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A different kind of victory (i.e. I lost)

Yes, I now have my dictionary. My second appearance on Letters And Numbers was extremely closely fought — I was tied with my opponent when the conundrum came up — and given that she was a former UK Scrabble champion, I can live with coming second. I’ve still knocked one item off my bucket list by being on the show.

I’ve developed a minor habit of writing about KISS for Gizmodo. The period when I first started getting seriously obsessed with pop music in 1980 coincided with KISS’ first Australian tour, which meant the band was absolutely inescapable in the media. As a result, I’ve always remained somewhat fascinated by the band, even though (unlike hardcore KISS fanatics) I prefer the poppier end of their output.

Anyway, having written about the KISS Flip camera earlier in the year, I couldn’t resist the KISS HD TV which just went on sale. That is, I couldn’t resist it as a topic. No way on earth I’d buy one.

Planhacker on Friday was about video-on-demand services in Australia. As Nick rightly pointed out in his Gizmodo pointer to the column, the pricing is in fact depressingly uniform. Elsewhere on Lifehacker:

  • Lunchtime Wrap: Headless Laptops & Costco Bargains
  • Access Hulu And Other Blocked Services Using Squid
  • Commonwealth Games Switch May Signal Change To TV Siphoning Rules
  • Australian Android Developers Can Now Sell Apps Through The Market
  • Lifehacker Returns To TV Quiz Show
  • Gruen, Deborah Conway, 4KG of margarine

    OK, I spent the whole day waiting to appear on television, but I still had to work. For Gizmodo, I stuck with the television theme by noting that Microsoft was considered by viewers of The Gruen Transfer to have produced the worst ad of all time.

    My depressing Costco visit bore fruit with a Loaded column looking at which tech products are actually cheaper there. I also got to quote from Deborah Conway in a story about how music is used in gyms. Elsewhere at Lifehacker:

  • How Many Photos Do You Take A Month?
  • Lunchtime Wrap: Upgrading RAM & Petrol Points
  • Facebook Places Out In Australia, How To Disable It
  • Lifehacker Appears On TV Quiz Show
  • Patience And Planning Pay Off For Photography
  • I am no longer the weakest link

    As a Lifehacker reader helpfully pointed out, the obvious word in this set of letters from tonight’s episode of Letters & Numbers is RAPIST. Fortunately, I went one better and picked HARPIST, part of an early burst of activity which lead me to a comfortable victory on the night. I’m very happy now, as I’ve done much better than during my infamous appearance on The Weakest Link back in 2001.

    If you didn’t catch the show (shame) and you’re in Australia, you can watch it on the SBS site. And I’ll be back on Friday night at 6pm for another crack at the glory (it’s all about glory, and an eventual dictionary).

    Bieber slagging is healthy

    As anyone who follows my Twitter stream would already realise, I had a mildly crap day yesterday. Slow PC updates, updates that wouldn’t install, PR companies that can’t even manage something as simple as maintaining an RSVP list, my BlackBerry crapping itself and having to go to the construction zone that is the Docklands to visit Costco made it less than appealing.

    Aside from the Britney-themed episode of Glee, my favourite activity of the day was writing a piece for Gizmodo about a new line of Justin Bieber dolls. Sometimes you just have to kvetch.

    Wednesday’s Lifehacker 101 column looked at the many versions of Android and why we’re stuck with them. I also did a detailed analysis of the new Everyday Rewards option to take frequent flyer points rather than petrol discounts (for most people, the petrol discounts are better). Also on Lifehacker:

  • Target Selling Two iTunes Cards For The Price Of 1.5
  • Lunchtime Wrap: & TV Network Woes
  • eBay Sees Doubling Of Sales Via Mobile Phones
  • Fairfax News Apps For iPhone Charging $2.49 A Month
  • When Windows 7 sucks even more than I expect

    This morning, Windows 7 decided I needed an urgent update installed. I figured I needed to reboot anyway, so I told it to go ahead. It took 50 minutes before the update finished installing itself. I have installed entire OSes from floppy disks in less time. Not good enough, team MS.

