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Most workers aren't paid enough. That, in my opinion, is true in the developed world as well as the developing world (which I will be calling the Third World in the rest of this opinion... apologies if that's not politically correct enough). The minimum wage is to rise to just over four quid an hour later this year, but that's still an insulting amount to pay an adult who is trying to support a family. I'll leave Marxism for another day, though, and try to tackle the issue at hand. While a worker who only takes home £200 for a long week in this country may be unhappy that his children will be picked on at school when they turn up in clothes that don't have designer labels on, we should, of course, spare a thought for the children of the same age who get paid pennies to make those designer label clothes in the first place. We all know that the workers in some parts of the Third World are treated dreadfully. Children are practically sold by parents who have been forced so far into poverty that they have no choice but to give them up and are treated like slaves by their employers. Often they are given only enough wages to give the money back to their employers in return for food and shelter, and they can be forced to work for over 15 hours a day. We all know this, and we all agree that it's awful. We all agree that it has to stop, yet it still goes on, and we still benefit from it. All manner of goods would be more expensive if Third World employers were forced to pay their employees properly and to make sure that they had proper working conditions, from food and clothing to machinary and electronics. Assuming that we're all prepared to put up with higher prices in return for better conditions and pay for those who make our goods, what can be done? The description for this catagory focuses our minds on two options: boycotting goods made with slave labour and paying mor for ethically made goods or trying to
put a stop the the exploitation of the workers all together. The former of these is the one that gains the most popularity. English people can get very excited about boycotting a product for ethical reasons. Unfortunately, even if very large numbers of people boycott a certain product, it doesn't do it much harm unless the numbers are large as a percentage of the entire population. Thousands of people are boycotting Esso this year, but millions more are too lazy to find somewhere else to fill up, so they don't care. Some of the companies most famous for using child labour are those which, ironically, are very popular with the young. Knowing that Nike treat their workers badly is all well and good, but if a child is worried that he will be bullied if he doesn't wear it he won't feel much better when you tell him that he can explain to everyone that he's wearing Green Flash trainers for moral and ethical reasons. More importantly, though, it's almost impossible to know who to target with a boycott. A few companies, such as Nike and Cadburys have become famous for their poor treatment of workers, but it is true to say that almost every Western company based in the Third World treats their workers far worse than they would be able to in this country. Those who don't go out of business quickly as they are so uncompetative. This means that our only real choice is to try to stamp out unethical labour treatment all together. But how? The idea that the West can somehow wave a magic wand and tell people in Africa and Asia what to do is implausible. If we can't get peole in Zimbabwe to stop shooting each other, how are we going to stop them from paying below the regulation amount to their workers? For that matter, if we can't stop people in London from employing illegal immigrants for a pound an hour, how are we going to do anything by remote control? The only tools that our country would have at
its disposal in a fight such as this is to threaten sanctions against other countries or companies. We could tell Indonesia that unless they create and enforce labour laws to protect children, we would no longer trade with them. We could tell Nike that unless they produce their gear ethically, they aren't allowed to sell them in this country. Even if the political willpower was there, these threats would be useless unless other countries joined us. Sadly, the Americans for one would be far less happy than us to agree to anything that might harm their economy or push prices up for their consumers. On our own, we would be achieving very little, and the sanctions would be harmfull. Refusing to trade with Third World countries would be very damaging to our economy, and refusing to trade with individual companies would result in floods of grey import goods turning up here. So on an even smaller scale, what can the individual do? When I walk into a shop, how do I know whether the goods I'm considering buying were made with unethical labour? I could ask the 17 year old behind the counter, but he wouldn't be able to tell me. I could just stick to the brands which I hear in the press employ slave labour, but that doesn't seem very reasonable. I could write to my MP, but she's a Liberal Democrat and, while I vote for them every chance I get, is unlikely to ever be involved in an important decision. Or I could sit around with my friends that it's a really, really terrible situation and that something should be done about it.
Heat used to be a good magazine. What on Earth went wrong? When did Heat change from being a quality magazine to being a trash-filled overblown gossip column? I was a very keen reader of Heat in the early days. From the very first month (yes, I know it's a weekly magazine, but I started getting it at around issue 3, so I'm saying the first month) I loved it and decided never to miss an issue. I was trying out a whole load of different magazines, trying to find a weekly that had a good TV guide. The Radio Times was all right, but focused on soaps and period dramas too much, and the other TV listing weeklies were too downmarket to grab my attention. Heat really had me hooked, though. Honest, barbed movie reviews, inspired CD Reviews and charts of which TV shows had managed the best viewing figures, with an analysis of the major battles of the week. The TV listings were great, giving enough of the plot of episodes of each show to help you work out whether you'd seen them before or whether they were going to be interesting without spoiling the show for you (unlike Radio Times which often gives away the big surprises of an episode). The weeks choices were good as well. Many newspapers and TV magazines have a column called "today's choices" and fill it with TV shows that they want to talk about rather than the day's best TV shows. They'll include a piece of Reality TV just so that they can talk about how terrible it is and ignore the quality shows. Heat tried to actually choose the best shows so that they could advise you to watch them. They had some brilliant features, such as a whole page of quotes from Norm out of Cheers or a whole page of silly answers given in Family Fortunes ("Name something a blind man might use." "A sword.") and they even had some book reviews full of quality books rather than easy-reading drossy romance novels. Within the first yea
r, though, the magazine started to change. Out went the quality book reviews and in came one book a month, usually either written about the music industry or by someone like David Beckham. The number of pages given to TV listings changed from four per day to two per day, meaning that terrestrial and satellite had to be squeezed onto the same page and that the information about each show had to be written in one line. Out went the interesting news about TV shows that were being made and in came pictures of Geri Halliwell. Who on Earth wants to look at pictures of Geri Halliwell? There are magazines designed for that sort of thing; people can read Hello and see pictures of famous people and their homes or they can read the Sun or the Star to see pictures of famous people walking around in the streets or on the beach. Why put them in Heat? Out went the quality shows being picked as the day's choice viewing and in came features about Dawson's Creek! Dawson's Creek, for those of you who don't know, is a teen show full of people who refuse to speak a single sentence which has less than 20 words in, and at least 5 of those with more than 5 syllables. A bunch of 25 year olds who look like they're in their early 30s play 16 year olds who almost kiss each other and then spend weeks overanalysing their actions. I don't know what kind of people watch the show, but I suspect that they're the kind of people who read Smash Hits, Sugar or Just 17. Why can't the show remain limited to those magazines? They've got pictures of Geri Halliwell in as well. As if to highlight the changes, they introduced a column called "They're just like you and me". Each week there was a picture of a celebrity doing something normal. Like Meg Mathews buying a pint of milk, Jordan going into a newsagent or George Michael going into a public toilet. Actually, I made that last one up. You can te
ll by the fact that it might actually have led to something interesting! That wouldn't have been the point of the feature, they purposely designed it to be full of people not doing anything interesting whatsoever! I finally stopped buying Heat when Big Brother started on TV and they started getting obsessed with it. I don't have the slightest interest in watching a load of normal people doing normal things unless they're normal people who I know, in which case I'll just walk into a room with them. If I want to see someone who isn't famous clean some dishes, I'll go to my kitchen. There's a certain amount of interactivity there as well, since whoever's cleaning the dishes will force me to join in and help. Now I know what a lot of you are going to say. You're going to tell me that there's a big market for this type of thing. You're going to tell me that lots of people want to read about Big Brother, see pictures of Geri Halliwell and read in-depth interviews with actors out of Dawson's Creek (containing questions such as "What's the best thing about being famous", "Are you anything like your character" and "Why is Dawson's Creek so great?"). Maybe that's true, but so what? Why did they have to ruin a perfectly good magazine to cater for that market? Why couldn't they create a new magazine and leave Heat be? Why couldn't they find a magazine such as Sugar or Hello that were similar to that already and read by the kind of people who want to see pictures of celebrities not really doing very much and change them slightly? And why on Earth aren't there any magazines written for blokes who can read and who aren't interested in finding out which car could theoretically go the fastest if you weren't sitting in a traffic jam, which you always are if you live in London? Sorry... Rant over...
