Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Sat, 13 Dec 2008

Smart enough phone?

I'm not a huge mobile phone user. My PAYG account costs me a couple of pounds each month, so there is no point getting a contract that would cost a lot more, but it means I never get a cheap new phone. My current Samsung was second hand and is on its last legs. The aerial is broken and the battery does not last long. I'd like a nice smartphone that would give me some internet functionality, but can't justify the cost of £200+. Yesterday I read about the BenQ E72 on The Register. For around £100 it seems to offer most of the features I would want:

It lacks some things like a big screen and 3G, but I'll accept some compromised for a good price. The reviews suggest it's not great for power users, but they can probably justify the cost of an iPhone or Nokia n99999. I just want to gain some functionality I don't have at all and can live with it being behind the bleeding edge.

The main issue I can see is with the headphones. I use my PDA for music, but want to be able to get by with carrying just one device. For the rare times I need GPS I can take the Acer. I also ought to look at syncing data to my PC. I think that the newer Windows Mobile the BenQ has is supported on Linux. So is there any reason not to get one?

[16:12] | [Gadgets] | Comments | G

Being social

A couple of months back I write a couple of posts trying to express what I thought about some of the social networks out there. As I am likely to keep using some of them for a while I thought I would write up how I was using them.

Facebook seems to be the hot place these days, but I still don't like it much. It's tricky to link into from the rest of the web and does a poor job of telling you what has been updated on the groups you are in. I have 26 contacts there. All are people I know well. I don't post much there directly. It comes from feeds on other sites. I do play around with some of the applications such as Blog Networks and Visual Bookshelf.

My preferred site for sharing with friends is still Multiply. As most of the family on there I can share pictures with them safely. Most of them rarely post anything. I post stuff several times each month. I've got 23 contacts there, all friends and family.

Several people at work were on LinkedIn, so I joined that. It has my career details, but I'm not seeing any benefit for now. It has groups and Q&A sections that I don't really use. Perhaps it will be useful the next time I'm looking for a job. I have 50 contacts. Almost all are with my current employer.

One of the phenomena of the last year or so has been microblogging. Basically it's about posting short messages about what you are currently doing, but has been expanded to allow for sending replies and direct messages to people. I played with Twitter and gained a few friends as contacts. I also followed a few of the on-line celebrities. I've since trimmed my list to 10, but am followed by 45. Some of those are bots or people just trying to boost their numbers. Putting the word 'guitar' in my profile seemed to attract several in that area. I've blocked some of the more extreme marketeers.

Fairly soon after joining Twitter I heard about Identi.ca that was doing similar things, but in a much more open form with open-source software and open protocols. I've met lots of interesting people there and had some good discussions. I subscribe to 35 and have 46 subscribers. They have just introduced the ability to block, but I've had a lot less marketeers there than on Twitter.

For music I love last.fm for recommending me bands and supplying great streaming in whatever genre suits my mood. I've got 11 friends there that include a couple I have never met. There's not much communication going on there. There used to be a way to see when friends had posted, but I can't find an equivalent in the latest version.

For a few years I've been logging sites I'm interested in on del.icio.us (I don't approve in the change of URL). I keep an eye on what my contacts are bookmarking and that often leads to interesting stuff. I follow 9 and have 11 'fans'. 5 fall into both camps. I'm up to well over 3000 links now.

I've looked at various sites for aggregating feeds to allow me to track what friends are up to on sites I don't use. Friendfeed is pretty good and allows for commenting, but I don't get many of those. I follow 5 and have 7 subscribers (2 mutual). whoisi is an alternative for those who don't like having to create accounts. I use it to follow 9 people, but can't see how many subscribe to my stuff. There is some duplication from Friendfeed, so I may drop some to keep things manageable.

There are a few other social sites I use where I have a few contacts, but don't gain much from doing so including Slashdot and Youtube.

I don't have massed of friends to connect with on-line and a lot of my friends are not interested in doing so. I also am not into mass-friending strangers just to get the numbers up. I use these sites to get some real benefits in keeping up with friends and gaining useful news and information. The most useful sites are Multiply, Identi.ca, last.fm and del.icio.us.

