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We live in litigious times, so I should say that content reflects only my opinions!

Tuesday September 13 2005

Cheerfully wandering around the house

doing a bit of organizational spring-cleaning at the moment, shuffling through sheaves of yellow notes and old lists and diaries. It's tiring when you have a butterfly mind and write everything down to stay anchored, because you then don't get to forget a load of stuff that probably doesn't need remembering. Still, I have time to potter and tidy and consolidate - so that could be a lot worse. And I can relieve the effort by visiting Modern Art Oxford and reading books, like the excellent "2stoned" by Andrew Loog Oldham. Boy, he's a good writer.

I was going through my mobile phone last night looking at the contacts. Being congenitally fickle where electrical devices are concerned I have never really succumbed to the practice of storing contacts in the phone itself; mine all live on the SIM. The SIM, you see, resides in a variety of cheap subsidised mobiles which I keep in rotation. See cheap subsidised mobile, buy subsidised mobile - discard SIM that comes with and carry on. I have many dead SIMs, therefore, and a clutch of mobiles whose chief common characteristic is that they are not seen as particularly desirable, let alone hip, in today's market. I don't care about that. Phones come and go. The batteries can't get it up and keep it up any more in early middle age, the keypads become unpredictable and develop creative urges, the whole rigmarole reeks of built-in obsolescence in a way that only a computer would fully understand. Phones really, really come and go.

I'm forever storing numbers on the thing. But given that my prime and treasured SIM (the heart of the whole enterprise) has only 200 memory slots, there's a constant need to edit the contents and keep the information backed up elsewhere. This presents certain difficulties for me. I am by nature a pen and paper man, in love with the little glimpses of history that old Rizla packets and ticket stubs and pieces of random paper impart when one's looking through one's drawers. I don't have a PDA because I like my old Filofax too much in that role. I carry notebooks around. More than one.

So keeping it all in sync and some kind of order is a labour-intensive job. This is not made any easier by the paucity of options regarding connecting phones to the PC. On those rare occasions when I have found that I can somehow keep a lot of contacts and scheduling data on a phone and actually access it all in a way that makes some sense to me, I have been prevented from any burgeoning reliance by the sheer magnitude of the task of backing up the stuff. Give me a phone that dumps its guts gracefully to a simple application on my computer (which also lets me view and edit it) and I'll be a happy man. But this just doesn't happen. Either the phone has no USB, or the USB doesn't work, or the software costs a fortune extra, or... Or... The only phone I've ever had that came, included in the price, with a little cable and a CD to allow me to transfer stuff to and fro is a bulky old NEC on Hutchison's 3 network. Hats off to Hutchison. Had they seen fit not to cripple the firmware, and had they put some software on the CD that just ran as a simple PIM and allowed one to view and edit one's data as well as back it up, they'd have earned my undying gratitude. Mind you, if they had a network that allowed the reliable making of calls I'd have been pretty chuffed as well.

No, there is a conspiracy here. All portable electronic devices - mobiles, PDAs (i.e. Palm Pilots and what-have-you) and hybrids of the two - want to synchronize to MS Outlook. What is it with this Outlook? Does some f*cker somewhere use it for something then? Looking at the state of the personal data market you'd think we all lived in bloody Outlook. Everything syncs to Outlook. Yes, I know that the legions of the Suity love Outlook as a brother. I've no doubt whatsoever that every Godforsaken corporate environment in the world is riddled with it. On the other hand, no-one I know or work with uses it at all. Why would they? Hotmail and Gmail and so forth are seductively practical ways of doing email, people tend to use whatever the best mobile is that they can blag free in with their contracts, and snippets of information get written on Rizlas and in diaries. That's the way it works for most of us, and always will. Why would I want to pay eighty quid for Outlook? I've used a lot of email clients over the last twenty years, and not a few PIMs. They've all worked, and they've all been either free software or reasonably-priced shareware. They have had only one really serious deficiency, and that's one that Outlook shares. Like all software, in practice if not in theory, they have made it a bloody ordeal to transfer data between devices and applications.

Here's what we need. I remember the days when I did everything on Atari STs, which by virtue of being 16 bit (oh, the power) and only the price of a perfectly decent secondhand car were something of a bargain in useful home computing. At a time when possession of any kind of PC compatible setup meant you had to have a grand spare and a Mac was a second mortgage, many of us had STs or Amigas. Amigas were a better box, but the ST had Cubase and nothing else did. Smelly unreconstructed rockers with a weather eye to MIDI and the rise of electronica wanted Cubase, since it seemed to offer a sporting chance of being able to keep working in music. In fact, it seemed the way that things were going in general. Looking at all those people who now use computers as the central part of a recording setup, in studios and at home, because of the possibilities it affords at an almost reasonable price, it is clear that the ST owners were wagon-train pioneers. But I digress...

