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Sunday, 31 October 2010

Mobile Phone in non-Event mini-Crisis

A frantic Google search last night failed to shed any light on what happened to my mobile phone last night, so I'm posting this blog for anyone else who suffers the same thing.

It began with my mobile chirping at me with an unfamiliar sound; not a call or an event or a text. I pressed it to light up the face and got a brief glimpse of a message telling me that F-Secure was active. Then the phone switched off and wouldn't come back on.

Disaster. Had the phone security program decided that the phone had been stolen and so locked it down?

The phone had spent all day connected to my PC, so it should have had a full battery. However, on the off chance I disconnected, then reconnected it. The battery charging indicator came on, though nothing else was happening. After a few minutes I tried to power the phone on, and it came back to life.

I don't know how or why the micro-USB connection decided to blow instead of suck, but that's what must have happened. The battery got empty, the phone tried to warn me, and the message about F-Secure might have been related or just a complete coincidence.

One last thing worth remembering: even with the phone in this state, I could still access the memory card via the PC.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

A New Way to Recycle CDs

Back in the '90s I used to subscribe to a magazine called Classic CD. Every month it would come through my letterbox full of reviews of the latest classical CDs, until one month it vanished forever. I used to scour through those reviews, at first buying a couple of discs a month, then three or four, and finally, with the ease provided by the internet and Amazon, up to half a dozen a time. (This is one reason why I consider paying £10 a month for a Napster or Spotify 'all you can eat' subscription to be blisteringly good value.)

Anyway, accompanying the magazine there was a CD sampling the best albums of the month. Or maybe even two on good months--ah, the anticipation. Over the time of my subscription I accumulated dozens of these discs. The magazines I threw out years ago (recycled, of course), but the CDs were harder to let go. They still worked, and I could play them like any other compendium disc (albeit one where many of the tracks just faded away mid-piece). I rarely did, and the discs inevitably ended up languishing at the back of a drawer.

Fast forward to a fortnight ago. A 2 disc set of the ballet 'Undine' had stuck in my head since I heard it sampled in Classic CD back last century, but I'd never got around to buying it. The music seemed a bit too alien to my taste at the time, and it was priced at around £30. I'd tried looking for it in Napster when I was with them, and Spotify when I moved to that service. Now on the off chance I check again, and it's there.

Brilliant! I've saved thirty big ones. With interest over thirteen years, that's ...

To my surprise I have no difficulty with the music at all now. Indeed, it sounds completely different to my memory of it. This happened before with 'Boston', which I'd heard at a friend's house, and bought several months later only to find it a totally different experience. I didn't like it, and gave up on it on the third playing. Now that turned out to be because the cassette had been wrongly printed: it was in fact 'Abraxas' by Santana, which I only discovered when I purchased the real thing and noticed its stunning similarity to Boston. It must say something significant, but possibly uncomplimentary, about me that I only liked Abraxas when the music matched the album cover. I don't want to consider what exactly it says, so I'll put it down to cognitive dissonance.

Back to Undine. Could it be that it sounded so different to my recollection because the sampler had played me the wrong track? I dug out the CD from the back of the drawer, ripped it onto my hard drive, and played it alongside the Spotify version. No, it was the same piece; my tastes must just have widened over the years.

And now to the original point of this blog entry. If one album I once thought about purchasing is now available for download, why not others? Maybe lots of others. All those albums I toyed with buying but didn't because everyone has to draw a line somewhere between collecting and compulsive behaviour.

So the sampler CDs will get one more outing, a celebration of the effort that those Classic CD reviewers put in every month, for 130 issues.

Friday, 22 October 2010

When The Obvious is Just Not Obvious Enough

Thank you, Orange, thank you so very much.

Just for the record, the missing line of code your programmers are after is:

phoneNumber.replace(' ', '');

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Tales Of The Dying Earth

While researching my last post (i.e. searching in Amazon) I came across a remarkable offer: Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth for just £6.49.

It's made up of all four Dying Earth books: The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga, Rhialto the Marvellous, and of course The Dying Earth itself. These were such enjoyable stories. I think they embody Jack Vance's particular writing style more than anything else he wrote. And all that for £6.49.

Also for sale is Songs of the Dying Earth, a collection of tribute stories written by other authors. Projects like this are hard to pull off successfully. The authors run the risk of either missing the essential charm of the original, or looking like a weak pastiche.

Michael Shea wrote a sequel to The Eyes of the Overworld called A Quest for Simbilis, which was well written but fell into the first trap. I can remember nothing at all about it now other than my disappointment. But a few years after that I read his Nifft the Lean, which still sticks in my mind more than two decades later.

