17 December 2009
Windows Live Writer is free desktop software for writing blogs, created by Microsoft. It's a much quicker way to write, preview and publish blogs than using Blogger's web interface, and it's compatible with a wide range of blog publishing systems (including Wordpress). I was impressed at how it imported my blog template to provide a fast and realistic preview.
But, and this is a big but, it cannot handle the pound sign. If you type it in from the keyboard, it gets converted into typographic junk on the published blog. If you add the correct HTML entity in the HTML mode, it is converted back into the pound character (which does not publish correctly) if you preview or use the visual edit mode. Basically, to fix pound signs, you'll probably have to log in to Blogger (or Wordpress perhaps, if this fault applies there too) to fix it.
It might seem like a minor flaw, but if I'm going to use a tool for blogging, I'd rather use one tool and know it works. I don't want to find I can't write about the currency of my country and many others without engaging in ridiculous workarounds.
A good piece of software has been spoiled by poor testing and internationalisation.
24 October 2009
I was interested to see a story in The Telegraph (and other newspapers) last week claiming that using Google can help to delay dementia. It's based on research from UCLA, presented at the 2009 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, and announced in a press release. I thought this might be a nice piece of trivia to include in my next book Social Networking for the Older and Wiser.
When I studied the press release, though, I was surprised to see that there was no mention of dementia. I asked UCLA whether the dementia angle is something that has come through UCLA interviews, is in the full research report, or is something that the media have added to spin the story. UCLA kindly replied with a copy of the poster (which is what was presented at the event), the abstract and press release. The researchers confirmed that the information presented at the meeting followed the content of those, which make no mention of dementia.
The research is fascinating, and did find first-time internet users experienced more brain activity in the areas associated with working memory and decision making. "The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults," said Teena D. Moody, the study's first author and a senior research associate at the Semel Institute at UCLA. But there's no speculation regarding dementia in the released materials.
There's a gap here between what the study appeared to discover, and what the headlines screamed (at about 20 publications, including the Daily Mail). I'm no scientist, but if the dementia angle were true, I would have expected to see it in the press release. Apart from how much easier it would make it to promote the research, tapping into a major health concern helps research bodies to attract funding.
If the source isn't UCLA, how did so many outlets get the same angle? It's possible they pulled it from the same syndicated content which is how several newspapers came to quote a fake David Milliband Twitter feed when Michael Jackson died. It's also possible that they're watching each others' websites all day, and one over-eager sub bigged up the story, and all the others followed suit. Maybe they have an alternative source (including other scientific publications), although it's odd they haven't mentioned it. I can't trace a credible source using the dementia angle.
What bothers me most, though, is this: I consume hundreds of news stories a week. When I take the time to actually dig into one of them (I've probably spent about an hour on this), it proves extremely difficult to back it up. None of us has time to check a tiny fraction of the stories out there.
08 July 2009
The news is out that Google is going after Microsoft by launching a rival to Windows. Google's Chrome OS has been engineered to work seamlessly with the web, and will likely integrate with Google's online email and document applications. Google is rather bravely claiming that there will be no viruses or malware. That's a dangerous strategy, because the moment there's a proof of concept virus, their credibility is shot.
The OS might turn out to be a great product. But it's hard to imagine it quickly unseating Microsoft. The switching costs are likely to be too high because people will only be able to switch to Chrome by buying new hardware. The Google brand is powerful, but can it persuade people to buy something that isn't Windows if that's all they've ever known?
There's also the problem of shifting towards online applications. If your data is all online, what happens if the service provider goes under or has an outage? I've had occasion to contact tech support for two social networks while I've been researching my book and the support was uncooperative, to say the least. They're free services and you get what you pay for.
There are a lot of commentators talking about how this is a serious challenge to Microsoft, but I'm not sure that the hype is justified. Why should Google have more success in selling operating systems than Microsoft has had in giving away web searches? How many people have dumped Google to use Bing as their main search engine?
05 June 2009
I've updated my timeline of the history of the internet. It was originally written in 2004 and hadn't been updated since then, so I've now added in the major developments of the last five years. Incredible to think that social media sites like YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook are all less than five years old.
11 February 2009
I've released an ebook edition of my novel 'University of Death'. It costs £5, half the price of the print edition, and is available now at Lulu. There are no shipping costs (obviously), and it is available for download immediately after payment. You can pay using paypal if you don't want to use a credit card.
This move is partly in response to an email from Sven Augustin who says he likes to read ebooks on his hacked PSP on long train journeys because it means there's less stuff to carry around. He uses the Bookr PDF reader.
Clearly, the way that people choose to consume content is changing. Nintendo recently released 100 Classic Book Collection for the Nintendo DS. It includes a library of many books you know you probably ought to read, but it's a shame there's no option to read PDFs of your own choice. Amazon's Kindle ebook reader (only available in the US) has made it to a second edition and does offer the ability to read your own PDFs, as well as providing downloadable content. Amazon warns that the PDF conversion is experimental, but it nevertheless creates greater opportunities for authors to distribute their content to Kindle readers. I blogged about some of the problems of distributing Kindle content via Amazon previously.
By providing 'University of Death' as an ebook, I hope I'll be able to give people more options for consuming the content as they wish. It also makes it possible for people to access the content more quickly, and to save money on ordering (no postage or print costs). People who wish to can print their own copies to read on paper.
Pricing ebooks is tricky, but at less than the cost of some music magazines, I think £5 represents fair value for the entertainment provided. People tend to think that there are no costs in ebook publishing, but actually the cost of content creation and promotion is the same as it is for printed books. Feel free to leave any comments on the pricing of ebook below.
16 October 2008
I have mixed feelings about the new DS, which Nintendo has announced for release next year in Europe. On the one hand, it's great that it includes the Opera Browser and the extra memory that requires as standard. The browser is a great tool, but probably was overpriced at £30 - it's a feature people expect to see included nowadays.
The support for SD cards might make it easier for homebrew to run on the device, which would be nice, particularly because it could help to introduce standards that make it easier to get homebrew running. Before we crack open the champagne, though, we should remember that Nintendo's taken a fairly hard line against homebrew in the past. Increasingly there are warnings on games threatening that running unauthorised devices might damage the games, and the new DS introduces region encoding, which hints that other software access controls might also be on the way.
It's also a shame to see the GBA slot go. I've bought a handful of GBA games to play on the DS, particularly retro game cartridges, and it's a real advantage to have access to a different handheld generation's software. Some of the most interesting DS software has used the GBA slot too, such as Guitar Hero (for the fret peripheral), Arkanoid (for the paddle controller available in the US), and My Weight Loss Coach (which has a pedometer that plugs into the GBA slot). The Opera browser also had a memory expansion pack, and Metroid Prime Hunters had a rumble pack (also compatible with Space Invaders Extreme, so I'm told, although since Amazon is taking about three months to deliver my copy, I might never know). That line of innovation will now slam to a halt.
The downloadable content might be good, if it's priced right. There must be a large market for people prepared to pay about a fiver for a retro game, rather than having to pay £15+ for just about anything, and typically around £25 for something good.
There might be some fun new software to emerge from the inclusion of a camera, but generally speaking the DSi feels like a bit of wasted opportunity. The original DS had an exceptional design. I don't think incorporating a couple of weak cameras and enabling music to be played from an SD card is really going to push things that far forward. In order for any improved processing power to make a difference to the software that's designed for the DS family, the DSi will need to first assume market dominance. There doesn't really seem to be sufficient reason to upgrade for most users.
