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January 30, 2005

Praise where Praise is Due

I've fallen out of the habit of getting electronic equipment repaired, even under warranty. I've found the processes that you typically go through to get stuff fixed to be so byzantine and stressful that it's easier to just assume the risk of a certain amount of systems failure. Many companies make it as hard as possible to work out how to send stuff back, operate their warranties to the minimum limit of the law, require you to comply with all manner of weird requirements. All to avoid their legal obligations or stated warranty cover.

Just before Christmas, one of the pair of cameras I use to take stereo photos stopped reliably taking photos. I use Fuji cameras for this because their vertical format allows me to attach a pair of cameras to a bar using their tripod points, with a separation of only 73mm (only slightly more than typical eyes-apart distance). I've owned 5 Fuji digital cameras over the years, taken thousands of pictures, and have never previously had a problem with any of them.

It was still in warranty, about ten months old, though I bought it as an end-of-line clearance item. My previous experiences with warranty repair didn't give me good heart, but I couldn't replace it easily, so if I didn't get it repaired I was faced with buying two new cameras. But then I looked at the Fuji UK website, complete with clear instructions for both in and out of warranty cameras and an unequivocal 'we'll do what we can to keep your camera running' message, and sent it off with a copy of the paypal receipt because I could no longer find the invoice.

I got a receipt for the camera after two days, and my camera back less than a week after that, repaired under warranty and in perfect working order.

Posted by Alison at 06:25 PM | Comments (1)

January 22, 2005

The Glow of Impulse Purchase

So, there I was, under the duvet, listening to the radio this morning. Curtis Stigers was on the phone for no apparent reason, waxing poetic about Fountains of Wayne. And they played "Hackensack", which was terrific. So. No luck on eMusic, checked out Amazon, and their much plaudited previous album, Utopia Parkway, appeared to cost £3.33. Now, that's not a lot. Further investigation found a huge pile of £3.33 albums, most clearly dreadful but nevertheless I racked up six to buy in a few minutes -- Utopia Parkway, two albums I owned on vinyl, an album I've been meaning to get for ages, an album I don't have by a band I used to really like, and, well, yes, Funky Gibbon by the Goodies.

All they need now is a button on the checkout page saying "Let's save work and money! How about we just send these to you as MP3s, instead of us finding the CDs, packing them, shipping them, you getting them from the post office, unpacking them, ripping them, and having to file the CDs somewhere in your house full of junk?" Because, you know, DRM is a crock. If only there were people out there ready to ship me my music in a sensible way, I could be telling you about how these albums sound now, instead of just remarking on their purchase.

Posted by Alison at 10:15 AM | Comments (1)

January 21, 2005

Richard Thompson is Different

Perhaps I have mentioned Richard Thompson once or twice before. No matter . I have another, much more chunky, music post to write -- but Richard Thompson has floated to the top of my musical consciousness three times this week, and there must be an article in that.

But first, a slight digression about the form of the musical posts here. I like the form of Mixtaper, a site where people put together virtual mixtapes from the sample mp3s scattered around the web. They normally add links to the mp3, the artist's website, perhaps a flash of cover art. It began in the days when eMusic was all-you-can-eat, but has drifted. But the idea is good, and when writing here I'll try to link to downloads when I can.

Back to Richard Thompson; I suppose I should make some attempt to describe his music overall, and I can't, not really. He's a singer-songwriter and he plays guitar. Languidly sitting on the grass at Trowbridge last year, our friend Doug explained how he gets bored about a third of the way into sets by singer-songwriters. There's the bloke, you see, and the guitar, and then it's another song, and there's a bloke and a guitar... "Right," I said cheerfully. "So you won't be staying for the Richard Thompson set, then?" "Ah. No. Richard Thompson is Different."

Richard Thompson is Different. An hour or so after that conversation, he came on stage, you know, just a bloke and a guitar (and a beret), and played a lot of songs, very quickly without a lot of faffing about because it was a festival set and he didn't have much time. And we were all entranced.

