Monthly Archives: August 2008

Dead Tree Update

A couple of notable book releases around now. Sarah Brown‘s Cringe is now available in hardback, being a collection of embarrassing teenage diary entries and the like. It’s based on a cathartic reading evening of the same name created by Sarah and a regular Brooklyn draw.

I attended the London premiere of Cringe back in June 2007, which was great fun, and I met SB afterwards, had a drink or two, and realised what the fuss was about – she’s awesome, and we share our birthday. I’ve ordered my copy.

Ben Goldacre of Bad Science is a bit of a hero of mine, in the same brooking-no-nonsense vein as Phil Plait (the “Bad Astronomer”), and he has a book out (soon) too. It sounds like it should be a standard text, if the previews are anything to go by. Ben has a screengrab of a vitriolic review on the Amazon page from Roger Coghill, a notorious snake-oil salesman, who currently has a new product out which, like many of his products, uses magnetism – in this case to make your car 14% more efficient. Sadly the review is no longer on Amazon – Ben grabbed it just in time.

This reminds me of a poem I read recently (it was in a slim volume I received as a wedding guest recently, if you must know) which irritated me. This was because it gave me the impression that the poet believes that the astronomer is reducing the beauty of nature to a series of charts and numbers. If I were to be uncharitable, I’d say he thought himself better equipped to appreciate the beauty of a starlit night, and that the magic of nature was wasted on the chalk-dusted scientist. Only the poet and the artist truly understand.

Of course nature can (probably) be reduced to a series of charts and numbers. Very large numbers, very complex charts, so complex we cannot (yet) understand them. Is it a fear that science will remove the ‘magic’ from the wonders of nature?

Phil Plait’s predecessor and hero James Randi started out as a stage magician and escape artist. He still performs doing conjuring tricks in between shaming bullshit-peddlers like Yuri Geller. But this isn’t supernatural magic, it’s just traditional showmanship and sleight-of-hand. Why not just enjoy that? As Douglas Adams (another hero – enough with the heroes) said, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

As for the title of this post, I don’t have anything against paper books. I have some. But I am interested in the future of electronic books and the technology involved, such as e-ink. Obviously the Amazon Kindle is a big example, despite it’s many flaws (a pointless keyboard, lack of support for some open formats, sheer flipping ugliness etc). I know someone with a iRex Iliad, which many people seem to like, and having seen it in the flesh (silicon? HDPE?) I quite like it. My new smartphone allows me to read books in the same way I used to with my old Palm Tungsten E. Haven’t had a chance yet – I don’t sit on trains much any more.

My American Fellows

Danny O’Brien describes his reaction to the current showbiz extravaganza that is the Democratic National Convention. I don’t really like writing about politics here, because I’m too inarticulate (basically I’m a Euston Manifesto type of guy, with all the “yes, but how?” vagueness that entails). But as an Englishman now living in San Diego, I’m interested to read other “expats'” views. I agree with what he says about the pageantry. I do like a good show though, but only if the audience shut up long enough to let it happen.

I’ve become a fan of both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (both of which pass for satire* in the US) but they are short programmes made a lot longer by the whooping and hollering that follow every punchline (that’s not to say that Radio 4’s much-more-restrained The News Quiz is any better – in fact the insufferable smugness of some of the panellists is worse). But I do find myself fast-forwarding through the atrocious rock-and-horn-section soundtrack (a Bob Mould tune played by They Might Be Giants, if you can imagine such a thing without weeping) and the five minutes of cheering before I find any satirical content. I say “pass for satire” – actually there’s often some really good and funny stuff on here, but too often they drift off into skits about the presenters themselves.

Back in the “real” world of political news, I still can’t understand the (apparently many) people who were supporters of Hillary Clinton, who since Clinton is out of the running are now “undecided” between Obama and the Republican McCain. I want to shake them by the shoulders and ask, are you a Democrat or not? Are you so opposed to Obama that you would rather have a Republican in office? It sounds very much like sulking to me – “Well, if I can’t have my candidate, then I’m taking my ball home, and crossing to the GOP”. Absolute fecking madness.

