29/01/2006

THE DEAL ON INTERNET CAR SALES

I'm linking to my Herald on Sunday column which is viewable to all as of writing. It's about the move by car auction house Turners to simulcast its live auctions on the internet using audio and video feeds.
Good idea I say, though I doubt the ability of old-world players like Turners and Trade & Exchange to catch up with Trademe which on another note, seemed a little bemused at suggestions by certain individuals in the IT sector that it could become an informal type of market for the trading of shares.
I have to agree with John Key on this one. I can understand the frustration of our tiny IT players in their attempts to get access to capital, but Trademe isn't the place for shares to be swapping hands.
Said Key: "There's a vast world of difference between buying a second-hand motor mower and buying a share script, and I would have thought Dr Cullen would have realised that."
After all, the alternative market (AX) was set up by the NZX for the sole aim of creating a market for the trade of shares in small-cap companies.
Having covered New Zealand's pitiful listed-IT economy in the aftermath of the dotcom collapse, I came to realise that most of the investors in IT Capital, Commsoft, Advantage Group and most of the other companies that were bleeding cash, didn't know much about what they were investing in. There wasn't enough information supplied to them and many of them were sucked in by the hype of company directors and often, regretably, the media.
The NZX has done a pretty good job in cleaning up the sharemarket here and bringing it up to the standards that have been introduced overseas in the wake of Enron, WorldCom et al. There's nothing wrong with the AX and it will only become more effective as it achieves more scale.

GOOGLE AND THE GOVERNMENT

Here's my take in last week's Herald Webwalk column on the US Government's attempts to obtain information from Google about what its users are searching for.

The Government wants the information to see how easy it is to search for porn on the internet and therefore how easy it is for unsupervised children to gain access to porn. The Government already knows how easy it is. Type "porn" into Google and the top result is for the website www.pichunter.com. It contains thousands of hardcore porn images that are instantly accessible. No age verification needed.

Still, I respect Google for not giving in and handing the information over. It's no doubt scared that when confronted with the hard(core) evidence, the Bush Government will start looking at ways to limit access to such material. That should definately happen, but it shouldn't be up to Google or any other internet provider to do so. It should be up to parents and anyone who is responsible for a computer that children may be using.

I'm not opposed to the Government getting its hands on search results, but I do feel this would be the first step on a slippery slope towards serious invasions of our privacy in the digital world.

The column may have slipped into the premium content section by now, but what I had to say boils down to this:

"...allowing the Government to peer at a string of search queries entered into Google, Yahoo or Ask Jeeves really isn't as worrying as being given access to information trawled from email accounts. Even anonymous keyword results pulled from millions of email accounts would give a deep insight into what the masses are thinking and doing.
"It's not of the question that, down the line, governments may seek such information for reasons that are "in the national interest". Will the Government next subpoena Google to supply a list of locations people are looking at via Google Earth, the free satellite mapping service? Or will it ask for transcripts of Google Talk messenger conversations? Just because the data don't identify anyone in particular doesn't mean that's not whittling away our privacy.
"If you have nothing to hide when you use the internet, you have nothing to fear. Nevertheless, any encroachment on privacy needs to be zealously examined and perhaps resisted, even when the case for such encroachments seems valid."

SATELLITES PART IV: CELESTRIAL MOVEMENTS

If you travel out of Wellington and up over the Rimutaka hills, then on through Masterton and on to the East Coast you come to a sweet spot on the Wairarapa Coast called Riversdale. Being an ignorant Aucklander, I’ve only just discovered the place, which has serene, sweeping beaches that gives way to gentle rolling farmland.

Landing here for a few days R & R I spent most of the time swimming, sitting on the beach and playing games with the numerous kids I was staying with. But at night, the place is gifted with next to no light pollution. The sky’s are pitch black and when there are no clouds the picture above is fantastic. The Milky Way stretches overhead in detail and all the stars visible to the naked eye are easy to spot. With little else to while the evening away apart from drinking, we engaged in a little star-gazing.

While technology was pretty much banned at the bach, we were able to smuggle in a Garmin handheld GPS unit and a Harrier smartphone. Getting the co-ordinates of Riversdale from the Garmin, we were then able to plug them into the website http://www.heavens-above.com/ to find out exactly what satellites were visible overhead.

