Jim's Inchoate Weblog
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We live in litigious times, so I should say that content reflects only my opinions!
Saturday September 24 2005
I have long had it in mind that digital media are short-lived.
And I was looking at Slashdot, as is wise if you're at all interested in tech, when I came across this article on the problems of storing digital information even over short periods. I particularly liked the quote "digital information lasts forever - or five years, whichever comes first". Not just digital either. The whole business of obsolescence in technology is a lesson which generally has to be learnt the hard way. I, for example, have a load of eight track cartridges in my loft, but no working player for them. I don't have a PC running Dos around either, so a lot of good games sit unplayed (again) on my shelves. I am mildly smug, though, that I have long been a user of notebooks and diaries and scraps of paper. Not a PDA boy, despite a couple of false starts. Not an Outlook user. So quite a lot of my life is recorded in this paperwork, provided that the house doesn't burn down or something. It may be my age, but until I've actually got something on paper I'm never sure it's really safe. Perhaps this is a little illusory, but it's surprising what I can dig out from the past...
As regards digital data, because of course I do have a fair amount of that, I have found that the best methods of conservation I can easily implement are to be effected by following a simple three-point plan.
First, I decide what really matters, and I concentrate on that; I don't bother too much about data that probably won't be needed again, or is simply nice to have rather than essential. So I'm extremely careful to have my eight year financial history in MS Money safe, but interesting articles from the web are rather less worried about. As an aside, Money is just so great. It's astonishing what using it punctiliously has done for organizing my life. I know when I bought a certain album, I know where I've been and what I've done to an amazing extent. Fascinating, at a distance.
Secondly, I back up. I use a couple of hard drives, CDs, DVDs, a USB drive. I just copy all my vital stuff onto any of these as often as I find myself doing nothing. Propagation of the data is good practice, and across loads of different media hedges one's bets a bit. Publication to the web helps too, with ideas and so on. Getting the idea out there is a powerful aid to its survival.
Thirdly, I have anything really important written down on paper too. A slight hassle, but a bloody good precaution.
This all seems to strike a happy medium with me, meaning that things seldom go astray but I don't spend my whole time worrying about them either. I am still a little worried about the whole digital photography thing though. So cheap, so handy, so impermanent...
Posted at 5:15 pm by Jim Woods
Friday September 23 2005
For all the advances that have been made
in designing content for the net, and despite all the stylish and imaginative ways in which text gets presented, I can't help loving this sort of thing. Simple, clear, legible. The more it looks like a book, the easier it is to read. Blessed relief. Some colour schemes that people use on their sites are so bloody illegible that things are improved by highlighting the text one needs to read.
I picked that example pretty much at random, by the way. It's simply illustrative of the good old black-on-white-with-blue-links scheme I'm applauding.
Posted at 6:35 pm by Jim Woods
Thursday September 22 2005
It would appear that the writing is on the wall
for my Panasonic Sky box. Well (hastily checks records) it's been decoding away 24/7 since April 2000, so in terms of hours of service I really cannot complain. It seems to have developed a propensity for erratic behaviour, sometimes powering down for no reason and sometimes failing to respond to channel-changing codes from the TiVo. I'll keep running it until it drops, no doubt, but it seems as though that day may not be too far off.
In compensation, I see while Google Earthing that there is an overlay for Africa which has a load of colour aerial photos related to an aerial survey just undertaken by Mike Fay. Whopper. Do check it.
Posted at 12:46 am by Jim Woods
Wednesday September 21 2005
Free Opera, from now on.
If you've never looked at Opera as a browser, then now would be the time. It's been around for ages, and it's small and quick while having a lot of functionality. There's very little that you can't either do with it out of the box or persuade it to do by customization. There is, for example, a pretty proficient mailer with newsgroup and RSS feed capabilities. RSS - seems like everything is doing that these days, and very useful it is.
My prior objections to Opera were on fiscal grounds. I bought it early on, and was then faced with paying again for newer versions. This pissed me off, not because the good folk at Opera are not entitled to charge what they like for their rather good product but because there were (and are) some rather stonking alternatives that don't cost at all. And I've gone on enough about what they are not to reiterate, at least just yet, so search my site for "browser" if you want the full gory of my past browser-rants. There has been a free version of Opera of course, but it had banner ads. Let's not have banner ads. Nope.
