Friday, November 24, 2006

Robert Altman RIP

Robert Altman, one of the giants of American film, is gone from us, leaving behind a rich and complex legacy. An article in the L.A. Times contains tributes.

Perhaps his best lauded films are MASH (1970), which captured a pitch-black comedic tone amidst the horrors of war, and Nashville (1975), an stew of music, politics and very human relationships. This narrative structure, an intersecting collage of stories both related and not, set the template for many films to follow.

Altman experimented with genre, trying his hand at practically every available format: the western, the road picture, detective flicks, even science-fiction. Results were certainly mixed; it takes a brave soul indeed to laud his SF mistake Quintet (1979). But even here his idiosyncratic view of human frailties and the matter-of-fact tone the film strikes, stirs up ideas and feelings few contemporaries could match.

The most incredible fact is that Altman continued unabated, from failure to failure, always trying something new. He never took box office defeats, or those at the hands of citics and studios, to heart. Here was an indefatigable being devoted to film.

My personal favourites are not in line with popular and critical choices like MASH and Nashville (though these are fine). The Player (1992) I enjoyed at first, but repeated viewings have not been rewarding. Then again, I cannot attest to having any sense of his overall oeuvre; he simply made far more films than I was capable of watching.

Nonetheless, a few I can recommend whole-heartedly. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is brilliant for its gritty realism and sense of doomed finality. His version of the play Streamers (1983) is almost unbearably intense, and manages to convey in one room what most war films have not achieved given enormous budgets and casts. In fact, he proved most adept at filming theatre. Ed Graczyk's Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) put Cher to good use. Sam Shepard's Fool for Love (1985) is a masterpiece.

I mentioned "intensity" and that is an Altman hallmark. This he achieves through a controlled exposition of emotion and careful attention to filmic detail. Often there are surprising moments of vivid shock, like the violent outburst in the middle of the otherwise laconic The Long Goodbye (1973). In other cases this emotional charge is conveyed through means that are not apparent. Altman sometimes uses "subliminal" methods to achieve this, a fact I have never seen acknowledged. In A Wedding (1978) there is a shot of a figure (or is it a sculpture?) that instills terror for no logical reason at all. And this in a supposed comedy, albeit a comedy that tips its hat to Bunuel.

Altman's films are as complex as life, shying away from blinkered views or simplistic interpretations.

As a sound artist I must note that Altman's use of this medium is wonderful. Thieves Like Us (1974) is delightful not only for its revisionist retelling of the Bonny and Clyde story, and not only for its excellent performances, but also for the weaving of diegetic and non-diegetic sound into a complex immersive tapestry.

Altman also got the best from a talented grouping of actors, including Harry Dean Stanton, Elliott Gould, Kim Basinger, Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall... the list is long. Noteworthy is the number of women to whom he gave fantastic parts and the opportunity to express themselves fully, outside the bounds of normative Hollywood practice. In this regard 3 Women (1977) stands as a haunting pinnacle. By coincidence it arrived at my door as Altman died, so I will watch it and remember this unequalled film-maker.

Support this site by buying 3 Women from Amazon through the following links.

buy from Amazon buy from Amazon buy from Amazon

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.
Sunday, November 12, 2006

Soundings 1031 Wrap

I am pleased to say that Soundings 1031 was a great success, from the point of view of the participants, audience and organisers. About seventy people attended the event at Daghdha Space, as documented over at the Soundings site. There are now pictures available, including one of yours truly.

I very much enjoyed the intense performance of KK.Null, although I resorted to earplugs before the end! Tony Higgins was also enthusiastically thanked by the crowd for his piece for drum kit and electronics. Mention must be made of the lovely surroundings, as prepared by Davide Terlingo and volunteers from the DMP programme at Daghdha Dance Company. Thank you all!

I recently wrote about my piece, Granulation Knaves. This is rather experimental, as all the sounds are recorded and processed live. The mobile phone could die, feedback from the speakers could upset the transducers, I could knock out the FireWire cable connecting the laptop to the sound card... anything could happen. On an aesthetic level as well, there is no guarantee that the combination of samples and processes would work.

So I was very happy that on the night everything went well, the textures from overlayed phone samples ebbing and flowing in a fitting fashion. Some unforseen and very welcome audio events happened. If every performance goes like this I'll be famous in no time! (Joke!)

Here's a bonus photo.

Granulation Knaves performance shot

My right hand is twiddling a glowing red mouse while my left is holding a mobile phone above the pickups of a guitar stripped of its strings. Lurking over the guitar is a giant spider. Another concession to Hallowe'en is the pulsing light at the front of the table.

I have been asked more than once so here I may as well admit: this light had nothing to do with the sounds! Yes, it's simply stage dressing.
Sunday, November 12, 2006

Idea Realm

As part of the ongoing Framemakers activities at Daghdha, I took part in a choreography designed by Michael Klien. My contribution took the form of a blog, each entry consisting of a photo and text. This seemed to me to be the most suitable format for me to develop an "idea realm".

Though the project is perhaps over, and may not make full sense to those who are not participants, I thought I would let you know the idea realm is available for your perusal.
Monday, October 30, 2006

Performance Premiere: Granulation Knaves

Granulation Knaves
1. Thrown into a canal by a nurse-maid to prevent his tireless crying, Francisco Tárrega's sight was destroyed. Appropriately, his first guitar teacher was "the blind man in the marina".

2. We know the work of this 19th-century master of the classical guitar through a 13 note rendering of his "Gran Vals". This is known as the "Nokia Tune", the standard ringtone for that firm's mobiles for over 13 years.

3. The pine marten (or stoat) is now extinct in the region of its namesake, the Nokianvirta river. Nonetheless, the famous mobile phone company takes its name from the town on this river.

4. There is a myth in the UK that the stoat kills rabbits by sucking their blood. They do in fact attack through the neck, but only to best damage the core centers of the brain, and hence subdue their prey.

5. Granular synthesis is a method of sound synthesis that involves splitting a source sound into small grains along the time axis, and then recombining them at different speeds, amplitude, phase, etc.

6. Dennis Gabor was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who theorised granular synthesis as well as holography, a form of three dimensional image storage.

7. "Granulation Knaves" is an anagram for "Gran Vals Nokia Tune".

8. This is also the title of a piece for Nokia mobile, miscellaneous transducers and software synthesis. It will be premiered tomorrow at Soundings 1031 by escalation 746. Core centers of the brain may be affected, but there is no risk of blindness.

This article is repeated over on the escalation 746 site.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Roundelay: Tribute To Samuel Beckett

Roundelay performance

Last Friday saw the debut performance of Roundelay by the Fourfront Poets. This was a dramatic reading of the poetry of Samuel Beckett, specially for his centenary. It was staged at Impact Theatre as part of the Cuisle International Poetry Festival.

Mark Whelan directed the four readers: Ciaran O'Driscoll, Bertha McCullagh, Mairtin O'Briain and Jo Slade. A very particular atmosphere was set up by way of the staging and other elements. Tom O'Donnell provided the lights and I created a sound design, using the custom software mixer I recently released into the world.

The performance had a great audience and was a huge success. The resemblance to a seance was noted by many people, some of whom believed there was a strong Beckett presence summoned into the room.

The whole of the Cuisle festival was a lot of fun. I got to meet poets I've seen in previous years, the crew from Brighton I met a year ago, and new faces as well.

The photo above was taken by Susannah Kelly and will likely be the basis for a poster design for the next performance.
Thursday, October 19, 2006

Rheostatics One Last Time

It simply cannot be true. The greatest rock group in the world, also known as Rheostatics, are calling it a day. According to their own site, they will play one last gig on 30 March 2007 and then... then, the world will be a poorer place.