Most of the speeches at the DNC have ended with the orator say, “God bless you” or “God bless America” or some such. It got me thinking about whether the US would ever be able to accept a stated atheist as a President. Never mind the trouble they have with a black man, or a woman – imagine a leader would said they couldn’t say “God bless America” with a straight face because they don’t believe in an invisible superhero who lives in the sky?

Ah, politics and religion. Yet another excellent piece on Flesh is Grass about the debate between the militant secularists and the pro-faith left. I think I lean towards the Coates end of the argument. Lean, and mutter.

claimer: Flesh is Grass is one of my favourite blogs, and is written by one of my favourite people. I miss them.

Lloyds TSB Are A Rotten Terrible Bank, And Stupid

This little item made me smile. A guy in the UK had his bank password set to ‘Lloyds is pants’, and they changed it behind his back and told him it wasn’t appropriate. He told the media, and now it’s all over the Web. Well done you!

I’m a Lloyds TSB victim customer, and I’ve been on the receiving end of some great service over the past few months as I moved to the US. For example, I filled in the change of address form, making it clear I was moving out of the country. When I arrived in San Diego, and I was buying large stuff like a bed* and other furniture, they were kind enough to block my debit card, causing Cassie to have to sub me hundreds of dollars. When I called them to find out why (and spent $30 on pay-as-you-go international cellphone charges in the process) they told me that someone was trying to buy stuff in a foreign country. I told them it was me, pointing out my new address matched the city where the purchases were made. They said, “Oh yeah sorry” and claimed it was “for my security”. Thanks, but “my security” means having a bed to sleep on and a bank that wasn’t run by a shower of incompetents. Why don’t I change banks? Hassle, time, energy, they’re all the same, etc. You find me a bank, and I’ll consider it.

Anyway, for a long time I had a bank password that insulted the bank. They never complained.

* I got my bed from a place called Sleep Train, and I was very disappointed that when I walked through the door I wasn’t greeted by a guy with an engineer’s hat pulling an invisible whistle chain and yelling, “All board the Sleep Train to Slumbertown!”.

(via Neatorama and Graham Linehan)

Name That…

A few online quiz results, instead of a proper post. – Identify The Disease – Name That Drug – Test Your City Knowledge – Test Your Serial Killer Knowledge

I Wear My Wartime Coat In The Wind And Sleet

My friends Brian and Stacy are away from Hollywood at the moment. They’re on their delayed honeymoon, which for them is to fly to England, retrieve their scooters from storage, and then do the things and have days. You know, ride to the Isle of Wight, Paris, the Ace Cafe (now scooter-friendly, apparently), all under the banner of Vespastics. An irreverent name, to be sure, for an irreverent club. It’s had a rocky history, but they’re back on the road, picking up where they left off, and they have a new wesbite to prove it.

When Brian found out I dabbled with this web stuff, he asked how it could be done, and I immediately recommended WordPress, my platform of choice. He kick-started his webspace, checked the domain was still there, and set me loose. A few short hours later, they were back online, and recreating the alliances that make the scooter subculture so strong. As a result of my help, Brian tells me that I’m an honorary member – I’m very flattered to accept.

I used to own and ride a Piaggio Zip 50 in the first years of the 21st Century, not the most stylish of scooters, but pretty nifty. It sipped petrol, which was useful during the 2000 fuel protests, because one tank lasted the whole period. 

 I used to get comments from my collegues at work about not having “a proper bike”. My response was that being only 28, I wasn’t old enough to have a mid-life crisis and squeeze my aging flabby carcass into some ill-advised leathers and buy a Harley. That shut them up. Well, it didn’t, but they kind of blinked and smiled and moved away.

