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September 23, 2004

Life is Catching Up with Me

We seem to have settled on BBC Radio 6, properly known as 6Music, though obviously people would understand completely the name BBC Radio 6, whereas 6Music could be anything.

From this morning's show; recipes for baked beans -- "take four slices of lightly toasted Warburton's bread -- other white breads are available -- put down a slice of toast, add a layer of cream of mushroom soup, add a layer of baked beans, add a slice of toast, add another layer of soup, add another layer of beans, add another slice of toast -- voila! The Great British Lasagne"

Anyway, one of the fringe benefits of this is something that we never, ever got on Capital -- the chance to listen to new music that we actually like. So I find myself rushing to my laptop to type in snatches of lyrics to Google. Like, say, "she's preoccupied with 1985". Thus I discover that Bowling For Soup's 1985, which, yeah, speaks to me, turns out to be the most often legally downloaded song of all time. So I think we know what demographic uses the iTunes Music Store.

I am, remember, the person who was shocked to discover, a year or so ago, that Next had a whole series of clothing with "class of 1982" logos for kids. I just stood in the shop staring. I mean, that was my high school class. It's not, like, retro, or something. It's only a few years ago, not like all that sixties-nostalgia-stuff that was around when I was in high school.

I also discovered that '1985' is a song by a different band, SR-71. They've just had that weird experience of having a song of theirs become a huge hit for someone else. Oysterband have never had a hit (unless you count Fiddler's Dram), but "When I'm Up I Can't Get Down" was a huge hit for Great Big Sea, to the extent that many Canadians think of it as one of the great Canadian songs.

Oh, yes, and I've just come out of hospital, having had the minor operation that I've been waiting for for, oh, 11 months. Weird experience; 24 hours of sitting around in hospital, perfectly healthy, no treatment of any kind except dressing for the operation which took about 10 minutes. Quote "we have to take you in the day before because it's the only way we can guarantee there'll be a bed for you after the operation". Then the op itself, and I was awake and fairly chirpy quite soon after. One more night in hospital to rest and now I'm home again, and in no pain at all provided I don't move even a little bit. Typing's ok.

Posted by Alison at 09:27 AM | Comments (3)

September 13, 2004

A Visit from the Airbrush Fairy

OK, so I still haven't managed to track down a copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It was clearly Around at the Worldcon. People tell me it's good. And Big. People tell me it's Big. Meanwhile, here's a picture of Susanna. This is, pretty much, what she looks like, you know, here in England. This picture comes with a little note explaining that this isn't what she looks like in America -- in America, Susanna looks like this. It must be some weird glamour. Ottakar's Yossarian suggests that she's had a visit from the Airbrush Fairy. Update 28/9/04: The book arrived from Amazon yesterday, and I'm devouring it in great chunks, blinking as I return to reality every so often for, eg, meals. It's difficult, though; my doctors have told me to avoid lifting heavy weights.

Posted by Alison at 09:52 PM | Comments (4)

September 12, 2004

Wind Farms for PreBlighted Landscapes

The A13 is not a beautiful road (though there are some people trying to do something about that). Immortalised in poetry by Jah Wobble, it leaves London through the ugliest parts of its industrial landscape, running up to the M25 through Ford's massive Dagenham plant. Dock containers, gasometers, roadworks, revolting sixties concrete flyovers, industrial parks, giant inflatable McDonald's chips, 12-screen cinemas, you get the idea.

And, just as you come over the crest of a particularly ugly flyover, three shiny new Norman Foster designed wind turbines. They provide enough clean electricity for 2000 homes, though in this case they'll be powering Ford's diesel assembly clean room.

Wind turbines are controversial; people ask for planning permission to put large numbers of them on hills in areas of outstanding natural beauty. People rightly ask if it's worth blighting our countryside for the sake of clean power. But that's not a criticism of these wind turbines. They are quite the most beautiful thing on the A13; towering above the ravaged landscape, promising a cleaner, brighter future.

