stevegsltsz

My blog, my thoughts and my musings!


Children’s Letters To Santa Have Their Own Sorting Office

With December in full swing and ‘the big day’ now less than a week away, you’ll be heartened to know that a) today’s tech-savvy, smartphone wielding children still write letters to Father Christmas in the traditional manner b) that real people actually read them and c) that the children can expect a genuine reply to their letters.

The sorting office, which deals exclusively with children’s letters to Santa, is located in Belfast and is listed on the official Royal Mail address finder as being staffed by 10,000 elves, 1,000 reindeer and about 100 snowmen. The areas industry is listed as including “sleigh pulling, toy making and list checking (twice)”.

According to The Telegraph’s Sarah Rainey, around 250,000 letters, addressed to ‘reindeerland’, pass through this highly specialised sorting office every year. Morag Turnbull, who works as the Operations Manager at the Royal Mail in Edinburgh, told The Telegraph that, “The effort the children go to in writing them is wonderful (…) They cut out pictures of toys, draw pictures for Santa, attach stickers, feathers and all sorts of inventive touches. We start getting them as early as August, and we reply to as many as we can before Christmas – but it’s a mad, mad job.”

The letters usually have to be examined by hand, as the Royal Mail sorting machines struggle with kid handwriting, coloured craft paper and glitter. In addition, occasional parcels of food (for Santa and Rudolph, you understand), can (and frequently do), crash the system.

Perhaps the nicest part of this particular story, however, is just what the kids are asking for. In addition to predicable demands for iPads, new bikes and Disney memorabilia, many British children are apparently very selfless in nature.

A small boy named Noah, for example, sent Santa a drawing for his troubles, before asking for new work shoes for his mother and some Lego for his brother, his own request (a DVD player) was listed last of all. Many kids also ask for presents for their pets or their teddy bears and even more request something nice for their brothers and sisters as well as themselves.

A particularly moving letter came from a girl named Casey, who asked Santa Claus to name a star in honour of her granddad, who apparently died in January this year. “Can you give him a big hug and a kiss from me?” She wrote, “I don’t get to see him anymore, but this way I will be able to see him in the sky every night.”

So, the next time you find yourself suffering a bout of the ‘holiday blues’, fretting over January’s credit card bill or getting exasperated by just how busy December can be, take a deep breath and think about that little sorting office in Belfast, a place where the magic of Christmas is still very much in evidence. Think on that and smile.

Thank you for reading, have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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The Dead Actor’s Studio

Imagine a young Marlon Brando starring alongside Johnny Depp, or Audrey Hepburn playing rival to Sandra Bullock as Marilyn Monroe stops by for a catty cameo.

Depending on how you look at it, this is either tantalizing ‘fantasy film making’ or else an utterly horrible, cash-in exercise in Hollywood excess. Whatever your viewpoint, it does seem likely that someone, somewhere will try this in the near future.

About three years ago, the news broke that George Lucas, the genius behind the ‘Star Wars’ merchandise (and a couple of related movies), was buying up the likeness rights to a plethora of iconic, yet deceased, leading men and famous actresses from Hollywood’s golden age. His plan? To use a concoction of existing footage, CGI and motion capture to create reasonable facsimiles of classic Hollywood stars and have them appear in future films, despite the notable handicap of being, well, dead.

Initially, it was just for one project, but it raised the prospect of other films being made, as well as a number of interesting philosophical issues.

The majority of critics reacted negatively to the notion of these ‘Franken-films’, some saying that the magic of an individual acting performance would be notably absent in the films, others upset that the actors themselves could potentially ‘star’ in projects that they may not have supported in life.

It really must be said, however, that blockbuster movies like 2009’s ‘Avatar’ and 2011’s ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ already received plaudits for their use of motion capture techniques and CGI ‘acting’. It is an accepted part of modern cinema, like it or not.

Lest we forget, George Lucas’ own ‘Star Wars’ films also featured a number of purely CG characters. In our era, we are becoming very used to CG characters; even CG versions of real actors are commonplace. It really isn’t a huge leap of imagination (or available technology) to foresee deceased stars headlining blockbusters once again.

We are also living in a world that specializes in the glorification of deceased idols and recycled imagery (take a look at this month’s music magazines and count how many times you see Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain or other dead stars on the covers). Look at the movie magazines as they feature young DeNiro as Travis Bickle, or Ray Liotta as Henry Hill. We, as consumers, are being conditioned to expect our stars to be able to do anything we can imagine, including coming back from the dead.

