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Wednesday 21 September 2005

Remote MP3 Stream / Player [Am]

Right quick check in with the resident gurus; my father in law has got an out building in the garden which serves as a changing room for his pool. What he'd like to do is to be able to serve music from the house to a small setup in the out building so that he can stream mp3 from the house. There were a few solutions offered up in earlier blogs but I wonder where anyone thinks the current best state of play is?

Monday 19 September 2005

Desktop hardware [Muz]

Good day, gentle readers. It struck me that I've not contributed anything to the collective braindump for a while, and seeing as I have a bit of time on my hands prior to returning to studentdom, I thought I'd make a brief contribution to the fount of knowledge that is our communal blog.
So, on to the topic: desktop setups. Previously, I had been using a Logitech DiNovo (as blogged in blog 917); I was quite happy with the keyboard and separate number pad/calculator/media control - batteries lasted a good lone while, and as mentioned in that blog, typing on it is just... nice. The mouse was sufficient for my use - never seemed to run out at inopportune times, and as solid and functional as we've come to expect from Logitech's peripherals. The only issue was, as ever, with Logitech's software. (Hacks for Forward/Back compatibility with Firefox, ropey media control performance, etc)
Recently, however, a couple of things happened that caused me to reassess my desktop situation. Firstly, my summer internship finished, leaving me with a surfeit of free time for gaming. This lead me to discover a fundamental flaw with cordless mice - they suck for playing games; not due to any inferiority in performance compared with their wired cousins, mind. There is no added latency, they're smooth and accurate to use, but... the batteries have an annoying tendency to run out just as you're in the middle of an elite quest in World of Warcraft, or some other similarly inconvenient time. Time for a new (corded) mouse, methinks.
The other issue, which is of a less immediate but more worrying nature, is that of RSI. This again has been covered before by shedir in blog 754 and more recently by His Beerness in blog 973. It's been brought to my attention as someone I know has recently been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. It looks painful as hell. As someone who's spent ten years at terminals of one sort or another as a hobby, and will probably spend the next twenty at least working at one, this issue has suddenly been put into stark relief. Spoke with an occupational therapist (it's great having a GP for a mum), and she recommended a 'split' keyboard, and, as Slim has said in an earlier blog, to rely on keyboard shortcuts wherever possible (I bought a Microsoft Natural Multimedia Keyboard).
So, how do they perform? Firstly, the mouse. I decided to stay with Logitech - though their software is at times an annoyance (forward and back buttons don't work with Firefox if you have SetPoint installed, FFS), their hardware is built to last. Also, I've always gotten along with their MX*** form factor - it seems to be just the right size and shape for my hand. It seemed to be a choice between the MX510 and the MX518. I decided to go with the 518, as all the custom stuff on the 510 requires their (shite) setpoint software, and the idea of being able to switch resolutions in hardware was intriguing. Ordered from eBuyer (Dabs don't stock the 518, sigh), it arrived this morning. Nuked my Setpoint install (required for the MX900 that came with the DiNovo), plugged it in, and away I go.
I'm actually really impressed with it. I'm not going to talk about the ergonomics, suffice to say it's the same form factor as the MX500, 700, 900 and so on. It just works. What I am impressed with though, is the inbuilt dpi switch. It's maximum is 1600 DPI, which, as you can imagine, is absolutely stupid, cursor flying all over the place. Handy if you're doing work on a dual monitor set up with both running at 1280*1024 though. The interesting bit is you can drop that down to 800dpi (good for your general gaming) or 400dpi (perfect for snip0rage) in hardware, with no need to install any software. And as a bonus, if you don't install SetPoint, the Forward and Back buttons Just Work. Winning!
Keyboard wise: I've had the Natural for about a week now, and again, I'm really impressed. (This, thankfully, Dabs do stock). Had it running side by side with the Dinovo for a while, just to get a feel - it's amazing how much more natural (forgive the pun) typing on a split key keyboard feels. All the media buttons and stuff work just as they should (MS drivers, MS operating system, you'd hope so eh?), and though I thought I'd miss having a seperate numpad that I could use as a calculator, it turns out that the Natural has a shortcut button to start up Windows calculator, which works just as well. Another win for new hardware. The only downside is that for this version, in their infinite wisdom, MS decided to change the shape of the Home/End/PgUp/PgDn/Insert/Delete block. It's a minor annoyance - a week later, and I've retrained myself. Thankfully, they appear to have reverted to a normal layout in the next model, the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000; unfortunately, it wasn't available in an EN-GB layout when I ordered. Of course, due to the universal pervasiveness of Murphy's law, it looks like the thing is being released in the UK pretty soon. Bah.
One bonus of having a Natural Keyboard which I didn't anticipate, though, is the fact that my typing speed has improved by leaps and bounds. I, like many of you, I imagine, learned to type by experience. I attended one course run by uni to learn the theory of 'proper' touch typing, but never really put it to use as my own method seemed to work sufficiently well. However, the split nature of ergonomic keyboard pretty much forces you to use the 'correct' keys, and as a result, I've noticed a marked increase in both speed an accuracy. It'd be interesting to see someone come up with a DVORAK layout natural keyboard...

