Thursday, May 04, 2006

Settled.....at last

Well, at last I feel settled again. You never realise how much junk stuff you have until you have to pack it into boxes, transport it and unpack it again at the other end. Sheesh, from now on I'm going to make more of an effort to ditch the stuff I can live without and aim for a more Zen-minimalist approach to life :)

Broadband is now connected, although it's only a 1 meg connection instead of the 2 we enjoyed before. Hmmm... we're living in a built-up area in York, not out in the sticks... I don't see why the speed is so low. I think we might have to go back to NTL when the Wanadoo contract expires in September.

The only problem for me at the mo is the wireless router we bought is absolute merde. It's a Dlink we bought from PC World on a whim, and it's a complete waste of money. It's supposed to be a 54mbps connection but it drops to 5mbps when it's at the other side of the room. Trying to use it in another room is a frustrating experience to say the least, at most I have about 2 minutes of decent connectivity then Boom it drops out.

I've done all the usual things like check for updated firmware (2004 was the latest, unbelievably), changed the wireless channels, tried it with and without encryption. In frustration I even took the laptop to work and used it on our 11mbps link and it was utterly flawless for 2 days so come the weekend the Dlink is going back.

That's more than enough geekiness for one day.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Nag nag nag

I know, I haven't updated my blog in weeks now... moving house has got in the way. All moved in now but Wanadoo are tossers and won't connect broadband up for a few more weeks. Will post some new updates shortly, even if I have to compose them offline and post them from work :)

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Last Question

I recently stumbled across this short story written by Isaac Asimov. I remember reading it a few years back and... I won't spoil it for you. Put 15 minutes to one side and give it a read. The man was a true genius.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Essential software

Unless you've had a pretty nasty computer crash and lost a lot of irreplaceable data then you don't really appreciate the value of backups. I had this happen to me a few years ago... I stupidly let a neighbour-from-hell near my computer and he fried one of my hard-drives (literally - the circuit-board on my drive partially melted as a result of him switching the 110/240volt setting on my power supply).

The hardware is replaceable; I hand over some money to a shop and they will hand back a new computer. But that's not the problem. The data on my hard-drive was NOT replaceable and none of it was backed up. I lost hundreds of digital photos which had never been printed out or written to a CD: photos of cats now dead, of birthday parties, candid shots of friends and families. There were documents on there, emails, you name it... all gone forever.

Since then I've been especially careful to backup my data at semi regular intervals. Nowadays, storage is cheap - what people lack is just the inclination to do it.

I mentioned in another post that my desktop computer decided to go to silicon heaven recently, so I have replaced it with a laptop. The only problem was, my hard-drives were designed to be used inside a desktop computer case, not plugged in to a laptop, so it left me the problem of how do I get the data that's on the drives onto my laptop?

Help was at hand, thanks to a rather splendid IDE-to-USB adaptor courtesy of Rachel. Insert the connector into the back of your hard-drive, then connect the power cable, and finally plug the USB cable from the drive into your computer's USB port and switch on. Windows detects the hard-drive, assigns it a new drive letter and you're away! Transferring files to and from the drive is as fast and simple, no different than if the drive was inside your computer.

Now I have all my data back, but I have very few programs on my computer for it to be useful.

I like my computer to be fast and responsive at all times (Rachel's got an unfeasibly powerful and expensive machine which ran like treacle when I first got my hands on it, due to all the junk she had loading at startup. Since my intervention it now loads up in about 1/3 the time it took before). I like software which is small and fast, yet still very powerful, so I generally spend hours scouring the web for the perfect app.

Also, I'm resisting the temptation to pirate any software. If you look hard enough, there is enough quality free software out there to do 98% of what the average person needs to get done. There's really no point installing Adobe Photoshop (or worse - buying it for £600) when you don't need to. I've seen people load it up (the latest version takes ages to load even on a fast computer), rotate an image, save and close it again. It's crazy.

For the same task, I use Irfanview. Not only does the program load up almost instantly (I hate waiting for software to load), but it's actually easier to rotate or flick through umpteen photos in the same directory than it is in Photoshop.

