Sunday, July 30, 2006

West Wing Ends

Martin Sheen is my president mug photoI watched the last two episodes of series 7 of the West Wing last night. This was the best television series I have ever watched and they captured the characters' sense of loss at the end of the administration, which mirrored the audiences loss of the best thing on television.

I was introduced to the West Wing a few episodes into series 1 by my late father-in-law who later bought me my treasured "Martin Sheen is my president" mug from Washington (D.C not New-town). I have avidly followed the Bartlett administration through assasination attempts, kidnappings and September 11th. In the last series, as President Barlett was side-lined to a Yoda figure, not even appearing every week, the programme still surpassed any of its rivals.

What am I supposed to watch now?


Saturday, July 29, 2006

Wilde on "other people"

Photograph of Reese Witherspoon, star of The Importance of being Earnest
On yesterday's post about the Belle & Sebastian song "Seeing othe people", I made a witicism stating that

For me, "other people" are generally over-rated and should be avoided rather than seen.

Imagine my suprise when, by a complete conincidence, I settled down to watch the 1999 film version of Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband", when I heard Rupert Everett's Character, Lord Goring, state:

.....Just as vulgarity is simply the conduct of other people......And falsehoods the truths of other people.....Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself....

It is obviously a matter of personal taste as to whether you prefer Wilde's or mine, but we are both driving at the same idea.

Rupert Everett can also be found in another film version of a Wilde play, this time "The Importance of being Earnest", starring alongside Reese Witherspoon (pictured). Both films are well above average.


Friday, July 28, 2006

"Seeing other people" - best pop song

Belle and Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister artworkBelle and Sebastian's track "Seeing other people" from the 1996 album "If you're feeling Sinister" has been voted the best pop song of all time. In a survey of one person from my house it was unanimously voted the best pop track, ever. Why it wasn't a single, we'll never know.

I can't say I agree with the sentiments of the song. For me, "other people" are generally over-rated and should be avoided rather than seen. You can listen to the song here on the iTunes music store.

You're kissing your elbow
You're kissing your reflection
And you can't understand why all the other
boys are going for the
New, tall, elegant rich kids
I'll admit it is a bitch, kid
But if they don't see the quality then it is apparent that
You're going to have to change
Or you're going to have to go with girls
You might be better off
At least they know what they're doing



Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Apple launches wireless mighty mouse

As of today, Apple is selling a wireless, Bluetooth version of its popular Mighty Mouse. Apple Bluetooth Mighty MouseI have a wired Mighty Mouse at home and like it very much, especially its multi-way scroll wheel and button-less design.

The previous wireless Apple mouse sufferred from the following faults:
  1. From power on it took upwards of ten seconds before the Bluetooth had shaken hands with its host computer. It's not clear if the new model makes improvements in this area.
  2. It was too heavy with normal Alkaline batteries. Apple cunningly supplied exremely light but expensive Lithium batteries with the mouse. The new mouse, however, requires only one battery to operate, so its weight should be less


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Feral Children

A dog - This dog was not involved in raising feral childrenI watched a documentary on Channel 4 recently describing the case-studies of children who were neglected by their parents and were raised by dogs for several years. The children turned out to be wild, mono-syllabic creatures who couldn't relate to other human beings, had a stunted language skills and huge psychological problems. No, it wasn't a study of life in Sunderland, it was a serious documentary.

Not only were the children retarded in their language development, they had lost their ability to learn a language later in life. It would seem that children have a window of oportunity for learning their language skills which seems to tail off when a child reaches the age of seven or eight.


Sunday, July 23, 2006

Frank Gardner's Autobiography

Frank Gardner's BBC snapshotI've just finished reading Frank Gardner's autobiography "Blood & Sand". Gardner is the BBC's Security Correspondant and was shot while filming a news item about Saudi terrorism in Riyadh. His cameraman, Simon Cumbers, was killed while Gardner was left for dead in the street with six bullet wounds in the abdomen. He was critically ill and was only saved after many operations and months of physiotherapy. He remains paralysed from the waist down and wheelchair-bound.

The book describes his passion of Arab culture and his early back-packing adventures in Egypt and elsewhere. He then became a banker before jacking it all in for a career in journalism. It is a harrowing tale of how he has to come to terms with his paralysis and coupled with a thoughful analysis of the Middle East's present problems. You can read more about his exploits here and here.