Among the couple of dozen or so satellites that are visible in the night sky over New Zealand are the US military’s Lacrosse spy satellites, the SeaSat weather research satellite, a bunch of Cosmos rockets that have been floating around for years and the International Space Station. The latter is very large and reflects a lot of light, therefore making it easy to see with the naked eye. The website told us ISS would be visible for 35 seconds from 22.03 from 10 degrees to 80 degrees to the north-west so we studied the sky waiting for it. It didn’t show. Maybe the timing was wrong but we didn’t see it in the band specified. However we soon after did see a satellite streak straight overhead. Within a couple of hours of just looking up at the night sky I had spotted six satellites and two shooting stars. I gave up on trying to match them with the data from the website as they never appeared where they were meant to. Still, I was staggered at the number of satellite pass-overs we were able to pick up. There was an excited cry as someone from our inebriated party spotted another spot of light tearing across the sky.

What makes the satellites visible is their reflection of the sun’s light. Some are brighter than others, depending on how much light the structure of the satellite catches and how reflective the coating of the satellite is. Most of the satellites are designed to reflect as much light as possible so are coating in particularly reflective materials. A system designed by the ancient Greeks, but adapted by modern astronomers is used to determine how bright a celestial body is based on magnitude. It’s a logarithmic scale that goes from minus to plus. So the sun is incredibly bright at -26.7, the full moon, still very bright at -12.7. Most of the satellites moving over New Zealand range from -3 to +5. Those in positive territory become progressively harder to see as their rating increases until they are undetectable by the human eye at between +6 and +7. Pluto has a magnification of +14 making it visible only through powerful telescopes.

Seeing the International Space Station pass overhead and knowing there are a handful of people onboard floating in space, does send a shiver down the spine. The astronauts will be preparing for a space walk scheduled for February 3. During the operation they will jettison an old Russian space suit that will float in its own orbit around the earth for up to six weeks before being drawn into the earth’s atmosphere and burning up on its re-entry. Before it does so, radio equipment on the suit will transmit recorded messages in several languages that ham radio operators will be able to pick up. How long the transmissions last for will depend on how long the radio equipment’s batteries hold out for but it could be days or weeks. I’ll certainly be getting my father, a ham radio operator (ZL1AXS) to listen out on his rig for the empty cosmonaut’s suit circling the globe.
Nasa's ISS website has some good information about the missions being undertaken.

Thanks to Detlef for introducing me to Heavens-above.com

Wellington’s co-ordinates: ( 41.3000°S, 174.7830°E)

20/01/2006

THE LOEWE DOWN ON LCD TV VIEWING


Here’s my Herald review of the Loewe set I mentioned previously that I was reviewing. I must say I was pretty impressed but at $6000, you’d expect nothing less.

The one thing I constantly think about when I’m watching such good quality high-end LCD sets, is how they break the mystique of cinema. The Bourne Identity, which is a high budget, slick-looking movie on my 24 inch Panasonic, looks pretty crappy on the 32 inch Loewe. It’s like the difference between watching programming from the US in the NTSC format and British programming formatted in PAL.
The latter is much clearer and better quality, but decidedly garish and stark as well. I wonder what the increased clarity and crispness of these new screens will mean for film making. And with all the new screens in native 16:9 widescreen, are film makers going to exploit the format to re-interpret the rules of film making, as the playwright turned director David Mamet suggests in this Guardian column.


SPAM'S LAST GASP

It seems like a long time since I sat on the unmade bed of a teenage spammer in his dark bedroom in a middle class Auckland home in Mt. Eden, watching as he spammed hundreds of thousands of email addresses with banal adverts for something or other.

The guy was probably 18 at the time and he made a mint, tax free, working for his Russian and American masters. He had a Paypal account set up to receive his payments and switched internet providers regularly as they cottoned onto his spam scam. That was just a few years ago, when the spamming industry was in full swing. Companies were taking drastic action to save their mail servers from collapsing, worker productivity was going down the drain as people waded through inboxes full of junk mail and software companies sought a silver bullet solution to spam.

Now, as I suggest in this Herald column, spam has a terminal disease. It’s in decline, the world now familiar to its traits, the citizens of the internet savvy in their understanding of how to deal with it. The spam is still being sent but we’re actually confronted with only a fraction of it these days.

That spells the beginning of the end for the spammers. The business model is in the toilet. Most have already moved on to something entirely more lucrative, phishing, a particularly nasty web scam that involves shadowy figures tricking you into giving them your bank account information. They then clean you out leaving you staring incredulously at the eftpos terminal when the transaction comes up DECLINED.

Yep, a few incremental improvements technology wise and a bit of education is slowly buy surely relieving the pain of spam. I give it two more years before it’s all just a bad memory.

