Square Eyes

Netflix

Netflix (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hi, it’s been a while, how you doing?  While I’ve been away from the blog (it’s been so long I see that WordPress have been in and redecorated the Editor screen) I’ve been watching a lot of tv.

Now I remember when Channel 4 started and Channel Five naturally, then when Freeview digital tv began I wondered whether there would be anything worth watching on. Before digital I used to watch more dramas and things I don';t watch now because there’s more choice and I can find something more to my taste, the last drama series I think I watched was series two of Lost before Channel 4, er, lost it.

Now thanks to BBC2, BBC4, Dave and Quest I have plenty to watch, unfortunately.  Just in the last six weeks there has been something I’ve wanted to watch on every night from seven to nine and the interesting thing is that they were all episodes of the same programmes every night.

This seems to be pandering to people’s cries of “I want more and I want it now”.  Once, when we had five channels, a tv show was on once a week, except the news and weather of course, there was too much of it for one show and we’d forget whether it was going to rain on Thursday.  Soon though soaps started being shown a couple of times a week, then Channel Five brought in striped programming where the same type of show was on at the same time every day.  Now though channels will show a whole series in one go, often a brand new show, an episode a day, seemingly to avoid forfeiting the viewers’ easily distracted attention – oh, won’t somebody please think of the advertising revenue!

Then there’s the extras – first Big Brother gained a post-show pseudo-analytical, comedic Little Brother, as if an hour of housemates wasn’t enough, the X-factor now takes up two evenings as does Strictly Come Dancing in a show of further ratings rivalry.  A cynic might say that all this also cheaply fills up all those fifty channels of digital bandwidth but I couldn’t possibly comment.

Much of this is related to the modern concept of Binge Watching brought about by online and satellite tv Box Sets – which are now even available for brand-new shows so rather than watching a series over half a year (as in the old days of The West Wing or Frasier for example) you can sit for a whole weekend watching episode after episode only stopping for food and toilet breaks, though with some services you can transfer the show to your tablet and keep watching in the loo too – another argument against buying second-hand tablets.  There is even advice for how to wean yourself off the box sets (spoiler alert:  it’s about watching episodes from half-way through, so avoiding the cliffhanger).

The thing is that satiating peoples’ impatience takes away the appreciation and anticipation of something you have to wait for.  If you’re watching the next episode of a drama straight away you’re missing the excitement of finding out what happens next steadily building.  That was what cliffhangers in tv dramas were invented for so next time you’re watching a drama on Netflix remember that the end credits are there for a reason.

Got to go , the repeat of Salvage Hunters is on.

Big Fish, Little Fish

Temporary Cycle Lane Shift Back To Controflow

Temporary Cycle Lane Shift Back To Controflow (Photo credit: samsaundersleeds)

Just a quick thought on various road users and annoyance.  Yesterday a lorry pulled out in front of me on a roundabout while I was in a small works van, by his gesticulating he clearly felt that I shouldn’t have been there.  Some car drivers get annoyed with cyclists because they think they’re getting in the way and shouldn’t be on the road and then this morning whilst on an early morning bike ride in the sunshine I was a bit miffed at having to slow down and wait for a guy (who had been running) wandering along a narrow cycle path with headphones on so he was completely unaware that I was wanting to get past and get home for a cool drink.

Seems we’re just all getting in each others’ way.  C’est la vie.

Edit:  On a serious note I’ve just seen this article which demonstrates the dangers and I’m amazed the cyclist walks away at the end of the video.

Smarterphones

SAM_0227

Sony Smart Tags

It has been a dream for decades of having computers that communicate with each other seamlessly, that can access all your data anywhere and could even be used to communicate.  Now, of course, it’s not a dream, we are living in that shiny, space-age, future… just without the flying cars and moonbases and spandex for everyone – pretty certain I can live without the last one though.

The smartphone is becoming the hub of that new age and they’re becoming smarter at an incredible rate.  My phone for example is location-aware, when it detects my car stereo’s bluetooth receiver I’ve told it to increase the screen brightness and it automatically launches the remote control app so I have full swiping and voice control of my tunes rather than having to look away from the road.  It could also switch on the GPS, launch the sat-nav or whatever else.  It can be set to run the music app when I plug in headphones, automatically adjusting the volume, turning notifications off, changing screen brightness etc, then changing it all back when I unplug them again.