I notice there is a sequel to Nifft the Lean. Also, that Songs of the Dying Earth is available for the Kindle.

I suddenly get an overwhelming urge to go back to my backlog of books.

Reading in the Age of Plenty

I have always been a book reader. As a child, and all the way up to my university graduation, I would read pretty well every book that came into my possession. My income was barely sufficient to feed my need for books.

But then I moved into the world of work and salaries, and found I could just buy a book if I felt like it. A single foray into a bookshop might see me coming out with half a dozen new books to read, and the list of unread books started to lengthen.

I still have nearly all of them, piled up in bookcases around the house. For most of them I can even remember where I acquired them. Running the book stall at jumble sales for many years didn't help, as there would usually be some books remaining at the end that I felt inclined to provide a home for.

About the middle of last year I resolved that all new books I bought would go onto a pile in my bedroom, to remind me how much money I was wasting on books that never got read. When one pile had become three piles I decided to pretty well stop buying books until I'd caught up. Somewhat to my surprise this has mostly worked, and the piles are going down. Only Amazon is the loser.

Only now they've brought out a Kindle at a price I'd consider paying (£109). That, plus my natural nerd tendency to want nerd toys, makes me suspect I will soon own one of these devices. But what of my resolution about buying new books? Should I first purchase the eBook versions of the ones on my piles? No. Fortunately I'm too tight for that.

Ah, but I did say I wouldn't 'buy' any new books. Turns out that there are eBooks you don't have to pay for: The Amazon Kindle Store lets you choose from thousands of the most popular classics, all available for free.

Garhh! Are these people mad? The classics! These are books I've spent nearly my whole life thinking I really ought to get round to reading someday before I die. In under an hour I could download more classics than I could read in what's left of my lifetime for no more cost than a few pence on my electricity bill. I'd have to either renounce any pretensions to culture, or admit that the battle to finish reading all my books was finally and definitely lost.

My sole consolation is that e-books do not make a very tall pile.

Defending my Mobile

I've just installed an app on my Nokia smartphone called Anti-theft for Mobile, partly because I've been thinking for a while that I should have some way of protecting my phone in the event of me losing it, but mainly because I found out that it's free from the Nokia OVI store.

Now, if I find I've lost my phone, I can send it a text message to lock it, locate it, or even wipe it clean. Of course, by definition I won't have a mobile phone with me when I realise this, but eventually I'll be able to get my hands on one and send the necessary message.

Two thoughts now occur to me. To begin with, unless I lose my phone in the next few days, I will almost certainly not be able to remember what it is I'm supposed to send to lock the missing mobile. Normally I would make a note of this in my smartphone, but clearly that's not going to cut it in this situation. Secondly, I can't be sure that the program will work unless I test it. However, there are three possible outcomes to this experiment: it might work flawlessly, it might not work at all, or it might lock the phone but not let me unlock it.

As this app must have been downloaded many, many times by now, you'd think I should be reasonably confident that it will work properly. And yet...there are so many times when software has decided to fail on me in ways that (according to Google) nobody else in the world has ever experienced.

My two year contract expires soon and I'll be getting a new phone. Very tempting to think that that would be the ideal time to risk bricking my Nokia.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Amazon Now Pricing Toys by Weight

Can anyone explain why Amazon think I'd like to know how much games cost by unit of weight?


Monday, 30 August 2010

Georg Pniower

This is just a thought that crossed my mind while I was writing my last post. My mother's father was Georg Bela Pniower, the landscape architect. If anyone's out there doing research on his life, I have some items in my loft that might be of interest to you. Please feel free to contact me.

Here are a couple of photos of him, newly scanned into the digital world. As he died in 1960 and I found these in my family collection, I am assuming that either the copyright has expired or I've inherited it.


Georg Pniower


Georg Pniower and colleagues

The portrait is undated, but the other is dated 24th May 1957. Pniower is third from the left.

The End of Genealogy

I was talking to friends yesterday about their research into their family trees. I don't do this myself, but it seems to me that this must be the Golden Age for amateur genealogists, with so much data available online nowadays, and more going that way all the time. The days of wandering around graveyards, combing through parish records, and scanning microfiched birth certificates will one day be over, when all conceivably available data is somewhere on the web, indexed and accessible.

And sometime after that, genealogy will be effectively over.

