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February 02, 2009

Work resolutions 2009

Follow-up to Work resolutions 2008 from Autology: John Dale's blog

Stupidly late, here’s my annual follow-up to my work predictions from Jan 2008, and going further back, 2007, 2006 and 2005.

A year ago, in January 2008, I predicted that we would:-

  • Do more to integrate with email.
  • Develop fewer new applications, looking instead to extend our existing tools and make them more task based.
  • Work on desktop synchronisation tools.

I’d give myself a solid two out of three. We didn’t do anything on email integration, and while I think it’s still a good idea in principle, we haven’t really found a specific example of where we could introduce it as a feature.

We certainly developed fewer new applications; none, to be precise (unless I’m forgetting something), though we substantially reworked some applications such as Search and Files.Warwick. We continue to think about the task-based approach to using our tools, especially in the context of teaching and learning, and module web spaces. And we introduced two (nearly three) desktop tools; a Files.Warwick sync tool, a video converter, and, soon, drive letter mapping into Files.Warwick so you can treat your Files.Warwick space like any other Windows Explorer or Mac Finder location, and open, save, copy and move files into and out of it.

For 2009, I’m broadening my predictions out. I predict that:-

  • Discoverability will be important; there are things you can do with our tools which are great if you know about them, but there’s nothing on our toolbars or in our UI which tells you that these features exist, or what they do, or why they might be useful. We need to work more on exposing things that people can do with our systems, and I think this applies to lots of systems and at lots of levels – in the UI, in the documentation, through the helpdesk, through our training and support, through our marketing.
  • 2009 will be the first year in which Warwick out-sources a major IT application.
  • And also the year in which the question of our VLE provision through SiteBuilder and other tools, and its strengths and weaknesses against other VLE systems, comes to the fore.

And thanks to my tardiness, there’s now only eleven months to see whether I’m right or not.

December 04, 2008

Tablet talk

My recipe for the perfect tablet computer: take the nine or ten inch, 1024×600 screen that you generally see on netbooks these days, make it into a touch-screen, then glue the innards of an iPod Touch to the back of it. That’s it. The iPhone / iPod Touch UI is so incomparably good compared with any other touch-screen device – Tablet PC, UMPC, Windows Mobile device, Palm OS – that, for me, at least, a somewhat scaled-up version would hit the perfect sweet spot of being exactly what I need to cart around with me all day at work, and to slump on the sofa with at night. It’d be big enough to comfortably read the PDF and Word documents that make up the agendas and reports that fill my working day, and high enough resolution to make reading almost any web site easy, without requiring so much zooming and/or rotating to get the text to a workable size.

For bonus points:-

  1. Include some sort of note-taking app which syncs between the desktop, the device and the web. But if Apple don’t want to include this, it wouldn’t matter because Evernote already ticks this box, with desktop, web and iPhone clients available. And on a 1024×600 screen, the virtual keyboard is going to be big enough for even the clumsiest and least skilled user (that’s me) to type short notes and emails without difficulty.
  2. Give me an easy way to transfer PDF and other document files to and from the device without needing to email them to myself or use a third party app such as File Magnet or AirShare. But I could live without this.
  3. Include a SIM card socket so I can get at my stuff when I’m out of wifi coverage. Again, useful from time to time, but I’d buy with or without this built in.

It’s hard to find a tablet device that’s larger than a PDA which has been hugely successful, partly at least because the user experience always falters when the underlying OS – Windows, mostly – bleeds through the touch layer. But a device built on Mobile OS X wouldn’t have that problem, and I’d buy one in a heartbeat. Go on, Apple; build one for me.

September 18, 2008

Trainers with lights

Most of the shoes which my children wear have flashing lights in them, activated by pressure when they walk and run. Sometimes it’s just a single LED, sometimes they’re dotted all over the shoe, and there’s a miniature Christmas tree effect with every step.

What I’m puzzled by, though, is why this feature is found only in children’s shoes, not in adult’s. It seems like such an obvious and desirable safety feature for anyone who runs outside at night, yet as far as I know, it remains the exclusive preserve of children’s shoes. Strange.

