24 Sep

Will I get sued if I put ‘pho’ in this title?

My local Vietnamese resaurant has a brilliant name. It’s called Mo Pho. I’m not that into Vietnamese food, and while I’ve enjoyed every meal I’ve had there, I think their brilliant name has brought me more pleasure than their food.

But it might not have that name for much longer, because piddling behemoth Pho thinks the world is too stupid to tell the difference between this little café and their Leeds-bound empire.

I’m annoyed by this, but I can’t help but find it all quite funny, too. Pho’s real problem seems to be that, instead of thinking of a distinctive name, they have just named themselves after what they sell. They’re a pho shop, so they called themselves ‘Pho’, and now they’re upset that other people who sell pho have the nerve to put the word ‘pho’ in their names. Imagine a world where KFC had left ‘Kentucky’ out of their name and sent threatening letters to every fried chicken shop in your town.

Of course, everyone knows that keeping a trademark alive means defending it against every tiny infringement. That’s the defence Pho have been using to justify their bullying. They don’t want their inaction to allow ‘pho’ to become a generic term. Presumably they’re working on a time machine to make this possible.

Still, they have every right to make sure we don’t confuse the Vietnamese dish pho with the restaurant chain Pho. And I’m grateful: I wouldn’t want to boycott a whole cuisine just because of my newfound dislike of Pho With A Capital P. But it would be nice if they kept the pretence up all the time, instead of putting this on their website:

‘Pho is so gratifying it is hard to believe it’s legal’ – Miami New Times

That isn’t a quotation about their restaurants. It’s a quotation about pho that they can to pass off as being about their restaurants because they have given their restaurants such a generic name. They want to have their pho and eat it. And they can, because they own ‘pho’. Apparently.

Update: As I was writing this, Pho called off their nonsense, which means we can now all enjoy their ridiculousness free from worry about how it affects small businesses.

05 Apr

iCaster: Turning iPlayer into podcasts

Wouldn’t it be nice if the huge number of radio programmes on the BBC iPlayer were also available as podcasts? Well, too bad. They’re not. You get the BBC’s arbitrary selection of their programmes, and that’s it.

I’m forever missing episodes or series or getting annoyed that I can’t reliably listen on my commute, so I decided to rustle something up to pull BBC radio programmes into my podcast app. I call it iCaster, because it seemed the obvious thing to call it.

iCaster is written in Python, and it doesn’t do very much, because more competent people than me have already made most of the necessary tools to make this happen. I just had to tie them together with my own poorly-made string. It uses:

  1. get_iplayer, which can download TV and radio from iPlayer and has a handy PVR function.
  2. Mutagen, a Python library, to read the tags of the files from iPlayer.
  3. PyRSS2Gen, another Python library, to generate the RSS feed.

It works using three scheduled tasks:

  1. get_iplayer’s PVR function is triggered, to check for and download new episodes to the iCaster audio directory.
  2. iCaster runs, scans the audio directory, and builds an RSS feed out of everything it finds.
  3. Files in the iCaster audio directory older than 14 days are deleted so that my server doesn’t fill up with old episodes of Just a Minute.

Make sure the feed and the episodes are somewhere your podcast app can see them, subscribe to the feed, and away you go. So far it’s working delightfully for me, although because radio programmes are quite conservatively trimmed for iPlayer you still run the risk of accidentally hearing a bit of the Archers at the start.

Here’s the script; you’ll need to edit it to fill in a couple of paths before it will work.

If you have any questions or improvements, drop me a line.

08 Feb

A restraining order for @grauniad

My stupid Twitter bot, @grauniad, got its first complaints during the last couple of months. One of them expressed frustration that whoever was behind the account persisted in mangling the Guardian’s every tweet despite the result manifestly not being all that funny. This critic was under the impression that some poor fool was running the account by hand and was still incapable of coming up with anything amusing, a misunderstanding that I think is far funnier than anything the bot has ever tweeted.

The other complaint was a bit weightier: it came from someone who felt it was inappropriate for the bot to mangle tweets about the Sandy Hook shootings. I’m not sure whether this critic had the same mistaken idea about how the account worked, or why he hadn’t taken issue with any of the other tragedies @grauniad had tweeted about, but I don’t like to see people upset, so I gave it some thought.

I don’t moderate @grauniad, and I don’t intend to start. As well as being a lot of work for little gain, I think it would be self-defeating. At the moment, the account is a mindless automaton, and being upset by what it produces is rather like getting annoyed at your Scrabble rack if it calls you ‘dickhead’ for pulling out too many tiles. To my mind, moderation by a human can only increase its capacity to offend.

This only holds if seeing the bot’s tweets is opt-in, which it generally is, because that’s how Twitter works. The exception comes when @guardian mentions someone, usually the author of an article. I don’t want an unpleasant @grauniad tweet launched into the mentions of someone who didn’t ask for it. So from now on, @grauniad has forgotten how to use mentions, and will just tweet un-@ed usernames in whatever mangled form it decides upon. That means the only way you can see an upsetting tweet from @grauniad now is if you asked for it – in which case it’s your fault – or if someone else showed it to you – in which case it’s their fault.

