Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sonic Delight At Mamuska Night

Hey, it's another Mamuska Night in Limerick. "Join us again for a new season of short masterpieces, presented in the context of an informal choreographed environment with the freedom to chat and move around at any time. A unique place to be inspired and socialise." It's free in and there's a cash bar, so where else would you rather be this Friday at 8pm?

As in the last two events, I will be providing the sound environment. You never can tell what will be played, everything from popular favourites like Massive Attack and Diana Ross to Wilco, Pere Ubu and Tortoise. In an attempt to redefine eclecticism I've mixed the original Godzilla theme tune, Bulgarian wedding songs, local heroes Windings, acoustic covers of Aphex Twin, Faust, The Raincoats... the list goes on.

As well you will hear tracks unreleased anywhere else, as I play from some of my own back catalogue and maybe even create new sonic masterpieces on the spot. Plus some special mash-ups and a few mistakes.

Yes, often the music between the performances goes unnoticed. But that's only because you're just not listening!

Visit the Mamuska Night blog (which I maintain) for more info on this event and the entire network, which has spread to Leeds and Tokyo.
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Best Of The Web? Really?

moluv screenshot

Amid the profusion of egotistical blogs, unreadably chatty MySpace pages, boring corporate masks and broken links, the web contains a few nice sites. How to find them? Well, you could rely on those web portals who make it their business to seek out the best of this world wide thingy. Here I'll take a critical look at one of these, Moluv's Picks.

To start with, I tried to understand the name of this site. Is Moluv a proper name, or is it some sort of cool street slang? Y'know "I got mo' luv for these sites!" The site name (with its possessive apostrophe) implies the former, the logo design the latter.

And then there's this circular doo-thingy in the top-left. It moves when I mouse it but doesn't actually do anything. Hmmm.

Looking around the page I see there's a section called "WORDS" subtitled "blurbs" which seems to be a news feed. Elsewhere there's a place to submit an URL (why?) below which there's a search bar. Although I haven't typed anything in, it's showing 25 hits. These appear to be site links but don't look anything like normal links. What exactly are these? Why are they here? What criteria is used to show them?

In the top-right there's some tiny text that says "NICE WEB SITES mmmm..." and some image boxes that once again give me no understanding of their purpose. They've got t-shirts on display under this and then a block for featured sites.

Further down the page there are Resources ("the best portals period") and Friends ("These cats either do what we do, or help us do what we do, and they've been doing it for a long time") and even "Moluv All-Time Favorites".

That's a lot of links. And I haven't even mentioned "Community" and several other home page blocks, because they are more self-explanatory.

I am slowly getting the idea that this site is something about collecting up other nice sites. But I have no idea how or why. Nor do I have any reason to understand why links should be in one place or another. This is an insanely busy screen with no logic behind its organisation. Six different areas for site links? Surely that's a few too many.

Things don't get any better when I start to click on what are reputably "the best portals period". Since these are listed in a Flash application, I have no control over how to open them. I get a new browser window whether I want one or not. And I don't, by the way. The more prosaic HTML links in "All-Time Favorites" function much better for me, but still have a few problems.

First, some of these sites are dead, stale, or on vacation. Second, many of them are simply home pages for design agencies. That's just not so interesting. Instead of forcing me to weed through 55 supposedly unmissable sites, I'd be a lot happier to have 10 or fewer. Then I'd know the editors of said list(s) had done their homework and weren't just using a shotgun approach.

Why go to a portal? For that matter, why read a blog like this one? Because you value the knowledge, experience and opinions of the writer(s). You want them to be your guide. You want to save time and energy by finding an ally who appreciates the same things you do. You want to offload some of the tedious web browsing work to them.

For me, Moluv fails completely on these counts. As it also fails on basic design, organisation, typography and English usage.

I think that's a problem with these "best of the web" portals. They're just too darned busy being cool. And their choices for best sites tend to be the same. Full of Flash and sizzle, fancy graphics and high-bandwidth content, they fail to impress on the very basic level of content and usability.

I've boiled down the portals I've found to four popular ones you may find useful. Still, they may not be the very best. I'm holding some in reserve. And I'm still looking for something better, portals which strive to promote good design, not just flashy design.