27 September 2008
I've downloaded iTunes 8, mainly for the grid viewing feature. This enables you to view your music collection by thumbnails. You wouldn't think it would make much difference, but it is a lot quicker to scroll through than cover flow view is, and it makes it possible to see more than 10 albums at a time. It makes the artwork into a much stronger navigation aid, and makes the artwork easier to appreciate too. It's already prompted me to play a few EPs that I don't very often listen to. Here's what it looks like:
However, there's a big drawback with iTunes 8. It turns all your music into an advert for the iTunes store. When you are viewing track listings, it adds an arrow next to each artist, album and track name which searches the iTunes store when clicked. In the typical 'list view' screen, you could have about 100 tiny advert arrows. These have always been "a feature" in iTunes, but now they've removed the tickbox that lets you switch them off.
Okay, so the software upgrade was free. But I've bought two new iPods over the years and the software is required to make them work. I've paid enough money to Apple to expect that the software would come 'free' and not become 'ad supported' in future.
From a usability point of view, it's terrible. With 100+ adverts on screen, it's easy to click one by mistake, which results in iTunes connecting (slowly) to the iTunes store and taking you away from whatever you're doing.
Interesting to note that there's no mention of this forced advertising on Apple's What's new page, and that it isn't even shown in the screenshot they have there.
Blog The Glitch has a technical hack for this problem. For some reason, there were two versions of the preference file on my machine, but it worked okay when I edited them both. It did leave the arrows on the current track playing, but you can get rid of those (and indeed all the arrows) by disabling the iTunes store as a whole in the parental options. So that's what I've done, too.
The end result? I'll probably buy a lot less music from Apple. There might be times when I enable the store again to shop there, but most of the music I've bought there has been from browsing through the store and coming across something unexpected. That'll stop. I'll also be much more suspicious of Apple software in general.
15 July 2008
When I got my Amstrad in 1984, it came with one game: Roland on the Ropes. When I finally got an Amstrad emulator running on the Nintendo DS, it was one of the first games I tried. The game seems remarkably easy now, compared to how I struggled with it as a kid. But like many games from the Amstrad era, it plays as well on the handheld as it did on the chunky CPC. There are lots of well-loved games from the 80s that never had an arcade following large enough to justify a commercial remake today, and wrestling with an emulator is probably the only way you'll ever get to play them on the move.
Nintendo doesn't approve of homebrew, as a rule. One reason is that they want a slice of all the game sales revenue, and want to keep some control over quality. Another reason is that if people learn too much about how to copy files to the DS, they might learn a thing or two about piracy along the way. So getting the emulator running wasn't easy.
The first ingredient was Datel's Games'N'Music. This is an unofficial homebrew cartridge, and probably the easiest to get hold of. You can buy Games'N'Music on Amazon and can probably order it in most game shops. It includes software for converting video and MP3s to the DS, and a small selection of homebrew games. If the words 'Cassette 50' mean anything to you, you'll have a rough idea of the kind of standard of game we're talking about. With no disrespect to the authors, who have climbed technical mountains to create some good-looking titles, the games don't really have the kind of complexity you might expect today.
One reason for that is that until recently, software running on Games'N'Music was unable to use the file system. With all homebrew carts, you need to patch the software in so that it knows how to use the file system on the cartridge you're using. A DLDI driver (as it's known) for Games'N'Music wasn't available for the Nintendo DS until last summer. Now that it is available, much more sophisticated homebrew can be run from the cart. Much of the stuff I've tried still doesn't work, but the good news is that an Amstrad emulator does.
The emulator I've used is called CrocoDS. To get it working, you patch it using the DLDI tool, and then copy the emulator software and Amstrad games to a MicroSD card that comes with the Games'N'Music cartridge. This is a simple drag and drop operation using the USB MicroSD reader that comes with Games'N'Music. The MicroSD card then locks into the main Games'N'Music card, which is like a standard NDS cartridge (although mine broke and I've had to tape it to keep it in). To get it working, I had to copy both the emulator software and the games to the root level of the Games'N'Music cartridge.
Then, you're ready to play. The Games'N'Music interface is extremely unresponsive, but if you keep poking the CrocoDS icon, it'll eventually start. And from then on, everything runs smoothly. You can insert .dsk emulator images or .sna memory grabs.
Because of the size of the screen, mode 0 works best (chunky and colourful, as seen on Chuckie Egg and Get Dexter). Mode 1 (Batman, Knight Lore etc) works well, although you might lose some definition. Mode 2 (mostly used for word processing) is virtually illegible. There is an option to view the CPC screen without scaling, but you can't scroll the area viewed, so you lose the right hand side and bottom of the screen.
The sound is faithfully reproduced, although in some games it runs at half speed for some reason. It seems to be the older games that are affected, so I wonder whether it's the games that were developed for the CPC464 that sound odd since the volume parameters changed for the later machines. The strange sound doesn't affect gameplay, in any case.
The touchscreen has a virtual keyboard, including sticky shift and control keys (so you don't have to hold them down while pressing something else). This works fine, including for adventure games. For action games, the most useful feature is the joystick and cursor key emulation on the direction pad. The A button acts as a fire button when the joystick is being emulated. The D-pad doesn't work quite the same as a joystick - the diagonal controls don't seem as smooth, but in most games that won't matter too much.
Because the D-pad can work like the CPC's cursor keys, you should be able to play pretty much any game with a redefine keys option by redefining the keys to the cursor keys. Sadly, there are some games, including one of my favourites Advanced Pinball Simulator, which aren't playable by joystick and don't have a redefine keys option.
This emulator is a fantastic addition to anyone's library. You can play classics such as Jet Set Willy, Chuckie Egg, Manic Miner, Highway Encounter, Android II, Spindizzy, Dizzy, and many more. If I didn't already have a DS, this emulator would be a good enough reason to buy one. It's a bit fiddly getting it working, but it's well worth the effort.
(Read my book about Amstrad CPC programming, download my games and find out how to run Amstrad games on your PC in my Amstrad CPC pages.)
05 July 2008
|What I meant to blog about||What I would have said|
|Sticking Space Invaders to my wall||They look awesome, but it's very fiddly unfurling them if they stick to themselves. Get some but be careful.|
|Seeing David Gilmour and Ron Geesin perform Atom Heart Mother||The extended sections were great and the choir and brass sounded fantastic. It was a thrill to be one of just 900 to witness David Gilmour perform this for the first and probably only time during my own lifetime.|
|Seeing Roger Waters perform Dark Side of the Moon at the O2||Great show, but odd since the star only plays bass on most of it. The solo stuff worked better in many cases. After trying to get a ticket for months and only being offered crap seats, I picked up a first class seat two days before the gig, through Ticketmaster. 'Sold out' gigs are never really sold out.|
|Ripping vinyl||Some great stuff has never been issued on CD, including a lot of Prince 12"s. Being able to move music between media like this and enjoy the sounds I paid for some years ago is a good argument against DRM. Use Audacity.|
|Ripping tapes||Having a tape deck fitted in to your PC is the next big thing. For former walkman fans like me, it's an easy way to digitise all those albums I bought on tape and haven't re-bought on CD yet, and all those home recordings I made. I won my tape deck in a joke competition.|
|Gardening||We've got an allotment now. It started off with knee-high grass all over it, but we're slowly reclaiming it. This year we're growing courgettes, sweetcorn, cabbages, and rhubarb there, and in the garden we have squash, tomatoes and herbs. Cats are evil.|
|The novel World War Z by Max Brooks||This account of the Zombie war is written as a series of interviews with survivors. While the lack of a central hero or recurring character means it jumps around a lot, it is a great way to convey the scale of a planet under siege. An engrossing story, and an interesting format for fiction.|
13 June 2008
I was excited when I heard about Korg developing a synthesiser program for the Nintendo DS, but yesterday I got a chance to see and hear it in action at the London International Music Show. I can confirm it's very cool. It wasn't officially on display on the Korg stand, but a gentleman called Tatsuki was kind enough to demonstrate his own pre-production copy of it, which looked like it had been burned onto a generic homebrew card.
