Grenfell Tower: The fires that foretold the tragedy

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Grenfell tower ablaze

On 14 June 2017, televisions across the country showed a west London tower block burn. For some, this was history repeating itself – as if five similar fires had simply not been important enough to prevent the deaths of 72 people in Grenfell Tower.

Catherine Hickman was on the phone when she died. It wasn’t a panicked call or an attempt to have some last words with a loved one.

As a BBC Two documentary recounts, she had been speaking to a 999 operator for 40 minutes, remaining calm and following the advice to “stay put” in her tower block flat.

As smoke surrounded her, she stayed put. As flames came through the floorboards, she stayed put. At 16:30, she told the operator: “It’s orange, it’s orange everywhere” before saying she was “getting really hot in here”.

Believing to the last that she was in the safest place, she carried on talking to the operator – until she stopped.

“Hello Catherine.

“Hello Catherine. Can you make any noise so I know that you’re listening to me?

“Catherine, can you make any noise?

“Can you bang your phone or anything?

“Catherine, are you there?

“I think that’s the phone gone [CALL ENDS]

Miss Hickman was not a resident of Grenfell Tower. The fire in which she and five others died happened in July 2009, at 12-storey Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London. But that same “stay put” advice was given to Grenfell residents eight years later. Many of those who did never made it out alive.

Excellently-written, chilling article about a series of tower block fires which foreshadow Grenfell: similar mistakes, similar tragedies. This promotes an upcoming BBC television programme broadcasting this evening; might be worth a look.

The Insane Story In The Background Of Arrested Development

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The Insane Story In The Background Of Arrested Development (Cracked.com)
The day that Mitchell Hurwitz starts making shallow humor is the day that we rip the mask off of Mitchell Hurwitz and find the real Mitchell Hurwitz bound in his own cellar.

Throughout the first three seasons of Arrested Development, we were treated to some ridiculous attention to details, hidden clues, foreshadowing, Easter eggs, and in-jokes. For instance, ever wonder what was with the obsession with seals in the first few seasons? They were actually a metaphor for Lucille Bluth, the matriarch of the family, who kept poor baby Buster Bluth, a juice-loving man child, terrified of ever leaving the nest (or entering the ocean). As an act of defiance, Buster enters the ocean and gets his hand bitten off by a “loose seal.” Loose. Seal. “Lucille.” Do I need to add a “GET IT?!” there?

But that’s not even the crazy part. As we’ve talked about before, the hand being bitten off was foreshadowed throughout the entire season. In one episode in season three, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission attempts to persuade Tobias Funke, a struggling actor, into cooperating with them and becoming a mole in the Bluth family. He misunderstands the entire situation and inadvertently becomes a mole (in all senses of the word — by which I mean he fucking dresses like a mole.) But the real mole in the family was right under our noses all along since season one …

Annyong
Look at his shirt.

However, all of this is just a teaser for the grandest mystery in Arrested Development: that of “Nichael Bluth.”

How analog TV worked

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How analog TV worked (datagenetics.com)

Today, just about all monitors and screens are digital (typically using an LCD or Plasma technology), but a decade or two ago, computer displays were based on the analog technology inherited from TV sets.

These analog displays were constructed around Cathode Rays Tubes (commonly referred to as CRTs).

Analog TV has a fascinating history from when broadcasts were first started (in Black and White), through to the adoption of color TV (using a totally backwards-compatible system with the earlier monochrome standard), through to cable, and now digital.

Analog TV transmissions and their display technology really were clever inventions (and the addition of colour is another inspiring innovation). It’s worth taking a look about how these devices work, and how they were designed, using the technology of the day.

After a couple of false starts, an analog colour TV system, that was backwards compatible with black and white, became standard in 1953, and remained unchanged until the take-over by digital TV broadcasts in the early 2000’s.

In Defense of Arrested Development Season 4

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They Didn’t Make A Huge Mistake: In Defense of Arrested Development Season 4 (Freshly Popped Culture)
It was overstuffed, scattershot, and occasionally quite tedious -- but also kinda brilliant? It's Arrested Development Season 4.

