Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I saw a ghost last night.

I don’t watch horror films late at night.  It’s not because I believe that the poltergeists or demons or Gremlins are going to creep into my room at night (was Gremlins a horror film?) but it’s because I don’t trust my mind and what it can do to make things real in my dreams.

I’m a rational person with no belief in the supernatural, but nobody appears to have passed that message to the part of my brain which writes the scripts for my dreams. 

Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night and glanced over at the curtain. The lights of London were coming in through the blinds and making shapes on the light-coloured curtains in front.  I looked at the curtains and said to myself “that shadow looks a bit like a person” and was awake enough to rationalise in my head that if I were a less rational person, I could easily mistake those shadows in the half-light for a ghostly figure standing in the corner of the room.

Can you guess what happened after I fell asleep again?  Yes, my mind took the rational view of a ghostly figure and turned it into a real ghostly figure.  This is why i can’t trust my mind with horror films late at night, you see.

The fact I saw the outline of a ghostly figure on the curtain at all is interesting, though – pareidolia is well worth a google looking up if you have a bit of spare time.  You can try experiencing this yourself, and you don’t even need to set up a complicated curtain arrangement.  Just find yourself a friend with patterned wallpaper in the bathroom – preferably the sort with a small repeating geometric pattern.  Then, next time you’re visiting and need the loo, stare at the wallpaper.  I swear it won’t be long before you start seeing faces and shapes where there are none.  I was staring at our bathroom carpet this morning and could swear that one of the Tweenies was perfectly outlined in the weave of the carpet.  And before you think it; we don’t have a CBBC-themed bathroom carpet.

So, try finding faces and shapes in a piece of patterned wallpaper and then next time you wake in the middle of the night and think you see something in the corner of the room, look twice and you’ll see that it’s just a shadow or flick of the light from a passing car’s headlamps.  And then just hope your mind’s capacity for nightmares isn’t as great as mine…

Monday, December 28, 2009

The mind plays tricks on us, we all know that. For years, I had a song going around in my head – except it was only the line “Falling apart, because I know I’ve lost my guardian angel” going around and around in my head.

A week or two ago, I tracked it down on Amazon and bought it.

This is where my memory had deceived me. In my mind, this was a famous song from the 80s which surely everyone knew. I always found it very strange that I seemed to be the only person who remembered that line, and was sure that everyone else was just pretending to be oblivious to this song. Here is the song, courtesy of YouTube. You even get to look at some cheesy pictures of angels whilst it’s playing…

… isn’t it awful?

A little time spent on Google reveals that this is not the only version of the song. It exists in a couple of cover versions. First up, here’s Nino De Angelo…

… isn’t that worse than the first one?

Finally, in that horrible modern trend of taking songs from the eighties and sticking them to a dance beat, here’s a version by Novaspace…

… told you so!

So why have I blogged about this terrible song? Two reasons. Firstly, I don’t think it’s that terrible and is worthy of the wider audience that I thought it already had. Secondly, if it’s been stuck in my head for years, it’s only fair that it’s now stuck in yours too… altogether now… “I’m falling apart because I know I’ve lost my guardian angel…”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

So this is Christmas….

It’s been far too long since I’ve written in here.  Almost every entry I write begins with those words and so I presume there’s a message in there somewhere; I should write more often.  And I shall. In 2010, I promise I shall.

Christmas is never a time of great joy for me.  It’s not a time of particular sadness, but given that the rest of the world seems determined to be elevated into a happier state of being for the latter half of December, my continued normal state of humdrum feels rather left behind in the rush for tinselly nirvana.

Personally, 2009 has been an exhausting year.  Starting it in a new job, only to be made redundant from said job in the first week back in January.  Then starting work at Symbian (www.symbian.org) in March and working through until now without much of a break.  I need the rest.  I need a week of no work, no stress and no alarm clock.

At least there has been some Christmas cheer this week.  Sunday was a particularly good day, with a trip to Hammersmith to see Robin Ince et. al. celebrate the wonder of the world and the joy of humanity without any supernatural getting in the way – and of course the wonderful news that RATM actually made it to Christmas No.1

But Christmas, for me, is not an “up” time – it’s definitely downtime. Thanks to a trip to Waitrose the other evening, we now have enough supplies in the cupboards that we need not brave a supermarket for a while.  There’s a new episode of Doctor Who to look forward to tomorrow.  And the icy pavements and roads of London are once again safe to use.

It’s Christmas. All is calm. Peace.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Be Careful!

I’ve never come across a situation in my life when it’s useful to say “be careful”.

Mostly, people say it when you’re doing something potentially dangerous, in which case “being careful” is probably something you intend to do anyway.  And indeed, shouting “be careful” at someone walking a tightrope may cause them to turn around to look at you whilst working out what you shouted causing them to lose their balance and fall off said tightrope.

I see this in the same category as saying “have a safe flight” to someone about to board a plane.  Unless you’re saying it to the pilot, the person you’re talking to is unlikely to have much control over the safety of the flight, so why say it at all.

I guess it’s short hand for “I wish you a safe flight” and “be careful” is short hand for “I don’t want you to hurt yourself”.

But this doesn’t inject any “point” into saying it.  Just because I know someone doesn’t want my plane to crash, I am not going to change my view of the flight or my behaviour on it.  Neither would I do so if someone said to me “I hope your plane crashes” just as I was boarding.  Neither is going to make any difference to whether the plane crashes or not.

So, be warned, if I’m ever doing anything risky or dangerous and you’re watching – don’t say “Be Careful”!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Yay! Angry Blog Posting ftw

I hate certain words.  It’s irrational as I don’t have any particular dislike of the change of language over time.  However, there are certain words which irritate the hell out of me, and maybe now is the time for me to exorcise that hatred.

What exactly does “Yay!” mean.  It’s something people type in online conversations but it’s not something they’d ever actually say to a real person (I hope).  Apparently, it’s something you “say” when you’re happy or you want to celebrate something that’s just been said to you, but it really irritates me.  I have images of American teen movies where the hero has just saved the world in some ridiculous way and his friends all shout “yay!” in celebration.  What’s wrong with saying “that’s great news!” or “fantastic!” or using a real word?

From one word, let’s turn to a pair of words which seem to have become online antonyms even though they don’t mean opposite things. The words are “win” and “fail”.  Apparently, if something goes wrong, or someone makes a mistake and you report it on twitter, it’s obligatory to stick “#fail” at the end of your tweet.  Or maybe “#epicfail” if it’s a big one.  And recently, I’ve noticed “#win” cropping up as an antithetic bastard cousin of “#fail”.  I realise that twitter is somewhat limited by 140 characters but I’m capable of working out whether the gasman failing to turn up, or you computer exploding is a good or bad thing without the need to tag it “#fail” or “#'win”

And from “win” we travel nicely to “ftw”.  I don’t mind abbreviations/acronyms (now is not the place to debate the difference, I know, so let’s use both).  I often use btw, asap, np in text messages or emails.  But you’ll never catch me saying ftw.   I know what it stands for, and I sort-of know what it’s trying to mean, but I don’t think I quite get what is actually means.  And that’s my problem with it – with all of these words in fact – it’s not that I find them particularly offensive or feel that they are challenging the sanctity of the English language; it’s simply that I don’t understand what they actually mean or what they are adding to the meaning of what’s being said.

I’m wordy.  Loquacious, you may say.  But I strive to ensure that every word I use works for its existence.  Endlessly long sentences strung together from words innumerable in order to fill the space on the page without adding meaning to the expression of the writer yet taking time to read and more time to forget <pause for breath> do nothing for me.  Every word must be there for a reason.  Take the word away, and if you’re missing a nuance of the sentence previously present then put the word back; it was necessary.  But if removing the word removes nothing from the meaning of the sentence, then take it away as it shouldn’t have been there in the first place.  And that’s even more important a point to remember when the space you have to fill with words is limited.

I’m no saint when it comes to this, and trawling back through this blog I’m sure you could find many places where I’ve strayed from my own rules.  #fail

Monday, September 28, 2009

Hampton Court Palace

Despite having lived in London for 10 years, I hadn’t – until today – visited Hampton Court Palace.  We spent the afternoon wandering around the state apartments, kitchens, gardens and other numerous buildings and rooms.

Who knew that Hampton Court Palace was home to the world’s oldest known grape vine?

We also went into the maze.  Contrary to popular belief, Hampton Court Maze can be escaped using the method of “putting your right hand onto the wall and walking in such a way that it never leaves contact with the wall” but we decided not to try that method opting for the method of stopping at every fork and seeing which of the two options appears “less obviously heading towards the centre, and so more likely to be the correct route”.  Having said that, we got to the middle with no dead ends met on the way…

The journey out to Hampton Court was uneventful in terms of delays and cancellations (there were none of the latter, and only a minor version of the former).  The journey from Tower Hill to Hampton Court took the best part of two hours though – fine if you’re doing the Guardian crossword and on a day out, but how could you cope with doing it every day?

I’ve been lucky for the past few years – for over five years now, I’ve not had to take public transport to commute to work.  These days, I can get to the Symbian offices in 40 minutes of casual strolling from home.

