Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Reese Witherspoon divorces

Reese WitherspoonIt's about time we had some celebrity gossip. Academy award winning actress Reese Witherspoon is to divorce her husband of seven years, Ryan Phillipe. I should explain that they have been married for seven years, not that he is seven years old.

She met Mr Phillipe on the set of Cruel Intentions, a modern re-make of Dangerous Liasons, in which Phillipe played the cad. Now Phillipe says he has no Intentions to be Cruel but the Liason is getting too Dangerous. Oh I give up.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Centesimal Time

The clocks went back in the UK last night. Why? So that we can have more daylight during the winter in the hours when we expect to get daylight. This causes all sorts of disruption to sleep patterns, computer systems and messing around resetting clocks on phones, videos etc.

I propose the scrapping of Daylight Savings Time and replacing it with a new measure of time altogether - Centesimal Time. The day is divided into 100 "cents" instead of 24 hours. Midnight is 0 cents and midday is 50 cents. Time is expressed as decimal number between 0 and 100. The number of decimal places shown depends on the precision required.

To demonstrate it, I've created a centesimal clock. It's really simple. Demand that your local garage/doctors/library start arranging appointments in centesimal time and we'll soon have everyone coming round to my way of thinking. Think about it; at the moment if you have to calculate "how long is it before 19:32:59" you have to really think about it. In centesimal, you just subtract one number from another. Really simple.

While we're at it, we'll abolish time zones and base centesimal time around the Coordinated Univeral Time (UTC) system which is equivalent to the UK's GMT, rather conveniently. So everyone's midday (50 cents in the UK) will be different around the globe. That's got to be better than remembering the time zones at various longitudes.

So that's sorted then. By the way, there's a one-off special of the Royle Family on television tonight on BBC1 at 87.5 cents. I'm looking forward to it. It's on for 4.16 cents too.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The GTC

Teachers at workI am surrounded by teachers. Everywhere I go, teachers, teachers, teachers. I absorb the language, the in-jokes, the culture and the ethos of modern teaching. I reckon, if I went to a teaching conference I could pretend to be one without anyone cottoning on.

The UK Labour government did several good things when it came to power in 1997, like making the admission to national museums free and erm, I can't think of any more at the moment. One of their bright ideas was to create a professional teaching body to promote teaching and to boost the teaching profession. It was named the General Teaching Council, the GTC, rather like the General Medical Council is for medicine. From the onset, this seemed like a totally crap idea. No-one seemed to want it, certainly no-one wanted to pay for it. To stop it going bust, the government created a new law in the Education Act 2002 to mandate teachers to be members of the GTC. If you were a teacher, you had to join the GTC. "But I'm a voluntary member of a union, I don't want to join this tin-pot organisation," a few were heard to say. But the Orwellian Act of Parliament said you had no choice. You had to pay £33 per year for the privilege and if you didn't, the GTC was able to take their £33 from the teachers' pay packets at source. Talk about a closed shop.

For your £33 the GTC sends you an expensive quarterly magazine, it maintains a register of teachers (a list of its members), it regulates the teaching profession (although everyone knows that it is almost impossible to get rid of a bad teacher) and they provide advice to government and other agencies about teaching.

Their magazine, Teaching, is the single most boring publication I've ever seen. I'm pretty used to reading trade journals and sector-specific blurb but this is a publication with nothing to say. Here's a thrilling paragraph from the latest edition. This is the first paragraph of a real barn-storming article:

Contemporary educational reform has resulted in a period of significant change for teachers. Consequently, we need to reflect on existing notions of teacher professionalism, writes Geoff Whitty, Director of the Institute of Education, University of London


Yawn. Still awake?
It's full of waffle, mangement-speak:

The children's agenda is creating both opportunities and challenges for teachers to work in partnership with everyone involved in securing the learning and well-being of young people


In English, this translates as "blah, blah, blah".