Posted by Alison at 08:57 PM | Comments (3)

The History of the New World Order

I couldn't sleep last night, and some time, about 3am, a thought suddenly sprung to mind: Lucy Huntzinger invented the blogroll. Obviously, this was long before online diaries were called blogs, and long long before lists of the blogs one reads regularly were called blogrolls.

Back in April 1997, Lucy kept a popular web diary, Aries Moon. At the time, web rings were popular, and there was a web ring for online diarists, Open Pages, open to anyone who wanted to join. Lucy's innovation was to set up a web ring, Archipelago, specifically for the diaries that she thought were well-written and worth reading regularly. This was a considerable innovation, and brought her plaudits from other people who found Archipelago worth reading, and hate mail from the journallers whose diaires she didn't include. She pointed out repeatedly that anyone else was free to make a similar choice, but she certainly took a lot of flak for being first.

And nowadays, as we count weblogs in millions, we all have blogrolls; public lists of the diaries that we personally think are worth reading regularly. But Lucy was first; and as it's becoming clear that blogs, and blogrolls, and friends lists, are key building blocks of the way people interact here in the 21st century, I thought it was important to note it down. For the historians, you know.

Posted by Alison at 07:34 PM | Comments (5)

September 07, 2004

Quintessential Dixons Moment

Following his birthday, Steven had a better PDA than me; clearly a state of affairs that couldn't be allowed to continue. The Sony Clié PEG-TH55 is the same size as my old PDA, but with a clearer, sharper, 320x480 screen; and includes WiFi, Bluetooth, MP3 player and camera. And it's been discontinued as Sony pull out of the US & European PDA market. I don't like Pocket PC and Palms always seem clunky by comparison to Cliés.

Luckily, some branches of Dixons still have a few. Steven bought one last week, for example. So there I was, in a Dixons branch somewhere in the South of England. "Do you have one?" I asked hesitantly, for there wasn't one on display. The chap checked his computer, established that he had one in stock, went to look for it. Came back a little later to explain that it had been taken off the shelves because it didn't have an AC adapter. "Hmm," I said, and asked for a deal, explaining that I was taking a risk because of Sony leaving the PDA market.

The manager came round. "What was it, about £200 or so? I can do you a deal." It was of course £300, reduced to £280 in end-of-lining Dixons. It looks a bit like the £200 Zire with camera, after all. "Something like that," I said. "£280..." he said, checking his computer. My face fell. "But, you know, we have to get rid of it, it's incomplete and it's an end of line anyway, I'm sure I can do you a deal... How about we say £200, but I throw in a full five year warranty, normally charge £80 for those... that's a good deal, isn't it?"

I clearly looked shocked. After a moment, I recovered my composure and said "How about £150 without the warranty?" No, can't do that, presumably because all his targets are based on how many warranties he sells. "Ok, so how about you throw in one of those Clié gamepads you've got end-of-lined there?" Done.

So when the receipt came, it showed a Clié, and a warranty, and a game controller; with full price shown on the warranty but a £199.94 discount on the Clié and controller. And five years' accidental damage cover; that can't be bad.

And, of course, we already had a Clié charger.

Posted by Alison at 05:44 PM | Comments (1)

Bad Science of the Day

The headline screams Having Children Significantly Lowers Parents' IQs (all over the Interweb, but I got it from Bloggerheads). When you read the article, you discover that it shows that parents' IQs, when tested when their baby is six months old, are lower than before the baby was conceived.

OK. So that headling ought to read Six Months of Systemic Sleep Deprivation Significantly Lowers IQs. But that might not be quite so newsworthy, right?

I noticed that my brain function reduced substantially while my children were tiny, mostly due to sleep deprivation and exhaustion but also to some extent not having time for intellectual pursuits. And of course, as everyone ages, some mental skills wane while others improve. But overall, I think I've now recovered most of the faculties I lost in childbirth, and I'm quite sure that I wouldn't score 12 points lower in an IQ test than I did at age 18 or 30. (Not least because in most IQ tests, there aren't 12 points more to score; they top out at about 155).