It was overstuffed, scattershot, and occasionally quite tedious — but also kinda brilliant? It’s Arrested Development Season 4.

An Oxford book store is cashing in on the success of The Good Place by selling the moral philosophy and ethics books Chidi references in the series.

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An Oxford book store is celebrating the success of The Good Place by selling the moral philosophy and ethics books referenced by Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) in the series – and its efforts are going viral.

The popular NBC and Netflix series aired its season two finale last week, and to commemorate that, Oxford’s Broad Street branch of Blackwell’s has put up a book stand titled ‘Chidi’s Choice’.

If you’ve not been watching The Good Place then, well: you should have been.

How I Became A Brony

To pre-empt any gatekeeping bronies in their generally-quite-nice society who want to tell me that I’m no “true” fan: save your breath, I already know. I’m not actually claiming any kinship with the brony community. But what’s certainly true is that I’ve gained a level of appreciation for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that certainly goes beyond that of most people who aren’t fans of the show (or else have children who are), and I thought I’d share it with you. (I can’t promise that it’s not just Stockholm syndrome, though…)

Dan and Annabel wearing My Little Pony headbands. Dan is also wearing a T-shirt that reads "Masculine as fuck", written in flowers, although he hadn't thought about that at the time.
Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash. Their friendship is magic, and yours can be too.

Ignoring the fact that I owned, at some point in the early 1980s, a “G1” pony toy (possibly Seashell) from the original, old-school My Little Pony, my first introduction to the modern series came in around 2010 when, hearing about the surprise pop culture appeal of the rebooted franchise, I watched the first two episodes, Friendship is Magic parts one and two: I’m aware that after I mentioned it to Claire, she went on to watch most of the first season (a pegasister in the making, perhaps?). Cool, I thought: this is way better than most of the crap cartoons that were on when I was a kid.

Pinkie Pie's friends learn about the Element of Laughter.
🎵 Chortle at the kooky… snortle at the spooky… 🎵

And then… I paid no mind whatsoever to the franchise until our little preschooler came home from the library, early in 2017, with a copy of an early reader/board book called Fluttershy and the Perfect Pet. This turns out to be a re-telling of the season 2 episode May The Best Pet Win!, although of course I only know that with hindsight. I casually mentioned to her that there was a TV series with these characters, too, and she seemed interested in giving it a go. Up until that point her favourite TV shows were probably PAW Patrol and Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, but these quickly gave way to a new-found fandom of all things MLP.

A common sight on any flat surface around our house.
No ponies were harmed in the staging of this apparent massacre.

The bobbin’s now watched all seven seasons of Friendship is Magic plus the movie and so, by proxy – with a few exceptions where for example JTA was watching an episode with her – have I. And it’s these exceptions where I’d “missed” a few episodes that first lead to the discovery that I am, perhaps, a “closet Brony”. It came to me one night at the local pub that JTA and I favour that when we ended up, over our beers, “swapping notes” about the episodes that we’d each seen in order to try to make sense of it all. We’re each routinely roped into playing games for which we’re expected to adopt the role of particular ponies (and dragons, and changelings, and at least one centaur…), but we’d both ended up getting confused as to what we were supposed to be doing at some point or another on account of the episodes of the TV show we’d each “missed”. I’m not sure how we looked to the regulars – two 30-something men sitting by the dartboard discussing the internal politics and friendship dramas of a group of fictional ponies and working out how the plots were interconnected – but if anybody thought anything of it, they didn’t say so.

The Kings Arms in Kidligton. Photo courtesy of User:Motacilla on Wikimedia Commons, used under a Creative Commons (attribution, sharealike) license.
JTA and I’s local is among the most distinctly “village pub”-like pubs I’ve ever visited.

