Saturday, October 18, 2008

To buy, or not to buy...

For about the last year I've been thinking about a replacement for my 2005 model 12" PowerBook G4, so I was eagerly awaiting Apple's notebook announcement on 14th October. Hoping an irresistible new Apple laptop would come along that was a worthy successor to my 12" PowerBook, the hard drive of which is rapidly filling with photos and video, and the battery now only lasts a few minutes.

Unfortunately Apple put the cat among the pigeons with the new Aluminium 13" MacBook. While it is undoubtedly a sexy looking piece of kit (although I have yet to see it in the flesh - or more accurately, in the aluminium and glass), I have a number of concerns that make me a bit apprehensive over the potential purchase.

First the good things...

Apple are touting the video chipset in the new MacBook as being 5x faster than that in the plastic MacBooks. Mac OS X always has been, and no doubt will continue to be, taxing of graphics hardware. The more juice there is there the better. (And if there's any chance of hardware assisted video decoding, that would be nice too).

Replacing the hard drive in the new MacBook looks like it will be supremely easy. Having read the disassembly instructions required to replace the HDD in the PowerBook I've been put off replacing it myself.

The unit certainly looks nicely built. Machining the entire case out of a single piece of aluminium is supposed to give the case more rigidity. And as a side-effect makes the machine look like it's just beamed down from an alien space station.

The weight of the new MacBook (2.04kg) is almost the same as the 12" PowerBook (2.07kg), and is 10% lighter than the previous MacBook (2.27kg).

Now the not so good things...

The most obvious drawback is the omission of the FireWire port that was present on previous MacBooks. I have FireWire on my PowerBook, and I do use it on occasion. Mostly to do DVD burning - the PowerBook only has a combo drive, so I have a external disk enclosure with a DVD-Everything writer in that I use when I need to burn a DVD. The new MacBook comes with a internal SuperDrive, so DVD burning shouldn't be a problem. Even so, the enclosure I bought has both USB and FireWire interfaces, so I should be able to continue to use it anyway. We also have a 500GB external drive - mostly connected to Caroline's iMac by FireWire - but that also has a USB connection, so that should work OK. (Although I always liked the idea of having a separate bus for an external drive that was receiving serious use). The only peripheral I have that is FireWire or nothing is my DV camcorder. Although I don't use it much, I have knocked up the odd video in iMovie, and being able to do the whole thing on the PowerBook was very neat. In the future I'm more likely to make the odd little film assembled from clips captured on my digital camera. I am very unlikely to follow Steve Jobs (reported) compassionate advice and just buy a new camcorder.

The loss of the FireWire port does make me feel uneasy though. One of the pleasant things about the PowerBook has been the connectivity it has. Most things (with the notable exception of a couple of SCSI devices I have) just plug in and work. And when I have done audio recording on it with an external drive both the USB ports and the FireWire port have been in use, and the captured audio (on the USB bus) has no impact on the disk activity (on the FireWire bus). I wonder if an entirely USB solution will work as well. (There may be separate USB busses, but I would have to put a hub onto one of the USB ports to be able to connect everything - overall the new model has fewer ports).

As I have said, the connectivity of the PowerBook has been very useful. When I got the PowerBook it came with VGA and DVI adapters (both of which I have used), but I had to buy a separate composite video adapter (which was another story). The new MacBook comes with none of these. The VGA and DVI adapters are £20 each, and there doesn't seem to be a composite video adapter, so I fear that it may not be possible to connect this machine to an analog TV (or video mixer), which would mean I wouldn't be able to use it as a PVR in the way I use the PowerBook. Unless I buy a new TV of course (which I have been meaning to do for some years, but never quite get around to doing).