Sadly, this change won’t make it any funnier.

06 Dec

Weird weird news from the Telegraph

There’s some very odd stuff in the Telegraph’s ‘Weird News’ section. By which I mean that there’s stuff that isn’t odd in the way it ought to be. The Telegraph describes this section thus:

From the unusual to the funny and the downright bizarre,
we bring you a sample of weird news from around the world,
along with cartoons, blogs and games… because news
doesn’t have to be serious.

Let’s take a look at what they mean by that.

Plans for new east London ‘mega-mosque’ rejected by local council

Those crazy Muslims and their mega-mosques! Those crazy councils and their planning decisions!

Duchess of Cambridge pregnant: all worth it in the end, says young mother

Downright bizarre!

Weather: motorists face extreme conditions

Homes left underwater as Britain hit by more flooding

Anything about extreme weather seems to make its way into this section…

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange ‘has chronic lung condition’

Julian Assange: ‘extremist’ politicians handing WikiLeaks ‘economic death penalty’

…as does anything about Julian Assange, apparently.

Cardiac arrest survival rates ‘dire’ and not improving

Because news doesn’t have to be serious.

Justin Lee Collins ‘pushed girlfriend in front of car’

Intimate partner violence: quirky!

Inadequate tests ‘sending disabled back to work’

How about that, eh?


26 Oct

Enduring Vague Curiosity

After seeing the new Bond film, I’ve just noticed on IMDB that Ben Whishaw, who plays Q, was in the film of Enduring Love, which also starred Daniel Craig.

This caught my attention mainly because I developed a very slight fixation with Enduring Love after seeing the trailer as a teenager. Fixation is of course a rather appropriate response to have to Enduring Love, but I didn’t know that at the time because I didn’t have any lasting impression of what the film was about. Despite that, it somehow caught my attention, even as I completely failed to fix in my memory what it was called. I remembered the scene with the hot air balloon, and (entirely mistakenly) that it featured Jim Carrey in a rare serious role. The first of these might just have been enough for me to track down the film; the second neatly sabotaged my efforts.

Nothing came of this until I found a copy of the novel on one of my parents’ bookshelves. It had a balloon and a reference to a major film on the cover, which was basically enough to confirm that this was the book on which the film I had sustained a nagging interest in for a few years was based. By this time, that interest had decayed into curiosity about what the film was. The cover was enough to resolve that, and some rudimentary Googling was enough to disabuse me of my notion that the part of the mentally ill stalker was played by Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. Some time later, I finally got around to reading Enduring Love, and found it OK.

I still haven’t seen the film, but this tiny coincidence brought it to my mind. That coincidence is of course slightly boosted by the fact that the plot of Enduring Love is driven by someone falling out of the sky. I looked up the trailer on YouTube. At the very start of it, Daniel Craig puts a lot of emphasis on the word ‘bond’, and then Rhys Ifans (who looks nothing like Jim Carrey) says ‘Everything happens for a reason’. I feel this final brace of coincidences, together with the manifest untruth of the latter statement, brings this minor obsession to a close, and I can safely never think about it again unless I decide at some point to actually watch the unremarkably-received film of a novel I enjoyed a bit.

Incidentally, the trailer I’ve linked above features the name ‘Rhys Ifans’ in large capital letters, and doesn’t feature the name ‘Jim Carrey’ in any letters at all. I have decided that this is not the trailer I saw.

18 Sep

A rubbish word game

This tedious challenge popped into my head the other day. How long a chain of words can you make by adding one letter at a time to a starting word? For example:


You’re not obliged to start from a single letter, but it provides some easy steps.

Alternative rules:

  • disallow pluralization
  • allow changing one letter, word-ladder style, but not twice in succession
  • allow removing a letter instead of adding one, without repeating words

Post your best chains in the comments – or don’t, because this genuinely isn’t a very interesting game.

25 Aug

Announcing the winner of my recycling

The world’s greatest short story competition came to a close at the start of this month, and after a long judging process that has mainly involved going to work, doing lots of washing up and having a cold, I have chosen a winner.

It was a difficult decision: the field was very strong, and the fact that I had the minimum number of entries required to hold a competition meant that there was less opportunity for a stand-out entry to take the prize.

The winner is Paul Kilbey’s story about H from steps drinking a lot of gin. I would justify my decision, but I don’t think the absurdity of Paul’s story can be expressed by anything other than the story itself. I am a little worried about him.

You can read more evidence of Paul’s loose grip on reality at Pleasure Notes/Pure Seal Tones. He also does sensible writing about music and things but I don’t understand that quite as much.

Paul wins one of my used index cards every month for a year, starting in September.