The GTC website proudly shows how its money is spent in their glossy Introducing the GTC [warning this links to a very boring PDF] document.
How the GTC spends its moneyIn this document is a nice pie chart giving a break-down of how a teacher's involuntary contribution of £33 is spent. 50% of their income is spent on keeping the GTC afloat (supporting Council, collecting fees, management and accommodation), 13% on deciding what to do (policy), 20% on telling everyone what they are doing (communications) and 11% actually doing something (casework).

It's laughable that they spend a fortune collecting their money from each teacher in the country, using the power of the law if they have to. It's even more laughable that the teacher can then claim the £33 back as a tax credit by making a claim to the Inland Revenue. Isn't this a bit bizarre? Why doesn't the governent give the GTC the £17.7m per year it needs to operate (53800 teachers all unwillingly giving up £33 each and then claiming it back).

But don't worry, the GTC, in its role of regulating the profession "struck off" a whopping ten teachers last year. So the nation is safe from rogue teachers. And it only cost the tax-payer £1.7m for each teacher removed from the profession.

It's gammon and spinach, that's what it is. I fully expect that the GTC will have no option but to close its doors for good on Monday morning after reading this article. I can't see how they could continue.

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Madonna clone

Early photo of MadonnaMadonna and her childrenMadonna's adoption of an African baby has caused outrage in the British press. If they knew the true story, there would be hell on. I believe Madonna has been involved in a secret human cloning programme. She has successfully produced a clone of herself without using any male DNA.

The photographic evidence is clear. Lourdes Ciccone is physically identical to Madonna when she was young. I cannot be persuaded otherwise. There is conspiracy going on here and we need to be told.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Blogging with Flock snippets

I've gone on about the Flock web browser many times in this blog but I'm still uncovering new features. One really useful one is called the "Snippets Bar". It's a little bar that you can conjure at the bottom of the browser that acts like a scrapbook of things you want to remember, like URLs, pictures, bits of text etc. This is very useful for the dedicated blogger who can just drag things into the snippets bar for later reference.

Flock snippet bar screen grab
When you want to use your pre-dragged snippets again, you just drag them back onto the Blogger "Create Post" form. If, however, you're using Flock's built in "Create a blog post" pop-up box, when you drag an image onto the page, it creates an image that is a link back to the page where it was originally dragged from, text is created as "blockquotes" and URLs become links.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Askeroids

Askeroids screen shot
Back in the year 2000, I wrote a Java game for work which was a clone of Asteroids but with some added features. It was designed to be played as a month-long competition with highest scoring player getting a new Dell PC as a prize. Someone in Ireland won it, I seem to remember.

Anyway, I found the code for it the other day and have dusted it off, updated some of the enemies and present it to you for your delectation. You need the Java plugin installed to run it.

The game is roughly the same as Asteroids except you have one or more tow-along friends to help you. Your friends fire when you do and are towed behind you on a piece of elastic. If you can get to the end of the level with your tow-along friends intact, then you get bonus points. Watch out for deadly, evil space enemies such as Westlife, Chris de Burgh, Noel Edmonds, Kerry Katona and Middlesbrough's Mayor, Roy Mallinson.

PLAY

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PNGs, transparency and IE

Recently I have been updating my Blogger template for The Ape to incorporate hand-drawn boxes, post-it notes and scribbles. I tested my site on Safari, Firefox, Flock and IE and I had to go to extraordinary lengths to get a respectable result on the various versions of each browser. There two problems with IE: its rubbish implementation of CSS and its lack of support for PNG images.

I should explain web-based graphics are commonly one of the following formats: JPEG for photos, GIFs for images with lots of solid colours or where transparency is required. GIFs can only have 256 colours and its implementation of transparency is crude. A pixel in a GIF image can either be transparent or not, it cannot be semi-transparent.

PNGs seem to be the perfect solution, with 24-bit colour support and full "alpha channel" transparency. This means that each pixel can have a different level of transparency (or opacity) as well as a colour. Below are two versions of the same image, the first is a GIF and the second is a PNG. The images are rendered on top of a background image to emphasise the transparency.