There are apps which can unlock your phone’s lockscreen and set it up for home use as soon as it detects your WiFi, or if it knows you’re home based on GPS, Google Now (and equivalents) can even work out where home and work are.  I’m surprised the thing doesn’t say “ahh, home at last, how about a cup of tea.”  One day it will, and through the Internet of Things it’ll instruct the kettle to switch on too no doubt.

Another technology I was mistrustful of when it’s main use (in tech) was for contactless credit cards is NFC (Near Field Communication) but since buying an NFC equipped bluetooth adaptor for my old home hi-fi and a set of NFC tags to go with the phone I’m a convert to that too.  Once programmed the same app on the phone that detects the car’s bluetooth detects a quick tap of the back of the phone against a specific tag and changes settings or runs an app as required.  I have one that I can tap before leaving the house which activates the mobile data, once home I can tap it again to switch it off – which means I’m not disturbed by emails about sales and “recommendations” from retailers in the middle of the night (I switch the WiFi off at night too).

Apple’s iBeacon technology is allowing retailers to know you’re in store and can provide relevant information to your phone, which has inevitably created some privacy concerns but such is the way with new technology like this.  As I’ve mentioned before apps such as Siri and Google Now tailor the information they give to you based on where you are, pre-emptively giving you travel info for your journey home or tomorrow’s weather.

All this location and context aware gadgetry isn’t just about clever tricks any more, it’s becoming genuinely useful and convenient, giving us devices that adapt to the situation they are in rather than being set up manually at every change.  I used to say that computers aren’t clever enough to know what you want them to do, now though, it looks like they’re getting there.

The World is a Playground… Unfortunately

Wing mirror VW Fox

I’d already had a bad day when I arrived home to see the driver’s side wing mirror hanging forlornly from the door of my car.  I’ve had it nearly ten years, I still enjoy driving it, it’s distinctive, it’s a lovely car if a tad rough (rusty) around the edges.  It’s mine and for someone to physically assault it like this enraged me.

It’s not the first time either, last time though the mirror was saved by its spring-loaded safety mechanism that absorbs the impact and lets you just clip it back.  This time though there was no clipping back and no spring because whoever had hit it this time had done so with enough force to snap the bracket that held the spring.  This time the mirror was dead.

I removed panels, removed the dangling mirror so that the vandals couldn’t have a further kick at it and potentially smash the window with it, unthreaded its control cables so I could fit the parts that attached to the door back, to weather seal the door if nothing else.  Legally I can’t drive it until it has another mirror.  Searches on-line initially showed replacements in the region of £150 (requiring a £300 outlay as they were a newer design) and I thought of again trampling round scrapyards for parts, not relishing that I again turned to Ebay and Amazon and found replacement units for about £30.

So I can fix her, sorry, it.  But I shouldn’t have to, why have I got to spend £30 to repair the results of someone (adult or youth) thinking it’s a good game, clever, fun, big or macho to smash the wing mirror of an old car.  Or kick a wall down, smash a window, pull over a lamp-post…

I can’t begin to imagine how impressed this person’s friends must have been at his (or her) skill at beating up a purple Rover 200.  The next Chuck Norris must live in Newark, clearly.

Crappy Writers

Typebars in a 1920s typewriter

Typebars in a 1920s typewriter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t want to sound all Holier Than Thou in this post, but I’m going to anyway.  I write this blog, by myself, for no money, I am a blogger.  There are many other commercial blogs out there that contain writers who like to say “we’re journalists” but “we’re bloggers” if someone questions their professional standards.

One thing that always provokes the latter is when someone questions the tone of a piece or the non-impartiality of the writer.

One thing that keeps cropping up that bugs me is the use of the word “crappy”, in fact the title of this piece is actually “‘Crappy’ Writers” –  you see, I’m not being personal.  At all.  Honestly.