Now, I don't often get too concerned about what a group might or might not do. And in close to 100% of cases I'm darned pleased when an act calls it a day. Don't they all overstay their welcome? Well, this is a rare exception.

On my last visit to Canada I picked up their last two records. 2067 is an incredible return to form, full of the usual punk-prog-electro-country-rock-folk vibe that has made Rheostatics so impossible to digest. This is a band you have to chew on for some time, and even then there may be some gristle to spit out. But that's how I like my music, even if it's condemned the group to semi-obscurity for two decades.

Rheostatics are artists. Tielli does in-store painting gigs and the group made an album to accompany a Group Of Seven exhibit. Rheostatics are fun and produced a fantastic kids album. (It was pretty well like one of their regular albums, actually, except there was a narrative.) Rheostatics are documenters and have said more about Canada than most. Of course it must be mentioned that Bidini writes about hockey like no other. Rheostatics are historians and got Stompin' Tom out of hiding. Rheostatics are rockers and produced a double live album that transcended all others. Rheostatics are not afraid to make fools of themselves and not afraid even to take it all too seriously.

The fact that this is the end is brutal news. That's all I can say. Buy their albums. Maybe start backwards, 'cause 2067 is brilliant and melodic and accessible. Then get Introducing Happiness, Whale Music, Harmelodia, The Blue Hysteria, in something like that order. When you've spent a few years digesting all that, get Double Live for a different take.

You can do all this online at Zunior.

The rest I leave up to the band:

Right now, we are making progress
We are making dreams come true
Just like we discussed
In our most recent letters
Communiques and measures
Memories and treasures
Kept in bricks and mortar
And I won't last forever
I won't even try to
I'm just making progress
I don't know what else to do.
-- "Making Progress"

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

My First Reaktor Instrument: eMix

screenshot of eMix
For some time I've been enthralled by Reaktor, the software toolkit that lets you build practically any audio device imaginable: synthesizers, effects, remixing gizmos, even games. Now I've finally released an "instrument" of my own, a studio mixer that has a couple of unique twists. You can find eMix in the user libraries, if you are a registered user of Reaktor.

eMix is a studio mixer with 4 mono channels, 4 stereo channels and 4 sends. EQ, solo and mute are available on all strips as appropriate.

Solo is implemented so that the entire channel strip is still active. In other words, solo is not a separate bus, but simply tells that channel to be on, along with any other selected solo channels (but without any that are not soloed). In other words, it's a Solo-In-Place implementation. I find this most useful, as the level, balance, EQ, etc. of the track are preserved.

The sends are stereo on the stereo channels. The knobs control how much signal is sent to auxiliary sends 1/2 and 3/4 respectively, with on buttons for each pair. On the mono channels there is still only one knob per pair, but each of the four sends can be selected individually. This gives a greater degree of control than is usual in hardware consoles.

I think the most innovative feature is the presence of a cross-fader, since these generally only exist on DJ mixers. Any of the stereo pairs (or mono channels in combination) can be assigned to either side ("deck") of this cross-fader. When you turn the strip on, the master is fed by the output of the cross-fader. Otherwise the master is fed from the normal summed stereo bus. Note that in either case the meters on this strip are active, so you have some idea of the signal before you punch in the cross-fader.

The master section has a fader both pre- and post- the master compressor. This is a 2-knee design, with a low and high threshold, each with its own ratio. As is usual, there is an attack and release control, calibrated in milliseconds. The vertical display show you visually where the thresholds are set.

This instrument consumes about 9% of the CPU on my computer. For reference, this is about half of what Carbon 2 uses.

Of course you'll want to patch in various instruments, effects, inputs and so on to turn this into a full studio.

The only thing I would like to add is a cue function, so that any channels can be sent to a separate stereo cue mix, with master volume. But I thought I would put eMix out the door now for comments, or I'd never release it.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Strawberry Milkshake

Want to know what's in artificial strawberry flavour, such as that used in your favourite strawberry milkshake? No, didn't think you did, but it's fascinating just the same. This is taken from Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.

amyl acetate
amyl butyrate
amyl valerate
anisyl formate
benzyl acetate
benzyl isobutyrate
butyric acid
cinnamyl isobutyrate
cinnamyl valerate
cognac essential oil
dipropyl ketone
ethyl acetate
ethyl amyl ketone
ethyl butyrate
ethyl cinnamate
ethyl heptanoate
ethyl heptylate
ethyl lactate
ethyl methylphenylglycidate
ethyl nitrate
ethyl propionate
ethyl valerate
hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone (10 percent solution in alcohol)
isobutyl anthranilate
isobutyl butyrate
lemon essential oil
methyl anthranilate
methyl benzoate
methyl cinnamate
methyl heptine carbonate
methyl naphthyl ketone
methyl salicylate
mint essential oil
neroli essential oil
neryl isobutyrate
orris butter
phenethyl alcohol
rum ether
Monday, October 09, 2006

Strange Musical Instruments

Every so often I stumble across some unusual items that can best be described as musical instruments. Here I present to you the Bottle Organ and Pikasso guitar.

It's hard to imagine that such things exist, or that someone is willing to pay so much for them. But apparently there are quaint little bars in the United States that think it completely reasonable to pay 39 grand for a MIDI controlled device that plays... beer bottles! I can only quote from the site in awe and befuddlement.
The Bottle Organ is a real showstopper! It plays by blowing across the tops of real beer bottles, which are permanently tuned. And the music is so lovable! Driven by contemporary MIDI technology, the Bottle Organ is ideal for pubs and restaurants with a reputation for fun, where the past is respected, and where patrons appreciate the rare and unusual. Custom fabrication assures quality of the highest standard.

Pat Metheny is not just any guitar player, he is a guitar player who owns an instrument built specifically for him in 1984, designed to contain "as many strings as possible". Now who would want that? Check out the Pikasso guitar.
Thursday, September 21, 2006

Samplitude 9 Boasts New Eversmeier Effects

am-phibia user interface
The Samplitude website has been updated with a new look and all the features of version 9, now shipping. This looks to be another major step in the evolution of this product, which has a small but dedicated audience. Now effects are not the first thing I look for in a multitrack sequencer, but in this case there's something special.

Several Samplitude FX are written by one person, the remarkable Sascha Eversmeier, who began by offering the free plugins Endorphin and Dominion. Both of these rapidly became favourites of mine, for the subtlety of expression they made possible. Now that he's employed by MAGIX, we know him as the author of the "analogue modelling suite" tools am|track and am|pulse. These have been reworked for version 9, but, more importantly, have been joined by two new effects.

VariVerb is a digital reverb unit that uses distinctly different algorithms for each class of its presets. In this way it's like having multiple different reverb units in one. Check out the digitalfishphones site for some samples. This could be the be-all and end-all of reverberation FX, great for those places where the convolution reverb (room simulator) is simply too much, and the pre-existing channel reverb too little.

Joining the analogue modelling suite is am|phibia, a tube preamp channel strip. This has a pre- and post-amp filters, optical compressor and cabinet simulation. While all of this seems possible with the existing Samplitude kit, I am sure this particular plugin offers unexpected audio delights.

While most multitrack applications throw in extras with little thought, the quality of Samplitude's effects reduce (or eliminate) the need for third-party products. I am sure the new offerings from Eversmeier will continue this tradition.
Thursday, September 21, 2006

Python 2.5 Released

Python 2.5 has been released, ahead of schedule. I announced this version back in March, at which time it was due in mid-October. See that previous post for a summary of new features. I'll cover others here.

