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May 31, 2003

That Pesky Album Art

The list of Not Found On Google cover art now stands at four; the Huw & Tony Williams mentioned below, two Early Learning Centre children's albums (Bop Till You Drop and Space Boogie, for what it's worth), and the first, self-titled Rose Among Thorns album. I'm sure the count of ephemeral kiddie music that nobody has ever bothered to produce a tribute website for will rise, too.

General appeal to the web: do any of you have a copy of The Circle and the Square by Red Box? This is now right at the tippy top of the list of albums I mistakenly bought in an insufficiently electronic format. Hey, it was 1986, ok? I didn't have a CD player then, and although I played my cassette until it was basically worn through, I didn't ever get round to replacing it with a CD. In the late 80s it was quite obvious that nothing would ever be deleted again and that all really interesting music would be available for ever. At any rate, either Red Box were ten years ahead of their time, or all the world-fusion-celtic-y music we're listening to these days is because every Brit of my age was imprinted on "Lean on Me" and "For America", both of which were huge hits.

My idle day of futzing about sorting music out on the computer was shockingly interrupted at 4pm, when the doorbell rang. "We're not expecting anyone," I said to the kids. "Oh, yes, you are," explained Pam Wells from outside the front door. I checked our various electronic and paper diaries, who nodded emphatically and confirmed that yes, they were all expecting Pam to come and stay for the weekend. Steven and I were, meanwhile, astonished. Luckily, she brought scones with her and seems broadly immune to chaos.

Posted by Alison at 02:10 AM | Comments (11)

May 30, 2003

"New iTunes for Old"

It's apparently warmer in London than in Tenerife today. The children are splashing about merrily in the garden, the hammock is inviting, I have a rare guilt-free day off; so I'm fiddling with iTunes.

Marianne and Jonathan in the paddling pool

Doing our bit for water conservation

If you haven't downloaded the update to iTunes yet, you might wish to copy iTunes 4.0 to a different folder; 4.01 has disabled the sharing over IP. When you do update, you'll want to do so on your entire network at once, because the sharing over Rendezvous feature, which remains, requires the shared libraries to be running the same version of iTunes.

I'm ripping my way through the large pile of CDs I've bought at various branches of Fopp in the last week. I now have a small manageable pile of ether. Fopp is clearly going to be a major money sink; their business case appears to rest on the theory that people will buy many CDs at a fiver each. Works for me, and the London branch is quite near my coffee shop.

I like Clutter, a little program that sucks the cover art for whatever you're playing from iTunes or Amazon, displays it in a 'What's Playing' window, and puts an appropriate icon in the doc. It also allows you to leave a pile of virtual CD cases lying around your desktop, to remind you of music you might want to play soon. Double-clicking them launches the album in iTunes; and helpfully, you can associate artwork with radio stations and playlists as well. Clutter only finds about the art for about half of my music, though (a defect in Amazon, not Clutter), so I'm supplementing it with Google image searches. The virtual covers can be as large as you like; so if you have a nice big display and a distressing penchant for prog rock, you can relive the days of 12" album art.

The web fails me completely on a cover image for 'Rosemary's Sister' by Huw and Tony Williams. It's not even a very rare album. This is the first cover of proper music I've not managed to find at all, though some of the images are a bit small for the window in iTunes. I may have to resort to scanning the physical cover.

The next task is clearly lyrics.

Posted by Alison at 12:39 PM | Comments (2)

Alison Rediscovers Her Inner Brainless Bimbo

[originally written on my PDA, on the very wonderful Pocketop Keyboard.]

I got up at the crack of dawn, because I had to get all the way across London to catch the 7.45 from Paddington to Birmingham. I was in plenty of time, so as my train wasn't yet advertised, I looked round the bookstall a bit and got some coffee. I finally smelt a rat about ten minutes before my train was due to go.

Euston. Birmingham trains go from Euston. I knew that.

So, of course, I missed that train, but I caught the next one; and it turned out to get me to my exciting day of developmental activity in the nick of time. So that was all right.

