Sad Day Indeed

I’ve been using Firefox since before it was Firefox, and having checked up on Wikipedia just now, that would have been around 2002.

ffOver the years, the developers have made some decisions which I disagreed with, although often there were user-developed extensions which restored lost functionality or appearance. Probably the worst faux pas was dropping the universally-familiar search dialog box for the unergonomic bottom bar.

Being paranoid cautious about internet security, I’d installed blocking extensions and rules, so that my Firefox was very tightly tied down. That meant that some sites didn’t work until I fiddled with the rules, or sometimes didn’t work at all. For the latter case, I always had an alternate browser I could run up, rather than waste time debugging a site I probably wouldn’t visit again.

I’m also a fussy old bugger, and I like web sites to look the way I want them, not the way the idiot designers did. For this, uBlock Origin, the ad-blocker, has “cosmetic filtering” where it will suppress display of some elements of the page. I also installed Greasemonkey, which can actually rearrange the page via CSS.

Google’s Chrome browser now has, by far, the largest “market share” in desktop browser software — about a factor of three over Firefox in second place. But Chrome is a notorious snooper, reporting everything you do back to Google. I would never use it.

Chromium, the open-source core of Chrome, is somewhat less intrusive, but still “phones home” with some data. The derivative I have installed as my alternative browser is Iron: Chromium with the spying ripped out.

But I still stuck to Firefox for most browsing. Some stuff is just easier to do, compared to the Chrome family.

That was up until yesterday, when I installed the latest Firefox release, 52.0, and found that it had a problem. The Linux version no longer supports the native Linux sound subsystem. Instead, the developer has decided to route sound from the browser to a third-party sound application called PulseAudio.

Now, a lot of Linux systems come with PulseAudio pre-installed, so it may not be a problem for many users, perhaps the majority. Applications, such as movie players, usually try PulseAudio first, and if it’s not running, fall back to the native sound subsystem, ALSA, and everything works fine. Firefox used to do that too, but although the code is still there, the developer has disabled it. He says it’s “too hard” to maintain.

I don’t have PulseAudio on my systems, for a couple of reasons. One; it’s designed badly: it’s architecturally wrong. And two; it doesn’t do anything useful.

The original concept for PulseAudio was that it would be a totally new sound architecture for Linux, from the user’s software to the hardware. It never happened. When they found out that sound drivers were difficult to write, and that there was a huge diversity of hardware, and that there were hundreds of working ALSA drivers anyway, the decision was made to put PulseAudio “on top of” ALSA, with PulseAudio interfacing to the software, but ALSA driving the hardware.

Supposedly a temporary measure, it’s actually stayed that way for years. To have a working PulseAudio, you have to have a working ALSA subsystem, so in my opinion, you might as well use ALSA directly.

It’s a long time since I even tried to get PulseAudio working, but I’ve heard that some people have had problems, from no sound at all to stuttering, to unacceptable latency. (PulseAudio has a solution for applications which only work with ALSA: they’ve written a translation layer which translates the ALSA API to PulseAudio. Then PulseAudio translates it back to ALSA and sends it to the device drivers. Latency? – there’s your problem.)

As is often the case when people make a stupid decision, the Firefox developers have closed ranks and become stubborn, and it looks as though ALSA support is gone for good. Imagine if they did the same in Firefox for Windows: dropping support for native Windows sound in favour of a third-party product. “Most people have it installed, and if not, they can install it, and if they can’t… well, tough.”

I’m typing this into WordPress via the Vivaldi browser. I’ve only been trying it for about half a day, but it seems all right. I’ve installed uBlock Origin and Tampermonkey and have imported my blocking rules and my scripts from Firefox. And Vivaldi was able to import all my settings from Firefox itself. I think it’s going to be OK.

(My blog titles are often song titles. It’s Leatherface this time.)

 

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Power Trip

I often pretend I’m besotted with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in “The Avengers”, but it’s just an affectation really. I just like the retro-ness of the programmes.

Rigg’s replacement, Linda Thorson as Tara King, doesn’t have the same dedicated cult following, but I think she did a great job. Her character was slightly sabotaged by the writers, who made her a naive ex-trainee who is infatuated with John Steed. That left no scope for the ambiguous kind of relationship which Peel and Steed had shown, but as the series developed, Tara King came to be as independent as resourceful and Emma Peel. And, to use the modern terminology, just as “kick-ass”.

The story goes that producer John Bryce considered 200 actresses to find a replacement for Diana Rigg, and in a completely fair and unbiased process, selected his current girlfriend, Linda Thorson. He then started work on filming three new episodes. Work fell behind schedule, and ABC were unsatisfied with the shows Bryce had made. He was “let go” and Clemens and Fennell, executive producers of the Emma Peel episodes, were brought back to start again.