For once someone has accurately mapped their ancestors, there is no real work left for their children to do, except add on the latest generation. Even if someone coming new to genealogy knows that their parents never did any research, it is quite likely that one of their cousins did. Go back just three generations and you've already got eight direct ancestors. If just one of their other descendants has already done the leg work, all you need to do is link up with them. And with web sites like Genes Reunited, that's becoming increasingly easy.

If I ever decide to research my own family tree, it will be out of curiosity, not a wish to acquire a new hobby. If I can quickly link up with some distant relative's existing work, I'm pretty sure that's just what I'll do.

The principal reason I haven't ever had attempted to trace my own ancestors is down to me being adopted. Which tree should I trace? I've always been clear in my mind that my real parents were the people who brought me up and nurtured me to adulthood. And my real grandparents were the people I remember from my childhood. But go any further back and issues get muddied in my mind. If I ever wonder about who my predecessors were in, say, the sixteenth century, it's biological ancestors I think about.

Once again, modern technology is stepping in. Companies providing personal genetic testing like 23andMe can offer you the option of being put in touch with close genetic relatives who've also been tested. Just as in genealogy, family trees are going to be constructed, then linked together.

Not all linked together though. Genealogical records usually only go back a handful of centuries, and even royalty can't trace back much more than a thousand years. That's hardly anything when measured against the age of the human race. This will mean that, when we get to the point where everyone can access their tree (their paper, rather than genetic, tree) as far back as is possible, the population will be naturally partitioned into groups sharing a common ancestor. A common, known ancestor, that is.

Genetic testing will achieve a similar effect. DNA tests though, will go back much further than genealogical records. Logically any two human beings share a closest common ancestor, and our DNA should be able to make a good estimate of just how far back that person lived.

I wonder how human interaction will change when all this comes to fruition. In the last decade you've been able to google a new acquaintance. The day may be coming soon when you'll also be able to quickly find out how much DNA you've got in common.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Local Man Makes Small News

The story about my threatened assassination continued to spread slowly for most of last week. I even made it all the way to page 36 of The Press, York's local newspaper.  In it I am described as a 'software expert'. Not accurate, but I'm prepared to let it pass. The photo of me isn't bad either, by my standards. Normally I'm very far from photogenic, with most shots showing me apparently either scowling, or grinning inanely, or at worst, scowling inanely. Believe it or not, in this one I was aiming for a sardonic smile.

And so we draw a curtain over this story, and my blog's brief burst of fame comes to an end.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

My 15 Minutes of Fame

After posting my blog about the assassination scam, it occurred to me that some people might not take receiving a death threat so well. Believing that the best way to combat scams is to publicise them as widely as possible, I forwarded the offending mail to The Register. They thought it worthy of an article, and kindly linked back to my original post.

Since then I have heard nothing more from Gladlord Mohammed or his Yemeni hit squad, but according to Google Analytics, traffic to this blog has leapt by over 7000%. Amazing what you can do from a very, very small base. Their report also shows three visits from Yemen. (I would like to assure any Yemeni readers that I never for a moment believed that the scamster was really from Yemen.)

It was also interesting watching how the story spread across the web. At the start of the day a Google search for "Gladlord Mohammed" came up with just two hits: my blog and a site for people who like to wind up scamsters. Then the Reg article showed up. After that several other news sites took up the story, mostly crediting The Register, though not all.

This humble blog will probably never be so popular again. When I started it last year, little did I think that it would be a death threat that attracted any serious readership. At least it wasn't an obituary notice.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Irony on the M62

I just had to take a photo of this doughnut display I saw in a service station on the M62 east of Manchester:


The doughnuts suggest you buy a dozen to share with a friend. "Clear!"

Somebody wants me dead!

There is disturbing news in my e-mails when I get back after a week away in North Wales. Apparently someone has hired a hitman to have me whacked. The contract is for $200,000, which is quite a large sum for a next-to-nobody like me. I am almost tempted myself.

Fortunately my potential killer has alerted me, and is prepared to strike a deal. For a mere $50,000 he will not only not kill me, but will also tell me the identity of my enemy, as well as hand over a tape that will let me have him (or is it 'her'?) convicted. Sounds like a bargain. Alas, I recently gave my last $50,000 to a Nigerian gentleman who was having difficulty getting money out of his native country.

"You have no need of knowing who i am", he writes. However, he goes on to sign the message 'Gladlord Mohammed'. Hmm, possibly an alias?

"i have followed you closely for one week and three days now". If true, he will have recently enjoyed several of North Wales's top tourist attractions. I hope he enjoyed Caernarfon Castle, and had better luck at finding a restaurant in Bangor than we did.