Friday, July 21, 2006

Blogger niggles

blogger iconI've been using Blogger in earnest for six weeks or so and I think I'm hooked. I'm not going to review Blogger and compare it with its rivals but I do have some observations to make:
  • You can upload images very easily but once uploaded, you can't see which images you have uploaded previously. There should be an image browser which allows you to see a list of the images that you have uploaded, highlighting any that are not referenced in your Blog HTML. This would save space on the servers.
  • Say you upload an image and specify "right align" and "small size" and then want to change to "mediumn size", you're stuffed. You have to upload the image again. The original one is still there I suppose, wasting valuable space.
  • Uptime isn't the best. On several occasions I haven't been able to publish (stuck on 0%) or the image service is off for maintenance
  • Safari support is pretty shoddy. The posting page only offers two toolbar buttons; spell check and image upload. The Spell Checker doesn't really work in Safari. Why, at least, can't the "Insert URL" and "Insert Blockquote" functions be supported in Safari? They don't seem too hi-tech.
  • There is no Compose mode in Safari. I stick with the HTML but most people would like the WYSIWYG version
  • When you're typing your text, a carriage return is translated into a <br /> tag, which is fine, unless you are doing an unordered list, when you don't want a <br /> tag between your closing list item and the start of the next one. It isn't W3C compliant for a start.
  • The blog pages are not W3C compliant, not because of the HTML that gets entered in the blog, but because of the Blogger navigation bar and the "add comment" links. That's not really good enough
  • Separate the CSS from the HTML in the templates. There's no need for every page to repeat the CSS.
  • The transparency of PNG and GIF images is lost in the upload process. Blogger's resampling of the image destroys any transparency the image has.

I don't want this to be an anti-Blogger rant, it's only some observations. On the whole I am broadly pleased with the service.

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Kylie's touring again

Kylie Minogue is set to tour Britain in early 2007 as part of her Showgirl Comeback tour. Just 15 months after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Kylie is making a return to public life.
Promotional picture of Kylie MinogueHer interview on Sky One the other night would have been interesting but for the fawning ineptitude of the interviewer.


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Who's missing from the Mercury Prize list?

Nina Persson. Lead singer of The Cardigans
Having a look through the music I've bought or borrowed over the last year, I've been trying to pick out anything that would qualify it for a Mercury Music Prize nomination. My nominations are Belle and Sebastian's "If you're feeling sinister: Live at the Barbican London". Although I like "The Life Pursuit", B&S's proper new album, the live album has had more plays. I have listened to the Cardigans' "Super Extra Gravity" lots this year too. Nina Persson (pictured) has a fabulous voice and their last two albums are extremely good. Notable mentions should also go to Jim Noir who has entertained me with his live performances this year and Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins. I don't know their album at all, but the track "Rabbit Fur Coat" is a honey-coated, three-time masterpiece.

Even Paul McCartney's "Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard" has left me with a favourable impression. I find his lyrics hackneyed but his sense of melody is still much more acute that most.

I've just realised that the Mercury Music Prize only applies to British artists, so that's Jenny Lewis and the Cardigans disqualified. Never mind.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Mercury Music Awards 2006 announced

Publicity shot of Isobell Campbell and Mark Lanegan
This year's nominations for the Mercury Music Prize have been announced. I'm pleased to see that some of the records I've bought over the last year are present:
  • Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
  • Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Ballad Of The Broken Seas
  • Editors - The Back Room
  • Guillemots - Through The Windowpane
  • Richard Hawley - Coles Corner
  • Hot Chip - The Warning
  • Muse - Black Holes And Revelations
  • Zoe Rahman - Melting Pot
  • Lou Rhodes - Beloved One
  • Scritti Politti - White Bread, Black Beer
  • Sway - This Is My Demo
  • Thom Yorke - The Eraser
The press is leading with 'Artic Monkeys lead nominations', but seasoned watchers of the awards will know that the most successful album rarely wins. It's usually the one you haven't heard of.

It's good to see some recognition for Editors, who I have recommended before, Isobel Campbell (pictured) and Thom Yorke.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Parallels #2 - Windows on a Mac

Windows XP Pro running in Parallels in Mac OS X 10.4
After my initial installation of Parallels on a Mac, I followed up with an installation of Windows XP Pro. As with Ubuntu, it went as easily as I could have imagined.

I created a new virtual machine, installed Windows in the normal way, adjusted its screen resolution and it was ready to go. Parallels even allows you to create an aread on your Mac hard disk where you can share files with your Windows virtual machine. Obviously you can use the networking tools that come with OS X Tiger to share files via HTTP, FTP or Samba, but this is even easier.

I'm sure the Parallels team are working hard on supporting Windows Vista installations on virtual machines, which would be a brilliant feature. I suppose they have six months or so before Vista is released to get it working. In the meantime, Mac-bound web designers can create Linux, Windows 98 and Windows XP virtual machines to test their sites on without leaving their computer.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Parallels - Where's the catch?