Two of the most useful features in Irfanview are it allows you to:
  • losslessly rotate images (meaning they don't lose any quality when you rotate them)

  • "Batch process" images. Select a bunch of files and have the program go through every single one, open them up, rotate, resize and resave them with a different name. Imagine how long it would take to do this by hand...*shudder*
Irfanview is good but it doesn't allow you to draw or paint on top of the images, or add text or arrows etc. This is often why people turn to Photoshop... but again that's like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Another really good piece of freeware is Photofiltre (ignore the French spelling, the software is in English).

Again, this loads up very quickly, and allows you to do probably 95% of what Photoshop can do - image resizing, rotating, adjusting brightness, contrast, cloning parts of the image, adding blur, sharpening, making photos look older with Sepia-style effects, and so on. It lacks layer support and most of the advanced features of Photoshop and PaintShop Pro, but for the price (free!) it's worth a look.

My other recommended freeware must-haves are:

Open Office: a decent alternative to Microsoft Office. It has coped with every Word document and Excel spreadsheet I've thrown at it (and even some which made Word crash), and there's also a decent PowerPoint clone in there too. It takes a bit longer to load than MS Office but there's the advantage that it's about £300 cheaper ;-)

uTorrent: A very small but feature-packed Bit Torrent client. I can't believe I wasn't using this sooner. It's a tiny (150k) download and seems to do everything Azureus does apart from hog all my memory. Azureus is excellent but gobbles up huge amounts system resouces, probably because Azureus uses a lot of Java code and uTorrent doesn't. Give this a try and I bet you ditch Azureus within a day.

Firefox: This web browser just keeps on getting better and better. It provides a much safer way to browse the web than using Internet Explorer, and there are more features too. Anyone still using IE as their only browser are either misinformed or very brave!

Opera: Probably the best browser ever created. Some of the features include tabbed browsing, mouse gestures, zoom in/out, fit to page, easily reopen closed pages, integrated search, speech synthesis (the computer will read the web pages to you, voice control (control the browser by speaking commands into your microphone), saved sessions (if the browser crashes it resumes from exactly where you were before), ability to open all pages in a folder at the same time, built-in mail and chat clients, you can view WAP pages, force pages to fit to a certain width if they are not displaying properly, advanced popup blocking, the list goes on. And it's also very secure compared to Internet Explorer.

SyncBack: Taking us nicely back to where we started from, this software is excellent for backing up your data. Tell the program which files or folders you wish to back up (they can be on your local hard-drive, or a network drive), and tell it where you wish to copy them to (local or external hard-drives, CDROM or DVD drives, USB pen drives, network drives, you can even backup to FTP servers).

Why I don't like Ebay

I've been using the internet now for over a decade. My first experiences of it were with Windows 3.1 and a 14.4k modem. Back then you had to install some third-party software to allow you to actually dial up and connect as Windows didn't come with it built in until Windows 95 was released.

It was cool to refer to it as the "information superhighway" and "cyberspace", and you were considered quite a geek if you had an email address and surfed the web regularly.

So, fastforward a moment to 2006. The world and her dog are online, everyone from young kids to the so-called "silver-surfers" (who presumably book their Saga holidays online while surfing from their web-enabled Stanner stairlifts).

I don't fear the internet. I can't remember the last time my computer had a virus, or was infected with advertising or spyware, I never get a popup window unless I request it and I do all my online banking (and an awful lot of shopping) online. I can spot an email scam from a mile off. I even organise my social life online.

So why do people look at me funny when I say I have never used Ebay before?

If I utter these words in a crowded room then invariably there are gasps before the room goes quiet, and I am scrutinised as if I had just been dropped off from a passing Vogon spaceship.

"You mean you've... you've never used Ebay before? Really?" they say, with incredulity.

"Yes," I reply, now becoming scared for my own personal safety. "I don't like it."

Judging by its enourmous popularity and success, this seems like an odd thing to say, especially for someone as geeky as me. Practically everyone I talk to seems to use Ebay from time to time, but every time I've gone on to the site my spidey-senses begin to tingle. There are just some things about it I don't like at all.

For example: I don't like the terminology they use. Someone told me last night she'd won a bottle of champagne from Ebay. I was very impressed and pleased for her... I asked her what had she done to win it?

It turns out that she hadn't "won" the bottle at all, not in the real sense of the word "win", rather she had BOUGHT the bottle. She had bid the most money for it. I think, from memory, the bottle cost her £1. Bargain eh? But delivery was another £6 on top of that, making the totaly price a slightly less than dazzling £7.