You see it regularly when describing gear that the writer feels is not to their liking, or is a bit old, and seems to be said in a kind of nod to the knowing audience who would of course all be agreeing.  Recent examples include a preview of an un-released tablet from a company that wasn’t Apple being described as “another crappy tablet” even though the spec hadn’t been announced and nobody had seen it and a photo taken from one aircraft of another which was taken not with a high-end DSLR worth thousands but with a “crappy Canon ELPH”.  Was it an appallingly bad photo?  No, especially as it was taken from a moving aircraft and was a photo of two other moving aircraft.  As we all know “at the end of the day the best camera is the one you have with you.”  In reality at the end of the day the best camera is the one with a tripod, or a flash, the rest of the day anything will do.  Sorry.

The crappy word isn’t always said, I’ve seen articles about a new phone or chipset saying “but if you’re reading this website you won’t want it because it’s a budget phone” oh so being interested in tech is limited to the well-off now is it?

If there’s a justification, then say it’s not a brilliant piece of kit, review it properly but to say that someone’s camera is crappy just because it’s not this year’s wi-fi connected, app enabled wondersnapper is unfair.  As is describing something that’s aimed at the less well off as crappy just because it’s not got a Ultra HD Full-Eyeball Neural Screen.

Not everyone can afford (or be given) the latest, top of the range kit, so how about holding back the longer c-word for the genuinely crap.

99p is The New Free

Yes, it seems it’s ebook week on The Lunch.

Free books

Free books (Photo credit: randomduck)

On just about every high street in Britain there is some kind of mis-named Pound Shop, selling things for 99p, and it’s a well-known psychological effect that we think that 99p is vastly cheaper than a pound because it has less digits, even if our subconscious obsession with lower numbers in buying but higher in selling leads us to all have jam jars full of pennies.

The odd thing though is a shift in the area of “free” goods.  On Amazon and other ebook stores there are thousands of free ebooks, some are actual out-of-copyright classics, some are good books simply written for the enjoyment of it and given away, others are free just to be generous and helpful.  The problem is that we often assume that if something is always free then it must be of lower quality, whereas we will eagerly grab a book that’s normally £3.99 but is reduced for a day to £0.00.  This idea of low quality is reinforced by many writers and journalists who have said that only crap writers do it for free [Andy looks at own not-for-profit blog and sighs].

This is a problem for new authors who are publishing solely electronically – price it too high and buyers might not want to take a shot at an unknown, give it away and it’s likely that people will see the words “FREE = CRAP” with memories of bookstore remainder bins in the back of their minds.

There has emerged a middle ground, more and more books are being published at 99p, cheap enough to be a potential throwaway purchase but someone thinks it’s worth actually charging money for which gives you a bit of confidence that it’ll be worth it.  It also feels like you’re getting a bargain even if it’s not reduced.

Amongst the ebook chaff there is wheat and if this idea gets it noticed then it doesn’t matter whether crap gets sold at the same price – that’s what Amazon’s reviews sections are for.

 

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Wunderkindle*

Search cat

Search cat (Photo credit: zenera)

Last week I was in the Lake District once again and while I adore wandering around in the fresh air with the wonderful scenery, sun shining (much of the time) and birds twittering, there are always times to just sit back and relax.

This year I had a new distraction.  I’ve had a Kindle app on my tablet since about a day after I received it but due to the screen’s pesky LCD it doesn’t work too well outdoors so I decided to take the plunge.  I’d always said that the standalone ereaders were a bit pointless when you have a tablet but the more I’ve tried to use it the more I found justification for a read reader instead – another advantage is the lower weight, in fact when I finally had my Kindle in my hand I picked up what I’d thought of as a svelte and featherweight Nexus 7 and it felt like a housebrick by comparison.  When you’re reading for a couple of hours propped up in your favourite chair that makes a difference to your arm muscles.

My preconceived notions about the usefulness of another ebook reader meant that I ended up getting a bargain – a virtually unused latest generation Kindle bought from a lady on Ebay who didn’t really use it; having had it a few months I see that I could easily have justified the full price.  For novels and text books it’s so much more convenient and even though they’ve been out years the idea that you could take a couple of thousand books on holiday with you is still impressive, and easier on your luggage allowance.