PNG version
PNG version


GIF version
GIF version

In the PNG version, you can see through the coloured shapes and see the background cross through the shapes. The GIF version has solid colours, only the uncoloured pixels are transparent. It can also be seen that the PNG's edges appear smoother because of the alpha-channel transparency and the greater colour-depth.

So why are PNGs not more widely used in Web Design? Because IE's implementation doesn't support transparency properly. That is until IE version 7 was released last week. IE7 finally has full "alpha channel" transparency in PNG images, only six years after it was implemented in other browsers. This leaves the problem that anyone using IE5, IE5.5 or IE6 will not show PNGs properly so PNG images will remain on the fringes until IE7 is the most prevalent browser.

Is there a way round? Not a simple one. I wanted transparent images with semi-opaque drop-shadows for my floating post-it notes on this blog. If GIFs are used, then then the edges look jagged but PNGs render very poorly in older versions of IE. My solution was to have two versions of each image, a PNG and a GIF with the PNG versions used throughout the blog's HTML and CSS code. The images are hosted on an external web server as opposed to the usual Blogger or Flickr servers. This web server detects which browser is asking for each image and serves out PNGs by default or GIFs to older versions of IE. This gives a different quality of graphic depending on whether this site is viewed in IE6 or, say, Firefox.

This is not a viable solution for most people, but I was determined to find a way round.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Firefox 2.0 released

Firefox 2 screenshotThe latest major release of Firefox, the open-source, free web-browser, was released today. Version 2.0 doesn't contain any major changes but is a worthy download for Firefox users as it now contains:

It's not loads of new features and it still doesn't touch all the cool stuff that Flock does, but it's really designed to get some press as Microsoft releases version 7 of its Internet Explorer.

Firefox represents around 13% of all browser activity but has 40% of the market in Germany and up to 65% of traffic arriving at some technology websites, where the readership is more tech-savvy.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

TV standby power saving

Household christmas lights
Every so often, the news cycle rotates around to the issue of power-saving in the home. Today the headline was that Britain is the least energy concious country in Europe. Fair enough, but every time this story comes around, the energy saving tips are trotted out too. Most of these tips are total gammon and spinach. My favourite is "Don't leave your TV on standby - most people don't realise that it's still consuming power". Of course it is, otherwise it wouldn't be on standby, and it's a pitiful amount of power. Here is a random fact from Amazon giving the technical specs of a Sony TV:

Power Standby: 0.3W
Power Normal: 100W


So your TV consumes a 1/300th of its normal power during standby, a paltry 1/3 of a Watt. I'm using 40 freaking Watts to power my lamp at the moment.

Why not concentrate people's minds on more meaningful energy wastage like air conditioning, patio-heaters, leaving lights on, leaving the TV on all day on CBeebies even though the kids aren't even watching it and the worst offender of all, external Christmas illuminations.

I'm pretty sure the power used by Christmas decorations of people's houses is more than 1/3 of a freaking Watt.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Sony paint bomb

Sony Bouncing Balls in Felt-tip pens
The nice people at Sony have a new advert out for the Bravia LCD televisions. The first one had the colourful bouncy balls, bouncing down a San Franciso street to the tune of Jose Gonzalez. This time a Glasgow tower block is covered in choreographed, exploding paint barrels.

Both adverts are things of extraordinary beauty but the amazing thing is, that they are not computer generated. They actually dropped a quarter of a million bouncy balls down a street, and they did actually cover a Scottish council estate in paint.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

New drink lets thin people lose weight

Enviga slimming drink - letting thin people lose weight
The nice people at Nestlé and Coca-Cola are about to launch a new drink that helps you lose weight. Could this be too good to be true? Probably. A close insepection of the Enviga slimming drink press release not only shows some the worst HTML I've ever seen, but also some cleverly worded blurb:

Studies have shown that when EGCG and caffeine are present at the levels comparable to that in three cans of Enviga, healthy subjects in the lean to normal weight range can experience an average increase in calorie burning by 60 - 100 calories.


