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In the Night Garden...

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One of the joys of having children is that you get an excuse to watch children's television again. One of my current favourites on CBeebies is "In the Night Garden...". The show is made by the same production company as Teletubbies and shares some of the earlier shows aesthetics - lots of lush green grass, constant sunny weather, happy costumed characters, etc. On the surface it's a very happy smiley show, but the more I think about it, the more the show's darker side is apparent.

Igglepiggle

The protagonist is a character called Igglepiggle, who is shown at the beginning of each episode falling asleep on a small sailing boat and dreaming about adventures with his friends in the garden. At the end of each episode he's reluctant to leave the garden and is then shown asleep in the boat drifting off into the distance. This got me thinking - far from being a happy character he's lost at sea in a small boat, most probably living on fish and re-condensed sea water. He's so lonely that his mind is dreaming/hallucinating about the garden and its characters in order to keep himself sane. The garden itself is of course on dry land and there are no streams or ponds - I guess Igglepiggle hates water after being adrift for so long.

Each character has a theme song which is sung when they first appear in the garden. Igglepiggle's simply states that his name is Igglepiggle, as though he is trying desperately to cling onto his identity. An instrumental version of his theme also serves as the opening/closing music for the show and is also sung by the Tittifers (brightly coloured birds) - it's almost as though the song is stuck in his head, haunting him.

If Igglepiggle is going insane with loneliness and the garden does not exist outside of his head, then we can think of the other characters as representative of different aspects of his personality. I think I've figured some of them out.

Upsy Daisy

Iggle Piggle's best (imaginary) friend is Upsy Daisy. A young woman who appears to be his girlfriend - they are often seen holding hands, hugging and kissing each other. She sings and dances a lot and seems to represent a happy distraction from Igglepiggle's plight - he clings to her to push his loneliness away and uses her as a mask from his breaking personality. Her theme emphasises that she is the only Upsy Daisy, perhaps showing that Igglepiggle is clingy and obsessive about her. Strangely enough, she sleeps in a wheeled seemingly sentient bed that sometimes follows her around or runs away from her.

Makka Pakka

This character is simple to work out. He represents Igglepiggle's obsessive compulsive side. He collects rocks and does all the cleaning in the garden, often washing the other character's faces. He is about half Igglepiggle and Upsy Daisy's height, perhaps indicating that this aspect of his personality is not dominant.

The Pontipines & Wottingers

The Pontipines are ten tiny red characters who live in a semi detached house. The other half of the house is occupied by the Wottingers. The Pontipines appear in the show far more frequently than the Wottingers and I think I've figured out why. The Pontipines and Wottingers appear to be the most intelligent characters in the garden and perhaps they literally represent Igglepiggle's brain. I think the Pontipines represent the right hemisphere and the Wottingers the left (matching up with the side of the screen their house is on). The Wottingers appear less often because IgglePiggle is right brain dominant. Further evidence of this is that the characters in the garden all lack good language skills (most can only say their own names). Language is usually controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain. The tiny size of the characters would seen to show that Igglepiggle's brain is in a bad state overall.

The Ninky Nonk and Pinky Ponk

These are the two forms of transport within the garden, a fast train and a slow airship respectively. Although apparently about the same size as Igglepiggle, they become large enough for the characters to ride on, though the size change is never shown. They perhaps show Igglepiggle's yearning to get off his boat and onto some other form of transport. The fast speed of the Ninky Nonk showing Igglepiggle's desire to move quicky rather than drifting slowly and the airship perhaps showing his frustration - he wants to get high enough off the water to see land.

Conclusion

I haven't figured out the rest of the characters yet, which is why I haven't mentioned them here. Of course, I'm sure the program makers had none of this in mind when making the programme - this is of course simply my analysis after thinking far to much about a children's television show. Perhaps I've got too much time on my hands...

James May's Lego House

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I originally started writing this post over a month ago, but work suddenly went into overdrive and I never got round to finishing and posting it. Well, here it is!