Scooter culture in the UK got a bit of a boost in the dread post-Britpop world of Paul Weller hero-worship which made it actually OK to actually like Ocean Colour Scene. Lambretta clothing became popular, named after the popular scooter brand, but not associated with the scooter company. Just branding. Ben Sherman, already a big name, rode the wave as well.

I eventually got rid of the scooter after it became clear I was going to die on the road if I didn’t. People in South West London, not the most concsiencious drivers, were after my blood. I would be challenged to races from stop lights by bunches of twats in hatchbacks. Certain areas of London allowed motorbikes to ride in the bus lanes, other did not, but it was unclear which. This sometimes meant you were riding in the centre, out of the bus lane, and this made some car drivers very angry. They would accelerate around you, sometimes on the inside, and deliberately come close to knocking you off. All that, and the weather, led me to get a car.

It was worth it for a while though. It was cheap and fun. Perhaps a faster, more powerful scooter could have kept up with the traffic and not hurt the poor car drivers’ delicate feelings so much.

Should I get a scooter here in San Diego? Wait, I’m getting a message; it says, “NO”. Perhaps an Ape. This one’s nice.

Pacific Train Thoughts

~ from notes found on my laptop, dated several weeks ago ~

Early evening, coming out of Santa Fe Depot. 3 hours away from Los Angeles. I’m on the
Pacific side of the train, but I don’t know if I’ll see much of the ocean. At the moment
there’s a hill in the way. The sun will be dropping over the course of the journey. According to my calculations, it will set at about 30 seconds after 8pm.

I’ve lived in the United States of America for nearly 3 weeks. The various pieces of the
critical path jigsaw are slotting into place (must have this before that, then that
number goes on this form). What do I know now that I didn’t before the move? Not much
that’s quantifiable. Little things. How annoying it is to have a newsreader trying to
emote and react to the news instead of just reading it.

Landscape so far is scrub, rock, orange soil and grasses, hilly and rough. A few palms
springing up from scattered buildings. Telephone wires.

And after a break in the hills, we are now riding right along the shoreline, overlooking
the narrow beach with a few scattered walkers and surfers, floating in and out of the sun
on the water. Then over another estuary as we pass the racetrack inland outside Solana
Beach, and a large crowd board the train. Glad I got a seat when I did. Also glad to see
the train is so popular, although it is Friday evening.

The people on the beach wave at the train, while they stand around the concrete fire pits and crack open a beer, something I’ll be doing as soon as I can.

Updating Fire Eagle Location Using Plazes And SMS

In the spirit of following through, here’s an update on the auto-location thing I was writing about last week. I asked a question on the Fire Eagle website about how to update via SMS, and I got a helpful email from one of the Fire Eagle team, the man himself, Tom Coates, suggesting I use Nokia’s newly acquired German-based location service, Plazes.

Plazes will allow updates from SMS, and it can update your Fire Eagle location. So after reading the Privacy Policy, I signed up. Another login and password for my list. Still, I’m following Bruce Schneier’s advice on all these passwords, so it’s not too much of a problem.

Once I’d signed up, I asked Plazes to “plaze” me. This used a slightly different method from Fire Eagle, which just asks for your address and then parses it in a similar way to Google Maps. In contrast, Plazes asks for a location name, like “My Office” and then tries to ascertain a location. It then asks you to fill in the address gaps. It calls these location names “plazenames” and stores them, and allows a “plazename” to have a history of who has been there. This location history is something that Fire Eagle doesn’t provide, instead only storing the current location. Plazes allows you to set your locations to public or private, but still, I think I prefer the Fire Eagle model.

“Plaze Me”, “Plazenames”, I’m not sure about these words. They require more effort to say, because of the “Z” sound requiring more pressure in the mouth. It makes me want to say “plazenamez” and you end up sounding like Timothy West in that Tales of the Unexpected where he turns into a bee.

