Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Fri, 05 Feb 2010

ebooking

This was prompted by some recent posts by my fried Wulf about ebooks. I've read a few ebooks on my Palms and my phone. These have all come from free sources such as Feedbooks. We still buy books, but mostly for Xmas and birthdays. I have enough to keep me going for a while as I don't find much time for reading apart from in bed and then I seem to be catching up on the interesting bits of that week's Saturday Guardian. I still keep a few books on my phone to fill the time when I'm hanging around somewhere with nothing to do. I've been reading one of Cory Docktorow's books for months now. A colleague has his Windows phone or iPhone on his desk with a book on screen to read whilst waiting for code to compile.

I find my phone adequate for reading novels. There's no need for fancy navigation, search and other features. I have seen some dedicated ereaders, such as the Sony devices. The screens look readable, but I don't like single-purpose devices. Having an all-in-one device is more convenient, but always means some compromises. I've not seen a Kindle.

I would only pay for ebooks if they offer good value. I think they should cost much less than a paper book for various reasons. They have minimal production costs, you lose some convenience in being able to share them with friends, especially if DRM is used and they have no resale value. Similar criteria apply to music, but I have bought a few download albums that were reasonably priced and DRM-free. Both have immediacy in that you can order them and not have to wait for delivery. I can ereaders as being more useful for ephemeral media like newspapers and magazines, but publishers have to find new ways to present their material and perhaps still force advertising on the reader.

The iPad has been mentioned as a medium for reading books. It may be usable as such, but seems too big to carry around with you. I'd be happy just to have a phone with a larger screen as long as it still fits in my pocket. I can sort of see a market for the iPad (crap name) as a media consuming device for the non-technical. Some people don't want to worry about operating systems and files. They just want to watch video, listen to music or surf the web. No doubt people will find other uses for it, e.g. as a control surface in audio/video work.

Something I've heard a few times is that Apple design their devices to be easy to use, but Microsoft try to cram in maximum features and worry about the controls later. My Windows phone is certainly clunky to use. I much prefer the Palm UI, but I don't even have a touch screen on this phone. I'm unlikely to change phones again for a while, so I'll get by with this one, despite the cracked screen. I have other demands on my money for a while.

[22:05] | [Gadgets] | Comments | G

Thu, 04 Feb 2010

Jamming at the Plough

As previously mentioned I've been mostly playing my acoustic guitar since the band project dried up. I've been keeping an eye on sites like musofinder and Bandmix for possible collaborations. With my general lack of time it would have to be something local and not require too much commitment.

I also subscribe to updates from the Lemonrock gigs listing site to see what's going on locally. I noticed there were 'Jam sessions' at a pub the other side of Hitchin. The listing said it was an Open-Mike, but I thought I'd have a look. I practiced a couple of songs and took my guitar along a just before Xmas. The pub is slightly off the beaten track down some tiny roads. It took me a while to found as I foolishly didn't use the sat-nav. When I got there I found the organiser Rick getting set up. He said it really was a jam session and to bring in my guitar. He plays ukulele, mandolin and violin. Other people turn up each week, mostly with guitars, but we've had banjos, saxophone and didgeridoo(!). The music varies between Irish and other folk tunes, sixties pop song, blues and other genres. I've done a few rock songs I know and people join in. Generally people have chord/lyric sheets that you can use or I just watch others for the changes. I've even been doing some singing. I'm not great, but I'd like to improve. There are other people in the pub, but I don't feel too self-conscious.

Some weeks are rehearsals for the pub 'band', the Ploughmen. I played at one of those where there were more songs I knew. It's all good practice, but I could do with improving my chord repertoire and technique. I'm looking around for a teacher to get some lessons. They are a friendly crowd with some good players, including a member (still) of the band Matchbox who had a hit in my youth and a director of a UK guitar company who plays a mean guitar and banjo.

I need to find some more songs to learn and share with them. I'm trying to find some that stretch me a bit. I did The Eagles' New Kid in Town this week and just about made it through after trying to throw in a few twiddly bits. Song suggestions are welcome. I try to practice a few times a week, but am also helping my son learn. His piece this week is Green Day's Good Riddance that I would like to play myself.

I've just splashed out on a few guitar accessories. I've had the same strings on my guitar for ages, so got some more sets. Although I have multiple devices to tune my guitar (in Zoom H4, Korg Pandora and Roland amp) I lacked something convenient for tuning the acoustic and so bought a Korg AW-2G. It's a very neat gadget and seems to work well. I used to have a Korg tuner years ago, but sold it when I didn't think I'd be playing much acoustic. This is better as you just clip it on and it picks up vibrations through the guitar. I bought from Strings Direct who got it to me today even though I only ordered yesterday afternoon.