Some of you may remember the Birmingham Metropole from the 1987 Eastercon. If you don't, then well done. At the time, they kept an entire extra hotel full of single rooms. They now pretend it's all one hotel, but I can confirm that the singles are still shabby and small. There's huge quantities of function space; it could swallow an Eastercon without even a burp.

Posted by Alison at 09:23 AM | Comments (5)

May 11, 2003

Again! Again!

The DVD of 'Cog' arrived in the post yesterday. It's been widely blogged already, but I didn't realise Honda would send me a free DVD until I read it in Teresa's blog. I popped it into the iMac and watched it, then watched it again, then showed it to Jonathan, and anyone else I could find. As well as the original Honda ad, there's a 'making of' short, and a diagram to let mechanically-challenged people like me work out what all the car parts are. And some Accord advertising, though rather less than I'd have been interested in watching, and too focused on leather trim rather than specifications.

Today, Jonathan saw me sitting down at the computer, tugged at my shirt, and said 'Cogs. Want cogs.' So I put it on the big telly, and showed him how to press the 'play' button on the DVD. And he sat down on the sofa with the remote control, and watched it over, and over, and over again.

Posted by Alison at 02:22 AM | Comments (7)

May 09, 2003

Pop-Up Pissoir

A few months ago, I was wandering down the street, near the office, when I spotted a small celebration. About ten people were standing around a metal object which was descending into the pavement. A few balloons and streamers were attached. Everyone applauded gently and then wandered off, looking slightly embarrassed.

I wandered over to have a closer look, but by the time I arrived all there was to see was a metal-rimmed circle of bricks, flush to the floor and looking a bit like a large manhole cover. And the odd balloon. Nothing to indicate what it was, or why it was being celebrated. I wondered half-heartedly whether it was some element of Secret Underground London, and would be pressed into service in the event of a nuclear attack. I walked across it a couple of times, but nothing happened.

Until last night, when I reeled down Villiers Street rather the worse for wear. The metal object was revealed in all its glory, and it turns out to be London's first pop-up open-air urinal. Apparently the area, which is full of clubs, has a particular problem with drunken men relieving themselves in any convenient spot late at night. (I trust we can discount the special circumstances of 31 December 1999, where Westminster council thoughtfully provided no portable toilets for a crowd of three million people.)

Each evening, the Urilift rises from the ground by remote control to cope with the expected late-night crowds, and each morning it slips away well before the rush hour, leaving a discreet and decidedly non-Parisian circle on the ground. The Guardian provides a helpful interactive guide.

So here's the question, for those people on my readership list who are appropriately equipped. Just what precise combination of drunkenness, urgency, embarrassment, and regard for social niceties and urban hygiene would persuade you to use a urinal in the middle of a busy street rather than nipping down a side alley and pissing against a wall in private?

Posted by Alison at 08:03 PM | Comments (1)

May 04, 2003

In the garden again

And this time Mike has a very long network cable, and we're all sharing his Internet connection. Nobody's allowed in the garden without a notebook; this is a Plokta cabal brainstorming session for the Interaction fan room. The sun is shining, we're halfway down a bottle of Pimms, and life is good. So far our notes say "Croquet. Must have croquet."

Posted by Alison at 04:34 PM | Comments (3)

May 03, 2003

Bits and Pieces

From the It-May-Be-Practical-But-It's-Too-Silly-To-Use-Dept.: the NapStrap. (via Tom Watson)

Enigmo is, essentially, Lemmings Dripping Wet, and is very pretty and plenty addictive enough. (via Dr Plokta in email)

We've been re-ordering the study, so my iMac now has a proper desk of its own, and the two PCs are now tucked under the other desk and linked with a KVM switch. Kudos for Dabs; we ordered the switch mid-afternoon and it arrived (on their regular 1-3 day delivery service) the following morning. I'd understood that KVM switches could be useful, but I'd never realised how much fun they were.

Steven promptly installed Mandrake on the older PC, and is now wrestling with a pile of interesting configuration issues. I am resolutely not getting involved.

Oh, yes, and I made a serious attempt to burn the house down today; fell asleep on the sofa and was woken up by the kids going 'Mummy, Mummy, make the loud noise stop'. I'd put some black beans on to cook, and promptly forgotten about them completely. Thank goodness for the irritating nature of smoke alarms.