Don't get me wrong... £7 for a bottle of champers ain't bad. But I hate the way Ebay use the term "you have won" something when you have really purchased it with your hard-earned cash.

Let's stick with this champagne auction a bit longer. She bought the bottle from some prevously-unknown-to-her person somewhere in the world. She has to trust that this person is honest and will ship exactly what she is expecting and it will be delivered on time and in one piece. She will have to wait a few days for her purchase. Compare this to a trip to the supermarket:

I walk in to the store and see a wide range of champagne on offer. I select the bottle I want; if I can see one and put it in my trolley I know they have it in stock, I know exactly how much I will be paying for it, and there's a firm guarantee that if it was the only one in store that nobody else can swipe it from me and pay an extra 50p for it at the checkout. I know I will be leaving the store with this bottle of champers.

Notice at no stage do I con myself into thinking I have "won" the bottle of champagne. Only if I was retarded would I think that I have somehow won the bottle by handing over money for it!

Let's assume the champagne from Ebay arrives safely and not too shaken up. The seller will get their £1 profit (if you can call £1 a profit on something that probably cost them more to buy in the first place). It's possible that they made more than £1 profit by overcharging for the postage.

I know of morally dishonest (yet still within the accepted rules) sellers who advertise their wares for a very low price, say £5, but it's only when you read the small print do you notice that the postage and packing is something silly, like £100.

I have also read about other auctions designed to trap the trusting and unwary where they advertise a Playstation 2 box, and show you lots of pictures of the PS2, even read out the specifications of the PS2 printed on the box. But what you're actually bidding for is an empty box. Re-read the auction carefully and you see that, but it is presented in such a way to trick you. Legally this is acceptable. Morally it stinks.

Going back to our champagne example for a moment, let's assume the seller made no profit from the P&P, they simply made £1 from the bottle itself. Unfortunately for them, they don't actually get to see all of the £1 profit as Ebay themselves want a fee for being the middleman. I'm not knocking this - it's perfectly fair and valid, but from the seller's perspective I can't imagine it's worth their time and shoe leather to package up a bottle, walk to the post office and wait in line to send it off, for less than £1 profit?

Notice earlier I fell into another trap - I said the champagne was from Ebay. Everyone says this. "I got this watch from Ebay!" or "I'll see if I can find a new car on Ebay".

If you buy something "from Ebay" you're really doing nothing of the sort. You are using Ebay to contact someone who is selling an item. It's no different than seeing an ad in your local paper which puts you in touch with someone selling a car. You know you are buying from the car dealer, not from the newspaper. If you're sold a dud, you don't seek recompense from the newspaper.

Personally I wonder at the sanity of people buying cars "from Ebay" (there it is again!)... if you're going to part with several thousand pounds with something as potentially dodgy as a car, don't you want to actually be there yourself to examine it inside and out and test-drive the thing?

By "dodgy" I mean the car might have been in an accident, might have been clocked, might be stolen (hard to check the VIN numbers from your armchair), might not even exist. It might make a clunking noise when you drive it over 30mph.

I'm sure there are bargains to be had from Ebay, but the trouble is, I hear success stories from both sides of the argument and they can't both be true. Not many people would brag about being ripped off now would they?

Some people talk about how cheap things are from Ebay; how little they paid for an item. Few mention how much the postage cost them, of course, and fewer admit that some of the items they are buying are second-hand, so it's not fair to compare them to a highstreet price, complete with the statutory 12 month guarantee.

It's also a bit of a lottery. Bid low and you're likely to be outbid. If you have your heart set on an item, then you have to bid high and hope nobody else bids close to your bid. Personally I'd rather just know how much something was going to cost me and that I'd be guaranteed of buying it for that price. I don't like the uncertainty of auctions.

But what about those people who claim they make a fortune from selling on Ebay? There are books about how to become a professional Ebay trader, give up your career and spend your day working from the comfort of your living room as the cash piles up. Some buyers are mugs, they'll pay well over the odds for stuff, be it concert tickets or junk you don't want any more. Some claim they buy from second-hand shops and sell them on Ebay for huge markups.

I wonder just how much money the average person would make from this, taking into account all the fees you pay. Ebay charges a fee for listing something, a fee when you sell something and they also get you again if you use PayPal 'cos they own that too! Then there's the time factor... let's say you earn £150 a week clear profit from Ebay. How many hours did you spend taking photos of your items, advertising them on the site, then taking the payment, packing the item up and then mailing them out? Can you guarantee you'll earn this every week?