Why we want it:

The question here, to at least some degree, is ‘do we want it?’ but for now, I’m going to be positive and assume that we do…

Bringing classic actors back to ‘life’ would be a daring and controversial decision and would inspire all kinds of debates. It would also, no doubt, stimulate the film industry by providing literally hundreds of thousands of new prospects, pairings and casting choices.

On the downside, it would probably create an updated version of the old Hollywood studio system that would likely prove to be a legal nightmare involving no small amount of heartache for the families of the stars being featured. It could also have the negative effect of holding down upcoming talent.

However, many Hollywood actors do what they do for a shot at immortality and this is, frankly, the closest that they are likely to get to that goal. It would not surprise me at all if ‘likeness rights’ contracts started containing an ‘after death’ clause that specified use of the actor’s image in posthumous film projects.

Culturally speaking, in a worldwhere dead musicians like Hendrix and 2Pac routinely release albums and where popular music is dominated by the ‘sampling’ (and in some cases, outright theft) of other works, or where film texts constantly, almost obsessive-compulsively, reference each other (in whantat has become the intertextual equivalent of an M.C Escher drawing), rehashing the stars of the past seems like an obvious choice.

Dead icons could spice up Hollywood by adding controversy, class and bankability to the summer’s contrived blockbuster selection. Plus, all their skeletons, secrets and shameful actions are already a matter of public record, so there’s no ill-timed revelatory ‘gossip’ that’s going to rear up and threaten the production.

Even those who oppose the making of such movies will still have to watch them in order to write the requisite bad reviews, this simply proves the old adage that controversy generates cash.

When can we expect it?

Oh snap, it already happened. In the year 2000, actor Oliver Reed sadly died during the filming of Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’. In order for him to finish what would become his final role, the VFX team created a CG ‘mask’ of Reed’s face and used a body double to complete their film.

Remember that car advert with Steve McQueen? It has already begun.

Real, workable CGI stars are already a reality, but the technology does not yet exist to create a completely CG James Dean for a sequel to ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. I’d give it maybe 10-20 years before we start seeing the stars in respectful, tasteful cameo roles, or else old actors performing alongside their younger selves. After that, it’ll be 3-5 years before we see the screen idols like Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and Grace Kelly headlining movies again.

Cool factor 3/5 – It really depends on how these ‘stars’ are handled. The results could, potentially, be beautiful codas to a star’s career (which is how they could be sold to the audience), but they could also be horribly insulting, denigrating the work of great actors and actresses. Time is going to tell, as usual…

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Whats’s a Covert Earpiece?

Without giving too much about this earpiece piece, but I thought it interesting and relevant to what I’m now doing.

A covert earpiece is a miniature earpiece worn by an individual while being effectively hidden from plain view. It operates as a radio accessory in times when a user does not want other people to know she or he is communicating with others using radio earbuds. Also known as an invisible earpiece or a surveillance earpiece, a covert earpiece is often worn by government agents, corporate security personnel, undercover law enforcement officers and corporate as well as government spies.

covert earpiece

While many occupations require the use of a radio headset for communication, a covert earpiece is primarily used in instances where communication is of an extremely private and sensitive nature. This is common in cases of private security details and surveillance projects. Sometimes people also use a covert earpiece to defraud businesses and others. Examples of such instances would include someone using an invisible earpiece to cheat on an exam or to defraud a casino by receiving remote information while playing a game.

On-air television personalities may also use a covert earpiece, which is not distracting to viewers, but allows the person to hear relevant feedback from producers and engineers in order to make sure a taping or live appearance flows smoothly. Individuals may also wear a covert earpiece when making a public speech. By doing so, the speaker can receive important cues or changes in a speech without the audience even being aware that communication is taking place between someone located behind the scenes and the individual delivering the speech.

Some covert earpieces are accompanied by a discreet microphone, which enables two-way communication. These are commonly used by security forces with a need for such communication, particularly during surveillance operations. These types of accessories are not only convenient because they feature hands-free operation, but also because they allow undercover security forces to blend in with crowds without having to use a visible walkie-talkie system of communication.

A covert earpiece does not contain any visible wires and is designed to fit inside the ear without being noticeable to the general public. Some devices are even designed to fit on a pair of eyeglasses while amplifying sound inside a person’s ear. An inductive wire is sometimes worn around the person’s neck, but is covered by clothing so as not to be discovered by onlookers. This wire is not connected to the covert earpiece, but connects to a separate radio device that helps modulate sound.


