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Tue, Mar. 29th, 2011, 01:41 am
Asymmetrical warfare works both ways

Commenters don’t care if their comment is deleted.

I blanked it last week, because, frankly, it sounded silly: a 13-year-old girl has just made a music promo that suddenly went viral on the basis of how bad it was. The link to the article isn’t working for me, but Boing Boing’s summary is probably good enough for now: despite the promo being horribly bad, it’s very difficult to parody because it depicts, pitch-perfectedly, the reality and aspirations of its 13 year old target market.

(Yes, I am aware of the irony of using the phrase “pitch-perfect” when discussing a company whose business model involves relentlessly auto-tuning the vocals of teenagers who can’t sing.)

The comments to the Boing Boing article are full of parodies, and contrary to the article’s claim, some of them are pretty good. Appositely, most of the successful parodies succeed by using well-worn tropes - take a bubblegum pop song and turn it into something else by slowing it down and changing into a minor key. (Bonus points if you convert the protagonist from a happy 13-year-old girl into a wrong-side-of-20-something unshaven slovenly guy, although that’s strictly speaking a video job and not an audio job.)

And there are plenty of people pointing out that, these days, camera and audio gear is cheap: Rebecca Black’s parents paid $3,000 to record the song and shoot the promo, and with the state of technology today it’s completely reasonable to assume that the company involved made a fat profit.

To a certain degree I feel sad that technology has produced this; not for any rational reason, but because I remember my father being in the “music video” business. (He always referred to them as promos, rather than videos, possibly because that better referred to their inherent advertising nature, but more probably because many of them were shot on film, so the term “video”, referring to video tape, was actively misleading, dammit).

But then I look at other videos by the same people that uploaded Rebecca Black’s “official video”, and I realise that they’ve got the last laugh after all. Because they’ve gone to all the related videos, and marked every single comment as spam.

No, seriously. trizzygg’s YouTube channel currently links to four “official video” videos, presumably produced on behalf of teenagers with more parent’s money than sense. And the video that’s currently the promoted video for this account is full of comments. But not the others. They’ve all been mass-marked as spam by, presumably, employers or employees of a business who knew that they were temporarily getting more attention than they wanted, and who knew that Youtube comments are a drive-by phenomenon: people come by, comment, and then have no interest in ever following up their comment.

Which makes it a no-risk, no-brainer to claim that those comments were spam. Hardly anyone will be banned by this - the algorithms will realise that this was a false positive, an erroneous diagnostic of a real person being a spammer - and therefore nobody will notice. But conversely nobody will realise that a certain user is deliberately, and probably automatedly, tarring real people with the brush of being fake.

Tue, Mar. 1st, 2011, 01:02 am
Social network friendspam

Random cynicism, human-powered data mining, or the latest iteration of 419 scams?

I’m on Twitter, and while I’m not a prolific poster, occasionally tweets will attract the attention of some random bot that decides to follow me, maybe thinking that I’ll follow it back. I mostly ignore them - everything I post is public, after all, so it’s not as if there would be any benefit in them following me via twitter.com’s APIs as opposed to screen-scraping twitter.com/skington every so often.

I’m also on Facebook and LinkedIn, which are walled-garden sites, though, and require some degree of human interaction. And that’s where things get intriguing.

I view LinkedIn as a purely professional social network, which is why, with a few exceptions, I don’t friend anyone I haven’t actually worked with. Occasionally I’ll see a friend request come in from a marketing guy at UK2, or a UK2 Group company, who’s clearly asking anyone he can find (it’s nearly always men) to connect with him so he can boast a larger number of connections or something. That’s OK - it’s a different but valid interpretation of social networks, and everyone has a different interpretation of what it would mean to be friends or connected with someone. Some friend everyone they’ve ever met, and connect with everyone they’ve shared office space with. Others restrict themselves to people they actually consider friends, and people they’ve worked with and would work with again.

Then Jacob Wall turns up today. Jacob Wall describes himself as an “Account Manager at Steadfast Networks”, which I assume to be steadfast.net. The only connection between me and him is that he works for a hosting company in Chicago, and my company’s parent company owns a hosting company, or maybe it’s a data centre, in Chicago. (I needed to google that - I’m not involved in any of this stuff at all.)

