Technology

The great HD debate

Ethelred IIWe have two TVs in our house, one HD and one standard def; one sits in the living room, and the other in the master bedroom. We also have two cable receivers–funnily enough, one HD and one standard def, with one in the living room and one in the master bedroom.

Now, gentle reader, you would of course be forgiven for presuming that the HD television and receiver are together in one room, with the standard def together in the other. But, as is ever the way of things in tales such as these, that is unfortunately not the case. Our HD TV sits in the bedroom with only the images the standard def receiver can supply it with, while the HD receiver in the living room has only the standard def TV for company.

Now, there’s no question that the HD TV has to stay in our bedroom; it is, of course, a flatpanel, and that combined with its weight mean that it would be much easier for a two-year-old, left on his own with no one but Caillou, Elmo and Lightning McQueen for an hour or two in the early mornings, to inadvertently (or even advertently) knock it over. And digitial cable customers might be able to guess why the HD receiver is in the living room–because it’s also our DVR.

Ever since we got the HD TV as a Christmas present from Lisa to me,* we’ve been having a sporadic debate over whether or not to switch the receivers round. The core problem, of course, is deciding if we’re willing to trap ourselves in the bedroom when we watch the DVR–especially since for the past week or so, at the behest of neither Lisa nor myself, the DVR has been playing the movie Cars two or three times a day. (Luigi follow only the Ferraris!)

I think overall that Lisa leans toward leaving the receivers where they are, whereas I lean toward switching them round. But neither of us has a firm, definite stand on the matter. But sometimes it can be frustrating looking at that TV on top of my chest of drawers and knowing just what it could be capable of given the chance.

I

*I was under the impression that I was helping Boy unwrap a large present for him; I’d been fully aware of the large wrapped present being hidden in the guest bathroom shower for several weeks:


Photo SharingVideo SharingPhoto Printing

(Facebook readers: video embedded in the original post)

On Christmas afternoon, a boy amongst toys …

Christmas

This picture actually taken with the new toy I received. Click on the image and you should actually be able to identify some of the video football players on the TV screen by name.

Some other pictures taken with this camera:

Claire

Boy

Boy

I

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The perfect scam

Leela (Louise Jameson)Okay, so there are lots of people who’ve been in the same situation I have, and I’m sure they all felt just as outraged as I do, but that doesn’t make me feel any better.

Laptop power cords have two components. The first is the cord that runs from the wall outlet to the power unit. This is essentially just an extension/adaptor cord, and probably would have a fair market value of around ten bucks. The second component is the power unit itself, with the cord that plugs into the back of your laptop. This is quite a significant chunk of technology, and–depending on what sort of quality you’re expecting–can reasonably be priced around fifty to over a hundred dollars.

The problem with my laptop power cord–as I would imagine is the problem for most people who have problems with their laptop power cords–was with the simple cord that connects to the wall; its connection had become loose. So how much did I have to pay to replace this $10 cord?

A good deal more than $10, let me tell you. Because of course, I had to buy a complete new power unit. Because the cord into the wall simply isn’t sold separately.

What a perfect, industry-wide scam.

I

Inheritance
Words yesterday: 1049
Words total: 42,567

Time spent writing: Ninety minutes (1pm-2.30)
Reason for stopping: Quota
Food: Roast beef sandwich

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My Hero of Alexandria

The Rise and Fall of AlexandriaSince I’ve been working for the past several days on Inheritance instead of on The Second Murderer, I’ve also taken a break from reading Gai-Jin (I’m on about page eight hundred out of 1234) to finish up The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, which I must admit I sort of broke off from when my agent and I had a discussion of what sort of genre I should be writing.

The very next chapter I’ve come to is on Hero* of Alexandria, the great philosopher of the centuries after Egypt’s conquest by Rome (in 30 BC). Hero really represents a fusion of the Greek idealisation of pure theory with the Roman obsession with practical application. Using an in depth understanding of hydraulics and pneumatics, he was able to populate the various temples of Alexandria.

Alexandria was the cultural capital of the Eastern Mediterranean, and during the centuries of the pre-Nicaean Roman Empire (a period when the peoples of the Empire, especially in the Greek-speaking East, were undergoing a spiritual crisis and seeking out alternative faiths in a manner not unlike what’s happening in the West nowadays) the city teemed with literally hundreds of cults (in the ancient history sense of the word), including Judaism and Christianity. All these hundreds of temples had to compete for people’s allegiance (and donations), and Hero was able to effectively provide them with “miracles” they could display–a temple whose doors opened when the fire outside it was lit and closed when the fire went out; a ball that appeared to dance through the air because it was suspended by the hot, invisible steam rising from the steam engine beneath it**; a trumpet held in the hands of an automaton (clockwork statue) that sounded through the power of compressed air. Basically he laid the basis for an industrial revolution, though it never subsequently went anywhere.