Monday 12 September 2005

Spec 'im [Am]

Ok my ex boss wants to pc up his gaff for him, the lady wife and their boys (8 and 5ish). I got the following off him;
"£2000 tops for everything (whatever that is....pc, screen, printer, software). How about Sony Vaio VGC-V3S (incl Word XP Home)? Home office (Word, email, PPoint with potential for other software that i havn't thought about yet) use for burning the midnight oil for Cheyne and some gaming capabilities. Mrs J to use mail order. Like the idea of lack of wires and double up as a decent TV, DVD, writer, music download photos etc...."
What's the thinking here oh clan of tech gurus?

Thursday 8 September 2005

iTunes 5.0 [Spiny]

Along with the white elephant iTunes phone & the oh so sexxxy iPod Nano, Apple released iTunes 5.0 yesterday.

There's quite a good features list on iLounge (Which seems to have buckled inder the strain of hits), but here's the view from t'death. Well me anyway.

The first thing that strikes you is "where have the borders gone!". The borders on the window have all been reduced to one pixel & the menu has been incorporated into the title bar. Some may like this look. I don't particularly, just seems like a cheap way to gain a bit of screen real estate. In practice it just reduces usability. I can just hear Mac users saying "Why would anyone want to resize a window from somewhere other than the bottom right corner?". Shame

The rest is all good thankfully. It'll now sync your Outlook contacts and calendar onto your pod so there's no need to frig about with vCards or buy shareware. At long last they've added folders into the playlist structure so you can organise your lists, rather than have one monolithic block. Just a shame that the structure isn't taken over to the ipod on sync. You still have to put up with one big list of playlists there. One very nice feature is the search bar that appears just above the track listing. Type a search string into the search box & if you get too many tracks, you can narrow the search with a single click buy selecting an item from the search bar. Either by media type or Artist/Album/Name. They seem to have removed the drop down menu on the seach field too. MS would have left it as they're typically very good at giving you umpteen ways of doing the same thing. Apple however seem to force you to do things one way which they deem to be the easiest. I guess they're trying not to confuse novice users, but I'd rather have choice. Parental controls have been added. Fff. The last cute addition is smart shuffle which lets you control how likeley you are to hear songs by the same artist/album grouped together in a random playlist.

As for the bad, my one problem is that the UI performance is still rather sluggish. I'd rather they just didn't try to keep breaking the Windows user interface model with custom window drawing. I seem to remember that early versions wouldn't even let you resize from anywhere by bottom right for example.

As for the future, I'd like to see two additions:

  1. Better smart playlist construction: You still have to frig about nesting playlists if you want to do anything remotely complex with ANDing and ORing conditions for including songs in a smart playlist.
  2. Just play tracks from any connected iPod option: Sometimes I like to plug my ipod in at work & listen through iTunes there. But to play the tracks, I need to turn off auto sync on the work PC. This setting seems to be persisted onto the iPod, so I have to turn it back on when I dock at home. I'd like to recommend Winamp & ml_pod for that but it suffers from a serious bug where it won't let you undock the iPod, even when you shut down Winamp.

