My Computer(s)

I have owned many computers, and not all of them have had names. The Commodore 64 and BBC Micro B I grew up with didn’t ever have names. Nor do I remember giving one to the first PC my parents had (a second hand 286 IBM PS/2).

I think I’ve forgotten a few, but here are the names of the computers I have owned, named and remembered:

  • Patience (my first desktop, bought during the first year of my degree, and named after the attribute I felt I had demonstrated while selecting and purchasing it. I had a love/hate relationship with the shop, the name of which I’ve now forgotten Something Squared? M², maybe?)
  • Portaroo (my first work laptop while at IBM, a ThinkPad 760, as seen on the International Space Station). I still love this name. like Portaloo, with my nickname built into it. Oh, you got that already? Sorry).
  • Parity (so-called because I was catching up with my friend and then-housemate Cheesy, who had upgraded his machine at the same time. I think this is a photo of me building it, with Cheesy to my right and Mark sat behind me. We had a lot of fun in that house)
  • Quiss (a work desktop, named after a character in an Iain Banks novel)
  • Roochelmini (Not the best name, but Roo + Rachel’s Mini = roochelmini. The Mac Mini we had in our living room. It’s a bit poorly at the moment).
  • Rupert (a ThinkPad T42p, and now returned to the big warm blue bosom of IBM)
  • Shuttle (a Shuttle mini-ITA PC. Not very imaginative. I should have at least called it Apollo or something. It’s now significantly unwell, often taking ages to start up only to power itself down in the middle of playing a game. I have not touched it for a couple of years, but I expect that if I wanted to I’d need to replace the power supply and/or motherboard)
  • Sebastian (MacBook Pro. Bought this January. I love it. Looks a bit like this)
  • Tristan (MacBook Air. A work machine. It’s less powerful than the Pro, but so light that I love commuting with it. Looks like this, though I should grab a photo of the stickers on the lid. Notice the alphabetic sequence here? My next machine will probably have to begin with ‘U’)
  • Moby (named not after the musician, but the great white whale. Strictly speaking, I didn’t actually own this, I just borrowed it for a few weeks.

Toshiba Qosmio G40

I recently received an interesting offer from TalkToshiba; they offered to lend me a laptop on the condition that I write an honest review of it. I get to play with a nice toy for a few weeks, you (and they) get to hear how I got on with it. Sounds fair to me. Let me make that perfectly clear: if the offer had been on the condition that I write a positive review, I’d have said no. The fact that they asked me to “post up your thoughts about the laptop on your blog … whether they be good or bad” and being able to tell the truth about the machine is the only reason I even considered it.

Unpacking it (from a big, heavy box that I’d assumed would be mostly packing material. Oh no, it really is that size) my first reaction was that I had never seen a bigger, heavier laptop. Opening it, I was struck by the distinctive design. Shiny, intricate and odd. Over time, that wore off and I now think of it as odd, and more than a tiny bit irritating. That’s partly because this isn’t the right laptop for me. Commuting every day means I value portability. Don’t expect this to be portable. It truly is a desktop replacement. In fact, you’ll want to plug in a mouse and keyboard too, because the layout is pretty dreadful.

On the plus side, it is quite powerful, has every connection you’d ever need, and the sound quality is amazingly good. When it did sometimes feel sluggish, I blamed the fact it was running Windows Vista. Oh, how I hate Vista. That’s not Toshiba’s fault though, and I should have installed Linux really.

Here’s what it looks like. The speakers vents are huge, and the visual aesthetic here seems to be ‘turbine’.

Speaker (which looks like a turbine)

It’s big. Here it is stacked up against my wife’s MacBook and my MacBook Pro. The two put together are almost exactly the same height as the G40.

Width Comparison

And here it is up against my MacBook Air. Perhaps not a fair comparison, but look at it. Insanity.

Width Comparison

It’s covered in unnecessarily bright and numerous blinkenlighten. Not very soothing on the eyes.