Under pressure to generate the amount of material which had been sold to the Americans, Clemens and Fennell didn’t discard Bryce’s rejected episodes, they cut and diced them and shot additional footage, and tried to cobble up three acceptable shows. None was very good, but the absolute turkey of the three is the car crash which is “Homicide and Old Lace”, a re-hash of Bryce’s lost “The Great Great Britain Crime”.

In the episodes with Bryce’s material, you can get an idea of where he was going wrong (mainly by being very, very dull) but you also get an uncomfortable insight into his relationship with Linda Thorson. For one thing, she was told to lose weight: charming. But he also decided that she’d be better off blonde. There’s a story that an attempt to bleach her hair ruined it, leading to the use of a wig instead.
Tara King
True or not, in all three Bryce attempts, Linda Thorson wears an unconvincing blonde wig, as you can see in the re-used footage. But having authority over his partner’s appearance, Bryce must have sleazily pushed it a little bit further along the fetish route. In “The Great Great Britain Crime” Tara King wears black rubber hold-ups (and matching gloves).

In the illustration here, it’s all action with machine guns, and at least Tara, initially unarmed, ends up with both guns and leaves two dead villains.

Hotel?

trivago

Is there no end to the degradation of the Trivago woman?

The first time I saw her, I thought she was remarkably pretty, but felt that it was a pity that she was so badly green-screened onto an image of a hotel room. I also wondered if it was effective advertising. I don’t think people generally like to be lectured at.

Incidentally, the company has made many country-specific versions of the advertising. I’ve seen the German and Italian ones, both presented by men. Perhaps they thought that Germans and Italians would especially resent being lectured at by a woman. Although the Germans have had a lot of experience of it. I haven’t seen the American version — also male — but I hear that it’s widely loathed.

Anyway, for the UK one they’ve had her do several versions of basically the same ad, but dressed differently. I can’t say for sure, but I’ll be they don’t make the male actors do that. Then there was one where there was a mosaic of her repeating the ad in about 30 different costumes.

But now there’s one where they’ve dressed her like Shirley Temple and made her tap dance. A grown woman.

(Incidentally, I’ve tried their website and never found a better hotel deal than on the main booking ones.)

The Wheeled Avenger

Steed's BentleyJohn Steed is forever linked to his vintage Bentleys and Rolls Royces, at least in the classic period of The Avengers. In one very early episode he drove a Triumph Herald, and at the end, in the New Avengers, he had a number of contemporary cars; that is, late 1970s ones. But let’s not think about that.

Emma Peel drove a Lotus Elan, the quintessential small, British sports car. Or to be more Emma's Elanaccurate, two Elans, the first white; and the second grey in the black-and-white episodes and light blue in the later colour ones. Apparently, Diana Rigg had to learn to drive for the part, but she always seems very competent, although some chase sequences are obviously speeded up.

When Diana Rigg left the show, new producer John Bryce made three new programmes with Tara King, conveniently played by his girlfriend, Linda Thorson. The programmes were rejected by the company and never shown, although some footage was salvaged to make a later episode. In that one, Tara drives a Lotus Elan +2, which was a derivative of the original Elan as driven by Emma Peel, but stretched to fit in two useless rear seats and remodelled (uglified) at the front.
Elan-plus-2
In that episode, Steed’s elegant vintage vehicles were inexplicably replaced by a modern AC 428. That car was built on a modified AC Cobra chassis, with the Cobra’s huge 7-litre Ford engine, and an angular GT body, designed and built by Frua in Italy. Only a few dozen were ever made. It must have been a monster: an American muscle car built in Britain and Italy.
Tara's AC
When John Bryce was sacked and the original producers called back to restore order, they shot a hand-over episode with both Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson. In this one, Emma Peel didn’t drive, but Tara King got the AC, and sanity was restored by giving Steed back his 1926 Bentley.

But part way through the series, the AC was retired (or sold perhaps, it was probably very valuable) and Tara got a Lotus Europa; I think it must have been the ugliest Lotus ever made. I particularly dislike the ‘solid’ rear of the cabin: makes it look like a van.

Tara in the Lotus Europa

If I could choose any Avengers vehicle, I’d be tempted by the big AC 428, but I think I’d pick the Lotus Elan. Preferably with Emma Peel in it.

Badly Bred

For some years now, I’ve holidayed, self-catering, in Italy. The first time, in 2002, I was in the centre of Florence for ten days, and mostly ate out and only bought a few basics for home-cooking. But as time has gone on I’ve become more self-reliant.