Where do you go for the best of the web? In a follow-up article I'll reveal my favourites. And yours too.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Using .BIN, .ISO And Virtual CD Drives

An image of a CD may be stored as a file in several different formats. Here's what they are and how to manipulate them, assuming you are running Windows XP.

This article will answer several key questions:
1. How do I recreate a missing .CUE file?
2. How do I convert from .BIN to .ISO?
3. How do I directly access a .BIN as a virtual CD?

The first common format involves two files. The .BIN is a large binary image of the disc. The .CUE is a small text file describing this image. If this happens to be missing, you can create your own using any text editor. For a PC simply put in the following, verbatim except for the file name:
FILE "filename.BIN" BINARY
TRACK 01 MODE1/2352
INDEX 01 00:00:00

The other popular format for a disk image is an .ISO file.

If you need to convert a .BIN file to an .ISO, use this conversion programme from, the website of a Dutch IT Manager.

There are further formats specific to one software product or another: .IMG, .MDF, .NRG and so on.

CD image files were meant for one simple purpose: from them you can directly burn a CD, without your software having to compile together multiple files, a directory structure, etc. Most CD burning software will handle this task.

But often you might wish to access the files on the image directly, without wasting a blank CD. For this task you need some sort of virtual CD product. There are three free choices.

The first is provided by Microsoft themselves, but is unsupported and only described in the FAQ for their MSDN product. The question "What are ISO image files and how do I use them?" links to their Virtual CD-ROM Control Panel.

The second, Daemon Tools, is commonly used by game hackers, since it gets around certain copy protection schemes.

The third is Virtual CloneDrive, a free product from the company SlySoft, who make a variety of (commercial) disk burning products.

I tried the last of these. When you run it, the result is a new drive with a cute sheep icon. The context menu gives you a "mount" option, from which you pick the .BIN in question. The drive then appears like any other. It even gave me a "drive not ready" error before it read the data!

From there you can drag and drop the data off the "disk". Simple.

One small note. Though you can unmount the disk after use, there appears to be no way to unload the virtual drive software itself.
Monday, January 29, 2007

Being A Professional Programmer

So, you want to be a professional programmer? Love hacking systems and writing reams of code? Well, I've got a shock for you. Being a programmer is not all about coding. In fact, that's not even the tip of the iceberg. Read on for the domains of knowledge you will have to master to make a living (especially if you are self-employed).

Time Management: Otherwise all the rest is a waste. On the personal side, know when to stop working and how to balance family, friends, and your job. On the programmer side, know how much time to spend on the different stages of a job, and how to balance one client with another.

Project Management: Know how to keep everything from specifications to delivery objectives organised, but without getting bogged down in micro-managing every step.

Client Management: Includes handling expectations, diplomacy and other yucky stuff. If you've never said "no" to a client, likely you're not doing too well. And, yes, if you're employed substitute "boss" for "client".

Financial Management: Know what you're worth and what to charge so you don't go broke.

Ethics: Get yourself a "code" that means more than ones and zeroes. Respect yourself, your client, your community, and maybe even the whole darned world.

Communications: Learn to effectively use words, images, the telephone, the net and any other media that might crop up. Network with others, share skills, delegate and accept help when it's needed.

Documentation: For your users, your partners, your client but most of all... yourself. Writing docs should be the first thing you do, as well as the last.

Education: Never stop learning. There are so many free resources that it's just not acceptable to stand still for long.

Cross-Fertilisation: Have a look at graphic design, architecture, philosophy... whatever fields catch your fancy. What can you apply from these to your profession? Likely more than you realise.

Develop an action plan in each of these domains.


Now think about programming.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Post-Punk Reissues: The Top by The Cure

The Top
I am fascinated with the re-issues of various key post-punk bands that have been issued over the past couple of years. Ill-served in their initial rushed CD releases, groups like The Cure, The Boomtown Rats and Siouxsie & the Banshees are finally getting their just desserts. Or are they?

The re-issue project for The Cure is well underway. First thing out was the four-disk boxed set Join The Dots, chock full of b-sides and rarities. The first album followed and then the next three together.

Each of these releases has followed a similar path. First comes a double CD version, the first disk containing the original album, the second including home demos, unreleased takes, live versions and other glimpses into the creative process. In each case these tracks do not overlap with the boxed set.

