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Thursday, 31 July 2003

Roo Puffs for Mac OS X Panther

Steven Frank is funny:

Recently, I had a dream that some other Panic folks and I were among those invited to a special top secret Steve Jobs keynote. It turned out that he had gone completely bonkers, and the new products he announced included a new sugar cereal with a cartoon kangaroo for a mascot, called something like "Roo Puffs". I think he even at one point actually said, "This is the best cereal I've ever tasted. It is awesome." [more]

New sugar cereal with a cartoon kangaroo for a mascot? Because we can.

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Wednesday, 30 July 2003

Panther Screenshots

RAILhead Design has updated its OS X 10.3 Panther Visual tour with changes from build 7B21.

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Tuesday, 29 July 2003

Sigh, Redux

Stupid headline of the day goes to an article at Reuters, with Rise of Internet Fuels Fears of AIDS Resurgence:

ATLANTA (Reuters) - A growing number of gay and bisexual men in the United States are engaging in risky sex with partners they meet on the Internet, raising fears that the AIDS virus could be poised for a major comeback in the group hardest hit by the epidemic.

Later on:

Despite the sobering data, there were some signs the Internet could be used as a tool for delivering HIV prevention and safe sex messages to groups at high risk.

I'm not even going to attempt expending any more energy on this one.

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Sigh

BoingBoing says:

A survey has concluded that techies are more traumatized by being cut off from the net than by getting divorced or moving house.

The BBC News story linked to from BoingBoing says:

[But] spare a thought for the techies in computer support. About a fifth feared for their jobs if they did not get the e-mail system back up and running within a day... ...when something goes wrong with e-mail for a week, the experience can be more traumatic that moving home, getting married or divorce, at least for a third of those taking part in the survey.

See also 2lmc's take.

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What's New, Pussycat?

Apple have taken their "because we can" attitude and gone, in my humble opinion, totally mental. RailHeadDesign provides more details (no permalink, look for Tuesday, July 29, 2003 - 7:24am CST entry) of the Panther Mac OS X 7B21 build, including:

  • "When you double-click an icon to launch a program, the icon zooms open (larger) and fades. The effect is like the icon is flying toward you, and it’s pretty cool. =)"
  • "The Finder prefs now let you better customize what you see in the Places area of the new Finder windows (disks, folders, network drives, etc.)."
  • "The speed of this new build is dramatically faster than the WWDC build on my DP 1.25GHz G4. Interface elements are drawn much faster, etc."

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Monday, 28 July 2003

Information Economy

This post has been updated

.

Now this is interesting [via metafilter]:

The U.S. military plans a worldwide on-line futures market to help it predict events in the Middle East. Traders could bet on the likelihood of events ranging from the overthrow of a government to the collapse of an economy or the assassination of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. [more]

Now, we know that for financial markets to operate properly (for good values of "properly") the participants require accurate information. The implications here--disregarding any assertions that what is being attempted may be morally wrong or not--for intelligence analysis, or even for that matter as an additional avenue for intelligence gathering, could easily be quite profound.

If this is completely opened up such that anyone is able to open an account, you're going to see a hell of lot of information flooding in. People on the ground in affected areas will be able to provide some sort of centralised indicator. Of course, there's the rather large problem of ensuring that people have access to this futures market in the first place, and I'll be the first to admit that any amount of hand-waving will magically provide 'net access to those in critical areas - it'd be easy for those backing this to devolve into a "well, of course, if we just put lots of terminals in poverty stricken areas, we can farm work out to them at dirt cheap rates and everyone's happy". But I digress.

It's this kind of collaborative filtering "let thousands of people do the hard work, so you don't have to" idea that seems to give many people involved in blogs wet dreams (mention the phrase "smart mob" and someone will try and sell you a book about it) that at first glance seems incredibly useful, but it's hard for me to tell whether there's something missing that will make it as valuable as appears.

Unfortunately, I really don't know enough economics to properly understand the mechanisms behind such markets, so I'm going to attempt to prod Brad into taking a quick look at this...

Updated 29 July 2003, 17:17 BST: BBC News is reporting that the idea has been axed by the Pentagon:

The Pentagon has abandoned plans to set up an online trading market to help predict terrorist attacks. Senator John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had spoken by telephone to the programme's director "and we mutually agreed that this thing should be stopped".

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Comments RSS Feed

Thanks to this handy page, you can now subscribe to the fifteen most recent comments to ext|circ at http://danhon.com/ec/comments.rdf.

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Panther 7B21

MacBidouille has additional information on Apple's 7B21 build of Panther. Of note to me:

  • Built-in crash reporting (may/may not make it to the GM)
  • Built-in compressed file support
  • Address Book synchs with MS Exchange
  • "No Brushed Metal" option for the Finder!
  • iCal gets bumped to 1.1.

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Sunday, 27 July 2003

The World's Greatest

Okay, a little light relief. To be honest though, once you've found out what the subject of this is, you'll probably be quite mad and angry, but hey, life's like that.

VH1's 200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons (I think the "of all time" is implied) was hyped up and shown last night in America. Just for kicks, let's see if we can guess who's number one.

No, it's not the Beatles (they were 12th, edged out by the cast of Friends, who were 11th).

Or Elvis (3rd, a respectable position, to be honest).

Thank God it wasn't Britney (20th).

Or, for that matter, Princess Diana (9th).

No, it was Oprah Winfrey.

Feel free to let off a little steam at this point and take a look at the rest of the list.

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Get your gold plated cables here

After seeing gold plated firewire cables and not being able to supress the urge to giggle (digital's digital, right?) I thought it prudent to at least see the state of debate on $3000 digital interconnect cables and found this tremendous 143 message thread on Usenet dating from 1999.

Leaving aside those who are listening to pristine WAV and AIFF files on their iPods, I wonder how many people who're listening to lossily compressed MP3s are convinced that their gold plated firewire cable--advertised as an iPod accessory--is providing them with some sort of audible edge.

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Saturday, 26 July 2003

Self-Flagellation, or, Those In Glass Houses...

Those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones - an apology to Shawn Yaeger.

I like to think that I actually try and do some research before publishing on this site. It's important to me that the people reading know when an opinion is an opinion (and no more), that when people see what's presented as fact know that it's been at least checked, and that I'm generally able to back up what I've said.

Well, it's been pointed out--and accurately, mind--that I didn't do so in a recent post in which I lambasted those who didn't fact check, and I quite rightly look like a complete fool. It's all the more worse when I find out I might've been used an example--I've had my high points (I like to think my Columbia coverage was pretty useful [1, 2, 3, 4]).

I'm going to be trying harder than ever to make sure that doesn't happen again. To be honest, it's not something that I believe happens often (at least, I like to think so) - when I'm posting something that's not a list of links and is attempting to impart substance, I generally take time over it: I write the entry offline, I spell check, I look for sources and information to back up any assertions I make.

In this instance, though, I simply took comments that other people had made, did cursory checks and reprinted as more or less gospel truth (never mind the fact that I may or may not have been shouting the party line down from the mountains in the first place).

This, clearly, won't do at all.

Unless, of course, I plan on having this site known as one that Jayson Blair would happily frequent.

So: I got caught, and a good job, too. I updated--not edited--the post in question and added another after the fact; there's something inside me that isn't particularly impressed with whitewashing and hiding mistakes as opposed to drawing attention to them.

This is weblog ethics, and I have learned my lesson.

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Equal Time

In the interests of fairness--and to clear the air--I direct you to Shawn Yeager's comment on the iTunes/Canada story, and his own account of Apple's iTunes DRM that offers more accurate information than the original email to Politech.

I'm glad that Shawn has responded and that he's been able to find out exactly what happened with his iTunes account--and also agree with him that no DRM is better than DRM in any case. That said, this second attempt at explaining exactly what happened is much more informative than the original (admittedly misinformed from Apple's own support) email.

I must admit that it's as embarrassing as me as for anyone else when I'm caught being a raving Apple apologist--I've had enough problems with my one Apple purchase in the past. My original post was prompted, if anything, by MacNN's second-hand reporting of the Shawn's politech mail, and up until then I hadn't felt compelled to comment on the situation.

The situation does seem to have genuinely been a mistake on Apple's part, and the additional information does a great deal to clarify what exactly happened--details that in my opinion were missing from the orgiinal email.

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Friday, 25 July 2003

MacNN is Stupid - iTunes Overseas

This post has been updated. Please see the updated text at the bottom of this entry.