September 07, 2008

On certification

I went to see The Dark Knight a few weeks ago. As well as seeing it for my own enjoyment, I had half an eye out to try and decide if it would be suitable for my (seven year old) son. As it happens, I didn’t need half an eye, or even a quarter or a tenth; it is hugely, wildly, inappropriate for seven year olds. So much so, in fact that the BBFC received more than 80 complaints about the 12A certificate that the film had been granted, and they felt obliged to defend the decision:-

The film regulator’s spokeswoman Sue Clark said the sequel was a fantasy movie with only implied violence. But she admitted that the British Board of Film Classification had carefully considered giving it a 15 rating. The 12A rating states that a film should not “dwell on violence” and “does not emphasise injury or blood”.

And she also explained that the next rating up, a 15 certificate, would have stopped some people who wanted to see the film doing so:-

She added that a 15 certificate would have denied an important part of the superhero’s fan base the chance to see the film. “Younger teenagers would not have been able to see it, and they are the very people who are going to love it. “We would have ended up with far more complaints from people who wanted to see the film and couldn’t,” said Ms Clark.

The BBFC’s actual decision can be found here.

(Interestingly, the BBC also looked at how other countries had certified the film – only one country, Finland, had specifically barred some children (those under 13) from seeing it; every other country had allowed it to be viewable by all, either explicitly, or implicitly by using discretionary rather than mandatory ratings.)

I see two problems here. The first is the range of certificates which the BBFC uses. In order, they are:-

  • U Suitable for all
  • PG May contain scenes unsuitable for young children, but children of all ages may still attend unaccompanied.
  • 12A May contain scenes unsuitable for young children, and children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult
  • 15 No one under the age of 15 may see this film in a cinema
  • 18 No one under the age of 18 may see this film in a cinema

I had thought, before I went and checked the BBFC web site, that there was also a 12 certificate which barred children from under 12 from seeing the film in the cinema at all, accompanied by an adult or not. But there is not. There is a 12 certificate, but it applies only to renting or buying movies on DVD. Typically, films which are 12A in the cinema will end up as 12 certificate when they’re released on DVD.

And that’s the problem. The earliest age at which the BBFC can actually stop children seeing a film in the cinema is 15. There is no certificate which absolutely bars children of any younger age. This makes the BBFC’s comment about not wanting to stop young teenagers from seeing Dark Knight slightly more defensible, but what it gives with one hand it takes away with the other, since it also makes the BBFC look like idiots for not having a mandatory 12 certificate for films in the cinema.

The inevitable consequence of this gap is that film-makers will always aim for a 12A or PG certificate, since a big part of their audience is indeed young teenagers, and a 15 certificate would ruin that. So films as diverse in tone as The House Bunny, The Dark Knight, The Duchess, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (a holocaust film), Get Smart, Indiana Jones 4 and the last two Harry Potter films have all been 12A certificate. But the difference between a broad comedy like Get Smart or an action movie like Indiana Jones 4 and Dark Knight is substantial, and that brings me to the second problem.

It doesn’t seem to me that the BBFC is very good at assessing the tone of a film. Dark Knight and Spiderman 1/2/3 are both superhero films and summer blockbusters, but they’re worlds apart tonally; Spiderman is a bright, breezy cartoon, whereas Dark Knight is a brooding, morbid sort of film, devoid of anything you might call a happy ending, where bad things happen to good people for no particular reason. It’s a nihilistic and morally repugnant film (and that’s not necessarily a criticism; it’s a well made and powerful film of a certain tone, that’s all) and the BBFC don’t classify for nihilism. Sure, if you watch the scenes of violence carefully, the film’s editors are careful not to show blood or dwell on the corpses, and much of the violence you might think you saw is actually cut away from before the act itself. But the questions of who’s committing violence on whom and why are a level above the portrayal of the act itself, and the BBFC seem oblivious to that level. They have guidelines about “mature themes”, but they’re really about specific acts – drug taking, sex, cruelty – disguised as themes. There ought to be a mandatory 12 certificate, and Dark Knight ought to have been certified so, not for “contains moderate violence”, but for “tonally dark and therefore unsuitable for young children”.

(In the interests of balance, here’s a well argued take in the other direction, though it’s arguing specifically that Dark Knight ought not to be a 15 certificate. I wonder if the author would feel differently about a mandatory 12 certificate, were it possible to award one.)