[21:50] | [Music] | Comments | G

Mon, 11 Jan 2010

And Another Thing...

I must have been reading and listening to various incarnations of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for nearly 30 years now. I've re-read all the books, listened to the radio series, watched the TV series and film and played the adventure game. I'm currently reading the books to my daughter. Sadly Douglas Adams died tragically young and so didn't get the see the (disappointing) film completed, or finish the third Dirk Gently book. Now the H2G2 series has been continued by Eoin Colfer whose Artemis Fowl books my daughter also enjoys.

This volume continues the adventures of Arthur, Ford, Zaphod and Trillian with more Vogon encounters, some deities and various other species. The style is similar to that of the later DNA books with lots of extra little details. It was enjoyable, but lacked a certain spark. I felt there wasn't enough of Arthur. Maybe I identify with him, Sign of middle age? It's worth a read if you have read the others, but may be confusing if you haven't. Friends can borrow my copy.

I'm currently reading Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals. This time it's about football and is also fun. Full report when I find time to finish it.

In parllel I'm also reading Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. I have this as an ebook on my phone from Feedbooks. It's there to pass the time when I and stuck somewhere with nothing else to do. It's a good, geeky read about our evolving society, with some magical elements.

[21:47] | [Review] | Comments | G

Netbooking

I hadn't owned much in the way of portable computers until recently. I've owned a number of PDAs, including Psion 3a, Palm IIIx, Palm Zire 71, Acer n35 and my current Benq E72 'smartphone', but could never justify the cost of a laptop PC. A couple of years back I was given an old Toshiba laptop (Pentium III 600/128MB/6GB) that enabled me to program my house control system. That system seems to have stopped working. If anyone wants to try and do something with it then let me know. More recently I acquired a slightly newer HP laptop that is much more usable and gives me the ability to play video on the TV via the S-Video port. If I can get it networked up then it may find a use as a general media player in the living room.

Ever since the Asus EEE PCs appeared I have fancied one. They have come a long way since then and are now very capable PCs, even though they are a lot less powerful than the average desktop. Their advantage lies in being very portable. I'm a lot more likely to take something the size of a hardback book with me than something that weighs as much as a couple of house bricks and needs a large bag. I went for something at the lower end of the market in the form of a Samsung N130. The price was reasonable and was sweetened by a £20 cashback offer from which I just received the cheque. The specification is fairly standard, N270 Atom CPU, 10" LCD, 1GB/160GB. Battery life seems pretty good, but has not been tested that much yet. The first real use it got was as a DVD player on our skiing holiday. I could have ripped DVDs to the drive, but didn't have time to our new Xmas movies before we departed on Boxing Day, so bought a cheap DVD/CD-RW drive on ebay. The built-in speaker is a bit weedy, so I also got an X-mini speaker. It's only mono, but charges via USB, is pretty loud and very portable.

We were able to watch our DVDs using VLC, which generally worked well, but did give some audio stutters. This was using XP. I really wanted to get a netbook with Linux, but the options are more limited these days. I fully intend to install some form of Linux on it, but have not found the time. I know that Ubuntu has some issues with the wireless, so may consider other distros. I need to do some research. Meanwhile, the Samsung is getting a lot of use as a way of accessing the web in rooms other than the study.

Our other major hardware acquisition recently is a Wii Fit board. This is another clever device from Nintendo. We're exploring the included software that includes all sorts of exercise routines and some games. It lacks the ability to put together a full programme of exercises to form a routine, but I understand the new 'Plus' software can do that. We may buy that if we find we are using it enough. We also got the Mario & Sonic Winter Olympics game that can use the board. I find the Wii games so intuitive as you generally just have to move to play the game rather than dealing with tricky button combinations. I just wish I had more time to explore the games we have, but the kids get a lot of fun from them.

[21:24] | [Gadgets] | Comments | G

Wed, 16 Dec 2009

Going Googleless

A post by Benjamin Ellis prompted me to think about how dependent I am on Google for my daily use of the internet.

These are the Google services I use and some possible replacements:

There are a few areas of my on-line life that are not dominated by Google. Microblogging is covered by identi.ca and Twitter, links by Delicious, but I might be tempted if Google offered alternatives with the same coverage if they integrated with their other services.

One of the reason I use so many Google services is the integration between them. It's still limited, but has great potential. It tends to work less well with services they have bought up rather than developing internally.