Picking up on a mail sent to the Politech list, MacNN covers the "iTunes Music Store Won't Work Outside the USA" meme:

iTunes Music Store user Declan McCullagh writes about his difficulties playing music purchased with the Apple's online music service, after moving to Canada. [more]

Only, of course, it wasn't Declan who this happened to, simply an email that he forwarded to the list. It gets worse: there's no fact checking on the article at all, neither on Politech nor at MacNN. Slashdot is no better, with an original story stating that the bought audio files were deleted, when they weren't.

Whatever happened to journalism? There's no mention apart from in a particularly astute slashdot reply that Shawn Yeager, the person who sent the original mail to Politech, worked for MusicDirect.com, an iTunes competitor. Oh, and he worked with Microsoft as "part of an elite team of business development and technology professionals tasked with answering Netscape's threat to Microsoft's dominance in desktop and server technology." [Yeager's site] -- and we all know how well that turned out (for those who aren't following too closely, it turned out wonderfully well for Microsoft - aside from a pesky lawsuit - and rather terribly for Netscape).

Shawn says

I've now discovered that if you leave the country, your songs may just disappear, as mine have. I've recently moved to Canada and just this week had a problem with my PowerBook that called for me undertaking a reinstall.

Well, they'll "disappear" if you do a wipe-and-install, that much is for certain. It's also quite abundantly clear that the iTunes Music Service is a US service only - to the chagrin of people like me, who for some reason think the idea of paying 99 cents for manufactured music is something they really must try at some point in their life.

So yes, shame on Shawn for not reading the fine print. He'd also do well to take his own advice:

[I]f you're spending money with Apple and plan a departure from the States any time soon, your money would be better spent on little round platters.

Yes, they're called CD-Rs, and Apple will happily let you burn unlimited CDs of your purchased music, and you might also want to learn how to back up your purchased music.

Updated July 26 2003, 23:26 BST: Shawn has responded to clear the situation (and it's in no way as bad as described as above), and I have written a followup post here.

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Thursday, 24 July 2003

Foxes

Like Meg, we've got foxes, too. Four of them. They're quite mangy and thin and for some reason enjoy making strange noises in the garden, at least, I assume it's them. Every so often I'm woken by what sounds like a small child's limbs being torn off by a particularly savage beast, and I'm coming the conclusion that this noise isn't in fact the terrible torture of an innocent infant, but the sound of foxes having a good time. Oh, and having a good time seems to involve digging lots of small holes. And staring at me, while I stare back at them.

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Wednesday, 23 July 2003

Feature Request

A request to all people, organisations and companies involved in the residential property purchase process:

Please give me the option of emailing all the documents you send to me through postal mail as TIFFs or PDFs. You might even be able to charge me a small sum for it. I do not appreciate heavy box files falling on my toes, nor do I appreciate having to spend time organising the contents of said box files.

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Monday, 21 July 2003

Dead loginwindow.app

So, my Mac wouldn't boot properly this morning. Rather, it stalled and didn't automatically login--something was stopping loginwindow from running properly. SSHing in revealed an unhappy system.log where the laptop valiantly tries to start loginwindow every thirty seconds or so, fails, and just keeps trying, an unhelpful (to me, at any rate) loginwindow.crash.log and attempting to run loginwindow from the commandline results in the rather rather more informative:

bash-2.05a$ ./loginwindow
dyld: /System/Library/CoreServices/loginwindow.app/Contents/MacOS/loginwindow malformed library: /System/Library/Frameworks/AudioUnit.framework/Versions/A/AudioUnit (not a Mach-O file, bad magic number) Trace/BPT trap

Whereupon the news of a bad magic number has cheered me up immensely. So it looks like something somewhere has broken the AudioUnit framework. I suppose it's time to whip out a boot CD and see if there's anything to be done with that. Otherwise it's calling Apple again and seeing if there's any way I can restore the framework.

This is all rather annoying because I'd planned on doing some work at the hospital today, and have just failed miserably. And it wasn't even my fault. Honest.

Update 21 July 17:23: Tidied up some typos above, and spoke to AppleCare, who quite quickly advocated doing a 10.2 archive and install, which amused me not one iota. "Why can't I just replace the broken framework? I looked in the crash log, and it told me which one was broken." "You can't do that in OS X. You can only do that in OS 9."

Lies.

A quick AIM conversation with a friend dug out a copy of the AudioUnit framework from 10.6, ftp'd it over to the laptop, sudo'd it into the right place and thirty seconds later, all was better.

And yes, I do feel unlucky. Maybe this is what you get for buying an Apple product with Microsoft money.

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Wednesday, 16 July 2003

Apple Store Closed

13:01 BST: The Apple Store is closed for updating. New 15in PowerBooks? There were rumours of product updates/launches at MacWorld NY due sometime today, but after a while, consensus seemed to be that there would be no announcements.

The note mentions that the store will be back within the hour (14:00 BST or 09:00 EDT).

13:15 BST: ThinkSecret has a roundup on what might be happening today.

13:50 BST: The Apple Store has reopened with the addition of SoundTrack as a standalone product.

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RSS and IMAP

Wonderful: BlogStreet have made RSS accessible to anyone who uses an IMAP capable email client (hello all you Outlook Express users):

Info Aggregator is an RSS-to-IMAP service. It lets you receive and read RSS feeds in your favourite mail client. It delivers all the latest news and blog posts directly to your mailbox. [more]

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Tuesday, 15 July 2003

US News & World Report and "Blogs"

A completely useless interview with Harry Knowles of AICN at US News & World Report about "how to get your blog noticed":

The key thing is to have contact info that includes an E-mail [address] and a telephone number, and be readily available. Probably the most valuable thing for me is that I am easy to get hold of. This phone that you called is in my bedroom. And if you don't get a hold of me, you will get my answering machine, which has my cellphone number on it. So I am easily reachable for people who want to provide me with info–like people in Hollywood.

Idiots. This has nothing to do with blogs at all. This is someone somewhere who wanted to do an interview with Knowles and thought they could jump on a bandwagon at the same time. They even admit that they're using the world "blog" in such a side sense as to make it useless: "Lots of people start Web diaries, or "blogs," just for fun. But what good is all that time and effort if no one ever sees your site or reads your commentary? For some advice on how to get your blog or Web site noticed"

Like I said. An incredibly badly written article.

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Tuesday Afternoon

  • Rent-a-cow.
  • As far as I'm concerned, data loss with Mail.app (silly name for an application) isn't confined just to the below-par email app, it seems to happen whenever you're using UW-IMAP on OS X. Entourage X on this machine is set to copy incoming listmail from a POP account to a local IMAP account. About 10% of the time it fails due to a mailbox lock error, mostly when it's attempting to copy 10+ messages to the IMAP account.
  • Simon's got some good points about the uselessness of the word 'blog' in which he, inquisitor style, attempts (and succeeds) to justify his views.
  • Buggered if I know what relationships in Address Book for OS X means. If it really is for showing which of your friends are with other friends, it's an unbelievably stupid interface for doing so. Let me have a spider view and drag links between people, that's much more fun. And quicker. Oh, and prettier too, probably. And undoubtedly in brushed metal. I'll stop now.
  • MacRumors says Apple might start selling movies. Seeing as an Apple VP said this, it's not really much of a rumour. Interesting, though. Now, if they let me download brand new Angel episodes either on the day or before they're aired in the US without adverts, and, say for a three dollars a piece, I'm game.
  • One last Apple thing: crack-fueled and badly written.

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Please make hard decisions for me

Yesterday's Times tabloid section, T2, had a cover story on what they call could be the "start of a battle for the soul of the Church of England".

Briefly, for those who haven't been following the story, Dr. Jeffrey John (revealed to be a non-practising homosexual) was due to be consecrated as Bishop of Reading on the 9th October, but the decision to appoint him resulted in an outcry from prominent members of the church. Dr. John subsequently withdrew his acceptance of the post in an effort to placate the two sides of the debate.

The point of the Times' story was to examine how the debate of Dr. John's non-appointment had affected ordinary churchgoers, but the impression that I gathered from the article from those opposed to the appointment wasn't particularly positive or flattering, and not just for the reason that they were against the appointment of a homosexual bishop:

"We have all been taken aback by this," says Roger Bourne, visiting the parish for the weekend. "They say John is a non-practising homosexual, so why mention it? There may be plenty of priests out there who lust after other people’s wives, but they don't go around saying they are non-practising adulterers, do they? "I wish he hadn’t come out and challenged the Church in this way . . . he has left a lot of us feeling confused about where we stand on this one." [my emphasis]

I hope I'm not entirely missing the point, but the phrase in italics is just crying out "There's a hard decision to be made here, and I don't want to have to make it. It's confusing to me, and I wish someone would tell me what to do so I don't have to deal with it."

