Friday, 27 March 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, 25 March 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.

Friday, 20 March 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, 10 March 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, 8 March 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, 2 March 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, 1 March 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.