By the time the movie was due to come out, I was actually a little excited about it, and not even just in a vicarious way (I would soon be disappointed, mind: the movie’s mediocre at best, but at the three-year-old I took to the cinema was impressed, at least, and the “proper” bronies – who brought cupcakes and costumes and sat at the back of the cinema – seemed to enjoy themselves, so maybe I just set my expectations too high). Clearly something in the TV show had sunk its hooks into me, at least in a minor way. It’s not that I’d ever watch an episode without the excuse of looking after a child who wanted to do so… but I also won’t deny that by the end of The Cutie Remark, Part One I wanted to make sure that I was the one to be around when the little ‘un watched the second part! How would Starlight Glimmer be defeated?

Box of cinema popcorn with My Little Pony advertising/branding on the side.
🎵 My little popcorn, my little popcorn… 🎵

At least part of the appeal is probably that the show is better than most other contemporary kids’ entertainment, and as anybody with young children knows, you end up exposed to plenty of it. Compare to PAW Patrol (the previous obsession in our household), for example. Here we have two shows that each use six animated animals to promote an ever-expanding toy line. But in Friendship is Magic the ponies are all distinct and (mostly) internally-consistent characters with their own individual identity, history, ambitions, likes and dislikes that build a coherent whole (and that uniquely contributes to the overall identity of the group). In PAW Patrol, the pups are almost-interchangeable in identity (and sometimes purpose), each with personality quirks that conveniently disappear when the plot demands it (Marshall suddenly and without announcement stops being afraid of heights when episodes are released to promote the new “air pup” toys, and Chase’s allergy to cats somehow only manifests itself some of the time and with some cats) and other characteristics that feel decidedly… forced. MLP‘s writing isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but compared to the other things I could be watching with the kids it’s spectacular!

PAW Patrol's Zuma
Seriously, Zuma: what are you FOR?

And compare the morality of the two shows. Friendship is Magic teaches us the values of friendship (duh), loyalty, trust, kindness, and respect, as well as carrying a strong feminist message that young women can grow up to be whatever the hell they want to be. Conversely, the most-lasting lesson I’ve taken from watching PAW Patrol (and I’ve seen a lot of that, too) is that police and spy agencies are functionally-interchangeable which very-much isn’t the message I want our children to take away from their screen time.

Rarity cries on the floor, from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic S01E19
Not all lessons are good lessons. I’m talking to you, Rarity.

It’s not perfect, of course. The season one episode A Dog And Pony Show‘s enduring moral, in which unicorn pony Rarity is kidnapped by subterranean dogs and made to mine gemstones (she has a magical talent for divining for seams of them), seems to be that the best way for a woman to get her way over men is to make a show of whining incessantly until they submit, and to win arguments by deliberately misunderstanding their statements as something that she can take offence to. That’s not just a bad ethical message, it also reinforces a terrible stereotype and thoroughly undermines Rarity’s character! Thankfully, such issues are few and far between and on the whole the overwhelming message of My Little Pony is one of empowerment, equality, and fairness.

Mr. Labrador tells Mummy Pig that women are useless at archery.
If Mr. Labrador had a Twitter account, this episode of Peppa Pig would have put him at the receiving end of a whole Internetload of feminist complaints.

For the most part, Equestria is painted as a place where gender doesn’t and shouldn’t matter, which is fantastic! Compare to the Peppa Pig episode (and accompanying book) called Funfair in which Mummy Pig is goaded into participating in an archery competition by being told that “women are useless” at it, because it’s a “game of skill”. And while Mummy Pig does surprise the stallholder by winning, that’s the only rebuff: it’s still presented as absolutely acceptable to make skill judgements based on gender – all that is taught is that Mummy Pig is an outlier (which is stressed again when she wins at a hammer swing competition, later); no effort is made to show that it’s wrong to express prejudice over stereotypes. Peppa Pig is full of terrible lessons for children even if you choose to ignore the time the show told Australian kids to pick up and play with spiders.

Toy Princess Luna with a book on IT Governance
Princess Luna knows what I should have been doing instead of writing this post.

I probably know the words to most of the songs that’ve had album releases (we listen to them in the car a lot; unfortunately a voice from the backseat seems to request the detestable Christmas album more than any of the far-better ones). I’m probably the second-best person in my house at being able to identify characters, episodes, and plotlines from the series. I have… opinions on the portrayal of Twilight Sparkle’s character in the script of the movie.