SATELLITE RADIO PART III: ARTHUR C. CLARKE

Finally, in this satellite special, an interview I did with one of my literary heroes, Arthur C. Clarke. I’d always wanted to talk to Clarke but though the sci-fi Arthur’s age and ill-health and my position as a lowly IT reporter would preclude any contact.
Then I happened to be at some boring geekfest, I can’t remember what sort exactly, but scanning the agenda my eyes lit up at the description of the special guest: Arthur C. Clarke, via tele-link from his home in Sri Lanka. After some technical hitches, Clarke appeared on the screen, remarkably lucid and witty as well.
The floor was thrown open for people to ask him questions. The geeks hesitated, an awkward silence blanketed the room. So I got up, took the microphone and proceeded to conduct an interview with Clarke via tele-link in front of a couple of hundred people. It made my afternoon.
A couple of years later I rented a house off Peter Escher, an eccentric satellite fanatic who runs Satlink, a company that installs large satellite dishes for those who want to catch random feeds mainly in Chinese and French from the several satellites that can be picked up here for free if the dish is big enough and you’ve got one of Peter’s decoders.
It turns out Peter was a Clarke fan as well and had paid a visit to the aging author in Sri Lanka. The two had stayed in touch and while living on Peter’s property at the top of the Waitakeres under the Waiatarua TV transmitter, I’d get to read the email correspondence between the two. They chatted mainly about their dogs but even throw away comments by Clarke revealed the genius in the man. It’s one thing to be prolific, but to be prolific and good is an achievement.
Clarke is both. Prophet who brought outer space into everyday life
04.12.2001

Science fiction writers seldom see their fantasy worlds come to life, but the king of the genre, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, has watched his fair share of scientific predictions come to life in a writing career spanning half a century.

The 84-year-old who co-wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey rarely gives interviews, but checked in via an audio link from his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to chat with IT professionals attending the South East Asia Regional Computer Confederation held in Auckland.

Some 33 years after the psychotic HAL 9000 computer system took on a life of its own, terrorising its human crewmates in outer space, satellites, fax machines, videophones and laptops play important roles in our lives. And they all featured in Clarke's books long before they turned up as expensive prototypes. Clarke is impressed at the progress space exploration has made since 1950 when he wrote The Sentinel, a short story which became the basis for his epic film. But the end of the Cold War slowed the race for the stars, he says. "There was no great impetus to go to the planets. But I'm very happy we've reconnoitred all the planets. I never thought we'd do that in my lifetime."

Clarke's 80-plus science fiction books have given glimpses of radically different futures on Earth and beyond our universe. "In the words of my good friend Ray Bradbury, 'I don't try to describe the future, I try to prevent it'." But these days, his visions of the future stem no longer from pure imagination, but technology that man is just beginning to grasp.

"The next great revolution will be in energy," he says. "Future generations will regard us criminals for burning oil." Nanotechnology - building computers the size of molecules will also take giant leaps. And communications will link an ever increasing number of people, creating "electronic tribes" and bridging the digital divide. "There'll be no reason every village can't have its own satellite.

All you need is a satellite dish and a solar panel." But Clarke is still waiting for Nasa to bring one of his more unusual creations to life. He calls it the space elevator - mass transit to the stars. "The rocket's all we've got at the moment," he says. But a cable from a spacestation in stationary orbit down to a point on Earth carrying an electronically-powered elevator will cut out the need for rockets.

Clarke's fascination with technology was sparked by the science fiction comics of the 1930s. He later joined the RAF and was in charge of the first radar ground controlled approach during its trials in the Second World War. But a few things have caught Clarke by surprise. He had astronauts sending text messages to Earth in the 1960s, but totally missed the impact of the internet and e-mail.

But he did forecast our eventual dependence on telecommunications in his story Dial F for Frankenstein, where a telephone system becomes conscious and takes over the world. Voice recognition technology has also developed beyond his expectations. "I thought it would be way off. Now I use it here in my office." Of the artificial intelligence hinted at in his books but so far (thankfully) elusive, Clarke is ambivalent.

"It seems like we're closer to artificial stupidity at the moment. Artificial intelligence has been 20 years away for the last 50 years. That would make 2020 a reasonable date." The discovery of extra-terrestrial life is what Clarke is most excited about - something he believes would be "the greatest thing in human history". It is the one remaining thing he hungers to see discovered, but realises he is unlikely to.

"The best proof of intelligent life in outer space is the fact that it hasn't come here," he chuckles. The elder statesman of sci-fi is winding down his writing career. But work on a host of TV projects, film adaptations and documentaries will keep him busy. In particular, Clarke is excited about the big-screen version of his book Rendevous with Rama, starring Morgan Freeman.