I saw this category a few weeks ago, but it wasn't until recently that I actually looked at it and thought of it as a real debate. The Moon landings have always seemed like fact to me, a historical event that no one could doubt actually happened. It all took place long before I was born, which is enough to make me assume that we know everything that we ever will about them. But on Saturday, I ended up getting into an argument with someone who I thought of as knowledgeable and intelligent about them. He informed me that it was a well known fact that they never really happened and that they were faked. What? Now the idea of someone who's name isn't Bubba and who doesn't live in the American Midwest believing that there was a huge multi-billion dollar conspiracy to hide the truth from the regular people of Earth is strange enough, but for him to claim that it is a well known fact is just too much. I immediately pointed out that there were too many people involved in the mission, that there were so many thousands of people involved that it would be impossible to get every single one of them to keep quiet. There are also thousands upon thousands of rocket scientists who have looked at all of the equations and graphs and who have decided that it is definitely scientifically feasible for the Apollo rocket to have landed on the moon. Surely with this many people involved a few of them would have come forward if it was all a big lie, I argued. He reminded me that many of the people involved in the mission had come forward, but that they were all dismissed as crazy or greedy for attention or money. He's right about that, I've seen people involved with the mission in the tabloids or on the internet denouncing the landings, and that's one of the reasons that I don't trust the news from the tabloids or the internet. He also pointed out that scientists get their foundation from schools
and universities and that those institutions are controlled by the Governments. If any scientist were to challenge the big beliefs that all scientists hold, he will be treated like a fool and an outcast. Furthermore, he explained that most of the people involved with the mission and with the science surrounding it were Americans who could quite easily be convinced by their Government that it was in the best interest of their country for everyone to believe that the Moon landings were real. The whole point of the landings was to strike a moral blow against the Russians, and no good American would want the Russians to regain that moral advantage and use it to take over the world, would they? My next approach was to try to go on the offensive myself. Rather than trying to defend the idea that they did happen, I'd make him defend the idea that they didn't. Was there even one reason to suspect that the moon landings were a hoax, I asked him. The flag flaps in the wind when planted in the moon. This couldn't happen on the moon as there is no atmosphere or wind. I tried to argue that it didn't so much flap as flop as it was being moved by the person holding it. He went on to say that when we see the men jump on the moon, they fall back to Earth far too quickly. I tried to argue that they do fall more slowly than they would on Earth, but he pressed me on this point and reminded me that the gravity on the moon is a tiny, tiny fraction of what it is on Earth and that they should have stayed in the air for at least ten times as long as they actually did. Realising that he had me on the back foot, he moved on to the fact that there were no stars in the background. There was no cloud cover and the moon has no atmosphere, so the light from the stars should be far, far more visible than it is anywhere on Earth yet in every single picture we've ever seen taken on the moon there isn't a single star in the backgroun
d. "Ha!" I thought, "I've got him now!" The reason that there are no stars is that the unadulterated light of the sun shining off the white space suits and the white moon creates a very bright light meaning that the photographs would have to have their brightness (or their shutter speed) adjusted to cope. Thus, in comparison to the bright whiteness, the entire sky was as good as black. I thought I was onto a winner here, so I hit him with what I believed was my strongest argument. A conspiracy of this size would cost billions! The money it would cost to employ thousands of people who thought that they were involved in the mission, the cost of keeping thousands more who were in jobs where they would have noticed that they weren't landing on the moon quiet, the cost of creating such good images of the moon that looked so realistic, the cost of defrauding the scientific community and, possibly biggest of all, the cost of actually launching a rocket. Even if they didn't go to the moon, they did launch one and there were a lot of people watching it leave the ground. Why would they spend all these billions on a hoax? Why spend all of that money on getting a picture of a man with an American flag in a big of rock? Even by the time I'd finished saying it, I'd noticed the flaw in the argument that had sounded so good in my head; all this may have been expensive but it would have been cheaper than actually landing on the moon, but with the same result. A picture of a man with an American flag in big bit of rock was all they wanted anyway, and those of us who don't believe the conspiracy are still prepared to believe that they'd throw all that money down the toilet. He didn't convince me. I still believe that man has walked on the moon and that Neil Armstrong was the first one to do so. I'm not quite so dismissive of the other side of the argument any more, though, and
I can see why so many people believe that the whole thing was a huge cover up.
There's a song being played a lot on MTV and the radio at the moment called "Girls Like Shopping". The video shows a group of about four girls in a department store, disappearing behind curtains in changing rooms trying on all sorts of different clothes, coming out in different outfits each time, smiling and grinning at each other then leaving each shop with an ever increasing number of bags hanging off their arms looking happier and happier as they are weighed down with clothes. The whole video reminds most men watching of a point that is relevant to this review: Men don't like shopping. From the 8 year old boy who has to try on four identical pairs of trousers only to be asked questions like "Is this one more comfortable" and "Do you think this one's long enough?" by his mother to the old man who realises that all of his shirts are worn out and he's going to have to buy some new ones, men HATE shopping. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Anything that can be bought quickly and easily and then spoken about at length defies this rule. That's why games consoles are sold as one big box. You pick up the box, walk up to the counter, pay for it and then walk out of the shop. As long as there's no queue, you can be in and out of the shop in less time than it takes to down a pint. There is one more exception, though. Men often enjoy looking at cool new stuff. If it's something that we've never seen before and which looks interesting (and which we can talk about in the pub later), then we're prepared to spend a few minutes looking at it. This is why The Gadget Shop is one of the only shops on Earth where men can actually enjoy the shopping experience. They've got massage chairs that you can try out in the shop and a range of inflatable furniture unmatched by any other "try before you buy" stores. They've got little robotic dogs that stop moving if yo
u shout at them and models of animals dressed in bondage gear and trying out some BDSM (you don't believe me? Go take a look in the shop!). They've got shot glasses with funny jokes about booze printed on them, and an entire chess set made out of shot glasses (for the alternative rules game where you have to take the obvious forfeit when one of your pieces is killed). Last time I was in there, they had a ball the size of a football that turned into a wire grid a meter and a half across if you tried to pick it up (it's difficult to explain without a diagram). It provided a few minutes of amusement in the shop as my friends and I all tried it out, and a few hours of amusement in the pub later as we tried it out after 9 pints. They also do room decorations. I don't mean the nice little framed pictures of country cottages that are on offer in most department stores, I mean things like those cool balls filled with lightning, stuff that your friends will be impressed by if they come round. Of course, practically everything in the shop is a waste of money. The ball that turns into a giant grid is stashed away under my bed and will probably be sold on Ebay in the next few weeks (it would have ended up in a car boot sale a few years ago), but unlike stuff from most shops, most of the stuff that the Gadget Shop has on offer is actually fun to buy. One final word on the Gadget Shop. Most women hate it. There are some girls who think that the stuff is cool and who will have just as much fun as the blokes playing with it all in the shop, but a lot don't. If your girlfriend likes shopping for clothes, then think twice about taking her with you to the Gadget Shop with you... unless you actually want a two hour argument about what counts as a waste of money and how buying an expensive dress and wearing it once could make anybody "feel better"...