But what I love about Hero is his book Pneumatica, where he lays out the plans for these “miracles” as simple geometric word problems. We all remember problems like them from our geometry classes, the sort of thing that starts with Let line segment AB … or For right triangle ABC…. Well, Hero has managed the best opening proposition I’ve ever found for a geometry word problem: Let ABCD be a sacrificial vessel or treasure chest.

I

*or Heron of Alexandria if we transliterate his name directly from the Ancient Greek, as scholarship nowadays generally prefers, rather than first filtering it through the Latin.

**The source of the urban myth that the Romans developed a steam engine but used it only as a child’s toy. It wasn’t a child’s toy, it was used for religious worship.

Inheritance
Words yesterday: 1179
Words total: 27,352

Time spent writing: Two hours (2.30-3pm, 10.30-midnight)
Reason for stopping: Quota
Food: Lisa made the fettucine, peas and bacon thing from the Broward Dining Center again
Darling: And if on occasion a passerby should happen to glimpse some momentary unnatural movement from a shadow out the corner of their eye, when they turned to look more closely they would find that they had simply imagined it.
Tyop: Well, when I was typing tyop it came out tpyo.
Words that boggled Word: unfocusing

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The baby hacker

Richard Franklin as Mike YatesSo when I left Boy sitting at my laptop (because he likes to bang on the keyboard), it was quite definitely turned off.

After about ten minutes or so, cries of “All done! All done!” began echoing through our flat. I sort of just ignored them, because Boy is fully capable of getting down from the chair himself when he’s finished. (Perhaps I should have wondered why he was nevertheless requesting help, but it’s not uncommon for toddlers to want things done for them that they are already capable of doing themselves; generally they just need a little encouragement to do it on their own.)

A few minutes later, he came running through to the living room and stopped in front of me, pointing back to the master bedroom (where the laptop is) and continuing to say, “All done! All done!” Curious as to what he was so worked up about, I followed him back through.

Let me reiterate that when I left him, the laptop was off. And when it boots up, the laptop wants to know whether it’s me or Lisa who has turned it on.

Not only, therefore, had Boy managed to turn the laptop on–he’d also managed to log in. And on the desktop he’d managed to open for himself Weatherbug, Microsoft Excel, Instant Messenger, a Windows Help window, Apple Quicktime and two (2!) Internet Explorer windows.

Lest I get too excited about the baby genius living in our midst, however, when I re-emerged from the master bedroom, Boy was marching around the living room with a bowl turned upside down over his head shouting, “Hat! Hat! Hat!”

I

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Deja vu all over again

The second Doctor and Zoe become animatedLisa and I have been watching the recently released DVD of “The Invasion”, a Doctor Who adventure from 1968. This has been quite a new experience for me, because I’ve never seen “The Invasion” before.

Though I’ve seen the classic series’s entire 26-year run in reruns, but I’ve only seen the fully extant serials.* There are a number of serials–27 in all–from the programme’s first six seasons (1963-69) with either some or all of their episodes missing, due to the BBC’s practise during the 1970s (a time when England had only two television channels and VCRs were a thing of the future) of making space in their library archive by, essentially, taping over older programming.

“The Invasion” is one such orphaned serial, missing two of its eight episodes. But for the DVD release, Cosgrove Hall, the studio that did DangerMouse in the 1980s and the Doctor Who fortieth anniversary web cartoon Scream of the Shalka (starring Richard E. Grant as the Doctor and, interestingly enough, Sir Derek Jacobi as the Master), have taken the two missing episodes’ soundtracks (parts one and four) and set to them an animated reconstruction. And voila–we have a brand new, forty-year-old Doctor Who adventure.

'The Invasion': The Cybermen depart St Paul's Cathedral following Sunday serviceSo far Lisa and I are three episodes into “The Invasion”, and we both agree that we’re impressed–particularly with the animated episode one, which we both think turned out wonderfully spooky and noirish; in a way, the black-and-white animation lends itself to the eerie incidental music and the we’re-not-quite-sure-what’s-going-on atmosphere of the story’s early parts even more than the live action part two does. I’m really hopeful that the BBC finds their experiment with “The Invasion” successful enough that they decide to start repeating it with other serials who are only missing an episode or two.

What’s really caught my notice, though, is how prescient the programme’s production staff seems to have been with “The Invasion”. Though produced in 1968, the serial is set in 1975, so there are a number of “slightly futuristic” touches to the Britain it depicts.** And pretty much, universally, they’ve been right–even if it did take us till much later than 1975 to get them. In the first three episodes we’ve seen:

1. A computerised, automated telephone-answering system at a corporate headquarters, that specifies to the caller what sort of input it needs and then responds to simple voice commands;

2. A device that looks and acts a whole lot like a cell phone;

3. Microchips! Referred to as “micro monolithic circuitry”;

4. Disposable electronic devices (in this case, a transistor radio), like the disposable cameras that have permeated our society;

5. Webcams! Tobias Vaughn maintains a visual surveillance system throughout International Electromatics’s headquarters, and this system takes the form of cameras that are small, white spheres about the size of a tennis ball, which can be placed unobtrusively at points in rooms where they won’t be noticed, like on cluttered shelves. And they really do look just like webcams.