In making the transition, there's one thing to look out for in your code modules. If you use any non-ASCII characters you need to put a declaration at the top of the file specifying the encoding. In Python 2.4 this triggered a warning, but now it gives you a syntax error. Go fix those files!

Several deprecated modules have finally been removed, so if your code uses any of the following you will finally have to rewrite: regex, regsub, statcache, tzparse, whrandom.

In addition to those I mentioned before, there are further new standard library modules. ctypes lets you call arbitrary functions in shared libraries or DLLs. wsgiref provides a WSGI-compatible web server for testing purposes.

A wrapper for the SQLite embedded database has been added, as sqlite3. I have used this database as an easily administered alternative to the "big boys". It's great for testing or to include in a standalone application.

As usual, performance has been improved, though maybe not as dramatically as in previous versions.

Finally, a nice tweak to the interpreter means that typing quit() or exit() will now exit the shell. It's common sense and long overdue, IMO.
Thursday, September 21, 2006

Pocoo: A Python Bulletin Board

Want an open-source Python application for hosting your own bulletin board software / message board / forum / what'cha'call-it? Help is on it's way thanks to the fine folks at Pocoo. Though only version 0.1, this app has a nice editor, threaded posts, an extensible authentication scheme and what looks on quick glance to be nicely written and documented code.

Since Pocoo is written using SQLAlchemy, it supports many databases transparently. It is also WSGI compliant. Jinja is used for templating. The web site is clear and contains with a fully-operational demo.

This is a big step towards filling a gap in Python application software. If you have some spare time maybe you'd like to help the development team out?
Thursday, September 14, 2006

USB Twig Storage And Other Design Delights

USB twig
Want to hide away from the world for a few hours? Oooms has what you need, a cardboard box specially designed as a refuge, named City Hideout. I wouldn't normally link to a site that's just a Flash presentation, but this designer has some cool stuff going on.

I particularly like the Rebellious Cabinet, which refuses to have all of its doors closed at once, the Wireframe Chair, which is an implementation of the model of the chair, hats made of human hair and USB sticks that look like twigs. This last item is available for ordering, but most are designer one-offs.

Speaking of USB keys or memory sticks or whatever you want to call them, does anyone have any peculiar designs they can share? I'm not talking about any of the following, too normal ideas:

Nope, I'm looking for illuminating rubber ducky drives, cute plush animals or sushi.

Those I like.
Monday, September 04, 2006

Engaging Baudrillard

This is a late reminder of the fact I am delivering a paper, tomorrow, at the Engaging Baudrillard conference in Swansea, Wales. This conference has a stellar list of guests, including Mike Gane and Douglas Kellner. Baudrillard himself was unfortunately too ill to attend.

If you happen to be in Swansea you may be able to get a pass to a session. Tuesday at 2:30pm I will be in the Faraday Building, Room J, which is immediately to the left once inside the main entrance. My paper, entitled "Time And Reality Die In Spectacle: Doctor Who As The Perfect Crime", will be accompanied, in proper multimedia fashion, with an illustrative custom DVD. Unlike a more traditional media studies approach, based on a hierarchy of commentary and source, my work treats the programme, Baudillard's theory and contemporary cosmology as narratives on a level playing field.

It is not coincidental that BBC Wales is producing Dr. Who. Indeed the TARDIS was spotted on Swansea University campus only last week. Find out more on this intriguing page of Wales/Who connections.
Monday, August 28, 2006

Uninstall U3 And Free Your USB Drive

My partner recently bought a USB drive to go with her nice shiny laptop. We decided on the cheapest Busbi 1GB unit at the local Argos. Unfortunately, on inserting this drive several strange things happened to my computer. It appeared that some strange software app had installed without permission and was dictating how I should or shouldn't use the drive.

On inspection it was evident that the drive had automatically installed itself as two different partitions. The first contains a read-only software package called U3, and the second has the executable application component plus a documents folder. U3 apparently makes it easy for you to do things like copy files... not that anyone should need help with that! You can also install various applications so that they will run off the USB drive and not touch the Windows system.

Fair enough I suppose, some might like that. But maybe people should know that this facility is already available for software like FireFox and, without needing anything like U3.

Most people object to having automatic processes clogging up their computer's memory. Not only that, but how professional would it look to have this pop up on your bosses computer, simply because you wanted to copy a file? It seems to me that might violate all sorts of work codes.

I set about repartitioning and reformatting the drives to remove U3. No can do. Even if the data drive is reformatted, it is restored when the stick is activated, being reloaded from the read-only partition. And that partition appears like a CD-ROM drive and hence cannot be formatted.

But help is on its way, courtesy of the fine folk at Ars Technica who made solutions available in this thread. The upshot is that, due to public pressure, an uninstall utility is now available at the official U3 site.

And for those with Win98 SE, here is a generic driver that will work with storage-type devices (cameras, flash drives) so you don't need to use possibly bloated manufacturer's installations. I have not tested this because I do not use Win 98 anymore (thank goodness!).

Will companies ever stop their patronising attitudes and allow us to opt-in to software instead of making us jump through hoops to opt-out?
Thursday, August 24, 2006

Audio Kontrol 1 Pre-Release Evaluation

Want to get into DJing from your computer? Interested in a simply USB audio interface with some innovative features? If so, take a look at the Audio Kontrol 1, just announced by Native Instruments.

Available in October at prices starting at € 279, this hardware interface looks like it might hit a sweet spot. It's got two inputs, one switchable for line level or instruments, the other for line or microphone. There's standard 48V phantom power, so you can use professional condenser mics.

The conversion goes up to 192 KHz at 24 bits, though I imagine most users should stick to 44.1 KHz to keep the file size down.

The outputs are on 4 balanced quarter-inch connections. This gives you enough for two stereo feeds: house monitor and cue. You can send these out to an external mixer but there's no real need. Instead, use the headphone jack (with level control) on the front panel. A pushbutton selects between outputs 1/2 or 3/4 so you can switch between house and cue mixes. Or, keep is set to one position and use your software to do the monitor selection. This provides a lot of flexibility.

Do note, however, that the stereo headphone feed is not in addition to the four outputs, instead it selects between them.

While inferior to the throughput and lower contention of FireWire, the USB connection has the advantage of being bus-powered (no separate power supply needed). Plus, it's usually easier to find USB ports on your computer. The ASIO drivers supposedly deliver latency down to 4ms. If that's not fast enough there's direct monitoring with a mono switch and mix control, right on the front of the unit.

Additionally there's integrated MIDI I/O and activity LEDs for all functions on top of the unit, so it's easy to see what the device is doing.

But cooler yet is a big controller knob with 3 buttons. You can assign the knob to different functions based on which button is held down. For example, without buttons it could be your master volume, left button could be deck one volume, right button could be deck two volume, and middle button... pitch shift? Monitor level? Lots of possibilities here, and everything will look pretty cool with the red on black colour scheme.

The software bundle includes three packages that are also available from NI individually. I list their usual retail price parenthetically. Note that some are currently on sale from NI. For example, Traktor DJ Studio 3 is only €99, an enormous savings.

Xpress Keyboards (€99) is a package of three virtual instruments, the B4 (B3 drawbar organ emulation), PRO-53 (Prophet 5), and FM7 (Yamaha DX-7). In their full versions these have rightly received rave reviews. These "xpress" versions have limited presets and sound manipulation possibilities. A review at Traxmusic goes into great detail.

Guitar Combos is a set of three amp emulations taken from the full Guitar Rig package. This is over-priced at €179.

Traktor 3 LE is a two-deck version of the full Traktor DJ Studio 3 (€249). It has everything you would need to DJ from the computer, resembling the previous version of the full software.