I think it’s the lack of regular use of public transport which gives me such a un-jaded view of the quality of trains in the UK.  It’s rare that I take a train – overground or tube – and so it’s very rare indeed that I get hit by a cancellation or troublesome delay. 

Let’s presume that 90% of train journeys in the UK are trouble-free (that’s about right, from the latest statistics).  I take a train around once a month, and so I’m going to get hit with trouble in my journey once every ten months – so rare that I’m not going to notice it, really.  Whereas if you’re doing a journey every day, then you’re going to get hit once every two weeks.  No wonder regular commuters complain about the trains.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It’s the little things

Yesterday didn’t start brilliantly as days go, and so it was the kind of day when you really need something to cheer you up. You know how it is – a bar of chocolate or warm cup of tea isn’t going to cut it – you need something to warm the cockles of your heart.

Two things happened last night which really cheered me up.

We went to the recording of “Clive Anderson’s Chat Room” for Radio 2. All was light and jovial until the subject was mentioned of Elton John’s idea of adopting a Ukrainian orphan. Some of the panel raised concerns over whether a rock star travelling the world on tour, particular one in his sixties, is the best person to adopt a young child.

One of the panellists was strangely quiet on the subject – despite having written a column about exactly that subject only days before. That person was Amanda Platell, the homophobic, bigoted and borderline-racist excuse for a journalist who has sold her soul to write for the daily assault on human dignity which calls itself the “Daily Mail” (I feel dirty even typing those words – imagine how dirty one must feel actually taking money from them to write a column)

Anyway, sitting next to her was the rather less bigoted Mark Thomas, who proceeded to pull out off his bag an annotated set of print-outs of Platell’s column from the previous few months and ask her to justify some of the comments she had made. She was laid bare as the homophobic bigot she actually is.

Normally, I think that every human being has a right to avoid humiliation – but given some of the insidiously evil things she has written I think she deserved every minute of it and more. It’s just a shame that the best bits will probably be cut from the show before broadcast.

Well that was the first thing which cheered me up. The other thing was that a complete stranger offered me a rather nice caramel choccy thing on the bus on the way home. Wasn’t half as sweet as watching Mark Thomas a few hours earlier, though.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Well call me Susan.

I commented yesterday on Twitter, that if the Derren Brown lottery prediction was achieved by use of collective wishful thinking, then my name is Susan.

My name is not Susan, and no matter how convincing the pyscho-babble which surrounded the 24 people picking numbers, there is no way that they “spotted a pattern in the numbers” and selected the six numbers.  No way at all.

State of mind is important.  Positive thinking can affect many things – including sporting performance, professional performance and even your own physical strength.  But no amount of positive thinking can guess six lottery numbers before they are drawn.

So, here we remain – still in the dark about how the effect was achieved. Oh well.

Talking of things which remain hidden, we went to the Cabinet War Rooms today.  Despite living in London for so many years, it was the first time I’d been.  It is a fantastic museum, and contains so many places where real history took place, that I would recommend any visitor to London go and see it.  The map room, and some of the offices are set up exactly as they were during the war and it doesn’t take much imagination to put yourself back just over sixty years to the time when the British involvement in WWII was being directed from those very rooms.  Definitely worth the entrance fee!

I can’t mention WWII this week without a mention of Alan Turing, can I?  I’m sure everyone knows the tragic story of his suicide after what can only be described as a hideous persecution.

I did sign the petition on the Number 10 website to get the apology from the government – the only such petition I have ever signed.  The current government had no part in what happened to him, of course, and his treatment was merely one case of what happened to so many men not so many years ago.   Everyone else who contributed so much to the war effort was given a knighthood or a peerage and paraded through the streets with honour.  Yet because he was gay, his fate was to be chemically castrated and kill himself with a cyanide-laced apple.

Of course, it’s easy to say that such stories are in the past – but let’s remember that it wasn’t in the distant past that such things happened – it was well-within living memory for many people.  And it wasn’t so many years ago that gay people were barred from serving in the UK military, too.

So let’s not get too wrapped up in the fact that Alan Turing’s treatment was the product of a different time – let’s see this apology from the government as a long-overdue acknowledgement of a great man who – as the letter from Gordon Brown said – really did deserve so much better…

Thursday, September 10, 2009

6 out of 6 – well done Mr Brown

Last night, as I’m sure everyone knows, Derren Brown appeared live on Channel 4 and appeared to predict the lottery numbers before they were drawn.

I thought it was a great trick.  I’ve read a lot of rubbish online today in which people express their feeling of “having been cheated” because it was only a trick.  Of course it was.

He didn’t actually know all six lottery numbers before they were drawn, he just appeared to.  And appeared to quick convincingly, I think.

I went to bed thinking about it last night, and on the walk to work this morning I was thinking about it again.  I have worked out a few ways in which the effect could’ve been achieved – but of course I’ll tune in on Friday to find out how he actually did it.  That is presuming that he does actually tell us how he did it, rather than just telling us how he wants us to think he did it.

The front-runner on the internet today suggests that camera trickery was involved.  It’s certainly possible to use the technique suggested in order to achieve the effect, but I do hope that’s not how it’s done.

I’ve been an admired of illusionists for years.  I still recall, as a child, Paul Daniel’s “Camera Trick”.  Camera goes into wooden crate, live pictures shown out of the side of the box as it’s lifted into the air, big puff of smoke, camera gone.  I still don’t know exactly how it was achieved, but it’s still my favourite illusion. 

For Derren Brown to use a camera trick to achieve the lottery stunt would disappoint me.  The skill in being an illusionist is to master sleight of hand, misdirection and showmanship – not in employing a good cameraman.  To see how a magic trick is done can be almost as thrilling as seeing the trick when you are unaware.  If you don’t mind spoilers, then Google for Penn and Teller doing the “cups and balls” routine with see-through cups.  Of course, there is no mystery in the trick anymore, but the choreography of it is still beautiful to watch.

If, when I watch the follow-up on Friday, one of the methods I’ve imagined for the trick was used, then I shall be disappointed.  Whichever method was used, the execution of it was wonderful, but I really want to be astonished – I really want to be impressed by the ingenuity of the trick rather than be shown how video effects were applied to the live feed.

On the subject of Paul Daniels – I know it’s fashionable to mock him – but I refuse to.  A few years ago, we went to see him in Edinburgh performing “The Magic of Max Mellini” (spelling?).  It was stunning.  No pyrotechnics were used, no large wooden boxes were wheeled out, and Debbie was not cut in two.  The biggest trick of the night involved the production of a block of ice from a hat.  It was amazing.

And then, afterwards, we were down in the cafe below the venue having a drink, and there was Paul (and Debbie!) just playing with a pack of cards at a table.  The one thing I can recall is Paul Daniels just idly playing with the cards – a perfect one handed riffle shuffle whilst looking in completely the opposite direction is not easy to do.

Anyone can pop to a magic shop and pick up a pack of marked cards, or a magic box which makes a penny disappear.  But the true genius of an illusionist is to make something appear to happen which is not only impossible, but also something we have never seen before.

And I don’t know about you – but however it was achieved – I’ve never seen anyone appear to predict a national lottery on live TV before.  I shall be disappointed if the revealed method used was a rather mundane one – but I still applaud the trick as one of the stand-out illusions of modern times.

So much better than pretending to sit in a glass box for a month, anyway…

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I calibrate my day with strangers

I walk to work.  It’s a nice walk, along the Thames, over Tower Bridge, and along the Thames again.

I aim to get into the office at the same time every day, but lethargy and Radio 4 often cause delays in getting out of the house.

As I’m walking, a torrent of people walk past me the other way, and after doing the same walk for a while you start to notice people who do the same walk every day.

I don’t tend to wear a watch these days – mostly because all my watches need the batteries replacing – and so the only thing with a clock on it as I’m walking into work is my phone.  My phone is busy doing other things – like playing ABBA and AC/DC songs at me to quicken my step to work – and so I have to rely on other signs to tell whether I’m running late or early.

And this is where my three strangers come into things.  These three people seem to walk the same route every day, at pretty much the same time.  By looking at how close to the flat I pass them, I can work out whether I’m running late or early compared with them; the closer to the flat I see them, the later I’m running!

Of course, they may be running late or early themselves, but if I see all three of them earlier in my walk than I would like, that’s a pretty good sign that I’m running late!

So who are these strangers?  Well I don’t know – I’ve no idea.  Don’t know their names, where they come from, or even where they are going on their morning commute. 

There’s the Welsh guy.  I’ve no idea whether he’s Welsh or not, but he looks Welsh.  So I’ve decided he’s Welsh.  Let’s call him Rhys.  He’s dressed smartly on Fridays, but not the other days of the week.  What kind of job would require you to do that?

There’s the Japanese guy. He’s quite short, and carries a brown briefcase and wears a suit every day.

Then there’s the ginger guy who has a woman with him some days, and not others.  He’s always smartly dressed, and seems to be the most reliable of the three as a calibrator of the time.