"Do not contact the police or FBI ..." The FBI? I begin to suspect he's got the wrong man. "... or try to send a copy of this to them, because if you do i will know." Oh, really? Nice to know at least one person is following this blog.

I click the Gmail 'Report Spam' button and consign the message to digital oblivion.

Seriously, is this a new departure for the scammers? Every previous scam mail I've received has relied on me being a greedy, gullible moron. This is the first one I've ever had that has tried to scare me into handing over my life savings.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Idle Time at Camberley Station

The first anniversary of my blog has come and gone, unnoticed by everyone probably, certainly by me. I am inspired to break my two month postings drought by my experiences at Camberley station last week.

Two adults and a child need to buy day tickets to London, returning at any time. There are three humans selling tickets to a slowly moving queue of travellers, and six automated ticket machines. Some of the machines will even accept cash. The machines are largely unused, so I try one of them out.

Picking the destination is very easy, but then I get stuck. How to select for more than one person? Did I miss that step already (given that I'm only on step 2)? And how to tell the vending machine that we don't want to have to worry about off peak restrictions?

At this point a station employee comes up to help. Rather than staffing one of the several empty ticket counters, her job is to loiter around the machines, helping the confused. When I tell her our needs, she advises us to get our tickets from one of her human colleagues instead as our best option is a group ticket.

I know absolutely nothing about the story of those ticket machines and the engineers who developed them, but I can guess at it. The conflicting requirements, an ever changing list of pricing options, group discounts, London Underground inclusive deals, finally leading to a system that baffles first time and occasional users, becomes more out of date with every marketing initiative, and (cruel irony) needs a human attendant to help customers make sense of it.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

In the Style of Charles Bukowski

There is a polyp in my gall bladder.

The NHS found it while I was having an ultrasound scan at our local hospital in 2008. However, the operator wasn't allowed to tell me the results there and then. Instead they were posted to my GP, which meant another appointment. I didn't even know what the gall bladder was except that it sounded mediaeval, like my humours were out of balance, or something. But with the web at my disposal I quickly boned up on the subject, and learned that theses polyps were quite common, and are usually left alone unless they grow to more then 10mm across, after which they could turn nasty.

My GP told me it was 4cm across. Almost at once I was sure I could feel it in there, growing. I even got an occasional twinge from it. The doctor and I both managed to act unconcerned, and it was decided I would go back for a second scan a few weeks later to have it measured again. If it was growing, I was in trouble. If it wasn't, maybe it was just a gallstone. These aren't fun normally, but it would definitely have got a laugh out of me.

The polyp was measured the second time at 4mm.

"4mm!" I exclaimed, "but my GP was told it was 4cm."

"Yes, it says 4cm on the card, but it's actually 4mm."

I was so relieved I even forgot to inquire about which idiot had written down a simple measurement incorrectly, multiplying my polyp's size at a stroke by a factor of 1000.

Nothing has been done about my polyp since, and I have never again felt it twinge. (Later I found that the area the twinge was coming from isn't even where the gall bladder lives.)

The reason I'm writing about this is that I'd completely forgotten about it until a few days ago. Which is strange, seeing as I how for a few weeks I seriously thought I might have a tumour.

I was reading The Last Night of the Earth Poems by Charles Bukowski when I suddenly remembered the polyp.

if I was
him
I would have written
all this in
short staccato verses
and
started each paragraph
in lower case

but
would that make it
poetry?

Anyway, it makes me wonder, if I could forget something as significant (as I thought then) as that polyp, what other incidents might have slipped out of my memory.

Some people have started recording their whole lives electronically. That would solve the problem of forgetting, only to replace it with the problem of finding time to play your life back again and again to keep it fresh in your memory. Sadly, a lot of it wasn't too interesting the first time through.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Ergonomic Experiences

Following on from my last post, on the subject of recommendations, I can heartily recommend that Evoluent mouse. I developed tennis elbow last year (and not from playing tennis), which has largely disappeared since I moved to using an ergonomic mouse. Ironically, the tennis elbow was probably triggered by me moving from a vanilla flat keyboard to a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic keyboard. Decades of habitual arm positioning were abruptly overturned when I started typing more naturally, and my muscles resisted. Ironically I made the decision to change keyboard when I noticed my wrists were starting to ache a lot.

It's a good keyboard though, and I've bought one for work and one for home use. There was another downside, or maybe it's an upside. Because the keyboard splits the keys into two groups, I had my nose rubbed in just how bad my two fingered typing technique was, so after thirty-five years of keyboard use I've finally had to teach myself touch-typing.