I can only assume this is friend spam: trying to inflate your connections numbers by attempting to friend everyone in your industry. Maybe this works for him - maybe he does this a couple of days after each major conference, hoping that a few people thing “this must be some random guy I met in a bar” and friend him.

At least Jacob Wall is a plausibly real person - he’s on Google and his details match. The next one is altogether weirder.

Earlier today, Facebook emailed me to tell me that some random guy person called Michael Waiganjo wanted to be my friend. I have no idea who this Michael person is (although I suspect the profile picture is fake - if you’re not on Facebook, or the account has been pulled, this is the image in question). So I told him to fuck off.

But what’s in it for Michael? Why does being my friend on Facebook matter? I can understand rogue apps requesting excessive privileges just to display a pretty picture, and promptly mining my contacts database for juicy information; is this an attempt to do the same via the subtly different method of claiming to be an impossibly cool person?

Or is this the latest iteration of 419 scams? Get friended, burble away with random plausible everyday stuff like “hey, I ate roast beef and it was awesome” for a few weeks, and then say “Hey, mate, I’m awfully sorry, but I need, like, 10 bucks” and see if any sucker bites?

Wed, May. 12th, 2010, 03:37 am
Whither the Union?

A revised House of Lords may be the most surprising outcome of Britain’s new coalition government.

The new Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition deal includes one intriguing detail: a commitment to a partially- or wholly-elected House of Lords. This being a Conservative-led government, and the nature of the House of Lords in the UK political system being what it is, I don’t think anyone particularly expects the renovation of the Lords to go quickly or simply; it will almost certainly be a matter of compromise after fudge after delay, with most of the difficult decisions kicked into the long grass until the more troublesome problems retire or die. I would be surprised if, by the end of the current parliament, we had anything greater than 25% of the Lords elected. But it’s the method of electing members to the upper House which may have the most lasting effect on British politics.

Not that this will be the stated intention of anyone involved; British governments are elected, and staffed almost entirely from, the House of Commons, and the Commons would have very little inclination to surrender power to the upper House under most circumstances. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats alike have talked about renovating politics, and it’s tempting to save money by sweeping away a number of old fossils and Labour cronies (13 years of Prime Ministerial patronage adds up), but after a bruising experience cobbling together a coalition in one House, the last thing any new government wants is to make more problems for itself in the other. However it is reformed and composed, the House of Lords should be expected to remain a revising chamber, restraining the excesses and haste of the Commons, possibly, but in case of serious conflict determinedly subservient to the wishes of the one House that is truly popularly elected.

And there’s the rub: you can’t do that if you have a House of Lords that is as legitimately-elected as the Commons.

(Note that you’d have this problem even if you weren’t a self-interested politician: if you’re going to elect two legislative chambers in similar ways, why bother having two of them?)

Countries that have a lower House and an upper House tend to have the lower House be regularly democratically-elected, and the upper House either indirectly-elected (e.g. French Senators are elected by and from local, departmental and regional councillors), elected in a way that disproportionally favours some regions over others (e.g. the USA allots each State in the Union two Senators, irrespective of population), or both. To encourage a long-term approach, upper Houses tend to also only have a certain proportion of the membership up for re-election at any given time, unlike the lower House where the entire membership is force to stand for re-election every time. That way, if an election goes against you, you can say “Hey, most of the House is still fine”, and move on.

I can’t imagine that any UK government would decide to have the House of Lords be elected using the same constituencies as the House of Commons. That would be such an amazing challenge to the legitimacy of MPs at best (if the same party won both the Commons and Lords seats), and the legitimacy of the government at worse (if its majority in the Commons was contradicted by the results in the Lords, because this is a mid-term election and voters want to send a message). So not only would a UK government, reforming the House of Lords, decide to have members elected to longer terms, but only refresh the House by thirds or quarters at any given election; I think it would choose different constituencies from the Commons. And I think the only practical choice is to choose to have the Lords elected from much larger geographical areas than the Commons.

Which suggests PR.

Now, normally this would be anathema to the Tories, but remember that the point of the House of Lords is to be less important than the Commons. Ideally the Tories would like the Lords to be elected by a disproportionately rural or wealthy electorate, so as to build in a long-term advantage for them, but even if it were politically possible to come up with an indirect electoral system in the 21st century, there’s an annoyingly-large number of Liberal Democrat councillors in the UK. Failing that, their best bet might be to come up with some sort of regionally-elected chamber so they can say that all regions are represented in government, and thus fend off any demands for more regional devolution, while similarly having it elected by a confusing and indecisive electoral process, which they can then point at and scorn whenever anyone asks about reforming the way we elect MPs.

