the God). It was a shock to hear the archaic language come tumbling out of my mouth. I resisted a momentary mad impulse to do a comedy voice.

I sat and later I signed The Book with a disappointingly mundane black Bic biro.

And that's how you make a Magistrate.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Stan is an anagram of Santa

I dreamed last night that I was in court presiding as a Magistrate. The accused, a Mr. Santa Claus, had been accused of breaking into houses. An aggravating factor was that he did so while they were occupied at night. Given that he brought a large sack, he was obviously also "going equipped" for theft.

Mr Claus didn't take anything of value, but he did consume an awful lot of sherry that would obviously have put him well over the drink-drive limit. Given that he also drove around the world in a single night, it seems irrefutable that he comfortably exceeded the national speed limit of 70 mph even in 30 mph zones in built-up areas.

Mr Claus did not attend court and I was happy to sign a warrant for his arrest. Bail would seem to be unlikely, given that he is very likely to abscond back to his home address in a place which does not have an extradition treaty with the UK.

The accused is due to visit the UK this month and I hope the police will be vigilant and I look forward to dealing with this miscreant in due course.

Ho ho ho indeed.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Sympathy For the Gerbil

It is John Milton's 400th birthday. His poetry I find inaccessible - both because of the language he uses but also because the subject matter requires a detail Biblical knowledge and belief that I will never possess. To me he comes across like one of the original manic street-preachers.

On the same day, Oliver Postgate died - the co-inventor of Bagpuss - in my opinion a far more worthy object of study. What's not to like about a shop that doesn't sell anything and a baggy pink sleepy cat that a young girl loves despite his flaws?

It's a world where things which are Lost are looked after until they ready to be Regained. It seems to me that Oliver Postgate could have written Paradise Lost ... or more likely John Milton could have written a Bagpuss episode.
The World was assembled before the window,
Summoned by the crash of wood.
Then it was that Bagpuize in shades of pink sallied forth
To investigate commotion.

Seems upon the night a gerbil came, with teeth unearthly sharp.
Had chewed the beam supporting o'erhanging ceiling.
Eden's tidy Paradise was Lost,
Now reigned Disorder in that unhappy retail space.

Bagpuize did cast his eyes around and soon discovered the cause
And cleared his throat and addressed the crowd, of Mice and Men
"The beam above was once a proud and strong right-angle.
But down it came and here it rests upon the ground"

"It's not the gerbil we should blame - it is the Fallen Angle"

Saturday, December 06, 2008


I'm a freelance IT person and so I haven't seen many heroin addicts in my life.

Not that IT freelancers are a particularly well-adjusted lot. I've worked with way more than my fair share of alcoholics and people who indulge in what I would call "risk-taking behaviours". This covers driving like idiots, gambling, fooling around with unsuitable partners and generally doing stuff that would make their mothers cry.

My favourite example is a guy I once worked with who was making good money but who slept in his car rather than getting a hotel room. He told me he was saving up until he had £100,000 in the bank and then he was going to drive his car/hotel to a casino in Monte Carlo and stake the lot on black. If he won, he'd party for a few years; if he lost, he'd return and try and get his old job back. One day he quit and left without a word - I never heard from him again.

The addictions of IT people tend to be sociable addictions - alcoholics and gamblers can and do maintain successful careers and often you wouldn't know they were addicts unless they actually told you.

Heroin addiction is a whole different story.

A couple of the cases in the court session I observed last week involved heroin addicts. Both of them looked old way beyond their years and their skin was an unearthly glowing white - like the make-up of a geisha - like a ghost. Their lives were a mess - the cliche used in court is that they had "chaotic lifestyles", which makes it sound as though all they needed was a course in Time Management.

In fact heroin had killed these people - they just hadn't stopped moving yet. Their higher brains were dead - they had become zombies, fit only to crave more drugs and make pitifully poor attempts at petty crime to fund their habit. Meanwhile their bodies were slowly falling apart as their minds unravelled.

On my way back to my car after court, I walked through an underpass. There was a young girl, face unnatural white, slumped against a wall. She lit up a cheap disposable lighter and watched the flame with unnatural concentration. Then she flicked it off and eventually back on again and repeated the flame watching. I walked on by, she didn't seem to notice me and I heard the "click ..... click" of the lighter continue behind me.