You see, I worry that I’m sounding like a stalker here.  But let me assure you I’m not.  I’ve no intention of finding out anything more about these people than I know already – which is largely nothing – except that one of them is Welsh – although I don’t even know that, I suppose.

Would I recognise them if I saw them out of context?  And what would I say to them if I met them at a party or in a work context? 

And are they watching me every morning and thinking “that guy who quite often carries badminton equipment of a morning isn’t a very reliable way of calibrating whether I’m running late!”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A book I didn’t like

I read a lot of books.  Not as many as I’d like to – but that’s mostly because of my high ambition level when it comes to reading lots of books rather than a lack of reading.

Sometimes I read books which teach me things, and sometimes I read books which make me think.  But sometimes I just like to read a good story.  No messages, no agenda, just a good story.

One of my favourite books is “Haunted” by James Herbert.  It doesn’t pretend to preach any message, nor to stimulate any intellectual debate.  It’s just a great ghost story.

However, I’ve found other James Herbert’s books disappointing.  The sequel to “Haunted” – which is so forgettable that I’ve forgotten its name – was terrible.  As was “The Secret of Crickley Hall” which I just finished reading.

I’ve literally taken this book around the world with me.  I’ve carted it in my suitcase to provide reading on a long-haul flight home many times, and never started reading it.  Until the middle of last week, that is.  One evening, I just decided that enough was enough, and the cover had been staring at me for too long – I had to read the damned thing!

And so I did.  And now wish I hadn’t. 

The story itself is OK.  Pretty standard stuff about a haunted house and a family who move there.  But the way the story is told leaves nothing to the imagination.  There is no attempt to present imagery and emotion; simply 600 pages (yes, really!) of factual description of what’s happening.  Facts are flagged up by incongruous statements in the middle of a description passage.  There’s no attempt to conceal which facts are later relevant to the plot, and which are merely background.  There’s no thought involved and absolutely no twists in the tale at all.

“Gabe was a man.  He was an engineer.  He makes clever things which go in the sea to generate energy.  He rents a house to live in whilst working away from London.  There are ghosts.  Some people who you thought are dead are not dead.  Nothing really happens for 500 pages or so, except a few things moving around in a spooky house and ghost noises echoing on stone stairs.  Then there’s a rather anti-climactic ending and an overly soppy emotional bit in the last 50 pages.  Then an unnecessary epilogue which any decent author would’ve written up as the closing chapters of the book.”

The whole book has an unfinished feel to it.  It reads like the rough draft James Herbert put together to define the story.  Like a sculptor who fashions a block of marble into the rough shape of a man before taking a smaller chisel and spending years on the detail.  James Herbert didn’t bother with the detail, and simply sent off the rough cut to his publisher.

I like books which take me with me to the locations involved.  I want to be able to close my eyes and picture where the characters are standing, what they look like and how they sound.  I want the climax of the book to grip me so that I actually care what happens to the characters.  I want the book to make me smile, and maybe make me cry.  This book did none of that.

I finished reading the book for two reasons.  Firstly, I hoped that it may improve; that something may happen unexpectedly and inject some feeling into the experience.  And secondly, my natural curiosity wanted to have some resolution to the story.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of that, either!

So, all in all, I feel let down.  A book which has been staring at me for years finally read and I really wish I hadn’t bothered.  Such a shame.

Friday, August 14, 2009

I’m a published Android developer…

It’s true. I am. 

A few months ago, I did a little experiment with a “Hello World” application.  Working here at Symbian, it was interesting to get a taste of the development experiences across a couple of other platforms.  Of course, what you can learn by writing a “Hello World” application is limited – but then again so is my ability to write code these days, so I’m not the right person to judge the ease of coding for that platform anyway…

Part of this experiment was to see how easy it is to get your application to market, and I decided to publish my Hello World application up on the Android Market – just to see how easy it is to do.

I published it and foolishly forgot to un-publish it.  And that’s when the madness started.

I should explain – my application displays a graphic (the Symbian Heart Logo, in fact) in the centre of the screen and nothing more. Literally nothing more.  My application has no functionality.

To emphasise this fact, when I published it on the Android Market I wrote in the release notes - “Please don't download and install this application, as it doesn't actually do anything other than display a picture.”

Whether through curiosity of why there’s an application displaying a Symbian Logo published for Android or the same bloody-mindedness which forces people to touch a surface marked “wet paint” just to check my application was downloaded.  A lot.

At the time of writing, the application was published for a week or so at first, and then republished during an internal presentation.  So it’s been up and down for a while. 

So how many people have downloaded this?  Well currently it stands at 1059 downloads with 102 active installs.  Cool, eh?

If you want to find the application on your G1, it’s not that easy – it’s buried in the “demo” section of the market several screens-worth of scrolling down – yet over 1000 people have found it, and over 100 of them still have it on their phones.

But that’s not the weird part.  So far, we can explain this all away by invoking mention of natural curiosity.

The second most weird thing about this little tale is the volume of email I’m still receiving about this application.  In fact, writing in here was prompted by the three emails I received overnight saying “I love your application. Can you tell me how to use it please?”.  Mostly I reply to polite point out that it’s only a “Hello World” application and doesn’t actually do anything – but I’m very tempted to conduct a small email survey amongst those who’ve downloaded the application to find out why they downloaded it, and what they expected it to do given the clear message in the release notes.

But the weirdest thing is yet to come.  Of the 1000+ downloads, 79 people have given a rating to my application.  And the rating – well it’s currently sitting at 4 out of 5.  I won’t even try to explain that.

So – what do I make of all this?  Well firstly, it’s obvious that people with Android phones do download and install applications – for 1000 of them to have found this anonymous little thing and installed it there must be many multiples of that who install the useful and popular applications.  But on the flip-side, I can’t help feeling that if 1000 people will download and install an application which does nothing, that may indicate a paucity of the “useful and popular” applications to get the attention of users before they get to applications like mine at the bottom.

But the biggest conclusion I’ve come to so far is that I really should’ve charged £1 for my application and made some money out of it ;-)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

“Boo!”

A few times over the past few weeks, I’ve come into direct contact with Audioboo.  It’s a fascinating idea – basically you record a couple of minutes of your speaking – or someone else speaking – or the noise going on around you. 

I first came across the idea when Stephen Fry posted a link on Twitter to his thoughts on Clement Freud’s funeral service.  A few other people were using it to capture their thoughts, but I didn’t think much more of it.

And then they cropped up in my professional life a month or so ago.  Currently, they produce an application for the iPhone to allow you to capture your thoughts directly, but that means that non-iPhone can’t join in the fun.

As well as working at Symbian, I’m also a keen user of Symbian phones, and so AudioBoo has been beyond me for the moment.  A few weeks ago, I went over to visit them with a colleague to talk to them about how to get Symbian users involved in the Audioboo experience.  And then last week I had the pleasure of attending a soirée thrown by the guys and girls of Audioboo and got to meet lots of avid users.  It’s was fascinating to see people using it to do things other than waffle into a microphone for a couple of minutes.

Of course, with all of these great ideas, there comes the question at some point of how to make money from it.  It’s not just a question for Audioboo of course, even the mighty Twitter have that problem to face.  And we’ve seen in the past few days with the news from tr.im that shortening URLs isn’t an easy thing to make money from either.

But the practicalities of economics aside, I’m dying to get started with AudioBoo.  I haven’t yet decided what I’ll be Boo-ing (is that the right verb) about – but that’s not the point is it?

One piece of good news – for us Symbian users anyway – is that the wonderful Gravity is likely to include Audioboo integration at some point in the near future – at which point you’ll by hearing my dulcet tones at a desktop near you.  Now – what to say, what to say..?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Toilet etiquette

If you’re a man, and you’re standing in a bar with a bottle of beer in your hand, and you need to go to the toilet.  What do you do with the beer?  Do you take it with you into the toilet (a bit weird) or leave it out in the bar (only for it to vanish before you return).

How about if you’re at a buffet carrying a tray full of food – you certainly can’t take the plate of food into the toilet with you, but where are you going to leave it?

OK – you could leave it with a friend.

But how about if you’re at the local shopping centre and you’ve been food shopping.  You’re on your own, but need the loo before you head home.  It somehow feels wrong to take your food shopping into the toilets with you – but if you leave it outside, the bomb squad will probably close the place down and blow up your loaf of bread in this paranoid age.

Can anyone advice on the correct etiquette?

The end of free news? I think not…

I read with interest today that Mr Mudoch (spot the Roger Taylor reference if you dare) has declared that free news is at an end - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8186701.stm

Maybe access to The Times and The Sun will no longer be free, but one man cannot declare the end of free news, no matter how much of the media he controls.

News happens and nowadays it’s on Twitter before the newspapers even know it’s happened.

Yesterday, some gunshots were fired quite close to where I work.  I had been reading about it for 45 minutes on Twitter before BBC News picked up on it.  And Sky News weren’t much ahead on that – but more interestingly when Sky News reported on it, then did so by taking pictures and videos I’d previously seen on Twitter.

