I read Stephen King’s Under The Dome when it first came out a couple of years ago; for me, it really was one of those books that you don’t want to stop reading. So when the recent TV adaptation came out, I made sure to start watching.
I nearly stopped watching after that first episode – the adaptation spiralled away from the book’s plot less than 15 minutes in; yes, a mysterious impenetrable dome dropped down over the town and trapped a diverse selection of Americans inside. But that, along with the names of the principal characters, was was pretty much the only similarity with the book. Characters changed drastically; for example the book-hero was a rootless Vietnam vet who just happened to be in town, while the TV-hero – while still being an ex-marine – was a hired killer who was in town to carry out a hit. More disturbing was the change to the character of the teenage boy villain; in the book he was just plain nasty, with an undiagnosed brain tumour making him even nastier. In the TV series he was little more than a mixed-up kid with bad parenting who just needed the love of a good woman– rather, girl. Not a good message to give out to young females.
I forced myself to watch three or four more episodes, but just couldn’t get involved in it. Not only did the plot carry on diverging from the book, but it was clearly just another attempt (like the pathetic FlashForward) to copy the formula of Lost. i.e., a multi-cast mystery/thriller with strong supernatural/SF elements.
The final straw came when I went online to read recaps of episodes that had already been shown in the US and discovered it just got worse, descending into outright fantasy with magic butterflies and mysterious crystals – and, moreover, a second series of the same drivel!!
Nope. Enough was enough.

So I’m having some eye trouble at the mo – I’m constantly getting dry eyes, so that I have to limit my time reading and at the computer; I’ve already got through three tubes of carbomer gel in the last week.
So I thought I’d explore the possibility of text-to-speech (TTS) stuff, so that I can at least keep myself entertained through my ears – even watching TV is a strain. First stop was my Kindle Fire; deep in the settings, I discovered an option for turning on TTS software for TTS-enabled books. I was delighted, as I have several e-books half-read or waiting to be read. But, o dear, when I tried it out….
The software is technically very slick – it was quite hard to immediately tell that the pleasant-sounding American woman speaker wasn’t human. A mere minute or two of listening, however, and it was obviously mechanical. The speech rhythm was arbitrary and didn’t correspond to the text rhythm – there was the same length of pause between paragraphs, sentences and words, and no longer pauses for taking a breath; the tonal range was narrow, with no emphasis or inflection placed where it was obviously needed; the American pronunciation was jarring. That last was especially irritating as the text I was testing it on contained several instances of “apparatus” and the drawn-out middle syllable was making my teeth ache; it was fortunate that there was no mention of “aluminum” as well, as listening to “the appa-RAHH-tus was made of ah-LOO-min-um” would have had me breaking something. It was also fortunate that I was testing it on a rather dry history book (dealing, in that chapter, with “state apparatus”); I don’t want to even think about how Amazon’s robot would read out a British thriller novel.
So I looked at what was available in human-read books; voice actors are passionate about doing justice to an author’s writing. Going to audible.co.uk, I made a pleasant discovery – an extremely wide range of books, together with a no-strings offer of a free audiobook on signing up for a free months trial. An offer too good to turn down! So I signed up and went to download my free book. It was Ian Rankin’s Standing In Another Man’s Grave; having got it out of the library and then finding myself unable to read it, I was looking forward to spending several evenings listening to Detective Michael Jardine’s smooth Scottish tones narrating it.
But, of course, there was a snag. Since Amazon owns Audible.co.uk, I was expecting that I could download their audiobook straight onto my Amazon-owned Kindle, as I’d done with my ebooks. Amazingly, though, it appears I can only get an audiobook onto a Kindle by downloading it onto a PC and transferring it via a USB cable. Now, my Kindle had of course come with such a cable – but never having had to use it, I’d thrust it away somewhere and forgotten it. And could I find it again? Hah!

So here I am, waiting for a new cable to arrive and wishing desperately that my eyes would just sort themselves out.