Making up new words for your users to adopt is a bit awkward. “Google” has become common due to it’s simple ubiquity. I use Twitter, but I don’t like saying “my tweets” preferring “my twitter updates”. “My Tweets” sound like something Fergie would sign about. It reminds me of that extremely irritating series of adverts for NatWest bank in the UK, which kept saying that other banks’ branches were being closed and turned into “trendy wine bars”. They kept repeating this in the hope it would become a catchphrase. They even went as far as having an actor (playing another banks customer) say to camera, “…and now my branch has been turned into – you got it! A trendy wine bar“, at which point he was joined by a huge mob of extras yelling the catchphrase like this was a margarine commercial or something. If enough people yell it, it becomes a catchphrase? Nope, doesn’t work like that, sorry. Never mind the fact that wine bars weren’t trendy any more at that time. Ad companies. So wrong. So smug. (end of ranty digression)

The idea was to set my location in Plazes by SMS, then have Plazes update Fire Eagle. I set this up easily with the Fire Eagle authorization.

I first updated my Plazes location from the web. I called the location “PB San Diego” and gave it the address. I set my location as this place, and it showed up as 401 B Street, San Diego. Correct.

NB: this is a published address for PB, and the fact I work there is in the public domain. No-one cares, but it’s out there.

I then checked my location on Fire Eagle, and something was wrong. The location was set to 1198 4th Avenue, which is the same intersection (4th & B), but the wrong building. It’s across the street, and not where I am.

Next I tried an update to Plazes via SMS. I texted “at pb office on 401 b street in san diego” to the Plazes SMS number. I got an SMS response after a few seconds (I wonder if I can turn that off?) which read, “You’ve been placed at PB San Diego on 401 B Street”. I checked the Plazes website location, and it’s correct, with the exact correct address. But when I checked Fire Eagle again, I found the same problem. It’s shifted me across the intersection.

Plazes integration to Fire Eagle is broken. Something about how Plazes communicates addresses to other sites is mixing the address up, or “paraphrasing” it in a way I don’t like. I’ll perhaps try some other addresses, but at the moment, I won’t be using this method.

Peter made a good comment about the previous post on this subject.  He said that this was like “voluntary tagging” in reference to the tags they attach to criminals to track them. Big Brother and all that. It’s a good point, but not a worry for me in this case. Centroid will only send the location SMS when I set it to, and only when I specifically tell it what address to send. Fire Eagle doesn’t keep a log of locations, and can be set to forget your location after a period. The privacy policy is sound, as one would expect from a member of the Open Rights Group Advisory Council.

Updating Fire Eagle Location Using Palm Centroid

Image by Dan Taylor (CC licensed)Yahoo!’s new location-aware service, Fire Eagle (named after the marvellous Ze Frank’s Ride the Fire Eagle Danger Day segment of his year-long the show) is now available to the public. Being the sort of person that signs up for new webby stuff, I had joined a while back out of curiosity, using some freebie invite that was floating around. I used my existing Yahoo! account to sign in and get going. The system basically lets you tell it where you are, and then makes that information available to third-party developed applications that you choose. Various applications are already available, allowing you to contact friends when you’re in the vicinity, plan trips, find services, and various other meatspace trickery.

It was immediately clear that I don’t have much use for it at the moment, not being a particularly mobile type of person. I have about 3 or 4 main locations, and the rest of the time I’m in transit, and do not wish to be disturbed. I also don’t have many friends or colleagues who would use it. People who flit back and forth from London to San Francisco may get more mileage.

You can update your Fire Eagle location using a web interface, GPS with the right tools, and for while you could use popular microblogging site Twitter. By sending a direct message to Twitter user firebot, you could update your location in much the same way as you can be sending a message to gcal to add events to your Google Calendar. Unfortunately, firebot is apparently down because of Twitters IM service being down. I would like to find a way to update Fire Eagle via SMS. If the Twitter firebot worked, it would be possible to update Fire Eagle via firebot, because you can update Twitter via SMS.