Rupert Murdoch claims that other news organisations will follow suit when they see the success he makes of charging for access to his sites.  Maybe he’s missed the fact that one of the key conversations happening in the online community over the past few years has been trying to solve the conundrum of giving stuff away free, yet still making money for it.  Charging for content is not even an option considered by most people with an online presence anymore.

Does Rupert Murdoch know something the rest of us don’t, or is he really so arrogant to think that he can lead news organisations back into a world where they require a credit card number in return for their output?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Well I never…

How it takes me back.  University days and the drinking game “I have never”.  For the uninitiated, the game involves saying “I have never” followed by something you’ve never done, and the others in the circle who HAVE done such thing are forced to take a drink.

Now I can see where you mind may be taking this, but it was never that kind of game.  We knew each other so well, that we carried around a list of things in our head with which we could force any particular person to take a drink – “I have never worn pink socks”  “I have never owned a blue hamster” “I have never done Shakespeare on stage” and so the list goes on.

I’m far too old and sensible for such silly drinking games now, but I did get to thinking the other day of the things which I’ve never done.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not melancholic nor harbouring any desire to rush off and do these things – merely observing that despite having done many interesting things in my life, there are some things which you may assume everyone has done by my age, but which I (and probably lots of other people) haven’t.

So, for your delectation and boredom, I present “Ten Things I’ve Never Done”

1. I have never been skiing (or snowboarding)

2. I have never smoked marijuana

3. I have never been to Spain

4. I have never been camping

5. I have never used a Wii games console

6. I have never seen The Godfather

7. I have never watched a football match, even on TV

8. I have never been swimming in the sea

9. I have never ridden a horse

10.  I have never been up the Eiffel Tower

Friday, July 3, 2009

A couple more gigs…

It’s been quite a week for gigs…

After the relative seriousness of Bruce Springsteen on Sunday, we saw Spinal Tap on Tuesday – a gig which didn’t contain a single trace of seriousness.  Great fun, all the same, though.  And maybe the most attentive audience I’ve ever seen at a gig; almost everyone knew almost every word!

On Wednesday night, we went to a recording of Chain Reaction, the BBC Radio 4 chat show which doesn’t have a host – each week the interviewee from the previous week becomes the interviewer.  We saw two episodes being recorded – Frank Skinner interviewing Eddie Izzard, and then Eddie Izzard interviewing Alastair Campbell.  Despite having no aircon (the noise is too much when recording, apparently) it was a great evening – Alastair Campbell has gone up in my estimation after seeing him being interviewed!

And then, last night, our final gig of the week – Blur in Hyde Park.  They were sublime.  Their songs matched perfectly the sun setting over the park on a warm summer evening.  It made me realise just how much I’d missed Blur in the years they’ve been away.  I was never an obsessive fan, but when I was at University in the mid-90s, Blur songs were everywhere on the radio and in the bars around Cambridge.

Given Damon Albarn still has a creative streak, I would be genuinely interested if they decided to do new material.  Most times when a band has a comeback, there’s the voice in the back of your head screaming “no new material” (witness the horridness that was “The Cosmos Rocks” with Queen and Paul Rodgers, for instance) – but maybe Blur should be given a chance.  A new album may actually be worth a listen.

So that’s it for gigs for this week, and for a while actually – we’re gigged-out I think!

Time for a little bit of relaxation now before the return to work on Monday…

Monday, June 29, 2009

Let There Be Rock!

On Friday, we saw AC/DC at Wembley Stadium.  And they rocked.  With a capital R.

It wasn’t subtle, it wasn’t classy.  It was tacky, it was loud and it was fantastic!

Last night, we saw an altogether different act.  Bruce Springsteen in Hyde Park.  He was classy – but still loud and fantastic.

It made me think how many gigs we’ve been to over the years – it’s in the hundreds somewhere.  And over time you notice patterns, some of which I’d like to share with you now.

The first thing you notice about a gig is the venue.  People have different tastes when it comes to venues.  Some people like the raw grubbiness of the Kentish Town Forum, whereas some like the clean toilets and shiny escalators of The O2 or the new Wembley Stadium.  Personally, I prefer the latter.  In the same way that I don’t believe that music sounds better through the crackle of vinyl, I don’t believe that a gig is better when your shoes are stuck to the floor and the whole place smells of beer.

The second thing you notice at a gig are the people around you.  Gigs are fun, they are energetic.  People sing and people dance.  But some people just behave like tossers.  There’s a difference between getting into the show and throwing yourself around into everyone who’s standing around you and asking really loudly during every quiet song who would like a beer from the bar.  Just because it’s a gig, there’s no need for your respect for those around you to go out of the window!

Then you get to the opening number.  The setlist is very important at a gig, and nothing is more important on the setlist than the opening number.  The opening number sets the tone, it sets out your plan for the evening, and it reminds the audience why they came to see you.  You need something to grab their attention – an act should not slowly sidle onto the stage and say “hello, I’m going to sing a few songs if you don’t mind”.  Bruce Springsteen opened Hyde Park with “London Calling”.  AC/DC opened with a huge steam train rolling onto the stage and a barricade of pyro.  Make it big, and make an impression with the first song!

As the night progresses, there will inevitably be some songs thrown in from the new album.  Everyone does it.  But there is a habit of playing a well known song to bring the audience up, and then slipping in a song from the new album in the hope that nobody notices and that the high energy flow from the hit song through the one that nobody knows.  If you have a new album out, you will know which songs are good and which are filler.  Be honest with yourself.  Slip in a few of the good ones if you want, but don’t play any filler as it’s not going to win you any more album sales!

We’ve been to some very long shows (a few headline sets of over three hours!) and some very short ones (I remember the Manic Street Preachers doing barely an hour at Brixton a few years ago).  If it’s your show, people have come to see you. They’ve either sat through several dull support acts, or left home late in the evening and they are eager to see you.  An hour isn’t going to cut it, so make sure you’ve a set long enough to be worth seeing.

If you’re the kind of musician (or drummer) who likes to play a self-indulgent solo two thirds of the way through the show, then you’re going to have to accept that for 90% of the audience, it will herald a trip to the loo.  Solos are not popular – especially drum solos.  When people are clapping at the end of a drum solo, it’s from a sense of relief that you’ve finished – don’t take it as a signal that they want to hear more and strike up again. Ever.

After a couple of hours (typically) of music, it’ll be time to close the show.  Picking the closing number is almost as important as picking the opening number.  It’ll shape the memories of the gig that the audience take home with them.  Choose wisely.  No album tracks.  No filler.  Make it a good way.  A serious song will send the audience away thinking serious thoughts.  A joyful song will send the audience away with a smile.

Finally, if you’re going to come and do an encore, do it quickly.  If you wait five minutes before coming back on stage, most of the audience will be standing in the doorway clutching their coat and half-drunk bottle of water and not really in a position to enjoy the final song.

Whatever you do, make sure you have a proper ending to the show.  Don’t just stop suddenly

Thursday, June 25, 2009

It’s a funny old year…

Time flies as you get older – and this year has certainly flown.

It doesn’t seem like a year ago that the news was broken to the world that Symbian was changing.  A lot has happened in the year – a change as large as the one Symbian underwent can’t happen overnight! – but still it doesn’t seem like twelve months ago!

I wonder whether it’s a sign of age that the years are going more quickly.  Or maybe it’s having a garden…

Since we’ve had a garden at home, the seasons fly by so quickly.  One minute you’re watching the leaves brown as the view from the view turns from verdant to winter and as soon as the Christmas lights are taken down you see the first signs of the crocus pushing their way bravely through the frozen earth in search of some winter sun.

The flurry of bulbs – daffodils, tulips, hyacinths – pushes on through the spring, and is soon joined by the white sprinkling of magnolia.  As the spring marches on, the vibrance of the summer colours start to spring forth – pink roses, pink lavatera, blue agapanthus and the exotic passiflora. 

All too quickly, the summer sun sets in the sky and the colourful splendour of the garden returns to the lush green covering which revives the vernal memories of when the flowers were but buds.  The plants work hard to prepare themselves for winter – green shoots turn brown as they lignify against the winter chills.

The autumn winds rustle the now-fading leaves and one by one, the leaves cede to the gentle pressure of the incessant winds and fall to the floor, leaving the xyloid skeletons of the summer growth to survive the frosts and the snows.

A flurry of cyclamen signals the end of another year as the winter jasmine starts budding up and the crocus prepare themselves, deep underground, to herald the start of another year.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The first of many…

Friday night, we went to see the Pet Shop Boys at the O2.  And what great fun is was too!

I’ve seen them a fair number of times before, and the shows have ranged from the high-concept to the rather minimal.  This tour falls into the former category.

White boxes feature prominently in the show, as do hats of various levels of weirdness.  Maybe I should say headpieces rather than hats, as some of them are not hats in the traditional sense. 

I’m an unashamed PSB fan, so I think it was obvious that I was going to enjoy the gig. But I enjoyed it even more than I expected to.  Most of the hits were there (except Rent) even if only in one of the many medley-esque arrangements of the new songs which started drifted to a chorus of a previous single and then back again during the course of a few minutes.