There have been other instruments created for the DS before, but this is arguably the first that has been designed to work for solo performance (unlike Jam Sessions). You can create loops (including basic drum loops), and sequence different patterns to build up more complex pieces of music. Most importantly, you can save your creations to the card. Using wi-fi, you can apparently play with up to eight others and share sounds, although my understanding was that they would need to have their own cards too.
The sound was extremely high quality. It was being amplified through decent speakers at the show, but it sounded crystal clear and much like I'd expect an original MS-10 from 1978 to sound. Not that I have a great idea of what that's supposed to sound like, but I mean that it sounded like an instrument and not like a toy.
The synth appears to use the interface well. When you patch the effects, for example, you touch one socket and drag a cable to another socket to patch them together. The touchpad can be used as a Kaoss pad emulator, which bends the sounds playing according to how you stroke the touchpad, and adds a bit more of a human touch.
Here's my photo from the show:
It's due for launch towards the end of July, but won't be getting a UK launch unfortunately. So I guess I'll have to import it.
If you want to know what it sounds like, check out the sample song on the official website. There were bits in there that sounded like parts of Oxygene.
Speaking of which, the show took place at Excel in Docklands, built on the site where Jean-Michel Jarre held his Docklands concert in 1988. I hadn't been back there in twenty years, and it was strangely moving to see the Millennium Mills building still standing proud on the other side of the docks.
15 April 2008
I blogged about Amazon's Kindle, a new ebook reader, when it launched. But I didn't look at the opportunity for self-publishers then.
So what's the opportunity at Kindle? Not much for me, it seems. You need to have a US postal address and US bank account details before they will let you publish any content. You can't even publish content for free and use Kindle as a promotional outlet (ebooks must be priced between $0.99 and $200, and you still need to be in the US). Given how slow Amazon's been in internationalising other features like Amazon Honor System, none of that is likely to change any time soon.
My friend John went through the motions of setting up a publication anyway, and has blogged about that experience.
There are a couple of terms that might worry some self-publishers. Firstly:
3. Digital Books; Marketing and Promotion. You agree that we may market and promote your Digital Books by making chapters or portions of your Titles available to prospective customers without charge, and permitting prospective customers to see excerpts of the Digital Book in response to search queries. Amazon will not owe you any fees for the marketing and promotional efforts described above. The Program may include features that allow users to print one or more pages of your Titles.The short version of that is: Amazon can distribute content from the book and allow users to print it, without charging for it and without paying you for it.
The 'permission to print' seems to go beyond the deal Amazon's already struck for 'Search inside this book' for promoting printed books on its website. It's essential for authors to give away some preview content to demonstrate the value of their books. Indeed, similar terms are usually a part of a conventional publishing contract. But Amazon's a shop, not a publisher. Authors and publishers should decide what material is promotional, and what material is only available for sale. Amazon wants the right to give away whatever content it wants, albeit with the implied motive that it will try to pick content that will help the book sell.
For reference works, the value could be significantly eroded if Amazon allows excerpts to be printed without any payment. We can only hope that Amazon is working on a way of administering micropayments so that people can buy book excerpts and authors can be rewarded appropriately.
Also, Amazon will keep 65% of the retail price. By comparison, Lulu charges a fee of 25% of what you get (which is then added to the sale price, so it's actually less than 25% of the ebook price). If you're a self-publisher, 35% is probably not too bad a return given that there's no work to do with moving printed books and there's no cost to incur in creating them, but it's far from competitive. It also seems to overstate the costs incurred in operating the infrastructure and underestimate the costs involved in creating content.
10. Technology. You acknowledge that we will be entitled to utilize DRM technology in connection with the distribution of Digital Books but are not obligated to do so. Accordingly, there may be no technology or other limitation imposed by us on copying or transfer of any Digital Book we distribute.Personally, I don't approve of digital rights management technology. But when publishers are selling ebooks, they'll want to know what rights they're licensing and what controls will be used to enforce them and this term seems somewhat vague. There 'might or might not be DRM' isn't really a good basis for making a decision about whether you want to sell through Amazon, particularly if piracy or consumer rights is something you feel strongly about.
The use of the words 'irrevocable licence' set off alarm bells, but it seems this is about protecting consumers and ensuring that they will be able to download content they've bought easily in future. The irrevocable licence does not extend to making the ebook available for sale (so you can withdraw it later).
If anyone's actually self-publishing through Amazon Kindle, I'd be interested in hearing about your results in the comments.
20 March 2008
In my novel, a major record label conspires to sell computer-generated music, tailored for each customer's taste, by using spyware on fans' computers. Over the course of the writing project, it seemed the story was slowly coming true: first Sony BMG was caught putting software on music CDs which was widely considered to be spyware, and then I found Trust Media's ecommerce system that enables fans to create and buy unique mixes of songs.
Mass customisation, or industrialised personalisation, is something I've been following with interest for many years. When I first wrote about it in 2000 for Personal Computer World magazine, a lot of the applications were quite gimmicky. You could have a few letters of your choice put onto training shoes, for example. In some cases, you got the impression that the web was used as an interface for specifying the product, with mostly manual work going on behind it later.
Now, mass customisation technology is widely used and highly automated - if you buy a Dell computer, or a t-shirt from cafepress, or upload photos for printing and delivery by post, you're using a kind of mass customisation. Indeed, my novel is printed using a mass customisation technology, where each copy is printed on demand, even if they're not personalised for each customer.
Frank Piller, professor of management at the Technology & Innovation Management Group of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, has been documenting and defining the area of mass customisation and co-creation for over ten years. I'm delighted that he's conducted an interview with me about the customisation aspects of my novel for his blog. The interview reveals more about what happens in the story than previous interviews have, and also looks at how mass customisation has been applied in the music industry already.
While you're there, check out the other stories on Frank's site: he reports regularly on new applications for mass customisation, and publishes a free email newsletter.
University of Death:
Download the first two chapters | Author interview | Buy now
27 November 2007
Amazon's launch of an ebook reader is a smart strategic move: beat the competition by becoming the competition. The company sells most things nowadays, but built its fortune on book retailing and has since used its technology expertise to branch into search engines, distributed processing and micropayments. The company has already built relationships with publishers and has an archive of scanned material, which presumably is ready to publish digitally the moment the copyright holder gives the nod. If anyone can make a go of the ebook, then Amazon can. Kindle reportedly sold out at launch, which shows there are enough gadget freaks to sustain this kind of thing.
People compare Kindle to the iPod. We never knew we'd want to carry all our music everywhere until we could, goes the logic. I have dozens of half-read books around me right now, but I'm not convinced I need to carry them everywhere. The reason they're half-read is that I can't usually be bothered to read them. I read my better books instead. There's a big difference between a song, which you consume in about three minutes, and a book, which you consume in about three weeks. What made the iPod popular was that it was backwards compatible with CDs (and arguably with pirated material). Filling an iPod would cost an absolute fortune if you had to buy all the content again, but that's what you'll have to do with Kindle.