So, how does Audio Kontrol 1 compare in a crowded market? If you want to record a band it is a poor choice. No multi-track software comes with the bundle and you have only two inputs. Despite this the software provides soft synths and amp sims useful only for music production. There is poor synergy between software and hardware.

But for DJing the combination of Traktor, two stereo outputs, a good complement of actual knobs and switches, good visual feedback, and the killer controller knob adds up to a very capable package. Had they made room for a cross-fade controller it would be perfectly suited to this task.

Next version perhaps?
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

New Blogger Beta

Blogger Buzz has announced that there will finally be an update to Blogger. Features have long been lagging behind other systems; hopefully this will remedy the deficiencies.

Here are the announced enhancements.

New feeds will be available for blog comments whether aggregated or individual. Atom feeds have been updated to the 1.0 standard plus support has been added for RSS 2.0.

An updated Dashboard allows you to edit and view each blog directly.

Changes to article are updated immediately. No more waiting for the silly spinny animation! This is because all pages are now generated dynamically on viewing.

Additional templates have been provided for those getting started.

Accounts will be integrated with Google accounts, meaning that we will have one less password to remember. (Also meaning that Google will convert a number of Blogger users into full service users.)

One can create private blogs and limit readers by email address. Unfortunately this feature is only fully-featured if these addresses correspond to a registered user. Otherwise they will get a temporary guest account.

Drag and drop page design facilities segment templates into different elements. This will make it easier to create a custom style and even add JavaScript, feeds from other sites, and other enhancements. This looks very nice!

However, this new Blogger Layouts system is incompatible with existing templates. An upgrade function has been provided, but it remains to be seen how this handles templates that are as extensively modified as, say, the blog you are reading at this moment.

In a feature everyone will love, posts can now be labeled with a list of tags. Summaries of these can then easily be listed in your blog template, sorted by number of posts or alphabetically. Note however that this only works in the new Blogger Layouts mode.

A certain number of existing Blogger users are being invited to try out the system. If you are not one of these, you can access the new beta by signing up for a new account.

Bloggers using FTP publishing, a Plus upgrade, team blogging, or mobile devices will not be able to upgrade -- yet. Furthermore, the new system is in English only and requires IE or FireFox.

What about other features that we'd like to see?

I am frustrated at the lack of control over uploading images. It is impossible to change how the image will be represented, and I rarely want the default "small image with a mouse click to larger" style. There is support only for JPG so other formats get converted and reduced in quality. Furthermore, the image upload features often don't work, though I suspect this has been fixed.

Having a separate page for comments, and furthermore one which does not comply with a custom look'n'feel, has always been a weakness.

Let's hope the roll-out is quick, the feature robust, and that future upgrades will not be so long in coming.
Friday, August 11, 2006

Bristol in Two Days: Part One

In this article I will give you a visual guide to Bristol, illustrated by some of the photos I took. Bristol is well worth a weekend, especially if you are in any way interested in Victorian engineering. This being the 200th anniversary of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's birth, there are special events laid on, though none happened to coincide with our visit.

Our flight, via Ryanair, the cheapo airline everyone loves to hate, was uneventful. Cutting corners wherever they can, Ryanair have a brand new policy which charges you for every piece of luggage you check in. Your carry-on is still limited to a single item of under 10kg in weight, so unless you are a very light traveler indeed you should expect to pay extra.

It is impossible to parody this company. If someone jokes that next month passengers will be expected to share driving duties, then sure enough flying lessons become an optional part of the ticket price.

Bristol airport is a small place. Grabbing a coach gets you to either the train station (20 minutes) or the bus depot. Which is better for you depends of course on where you are staying. The ride into town offers a mostly occluded view of the city from an elevated vantage point, viewed from the south. What you can see of the streets themselves is hardly promising. We tried to be kind and ended up describing the cityscape as "motley".

At the Temple Meads train station is the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum [map], which we skipped in favour of lunch. It was about a 15 minute walk to our hotel, the Premier Travel Inn located on the spectacularly Welsh sounding Llandoger Trow [map]. The location couldn't be better: right in the old city with a view of the river. For a discount hotel the rooms were great and service friendly -- nothing to complain about for £59 a night (double room).

Anyway, back to lunch. Starved we were and went to the first place we saw. Pictured here later in the evening, Obento proved to be one of the highlights of the stay. My partner is a new convert to Japanese food, so in order to experience the range of the kitchen we decided on their most extensive set meal. After some edamame (warm soybeans one pops out of the pod directly to the mouth) and miso soup we received a generous portion of sashimi: four thick slices each of maguro (tuna) and sake (salmon). I was glad to see the restaurant stuck with what they could get fresh, even if this meant a fairly standard assortment of fish.

Then arrived a selection of ebi and vegetable tempura, followed by gyoza (fried dumplings) and then tonkatsu (pork cutlet), each with their own distinctive sauce of course. Each was a full-sized serving, deliciously prepared and presented.

By this time we were feeling more than a little full. But the meal was not over yet. Yakinasu (grilled aubergine) made its way over to us, piled high on the plate and topped with dancing bonito flakes. A full serving of yaki-udon joined the steaming table and, finally, a steak in a sticky teriyaki sauce. This was the only mis-step, as the meat was cooked completely through instead of being rare inside as is customary. Perhaps this was in deference to local preferences, but I would have rather been asked.

I was also surprised to see that green tea was not freely included with all meals, though our set dinner had it indicated. I find it unwelcoming not to have tea on tap throughout the whole meal.

This feast defeated us entirely, and we were forced to take home two of the dishes for breakfast. I heartily recommend Obento to anyone wanting value for money, though I recommend you invite a third person to your dinner for two!

For more on Japanese food, you will want to visit The Tokyo Food Page, one of my favourite sites.

While I am talking food, I should mention that we were discouraged that on several occasions we missed kitchens entirely. One pub stopped serving at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, an almost incomprehensible move. On other nights menus stopped being available at about 8pm, which I would consider to be early. On another day we showed up at one of the city's best Indian restaurants for lunch, only to be told they would not be opening. Strange practices indeed!
Tuesday, August 08, 2006

British Art Show 6

Last weekend in Bristol my partner and I had a look through some of the venues participating in British Art Show 6. This exhibition, occurring only every five years, has previously visited three other cities. This is the last stop, so if you want to see what's up with contemporary British art, you have until September 17 to get to Bristol.

A few works stood out in particular. Richard Hughes has sculpted a life-sized Match, which hardly seems a worthy contribution to contemporary artistic practise... until you actually see it. This tiny simulacra of a dying moment said more to me than long documentary-style videos, collections of shoes, towers of blocks, galleries of sand, or most of the rest of the show.

Two Hew Locke pieces from the House of Windsors series are popular favourites. A profile of the Queen has been rendered in plastic lizards, guns, insects and other replica detritus, setting up a dramatic dialogue between part and whole, reproduction and mere recreation. The replica brooch available in the gallery store misses the point by reducing the piece to a detail-free plane.

We had previously stumbled upon the Phil Collins' DVD el mundo no escuchará in a gallery in London. In it, residents of Bogota perform karaoke versions of songs from The Smiths' The World Won't Listen album. While this is undoubtedly a statement about globalisation, it also exists on a level of pure exuberance. Similarly, the Palestinian dancers in They Shoot Horses are exhausting themselves in a marathon event, a useful political metaphor, but are also simply having a good time. Laughing out loud is not something you may be used to doing at a contemporary art show, but Phil Collins may change all of that.

Finally, Tonico Lemos Auad presented a carpet with bits of fluff scraped off and sculpted (with some skill) into various animal parts. A fox with missing head melted into the fuzzy surface while elsewhere rows of ears emerged. Large expanses contained abstract trails, remnants of insect passages or other messengers of decay.

