bookmark_borderHighs and Lows

Well that was a pretty, damn epic weekend.

Friday night involved mulled cider, lipstick on boobs, and other nefarious goings on including realising it was time to go to bed because daylight was returning. It was one of those unexpectedly good evenings of making new friends, and probably involved a little more whisky than was sensible but everyone involved had a great time. Not sure I could handle doing that every weekend mind you… getting old … but as you are only as old as the woman you feel… well I’m a lot younger than most of you 😉

Saturday involved not enough sleep, hangovers, chocolate Santas, an afternoon snooze, and an evening with a Mr. Bill Bailey who was tear-inducingly funny as well as bloody talented. I won’t spoil any of the jokes, although some of the funniest moments was him reacting to the Glasgow audience, including an (I think) off the cuff story of a Glasgwegian friend of his trying to order a pint of lager in Holland, in typical Glasgwegian brogue delivered at 1000mph. The tour was called Dandelion Mind, worth catching it on DVD when it comes out (if it comes out).

And finally a lazy Sunday which involved a bit more sleep, and a wedding reception in Perth. It was the wedding of the daughter of my parents close friends (close enough that they are ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle’ by name). So good to see the bride so happy, she deserves it, and she even gave us all a wee song. Shame we had to leave early but some of us had to be in work this morning.

But wait! Even though it’s now Monday, Kirsty and I have decided to extend the weekend to include tonight, which involves poetry delivered by a friend of my sisters. He’s bloody good and I’m really looking forward to hearing him deliver his own material.

Alas, amongst the highs came the sad news of Gary Speed. A young man (he was 42), who was successful, universally liked and whose suicide came as a real shock. The presumptions (I’ve not seen it confirmed anywhere and it’s almost beside the point…) is that he was suffering from depression.

Long time readers and close friends will know I too have had my share of ups and downs with the dreaded D word. I was going to write more about that, and I probably will. But not today.

Today is for focussing on the highs, finishing the weekend of awesome (as it will heretofore be known) and counting my blessings, for I have many.

bookmark_borderFirst World Problems

I’ve been in my flat for just over a week now, I’ve unpacked as much as I can until I purchase more bookcases and it’s starting to feel like home. The living room is a wonderful big space with lots of light, the kitchen is way bigger than my simple needs but allows me to eat at a table every night and the location is wonderful. But, there is one thing missing.

No, not the cat.

An internet connection!

It’s getting installed at the end of the month and whilst I have missed it I’ve gotten by quite well using my iPhone, although it’s fair to say any ‘smartphone’ would’ve done and it’s definitely saved my arse several times this past week as I’ve been organising new direct debits, checking addresses and names, not to mention the myriad of phone numbers I’ve had to contact.

I have gotten so used to having a permanent connection to the web that I’m still finding myself thinking “I’ll just check…” or “I’m bored I’ll see what’s online…” or any other of the many and plentiful (and usually pointless but entertaining) reasons for using the internet that it still catches me out. Suffice to say that, when you include the fact that for the best part of the first week I didn’t have any more than the five terrestial channels, the whole thing has been a bit of a culture shock.

It’s not like I didn’t have anything to do mind you, those boxes didn’t unpack themselves (and I won’t even START on the fiasco that actually selling the house has turned into… I’ll save that for another time), but did mean that my entertainment was largely confined to listening to some music, reading a book, watching a DVD or firing up the PlayStation.

Or tidying and cleaning and unpacking and building furniture and shuffling the last possessions between the house and the flat and far too many trips to charity shops and the local dump and lawyers offices and so on.

All in all it’s been an odd and jarring experience to have my access to the internet, and all the TV channels that I used to get on Sky, removed so abruptly.

Jarring but also quite liberating.

I’ve found myself much more productive without all of those distractions. I’ve hardly read any books yet as they are still packed in boxes, and I find gaming wears on me after a while, most terrestial TV is complete dross and so I either commit to watching a movie or spend 30 mins sorting through a box, or shuffling items between rooms. That 30 mins soon stretches to an hour or two and before I know it I’ve finished unpacking the kitchen.

I built my new desk and got my PC up and running and, despite having a fair amount of video content on there I found myself more inclined to pop some music on and do some writing (most of it complete tosh but I still enjoy the process).

All in all I’ve quite enjoyed that lo-tech week.