[15:56] | [Internet] | Comments | G

Sun, 30 Nov 2008

Games I've played

On the BBC World Service Digital Planet pocast I heard about a project to create an archive of video games. That got me thinking about games I have played over the years. This means thinking back around 30 years and so I'm sure I've forgotten a few details.

I think that the first video games I encountered were the original arcade games starting with Pong and Space Invaders. Back then the graphics were black and white, but with some use of coloured films on the screen to make them look better. I spent a lot of time in the local arcades playing various games such as Pacman, Defender, Donkey Kong and others without ever becoming that good at them. I think they cost 10p a game back then and that soon gobbled up the pocket money. The one that I remember playing a lot when slightly older was the sit-in Star Wars with its great vector graphics and great sound as you attemted to blow up the Death Star. Since then I've played various arcade games. I quite like car and motorbike racing games, or a bit of mindless shooting.

At home we had some basic console with variants of Pong. I wonder what that cost back then. I probably lusted after wonders such as the Atari 2600. When I started upper school I got access to the local college mini via a terminal and acoustic coupler. There were some simple text-based games on there such as Lunar Lander and Artillery. A friend and I joined a local computer club and got to see all sorts of games on early home computers like the Commodore Pet, Tandy TRS80 and Atari 400/800.

When I was around 15 I saved up the £300 for a BBC Micro (Model A). I played many games on that, included some pirated at the computer club. I bought quite a few too such as the painfully slow, but graphically impressive Frak! and the wonderfully engrossing Elite. That consumed many hours of my youth trying to get to the higher ranks. Other games I remember are Chuckie Egg, Arcadians and some text adventures. I typed in various BASIC games from the magazines of the day, most of them disappointing. All this was using audio tape storage as a floppy drive was beyond my budget.

I didn't buy another computer for a long time after that, but had access to some PCs at work. At one job a colleage and I played a lot of Wing Commander. I think I encountered Lemmings there too. At a later job there were extensive Duke Nukem 3D death matches in the lunch hour.

Eventually I bought a second hand Amiga 500. On that and a later 1200 I played lots of games. Pinball Fantasies was fun. Alien Breed 3D was supposed to give you something like Doom, but had very basic graphics. Eventually I was able to play Doom when it became open source and clones were produced. By then my Amiga had a mighty 68040 chip with 128MB of memory and a 1.7GB hard drive.

Eventually I had to accept that the Amiga was a dying platform and bought a PC (350MHz PIII). The game I most played on that was Half Life under Windows 98.

Since I switched to Linux I have found less time for games. I have the odd burst of Frozen Bubble, Planet Penguin Racer or some form of Tetris. I've even had Doom clones running for some nostalgia and once got Half Life running on Wine, but didn't play very far. My play the non-violent games above and lots of on-line Flash games.

Last Xmas we got our Wii. That's something we can all play together and has given hours of fun, but tailed off recently. Perhaps some fresh games this Xmas will revive our playing.

I've never been the most active of gamers. I play for a bit of fun when I have nothing else to do. I'm way behind on the latest PC, arcade and console games. Most require too much commitment for me to even consider. No doubt my kids will demand better games as they get older and maybe I'll get to have a go with those.

[21:18] | [Computer] | Comments | G

Thu, 20 Nov 2008

Dead air

I'm not finding the time to blog much lately. There's a couple of things I want to write up, but it generally requires a spare hour to put anything together, especially if I want to include lots of links. The main one will be a history of video games I've played. I'm not a big gamer, but I go back a long way. I keep thinking of more.

Part of the problem is that I have to hack together a text file and upload it each time. Other blogging platforms make it easier, but I still like Pyblosxom.

So stay tuned. Meanwhile, here's something to offend all religions.

[13:10] | [Site News] | Comments | G

Tue, 04 Nov 2008

BOINC (can't think of a pun)

I seem to have missed out on reporting the completion of the OGR-25 project a few days back. I ran it at various times from when it started until the end. In the last few days it was hard to get any work units, so I started running Folding@home again. Anyway, OGR-25 finished, having confirmed that the known result was the optimal one. They are now moving on to the next few levels with the hope of taking less time due to better algorithms. From the stats it looks like a lot of people have dropped out, probably due to not having upgraded their clients. I bet there are thousands of PCs in offices out there that had it installed at some time, but then the person moved on.