Anyway, you can now get Opera for free, no strings attached. I'd only fault it on the cookie handling personally, which I find sufficiently arcane and unintuitive to tempt me to just accept all cookies and clean up later. Other than that it's a pretty tight, stable, secure tool. Worth an extended play.
Perhaps not a Firefox-killer though. It seems that all the bugs which actually bugged me have been sorted in the Deer Park Alpha version of the mighty 'Fox. Which is of course tremendously pleasing. I'm loving the fact that there are now a few browsers out there sufficiently powerful and flexible that they offer the chance to pretty much live one's on-line life in. I look forward to further advances. A tribute to the gods of code.
Posted at 5:06 pm by Jim Woods
I'm beginning to eschew my purist tendencies
in matters of sound reproduction in favour of, of all the f*cking things, MP3. Ok, I'm not going to pretend that this technology of ten years ago or perhaps more is something that I need advocate to anyone in particular. I mean, MP3s have been around so long that it's really unlikely that any of my readers are going to need me telling them what the format is and what you can do with it. In fact, at the risk of immediately causing tech-bore alarm systems to trigger in the minds of all sound comrades, let's just say that the only difference between MP3 tracks and actual straight copies of CD audio (or if like me you are a dinosaur, vinyl or cassette tracks when recorded to a computer) is that MP3 compresses sound so that you can fit more of it on a hard drive/CDR/iPoddy thing/floppy disk. So you throw a varying amount of quality away and get more space in return. Quite sensible if, for example, you're going to listen in a car or while cycling in town. You have crappy little headphones, and you are using music to tune your head to your star but also to blot out the racket of diesels firing and punters yakking, so your chances of being all sweaters and slide-rules about sound quality are low; it's horses for courses, and the opportunity to have a hundred hours of your music at middling fidelity sure looks good when the alternative is to have a few CDs and a bulkier player battling background din and indifferent headphones. People - as I've said here before, we must all become MP3 personal media playing wankers-but-the-right-sort-of-wankers, or we face a tragic lack of opportunities to soak up a ton of bad, in the sense of good, sounds more of the time. You could store everything uncompressed, with no real loss of quality, if you had the space on your devices. So let's be clear: MP3 is simply compressed. Other than that, not really different from a CD at all. Just format terminology, books and magazines. So we're discussing the happy trade-off between quality and convenience, meaning convenience in terms of cost and bulk of storage.
When I sit at my PC, or I pilot the state Micra with steely resolve, I am not realistically going to be shovelling CDs in and out of my deck(s) in order to enjoy a constant stream of enriching tunes. I'm going to be too wrapped up in what I'm doing. Not always, but mostly. So the aggregate Jim-hours spent absorbing culture like a baldy sponge are cut back. The radio I will not discuss. The radio, in all its flavours, is no longer cool. Radio 4 is the weapon, for sure, but as far as hours and hours of interesting and varied commercial-free trouser-shining, mood-lock-and-loading identity-nourishing we'll-be-dead-soon-enough-so-bow-before-the-divinity-that-is-a-tune-you-love...
Pausing for breath here, after realizing that the hyphen is a double-edged sword; yes, you need to get an MP3 jukebox. A pocketford, high-fidelity when no-one's measuring too hard, little f*cker like your phone. Portable like a phone. Kind of nice if it were smaller and lighter, but in truth less weighty than your recent refreshment sort of a thing. You have a stack of tunes at your disposal when duelling with world-san. The you want to rip all your music to the computer. Easy then to juggle it all on and off the portapod, easy then to play it while you net the days away. Or play it from a laptop or yellowed beige work-surplus corporate data death-box of a thing you have plugged into your boom box or surround rig. You have the files. You can get a beast media player and do all the thing with the grooves.
Media player bore insert: Winamp is great, does stacks with CDs and MP3s (and other sound file formats) and RSS podcast feeds. Foobar2000 is light and fast and geeky, good for the power user. Tplayer lets you be a bit of a DJ in an old-school pared down geekish but with shades way. All are free. Be clear that nothing stands between you and a really good chance of programming yourself truly banging listening. I'd say definitely take a look at all three packages if you haven't come across them before.