Back in July, you may have seen the news that James May was planning to build a house out of Lego and live in it for a few days for a new TV show. I certainly did. He was looking for a few hundred volunteers to help out with the construction, and I also noticed that the event was taking place at Denbies Vineyard, only a short drive from my home.

I decided to sign up, though I wasn't expecting to get anywhere. A few days later I received an email saying that there was lots of demand and that people should turn up on Saturday morning and they would hand out tickets to those lucky enough to be near the front.

I had to do this! Playing with a vast quantity of Lego is something I've always dreamed of as a child and I could not pass up this opportunity. I contacted my friend Iain to see if he fancied coming along and he replied in the affirmative.

The Big Day

I awoke at 7am on Saturday 1st August and after a little while I dragged myself to the shower and made myself presentable for the day. My wife had agreed to give us a lift to the event, which was just as well because when we arrived at 8:30 the car park was overflowing. She dropped us off at the entrance and we walked the rest of the way.

We joined the rather long queue and tried to estimate how many people were ahead of us. The email from the producers said that there were 600 tickets available, but they would be able to give out more tickets if the weather permitted. The queue already stretched around three sides of the large main building at Denbies and was getting longer by the minute. We also noticed that we were in the minority of people who didn't bring children along - I would have brought my son along but he's too young for it and would probably try to eat the Lego rather than do anything useful.

The queue moved slowly forward. My wife texted me to tell he she had spotted James May in the centre of Dorking with a camera crew - Denbies lies on the edge of this town. The queue continued its agonisingly slow crawl, though the atmosphere was a happy one - if there's one thing the British know how to do well, it's queueing. There was no queue jumping, nor an impatient word. Even the children in the queue were entertaining themselves without causing a nuisance.

At last! Some excitement! A car drove along the queue with a camera crew hanging out of the back. We all dutifully waved as it passed, hoping that we would we would be amongst the lucky few not to end up on the cutting room floor. More excitement ensued a little later when the car appeared again and stopped by some shipping crates, the driver and his companion opening them and extracting some of the valuable plastic bricks we all wanted to get our hands on.

As we neared the front of the queue, we saw what was taking so long. People were having to sign release forms for their image to be used in the TV programme, though by this point they had started handing out the forms to people before they got to the front which helped somewhat. At about 11:30, three hours after joining the queue, we finally received our tickets for an hour's building at 3pm.

A brief interval for lunch at home and we were back queueing again (groan), only this time in the rain. Thankfully, the queue was much shorter this time as it was only for a pre-booked session. After a little while getting wet, James May himself came out of the marquee with a megaphone and told us all to stop standing around in the rain like a bunch of idiots and to come inside and get building. We didn't need telling twice!

It turned out we weren't actually going to be constructing the house, but building what amounts to house bricks out of Lego. This was a bit of a shame, but understandable considering the amount of people there. We were to construct hollow blocks made out of standard 2x4 Lego bricks measuring 12x6x8 bricks in total with no top or bottom. Very strong and light.

Iain and myself were quite competitive, trying to build as many blocks as we could in the time allotted. There was a frustrating hiatus in the middle where we ran out of Lego and had to wait for another crate to be retrieved from the stores, but we ended up well ahead of everyone else on our table.

After that, there was nothing for it but to buy some of the local wine and head home.

In the intervening weeks I have received more emails asking for help in the actual construction of the house, but unfortunately I've been snowed under with work (which as I noted above, is the reason for the delay in this post). I noticed in the local paper last week however, that the house is still not finished, so perhaps there is still an opportunity for more large scale Lego construction ahead.

I shall post again when I know when this will be on TV - I'm assuming the series is being prepared for the Christmas toy rush.

Children of Earth was a five episode mini-series forming the third season of Torchwood. It's good to see the new series try out the old Doctor Who's structure of a big story spread over several episodes and it never seemed to run out of steam.

As I've already stated on this blog, Torchwood started out as a very silly, but promising show. The second series really showed this potential off with some great episodes. I particularly liked the Owen focussed episodes after he "died". It's quite impressive how much the series has improved over a relatively small number of episodes.