Now that's over I would prefer to donate my processor cycles to projects with more benefit to mankind, mainly in the medical field, but I will consider other sciences. Folding@home is worthy, but it's a bit of a hack to get it running optimally, using all processor cores. You have to run two instances on my dual-core. There are scripts to do this, but then you are still limited in how you can monitor progress. There is also the fact that those with suitable graphics cards can process much more efficiently. I've got an older ATI card that I ought to install to try and get 3D working again, but it's not suitable for such GPU processing.

A response to a comment I posted on /. about OGR suggested that BOINC may be more suitable. It's from the people who did SETI@home many years ago. I ran that for a while too, but had doubts about the chances of finding aliens. They developed a later client that could run many types of project. The choice is somewhat overwhelming and it's hard to work out which might be worthiest, but I am concentrating on another protein project called Rosetta. You have the option to specify what percentage of time goes on each project. It would be useful to know how much processing a typical unit of each requires to work out what is suitable for older computers like my Duron that are not on so much.

BOINC is available in the Ubuntu repositories along with BOINC Manager that gives you a nice front end showing current progress and allowing full control of what, when and how much you process. I like to keep track of what I have done via my statistics and so have signed up to BOINCstats that links in with the manager and combines points from all my computers and projects. It took me a while to get it all running properly, but it's looking good now. I now have plenty of stats. I'm unlikely to climb very high in the charts compared to those running faster computers and dedicated 'farms', but I'm making a contribution.

[22:09] | [Computer] | Comments | G

Tue, 28 Oct 2008

Need..more..power

A month on I'm still with the band. I've been to several rehearsals and learnt more songs. We're working through some punk classics at the moment as they are quick to learn and sound good. We still need to figure out arrangements for the other songs. Last week we played about ten songs, some several times. I've been recording sessions on my Zoom H4 and have burnt some CDs for the others. The problem with that is getting a decent balance so that you can hear everyone. This is another area for us to work on. It's not helped by the limited PA options we have there.

At least I found out the cause of my buzzing noise. It seems that the guitar lead I got with my first electric about twenty years ago has given up the ghost. I was worried that it was the guitar as I was using a Marshall Valvestate that lives at the studio last week. Once we sorted the buzz it sounded great. A nice chunky sound that made my Peavey sound distinctly weedy. I had been thinking that I need something beefier to cut through with the band. I reckon I need something with at least 50W with at least one 12" speaker. The power requirement will depend on what sort of gigs we play and whether I can go through the PA. As for the sound I think that valves may play a part. I'm not sure I can afford a full valve amp, so it would probably be some sort of hybrid. Marshall have various models, some with extra effects that may not be up to much. Another range that looks possible are the Vox Valvetronix that aim to model various amps whilst incorporating a valve. The Line 6 Spider goes all out with modeling. I really need to find somewhere that I can try several, but that will have to wait until I have the funds. I'll consider second hand if something crops up.

Playing live gigs is an unknown world for me, even though I've been to hundreds. I expect that finding the right set of gear is a long path for most guitarists, but I'm open to any advice. The web is full of guitar sites. Some even specialise in showing you famous players' rigs. I'm suffering again from information overload.

I ought to go and practice now.

[20:50] | [Music] | Comments | G

Fri, 24 Oct 2008

More socialising

Perhaps my last post didn't get across what I really think about the social network sites. I want to keep control of what I write rather than relying on some corporation to keep all the old stuff and not surround it with ads that I have no interest in. That's why I maintain this blog as my primary means of expression.

Blogs used to be a bigger part of the web, but have been drowned out by the big networks. This has been a hot topic this week on Wired that drew responses on other sites.

It's actually never been easier to find and follow blogs with services like Google Reader. You can see immediately when a new post comes in. The danger is getting overwhelmed. I have to keep cutting back on feeds. There are still issues with comments. You don't see them in Reader unless you click through to the original article and even then most people will not plough through hundreds of comments. If there are more than a couple of screens' worth I expect most people will just move on after reading the article. Even if they want to comment they will fear being lost in the flood. Not a problem on this site.