September 01, 2008

The ungreening of halogen

Has anyone else noticed that halogen lights have become significantly more power-hungry in recent years? A few years ago, the default halogen bulb was a 20W 12V affair with a transformer to step the voltage down. So if you had, say, four of them in your kitchen or bathroom ceiling, or a three bulb plate, you were consuming 60 or 80 watts, and a table lamp with a single bulb would be drawing 20 watts. Not super economical compared with low energy fluorescent bulbs, but perhaps not unacceptably far off, given the vastly superior quality of the light they produced.

But now the transformers are largely gone, and the commonest halogen bulb is the GU10 which consumes 50W at 240V. But the way the bulbs are used, with plates or tracks having three or four or even six bulbs in them hasn’t changed, meaning that what would previously have been 60W is now 150W, a rather less green figure. We have a long thin kitchen, and so we have a round plate with three bulbs in it at one end, and a long track at the other with four bulbs in it. That’s seven bulbs at 50W each: 350W to light one room. That pricks at my conscience a lot more than the previous 140W would have done.

You can replace the 50W bulbs with 35W ones which have the same fitting, but nobody sells light fittings with the 35W bulbs included in the package; it’s always the 50W ones. So you have to wait until the original bulb fails before you can drop down to a smaller figure, and of course the light you then get seems dingy by comparison. The good news, I guess, is that you can still get low voltage 20W fittings and bulbs; they’re just not to be found in the big home furnishing places like Ikea or B&Q any more. But perhaps it’s worth going to the trouble of seeking them out if, like me, you’re a die hard fan of the quality of halogen light, but would prefer to maintain at least a little bit of green credibility.

August 31, 2008

Trainer befuddlement

I don’t generally lose any sleep over buying clothes. I can settle on things I like quickly and easily, and I know the shops and brands, colours and styles which I prefer, and which I think suit me. But for reasons which escape me, this process fails completely when it comes to buying trainers. I stand in front of a wall of shoes, and I just have no idea what I want or even what I like. Black, white, stripy, plain, bouncy sole, flat sole? Who knows?

Perhaps this is because choosing trainers implies not just an aesthetic choice but also a functional one. Most clothes aren’t functional except in the trivial sense of covering your body and being either thicker and warmer or thinner and cooler. But trainers are designed for running or tennis or whatever, and often not just for running in the general case, but a specific style of running, or a specific style of runner. So that makes the choice harder, I guess, than just “Do I like this colour?”.

But even if I drop the requirement that the shoes should be good for running or tennis or whatever, and just look for shoes to wear for playing in the garden, I still find it very hard to make a choice. In Chicago last year I went to the NikeTown store, since trainers were almost half price in the US when I was there. The only reason I was able to make a choice then was by reminding myself that buying shoes there and then would be 50% cheaper, and that since I was leaving the next day, there would be no second chance to go back and try again later. Even so, it was a wrench. Why are trainers so hard to buy?

May 14, 2008

Online maps feature idea

Writing about web page

A few weeks ago, Steve noted that the Google imagery for these parts had been updated, as has the Microsoft Live Maps imagery. This gave me an idea: if I were Google or Microsoft, I’d retain the older data, and add a new feature to their mapping services; look back in time. So for any given view of a town or city, you’d be able to click a rewind button and see as many earlier versions of the same view as the provider has got stored. It’d be expensive on disk space, of course, but disk space is getting cheaper faster than planes are flying around taking photos.

In the short-term, this would only be mildly interesting, allowing you to see the buildings and other changes that have arisen in the last year or so. But if you take a longer view, and think about collecting the imagery for decades, it would be fascinating. There’s an aerial photo of the Warwick campus in Scarman House taken in 1990 (it’s on the first floor at the start of the walkway to the bedrooms if you happen to be passing). The difference between that photo and today’s campus is remarkable, and collecting the data to do similar comparisons for any big conurbation in another ten or twenty years would be a hugely valuable and civically-minded thing to do. I’ll even waive my royalties on the idea.

May 03, 2008

Brad Bird on morale

Writing about web page

Brad Bird directed two of my favourite movies, Iron Giant and The Incredibles. I enjoyed this interview with him, and I was particularly struck by this quote:-

In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie’s budget – but never shows up in a budget – is morale. If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale.