Kindle could emulate the iPod by creating a market for digital content, though. Nobody was fussed about buying digital music (although the options were there) until the iPod made the ownership experience so smooth. Kindle should make it much easier to buy digital content - easier than buying printed content, even. It will also establish a going rate for an ebook. At the moment, non-fiction ebooks are sold on the value of the information, independent of the number of pages. That could all change once Kindle's knocking out virtual paperbacks for a similar price to their paper equivalents. For some authors, Kindle is a threat.
Apparently, Kindle will enable you to subscribe to magazines and newspapers. It's hard to square that with today's information economy, where newspapers are cheap if not free and heavily subsidised by advertising. You don't mind if there's an A5 advert on a page of the Guardian, but you'll certainly mind if there's a (smaller) full screen ad on your Kindle screen. I don't believe people will tolerate advertising on content they've paid for on an ebook reader. For the publishers, Kindle sales are probably a revenue stream that works as marginal income but stops working if everyone reads the digital version instead of the print version. At that point, they can't sell ads any more.
Are we ready to give up the humble paperback? My friend John has written a great analysis of how Kindle's ebooks differ from how we like to use real books. As John writes, you can't lend, give, borrow or sell Kindle ebooks. There are a couple of other things I like to do with books which John hasn't mentioned, including annotating them, cutting them up and scrapbooking excerpts, and reading more than one page at once by flicking between the pages (more for IT and reference books than fiction).
There are more philosophical issues as well: do we really want the printed word to be governed by digital rights management (DRM)? The British Library has already expressed concern about DRM being used to restrict the use of creative works after their copyright protection has expired. Are we sure it's the right thing to do to replace the printed word (which has never been cheaper) with a device that costs two hundred pounds? What legacy will we leave in fifty years' time, when all the Kindles are conked out and nobody can unlock the files any more? Of course, it's not the beginning of the end. Books won't die out any more than speech will, and even if they were going to, we couldn't do much about it without undermining the whole basis of the market economy.
This could be the finest ebook reader that's been released. The wireless buying mechanism is particularly good. But I'd still rather read a real book, for which nobody will mug me on the tube and I won't care too much if it falls in the bath or gets lost/stolen on the beach.
Anything that encourages more people to read and buy books must be a good thing, although I suspect it will just be the same people using a different channel. If Kindle succeeds it will put Amazon in a similar position in the books market to that which Apple has attained in the music market. Amazon already negotiates hard with authors (who are expected to provide wholesale discounts on retail quantities) and publishers. Since there's no backwards compatibility with print books, Amazon does need authors a lot more than Apple needed record labels, though. Maybe we'll see a softening of Amazon's attitude towards content creators following its heavy investment in the Kindle technology and e-commerce infrastructure.
I hear about new technology at work every day, but the most impressive gadget I've seen lately is a kettle. But no ordinary kettle: it has a thermal layer, so it can keep the water hot for up to three hours. Boil the kettle, make a cup of tea and come back later on for more tea and the water is still hot! Amazing! You don't have to wait for it to boil again, or waste energy reheating.
As a man who rarely writes without a cup of camomile tea by my side, you can imagine how this has changed my life.
How did it take until 2007 for someone to market a kettle like that? It seems such an obvious idea now we know about it.
Sorry. Did that just happen? Did I just blog about a kettle?
27 May 2007
When I get a new CD, I study the cover and read the inlay. The artwork is part of the creative product, as I see it, and I like to know (or at least read) who arranged the strings and so on.
My iTunes experience has been sterile by comparison: a list of albums and artists, much like a spreadsheet. So this weekend, I decided to use the feature to automatically download artwork for all my albums from the iTunes shop.
It's a good job I did. I didn't realise how out of touch I had become with the acts I love.
Prince is like a chameleon, reinventing himself for each project with a new haircut and a style transformation. You can hardly keep up with his constant image changes. I certainly don't recall this one, from the Batdance single:
I love 'Let me entertain you' (when the trumpet comes in over the fade at the end, it's one of the greatest moments in pop music ever) and 'Angels' is a great singalong. I'm not as struck by some of Robbie Williams' other songs, but I'm prepared to give him a lot more slack now I know that he recorded 'Millennium' as a ten-year old boy. It's damn fine, considering:
Memo to self: if I ever meet Robbie and want to thank him for 'Entertain' and 'Angels', don't give him a banana. He doesn't like them.
It's a long time since I saw my CD single of 'Chocolate Salty Balls', a 90s Christmas chart hit for Chef from the cartoon series South Park. I don't remember this sleeve, so I guess it must have been repackaged. I think the one in the middle is Chef. He's lost a bit of weight, but he looks like he's getting into the spirit by chewing a couple of salty balls:
We've all got treasured memories of the 80s. But how to sum up the decade that gave us Spandau Ballet, The Jam, Simple Minds and The Art of Noise? How about with a picture of German punk theatre outfit Antiteater? 'This is the 80s', apparently:
I realise now how newspapers cheat us when they give us free CDs in flimsy cardboard wallets. Yeah, they claim they're paying the artists but they're definitely ripping us off! My sleeve for 'The 20 sexiest songs ever!' was just text, without any pictures. It should, it seems, have looked like this:
When I need to rock out, I like to play 'The best rock album in the world ever!', which kicks off with Kiss blasting out 'Crazy Nights' and takes us through Stiltskin's 'Inside' and Alice Cooper's 'School's Out'. It's a serious business playing the 'best rock in the world'. You can almost hear Meat Loaf's scowl. At least I can now turn to the sleeve for a bit of light relief:
01 May 2007
This October, the UK's Disability Rights Commission will be subsumed into the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. One body will bring together the work that has previously been carried out in the DRC, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).
For me, there's a fundamental difference about the work the DRC does. While it's true that people with disabilities face prejudice (as do many people by virtue of their race, gender or sexuality), there are also many people with disabilities who are disadvantaged through technology.
The web is a good example of this. It's not difficult to eliminate the most common problems that people experience when using assistive devices. For example, you should provide alternative text for pictures so that screen readers can read a description out loud for blind people. You should make sure your site can be navigated using the keyboard, so that people who can't control a mouse can still get in. You should make sure that your fonts are legible and can be enlarged with the browser settings. You shouldn't use colour to convey meaning. There are extensive checklists published by the Web Accessibility Initiative. They can look daunting, but most are common sense and just fixing the top priorities would help a lot of people access your content.
The DRC has done some valuable work over the last few years investigating web accessibility. Although it has been supportive of the WAI guidelines, its own usability lab tests found that many of the problems encountered in usability tests weren't addressed by the WAI checkpoints. That helped to change the industry perception from one of 'ticking the boxes' to one of 'making sites useable for every audience'. The DRC also developed an accessible flash game and co-published a guide to commissioning accessible websites.
I very much hope that the integrated CEHR is able to dedicate the same resource and expertise to tackling the technical barriers that prevent people with disabilities from having equal opportunities.
There is still a long way to go in web accessibility. When using Blogger's image upload function for the first time today, I was shocked that it didn't prompt me for an ALT tag. The blogspot templates are mostly reasonably accessible, but the blogs stop being accessible as soon as anyone posts any images. Mad.
