A week with the iPad and my family

Normally I spend my time surrounded by people who are completely comfortable with technology. They are – we are – people who work at computers all day long. That’s not a small thing. It changes your perceptions of how you approach problems, how you find information, how you communicate, how you get from A to B and how you shop.

Crucially, I think working with computers teaches you that they’re fun: it’s in those drifty moments at work when someone sends you a video of Dinner Time With The Dog-Man or that you spend time organising drinks for a friend’s birthday or marvelling at The Big Picture that you learn a sense of computers as enjoyable. Modern desk jobs force you to sit and stare at a computer for eight hours a day, so this hardly surprising: any time people are forced to do anything they find a way to have fun, whether it’s doodling in the margins of maths books or inventing games to pass the time at the checkout.

My life is changing, so I recently took a week off and went North to visit various members of my family. I took my bike so I could get out in the countryside, and I took the iPad so I could talk about some of the new things I’m doing at work. The people I visit do lots of different jobs – my Aunt’s a teacher, my cousins are retail managers, mechanics, academics and my Grandfather is rather actively retired. None of these are the 100% desk-and-data jobs my friends and I do, so it was fascinating to see how they got on with the iPad.

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A Terrible Beauty

Published in 2000, A Terrible Beauty is defiantly a pre-internet book(1). In under 850 pages (under 775 if you discount the index), it gives the reader a history of the twentieth century’s defining ideas, from Marxism to Nazism, from Feminism to fusion. Not just the ideas, but the people too – Satre, Picasso, Orwell and Janet Leigh and thousands more. In the words of its own subtitle, it is a history of ‘the people and ideas that shaped the modern mind.’ The idea of any book – any mere bundle of paper – attempting to do that thing now would seem weirdly futile.

Yet it’s the reason why this is the case, the one that’s on the tip of your tongue – yes, Wikipedia – that reading A Terrible Beauty brings to mind. The book is divided into four parts, and within these, 42 themed chapters. They are roughly chronological, but if a later development, discovery or idea fits a theme, it will be mentioned ahead of time, giving a beautiful sense of the uneven march of history. That said, so far, so traditional narrative. What’s very Wikipediary (!) about the book is that the people mentioned are all picked out in bold type when they first appear, enabling you to zip through the text and start reading when someone’s name catches your eye. Despite the fact it all ties together very well when you’re reading sequentially, it’s startlingly easy to just open the book and start reading. That’s how I first got into it; I was staying at a friend’s house, and it sat on the bedside table in the spare room.

The page I opened it at was 530, with its piece on Germaine Greer, immediately presenting one of Greer’s killer lines:

“Her book, The Female Eunuch, did not neglect women’s economic condition, though only one of its thirty chapters is devoted to work. Rather it drew its force from Greer’s unflinching comparison of the way women, love and marriage are presented in literature, both serious and popular, and in everyday currency, as compared with the way things really are. ‘Freud’, she writes, ‘is the father of psychoanalysis. It had no mother.'”

So it continues, brisk but not hurried, economical without being threadbare:

“Greer is withering in her criticisms of how men are presented as dominant, socially superior, older, richer, and taller than their women (Greer is very tall herself). In what is perhaps her most original contribution, she demolishes love and romance (both given their own chapters) as chimeras, totally divorced (an apt verb) from the much bleaker reality.”

The conclusion to this section has stayed with me since I first read it, a sentence that completely embodies the book’s title:

“As with all true liberation, this view is both bleak and exhilarating.”

It was this line that came to me today as I read two pieces about the future of computing and the internet.

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My Year in Books, 2009


2006 – 25 books, 28% non-fiction, and my book of the year was Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated.
2007 – 24 books, 33% non-fiction, far fewer contemporary novels, and my pick of the year was Crime and Punishment.
2008 – 22 books, 54% non-fiction, all but one of the novels were contemporary. Best book I read that year was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

And 2009? Well, I read more books – 25 – than last year, with one DNF. The number of non-fiction books dropped; only six titles, 24% of the total, lower than ever before. Whether this is related to the fact this has felt like my best year in reading for a long time, I’m not sure. True, two of the non-fiction titles did belong at the bottom of the table – Jung Chang’s wearingly negative Mao biography and Philip Norman’s outdated and joyless Beatles book, Shout! – but the other four were among the best, with Ma Jian’s reckless Red Dust playing a big part in sending me to China on my sabbatical, Michael Lewis’s compelling The Blind Side introducing me to American Football and Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder  illuminating the links between art, science, madness and genius in a group of late 1700s scientists and thinkers.