Well, tough. The world's not like that, and sometimes you can't just defer to someone else to make a decision for you.

"What anyone does behind closed doors is up to them," says Sandra Williams, a regular churchgoer. "As Christians we are taught to forgive and accept. But there are limits; if we accept everything, there are no guidelines, and the whole point of the Church is to provide a moral framework in which we live. I am sure that Jeffrey John is a good vicar. But if everybody lived within the Ten Commandments we would all live happier lives."

Is the whole point of the Church to provide a moral framework? I'm asking for clarification here, but I'm sure that the Church exists for slightly more than that. And anyway, surely the point of a moral framework is to help people make hard decisions and not to have to defer?

I'm sorry, I'm in a bad mood and the combination of organised religion and intolerance just got to me.

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Monday, 14 July 2003

Media in America

According to a new Pew report on media ownership, the American public wants pro-American news reporting that's unbiased. Whether this will lead to any more cognitive dissonance is left to the judgment of the reader. Some highlights from the report:

  • 70% think a "pro-American" view in news reporting is good, compared to 20% thinking it was bad and 10% "don't know/neither".
  • 64% though war on terrorism coverage should be neutral, 29% pro-American and 7% didn't know.
  • 65% of Fox News Channel viewers think news outlets are becoming "too critical of America", compared to 48% of CNN viewers.
  • 46% of respondents thought news networks were becoming "too critical" of America, compared to 48% who disagreed.
  • In 1993, 35% of respondents thought the press were being "too critical" of Clinton, compared to 25% in 2003 regarding Bush.
  • In 1993, 12% of respondents though the press was "not critical enough" of Clinton, compared to 23% in 2003 regarding Bush.
  • 62% of respondents believe that Bush is being treated fairly in the press, compared to 24% who disagree and 14% who don't know.
  • Despite this, 51% of respondents believe the media as a whole is liberal, compared to 26% believing it to be conservative.

The report also covered attitudes to the FCC's decision to relax media ownership rules:

  • The percentage of respondents who believed relaxing media ownership restrictions would have a negative impact rose from 34% in February to 50% in July.
  • For those who had heard a lot or a little of the FCC decision, those who believed it would result in a negative impact outnumbered those who believed it would make no difference or would have a positive impact.
  • For those who had heard nothing of the FCC decision, 54 believed its impact would be positive or make no difference, compared to 40% believing its impact to be negative.

The report is available in full and has been covered by the Washington Times and the Boston Globe.

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Help - homeless #channel

The IRC network that my friends and I hang around in while we should be working seems to have gone down, and so far shows no sign of coming back. Any suggestions for a reliable medium sized network with services? The last time I used IRC before the network I was on (chat-solutions, due to them hosting AICN's channel) was in '95, and I really haven't kept up.

Updated July 14, 12:40: That was quick. We're sorted for today, at least. Suggestions still appreciated.

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Sunday, 13 July 2003

Venus, Mars and Usability

The Sunday Times' Doors section has a lead article today on What Women Want, and the answer is that they want stuff that actually works, as opposed to stuff that's flashy and complicated. Fair enough. User interfaces these days have a ways to go, you're not going to find me disagreeing there. But statements like:

Take Microsoft’s Word, which is "overwrought" and "overcomplex", according to Jane Austin, one of three women who run a digital design company called Recollective in London. "It has huge amounts of extra stuff, as though someone thought, I can do this, so I’m going to do it, instead of thinking, why should I do this?"

do bear examining. I'm not questioning the fact that Microsoft Word's interface could do with tidying up. At least Microsoft appears to be attempting to do something about it, with Office 2000 onwards utilising dynamic menus that default to showing you your most recently used tasks. Whether this is strictly a good idea or not is debatable, since the onus is then moved on to the user understanding that not everything in the menu is in the menu whenever something more complicated is attempted. Then there's the task panes--that I've never used--but are geared toward comman tasks that people perform while editing a document.

The "it has huge amounts of extra stuff" point is worth looking at, chiefly because the problem is this: some people do use those huge amounts of extra stuff, and there's a chance that you might too, someday, even if you think you're never going to. The problem with this creeping featurism hiding these advanced features from more novice users until they're needed--see the attempted solution above for one method of dealing with this.

On the other hand, it's perfectly possible that a large proportion of people really are using the wrong tool for the job. If you're writing a simple letter, is there any need to be using such a featured word processor? Is this Microsoft's fault for marketing Word as a be-all and end-all for anything to do with the written word, or is it the fault of education of the users?

Austin's comment seems to intimate that it's the designer's fault for putting extra features in. While there's not much to be said for featuritis where it usurps usability, she seems to be intimating that the designers' rationale for including features was "I can do this, so I'm going to do it", where the onus is as much on the user to exercise self restraint.

Microsoft’s presentation software, PowerPoint, suffers similar faults. "You can put fake Post-it notes on documents, and write messages on them as if they were real, which I love," Austin said. "But then there is additional functionality that allows you to turn them upside down, reverse them, or give them a shadow. Why would anybody want to do these things to a fake Post-it note?"

The above quote is just disingenuous: the functionality in PowerPoint is to turn upside down and/or add drop shadows to any object on the slide, not just to fake Post-it notes. I can't, at first thought, think of much to do about this particular complaint. Is the interface supposed to hide the "rotate by 180 degrees" and "add drop shadow" commands when a fake Post-it note is selected? What right does software have to impose that kind of decision upon me? Aren't I in charge? What if, god forbid, I actually wanted to have an upside-down drop-shadowed Post-it note? I can easily foresee circumstances in which I might want to rotate or add drop shadows to other objects, and yet the implication is that only crazy people would perform those actions to Post-it notes. For that matter, last time I went driving, I'm pretty sure that the handbrake was just sitting there, while I was speeding down the motorway and if I just pulled on it, I'm sure the consequences would've been interesting to say the least. Why would anybody want to do anything as dangerous as pull on a handbrake whilst doing seventy?

There's more, of course:

"Women have a greater sensitivity to what a product is going to do for them, in contrast to the male angle, which is all about technological bells and whistles," [head of design for Motorola in Chicago] Parsey said. Yet some of his jargon makes you wonder whether lessons are being learnt. He talks about how the designers "focus on experience zones", and how they see mothers as being "in the moto-life space", "moto-life" being the experience of looking after your life, community and relationships.

Fine, yes, we'll cut past the jargon. But what Parsey appears to be saying is that the--excuse me while I gag--"moto-life" space involves communicating with your friends and family in an unobtrusive way: someone in the "moto-life" space doesn't want to mess about with GPRS settings to send a picture message, they just want it to work. Configuring the device isn't what's interesting to these users, it's the fact that the device aids in communication--all the configuration should be happening automagically.

The article then goes on to discuss Palm's Zire, its new entry-level consumer organiser:

“Within a month, you could use it as well as anyone who has been using it for a year,” said Rich Gioscia, Palm’s director of design management. A month? Try telling a mother with three children under five that it will take her a month to familiarise herself with a new piece of kit. The industry might be heading in the right direction, but it has quite a way to go yet.

I have to wodner if Gioscia said anything else, because it seems to me that he's implying that within a month, you could use a Zire as well as anyone who has been using it for a year, not to familiarise yourself with it, and I'm pretty happy with Palm's useability as it stands: all of my friends who've played with any Palm organiser I've had in the past have been able to pick it up within less than fifteen minutes.

The main problem I have with this article is neatly summed up in its last paragraph:

What do women want? They want technology that solves problems, that has been thought through with real people and the real world in mind, that is so intuitive you do not need the manual, and — as we are being really fussy — is stylish enough to be desirable, but robust enough to survive an encounter with baby formula. Is this too much to ask? Not necessarily. “You don’t need a manual for your electric kettle,” Motorola’s Parsey said. “Why would you think a mobile phone is more complicated?” If he can deliver that, women will beat a path to his door.

Now, I don't know about you, but I want technology that solves problems and has been thought through with real people and is so intuitive I don't need to read the manual, and the last time I checked, I wasn't menstruating once a month. I wouldn't mind about stylish hardware, either, but I don't seem to be doing too badly on that front.

The comparison with the kettle, though, is somewhat of a false one. A kettle does one thing: it heats up water until it boils, and then it stops. Either you have an electrical kettle, where there's a "heat up water until it boils, and then stop" button, or you have one you stick on a stove, in which case the procedure is somewhat more complicated, but still understandable for the general population. A modern mobile phone, on the other hand, does a myriad of things: it takes pictures, it has a calendar, you can set alarms and timers, you can call people, send them messages, send them pictures, play games, put new games on it--and this list isn't even exhaustive, and this is why a mobile phone is complicated for end users: the interface will take work, and we're not even halfway there yet.