Which is why I think we’ll see people seriously talking about a House of Lords elected using list-based PR on a county level. This has the advantage, to the Tories, of making sure that rural counties elect a disproportionate number of Conservatives, while exiling Labour peers in urban/unitary councils, and pacifying members of the smaller parties by saying “hey, you get representatives in the Lords, what are you complaining about?”

And PR will mean that the Tories have non-trivial numbers of elected members in all nations of the Union, even Scotland. Given that David Cameron desperately fears being the last Prime Minister of the Union, but had to choose a Liberal Democrat to be Scottish Secretary because he’s only got one Scottish MP from his own party, I think he might take this gamble.

Mon, Apr. 5th, 2010, 11:10 pm
Lies that people tell you, part 2: activated charcoal

Part of an occasional series of dog-discovered truths.

There are some truths that are self-evident, and can be discovered by introspective reasoning alone. Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” is one such truth; the Enlightenment ideal that all people are created equal, and that they have certain unalienable rights, among which life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (also known by its pithier slogan version “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”) is another.

There are other truths that are only available to us through empirical observation, but whose nature appears to us obvious and almost axiomatic once we understand them fully. Fire burns and is painful to the human hand, for instance; most people working in the finance industry should just shoot themselves now, say. Or: The Tories will never win a majority in Scotland until the last person who remembers the Poll Tax is dead.

Then there are other truths, which can perhaps only be fully understood and taken to heart once acquired through painful personal experience (or, and this is my hope, cautionary tale). One such truth is this: tradesmen who claim to be 24-hour locksmiths are, almost universally, goddamn liars. Another such truth that we discovered tonight, also via the medium of dog, concerns activated charcoal.

Half past six in the evening of Easter Monday is a bad time to find out, just as you’re about to go out to see an old friend you hadn’t seen for years, that your daft Akita has just eaten an entire bar of Green & Black’s Maya Gold. Not so much because your vet isn’t open (they weren’t, but the emergency vet was, and Taji has insurance), or your car won’t start (Cleodhna took a taxi, I called the RAC, and had plenty of time to drive around charging up the battery before meeting them at the vet’s). No, the reason you shouldn’t have a bar of chocolate drop out of your shopping bag on Easter Monday, and have your dog (previously known for putting his head down drains and eating broken glass) scarf the lot, including much of the foil and paper wrapping, is that when the emergency vet says “OK, it was touch and go, but I’ve injected your dog with something that made him come down from his sugar high quite dramatically, puke his guts out, and feel thoroughly miserable, and now as long as you give him these pills and some activated charcoal he should be fine”, she then says “but I don’t have any activated charcoal, because I gave all of mine to the shedloads of other people whose dogs have eaten chocolate at some point over this Easter weekend”.

Activated charcoal is used, among other applications, as a way of neutralising toxic or poisonous ingested substances. As far as I can make out, it works by being amazingly porous, and therefore amazingly absorbent; you chuck some of it down your dog’s throat, it sucks up any remaining chocolate, and protects it from any remaining gastric processes. The vet didn’t tell me this; I skim-read the Wikipedia article tonight when I got home.

What I learned from personal experience was far more difficult to acquire, and it’s this: contrary to what the emergency vet said, activate charcoal is not stocked by “any large supermarket”.

For instance, the very large Sainsbury’s in Braehead has none. The M&S next door may or may not stock it; this being Easter Monday, they were shut by the time we arrived. Asda’s website was being troublesome on my iPhone, so we couldn’t check whether our fairly local Asda was 24-hours, so we decided to go looking for the one we knew was 24 hours. (It turns out that the Summerston Asda isn’t, and Asda’s website only tells you about normal opening hours, which is no fucking use when it’s Easter weekend and the opening hours are different, which of course is why you’re checking the website in the first place.) By the time we’d got lost a couple of times and made it to the Govan 24-hour Asda, Cleodhna found out that they didn’t stock the damn stuff either - but at least found someone who knew what she was talking about. “You want the Boots at Central Station. It’s open until midnight.”