This has been going on for a while. Steven and I met in winter, and the following summer he persuaded me to go to Cropredy. For the good of my soul, and at least in part because Thompson was doing a solo set. I was not committed to the idea of spending weekends in muddy fields at that point. We fetched up with a pile of Steven's friends, none of whom I really knew. All quite mad, and all quite, quite mad about Richard Thompson, whom I'd never heard at all as far as I knew. By the time he came on stage, it was sort of cold, and dark, and a bit wet. And by the end of the set I was completely hooked.

So, ok. He's one of the greatest singer-songwriters. He's a brilliant guitarist. Audiences are spellbound. So why have so few ordinary members of the public heard of him? Well, he came out of the folk tradition, so that doesn't help, I suppose. Beyond that, I have no idea.

Until quite recently, the only free mp3 downloads of Richard Thompson's music were a couple of odd little rarities. But now there's a bunch, including a live version of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, or 'that motorbike one' as Flick calls it. Allegedly the most often requested song on National Public Radio, it's also one of my favourite Richard Thompson songs. And as Richard Thompson is one of my favourite musicians, that means it must therefore be one of my favourite songs of all. Not that I think about music that way.

I'm not very good at deconstructing music. "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" is an incredibly powerful modern ballad, I think because it taps into the same vein as the Child ballads (that link is through to a fabulously useful site marred by hideous auto-MIDI; you've been warned). The basic plot feels like an ancient folk song, with the motorbike where the horse ought to be. Plenty of incident, grand themes, sex and death, lots of verses. Layer on a fine feeling of British nostalgia and of course that wicked guitar, and you're sorted. I suspect there's a huge swell of people out there who don't realise they'd like the themes and stories of the ancient ballads, because either they've never heard them, or the only ones they've heard have been given the pickled in aspic treatment and it's just too much for them.

Meanwhile, over on eMusic, where you do have to pay per track, but only 1/4 as much as, say iTunes, I've just been able to legitimise my copy of The Bones of All Men, which has been a bit of an embarrassment to me. I copied the mp3s as part of a batch of stuff from a friend, liked it from the first, and hadn't got round to buying it. Whoops. It's only been a couple of years... The eMusic genre lies; this is early music, not country/folk. Except sort of late early music, with electric guitar and half of Fairport mixing it with crumhorn and harsichord and so on. The Bones of All Men is a collaboration between Thompson and Philip Pickett, one of Britain's most renowned early music experts, and, well, secret rocker, clearly. The tunes are ancient English dance songs, and I'm so much more accustomed to hearing English music with rock overtones that I started to write that it was pretty unreconstructed before stopping to consider just exactly how reconstructed it was.

And finally, back on Shuffle, I heard a song for the first time while stuck somewhere in a tunnel; A Blind Step Away. This is from the French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson album Live, Love, Larf and Loaf, another recent eMusic acquisition. I listened to it thinking, gosh, this is good, gosh, if you're going to be randomly stuck in a tunnel then isn't it nice to be randomly listening to stuff like this, and gosh, this must be a Richard Thompson song I don't know. Though it turned out I have another version, a June Tabor that starts well, but loses the song in an over-fussy arrangement. Unusual for Tabor, I know, but there we go.

Posted by Alison at 07:03 PM | Comments (3)

January 11, 2005

Apple Tart

Three days ago, I said, right here, I Live My Life on Shuffle. And today, Apple introduced an iPod Shuffle; designed to randomly pull 120 or 240 songs out of your iTunes library each morning, and shuffle them. It's the size of a lipstick and weighs less, and it's very much the cheapest iPod ever, starting at £69.

Of course, I already have two iPods, which is surely enough. And my Sennheiser noise-cancelling headphones, no longer in-ear, are much, much bigger than the iPod shuffle The key audience for this one, apart from those who have been previously disenfranchised from iPod by price, is all the people who want a tiny flash iPod when exercising. My exercise is dance mat, which already comes with a dodgy soundtrack; yoga, where I don't want music; forest and hill walks, where music would detract from the experience; and cycling, where music would be a really bad idea. But hey, if you're a treadmill fan, you'll want one. And of course, I said I didn't want an iPod mini, and I love my iPod mini now.