    Tuesday’s Streaming column touched on the perennial issue of how badly TV networks treat their viewers and (by extension) why they shouldn’t be surprised at the popularity of downloading as an alternative. A much briefer post about drinking from skinny glasses to help with weight loss ended up being reposted on Lifehacker US. Elsewhere it was the usual mixture:

  • How Twitter Can Help Clear Clutter
  • HTC Aria Coming On Optus October
  • Lunchtime Wrap: Presentation Tools & Going Carless
  • Aussies Think Online Customer Service Often Sucks
  • No Australian Release Date Yet For BlackBerry PlayBook Tablet
  • Make A Standing Desk From A Filing Cabinet Drawer
  • So much can be written in most of September

    My brother recently bemoaned on his blog his apparent slackness in making updates, but compared to me he’s a model of efficiency. Time for a listburst!

    The biggest single themed bit of work I’ve done since my last update was the Off The Rails project for Lifehacker, which combined broadband testing with a slow-ish rail journey up the North Coast. Beyond that . . . well, writing is what I do for a living after all.

    Off The Rails


    Road Worrier


    Lifehacker 101



    Long Lifehacker stories

    Shorter Lifehacker posts

    The deadly minge of Elizabeth Taylor

    US crooner Eddie Fisher is dead. What does this mean? It means that of the seven men we can unequivocally say have touched Elizabeth Taylor’s vagina, all but two have died.

    Amongst Taylor’s seven husbands, the only ones who are still alive are John Warner and Larry Fortensky. And Michael Jackson is dead as well. This could be a nasty case of toxic box syndrome.

    Yes, I know; correlation does not prove causation. But I’d still advise anyone planning on feeling up Elizabeth Taylor to think twice about it.

    ZOMG A new Frida track

    OK, I’d probably prefer something other than a cover of “Morning Has Broken”, but with the ABBA dames you definitely need to take what you can get.

    The Allure of Kidmans

    My esteemed brother is currently filling in as guest editor on Gizmodo, which maximises the already fairly high potential for people to get us confused. Indeed, we kicked off the week by both attending the same Telstra launch (you can read his take on it here).

    For me, the Telstra launch of its Ultimate USB modem (read: high speed, high price, business users) was serendipitous on several levels. I wrote a consumer-slanted account of its launch for Lifehacker, and a story for iTnews about the introduction of unlimited plans for business users. Perhaps more importantly, Telstra also handed out loaner devices for people to test. Over the next week, I’m going to visit four states and six major cities, so the ability to test reception at a bunch of locations is going to be interesting and (eventually) informative.

    The Tech Ed story well continued to drip, with a piece about Microsoft’s co-operation with the Samba team running on iTnews. This also included a video interview with Microsoft’s head open source dude. I’m quite happy with the questions, but the camera work is an object lesson in why I need to buy a tripod.

    Tech Ed was also indirectly responsible for my review of the Jetstar lounge on the Gold Coast, which was this week’s Road Worrier column. As if this week’s manic travel wasn’t enough to be getting on with, it’s also Spring Cleaning Week on Lifehacker. That’s informed several of the lengthier pieces, including a Lifehacker Top 10 on how to deal with clutter and today’s Streaming column on keeping your physical media organised.

    Over at Gizmodo, I had a photo tour of the Plantronics lab which I toured in California earlier this year. Despite the appearance of a photo story and a video story today, I’d much rather write. And that’s a segue into the rest of the Lifehacker pieces:

  • Must-Have In-Car Items For Lifehacker Readers (another Spring Cleaning Week piece)
  • Build An IKEA Laptop Stand From Handles And Brackets
  • Ensure Your Twitter Client Is Up-To-Date To Avoid Access Problems
  • Lunchtime Wrap: Spring Cleaning & Text Recognition
  • Ask Lifehacker: What’s The Best Scanning Software? (yet another Spring Cleaning Week piece)
  • Joss Whedon Can’t Write Until The Whole Idea Is Ready
  • Lunchtime Wrap: Per-Megabyte Plans & Hard Drives
  • Don’t Get Fooled Into Disabling Gmail’s Free Calls (which got a mention in Lifehacker US’s ‘Remains Of The Day’ roundup)
  • Welcome To Spring Cleaning Week On Lifehacker
  • Vodafone, 3 Increase Data Allowances On Contract Phone Plans
  • ATO Has Finalised 4.5 Million Tax Returns
  • Last Week’s Top Ten Posts
  • The lost Stephen Merchant interview

    Back in 2004, I happened to be in London and the Australian asked me to interview Stephen Merchant, co-creator of The Office, ahead of the broadcast of the final episodes on free-to-air TV. At the time, Merchant and Ricky Gervais were working on Extras, though not much was known about it. The interview never got a run (occupational risk with newspapers), but I’m in an archival mood so here it is:

    Picture by salimfadhley

    Ricky Gervais has achieved international fame — and won two Golden Globes — for his portrayal of shocker boss David Brent in The Office. Yet while Gervais is very much the public face of the most successful British comedy in years, an equal share of the credit (and the Golden Globes) can be taken by his writing and directing partner Stephen Merchant.