I wrote an opinion on Ebay yesterday and gave it five stars. It deserved these stars as it's a terrific place to trade whether you're buying or selling. Sellers can hope to get the most anyone's prepared to pay for whatever they're selling and buyers can trawl through the thousands and thousands of lots trying to find something that's going for far below what would be a fair price for it. The main thing that contributes to my personal addiction is the buying of items. I may check well over once a day to see what prices have been bid for them, but it's buying that will keep me online for hours at a time. The main reason for this is that every lot ends at a different time. It's not like a regular auction where you can sit in your chair for an hour and see the start and end of bidding for every single item, bids can end at any time including the middle of the night. Each category or subcategory shows every lot in it in the order of when they're going to end. When you select a category, you see at the very top of the page those ending in the next few minutes with the later ones going down the page. If you're in a very busy category (such as PAL Videos), there may be an entire page of items whose bidding finishes in the next few minutes. For many items on Ebay you'll need to stay online until the end of the auction. If you're bidding £2 for an item you know to be worth double that, you need to stay online in case someone out-bids you. You may think that putting in a higher bid yourself and letting the Ebay computers bid against other bidders up to your highest bid for you would be a good idea in these circumstances, but often all that achieves is having your opponents putting in an even higher bid. All well and good for the seller, but no use for you. So what you must often do is keep the bidding window open and keep reloading the page to see whether there've been any more bids.
Ebay is famous for it's "snipers", people who won't bid during the auction as they're worried that the price will be pushed up by their actions, but who will arrive in the final moments of the auction to put in a higher bid. The worst example of this in the past was when I was watching an item that I'd bid on to make sure that no one had outbid me. With five seconds left I was still the highest bidder. I hit reload and found out that the auction had ended and that someone else was the highest bidder. Looking at the bid history I realised that he had put a higher bid in just three seconds from the end of the auction. Thus, I will regularly end up with a subcategory in front of me where I've made several bids and have to study them one by one to see whether I'm going to be sniped. If there's a slow moment, say five minutes between one auction I'm interested in ending and the next, I'll look at the rest of Ebay to see whether there's anything else worth bidding on... which means that I'll be in the same position when they're ending. Some addictions are considered a bad thing while others aren't. People who tell their friends that they're addicted to coffee or their daily newspaper say it in a way that they wouldn't consider broadcasting an addiction such as alcoholism or an addiction to gambling. So which type is an Ebay addiction? I don't think that being addicted to Ebay is a bad thing. I enjoy shopping on Ebay far more than I'd enjoy shopping in a real shop (in that I enjoy one and hate the other), and I find watching multiple items to see whether anyone's trying to outbid me to be a pleasure rather than a chore. It means that I spend hours on the internet, but I would anyway, whether it's to read DooYoo opinions, to read a back catalogue of cartoons (Dilbert and This Modern World are personal favourites of mine on the internet) or to play games
of Backgammon or Bridge against international opponents, I'd be spending hours on end on the internet anyway. There is, of course, the matter of cost. If you get over-excited when bidding, you may end up paying far more for an item than you would otherwise want to. Of course, this is a problem wherever you shop. Many's the time that I've come back from HMV with a new CD, put it on and wondered why on earth I paid £15 for it, but many people find that it's an even bigger problem in an auction... and that they don't have the choice of taking their item back and asking for store credit. I've had a cheque book for about 4 years. In the first three and a half, I used three cheques (I actually only wrote 2, I filled the other one in wrongly and had to throw it away). In the past six months, I've written well over 50. I do occasionally wonder as I receive my bank statement whether I really should have written the cheques for £40 or £50, but I try to remind myself that each of the lots I bid on was worth more to me than I paid for it. The only real advice I can give is to bear in mind the value of the money you're paying for whatever you bid on. I personally find that it helps to take physical money out of my wallet and to put down in front of the computer the amount that I'm bidding, adding more coins as I up my bid. If I'm trying to decide whether to up my bid again, I try to look at the actual cash and decide whether I'd be prepared to hand it over for whatever I'm buying if it were on sale in a shop. To be honest, that final step also adds to the excitement of the bidding, especially if a number of lots are ending very close to one another in time and I have to make separate piles of cash... though it does all look a little bid ridiculous if anyone walks into the room while that's happening...
Over the past few years, Ebay has managed to become one of the major institutions of the internet. It's becoming as famous as Amazon, and it looks far more likely to one day make a profit. But there's something far more important than that, it's one of the few sites that everyone can see the point in. Amazon simply lets you buy books. Sure, they're cheap, but they're still just the same books that you can go to your high street and buy. The most profitable sites on the internet, the porn sites, are simply giving you a digital version of what you can buy from a newsagent or from your friendly sex-shop proprietor. With the obvious exception of this site, auction sites are the only sites on the internet which are genuinely useful and which deserve to make money (well, the only one I can think of off the top of my head, I'm sure you'll all leave more examples in the comments section...). Furthermore, Ebay is the best of the lot (no pun intended). First of all, what's so great about auctions sites? Despite what economists would have you believe, supply and demand doesn't work in practice, as most of the things we buy these days aren't naturally occurring commodities but manufactured goods, the more demand there is for most products, the cheaper they are. A book on the bestsellers list can be bought for £5.99 while a rare book that almost no one wants to read can cost ten times that amount (trust me, I have to buy a new set of university books every year). The latest Britney Spears album can be bought easily, and there are so many different shops selling it that you'll have no trouble shopping around. If you want a copy of The Servant's latest offering, you'll have a lot more trouble finding a cheap copy. Auctions bring the freedom back into free market economics. If nobody is willing to pay more than a certain price for an item, you can buy it for that price. They may also be better f
rom the point of view of the seller. If you're trying to sell, say, your old SNES second hand, auctions can be a fantastic way to do it. If you'd been trying to flog it in a classifieds magazine such as Loot, you'd have had the difficulty of trying to decide whether to offer it for £20 and walk away with some easy money or offering it for £50 and risk not being able to find a buyer. An auction raises an obvious answer to this problem. With regular auction houses, there are a few problems, though. For a start, many are only prepared to take on fairly valuable items. That's fine if you're trying to sell an antique chair, but not so great if you're trying to flog the Blur album that you're fed up of listening to. There's no problem like this on Ebay, I saw a jar of Marmite on offer the other day (it was going for 40p when I looked). Another big problem with many auctions from the point of view of the seller is that there may not be enough people in the audience to get a fair price. Those auctions that don't specialise in valuable antiques are often very, very general. This can be a huge problem if you're selling something that only a small number of people will be interested in, such as an old textbook teaching people how to write programmes in BASIC. There's no such problem on an online auction site. Thousands (if not millions) of people visit Ebay every day, and most of them are prepared to put in reasonable bids on whatever they like. I was recently pleasantly surprised to see some of the computer games I put up on offer go for very fair prices. Many of them would only run on another Mac OS compatible computer, so only a small percentage of people would have any reason to consider bidding for them. An online auction like Ebay is also far more convenient than a regular auction. Rather than physically step out of your house to go to an auction and then sit through the bidding for all of th