There was also journalist Anthony Loyd’s second volume of autobiography. In the first, he is a heroin addict who decides the best way to get off the junk and get his life together is to do a quick course in photojournalism, and then go to Bosnia at the height of the civil war and give war reporting a go. The follow up, Another Bloody Love Letter, features moments considerably less sane than that. It is, however, suffused with more self-knowledge, more sadness and more righteous anger, all of which make it a terrific book to read.

All four of these non-fiction books are well worth reading. But 2009 was primarily a year for novels; I even managed to read one that was actually published in 2009 – Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply. It wasn’t one of my favourites though; although it showed up on a lot of year-end ‘Best of’ lists in the US, for me, Await Your Reply was the equivalent of an album with a terrific three song stretch and nine ho-hum tracks. I certainly don’t regret having read it, but it’s not the book out of all 25 that I’d leap to recommend. It’s good to see a well written (or, ‘literary’ in publishing terminology) novel which deals with identity theft, the disconnect between the web and the world outside, but you have to read a fairly turgid first half to get to the good stuff. I wrote at the time that ‘when the book kicks into gear, it is terrific, at least for a little while, Chaon managing to remove the bottom from the characters’ world and letting them fall a long way. As good as this part is, it struggles, like so many modern books, to end, and mostly fritters away the menace and meaning of these highlights.’ Looking back, I think that’s a fair judgement, at least in terms of reflecting how I felt.

So what were the highlights?

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Stop Safari always opening new tabs

I’ve moved away from using FireFox as my browser – it’s too slow to start, too fond of updating – and now have Google Chrome on my PCs. It’s not properly available for the Mac yet, so I’ve switched to Safari, which is reasonably quick to start, and gives you more of the web to look at than FireFox. However, it does have an annoying habit of spawning new tabs EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. YOU. CLICK.

Glims is a very useful free add-on that enables you to fix that, plus you can easily add Google UK as a search engine, and there’s a nifty full screen mode too.

Virtual reality, then and now

In the 1980s and 1990s, the term ‘virtual reality’ was understood to mean the creation of reality inside the computer – and thus we would need to experience it using complex imaging and interaction systems (3D googles, cursors mapped to the movement of a glove etc.) The implication behind this was the reality itself would be untouched. The real world would simply be a home for the VR equipment: Star Trek imagines it holodeck as a big empty room, for instance. Moreover, since VR ran inside the computer, it only worked when you turned it on – and in movies such as The Lawnmower Man, the nightmare scenario was not being able to get out.

Few people imaginged that when VR came to pass, it would actually involve computers altering the way we acted in reality. The video below shows 100 dancers in central London recreating the dance from Beyonce’s music video for her song ‘Single Ladies’ (which Peter Sagal called ‘a wonderful, brilliantly performed dance number set to an irresistably catchy pop tune’). As a piece of PR in reality, it holds very little value – few people would have the chance to actually see it, as it the dancers and organisers take pains for it to appear to happen spontaneously on the street. It’s over in three minutes, and few of the people who happened to be walking by would actually be able to make sense of it because it only works if you’ve seen the original music video. Indeed, the behaviour of the dancers only really works if it’s watched as a video, passed around virally on the web. It is, essentially, VR: actions in reality that are targeted at, and only make sense when experienced virtually.

Ebooks are inevitable

Three Ebooks links:

1. ArsTechnica posted an excellent article on ‘the once and future Ebook‘ that’s worth reading start to finish. Suffers perhaps from some Apple fanboyism (I’m not 100% convinced as it claims, that the iPhone/iPod have such huge potential as Ebook readers, certainly not in their current state, and it seems a bit down on the Kindle). The article is quite right that Ebooks are inevitable, though.