I’ve been playing around using a new program on my Palm Centro called Centroid (formerly called TreoSpot) which is a clever bit of freeware that uses the GSM cells to figure out where you are. As you roam around, Centroid records the GSM cell IDs (aka GIDs), and allows you to set alerts to appear when you enter or leave a particular cell. In busy areas, you change cells a lot, sometimes even bouncing between two or more GIDs just while sitting at your desk (as is happening now to me). The software deals with this by allowing you to assign several GIDs to a Zone, which you can assign alerts to instead. I have about 5 GIDs grouped together into a Zone called ‘Work’, and when I enter this Zone I get an alert saying “Welcome to work”. Well, I don’t really, but you get the idea.

A key point here is that the GIDs themselves don’t fix your location – this is not a triangulation system. You can set physical locations for GIDs and Zones, but this information is not used in this case. Centroid just knows what you tell it – this set of GIDs is known as “Work”, this one is known as “Home”.

As well as set alerts to appear, you can also tell Centroid to send an SMS based on your location. So, the idea was as follows:

  1. Set a Centroid Zone with a number of GIDs around a location, e.g. Home
  2. Set Centroid to send an SMS to Twitter when you enter this Zone.
  3. The body of the SMS would be a direct message to firebot, updating your location: “d firebot u 999 Letsby Avenue”* (u means update)
  4. Repeat for any other Zones you might want.
  5. Profit!

If all went well, Centroid would spot that I was in the Home Zone, and send an SMS to firebot on Twitter, which would then update Fire Eagle. This would be accepable with a few updates per day, with a cellphone plan including lots of free messages, but any more than that and it scould get expensive. Again, I think I would be a light user of this service.

I currently can’t see another way to update Fire Eagle via SMS. I’ll keep looking.

*The policeman’s house, geddit? And there’s more: Lancashire Hotpot in the name of the law!No dammit, Irish Stew! Irish Stew in the name of the law!

Album Filler

The is a bit old now, but fun. It was seen on Capt Renault’s blog, and elsewhere. Make up a band name and album title, and then create the cover!

    The first article title on the page is the name of your band.
    The last five words of the very last quote is the title of your album.
    The third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.
  4. Use your graphics program of choice to throw them together, and post it on your blog.

Here we go.

  1. Golden Orb – cool, if a little hippy-ish. Maybe a bit Boards of Canada?
  2. Core Beliefs Of Their Audience – Nice. Definitely Boards of Canada.
  3. Interesting – but sod you for blocking people from using it. Ha! PrintScreen!
  4. Tada!

My first album cover by my band? Brought to you by the amazing online photo editor Picnik, which lets you edit photos directly from Flickr and elsewhere, then save or post them anywhere.

Just for laughs, here’s my second attempt.

  1. Dorothy de Rothschild – I can see where this is going. A singer-songwriter?
  2. Walking is man’s best medicine – uh-oh, she goes barefoot. I hate her.
  3. Singing in the rain – OK, goes with the style.
  4. Not this time.

And just one more for luck.

  1. Olimpiysky National Sports Complex – British Sea Power? Or more Post-rock?
  2. The same mistakes, only sooner – cool!
  3. Splat! – that doesn’t really go, does it?
  4. Maybe later.

I can see this being useful though. Hmm.

Eno And iPods

Yes, it’s another blast from the past as I manage to get round to posting something based on notes written over two years ago.

It was back in January 2006 when I went to Goldsmiths college with Mira to hear a talk by Brian Eno about, well, Brian Eno and his ways. I like Brian Eno, especially for his work with David Byrne (one of my heroes) and with Talking Heads. Eno has also worked with U2, but he has done lots of good work as well, so I think we can forgive him that. Just. The talk was very interesting, and I took lots of scribbled notes on my Palm, only for them to be somehow lost when I sync’d. My fault, I think. Grr.