e lots that you have no interest in, you simply log on and look at the category full of items that you do want. It's here that Ebay really comes into it's own. I've recently been trying to buy some old English coins (yes it's a sad hobby, but I find it interesting). I went to the category of UK coins and was given the choice between looking at everything in this category in order of when they're going to finish or to go into further subcategories. Choosing the latter I could view, say, all of the half-crowns on offer. Next to a one line description of each of these items was the currant top offer. Simply clicking the line took me to a longer description (from a few words to a few pages depending on what was input by the seller) and a photo of the item. I was told how many days, hours and minutes until the bidding closed and was given the chance to put my offer into a box. I could then quit my web browser and be informed by E-mail if I was outbid or if the auction ended and I was the highest bidder. The layout is aesthetically pleasing and also fully functional, and the pages usually load very quickly. Sometimes the pictures take a while to load if they are being held on the buyer's own server (or his Geocities server space or something like that), but that can hardly be blamed on Ebay. The communication from Ebay is excellent, and their E-mails are uniform enough to allow you to set up a filter to stop it from interfering with your other work. I have been involved in about 40 transactions so far, and I've never encountered any problems. Of course, I've heard stories of people who've been duped or victims of shill-bidding (when the seller or his friends bid for the item themselves in an attempt to make you put in a higher bid), but you have to be wary of that risk and keep your wits about you. Once each auction is over, whether you were buying or selling, you can leave feedback for the o
ther person and they for you. This feedback, a single line accompanied by whether your experience was Positive, Neutral or Negative, can be viewed by anyone who is considering dealing with a trader in the future. Signing up to Ebay is quick and easy. That, of course, isn't necessarily a good thing. You do marvel as you sign up how easy it would be for someone dishonest to do the same without giving away any personal details that can be viewed if there are any serious problems with them. Other than that, there's only one problem with Ebay, the risk that you may end up getting addicted. As there's a separate category on Ebay for addiction to Ebay, I won't cover that subject here... Instead I'll write another opinion to put in that category in the next couple of days. In conclusion, go to the site and take a look. Even if you don't want to bid, just take a look at a few of the items and what prices they're going for and think about whether you'd be happy as the buyer or seller in any of the examples. If the answer is yes, you know what to do... ==UPDATE== I've now written an opinion on Ebay addiction in the "Home > Shopping > Online Shops > Online Auction Sites > ebay.co.uk > Ebay Addiction " catagory.
Right, let's get one thing out of the way right from the start: the Final Fantasy games. I've been a fan of the Final Fantasy series for years. I've played and finished every game that was released for the NES and the SNES, even though I was a bit disappointed by the Playstation games, so I consider myself a little bit of an expert on the series. This film shares pretty much nothing with the games apart from the title. There are no characters from the games (well, apart from Dr. Sid who bears a slight resemblance to a character of the same name from one of the games) and there aren't even any in jokes about turn based combat games. Now that that's out of the way, let's look at the actual film. It's been touted as the first ever "proper" film to do without actors totally and have every character be computer generated. By "proper", I mean that the characters aren't meant to look like 3D cartoons like they do in Toy Story or Shrek, but that it's a proper film that just happens to use computers instead of actors. Are the computer generated images any good? Yes they are. Even just from the trailers you can tell that these are the most realistic characters ever to be created with a computer. The thing that usually gives most computer generated characters away is their hair. No matter how good a job is done on the rest of them, their hair never moves realistically. The company is reported to have spent millions on the main character's hair. It shows. Although it's still the weakest graphic of the film, it actually behaves almost like a real person's hair (thankfully all of the other characters are either bald or have super-short army haircuts, so just the one character needs good hair). Now, you're not going to be fooled into believing that this is a regular movie with real actors, but when you start getting into the film, you can easily stop thinking about it and en
joying it as a regular movie. Once you start doing this, however, you may realise that the rest of the movie is rather weak. Far too many of the scenes seem to be giving the animators a chance to show off, and there are far too many holes in the plot. Thankfully, there's just enough of a plot there to keep you satisfied while you're enjoying the special effects. One of the best things about doing a film in this way is that the writers aren't constrained in what sets they can use. In one scene the characters are in a bay of a space ship that holds another vessel. The bay is a couple of miles across, but the scene is still able to look good. In a show such as Star Trek, a scene like this would either use an unrealistically small bay or make it obvious that the actors are being super imposed over a set. Obviously, this is not a problem for the computer generated characters. The plot isn't groundbreaking, but it is vaguely interesting, and there are interesting revelations to explain how things got to be how they were at the beginning of the film. We do get into these revelations a bit quickly, though, and the characters do seem to solve mysteries that we hadn't had a chance to notice existed a couple of times. The dialogue is nothing special, but it is reasonably good. Some of the inter character relations aren't that good, but that's because the writers are trying to shove so many characters into the film. The dialogue did have me laughing out loud a couple of times, so I shouldn't criticise it too much. The mysticism and the idea of the Earth having a soul was interesting, but this was never explored in a philosophical way, simply as a doorway to more action. The main bad guy didn't believe that the Earth had a soul. We are expected to think badly of him because of this, even though the film never suggests any real reason why he should be convinced. Although the writers clearly meant his
characters to be one of the most rounded (he is trying to do what's best for the humans, but is misguided), it comes off as one of the worst, being both unrealistic and confusing. Does this film spell the end for actors? There were still actors doing the voices, of course, and at one point I thought I recognised one of them as the actress who plays Roz, the radio assistant in Frasier. I enjoyed hearing a familiar voice and wanted to see more of that character. Does that show that a familiar actor is still very important to me in a film? There is a certain amount of novelty in this film, and that certainly makes it worth seeing. When the technology gets just a little bit better, we may not care whether there are real people in a film, so it will be nice to have seen the emergence of the technology the whole way through. One final point about the name of the film. I've been playing the games for so many years that I didn't think about the meaning of the words at all, but a few minutes before going to cinema, I told a friend that I was going to the Cinema. "Final Fantasy?" she said, giving me a strange look after I told her the name of the film, "What is that, some sort of porno film?"