But it was nice to hear “Do I have to?”, “Kings Cross”, “Why don’t we live together” and “Two divided by zero” dredged from the vaults and given a new lease of life on the stage.

The whole thing was – as I remarked at the time – rather like a high-camp version of The Wall set to a disco beat.  And I mean that in a good way…

The PSB gig marks is the first in a series of gigs over the coming couple of weeks. 

We are seeing AC/DC and Spinal Tap within a few days of each other – will we be able to tell the difference. 

We’re off to see Blur in Hyde Park – will they be playing songs we know and love, or will they be hit by a need to be arty and play B-sides which nobody knows?

We’re off to see Robin Ince’s “A Night of 400 Billion Stars” at the Bloomsbury Theatre and to see Eddie Izzard being interviewed by Frank Skinner for Radio 4.

I shall hopefully find some time amongst all that for a bit of blogging!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Has it really been a month..?

I can't believe I've not written in here for a month. I've started an entry a few times, but self-censorship has always cut them off halfway through for reasons of "not being interesting enough".

But, today I shall throw caution to the wind and simply dump my thoughts down into this little window and press "submit" whether it not I judge the quality to be worthy.

It's been quite a month - our MPs have been claiming far too much money for ridiculous things and the parliamentary Labour Party came within a whisker of committing regicide. Iran had a free election, in which anyone could vote whichever way they wanted - but then disregarded the votes cast in a bastardised version of democracy. Gordon Ramsay upset an Australian TV presenter and Margaret Mountford announced she's not going to be on The Apprentice next year.

All exciting stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. But let's talk about democracy today.

Democracy is very important. Equally important is the need to recognise that a perfect voting system does not exist. Here in the UK, first-past-the-post is unpopular - though mostly unpopular with those parties who'd do better under a PR system, it has to be said - but at least it's democractic. If a government becomes unpopular, and gets fewer votes cast, they will have fewer MPs and will not be the government any longer.

And therein lies one of the key values of democracy - the ability to lose an election aswell as win one. Plenty of elections happen worldwide in which votes are cast and counted, but winning is the only option; the government cannot lose (China, Zimbabwe, Iran to name but three) be it as a result of corruption during the voting process or simply by cheating when it comes to counting the votes.

In the recent European elections here in the UK, the BNP won a couple of seats. For whose who are unaware, the BNP are a whites-only, right-wing, homophobic and racist party who believe in the absurd notion that to be British involves being white, speaking only English and definitely not being gay.

However, for whatever reason - be it manipulative campaigning or simply a protest vote amongst a low turnout - they did win enough votes to win two seats and much as I find their policies and personalities abhorrent in the extreme, I cannot deny them the right to represent if they are duly elected.

There is no hint that any deception was involved in the electoral process to enable the BNP to win those seats. Even amongst the most cynical of serious observers of the political process here in the UK, there is a belief that a vount cast is a vote counted even if there is strong disagreement with how those votes are transformed into an elected government.

So whilst it may be fashionable at the moment to criticise the first-past-the-post voting system or to rue the fact that the BNP become fairly elected representatives I think it's important to remember that whatever crinkles in our electoral system there may be, when you cast a vote on polling day, you can be safe in the knowledge that your vote is counted, and that - in simple terms - getting the most votes means that you win the election - and not getting enough votes means you lose.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Space

Today was the launch day of the Herschel and Planck satellites (I have as much trouble spelling the word satellite as I do spelling the word disposable!). I followed it on twitter. It's the first time I've followed anything happening that quickly on twitter and the excitement of the teams was very clearly shining through in their tweets during the hour or so from just before launch to first signal from the satellites once in space.

Of course, the satellites have a long way to travel. L2 is a long way from earth, and even travelling at that many kilometres per second, it's going to take a while to get there.

To paraphrase the wonderful Carl Sagan from the opening line of his book "Cosmos"...

"Space is big"

It's enormous. And it's got a lot of stuff in it. No matter which direction you look in, there will be an enormous amount of stuff laid out in front of you. Some of it you can see, and some of it you can't. But that doesn't mean it's not there - simply that it's so far away that your eyes can't quite make it out.

Personally, I find it impossible to think about space without feeling a certain sense of awe. There's so much of it, and so little of it we know about - and even littler of it that we've explored in any detail.

Pluto is, in cosmological terms, really not that far away. It's small, admittedly, but it's only in recent years that we have known what colour the surface is. Even now, we know that there's a darker bit around the middle of Pluto but aren't quite sure what it is.

I guess the whole field holds a certain romantic interest for me. Staring into space is, literally, staring into a great unknown and I find that fascinating. Who knows what new discoveries - in the field of physics, or even biology, lie out there just beyond our reach.

Watching the rocket take the satellites up today is watching an enormous engineering achievement. Making something that big go that fast, and that high, is an achievement of great cost both in terms of the money spent to build - and in the time and brain power spent to design it. But we have gone nowhere in space yet. If the Earth is our home, then we haven't thrown our footballs any further than our own back garden yet - and in terms of where we've walked; we've not even stepped off the patio by the back door.

There probably is other life in the universe. But, when talking on the scale of time and space of the universe, the word "is" doesn't really make sense. There probably was, or will be, life elsewhere in the universe - but if that life ever does send a signal to us, the civilisation which sent it will undoubtedly be long gone before we receive it. They may have sent the telegram, but they are all dead and gone before it arrives - let alone before we have chance to reply.

But maybe I'm being pessimistic. Maybe our understanding of physics is limited, and maybe there are some loopholes in the prevention of faster-than-light travel which we've yet to find but which may already have been cracked and exploited somewhere out there.

I bought a telescope recently. I'm not expecting to see little green men waving at me when I look down it. Nor am I expecting to glimpse the bumper sticker of a spaceship making its retreat after a vacation on Earth. But I am expecting to see Jupiter. And Saturn. And Mars. And for me, that is enough. For now :-)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What does it mean to be disposable..?

Last night, I was considering what it means to be disposable. We're all familiar with the concept of disposable razors, disposable pens and disposable nappies - but what would it mean to have a disposable mobile phone, or a disposable computer?

Disposable means, in the purest sense, something which can be thrown away - but of course, anything can be thrown away so that's not a good definition.

How about if we look at those things which are designed to be thrown away rather than repaired. Well that applies to almost everything we have in our homes - we don't tend to repair a rug if it gets worn, yet we wouldn't describe a rug as disposable.

You can buy razors which you sharpen or replace the blades in. You can buy pens to which you add more ink when they are empty. And you can buy nappies you put in the washing machine rather than throw away. So maybe the distinction lies in the fact that rather than spend extra money on the item in question (by replacing a part of it, or by washing it) you simply throw it away and buy another one.

In order for this to work, disposable things have to be cheap - and maybe we should define disposability in terms of the cost of the item rather than by its intended lifespan. If an item is so cheap that when it's exhausted/used it is cheaper to buy a new one than to repair it, then we could describe the item as disposable.

But even that doesn't quite work. For instance, in IKEA you can buy six wine glasses more cheaply than you can buy six plastic disposable wine glasses. But you wouldn't think of throwing away the glass ones when you'd finished with them after a party - even though the economics would suggesting that you could.

Even describing something as disposable if you use it once and throw it away has problems. Would you describe teabags as disposable?

So I'm still confused by this, and I'm afraid I'm not going to propose an answer this time around.

I was planning to write out my thoughts on disposable mobile phones - but as yet, I don't know what that would mean - so it's going to have to wait...

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I do stupid things

I like to think of myself as relatively bright. I can prove that pi is irrational or do a cryptic crossword.

So why do I do stupid things?

I'm not talking about making mistakes - that's only human - but there are some things which run contrary to everything I know to be true - yet I can't help myself from believing them.

Don't worry - this isn't going to turn into anything deep, although it was heading in that direction.

Earlier this evening, I cooked myself some lamb. The oven needed to be hot, but not at the maximum temperature. I know how thermostats work, and I know how ovens use thermostats to keep at the correct temperature. Yet, if I want the oven at 180, I still turn it up to 220 in the hope that it'll heat up more quickly. I know it doesn't work. I know that. But it doesn't stop me doing it.

Censorship

It's long been a problem for those who run shops to strike a balance between catering to the widest possible market and running the risk of causing offence to others.

Most recently, it's been Apple who've been in the news for trying to strike this balance. In one case banning The Sun newspaper and in another refusing an entry to the App Store from a pop group.

And of course, before that, there was the case of the application which involved shaking your phone until the baby stopped crying.

Whilst one could question the mind of someone who's write such an application, we shouldn't let emotion come in the way of deciding whether it's the place of the App Store to dictate the content of the applications being sold.

This isn't an Apple-specific problem, of course, it's just that they have had the most recent examples - maybe by virtue of having the highest profile App Store for mobile.

Those who take a conservative line on the censorship of applications being sold online would point to the fact that adult books are not sold in a children's book store. But the point is that a children's book store is designed for children and so it would not only be inappropriate, but wouldn't make sense, to stock adult books. Maybe a more striking example is how newsagents manage to stock both jars of sweets, freezers full of ice-cream, comic books - and a top-shelf full of adult magazines.