Screenshot of Parallels running on a Mac with Ubuntu as guest OS
There was a time when running two operating systems on a computer meant dual-booting or buying a hugely expensive licence from Vmware Inc. Now everyone's at it; Microsoft are giving away their Virtual PC product for free, Apple allow their Intel Macs to dual-boot to Windows and also recommend the use of Parallels. Parallels allows multiple guest operating systems to be installed inside OS X with the virtual machine completely separate from the host system . As a web developer, it's useful to be able to test the web sites I create on different operating systems. Could Parallels be the answer? Surely it couldn't be that easy?

It would seem so. I downloaded the trial version, registered for trial activation key and installed it. I started with Ubuntu, as it's free and simple. I started the virtual machine inserted the freshly download install CD and off it went. I couldn't believe how simple it was. It's a bit weird when Ubuntu says "This operation will delete all of the data from your existing partition", when it means the 8GB that Parallels has conned it into thinking is its own hard disk. It's like magic. It's bizarrely simple how network communications between the guest OS and the host computer just work.

So why should anyone bother with Vmware, who virtually (no pun intended) invented the whole idea? Because Vmware are concentrating on the enterprise market. They know that they can't really charge for a desktop product because it'll be in every Linux distribution soon and the other major OS developers will follow suit. Vmware's unique selling point is their Enterprise class product where the virtual machine can be transferred to another physical server without interrupting its operation. Now that's clever, but it'll cost you!

For the computer user who fancies dabbling in a bit of Windows, a bit of Linux all from the same Mac, then Parallels is the best thing on the market at present. Anyone fancy betting that OS X Leopard will have virtualization in it?

I'll try creating an Windows XP virtual machine shortly and I'll report back on my findings soon.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Is it A-Bike? No it's a Sinclair

Sinclair A-Bike
Sir Clive Sinclair launches his latest invention the A-Bike today. It is a collapsible, single-geared bike designed for short distances and small people (it has a weight limit of 85kg). The wheels look too small to me for Britain's cracked pavements and kerbs, but it would be a great novelty item. The new bike faces stiff competition from the current market leader, Brompton, whose steel-framed bikes sell well to commuters.

Sinclair is famous for his inventions such as the pocket calculator, the ZX81 and Spectrum computers and the doomed C5 single-person car, now a collectors' item. Perhaps collectors should buy up an A-Bike, to gamble on the possibility that it develops a cult following like the C5.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Disney Cars Toys In High Demand

Disney/Pixar Cars Movie
Disney's new animated film Cars is not yet released in the UK, but the merchandise certainly is. If ever a film was made to create merchandise from, this is the one. Before the film is even released, demand for the die-cast metal cars is high. Many retailers are sold out and the Internet barometer of market forces, eBay, is seeing rising prices. How do I know this? Because my son is like me when I was his age; he wants to collect the set. Pocket money is saved up, rewards are earned on the 'star chart' but it's no good if the shelves are empty.

I downloaded the demo version of the Cars video game which played OK on my G4 Powerbook but crashed on my iMac. So I won't be buying that.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Thom Yorke's Eraser

Artwork for Thom Yorke's album 'Eraser'
I'm just listening to Thom Yorke's new album, 'Eraser'. Taking a break from Radiohead to pursue his solo ideas, Yorke has produced a collection of songs that experiment with rhythm, loops and electronica. I've heard this album described as the 'Kid A'#2, in other words another album of terse and sparse electronic experiments, but I found the album far more accessible than Kid A. It's not far removed from recent Radiohead releases but has a more intimate mood.


Friday, July 07, 2006

Bye Bye Billie

Billie Piper pictured on the Radio Times
Unfortunately, today's episode of Doctor Who on BBC1 sees the demise of Rose Tyler, brilliantly played by Billie Piper. This series has been particularly good with Piper's character usually stealing the show. She will be difficult to replace.

In the 1970s I used to collect Doctor Who cardboard figures from Weetabix packets. The story goes that I once spent my own pocket money buying more cereal packets so that I could get the characters I was missing from my collection. My parents found out and wrote to Weetabix explaining what I had done and they were good enough to send me the full set for free. After a bit of googling on the subject, I found some pictures of the figures at this site and discovered that I was six years old at the time.

It would be another six years before Billie was even born! Expect Rose Tyler dolls to change hands for princely sums on Ebay anyday now.

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Dubbing dialogue in films

Anna Friel in New York
After mentioning Anna Friel in a blog entry this morning, I heard her on Radio 4 talking about the process of re-recording the dialogue and synchonising it with the edited film, a technique called Automated dialogue replacement (ADR). In the programme, Ms Friel described how a large portion of a film's dialogue is done again in a studio because of extraneous noise on set, to improve the original performance or even to change the accent of one of the characters.

In 1999 I saw Anna Friel on stage in New York in Patrick Marber's Closer, which was later made into a film with Natalie Portman taking Friel's role.