Dan in Not Dogs wearing a Dune/MLP crossover t-shirt.
Also, it might be the case that I own more than one article of geeky My Little Pony-themed clothing.

I don’t describe myself as a Brony (not that there’d be anything wrong if I did!), but I can see how others might. I think I get an exemption for not having been to a convention or read any fanfiction or, y’know, watched any of it without a child present. I think that’s the key.

Right?

Why BoJack Horseman’s Representation of Asexuality is Important

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Todd talks about his asexuality in Bojack Horseman.

Netflix’s BoJack Horseman was quickly put on many people’s radars when the newest season released in September addressed asexuality. During the new season, Todd Chavez explicitly comes out to BoJack saying that he is asexual. As someone who is asexual, this representation means a lot to me. Not only am I actually being represented, but he specifically said the word asexual multiple times. Even though it had seemed the series was building to this scene, I still did not expect it to deliver. It was first indicated during the season three episode “Love And/Or Marriage,” when Todd rejected having sex with his friend, Emily. Initially watching this scene I did not have asexuality on my mind. I just came to terms with the fact that asexuality was something that would never be represented in media. Naturally, I explained it away as Todd likely being interested in another person and feeling like he would be “cheating” on said person if he were to sleep with Emily. But this arc gets a more definitive continuation in the season three finale, “That Went Well,” when Todd tells Emily, “I’m not gay. At least I don’t think I am, but I don’t think I’m straight either. I don’t know what I am. I think I might be nothing.” This scene and everything it stands for took BoJack Horseman from a show I enjoyed to one of my favorite shows of all time. Throughout the yearlong wait for season four, I constantly watched this scene. I rewatched it at least once a week, and more often than not, I cried while watching…

TIL that in 2004, a book was published that suggested that TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer was valuable as a guide to spirituality

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What Would Buffy Do?: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide is a book relating to the fictional Buffyverse established by TV series, Buffy and Angel.

Wikipedia

Personal Effects

Since my dad’s funeral, a little over a month ago, I’ve been responsible – as executor of his will – for leading the efforts to deal with the distribution of his estate. By necessity of the complexity of the case, we’ve had to draft some friendly lawyers, but there’s still been an awful lot to be taken care of by my sisters, my mother, my dad’s partner, and I, among others. Some bits have been easier than others.

TV Licensing, for example, have been particularly useless, as evidenced by this cheque.

Standard Life‘s pensions department, for example, made my dealings with them very easy: they explained exactly what they needed from me, exactly what they’d do with it, and how quickly they could act upon it. TV Licensing, on the other hand, seem to be working against me rather than for me, issuing me a cheque made out as it is to “Executor of MR P HUNTLEY”, which was subsequently rejected by my bank on account of being in the name of nobody at all. I suppose I could easily change my name in order to accept that cheque, but that seems like the wrong solution. Plus I’ve always felt like more of a “Dan” than an “Executor”.

For some reason, my dad kept his copy of the (rather thick) book “Internet Explorer 4 At A Glance”; a book whose necessity I would have questioned even back in 2001, when it was published.

I’ve begun packing up the contents of my dad’s house, too, so that they can be meaningfully distributed to whoever ought to have them. This leads to an inevitable clash, of course, between the lawyers and the local council. The former want us to remove as little as possible before they can appraise the value of the contents, which is relevant to the assessment of inheritance tax. The latter demand that the house be left unfurnished so that it does not become liable for council tax. In order to walk the fine line between the two I’ve been packaging things up based on their types: his vast library of transport books in these boxes, etc. And despite great efforts (such as the work it took to disassemble the rusty old trampoline in the back garden), it still feels like there’s a long, long, long way to go.

Little Things

It’s all about the little things.

My dad died almost a fortnight ago when he lost his footing during a climb in the Lake District, and – since then – it’s felt like I’ve been involuntarily transplanted out of my life and into somebody else’s. I’ve only been in and out of work, and I’m glad to have done that: it’s added a semblance of normality to my routine. But most of my “new life” seems to consist of picking up the pieces of the jigsaw of my dad’s affairs and piecing them together into a meaningful picture.