Finally, Clarke - who has had post-polio syndrome since the mid-1980s and is in a wheelchair - wants to lay a 2001 myth to rest once and for all. Since Stanley Kubrick made Clarke's book famous with the film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, rumours have persisted that HAL represented IBM. Conspiracy theorists noticed the letters preceding I, B and M in the alphabet spelled HAL. That was pure coincidence. HAL stands for Heuristic Algorithmic Computer and nothing more, Clarke says.

"I've been trying to stamp that rumour out for 30-plus years," he adds wearily. "If we'd noticed its resemblance at the time, we'd probably have changed it," he says, noting that IBM did not get upset about the association. Big Blue even gave him a Think Pad to write a second followup 3001: The Final Odyssey. Clarke is comfortable with the fact he will not be around to see the contents of that book fleshed out.
"I like to write a million years out. So no one can correct me."

SATELLITE RADIO PART II


A Q&A with IPStar spokesman John Humphrey.

Is IPStar looking into digital satellite radio for this part of the world?

No, not to my knowledge at least. The current IPSTAR-1 satellite is not designed for Satellite Digital Audio Radio Service (S-DARS). The service requires a dedicated number of one-way transponders usually operating in S-band (US) or L-band (Europe). The transponders have to be reasonably high powered to provide connectivity to the small antennas used in cars or to the internal antennas in devices. IPSTAR was designed for two-way Internet access into 50 cm + antennas.


Has Shin done any digital satellite radio services in Asia yet?

No. There is only WorldSpace in Asia I think. This only has coverage down to NW Australia. (http://www.worldspace.com/)


Are these services hard to provide?

As above, requires a purpose designed and built satellite. It also requires coordination with terrestrial spectrum users so that ground based services cannot operate in the same frequencies (which would cause interference).

Do you think there'd be a market for them in a place like New Zealand?

We are so far away from the large concentrations of population (Asia, Europe & US) that designing a bird with coverage extending to NZ would not traditionally have the economics required. However, who knows in the future with advances in satellite capacity per build dollar (such as IPSTAR-1) but my guess is that such a business case will be tenuous for some time. I am sure if it could be provided there would be a sizeable market in NZ. You only have to look at the figures for the US.

Q&A with Altec Lansing senior vice president of sales and marketing, Robert Heiblim.

Does Altec Lansing have speakers designed specifically for digital satellite radio players (either in-car or portable models) in the market in other parts of the world?

Altec Lansing's speaker systems for satellite radio currently are limited to the U.S. and Canada markets. We have partnered with one of the leading services in this industry. Through this partnership, we have been educated about the market and user needs, and we will assess each opportunity moving forward based on the market and user needs.

What does Altec Lansing see as the appeal in the technology? Aren't most people well serviced by existing terrestrial radio services?

Satellite radio plays a different role than local terrestrial broadcast. Local broadcasting provides listeners with local news, weather, traffic, ads and other regional matters they need. Satellite radio focuses more on entertaining listeners. The appeals in satellite radio are the quality of sound that comes with digital audio, the variety of program content and the fact that you can access the same content no matter where you are located. Altec Lansing and XM Satellite radio have a similar approach to product development: we aim to provide a sound enhancement solution to the digital audio market, and we give users a wide variety of listening experiences to match their lifestyle needs. Consumers appreciate the freedom of choice.

How important a market is digital satellite radio to Altec Lansing? Does the company project big growth in this market in 2006?

Our speaker systems for XM Satellite Radio fall under our on-the-go, versatile speaker and digital home audio speaker categories. These were our top-selling categories in 2005. We expect our satellite radio speaker systems to take up a larger share of these categories in 2006.

If other digital radio satellite services come to market, will the existing Altec Lansing digital satellite radio player speakers be able to work with them or are they XM Radio specific?

Although our speaker systems for satellite radio are XM specific, they all contain an auxiliary jack for connection to other portable digital audio devices.


Graphics from reports by Vintage Research and Bernstein Research supplied by John Humphrey.

THE PROBLEM WITH RADIO, SATELLITE RADIO

As excited as I am about digital satellite radio after seeing XM Radio in operation in the US, there’s little chance of a similar service being rolled out here. As my article in the Herald today explains, the local satellite players, chiefly pay-TV operator Sky and satellite wannabe Nzlsat which has been granted a slot to launch its own bird, don’t have satellite radio in their sights.