Although I confess that I usually use self-service supermarkets rather than shops where you have to ask for what you want. Somehow, my Italian seems to evaporate under pressure. So I tour the shelves and fill a trolley or a basket, and when I get to the checkout, all I have to do is hand over the money or card.

I do always have the nagging feeling that my choice of goods marks me out as a foreigner, but then I have that same feeling in a supermarket at home.

Italian supermarkets, as you might expect, tend to have a different and better range of goods than your Tesco or Sainsbury’s. More, higher-quality fruit and vegetables, for example. Lots of cheeses. Premium olive oil. Local wines.

But they also sell a lot of crap. It’s Italy’s guilty secret perhaps; they’re famed for love of good food, but they also have big industries making mass-produced, “convenience” foods.

That’s what’s mostly promoted in television advertising as well, and one of the prominent names is ‘Mulino Bianco’ — White Mill — part of the huge Barilla group. There’s a large range of Mulino Bianco products: cakes, biscuits, bread and crackers; that sort of thing. I hadn’t seen any outside Italy until recently, when I came upon “Focaccelle” on the bargain shelf of Tesco in Craigavon.
Mulino Bianco
They were reduced to a fraction of their former price because they were approaching their “best-before” date, but here’s the thing: I know that Mulino Bianco products don’t go off or get mouldy because they aren’t real food. All artificial. And anyway, “focaccelle” isn’t even a real word. It’s supposed to make you think of “focaccia” and that’s what the product vaguely resembles.

Yes, I did try them. It was only a few pence, and I was certain that they wouldn’t be disgusting, just doughy and bland. And so they were.

But I had forgotten that I should not have bought anything made by a Barilla company. In 2013, Guido Barilla, chairman of the company, made some stupid, prejudiced and offensive remarks about gay families. And then issued a “clairification” which simply dug himself deeper into the hole. Some people in Italy advocated a boycott, and Barilla’s competitor Bertolli began to advertise “Bertolli welcomes everyone, especially those with an empty stomach”.

Space is Deep

When I first bought my satellite dish over seven years ago, it was a motorized system. You see, television satellites form a ring around the Earth, and the dish must point to the right satellite to receive its broadcasts.

I can’t quite get my head around the excact geometry of it, but my house is attached to the Earth’s surface at a latitude of 53.549 degrees. The satellites are in a ring over the equator, which is zero degrees, while the Earth’s axis of spin is 90.

Anyway, I think how it works out is that the motor has to be aligned at (90 – 53.549) to the horizontal, and then by rotating left or right, it can pick out a satellite.

Well, I got it to work. The wall of the house points a bit West of South, and I could use the motor to point the dish across an arc of satellites. I thought that the Western end might get me some North or South American channels, but that end seemed to be equitorial Africa. In fact, the satellites which serve a particular region don’t sit directly above them. For example, the UK’s Sky and Freesat come from a group of satellites directly overhead 28 degrees East, which is somewhere in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But I got the channels I wanted. Freesat for British television, and turning a bit East, Hotbird for Italian, both the state broadcaster RAI and the Berlusconi empire on Mediaset. Going further East, I could get all the way to Khazakstan. Oh, and there were loads of middle-Eastern channels in there, most of them about Allah.

After a year or two though, I became dissatisfied. It took about twenty seconds to turn from UK to Italy, which is a long time in TV. And I hardly ever watched Khazakh television. I took the motor on the dish out of circuit, and put a multiple-LNB bracket on instead.

The LNB is essentially the “receiver” facing a satellite dish. In theory, the dish focusses the beam to one point, which is where you place your LNB, but in reality, it’s not that simple. The beam from a satellite that’s a bit to the left gets focussed, sloppily, more-or-less, to a spot on the right, and vice-versa. If the signal is stong enough or the dish large enough, you can get working television off more than one LNB.

The standard switch for multiple LNBs can handle four. I put up three. One for Freesat, which is a strong signal over the British Isles, and would work even off-centre. About centre, I pointed another at Astra, which has a load of German-language channels (I understand a bit of German) and a few French (my French is a little better than my German). Although the majority of French television seems to be encrypted on the proprietary Canal Plus system, and I can’t receive it. A little bit East, one LNB got Hotbird, with the Italian channels I wanted.

Unfortunately (maybe), after a couple of years, the Italian Mediaset channels on Hotbird went encrypted onto the Tivusat system. If you live in Italy, and have a tax code, you can get a free decoder card. Outside Italy, there are ways and means, but they all cost money. I shrugged and carried on.