Compare the situation with cars--automatic ones in this case, just to make it easier. You've got a "go" pedal and a "stop" pedal. You've got a round thing that tells the car what direction to go in, and like the pedals, the more you move it, the more the car responds. There's a few sticks lying about, one of which will let you put the car in "go" and "stop" mode, maybe another one for "lights on" and "lights off", and another one for "turning left" and "turning right" (though from my experience, I'm starting to believe that the last has been removed from recent cars). That's pretty much it. Anything else, though, and you may as well be staring at a mobile phone: want to program your radio? It's a safe bet that switching to the right frequency and then holding down a numbered button will do the trick, but failing that, what else are you going to try?

The main charge of the Sunday Times' article was that "technology is designed with men in mind" and that women "need more than flashy features", which is a somewhat simplistic way of looking at things. The problem here is in equating "features" with unintuitive interfaces, and it's one that the writer has deftly sidestepped, if not completely ignored, in favour of a more sensationalist and divisive headline, and we get soundbites such as this:

Men, on the other hand, tend to be extremely proud of how complex things are. "If you show your mobile phone to people in the pub, men will grab it and spend hours looking at every feature," said Perdita Patterson, who edited What Mobile magazine for five years. "Women will say: 'That’s interesting. Can we talk about something else?'"

Only that's not really the whole story, is it? I can imagine men being quite happy to show off the fact that their latest toy is much smaller than anyone else's, can take pictures and do umpteen other things, but this doesn't stop me from getting instant messages from Tom moaning about how for the life of him he can't figure out how to send pictures from his new phone by email. I can't, either, and my friends seem to think I'd be pretty knowledgeable about this kind of stuff. I'm buggered if I'm going to look at the manual, because as far as I'm concerned, it's supposed to just work. The conversation in the pub is then more accurately: "Look at this cool new toy I've got", followed by murmurs of agreement and then a final pronouncement of "I've got no idea how to use the bloody thing, though".

So let's hear it again: the features something has doesn't have much to do with its interface or its usability, and this doesn't have anything to do with "programming", either, but the article would have you think otherwise:

Programming was traditionally a man’s job. "Men didn’t want to know about interface design," said Swan, who, 10 years ago, worked for a small technology firm in America and was the only woman in the company. "They wanted to write code. Writing code was really cool. Thinking about the worker who would use it was incredibly boring. They called it 'soft'. It made them feel ill."

There's a reason why there's such a position as a usability engineer. There's a reason why there's an academic field called human computer interaction: it's not programming. It's got more or less nothing to do with it, programming's the black box and the interface is the bit that you, dear user, will be playing with. Of course programmers shouldn't be messing about with it, and you know what? It's not soft, either, it's hard. The Sunday Times' article very nearly raises legitimate points, but completely fails to spot them, instead making the specious argument that men don't require intuitive user interfaces when it's plainly obvious that they do.

Further reading:

Update 13 July 16:08: via makeoutcity, Don Park has a summary of a gender/UI design debate.

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HandShake for OS X

In the midst of my dissertation--a FOAF desktop tool for OS X in Cocoa/Java--I'm now at the mandated "design stage", whereupon I'm producing oodles of UML use case, event trace and class diagrams along with the first drafts of the user interface, the latter of which I'm happy to show you:

I have around six testers signed up so far--you know who you are--but if anyone else is willing and free to test the app in August, you're welcome to drop me a line.

Update 13 July 23:31: Thanks to je at makeoutcity for pointing out that the "design" link was pointing to one of my local files. Fixed now.

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Saturday, 12 July 2003

Jack Schofield vs. John Gruber

As if the great Mark/Dave dramedy [there's this Metafilter thread and 120+ comments on Don Park's blog] wasn't enough to be keeping up with, Jack Schofield's taken a pop at John Gruber's Daring Fireball after Neil McIntosh pointed to Gruber's latest article in what has to be one of the longest entries ever on The Guardian's Onlineblog.

Jack's main problem with Daring Fireball is its design, and while I'm ambivalent on the subject of reversed-out text (I admit it, like Jack I am a spectacle wearer, yet for me the text is fine. The fact that I'm probably half Jack's age may have something to do with it), there's just a teensy weensy problem with his accusations of unresizeable text.

Judging from John's CSS, he's using absolute measurements to specify font sizes with the result that Internet Explorer 6 on Windows will happily fall over when attempting to resize text: well, not fall over. More like not do anything at all, which is pretty much the same as falling over when you're a bespectacled human being who's frustrated at reversed out text. Jack's example of the paragon of website design, Jakob's useit.com, uses relative measurements in CSS.

Absolute sized text in CSS doesn't present a problem, however, for practically any other browser that isn't Internet Explorer, or doesn't use its engine. Phoenix 0.5 (and thus any other Mozilla derivative)? Fine. Apple's Safari? Fine. For crying out loud, I even downloaded and installed Opera on Windows and checked Daring Fireball with it. Resizable text ahoy.

Of course, Jack's rebuttal will be that he shouldn't have to change browsers, and he's partially correct, regardless of the fact that he's happy to recommend Mozilla for popup blocking. There's not much to stop John, either, from updating his CSS to use relative font sizes, and Internet Explorer will happily resize text specified that way.

There's one last thing Jack could've done. I've found that if there's anything that will improve legibility on any platform, it usually involves printing the damn thing out and reading it on nice paper. High resolution, very portable and you can even edit it easily.

Update 13 July, 11am: Fixed the first paragraph so it actually links to Schofield's article.

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Friday, 11 July 2003

Huh

While looking for Neighbourhood Statistics from the UK government's National Statistics, I noticed that the latter has an rss feed of its top stories.

Go-go gadget government!

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Windows XP P2P SDK

Microsoft knows how to court developers: they've released a Windows XP Peer-to-Peer SDK for the XP peer-to-peer update that appeared with Microsoft's threedegrees beta, amusingly not-even-reviewed by Yoz.

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Slashdot Humour

Well, I thought it was funny - in a thread about the patenting of ethical AI, someone makes the obligatory HAL reference which wouldn't rate but for this line in the middle:

HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus and I am going to Jupiter. We communicate differently, but we still need to communicate, don't you see? [full post]

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Stupid Mac OS X, Stupid Safari

A short entry this one, but one highlighting great stupidity of which I take no responsibility for:

I'm composing an entry in a Movable Type tab of Safari. In the same window are two of the sources I'll be linking to in the entry. I want to look at a third one, but in a new window. Cmd-N, new Safari window pops up in front of the one I was working in. Oops. Wrong, didn't want that, changed my mind. Cmd-w. Window fails to disappear. Cmd-w again. Window still fails to disappear. Actually pay attention to the screen and notice that while the new window may be in the foreground, it doesn't actually have focus and is obscuring the parent window that does, in the background. I know this because the foreground window has its jellybeans dimmed, while the one behind it is happily shining red, yellow and green at me.

I switch back to the parent window in time to see that I've all but obliterated one of my tabs, including the one my half-composed entry was in.

You can add this to some of the other reasons why browsers suck, and add it as another reason why until browsers save state I hate it when I fill in forms online.

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Uncoupled in the USA

Aint it Cool has three spoiler reviews of NBC's remake of the BBC 2 show Coupling.

I had the chance to see NBC's pilot--based on pretty much the same script as the BBC's first episode, bar about one minor scene change and the odd substitution of one word for another (think philosopher versus sorcerer), and let's just say that I had my will to live not so much as sapped from me as sucked out of me through a catheter. It was that painful.

The Aint it Cool reaction is unreservedly negative, which at first glance seems puzzling since the BBC series itself is gaining quite a cult following (as British shows are wont to do) in America. Unfortunately, where everything seems to fall down--as ever, see Men Behaving Badly--is that some executives somewhere haven't realised that British mannerisms, inflections and speech patterns don't translate when they're said by an Americans actor who doesn't really know what they're talking about. We are, as ever, separated by a common language and an uncommon culture.

It doesn't help that the majority of the cast have a complete lack of comedic timing, or, it seems, any feel for the roles that they've been ceremoniously thrust in to: Jay Harrington's Steve Taylor compares unfavourably with Jack Davenport's--he's far too eager, and his delivery falls flat 99% of the time. Christopher Moynihan when playing Jeff Murdock is unable to distinguish his character from Harrington and it appears that there's been some executive decision to resort to wardrobe to make sure the viewers don't get confused between the two. I was never of the opinion that the actresses in the BBC's production were that strong to begin with, and the same can be said of their American counterparts. The only standout casting appears to be that of Colin Ferguson's Patrick (a smug serial womaniser--think Joey, but with slightly more brains) and Lindsay Price's Jane (weird and loopy, like Phoebe), who manages in some scenes best Gina Bellman's original performance.