I also visited a website for work today which used two different colours to distinguish between content that did and did not require registration. This was a business that had probably paid handsomely for a website that some would argue contravenes disability discrimination law.
Most web 2.0 services present accessibility problems too. Shouldn't we be more worried that significant members of our society are being shut out of the conversation?
For most of us the internet is a luxury. We might depend on it, but we'd cope without. For some people with disabilities, the web has literally changed their lives. For the first time, some will have the opportunity to do their own shopping and banking. Deaf-blind people can receive the news the same time as the rest of us and join in the debate at the same time too. But only if sites are well designed.
There is a payback for the site owners too. Not only will they win the custom of people with disabilities, but they will also find their accessible sites index better in search engines and perform better on mobile devices. As I've been playing with the Nintendo DS browser lately, I've found accessible sites work like a dream.
So who is to blame for inaccessible sites? Many businesses will be unaware of their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act to ensure services are accessible, and others will shirk that responsibility. Ultimately, the site owner is responsible for the experience it provides, and is the party who reaps the rewards of making the site useable.
But I blame lazy designers. I worked on a major website project some years back where the bidders all promised they could build us an accessible site. When I questioned something our chosen provider had built which was inaccessible, they replied 'how many of your readers are blind, though?'.
It's 2007. We've been talking about accessibility for years and yet we still see broken sites launching. Anyone who sells website designs should understand the importance of accessibility and should fit it as standard. It's part of the design challenge, not an optional extra. All those people who are clever enough to invent web 2.0 services should be smart enough to make them work for everyone. All those people selling corporate websites owe it to their clients to make sure everyone can access them, and to explain what they're doing and why.
- Blogging Against Disablism Day, 1 May 2007. Visit the site for more posts about disability discrimination.
- Jakob Nielsen on why accessibility matters
- 17 Steps to an accessible website
- Access? That'll do nicely
- Making Flash accessible
- Accessibility Excellence - case studies of three accessible websites
- Tesco launches visionary website
02 April 2007
There was an album in Fopp a while back that was only a pound and was by a band I was interested in. I can't remember who now, but it was probably some 80s synthpop group since I'm into that kind of thing at the moment. That's fantastically cheap: a lifetime worth of entertainment (if I like it enough to play it that long), for the price of a couple of chocolate bars.
But I left it on the shelf for one reason only: it was copy-protected.
As far as I'm concerned, that means it's broken. Obviously the record company thinks I'd copy it and give it to all my mates (if I could somehow find any that shared my taste in mostly long-forgotten bands). But all I really want to do is pay an honest price for music and be able to use it how I want. That means being able to put it in my digital music player, and this is exactly the kind of thing that copy protection prevents.
You might think that if I'm only paying a quid, I can't expect that much. But the point I wanted to make is that when I left this CD on the shelf, I realised I won't buy copy protected music at any price. It's just no use to me. Even when it's nearly free. And following Sony's efforts to infest our computers with malware, you'd be mad to let a record label install software on your computer for every album you want to play.
If you're paying for a product, you should be able to make whatever honest uses of it you want. That's the same reason I haven't yet bought anything from iTunes. The files are locked, so you can only play them on Apple devices. I still have and occasionally play the very first CD I bought in 1989. If I buy my music as downloads now, will I be able to play it in 20 years? Only if I use an Apple device, and keep buying them when they conk out, and we assume that Apple survives and keeps making iPods. (While it's true you can burn to CD and re-rip, you suffer a loss of quality).
So cheers all around to EMI and Apple, who today announced they would start selling EMI's catalogue without digital rights management locks. They're going to double the quality, and it's not going to cost you any more to buy an album. You'll have to pay more for individual tracks (presumably in a move to protect the album based business model, where hits are inevitably sold with filler). And in the long run, Apple could have a competitive advantage in hardware sales because it can offer cheaper versions that are only compatible with iPods.
It's good news because it means you'll be able to buy with confidence that you'll always be able to listen to your music collection. You'll be able to back it up using conventional devices, and replay it using the software or hardware of your choice. While digital formats are always at the risk of obsolescence, the risk is much smaller when a standard is adopted than when one company controls all the playback devices.
Here's hoping that other labels will follow suit, and also make their music available without proprietary locks. It can only grow the market. DRM won't prevent someone from copying music - they'll always find a way around it. It just deters honest customers from buying.
04 March 2007
Yesterday I got the Nintendo Browser by Opera for my DS Lite (you need a different version if you've got non-lite DS). Using it, you can browse the web over a wi-fi connection.
It's not without its limitations - there's only so much you can do with a maximum screen width of about 230 pixels. But Opera provides a couple of different browsing modes to get around the limitations. One enables you to move a magnifier around the screen to view zoomed-in content on the top screen. The other linearises tables and other content for small screen rendering. You soon become adept at switching between the small screen rendering and overview modes, and at swapping the top and bottom screens over so you can use the touchscreen for zooming or clicking on links.
It's painfully slow to begin with - slower even than dial-up. But once you've adjusted your expectations and stop trying to go through gee-whizz graphics heavy sites, it's a great experience. The BBC News light site is particularly strong, and the accessible rail timetable works well too. Blogs are easy enough to surf, being mostly based on simple templates. Amazon.co.uk is a bit cluttered in SSR mode, but appears fully functional. You learn to filter out the navigation detritus and see through to the content.
Many sites fail, mostly sites using clever web 2.0 techniques to refresh within the page. You can't even log in at Blogger, and I was disappointed that tadalist and twitter didn't work. Those three would have been ideal mini-applications for a handheld.
The Opera browser is an essential addition for anyone with a DS. It's worth sorting out a wi-fi connection for.
To learn more about designing for the platform, I've built a Nintendo DS microsite. You can access it at www.sean.co.uk/nds. It includes my top 10 games for the platform, and customised versions of my Hangman and Misfit games which I'm quite proud of getting working so smoothly. There's also a portal I've made providing quick access to Google, a dictionary, a cartoon and a handful of other sites. Let me know (in the comments) if there are any other sites that you'd like to see added to the portal, and that work well on the DS. And if you've got a DS and Opera, let me know your thoughts on the mini-site. When I get time, I'll write about what I've learned about designing for the platform.
06 January 2007
One week in, are you sticking to your new year's resolutions? Here are some tools to help you to achieve your goals.
- 43things - a community of people helping each other to achieve goals as diverse as play tennis, read 100 top books, draw every day or write poetry. Whatever you want to do, there's bound to be others here striving for the same thing.
- Joe's Goals - record your daily habits, good and bad. You can publish your chart or keep it private. At the end of the week, you'll see how many times you did the things you want to do more of, and also how many times you succumbed to those you should do a lot less. Your daily score helps you to track progress.
- Tadalist - online to-do lists, with all superfluous features stripped out. Useful planning tool for resolutions that have multiple stages. Tick the tasks as they're completed to see them disappear from the page. Very satisfying and very web 2.0.
- Twitter - said by some to be the next big thing, this brings the concept of blogging down to the minute. You log in regularly to report what you're doing at that exact time. It could be a useful tool for those who want to document their battle to give up cigarettes or cakes (or any other bad habit). If you wrote about each slip in real time, it would change your behaviour sooner or later. (One tool used to encourage people to diet is to just get them to write down everything they eat). Of course, it's probably harder to commit to updating Twitter about breaching your resolutions than it is to just keep them in the first place.