Controls

The biggest problem, especially given the machine’s generous proportions, is having a teensy-tiny trackpad with two teensy tiny buttons, with a fingerprint device right in the middle, just in the way. The design is, frankly, dreadful.

Trackpads, compared

The MacBook Air, despite being a much smaller laptop, makes room for a good-sized trackpad. There’s no excuse for a monster like the Qosmio G40 to have me scratching around on a surface half the size.

Size Comparison

Good points

  • I liked having a fingerprint reader to log in. Probably my favourite thing about it, and the one feature I now miss on my MacBook Pro and Air
  • Having 5 (!) USB ports, and good connectivity generally. HDMI, s-video, SD/Memory Stick etc, even coax TV-antenna, I was almost expecting to see a SCART socket on this thing
  • Good speakers, nice and loud with the best and most sound quality I have ever heard on any laptop
  • Reasonably powerful

Bad points

  • Unnecessarily ugly with lots of wasted space. 17″ inch screen feels small
  • The screen seemed quite dim too. Certainly dimmer than the Pro or Air, even when powered by mains and turned up all the way
  • Dreadful layout: tiny little trackpad with tiny little mouse buttons and a fingerprint reader plonked in the middle of it making it even more uncomfortable to use. I like the fingerprint reader, it’s just in the wrong place. The whole layout somehow manages to feel sprawling and cramped at the same time; I kept pressing the navigation wheel thing on the right when reaching for Return (pressing the soft touch ‘back’ button)
  • No way (that I found) of dimming the enormous numbers of decorative lights
  • HD-DVD. Seriously. I think the battle between BluRay and HD-DVD has been decided, hasn’t it?

It’s doesn’t really matter though because, being over a year old now, Toshiba no longer sells this laptop. The G50 has an even bigger (and I hope brighter) screen, but I don’t think I’ll be buying on. I like my laptops to be something I can put on my lap without fear of injury, and I returned the G40 without being terribly sad to see the back of it. Thanks to TalkToshiba for the loan though.

(More photos on Flickr if you’re interested.)

Tasty Tag Pages

I’ve been improving Watchification and Speechification tonight.

Part of the enjoyment of both sites is the idea that we’re not just curating our favourite stuff, we’re weaving links between it, with those links becoming increasingly fun to explore. Tonight’s hack was a small improvement in order to pull in a few things that the web knows about every tag, but also every presenter, director, editor, and in fact any search term. Here’s what happens when you search Speechification for shows in which Stephen Fry is the presenter.

Speechification - Presenter: Stephen Fry

It works for normal tags too, and they’re handled in the same way. Ever wondered what Speechification has on Malcolm X? or Chris Watson?

I took exactly the same approach at Watchification, though had a bit more room to play with in the layout.

Watchification - Tag: Phil Spector

Other examples: ‘politics’, ‘music’, and shows in which Simon Amstell is the presenter.

As well as the obvious embed of (Creative Commons licensed) photos from Flickr, I used Monitter for the realtime Twitter monitoring, and a delicious.com feed of relevant bookmarks.

I have lots more ideas for other things to usefully enhance the page too. Watch this spaces. Um. These spaces.

Update: at the suggestion of Dan Hil, I’ve moved the widgety stuff to the bottom of the page.

This could be heaven or this could be hell…

Roo Reynolds plays “Hotel California” from Tom Armitage on Vimeo.

Thanks to Tom for capturing this video. That was fun.

Tardis

I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of the BBC Cardiff set today. Dr Who, Torchwood, Sarah Jane… brilliant!

Tardis

Generally my camera was firmly switched off (there’s a big agreement on the way in about not taking photos or video, to avoid revealing spoilers) but I was told it was OK to take some shots inside the console room of the Tardis.

Tardis Tardis console Tardis

It really is bigger on the inside.

This is why we can’t have nice things: TechCrunch

I stopped reading TechCrunch a while ago, so it wasn’t until I saw it mentioned on Loic’s blog recently that Michael Arrington annoyed me all over again, this time by crowing about a holiday video. At the risk of feeding the troll, I want to make it clear how stupid and utterly irritating Michael Arrington’s post about it is.