2. Meanwhile, Google has launched a mobile version of Google book search, formating classic books for mobile phone browsers.

‘What if you could also access literature’s greatest works, such as Emma and The Jungle Book, right from your phone?’ (And for free). Nice formatting in the iPhone browser, and something I’m going to try reading from in the next couple of weeks.

3. Official-looking Kindle 2 pictures; hopefully there will be an international launch this time. Sensibly, Amazon also appears to be considering opening up access to the Kindle software/infrastruture. This is actually the way I got hooked on the iPod (and then the iPhone) – I got iTunes for free, like it a lot, and later bought the hardware.

Talking about Windows 7

Warning! Awkward geekery ahead. Here’s me on the BBC website, talking about Windows 7. In short: it looks a lot like Vista, especially at this early stage – much of the stuff previewed by MS (and covered on the PC Pro blog) doesn’t appear to be in the version we had to play with. But it’s fast to install, quick to load and seems a lot less annoying, a lot snappier. So far, so good. Issue 64 went to press yesterday, maybe next week I’ll have some time to run some proper benchmarks, see how it is for gaming…

Of course

In my previous post, which began as an excuse to post some pictures of autumn, and then changed to become a ramble on seasonal rigidity here in Japan, I mentioned how the large number of rules governing Japanese society – and its perception of the world, gives:

“A sureness and certainty and a sense of organisation to things.”  

But ‘rules are made to be broken’ says the Western saying; they’re perecieved as bad, as limiting. Not always: the Jesteress has borrowed her brother’s keitai, but forgotten the charger and now it has run out of battery. Her mum asked me this morning if it was on the NTT DoCoMo network, like her phone.

“Yes,” I replied. She then got her phone’s charger and – even though it’s a completely different model – plugged it in to bro’s phone.

“All NTT phones have the same charger socket?” I asked, surprised. “Yes,” she replied. “Of course.”

A good example of how rigidity can create convenience. Fat chance of Orange enforcing this in the UK though.

On the quality of the iPhone’s camera

Autumn in the shire
Originally uploaded by Sifter

I’d been weighing up getting an iPhone for a while, ever since the new and improved 3G one launched. My existing contract with Orange featured rapacious data costs and distinctly rubbish data speeds, so the iPhone/02 combo of Exchange email, a decent mobile web browser and all-you-can-eat 3G data was tempting.

A couple of things put me off:

1. The iPhone’s camera looked rubbish, and I’m a big fan of mobile phone cameras – I remember paying to upgrade my phone back in 2002 just to get one of the first phones in the UK with a camera.

2.Several people at work told me the iPhone’s call quality was poor.

3. Crappy battery life.

Points 2 & 3 were quickly rendered null by the fact I couldn’t believe anything would be worse at these than my dreadful Samsung Windows Mobile machine…

And point 1? Well, I got the iPhone a week or so ago, and it’s all up and running now, synced with Exchange, hooked up to my number that I’ve had since the late 90s and… well the camera’s ok.

On the downside:

* There are zero controls over it (no white balance or exposure comp) which is annoying – although Apple could, presumably, add these in a software update.
* No flash.
* No video (also could possibly be fixed in software).
* It’s only 2 megapixel.

On the plus side:

* It meshes really well with the rest of the iPhone – it’s easy to email photos, for instance.
* It performs reasonable well in daylight
* And best of all, the speed at which it freezes the video into a picture when you press the photo button means you can create some nice mindbending pics like this one.

Moving pictures and sound: Yes, that’s me in the corner, on TV, on your computer

We’ve run a couple of video pieces on the Custom PC site this year, but so far, I’ve not presented any pieces myself. It’s something I was keen to try though, so when my friend Wil, ex Editor of Bit-Tech, offered me the chance to do a guest spot on one of his new Channel Flip web TV shows, I put it off for months accepted more or less straight away. I’m talking about graphics cards for the awesome Crysis on Wil’s Unwired tech show and you can see the show here.