NBC's remake will be a complete disaster unless something drastic is done. The hype that the remake's been receiving as a successor to Friends is somewhat confusing, since Coupling appears more to be a take-off of Friends itself. That NBC's pilot could do with a number of the Friends cast just popping by the studio to slip into their equivalent roles doesn't provide much optimism, either.

The hope is that Steven Moffat will work with the show's American production and produce some scripts tailored to the American audience: American actors playing British people saying British phrases leaves the viewer wondering why the characters are behaving so oddly. At any rate, I'll probably end up watching the first couple of episodes or so, if only because I imagine they'll have the same appeal as a hideous multi-vehicle pileup.

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Thursday, 10 July 2003

Tivo, iSight, IBM and Microsoft

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Sense: Son of Cog

  • Via Metafilter, the follow-up to Honda UK's Cog advert, Sense, has just been launched. You can download the video as a zipped mpeg straight from Honda's servers here, or learn more about the campaign at their site.

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Microsoft speech technologies

Four articles from Microsoft's MSDN concerning text to speech and speech UI best practices:

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Homeland Insecurity

  • No, your vacuum cleaner probably isn't safe for effectively protecting your household from anthrax.

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Virtual Desktops for OS X

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Microsoft Reader 2.0, Free Book

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RFIDs, Jack Schofield and Picture Messaging

  • Slashdot turns up the goods every now and then, though lately for increasingly small values of nows and thens: this, though, is a good post on some of the practical aspects of large scale RFID implementation.
  • Jack "Fair! Balanced! We report! You Decide!" Schofield covers Netscape/Mozilla.
  • Get pictures sent from the Tate's Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition or the National Gallery sent to your MMS phone.

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Wednesday, 09 July 2003

First Impressions: Sony Ericsson T610

Since 1998, I've used three phones: a freebie Philips handset from Barclays on a pay as you go account (either shortly after or before UK networks agreed on SMS interoperability), an Ericsson T18 on Vodafone, a Nokia 8210 on Orange, later upgraded to an Ericsson T39m.

The Nokia 8210 was by far my favourite of the lot: it was the smallest, it was the lightest, and its user interface was the most responsive. Good for Nokia, then, for making such wonderful phones. On the other hand, I can't remember much about the Philips handset at all, and as for the Ericsson phones, let's just say that in spite of what I may have said about the T39m, at least it was better than the T18.

So, I managed to upgrade to a Sony Ericsson T610 after a previous failed attempt--popped into an Orange shop, put down £89.99 for the handset, £9.99 for yet another wired handsfree kit and went home, plugged the thing in and forgot about it for about twelve hours while Orange sorted out with inexorable slowness the SIM upgrades and the dinky thing charged itself.

I've had the chance to use it for about six days now, so some first impressions:

Syncing contacts from OS X's Address Book via iSync worked perfectly. Less perfectly was calendar syncing, there seems to have been some confusion over timezones, and all of my appointments have been shifted by five hours. Now, this might have something to do with the fact that last time I synced I was on the east coast of the US, but I'm not happy in the slightest, least of which because neither iSync nor iCal have visible timezone selectors. My first guess was that the laptop and T39's timezone were both EDT at the last sync, a sync was attempted by the T39 wasn't found, and the timezone defaulted to the last one used, though this all falls down somewhat now I look at iSync's log, full of copious Europe/London references. I'd better be able to fix this. (During the course of this review, the timezones managed to sort themselves out. I have no idea how.)

The UI is fast. It can keep up with my keystrokes, and there's no menu navigation lag of the sort that was painfully evident with the T39. The only minor niggle is that every so often I end up pressing right or left on the joystick instead of pressing it in, but I suppose this is something I'm going to have to deal with or at least increase my muscle memory repertoire.

By default, the screen auto-dims after a while and helpfully displays a clock so you can find out the time without having to press any keys. Described like that, it sounds like a useful feature, until you realise that the backlight gets switched off as well, and you're left with an unlit colour LCD showing the time. It's pretty much unreadable, the phone looks as though it's been switched off.

I'm not sure what Orange are playing at, but they're shipping the phone with their own theme as the default, and it's hideous. The Orange screensaver is some bizarre box-shaped razor toothed animal galloping, or at least trying to gallop, there's probably a limit as to how fast the phone is willing to display what are probably animated GIFs or PNGs. There's one other theme on the phone from Sony Ericsson, and it's much more appealing. It's also blue and silver, so it gets easy points from me.

To their credit, Orange haven't done much customisation to the phone's firmware: pressing up on the joystick will take you to an Orange menu, but I haven't managed to work out if I'm being charged for accessing it. I hope not. I skimmed the manual to see if it mentioned call charges, but not much information was forthcoming. Likewise, there's an internet access button at the top right hand side of the phone that takes you to Orange's WAP homepage. These two services are duplicated as the first two entries in the phone's main menu. Unfortunately, I can't for the life of me work out whether I'm being charged for access to these services. It used to be quite simple: if I sent an SMS or made a call, I knew that I'd be paying something. Now it looks like if I accidentally press the wrong button, I might end up with some sort of data connection charge.

Others have mentioned that there's a problem with call quality, be it a hissing sound (sorry, couldn't hear any at all) or that the party on the other end of the line complained about scratchiness (no one has yet complained). I'm happy. Ring volume, though, does seem to be somewhat lacking, despite the copious "WARNING! LOUD RINGING NOISES CAN DAMAGE YOUR HEARING!" messages that pop up if you choose a loud ring tone.

Ah. The screen. Now, while some may think that the screen is unuseable, I beg to differ. It's useable. It's not as bright as it could or should be, and in (bright) daylight, you may have some problems reading it. I haven't. What I have noticed, though, is that I was under the mistaken impression that the onboard camera was completely useless: I had to bump the contrast up to +5 (ranges from -5 to +5) in the setup menu to see what I was supposed to be taking a picture of. The only real experience I've had with the camera has been taking some pictures, storing them and then looking at them on my laptop after having grabbed them over Bluetooth, besides, Tom has a perfectly serviceable collage of shots that he took from his T610.

Battery life, with Bluetooth on, seems to be around two days--could be better, then again I'm not using Bluetooth all the time, mostly just to sync.

I still haven't had it long enough--only been using it for about six days--but there's a good chance that it's going to be my favourite phone yet. It has a good featureset, it's small--one of the main reasons why I was so attached to my 8210 was its diminutive size--and its user interface is finally at least up to, or surpassing, where Nokia was two years ago. Granted, the screen and battery life could do with work, but these two are hardly so bad as to be dealbreakers. The T610's a good phone.

Other reviews of the T610: thegareth.net, thevooner.com and Mobile Burn.

Update 1 August 2003 12:50 BST: A short rant on sending SMS messages on the T610.

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Stopgap

  • Via jwz, it looks like demons are going fishing: anglers from northern Europe are using live kittens for bait while fishing in the Po river.
  • MacRumors rounds up news of a possible 15in PowerBook update at MacWorldExpo next Wednesday.
  • The BBC is saying that file swappers buy more music. Or, rather, it's reporting that Music Programming Limited's latest report says so.
  • Brent has released another alpha of NetNewsWire, the second to utilise WebKit.

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Wednesday links

  • Matt Haughey's having trouble migrating from one PowerBook to another.
  • Via Boing Boing, Notes on Google director of technology Craig Silverstein's talk at Supernova.
  • Some really cool stuff going on with FOAF and GNOME, check out the screenshots. I'm somewhat annoyed that to have OS X pop up notifications on incoming calls and SMS messages, I have to go through the dance of: turn on Bluetooth on phone, open Address Book, click on Bluetooth icon in address book. Okay, fine. I can get it down to two steps--just leave Bluetooth on all the time on the phone, but that's still two too many.
  • Via Kottke, a rotary dial web browser. I didn't like the DNS system anyway.
  • A list of magical Mac key sequences, via NSLog();.
  • Steven Frank has switched from a Sidekick/Hiptop to an SE P800. He likes it.
  • Dave Hyatt has some an update on WebCore fixes.
  • Mobile Burn has a negative review of the T610, centering mostly on the display: it's not too good in daylight. As far as I'm concerned, whilst the display could use some work, the rest of the phone makes up for it. Either that, or I'm lucky to live in a more or less overcast country.
  • Infosync reviews the Orange SPV E100, the minor version bump to the original SPV.