I’ve got freeview now, and a nice wee PVR system which uses the PlayStation (Play TV if you are interested), so at least I can record shows I want to see which should open up the TV a bit more, but I’m hoping that I’ll hold true to my plans and stick with a more considered approach. I’ll always be busy, it’s in my nature, but I’m hoping to keep the focus I’ve developed over the past week.

Mind you, I am looking forward to spending a weekend on the sofa soon. Yes. All weekend. Nothing but me, some movies and several boxes of Jaffa cakes.

bookmark_borderBad bad bad

The other day, as I was off work with a bad back, I found myself on the sofa aimlessly surfing the channels for something to distract me. I must have channel hopped for about 20 minutes before I realised it was approaching the hour and there might be a movie starting on one of the many movie channels at my disposal.

Please note that by this point I had watched all the movies and TV shows that I’d previously recorded and the prospect of painfully extracting myself from the sofa to get a DVD, and then trying to bend down to put it in the player, was not an appealing one. There was a book nearby but I wasn’t really in a reading kind of mood and frankly I was just looking for something to act as a distraction.

And that may have been why I found myself watching Babylon A.D.

Don’t get me wrong, it was certainly a distraction in as much as it was fascinatingly awful in a myriad of ways. The only way I can explain how bad it was is to suggest that for the most part, whilst watching the movie, I felt like I was watching some pre-release edit where the final scenes hadn’t actually been filmed or properly cut together. Quite bizarre. If it weren’t for the fact that I couldn’t lie down as it was too painful, I’d have guessed that I’d fallen asleep for a few minutes here and there.

In saying that it was a good distraction, yes it was dull, badly shot, woeful written, poorly edited and by and large I’d suggest you all avoid if at all costs, but ultimately it left me pondering.

Why do we watch bad movies?

I say we because I know that other people do this, that once we have committed to watching a movie then, come hell or high water, we’ll damn well see it through to the end. Oddly, for me at least, that commitment takes all of a few minutes to make but once I’m past that point then no matter how awful the acting, or directionless the directing, I will watch until the closing credits.

The same sort of weird logic applies to watching a movie from part way through. Typically this only happens if those first few minutes are enough to grab my attention, a perfect example of this would be Duel. I remember flicking through the channels late one night and happened across this movie about halfway through. There was something about the way it was shot and acted that grabbed my attention.

I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on but I was gripped, watching the rest of the movie and thoroughly enjoying it despite knowing I’d missed the opening part of the movie. But I watched it anyway. It was a few years before I finally saw the entire thing (it’s well worth a watch, early Jaws-era Spielberg without the big fake shark).

However I can find no good reason as to why I watch bad movies all the way to completion. I am quite capable of changing the channel if something bores me, and I’ve stopped watching movies because part way through i’ve realised I’m not really in the mood (movies I’ve later gone on to watch and enjoy), but if it’s a properly bad movie I’m riveted.

Car crash cinema?

bookmark_borderWhere do we go from here?

MP3, USB, JPEG, some factors of our technological life are now “standard”. If I get a new gadget and it doesn’t have a USB connection or USB power cable then.. well actually, I probably wouldn’t buy it if it didn’t so that’s a bit of a moot point.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m slowly ripping all my CDs to MP3 (the CDs are now out of the living room and piled 20 high, 3 deep on my desk, which is progress of sorts) and it wasn’t a decision I took all that lightly. Admittedly the bulk of my new music is already in that format and as MP3 is supported widely then it should be OK in the future. Right?

JPEG appears to be safe as well. Every digital camera uses it and it does what it does well enough for the masses.

Ohh and yes, before anyone points out, I KNOW that there are better formats for storing music and photos but ultimately the loss of quality between a 256kbs MP3 and any of the lossless formats is beyond anything I can really detect, and the same goes for JPEG vs RAW images for MY purposes.

Those issues aside I do worry a little about losing these things to the vagaries of time, an issue to which the Kindle from Amazon – an electronic book reader – adds another dimension. One which, for some reason, has me very concerned about where this is all heading.

For some reason, whilst I’m not happy about the prospect, I am resigned to the fact that I may lose copies of photos and tracks. I am reasonably diligent when backing up, but if the worst happens, and I lose both my main hard drive AND my backup drive, then yeah, I’m stuffed. I have considered burning the really valuable stuff onto DVD but that’s way down the “I really should but I just can’t be chuffing bothered” path (a path strewn with many other best intentions and forgotten endeavours).