A few words about the venues. The Arnolfini is a well-situated building with an excellent bookstore and an equally impressive resource centre.

Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, located on the Clifton triangle, has some excellent dinosaurs and other museum displays, as well as some not-so-contemporary art.

Nearby is the Royal West of England Academy. If you visit, don't forget to check out the New Gallery for a show by Nicky Knowles. We enjoyed her lovely black and white images, nearly abstract renderings of the Cambridge Fens. Her works in colour we did not find nearly so effective. For some odd reason the website is out of date on that show, but you can view images from the Cube Gallery and 9 The Gallery.

The images above are abstracts from photos taken in Bristol, and not associated with this art show in any way. Pity!
Monday, July 31, 2006

How Not To Save Your Holiday Snaps

This blog has been inactive while I did "little" things like move house and travel to Canada. But now I'm back and ready to write up any number of articles. I'll be in France, England and Wales with my family over the next few weeks so expect sporadic reports of foreign places.

Of course we took lots of photos, each having a camera. Coincidentally we filled both our memory cards at the same time. Being in Goderich, Ontario, we went into the local Carmen's Photo to get the contents transferred to disk. This was a big mistake.

Taking an hour and costing about $6 per disk, what we got was not a copy of the memory contents, but some type of strange inferior version. First, the movie files were not transferred. The store clerk, who acted sluggish enough to perhaps be the manager, seemed surprised this would even be an issue. The implication seemed to be that because they are a photo store I should expect them to transfer only the photos.

In fact it was only a stray question which revealed this limitation. But there is a very big difference between having all of the contents of a disk transferred and having some of them copied. In the former case one can erase the entire contents of the memory card and start shooting again. In the latter case one has to go, step-by-step, through every single file. With a 1 GB card that's a time-consuming nightmare.

Not having any movies, my partner deleted the entire disk for her camera. Having movies (an otter being fed at the zoo -- cool!) I started deleting my photos one at a time, but only got so far.

And just as well.

Because on returning home I discovered that the images the store had saved were a fraction of the size of the originals (about 57%). Not only does the redimensioning lose data, but the subsequent recompression into JPG reduces the original information further.

On top of all of this, most of the EXIF data (everything except the date-time stamp) was lost.

In short, I paid to have my images trashed.

Having used similar services from Boots in the UK without these issues (actually, they also lost EXIF data), I do not know why this company could not get a simple copy operation correct. I do not know if this behaviour is typical of vendors in North America.

But what I do know is that next time I will wait until I can find an internet cafe and burn the files to a disk myself. If I carry an xD card reader around with me the process should be hitch-free. Not to mention cheaper and faster.

Let this be a warning to my readers to do the same.
Thursday, July 06, 2006

Broadband In Ireland: Case Study

I recently entered the modern era and got a broadband connection at home. This is something of a feat in Ireland, a country pretty well ruled by Eircom, the national telephone provider. This article will discuss the process I went through, which I hope will help others in the same situation.

It may surprise those in other countries to realise just how undeveloped internet connectivity is in Ireland. Hailed for years as the Celtic Tiger and a major player in the technology sector, it is only recently that most places have had dependable access. My last flat was a stone's throw from a major hotel, right in downtown Limerick, an area with many businesses. Residential broadband was made available there in fall of 2005.

To repeat that shocker: smack dab in the middle of the third-largest city in Ireland, broadband was only made available in some high density areas a few months ago! And some residents still do not have access.

Instead of broadband I was paying for the most extensive dial-up access I could. For €30 a month I got 150 hours, an amount I often went over. It was then my pleasure to pay high per-minute rates. This on top of my regular phone bills of course.

Recently I moved and needed a new telephone account. I figured the time was right for broadband and started my research. Apparently there are more than 50 companies offering high-speed internet access in Ireland. Even though many of these are Dublin-only, that number of competitors is a sure sign of an immature market. The portal getbroadband has a service provider locator which returned seven hits for home accounts and six (many the same companies) for business accounts in Limerick.

But I would instead recommend a service provided by The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, who on this occasion have gone out of their way to be helpful. They too have a page where you can determine if broadband is available in your area. For Limerick this returned 27 services, segmented by connection technology (so some companies appear more than once).

I went through all of these and compared packages, looked for online reports, and tried to determined the best options. My priorities were dependability, up-time, support and (only then) price. I was not so focussed on getting the fastest possible connection. This varies so much with contention that any promises made in advertising are near worthless. I also don't need the largest possible download limit since I will not be sifting through pirated movies and other large files. Instead, I will be using broadband for server work, web development, my blogs, low-impact surfing, some music downloads and sometimes streaming radio.

So, if you are more sensitive to price, want a ton of bandwidth, and don't care if you are down for hours or more, you may reach a different conclusion.

A few key facts emerged from my research.

First, if you're looking for DSL providers to give you broadband through your telephone line, you should know that they all have to go through Eircom, since Eircom owns the lines. This means that any service request will take longer, and you will never be quite sure where the holdup is -- with Eircom, with your provider, or lost somewhere inbetween.

Second, though some packages look good at first glance, if you compare apples to apples (matching bandwidth, download limits, installation costs, terms of service) then many of the providers who look cheap at first drop out of the picture.

Third, there are major tales of incompetence to be found on the web and (surprise!) these do not focus on Eircom. ESAT BT is the main culprit. All you have to do is spend some time on, or read BT Ireland Sucks to have second and third thoughts.

Fourth, if you live in a flat you will likely not be able to avail of satellite systems. Landlords are rarely happy to give you roof access or let you mount your own hardware. That's unfortunate, since there are some good options, especially for people who live in areas not serviced by DSL.

After all of that research it is rather anti-climactic to say I went for an Eircom account. They have reduced their rates and were offering free installation and a free WI-FI gateway/router/modem/firewall when I signed up. Such an object would cost me €150 so the short-term savings are good.

Their Broadband Home Plus account offers 2MB downstream / 256k upstream with a limit of 20 GB download but unlimited upload. That's likely good enough for me. Tech support is an extortionate 30 cents per minute, but they include a calling card worth €10. The cost is €40 a month. This is easy to beat elsewhere, but once again the reliability of going with the company who own the lines trumped my other concerns.

I also recommend you check out DigiWeb, who have a whole slew of options, most of which including free phone lines. They would be a cheaper option, and reports on their service are positive.

My experience with Eircom has so far been fine. I expected a two-week waiting time for the line to be set up. This would be considered an eternity in many countries but in Ireland is actually quite fast. As it turned out the kit arrived early as did the connection.

I had some difficulties with the setup since my network settings were not exactly plain vanilla. This stumped the tech support person but he asked around the office and found someone who could help. My experience with their support system itself was poor. I had to call various phone numbers and use several voice mail access codes before I got one that worked. It seemed to me that their PBX was dropping the line for no reason.

The modem provided is a Netopia 3347NWG which has four LAN ports plus wireless. It came with all needed cables, software, etc. What it didn't come with is a manual, and that precise model is not to be found on the Netopia site. The Netopia 3347NWG-VGx? Yes. The Netopia 3347NWG-006? Yes. But downloading the manuals for these was no help at all.

Apparently Eircom sources some variant of the model not available to the general public. They are assuming that home users have no real needs when it comes to networking and so will not ever have any configuration questions.

Otherwise I am so far pleased. I think the Irish broadband scene may finally be exiting the dark ages. But Eircom, can you do two things for me? Fix your broken tech support system and make it cheaper. And give me a proper technical manual for all provided hardware. Thanks!
Monday, July 03, 2006

O1 Dance Sequence

Susannah dances

Susannah Kelly was one of the guests at O1. Besides taking a good number of photos, which I featured previously, she stepped into Katarina Mojzisova's shoes and danced. This sequence is from a video taken by her daughter Róisín Kelly-Byrne.