The re-issues are "remastered" though I often shy away in fear when I see that label. I know a thing or two about mastering and realise that there are possibilities for good or bad if someone other than the original producer/mastering engineer is let loose on the project.

For the good, it is possible to clarify the sound using cleaner transfer processes and digital noise reduction. For the bad, remastering often means squishing the dynamic range to make everything sound louder. At its worst this creates a distorted smudged mess.

The remastering on The Cure project is brilliant. The music is rendered in a clarity that brings to life the inherent textures and increases the soul-gripping power of the music. I have not compared but am sure there is additional compression/limiting being applied. However, it is judicious and appropriate.

After listening to Three Imaginary Boys, 17 Seconds, Faith and Pornography I thought the best was over. With their fourth album Robert Smith had plumbed the Joy Division depths as far as he could. Subsequently he bounced back with the famous "Lovecats" period. (These singles were originally compiled on Japanese Whispers, a record that will not be re-issued as the tracks have found homes elsewhere.)

But a new set of three remastered albums is out. I must say that the cleanup job has done wonders on the fifth album, The Top, a sprawling drunken mess that marks the beginning of The Cure's "fat" period. This is not simply an unkind reference to Smith's corpulence, but an appropriate adjective for the sprawling ungainly music. While it is true that following this record the group would recover and pump out hit after hit, some of them lovely shimmering delights, they would never again "matter" in quite the same way.

The bonus disk here contains four live "bootleg" tracks including the version of "Forever" from 15 May 1984 in Paris. Collectors will note that with this recording the entirety of the 1984 cassette Curiosity has now made it to CD.

Of significant interest are the four non-album demo recordings, including the mythic "Ariel". After so long unreleased this was a bit of a disappointment. Indeed I prefer the more direct take from the Kid Jensen Session. Fans may also like to hear demos of "The Caterpillar" and its two b-sides "Throw Your Foot" and "Happy The Man", along with four other album tracks. Many of these sound underdone, though similar enough to the finished results; not much interest here, then.

Finally, there are alternative studio mixes of "Dressing Up" and "Wailing Wall", giving us almost the entirety of The Top in a different take.

The only version I find interesting is "The Caterpillar" itself, as it sounds like some hybrid of the finished single and Pornography, a missing link between gloom and glee.

Anyone who is a true Cure devotee will need this double disk issue. For the rest of you I recommend waiting for the single disk release. The remastering has given it a new lease of life.

I will write more of such re-issues shortly.

Support this site by buying The Top from Amazon through the following links.

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Or, start with those links and buy anything at all from Amazon. Your purchases are at the same discounted rates, but a portion of Amazon's profits instead go to help this site. Thank you.
Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Prisoner Revisited

I've just rewatched the incredible 1967 television series The Prisoner, after purchasing the "35th Anniversary" boxed set.

The Prisoner is like an old friend. I first came across it in the early eighties in television listings, but never bothered watching since I assumed it to be a WWII Great Escape type of show. I could not have been more wrong!

My first viewings occurred in the most unusual circumstance. There was a television set hung from the ceiling of a stairwell common area at my university. Generally this was turned off but rarely (and randomly) it was on. Descending the staircase one day I happened to notice a rather strange apparition: a man in a fairytale folly of a village, part Italian, part fantasy. The unusual dialogue and set pieces (human chess game) captivated me immediately.

The sound was low and usually obscured by passing students, the video signal was intermittent and the physical environment not conducive to watching. Nonetheless I found myself drawn to the stairwell and hoping I could catch more of this strange programme. To this day I have never figured out who was playing the tapes. Considering the subject matter, this seems all too appropriate.

Later I discovered other fans, some of whom became life-long companions, like my good friend Ed. Once we had the show on video we enjoyed it over and over, going so far as to celebrate the birthday of No. 6 every March.

Watching the DVDs has been a revelation, in part due to the amazing video quality and in part because allowing a gap of several years between viewings has refreshed my powers of observation. Also, I am sharing the experience with two Prisoner novices, which tends to enhance perspective.

I am currently fascinated with the problem of episode ordering. It is known that the broadcast order is not the order desired by the producers, and was not even the same in the UK and North America. It is also obvious from even a cursory viewing that it is inconsistent and aesthetically inferior.

In a follow-up post I will attempt an analysis. For now I will just enjoy the show.