April 16, 2008

Number discoveries

Things I didn’t know about numbers until very recently:-

  • Primes of the form 4n + 3 are never the sum of two squares.
  • Primes of the form 4n + 1 have one and only one way of being the sum of two squares.
  • 8 and 144 (and 1, but that doesn’t really count) are the only cube and square (or any other exact power) in the Fibonacci sequence. But while it is easy to demonstrate this empirically for very large numbers of values in the sequence, the proof has turned out to be surprisingly tricky. In fact, it was only after Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s Last Theorem that it became possible, ten years later, to exploit some of his techniques to prove that there are no perfect-power numbers in the F sequence other than 8 and 144.

April 15, 2008

Three letter words

Bands with three letter acronyms as their name:-

  • ABC
  • ELO
  • KLF
  • OMD
  • REM
  • UFO
  • XTC

But what’s puzzling me is that I have albums by all of them (except UFO, obviously. That’d be stupid.) Why are three letter bands massively over-represented in my record collection?

January 21, 2008

Flattery. I has it.

Visiting my sister and her children is a mixed blessing for the ego. Last week, my nephew greeted me with an affectionate poke in the stomach and the sadly accurate observation, “Christmas belly, Uncle John?”. My niece then followed up with a subtle bait-and-switch by demanding to be lifted up for a hug (so far, so good) but once up in my arms pensively rubbed her hand on the top of my head and asked, “Why is there no hair in this big circle, Uncle John?”.

Reeling from this killer one-two combo, my self-respect was only regained when my nephew, who’s nine and like most boys his age has a supernatural affinity for video games, couldn’t complete a level of Super Mario Galaxy. Fortuitously, it was a level I’ve done before, so I was able to get him past the bit he was stuck on. His delighted observation that I rock at games was almost enough to restore ego equilibrium.

January 03, 2008

Work resolutions 2008

Follow-up to More work resolutions from Autology: John Dale's blog

For three years now (2005, 2006, 2007) I’ve written a little bit about what kind of work and process I predict for the coming year. Last year, my predictions were relatively modest; I predicted that we might do more stuff outside of Java – perhaps Flash, perhaps Ruby. This has turned out to be right on a small scale; we use Flash for video and audio playback, and soon, recording, and we use pre-bought Flash widgets for tasks such as slideshows, charting, and so on. Steve Carpenter has been seconded to the web team for a while to help integrate some Flash technology into our Java applications. So I’d say that prediction was broadly right. We’ve also done small bits and pieces in Ruby, but we’re still debating whether to take the plunge with a bigger application in 2008.

So what else might we be doing or trying in 2008? My predictions:-

  • I’m increasingly interested in the question of finding ways to integrate with non-web applications that people use a lot. In particular, I’m thinking about email. Many people run their whole work life through their email application, and I wonder if we could do more to take advantage of that. Right now, we send quite a lot of emails to people from our applications – this SiteBuilder page has changed, that blog entry has a comment, this forum has a new message – but we don’t do very much in terms of letting people email to our applications. Given that people are generally very comfortable with email, might it be useful to let people create a blog entry, or modify a SiteBuilder page, or do other tasks, by sending email messages? Maybe.
  • We have two challenges which are to some extent dichotomous; firstly, we need to be careful about adding too many new applications to the set we currently offer. We run the risk that we make it hard for people to know what to choose when they want to do something on the web; a SiteBuilder page? a blog? a forum? a Files.Warwick space? If we added a stand-alone wiki application, say, or a document management application, we would make the challenge of deciding which platform to use even greater. But then the second challenge is that as we expand the range of features which SiteBuilder, in particular, offers, it starts to take on Microsoft Office-like levels of functional richness, and this can make it intimidating to get started with, and hard for even regular users to discover whether or how SiteBuilder could help with a particular task. I predict, therefore, that in 2008 we’ll look for ways to (a) extend our existing tools to do new things, rather than adding new platforms, and (b) we’ll look for ways to try and guide people as to how to do the tasks they’re interested in using our tools, as well as showing them the mechanics of how to “drive” the tools.
  • One particular area where I think we could do something which would help people a lot without increasing the number or complexity of our applications is that of desktop synchronisation. People spend a significant proportion of their time in SiteBuilder and Files.Warwick uploading and downloading files. If you want to edit a Word document that’s on your web site, then you have to save the file to your local hard disk if you don’t already have it there, open it, edit it, save it, then re-upload it. As much as we might want to persuade people that they could avoid this tedious process by abandoning their Word documents and just editing web pages directly, we have to accept that people are comfortable using Office and other desktop applications, and they don’t want to give them up. So, as with email in my first bullet point, perhaps we can find ways to fit better with the tools and ways of working that people already use and like, by making it quick and easy to get files created or edited on the desktop into (and out of) our systems.