Susannah dances 1

Susannah dances 2

Susannah dances 3

Susannah dances 4

Susannah dances 5
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

O1 Perspective

O1 view of performers, audience, contact mics, computer...

You don't know until you try to make music for seven hours whether such a task is even possible. In the weeks leading up to O1 I started assembling materials from the concepts that Katarina Mojzisova had discussed with me. Much of the piece revolved around definitions of the miniature, so I started my process there.

miniature: descriptive term for a short Romantic piece, usually for piano

This definition led me to select piano as my first raw material. I found stereo samples of a Steinway & Sons 3145A recorded with a stereo pair of Neumann KM 84 microphones. This is part of the collection of instruments made available by the University of Iowa Electronic Music Studios. These required a great deal of post-processing before they were usable. To a lesser degree I used samples of short pieces played by Glenn Gould.

the dancer

miniature: derived from the Latin "minium", red lead. A picture in an ancient or medieval manuscript

From this definition came the second sound source: paper. I cut, crumpled, and otherwise manipulated various items of paper and sampled these into the computer.

Katarina had asked for rhythmic material, since such is necessary for her to sustain dancing over such a long period. Using various processing techniques, I manipulated the paper samples into a drum kit that I could then play back in various ways.

the sound artist

miniature: copy that reproduces something in greatly reduced size

miniature: a work of art where they represented object is created on a much-reduced scale

Granular synthesis works by cutting up a stream of sound into small particles time-wise, and then assembling them again with altered pitch, duration, envelope, amplitude, and so on. The greatly reduced size of the components engenders rich sonic results.

I decided to concentrate on that method of sound manipulation and ignore additive, subtractive, or other synthesis possibilities.

bowl of fruit but no still life

Finally, I wanted an interactive element. I taped two contact microphones to a metal tray, and made this "instrument" playable with some pennies and other small coins.

Piano / Paper / Pennies: that has a nice symmetry to it.

I then spent a couple of weeks assembling instruments in Reaktor, and coming up with a mixer setup that would allow channeling of any of the sources through such instruments for processing.

The performance itself went well. People dropped in throughout the day; some stayed for short periods but others were captivated and stayed for hours. A few people took Katarina's place and gave her a break from dancing. This was part of her original conception: that she could only stop dancing if someone else would fill in. Places of exhaustion she marked with red tape on the floor.

Some visitors were delighted to play around with the tray/penny instrument. Between the organically evolving sounds and shared dance a certain happy collaborative environment was created.

In this instance a seven-hour performance that at first looked only "possible" was made "probable" and then, finally, became inevitable.

I must first of all thank Katarina for inviting me to take part; Susannah for the photos and dancing; Róisín for the video, dancing, and play; Davide and the Daghdha Dance Company for the opportunity. Finally thank you to everyone who attended and participated.

See also my announcement with poster.
Saturday, June 10, 2006

O1 All-Day Performance

O1 event
This is one of the little flyers, larger than life-size here, made for my upcoming performance.

Following is the full poster with all the details. Click on it to get a larger size.

How is Katarina going to dance for seven hours without a break? How am I going to produce live sounds for the same length of time? The only way to find out is to drop by the Daghdha Space. It's the last event of the season, so don't miss out!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Website Security Considerations

It is not always easy to determine what type of a security system should be put into place when building a website. Here I outline some of the basic security principles, as well as some decision points that need to be considered. I consider software-based systems (challenge-response with user name and password) rather than hardware implementations like biometrics or dongles, since these are rarely used on websites and certainly not for those I build!


Here are some basic security principles which nonetheless appear to be non-obvious at times.

1. Security is never absolute. There is no such thing as a secure system.

2. The more secure a system, the more trouble it is to use it. Every security system is a balancing act between security and convenience.

3. A security system that is implemented poorly is worse than none at all. This is because hidden flaws are harder to diagnose and fix that weaknesses which are known and planned for.

4. The more complex a security system, the more expensive it is to implement, and the more likely it is to be implemented poorly.

5. Every security system has its weakest link. There is no point addressing other aspects of the system until the weakest link is hardened.

Therefore, one should pick a level of security which balances the expectations of all parties (client, customers, technicians), is reasonably easy to implement, and finds a comfortable point on the secure/convenient scale.


For a website there are several modalities of a security systems to consider. The first is scope. Here are some possibilities:

1. None: All access is open.

2. Partial: A login system is in use for certain pages only.

3. Full: A login system is in use for all pages.

4. Variant: One might have two levels of password protection, or simply challenge the user with the same password requirement for access to areas considered especially sensitive (for example, eBay does this).

No public website has a completely full security scope, since this means that even the home page would not be accessible to search engine robots and the like.


The second major dimension is that of time. How long will the secure login be active? More than one of the following options may be in place at once.

1. For a single transaction.

2. For a fixed time period.

3. Until a fixed period of inactivity has occurred (eg: a time-out).

4. Until the user explicitly logs out.

5. Until the user navigates away from the site.


Here are some common problems of website password systems.

1. They email you the password. Email channels are not secure. Furthermore, if someone compromises your email account they can look for all your passwords in one fell swoop.

2. They store the email in unencrypted form, for example in a database.

3. They allow you to work around the password with a question like "What is your pet's name?" or something similar. This is much easier to guess or socially engineer than the password itself.

4. The password handling is done on the client side (in JavaScript) rather than on the server side.


The article Password Management Best Practices is a worthwhile read.
Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Spring Update

Just thought I'd say "hello" and bring to your notice a change to my sidebar. There are two new categories: "photos" has been split from "media" and "events" from "miscellaneous". Hopefully this will help you hone in on what you're looking for, since not everyone has the same range of interests as yours truly.

I've also re-jigged the top of the sidebar so it displays links to my other sites. Some of you may know that my articles on programming and web design have their own home at diagrammes modernes. But some may not -- now it is clear. Because of this I've removed the web links to Python sites, so I don't have to maintain them in two places.

I've made a bunch of template corrections to reduce validation errors, following the process I wrote about in Validating a Blogger Page. If you write in Blogger and have an interest in web standards that article makes a good read.

It's the beginning of June and as I look back over the spring I see that I still haven't written some articles I've promised... although I've written a lot I never thought I would. I've got a backlog of topics that just keeps growing. So if you want to encourage me, leave comments, let me know what you like, or even donate a little.

As always... thanks for reading!
Saturday, June 03, 2006

Interview Microphones

A poster in a MicroTrack thread recently asked about microphones for interview situations, specifically those from Sound Professionals and Reactive Sounds. My reply became voluminous enough that I thought it best to post an entire article on interview microphones.

The stubby T-shaped stereo mic that comes with the MicroTrack is not convenient, since the interviewer ends up "physically passing the unit back and forth", as our poster described. There are two solutions: a pair of lavalier mics that can be clipped to interviewer and subject, or a single-point stereo mic that can be pointed in the right direction.

Lavalier mics are handy when you need something discrete, particularly for stage and TV work.

On the high end (over $400) you've got mics like the Sennheiser MKE series and the DPA 4060/4061. You can save some money by going for the slightly less exacting Sennheiser ME 102 and similar.

A good lav in the mid-range is the Audio-Technica AT899, at $275. Remember though that if you want to record the interviewer as well you will need two of them!

For impromptu situations, in-the-street interviews and the like a battery-powered single-point stereo mic like the AT822 ($250) is a common choice.

Better yet, just do like the BBC do, get a Beyer M58 ($180) and forget it! This mic has a long handle for getting into people's faces and a hot output to handle weak inputs.