Needless to say, said Boots was shut by the time we finally get to it at a quarter past ten. It might have been open had we gone straight there from the emergency vet, which is just down the street from the Mitchell Library.

I should make it clear at this point that whatever the vet did to Taji before saying “oh, and some activated charcoal would be nice” was almost certainly enough; while chocolate is toxic to dogs, no lasting damage was done. Had he eaten 120 grams rather than 100 grams, had the 73% cocoa solids bar of chilli and dark chocolate fallen out of the bag rather than the 55% cocoa solids bar, or had one of the other (much smaller) dogs decided to rampage through our groceries, a simple purge wouldn’t have been enough: the emergency vets would have had to keep the dog under observation overnight, and long-term damage to e.g. the pancreas could not have been ruled out. As it is, after feeling truly sorry for himself for the first hour or so, Taji eventually perked up; we gave him his pills and some bread and butter as soon as we got back (bread’s pretty porous and absorbent, and we definitely had some of that), and he looks like he’s back to his normal self again. We’ll get some activated charcoal from a local chemist’s tomorrow.

Similarly, the guy from the RAC said “right, now that I’ve jump-started your car, you should drive it around for at least 40 minutes to charge the battery fully”. After tonight’s fun excursions around Glasgow, that sucker had better be fully charged.

And while Sainsbury’s don’t stock activated charcoal, they do stock the Brew Dog range of beers, which is good as we were out.

Still: if vets tell you where to get activated charcoal? Don’t believe them.

Tue, Mar. 2nd, 2010, 10:44 pm
Some lies that just won't go away

Macs are not twice the cost of PCs. People who say that sort of thing are not comparing like with like.

The Daily Kos likes to talk about “zombie lies” - claims that, no matter how often they’ve been disproved, continue to be spouted by disingenuous or deliberately talentless hacks, and thus kept alive.

I encountered such a claim the other day, when a friend of mine, talking to another friend, claimed that Apple kit was twice as expensive as the Windows equivalent.

That’s certainly true if you mean “you can get a Windows laptop for pretty much bugger all compared to an Apple laptop”. That’s because Apple don’t do low-end el-cheapo stuff, nor do they make machines with anything but the latest technology. But what happens if you compare like with like?

13” laptop

Apple’s entry-level laptop, the MacBook, comes with a 2.2Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM - 2x2GB, 500GB Serial ATA Drive @ 5400 rpm, SuperDrive 8x DVD+/-R DL/DVD+/-RW/CD-RW, and a 13” 1280 x 800 screen driven by a NVIDIA GeForce 9400M.

After battling manufacturer’s websites, I went to Dabs.com, a leading PC website that’s been around for ages, sells PCs and Macs, and crucially has a good comparison feature where you can choose features and filter the initially daunting list of laptops down to a manageable list.

Narrowing down the search to 13.3” screen, Core 2 Duo, 2GB, I see the MacBook at £808.57, with exactly one machine cheaper, a HP laptop at £682. It’s got a much cheaper on-board Intel chipset (GMA 4500MHD), a slightly larger and faster drive (320GB / 7200rpm), and no DVD drive.

Other than that, the other machines listed were all more expensive - sometimes significantly so.

15” laptop

Moving on, let’s look at the introductory 15” MacBook Pro. It’s got a 2.53Ghz processor, 4GB RAM (you can upgrade to 8GB but at current RAM prices you’d be daft to), 250GB disc, has an SD slot, FireWire 800 and the screen resolution is 1440x900. You can get a version that has a second video card that takes over when you’re plugged into the mains (in cases where performance trumps power consumption), but I suspect the comparison sites will be bamboozled by that so let’s stick to the basics. Apple’s price is £1,328, Dabs’ £1,318.

Toshiba and Dell have some significantly cheaper laptops, but they have 14” screens. There are plenty of cheaper 15” laptops, but their screens are significantly more lower resolution (e.g. a 15” Toshiba which sells for £874, but only has a 1280x800 screen, slower RAM and an Intel graphics chipset). The closest that comes to the MacBook Pro’s specs is a Sony Vaio at £1,146 which is at least 50” thicker, has slower RAM, Intel chipset, and claims half the battery life. At least it has a 500GB disc, which is nice.