A little over 3 years ago, we bought an MP3 CD player for our car; we had to put it on an antishock platform, but we could use CDs with 70 or 80 songs each. The cheaper iPod shuffle is about the same price as we paid for that setup. It has just about the same functionality, but will be massively easier to use (no need to burn your playlists to CD), and weighs 22g.

The Mac mini is utterly desirable. For £339, you can give your PC the best upgrade ever; keep its keyboard, mouse, monitor and printer, and throw the rest away. The only thing that's depressing about the Mac mini is that we bought a Shuttle small form factor PC a few months ago, and the MacMini completely and utterly blows it away. It's about 20% of the size of our Shuttle, or less; and it's way cheaper (though to be fair, our PC has loads of extras, and, besides, we needed a PC).

I have great hopes for Pages; longstanding readers will know that I sulk endlessly about both having to layout our fanzine in Word because we can't afford three copies of a proper DTP programme, and not having a decent Mac programme for things like Christmas Cards. Pages appears to be aimed squarely at both fanzines and families; but we'll see; the real test will be whether we can develop a template for Plokta in it. It's part of a mini-productivity package called iWork; no spreadsheet for some reason but it includes Keynote as well. And iLife has had lots of upgrades too; GarageBand now does multitrack recording and extremely cool realtime music notation; iPhoto allows you to print a cute pocketbook of photos to carry around with you or send to Grandma, and iDVD has some new cute themes. Not too pricey, five apps, and of course free with your Mac mini or other new Mac.

And apparently all this stuff will be in shops in the next couple of weeks. Now, where did I put that credit card?

Posted by Alison at 11:45 PM | Comments (5)

January 09, 2005

Better Living through Dance Mat

One of my Christmas presents was the new dance mat game, Dancing Stage Fusion. I know I've written about dance mat lots of times before, but I thought you needed a review of the new one. Konami have responded to criticisms of the previous Dancing Stage games -- which are Euro editions of the game Dance Dance Revolution -- by producing a game aimed to appeal to all the several constituencies of dance mat fans.

For the serious dancers, we have more and harder dances, including a highly configurable 'endless' setting, where you can modify the arrows so that they appear late, or fade out, or turn up in unexpected places, or, for the real obsessives, don't appear at all. My favourite of these is 'dark', where the arrows appear, but not the arrows at the top of the screen that show you when to play. You just have to use your innate sense of rhythm to work out when to step. As you can imagine, I'm rubbish at this. There's also the terrific 'mission mode', where you have to dance with specific objectives in mind. 100 missions run all the way from 'do an easy dance without dying', through 'do this one with between 4 and 6 million points', to 'do this one without any help from arrows at all.'

But as well as all the stuff for serious dancers, there's plenty for beginners too. There are beginner steps for all the music, 21 'real songs' with their original videos (as well as 33 songs just for DDR), and lessons to get you going. I think my favourite of the licensed songs this time is 'Mickey' by Toni Basil; the steps are great and it's a song that's just the right sort of speed and style for dance mat. For families it's possible for the first time to play 2-player with one player on beginner and the other on higher levels, and on the beginner setting there's no 'game over' -- great for the four-year-old who thinks it's just a new version of whack-a-rat.

As well as beginners and addicts, there are two more classes of DDR players -- those looking for a workout, and those who see it as a party game. Just playing the game does perfectly well for a workout, but you can set workout settings, watch your calories, monitor weight and progress while playing the regular game. This is a much better workout mode than before, though I'm still waiting for a calorie readout on doubles play.

The final set of new features are aimed at people who just want a laugh. The game finally has EyeToy integration, so you can watch yourself dance or play minigames where you dance with your hands and feet, or have to wipe off the screen while dancing to see the arrows. There are even a couple of games where you don't dance but use the dance mat as a controller for different games.

The game costs £25, or less by mail order. It's by far the best of the UK dancing stage games, with tons to entertain all types of player. And as you play you unlock more features; typically with one unlock for every five songs; a dancer, a costume, a song, or even a hidden mode. This is great to get you started on the road to dance addiction. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to practice doubles.