I watched and enjoyed the video yesterday afternoon. I’ll embed the YouTube version which TechCrunch links to, but I’ll warn you now that it’s already been taken down.

It depicts a group of young people on holiday together, in a large poolside villa. They’re lip-syncing to ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey, in a surprisingly well-orchestrated performance. The original description of the video apparently said

“Twenty world Internet citizens met in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in October of 2008 for a week of reflections on life, love, and the Internet.”

Harmless and fun, right? Here’s what Michael Arrington, writing on TechCrunch, had to say about it on Friday:

…this went down at an unfortunate time for a score of Silicon Valley posterboys and girls as they partied 1999 style “the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in October of 2008 for a week of reflections on life, love, and the Internet.” They leave behind an absurd video that would have gone unnoticed a month ago. But this week, with the walls tumbling down, they look like a bunch of jackasses who have no idea what’s going on back at home.

I’ve personally got a lot of sympathy for the partyers. I’ve not heard of any of them, but it sounds like a bunch of people who are tech sector friends, taking a (probably much needed) week off and having a good time on their own money. At worst, it’s bad timing, but it’s not exactly the recent half-million dollar AIG retreat is it? I’m pleased they were able to take a holiday together, and I’m pleased they took time out of their vacation to entertain us with this amusing and well-executed video. Let’s not be puritanical or sanctimonious about it, eh?

We’ll look back in later years and think of this most recent boom as the Web 2.0 period, when we were wowed by the magic of user generated content, copyright violations on a massive scale, and neat little widgety things that used Javascript and Flash to turn web pages into pretty close equivalents to the old desktop apps.

Really? I like to think we’ll look back at the early years of the 21st century as a time when the web evolved into something participatory. Isn’t that, rather than technology or investment, what ‘Web 2.0’ is all about? Here’s Tim O’Reilly, explaining the term, in a video which lasts less than a minute.

Worst of all though, and a sentence which gets repeated in an even more unnecessary follow-up post pointing out that the video has now been made private but has sprung up on YouTube:

this video will always be associated with the end of Web 2.0.

Honestly, if Michael had thought to include a couple of extra words in that sentence, I might almost have agreed with him. This week is not “the end of Web 2.0”. If anything did just burst it’s the financial bubble which the Economist discusses as ‘Bubble 2.0‘. You can’t confuse that with Web 2.0 though. They’re different things. Is this really all Web 2.0 means to you, Michael? Were you not listening when you asked all those people what Web 2.0 means in that 24 minute long documentary you made on Web 2.0 in 2006? Some highlights from what they told you:

  • Web 2.0 is a marketing term, and a bubble is a financial event.
  • it’s people
  • empowering the little guy
  • users manipulating, interacting with, and sharing information
  • leveraging collective wisdom
  • openness
  • conversation, not a lecture
  • participants, not consumers

In short, Web 2.0 is an attitude, not a technology.

But back to the video. I watched it two, maybe three times yesterday. I enjoyed it. The original video on Vimeo had already been made private, so I was watching the ‘mirror’ on YouTube. Today, that the YouTube version has been taken down as a copyright infringement (“This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by a third party.” initiated, I’m guessing, by the creators?). I’m disappointed that, unless you’ve already watched it or some other public backup of it exists somewhere, you can’t watch it to decide for yourself.

Playful

PlayfulPlayful is a one-day conference about games, happening on Friday the 31st of October, 2008 in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London. Add it to Upcoming or Facebook or, you know, just register.

Focusing on the creative and cultural dimensions, Playful examines game design as both a discipline and craft, offering different perspectives on its current and future possibilities.

I’ll be presenting (I’m on second apparently, following the inimitable James Wallis) and I’ll be showing how Rock Band / Guitar Hero controllers can, with very little money, time and effort, become actual musical instruments. This will be the first conference for which ‘pack plastic guitar, real amp and leads’ are on my TODO list.