AI - Still Some Way to Go

A year or so ago I wanted to know the mass of the planet Jupiter (never mind why: it's a geek thing), so of course I typed "mass of Jupiter" into Google. Up came a list of hits, with Wikipedia as expected at the top. But above all of that was a single result from Google Calculator:

mass of Jupiter = 1.8987 × 1027 kilograms

It was like the Internet had just spoken to me, and I started to take seriously the suggestions from people like Kevin Kelley that our technology could be developing into an artificial intelligence.

So it was refreshing this week when I was browsing through my Amazon recommendations to find the Evoluent left-handed mouse, suggested to me on the grounds that I'd already bought the right-handed version. And even though it's annoying, I'm a little bit reassured when my Windows XP computer at work (though oddly not my home PC, which is also running XP Pro) spots on start up that my external hard drive is missing and so reports that my total disc capacity has decreased, only to next time warn me that it's just gone back up again.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Comings and Goings in Programming Languages

Last week I wrote my first GOTO statement in around fifteen years. Strictly speaking it was a JavaScript 'continue' statement, but I specified a label after it to let me jump out of a nested loop, so in my mind it's a GOTO.

At University I was taught that GOTOs and labels were a bad thing because they encouraged spaghetti code. That was ironic, as they also taught me BASIC and Fortran IV, which completely depend on those very same bad things. However, looking at some of the code I used to write back then, I saw their point. Later, when I was writing assembly code for a living, and half your program seemed to be jump statements of one form or another, I really had my nose rubbed in how difficult this style of programming could be.

So for many years now I've tried to steer clear of anything that looked like a GOTO or a label. The nearest I got was in a C program when I mistyped 'default' as 'defualt' and the stupid compiler thought I was creating a label in the middle of a switch statement. (Boy, was that bug hard to spot.)

Going back to my 'continue', I have enough years behind me now to appreciate that jumping out of two loops is no worse than jumping out of one via a 'break', especially as the target label was just a few lines above. But in trying to remember all the arguments against jumps and labels, I suddenly remembered a former colleague saying about a computer language that it was the only one he'd ever met that had the equivalent of a COMEFROM statement.

Sadly, I cannot remember what that language was. A search on the web though found a language that actually does have a COMEFROM statement, namely Intercal. There was also a page explaining how one would work in Fortran. This is all quite amusing, but it's odd how much more difficult the idea of coming from is then going to, even though they're logically equivalent.

For another humorous but fairly unusable computer language, I would recommend Shakespeare, the language that lets your program read like a Tudor play. With true style, that implements a GOTO like this:

Hamlet:
   Let us proceed to scene III.

Social Networking and Me

Just been listening to last week's This Week in Google podcast, much of which centred on the recent concerns about Facebook privacy, as well as Facebook's apparent attempts to own the web. My own experience with Facebook used to be limited to a brief flirtation with it a couple of years ago. I gave up after a couple of weeks: I found I had little interest in giving the world a blow by blow account of my life, and I resented the wash of messages being a Facebook member generated, many from people I didn't even know. The final straw was a suggestion from a woman I'd never heard of that I should give her a slap. So I cancelled my account, or at least I think I did; it wasn't very straightforward.

Twitter and I have a similar relationship. As someone who's supposed to be tech-savvy, I felt I ought to open a Twitter account, but I quickly got fed up with having to repeatedly check for new messages (when I tried feeding them into Goggle Reader, I got someone else's messages instead--something to do with Google Reader not being set up to do logins). I do not share my user name, and have never tweeted. Despite this, I do get followers, though not for very long. None of them are names I recognise, and they all seem to be following hundreds of others without anyone reciprocating.

As someone who doesn't care to share the minutiae of his life with the world, the privacy issues of Facebook and others are less of a worry for me than the time it would take keeping up with all the messages they generate. I already have difficulty getting through all the blogs and podcasts I follow, as well as the music I want to listen to and the books I want to read, not to mention having a bit of a life away from the keyboard. Earphones and mobile devices have helped a lot: I've just finished listening to 'The Age of Innocence' (a novel I would probably never have got around to reading) on an Audible book, all done while cycling to and from work, or pounding the streets delivering election leaflets last month (much good that did). Even with their help though, there's still more content I want to consume than I can fit in to a day.

Despite me not being interested in Facebook and Twitter, in the last few weeks it's started to seem that I can't go anywhere on the web without being asked if I want to tweet about it or share it with Facebook. It feels like there's another layer being built over the web, one made up of the shared recommendations on social networking sites like Facebook, and maybe the time will come when newcomers to the web can be persuaded by the likes of Facebook to only access web pages via their site, in the same way that AOL and CompuServe tried with their home page portals.