I got on the bus and went to Dumfries. The car is very poorly and will have to be replaced soon, hence the bus trip, to get some shopping.
Having done the stuff I needed to, I found myself with an hour to while away until the return journey. It was a long way from breakfast and I was getting hungry, so I bought a sandwich from the Spar – something cheap in one of those plastic triangular wrappings. The sun was out, so I plonked my rear end on a bench overlooking the river and prepared to eat.

However, the sandwich packet refused to co-operate – there was no tag to pull on, my nails couldn’t get through the plastic and my teeth are now too few and too blunt to get through anything much tougher than the cheese sandwich nestled enticingly within. I was considering rooting through my bag for something sharp and pointy (I normally carry a pencil or three) when a couple of smart-looking men came along, clutching leaflets and thick little books and dressed like Men in Black minus the shades.
So, missionaries for sure. Christians? Possibly, though they’re usually older and scruffier. Mormons? Maybe – Mormons always dress conservative and a little old-fashioned. Scientologists? Perhaps – the younger one looked the spit of Tom Cruise.
Spotting me, they launched into their spiel: “Would you be excited to learn that there is a prophet on Earth who is speaking the Word of God??”
“Not really. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised – there’s a lot of them about nowadays. I go on the internet a lot, you know. There’s plenty of them out there, on the web.”
“Ummm…” You could hear their brains working – quick, what’s the script for this? Then: “Ah! Would like our card? It has a website address on it!”
“No thanks. Look if you guys want to be useful, one of you could open this sandwich packet for me. I’m really hungry.”
They looked at each other. Another short pause for brains to shuffle frantically through scripts. The older MiB nodded silently at Tom Cruise, who took the sandwich packet and spent a good thirty seconds manfully ripping it open.
I bestowed a genuine smile of gratitude on him as I took the packet back (I really was hungry). “Thank you!” I beamed, “You’ve just done a good deed. Now go away do do more good deeds!”
And I settled down to eating and waved them off.

I generally try to be nice to missionaries. Being nasty to them only makes them feel that they’re persecuted; for them, feeling persecuted means that they’re in the right. In the past, I’ve argued with them, but that’s usually a waste of energy; the ones who are picked for evangelism are chosen for their unwavering belief in their religion. But it’s often fun to mess with their heads a little and go wildly off-script.

So this morning, I got out of bed feeling like c**p – headachy, sinuses stuffed up, tired and aching. I’m waiting for an appointment to see an ENT specialist about my chronic sinusitis, but that will take weeks.
So I needed some cheering up. And I think I’ve managed it. Going through my emails, I found a Twitter notification that I was now being followed by somebody who described herself as a “Crystal Skull Explorer” (her capitalisation). Looking at her Twitter account, it was clear that she wasn’t exploring in the scientific sense.
I have no idea why such a person would decide to follow me. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned the subject on Twitter; and in fact, I haven’t used Twitter for months (like Facebook, it was taking up far too much of my time). Wondering what to do about this follower, it struck me that I could put my Twitter account to some good use. It took me only a matter of minutes to find this article and tweet it, with an ambiguous description so that she would at least click on the link and read some of it..
That felt quite satisfying. Then I turned to my blog feed and immediately found a link to this wonderful comic strip. It incorporates everything I feel about science and the world of learning. So I tweeted that as well.
The Crystal Skull Explorer probably won’t read it, but you never know. But now I feel cheered up – I’ve done my good deed for the day.

Well, I don’t know why, but yesterday’s post seem to have attracted unwelcome attention. The blog collected about five sp*m comments in the three months since my last post, but this morning I’ve had to blitz about 20 new bits of sp*m.
Anyway, it’s encouraged me to post again; well, that and the fact that I just had another reason to use Facebook less. S, one of my ‘friends’ (i.e. a FB ‘friend’, nobody I know in real life, just the friend of a friend of a friend….) posted a pic of a rusting bike grown into a tree, along with some glurgy tripe about how a boy had chained the bike to the tree in 1914, gone off to war and never came back to unchain, so we should remember those who never returned… glurgeglurgeglurge. If the story was true that boy must have had a time machine, since it was clearly a 1980s BMX bike. So I posted that the story was a fake. S angrily replied that I was a nitpicker and that the message was the important thing. I refrained from reminding him what would happen if the world’s nitpickers stopped checking every detail (nitpickers of the world unite!), just posted back that if the message held any truth, it could stand on its own without any sugary story-telling.
Anyway, it got me annoyed enough to get off Facebook and start a bit of work on the Diary. See you later, peeps.