Posted by Alison at 01:45 PM | Comments (1)

September 05, 2004


Rudy Rucker pondered geeks in the sidebar of BoingBoing. He wrote:

Working with computers isn't quite like biting the head off a live chicken, but it's close. The thing is, computers are somewhat repellent. Computer cases are a dull, ugly shade of beige. Computers are the tools of telemarketers, dot-commers, oppressive governments, and digital snoops. Many of us have office jobs where using a computer is part of the daily grind. The damned things never work like you expect them to for more than a few weeks at a time. You have to constantly upgrade their software and hardware. They flicker and they make an ugly noise. A lot of us lost money on computer stocks in the Dot Com Bubble. And so on.

Who but a chicken-head-biting geek could stand to spend much time with such machines?. What could less life-affirming, mind-manifesting, or philosophical than computers? Ah, but if you look, the secrets of life float just beneath the pulsing screen.

Meanwhile, my friend Judith appeals for a geek, chicken-biting or otherwise, because her computer is suddenly booting into safe mode after she installed anti-spy measures because unidentified calls had turned up on her phone bill.

Not long ago, we spent a couple of evenings over at another friend's house, tinkering with her computer. Classic sort of problem, she'd tidied up her hard drive to release some extra space, she'd deleted some bits and bobs, her email had stopped working, there was no easy way to sort it out.

Last week Steven rang to say that our PC had stopped working. When I came home, I fiddled with it for a bit, and it started working again. No form of alpha-geekery here: I checked the connections, turned it on and it booted -- though Steven had tried that already and it hadn't. It made an ugly sound so I vacuumed as much dust as I could find out of the innards. It's been fine ever since.

My text for the day is "The damned things never work like you expect them to for more than a few weeks at a time." This is true for the computers of each of my friends above. It's true of my PC, and of Firebrick, our unloved PC laptop. It is true of my work machine, which delivers two separate errors each time it boots -- I reported them to the sysadmins, who said oh, click through on OK, does it work, just ignore them then.

It is not true of our Macs.

I realised that I'd sort of lost the knack of tinkering with recalcitrant computers. I don't spend anything like as much time as I used to tinkering with my own computers, and that discourages me from volunteering to help other people.

It's not, I think, that Macs don't go wrong, or don't have idiosyncracies. For example, the cross-platform networking remains a little tetchy. My beloved anglepoise iMac is inclined to crash messily when I have my 14000-song iTunes collection, Photoshop, and 50 Safari tabs all open at the same time. But at worst, an occasional reboot restores harmony and equilibrium.

I have become the worst sort of evangelical cultist. Whenever people tell me about their PC problems, I'm inclined to tell them how much better off they'd be with a Mac. I know that it's 'cheaper' to salvage parts, recycle and rebuild old PCs (and when we update our PC that is probably what we will do). But. But.

If you just want to be able to come in, turn your computer on, and productively get on with whatever you want to do, then get a Mac. It will take you about a month to learn the ways in which Macs are different from PCs -- less if you aren't simulatenously using a PC at work. Broadly speaking, there are no viruses and no malware on Macs (not just because of the smaller user base, but also because it's inherently harder to exploit). And they're beautiful and fun to use; not beige boxes.

Macs are contra-indicated for:
-- those who like to have the latest graphics-intensive games (Mac games release later, and some not at all);
-- those who need Microsoft Access, which is not available for Mac; and
-- those who really like spending their spare time taking the side off their computers and fiddling with stuff.

New Macs start at £549 (for a machine that has a small hard drive (40Gb) and no DVD burner, but is otherwise entirely adequate for all sorts of general use), and there's a healthy second-hand market. Consumer-level Macs (eMac and iMac) come with all the software that most people need for their computer except Microsoft Office. If you are a student or teacher (eg you have a child in school or you attend an evening class), you can buy and use the cheap (£100 for use on 1-3 computers) edition of Office, but otherwise this could be a sticking point.

If you have other expensive, specialist software, you would need to budget for the Mac version, and make sure that it or an equivalent exists for Mac before buying. For example, I bought the Mac versions of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

It's all just much better. Honest. You can't understand it until you've truly seen the light. Or something like that.

Posted by Alison at 09:21 AM | Comments (2)