Posted by Alison at 11:51 AM | Comments (2)

January 07, 2005

Overheard in the pub

I've now enjoyed myself thoroughly at two consecutive London Circle meetings. Last night I swapped some leftover household tat for a copy of a a new book about the early development of computers, which I'm honour bound not to review for another couple of months. I spent lots of time chatting to Much Younger People and making fun of the programme of the London SF film festival. Pat McMurray was hugely embarrassed about his behaviour on New Year's Eve, when he and Liam Proven livened up our sedate party by arriving just as we were heading up to bed. He was worried that they'd gatecrashed, but I explained that first-footing was a fine tradition. After which we stayed up for another three hours, and drank entirely too much of an almost perfect bottle of whisky that we'd been saving for a special occasion. (Although drunk, I did have the presence of mind to put it away before it all got drunk).

The Christmas meeting was enlivened by the presence of Jordin and Mary Kay Kare, and also rare visitors Chris Bell and Colin Fine. Chris was showing off a model of Howl's Moving Castle, which had been given to Diana Wynne Jones by Miyazaki.

At both meetings, Rob Hansen, Avedon Carol (with apologies for not updating my link for 2 months), Owen Whiteoak and Alun Harries propped up the downstairs bar, with Owen ensuring that we were all well-stocked with copies of Fortean Times. It's a good time for forteana, what with the Templars appearing in Hertford, hobbits walking the earth and so on.

Posted by Alison at 07:54 PM | Comments (0)

Just Can't Wait

In 2005, I plan to use this blog to write about music. Have no fear, I promise to also faunch after small cute expensive Apple products, and tell you little tales of how cute my kids are. But I want to write about music. Why? Because I'm feeling the loss of The War Against Silence, I'm listening to more music all the time, I want to turn more people onto the sort of music I like, I want to encourage people to tell me about music I should listen to. All these things.

But mostly I'm railing against the people who think that the iPod is some sort of lifestyle gadget. It's not; it's a device for carrying music around; for desensitising your brain to the London Underground and instead tuning into your record collection. (You remember records, right?). I am in complete opposition to glenn mcdonald; I live my life on Shuffle. You discover things you've always loved, things you forgot you owned, things you don't recognise, things you think are terrific and discover, on checking, they're by someone you never rated. New bands, old bands, from pared down folk to shimmery electronica. And even some folk electronica; possibly not enough.

The only problem with writing about music is that I'm not sure I can. Whenever I try I find myself writing about other things, like who we stood with at the gig, or how cute the iPod is, or the history of the band, or what the music reminds me of, or where I was when I first heard it, or, well, anything else except the actual music. I may have had a spell cast on me by the Wicked Witch of Music Journalism. Whenever I start to describe the noise the band makes, I digress. So one of the intentions is to try to get better at that, or, if I can't improve, at least digress in interesting ways.

What sort of music do I like? Buggered if I know. I like a lot of the stuff they play on 6 Music, to be sure. And I just discovered the marvellous WXPN, after learning on Richard Thompson's website that WXPN's listeners had voted 1952 Vincent Black Lightning as the 26th best song of all time. And we'd probably listen to the WXPN breakfast show, were it not for the fact that it goes out in mid-afternoon and keeps us uptodate on Philadelphia rush hour traffic.

When I was about 17, I noticed that most of the bands I liked had something in common; an electric violin. Now, I don't think there's anything special about the electric violin as an instrument (though for sure I like the sound); it's that the presence of an electric violin is a bit of code for a certain type of music that's otherwise ill-defined; it's rooted in folk, or classical, or at any rate, traditional music of some kind, but it rocks. Nowadays my tastes are broader, and include plenty of stuff with no violin anywhere, but it's still a good check. New band comes on stage; is there a fiddle? Yup. Does it plug in? Yup. There's a good chance I'll like it, then.

Meanwhile, Egg phoned me to check up on my spending habits. 'There's a transaction here for £15.99 from Irish Music International. Do you recognise it?' Well, no, but it's probably a CD, and we do buy that sort of music, like some Irish bands... checks website... no, don't recognise it but it was probably my husband. I said I'd email Steven and get back if there was a problem.