In other words, if you drink a can of this stuff and you're less than normally thin, you may burn 20-30 calories more than you would normally would have because the caffine and other chemicals make you more active. That's enough to balance out four polo mints! They don't say what it'll do if you're fat in the first place or if you just drink a cup of black coffee instead. Perhaps if you want to lose weight, you could eat less and do more exercise?

Or you could eat celery which takes more calories to digest than it provides in nutrition. You could make a nice celery smoothie. Mmmmmm.

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Home taping and allofmp3.com

Since music was distributed for profit, piracy has always been a problem for the music industry. With copying sheet music, holding a microphone to the television speaker during Top-of-the-Pops, taping from the radio, copying CDs, bootlegging concerts, file-sharing networks and breaking the copy-protection on encrypted music files, record companies are always behind the rest of the world on piracy.

I should make a distinction here between "legitimate" music sharing with a friend and copying music and selling it on for profit. The process of making compilation tapes (as in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity) has always generated more music sales amongst the record buying public than the corresponding loss of revenue due to piracy. It would go as far to say that home taping is an early form of "viral marketing", which costs the record industry nothing.

A site like allofmp3.com, however, is hiding behind the Russian legal system and offering ridculously cheap downloads with (probably) nothing going back to the artists. This is out-and-out big-business piracy and now big business has hit back by stopping Visa and Mastercard transactions from being processed in allofmp3.com's favour. This should soon strangle this operation and it will join piracy scrapheap along with Napster and Suprnova.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Jonathan Richman in a church

On Friday night I went to see Jonathan Richman live in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He was playing in the All Saints Church which is a large building near the Tyne bridge but which is almost impossible to find amongst the modern office blocks, underpasses and one-way systems.

The church looked like an active place of worship and was equipped with a semi-circle of pews and an altar. Mr Richman arrived clutching a Spanish guitar accompanied by a drummer, playing a child's drum kit. With hardly any amplification and the ethereal acoustics of a church hall, the audience was rapt. I didn't know any of the songs but was well pleased with my investment of £12.50. The highlight of th evening was a song about "dancing in a lesbian bar" which caused Richman to dance enthusiastically amongst the audience.

He encored with an unamplified, sorrowful song about a man talking to his dying mother, which was nice. The photos I took with my phone didn't come out but luckily, I have a new Post-it note pad, a biro and rare talent for drawing.

Post-it Note Art #7 -Jonathan Richman in a church


Jonathan Richman live in a church in Newcastle

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

The worst value songs on iTunes

iTunes has a universal pricing structure of 79p (99c) per song. It doesn't matter if its old or new, long or short, mono or stereo, low-fi or hi-fi. But just how short can you go? I decided to find out. I remembered seeing group called The Brakes supporting Editors in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and that they had a couple of really short songs. One, called simply "Cheney", consisted of the shout "Cheney, Cheney, Cheney, Cheney, Cheney, Cheney. Stop being such a Dick!", and then promptly finished. I wondered if this was available on iTunes. It is. Clocking in at a mighty ten seconds, it can be heard in its entirety using iTunes' thirty second preview function. But it's not the shortest. The Brakes themselves have a seven second song called "Comma Comma Comma Full Stop" whose entire lyrics are presented in the title of the song.

But there are shorter songs still. The masters of the short song are undoubtedly Napalm Death, who have a five second song on iTunes called "Dead" three seconds of which is silence. At 79 pence per song, two seconds of music works out quite expensive, but the iTunes preview is more than enough to capture the full impact of the track.

I was disappointed to find that John Cage's "Four and a half minutes of silence" is not yet available on iTunes, as this would probably qualify as the worst value for money download, offering complete silence for £0.79. I was wondering how this would sound encoded at 128kb/s using AAC. Perhaps allofmp3.com have it in higher quality.