Children of Earth felt a little too much like a Doctor Who episode, though perhaps this was to handhold the BBC 1 audience who may have not seen it before. It started out as yet another mass mind control episode and at the end I was half expecting the Doctor to turn up and sort out the mess (thankfully, he didn't, though Torchwood always has this lazy plot device as a "Get out of jail free" card available). However, there were some really chilling moments. There was a section where the cabinet are discussing how to choose the ten percent of children to give up to the 456. After initially thinking a random selection would be best, they eventually chose the completely selfish route of picking the attendees of the worst performing schools on the basis that they were "of less use to society". This came across to me as being scarily plausible.

One thing that's a little off putting about Torchwood is how few of the main cast are still alive. Jack of course can't die (at least not for a few billion years), but Gwen must be cacking herself at the moment, being the only other survivor. Martha Jones and Mickey transferred to Torchwood at the end of the last series of Doctor Who, but they did not appear in this mini-series (only Martha's absence was explained).

Lastly, another little thing I noticed last week is that the Torchwood hub is one of the fictional places you can search for on Google Maps!

We missed an episode of Torchwood last week, so I decided to give the BBC's iPlayer a go.  I installed the software from the website easily enough and it told me to restart Firefox before it would work.  Fair enough, thinks I, so I restart the browser and navigate to the iPlayer download page and select Torchwood.  I select the download option and it then bizarrely launches an instance of Internet Explorer to do the job.

Now why on Earth would it do this?  I've seem a few websites that are totally IE dependent (anything hosted on Sharepoint for example), but the iPlayer installer specifically mentioned restarting Firefox so it makes no sense in this case.

Despite this WTF, it downloaded the program fairly quickly.  I play the first few seconds of it in Windows Media Player to check it's OK, but really what I wanted to do was to watch the program on our 32" HD screen in the living room, sat on the comfy sofa, etc, rather than watching on a 20" PC monitor on a hard chair in a small office.  Well, I have an Xbox 360 which can play back media so I thought it should be a doddle to get the two machines talking over our wireless network.  How wrong I was...

Firstly, I booted up the 360 and went to its Media Center (Note to Microsoft, it's spelt "Centre" in the UK).  It provided me with an eight digit number to type into Windows Media Center on my PC.  I have Vista Home Premium 64 on my PC, which includes Windows Media Center.  I launch this program and follow the instructions to add a "Media Extender" which apparently the 360 is from the point of view of the PC.  I enter the number and wait...

By this point, the 360 says it's downloading something, but after a minute or two it claims the connection was broken.  The PC says the same thing.  I try again with the same result.

After a bit of thought, I recall seeing a Media Sharing option in the Vista Control panel, so I switch this on (it's able to see the 360 on the network with no problems), but the 360 isn't able to see my PC.

I go through the whole Media Extender setup again and this time it seems to succeed.  The PC did complain that my wireless network wasn't going to be fast enough to stream video (surely 54Mbps is quick enough, even if shared across two devices).  The 360 now has a Media Center UI on screen, identical to the one in Vista. 

However, all is not well.  Navigating this screen results in a huge lag of a few seconds for each button press (though the background is animating smoothly).  The PC is able to navigate without any problems, even when connected to the 360.  I eventually get into the videos section and see that the Torchwood episode is indeed there.  I click play and it says it doesn't know how to play it despite it being a Windows Media format file.

At this point, we just give up and watch the episode in the office on my PC.  The image quality of iPlayer content isn't bad at all.  It's a bit fuzzier than broadcast digital TV, but my PC seems to do a much better job of smoothing out DCT macroblocks than my TV does (perhaps the difference between MPEG2 and WMV).  Also, it was a good episode!

So...  Why was this process so difficult?  Why did it fail when I tried to play the video on the 360?  Why was there so much lag navigating the Media Center UI on the 360?  Would it not have been a lot simpler for the 360 to present a shared drive to the network that I can copy videos/music/etc onto and then simply play them locally?

Answers on a postcard (or preferably in the comments box).