Nor does IPStar, a subsidiary of Thailand-based Shin Satellite, which has one of the biggest commercial satellite’s ever launched positioned over the South Pacific. That satellite is capable of delivering two-way, high-speed broadband to the whole of New Zealand. IPStar’s New Zealand spokesman, John Humphrey was unavailable for comment before press time but I’ve posted some remarks from him below and excerpts from a useful report he sent me on the state of play in satellite radio in the flourishing US market.

I guess I’ve been turned onto the idea of satellite radio through listening extensively to internet radio stations. I simply place my lightweight laptop beside my stereo, connect the two via an audio input and I’ve got the BBC World Service or any other station I want to listen to, piped through my speakers. That’s great when I’m at home, but radio is the companion of the traveler, the commuter. There’s a reason one of most popular segments of the radio day is “drive time”. That’s when everyone’s in their cars, a captive audience of hundreds of thousands.

Satellite radio would let these people listen to a large selection of specialist stations. With companies like Audible specializing in spoken-word programming – audio books and talk shows, the traditional concept of radio is changing. In a mirroring of the pay TV model, smaller audiences are spread across a large number of usually commercial-free channels. Subscription fees are instead charged. Imagine that, continuous music uninterrupted by the inane banter of radio jocks. Alas, it’s not going to be that way here.




16/01/2006

CES: GAMBLING ON GADGETS AND THE INTERNET

I’m linking to my Herald on Sunday column for those with a premium content subscription. It’s about the massive Consumer Electronics Show held earlier this month in Las Vegas. I’m pretty jaded with tech shows but I wish I’d got to that one. By all accounts it was pretty impressive.


As I wrote in the paper: “The hi-tech orgy revealed what the industry is doubling its bets on this year: high-definition movies, players and TV screens, video game consoles, computers for the living room, mobile gadgets and, most significantly, the internet.”

Oh yeah, the Internet. 2005 certainly made me look at it in a different way because of the new free services it offered up (see The Free Face of the Web below). Google will continue to be the company to watch though there may be a little cooling off in demand for its shares as competitors catch up with the internet juggernaut. The Google Print project may be stymied this year by legal action, but the alliance with Sun, Google Video and the company’s expansive partnership plans will be interesting to watch.

I’m less enthusiastic about the Windows Live concept, it seems like a foregone conclusion and doesn’t seem to add much that isn’t already out there and easy to access. But I am looking forward to Vista.

By the way, I’ve been watching some high definition video clips fed from Windows Media player 10 through to a beautiful Loewe LCD TV screen I’m testing at the moment and the results are pretty impressive. Who needs a media centre PC when you can plug your laptop in and get a ready-made entertainment hub?