On the ST, and on every personal computer I've ever seen, there were a fair few text editors. Some really simple, and some very powerful. If you didn't, or don't, want a lot of bells and whistles then you could just use whatever editor is there by default as part of the operating system. On Windows, Notepad or Wordpad will see you through. Some editors, though, had an extra useful function. Because of the rise of the dial-up modem, that clunking and inefficient device which enabled access to bulletin boards and later the net, there was a need to call an access number to connect to whatever online service one favoured. It was also considered the height of technological sophistication to use the modem as a dialler, so that the computer could be pressed into service as a half-grand's worth of memory phone. Select a number, let the modem dial it, pick up the receiver and there we go. So a lot of text editors let you select a number from the screen and dial it. And of course all but the very most rudimentary would do a search for a string in a file. Do an F5 in Notepad and you get the current date and time entered for you. You see where I'm going with this.

If you have the ability to enter all your information in a simple editor, in good old plaintext ASCII, and then search it or dial a number from it, then you have pretty much everything you need. Appointments? Just type them in, denoting their timing any way that makes sense to you. The same with contact details. The same with, in fact, anything that can be expressed using characters. Think about it. Put absolutely all your data in one bloody great big text file, and as long as you have an editor with a string search function to read it in you have a free form database. Format? Irrelevant. Re-editing the data because you've adopted a new package? Forget it. Compatibility issues? None - this is plain text we're talking about here. It'll work on anything with an editor that can read the media you've stored it on, after all.

Given that the data I'm talking about is simple stuff which does not require the capability to do complex database querying, why then do we not just all store our stuff in text files? One main reason. Because the people who sell us software packages and PDAs and mobile phones don't like it. If you have everything in an open, cross-platform format you don't need to buy anything else. No data suites, no upgrades, no new mobile with a couple of extra fields-worth in the contacts firmware. You just USB it all together and sync your text files on it all and you're in business. Pretty obviously, then, we're never going to get that kind of simple editing software on any old mobile phone, or when we do we're not just going to able to transfer files to and from anything else with USB. That would spoil the racket wouldn't it?

Interestingly enough, I've recently become aware from various rather geeky forums and sites concerning organizing personal data that those who work with a wide variety of software platforms and technological devices tend to this view as well. The smart money's on whatever data format lets you make your stuff fully portable. That's why text is imperative. Let's face it, there nothing worse than spending hours re-entering data by hand just so that you can read it on something else. You've gained nothing. You've simply fought your way past some idiot's crude attempt to tie you into a product. Go ASCII.


Posted at 10:42 am by Jim Woods

Monday September 12 2005

A weekend of somewhat liquid aspect, as is so often the case.

I did however manage to get a few things done. I did a periodic clean install of my PC from scratch, noticing that I'd been running the same cluttered install since, oh, six months ago or so. What I really wanted from this was to simplify my video codec situation, as I had who knows how much crud that had built up in that department. I have installed Real Alternative to handle BBC Listen Again stuff; if you are still using the pathetic, incapable, intrusive crippleware that is Real's own player, then it really is time to wake up and make the change. I have in fact only installed Real Alternative and the Xvid codec so far. My machine is clean and running well, free of commercial nasties like Divx. I will need to put QuickTime on at some point, but I'm holding out for the time being.

The whole business of mucking around with video codecs rather does my head in, to be honest. I think in future that I simply won't bother with videos that don't play using the handful of codecs I have installed. It's just not worth the hassle.

For the first time ever, all the drives in my box are now running on NTFS. As I am not using file-level encryption or compression, I'm not entirely sure whether there is any great advantage to this. It is supposed to be a much better file system, though. It does not seem faster to me, or much different from FAT32 in terms of space-saving, but I suppose down there under the OS there is some great Windows joy. Just nothing I really care about. Such is progress.

The new Firefox is behaving nicely, despite the as-yet lack of many extensions compatible with it. I've been using it to check out some local history, such as the work on the Castle site. My ancestor (and plenty of other people's) Sir Robert D'Oiley, spelt almost as many ways as there are sources, almost certainly built the thing at around the same time as he built the Grand Pont, the great bridge across the Thames at the bottom of St Aldate's which gives the area its name. Therefore I feel a certain amount of connection with it, and am interested to see what they're up to.

I looked at one of the flats on the new development, a penthouse job, with a view to it being suitable for me old mum; I thought the price was not unreasonable, at least by our silly local standards, but then discovered that there is zero provision for parking. Hopeless. No doubt they've mostly been snapped up as pied-a-terres and investments. It's a pity that most of the housing that gets built here is so unaffordable when what's needed is more stuff that enables people to get on the property ladder. What we actually get is loads of new glamorous stuff which goes for silly money, and I suspect very seldom to local people. Market forces...

On the same site, look at the exciting ideas that are being bandied about for Broad Street. If only I had faith that the City Council would see the light and tart things up in ways suggested by organizations like the Trust.



Posted at 1:20 am by Jim Woods

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