    Six foot-seven Merchant has mostly stayed out of the limelight, save for a brief cameo as Gareth’s mate Oggy. And although the pair were granted complete creative control over the show, Merchant says he was never tempted to take a bigger on-screen role.

    “We were always guided by who was the best person for the role. Also, it’s nice to have someone behind the camera — we’re co-directing but Ricky’s often in the scene.”

    In the past, Merchant has commented that Gervais can be a “nightmare” to work with. Surprisingly, he says this situation hasn’t been exacerbated by the show’s two Golden Globe wins.

    “He’s much easier to work with now than he’s ever been. He still mucks around, but that’s an important part of the way we work, and where we get some of our best ideas.”

    This lack of inflated ego may be because the pair never anticipated international acclaim. “We were surprised that it took off in the UK to the extent that it did, so the fact that it’s been successful in other countries is quite baffling,” he says. “I hope that it’s just because there’s a universality of some of the themes and ideas — the minutiae of office life are broadly the same everywhere.”

    While Merchant shies away from comparisons to other classic UK sitcoms such as Fawlty Towers he pronounces himself pleased with the two newest episodes of The Office — in part because they expand on the existing template for the show. “I think the first of the two in particular is not quite what people were expecting. A lot of people thought it was quite dark — not a lot of funny dances or anything like that.”

    The two specials, which find the documentary crew returning to Wernham Hogg three years on, also mark the end of the Office saga. The BBC would happily have commissioned further episodes, and at one time Merchant and Gervais themselves imagined the show running for three or four seasons, but any such plans have now been abandoned.

    “I think the truth is we’ve got ourselves in a situation where we always envisaged it as having some sort of narrative — more like a film than a sitcom — and we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. We felt if we kept going we’d run out of ideas.”

    The office environment itself, while easily recognised, is also somewhat limiting. “It’s very hard to bring in crazy characters and wild plots,” notes Merchant.

    Indeed, he worries that this may already have happened. “Sometimes we wondered if we pushed it too far with the dance, or Brent in an ostrich costume — they’re moments that people love, but sometimes we wondered if we’d got too far away from the original idea. But it’s a sitcom, and sometimes you’ve just got to have jokes.”

    In a series filled with memorable occurrences, which one is Merchant most pleased with? “My favourite moment is the one at the end of the second series where Tim unhooks his microphone when he’s talking to Dawn. It managed to use the documentary style at its best.”

    For now, Merchant is determined we won’t see an Ab Fab-style resurrection a decade down the track — unless, he deadpans, he and Gervais develop “massive alcohol problems”.

    Scarily, the only new Office we’re likely to see in the future is a planned American adaptation. Despite the decidedly mixed record of British sitcoms transferring to the US, Merchant is adamant that he and Gervais didn’t want a heavy level of involvement.

    “We don’t really think we’re particularly equipped to write about American offices. They seem to be a lot more politically correct — there’s stuff in ours that they just wouldn’t get away with. And we didn’t want to feel like they had to be tied to our vision.”

    The role of David Brent in the US version is being taken by actor Steven Carell, best known for his appearance in the movie Bruce Almighty.

    “He stole a couple of scenes from Jim Carrey, which is no mean feat,” says Merchant.

    “We’ve given it our blessing. It’s down to whether or not NBC likes it, and network television is very unpredictable.”

    If it’s successful, will he become fantastically rich? “I would hope so. I want my own private jet.”

    Another disincentive for stateside participation is that Merchant and Gervais are now at a very early stage in the writing of their next comic project. Gervais has said that, like The Office, it will be “another observational comedy about a man who says exactly what he’s thinking”.

    However, the pair don’t plan to return to the pseudo-documentary style that made their name.

    “I think the documentary thing is a bit limiting,” says Merchant. “What we will still hopefully bring is the naturalism of the performances and that slightly loose, improvisational feel.”