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CNN, Google News and Screenshots

In retrospect, I should've taken some screenshots: sometime yesterday, when word came out that a statement regarding Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium from Africa President Bush made during his state of the union address was incorrect, Google News' algorithms decided to give CNN's story second billing on its front page, making it quite prominent.

Let's just say it wasn't much of a surprise when at the same time, CNN's front page was running with the story of the Lockheed-Martin factory shooting, and the only mention of Bush in its seven "more top stories" was condemnation of slavery.

CNN: there's a reason why it's my favourite news source.

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Tuesday, 08 July 2003

Being a continuing tale of Apple woe

It all started last Monday when I noticed that a hinge screw had gone inexplicably missing from my PowerBook G4. This prompted the first call to AppleCare, whereupon I found out that screws aren't the sort of thing that Apple ship out to customers on a whim. Or even on a valid support contract. I called on Wednesday to arrange a pickup and was told that a very nice person would be here on Friday to take the laptop away, regardless of whether I was going to do it through my extended warranty.

Thursday night, the combo drive started making noises while burning backups, and on Friday morning--the day of the return--I called and asked if it'd be possible to have Apple look at the drive as well as replace the screw. Probably not, but I was more than welcome to leave a note with the machine. Oh, and by the way. The machine wasn't going to be picked up today, seeing as the request for the pickup that was supposed to have been made on Wednesday wasn't, it was made on Thursday. Which means Monday or Tuesday the following week.

Monday was fun. I stayed at home and waited for an imaginary courier to turn up.

I did the same today, too.

Dear Apple: Please sort out your shipping. It's starting to get annoying.

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Monday, 07 July 2003

Monday links

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Monday's Apples

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Sunday, 06 July 2003

Spin Cycle

The Sunday Times is running a front page story and leader on David Blunkett's apparent plans--from a leaked cabinet document--to move ahead with a national identity card. BBC News has also published a story.

The Sunday Times article is reproduced in full below, but here are some quick take-away points for you:

  • The government will in all likelihood press ahead.
  • Most people will have to pay £39.99 for them.
  • You won't be required to carry it all the time, but, as with a driving licence, be expected to produce it within a few days.
  • It will incorporate biometric data.
  • Information will be held on a central database.
  • The consultation found "strong public support for ID cards in the wake of terrorist alerts".
  • The consultation found "strong public support for a card scheme and a preference for the term 'identity card' rather than 'entitlement card'".
  • There exists "a highly organised minority who will campaign vocally against a scheme".

Whether you are for against this, please take the time to fax your MP--for free--to make sure your views are known. Background information is available at Stand.

ID cards for all to cost £40
David Cracknell, Political Editor
DAVID BLUNKETT has decided that everybody in Britain over the age of 16 will have to buy an identity card at nearly £40 each, a leaked cabinet document reveals.
The move will spark outrage from Britain's civil liberties lobby, which has long campaigned against ID cards. It is also likely to provoke anger among voters, who will object to being forced to pay for a new arm of state control.
The home secretary has rejected voluntary "entitlement cards" and instead will require all citizens to have identity cards. Each card will contain biometric data, such as an image of a person's iris or fingerprint, so police and other authorities can confirm the holder's identity.
Although it will not be compulsory to carry the card at all times, as in some countries, anybody who is challenged may be required by police to produce it within a few days.
People will be able to upgrade their passports or driving licences to include the biometric data, but will have to pay an extra charge.
The card will be free for retired people over 75, for those on low incomes and for 16-year-olds. Anybody receiving benefits or who is retired but under 75 will pay £5. Everybody else will have to pay £39 to cover the cost of the scheme.
The government will hold information about the population on a central computer database — a move that will further alarm civil liberties groups.
Blunkett wants to make an announcement to parliament this month and intends to bring in legislation later this year. His decision follows a consultation exercise which found strong public support for ID cards in the wake of terrorist alerts after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
In a letter to fellow cabinet ministers dated June 25, Blunkett says: "I believe that the case for introducing a universal identity card in the UK is overwhelming. The consultation exercise showed strong public support for a card scheme and a preference for the term 'identity card' rather than 'entitlement card'."
He adds: "The argument that identity cards will inhibit our freedoms is wrong. We are strengthened in our liberty if our identity is protected from theft; if we are able to access the services we are entitled to; and if our community is better protected from terrorists and organised criminals.
"There is a highly organised minority who will campaign vocally against a scheme. However, the identity card I am proposing would not be used to store large amounts of personal data to which government departments or agencies would have unfettered access.
"There will be strict limits on what is held on the card, and what information different agencies can access via the card and the central database. Privacy will be protected, as it is in other advanced democracies that have identity cards.
"Nor will it be compulsory for people to carry a card, though as now with driving licences, the police or other agencies could require its production as a secure proof of identity in strictly defined circumstances. It will be important to reinforce these messages continually during the debate on legislation."
Blunkett explains he has already discussed the cost of the scheme with the Treasury, saying that without the exemptions each person would pay £33. "This would bring the cost for the rest of the population to around £39 if the free and discounted cards were not funded out of general taxation."
Blunkett's letter is officially addressed to John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, as chairman of the domestic affairs cabinet committee.
Many other countries have some form of identity card and Blunkett says in his letter that Britain is "out of kilter with Europe". Eleven European Union member states have cards and in Germany, Spain, Greece and Belgium they are compulsory.
From next year travellers to the United States will have to have biometric data on their passports if they are arriving on a long-stay non-tourist visa.
Blunkett met Tony Blair in Downing Street last week to discuss the scheme. The prime minister is understood to support it but wants more details. "David always gets his way with Tony," said a Whitehall source.

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Friday, 04 July 2003

You've Got Blog

Jeff Jarvis breaks news of AOL's forthcoming blogging/community tools. See also the disclosure from an AOL employee.

Quick points: RSS/XML publishing and positioning as community (like LiveJournal), not publishing ("AOL Journals"), blogging over AIM and the intention to be open to spidering from the likes of Technorati.

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Reviewed: L'Auberge Espagnole

It was either going out and seeing l'Auberge espagnole or Bruce Almighty at a drive-in or staying in with a box of tissues and sniveling thanks to my hayfever. As it turned out, I ended up sitting in a darkened cinema with a box of tissues, periodically exploding, sniveling, but mostly laughing and enjoying an amusing film.

This really isn't the kind of film you should see if you've been in America for a fortnight and most people around you haven't been to Europe much. Or, for that matter, if you're just missing that, um, European thing, what with wallowing shots of life in Barcelona, a heavy dosage of Gaudi and the accents of a pan-European cast.

Your standard character growth story, l'auberge tells the story of Xavier, an aimless student who's been encouraged by a friend of the family to take part in the Erasmus EU student exchange programme to study economics in Barcelona for a year before taking up a (by implication) dull, bureaucratic yet ultimately comfortable EU civil service job. As usual, there's a full complement of Girlfriend Left At Home, the Mistaken Lesbian and Mrs. Robinson characters with whom Xavier has his predictable fun.

Overall, the writing's sharp. The film gains a shot in the arm when the English flatmate, Wendy, receives a visit from her brother William, who's out on a pre-university bender: William gets predictably drunk, manages to piss off everyone in the house by being wonderfully naive, young and excruciatingly insulting and picks up what would otherwise be a flagging last third.

The theme running throughout is that of the mishmash of cultures that the EU is trying to smush together: what happens when you get some highly individualistic nation states with well known stereotypes and--wait for it, here's the metaphor bit--make them spend a year together in an apartment. It sounds part Big Brother, part MTV's The Real World, and Xavier's introduction to this polyglot mix is easily reminiscent of the interview scene in Shallow Grave.

In short: starts slowly, and yes, Audrey Tautou appears (though if you're looking for an Amelie, you'll be disappointed--the tone here is decidedly different), a sharp soundtrack (Radiohead and Daft Punk spring to mind) and good cinematography (plus there's lots of Gaudi). Picks up in the latter two thirds, though the ending is a little week. For English language speakers who're put off by foreign language films, don't worry: you'll only need the subtitles for around a third of the dialogue, the rest is in English.

L'auberge espagnole was released on 9 May in the UK and 16 May in the US.

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Friday Morning Apple

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Friday Morning

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Thursday, 03 July 2003

You're kidding me

What is it with me and laptops? Now my DVD/CDRW combo drive isn't accepting media. It was making a noise when it was burning a CD, see, then finished and ejected it. According to this knowledgebase article, if it starts doing that, you're supposed to call and arrange for servicing. Why was I burning a CD? Because this machine's being picked up tomorrow for a missing screw, and it's nice to have things backed up.

Bets on this being sorted out on the same trouble ticket as the screw, or me having to send the damn thing back. Again.