Back in January ‘09 to see if I’m right.

October 03, 2007

Is the watch on the way out?

Walking around the conference these last few days, one thing that’s caught my eye is that watch wearers seem to be in the minority. Presumably, this is inversely proportional to mobile phone usage, which is ubiquitous, to the point where it’s sometimes seemed to me that as we all shuttle from one auditorium to the next, being on your phone is actually becoming preferable to talking to the person walking along next to you.

Almost everyone seems to be either talking excitedly into a mobile phone (often at this conference, an iPhone), or frowning ferociously as they read email from their Blackberry, tapping away urgently, in a manner suggestive of major crisis aversion. The phone: not just the new watch, but also the new umbilical cord.

September 30, 2007

Travellin' man

Despite my increasing aversion to long haul flights, I’ve dragged my suitcase down from the cupboard and set off for sunny Chicago for the Adobe Max 2007 conference. The conference doesn’t start till later today so it remains to be seen whether it justifies the trip, but till then a few random observations from the trip so far:-

  • Flying from Birmingham and changing in Europe beats going from Heathrow or changing at Newark by a mile, IMHO. There was literally nobody queuing at the check-in desk at Birmingham, and I’d checked in and cleared customs in less than fifteen minutes. Sweet.
  • But Charles de Gaulle airport took the shine off a little bit. Three transfer buses; one from the plane to the terminal, another from one terminal to another, and the last one back out to the next plane. I didn’t know big airports still did this sort of thing. Plus I’m 90% sure that I walked in pretty much a big circle inside the arrival terminal and got on my second bus thirty yards away from where I’d got off the first. And by golly, the CdG designers sure liked their concrete.
  • Queuing on the steps of the plane out of CdG, it was clear that the stewards greeted each person with “Hello” or “Bonjour” depending on whether they estimated the person to be English or French. I was obscurely pleased to be greeted with “Bonjour”. Perhaps it was my stylish man bag.
  • The plane had seat back video and multiple start times for all their content, which is great. But they still used those lame-ass double-plug headphone outlets which meant that I couldn’t use my noise-reducing headphones because I’d forgotten its double-plug adaptor. Bah. Luckily, though, I’d popped two movies on to my laptop so I still had something to do. (Noise reducing headphones on a long-haul flight, though, are pure gold. Totally worth it.)
  • It’s nice to be back in Chicago again. I came here quite often in the early nineties and it’s a lovely city. I particularly enjoy the train into the city from the airport, not least because it’s both a tiny fraction of the cost of a shuttle bus or a taxi, and at busy times of day (6pm for me) it’s faster. Thoughtfully, the train line runs overground and right between the lanes of the expressway for the first part of the journey, so you can actually watch the stationary traffic as you cruise past.
  • Wandering around yesterday, I noticed that the Sony store on North Michigan (the big shopping street) is gone, and an Apple store has sprung up in its place. Nice physical metaphor.
  • (I wandered in and tried an iPod touch and an iPhone for interest, though, but I’m not feeling it. For the first time ever I think the new generation of iPod hardware is no kind of advance at all on the previous generation. The physical form factor is fine, but the UI felt as though they were aiming for visual style rather than usability. No hardware controls for volume or play/pause or next/previous? Bonkers.)
  • I liked the labelling I saw on some trousers; they had “regular” fit, “slim” fit, or if you wanted something on the other side of regular, “husky” fit.

Next up: Why the Adobe conference?

July 26, 2007

How versus what

Imagine two factories making similar things. Widgets, if you’re happy with abstract examples; MP3 players, if you like to be able to visualise your thought experiment better.