Pick me up and pour me out

I’ve been twittering madly about my bad back since Thursday. Excuse me while I offload.

morning tea‘ by kittykatfish

On Thursday night, I was taking off my shoes while sitting on Nick‘s floor. Twisting while simultaneously pulling caused some momentary weirdness at the base of my spine. I barely noticed it at the time but a couple of hours later and my lower back was very sore and stiff. I winced and minced my way home, had a hot bath and didn’t think much about it until the next morning.

On Friday morning I (perhaps stupidly) decided that although my lower back was still very sore I could walk well enough to justify going to work. I was waddling along at less than half my normal speed; despite feeling pretty good mentally, I was getting increasingly stiff and sore. Ibuprofen took away the worst of it, but something was causing my spine to emerge from my pelvis at a rather disturbing 5 to 10 degree angle, making me bend left. If I put my right hand on my right hip and extend my left hand outwards I look like a little teapot being poured out, even without bending. A constantly poured teapot. How irritating. I physically can’t straighten my back. If I bend right, my spine resembles a deformed ‘S’ from behind. Not good.

By Saturday morning, Ibuprofen alone was no longer enough. My half-speed waddle, which had on Friday induced me to mutter swearwords under my breath, had turned into full-on can’t-walk agony. Every step took an effort of will I wouldn’t have had, except I wanted to go to Dorset to see my family, especially as it was my grandmother’s 85th birthday this weekend. I didn’t feel bad enough to warrant a trip to A&E or use the GP out-of-hours service, and figured I’d be okay resting it over the weekend and seeing how I felt on Monday.

Despite a horrible car journey there (and another this morning, coming back home) resting at my parents’ house on Saturday was every bit as good as resting at home would have been. I phoned NHS Direct to get some reassurance and help me decide how urgently to see a doctor. The nurse I spoke to (who phoned back within 10 seconds of me leaving my details. Wonderful service) was so compassionate and lovely that I broke down a bit and had a little sob while saying thank you at the end of the call. I’m generally a bit soppy anyway, and unsurprisingly am especially emotional under stress and/or serious pain.

They couldn’t give a diagnosis (so I still don’t know if I’ve damaged a muscle or slipped a disc) but the advice I got was to take plenty of pain killers, rest over the weekend and unless it got a lot worse to make an appointment with a GP on Monday. They also gave some useful advice re pain relief. Hot pads are better than ice, after the first day. Alternating between ibuprofen and co-codomol (which is paracetamol + codeine) every 3 hours means one drug is always working, and I can keep that rhythm going for 24 hours a day (at least, for a while. Codeine is a bit too lovely to be taken long-term).

I’m going to see a doctor asap tomorrow (Monday morning). I badly want even stronger painkillers – ideally something that won’t constipate me in the same way the co-codomol seems to – advice and hopefully referral to physio/osteo/chiro to fix this bent spine.

I’m resting. I’m sitting up straight with a hot pad and regular pills. I’ll update once I’ve seen a doctor and know more.

Recent DrugsUpdate (Monday) – Woke up feeling quite a bit better. Resting over the weekend has straightened my back considerably. Although I’m still not walking normally, I’m able to move around much more easily than yesterday. I saw the doctor first thing today. He advised rest and gentle stretching exercises, and prescribed 3 x 50mg of diclofenac with meals (it’s sometimes known as Voltarol. It’s a more powerful non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug than ibuprofen) to help with the pain. Between that and the co-cocodomol I should be able to rest more comfortably.

Longer-term, I need to be careful about posture. I had a good conversation with the doctor this morning. He said that 15 years ago, the back injuries he saw were 99% labourers who had worked too hard and too long. These days, all the backs he sees belong to desk monkeys. He made me feel rightly guilty for having a lovely ergonomic chair but then around using a laptop in cafes and trains and ruining myself by spending all day hunching over whatever surface is available. As well as prescribing the diclofenac (and suggesting senokot to deal with the constipation) he recommended  the book ‘Treat Your Own Back’ by Robin McKenzie.