My final objection to the site is this, and it may sound superficial. I don't like the design. It's messy. It's ugly. It's not intuitive for me to use. It looks very amateurish and there are few blocks in place to stop people adding malicious code to their auction pages to trick your browser into doing something you don't want it to.

There's clearly only ever one guaranteed winner with Ebay...

...and that's Ebay themselves.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Back online

Last week my desktop PC finally gave up the ghost so I decided to order a shiny new laptop to replace it. After spending hours trawling round the net comparing deals I finally settled on an Acer laptop from AcerNotebooks.co.uk.

It wasn't delivered on the day they promised but after a phone call to a nice lady in the customer services department I had it by 8am the next morning. I'm VERY impressed with the machine itself; the screen is gorgeous, the hard-drive is large for a laptop, there's wireless networking built-in, as well as dual format DVD burner. It's easily as fast as my old desktop machine, but it's MUCH quieter (almost silent - my desktop sounded like a vacuum cleaner) and it's slim and lightweight too (that reminds me, about that diet...)

I hope that I haven't lost any data on the hard-drives which are still sitting in the desktop PC. I'm going to buy an IDE-to-USB adaptor which will allow me to connect the hard-drives to the laptop and hopefully extract whatever's on them.

From this point on, I'm going to have a back-up routine in place, as hardware is replaceable but the data contained therein often isn't.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Phobias

I hate spiders. I mean seriously... I can't stand the little black 8-legged freaks. If they left me alone forever and didn't ever come near me then I'd be very happy. Not only that, I could guarantee I would never suck them up with a vacuum, drown them in the bath or batter them to death with a very long broom.

I know where the phobia came from. When I was a child, we'd be sitting peacefully at home when suddenly my mother would erupt in an explosion of anger and swear words, all directed at the black blob on the wall. She would leap onto the sofa, throw whatever was near to hand at it, all the time shouting and cursing as if it was the devil incarnate. Naturally, this had a huge impact on my brother and me, and we would be scared witless, cowering on the sofa, terrified of the threat my mum had identified.

I was chatting to Rachel tonight about spiders and she trotted out the old cliche about them being more afraid of us than we are of them. Where did this particular expression originate I wonder? I guess wherever is not important as it is not true: I am CLEARLY a helluva lot more afraid of the 8-legged monster than it is of me! See how it nonchalantly wanders and meanders all over my wall, invading my space, not a care in the world (apart from maybe "I wonder if any flies have fallen into my trap yet, I feel racther peckish").

Meanwhile, I've dashed out of the room to call for assistance from a neighbour, begging them to move this thing from my room before it goes into hiding. If the neighbour's not in, or deliberately ignoring me(!), then I'm planning to see if I can get a late room at a local B&B, anything so I don't have to face this beast that awaits me.

To those of you reading this without such a phobia you probably have me written off as a mad cow. That may well be true, who am I to judge? But to those of you who share my affliction, I'm sure you not only empathise completely, but are now busy checking the walls and corners of the room just in case there's a spider watching you read this.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Universal Laws

For reasons I cannot yet fathom, there seems to be certain fundamental but cruel laws that govern this universe.

For example: money is so hard to earn yet it's so easy to spend. Losing weight (and keeping it off) takes a lot of determination yet putting it on (and keeping it there) can be done with no great hardship. In fact, it's fun!

The best medicines seem to taste the worst, you have to be cruel to be kind, and it hurts more to be cut by a blunt knife than a sharp one.

I'm aiming to do two difficult things over the next few months: save money and lose weight. Now, why do I get this funny feeling it's going to be the other way round?

Wachowski Siblings

I'm not sure for how much longer we can refer to the Wachowski Brothers (Andy and Larry) as "brothers". Larry's cross-dressing has developed from wearing wigs and dresses in private to growing his hair long and being seen in public more and more frequently as Lana. I wonder when the official announcement will come that Lana has had her Sexual Reassignment Surgery?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Picture of a bird in bed


I'm conscious that so far I haven't posted any pictures on this blog. To remedy this, here is an exclusive look at the first ever recorded case of a resident of Britain suffering from Avian Flu.