- Moneytrackin - tool for recording how you spend your money. Some finance tools save money because they take so long for you to update that you don't have time to leave the house and see any shops. Using this to record everything would probably be unmanageable, but it could be useful if you focused on an area of expenditure. Moneytrackin has nice features for tagging expenses so you can do some smart analysis later. If you've made any resolutions relating to money, it might be worth giving this a go for a short while at least. You don't need to provide any personal information - not even an email address.
- The Daily Plate - tool for tracking the nutritional value of the food on your plate. Potentially useful for those with fitness and dietary resolutions.
- Gimme 20 - a site for finding, creating and sharing physical workouts and exercise tips.
29 December 2006
McAfee sells internet security solutions, including antispam and anti-pop-up programs. But it seems the company's attitude is that 'spam is other people', because it has installed adware on my PC to promote its own products. There is no way to disable the adverts, and McAfee's own technical support has failed to provide a solution.
According to Wikipedia, adware is:
any software package which automatically plays, displays, or downloads advertising material to a computer after the software is installed on it or while the application is being used.I have installed McAfee Internet Security to protect me from security and privacy threats, including unwanted advertising. Despite having a valid licence for the software and having renewed my virus definitions subscription recently, McAfee keeps interrupting my work to show me upgrade adverts like this (24 December 2006):
and this (today, 29 December 2006):
Notice how my options are are to buy the software, or carry on working. There's no option not to be pestered with adverts again. And they keep coming back.
If the advert came up once or there was an option to tell them I didn't want it, it might be less annoying. But as it is, it looks like I'm stuck with these adverts until I buy new software or uninstall the software I've already paid for.
I've contacted McAfee tech support twice. The first contact took me about half an hour and achieved nothing. The second piece of advice was to disable all internet pop-ups. That will interfere with internet banking and many useful websites, and should not be necessary to stop the adverts. I don't think either of the tech support people understood that the adverts were within the application and not on third party websites, although I was clear to emphasise this. I can only conclude that McAfee has not scripted a solution to this problem.
I'm sure some bigwig at McAfee has decided that these adverts are a good idea. "Once every day isn't much," they probably thought. But surely they can see how their entire credibility is undermined by this action? How can I trust McAfee's spam filter and ad blocker now that I know it uses its own software to display intrusive advertising? Will it green-light spam from 'carefully selected partners'? Clearly, the company will say not, but I've always thought that actions speak louder than words. And the action I'm seeing is my train of thought being interrupted so the company can repeatedly plug a product I don't want.
If anyone from McAfee reads this and would care to respond, please contact me. In the meantime, I would advise you to avoid McAfee software.
24 June 2006
I've noticed an alarming trend in spam lately. Most spammers know they're slimeballs. They're selling drugs to vulnerable people, preying on people's debt or trying to con the stock markets. More and more, though, I'm seeing people who think they're running legitimate businesses using spam to promote themselves.
A website called Sirlook spammed me in May to promote its online chat system for websites, even though its own terms and conditions say that its customers may not 'upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising, promotional materials' (clause 5g) [link no longer available]. I contacted the company asking for clarification on this apparent conflict but did not hear back.
The so-called Association of Professional Recruitment Consultants spammed a non-existent address (sales@ one of my domains) with its newsletter in April. Its code of conduct (which it claims is "the strictest in the industry") says members must 'strive to serve clients and candidates with honesty and with integrity at all times' (first clause) [link no longer available]. When asked, the organisation failed to explain how sending junk email to invented email addresses is consistent with this policy.
I think the fact that these organisations send spam, cannot justify it and do not respond to complaints tells us more about their business ethics than any code of conduct or testimonial on their websites.
So perhaps we should extend our thanks to John Marshall, who spammed me about Mywebalert and was the first spammer I contacted who had the nads to answer my questions. He said he had identified me as someone selling website design services (which I'm not, currently) and that he found my email address as a legitimate way to contact my business (which I don't have - I'm an individual, not a business). This might have been a defensive move because it's illegal to send unsolicited adverts to personal email addresses in the UK.
When asked, Marshall claimed that he doesn't run antispam software himself, which seems extremely unlikely if he's able to use email with any kind of efficiency. I guess it would have been too easy a victory if he had said he did run antispam software, because then I'd go 'Aha! Gotcha!' and the credits would roll. It's hard to imagine someone at an established company having an unfiltered email feed in 2006 that isn't crammed full of spam. I have to confess I think he might be fibbing, or at least using an extremely narrow definition of what 'running antispam software' means.
I could telephone you, which would take more of your time. Alternatively I could repeatedly post mail to you, which although likely to produce better results from a marketing point of view is far from environmentally friendly and adds to a recipient's woes insomuch that paper is less easily discarded than email.
In my view (accepting that you have the right to an alternative opinion) email advertising is an extension to ordinary mail advertising which is prevalent in a modern economy. It is widely recognised as often being a legitimate means of business development, which in turn generates jobs, etc. Within reason, I do believe that a legitimate commercial organisation should be at will to market itself by telephone, street/magazine/TV/radio advertising, etc.
I note with interest that you are writing an article. For which publication? Does it carry advertising? Does it carry sponsorship? Are you being paid to write the article? If not, why are you writing the article? My last point arises as the directors of MyWebAlert are regular contributors to Computing, Computer Weekly, IT WEEK without charge but in recognition of the fact that it is good for PR.
The stuff about who pays me to write confused me a bit. I responded:
The difference between advertising in magazines and on email is where the cost/benefit lies. So in the case of buying a magazine, the advertising subsidises the content I receive. In the case of receiving junk email, I have to pay my service provider and time to receive something which in no way subsidises or creates any benefit for me - do let me know if I've overlooked anything there. Note that I'm not against all advertising - just inappropriate advertising, which includes intrusive email advertising I have to pay for. With mail advertising, the company sending the advert carries all the costs, which seems much more reasonable although you're right that it is still a massive waste of time and resources.
In general, I am an advocate of personalised email advertising which I differentiate from mass spam on the grounds:
- that all those that I target are targeted on the premise that I believe there should be valid interest based on individual research;
- that you will not be subject to repeat mail from me;
- that I manually maintain records and will not write again to you if you do not wish me to (please advise);
- that I am not a robot and you are assured of a human response to any questions that you may have.
These justifications don't really match the reality of what was sent, though. To call it personalised is a bit rich when it was basically advertising copy emailed with no greeting or letter format. It began: 'MyWebAlert is a comprehensive website monitoring service that affords you an opportunity...'.
It began: 'This email is being sent to you as an individual identified as responsible for the maintenance of your network and attached resources.'. When I contacted Roaring Penguin to point out that one of its partners was using spam to sell its antispam solution, it did get Network Architect's MD Martin Smyth to contact me and said it had reminded him of Roaring Penguin's email usage policies. I was curious to find out how I was identified as someone responsible for a network (which I'm not), and particularly how this message was different to the unsolicited commercial emails that the software they're selling blocks.
I asked Martin Smyth how he got hold of my email address. He said:
Impossible to say precisely. Contact details have been built over a period of time as a result of formal/casual meetings at exhibitions, seminars and press events, enquiries through the website, employees joining the Company and adding the contacts to the database, etc.
This is a pretty sloppy way to run a list. Because companies have had a legal obligation since 2003 to get opt-in permission before sending commercial emails outside their customer base in the UK, best practice is to keep a record of where and when people opted in. I'm not a lawyer, but employees taking list details from one organisation where you have opted-in to another where you have not sounds very much like a breach of the Data Protection Act too. This answer does nothing to reassure me the company didn't just lift my email address off my website.