17” laptop

OK, surely it’s the top-end kit where Apple makes all of its margin, so you’d expect to see the top-end MacBook Pro outperformed by other manufacturers.

The 17” MacBook Pro has a 2.8Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard disc and is otherwise specced the same as the 15”. It comes with two graphics cards, an NVIDIA GeForce 9400M and a 9600M GT with 512MB. Screen resolution is 1920 x 1200, and it’s set you back £1,871 at Dabs.

Again, while you can find a number of cheap (e.g. £569 cheap) 17” laptops at Dabs, as soon as you select any three of 17” screen, Core 2 Duo, 1920 x 1200 or 4GB RAM, it turns out that it’s a three-way fight between Apple, HP and Lenovo - and only one laptop is cheaper than the MacBook Pro, at £1,732. It’s almost 2/3rds thicker, has a smaller but faster disc, a worse DVD drive, and an NVIDIA Quadro FX 2700M rather than MacBook Pro’s two graphics cards.

So: Apple kit twice as expensive as PC kit?

Not true in the slightest. With identical specs, Apple is, if anything, cheaper than similar kit from other manufacturers. And that’s before you go into build quality, or the way hardware and software go together and Just Work.

Now, it’s quite possible that if you’re prepared to buy machines that aren’t as cutting-edge, they’ll be significantly cheaper than Apple kit and not feel significantly worse - there’s a premium on new technology, as the prices for upgrading a MacBook Pro to 8GB indicates.

But it’s one thing to say “Apple don’t make the cheap machines I’m quite happy with”, which is almost certainly true for many people, and another entirely to say “Apple kit is ludicrously over-priced”.

It may well be comparatively expensive - but if you were in the market for a computer like the sort of things that Apple make, that’s the sort of money you’d pay. From anybody.

Fri, Feb. 12th, 2010, 07:40 am
What makes a good cover?

If you’re trying, a known but badly-performed song.

“Yesterday” is the most-covered song of all time. Wikipedia says Guinness says there are 3,000 of the damn things. I haven’t listened to them all - nobody could - but I’m willing to say that they’re all shit.

Why? Simple: Yesterday is a fantastic song. Evocative lyrics, rich in chord progressions (play it one day and count them - there’s at least one every bar or two), simple but effective in arrangement (guitar, string quartet and nothing else), heartfelt vocals; there isn’t anything technically wrong that you could put a finger on; and it’s so simple, yet so effective, that you can either reproduce it badly, or paraphrase it (badly, again, because this was the Beatles, after all) into another musical genre.

And if you do that, the chords will resist you every step of the way.

Probably the best cover you could do is a 6:8 Miles Davis Someday My Prince WIll Come sort of cover, but you’d be straining really badly at the rhythm of the melody and it would sound dreadful.

So probably 30+ of the 3,000 cover versions that Guinness lists are like that, then.

What of the Beatles can you cover, then?

Precious little.

Joe Cocker famously covered “With a Little Help From My Friends” (which is slightly cheating as that was a song written for Ringo), and he pulled it off by making it radically different; he slowed it down and scored it in 3:4, amongst other things.

The Beatles Love album very successfully mashes together Within You Without You with Strawberry Fields Together, and by all means download merely that track if you’re not convinced of the idea of an entire album of Beatles-with-Beatles mashups on behalf of Cirque du Soleil.

I think “I’ve Just Seen A Face” from Help! is just right in that sweet spot of enough talent but not enough recording or arrangement savvy that it’s due for a cover.

But in general, if the artist or band you’re covering is any good, then you’d better find something unusually bad, or a really distinctive, possibly comedy, way of covering them (this means you, Paul Anka or Max Raabe - Youtube them if you haven’t heard them before, they’re comedy genius). Doing a straight cover of someone who’s better than you is doomed to failure.

What brought this on?

Peter Gabriel recently released an album of covers, “Scratch my Back” (the idea is that people he’s covered will in turn cover songs of his on a future album release). For very probably a limited period all the songs are available via a Flash player thing at the Guardian’s website.

I didn’t like the album at first, probably because the two tracks I checked out first, the ones that I knew, were the least successful. Peter Gabriel covers Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” - you remember, the intro track from Graceland that started with accordion, followed by a couple of emphatic drum beats, then an unusually up-mixed bass line, as if to say “OK, pay attention, this is not a normal Paul Simon record”. So he ditches all of that, and preserves only the lyric line, set to a random slow piano line. It’s not very good.