9/01/2006

THE GORILLA AND THE SPIKE

When you work for the newspaper as a staff writer you'll find that overall, maybe a third of the copy you write never makes it into print. It's either trimmed away by tight-fisted sub editors or just gets "spiked" completely because the paper fills up with something more important.
The story below was spiked on Saturday night and therefore didn't make the Herald on Sunday. As a freelancer, that's a major pain in the ass because you don't get paid unless the article makes it into print and then only for the number of words published. If those subs are in a bad mood you can end up putting in a day's work for 250 words.
Here then is the spiked story. I'd set out to write a story about how disappointing King Kong must be to an industry that had expected it to beat every other holiday blockbuster and bring in Titanic-esque box office takings. The reality is that no one in Hollywood, whatever their views on whether the 20 extra minutes should have gone in or not, really cares that Kong will take in less at the box office than Narnia. Or if they are they're not really saying so on the record.
The analysts at least seem happy and have distanced themselves from the frenzy of hype that preceded the film's release last month. Kong will easily pass the US$200 million box office takings total that is so crucial to movies with its sort of budget. It and Narnia saved 2005 from being a complete box office fizzer, something for which the industry appears very grateful. Jackson's backend won't have suffered too much and as Reel Source's Robert Buckbaum points out, Jackson is still the king of Hollywood, capable no doubt of commanding another US$20 million pay check for some upcoming special effects-laden blockbuster.
ENTERTAINMENT
by Peter Griffin
Peter Jackson’s 187 minute epic King Kong looks unlikely to claim the top spot at the US box office this weekend but entertainment industry pundits say the film maker is still on track to deliver a multi-billion dollar earner for movie studio Universal.
Box office monitoring company Reel Source is picking Andrew Adamson’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Lionsgate’s debuting horror Hostel to land in the number one position for the second weekend of the year.
Analyst company BoxOfficeGuru expects New Zealand-made Narnia to win out this weekend, relegating Kong to number five in the rankings of the biggest grossing movies of 2005.
“Narnia now looks to reach US$275 million plus from North America,” said BoxOffoceGuru editor Gitesh Pandya.
“If you asked people in early December if they thought Narnia would eventually beat Kong by over US$50 million, they would have laughed at you.”
“But that’s really not the point,” said Reel Source president and theatre owner Robert Bucksbaum.
“It's pretty insane to say a film that grossed over US$180 million in less than four weeks failed to make expectations.”
Entertainment industry analysts had expected King Kong to break financial records with its cinematic debut, but Narnia, which had a smaller production budget than Kong and was released with a five day headstart, took US$230 million in the same period leading many pundits to the conclusion that Kong’s long running time has stunted its earning potential.
As a rule of thumb, films usually have to make three times their production budget to break even. It’s not unusual for a holiday blockbuster to make its money back at the US box office alone, but Mr Bucksbaum says the days of big daily box office returns are fading for Kong as new films arrive in theatres.
“If Kong doesn't receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, we expect revenues to top out at approximately US$220 million in North America, not too shabby,” he said.
Kong would continue to generate revenue in “ancillary markets” for years to come.
Worldwide box office takings for Kong were at US$418 million and climbing. Mr Pandya is forecasting total worldwide box-office takings of at least $500 million. Then there would be sales of the DVD, deals with pay TV and free to air broadcasters, merchandising, video games and the theme park ride.
“People consider Waterworld a bomb but they don't realize the fact that Universal is making billions from the concept at their theme parks. Expect more of the same for Kong,” said Mr Bucksbaum,
Nevertheless, with the hype surrounding Kong at fever pitch months out from the release of the movie, which was widely expected to trounce Narnia, Universal executives are no doubt wondering why Kong didn’t come out on top for the holiday season.
“Making a movie about a big ape in today's technologically savvy marketplace is not an easy sell. With that said, Peter Jackson created a masterpiece so you should be proud of your hometown hero,” Mr Bucksbaum added.
He said Reel Source had always picked Narnia as the winner from the two New Zealand produced blockbusters due to its appeal to family values.
“Narnia is a family film released during a family holiday so we expected the film to perform better than Kong.”
Peter Jackson’s total back-end earnings for Kong are linked to the total the film earns for Universal but Mr Bucksbaum said Jackson was still king in Hollywood as the movie would end up being very profitable.

“I don't think Peter is worrying too much about his Kong salary. He won't have to leave his day job anytime soon - any studio would happily give him a few hundred million to make his next film.”

7/01/2006

WETA DOES SHEEP

Some artwork has appeared on Weta Workshop's website for the intriguing horror movie Black Sheep which I understand is being shot around Wellington over the summer.



According to the Film Makers, Black Sheep tells the story of "a genetic experiment gone horribly wrong; the sheep start turning nasty and it’s the people that begin to bleat."
It's a horror comedy written and directed by first timer Jonathan King and produced by Philippa Campbell (Rain, No. 2) and should do nicely off the momentum created by Australian horror Wolf Creek which is reportedly so graphic and convincing some viewers have had to leave the theatre during viewings.
Black Sheep is interesting for a few reasons. Weta's involvement obviously lends a lot of credibility to the project and you can bet the mutant sheep they come up with will look fantastic. The few bits of artwork Weta is showing off have an incredibly menacing look, like Footrot Flats gone wrong.
Richard Taylor, Peter Jackson's right hand man, is overseeing the making of the killer sheep and sees Black Sheep as harking back to the Brain Dead and Bad Taste splatter days.
As Taylor told Sci Fi Wire:
"It's wonderful for us, because it affords us the ability to go back to our roots, to go back to animatronics. It will be mostly done with puppetry and animatronic work. The script is beautiful, and that's where it all starts. It's funny. It's scary. It's wonderful fun, with crazed, bloody, animatronic sheep. The deadline is very, very short, so we have to bring all of our innovative thought to bear on it, but we're all excited about it."
It's also interesting because it's backed by the New Zealand Film Commission. This project and the vampire thriller Perfect Creature show more than any other productions the commission has been involved with yet that they're willing to punt on very commercial movies.
It's also one of the first New Zealand films financed through a Korean co-production, in this case with the Daesung Group, which put money into the cult hit Old Boy (but also the clanger Around the World in 80 Days). Hopefully this type of funding continues.
Black Sheep has aleady been pre-sold to the distribution company Icon for territories including the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand and three Asian territories have already been sold. That was all wrapped up before the movie had even gone into production which is impressive. The script and concept art must be fantastic.