He also confirmed something I’ve been thinking for a while; I should consider Alexander Technique. Rachel is trying to get me interested in Pilates, which I’m less excited about but would probably also do me some good.

Update (Tuesday) – I’m even straighter and slightly less sore today. I’ve gone all day (so far) without co-codomol, and the diclofenac seems to be just about enough to deal with the pain. I’m almost walking normally, though not enough to be able to go to work tomorrow. Going to try at least one more day of resting it before going back to work.

Resting a sore back is frustrating. I thought I was up to handling some of the small tidal wave of email that’s building up, but although I was able to be constructive I was also snappy and less diplomatic than I’d have liked. Lesson learned: either avoid emailing when in pain, or be very very careful that the tone isn’t unduly influenced by it.

Some good news:

  • ‘Treat Your Own Back’ arrived today.
  • My (other) doctor friend suggests Wii Fit to build core strength (genius!) and also recommended a friend of his who does structural osteopathy and Alexander Technique in my area. I think I might get in touch.
  • Um..
  • I’m getting better.

Update (Wednesday) – Even better. Less painful and less irritable. Even took the dog for a short walk. Slightly stiff, but I’m moving around pretty well, and it’s time to get on with life again. I’ll go back to work tomorrow.

Update (Thursday) – It felt good to get back to work today. Slightly stiff, and hyper-aware of things like desk-height and chair-angle, but pleased to be walking around normally again. Normal service is resumed.

We could be guitar heroes

Before I went on holiday, I began to think about getting my Rock Band guitar controller to act as a MIDI instrument in GarageBand. I’m still fiddling with it, and since implementing a couple of extra features, I’m increasingly happy with the results.

The setup in ControllerMate, initially quite straightforward, is gradually becoming fairly hairy. Here’s what it looks like now. Click through to see a bigger, annotated version.

Rock Band controller MIDI setup in ControllerMate

Features:

  • Sends MIDI notes based on the fret you are holding while strumming up or down. Release the fret to stop the note, exactly as you’d expect in Rock Band or Guitar Hero.
  • Pick a major key by holding a fret button and tapping ‘Start’. First fret (green button) + start = C major, second fret = D, etc.
  • Hold ‘Back’ while picking a key to make it minor. e.g. 3rd fret + ‘Back’ + ‘Start’ = E minor. Update: in the most recent version, you just hold a fret and hit ‘back’ (rather than ‘back’ + ‘start’ together)
  • Additionally hold the next fret up to make it sharp. e.g. 1st + 2nd fret + ‘Start’ = C# major. 2nd + 3rd fret = ‘Back’ + ‘Start’ = D# minor.
  • Within the chosen key, first fret (green button) is the root note, while the others are intervals on the major/minor pentatonic scale. e.g. for C major, the frets are C, D, E, G, A. For C minor they are C, Eb, F, G, Bb.
  • Move the pickup selector to the 2nd position to engage ‘drone’ mode, in which the root note for the current key is played on a second MIDI channel whenever it is played. Handy for having a different MIDI voice sustaining the chord. I’d like to add ‘chord’ and ‘strum’ and ‘arpeggiate’ modes in other pickup switch positions, though I think strumming and arpeggiating could be better handled by plugins responding to simpler MIDI notes which represent the current chord.
  • The whammy bar controls the MIDI pitch bend. Different VST plugins choose to respond to pitch bend in different ways, so depending on your instrument you can even set this up to be a guitar slide rather than a simple bend.
  • Left and right on the D pad to move up and down by 7 semitones. allowing you to explore the circle of fifths. Sort of. This bit needs some more work.
  • Upper set of frets play up an octave.