Even Spotify, my beloved music streaming service, now invites me to share all my listening experiences. As if there might be someone out there who wants to know, in real time, which piece of music I've just listened to. Actually, I think I will start doing that, purely in the interest of research. I'll find out how long my few Twitter followers can stay interested in a stream of tweets directing them to pieces of music they've likely never heard of.

Or maybe I'll get some recommendations back.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

A Tangled Web

We were looking for the power adaptor for my son's mobile phone today. After searching all the obvious places, I reluctantly opened the drawer where anything remotely cable-like gets put to rest once we don't need it. It was a real mess.

This wasn't surprising: it usually is. But this time I decided to sort it all out, and chuck away anything that clearly would never get used again. It took nearly ten minutes to completely untangle the mass of wires, leads, and power cables. How does this happen? Logically, every time I add something to the drawer, it must end up sitting on top of everything else. So how do the leads tie themselves into knots? A mystery that may never be answered.

Anyway, now everything is separated, cables are folded and secured, and I'm deciding what to throw. My AKG wireless headphones, for a start. Plug the base station into my hi-fi, and I could enjoy listening to my CDs anywhere in the house or garden, with just the occasional crackle or hiss. And yet now superseded by so, so many different technologies. Trying hard not to remember how much they set me back 15 years ago. Still, I haven't used them for nearly a decade, and never will again, so out they go.

And why do I have four different sets of earphones squirrelled away (on top of the two sets I actually use)? Well, answered that: two leak sound, one sounds awful, and the fourth only works in one ear. Goodbye to the last two of those.

This illustrates another problem: my reluctance to get rid of something if it could conceivably be used again, even though it almost certainly never will.

One item is almost certainly an old fax cable from my last PC. I no longer fax, and my new PC doesn't have a modem anyway. Still, you never know. It can go back with all the USB and network cables that are so neatly wrapped, they clearly have never even been used at all.

And when did I ever need a cable with stereo connections at one end, and a microUSB connection at the other? I can only think it used to belong to the USB radio receiver I once owned. This would generate gigabyte-sized .wav files if I even tried to record a half hour radio show, and then became completely irrelevant once internet streaming radio caught on. The receiver's long gone, but the cable remains. Well, you never know.

There's our old battery recharger. Why did we buy another one to replace it? I can't remember, and I haven't got the time or inclination to experiment with it, so that one survives another day.

Finally, the sorting is over, the drawer is as tidy as I could wish for, and I'm left with a single power adaptor. Not, unfortunately, the one for my lad's mobile phone.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

"Check Printer Cartridge"

I occasionally have a dream in which I suddenly remember some task I'm supposed to do, along with the realisation that I'd completely forgotten about it for a very long time. Usually it's revision for an exam I actually took 30 years or more ago. Shortly after my son was born, I dreamed I'd forgotten to feed him for nearly a month, and couldn't even recall where I'd left him. In a similar vein, I realised today that it's been nearly two months since I added to this blog.

In the search for inspiration, I need look no further than my HP PSC 1510 'all-in-one' colour printer, sat not 50cm away from this keyboard, which has smugly informed me that it needs some more colour ink. I'm just guessing at the smugness, of course, but it seems a reasonable guess, considering its behaviour since I installed a set of W H Smith own brand ink cartridges, faced with the high cost of the HP versions. Right from the start the printer kicked up a stink. It detected the alien inserts immediately, refused to even guess how much ink they still contained, and insisted from thence forward on printing a test page every time I switched it on.

I'm just speculating, but my guess is that they thought that this would make me think twice about buying non-HP cartridges the next time I ran out of ink (an event that was only hastened by all those unnecessary test pages that it produced). Well, that worked. Their victory is tempered though by my new found determination that my next printer won't be from Hewlett Packard.

And so now it's out of ink, and Amazon are quoting around £25 for a replacement set of cartridges. Plus, the printer's paper feed has always been temperamental, to the extent that it's only accepted a sheet at a time for the last several months. Plus, when I recently went to HP's web site and downloaded the latest driver for the 1510, the installer reported that, "A newer version of this software is already installed on your HP All-in-One series computer." (How'd that happen?) Plus, I can get a completely new printer for £70 or so.

Much as it pains me to replace a piece of kit that is mostly still working, the bizarre economics of printers means that I can actually do it for less than three times the cost of its consumables. If I pick the next printer looking at the cost of its inks rather than of the printer itself, it can even make economic sense to.