Finally, how could I forget the DVD audio commentary on The Fellowship of the Ring by Howard Zinn & Noam Chomsky? "You view the conflict as being primarily about pipe-weed, do you not?" (via Gary Farber)

Posted by Alison at 02:24 AM | Comments (1)

May 02, 2003

Sometimes I Just Like to Shut Out the World

The items in this blog that get more hits than anything else are unquestionably the occasional product reviews I do. People seem to search a lot on product names. So I thought I would drag discussion of my brand-new headphones out of the comments thread and do a proper review. It's the Sony Fontopia MDR-NC11, a pair of noise-cancelling earbuds that get mixed reviews, and they're Not For Everybody.

The first group of people that they're not for is the poor. At $150 retail (though you can get them for less, Super Shoppers), an immediate reaction of how much??? seems pretty forgivable. But it's only a small proportion of the cost of my iPod, and regular readers will know that I didn't much get on with the iPod earbuds, so I was going to buy some new phones in any case.

The second group of people that they're not for is those who don't like sticking things in their ears. For these are the contact lenses of headphones; to get a decent sound you have to shove them sufficiently far into your ear canal that they form a seal; without it, the NR circuits feedback and eliminate the bass. To facilitate this, Sony give you three differently sized pairs of earbuds so you can experiment and find the ones that fit you best. Nevertheless, there are lots of reviews of these phones that say, roughly, 'I put on the earbuds and the sound was crap'. This is a not-sticking-the-plug-in-the-ear issue; and I know, because I too was overly cautious with Dr Plokta's regular Fontopias. It's that earwax oversharing thing, you know.

The third group of people who'll hate them are the active; the problem with earplugs is that the sounds of your own body are amplified, and that happens here. Even when walking down the street, my breathing and footsteps were horribly intrusive. And I found it hard to maintain the seal. And outside, you run a serious risk of getting mown down by a double decker London bus.

They're rubbish in quiet environments, too. Although you can turn off the NR circuits and have passive headphones, the sound quality is no better, and may be slightly worse, than the much maligned iPod earbuds. Certainly it's no better than the Fontopias that don't have noise reduction.

Finally, you won't want them unless you're someone for whom Size Is Important. They're tiny; the phones are scarcely larger than other earbuds, and the circuitry fits in a little triangular box that could be a personal stereo remote control. If you're prepared to go for bigger phones, there are several other options. But at this size, the only real competitor are the non-nr Etymotic earplugs.

OK, so who's left? I'm a regular Tube commuter; having bought these in America, I tried them out on the plane, but you know, planes are a pretty quiet environment by comparison with my daily journey. They weren't bad on the plane, but they're astonishing on the tube. I can't hear station announcements. Train noise is hardly noticable. On the other hand, I can hear my music. Thoroughly, completely, as much as if I sat listening carefully to my proper stereo. Yes, it plays in my head, and no, the bass isn't fabulous. But I can hear it; all of it. I'd considered setting up a tube playlist for the iPod that didn't include subtle music because I simply couldn't hear it over the noise of the tube. And now I don't need to.

Now, part of the noise reduction is delivered by the earpluggy nature of the headphones, and part by the NR circuits. I can get a feeling for the proportions by putting my fingers over the earbuds' microphones to cancel the noise reduction; and I'd guess that the phones' basic design delivers about 60% of the reduced noise, and the circuitry the rest. In practice, this means that without the active circuits, I'd still be thoroughly irritated by tube noise.

Although these are best for reducing loud ambient noise, and I was warned they wouldn't reduce conversation, I can't hear someone talking directly to me while music is playing, and overheard conversations are much less irritating. Interestingly, I'd never previously noticed how many people have sign language conversations in noisy environments. Turns out they're everywhere.

And of course, I love this technology because it's purely sfnal. Tucked into each of my ears is a tiny Fenton Silencer. As we know, science fiction isn't a predictive genre; but Clarke does appear to have had a particular talent in that line.

Posted by Alison at 11:26 PM | Comments (2)