Perhaps more people would run a blog if they knew that there are some fairly easy to use ways to do it, e.g. on Wordpress or Blogger. Those sites may offer some social features, but only within their own systems. What's needed are open standards for cross-blog communication. I think that some exist already. There are certainly ways to link to friends such as FOAF and XFN that I have tried to use. It seems that Google is now reading these.

The other thing that is missing from blogs is a standard way to restrict access to certain items. I don't want to put photos of my kids on my site for the world to see. That's why they go on Multiply. Perhaps something could be done using OpenID. I like the idea of linking that in with people I have in my FOAF file to automatically allocate access rights, but don't know how to implement it.

I need to do yet more reading to work out what is possible and backed up by standards to make my site more useful. Suggestions welcome.

[22:46] | [Internet] | Comments | G

Sat, 18 Oct 2008

Socialising

I've been doing some thinking about social networks on the net and what they provide. People like to communicate and share opinions, tips, pictures, gossip and other nuggets of information. Before the internet most of us were limited in how many people we could reach, but now you have the potential to reach anyone with internet access. Inevitably this has led to a glut of junk out there, but there is gold to be found too. Professional writers are likely to be more consistent in their output, but they can't cover everything.

Those of us with the technical aptitude can host our own web site with complete control. Most people will prefer to use a hosted service that does the hard work for them so that they can concentrate on the content. The other thing these services can provide is the ability to connect to other people, but generally only those who are also registered with that service. In order to reach some of my friends I have joined some of these services with varying degrees of success.

There are lots of sites that allow people to link up, but provide limited options on communication. Slashdot lets you link to people, but only to see what comments and posts they have and with no way to know when there are updates. delicious lets you track other peoples' bookmarks, but there is no way to post other content.

Twitter offers a minimal system of short messages, with the option to follow any other member without the need for them to reciprocate, unless you decide that you only want friends to read what you like. identi.ca is a promising open source alternative that I'm finding useful.

Of the sites that provide a wide range of social options my favourite is still Multiply. From the start it has been about keeping in touch with people you know rather than building a huge network of strangers. You can post text, images, video and audio with complete control over who can access it. I use it to post pictures for friends and family with the option to restrict access. They get an email when I do so. It has worked well for me for a few years, but I find the others less enthusiastic about posting stuff themselves. The site recently announced reaching the ten million member mark.

Facebook has been getting lots of attention in the media and is growing at an incredible rate. I joined because some friends were there, but have found it disappointing. It aims to create a 'walled garden' subset of the internet. I guess it is safe in that you don't have to tell anyone your email address and can block anyone from your profile. But it is so shut down that you can't see anything there without joining. Allowing access to any aspect of your profile seems to be limited to all friends or everyone and tracking what has been updated is difficult.

Some people consider some of these sites to be evil for various reasons. I accept that they can abuse your data to feed you with advertising, but that's how they make a living and it's not much different to what various other businesses do. I accept some loss of privacy in exchange for the benefits of loyalty cards and gain from recommendations on various shopping sites based on previous purchases. Some of the methods these sites use may also be suspect, but I'm not sure if they are interesting in anything beyond making money.

Some people are trying to exploit the social sites as ways of reaching an audience for their art. They can provide a direct link between artist and fans. Steve Lawson is a good example of this. He is now passing on his experience to others.

Personally I'd like to see better ways for us all to be able to manage our own data, but still have the benefits of networking. Simple options exist such as RSS feeds to track blog updates and comment systems. I ought to investigate things like trackback that give feedback of cross-blog comments. I would like to be able to post comments on other blogs and get updates on follow-ups without having to subscribe to lots of feeds or rely on emails. Are there standards for this that I am missing out on? I realise that my blogging platform is not the most advanced, but I don't intend to change that any time soon.

For now I will deal with the frustrations of the big social networks as a way to track others and make them aware of my blog posts, which will remain my primary means of self-expression. My hope it to reach a small audience who may be able to help me to reach more people, including the non-techies, using open standards. Thanks for reading.