VTech Innolab: The Kids Are Alright

Last night I found myself in the grip of a nightmare. In my dream, a Woman dressed like a Victorian widow was drowning me under a sheet of thick, impenetrable ice. Before that, I’d had a series of other nightmares involving a fire, a group of shadow-like stick figures slashing me with long nails and an attack by large tanks aimed at either shooting me or squashing me, whichever came first.

However, in a lucid state of dreaming, I was able to call on a ‘Dream Guardian’ of sorts, who furnished me with a magical suit of armour that allowed me to beat all of the challenges. I ‘burst’ the spindly shadow-men with a blast of light, I doused the fire with water, and I disabled the tanks with a single punch.

Yep, imagination isa powerful thing.

That’s what worries me about tablets for kids. When I was a little boy, we played Sega Mega Drive, but I also had a leftover 70’s Pocket Simon that I adored. Mostly however, it was playing with toys that allowed me to foster and develop the natural imagination that I now use every day in my other life as a contemporary fiction writer.

I immersed myself in comics, books and ghost stories and, in the process, found a career path that felt right to me (although, looking back, I probably should have paid attention in maths and been a banker).

Today’s kids, growing up with tablet PCs, video games and blockbuster movies, may not have as much need for an imagination, or at least, that’s what sometimes bothers me. I worry that kids who grow up with ‘interactive literature’ at their disposal, might become deathly bored with ‘grown up’ literature when they come of age, and that they might even grow to reject the printed word outright. Not only does ‘Crime & Punishment’ not have pictures, but the only options for playable mini games would have to be desperately macabre.

Pedantic and repetitive explanations don’t necessarily teach children to use computers, either. Anybody can do anything if they have someone telling them over and over again how to do it. So, with more and more interactive toys and less and less cause to take up a cardboard box and ‘just add wonder’, it is easy to play a prophet of doom to a predicted generation of mindless kids, most of whom don’t know how to actually be kids anymore.

However, in my capacity as a tech reviewer, I’ve found considerable cause to hope for better. After extensively reviewing the latest crop of kid’s tablet PCs, I’ve actually found them to be, potentially, an exceptionally useful learning tool. In fact, provided that they are used as part of a ‘balanced diet’ (that also includes traditional picture books, regular play and stimulating creative exercises), a children’s tablet can be a really enriching product.

With literally hundreds of apps available for cheap download, kids tablets can offer anything from reading and writing programs, to maths, elementary science and even foreign languages. The sheer variety available on tablets like the VTech Innolab or the Leapfrog LeapPad is actually amazing. Some of these tablets (such as the LeapPad) even have specially designed operating systems that give children a basic introduction to the underpinnings of MAC OS, Windows, or Android.

In fact, there’s a lot to be said for interactive activities being better than more enriching than ‘passive’ activities like watching TV. Of course, there will be those parents who don’t take the time to use the tablets with their children, but those parents are no different from those who use the TV as an all-purpose babysitter or those parents who never make the time to read to their children.

However, if you want your child to gain a basic grasp of computers and have access to an array of interactive learning facilities, then I can honestly say that you could do a lot worse than getting a kid’s tablet.

In moderation a children’s tablet can be a passport to excitement, adventure and a high degree of preschool learning. Remember though, I said moderation. Drawing, writing, reading and traditional play are still very much number one in my opinion.

After all, without a little imagination, the adult world can be one nightmare after another.


Jack The Ripper: Case Closed (Again)?

A new book published this month promises to provide a long-awaited conclusion to the age old riddle of ‘The Whitechapel Murders’, a series of gruesome slayings that took place between September and October of 1888. The killer, famously known as ‘Jack The Ripper’ was never apprehended and his (or her!) true identity was never uncovered…

However, according to amateur detective Russell Edwards, the most famous murder case of all time has now been conclusively solved.

Mr. Edwards has spent 14 years establishing his theory and is convinced that it is watertight. “We have definitively solved the mystery of who Jack The Ripper was,” he told the press.

However, his claims are very far from being either accepted by historians or agreed upon by science…

Since ‘The Ripper’ murdered at least five prostitutes (some experts argue that there were more victims and that the slayings continued unabated until 1891), a large number of historians, amateur detectives and interested parties have indulged in this so-called ‘Ripperology’ – and a number of theories as to the identity of the killer have been put forward as a result.

The list of suspects named over the years is a long one. It includes celebrities like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ author Lewis Carroll, Queen Victoria’s physician William Gull, the painter Walter Sickert and even Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Albert Victor. More serious scholars tend to look towards less prominent and sensationalistic theories, however.