(Dear Apple. I would like a new computer, please. One that doesn't have an Airport enclosure that breaks, screws that fall out and DVD/CDRW combo drives that spontaneously fail.)

Update: Thanks to a kindly comment (see below), I've temporarily fixed this, but the drive still manages to sound as if it's attempting to do an imitation of a small helicopter taking off whenever it burns.

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Reviewed: The Hulk

Judging by popular opinion, The Hulk didn't have much going for it on the basis of the trailers that were released (the latest one is here), mainly because the Hulk didn't look particularly Hulk-like, and instead looked like a tiny green plasticine man who liked to jump around the tops of trees. Er, sorry. I meant canyons. Really, I did.

In spite of the terrible little green man effects, from the beginning of the credits to the end of the film I was riveted by the editing and the cinematography. As others have said, this is what a comic book would look like if it moved. You've got multiple camera views on screen, and a whole plethora of shots that convey the same kind of energy. In one wonderful transition, Bruce (Eric Bana) looks down at a photograph of himself and Betty (Jennifer Connelly) and as the camera zooms in, the picture comes to life and we find ourselves in the park where the photograph is being taken. Shots like that impress me, and not just in a technical sense. It really felt like an appropriate transition.

Bronwen pointed out that the film's dialogue does seem to be one of its downfalls: characters keep repeating the same things to each other, and Bruce's father (Nick Nolte) manages to do this in practically every scene. Among its other failings is what probably should've been an amusing fight scene in the woods but seemed as if it was going on too long, and the incredibly weak ending and the inevitable franchise setup.

No, I still have no idea what happened at the end. I tried, I promise.

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Voice over IP and Vonage

There's a new box plugged into the house DSL switch/router. It's a Cisco ATA-186, and it's free from Vonage when you open an account with them.

What this new box does is this: you plug it into a switch, then you plug a phone into it. You turn on the box. You now have a US phone number, situated in any locality or state of your choosing.

If you're someone who makes a lot of voice calls to the US, then this is a big deal. Even with a low-rate calling card provider such as Alpha Telecom, you're going to get hit with rates of 3p per minute. If you're calling every day, that's going to add up.

This is the marvel of voice over IP (VOIP), a somewhat old technology that is finally having its day, and this time in consumer circles. Most VOIP products these days work by allowing you to call a normal telephone number from your computer, resulting in the obvious caveat that you can't make a call unless your in front of a computer in the first place. For laptop owners, there's not that much inconvenience, but that belies the fact that you'll still be dealing with speakers and a microphone. If you want to receive a call, you'll have to be at your computer, and it'll be your computer that does the ringing.

The difference with services like Vonage and upstart Packet8 is the novel concept of using a phone for a telephony service: plug in the box to the router, plug in any phone to the box, and go. That's it. Pick up the phone, dial, you're connected. Plug in a cordless if you're so inclined. Waiting for a phone call? Get this--wait for the phone to ring, then pick it up. Easy as that. Quality wise, it's impeccable. I tested Vonage in the US using a residential broadband cable connection and speech was crystal clear, plus no waffling around with half-duplex artifacts.

So I spoke to Vonage: if I were to go on holiday, could I take this magical box with me? Could I plug it in and have my US phone number in my luggage? The answer was strongly positive - provided I wasn't breaking any local laws, I should go for it. They wouldn't have any problem at all.

There are some issues with using the service overseas, though, the first being that Vonage will refuse to ship you your connection kit overseas: domestic US addresses only. You'll have to befriend an American who's willing to sign up on your behalf and then ship the equipment over--don't worry, it's in a small box.

Secondly, bear in mind that the output of this magical box is intended for a US phone jack, it's an RJ11 socket and not your typical BT type. On top of that BT wiring has a curious capacitor in the wall-plate socket that enables the ring function on phones. Now, you can supposedly get RJ11 to BT socket converters that enable the ring function, but two phones down and I still haven't managed to properly receive a call. This isn't so much of a problem in my particular case, but it might be for others. The alternative would be to buy an American corded phone and plug it in (don't try bringing an American cordless phone over here without doing some very extensive research, there's a good chance you'll be splurging unregulated RF all over the place).

For $25.99 a month, I've now got unlimited local and regional calling, and 500 long distance minutes a month. $25.99 a month on a calling card would get me around 540 minutes, so if I'm talking more than nine hours a month (and I was), then this is a steal. And it is.

If you're thinking of getting Vonage, get in touch with me: if you sign up through a referral, you'll get a free second month of service, no matter what plan you choose.

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Thursday Morning

  • Bronwen gets the credit for this one: scary octodog hotdogs and (as usual), trust the Japanese to take an already bizarre food preparation to terrifying levels.
  • Infosync brings news of a new survey commissioned for Cingular: men talk more than women on wireless phones, for the third year in a row. Men averaged 438 minutes per month compared to 377 for women
  • Apple receives vindication for its year of the laptop--CNet is reporting that notebook sales in May 2003 increased 33 percent from April and 58 percent from May 2002, with laptops capturing 54 percent of all retail computer revenue in May. The average laptop price was $1,294, more than $250 less than May last year.
  • BBC Radio 2 ran an interesting set of programmes last night: The Great British Music Debate covered everything from piracy to the big labels; I managed to catch around fifteen minutes of it driving around. Best quote was from a BPI spokesman who was convinced that rocketing CDR sales could only be explained in terms of people burning illegal MP3s to them.
  • Adrian has a full writeup of day one of the TedMed3 conference.
  • Guardian/PA: European parliament lifts GM food ban - "The European parliament today lifted the ban on genetically modified foods, instead choosing to impose a strict labelling regime that could stave off a trade war with the US." See also coverage at BBC News.
  • Free books for Microsoft Reader.

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Thursday Morning Apples

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Wednesday, 02 July 2003

How To Ruin A Perfectly Good Phone

Blech from the Spool wants to know what I've got against the Ericsson T39m. Bluntly: I don't know what Ericsson were playing at with this phone, because one of its only redeeming features is that unlike their T18s, it doesn't spontaneously turn itself off.

Sorry, that might have been a little too blunt and a little too caustic. The T39m does have a few things going for it: the fact that I got it last year as an upgrade for around thirty quid, it includes Bluetooth, GPRS, has a seven day charge ( wonderful on trips) is triband and works with iSync undeniably work in its favour.

Where it falls down--and by fall, I mean from a great height and at terminal velocity--is the user interface. It's laggy, and noticeably so. Scrolling through the call list to redial a number? Make sure you're not doing it too quickly, lest you mistakenly call the following entry. The call list is merely the most visible example of interface lag, probably because regardless of the phone I use, it's one of the my most used features. Scrolling through other menus is just as slow, I just don't do it as much.

Another example? Any form of text entry whatsoever. I'd have no problem entering text on my Nokia 8210, I wouldn't have to wait for letters to show up on the screen and--now this is important--the tactile feel of the keys was pretty much spot on, being relatively soft to the touch and not requiring much pressure. The T39m's keys feel much harder, and the T9 text entry is noticeably slower, to the extent that you're lucky if I reply to a text message if I receive it on the T39m.

Do you see how bad that is? If I'm using the T39m, any of my friends who text messaged me could expect their chances of getting a reply cut to a tenth of what it had been on my previous phone. That's operator revenue out of the window. That's an extremely irate customer. That's also someone who has to explain to his friends why he's suddenly behaving all aloof and is no help when cheating (sorry, help) is required in a pub quiz.

This just goes to show that you can have a great package of hardware, but if you stick a useless user interface on it, you'll end up with a highly annoying product that fills your user with rage. Or, on the other hand you have, a Sony Vaio running Windows ME.

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Reviewed: Finding Nemo

Finding Nemo is the most Disneyish of all of Pixar's films to date, plainly evident from the early and distressing death of yet another maternal figure. You have been warned: children may cry, and you might want to look into hourly rates for post traumatic stress disorder counselling after the first fifteen minutes of the film. Thankfully, small people should perk up somewhat by the end, though if you own fish and don't explain the whole flushing down the toilet thing, you may well need to shell out (as it were).

Finding Nemo took a while to get going, and if anything else suffered mainly from the fact that a large proportion of the funniest scenes were included in the trailer. An appreciable number of scenes elicited a "Oooh, this is the bit in the trailer" reaction followed by the required belly ache laughter. This, though, was probably a side effect of me having watched the trailer so many times in the first place (in my defence, it's a thoroughly amusing trailer).