Oh, and he ends the album with a slowed-down and more-depressing version of Street Spirit (Fade Out) from Radiohead’s The Bends, except without the tune. Which, you know, made it bearable.

But the other tracks are much better.

How to do a decent cover, part 1: the easy way

Take a very well-written song, e.g. The Magnetic Field’s The Book Of Love, and then remember that a) you’re a better vocalist (e.g. you’re Peter Gabriel), b) the original song has a fairly straightforward chord structure without any meaningful dynamic progression, which means that c) if you slap an orchestra with damn good brass section on top, you’ll end up with something qualitatively better. Especially if your daughter’s doing some damn good backup vocals, and you can find a spot for the orchestra to do its bit.

How to do a decent cover, part 2: cover Lou Reed

Lou Reed is trickier, because sometimes he bothers to sing (e.g. Satellite of Love), and he can produce things of wonder. Even on cases where he doesn’t stick to pure notes, he’s still accompanying the melody enough that you know what note he’d have sung if he meant to.

On other songs, though, he doesn’t bother with a tune; he just randomly mumbles like a beat poet.

Now, you could argue that his intention is to produce beautiful background music while he chants in scansion (in which case his live band should be a lot tighter - compare Youtube’s idea of the studio album version with the live version).

But when it comes to something like “The Power of the Heart”, arguably Peter Gabriel deserves a co-writer credit, because he’s come up with a melody line that blatantly wasn’t there in the original. Oh, and he’s seen Lou Reed’s string quarter and raised it a bunch of extra string players and a brass section.

Also, he manages to replicate somewhat Lou Reed’s conversationalist singing style, which is bizarre, because he didn’t even attempt that when he covered Paul Simon.

Mon, Feb. 8th, 2010, 02:44 am
Someone just made a music video of half of my RSS feeds

Or pretty much all of them if you ignore politics, weird shit and industry shills.

I’m slightly too young to fully remember this, but after the war there were a number of films made where two things were constant.

  1. Plucky Allies defeated the Nazis something rotten.

  2. Everyone was in it.

The closest you’d come to it these days would be Ocean’s 11, but that’s in itself a throwback to earlier days. We’re talking about a film that would come on TV and you’d say “Oh, it’s an everyone film”.

Well, in this new and exciting era of the blogosphere, such a film has been made once more. It’s a bunch of Internet-famous people re-enacting a webcomic riff on a cable TV station advert. Obviously.

Backstory, Video, Cast list.

What intrigues me is how this happened: Olga Nunes is previous webelf of Neil Gaiman’s, so did she come up with the idea, Neil said yes, and then suggested to all the people he knew that they take part? Or did it start with talking to famous bloggers (e.g. Bruce Schneier), and then blossom from there?

Either way, consider how long it would have taken to organise and film this before the Internet. And how trivial it is nowadays.

Mon, Feb. 1st, 2010, 06:03 am
Sometimes policies are intended to have consequences.

That includes hurting businesses policy-makers think should be hurt.

UK Health Secretary Andy Burnham proposes to toughen up anti-smoking laws. The pro-smoking business lobby protests:

Christopher Ogden, chief executive of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, said the plans would “do nothing to meet public health policy objectives, but will instead impose further unwarranted restrictions on legitimate businesses and private citizens alike”.

Ahem. From earlier in the article:

Firm action against smoking during the past decade, such as banning advertising and raising the age of purchase from 16 to 18, has reduced to 21% the proportion of people who smoke. Ministers now want to get that down to 10% by 2020.

Imposing restrictions on businesses and private citizens is very clearly part and parcel of public health policy objectives.

Thu, Jan. 28th, 2010, 02:35 am
Quietly, Apple get rid of computer UI cruft

Would you notice it if was gone? And would you care?

The important thing about the new Apple iPad is not that you suddenly have a large, glorified iPod Touch. No, the important thing is that, quietly, Apple is getting rid of user interface cruft that we don’t need any more.

Margaret’s didn’t care; why should you?

My late mother came to computers reluctantly, when she was in her 60s, and a number of things that seemed natural to me, a computer professional, or her nephews’ and nieces’ children, because they were young, she never really got. She had to write them down so she’d remember when she next needed to know. She never really got used to what a computer geek would consider fundamental - window management. She just muddled on.