Interestingly, one of the DVD extras notes that the BBC received a letter of complaint from a junior viewer upon the serial’s first transmission, chiding the production team for use of the word “quid”–the viewer pointed out that Britain would certainly have a decimalised currency by 1975, so “quid” would be an obsolete term. Yet while we had indeed decimalised by 1975, the decimalised currency continued to be called the pound, so in fact the slang quid remained perfectly valid. (Incidentally, Doctor Who had predicted the decimalisation of British currency in its very first episode, “An Unearthly Child”, in 1963–nine years early.)

I

*I’ve also seen those episodes contained on the Lost in Time three-disc DVD set, containing all available episodes from those serials that only have one or two extant episodes.

**Coming at the beginning of Doctor Who’s sixth season, “The Invasion” was actually a sort of pilot for the radical redesign the programme would undergo prior to its seventh season, when the Doctor, instead of travelling throughout all of space and time, was exiled to Earth in the mid-1970s. As such, the serial sets up a number of elements Doctor Who would need for this new format, most importantly by introducing UNIT (the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), the military organisation the Doctor would spend the first half of the 1970s assisting fend off alien invasions of Earth, and establishing Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (first appearing in “The Web of Fear”, then only a colonel) as UNIT’s CO. That’s another reason I’m so excited about seeing “The Invasion”–its importance in Doctor Who’s overall continuity.

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Cars are unalarming

Has any car theft ever been stopped by a presence of a car alarm?

Or were they invented just to keep me awake all night?

Seriously, have you ever heard a car alarm and thought, Gee, I should go make sure that person’s car is all right? Or have you thought, Oh, shut up?

I

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Perhaps if the commentary were being performed through interpretive dance

Each of my Doctor Who series 2 DVDs have three episodes per disc. So far, on each disc two episodes have a conventional commentary audio track, while the third episode has what is described as “In Vision Commentary”.

So far as I can tell, “In Vision Commentary” has two effects:

(1) Instead of simply playing an episode and switching the audio track to the commentary, I now have to go into the “Setup” menu and turn on the commentary before watching the episode.

(2) The bottom right hand quadrant of the picture is completely obscured.

Other than those two effects, what could possibly be the point of forcing me to watch 45 minutes of three people sitting in a room staring at an offscreen television monitor when I want to listen to the commentary?

I

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The best argument against self-publishing

Vanity publishing has always existed, of course, but with the internet age it’s become much more accessible to would-be authors and, consequently, has done a fair job of trying to make itself more respectable–for instance, by replacing the phrase vanity publishing with self-publishing. Nowadays, a self-publishing author can say his or her book is available through a major bookseller, because what they mean is that their book is available through a major online bookseller–it’s a simple thing for the author to get their book listed at amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com because on-demand technology means that those vendors don’t actually have to keep a copy of the book in their warehouse (where it would lose them money by taking up shelf-space that could be occupied by a book that will actually sell). If someone actually does order a copy of the book, they simply print and bind it once the order has been placed and ship it out.

Getting your self-published book into a brick-and-mortar bookshop, on the other hand, is rather tougher. Unlike real books, self-published or print-on-demand books cannot be returned to their publisher for credit when the book fails to sell. Thus, if we bring a self-published book into the store, we’re stuck with it sitting on the shelf for ever. Usually we therefore only bring such a book into the store if a customer orders it (which leads to the issue of self-published authors posing as customers and ordering the book into the store, then never picking it up so that we’re stuck with it on our shelves).

A fair few such books pass through my hands at work, either as customer orders or when we order a bunch of copies of a given book in because the author will be doing a signing. And I have to say, the best argument against self-publishing is reading the back cover of a self-published book. I have yet to find one where I haven’t been forced to conclude that there’s a good reason this book didn’t get published by a real publisher and that the author is just embarrassing themselves by publishing it in this format.

Most of the time, the blatant typographical or grammatical errors are enough to do it. Now, I wouldn’t blame an author for typoes within the book itself–self-publishing doesn’t have the extensive proofreading apparatus of real publishing, and it’s really easy for the odd few things to slip into an eighty-thousand word work (though few self-published works look like they exceed fifty thousand words, another reason why they shouldn’t be published in book form–they’re not actually books). But I’m not talking about within the text itself–I’m talking about the back cover, the one shot you have to speak to your prospective reader and get them to actually pay money for your book (or at least open it and consider paying). And yet virtually every self-published author seems to be too lazy (or perhaps simply too illiterate) to actually read the back-cover copy back to themselves to check that it’s actually able to be read.