Highlights: Crush, the sea turtle (impeccably voiced by writer/director Andrew Stanton), some sort of crustacean in a tank (you'll know it when you see it) and DeGeneres' Dory was wonderfully cute and engaging. Marlin (Albert Brooks) got slightly irritating after a while--the emphasis there is on the slightly.

For me, Finding Nemo was probably as good as the first two Toy Story films, though those still retain something of an edge simply because the subject material in that franchise lends itself to some great in-jokes and gags. Not so much in Finding Nemo, though it needn't be said that Pixar's characterisation is as spot on as ever.

Finding Nemo is slated for a 10 October 2003 release in the UK.

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(Why I didn't get a) Sony Ericsson T610

The Sony Ericsson T610 has been available on the Orange network in the UK for a couple of weeks now. You can't yet upgrade online, but if you walk into a store, the upgrade price should start at £79.99 excluding upgrade charges (you'll definitely have to pay a charge if your contract has run for less than twelve months). Throw in an old handset and you'll get a £20 rebate - not off the price of the handset upgrade, mind, but a rebate on your next bill. Which is fair enough, I suppose.

Anyway. I didn't get one today, no doubt angering the shiny toy gods immensely. Orange's account backend evidently ate something disagreeable sometime today and has been down for most of the afternoon.

Update: Gareth's review of the T610.

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Apple Woe, Continued

There's something deeply unsatisfying about the lack of Apple Stores in the UK: you can't just walk into one, talk to a Genius, and have your machine repaired free of charge if you're under warranty.

I can't even walk into the offices of my nearest Apple dealer and get a repair done: apparently "all Apple laptops get shipped to Holland" - well, that seemed to be half-true with my airport card (replacement shipped from Holland, though the machine itself was shipped to somewhere in SE England).

As it stands, my laptop's due to be picked up by courier sometime Friday, my second repair under extended warranty. I'm more or less happy with AppleCare, the main annoyance is one of time, something I'm not sure they can do much more about given the fact that repair operations seem to have been centralised in Europe.

They probably just want me to buy a spare laptop.

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Wednesday Morning

  • Speakeasy will let your resell your DSL connection to downstream customers [via Wi-Fi Networking News].
  • Funny: CNet is reporting that Activision is suing Viacom for neglecting the Star Trek brand. Activision has a licence to produce games based upon the Star Trek franchise.
  • Setting up ssh port forwarding on OS X [via Forwarding Address: OS X]
  • Orange are offering the Sony Ericsson T610 for £79.99 as an upgrade for existing Orange customers who've had their current phone/contract for at least one year. If you bring in any old handset, you'll also get £20 knocked off, making a total of £59.99. This offer only seems to be available in their retail shops, not online. I haven't called to see if they're doing any other offers direct. Seeing as I expected to pay around double or triple that price, I'll be picking one up later today.
  • DPReview has reviewed the Canon PowerShot G5.

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Tuesday, 01 July 2003

How I Learned To Stop Worrying... And Then Start Again

I seem to be having trouble sleeping. Recently, I haven't been able to get to sleep until some ungodly hour in the morning (clues: birds singing and the ability to see everything in the bedroom without turning on a light). To be honest, though, I'm not exactly sure what an ungodly hour would be: seeing as you'd expect a respectable god to posses the triple qualities of omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotency, it's not clear that there would be some sort of hour--or even a range of hours--in which such a god's abilities were handicapped in the slightest. At least, she wouldn't be much of a god in my book.

Part of the reason for my late losing of consciousness probably haa something to do with restlessness that was manifesting itself in a complete inability to stay still for more than a few seconds at a time. There's some evidence that all this insomnia is due to some distant relative of stress, namely the wonderful dreams about my teeth shattering and into tiny shards in my blood-filled mouth.

Without further ado: Things That Have Been On My Mind Lately, or, I Wish I Could Stop Worrying About Some Of These Things.

  • Dates. For example: The Date On Which I Start Work At Half Past Nine In The Morning. After a few years shy of two decades in full time education (highlights: crazy nuns with a penchant for decrying digital watches as an abomination upon mankind, smashing lego cars in the playground, hilariously non-productive chemistry practicals), I'm finally about to start contributing to the economy instead of sucking up all my dear readers' tax contributions. This new intrusion on my life will involve such novelties as some sort of daily structure and wearing a suit for inordinate amounts of time, something that hasn't happened since I've been in school. At least this time I'll be paid for it.
  • Dates, Part Two. I'm halfway through buying an apartment. It's been brought to my attention by a number of friends that dealing with property is one of the most stressful things that can happen to you, aside from getting married or death, the latter of which I presume referring to the act happening to someone close to you, as opposed to yourself. If I were being honest, I'd imagine that dying in the midst of a property transaction would be somewhat relaxing--apart from the whole being dead part. Back to the apartment buying - being roughly halfway through means that it's already far too late to back out, and yet in plain sight is the date at which I'll hopefully be getting keys and inviting a truckload of sweaty men to carry boxes into various rooms.
  • Oh. My. God. Someone's going to die in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Oh, wait. I'm not actually bothered about this at all.
  • Dates, The Other Kind. None of your business.
  • More Apartment. A short piece of thirty words, to be read while reading a credit card statement and/or while negotiating an overdraft or credit limit increase (or, How To Throw Off Google's Scent): washer/dryer, fridge/freezer, sofa, dining table, chairs, bookshelves, broadband, wireless router, extension cables, bed, television, desk, vacuum cleaner, cooker, wardrobe, movers, coffee table, coffee, television, gas, water, electricity, cable.
  • Cats. Cats are weird. Especially the licking themselves part. Especially when you have to chase one around the house at least three times alternating clockwise and anti-clockwise directions just to get near enough to her to feed her.
  • Dissertation. Just because, really. It's not as if there's actually any reason to worry, it's just so easy to.
  • The Apartment's Kitchen. Let it be noted that at three o'clock in the morning, importance of the following inflates to ridiculous proportions: the cooker (where will it go? Will it fit? Should I get a new one? Can I even afford a new one? Will they take the old one away? Gas? Electric? Both? Is there even a gas line passing within at least five meters of the cooker in the first place?), the washer/dryer (was that really a hole for the washing machine, or was it a hole for a dishwasher? What of the curious lack of any visible plumbing whatsoever? Surely the previous inhabitants didn't just leave a gaping hole next to the sink? If they did, what possible use could a big gaping hole next to the sink have?) and the the colour (Yellow?)
  • SMART hard drives. Who'd have thought, eh? Last time a drive failed on me it wasn't polite about it at all. Didn't even tell inform me of its intentions to just suddenly stop working, it just went ahead and did it. They seem to be much more civil about it nowadays, giving you opportunity to panic and break out into a sweat before you even lose any data. Of course, now I have to go get a new one.
  • That Damn Apartment. Sorry, did I mention that already?

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Google AdSense

Some of you might have noticed that Google Adsense [FAQ] ads have been added to the individual entry archive pages.

For the time being, it's just an experiment, but I have to admit that I'm quite pleased about the way they look: the colour schemes seem not to clash in a rather fortuitous manner. In spite of that, the ads won't be appearing on the front page of this weblog any time soon - it just didn't look right when I mocked it up.

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Apple Un-woe

Mystery of the missing hinge screw partially resolved: called AppleCare today, they said that it's not a customer installable part (one would think for reasons other than the technical ability of the end-user to replace a screw, seeing as PowerBook G4 hard drives and airport cards are deemed customer replacable), but they will replace it once a Customer Service issue has been flagged (the woman on the end of the phone helpfully flagged the issue straight away).

One thing I did notice was that after I'd been asked whether I'd been doing anything to make the screw fall out (not if using my laptop counts, no), I pointed out that the only reason why I was making a fuss was because of other peoples' hinge issues that I'd read about. The rep guardedly admitted that "some PowerBook G4 models have had hinge problems" and completely understood that I wanted to have this sorted out as soon as possible, asking several times if the screen looked as if it was about to fall off at any point.

All I have to do now is call Apple Customer Service UK to arrange a pickup date and ship the laptop off... to replace one screw. I'm rather reluctant to do this--the rep on the phone made a joke about how most laptop owners can't bear to be separated from their machines at all--not least of all because I'm supposed to be working at the moment. That's not such a big deal, I can (somewhat) easily switch over to another machine, it's just that it irritatingly makes me feel as if I should have a spare laptop. The alternative is to take the laptop along to the AppleCentre in Warrington and see if they're willing to sell me (and quite possibly fit) a spare screw.

All this because I don't want my screen to fall off...

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Apple Woe

Things you don't want to see when you reach over for your laptop: a missing screw in the left-hand hinge. Especially when you've read about previous hinge related badness.

Running through head: how, exactly, does a torx screw fall out of a hinge?

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