It's not fair. I shouldn't have to be typing this with a keyboard and using a mouse navigate my computer. It's 2001, my computer was supposed to be intelligent by now. I was supposed to be able to have a chat with it, and it would understand me however I spoke! What do we really have? Is there any AI out there to use? There's The Sims, with the little men who complain and clutch themselves if they haven't used the toilet lately. The first time they do it they seem like real people who are feeling discomfort and a longing to use the bathroom. By the tenth time, you realise that it's just a predetermined set of frames that play out every single time a variable which signifies how full their bladder is reaches a certain number. Just before the election, I amused myself for hours (well, minutes) with a web site called "My little Tony" (www.mylittletony.com if I remember correctly). You can chat with Tony Blair, asking him whatever questions you like, and he'll answer them all. He'll keep the conversation going, giving intelligent answers to your questions and steering the flow of the discussion towards various topics. Very impressive, until you try to learn more about the software and realise that all it does is respond to each question with a typed out answer which it was programmed to give to that question, or one that relates to certain important buzzwords such as "Euro" or "Tory" if an identical question isn't in it's database. But what more can there ever be? Computers can never feel emotions, and as Rimmer was fond of pointing out in Red Dwarf, it makes as much sense to strike up an emotional bond with one as it does to try to make friends with your dishwasher. Despite what many TV shows and films will have us believe, computers can NEVER feel emotions. Their only purpose is to carry out programmes in the same way that every computer has done for decades. You
can programme a Commodore 64 to say "I'm happy" if asked how it feels, but that doesn't make it happy. Any artificial intelligence of the future will only be an advance on that, no more. But the question is how convincing the programme will be. Will we ever have a virtual assistant on our screens which we can talk to as if it were a person? Will they be able to understand us when we're not making ourselves clear? If I'm trying to decide how to patch up an argument with my girlfriend, will the computer be able to give me its opinion on how to go about it? The answer to all of those questions may well be yes. There is certainly no problem with the interface. Speech recognition software is advancing quickly. True, it has trouble trying to understand you unless you have an American accent. I once attempted to dictate an essay to my computer in a room full of people and managed to get a lot of odd looks as I read from my notes in a Texas drawl (that's the only American accent I can keep up for more than a few sentences). Despite any teething problems, it will only be a decade or so before you can talk quite comfortably into your computer without needing to correct it repeatedly or fake an accent. There is already good software on the market for having text turned into speech, so there will be no problem in making the computer answer you either. The biggest hurdle to overcome will be to have the computer UNDERSTAND what you are saying. This will take far longer and will involve some very complicated programming. The computer will have to understand the meaning of each word in the English (or any other) language and understand how it interacts with other words. Furthermore, it will have to understand a human's motivation in talking about something. It's all well and good understanding the meaning of the word "water" and knowing what it means for it to be in a glass, but the computer will have to und
erstand why a human has the need to drink it. Furthermore, while a computer is never able to improvise or to come up with any ideas itself, it will have to be programmed to deal with a totally original situation. A programmer cannot enter every single possibility into a computer, so the computer will have to combine break a situation into a number of smaller situations, find the answer to them all from its database and put them together as if improvising an answer. Once this process has come far enough to impress users, it can be furthered very easily. Millions of people will download a copy of it and talk to it. They can be instructed to tell the computer each time it does something wrong or misunderstands the user and this information can be relayed to a central server over the internet. The programmes understanding of the English language and how to interact with a user using it will grow like an open source project. At this point (which may be many decades off), the computer will be able to give it's opinion. The example I gave earlier was that of my asking the computer for its opinion on how to patch things up with my girlfriend. The computer does not need to "understand" love, it simply needs to know that people desire to be in that state. It may know from it's superior knowledge (learnt from talking to so many people about their love lives) that a woman who is refusing to be intimate with a man is less likely to continue refusing if, say, he gives her chocolates. It can then turn to me and say "I think you should give her a box of chocolates", creating the illusion that it genuinely understands our relationship. Of course, once computers manage to fake this much intelligence and emotion, many people will start to think of them as real people. This can already be seen today. If my sister is watching me do something cruel to the pretend people in The Sims, she starts to feel sorry for them and tell
s me to stop. There are stories of children and even a few adults who needed therapy to help them come to terms with the grief when their Tamagochie died. Computers will never have genuine thoughts or emotions, but one day we will start to almost believe that do.
Hands up those of you who are big fans of British Telecom! No, it's not the kind of question that's going to get a lot of enthusiasm, is it? Any new service provided by BT is going to be looked at with suspicion as most of us believe that they are only there to try to screw money out of us. Over the past few years, BT have brought in a few new gimmicks to convince us that they are worth staying with despite the fact that other phone companies are cheaper and provide a better service. The most famous of these is Friends and Family. True, it does save you a little bit of money, but not anywhere near enough to justify the hype that BT tried to create around it. Besides, I never forgave it for making me feel like a nerd for being forced to describe my ISP as my "best friend" to take advantage of the discount. The only useful service for quite some time has been 1471. It's nice to know who called you while you were in the shower, and it's nice to know whether your answering machine has no messages because no one phoned you or because your friends didn't want to leave a message. It's also interesting to know whether someone you just spent an hour on the phone to was ringing you from their office, their home or their mobile. BT are attempting to capitalise on the success of that service by branding this new service 1571. Sadly, 1571 will never be quite as successful. While 1471 was both original and genuinely useful, the idea of having a machine that takes messages for you isn't quite so revolutionary. The idea is one that is very familiar to anyone who uses a mobile phone. If you can't take a call for whatever reason, the caller gets diverted to your voice mail and leaves a message. They pay to leave this message and (on most tariffs) you pay a certain amount per minute to listen to the messages that have been left. Why isn't this service available for land lines? Well ther
e is one very good reason: most people who want an answering machine already have one. They're not expensive; flicking through the latest Argos catalogue I just found a phone with a built in answering machine for less than £20, only a few pounds more expensive than a phone on it's own. If you've got your own answering machine, you can choose how many rings it takes before it goes to the answering machine and you can listen to your messages for free. You can also, with the press of one button, turn the answering machine off. When people leave a message, they often require some sort of action on your part in response. If you know you're going to be far too busy to do anything for a couple of days, you can simply switch your answering machine and your mobile off for a couple of days. The worst thing about 1571, though, is that you will be charged every time you ring someone and you get it. Since BT's minimum charge for a phone call is 5p, this is how much you will pay each time you choose not to leave a message. If you were just going to phone someone up for a chat and they turn out to be on the internet, you will have to pay. This will add up to a few pounds a month for some people, a charge that they shouldn't be forced to endure. BT are up to their old tricks again. They are introducing a service which they want us to believe will benefit us all, but will really just milk more money out of us and give more ammunition to those of us who are too lazy to go to the trouble of filling in the forms to change phone company to give them one more chance.