Steven rang back sheepishly and explained that it was something that would have been part of my Christmas pressie except that he'd erroneously thought I'd bought it for him. So what is it?

Only a brand new Horslips album, Roll Back. Not quite new music; acoustic reworkings of 15 of their best-known songs, recorded in the studio a mere 24 years after the band split up.

Horslips are pretty unique in my collection; a band I didn't discover until long after they were toast, at which point I bought their entire output on CD, all at once, some 13 albums. It's rare for me not to have a Horslips album on my iPod. The music is normally described as a fusion of glam rock and Irish ceilidh, but you know, they were around for a long time and they did quite a lot of different stuff. They're probably best known for a pair of high concept albums rooted in Irish folklore, The Táin and The Book of Invasions, and two more concept albums about Irish immigrants in America, Aliens and The Man Who Built America. These relied much less on traditional sources, and have a much more mid-Atlantic feel. Intermingled with those are more ordinary studio albums, and a pair of live albums. They were massively successful in Ireland but didn't manage to develop a global following like The Pogues or U2.

So, what's the appeal? The Horslips brought together a great pile of musical ideas and a range of backgrounds and influences. Some of the instrumental tracks are a bit ordinary, some of the rock tracks are a bit dull, but mostly it's as exciting as it ever was. In places the Celtic Rock becomes a bit grandiose, but, you know, I kind of like that. The two high concept albums withstand the treatment particularly well. Perhaps it's a little old-fashioned. Perhaps I'm a little old-fashioned. No matter.

My excitement at the prospect of a new Horslips album is only exceeded by my sheer delight at rumours that they'll be touring in 2005, even, according to one site, planning to dust down the drums and play some standing venues. I should know better, really; after all, I saw the Strawbs last summer looking exactly like a very old Strawbs tribute band. They were fine of course; but what I really want is time travel to the mid-70s, you know, just for the evening.

Posted by Alison at 12:50 PM | Comments (0)

January 05, 2005

Please Bring the Cards Into Nursery for Cutting

January 5 is the traditional day to bring down the decorations, fail to fit the lights back into their boxes, and explain to the children that no, they can't eat every candy cane remaining all at once. The house is now strewn romantically with pine branches, all of which fell off the tree as we manhandled it out of the house. I suppose we should do something about that, though it does smell nice. Digression: I pulled out the new bottle of Domestos toilet cleaner, to discover it was a Christmas special 'Mistletoe and Pine' scent. Ho ho ho.

And I'm sitting with a vast pile of cards, checking them over for addresses, phone numbers and other snippets of information, and reading the round robin letters. Round robin letters have had a bad press recently, and we've had fewer of them this year in consequence. A shame, because I liked them, and have even perpetrated them in the past. I understand that some people get round robins from people they hardly know, but most of ours were from friends we wish we saw more often, or cousins we like but don't quite manage to visit, and it's good to hear what they're up to. It's not really a very big leap from the round robin Christmas card to the blog, after all.

I was reminded of the 'theoretical reader' the other day, when my daughter complained about having to write thank you letters to people she doesn't really know. She quite understood that it's the flipside of accepting presents from people you don't know very well but who think kindly of you, but was having trouble with the actual craft of writing. I rattled off a dozen different strategies for writing thank you letters, and one of them was 'just imagine you're writing the letter to someone you do know'. And she cheerfully went off then and wrote the letters. This startled me, because I've never written anything with a Particular Reader in mind. I suppose I hope that somebody is reading; I am not writing, for example, to my future self.

We seemed to get more hand-made cards this year; at least a dozen, ranging from inkjetted family injokes like ours, through to individual embroideries. My favourite was Sue Jones' beautiful photo of a weathered stained glass window in Shrewsbury cathedral. Our very last Christmas activity is to hand them all over to the nursery for cutting.

Posted by Alison at 11:55 PM | Comments (0)

Rebuild the Planet One Video Game at a Time

Astraware emailed me, to say that they're donating 100% of the purchase price of Bejewelled registrations all January to the tsunami appeal. Your chance to put one of the most addictive games ever on your handheld and get a warm feeling inside at the same time. (I've already got Bejewelled, of course; my Clié is actually a thinly disguised GameBoy, storing my calendar, address book, to do list and 30 different games).