25 Aug

Competition entry: Paul Kilbey

H from Steps was alone at last. Being fun-loving is exhausting, he mused to himself, as he stubbed out his cigarette and reclined into a bean bag. His friends never seemed to understand that “H” didn’t really stand for “Hyperactive,” as he used to tell journalists for a laugh, but for “Hushed,” “Heartbroken,” “Hurt.” Yes, that’s right, he mumbled, reaching for the gin. My friends don’t understand my pain. Maybe I should have called myself “P,” for “Pained” and “Pathetic.” How different, he thought, my life would be, if I had been P not H.

For starters, he’d never have got recruited for Steps if his name had been a homonym of an excretory function. There was just no way. So I’d probably just have stayed put at Butlins, where I used to work, he thought to himself, the cold glass rim of the gin bottle pressed between his lips like a delicious glass penis filled with gin, he thought to himself. And then what would have happened? I’d have spent my whole life smiling at wankers, telling them which way to the beach or whatever, and they’ve have been like, “Thanks.”

And another thing, right, if I’d been “P,” he realised, as he tilted up his arm slowly and watched the slim trickle of remaining gin creep gently up the bottle and felt an expectant rush within his lips, I’d have got the shit kicked out of me at high school. And he realised as well that if he’d said to his bullies “No but guys, it’s cos I’m pained and pathetic,” that would have just made it worse. It would, in fact, have made him deserve it somewhat. There really would have been no escape from a young-adulthood of pain, opprobrium and obloquy. He would perhaps have had to change his name.

But at least, he wondered, the final drip of gin at last reaching his throat with a sweet burning tang like the first touch of a poisoned mushroom in the heavy August rain in Kent, I would have been spared this tortured life of semi-famous hell, in which my friends assume I love to dance and sing and laugh. I don’t! he mentally exclaimed, suddenly aware again of the empty gin bottle protruding vertically from his mouth, his anger only intensified by its tyrannous right-angled precision; I don’t at all!

Those bastards! he exclaimed out loud, deciding in a flash to hurl the bottle at the chic neo-modernist plain white wall to his right, as if within this empty bottle were contained the spirits of all his many enemies and everything his life had come to stand for; they take and they never give! And the thought: I have gone too far, flashed immediately through his mind as the bottle went from being bottle to being numerous inadequate bottles with no plausible reservoir section, because it smashed against the wall, because actually my friends do care for me. Perhaps they are just trying to cheer me up, when they force me to smoke loads of drugs and party.

But that’s not who I am, he resolved, wearily pressing his arms down into the bean bag in a mediocre effort to stand up, much like a newborn foal, he mused, unsure of how to use its limbs but dimly conscious that if it didn’t then life was going to be pretty rubbish and wet: I’m an artist. And I will write a story. That is how I will channel my feelings. Into a story.

It shall not be a story about me, H from Steps decided, resting half-way to the vertical on one knee and simultaneously scouting for a pen but seeing only broken glass around him, like an over-eager vulture surveying a normal picnic; then he found one; but it shall be about someone whom I am not; some stranger; some… P. He pulled himself into a standing position with a heave reminiscent of how an unfit man would pull himself into a standing position at some other point in time, and sat down again, with a pen.

25 Aug

Competition entry: Boiled Egg for Breakfast by Frederick Forsyth, by Chris Taylor

He replaced the spoon on the plate. Most people think that spoons should be made of silver, but they are wrong. Silver is a relatively soft metal, expensive, and tarnishes in the presence of atmospheric sulphides. Jacobs’ spoon was stainless steel: cheaper, harder and infinitely more versatile. It had already been used on the egg that stood before him, supported by its specially designed ceramic container. The steel edge of the spoon had fractured the shell exposing the layers below.

Just below the outer case of an egg is a layer of albumen. This is normally a transparent liquid but, when subjected to temperatures in excess of 60C, its protein is denatured and it becomes a white, plastic solid. This egg had been immersed in water at 100C for more than 3.5 minutes. An area of albumen had been lifted clear, using the same stainless steel implement, to reveal a yellow layer beneath. This inner layer, insulated by the albumen, still retained its fluidity, though this was not apparent to the casual observer, being masked by an invisible membrane.

Bread, particularly the white sliced variety, has little mechanical strength, especially if the outer edge has been removed. Jacobs knew though, that when bread is subjected to high temperatures for the right length of time, the processes of dehydration and partial carbonisation produce a hard, textured surface. He had several such pieces of bread before him now, each one precisely cut to be just narrower than the removed area of albumen.

He selected one, and applied a thin layer of congealed milk solid, known as butter. He took care over this, working quickly so that the surface of the bread did not soften. There are those who frown on the use of butter, believing that its long term use can damage the cardiovascular system. Jacobs had no time for such concerns. His life held danger enough without worrying about minuscule risks.

He paused only to sprinkle a few milligrams of crystalline sodium chloride on to the target area before plunging his bread into the central part of the egg. The flimsy membrane was no match for the thermally hardened bread and there was barely any resistance. After precisely 2 seconds, Jacobs extracted the bread, its newly acquired yellow coating blending with the melted butter. Perfect.