If you use Windows you get used to having windows maximised full-screen, because Fitt’s law and the paucity of drag and drop make it most efficient to your window maximised, so the menu bar is at the top of the screen. If you use Mac OS, there’s less pressure to maximise everything, because the menu bar is where you want it (at the top of the screen), so you can have overlapping windows aplenty. Still, this is very much a power-user thing.

Or, should I say, a geek thing. There are enough word processors specifically designed to run in full-screen mode, without anything else distracting you, that arguably it’s not just the IT-poor who don’t need all of this extraneous cruft distracting them.

Margaret didn’t have many problems with saving and loading files, but then she never really did anything other than save a few files in her Documents folder. Thankfully, the File->Open and File->Save dialogue boxes in the programs she used remembered where she last went, so that was fine. I think she made the occasional sub-folder, but that’s as far as things went. And really, why would you want to consider whether your word processor could load your system-wide-installed printer driver for a printer you don’t even have?

How much of this stuff do we need?

Matthew Thomas wrote an influential article about UI cruft way back in 2003. I expected at least one of the bullet points on his list to jibe with the new iPad interface. I didn’t expect all of them.

His first point: don’t make me save regularly, just bloody well do it. I haven’t seen the iPad version of iWork, but given that there’s no multi-tasking, an application needs to be ready to quit at any moment’s notice, and that in turn means saving every time anything happens. (Which, it turns out, is really easy and fast if you’re saving to Flash RAM.) So I’m guessing iWork on iPad Just Does It.

His second point: don’t have a Quit menu option. The iPad doesn’t have it; or rather, it has it for every application; it’s called the Home button. And you don’t care, because the application saved anything you cared about before it quit, to be replaced by whatever came next.

His third point: don’t have a lobotomised file manager; use the proper file manager for everything. Here Apple have chosen a third way, which is to assume that the application you used to create the file will be used to edit it in the future, so therefore any application only needs to know about files in the file system that match its creation criteria. And while you may be able to create sub-folders and the likes, they’re all in the context of the application that created the files in question.

And his fourth point is obviated by the file system not being exposed to users in any way.

So what would you use an iPad for?

I’m guessing that the immediate target market is people with a 30 minute or more commute per day, or regular airline travellers. If you’ve ever tried to read more than about 10 minutes of websites in bed, for instance, you’ll appreciate the various docks or stands that let you read something without arm-strain, not to mention the eye-strain in holding a small device at a varying distance from your eyes (because you can’t hold your arm straight for a decent length of time).

That’s before we get into ebook territory.

I can also totally see an iPad used as an “OK, work done, I need a beer” way of relaxing with the Internet. Sitting in a chair with an iPad, typing occasionally but otherwise navigating a number of web sites with touch gestures pretty much fits what I do with the Internet.

Oh, and I saw someone on twitter suggest that the iPad has graphics as good as the Wii. And the iPad is going to be viewed far closer than any TV-based console, so its resolution actually looks better, even if you compare screen sizes resolution-by-resolution.

It’s going to be interesting.

Sun, Jan. 3rd, 2010, 11:53 pm
Fixing Doctor Who plot holes with Russell T Davies plot

At least we won’t have to do that any longer.

OK, so the rich Torchwood-fleecers have a device that can repair biological tissue, and they want the Master to fix it so it makes someone immortal. Clearly the way to do this is to have it constantly repair biological tissue, so ageing is constantly reversed, every second of every day. And the Master tweaks the machine so it turns someone into him (well, not him so much as someone who behaves exactly as he would, and will obey the Ur-Master’s commands).

But how does he manage to make it do this to everyone in the world?

The answer is quite simple. The Master’s satellite network, which he spent 18 or so months developing, which he used to sway the entire world to his bidding in the last season finale, and which the Doctor neglected to disable.

You not only have a shout-out to previous RTD Who events, you also highlight the Doctor’s growing (and possibly fatal) arrogance, similar to when the Ninth Doctor thought that shutting down a malign news network would be enough to restore history to how it should be, not thinking about what would prosper in its place (endless game shows and, eventually, Daleks).

Don’t have time for this in the running schedule? Just throw out the stupid Timothy Dalton voiceovers that don’t advance the plot one whit. Show, don’t tell.

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