I’m not entirely sure there is an answer for this. Yes I could return to buying CDs rather than MP3 tracks, but at the rate I consume music the issue of physical space trumps any notion of always having a physical copy. And I can’t do that with photos anyway so I’m still at the whim of various hard drives.

I guess I could invest in a backup for my backup but even then it’s just another thing in the chain that could and, eventually will, fail.

What does all this mean? Well, I’m not entirely sure. Advances in technology means that the vast majority of hard drives can be considered trustworthy and unlikely to fail within a few years of usage (I’ve got two from my old PC which still work quite happily, which reminds me to get an enclosure or something for them).

However, technical issues aside, I’m also wondering if we have become a society where nothing really has value. Everything is replaceable, and we are encouraged to bin the old and buy new. If I did lose all my MP3s then I COULD replace them (at cost). So what’s the big deal? I’d only replace the ones I really missed so it might be a good way to start over and avoid all the dross.

Alas the same can’t be said of photos. Losing them loses the associated memories and emotions, the thoughts and feelings experience can’t be lost but they do dim over time, not forgotten but filed away in the distant recess of my mind. Viewing old photos brings them rushing back into the light, dusted down and ready to relived.

If I lost that there is no price that would can be paid, no way back.

Bloody hell, that’s a scary thought. Guess what I’ll be doing tonight!!

bookmark_borderA thank you

My parents did an excellent job in bringing me up. Putting aside the fact that I have to say that because they both read this blog, I do truly believe that. They taught me manners and how to have an open mind, two things I value very very highly. It is with the former in mind that I write this post, although the latter does come into play.

For I have a mysterious parcel awaiting me at the Post Office!

Yes, I received that lovely little card from the Post Office. The one that says “we tried to deliver this but you had the audacity not to be at home, you must be at work, so now YOU have to come and collect what WE should deliver”. I hate those cards, why order something to be delivered to your home if you have to go and drive to a Post Office to collect it? And why is there never any parking near a Post Office, surely the majority of people have to visit the ‘”pickup centre” to collect their undelivered goods?

However, I had an added bonus on the card for, yes dear reader, not only do I have to leave work early to get to the Post Office depot before that pickup centre closes (ohh right, so THEY can keep office hours, but I can’t?!) but I also have to pay £1.06 in additional postage! Fab.

The thing is, I have NO idea what this package contains. I am waiting on race numbers for a 5K in a couple of weeks but they’ll come in an envelope (just like the other set I got in the post yesterday).

Which leaves two possibilities.

  1. Some kind soul has ordered something for me which, if I’m not mistaken means IT’S A PRESENT!!!
  2. OR

  3. I’m a numpty and I ordered something without realising it.

If it’s option 1, I’d like to thank the lovely person who has sent me such a lovely present, one that is so BIG that they got the postage wrong. It is a most unexpected surprise and I’m sure I’ll love it. Whatever it is.

Option 2 is possible but as my bank account shows no signs of any untoward transactions it seems unlikely. I’m not discounting the possibility of course, it may be something I ordered a month ago that has only come into production (ohh god, not that R2-D2 DVD projector.. I didn’t… did I??).

No, it must be option 1. One of my dearest darling readers has sent me a present to thank me for all my tireless efforts over the years. Whoever you are, I do hope you left a note with your lavish gift, as I’d very much like to thank you properly. Of course you may want to remain anonymous, with the gift simply a small tribute offered in reverence, and if that is the case I will respect your wishes. Anything that encourages you to send me more stuff!

You know what?

I have the horrible feeling this post is going to backfire.

Update: And I was right!

It backfired. It was the stamp-addressed envelope I am expecting back with my 5K race details in it.

Poo. And I was all excited too…

bookmark_borderSimple Technology

Note: This has been sitting around in my drafts for ages, I consider it unfinished but that’s never stopped me from posting something before…

A while ago Adrian mused (lusted?) over Apple TV sets and in the comment to that post, he rightly states that

“Technology should serve it’s purpose and technology should be as simple as it can be without breaking it’s purpose.”

Now, before I go any further I will confirm that what Adrian was really saying was that

“Technology should serve it’s purpose and technology should be as USABLE as it can be without breaking it’s purpose.”

Which is very different from “technology should be simple”. After all, it takes a long time for technology to evolve to a point where it’s considered “simple”. Or maybe it’s the other way around, maybe it’s the time it takes the population to get to grips with a new technology that defines whether something is considered simple, or not.