It's not only a metaphor to say that the children don't see the adult magazines in this case, it's literally true. They are available, but only in a place where those who should not access them cannot see them.

Of course, an application store (or a video store, or a music shop) is not designed solely for children, and so there will inevitably be material therein which is deemed inappropriate for children to see. So how to deal with that? And whose problem is it?

In recent years, here in the UK, there has been a discussion around what it means to be a publisher in the digital age. First it was child pornography which was the catalyst for the discussion and more recently it's been terrorist information. But the argument was the same in both cases - if an ISP (or server hosting company, or whatever) has some material on their servers which is inappropriate (or even illegal) then are they acting as the publisher of the information, and hence are they responsible for its content?

But I believe that the answer lies in the top-shelf approach where the magazines which may cause offence are wrapped in brown paper and kept out of the way of those who don't want to see them. At some point, we have to allow the user to decide the content they want on their phone rather than trying to mandate a set of morals on behalf of the server from which they download the applications.

Of course, the example of a baby-shaking application is extreme, but it would be easy to extend the argument to less extreme - but still contentious - issues. There are the issues they say you should never discuss with strangers - religion and politics - which are guaranteed to polarise opinion. If a political party created an application to run on your phone, then should this be included in the application store? What if that party was the British National Party? What if a religious organisation created an application to be run on mobile devices? Would which religion the organisation belonged to influence your thinking on whether the application should be published or not?

To know where to draw the line is difficult. Almost everyone could think of where they would draw the line, but that line would fall in a different place to the next person to asked, which would in turn fall in a different place to the line of the next person. No matter where you draw the line between "acceptable" and "unacceptable" you will find yourself being attacked by those who feel it's in the wrong place.

But why draw the line at all? It's a decision to be made early in the process of opening a shop - be it online or offline - as randomly applied censorship can generate worse publicity than taking either a very liberal or very conservative approach (as Apple are discovering at the moment). Is it acceptable for an online store to make it clear that they take no responsibility for the content of the applications they are selling?

Morally, I think it is acceptable - but I don't think it works that ideally in a commercial world. There are competing pressures here. The market for violent/adult computer games is enormous yet hanging a sign saying "some of the things I sell are suitable for adults only" on the front door of your shop may turn away customers who would otherwise have come in to buy more innocent wares. Again, I believe in the top-shelf approach - in pure commercial terms, the business lost to those who refuse to patronise your business because of some of your wares no matter how well you segregate it will be outweighed by the extra business you will gain from stocking the extra items.

So, to return finally to the moral stance - is it acceptable to make money from material which is deemed offensive? Ultimately the answer is "no" - in my mind anyway - yet it's important to remember that whilst almost everyone would agree that an application which involves shaking a baby to stop it crying is on the wrong side of the line, the exact positioning of the line will be different for almost everyone you talk to...

Friday, April 17, 2009

...and it stopped, short, never to go again when the old man died.

Clocks stop when people die. It happened to Richard Feynman's wife. However, he wasn't the sort to believe that the two events were connected in any supernatural way. A quick Google on the subject will lead you to numerous accounts of his earthly explanation for what actually happened.

My problem is less about clocks stopping, and more to do with earphones becoming muffled.

I listen to a lot of music. Every day, I spend about 45 minutes each way on the walk to/from work listening to music from my phone.

I have a problem finding earphones which don't fall out of my ears as I'm walking - I probably have especially slippery ears, or weirdly shaped ears - who knows. In any case, I've found several sets now which don't fall out.

However, within a couple of months, every set I have suffers the same problem. It's happened to earphones from Bose, Sennheiser and even the cheap £4.99 ones from Dixons.

After a couple of months, the left earpiece becomes muffled. The right one is fine, but the left one has almost all of the treble missing. I've tried putting the left ear-piece into my right ear just to check that it's not my left ear at fault, and it still sounds muffled compared with the right-hand earpiece.

So there is obviously something about my left ear which causes this to happen to earphones from different manufacturers and of different designs.

I know the explanation isn't supernatural; but I'm out of ideas on this one. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Comeback failures

The story is a familiar one. A TV series finishes, a band breaks up or a writer stops writing. Then, ten years later, then either the royalties have stopped pouring in, or old hatchets have been buried, the cast/band/writer gather themselves together and decide to have a comeback.

I'm not talking about an artist taking a couple of years between albums (which the press now seem to deem a comeback) but I'm talking about The Eagles recording "Hell Freezes Over" or Pink Floyd playing at Live8. I'm also talking about "Red Dwarf: Back To Earth" which was shown on Dave here in the UK over this weekend.

More often that not, the result of a comeback is not an incredible return to form. And certainly the new work very rarely reaches the expectations of the fans who are clamouring for the return in the first place.

This weekend was a case in point. Red Dwarf: Return to Earth certainly wasn't diabolical. It had a good central idea, and a few good jokes. But it certainly wasn't the glorious return of an old friend which it had been billed as. It may have worked as an episode in the middle of a series ten years ago (in fact, if you've seen the episode "Back To Reality" then you may argue that the plot may already had appeared in a series a few years ago...).

There is a reason why groups split up. Sometimes it's because of internal differences and sometimes it's because their creativity is spent. And I'd argue that quite often the former is as a result of the tension which ensues from the latter.

Generally the nostalgia for what used to be (what other kind of nostalgia is there?) can sustain a group for a greatest hits tour, or a special of a TV series but it's rare for that to carry forwards into a successful new album, or a successful new series. The only two examples I can think of in recent years are Doctor Who and Take That. (I could write at length on the former, and hardly at all on the latter.)

It makes me have respect for ABBA, the cast of Blackadder, the cast of Fawlty Towers and a few others I could mention who are quite happy to be interviewed about the past, but resist calls (and enormous sums of money) to get the show on the road again.

One of the guys from ABBA, quoting Robert Plant - I think, once said if ABBA were to go on tour now, they would be a tribute act covering their own songs. It's just a shame that a few others don't see that...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Well well well – it’s been a while

It’s Easter already – it’s amazing just how quickly this year is flying by.  It may be Easter Sunday, but I have so far managed to keep my chocolate cravings at bay and only flirted slightly with them by giving in to the temptation of a hot chocolate in Victoria Park earlier today.

Since I last wrote in here, I’ve decided to give Twitter a go again.  I tried a long while ago, but ran out of steam after writing a few tweets.  I’ve tried to embed a twitter thing in this page, so hopefully you can see some of my Tweets are you’re reading this, but if you can’t, you’ll find me at http://www.twitter.com/dan_mcneil 

You can follow me on twitter too, if you like – I’m not ashamed to beg for people to follow me so I can look popular… ;-)

I’m finding Twitter quite interesting.  I think it’s harder to be funny/interesting/whatever in just a hundred-and-something characters compared with the endless space given over to writing in here.  Let’s see whether I manage it.  I promise to avoid writing tweets along the lines of “I am having my breakfast” and other such random drivel.  I shall try to make every one interesting.  “Try” being the operative word there.

Friday, March 27, 2009

I'm rarely riled these days. I tend to let life wash over me and avoid getting too het about anything if I can avoid it. But this morning, whilst lying half-awake watching breakfast TV in bed, a story caught my eye which was interesting. And then an "expert" in the studio riled me to the point of turning the television off in disgust.

One of my pet hates is "bad science". Ben Goldacre writings both in print and in the Guardian are worth seeking out if you've never read them. But they're probably not the best read if you are a follower of alternative medicine.

Anyway, back to the story. NCP (who run the car parks) are going to start piping smells into the stairwells of their carparks in order to stop them developing the smell with which we're all too familiar in car park stairwells. Good idea. However, a botanist and smell expert (!) is quoted as saying the following on the BBC website, which is pretty much identical to what he said on BBC Breakfast this morning...

"Urine and vomit contact harmful bacteria that can make us ill, so our bodies reaction is to protect us from them, so your body tells our smell sensors to avoid them.
"And in the same way, fresh flowers and baked bread contain good bacteria that are good for our bodies, so our smell sensors enjoy them and tell us they're good for us."

He's got a point. Over evolutionary time, the human species (and others, of course) has developed a sense of smell and the brain has developed the short codes "good" and "bad" to warn us away from harmful things, and tempt us towards nourishing or otherwise beneficial things. That is "good science".

However, I really don't for one second believe that bread smells nice because of the good bacteria in it. In fact, I would argue that fresh flowers don't contain that many good bacteria either (I wonder whether Activia get their biffidus digestivum by scraping tulips in spring?). I don't know the authoritatively correct reason for why we perceive flowers as smelling nice - but I could take a guess that it's something to do with flowers growing in similar places to food, or something equally sensible. I am absolutely sure it's nothing to do with flowers containing good bacteria.

It's not so much that people believe such twaddle (or indeed, are paid to spout it) but the fact that the BBC put this "expert" on the TV and he spoke with authority and it's perfectly possible that most of the people watching will believe what he says and that's what irritates me.