All in all a few nice additions but still a few issues with the UI. Oh and of course the MP3 encoder is still dreadful. MAC users can get a (slow) LAME plugin but Windows users still have to stick with something like CDex. No, don't you dare ask about AAC! :)

Conservative Leadership 2005 [Lurks]

Since this is a short political blog, it might help to sketch where I'm coming from. I'm probably a natural conservative in terms of overall policy but in the last few years they've done a good job to make themselves unelectable. Generally through, as far as I can work out, a fudamentally unrepresentative grass roots activist system that has been more about purporting the views and polices of battle conservative dinosaurs rather than the actual views of the general population.
It's been a chicken and egg situation for the Tory party. The absurdly disconnected policies are deeply uninteresting to potential younger new members of the conservative movement. Then when the Labour party moved to the centre (precisely the middle compromise of the left and right that make up the country) and installed a young and dynamic leader that seemed genuine and was good with the media... the rest, as they wrote, was history.
Rather than modifying themselves to be an effective opposition, the Tories then spent the last few years squabbling and putting forward - through the above described broken grass roots leadership election system - ever more absurd and ineffectual leaders and continued the well past sell-by date tactic of negative campaigning and harping on about issues that people just don't care about such as Europe.
So now several years on we have a situation where the Torys finally realise they need to change the rules and allow ministers to elect the next leader rather than the tens of thousands of old grannies rotting away in countryside cottages. They're still arguing about that.
Now we've a pile of candidates that have announced themselves. None of us naturally enough have any idea who half these people are, even the one that is supposed to be a young moderniser (David Cameron). The only guy that anyone knows - therefore is monumentally more popular than the rest of the candidates to the general population of Britain - is Ken Clarke.
Unfortunately he hasn't been right wing enough for the grannies and has said things about Europe that equate to meanings other than "CRUSH! BURN! KILL!" and he's kinda getting on a bit too when the party realises it needs to reconnect with younger people and maybe ignore the pensioner army this time around.
The burning fact that the party needs a leader that is known, liked and makes a good account of himself on television appears to be destined to once again by ignored by the party. As if this is a mild consequence, overshadowed by the fact he's 65 and kept an open mind with regards to Europe.
It's a bit of a disaster. We need a valid opposition so that we can continue to punish the current government over issues such as Iraq and the continued and deeply worrying nanny state erosion of our liberties, unnecessary laws and an utter refusal to tackle the issue of government red tape and inefficiency.
It's worrying and I find myself doing what, I think everyone else is doing. Developing a general apathy for politics since there's no tick-box on the form for anyone remotely acceptable to us.

Wednesday 7 September 2005

The Mercury Prize [Lurks]

So it seems that rank outsider Anthony and the Johnsons have won the Nationwide Mercury Prize with the album "I am a Bird Now".
There's now some bleating that the band isn't really British since Antony Hegarty has lived in New York for the last 20 years. The Kaiser Chiefs leading the charge, having been pipped to the post.
Personally, I'm delighted. The Mercury prize has always rewarded what are stunning achievements as far as albums go and it's about the only thing that doesn't pander to the popular taste of the day. The Kaisers are ace and their album is great but it's not a remarkably innovative work of art that puts the passion back into music like the Anthony and the Johnsons masterpeice.
So enough of the whining that he should be excluded. This is a good thing for music and hopefully the Mercury prize will continue to inspire people to look a little bit further afield for great new music.

Tuesday 6 September 2005

BT suck [Pod]

We all know this anyway but I had an email from them this morning that made me chuckle.
I'd originally sent them this email
I'm having trouble with your website while paying a bill. Firstly I was unable tochange the issue number and expiry date on my registered card. Instead I had tocreate a whole new card. Not a big issue but pointless anyway. Secondly, and muchmore of an issue is that your webform is refusing my postcode no matter how I formatit (xxxx xxx).
The response I got was huge. Here is an edited version
Dear Mr Denning
I can confirm that there are some instances when you will not be able to pay yourbill online with your Debit Card:
If you have a Monthly Payment plan option and you are in credit with us, you willnot be able to make any payments.If your account balance is zero, you will not be able to make payments which willput your account into credit. If you have already made two bill payments using your Debit Card in the last 24 hours. You may be using a card that is not accepted (we accept Switch, Visa Delta or Solodebit cards)
Alternatively, you may be experiencing problems due to the fact that your carddetails that are stored within your profile are out of date.
If none of these situations apply to you, please can you advise the followinginformation and I can contact our Faults Incident Desk on your behalf toinvestigate this further.
I trust that this email will have helped to provide you with the clarificationneeded and I hope that it has also demonstrated to you that you concerns have beenlooked into thoroughly and professionally.
Its this last paragrah that really made me laugh. I'm really impressed with their thorough and professional auto-response :/
Where do they get these monkeys. You can be sure that the follow up email I sent was rather frank.