ETA: Just about a minute after I published this post, it attracted a sp*m comment. Sigh.

One of my Facebook friends recently posted a link to the following:

“When he was still a young man, Beethoven decided to compose a few improvisations on a music by Pergolesi. He devoted months to this task and finally had the courage to publish it.
A critic wrote a full page review in a German newspaper in which he launched a ferocious attack on the music.
Beethoven, however, was quite unshaken by his comments. When his friends pressed him to respond to the critic, he merely said:
‘All I need to do is to carry on with my work. If the music I compose is as good as I think it is, then it will survive that journalist.
“If it has the depth I hope it has, it will survive the newspaper too.
“Should that ferocious attack on what I do ever be remembered in the future, it will only serve as an example of the imbecility of critics.’
Beethoven was absolutely right.
Over a hundred years later, that same review was mentioned in a radio programme in São Paulo.”

It came from the website of Paul Coehlo. If the name is unknown to you, he’s a popular New Age writer, penning “inspirational” fluff that appeals to many – a modern version of Patience Worth. Like Worth, Coehlo specialises in dispensing uplifting essays and tales in bite-sized lumps. Quite a lot of it falls, like this particular tale, into the category of glurge.
The term “glurge” was invented by Snopes to describe these type of stories. Very often passed on by email, they usually (though not always) involve some combination of Jesus, kittens and children; are invariably presented as true; are short; are intended to make the reader feel all fuzzy-warm inside without asking them to actually think. The Beethoven story lacks Jesus, kittens and kiddies, but fulfills the other requirements. So let’s examine this tale.

Did Beethoven ever compose any Pergolesi improvisations?
Almost certainly not. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710 – 1736) was an Italian composer of baroque music, comic operettas and sacred music. Almost unknown during his tragically short lifetime, his work became wildly popular in the decades after his death and many composers did in fact adapt his music. Beethoven wasn’t one of them; he composed some Bach improvisations, and the influences of both Mozart and Haydn can be detected in his early works. But he was proud of being original and Pergolesi’s baroque style wouldn’t have appealed to him anyway.
Did Beethoven ever get any bad reviews? Yes, but not many – most were favourable.
Did he ever say anything about his critics and / or his bad reviews? None that I can discover.
Is it possible that Coehlo is mistaken and the story is about some other composer? Maybe. Bach and Stravinsky are probably the best-known composers of Pergolesi reworkings; Coehlo wouldn’t be the first person to confuse Bach and Beethoven, and Stravinsky’s high opinion of his own genius was equaled by his loathing of critics. However, neither of these two appear to have written or said anything that resembles what Beethoven is alleged to have said. And no amount of web searches have yielded up comparable quotes from anybody else; in fact, all web-searches on key phrases from the story lead back to Coehlo (he likes it so much that he repeats it verbatim in at least three different places).
Could any contemporary review of Beethoven’s performance have been “mentioned in a radio programme in São Paulo over a hundred years later”? It depends on how you interpret “over”. Beethoven gave his last public concerts in 1824 and died in 1827. I’m not sure when public radio broadcasts started in Sao Paulo, but it probably wasn’t as early as the 1920s.

So, what’s left of the tale? A fictional anecdote relating the zinging comeback of a renowned historical figure to a critic who rubbished him. (Give the composer some made-up name, expand it, perhaps move it to the present day and change the composer to a temperamental genius music star – and you have the the first part of a possibly decent short story. But it badly needs an ending). It’s intended to make the reader feel good: That’s how you should respond to those pesky people who keep telling you you’re wrong! All those critics told Beethoven he was wrong! What do critics know?. Everybody likes to feel that they’re right, that they know better than others.
Reminding people that even Beethoven wouldn’t have got anywhere if nobody had ever told him he was playing the wrong notes or writing bad music would of course dilute that feel-good warmth; it would require the reader to think a little, and reflect that maybe he or she was doing something wrong, or could do something better. It would put them in serious danger of thinking and even – gasp! – gaining some self-knowledge.
So, next time you receive some mass-forwarded “This is SO true!!!” emailed story, just run it through your glurge filters, asking yourself why this story is trying to make you feel good about yourself.