I always thought the white acrylic iBook G4 was a rather fetching machine, and I even owned one very briefly (the 14" model) before trading up to a 12" PowerBook G4 (which always seemed to fit better at the top of the iBook line than the bottom of the PowerBook line). The new MacBook is machined out of a single block of aluminium, with a glossy glass display. It certainly looks sexy in the pictures, but I wonder if the WiFi reception is as good as the plastic MacBooks, and how viewable the glossy screen is. (Certainly I would like a wider viewing angle for the display than my current PowerBook can manage).

Another big disappointment is the price. Before the announcement I had specced out one of the white MacBooks (2.4GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB HDD) for £829, plus £100 to upgrade the RAM to 4GB from Crucial. The closest equivalent for the new MacBook (2.0GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB HDD) is £949, again you can upgrade the RAM to 4GB for £100 from Crucial. That's £120 more for a computer with 20% slower CPU, no FireWire and no composite video out. If you add in the cost of extra video connectors the price is almost the same as I paid for the PowerBook more than 3 years ago. (And this is without the additional cost of buying a new (non-FireWire) camcorder, and a new (HDMI) TV that Apple seem to think you need to do).

So as yet I am undecided. It might just be that Apple has got the balance between form and functionality a little too much in favour of the former for my liking.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Also Coming Soon

Caroline has chosen this Miniature Schnauzer puppy. She should be joining us in a couple of weeks. Currently she is going to be called Teasel.

Now to make the house more puppy friendly...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Coming Soon?

A brochure for the new Cabot Circus Shopping Centre dropped through the door this morning. It's due to open a week on Thursday (25th September 2008).

The most interesting thing for me is Quakers Friars Unit 133, labelled "Electrical & Computers: Apple".

Just when I'm waiting for the MacBook line to be refreshed so I can replace my PowerBook.

I couldn't find any mention of it on the Apple website though.

Update: There is now an official Apple announcement.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Walk On The Wild (River) Side

On Sunday I did the Sea Mills Circular Walk. Unfortunately the web-site for it only tells you that the leaflet for it is currently out of print.

So I checked out possible routes on the Ordnance Survey site and I've made the following Google Earth path of the route we followed, which is surprisingly rural, despite the fact it is in the middle of a city.

Route: Google Earth | Google Maps

My Perl script that measures the length of Google Earth paths says this route is 4.13 miles long (6.64 km).

We parked at the Combe Dingle car park of Blaise Castle, and the route through the Blaise Castle estate can be varied if you want to do a bit more, or visit the café, toilets, playground or museum.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bicycle Race

I've been watching The Man Who Cycled The World (10:45pm, BBC1, Monday - Thursday this week), a 4 part documentary about Mark Beaumont and his attempt to break the world record for cycling around the world.

In it, Mark Beaumont, sets out to cycle 18,000 miles around the world, averaging 100 miles a day. He appears to have little outside support, carrying a tent and often sleeping by the side of the road. He is also carrying video, audio and photographic equipment to keep a record of his trip and a laptop and GPS equipment. Every so often a camera crew is able to meet up with him to check he is still alive.

So far (after the first two parts) he had made 6,000 miles, is on schedule, and has travelled through various countries (starting in France, through Europe to Turkey and then through Iran and Pakistan to India), and has had to cope with equipment failure, illness and trying to stick to a vegetarian diet - particularly difficult during Ramadan, when it's hard to get food of any description during daylight hours.

I am utterly in awe of his achievement. Not only does he appear to be amazingly fit and able to keep going whatever fate throws at him, he seems to be amazingly cheerful all the time.

If you've missed it it's on the BBC's iPlayer for a week.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Smoke on the Water

Last Monday we went to Weston-super-Mare to see the sand sculptures. We also walked out along the Grand Pier and had a look at the Pavilion (which I was intrigued to find, housed a climbing wall somewhere amongst all the other amusements).

Today, a week later, the pier was seriously damaged by fire and the pavilion was destroyed, which is a bit sad, because - despite what John Cleese says - I rather enjoyed my visit to Weston last week.

This photo was taken when I cycled to Weston on a bike ride in February. It seems odd that I would end up with two trips there (so far) in one year, when I've been in Bristol to 20 years and never been there before.