So could I give up Google, if only for a limited time? I think I could, but I would probably miss it. I'd love to see all the services I want offered as open source/protocol options. This would free us from having to use a single provider and even allow us to host them ourselves. I could host my own microblog (status.net), photos (Gallery), IM (Jabber) and others, but there would be little integration and there's a fairly high maintenance overhead.

This post was partially composed in a Gmail draft in my lunch hour so I could finish it at home.

[20:59] | [Internet] | Comments | G

Sun, 13 Dec 2009

A Christmas Carol

There have been many versions of this Charles Dickens story and I've seen a fair few of them. I may well try to catch the Muppet version over Xmas. Today I saw the new version starring Jim Carey. Director Robert Zemeckis uses the same motion capture techniques as in Polar Express to create a very realistic computer animation. At times you almost forgot that it was not real people on screen, but there's still the 'uncanny valley' to cross before it can be totally convincing. There were plenty of shots that would be impossible in the realistic world. It was very obviously made to be seen in 3D with lots of things rushing towards the 'camera' and wild journeys over the London rooftops, but we saw it in 2D. As far as the story goes I understand it stays very close to what Dickens wrote, but I have never read it. The dialogue certainly seemed authentic. The acting is perfectly adequate. I'm not a fan of Carey when he acts zany, but he was very good in The Truman show and he also plays this fairly straight. I see he did a lot of voices apart from Scrooge.

I saw the film at the Sunday morning Kids' Club at the Letchworth Broadway in the company of a load of kids between 8 and 11. The story isn't really aimed at kids and the film is very wordy. I think they enjoyed the action sequences, but some of them found parts scary.

I think it stands up as a telling of a well known story and shows off the state of the art in animation. It's worth seeing, but not really for kids, even if it is from Disney.

[21:50] | [Entertainment] | Comments | G

Sat, 28 Nov 2009

URL ABC

Saw this over at Wulf's blog. Yet another meme to pass away the cold days. Put each letter of the alphabet into the Firefox 'Awesome bar' and see what comes up.

  1. http://www.amazon.co.uk/
  2. http://bagofspoons.net/blog/
  3. http://www.thecarbonaccount.com/
  4. http://del.icio.us/steevc
  5. http://ebuyer.com/
  6. http://www.facebook.com/
  7. http://www.google.com/ig
  8. http://herts.lug.org.uk/
  9. http://identi.ca/steevc
  10. http://www.jumpstation.co.uk/flog/flog.html
  11. http://www.ebay.co.uk/
  12. http://www.last.fm/user/steevc
  13. http://steevc.multiply.com/
  14. http://news.bbc.co.uk/
  15. http://openstreetmap.org/
  16. http://pfgm.org.uk/
  17. http://disqus.com/
  18. http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab
  19. http://www.sixstringbliss.com/
  20. http://twitter.com/steevc
  21. http://ubuntuforums.org/
  22. http://www.myspace.com/okavanga09
  23. http://wave.google.com/
  24. http://xml.mfd-consult.dk/foaf/explorer/
  25. http://www.youtube.com/
  26. http://www.zenatode.org.uk/

I've excluded anything financial or work-related. And no, there weren't any porn sites.

I find the Firefox address bar a real boon for finding sites I've visited as you can type any part of a site URL or title and have a chance of finding it. I rarely bookmark sites in the browser these days. Sites I may revisit some time go on del.icio.us.

[14:38] | [Internet] | Comments | G

Sat, 14 Nov 2009

Muse at the O2

Standard rambling introduction: I first heard Muse about 10 years ago when xfm were playing Muscle Museum and Unintended. I wrote them off initially as Radiohead imitators, but they have carved their own niche over the years. They remind me of bands like Queen who would produce mini operas with loud guitars. My other half is also a fan, along with a broad swathe of the general population. They can sell out large stadia in minutes.

This was my second gig at the O2, after Prince. This time our seats were in the upper levels. I'd heard that these were not good for vertigo sufferers and we happened to have one with us. She coped well, helped by having a seat with a barrier in front of it. We were at the far end from the stage. So a long way away, but at least we got the front-on view. The O2 facilities are pretty good. Loads of restaurants and bars. It's a long way from anything else, but the transport links are reasonable.

Support was by The Big Pink who I knew from their single Dominos. They reminded me a bit of Depeche Mode in their industrial phase. It was hard to make out any lyrics. They were a bit annoying in using really bright lights behind them that shone straight at us. Maybe they are just really ugly and don't want to be seen except in profile.