If you’ve got a Rock Band guitar and want to use it as MIDI instrument, in GarageBand or anything else, I’m very happy to make the current version of my patch available. Most of the features should work with the Guitar Hero controller too, though I have not tried this yet. Let me know if you want to try my setup and don’t fancy re-creating it from the picture above, though obviously you’ll need the MIDI-enabled beta of ControllerMate, which is available to paying ControllerMate users who have paired their registration details with their forum membership, on the beta forum.

I think ControllerMate is easily worth the $15, and access to the MIDI-aware beta should make it an even easier decision.

Background / further reading:

Rocking Outside the Xbox

My lovely friends at IBM bought me a lovely leaving present: a copy of Rock Band for the Xbox 360. I’ve been enjoying it greatly, and have been working my way through a solo guitar career as well as in band mode with my wife (our band is called Good Girl OK after the praise/release phrases we use when training her our dog. Good girl, good girl… OK).

Tonight I decided it was time to take advantage of the USB connections on those instruments and get the guitar, drums and keyboard hooked up to GarageBand.

My first exploration involved

GarageBand (and similar things. I really like Reaper) has a number of interfaces for people hoping to glue together random peripherals. Perhaps the simplest if the ‘musical typing’ on screen keyboard feature which lets you use your qwerty keyboard as a virtual instrument.

GarageBand Musical Typing

I started playing with ControllerMate to make it emulate keyboard events based on the guitar controls. There’s a lot of fun to be had in fiddling with this, and Ken’s post on the ControllerMate forums got me most of the way there very quickly.

ControllerMate - Rock Band guitar

Holding the green button (e.g. the first fret) and strumming up or down creates an emulated ‘a’ keypress, which is held until the green button is released. Additional up/down strums while green is still held do what you’d expect. Expand it to all five buttons and I ended up with something like this.

ControllerMate - Rock Band guitar (full)

Look carefully and you’ll see that it also includes whammy bar mapped to the six levels of modulation and left and right buttons mapped to octave up/down.

In short, ControllerMate is a lot of fun. It also looks as though it’s pretty trivial to hook it up to a Wiimote too. This got me thinking about alternative approaches, particularly something better than emulated keypresses and on screen keyboards and ‘musical typing’.

I’ve talked about MIDI, and it’s trendier younger brother OSC, here before. Since these items showing up in ControllerMate, (including Wiimotes via Bluetooth and Guitar Hero / Rock Band instruments via USB) are all HID (Human Interface Device) peripherals, it struck me that I’d been meaning to find a general purpose HID -> MIDI/OSC solution for some time. The closest thing on Windows is probably GlovePIE, but even before my switch to Mac I’d been leery of the licence, which states that “You may not use this software on military bases, or for military purposes, or in Israel…”. Eek.

Searching around, I found junXion which maps HID inputs to MIDI and OSC outputs on a Mac. Just what I wanted. Instant MIDI drums.

junXion

Looks interesting, and I like the free demo very much (reduced functionality and stops working after 20 minutes, but gives you a chance to try it). The full version costs €75 though, and I was sure I could find something similar in less than €75 worth of looking around time.

It turns out I was right. Hint: if I can buy your cool tool for $15 using PayPal (as was the case with ControllerMate) I will generally have registered for it before I can blink. Attempt to charge too much, and I get curious as to whether there’s something cheaper/free. I can’t be alone in this behaviour.

I dug around for about 10 minutes before I found MultiControl by Alexander Refsum Jensenius. This maps HID devices to OSC and MIDI outputs and doesn’t cost a penny.

MultiControl

Not a bad trade-off at all. I have not tried the OSC support yet, and support for MIDI notes is broken very strange and unconventional, but support for MIDI control messages is good and will no doubt prove useful.

It gets better though. Registered users of ControllerMate should check the ControllerMate forums. There’s a beta preview version which can send and receive MIDI messages. Awesome. I think I’ve found my new favourite thing.

Update: I’ve now got a fairly good setup in ControllerMate. Here’s a description (with demo video) which describes how it works.

Powered by WordPress with GimpStyle Theme design by Horacio Bella.
The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent my employer's positions, strategies or opinions.