Just had a look at the website of a local (minor) author – it’s one of the ugliest I’ve seen in a long while. It was produced by a supposedly professional design company. Going to their website and looking through their portfolio I found not only dozens of design-failure horrors – piss-poor in terms of visual design, SEO and coding – but also all of them appear to have been produced from the same basic site template. Their own website doesn’t look to bad on the surface, but underneath, it’s using the same template as all the others, with all the same coding errors. No professional web designer would let a site go live without checking the code in various validators – but this lot do it all the time; they even do it with their own site.
Gah. It actually pains me to see poor web design, with crap HTML, inline styling, tables, depreciated tags and all the rest – not to mention horrible visual appearance. Not from an amateur, mind, somebody who has built their own site; mistakes they make can all be forgiven. But again and again, I see people claiming to be web designers taking money off people for bad work and ugly UGLY sites. It makes me angry, but there’s not much I can do about it; there’s no professional body I can complain to. I can certainly rant about it on forums and blogs but that’s about it.
The internet is ugly sometimes, in more ways than one.

The last few weeks, I’ve been thinking quite hard about getting much more business-like with my web design work. The web has a lot of helpful advice for design freelancers who want to be more professional – John O’Nolan has a couple of good articles (it helps a lot that he’s British – US business practice doesn’t always translate).
One is on web-design mood cards, which are basically screen-shots of a wide variety of websites; looking through them will help a client define to you what they want their site to look like (“Something like no. 39 – but with much less black, and a lemony-coloured background, oh and a picture of my cat…”). They can be actual cards, or a web-page – O’Nolan has very helpfully designed templates for both, and you can download them for free. That’s deffo something that I’ll be doing.
The other useful article of his is on setting payment terms for clients (there are also lots of useful ideas in the comments section). After reading through it, I’ve decided that for future business clients, I’ll insist on 50% payment before I even start work, with the rest to be paid after the design is signed off but before the site goes live. In other words – no pay, no site.
Additionally, I’ll work up a questionnaire for clients – what the site is to be used for, will they want ecommerce facilities, who the site is aimed at etc – so that I’ll have a clear idea of what work is needed before I start. And I may even write out a contract for them – there are plenty of templates I can use.

Yes, this is the year I’m going to get my web design business sorted. No more “Um, will £X be OK?” or letting the client tell me what they’ll pay – yes, I’ve actually allowed that in the past, and got shamelessly ripped off. But that ain’t gonna happen again.

After yet another non-appearance of a cheque that was supposed to be on its way since well before Christmas, I’ve decided that all future business customers will have to pay a deposit (by Paypal, to forestall any more “the cheque’s in the post” excuses) before I start any work for them. I know times are hard, but I can’t afford to carry somebody else’s debt.
Mood: Grrrrrr.

Homeopathy with Dr. Werner

Dr Werner is a homeopath and here she claims that the latest discoveries in science prove homeopathy. Unfortunately, all her video proves is how staggeringly ignorant she is about science.
She confuses mass with density; she gets Einstein’s equation wrong; she thinks that Stephen Hawkings (sic) thought up String Theory (wrong); she says that String Theory means that the universe is full of “energetic particles shaped like U-ies” (eh…?); that electrons, neutrons etc are pure energy (wrong); that disease is the “transformation of our energy state into something different” (AARRRGHHH…..) and so on. Her view is that homeopathy is all about vibrations; we are vibrations, the universe is all vibrations; energy is vibrations; therefore homeopathy is true! (She uses the word “vibrations” in practically every sentence; I wanted to tell her “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”)
Why do these New Age types think they can talk about a science subject when they so obviously haven’t even bothered to read a few Wikipedia articles on the topic? Continue reading