Rant over. Sorry about that. I must stop watching TV, it's bad for me.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

If uPnP is the answer...

... then I'm not sure I want to know what the question was!

The question - of course - is how I get music onto my N78.

But, a diversion today from the world of mobile devices, and a delve into the world of popular music. After a few months of relatively sparse gig attendance, we've got a few interesting tickets lined up for this summer. Pet Shop Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Blur, AC/DC and even Michael Jackson feature in my diary for the summer months this year.

The Michael Jackson was an obvious one to me. Someone like Michael Jackson has, somewhere in him, the capacity to put on a fantastic gig. Regardless of the other weirdness and controversy around him over the past few years, there was a time when he produced some amazing music and put on some amazing concerts. Time may have changed him in some respects, but he is still the same person who wrote Thriller and produced the album Dangerous, and to my mind, 75 pounds is a small price to pay for the chance to see him recapature that genius. And it's not an enormous sum of money to lose if he fails.

Talking of pop music, I bought the latest album by Pet Shop Boys the other day. Well, I guess in the interests of honesty I should say that it was bought for me - but that's unimportant :-)

The album has been produced by (and co-writted in places with) Xenomania, the Brian Higgins collective of perfect pop producers. I read a review of the album yesterday which claimed that you couldn't discern the Xenomania influence on the music and couldn't disagree more. The driving pop beats behind some of the tracks couldn't have come from anywhere else other than Xenomania.

That's not a complaint, by the way, merely an observation.

But despite the obvious influence of Xenomania, the album is undeniably Pet Shop Boys. It's pretentious in a slightly self-mocking way and contains lyrics of the most improbably ingenuity.

I have a slight sense of disappointment though that they called a track Pandemonium and missed the trick to make it more pretentious by spelling it Pandæmonium...

As an aside, I actually prefer the latter spelling anyway...

One of the things that Pet Shop Boys have done throughout the years is to set themselves up for weird rhymes. They were never afraid to end a line with "Crimea" or to invoke the simply divine pairing of "elephant" and "supplicant" as a rhyming pair. But the all time prize for weird rhyming in my music collection has to go to Dolly Parton (yes, really!) for a track on Backwoods Barbie which opens with the line "My heart is as heavy as an anvil" as the first half of a rhyming pair.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Loosing the shackles around my data

I've recently started a new job, and one of the things which comes along with a job in the mobile industry is a mobile phone. I've always felt uneasy about the need to install "special software" onto my laptop in order to share data between it and my mobile device. It's a symptom of the modern world, I believe, that my heart drops whenever I open a package containing any new piece of technology and find a CD with software which is vital in order for me to use the product fully. And I'm no different when I open the box of my shiny new mobile phone.

But, of course, the world has changed and these days it’s not so much a question as having your data shared between computer and mobile device, but of having your data accessible wherever you are and from whatever device you happen to be using. The actual location of the data is largely unimportant these days. My contacts list and email archives live somewhere on the internet. I know the URLs to find them, but I would have to do some research in order to find out on which continent sits the disk drive containing the data itself. But it doesn’t matter to me. As long as I can get at the data, and I can stop other people getting at the data I don’t really care where it resides.

So, with this in mind, I have set myself a challenge that I want to use my phone fully, accessing all my data in ways which is convenient to me, but without having to connect it to anything other than the mobile network. If my data is on a device connected to the internet, and my phone is connected to the internet, then why should I need to use any other device (be it a computer, a USB cable or even a Bluetooth dongle) to access the data from my device?

In the box along with my new phone came a CD of software to install onto my computer, and a USB cable to use to plug the phone into the computer. I don’t intend to use either.

I have to admit, to my surprise, that the experiment is going rather well so far.


E-Mail

Email was the first challenge - and quite an easy one, as I've done this many times before. It wasn't a difficult job at all to get both personal and work email accessible on my device. There are many ways to get GMail onto a mobile device - you can use the built-in mail client, or you can install the GMail application onto your phone, or you can simply use the web browser on your device to access the mobile site. I decided to use the pre-installed messaging app on the phone for several reasons.

I like to have my data in one place. If I receive a message from someone, whether it’s a text message or an email, I want to see that in one place. To have some email messages on the device somewhere other than the messaging application seems illogical to me. The clue is in the name.

So, a bit of IMAP wizardry later and I have both my personal and work email happily accessible on my device. Regular automated polling of the servers can get the message to me quickly enough and was a doddle to set up on the device. It was an easy opener, but I think that’s one nil to me in my quest.


Contacts

This is a challenge I've never undertaken before. Contacts information is, to me, more precious than messages. Messages are an ephemeral piece of someone's thoughts dropped into your inbox. Anything in the message which is more long lived, you can take out of the message and put somewhere else (I'm not an advocate as using ones inbox as a document library, as you can tell). Your address book is not ephemeral, it is a collection of the people you know and the information is not easily replaced – how do you call someone to ask them for their phone number?

In the past I've treated my contact information with extreme respect, and the closest I've got to allowing software access to it has been to plug my old mobile phone into my PC with a USB cable and sync that way. So it was with some trepidation that I configured OTA contacts sync in the contacts app on my new phone. It's a sign of my nervousness that I tried to set the sync profile to "one way" so that it could not do anything to the contacts on the device. But sadly, the server I am using only supports "two way" sync. But still – with a gulp - I trusted the technology and let it sync.

Duplication of some data is unavoidable when first reconciling two address books. If I have "joebloggs@gmail.com" in my internet-based address book and I have "Joe Bloggs: 07770 555 123" in my phone and the software has no way to tell that they are the same person. However, it took me under ten minutes to sort out all such duplicates thanks to Google's ability to merge contacts by selecting multiple contacts and clicking a single button. With my new-found confidence in the process I sync’d the resulting database back to the phone.

So there we have it – the same contacts list accessible on my phone and my computer. Result!


Calendar

The calendar information may be as important to respect as contact information, but it also has an element of time criticality which is missing from contacts data. If I want to find "Joe Bloggs" in my phone to call him, and he's not there, then I can initiate a sync and then call him when he appears. If there is no 10am meeting with Joe Bloggs in the calendar on my phone then there no way for me to know that I should've sync'd my calendar at 9.55am to know that I should be meeting him.

Of course, there is a latency associated with any sync solution but with calendar, the delay can be critically important. But the fact that it’s a calendar can help us out here.

Being a calendar, the data has some in-built time. You don't need to get a calendar update as soon as it happens; you only need to know that the update will be there in time for you to act upon it. In some ways, calendar information is less time critical than messaging information. It’s no coincidence that future meetings are arranged in a calendar, but the closer to the time you get, the more likely people will start texting you to sort out the details!

So, if I have a 10am meeting, it's probably enough for me to know at the beginning of the working day where I need to be that day and when. I’m happy for the moment to rely on having my mobile calendar updated at the start of every day, and then handling any changes to that day’s schedule via messages during the. It’s just a shame that the solution I have doesn’t allow for automated sync (unlike messaging where I can easily configure the device to check for updates regularly) but I still have my calendar on my device without using a USB cable.


The other stuff

Initially, I had thought that was all I needed to set up on my device. I don't think I had realised just how much I relied on the USB cable which came with my previous device to get stuff from my phone. There are two other ways in which I use my phone extensively - to take photos and to listen to music. Both require the transfer of data to and from the phone and both have relied on the USB cable in the past.

The only reason I get the pictures onto my computer is to share them with the world. In effect, I'm transferring them from one internet-connected device to another internet-connected device just to publish them on the internet. Why would I do that?

Well one reason is cost and the other is speed. My computer at home is connected to a high-speed, fixed cost internet connection whereas my phone is connected at a fairly fast speed to a relatively low cost internet connection. Whilst that's nearly the same, it's enough of a difference that I've been driven in the past to use my computer as a gateway to the internet.

I don't take many photos using my phone and each resulting file is relatively small. So I should be able to use the fact that my phone is connected to the internet to simply publish photos directly from my phone. So, this morning, I created myself a Flickr account through which to share my mobile pictures and used the built-in software on the phone to upload directly to that Flickr account.

Finally, my collection of mp3 files poses a larger problem. There are tens of thousands of files, and I want to change which selection of those files are on my phone regularly. Each file is of the order of a few megabytes and the files don’t live anywhere freely accessibly on the internet.

I would love the ability to upload all of my music to a server somewhere which I can then access from my device. I could play the tracks I want instantly, and wouldn’t have to incur large data charges for the privilege. I would want to control which tracks I listen to when and to add new music to the library as and when I wish.

So, in essence, until there’s a service which hosts a copy of every version of every track ever recorded and has a user database recording which tracks you have access to and which you don’t. Or a service which would give me instant access to my music library at home from my mobile device without unacceptable delay in retrieving tracks and without incurring unacceptable data usage charges, I think I’m stuck with using my computer as the information gateway for this one.

But, I’ve bought myself a memory card to use to store the tracks and move them from the computer to the phone – the only other would be to use the USB cable, and we can’t have that, can we

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

If you want to realise the true insignificance of yourself in the Universe, then look up

I looked at the sky this evening. It's amazing. At the moment, I'm not in London - which is where I usually find myself - and so the sky is not quite so obscured with yellow light. I'm not in the middle of the countryside here - it's in a fairly urban area.