2/01/2006

COLD HARD FACTS

If you want an insightful look at the situation in earthquake-devastated Northern Pakistan pick up a copy of this week’s Listener. My friend Jon Stephenson spent a week in the region last month and met dozens of earthquake survivors, including the poor woman who had just been dug out of the rubble after 60 odd days.

His piece paints an interesting picture of the apparent failings in the humanitarian aid effort currently under way there. His special report, like the features he wrote for Metro about Iraq and the West Bank last year, is a very good read.

It was good to see more coverage of the Pakistan situation around Christmas as the news networks wrapped up the disasters of the year, starting with the aftermath of the tsunamis of Christmas 2004. But by and large, the disaster in Pakistan which made three million people homeless as the country was plunged into winter has been majorly under-reported.

Jon has covered a number of Middle Eastern conflicts in the last few years and does it all on the smell of an oily rag. He never gets “embedded” or engages in the hotel journalism better resourced reporters make do with. He travels anonymously, wearing the same garb as the people of the country he is visiting, working quietly with a trusted fixer, taking the road less traveled.

When Jon went to Pakistan at the height of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, I told him he didn’t have a shit show of getting across the border to cover the war. The next thing I saw was a report in the Sunday Star Times where he was reporting from Tora Bora, which saw some of the most vicious fighting of the war. His type of journalism is dangerous, overlooked and badly paid. But it’s needed to fill in the gaps in coverage provided by the big media organizations. I know Jon’s got plenty more planned for 2006 so keep an eye out for his work in print and on TV.

UPDATE: Scoop has posted some of Jon's photographs from Pakistan.

1/01/2006

Revenge is a dish best served cold...

After exhausting the holiday reading materials I picked up at The Warehouse for a very reasonable $15 (Robert Lacey's The Year 1000, Bob Woodward's Bush at War and Robert Harris' Pompeii), I found myself browsing the dusty paperbacks lining my parents' bookshelf. I came across an old favourite of mine, Stephen King's superb collection of short stories, Nightmares and Dreamscapes.
The collection was released in 1992 and while all of the stories (bar the non-fiction New Yorker piece Head Down which deals in intricate detail with Baseball) are great only one has stayed with me during ten years since I first read the collection - Dolan's Cadillac.

I love stories of revenge, not hot-headed, passionate reprisals but stories about the vengeful who wait calmly for years to pass before they mete out their perfectly conceived pay back. Robinson, the main character in Dolan's Cadillac is such a person. The story outlines his ten year pursuit of the crime boss who was responsible for his wife's death. It involves a Cadillac, some heavy machinery and a 42 foot hole in the Nevada highway. It's King's best short story of those included in the four large collections he's so far put out. There was talk at one stage of making it into a movie. I hope it comes off because, done properly, this could be very good on screen. Unfortunately, many of King's adaptations turn out crap. For every Shawshank Redemption there's a Tommy Knockers and Riding the Bullet.
Maybe I'm drawn to Dolan's Cadillac once again because I'm attempting my own story of revenge for a screenplay. Only my character lacks the cool resolve of Robinson making him a lot less dangerous...
Here's a sneaky excerpt from Dolan's Cadillac:
"Then came the dumpsters with their fresh loads of gravel, follwed by the spreaders and rollers. After them the big tankers would arrive, the ones with the big wide sprayer attachments on the backs and their smell of hot tar, so like melting shoe leather. And when the fresh asphalt had dried , along would come the lining machine, the driver under his big canvas parasol looking back frequently to make sure the broken yellow line was perfectly straight, unaware that he was passing over a fog-gray Cadillac with three people inside, unaware that down in the darkness there was a ruby ring and a gold Rolex that might still be marking off the hours..."

According to Stephenking.com, Nightmares and Dreamscapes is being made into an eight X one hour TV series. That explains the rumour about Dolan's Cadillac being adapted. The story could be very nicely told in 45 minutes (the rest of the slot taken up by adverts. Some decent screenwriters, including Larry Cohen, who adapted King's IT and Carrie are writing the scripts so it looks promising.

Also, King is putting out The Secretary of Dreams, a reissue of half a dozen of his short stories in graphic novel format, accompanied by illustrations in pulp horror comic style. Included are a couple of my favourites, The Road Virus Heads North and Home Delivery.

I'll be putting in a order through Paypal for that one. If any contemporary author shows there is huge interest and appeal in overlooked form of literature, the short story, it's Stephen King.