Some words about the DVD releases. In the UK Carleton has the programmes in original broadcast sequence on five discs with a sixth for bonus material. In North America the episodes have been stretched over 10 discs with a non-broadcast ordering that is unsatisfactory.

Both sets have similar extras, but there are some differences. The US set has the alternate version of "The Chimes of Big Ben" but the UK also has the alternate "Arrival". Both have the poor documentary "The Prisoner Video Companion" which contains so many spoilers that it is useless for beginners, and so much recycled footage that it is boring for those who have watched the show.

Items like the intro and extro without text are of interest only to the most rabid fans. The promotional trailers illustrate that the show was misleadingly sold as a spy thriller. Trivia info and background on the No.2 actors is welcome. The interactive map of the Village makes a nice DVD menu as well (as used on the UK bonus disc).

The UK bonus disc also contains a short documentary on Prisoner memorabilia that then veers off into spoiler territory. There is also a cute Renault advert. I think neither of these are on the US version. However the US set contains a documentary on the shooting location and a nice booklet.

In summary, I would have to recommend the UK set to anyone who can handle Region 2 disks.

Support this site by buying The Prisoner from Amazon through the following links.

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Or, start with those links and buy anything else from Amazon. Your purchases are at the same discounted rates, but a portion of Amazon's profits instead go to help this site. Thank you.
Friday, January 05, 2007

One Laptop Per Child Prototypes Out

Late last year the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative released working prototypes of their computers. This is an amazing development for those interested in technological advances, education, or human-computer interaction.

What looked like a pipe-dream is becoming a reality!

For those who don't know, OLPC is a humanitarian educational project designed to bring a cheap, durable and efficient computer to children in the poorest parts of the world. Initial skepticism about the need for computer technology in these conditions can be assuaged by reading the wiki.

The first computer, the B1, is a technological marvel. It automatically connects to others nearby to create a peer-to-peer network that enables collaborative learning and sharing of resources. The screen is more than double the resolution of those commonly used, and yet requires a fraction of the power. In fact the laptop as a whole consumes one-tenth of what a normal computer needs.

It has no hard drive but rather half a GB of flash RAM. This device is not designed for storage but rather as an enabling tool. For connectivity there's USB ports and an SD slot. A microphone and speaker are supplemented with audio input and output sockets. Intriguingly the input can also be used for other environmental sensors, allowing the computer to be used as a component in a dynamic sensing array.

Since much of the developing worlds has limited access to power, a key element in the design is the ability to charge the battery using a variety of physical devices; currently a crank, pedal, or pull-cord are available.

There's a lot more cool stuff. The touchpad is also a writing sensor. There are two sets of dedicated cursor keys for games. The wireless networking is the best available in any computer. It's built without recourse to hazardous materials. There's a built in video camera.

You can view lots of pictures of the B1, or read in detail about the hardware.

I discuss the Python development environment over on my sister site, Diagrammes Modernes.

This is a brilliant device that I hope will influence commercial domestic computer design. The first batch will ship by the middle of the year.

If I could I'd buy six. Especially if they came in black!
Friday, January 05, 2007

Developing For the One Laptop Per Child Computer

One of the most amazing things about the One Laptop Per Child computer is the new User Interface. It's not every day that someone decides to reinvent the GUI wheel. Though the launch of the system is not exactly breaking news (my article at The Theatre of Noise is playing catch-up), not everyone may be aware of how easy it is to develop for the operating system. In fact, all you need is Python!

Though few of us have working prototypes of the OLPC computer, it is possible to install the OS, Sugar, on a standard computer running Windows, Mac OS, or UNIX. However, the process requires technical smarts and a lot of hacking.

Thankfully, this step can be skipped entirely. Simply write your app in Python and use the PyGTK module to access the UI library GTK. Your finished application should run perfectly on the OLPC!

Of course running under Sugar would be recommended for the final testing of your app. But nonetheless this is an excellent example of leveraging Python's strengths as a cross-platform development tool.

The development page on the wiki provides a few additional tips. The Human Interface Guidelines provide a fascinating insight into the UI. In particular, the desktop metaphor has been replaced with the community metaphor, and the idea of "applications" with "activities".

I think we will be amazed when we see what comes out of this venture.