Then, some months ago, I noticed that there is lots of Italian television on a different satellite, one that is physically above the British Isles at 5 degrees West, but points East to Italy. There is a host of regional RAI stations, and even the Mediaset channels are broadcast unencrypted. But my dish has to be pointing the other direction to see Freesat. (In fact, the Freesat sat is overhead Italy and the Eutelsat one is above the UK. What’s going on?)
tuscan_passion
There was a slight chance that a fourth LNB could receieve Eutelsat 5 if stuck far enough off centre. They’re only a fiver, so I bought one. And… it didn’t work. After a couple of hours up the ladder (I don’t like heights) I couldn’t get anything, and gave up. I slid the LNB along the bracket until I got a strong signal from an other satellite, any satellite.

This turned out to be Eurobird 9A, with about fifty free television channels on it. Hungarian and Swiss in the majority, but also some Chinese. The People’s Republic of China broadcasts across the world in different languages. I have English, French, Russian and Arabic.

As it happens, there’s an Italian drama tonight on Hungarian television, dubbed into Hungarian, and I don’t understand a word. I can’t even make anything of the programme info. There’s a priest in it but he’s not Don Matteo. Oh wait, I searched on-line for the title — “Rózsák Harca” — and it says “Tuscan Passion”. IMDB reveals: “A story of murder, conspiracy and secrets but above all about a great love story; Tuscan Passion tells the story of an impossible love between Aurora Taviani and Alessandro Monforte. Both belong to enemy families and both are divided by a history of blood and mystery. ”

So just another day in Tuscany. It went out on Mediaset in Italy, and I don’t see that any more.

Groovy Baby

The past seems less complicated than today. I think that’s part of the appeal of “period” dramas. Or just outright old ones.

A couple of years ago, the low-budget television channel True Entertainment acquired the rights to the sixties television series The Avengers, and being low-budget, they’ve been broadcasting all the episodes in a constant cycle ever since.

This is not the whole of The Avengers: it’s the middle set, starting from the first with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, up to the last one with Linda Thorson as Tara King. Previously, John Steed’s partner had been Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, and then, seven years after Tara, Steed re-appeared in The New Avengers, with Gareth Hunt as action man Mike Gambit, and Joanna Lumley as action woman Purdy. It wasn’t absolutely fabulous.

I’ve now seen all the Emma and Tara episodes several times, which is probably sufficient exposure to the sixties for the present. It’s a strange sixties though: underpopulated and lacking in swinging. A comic book caricature of the sixties, let’s say.

steed-emmaI do like Emma Peel. Everyone agrees that Diana Rigg is one of the acting greats of her generation, and whether she’s crushing a criminal, infiltrating and impersonating or titrating a test tube, she plays the part with a vivid intelligence and humour. Her eventual replacement, Linda Thorson, is less highly-regarded, but it’s hardly fair to criticize her for not being Diana Rigg. Nobody is; except Diana Rigg.

After the last Emma Peel episode, the television company behind it, ABC, assumed that no further programmes would be made. Cast and crew were “let go”. However, it emerged that the was American money forthcoming for a new series, leading ABC to revive The Avengers. Patrick Macnee was willing to return as John Steed, but Diana Rigg wasn’t interested in coming back, and nor were producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell.

The company appointed a new producer, John Bryce, and began extensive auditions (some say 200 were tried out) for a new female partner for Steed. By an incredible coincidence, the actress who got the job was Bryce’s girlfriend, Linda Thorson. The story goes that Bryce required her to go blonde for the part, but the process went badly wrong, requiring Thorson to wear wigs to cover up the damage for the first six months of filming. How creepy is that? “Now I’m your boss, I can tell you to change your hair colour.”

Bryce shot three episodes before being sacked. Clemens and Fennell were brought back to clean up the mess. (Only one of Bryce’s productions was broadcast, and even that only after Clemens and Fennell had extensively reworked it.)

steed-taraLinda Thorson stayed. I’ve always felt that her character of Tara King was hobbled by the writers at the start, rather than by any problem with Thorson’s acting abilities. Whereas Emma Peel had an independent backstory (pulled out of chemistry grad school to run her late father’s business empire, sold it for a fortune, married a test pilot) Tara King was introduced as a naive trainee secret agent, assigned to work for Steed as her first job after qualifying. Tara was supposedly besotted with Steed, in contrast to the ambiguous relationship between Steed and Peel, leaving less room for emotional complexity in the scenes. (I know, “emotional complexity”. Talking about The Avengers.)

It was only in the later Tara King episodes that the character developed Peel-like independence, but overall I still think that Thorson did a perfectly good job. I like her. After about thirty episodes, the money ran out again, meaning the end of the old Avengers.