Friday 2 September 2005

RSI is the boss [Am]

Lads - one of my senior bosses has managed to get RSI in one hand due to keyboard and blackberry usage. Now I know there's been a few convo's about this over the year and of course he's had occupational health down to look at his posture and typing habits etc but what are our tips for keyboards, mice and other ways of getting round this? So far I've told him about microsoft natural keyboards, the trackball kind of mouse and keeping his arms of the deck etc. But what's best in your mind?
Speaks your brains!

Thursday 1 September 2005

Router fux0r4g3 [Am]

Part and parcel of hosting an AmLan every year-ish is that the clan come round my gaff, play lots of games, shout at each other and blow up my current router.
Last year it was a Netgear 834 or something (which died as soon as the first cunt got in the building), this year a Linksys Wireless-G series which had always worked flawlessly - I mean really flawlessly - until it got loaded with a bunch of blokes trying to play WoW and download a few patches. Its web-interface crawled to a stop and it basically kept fucking up. Before it went down, a quick interweb search turned up this thing was a bit of a 3 leg mule.
This thing was hot and in the end we worked out that pointing a fullblown deskfan at it was good enough to keep it going. But now of course it is seriously winking out, some 10 months into purchase. Have I got the receipt? Does the Pope shit in the woods without a paddle? Of course I ain't.
Anyway here's the deal. The netgear was shit and died at AmLan 1. The linksys was pretty good on the face of it until it too died after 8 months at AmLan 2 and was in fact also shown to be a piece of shit.
I need a recommendation for a really solid serious router. I need something that doesn't die. I need something that will work at AmLan 3 (provided there is one since the missus is still slightly resentful and unmediated about the b&b stay with two kids for two nights - eek). Give me a *decent* recommendation not the cheapest x-from-y solution. For god's sake give me a router that can last more than one more year and one more AmLan!

Hurricane Katrina - Crisis Mismanagement [Beej]

I am quite fascinated by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the United States. The richest, most technologically advanced, most powerful country on the planet has shown many of the signs of a massive breakdown in society at a city-wide level. It's a rare sight. The last failure of law and order must have been the LA Riots? That doesn't even compare to this monumental cluster of a crisis operation.
And the reason for screwing up? Well it's Piss Poor Preparation and Planning isn't it.
There's just doesn't appear to be a coordinated emergency plan in evidence at all. Plucking 100,000+ people from rooftops one by one just cannot be done with helicopters alone. You cannot leave thousands of people in a sports stadium in the middle of the damn city. Where are the tent cities? The buses? The portaloos? Drops of food and bottled water? The enhanced law enforcement posture? It's a flood - how about Marines or the Navy? There are so many things gone wrong it is hard to know which ones to point out first.
Now I have an understandable bias against incompetence because of time I've spent in the military. In the UK, an event of this scope would swiftly result in Civil-Military cooperation under Military Aid to the Civil Community which is a lot easier to say if you make it sound like fast food, so "MAC-C" as in "Mac See". There are others - MACP and MACM, it's all in the same vein and you can mix and match depending on the situation. Here are some key phrases which in the UK would result in the always undervalued British military to be turned to, to "make shit happen":
  • Incident is beyond the capability of the local authorities
  • Emergency Services cannot cope
  • Civil disorder beyond the capability of the Police
  • Authorities cannot maintain services essential to life and health
  • Imminent threat to life
  • I can't remember any others... :-)

So I probably don't need to ask you if you think any or all of the above would apply to a Hurricane Katrina scenario on British soil. The Americans have failed to respond quickly and effectively, and if there's one thing you don't have enough of under pressure it's time. In the UK, the policies and doctrine is written such that the aid can happen very very quickly. Additionally, terrorism wakes a lot of countries up to streamlining a coordinated emergency response. When the hurricane was approaching, and in the immediate aftermath, I don't recall reading or seeing much about getting what you might call strategic level support. No massive preparation, no logistics chain assembled, no C-17s disgorging soldiers. Perhaps the Federal model might be restricting them - the Governor can call out the National Guard, but I didn't see them up to much in days prior and immediate aftermath. Now Dubya is blabbing about needing to "raise money". That's just mad - this isn't a charity fundraise in the Senate, you need to be working down a checklist of A, B, C and Z in order to prevent needless loss of life and you need to be doing it yesterday!
If you ask me, the authorities in Louisiana are in way over their heads and it's a big big fuck-up.