Regular Ripper suspects include Scottish abortion doctor and convicted murderer Thomas Neill Cream, who allegedly confessed to the killings as he was about to be hanged (although he was in prison at the time of the murders), Irish-American conman Francis Tumblety, who was arrested on charges connected to the killings, Polish born Seweryn Klosowski, who murdered three of his wives by poisoning and James Kelly, who murdered his own wife in a manner similar to a Ripper killing, escaped Broadmoor asylum early in 1888 (and who may even have committed similar murders in the United States) amongst many others.

Because so many competing theories abound, something special is required to truly make an impact on the subject, or add anything new to the long running discussion. Concordantly, Edwards’ theory involves an element that is guaranteed to add an air of legitimacy to any investigation, DNA.

According to Russell Edwards, the true identity of Jack The Ripper was Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jew who lived in the area at the time of the murders and died in an asylum in 1919.

Kosminski immigrated to the UK in the 1880’s and worked as a hairdresser before being committed.

In 1891, (the time when some theorists suggest that the killings ceased) Kosminski was admitted to an insane asylum, probably suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Kosminski was extremely mentally ill, having been incarcerated twice for insane behaviour. He refused to bathe, would only eat discarded food and suffered from auditory hallucinations; he was also probably a compulsive masturbator.

Russell Edward’s book, ‘Naming Jack The Ripper’ focuses on DNA evidence taken from a shawl that supposedly belonged to victim Catherine Eddowes, who was murdered by Jack The Ripper in September of 1888. He claims to have isolated traces of Kosminski’s DNA from the grisly garment.

The shawl, which was apparently stained with Eddowes’ blood, was allegedly taken from the crime scene by acting sergeant Amos Simpson, who intended it to be a gift for his wife. When his wife (understandably) refused the ghastly, unwashed present, it was stored away and became something of a ghoulish family heirloom.

Unfortunately for Edwards, Mr. Simpson was never documented as being anywhere near the crime scene, which does damage his account somewhat. Furthermore, Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum refused to display the Eddowes shawl in their Jack The Ripper exhibit because they do not consider it to be an authentic piece of evidence.

When the Eddowes shawl came up for auction in 2007, Edwards (who was inspired to become an investigator by the 2001 movie ‘From Hell’ starring Johnny Depp), pounced on the opportunity and purchased it, apparently undeterred by the fact that it does not appear on the inventory of the crime scene and equally undeterred by the proliferation of Ripper forgeries (including a diary) that have supposedly been ‘unearthed’ (and subsequently sold) over the years.

“Here I am with the shawl and possibly the evidence to solve the most unsolvable murder in English criminal history. But where do I start? That was the big question”. Said Edwards, who fortuitously opened The ‘Official’, Jack The Ripper Store (and associated walking tours) in London’s East End this July…

The author enlisted the aid of Jari Louhelainen, a molecular biologist at Liverpool John Moores University, who began testing the blood stained shawl for traces of Jack The Ripper’s DNA…

For his part, Edwards was able to track down living descendents of both Eddowes and Kosminski (but, crucially, no other suspects/victims) and found traces of semen that were a 100% match for Kosminski.

Sadly, Louhelainen’s methodology has not been published in any kind of peer-reviewed scientific journal, which means that the pair’s claims, whilst certainly attention grabbing, are far from scientific certainty. Even if they are accurate, they only demonstrate that somebody of Kosminski’s family line (he had three brothers) had secreted onto the shawl.

Skeptics include Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, the man who invented the DNA fingerprint technique, who told The Independent that Edward’s theory was “an interesting but remarkable claim that needs to be subjected to peer review, with detailed analysis of the provenance of the shawl and the nature of the claimed DNA match with the perpetrator’s descendants and its power of discrimination; no actual evidence has yet been provided”.

In addition, even if the DNA has not been contaminated, either in the laboratory or at some other time (which seems unlikely given how many people have handled the shawl over its 120-year history), it is hardly conclusive proof of Kosminski’s guilt. The evidence would merely suggest a sexual liaison between Eddowes, a known prostitute, and Kosminski, a sexual compulsive, on or around the night that Eddowes was murdered…

On top of all that, the evidence linking an expensive shawl to a prostitute (who was so poor at the time of her death that records show her pawning her shoes) is circumstantial at best.