But now I come to the 'devil you know' situation. There are so many choices available--which to pick? And as Michael McIntyre pointed out, in this age of web reviews, no matter what you're thinking of buying, you can always find a bad review for it somewhere. So for now the printer will still sit on my desk, unable to print, while I weigh up the pros and cons of replacing its cartridges or relegating it to the loft, where it can sit next to a motley collection of other old printers and monitors that still work, but will almost certainly never do so again.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Irony and Retirement

Receiving mailings from finance companies these days could be quite painful if I didn't have a robust sense of humour. Just yesterday I got an update on an endowment policy, with the now familiar warning of a 'high risk of under-performing'. Yes, indeed. If it manages to grow by 4% per year it will end up worth less than two thirds of what I was told it would make when I signed up for it in 1986. Twenty-five years seemed a long way off back then; now it's next April, and my investment needs to grow by over 50% to hit its target. Or I need to snuff it before then.

Today I got an update on a pension scheme from a company I left in 1989. It informs me as to the size of my pension pot, notes that once again I haven't added anything to it in the last 12 months, and cheerfully tells me that when I retire I can expect an income from it of a staggering £1200 a year. Just to add insult to injury, that income will be taxable.

However, that's not the funny part. That goes to the three identical enclosures:


It's these little touches that really show how much you care.

Another Fine Ale

Working my way through the Brakspear Classic English Ale collection I received in my stocking for Xmas, I get to Brakspear's Triple Ale. This is a truly lovely beer, that flows down your throat without a hint of its 7.2% alcohol content. At least, at the time.

Their web site observes that, "this is a beer that will go on to develop further complexity as it matures in its bottle". Alas, that's a development I'm unlikely to ever experience. Fortunately the branch of Threshers in Haxby currently stocks Triple Ale, so I can continue to taste it in its less mature, though still delicious, state.

It's been a good week for beer, following the news that "moderate beer consumption may help fight osteoporosis". Excellent! The word 'moderate' tempers my joy a bit, but in the end that's such a subjective word.

Years ago we were told that every time you drank alcohol you suffered a small but irreversible loss of brain cells. That's now been shown to be untrue. All we need now is the discovery that alcohol consumption aids liver function, and the rehabilitation will be complete.

That's probably pushing it a bit far, but I suppose we might yet hear that beer helps to fight hepatitis, say, and so could be regarded as a net positive for your liver.

Truly, we live in the Golden Age of scientific discovery.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Are Amazon scrumping apples?

Just now I wanted to go to Apple's home page, but I mistyped and asked to go to www.appple.com instead. Imagine my surprise when I was whisked straight to Amazon.com and presented with the results of a search for 'apples'. This surely can't be accidental. Also, surely Apple must have heard about it by now. Maybe they figure they're more likely to get a sale through Amazon than through their own web site. Based on a highly representative sample of one product, Amazon are definitely the cheaper option.

There's a 'http://www.apppple.com/' as well, which doesn't feature Apple products, and is harder to imagine anyone mistyping, though what the name stands for is beyond me.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Upwardly Mobile

So I finally cracked yesterday and signed up for a Premium Spotify account. I'd got to the point where I'm not sure I could have listened to one more of those banal mobile phone adverts, or 'Roberta from Spotify' announcing yet again the same new service she was telling me about last year, without having to numb the horror by repeatedly hitting my head into my monitor.

It was a very painless procedure to convert from Free to Premium (apart from the £10 a month bill, but that's no more than a CD a month, and I'm listening to several new albums a week), and now I can enjoy ad-free music, and also an ad-free user interface. Oddly, for the first few hours I actually found myself missing the interruptions. That passed.

I still have my Napster subscription, as there are a number of albums that they have and Spotify still doesn't, but the gap is closing. Spotify is a far faster service, while napster.exe is a horribly slow program to start up, and one which often decides to hog the CPU and hard drive for long stretches, presumably re-indexing my music files. Okay, I have over 23000, but it's not as if they move around or anything.

It would be nice if Spotify could detect music on the hard drive, just as it would be nice if it would order all an artist's albums by title, rather than in a long list showing all their tracks, including whole compilation albums even though they only have a single song by the artist you're after. That may well change one day, when they get round to improving the UI. According to the plugs that I now no longer get, Spotify seem to be putting all their technical efforts into their mobile phone offerings. Which, now I think about it, I can access using my Premium account status.

Off to spotify.com...