My memory of Sim City goes back to the best version of the original game: Sim City for the SNES. In the first year that the console was out, we had the choice between buying games that involved running and jumping or games that were almost identical to Street Fighter II. In this atmosphere, Sim City looked amazing. Reading the review in the computer magazine of the day, I couldn't believe the premise. The player acts as the mayor of a fictional city (one that he can name himself) and then has to try to build it up from a village into a thriving metropolis with an airport, a zoo and a football stadium. Your primary tool was that you could allocate different parts of your city to different uses. You could "zone" parts of the land to either Residential, Commercial or Industrial land, and your citizens would then build their own buildings on the land as you watched. I bought it instantly and was mesmerised by the gameplay. The main challenge was to earn more in tax than you were spending in running the city. You also had to make sure that the Police Stations were spaced out well across your city and that the zoned blocks were close to some form of transport, but that was pretty much it. Once you'd mastered these techniques the game became slightly monotonous and repetitive. After Sim City, the franchise continued, and various games such as Sim Earth and Sim Ant were released, but none of these came close to being as good a game as Sim City, until Sim City 2000 came out. This newest version took the ideas of the first game further. Zoning was no longer a matter of putting down blocks, but gave the player far more flexibility to zone small parts of land. Rather than each block taking on one predictable stage of development, individual buildings came about and were improved or abandoned on independently. Transport was also much improved. Rather than just put each block near a piece of road or rail, you now had
to make sure that each piece of road was not too congested or that each zoned area was close enough to a railway station. Furthermore, it wasn't enough that there be a road linking the Residential areas to somewhere that they might get a job. Each building would thrive or die based on the occupants ability to get where they were trying to go. If a Commercial area was too far away from a Residential zone, or if there was too much traffic on the road between them, the citizens wouldn't build on it. When it was announced that Sim City 3000 was being programmed, many of the computer magazines ran stories about it. While it was interesting to see how the game was shaping up, it did mean that there was a lot of hype surrounding the game. It turned out that the hype was far greater than the game could live up to. Much of the hype surrounded the claim that the player would be able to choose from many different viewing angles and distances; a claim that turned out to be exaggerated. Some also surrounded the idea that the player could interact on a much smaller scale than before, looking at the individual citizens to see what they thought of the city. Whether this was originally planned for Sim City 3000 or whether someone had their wires crossed and was talking about The Sims (which came much later) will never be known, but when this too was missing from the final game, people were disappointed. Ultimately, it has to be said that the game is very similar to Sim City 2000. Their are developments to make the game more complicated, such as the fact that each building produces rubbish that needs to be put in landfills, recycled or sent out of the city. You also get the chance to trade with neighbouring cities, which isn't as much fun as it sounds. You can buy or sell electricity, be paid to accept rubbish from other cities, that sort of thing. Also, Sim City 3000 makes features of Sim City 2000 more relevant to the game. For instan
ce, you could build schools to educate your citizens before, but now your educated citizens will build more high-tech industries on your industrial zones and decrease pollution. You also get more people advising you on how to run your city. People who've played Civilisation II (or one of the later games in the series) will know that these advisors are almost useless at giving advice and that they simply tell you what you already know the problems with your game are (such as informing you that you don't have much money left), but it can be an enjoyable challenge to see if you can get them all to be in a position where there's nothing wrong for them to tell you about. Despite all these improvements, however, the game is still far too similar to Sim City 2000. This feels more like a cosmetic update than an entirely new game. It's been many years since Sim City 2000 came out, and in this time the market has been flooded with new and improved Sim games such as the Civilisation series, Theme Park, Sim Tower and (though this did come after Sim City 3000) Black and White. It's a shame they couldn't think of more to add to the game over the past few years. If you don't own Sim City 2000, this is definitely worth buying, but if you do, this title certainly isn't worth the cost of a new game.
I am one of those people who designs his own web site for no particular reason. I don't have a product to sell, and any money I make through almost irrelevant when you look at the number of hours I spend writing and updating the site itself. My old web site contained some dodgy software, and I had an E-mail sent to me and my ISP by lawyers representing Nintendo. My latest web site (which you can find at http://www.spiffo.co.uk) is full of jokes, and I get some very angry letters sent to me by feminists and puritans who are offended. So why do it? Why do so many millions of people spend time and money trying to create something for other people to read on the internet? The first time I tried to write a web page was about seven years ago, at a time just before most people knew of the internet and it's potential. My school had just installed some internet software, and I became interested in finding out what it could do. There was a new package that allowed you to create a web-page in much the same way as you create a word-processing document, so I decided to give it a go. Once I'd managed to write the page, I was informed that the school had a large amount of space available to it on the internet, and that my site could be uploaded onto it as a showcase of what the pupils were doing with the school computers. This was all well and good. I'd enjoyed spending a couple of hours seeing what I could do with the computers, and I could tell friends and family that I had a site on the internet which anybody in the world could access if they had the right computer equipment. It would have ended there if it hadn't been for the fact that I was told how to put a web-counter onto my site. A few days later, I looked at the counter and found out that 10 people had visited my site. The site, which proudly informed people that I was an Oasis fan (there was a picture of a CD next to this fact) and that I was wri
ting the web site on a computer (there was a picture of a computer with a duck on top of it next to this fact. I hadn't wanted the duck, but it was all I'd been able to find in the computer's clip art) had had 10 people visit it. I didn't know who these ten people were or where they lived, but I knew that they had all decided to go to my web site and that they had read through it. The web counter was enough to get me addicted. I added more to my web site (I managed to find a picture of Oasis, and another one of a computer without a duck on top of it) in an attempt to make it more enjoyable for people to visit, and a couple of years later I created an entirely new one that people might choose to bookmark or tell their friends about. The web-counter has since passed 350,000 visitors. Regular writers on DooYoo will understand part of the thrill of finding out how many people have read your work, but not all of it. While there is a bit of a buzz when you find out that an opinion you wrote has been read by over 50 people and that a lot of them have left comments, this is nothing when compared with finding out that people have gone to search engines to try to find a web site like yours and that they have read every page on your site. From time to time I receive an E-mail from parts of the world I've never heard of written by someone who tells me in broken English that they thought that the web site was well written. Other times, Someone from America might tell me that they showed something they'd printed off the web site to everyone in their office, and that they all enjoyed it. In recent months, I've been neglecting my web-site, mostly due to the fact that my life is so much busier than it was seven years ago, but it's still there and I'll still check the web-counter or get E-mails about it from time to time. Writing a web site can be a rewarding experience which requires little effort. I would recom
mend it to everyone who reads this.
Ah yes, the National Anthem. My most common experience of it was having to sing it every week in assembly as a primary school pupil. A huge hall filled with plenty of atheists and republicans (we were always encouraged to come to our own opinions on controversial matters) were often left wondering why we were singing. Was the headmaster genuinely worried about the well-being of the monarch and hoping that a supreme deity would take better care of her if He heard the request from hundreds of small children? Were the school trying to instil in us some respect for the monarch? Were they trying to teach us to be patriotic? Every country needs a National Anthem in much the same way as it needs a flag or a head of state (I have already explained in a separate opinion on DooYoo that I am in favour of keeping the Monarchy). They don't really do anything, and if they didn't exist it would be difficult to explain their justification, but they do add to a sense of national identity. They also give the patriotic something a bit more real to admire. Those who want to show their admiration of the UK can do so by proudly holding out a flag, or by standing up or saluting while the National Anthem is being played. I was during a football match a couple of years ago and was shocked to see that everyone joined in to sing (badly and tunelessly) along to the Anthem at the start of the match. That football match, however, showed what was wrong with our National Anthem; no one knew the words. Even that first verse (which, bearing in mind that Englishmen are always ridiculed for not knowing any of the others, should be common knowledge) seemed to be foreign territory to a pub full of people who would have had no trouble remembering all of the words to a Spice Girls hit during a karaoke night. Why don't we know the words to the Anthem? Could it be because they aren't relevant to our lives? I don't wish the Queen any harm and I