The stage set consisted of 3 huge towers that I thought initially were just backdrop. The muse set started with nothing else visible on the stage and the towers lit up like tower blocks and then video of people marching up stairs. Then the middle parts dropped away to expose the band up on these high platforms. Later they would drop down so they could use the whole stage, but went up again later. The drum kit would rotate at times. The band played a storming show with hits from across their career, including early song Unintended. The light show was amazing with green lasers filling the hall and lots of projection on the towers. I've seen a few bands not using conventional rectangular screens. It's visually interesting, but not so good for clearly seeing them. We had a good sing-along to the hits. Unlike the McFly gig I took my daughter to the sound was not deafening. The level was about right, but not enough to drown out the people who insisted on chatting all the time behind us. Can't they just enjoy the music?

Overall I thought it was a great show for a big venue. I still like to see a good band in a small hall, but my other half likes to see the big names. The next day Muse announced they are playing Wembley Stadium next September. I'm sure they can do that well as they did recently, but do I really want to go?

Due to train problems the rest of our group drove to Cockfosters and got the tube from there. We managed to get back there despite the band finishing at 11. It took a while to get onto the platform due to the huge crowd, but then it was an easy journey. I don't know what we would have done if we had missed the last train. From Cockfosters it was an easy drive on empty motorways to drop off one person at Luton then home to Arlesey by 1:45. Luckily I was able to have a lie in.

[11:46] | [Music] | Comments | G

#1pound40

I heard about this 'unconference' from Steve Lawson. He didn't make it in the end due to pending baby. I don't normally get to technical conferences as they are generally too expensive for me to fund and my work don't send me to any. This one had the attractive price of £1.40, although the suggested fee was higher when it came to booking, but with profits going to charity. I thought it would be an interesting experience and so took a day off to go down to the Reuters office in Canary Wharf.

I have to say that Reuters looked after us very well with ample food and drink laid on. They have some nice looking offices with a large room that was used for the conference. I didn't really know many people there and so plonked myself at a random table. I was expecting to hear a series of talks, but the format consisted of someone introducing a topic (politics, news etc) and then we discussed it among those at our table and should post a tweet with our thoughts. At my first table were people from The Guardian, Reuters, the Open University and other organisations. We had some wide-ranging discussion around the topic. Later I met up with my former colleague @TiaAzulay and some new people, including @edent for a different discussion. For the final topic Tia and I were with @mattbuck_hack and @alexhughes of @drawnalism who were drawing the event. You can see the results here, including one of me.

I made my first appearance on Audioboo elaborating on a comment I made in the politics discussion.

The day ended with a panel of twitterati luminaries summing up the state of the twittersphere (not sure about the new language). Common themes from the day were that Twitter is not very representative of the general population and that there is more to journalism that just reporting what is happening. I think that the simplicity of Twitter and open alternatives like identi.ca means that they can be used in many ways. The 140 character limitation can be a pain. You can't explain complex topics and so conventional writing on blogs and elsewhere is still needed.

After the panel people milled around drinking and chatting. I didn't get the names of everyone I met, but I know I talked to these folk, @paulafeery, @misetak, @anniemole, @nchnone, @countculture. I left with my head buzzing from all the cool discussions I'd had. I have to plans to start any sort of internet or Twitter-based business, but I do want to play more with the technology. I just need to find the time.

[11:19] | [Internet] | Comments | G

Mon, 09 Nov 2009

Karmic Koala

The title refers to the code-name of the latest version of Ubuntu Linux that was released late last month, also known as 9.10. I ran an upgrade on my system, after backing up, and it ran very smoothly. The 1.5GB of packages took about 20 minutes to download (bit faster than my old modem) and the install was all done in under an hour. The system restarted cleanly and all looked well.

The KDE apps look a little different and there are some new options for decorating the desktop. I don't bother as I'm always running full-screen apps. Amarok has been updated with improved podcast support. It's still not up to where the old V1.4 was before the re-write, but getting better. Kmail seems a bit more stable and less likely to stall when reading my inbox.

Gwibber seemed messed up, so I installed Choqok micro-blogger. It lacks there combined timeline, but is otherwise nice. I had to re-install MythTV, but it picked up the old settings and is working.

I still have problems with losing sound when multiple users are logged in. I seems to come back eventually, sometimes. The more serious, new, problems is random X Server crashes. I've seen this most when a third user logs in. Their session crashes with minimal messages in the log. I don't know if it's related, but I now see two sessions for each user when I run w, one for startkde and another for kwrited. I've not found any other references to this.

Overall I would rate this as a reasonable successful upgrade. The PC was not un-usable at any point, but the crashing sessions are a concern. I'll try and work out what might be causing it, but I'm not great at this sort of diagnosis.

[21:45] | [Computer] | Comments | G

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