And yet, as a plane leaving Liverpool Airport was flying overhead, the trail of the plane was just at the right place in the sky to reflect the moonlight, giving a single white line across the dark blue sky. To the other side of the moon, the clouds had formed a lovely pattern which, again, was reflecting the moonlight back at me giving a wispy form across the other side of the sky.

Turning around, I could see stars which in London are hidden behind a fog of ambient light leaking from the sprawling conurbation polluting the beauty of the Universe and hiding it behind a fog of our creation.

I guess my reading material recently has what inspired me to look upwards and see what's up there in the sky - I've been reading a lot of books on cosmology - but I've not seen so many stars since I used to live in the countryside when I used to sometimes go up the Malvern Hills as dark was falling, and just look at the stars.

I saw Orion this evening, which I've not picked out of the sky for many years. I saw some other groups of stars which I don't know the constellation names for - but it was beautiful anyway.

London is one of the most exciting places in the world to live, but it's a shame that to live there, one has to give up one of the most beautiful views that there is...

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Terror on the number 45 to Ilford

I had a dream the other night, so vivid and with such a narrative that I’ve decided to subtitle it - “Terror on the number 45 to Ilford”.

Basically, it involved a mad bus driver driving a bus very badly along roads, across pavements and down alleyways and eventually driving under scaffolding too low for the bus and taking the roof off in the process.

Most entertaining.

Britney Spears started her tour last week – how thrilling for us all.  And, of course, the entire thing (or almost the entire thing, depending who you believe) was mimed along to a backing track.  Meaning that you didn’t actually hear a single word she “sang” if you went to the concert.  Call me insane, but that’s not a concert is it?  That’s someone dancing around for a couple of hours mouthing their mouth in time to the words.

Miming in concert is one of my pet hates.  I don’t see any excuse for it at all.  If you can’t dance and sing at the same time, then get some dancers to dance around you.  If you can’t hit the same notes you hit in the studio then either drop the key of the song, or rearrange it slightly.  And if you can’t sing at all, and rely entirely on studio technology to create the melody line – then don’t call yourself a singer and pretend to go on tour!

Partly, of course, there is the desire nowadays to hear a perfectly recreated version of the studio track on-stage and whilst that is almost always possible to achieve, it’s quite complicated and expensive to cart all that extra equipment and expertise around the world with you on tour.  But the answer is obvious – don’t try to sound exactly like the studio record.

If you go to the theatre to see a play.  Let’s presume it’s an adaption of a film you’ve also seen.  Then you’re prepared to accept that the sweeping mountain view in the background will be a painted backdrop and not actually the mountains you saw in the film.  You’re so caught up in the drama (presuming it’s a good production) that it doesn’t matter.  And the same is true of music – if the concert is good, then you should not care that there are slightly fewer guitar parts than on the record, or that the harmonies aren’t quite as intricate. If you want to hear the studio version, then listen to the CD (or MP3).

There is another element to this, of course, and that’s the curse of celebrity.  The strange desire some people have to just “see” someone “famous”.  I don’t understand it, but even I haven’t felt it myself sometimes.  There is sometimes the desire to just “see” someone famous.  But I guess that’s the product of a society in which we are starting to celebrate people for who they are rather than what they do.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Never a cross word

Does anyone else remember Crosswits with Tom O’Connor?  Or am I showing my age?

Anyway, this Saturday’s Prize Crossword in The Guardian was compiled by Enigmatist who I have to say is one of my least favourite compilers.

The Guardian, unlike some other UK papers, including The Times, gives credit to the compiler of a particular puzzle by name, and the editorial policy on crosswords allows each compiler to have an individual style.  Papers such as The Times run the crosswords through the central editorial machine and try to ensure consistency across every day.

In a way, that makes The Guardian more interesting a challenge but also makes it more varied an experience.

Enigmatist produces relatively few puzzles compared with other compilers – Araucaria producing almost as many as the other compilers put together it seems! – but when he goes, my heart sinks.   It’s not that the clues are hard – they are, by the way – it’s that there is no variation in the difficulty of the clues.

A crossword should not be an attempt by the compiler to outwit the solver forever.  It should be an attempt to keep the solver occupied for some time whilst posing some difficult challenges on the way.

An Enigmatist crossword doesn’t have the easier clues to give you a foothold on the solution that some other compilers give.  Araucaria is a master at making some clues simple to solve (but still clever in their construction) whilst writing some other which keep you puzzling much longer.  And in that lies the greatness of a crossword compiler.

Araucaria is rather too keen on themed crosswords, though.  Whilst it is no doubt a feat of ingenuity to fit that many capital cities into the grid when designing the puzzle, it renders it somewhat uninteresting for the solver to simply run through a list of the capital cities they can think of and pattern match them to the clues.

Several weeks ago in The Guardian, there was a puzzle themed around “Famous Belgians” which I found particularly unsatisfying.  Once the theme had been attained, it was simply a case of thinking of famous people from Belgium and fitting them into the grid and then retro-fitting the clue to the answer.

A really good crossword should have clever (but fair) clues which engage the brain for a short period of time, but ultimately the odds must eventually be stacked in favour of the solver.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Things that don’t go bump in the night…

Ghosts are weird.  The number of otherwise rational people who believe in ghosts is astounding.  But several things trouble me about ghosts, and lead me to conclude that they don’t exist.

Firstly, nobody has ever captured a ghost on film, or on tape, or provided any evidence of ghostly activity which isn’t explained in some other way.  Of course, photos have appeared on the internet (and long before the internet) purporting to show ghosts captured on film (or on CCD these days, I guess).

Time was that double exposure of the film was the main cause – that is to say that the shutter is opened twice to put two images into one space on the film – so when the film is developed, you get a ghostly second image appearing.  But that doesn’t happen with digital cameras, of course.  What has happened with digital cameras is that so-called “orbs” are now much more common.

Orbs are believed to be the first stage of manifestations of spirits – by some people. The rest of us know that it’s just a minute dust particle reflecting some of the light from the flash back at the lens of the camera.

Of course, the biggest cause of paranormal sightings is the human mind.  I’ve mentioned in here before the way in which the human brain (and indeed the brains of other animals) like to spot patterns everywhere.  That also means spotting patterns where in reality no such pattern exists – the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast or Elvis Presley appearing in the clouds for instance.   It’s a shame that flock wallpaper isn’t in fashion anymore because it’s a great way to see this for yourself.  If you stare at a wallpaper with a regular and not-too-big pattern for a while, you’ll start to see patterns, maybe even faces, staring back at you. 

Ghostly activity is reputedly most common between 12am and 3am.  This is also the time that most people are half-asleep and that the house is pretty quiet except for the noise of creaking floorboards and ticking clocks.  Strange that.

Try lying in bed at night and listening to the noises in your home.  There will be some.  You may tell yourself that it’s quiet, but you will hear clocks ticking in the distance, you will hear things creaking as they shrink back slightly as the whole place cools down.  From outside you’ll hear gusts of wind and the distant noise of traffic.  The human head is not set up for determining the distance away from you of sounds.  The rustle of a duvet against the end of the bed from your moving around in bed may sound like it’s actually a louder rustling noise coming from outside the bedroom door.  The ticking of a clock may start to sound like distant footsteps up the stairs.

Of course, once you’ve heard/seen something you perceive to be spooky, and if you’re a believer in such things, you’ll start to subconsciously look for things to back that up.  And so begins a spiral into a world where a cool breeze blowing through the crack in an ill-fitted door becomes the manifestation of a long-dead relative.

It’s a shame that ghosts don’t exist though.  A true ability to connect to the spirit world would be an astonishingly useful historical tool and would be invaluable to the police.  But, I hear you say, the police already use psychics to successfully solve mysteries.

All of the evidence suggests that psychics have no ability to read minds or talk to the dead.  It’s perfectly possible to recreate some astonishingly convincing effects which may convince you that they do have real abilities without any recourse to the supernatural.  You can, with enough time and patience, learn to read people’s feelings and even make concrete predictions about their life.  And whilst some psychics are simply failed conjurors (Uri Gellar, for instance) some others were no doubt able to do the same tricks without consciously trying.  It means they are gifted in some way – but are they able to talk to the dead – No!

The answer to the above arguments from those who do believe are usually of the “I have a friend who” or even “I once saw” followed by a mocking of your arguments for any way to explain exactly what they saw.  Of course, even human vision and memory are subjective.  I may remember  something completely differently to how you remember it, even though we witnessed exactly the same thing.  Memory is not a record of images, it is a record of feelings and interpretations of images.  When I have more inclination in that direction, there are some good experiments you can do to show this is the case.

So, when you are told that someone “saw their dead relative standing over the bed” there’s no doubt in my mind that such an event is in their memory – but that doesn’t mean that’s how it happened at all.  And once the idea is in someone’s mind that they are being haunted, it’s very hard to convince them otherwise.