Because I can download books that I might not have otherwise seen and read cheaply and not have to find space for them I’ve found that I’ve actually started reading more again and it may even get me back into reading more actual paper books again too.

I still use the tablet’s Kindle app for books with pictures or where jumping from one part of the book to another is easier with a touchscreen but being able to turn a page without moving my thumb away from the edge of the device was so much simpler, as was being able to also hold a bottle of cider in my other hand as it was no longer employed in holding a book open.   The fact that this ease of reading was achieved while I sat admiring mountains and a colourful sunset last week was a wonderful thing.

*Other e-readers are available :)

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Electric Hands and Aluminium Kitchens

chisels

chisels (Photo credit: The Year of Mud)

I was watching a TV show which showed a restaurant and the customers kept talking about all this “home cooked” food, OK it was a family restaurant, owned by the same family for generations but I was sure that they just showed the food being cooked in a very shiny, very metallic, very up to hygiene standards industrial restaurant kitchen behind the counter.  Do they live upstairs?  I thought.  On other shows this pattern repeated, maybe it’s the decor that’s making people think “home cooked”, don’t they know it’s not the owner’s dining room.

Next up came the description of hand-made food items which again didn’t seem quite what I would call “hand”-made, although hands were involved in some ways, moving the ingredients, pushing the button, turning the handle.

“The meat is still prepared by hand” – the guy pushed a piece of meat into a machine.  No knife, no hammer.

“Hand-cut fries” – the guy pushed a potato into a device and pulled a handle.  Again, no knife.

It’s not just restaurants though, more and more (often expensive and exclusive) things are described as “hand-made” when they’re in fact made by a machine and assembled by hand.  A chair leg hand-turned on a lathe is still hand-made, the hand that guides the chisel, but a cabinet where all the joints are routed by a set machine rather than a hammer and chisel – is that still hand-made?

Eventually I’ve come to the conclusion that the term hand-made, along with home-cooked has come to mean the opposite of “made in a huge mass-production facility in China”.  TV shows have shown examples of some mass-production methods used by food producers, occasionally emphasising the less savoury looking aspects – the infamous “pink goo” – which doesn’t look appetising it’s true but restaurants don’t make food like factories, they mass produce just on a smaller scale, I’ve done a large spaghetti Bolognese at home but not enough for a table for ten at eight.

As well as that people know that fast-food or large chain restaurants have frozen food items shipped in nightly to be warmed up which are as such full of preservatives and evil whereas in a small restaurant the food is made properly, just like you’d have at home, hence home-made.  Even if the mass-produced stuff is 100% beef and the home-made one is just as bad for you if you scoff too many.

Maybe I’m being picky over semantics, again, but even home-made “home-made” food can come from a kit you buy at M&S these days.

In our world where just about everything is manufactured in a factory, see How It’s Made on TV, people are more often craving the hand made for its roughness, lack of uniformity – in things like cakes and chocolate bars, but if you phrase it differently “made by hand” or “hand finished by Barry” suddenly you can charge a fortune for it, whether it’s a watch or an Aston Martin engine.  The irony is that less than forty years ago Fiat ran a campaign for the new Strada expressing how amazing it was that it was Hand Built by Robots.

If you can market something as home-made or hand-made you can imply it’s more wholesome in some way, even if many of the ingredients still contain colourings and preservatives, when used deliberately this way it’s tapping into consumers’ resistance to “processed foods” which are full of salt, fat or MSG.  You can also sell to those following the current fashion of seeking out “authentic” experiences, like rustic furniture, timber sash windows, overpriced hearty bangers and mash or real ale at six pounds a pint – yes you read that right, a pub near here is offering an authentic real ale in a real pub experience for just six quid a go. Again they’re selling people the idea that the past was better, that retro is the way forward, so to speak.

I think I’ll stick to my real real pub across the town at half the price, followed by a decidedly not home-made battered sausage.

 

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Diggin’ The Scene…ry

English: Roadworks

English: Roadworks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the last four weeks the county council has been tearing up and relaying the pavements on the street which is home to the glassworks that keeps me busy during the day.  We’ve got used to the workers now, we’ve given them hot water for tea when their cabin generator wouldn’t work, they’ve patched some potholes on the edge of our car park to make up for the inconvenience of their work.