Dickens marathon complete

Anna Friel, star of the BBC's adaptation of Our Mutual Friend
I've just finished reading Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend as part of my quest to read all of Dickens' works. It's taken over three years, on and off, but it has been greatly rewarding. I'm going to watch the BBC adaptation of this novel now (see Anna Friel pictured).

I think my favorites have been David Copperfield, Barnaby Rudge and The Old Curiosity Shop. I didn't care for the plotless slapstick of the The Pickwick Papers or much of Martin Cuzzlewit, apart from the pompous, hypocrisy of Pecksniff.

What to read next? Well there's Frank Gardener's autobiography 'Blood and Sand' and then I may return to Victorian fiction with Thackeray's 'Vanity Fair'.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Scoot Business Finder - Ajax Search - Scute

Scoot Business Finder - Ajax-powered Scute Search Screenshot
Scoot, the UK business directory, have launched an AJAX-powered search system called Scute. As you type in the "what" or "where" boxes, thought bubbles automatically appear from the purple Scoot logo with suggestions. For example, if you type "wedding" you may be offered clothing hire, catering, florists, photographers etc. The "where" box offers you towns and counties as you type.

It's cool. Check it out.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Viruses, spyware and Trojans. Not on my Mac

Since I've switched to a Mac for work and home, I haven't had to think about the spyware, malware, trojan and virus issue that bedevils Windows PCs. I used to use AVG to protect my Windows XP home PC. I lost faith with Windows when plenty of people I knew had their Windows machines shutting themselves down because of a worm that was able to shut down the computer using a Remote Procedure Call (the Blaster worm).

Although Apple Macs are widely believed to be more secure than PCs, Mac users must still be careful about how they conduct themselves. My security tips are:
  • keep your firewall on with the minimum amount of services enabled
  • put a password on your account - it seems obvious, but many don't
  • secure your wireless network - remember if someone finds your wireless network, they can join your network behind your external firewall
  • only install software from reliable sources
  • use Software Update to keep your system up to date

Your other option is Ubuntu, a Linux distribution that is easy to install, bullet-proof and free. Not quite as pretty or stylish as OS X, but makes other distributions look like poor relations.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Summer Blockbusters

Keira Knightley at the UK Premier of Pirates of the Carribean - Dead Man's Chest
In the Summer months, it is customary for the big film studios to wheel out their holiday-season masterpieces. Hundreds of millions of pounds is poured into these special-effect extraveganzas to lure us out of the sun and into the cinema (and to then buy the same thing again on DVD a few months later). This summer, I shall be admiring Johnny Depp's depiction of a vagabond Keith Richards in Pirates of the Carribean 2 which should be fun. If not, it's got Keira Knightley in.

I shall be going to see Disney's Cars because the power of marketing has already got my four-year-old son eagerly anticipating its release. Firstly, it's Dreamworks' Over the Hedge, which the offical UK classification warns "contains mild slapstick". Shocking.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Benchmarking Javascript - Is your browser slow?

Javascript code snippet
When writing an Ajax application the other day I was disappointed by how fiddly it was to parse the XML data in Javascript. I decided to opt to transform the XML into HTML using XSLT on the client browser using Google's Open-Source Javascript XSLT library. It quickly became apparent that the speed of transformation was noticably slower on my Powerbook G4 in Safari than in the Mozilla-based browser; switching to Camino produced no delays during transformation. Is Safari that slow at running Javascript? I set about finding out.

I wrote a simple Ajax benchmark to transform some XML contaning one hundred "records" into 100 lines of HTML. By timing how long the XSLT transformation took, I was able to compare the performance of the different browsers' Javascript engines on the same hardware. Here are the results (in seconds):

Powerbook G4 1.5GHz with 1Gb RAM - OS X 10.4.7
Safari - 4.5s
Camino - 1.6s
Firefox - 1.7s

iMac 2.2GHz Dual Core with 1Gb RAM - OS X 10.4.7
Safari - 1.3s
Camino - 0.6s
Firefox - 0.6s

Dell Pentium 4 3GHz 1Gb RAM - Windows XP Pro
IE6 - 3.0s
Firefox - 1.0s

Dell Pentium 4 3GHz 1Gb RAM - RedHat EL 4
FireFox 0.9s

What do these figures tell us? Broadly that Firefox's Javascript is fast and IE and Safari's is around two to three times slower. It would have been nice to benchmark the different operating systems on the same iMac, using Boot Camp or Parallels but I didn't have time.

I'm not claiming that these figures reflect the full gamut of tasks that Javascript could be used for. Usually Javascript scripts are so small that their execution time is pretty irrelevant. Javascript is, however, being used more and more to power "Web 2.0" applications, and the speed differences measured here are not the odd 5% here are there, they are 200 or 300% differences.

If you wish to try the benchmark on your browser then you can find the code here.

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