hope that she lives a long life free of misery, but only in so far as I wish that upon any person who I have no feud with. I certainly wouldn't elevate her above my family and friends if I had the chance to ask a deity to protect someone. On a recent holiday to Scotland, I was attacked by an angry and patriotic Scottish lady for having no problem with an Anthem which states that we should go off and kill the Scottish. Apparently, the third or fourth verse has words along the lines of "let us be victorious over the Scottish and kill them violently" and has a fairly graphic line about our swords and their blood. At the time, I laughed at the irony of the official Anthem of Scotland containing lines about killing the Scottish and defended the lines in an attempt to annoy the Scottish people in the room, but thinking about it later, I had to admit that the lines are completely inappropriate. Between a request to a God whom many don't believe in, the way in which the Queen is placed so far above normal her citizens and the references to the Scottish, I believe it to be beyond debate that the words of the National anthem are outdated, inappropriate and, frankly, not very good. Another problem with the currant Anthem is the tune. One of the few sports where the United Kingdom regularly does well is Formula 1 Racing. Due to the fact that so many of the drivers and teams are British, we get quite a lot of chances to hear our Anthem being played. Put in contrast with the German and Italian Anthems which are played almost as often, our one seems dull and laboured. When Shumacher stands on the top of the podium, he seems like someone who's ready to do another few laps and maybe go to the nearest bar to celebrate with the rest of his team. When Coulthard wins, the fact that our song is playing in the background makes him seem like someone who's ready to go home and have a long nap. By now you probab
ly think that I'm in favour of changing to a new Anthem. You'd be wrong. Our currant Anthem is no good, but this doesn't mean that we should change it. Like I said earlier, our Anthem serves almost no purpose other than to give the British some sense of identity and to make us feel proud of our country. A new Anthem would not do this. When we heard it at football matches, it would sound unfamiliar and strange. Abandoning the tune that we've held onto for so long would make sure that people from around the world reacted with confusion to us, and make us even more confused than we are at the moment. The Scottish and the Welsh are having little trouble finding their own identity at the moment (and the Irish are having troubles which are far to complicated for me to understand), but the English are having huge problems, especially the young. In recent years, the only national songs to rouse a sense of national identity seem to have roused totally the wrong type of patriotism in the form of jingoism and xenophobia. There was footage on the television five years ago of football hooligans involved in violence while singing "Three Lions" and of far more extreme violence three years ago with our thugs going abroad singing whatever words came into their head to the tune of "Vindaloo". But my greatest objection to a new National Anthem is the fear of what would replace it. Watching the dross that is able to win the national vote to go through to Eurovision or win the final of Stars In Their Eyes combined with what is able to get to Number One in the charts makes me worry what would happen if the public were to decide. Allowing music experts doesn't seem to be the answer either. Watching the finest intellectual minds of the country debate the merits of whatever they've been set to review in Newsnight Late Review or attempt to fill a few columns about a pop music album in the broadsheets makes me worry that i
f it was up to the experts we'd end up with something that was original, thought-provoking, groundbreaking, stylish and technically very good... but which sounds terrible. While it may not be perfect, our anthem is widely recognised and loved by many. The words to the commonly sung verse are peaceful and reasonably calm and the whole bundle may well be better than anything that replaces it. As the cliche says; better the devil you know.
ICQ. If you say it out loud, it sounds like "I seek you". How cute. Cute seems to be a word that comes up quite often when you're talking about ICQ. When you're using it, it's very hard to shake the feeling that it was designed for (or even by) 10 year old girls. There are flowers all over the interface and cutesy "eh-oh" sounds each time you receive a message. But lets overlook the cute aspect of ICQ... The primary point of the internet, if you ignore the porn and the illegal music files is supposedly communication. E-mails mean that you can send a fairly long message across the world almost instantly. ICQ attempts to take this one step further by allowing you to send messages to someone's computer which they will actually read instantly and reply to. Each person has their own ICQ number (mine is 100081043, which makes me wonder just how many people are on the service). If you add someone's number to your contact list, then each time you fire up your console, you will be able to see whether they are online. If they are, you can send them a message, which they instantly be informed of (by that cute "eh-oh" sound I mentioned earlier). They are then socially obliged to read it straight away and send you a reply if one is needed. I'm told that all of this is very similar to AOL or MSN's instant messaging services. I don't use those products, so I'm afraid that there won't be a comparison with them in this review; I want to talk about whether anyone would actually want to have something like ICQ installed at all. The idea is to have it running in the background while you're doing other stuff. You may be reading your E-mail or looking for something important (such as porn or free music files) on the web and ICQ can just run in the background. If your computer has 32 Mb or less of RAM and a processor that's 200 MHz or slower, you'll notic
e that everything else is running slightly slower, but on a faster machine you shouldn't have any problems. While you're getting on with whatever else you're doing, any of your friends (or anyone else you gave your number to) can see that you're online. If they already had ICQ running when you logged on, they will hear a very cute knocking sound to alert them to the fact that you're there. You can set ICQ not to allow anyone else to see that you're online unless you authorise them and you can also set it so that it will pretend that you're off-line when really you're there, but those options take away from the fun element of being able to chat to random people. You can now message each other while you get on with whatever you're doing. In theory. The problem is that you may end up having banal conversations with your friends instead of doing whatever else it was you were supposed to do. To take an example, the evening before last, I was looking for some music files (not porn, honest) and had ICQ running in the background. I ended up having a discussion with a friend along the lines of "what are you doing?" and "it was really warm today, wasn't it?". The friend was someone who lives fairly close to me, and who I regularly go drinking with. Rather than sit around in the pub having the banal conversation (which would have been fun) or actually finding the music files (which would have been productive), I managed to spend an entire evening talking rubbish. An American friend who thinks that ICQ is great compared it with working in a school or university's library. Sure, you've got work to do, but isn't it fun to have one of your friends sitting next to you? Any time you like, you can just have a chat with him, then get back to work? He's right, but there's one thing he's missing from the analogy... most people get no work done whatsoever if th
ey sit in the library with their friends, they just chat to them instead! ICQ also has the ability to send text messages. While I'm not a huge fan of text messages myself (I don't mind the actual format, I just get annoyed by the fact that almost everyone I know seems to think that it's acceptable to send a paragraph with no vowels in it to me), they are very useful for meeting up and stuff like that. There are other places on the internet where you can send txts (see, does that look like a word to you?), but ICQ is far better than most of them. One reason is that if the recipient presses the reply button on their mobile phone, their reply will be sent to your ICQ console. Another is that your ICQ console keeps track of all of the text messages you send and receive, and you can re-read them later. Given that my phone can only store 10 message, I sometimes prefer to use ICQ for important text messages (though if it's that important, I'll just phone the person!) ICQ is great when you're a bit aimless. You can just log on and see whether any of your friends are around for a chat. Unfortunately, if any of your friends are a bit aimless, they can do the same! It's free, though, so it's worth downloading to see whether you can remain productive while enjoying its benefits.