So why was I erroneously identified as managing a network and what makes a message spam? Smyth says:
In general, all contacts made by and with Network Architects are related to the IT and networking industry as appears to be the case in this instance with your interest in this subject. The precise message of a mailer as you know will never be perfectly tailored to each individual to whom it is sent. In this way, e-marketing does not differ from generic marketing, albeit in this case, the target audience is far more closely identified as appropriate
that would be the case, for example of email that we would determine as 'Spam' that is indiscriminately and repeatedly sent to a completely unqualified target base.
Or to cut it short:
email that we would determine as 'Spam' ... is indiscriminately and repeatedly sent to a completely unqualified target base.
This implies that he believes it's not spam if it's a bit targeted and it's only sent once. Remember, Smyth is MD of a company selling an antispam solution. This is a slippery slope. What if a spammer sent out millions of emails - once only - promoting viagra to men? By excluding women and only writing once, has the spammer become an ethical marketer? It's still a massive intrusion for nearly all men who are not interested in viagra. Even if you're a viagra buyer, does that mean any company selling it can ethically clog up your email box with adverts for it? And even if we were to pretend that it's okay to be spammed by each business once, the problem with spam is that the sum of all these 'once only' emails overwhelms mailboxes.
The definition of spam in use here is egocentric without consideration for the recipient or even regard for the content. It's about how the communication is issued and managed, without thought for the effect it has on the recipient. As an email user, I consider any unsolicited commercial email to be spam. Even if the person behind it thinks I buy their kind of product sometimes, or might do, it's still spam to me. Even if it only comes once, that's once too many.
In addition to the above, you will have noted that this process is managed by human intervention. If you wish to no longer hear from us then I will remove your details from the list. You therefore have complete control over this message whereas this is not the case with other sources of email. This email will be sent only once and you will not receive any further communication after this email.
The fact that both Marshall and Smyth only email once undermines their whole argument. It's like a tiny apology hidden in there. 'I know it's wrong', people say, 'but I only did it once'. I see this a lot from individuals who send spam representing themselves. M.Wild of Westminster University apparently spammed the whole student body in December 2005. He started by saying 'first of all, sorry for spamming you all. i dont normally do this but this could be good for everyone and it works!!' before pushing some ridiculous multilevel ipod thing. The problem with spam is that by the time you're saying sorry, you're already intruding on someone's inbox, wasting their time and bandwidth.
Like Marshall, Smyth believes it's okay if there's a human there to pick up the complaints. To their credit, the correspondence I have had with both Marshall and Smyth bears this out. But they're probably rarely called upon to demonstrate this because nobody trusts a spammer. Reply addresses on spam are usually faked and spammers rarely honour remove requests so recipients will have little faith that contacting them would have any effect. Indeed, many spammers take a remove request as confirmation an address works and bombard it.
You probably get as much spam as I do and have heard the arguments against it before. What's worrying here is that all these companies (including those that didn't respond to my interview request) consider themselves to be legitimate businesses, and apart from the spamming, I've got no reason to think they're not. One of them even sells antispam software.
I'm sympathetic to the problems that businesses have promoting themselves when they start off, but spam isn't a shortcut to success. Markets are conversations, and if everything you send is greeted by obscenities, distrust and deletion you're not getting anywhere. Two of my friends met online after he emailed her about an error in a discography on her site. They're married now. There's no reason why great business relationships shouldn't evolve from email too. But they're not going to come from spam because you can't automate sincerity and nobody wants to deal with a fake. Here's an email from someone allegedly called Todd: For the second time in a week I found myself visiting your website, so I figured hey "why not drop a request while I'm here this time around". I actually found your site by accident actually while searching on google last week and ended up cliking on the link. I checked out a few of the pages and so far so good. I hope you keep updating the content, cause I'll probably be checking back again.........
HelloAaah! That's nice! But then we cut to the chase...
By the way, I'm also currently doing a link exchange for http://www.barretire.com/ (a quality well kept PR5 site) and thought to ask if you would be interested in having us as an honest link exchange partner.
For the second time in a week I found myself visiting your website, so I figured hey "why not drop a request while I'm here this time around".
I actually found your site by accident actually while searching on google last week and ended up cliking on the link. I checked out a few of the pages and so far so good. I hope you keep updating the content, cause I'll probably be checking back again.........
Why would I be interested in exchanging links with a trashy affiliate website about cars? Especially since I already know Todd is not an 'honest link exchange partner'. If he really had visited my site twice and spent so much time there he wanted to come back, he'd know my site's nothing to do with tyres. I don't even drive.
There are ways to target promotions without using email. Companies can use contextual advertising, which has a low entry price and enables them to find customers at the time they're looking for their services. Google Adwords is one example of this. Microsoft is working on an advertising system that will enable you to track people by their personal profiles, not just the keywords they're using. You can also place legitimate paid adverts on other relevant websites to attract traffic. This has been made even easier now that Google Adsense enables people to place adverts on a specific site that uses it. There are drawbacks, yes, but they're ethical ways to attract an audience. This is more akin to the magazine example Marshall raised, where the advertising subsidises valuable content.
Spam won't go away. There will always be con-men and enough suckers to make it pay. But legitimate companies that think they're ethical and 'only do the odd bit of spam' are mistaken. If you behave like a spammer, you are a spammer. You're a destructive force and the internet would be a better place without you.
- John Marshall and Martin Smyth did remove me from their lists, and I do sincerely appreciate the time they spent responding to my questions, although I still disagree with their stance on spam.
- In this article I use 'spam' to mean an unsolicted commercial email that was sent to me and 'spammer' as my fair comment description of the person or organisation that sent it. Your and their definition of a spammer may vary.
- All the business spammers in this article have been told I am writing an article about spam in which I intend to name them, sent some questions and invited to respond.
- Remember, kids: don't do this at home. I am a specially trained stunt journalist. By contacting spammers, you risk confirming your email address works, which might result in you receiving more spam. It is not recommended to use 'opt-out' or 'remove' links. I recommend you use antispam software and delete spam without response.
- The links in this article are provided just for the purposes of context. They use the nofollow attribute, which means the major search engines will know these links shouldn't be considered as a vote from my site.
14 May 2006
Image courtesy NASA Johnson Space Center. Used by permission.
Only 24 people have ever left Earth orbit to see this sight with the naked eye. It's easy to overlook the significance of this: this is, after all, the most reproduced photograph in the world and from satellite photography we're all familiar with how the Earth looks from afar. But just imagine for a moment that you're so far away from home that you could see the whole planet at once. And that you are most likely one of only three living things that are not on that planet. And that you're bobbing and weaving through space in a tiny capsule with water and air to keep you alive in a hostile void that stretches eternally in every direction.
This photograph was taken on Apollo 17, the last of a series of missions that landed man on the moon. Nowadays our space missions don't even leave low Earth orbit. It seems unlikely we would be able to repeat the feat of visiting our nearest planetary neighbour today. The cost of the moon landings has been estimated at US$135 billion in 2005 terms and taxpayers are unlikely to bankroll such an expense today. We're also much more risk-averse than we were back then.
Of the 12 men who have been to the moon, only nine are still alive and they're all old. In his book 'Moondust', Andrew Smith sets out to meet the surviving moon walkers, aware that there will soon come a time when there are none left. He learns how they ate spaghetti, played golf, smuggled stamps and scratched initials on the moon. He learns how they thought their odds of returning alive were at best evens. And he tries to uncover how it feels to be part of such a lonely club - one of only 12 to have had the most out-of-this-world experience, and completely unable to answer a whole species' demands to know what it feels like.