Big things tech for 2006

Happy New Year! Whatever you got up to last night, I'm sure your celebrations were livlier than mine which involved drinking martinis with my family while a terrible TV special by the people behind the Back of the Y accompanied us into 2006.
What will be big in 2006 tech wise? I've written my Herald on Sunday column on just that topic. You can read it here if you've a subscription to the Herald Online. But it basically boils sown to this in my opinion:
1. Apple and the iPod have about another year's grace before anyone has a chance of catching up with them. The iPod will have wireless built-in for seamless syncing with iTunes. The TV content deals Apple is striking in the US will become more sophisticated, especially when the TiVo software that allows you to transfer recorded content from your PVR directly to your video iPod becomes widely available.
I can see the iPod adopting a digital satellite tuner and Apple getting into bed with an operator like XM Satellite, which operates dozens of radio stations beamed off satellites positioned over North America. The advantage of satellite radio is that you can pick up the same radio feed wherever you are and more channels can be broadcast at better quality. There are many digital satellite radio receivers on the market but imagine how powerful the iPod will be if a digital radio receiver is built into it and iTunes users can subscribe to pick up various radio stations.
I doubt the Motorola ROKR, the phone that hosts the iTunes store will survive. It will go down as one of the big failures of 2005. But I can see a better phone that allows users more flexibility taking off this year.
2. Blu Ray and HD-DVD players will hit the market eventually transforming how we store media. The two flavours of technology basically let you do the same thing - let you store upwards of 25GB of data on a single disk. The average hard drive is around 60GB. So with two or three disks you'll be able ot back-up the entire contents of your hard drive uncompressed. That's very useful. The disks have so much capacity on them that there'll be no excuse for three-disk box sets for movies. Everything will fit on one disk in high-definition quality. The big drawback with Blu Ray and HD-DVD is that you need a high definition TV set to see the content in high definition. A small but rapidly rising percentage of TV screens in this country support high definition. The market will take the whole year to settle down. The CES consumer electronics show being held in Las Vegas later this month will showcase new devices like Pioneer's Blu-Ray drive for computers. The technology means less shagging around with CDs and DVDs, more ease in recording long stretches of TV and once the entertainment industry gets its act together, movies released to the home video market in much better quality than standard definition DVDs now deliver. I can't wait.

3. Microsoft's Xbox 360 may not have got the Japanese excited but who would it? You would'nt expect the Ford Taurus to do well in Japan. They're a patriotic bunch when it comes to technology and Sony's Playstation reigns supreme. Elsewhere the Xbox 360 has been selling out leading to ludicrous bids being placed on eBay for the consoles being flogged for those with their eye on high denomination greenbacks rather than high quality gaming graphics.
Surprisingly, with hype around the 360 and the gaming industry in general at feverpitch, the game publishers are talking downturn. The theory is that with the release of the Xbox 360 and the pending release on the Playstation 3 and the Nintendo Revolution, gamers with the old consoles are holding off buying gaes until they've invested in the next generation of hardware. Is the games industry ever happy with the billions they take?
The Xbox 360 will be huge in 2006, especially if Microsoft and Bungie get it together and release Halo 3 during the year. These next generation gaming consoles are unlike anything we've seen before. Their graphics processing power is staggering. And they combine gaming with wider entertainment options like live TV recording, playing music and internet access. As such the 360, which goes on sale here on March 2 and PS3 will be the most functional gadgets to capture our attention in 2006. The problem will be getting enough of them out of Chinese factories to meet global demand.
4. The so-called PMP (personal media player) took its baby steps in 2005 but was held back by high pricing and a lack of understanding of where it fits in the market. The PMP is a small tablet with LCD screen that’s generally smaller than a portable laptop. It has the ability to play video and audio and display photos and documents and is usually wi-fi enabled so can connect to the internet over a wireless network. It’s ideal for use around the house though many of them are also small enough to carry with you. Manufacturers such as Creative, iRiver, Archos and Nokia are already in the PMP camp but the fall in price of laptops has made these new devices expensive by comparison. Nevertheless, the huge demand for digital media and the lure of having a high-resolution, full-colour screen handy will ensure its success. Think of Sony’s PSP but with music, video and pictures rather than gaming at the forefront.
www.creative.com

5. Methanol-based fuel cells will debut in 2006 in Japan with the aim of meeting the power-hungry demands of increasingly sophisticated gadgets. The power cells will initially appear as external “gas tanks” that can be connected to electronic devices to charge their batteries, but eventually will be built into mobile phones, music players and laptops. Toshiba has already shown prototypes of its Gigabeat music player powered by a fuel cell and the race is on among laptop makers to come up with the best designed fuel cell. The technology will increase the battery life of electronics and remove the need to connect to a power supply to recharge. They promise to be more fuel efficient with the cells replenished by adding a few drops of methanol to the tank.