I'm not going to specifically address the mics from the two companies suggested by the poster because at the lower end I do not imagine them good value, and at higher prices why not just get name-brand professional kit?

One thing you may not know is that many lower priced mics use a Panasonic WM-61A omni cap. You can buy these raw in prices at around $1. By the time companies get through with them they cost much more, but I guess that's "value added"! The best thing to do is purchase mics built from these caps from individuals on eBay. I can recommend seller micro_sound who offers a binaural pair at the fair price of $23.

A cheap set of mics like this is good as a "reference standard" in the low-end, and as a pair you can throw around and not care if they get wrecked, lost, or stolen. They are surprisingly usable for tasks like voice recording.

Disclaimer: I have not used many of the more expensive mics mentioned above, but instead have based this article on best practices recommended by others. Also, I don't know how any of these work with the MicroTrack. It's always best to test mics with the specific gear (power, recorder) you are using.

Further reading: A Transom article addressed a similar issue.
Friday, June 02, 2006

Voice Recognition For Programmers

Over a decade ago my fulltime career as a programmer was sidelined when I developed a Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). While recovering (a process that took years) I tried many speech recognition products. In fact, I was an early adopter, back when you needed to spend ten grand to get a system that supported DOS only. I tried Dragon Dictate, IBM VoiceType, and so on. While ok and very annoying for natural language dictation, these products are unusable and even more annoying for programming.

The issue is, of course, that programme code does not follow the grammar of a natural language. Now, help is on the way, via the open source project Voice Code, developed by the National Research Council of Canada. This New Scientist article contains a few more details, plus links to discussion forums.

Of special note is the fact that the current version was written to support Python, since the clean and simple syntax lends itself especially well to verbal interpretation.
Monday, May 29, 2006

three-wire generator

post town rift valley
half-solid dew snail
top-secret load factor chimney swallow
soul-adorning line hunter
net value all-land
screw-eyed thunder-splintered thick-rooted body
circuit breaker all-shrouding nuns
zeta function she-peace
tender-hued river-front cobra plant

[Yes, it's another spam poem.]
Thursday, May 25, 2006

Against Web Standards

Following on my article on web standards and my attempt at getting a Blogger page to conform, I thought I would address some of the common critiques of web standards. I have formatted this page as a FAQ. If you have any further questions, please post a comment. I'd like to see this become a lively debate.

Who or what is the W3C?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was founded in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee with the involvement of MIT, CERN, DARPA, Japan's Keio University and the European Commission.

Who cares about the W3C?

Apparently, some of the largest technology firms in the world, including Adobe, AOL, Apple, AT&T, BBC, Cisco, Ericsson, Fujitsu, Google, Hitachi, IBM, Intel, Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), Lexmark, Matsushita, NEC, Nokia, Nortel, Oracle, Siemens AG, Sony, Sun, Toshiba, Xerox, Yahoo!... even Microsoft. The full members list is impressive.

But the W3C site is ugly

The W3C site is designed for developers and bears the look of a specification or technical document. Taking its audience into account I find it about 6 on the ugly scale. I also think Yahoo! is quite ugly but use it every day just the same.

Ugliness does not translate into lack of usability, though I prefer sites that are easy on the eyes.

Won't using web standards make my site ugly?

Following the standards does not have anything to do with the aesthetic of a website. Conforming sites can be ugly or pretty, boring or exciting, just like nonconforming sites.

However, following standards makes it significantly easier to modify the look of your site and try out different designs. A good example of this is css Zen Garden which invites outside designers to redo the home page. Switchable stylesheets allow you to view the page in radically different designs. You may be amazed that none of these alter the HTML in any way!

The W3C has no standards so why follow them?

The W3C publishes what it calls "recommendations", and has done so more than ninety times. Whether you want to call these "standards" or not is a matter of semantics. For the record, the W3C themselves use these terms interchangeably.

Why should I support standards if [insert popular site here] doesn't?

There are several parts to this complicated issue.

First, it depends on which validation standard and tool you are using. Google produces 33 errors in the online W3C Validator but zero in the W3C tool Tidy.

Second, and related, standards are not an absolute target. Some large and complicated sites must support older browsers (eg: Internet 5 and its ilk). These user agents did not support standards and so the site cannot if it hopes to render properly. (There are partial ways around this.)

Third, there is the problem of inertia. A large firm may in fact be updating pages to be standards-compatible, but hasn't got there yet. If a mix of technologies for generating web pages is not compliant, it can take a lot of work and investment to reach that target. All the more reason to start off on the right foot.

Fourth, some sites may not see all the benefits, so the organisation is not pushed to change. Yahoo! and Google are the search engines so they obviously care less about good SEO!

Fifth, while there are bad examples, there are also surprising cases of shining goodness, for example Microsoft.

Sixth, despite all the above, some sites do in fact need work. For example, Google does not state a doctype on their page. This is poor behaviour I cannot explain! They should hire me (or maybe you) as a consultant. Who said big companies never make mistakes?
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Secrets of Digital Cameras

Want to buy a digital camera? Confused by all the choices, the hundreds of models, the thousands of opinions? Well, I am here to help! Over the next few days I am going to gift you with the wisdom of a decade of experience. This first article will cover some basics, revealing the key principles that will guide you through the complicated evaluation process. It will focus (ouch!) on compact digital cameras.

First some background. I first learned shooting and film development on a completely manual SLR, mostly for journalism. That was back in the early eighties. Because of my involvements with media and the arts I had a chance to use the early Apple QuickTake digital camera, which had no removable storage, a serial interface (!), 640x480 resolution, and only three focal positions*. But I could still see, in those ancient days of 1994, that the writing was on the wall for chemical photography.

Since then I have used only a few models and would not consider myself a photography expert. Nonetheless, I am good at two things: research and cutting the crap. I hope these abilities will help you!

Your decision-making experience will be a lot easier if you bear in mind some basic principles.

It's all about the light. A picture is a visual representation of the outside world, and the more light that enters the lens and hits the CCD^ the better. This means that the size and quality of the lens/CCD is the first thing to look for in evaluating a camera. With an SLR one can switch lenses, so when purchasing you have the luxury of compare bodies more-or-less equally. But for a fixed-lens compact one is generally stuck with what one gets in the initial purchase.

You can't take a photo if you don't have a camera. Ignoring low-end technologies like camera phones, you need to have a camera with you when that once in a lifetime moment pops up. A small easy-to-carry camera is more likely to be with you when you need it than the large full-featured SLR. I believe in compact cameras for this reason. Even if you own an SLR, be sure to get a companion compact for shots where you just don't have the time to set up the SLR, or happen to have left it behind.

Don't get fixated on the numbers. Marketing folk will blare with triumph the new 4 megapixel, then 5 megapixel, then 6 megapixel models. But simply counting the pixels tells you nothing about the image quality. More megapixels mean fewer images on your memory card, longer transfer times per image, more disk space used, more backup disks burnt (you do back up, right?), longer software processing times, etc. All of these disadvantages must be balanced against the advantages:

1. The ability to print larger images at the same quality. Ask yourself how often you need large size prints? Do you ever need larger than A4?

2. The ability to crop the image to extract details. But if you're the sort of photographer you spends the time to frame in-camera, this will not be a high priority.

3. The ability to do more software post-processing. But you can only correct bad images to a degree. Buying a better camera in the first place will make the process easier and save endless hours at the computer.

At some point there is no valid reason to increase the pixel count, since the light entering the camera through the lens simply doesn't justify it. For compact cameras we have already reached that point. Manufacturers are moving to other attributes in order to distinguish their wares.