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Brimstone Beast

My fellow blogger PolarBear in a recent rant about gin, happened to quote the venerable Smallweed from Dickens' Bleak House.
Phil Davis as Smallweed
The character was brought to life by Philip Davis in the BBC's masterful adaptation. I've had a flick through Bleak House to find Smallweed's finest lines:

You are a brimstone pig. You're a head of swine



You're a brimstone chatterer



You're a brimstone idiot. You're a scorpion--a brimstone scorpion! You're a sweltering toad. You're a chattering clattering broomstick witch that ought to be burnt!" gasps the old man, prostrate in his chair. "My dear friend, will you shake me up a little?



You hag, you cat, you dog, you brimstone barker

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Nigella Lawson - English Muffin

Nigella Lawson - English Muffin
I caught a bit of the BBC's Who do you think you are last night, which traced the family history of top TV totty Nigella Lawson. Nigella, a famous TV cook, is renowned for her delectable buns and tasty sauces.

This blog has faced criticism recently, from more than one quarter, alleging that it merely serves to list celebrities who are easy on the eye. I consider this an unfounded fallacy and hope that this article finally lays it to rest.

Coming soon Kirstie Allsop tells us about her favourite moves and Kate Silverton on how she gets up in the morning.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

That's Numberwang!

That's Numberwang
I watched an episode of Mitchell and Webb's comedy show on BBC2 the other week and instantly forgot it, apart from one sketch. That sketch was called "Numberwang" and through the beauty of YouTube, I can watch it again. It's like Sky+ but in really low quality and with very short programmes.

That's Numberwang!

That's Numberwang!

That's Numberwang!

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W3C Compliant Blogger Blog

The web is full of grotty, unpleasent websites. When creating this blog I wanted it to be clean, simple, cross-browser compatible and W3C compliant. What is W3C Compliance? The W3C is a standards body that decides the standards that are to be adhered to across the Internet. They offer an HTML Validation service that checks websites for correctness: if you're site has no errors it is deemed to be "W3C compliant" and can present a badge advertising the fact (see bottom left of this blog's home page). Making a website compliant is difficult enough as it is but when using a blogging tool such as Blogger, you are at the mercy of the HTML that it generates for you.

I've spent a good amount of time writing my own Blogger template from scratch and have managed to get most of the site W3C compliant, apart from the individual post pages. The bit that fails the test is are the "post a comment" links that are automatically generated by Blogger. The front page and archive pages are fine because I have opted to remove the "Email this item" and "Post a comment" buttons from each post.

I've compained about Blogger before, and some of the complaints have been resolved with the new Blogger Beta service, but the W3C compliance bit bugs me. Incidently, you may wish to upgraded to the Beta Blogger if you get the opportunity because it offers significant performance improvements, such as faster publishing, labels (tags) and Google account integration.

[Update: This has become a bit of an obsession for me. I have managed to get W3C compliance across the whole wretched blog by encapsulating the blogger comment and delete calls in Javascript. The Javascript corrects the HTML and 'document.writes' it out. There's still the incompatible iframe Blogger bar at the top, but this doesn't effect the Validator. At some point I'll migrate this template to the new Blogger Beta, although a first stab revealed the process to be prohibitively complicated.]

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Anne Hathaway not happy with appearance

Anne Hathaway
Apparently Anne Hathaway is unhappy with her body image. The Hollywood actress, currently starring in "The Devil wears Prada", believes that her appearance falls short of the standards set by fellow thespian Uma Thurman.

The picture to the right, however, tells a different story. I, for one, am very pleased with her appearance. I saw her in Nicholas Nickleby and Brokeback Mountain and can report that she has very little to worry about.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

iPod Randomness

There is an excellent article in the Guardian about the randomness of iPods. Any user of an iPod or a listener to the "Party Shuffle" feature of iTunes will tell you that there is obviously an extra-terrestrial intelligence going on behind the "random" selection of songs. Often the playlist will feature certain artists or albums more than others; mine often has a Divine Comedy phase.

It often picks thematically linked songs, like a Beatles song followed by a George Harrison song. In the future it will be revealed that a call centre in India was filled with people picking people's playlists using The Guiness book of British Hit Single.

The article attempts to explain away this supernatural behaviour as a feature of the mathematics of probability, but I think the India Suffle Centre theory is the one that will turn out to be true. How else can you explain why a machine would pick New Slang by the Shins and follow it with Bonny by Prefab Sprout?