But from what I can recall, Brian talked about his college years, a bit about Roxy Music, and the usual stuff. He made a point of the two strands of his life and enthusiasms, namely the pop/rock side, and the experimental side. As part of the experimental strand he described the Koan Pro software he worked on in the 1990’s. He also mentioned briefly the Headcandy CD-ROM, which was a bit shit, but interesting for the time.

After the talk, Eno asked for questions, and I was able to ask him something along these lines, “Your ambient albums were created by setting up tape loops and other mechanisms of overlapping sounds, so that the music created constantly changed and evolved. How did you choose which hour-long section of this generated music to record and release as an album?”. To this Brain One answered (massive paraquote), “This is a neat tie-in to the two streams of my career. The experimental side created the generating system, and the populist rock star listened and decided which bits sounded best to release.”

One thing he talked about was an interesting electronic box he’d seen which would generate music from your pocket, the Buddha Box. I saw these on sale in an achingly hip – and hence empty – “designer” shop in Silver Lake. You switch them on, and they make a kind of ambient music. I think it’s pre-recorded rather than generated, but you can collect the differently-coloured set, which makes it OK.

This got me thinking about generative music as a whole. There is a load of hardware and software out there that will generate music from different sources, ranging from fractal mathematic equations, to simple random numbers, to specially written algorithms (like Koan Pro).  

There have been other experiments in using technology to (semi-)randomly create music. Kenneth Kirschner went a bit up himself with his Music for Shuffling, a series of pieces designed to be played using the iPod shuffle mode, and thus give you a different experience each time. This idea was explored by They Might Be Giants a long time before that in the series of short tracks called Fingertips on the album Apollo 18. The idea was that by playing the CD on shuffle would intersperse these tracks between the other songs. This didn’t work on the UK version, because some dolt mastered Fingertips as one track instead of 21.

I used to have some unregistered shareware on my PC called WinChime which acted as a virtual windchime. It was pretty neat really. You could set the speed and direction of the wind, how many chimes were in the arrangement, and how they were arranged, and what scale to use (pentatonic snuff jazz wasn’t included). It depended on your PC’s sound card to provide the sounds via MIDI, which meant that it could sound a bit cheap and plinky-plonky if you had a cheap plinky-plonky sound card. Quite relaxing though.

A long time ago I saw a music generator chip that came in a transparent CD jewel case. I can’t remember if this was a music generator or a prerecorded piece, like the Buddha Box. Nice idea though, just pluck it from the shelf and listen via headphones.

The most interesting idea for me is the idea of generative music in your pocket. Many people have iPods or equivalent Digital Audio Players. A DAP is basically a simple single-purpose computer, with a processor, digital-analogue sound source, display and input controls. It’s already possible to reprogram an iPod with alternative software (or firmware) such as Rockbox which can improve upon the supplied firmware with additional features such as games. So why not have some software on your iPod which can generate music of a certain style, or at a certain tempo? Instead of creating and then selecting a playlist of a certain length full of uptempo dance tunes to workout to, you could select a automatically generated hour-long mix of the correct speed. You could have a certain setting for walking, one for jogging, one for high-intensity workouts, and a relaxing wash of strings to wind down afterwards.

You don’t have to be exercising either; I have an old Swiss “rave” CD that is ideal for when you’re painting walls, because it starts frenetic to help you cover large areas of the wall, keeps you going while you do the smaller areas, and then slows right down with some dub stuff to let you do the edges and details without going over the lines.

Genre- and tempo-based generation would probably only work for electronic dance music and ambient background stuff. Perhaps deep dub and other styles of electronic music as well. I’m sure with enough intelligence in the software, most of the genres described in Ishkurs Guide to Electronic Music could be created. Not the vocal stuff, obviously, although given time your DAP would contain an AI capable of true artistic creation, so that won’t be a problem. But would it have soul? Well, probably not, and that’s fine by me. I don’t like music to have stuff that I don’t believe in the existence of.