There are the egregious misspellings–my favourite was the spiritual memoir whose subtitle was For Those Who Are Weighting for God in Their Life. There are the inappropriately capitalised words (The is an especially common one, like when an author talks about The Prophecy or even The Dallas Cowboys or The Beatles) that make the text look like a Wikipedia article. And there are sentence fragments, most of which come about because the sentence began with such a long and tortuously convoluted dependent clause that the author forgot that it wasn’t a complete sentence by the time they’d finished writing it. (An example, from a book we got in when I was at work on Monday: “While X and Y followed different paths and different lives that both led them to that same square on that fateful day in 1967.”) Errors like that can easily be caught simply by putting the copy aside for 24 hours after you’ve written it, then coming back to it and reading it once through.

Once they’ve managed to make their back cover text presentable, however–and I’d say fewer than a fifth make it that far–we then have the problem that the reason they’ve had to self-publish their book is because they’re just not very good authors, and it shows. Most of these things are written like third-grade book reports–one actually started with, “My Book is a novel whose plot details the lives of three men serving in the Pacific Fleet during World War II.” Everyone knows how important the first sentence of your novel is, right? Well the back cover is three times as important–and the first sentence of the back cover, exponentially more important than that.

The back cover is not a place for a dry, bland summary of your book (as often as not, including telling us the resolution). Nor is it the place to spend three quarters of your word count telling us about the thing that originally gave you the idea for the book, then saying, “But this book is not about that.” Nor is it the place to go rambling on about yourself, your spouse, your kids, your job or your pets–and it is certainly not the place to include little in-jokes that only you and your spouse or family are going to get, because do you know what that tells me, your reader? That tells me that your book is going to be full of dumb little in-jokes that I’m not going to get, too.

It’s possible there are valid self-published books–I certainly like the way print-on-demand publishing is being used to bring hard-to-find and out-of-print stuff back into print cheaply, whether the original book is forty years old or two hundred years old. But everything I’ve seen so far indicates to me that if you can’t find a publisher for your book, it’s not because the publisher doesn’t recognise your genius, it’s because your writing isn’t publishable. You’d be better served becoming a better writer than sinking your money into a public record of just how bad a writer you are.

I

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Apparently I’ve been a fan my whole life

iTunes and iPod goodness continue. After ascertaining for certain that I wouldn’t be able to find them in my sister’s or my brother-in-law’s music libraries, I caved in yesterday and bought two ELO albums, as well as the Clannad album Legend, the soundtrack for Robin of Sherwood.

The iTunes Music Store has an Essentials section, which, amongst other things, contains the seventy to 75 top songs for every year since 1960 (excluding, of course, those groups who are not yet available from iTunes, including the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Bee Gees and Sir Cliff Richard). Lisa and I have been going through the Essentials year by year, making a list of all the songs we want. So far we’ve reached 1968.

Now, I’ve been listening to ’60s music longer than I can remember, thanks to my parents. But I never had any context in which to listen to them. We didn’t sit around at home and listen to entire albums. I never talked with my parents about music. And I (obviously) wasn’t around when these were songs were first being released, so I didn’t have the opportunity that people of my parent’s generation did (or that I’ve had with songs that have been hits during my own lifetime) of being introduced them only a handful of great songs at a time, as they top the charts for several months and receive heavy airplay, allowing me to tag them in my mind both with the time and place to which they belong and with their singer.

Instead, I was mostly introduced to 60s music because all we ever listened to in the car when I was a little kid were oldies stations. This meant that I was given the entire body of 60s music in one giant lump, all the songs jumbled together at random, most often without even having the name of the singer attached. (I don’t know if they were already called oldies’ stations back in the mid-1980s, considering that much of their music was only fifteen years old or so, but I do seem to remember that they were already playing pretty much exclusively 60s music, not 50s music the same way they transitioned to combining the 70s with the 60s once we hit the year 2000.)

When ABC broadcast The Beatles Anthology in 1995, it came as a revelation to me. For three nights, I sat and watched (and listened) and learnt that dozens of these songs that I liked so much were sung by the same people. Since then, I’ve had the same experience (though never to the same degree) with several other 60s groups, including Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, Herman’s Hermits, the Who and Jefferson Airplane.

But my knowledge of the period still remains patchy at best. So as Lisa and I have been going through all these songs, I’ve come across countless songs that I can quite happily sing along to, but which I had no idea who they were sung by. And it turns out that there are several groups about whom I knew nothing, though I’ve been a fan of them my whole life–the Animals, the Byrds, the Hollies, the Lovin’ Spoonful and Peter, Paul and Mary.

You learn something new every day.

I

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