Anyway, let’s go with the opening statement(s); technology should be simple, it should be open to all who want to use it and should be designed to be usable by whoever buys it.

Nothing much of contention there. Or is there?

By it’s nature, modern consumer technology (and I’m referring directly to the underlying workings of the myriad of electronic gadgets you have in your house) is hugely complex, and I’d suggest that the internals of most of these are both highly technical and likely quite scarily off-putting if presented to the layman. Of course that doesn’t really matter these days as most consumer electrics are considered to be throw away items. That computer printer that isn’t working anymore? Just go and get a new one, they are only £30… that broken DVD player? £25 for a new one, so why bother trying to get the case open to check if there is a loose wire? Technology has shrunk so much that unless you are happy working on tiny circuit boards you are unlikely to even bother trying to fix anything. At that level, the technicality of the product is a barrier that is deemed acceptable by most, a line across which the general punter won’t even consider stepping across.

Ohh and to all my lovely readers who are shaking their heads at this point, remember, you are not a ‘general punter’. You are most likely a geek and bemoan the fact that, these days, most electronic gadgets are completely sealed and glued shut, I hear you, I feel your pain.

At that technical level, most of us are happy to ignore the technology completely. If it’s broken it’s either someone else’s problem, or we replace it. Simple.

The real problems start when technology isn’t designed around the customer, isn’t designed with the user in mind, and that is when the statement that Adrian made – Technology should serve it’s purpose – needs to be revisited. Quite simply a lot of everyday technology isn’t designed with the main purpose in mind. Let’s take an everyday example.

My TV has an internal signal regulator switch which allows it to handle multiple inputs of an Audio/Video nature. It’s smart enough to detect when one of the inputs is turned on, and switches itself to the correct channel to show whatever it is receiving from that input. I can then, with the push of a button, change which input I am viewing. Simple. One little button.

Ohh I’m sorry, too technical? Right, if I’m watching Sky and I turn on my DVD player, the TV switches over to the DVD player, but if I want I can switch back to Sky with the push of a button.

And what is that button called, the one that lets me switch between Sky and my DVD player? If you are lucky it’s usually labelled “A/V”. Well I say lucky, but it’s not hugely obvious what that means, is it? Not to a lot of people at least. Sure you can learn what it means, but ultimately you’ll store that information as “pushing that button changes between Sky and my DVD player”. You may remember that it means Audio/Video, but why should you have to? Re-labelling this as “Switch Inputs” would be best but that’s a bit cumbersome for a remote control, but even S/I might be better? I don’t have a good answer for this but A/V just isn’t right… but mind you, the weird symbol I have on my TV isn’t right either, in fact it’s so wrong I had to check the documentation to find out what it meant!

But, just to flip this all on it’s head, maybe, just maybe, A/V IS the right label for that button.

I suggested, in a comment to Adrian’s post, that perhaps technology needed to retain some barriers in an effort to minimise the impact of unleashing technology on non-techie type people. Gosh, how horrible am I. How exculsive. What a techno-snob!

Let me be slightly more specific then, I think in certain instances, barriers are required and should remain long past the ‘early adopter’ stages and into the life of a technology. A good example, in my opinion, is the trend towards convergence shown by most of the large ‘gadget’ manufacturers over the past few years. Do I really need a kettle that can talk to my fridge, and a fridge that can re-ordered milk when my supplies run low (ok, the latter might be useful, I’m always forgetting to remember the milk… I should really note that down in my to do list you know…)

During the life of most technologies a central equilibrium is found and that will suit the majority of consumers (even if it isn’t the ‘best’ technology). The most obvious example is the, now ubiquitous, iPod. It is not as feature rich as other MP3 players but being well-designed (and well marketed) it is usually what most consumers think of when you say “MP3 player” (remember, dearest blog reader, that you are probably more technically aware than most). The very fact that the iPod DOESN’T have a radio, and DOESN’T let you record are barriers. Adding those features would raise the technical level for usage to a point that, I can only presume, Apple aren’t comfortable with. OK, maybe it’s just because it doesn’t fit with their business plan for the iPod.

I guess what I’m really arguing here is that early adopters are good things, and that products don’t (shouldn’t?) always have to be simple and usable until they reach a critical mass.

I could also say that I’m arguing that product design should be left to designers, not techies, but that to get a product to the point of being easily accepted then sometimes it’s good to have a few barriers in the way, then once the kinks are ironed out THEN it can become a consumer product??

Of course it all really depends on what you class as technology.