At home I'm warping into a parody of myself; as my children complain about their homework, tidying their rooms, eating their dinner, I find myself saying 'You should think yourself lucky that you have a home to tidy, a school to give you homework and dinner to eat, because there's a million kids out there who don't any more'.

Posted by Alison at 10:29 PM | Comments (1)

January 03, 2005

Nobody Move or the Blog Gets It.

OK, the blog is safe for the moment, but your comments go into a comment queue. I will try to sort out what's gone wrong with the blog at the weekend (possibly by reverting to a default style to straighten it all out). In any case, I'm fairly convinced you're all getting this by RSS, so I'm thinking of stopping the side blogs in favour of more stuff in the main one.

Meanwhile, Six Apart may be (Update: is) using venture capital to buy LiveJournal. This would make a lot of sense; LJ has a massive user base, has great stone soup programming, is based on open source, is deeply spam-proof, and is making money without pissing people off. It also has butt-ugly, hard-to-configure UI. Movable Type and TypePad are beautiful, MT is spammed to oblivion, the paying user base is small. I do worry for the purity of my LJ permanent account, surely the best value ever at $100 (which is worth, at current exchange rates, approx 58p).

The combination of MT 3.14 and MT-Blacklist is very slick and easy to use, though I'd rather not have comment spam to worry about at all. I am still a little bit disgruntled by MT saying brightly that MT 3.14 is free for personal use; so it is, but if you're a couple, then unless you want to maintain your blogs on entirely separate MT installations, thereby doubling the work, you have to pay. It is, of course, well worth $70 (approx £1.24 at current exchange rates).

Overheard on the Internet: on one of the DDR forums, I saw this --- 'I've been playing Dance Dance Revolution for a little while now, and I'm really enjoying it. But I find that after I've played a couple of dances, my throat gets dry and I have to take on water. Is this normal?' Someone had replied with a reasonably straight face, 'Yes. This is called 'exercise' and it's good for you.'

In the Latte Free Zone, I'm drinking black tea at work, and we bought a new Bodum Electric Santos coffee maker to replace the Starbucks Utopia (same machine, different branding) that broke. Believe what they say about durability of this machine; it has a two year warranty and we've stapled the receipt to the warranty certificate and put it somewhere easily findable.

Meanwhile, we've been admiring the lava lamp, playing Frustration (that game with the popping die) with the family, going around the house with a flip chart identifying tasks that need doing, as recommended by David Allen, taking down the Christmas deccies, finishing up the Christmas food (burp), and getting to grips with the new Weight Watchers rules. Strangely, there is still no setting that allows you to eat almost until you burst, nor yet one that accounts for arriving home from work and discovering a left-over Christmas packet of Florentines with the words Eat Me stencilled in invisible ink on the side.

Oh, yes, and deciding that disembowellment with a melon baller isn't good enough for them.

Posted by Alison at 02:14 PM | Comments (0)

Not Waving But Drowning

Movable Type is now requiring comment moderation on all comments on this blog, despite my best efforts to configure it otherwise. However, it's not bothering to tell you that when you try to comment (sorry, Mike). My attempts to sort this out have messed up the look of the blog, and made the comment page in particular pig ugly, but have not improved matters. I need to think seriously about taking my blog down; I have better things to do with my life.

Posted by Alison at 11:18 AM | Comments (2)

Time To Ring Some Changes

Welcome to 2005, all. I have upgraded Movable Type (very hard, thanks) and have even paid for it, with only slight misgivings. It is clearly much better, but I did it solely because the comment spam was making the blog unusable. I hope to use the time saved not clearing comment spam to write constructive material on the blog instead, but who knows? I might just chill.

Update: At present, all comments seem to be coming up for moderation. I have no idea what is going on, and commenters aren't warned they've been put in a moderation queue. This isn't what I want; I'll try to sort it out.

Not resolutions exactly, but in 2005 I want to:

OK, perhaps not that last one.

Posted by Alison at 01:27 AM | Comments (1)