I hope the pier - which was only recently refurbished by it's new owners - will be restored to it's former glory.

Monday, July 14, 2008

On The Road Again

The other day I was driving along what I always thought was Filton Road - but looking on Streetmap I find that it is actually called Station Road - by the railway bridge just before Abbey Wood Station, at the lights by the oddly named Emma-Chris Way (which I always thought must have been named as a consequence of a disagreement between Emma and Chris, but is apparently named in commemoration of two children killed on the busy road). Anyway, I pulled up alongside a beaten up old Escort (or Cortina or something - I'm not exactly a petrolhead), which was stopped with it's rear wheels positioned on the stop line.

"Hmmm...", I thought, "I'd better keep an eye on him. He'll be haring off as soon as the lights change". But when they did change it pootled along to the next set of lights, which were on red, over the line and came to a halt, once again, with the rear wheels positioned on the stop line.

"The problem with that bloke", I said, "is he just doesn't know when to stop". Unfortunately I was alone in the car at the time, so there was no-one to share my insightful aphorism, so I thought I would make it available for the Internet as a whole to appreciate.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Do The Jukebox Jive

I spent this morning finding out how to put an embedded MP3 player on your website. I wanted to do this for the Macaroni Penguins Demo Page.

The bad news is you have to use Flash, but the good news is someone has already done all the nasty bits for you, so I was able to pick up a configurable solution by downloading the JW FLV Player, cobble together a few playlists, a bit of HTML and get it working nicely.

You can try the results by going to the demo page and clicking on one of the "Click Here To Listen..." links. Enjoy.

All we need to do now is record some new demo tracks. Now that Tim has got his super posh electronic kit and I don't have to spend all hours of the day working for The Man the time could be ripe...

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Consecutive Chronological Numerals

I realised today, while looking at a shop receipt, that the date today is:


Which means, if I'd been up early enough (or late enough) I could have witnessed the time:

03:04:05 06/07/08

(Although I never know with these things whether I should be observing UTC or local time, and, yes, I am aware that people in the US write their dates as mm/dd/yy, so they can miss opportunities like this almost a month earlier than me. I also tend to use four digit years after all the millennium buggery that went on nearly a decade ago, but none of this works if you do that).

I'm still trying to think of something appropriate to do on:

08:08:08 08/08/08

which will be in the middle of the 30th Anniversary Bristol Balloon Fiesta, so maybe I will be able to get a photo of 8 balloons or something.

I totally forgot about 07:07:07 07/07/07 last year (I was asleep at the time (local time)), and also 06:06:06 06/06/06 (when I was in Scotland polishing off some Munros, but I didn't get up until 6:30am), but at least such patterns are occurring later and later in the day, so I stand more chance of actually being up when they happen.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

R2D2 BBQ...

... or I lost my head to a Starship Trooper.

Last Sunday I did the Family Fiesta route of Bristol's Biggest Bike Ride with a friend and his daughter. A nice little jaunt, although a bit windy (but after the rain at Slimbridge Beer Festival the previous night I'm not complaining).

On the way home as I was cycling through the inside of the M32 J3 roundabout I saw this work of graffiti.

Captured with my new phone - I think the camera works fine.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The News Quiz in Bristol

Last night I went to a recording of BBC Radio 4 stalwart The News Quiz at the Redgrave Theatre in Clifton, Bristol. An experience I can thoroughly recommend if you get the chance.

Tickets are free, but they allocate more tickets than there are seats in the theatre, to ensure that there is enough of an audience for the recording. I applied for my tickets as soon as I heard the announcement after the Friday broadcast of the show two weeks ago. I was listening via a Freeview box and a PVR, so it was slightly delayed (but I was able to rewind and listen to it again to check I'd heard what I thought I'd heard). But I immediately opened my PowerBook went to the ticket site and filled out the form, and was finished about 10 minutes after the initial broadcast. The tickets arrived in the post a few days later - we had 217 and 218.