Interesting read

The good thing about the internet is, it's not just for porn. I know some of you may find this hard to believe, but it can actually carry information in the form of words, rather than pictures! I've compiled a short list of links to some articles and essays I found to be particularly stimulating. They're long enough to be interesting but short enough to print off and read when you're not at your computer.

Paul Graham (the man who suggested using Bayesian filtering techniques to reduce the amount of spam we receive in our inboxes) made his millions in the DotCom era. I recommend you read How To Do What You Love and How To Make Wealth as both are well written and thought-provoking. More of his essays here.

Isaac Asmimov was one of my favourite sci-fi authors and he once wrote a very haunting short story. I don't want to give anything away, but have a read of it here and tell me what you think. From reading people's opinions of the story online, I guess it's like marmite - you either love it or hate it.

While more sci and less fi, the late Carl Sagan was rare amongst scientists in that he was able to convey a sense of awe and wonder about the universe to lay people yet still enrich their knowledge at the same time. My favourite piece of his writing is from 1996 when he talks about the Pale Blue Dot we all inhabit. Sadly, he died later that year.

Being slightly unpalatable was probably the author's intention of the next piece. A highly sophisticated alien intelligence discover the human race and are most disgusted to discover that we're made out of meat. Pretty gross when you think about it, yet sadly true all the same.

Finally, if you're still hungry for more, I've put some links down the right-hand side of this blog which will most likely stay here permanently. Check out James Randi's past newsletters (he's ill at the moment so not writing the current ones), Digg is a technology-based news blog which is very popular and is updated many times a day and saving the best 'til last...the awesome Wikipedia.

Gmail invites

I still have 99 invites to use up for Google's Gmail service. It's the best email service I know of, but at the moment it's an invite-only affair so if you want to see what all the fuss is about, leave a commment with your email address and I'll send you an invite so you can sign up.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

V for Vendetta

Despite feeling under the weather on Saturday, I went to the cinema with Rachel to see V for Vendetta, the film based on the comic book from the '80s. And boy, was I pleased I did.

The last film I had seen before this was Serenity. Serenity is a very ok film. I'd not seen Firefly (the series the film is based on) so my take on the film was perhaps different than some, but I found it to be funny in places, good in places and starkravingly average in places. It was just too...predictable. Hackneyed. A popcorn movie. A way to spend 90 minutes without being too bored. The CGI spaceships looked exactly like CGI spaceships. I thought the idea of CGI was to look like the real thing? Anyway, I digress.

The reason I mention this is because I was pleasantly surprised by just how thoroughly good Vendetta was. It was original. It was intelligent. It was arty without being pretentious and it was a damn fine film. Go and see it!

Hollywood Cliches

At the end of the day, cliches should be avoided like the plague. Honestly. There's simply no excuse for them!

Since I met Rachel I've been watching a lot of films. We go to the cinema every weekend, and I often watch a film at Nikki's during the week, so I guess I've probably seen about 25-30 films this year alone.

I have noticed that there are as many cliches alive and well in the movie industry as there are in every-day language.

I guess my film tastes are changing as I get older, but I'm probably also becoming more cynical. The movie industry is enourmous... a typical budget for a film nowadays is probably about $80m with many going way above that. As you can imagine, with that kind of investment, the investors want to play things safe - they don't want to invest money in a film which the audience doesn't understand, or is offended by and therefore stays away from the cinema in droves.

Over the years, the Powers That Be in Hollywood and elsewhere have devised movie templates, or recipes if you like, and they cling to these like a one-armed man hanging from a branch. For example:

  • a Hollywood movie should always have a happy ending

  • there should always be a love scene. Not only that, but the attraction between characters should be glaringly obvious (yet they often act as if in denial).

  • the main hero never gets killed*


*(there are a few rare exceptions to this but if the hero DOES die then it's always at the end of the film, and it's designed as a tear jerker to give the film some poignancy).

Personally I hate this her-never-dying rule because if, 20 minutes into the movie, he is confronted by seemingly impossible odds, his death is surely imminent, you just know beyond doubt that no matter what happens he is going to survive.

Not only that, he'll save the day at the end of the film, get the girl, and then she'll fall in love with him because he's so damn macho.

Mind if I vomit?

New blog

Well, I've set up a blog again and can't think of much to say right now, typical! Maybe now it's done I'll get round to actually writing something for a change... (stranger things have happened)