I have gone so far as to play with MP3 a fair bit. Variable bit-rates, blind listening comparisons, stuff like that. I work in music and sound, so I am of necessity a decent critical listener. My view is that above 160-180 kbits, taking the time to rip and encode properly, good results can be had. On the decent but not really audiophile Mission 700 speakers and Kenwood 3030 amp I have hooked to my computer where I largely spend my time, I find that ambient noise and the limitations of the gear mean that I am as happy with the quality of sound as I am going to be under the circumstances. I did have an old Trichord Genesis CD player beside me for a bit, which is a moderately flash bit of hifi kit, and I can't say that it got the chance to shine. So we arrive at the issue of fitness for circumstance.
In my living room, where some fairly proper hifi resides, I do want to listen to CDs. I want the best quality I can get, because I'm going to be sat there concentrating on the music and listening in conditions where things like the air around a saxophone will really come across. It's immersive, getting down with your hifi and you music and peering hard into the depths of the image. But when you have kids in your living room, or you're on the bus or trying to illustrate a musical point at someone else's, you aren't going to have the chance to get so lost in it all. That's when you can get an acceptable experience from compressed audio, and enjoy a lot of convenience with the careful compilation of play lists and riding the random button.
Killer app, this MP3 lark.
I'm finding that I get more music with MP3 files than I do with the hifi proper these days, and I'm pleased that this is the case. So perhaps, I reluctantly admit, there is a time to accept trade-offs in sound quality. I'm really getting into this play list thing, which I ignored for years because I had too little hard drive space. Now that hard drives are so large and so relatively cheap, it's probably time to start seeing then as the media format du jour. It seems that that's where it's making most sense to keep your stuff.
Don't forget to carry a good notebook and pen, though, of course.
Posted at 1:10 am by Jim Woods
Tuesday September 20 2005
Anyone played with the new
and of course free MSN Search Toolbar for Internet Explorer? Not that I'm the great proponent of using IE, being a bit of a die-hard Firefox boy myself, but I was caught by one thing. It offers tabbed browsing in IE. I know the upcoming IE 7 does the same, but this represents an early look at the code which overcomes what to my mind is the biggest limitation of IE. And the tabbing seems to work pretty well, it must be said. A bit primeval compared to the Mozilla offering, but not half bad for a first effort. IE has undoubtedly just got a whole lot more useful.
Oh yes, and there's quite a neat facility to one-click publish links to one's MSN space too - a bit like the BlogThis extension for Firefox/Blogger. Fair old time saver that, if you find yourself posting links much. Chiarina take note, when you've the time.
And you can search easily using MSN, if that isn't oxymoronic. Er, doesn't everyone just Google or maybe Dogpile? Well no matter - it's a free toolbar, and as such well worth every penny to give it a shot.
I wish I had a good old diesel Tranny van I could live in while travelling around Europe. Rather less, I need MSN. But your mileage may vary.
Posted at 1:11 am by Jim Woods
Sunday September 18 2005
And for those who follow my rantings about software,
the latest version - or more accurately beta - of Thunderbird has added the capability to handle RSS. In essence this gives the ability to see a site summary, like the news headlines from the BBC for example, and can also be used to check for updates in a streamlined way. Yeah, we've got uncapped broadband and don't have to worry about bandwidth too much any more, but there is much time to be saved here. I use the RSS feeds to check on my favourite podcasts, and in any case I really like to use as few packages as possible and so am all in favour of combining functions. In any case, I really like Thunderbird as a mail package and use it all the time anyway.
Posted at 4:51 pm by Jim Woods
Played a gig
on someone's gravel drive yesterday, which is a personal first. The threatened rain did not happen, which was a blessing. But there's definitely a nip in the air at the moment. Autumn seems well ensconced, which I view as a mixed blessing; fresher weather may be quite welcome but I really like the sun. Still, it comes around as sure as eggs is eggs. The trick is to plan ahead and have enough to do not to end up moping.
Modern Art Oxford is, until the 28th just over a week away, showing a large exhibition of art from schools around Oxfordshire. It's really cheerful stuff, with a high standard of invention mixed in with the vivid use of colour you'd expect. All sorts of things are hung from the ceilings and walls, and the whole impression is one of a dense mass of visual attractions vying for attention. Recommended.
Posted at 3:00 pm by Jim Woods