The venue seats 343 (according to it's website), and I heard one of the theatre staff say that over 600 tickets had been sent out. The theatre was completely packed for the recording, and there were lots of people milling around outside trying to get in. Some of them had tickets, but you had to turn up before the doors opened and get a numbered sticker on your ticket to ensure a seat. We arrived about 30 minutes before the doors were due to open and we got stickers 165 and 166.

They also recorded around 90 minutes of material for a 28 minute broadcast. So it will be interesting to hear what makes it in (and also explains why the scoring on the broadcast show rarely makes any sense).

The show will be broadcast tonight (30th May 2008, BBC R4, 6:30pm) and tomorrow (31st May 2008, BBC R4, 12:30pm) or you should be able to download it from the website for a week after the Friday broadcast.

See if you can spot me laughing amongst all the other people laughing.

And, by the way, it was so funny I broke my glasses.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Munroist #3806 - One Year On

Exactly a year ago today I finished my round of the Munros. A Munro is a mountain over 3000ft in Scotland, and there are 284 of them. I did my first Munro in 1987 and I managed to polish the lot off (along with the 3000ft peaks of England, Wales and Ireland - bringing the grand total up to 313) in a little under 20 years.

There are more details on my web site, and recently I've been making Google Earth/Google Maps .kmz files for many of the walks.

Since completing the Munros I've been travelling further afield (snowshoeing in Norway) and nearer afield (walking in the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons), and I'm thinking about doing some walks on Dartmoor in the not too distant future.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Griffin AirClick

While I was out buying the Saturday paper yesterday I saw that my local technology shop - CAV - was having a closing down sale. Which of course meant that it was closing down. A bit sad as it was always a handy place for me to buy the odd computer or audio cable, optical media, RJ45 crimp tool, DVD player, etc.

So I popped in and found they were selling off a Griffin AirClick USB for £4. It advertises itself as an RF remote control for iTunes, but as I found out later it's actually a bit more generic than that.

As Macaroni Penguins are entering the 2008 gigging season I figured it might be useful to help me rehearse - I usually have the set list set up in iTunes when I run through songs and play along. Which means lots of running over to the PowerBook to skip backwards to go over some part of (or all of) a song again. I thought I could clip this to my guitar strap and I'd be sorted, so I bought one.

It was slightly disappointing when I got home to find that unlike most stuff I plug into the PowerBook it didn't just work straight away when I plugged it in. Or even when I installed the software from the CD that came with it. It turned out that you need to download version 1.1.1 of the AirClick software from the Griffin website if you want it to work on Tiger or Leopard, so I did that and it started working.

And then I found that not only can it control iTunes, but also a bunch of other useful applications (like iPhoto, DVD Player and Keynote (if I ever need to make a big flashy presentation for some reason)).

It actually turns out that it is easy to tweak a few of the installed files to make the AirClick interact with any application that uses AppleScript [link]. So this morning I hacked up the necessary code to make it work with EyeTV (I might make the files available for download soon, but if you want to encourage me to make them available sooner just leave a comment).

Previously I've done a similar kind of thing using Bluetooth, a mobile phone (thanks cms!) and Romeo but it's nice to have a tiny dedicated remote to make things simple. I guess that's why Apple started bundling them with their computers (although that's IR rather than RF), but until I get a MacBook I'll stick with the AirClick. In fact for £4 I'm rather regretting not getting more than one (although they are listed on for only £12.50).

The only problem I've found with it so far is that the USB receiver dongle is a bit wide and makes it a bit of a squeeze to fit another USB plug in the adjacent socket when it's plugged in. But it comes with a 1m long USB extension cable you can use if you want to plug extra things in, so it's only a minor niggle.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Tiny USB Stick

I recently bought this tiny 2GB USB stick. It's an Advent Slider (I think), and it cost £12 from PC World, which seemed like a reasonable price, even though I was in PC World.