In a spooky coincidence, factory A is run by Mr A, and factory B by Mr B. In a slightly unrealistic departure from reality, let’s assume that Mr A and Mr B are both responsible for everything to do with the creation of these widgets, right from their design through to their manufacture and their marketing.

Mr A and Mr B have slightly different views as to how they ensure that their factory turns out the best possible widget. If you ask Mr A about his role and responsibilities, he will tell you that it’s his job to be concerned about how his factory designs and builds things. He has, he will tell you, all sorts of metrics about how much the raw materials cost, how long the assembly takes, how many people work on the widgets, who does what and how long it takes them. He demands daily reports about how the factory is running and has spreadsheets, graphs and gant charts showing with great precision how today compares to yesterday, how this week compares to last week and what might reasonably be expected tomorrow and next week. If there is to be a change to the design of the widget or the way it’s manufactured, Mr A has processes in place to handle this too; there will be a process for defining the change and its costs and benefits, and a process for implementing the change when it’s ready.

Mr B, on the other hand, will tell you that his job is to be concerned about what the factory is building. His role is to provide a vision and a definition of what the widget should do, what it should look like, how it should work, how it behaves. Just as Mr A pushes to get the best possible process he can envisage, Mr B pushes for the best possible widget he can envisage. Should it have rounded corners? Square corners? How many buttons? Is it easy to work, straight out of the box? Does it do what people want? Will it surprise and delight them?

If you describe what Mr B does to Mr A and vice-versa, they are both politely sceptical about the way the other sees his role. How, wonders Mr A, can you run a business without caring about how things are done? But how, wonders Mr B, can you make great widgets if you don’t work and work at defining and refining your vision for what the widget is and does?

In some management theories, Mr A is a manager, but Mr B isn’t; he’s a leader. And obviously, it’s oversimplifying to suggest that any organisation works solely on Mr A’s or Mr B’s model; they all have some of both. But given the choice to buy a widget from an ‘A’ focussed company or a ‘B’ focussed one, which would you choose? Given the chance to buy shares in company A or company B, which would you choose?

July 25, 2007

Childrens' fiction of the seventies

For me, one of the treats of having children has been the chance to read them some of the stories which I enjoyed when I was a child myself. So far, I’ve discovered that Roald Dahl is as funny and sometimes gross to me now as he was then, Tove Jansen’s Moomin books are still charming and strange (and unusual for their willingness to explore melancholy, especially Moominland Midwinter), Mrs Pepperpot still rocks, and the Land of Green Ginger is still the funniest children’s book ever.

Some books I remember my local library having when I was a child now seem to have largely vanished; the Jennings) and Billy Bunter books are not to be found in public libraries nowadays (though Amazon, inevitably, can still sell them to you); presumably the boarding school world they depicted is too alien to appeal to many modern readers (not like that Harry Potter).

But what’s slightly irksome is that there are some books which I remember enjoying greatly as a child, but I can’t remember titles or authors, only plot snippets. For example:-

  1. This series of books featured a young boy whose father was a brilliant inventor. In the particular story I remember, the invention was a radio-controlled, clear plastic, camera-equipped flying device about the size of a dragonfly, which could be used to observe people and events at a distance. I remember thinking that this was a cleverer way to grant invisibility than the usual pseudo-science or magical trickery; even as a child I could see that being actually invisible was fraught with difficulties (what part of you is the light bouncing off to allow you to see?).
  2. In this book, a boy and his father are imprisoned by some bad guys in a larder, with a candle burning through a rope in the kitchen outside. When the rope is burnt through, the house explodes, so putting the flame out quickly is quite urgent. Ingeniously, the boy uses baking soda and vinegar (I think) to make carbon dioxide, which he pours down a folded paper chute to extinguish the flame; even though he can’t see what he’s pouring, he knows it will work. Genius: he was the Artemis Fowl of his day.
  3. In this book, some children are trapped on a (man-made) spaceship which they have to pilot back to earth. In what I remember as a slightly grittier and more realistic approach to such adventures than I’d read before, the spaceship is nuclear powered, and the children are slowly but steadily succumbing to radiation sickness. (Oddly, although I can’t remember the name or the author of this book, I’m almost sure that it was a Puffin book.)