To some extent, the book is a travelogue, talking about all the people Smith met and building up a picture of what the moon landings meant then, and what they mean today. He also writes about his own memories as a child of the landings on TV, and recreates the atmosphere and wonder of the time. Nobody knew for sure if there was life on the moon. Some thought the astronauts would return with a deadly disease that would wipe us all out. David Bowie was singing about being lost in space at a time when Apollo 11 was landing on the moon. At the height of the cold war, America put a man on the moon to beat the Russians but declared it a mission 'in peace for all mankind'.
The astronauts have doubtless been called upon daily to re-tell their stories in different places and much of the information in this book is available out there in some form. In his book, Andrew Smith re-assesses Apollo and asks whether it was worth it, hinting at what we might be losing over the next few years as our moon landers die out. As well as the impact on 'all mankind', he looks at the effect of the mission on the astronauts and their families and how the space programme treated its pioneers. There was no counselling available for astronauts after their return to help them answer the question 'what next?' and they were on a basic military wage, leaving many of them trying to carve out new careers after Apollo with mixed success.
By the time I was born, Apollo was over. The moon landings were history, and felt as remote and distant as World War II. I remember seeing the first shuttle launch on TV at school, but don't remember ever being taught about the moon landings. This book opened my eyes to what the NASA team achieved in three short years between 1969 and 1972 and the heroism of those who put their lives on the line to travel so far. It's funny to think that the whole thing came about as a result of a giant bet between the leaders of two superpowers, with little to show for it apart from a few photos, a few kilos of rock and a new sense of our place in the universe. But perhaps that alone is worth the trip. Neil Armstrong stood on the moon and found he could blot out the earth by holding his thumb up. "Did that make you feel big?" somebody asked him. "No," he replied. "Very small."
06 May 2006
Since I got a record player at Christmas, I've been tinkering with getting music on vinyl into a computer. I enjoy the gleam of the light across a mint 12" and the act of getting up and putting a new song on, having carefully chosen what would sound best next. But sometimes, it's nice to be able to play a track - perhaps even an otherwise unreleased b-side - on-demand in a single click. Perhaps most importantly, once these golden oldies are digitised, I can back them up and be sure that they won't degrade any further in quality.
My record player has a built-in pre-amp, so I can connect its output directly into the line-in on my PC. Initially I used a program called RIP Vinyl (see what they did there? Clever!). That worked well for pop music, but the volume settings for the line-in on my sound card appeared to be either extremely high or off. I couldn't get any sensible balance, which meant that noisy records suffered from clipping. It sounded like all the instruments were gargling with mouthwash at irregular intervals. But not, I hasten to add, in a good way.
I found I could get more control using the Sound Recorder program that comes free in Windows. Firstly, it worked with the second line-in socket my computer has (don't know why it has two, but it was free, so let's not question it). RIP Vinyl only coped with the one on the sound card. Secondly, it didn't suffer from any of the clipping.
Here's how to use Windows Sound Recorder to record vinyl:
- Find your advanced volume controls in Windows and adjust the line-in volume. If it's at zero, or the 'mute' checkbox is ticked, it's not going to work. I found a volume just about zero works just fine, but your mileage may vary.
- Go into Sound Recorder (it's in accessories > entertainment). By default, Sound Recorder can only record one minute of sound. The way to extend this is to load in a long silence and then record over it. You can do this by recording nothing for a minute, saving it, using Edit > insert file to insert it and repeat. Each time you do that, you add a minute. That kludge is - unbelievably - Microsoft-endorsed. Alternatively, download my ten minutes of silence.
- Put the needle on the record, and the drumbeat goes like this. Click the red round button to start recording.
- When the music stops, click the square stop button.
- Go to Edit > Delete after current position. That will get rid of any unnecessary silence at the end of your file.
- Go back to the start of your track in Sound Recorder and find where the music starts. This will take a bit of playing and stopping to work out. Just because the window shows a flatline when stopped, it doesn't necessarily mean the track's silent. Once you've found a spot just before the music starts, go to Edit > Delete before current position. That will get rid of any leading silence on your track.
- If you're recording an album, you'll need to extend your record time by inserting ten minute chunks repeatedly. By careful saving and use of the delete after and delete before, you can split a whole album into tracks. Be aware that the time counter loops at 999.99 seconds. That puzzled me for a bit.
- Sound Recorder will save a wav file. Using iTunes, you can load this using File > Add file to library. You can convert your WAV file to an MP3 by right clicking on it and selecting 'convert to MP3'. By doing this, you'll save as much as two thirds in file size without a noticeable drop in quality.
- Listen to your favourite old singles in an MP3 player and dance. Oh yeah. That's what it's about.
02 April 2006
You might have heard of Amazon's Mechanical Turk. It's a web service that enables you to integrate human tasks with your software. So you might have a program that needs to know which of ten pictures is in focus, for example. You would write your program to feed that judgement task to Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Amazon then gets people to perform that task, pays them, and takes a commission on the payment from you. The data is returned to your software as if the task had been performed automatically. A neat idea, and it remains to be seen how it's used. So far, it's mainly Amazon using it for identifying photos of businesses for its own A9 search engine. It could be exploited by spammers to get around the intelligence tests used to prevent automated data entry (including tests such as working out the jumbled letters in an image). But it's not hard for Amazon to monitor at the moment, so this is unlikely to be a problem any time soon.
Why is it called a Mechanical Turk? It's a reference to an automaton invented in the late 1700s to play chess. At the time, mechanised artworks were popular inventions. They might play instruments or animated landscape scenes. Wolfgang von Kempelen was a member of Empress Maria Theresa's court in Vienna. When he was challenged to produce an automaton better than any seen before, he created a machine capable of playing chess. Dressed as a Turk, the machine went on to play against - and mostly beat - members of the public. The Turk moved its own pieces and corrected an opponent's illegal moves. Kempelen proudly exhibited the cogs inside the cabinet at the start of the game, showing how the box was empty except for clockwork devices. For a long time, nobody came up with a conclusive explanation of how mechanics alone could simulate such intelligence.
In his book 'The Mechanical Turk', Tom Standage uses many contemporary accounts of the Turk to tell its story. He pieces together the machine's complete history, and ultimately reveals how the illusion was most likely created. It's not giving too much away to tell you that human intelligence was involved and it wasn't fully automated. That's why Amazon stole the device's name for its own service, where a fairly convoluted technical arrangement creates the appearance of machine intelligence.
At times the exhaustive research gets repetitive: reading accounts of the same event from different perspectives can be tiring. But these moments are few and far between. It's accessibly written, shows proper research and tells a story that's likely to delight anyone with an appreciation of illusion and/or technology.
I often read about software that performs such sophisticated functions that I question whether human intelligence is really being used. The developers of such applications are - like Kempelen - often unwilling to discuss how their product works even in the vaguest of terms. Given how cheap educated labour is on the global market, it wouldn't surprise me to discover that some enterprise-scale software applications that simulate human judgement owe more to the Turk than they're letting on. For the so-called developers of such software, this book would make an ideal gift.
With thanks to Patroclus for the recommendation and loan of the book.
29 December 2005
Erasure is using a new technology that enables you to mix a single and then download your preferred mix as an MP3. This technology for mass customising MP3s has also been used by The Prodigy, among others. My article looks at how it works.