It comes with a little cord to attach to your keyring, and as it only weighs 2-3g (according to my kitchen scales) it's light enough to actually carry around on your keyring without you actually noticing you've got it with you.

As the name Slider suggests the bottom of the device slides out to make a USB connector, slightly narrower than the overall width of a USB port. Which is nice because, as well as being 8 times smaller capacity than this one, my current USB stick blocks the adjacent USB port on my laptop when it is plugged in.

The only niggle is the normal one when you buy mass storage devices. Which is that mass storage manufacturers insist on specifying capacities of their devices as if 1GB was 1,000,000,000 bytes, whereas computers are programmed to think 1GB is 1,073,741,824 bytes (= 1024 × 1024 × 1024). So when you select 2GB of photos and drag them to the stick, they don't actually fit. The actual capacity of this stick is 2,021,654,016 bytes (raw) and 2,021,621,760 (FAT32 formatted as packaged), which is technically 1.88GB.

I have to say that for the layman [1], I think that it does make more sense for 1GB = 1e9 bytes (and likewise, 1MB = 1e6 bytes and even 1KB = 1000 bytes), and it makes it easy to look at the byte count of a chunk of data and translate it easily into the appropriate units by just taking the correct prefix of the base 10 amount. The only drawback is that it flies in the face of many years of computer science teaching.

Of course the situation we are in at the moment, where computers report base 2 units and mass storage manufacturers artificially inflate the capacity of their products by quoting unformatted base 10 units, is the worst of both worlds. But I don't expect it to improve any time soon. Even worse is the idea of introducing a parallel series of units (kibibytes, mebibytes, gibibytes) to compound the confusion.

Anyway, I've been carrying it around on my keyring since I got it. I've not used it for anything interesting yet, but when I need it it will be there.

[1] layman/lame-man is an example of an eggcorn. As in "to put it in lame-man's terms". Read more about eggcorns at The Eggcorn Database.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Enigma 1491: Tile trials

I've recently found myself with more time on my hands, so I renewed my subscription to New Scientist and have been using the weekly Enigma puzzles to provide me with a weekly pragmatic programming exercise.

Normally these are amenable to short Perl program to analyse the problem space to come up with the solution in a few seconds. However this week's was a bit trickier:
Tile trials

DICK has a box of rectangular tiles. Each is a different size, the dimensions being 1 × 3, 2 × 4, 3 × 5, 4 × 6 and so on.

He takes some tiles out of the box, first the 1 × 3, then the 2 × 4, then the 3 × 5, and so on, with the aim of fitting together all those that he has taken into a rectangle that has no gaps and no overlaps.

Assuming he takes more than one tile out of the box, how many tiles must he take out to create (a) the smallest possible rectangle, and (b) the next smallest possible rectangle?

New Scientist Enigma 1491, Richard England

The Perl program I wrote ran and found the first solution in a few seconds, but took 50m26s to find both the necessary solutions. So while it was running I wrote an equivalent program in C. It's been a few years since I did any serious C coding, but once I remembered what the equivalent C constructs to Perl's next and last were (continue and break), I got it compiled and it ran and found the solutions in 11.3s.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

First Post!

Shortly after I set up my first web site in 1994 I added a section to it called Jim's Web Of Consciousness, which described itself thusly:

"This page is a random collection of things that may or may not prove interesting. It grows from the bottom up."

It perhaps says something about the high regard that I held this page that it resided under a path of /junk on my site.

Of course it was only available to people with access to the HP Intranet (i.e. people that worked at HP), but at the time that included the vast majority of people who knew me who had access to the internet, so it didn't seem like much of a problem.

Fourteen years later I've decided the time has come for me to add a random collection of things that may or may not prove interesting to my current web site, and that's exactly what we call a blog nowadays.

So here it is. At some point I will link it in more closely to my site, but for now I shall just add things to it as I see fit.

If you know me and you've managed to find this blog feel free to leave a comment.