Dr Who

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I have to say the last few episodes (The ones with The Doctor as a teacher in 1913 and the one with the Weeping Angel statues) have been utterly brilliant.  Proper writing and none of the usual cheesiness you get from the BBC Science Fiction department.

The Race to Size Zero

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I saw half of this documentary the other night. It featured two journalists, both women, attempting an experiment to see if they could reach size zero (this is the US size zero, which is approximately the same as UK size four). They were both fairly slim to start with. One of the women managed this without many problems (though her performance at work was reportedly terrible during the experiment). The other woman didn't cope so well and became borderline bulimic. Both of them lost a stone in weight over five weeks, and then put it back on when their eating returned to normal. The doctors interviewed throughout said that being that size is unhealthy, puts massive strain on your internal organs, and can even stop your periods if your body thinks it's not getting the nutrition it needs. One statistic that was claimed was that 84% of woman surveyed say they would be happier if they were lighter. I find this absolutely shocking. Although the country is reportedly in the midst of an obesity epidemic, I don't think anyone would think that anywhere near 84% of women were overweight. It's probably nearer the inverse (16%). If the vast majority of women predicate (part of) their happiness on being below a certain weight, then what kind of world do we live in? How has nearly half of the population of the country been brainwashed to think in this way? Let's put it another way. I weigh roughly fourteen stone, which is about two stone overweight for my height (but not obese by any means). I try to keep active and eat less, but generally am not too bothered about this. I'm healthy and live a reasonably happy life. Why is this so different for women?
I watched an episode of this new Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse sketch show last night on BBC2 (might have been BBC3, I can't remember), and was impressed. It's good to see a character based sketch show (in this case mostly poking fun at the class and race divides still rampant in Britain). Makes a nice change from the endless repeated catchphrases and shock value of Little Britain and Catherine Tate. Hopefully, Harry and Paul will repeat the successful formula of The Fast Show by actually evolving the characters during the series rather than endlessly repeating the same thing.

Fairies?!?

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I take back what I said in this post. Torchwood is not clichéd sci-fi staple - it's utterly bonkers nonsensical tripe, though somehow it's still remarkably entertaining. The only thing of interest now plotwise is finding out just how old Jack Harkness actually is. Also, their CG artists could do with learning a thing or two about lighting - the monster fairies looked awful. We can do much better in real time on a games console these days, there's no excuse in pre-rendered stuff. Also, they didn't seem to figure out the rather obvious problem of showing a woman taking photos with a flash, which ended up somehow lit from the side. In fact, the light fairies didn't cast any light on the world at all, though I can forgive that as it's harder to do.

Late night TV

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I couldn't sleep last night, so I decided to see what was on TV in the small hours. We have a Freeview (free to air digital TV in the UK) box so have quite a few channels to choose from. Unfortunately, it appears that in the small hours at least ten of these channels (including a couple of mainstream ones) show phone in quiz shows all night. One channel was simply showing a scantily clad woman sat on a comfy chair and people could phone or text in to chat with her (at premium rate I might add!). They didn't even appear to have any adverts as the shows seem to be paying for themselves. I wasn't expecting the best TV ever at that time, but was at least thinking there'd be a decent film or two - maybe an interesting repeat of a documentary, comedy or drama. Instead we've got the cheapest possible TV production with an apparent revenue stream from insomniacs with a phone.

Torchwood

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I've seen the first three episodes of the BBC's new Dr Who spinoff and I'm generally quite impressed. The two main characters are entertaining and interesting, though so far we don't know much about the others. The humour in it reminds me of the excellent Farscape and it's nice that they're not bothering to try to make Cardiff look like London any more, especially since the Welsh capital has such landmark (though perhaps too modern) architecture. The only problem I have with it is that the plots so far are (like Dr Who) just clichéd sci-fi staple - not exploring anything new or interesting. They keep banging on about "It all changes in the 21st century" which is promising, though hopefully it won't take 94 seasons before they reveal all... I've not checked the internet, where such things are almost certainly already known, but I'll bet anything that the Doctor himself will show up before the end of the first series (and Torchwood will no doubt continue to appear in the 3rd season of Dr Who).

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