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PCs in the wild

The BBC are running a story across their media outlets about how often a PC is attacked while sitting online. Their research shows that an unprotected Windows XP machine sitting unused on the Internet was hit every 15 minutes by external computers attempting to infect, crash or subvert the operation of the device. This research is no surprise but illustrates how important it is to update your PC and switch on the Firewall.

This is before the PC was used to browser the Internet with the wretched Internet Explorer. They are reporting on that tomorrow.

It is quite a relief that my Mac is much more resilient than most PCs, especially behind my home Firewall.

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Healing hands

Chris de Burgh
Chris de Burgh, Irish dwarf balladeer, has claimed he can heal people through the power of touch. This dangerous, delusional behaviour is obviously a threat to public safety and I think he should be incarcerated for the public good.

Luckily, there are several realistic lookalikes who can take his place immediately and no-one need ever know. They include Ian Moor who won Stars in Your Eyes pretending to be the man himself. Let's hope that the lookalikes don't start demonstrating seriously mental disorders or we could have an army of de Burgh healers on our hands.

Apparently, Bill Bailey describes him as "the monobrowed purveyor of ultimate filth". Perhaps that should be altered in the light ot recent revelations to "dwarf, crazed, fantasist and inventor of audible silage". All I know is that however ill I get, he's not touching me.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Express Delivery

Wheelie Bins
A few years ago, I briefly lived in a household that received the Daily Express each day. The Express, which is aimed at the indignant middle-class, is owned by Richard "Dirty" Desmond, whose media empire has extended to publications such as "Big Ones", "Asian Babes", "OK!" and the Fantasy Channel.

Although I didn't do an official count, there were many days in which a story about house prices made it to the front page. "House prices set to soar", "House price slump begins" and memorably, "House prices level off", which is about the least interesting non-news story they could have thought up. In recent years, the Express has attempted to badger its vexed middle-aged readers into beliving that the end of the world is nigh: "3m gypsies set to invade Britain", "Asylum seekers get free ipods", or some such nonsense.

Today's headline is "Dustbin spies sweep Britain". Ignoring the playful use of the word "sweep" in a story about waste, the headline is designed to rile the terrified pensioners into believing that their council is installing computer chips into their wheelie-bins just so they can charge them more. The piece glosses over the serious issue of only 12% of the my area's household waste is recycled, a much smaller proportion than in say the Netherlands, where 71% of a home's waste is recycled. Instead it focuses on the evil council's attempts to screw more money out of the nation's elderly as they put their old Express newspapers and copied of "Big Ones" in their wheelie-bin instead of the recycling box.

Tomorrow the wheelie-bins will be used by Asylum-seekers to steal our jobs, cause house-prices to drop and force a steep rise in inheritance tax.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Fuzzy Felt Art

Through the life of this blog I have been moved to express myself through music, witicisms, Post-it Note Art and felt-tip pen drawings. "What's next?" I hear you ask: poetry, dance, mime? No, fuzzy felt.

I present a selection of moving and often hard-hitting art works done entirely using fuzzy felt and a mobile phone.

Fuzzy Felt Art #1 - The London Underground

Fuzzy Felt Art #1 - The London Underground

Fuzzy Felt Art #2 - SOS

Fuzzy Felt Art #2 - SOS

Fuzzy Felt Art #3 - Peter Doherty and Kate Moss

Fuzzy Felt Art #3 - Pete Doherty and Kate MossN.B. Art historians may wish to compare and contrast with a previous Post-it Note Art drawing.

Fuzzy Felt Art #4 - Hitler

Fuzzy Felt Art #4 - Adolf Hitler

Fuzzy Felt Art #5 - International Terrorism

Fuzzy Felt Art #5 - International Terrorism

Fuzzy Felt Art #6 - The Scabbard

Fuzzy Felt Art #6 - The ScabbardN.B. Art historians may wish to research the source of this work's title in previous blog entry.

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