On Thursday last week they put the top layer of tarmac on a section of path and were rightfully miffed the next morning to see workers belonging to a utility company attacking their less than 20-hour old pavement with a circular saw.  And so it is now, a perfect stretch of path with a cut out bulge of dissimilar tarmac halfway along it like some kind of scab on the landscape.

It’s a long-standing joke in this country that as soon as a road is resurfaced a utility will come along and dig it up again but in my experience this is a record.

It’s also ridiculous in these days, just a few days earlier they wouldn’t even have had to dig up any tarmac.  Surely with that mysterious thing called the Internet some kind of magical central database of roadworks could be maintained so that the likes of Gas and Electricity companies can tweak their schedules to drop pipes and cables into already bare roads.  Going even further, as my dad suggested when I mentioned this to him, when major works are carried out – replacing main drains etc, why not include conduits for current and future services in the same hole?

The answer is probably because creating such resources would cost far more than necessary and be outdated by the time it arrives – designed to run on that latest Microsoft OS, Windows XP I think it is, that’s the future.  Erm, wait, what?

 

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Facebook Anxiety and Other Maladies

facebook

facebook (Photo credit: dkalo)

I haven’t been “on Facebook” for many months, apart from to wish Happy Birthday to people when reminded via emails.  I haven’t been on for a number of complex reasons I’m not going into now, though one is that over time the sheer volume of posts to catch up with grows to biblical levels and you fall into a “I’ll look at it tomorrow” mindset.   Not looking at it though has shown that I’m suffering from an anxiety about it, a Social Network Anxiety.

There are two forms of this anxiety as far as I can tell, firstly is the almost guilty feeling that because you haven’t religiously read people’s posts in months then they’ll think you’re ignoring them – you think you should go have a look, then you post something and you get silence – no comments, no likes, and it confirms your fear, despite being sure that your Facebook friends are reasonable people and wouldn’t take offence that you hadn’t been paying attention.

However it is true that many people do in fact think that because everyone they know on Facebook has the ability to see what they’ve said then everybody will have read it and those who didn’t respond in some way don’t care, especially if they’ve posted something particularly emotional.

This is the problem with distributed communication – if a direct email or text isn’t responded to, even if you give them a few days to pick it up, then you know that either they didn’t get it or something may be amiss but broadcast expressions may not automatically be seen by everyone you think it will be seen by.

The thing is that I’m not alone in taking a sabbatical from the New Big Blue (I remember IBM, as a child of the eighties), a survey by the Pew Research Centre has shown that over sixty percent of users have taken a long break from the site, most users saying that they don’t have time to dedicate to reading their news feed (as in my case) or basically just feeling that when they have they haven’t gained anything from the experience – that it was a waste of time.  How interesting or not your news feed is depends on how interesting your friends are of course, despite new features such as the Graph engine that is supposed to make searching for travel tips, recipes and other stuff posted by your friends easier to find.  The study also showed that young people were using the site less, possibly due to other ways of chattering such as Snapchat.

The same is true of most social networks – Instagram is famously regarded as a place for people to post pictures of their dinner or of themselves drunk yet also contains interesting pictures too; Twitter inevitably contains streams of verbal diarrhoea (if you’ll pardon the image) as well as pearls of 140-character wisdom and so on and people sometimes get overwhelmed by the volume of information, or have other things to occupy their time.

Eventually the ever evolving internet etiquette will include the fact that people won’t always be listening and as a Tweeter or Status Updater you have to live with that and not take a like-count of zero personally.

To finish this piece though there is the other social network anxiety: that if you’re not checking Facebook, Twitter et al every five minutes then you’ll miss something.  This can be caused by the first but is also a standalone anxiety for those who don’t care what people think but have to know what everybody else is doing.  Many of these people are those in the remaining percentage who haven’t dared to leave Mr Zuckerberg’s empire for more than five minutes.

These are the people who the marketers of smartwatches and personal heads-up displays have in their minds, the always connected, but that’s another story.

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