Let's start with the good points of the AS Levels. I'm not doing them. I'm 20 years old, so I've just finished my 2nd year of University, so I'll never have to worry about AS Levels in my life. Before you scoff and reach for the mouse so that you can leave a comment about how I may one day have children who sit the exams, let me tell you that you're wrong. By the time the next generation are sitting their exams, everyone will have realised what a bad idea this system was. Although I'm not taking the exams myself, I have quite a few friends who are currently in the Lower Sixth Form who are studying for them, so I know quite a lot about them. Let me pause here to tell you what the system is all about. AS Levels are basically each half an A Level. Since most A-levels consist of 4 or 6 modules (depending on the subject and the exam board), it's very easy to cut the module in half, just only do half of the modules. Despite what everyone says, AS Levels have been around for some time. Some people in my year elected to do three and a half A-levels instead of the normal three or the social-life-destroying four (I speak from experience there. I did 4 A-levels and spent so much time studying that I had no time for a social life. By Friday night, I'd usually got so little sleep during the week that all I was ready to do was sleep). In my day (way back when the Class of '99 was graduating), people who wanted to do an extra half would study the extra half over the full two years. They would spend two years studying four different subjects, but with only half the normal number of classes, homework, etc. for one of the four. The subject that was being taken as an AS Level would only be worth half the number of UCAS Points (4 for a B instead of 8, etc.). It is relevant that it was only a very small number of people who elected to do AS Levels in anything. A few years ago, it was decided that the A-levels we
re in bad shape. Grade Inflation (where the average grade gets higher each year, meaning that a B in 2000 is thought of as being worse than a B in 1990) was a real problem and everyone knew that all A-level students did was drink cider in car parks after dark and mug people for their mobile phones. The solution? Turn the AS Level into an integral part of the course. The half of the course that was studied in the first year would be turned into an AS Level. The student would be taking exams in these modules anyway, since under the modular system they could take the exams in the Lower Sixth half of the course, letting those exams count towards their final A-Level grade if they did well and re-sitting them if they didn't. Under the new system, those modules now count as the half of a course needed to form an AS-Level. The grades from the AS-Level are then combined with the grades obtained at the end of the Upper Sixth to form an entire A-Level. This means that if a student drops out at the end of the Lower Sixth, they will leave with some sort of qualifications for their last year of work. It also means that the exams at the end of the Lower Sixth are so important that the students need to be given study leave for them. To avoid people saying that this is the same as the previous system but with added silliness, whoever it is that makes these decisions decided that the students would take four or five AS Levels in the Lower Sixth (the number would depend on the school and the ability of the student). Three or four of these would be converted into A Levels in the Upper Sixth, while the other one would be dropped and remain an AS Level. This allows people who have to justify the decision to mumble something about depth and breadth of knowledge while trying to work out how to change the system back to how it was without looking like they are making a U-turn. So what's wrong with all of this? To start with the most basic, the stu
dents now get less time to work. The time spent on study leave at the end of the Lower Sixth would have been filled with classes before. If memory serves, the course was fairly full, and we didn't have 6 spare weeks that we could throw away from the course without it suffering. A far greater problem is that it's not easy to study for more subjects in the reduced time. In the Lower Sixth, normal students now study for four subjects. Since they have to study for half of the course's modules in the Lower Sixth which (due to the fact that most schools make their students start working on their Upper Sixth modules once they have taken their Lower Sixth exams), this means that they are doing half of four A-Levels in less than half of their Sixth Form; that they are doing more work than they would have been doing had they been studying for four A-Levels under the old system. If you scroll up a bit, you'll see my bitter complaints about how little free time I had when trying to do that. If the students have even less time than I did to work on these subjects, then one of four things is true. Either (1) There is now less work involved in each A Level, (2) This years Lower Sixth formers are much smarter than we were, (3) Large numbers of students will do far less work than they need to or (4) Large numbers of students will suffer nervous breakdowns. Every student I've spoken to hates this system. Lower Sixth Formers are stressed, GCSE Students are dreading moving up a year and are considering dropping out of school far more seriously than they otherwise would have been. My 12 year old sister is hoping that they will change the system before she reaches the Sixth Form. Do you want to hear something funny? This system was set up to counter grade inflation. Early reports indicate that students will end up with better grades than ever after doing the AS Levels, partly because they are doing more work and being pushed harder,
but mainly because they are spending more of their time in the Sixth form studying and revising for exams and less of it actually learning stuff. This means that with the advent of a new way of examining students that is universally hated and distrusted, average grades will suddenly jump. That's the biggest form of grade inflation you can ever get!
Strange isn't a strong enough word to describe this album. So much of what's on it has been copied that it would be strange to call it experimental, but that's exactly what it was when it first came out. The Beatles spend the whole album pretending to be a band called "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". It's a rather odd charade and it doesn't really add all that much to the album, but the songs are fantastic, and it doesn't take anything away from them either. TRACK LISTING: 1. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (2:02): The introduction. You can hear the band's loving audience laughing and cheering in the background. The sound is a cross between the regular Beatles' sound mixed with the sound of some sort of army marching band. 2. A little friend of my friends (2:42): The track flows straight on from the last one with just an introduction of "Billy Shears" (who will sing the song) between them. The song is the same one as is used in the title sequence to "The Wonder Years", though the rest of the song is, in my opinion, better than the bit they actually use. 3. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (3:28): The pretence of a live concert is dropped as there is a short gap of silence before a completely different sound. The track itself is probably my favorite on the album, though I've no idea what any of the lyrics are meant to be. It's said to be about taking LSD (look at the initials of the title), and the lyrics are almost as random and tripped out as "I am the Walrus". 4. Getting Better (2:48): I've had this track totally ruined for me by those Phillips ads that copy a piece of it ("Got to admit it's getting better, a little better all the time"). The Beatles' version sounds far better than the version sung on those adverts, though. 5. Fixing A Hole (2:37): A relaxing, slightly trippy, track.
Nice work on the instruments, even if they do send you to sleep a bit. 6. She's Leaving Home (3:35): One of the most gentle and tender tracks the Beatles ever wrote. Classical instruments in the background and slow lyrics create a brilliant sound, but one that doesn't really fit in with the rest of the track. 7. Being For The benefit of Mr. Kite (2:35): A more upbeat track. It describes a load of circus feats that are going to be perforrmed, and the music sounds quite circusy as well. 8. Within you without you (5:04): Reminding us how experimental the album is, some extremely oriental sounding music. Different instruments and a very different sound to the rest of the album, but still an equally good one. 9. When I'm 64 (2:38): Much more conventional track... In fact it's more conventional than anything else the Beatles ever did and sounds like it was written 20 years earlier. Very quaint and bouncy tune, with enjoyable lyrics. 10. Lovely Rita (2:42): "Lovely Rita, meter maid", the lyrics to what is probably the worst track on the album. Slightly awkward lyrics and a weak tune. It does stick in your head, though. 11. Good Morning, Good Morning (2:41): One of the only "morning" tracks that I can bear to actually listen to in the morning apart from "Wake Up Boo" by the Boo Radleys. The lyrics describe a guy with a rather dull life, but who seems to have woken up in a good mood. It's a good track to listen to when not having a very good day, but you're not prepared to be put in a bad mood. 12. Sgt. Pepper (reprise) (1:18): Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band thank the audience (who you can hear once again) and announce that the concert is almost over. It sounds very similar to the first track, but is more upbeat. 13. A Day in the Life (5:33): This track varies wildly, with calm but bouncy bits with prominent vocals to trippy and epic bits w
here the instruments are prominent and someone sounds like they are having an LSD trip in the background, to quite dramatic music. At the end, there are a few seconds of pause followed by the Beatles saying something, but the tape being played backwards. I've no idea what they say (It sounds like "never could be any other way" the way it ends up on the track), since if you don't play it on a record deck, you don't have the ability to turn the record backwards. It's okay to hear the first time you play the album, but you don't want to hear the gibberish every time you listen to the album, especially if it's just on as background music! The individual tracks on this album are some of the best work that the Beatles ever did. The only minor problem that I have with the album is that some of the tracks don't really sit with each other properly. The Beatles clearly tried to hard to make each track outstanding in its own right that they were prepeared to sacrafice the flow of the album. This is only a minor gripe, though, and there aren't any really jarring differences between tracks. Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the best selling album of all time in the UK (Unless What's the Story (Morning Glory) has managed to sell a few thousand copies in the past few months), and it's very easy to see why. There are some truly classic tracks on the album, and no fan of British music should be without it. I just wish I could understand what all the tripped out lyrics were supposed to mean...