An endless outpouring of sympathy cards adorn shelf after shelf in my dad’s house.

The big stuff is easy. Or, at least, it’s easy thanks to the support of my sisters and my mum. The big stuff isn’t small, of course, and it takes a significant effort to make sure it’s handled correctly: arranging a funeral and a wake, pouring over the mountains of paperwork in my dad’s files, and discussing what’s to ultimately be done with his house… those are all big things.

But the small things: they’re tough. The little things that sneak up on you when you least expect it. Last night, Becky and I were watching television when an advertisement came on.

We were both trying to work out what it was an advertisement for – perhaps some kind of holiday company? – as we watched a scene of a family (father, mother, and two teenage daughters) packing their bags and moving them into the hallway. The kids squeezed past their dad on the stairs and hugged their mother: “It won’t be the same, without dad,” said one.

The commercial was for life insurance, and it pulled a Sixth Sense (spoiler: Bruce Willis is dead the entire time) on us – the girls’ father wasn’t there at all.

That we happened to see that advertisement was a little thing, in the scale of things. But it’s the little things that are the hard ones.

Funeral’s tomorrow. I’d better finish writing this eulogy.

New Computer #1 – Tiffany2

This weekend, I integrated two new computers into the home network on New Earth. The first of these is Tiffany2.

Tiffany2 is a small "media centre" style computer with an all-in-one remote keyboard/mouse.

Tiffany2 replaces Tiffany, the media centre computer I built a little under four years ago. The original Tiffany was built on a shoestring budget of under £300, and provided the technical magic behind the last hundred or so Troma Nights, as well as countless other film and television nights, a means to watch (and record and pause) live TV, surf the web, and play a game once in a while.

The problem with Tiffany is that she was built dirt-cheap at a time when building a proper media centre PC was still quite expensive. So she wasn’t very good. Honestly, I’m amazed that she lasted as long as she did. And she’s still running: but she “feels” slow (and takes far too long to warm up) and she makes a noise like a jet engine… which isn’t what you want when you’re paying attention to the important dialogue of a quiet scene.

Tiffany and Tiffany2. Were this a histogram of their relative noise levels, the one on the left would be much, much larger.

Tiffany2 is virtually silent and significantly more-powerful than her predecessor. She’s also a lot smaller – not much bigger than a DVD player – and generally more feature-rich.

This was the first time I’d built an ITX form-factor computer (Tiffany2 is Mini-ITX): I wanted to make her small, and it seemed like the best standard for the job. Assembling some of her components felt a little like playing with a doll’s house – she has a 2.5″ hard disk and a “slimline” optical drive: components that in the old days we used to call “laptop” parts, which see new life in small desktop computers.

Examples of six different hard drive form factors. Tiffany2 uses the third-smallest size shown in this picture. The computer you're using, unless it's a laptop, probably uses the third-largest (picture courtesy Paul R. Potts, CC-At-SA).

In order to screw in some of the smaller components, I had to dig out my set of watchmaker’s screwdrivers. Everything packs very neatly into a very small space, and – building her – I found myself remembering my summer job long ago at DesignPlan Lighting, where I’d have to tuck dozens of little components, carefully wired-together, into the shell of what would eventually become a striplight in a tube train or a prison, or something.

She’s already deployed in our living room, and we’ve christened her with  the latest Zero Punctuation, a few DVDs, some episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, and an episode of Total Wipeout featuring JTA‘s old history teacher as a contestant. Looks like she’s made herself at home.

(for those who are sad enough to care, Tiffany2 is running an Intel Core i3-2100 processor, underclocked to 3GHz, on an mITX Gigabyte GA-H61N-USB3 motherboard with 4GB RAM, a 750GB hard disk, and DVD-rewriter, all wrapped up in an Antec ISK 300-150 case with a 150W power supply: easily enough for a media centre box plus some heavy lifting if I ever feel the need to give her any)