Trying to discover the names of these books is an interesting example of a search exercise which isn’t well served by the internet and its search engines. There isn’t an easy way to say “I’m looking for a references to these terms within a children’s book”. There isn’t an easy way to say “These books were quite common during the 1970s, though I don’t know when they were written”. I suspect that what I really want is somebody who was working as librarian and dealt with children’s books during the 1970s, and who has a prodigiously good memory! So perhaps I can use the internet the other way around – the Lazyweb way – and post this entry, then sit back and wait for such a librarian or other knowledgeable person to stumble on my ramblings and supply me with the answers. We shall see.

July 13, 2007

Worn out music

Can you wear out your love for a song? When I first heard Golden Brown by the Stranglers, I adored everything about it – the quirky time signature, the unusual instrumentation, the vocal, the harmonies. I’d include it on my (age revealing) compilation tapes, and every time it came on in the car or on my (age revealing) walkman, I’d enjoy it over again.

But walking home today, when my iPod shuffled it, I listened to the first few seconds, and it didn’t do it for me any more; I skipped over it. Are songs like oranges, I wonder? Sweet and juicy to start with, but eventually, after a few plays, or a few dozen, or a few hundred, all the goodness is eventually sucked out of them and somehow it doesn’t work any more. And if that’s true, are some songs more prone to this than others? Perhaps one measure of quality for a song is how many plays it takes to suck the juice out of it. And could there be some songs which are infinitely juicy?

July 06, 2007

Writing about web page

How the heck is still in business? It quite blatantly publishes complete episodes of current TV shows in high resolution, high quality format, available to watch in the browser (with a small divx plugin) or to download to your PC.

Here, for example, are episodes 18 and 19 of Heroes, all the episodes of Dr Who you could ever want, and Life on Mars series 2, episode 1. Have they got some sort of invisibility cloak or something?

July 04, 2007

Recording internet radio

Writing about web page

So here’s a clever idea: there are lots of internet radio stations around the world which stream songs to your computer in the form of MP3 files. Being MP3 files, they have metadata in the stream which identifies the song and the artist. If you could somehow watch thousands of these internet radio stations at once, you could theoretically capture and keep almost any popular song within a few hours, just as (if you’re old enough) you perhaps once used to record the top 40 from Radio 1. And since recording Radio 1 for your own personal use wasn’t and isn’t illegal, isn’t the same true of making a recording from an internet radio station?

The snag is, of course, that it’s hard to monitor all these stations at once so that if you’re looking for, say, the new Chemical Brothers single, you can spot it as soon as a station starts playing it and start your recording. But since this is machine-readable data, that’s not a job that a human being needs to do any more, and so we find an interesting piece of software called RadioTracker. From the web page:-

Its built-in music database provides you with listings of over 80,000 artists and their music. Simply point, click and add your favourite artists and titles to your Wish List. Radiotracker delivers the music you’ve selected in MP3 format as soon as it is played on any of over 18,000 watched internet radio stations worldwide.

There even seems to be a bit of peer-to-peer cleverness going on between all running instances of the program:-

State-of-the-art, distributed technology is the secret to Radiotracker’s power. Leveraging this transparent functionality, Radiotrackers around the world are able to automatically inform each other about which internet radio station is beginning to play which music. Each executing Radiotracker Platinum application automatically sends all other Radiotracker applications a tiny message about which music is just beginning to play and where. ... It’s totally brilliant, and it’s totally legal.

Is it, though? The logic seems plausible; recording off the radio is legal, so recording off internet radio is legal, so getting a robot (where’s my icon designer?) to listen to internet radio stations for artists and songs you like and then recording them is legal. But the site fairly brazenly asserts that if their software works as described, the net effect is that you’ll be able to acquire all the MP3s you want costlessly and legally:-

Listening to radio broadcasts over the internet is fully legal. And just like with terrestrial radio, internet broadcasts can also be legally recorded. The broadcasting of radio programs requires the official approval of each country, along with payment of fees.

But aren’t “costlessly” and “legally” somewhat at odds with each other? It seems as though there ought to be something wrong with this picture, yet I suppose if you elected to build up your music collection solely by taping off the radio and you kept your collection to yourself, you’d be essentially legal; is this any different?

June 01, 2007

Python for men

Disturbing discovery of the day: there is an aftershave called Python for Men. Not entirely to my surprise, it’s for sale at a deep, deep discount.

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