Breaks your heart - that used to be someone's little girl before someone brought heroin into her life.

Friday, December 05, 2008

What a bunch of totters

I sat in on a traffic court today, and it made me realise that The Law is a big softie when it comes to drivers.

It allows you to accumulate ("tot up") twelve points in any three year period before there's any question that you will lose your licence.

Get caught doing just over the speed limit once ? Pay a modest fine and have three points.

Get caught "forgetting" to renew your insurance ? Have six points and a bigger fine.

But as long as you keep your nose clean for three years there's no further action taken - the points fall away and are forgotten like bad dreams.

People end up in magistrate court with their licence at risk either because they have committed a more serious no-no (e.g "Driving While Disqualified") or because they have accumulated 12 point and over and have become "Totters".

Anyone want to share the road with serious lawbreakers or persistent minor lawbreakers ? Thought not.

The presumption is that someone with twelve points is likely to get banned for six months plus. The exception is where the magistrates are convinced that banning someone would cause "exceptional hardship".

This is a poorly understood concept, for example the fact that the driver will likely lose their job is not usually considered exceptional.

One tip - get a lawyer. In court today I saw an intelligent articulate man make an absolute hash of it. I felt for him because he was a fellow freelancer and losing his licence is going to affect his business at the worst possible time. But under questioning he had to admit that his wife could drive, his kids were old enough to be independent and no-one else in the world would be inconvenienced even slightly if he couldn't get back in his 4x4 for the next six months.

Don't feel too sorry for him - he had chances and he blew it and now he'll have to study the bus timetable for a while.

Monday, December 01, 2008


After a long day I'm a 200 miles drive from home and I can't sleep. So I'm greedily hogging the hotel's free wifi broadband and listening to cover versions on YouTube until I'm ready to drop.

It all started with yesterday's posting about Stevie Nicks' "Dreams" and how The Corrs' version was so woeful. This led me onto her "Edge of Seventeen" which is wondrous, while Lindsay Lohan's version is predicably awful.

Although, to be fair, Stevie Nicks swiped the bass and drums from "Bring on the Night" by The Police for "Edge of Seventeen", so it's almost a cover version in itself.

Not all cover versions are a bad idea, but in most cases you do wish someone could have had a quiet word to try to talk them out of it.

For every good one (Gnarls Barkley's version of Radiohead's "The Reckoner") that add something worth hearing, there are six thousand bad ones (the Gregorian monks version of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams") that go through the motions and stamp over everything that was good about the original.

Some just puzzle me. Take Radiohead's version of The Smiths "The Headmaster's Ritual" - it's technically well done by a talented group at the height of their powers but it spectacularly falls flat. For starters, the line "Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools" needs Morrissey's Manc twang, not Thom Yorke's public school Oxfordshire vowels. But mainly it's a case that this song has already been done Mr. Yorke - kindly please go write another one of your excellent experiments in sonic melancholy.

You do forget sometimes that some of the greatest pieces of music of all time were cover versions. "Wild is the Wind" was written for Johnny Mathis but his version was a soppy cheesy unlistenable mess while Bowie made it damn well soar.

I don't have the patience to include links but here's my incomplete list of cover versions that I didn't even know were cover versions :-
  • "I Fought the Law" - The Crickets
  • "Hazy Shade of Winter" - Simon & Garfunkel
  • "Twist & Shout" - The Isley Brothers
  • "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" - Otis Redding
  • "All Along the Watchtower" - Bob Dylan
Don't those titles look odd with the original artist?

Thankfully The Clash, The Bangles, The Beatles, Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix didn't think that doing a cover version was anything to be ashamed of.

Finally some of my guilty favourite cover versions.

Johnny Cash doing U2's "One"
Travis doing Britney's "Hit me Baby One More Time"
Arctic Monkeys doing Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good"

And so to sleep, with a force of nature singing a 27 year-old song in my head

"Just like the white winged dove...
sings a song ...
Sounds like she's singing...
whoo...whoo...whoo, "