[21:31] | [Internet] | Comments | G

Fri, 26 Sep 2008

Rock banned

For some time I've been looking around for some musical outlets apart from playing djembe with Secret Bass. The drumming is fun, but I feel the need for something melodic. I've posted details on various sites including Facebook and Multiply. A couple of people contacted me, but nothing came of it. I also posted to more specific sites, including Muso Finder. That also generated responses. One was for a rock band that needed more commitment than I could offer, then another came in this month that sounded more realistic.

Bass player Warren was looking for a second guitarist for a rock covers band. Rehearsals would be once a week with, perhaps, a few gigs per year. He mailed me a list of songs they do for an audition a week later. So I got searching the various tab sites for tips and used Youtube both to find performances and tutorials. I was able to work out half a dozen songs.

The venue was a rehearsal studio converted from an old barn on a farm. There I met the band, Warren, singer Ben, drummer Paul and guitarist Tom. Tom is young enough to be my son(!), but the rest are nearer my age. They all seem to be seasoned performers, but I managed to play well enough for them to invite me back. And it was great fun. Just holding down the rhythm is actually pretty hard work, requiring concentration. I'm not confident enough to play leads yet, but I hope that will come. I will also be interested to work on arrangements that make the most of two guitars. The material consists of songs from Rolling Stones, Black Crowes, Free, Bryan Adams and others.

We got together again this week, but without a bassist due to work commitments. We still managed to work on some other songs and tweak the arrangements. It will be a while before we are ready for gigs.

My Gordon Smith guitar is ideal for this sort of music, if not quite as good as Tom's Les Paul. His valve Laney is also better than my old Peavey, but that coped pretty well. I just need to work out why it is buzzing so much when I'm not playing. I may have to look at getting a newer amplifier. You can get a lot for your money these days and the choice is vast. Anything from traditional valve amps through to digital modelling units with multiple effects. I think I could do with a set-up that gives me a range of sounds to suit the different material, but I'll get by with what I have for now. I will need a few accessories such as a capo for playing in different keys and some decent plectra that do not disintegrate like the cheap ones I have. I've destroyed a couple already. I did get some earplugs. Standing next to a drumkit with amps turned up to compete is not too healthy in the long term and I love music too much to risk my hearing.

Some might consider this to be a mid-life crisis thing, but I've always wanted to do something musical and never got around to making it happen. Even if this comes to nothing I will have learnt a lot of new songs and gained some experience that could lead to something else. For now I'm just enjoying the ride.

[21:52] | [Music] | Comments | G

Sat, 20 Sep 2008

What's connected?

I recently subscribed to the Audiophiliac blog on good old Cnet. I used to get my computer news from them many years ago. I was just interested to see what was going on in the AV world. Not that I can afford to splash out on new gadgets. I was reading this post that asks what people have hooked up to their AV receivers. In my case it would be:

So my old Yamaha receiver is not being overwhelmed with connections. It can route video too, but only composite, so I never used that feature. I have enough connections on the Toshiba TV to use component video for the DVD, RGB SCART for the Pace and composite for the Wii. I also have the Pace feeding audio to the TV via optical digital. I've aspired to getting better quality cables, but have resisted apart from the component, but that was low end. Everything looks and sounds fine anyway. I'm constrained by having to keep things simple enough for the family to work it. They seem to manage. It's just a shame that my nice Logitech multi-remote died so that we have gone back to using multiple remotes.

I don't actually spend that much time in front of the TV. I spend more at the PC, but get to watch a DVD once in a while. The last couple of things I watched with the family were King Kong (recorded from TV), the new Peter Jackson version that was pretty good and looked excellent, and the new Merlin series on BBC1 that may be fun. There was a good documentary about Roxy Music last night, but I watched that on the PC via MythTV. I'm still on my old 19" CRT, but fancy a 24" LCD one of these days.

I'm not that bothered about getting HD. It requires too much investment and I don't think that most TV would benefit that much. I'm sure some nature programmes look stunning, but they look fairly good on our old TV. I don't feel the need to subscribe to cable or satellite and free HD is a few years away.

I was listening to the Digital Planet podcast where they were talking about Super HI Vision that delivers 16x the pixels of HD and 22.2 sound. Apparently they can squeeze the signal down a 1Gb link. So it's a few years away from the home. Maybe my kids will have it when they grow up.

[21:58] | [Gadgets] | Comments | G

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