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Stunning Presumption from Nokia

I've just noticed that my PC now thinks that .jar files are 'Nokia Application Installer Files'. And to think, all I had to do was load their mobile phone synchronisation program. Thanks, Nokia. Another classic example of Software Manufacturer arrogance.

I should be used to this by now. Every browser I've ever set to be the system default has always immediately celebrated by claiming ownership of the .htm and .html file suffixes.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Speeding up my PC--the cheap way

Personal computers, in my experience, tend to silt up and slow down. My Dell at home was little more than a year old and already noticeably slower than when I first booted it up. Of course, I look at what's running in the background from time to time, and remove anything that looks suspect or unnecessary (such as the Adobe and QuickTime quick start tasks), but it never seems to have much effect.

I'm toying with the idea of buying a solid state hard drive, of which I've heard many good things. Trouble at the moment is that they're still so pricey that it wouldn't be much more expensive to just buy a faster PC.

Last month I lost it during a particularly slow session, and decided to take drastic measures. I would often hear the hard drive working, even though Process Explorer (this is a brilliant program, that replaces Task Manager with something really informative--highly recommended) showed no significant CPU activity, and I decided to remove stuff I'd installed that might be responsible. First to go was 'Everything', a nifty program that indexes the files on your hard drive. It's really quick at finding files, but I hadn't made much use if it, so I ran the uninstall program. "Uninstall Everything?" came up the prompt. With clammy palms I clicked on Okay. That didn't seem to do much, so I moved on to Google Desktop.

Google Desktop is another program that indexes the hard drive, as well as your e-mails and any web sites you've visited. It too is really fast, and, on the occasions I've needed to find a lost e-mail, has proved invaluable. However, I was desperate, so out it went. From now on I shall rely on the fact that all my e-mails come in via a Google Mail account. I'll search through them there instead of on my Dell.

And amazingly, that seemed to do the trick. My PC is once again a fast machine, and the hard drive doesn't (often) sound busy when nothing's supposed to be happening. Is this a known drawback with Google Desktop, or just a side effect of my PC configuration? All I know is that I feel like I've saved two or three hundred pounds.

Still, those SSDs do look tempting.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Nostalgia comes in Box Sets

Xmas brought two new DVD box sets into our home, both TV series from my childhood, namely Wacky Races and Top Cat. I got to see them when they were orinally aired in the UK in the sixties, and the contrast when viewing them again for the first time in decades was rather surprising. Top Cat is still charming and funny; Wacky Races, on the other hand, after getting to know the line-up of competitors, is largely a one joke show, with the same plot rehashed in every episode. Dastardly and Muttly establish a commanding lead, which they then throw away in trying to set up a completely unnecessary trap for the other competitors, which naturally backfires, leaving them to come in last. Again.

I never noticed this as a child, but my nine year old son, who has been happily watching Top Cat episodes with me for the last week (not continuously, mind), summed up his opinion of Wacky Races five minutes into the first episode: 'This isn't funny'. No, it wasn't. But then, he's grown up watching The Simpsons and Futurama, which I realise sort of raises the bar a bit.

Another interesting observation was how up to date the plots of Top Cat still are, despite being nearly half a century old. Except for Officer Dibble having to keep in touch with his station via a police phone mounted on a telegraph pole (why not in a large blue box?), the only real clues to it being set fifty years ago are the clothing fashions and the car styles.

I probably watched every episode the first time round, maybe more than once, but I could only remember vague details of one show. Watching them again, my recall doesn't get any better, though occasional scenes and gags do ring bells. I did remember not being quite able to make out some of the lyrics in the opening credits. "Close friends get to call him TC, providing it's wikitity...". Never been too confident about that last word. Now, using the awesome power of the Internet (http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/classic/A249842), I am finally able to decode it as "with dignity". No wonder I could never make it out, as it's a really crap lyric. At this point I remember that there is a word for misheard lyrics, but I can't remember what it is. Back to that awesome power--it's 'Mondegreen'.

And one last piece of Top Cat trivia. In the UK the series aired on the BBC, who have a policy on not running commercials. Back in 1961 the policy was so strict that the existence of a brand of cat food called Top Cat was sufficient to make the BBC rename the show to Boss Cat. They even trimmed out the first part of the closing credits to remove the Top Cat billboard. For full effect they should have gone through each episode dubbing over every 'Top Cat' and 'TC' (preferably in a clipped British accent) , but that was presumably thought to be over the top (or maybe just too expensive). Anyway, as a consequence British kids were left puzzling over the following exchange at the start of every episode.

Continuity Announcer: "And now, Boss Cat."
Opening Credits: "Top Cat! The most effectual Top Cat! ..."