Mr. Edwards has posed for photographs with the shawl, each time handling it without gloves or any kind of specialist clothing. He is not the only person to have done so in the garment’s long history. Others include the descendents of Catherine Eddowes…

It is also worth noting that, in 2002, author Patricia Cornwell published a book called ‘Portrait of a Killer: Jack The Ripper – Case Closed’, in which she claimed to have analyzed DNA evidence taken from one of the killer’s famous notes and ‘matched it’ to that of the painter Walter Sickert. Once again, the evidence on display was dubious and far from compelling or definitive.

It seems, then, that Mr. Edwards confident boast, “only non-believers that want to perpetuate the myth will doubt. This is it now – we have unmasked him.” is premature to say the least.


Mars Rover Spots UFO…Or Does It?

After much global speculation, NASA has at last put out an official statement regarding the true identity of the ‘white spot’ or ‘UFO’ seen on Mars by the Curiosity Rover on June 20th.

…Sadly, the UFO in question turned out to be only as extraterrestrial as a camera glitch.

Interviewed by The Huffington Post, Justin Maki, the main camera operator for the rover, said, “This is a hot pixel that has been around since we started using the Right Navcam (…) In the thousands of images we’ve received from Curiosity, we see ones with bright spots nearly every week, these can be caused by cosmic-ray hits or sunlight glinting from rock surfaces, as the most likely explanations.”

As any photographer will tell you, ‘hot pixels’ sometimes occur during long exposure shots. Such glitches are usually caused by the camera’s sensors momentarily overheating (although they pose no danger to the camera equipment itself).

Amateur photographers occasionally mistake hot pixels for paranormal phenomena as well. In fact, the ghost website ‘Photographing The Paranormal.com’ actually has a section on these little buggers. It warns potential ghost hunters that,

“A perfectly symmetric small red dot in your picture is probably nothing paranormal, especially if it is at the same spot in most of your pictures. That’s actually called a hot pixel, if you spot one, don’t call the press!”

Older astronomy enthusiasts will no doubt be reminded of the discovery of the ‘Martian face’, a famous image captured by NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter in 1976.

Various theorists hurried to suggest that the ‘face’ was evidence of a long-lost Martian civilization (complete with ‘pyramids’ and everything), but it was actually just a large formation, captured by the relatively low-resolution cameras of the 1970’s, that looked a bit like a face.

Modern images, of course, reveal nothing so grand. The ‘Martian Face’ fiasco is now seen as an example of paraeidolia, a psychological phenomenon that sees people finding recognizable patterns in otherwise random sounds and images, examples of which include The Man in the Moon, Rorschach tests and those times when people see the faces of religious figures in ordinary household objects.

So it seems that there was no reason for us to get excited after all (except that pictures of Mars are unassailably cool).

…Of course, the conspiracy nutters are never going to buy it, but hey, what can you do?


What features does nintendo 3ds have

I have a Nintendo DS. I suppose its maybe a bit passé by current standards, with the Wii, the PSP and what-have-you out on the market, but for me it picked up where my Gameboy Advance left off, which picked off where my original Gameboy did. It works well, the games are great and the touchscreen works perfectly. It’s smart-looking and feels cool.

So how do you improve on a big selling, popularDS model? Answer: Take a leaf out of Hollywood’s book and embrace digital 3D technology. The Nintendo 3DS is a major new invention in gaming, though time will tell if it will catch on. If the device sells, its promise of using autostereoscopy (which creates a 3D effect without the requirement of nerdy glasses) could potentially revolutionize the way we play video games.

The Nintendo 3DS and its new line of 3D Nintendo games will cast an imposing new challenge to the portable gaming world. Personally, I can’t wait. The DS, already a classy, grown-up take on the Gameboy, played by professionals on lunch break, retirees and Uni students as well as young children, is set once more to lead the charge with its current 3D incarnation.

Another great feature is its backwards compatibility. The old DS Nintendo games you have at home? Don’t worry about them, you’ll still be able to play them on your new Nintendo 3DS. Nintendo’s modern reinvention continues to impress. I’m a poet and I don’t know it!

We could be looking at a brand new innovation in video game technology happening right before our eyes.

This could be as big an idea as taking games out of the arcades and putting them in the home in the first place. It’s potentially that important. The Nintendo 3DS and the latest, coolest line of Nintendo games could be the best ever. Personally, I look forward to seeing how great a game can look on a tiny little device, what else can Nintendo offer its customers besides walking on water? It really could be huge. However, if unsuccessful, the Nintendo 3DS could go down in history as a folly of epic proportions. Suppose the picture quality doesn’t deliver or the graphics aren’t up to much? What happens then? If Nintendo falls on this one, they stand to fall from a very great height indeed. Time, and market forces, will tell.

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