You can't add information to an image that is not there. If the CCD is poor, the lens cheap, or the camera firmware deficient, you are stuck with what you get. Noise reduction software and sophisticated software techniques can help to a degree, but do you really want to spend 30 minutes retouching an image?

There are two critical factors that are rarely disclosed by manufacturers, and so can only be inferred by comparing images. First, what compression rate is used in the JPG image? When buying an SLR we have the advantage of being able to shoot a raw image. But compact cameras use JPG and this means that information has been lost in order to compress the file size. This is why 1200x800 pixel images from different cameras will be a different size°.

Second, what in-camera post-processing has been performed? Some cameras allow you to control factors like sharpening, contrast and colour saturation. In my opinion it is best to leave these "off" so that any processing can be done manually in software, if need be. But what setting is "off" and can this even be set? Usually this is a big unknown.

Buy the features you need. Cameras are overloaded with bells and whistles, but no compact will do everything equally well. Decide what you need and make a priority list. Do you need wide-angle? Greater than 3x zoom? Good macro~ performance? Fast response time? A particular memory card format? Manual modes? List what you absolutely need and what you do not care about. This will eliminate a lot of buying decisions (perhaps entire product lines) immediately.

I hope these principles will help you. Coming up soon will be the result of my decision-making process and a review of my latest purchase.

Be sure to look through the Photos category for some of the photos I have taken.

Single-Lens Reflex cameras have the distinct advantage of using the same objective lens for the viewfinder and the CCD (or film), so what you see is what you get. Commonly these offer removable lenses and larger apertures, meaning more light.

* This ancient review calls it "sexy"!

^ The Charge-Coupled Device is the actual image sensor. How this operates is of primary importance to the image quality. The larger the size, the better (all else being equal).

It is unlikely one can see the benefit of more than 6 megapixels for a 1/1.7" CCD.

° Of course one must be sure to be taking pictures of exactly the same image, something remarkably difficult to achieve.

~ Macro is a special mode that lets you get near an object for extreme close-ups.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Obscuring Your Email From Spammers

Fighting spam is a full-time job for some, an annoyance at least for others. Those of us who have a website and want to plainly display an email address for the convenience of our readers have a problem: we are also plainly displaying this for spam-friendly web scrapers. Over the years a good number of techniques have arisen to deal with this, which I will outline in this article.

For each technique I will discuss any drawbacks. There is no perfect method but even a small effort is better than none. The theory is this: spammers operate on the basis of volume. It is not worth their while to slow down to do any sort of complicated parsing since the payoff is only a few more addresses out of millions (how many people bother with these techniques?).

That said, I will embark upon this wonderful journey of discovery as a testament to the inventiveness of those who have pioneeered these methods. Whether they are justified or not!

Plain Text
Code as: <a href=""></a>

Looks like:

This amounts to not doing anything. Your email address is displayed openly. Any spam can be dealt with on the receiving end. Your readers need no special browsers or capabilities and can click on the link with expected results.

Character Entities
Code as: first&#46last&#64;domain&#46;com

Looks like:

HTML character entities are decoded by the browser back into displayable type, but look like some sort of gibberish at the markup level. However, they are easy to automatically decode, and so cannot be recommended as a way of avoiding spammers.

Typographic Obsfucation
Code as: first dot last at domain dot com
f i r s t . l a s t @ d o m a i n . c o m

By spelling out parts of your address, adding spaces, using synonyms, or including obviously extraneous words, you are relying on a reader to visually decode and rewrite your email. This technique, like most of those that follow, precludes the use of a convenient mailto link, because if it's convenient to the reader then it is to the spider as well.

Unfortunately this means extra work, which will reduce the number of messages you get. Presuming you want to communicate, this is a bad thing. Also, web scrapers may be smart enough to piece together a valid email, since there are only so many substitutions that must be tried. (Removing whitespace is almost too easy.)

Substitute With A Graphic
Code as:
<img src="myaddress.png" border="0" alt="my email address">

Looks like:

Converting the text to an image file definitively foils spiders, but is a barrier to your users and may break usability guidelines. The reason is that you cannot safely put your address in the clear in the ALT attribute, so those without a visual display get no useful info. (A similar technique uses Flash files, but has no additional advantages.)

JavaScript Generation

There are many possible variants on the theme of programmatically creating the email link. This is my own, which contains some enhancements.

Note that significant strings that a spider might be set to recognise (eg: "mailto") are broken up. Also, character entities are used for the symbols, plus the components of the email address are listed backwards.
<script language="JavaScript"> <!--
function InsertEmail(t) {
var chardot = '.';
var charat = '@';
var commune = new Array('com', 'domain', 'last', 'first');

document.write('<a href="ma');
// --> </script>

In practice one would remove the function to an external JS file, making it even less likely to be found and parsed. The problem with this technique is that it restricts your readers to JavaScript-enabled browsers. In practice this may not be a significant limitation.

JavaScript Generation With Obsfucation

To take the previous technique even further you can obsfucate the JavaScript. The online tool Enkoder creates something like this:

<script type="text/javascript">
/* <![CDATA[ */
function hivelogic_enkoder(){var kode=
;var i,c,x;while(eval(kode));}hivelogic_enkoder();
/* ]]> */

This has no real advantage over the more comprehensible JavaScript technique unless you believe spammers possess high intelligence and cracking abilities. I don't think so.


This technique stores only an encrypted address on the page, decrypted by JavaScript. It certainly stops spam, but is overkill for most purposes. If you wish to use it, try Email Protector, which uses 10-bit RSA encryption.

Form With CGI

Some sites refuse entirely to publish their addresses and accept email only through a web form. Since the email address is only used on the server side, this fully protects the site from spiders. Unfortunately readers receive an interface inferior to their email software and are restricted from keeping a record of the sent email. Though popular, forms are a barrier to communication and I do not recommend them.

CSS Display None
span.hide {display:none;}
first.last@domain<span class="hide">null</span>.com

This technique interrupts the email address with some HTML which is set to not display by way of CSS. This could be useful in combination with some of the plain obsfucation techniques but likely adds little to them.

CSS Pseudo-Class
address:after {
content: " <first.last\>";

I found this tricky method at Newt Edge. It relies on the CSS2 pseudo-class :after, so older browsers plus Opera and Safari are out of luck. Again, if the style is in a separate file it reduces the chance the address will be found. But it's still almost in the clear.

CSS Backwards Text
.backwards {unicode-bidi:bidi-override; direction: rtl;}
<span class="backwards">moc.niamod@tsal.tsrif</span>

This technique is taken from the CSS Play site. It works only in current browsers which support a full range of CSS2 attributes, which means only Explorer 7 and FireFox 1.5. It's cute though.


It's easy enough to set up an experiment and see what techniques resist spam. Back in 2004 basic obfuscation and JavaScript worked just fine. I do not think more complicated techniques are justified, though it's fun to see what people come up with.

1. When almost finished this article, I found a similar one, though the author does not credit any of the techniques.
2. It's a shame I cannot properly demo some of these techniques, but Blogger gets in the way.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Three Abstracts

oil bottles
I have a new camera. And that means new photos for you, plus a review and some buying tips coming up, whenever I have the time to formulate my ideas and not just go "Click -- cool! Click -- cool!"

This was originally a chalkboard.

south lights
And these are some lights at a local pub.
Friday, May 19, 2006

Best Software: Graphics

Here is another in my series of software recommendations. As usual I will stick close to open source apps and will avoid advising you to spend any money. Adobe tools are excellent but too expensive. Thankfully, there are alternatives.

In this article I will not cover tools for media viewing or playing, but rather those that will help with media creation. I am not a graphics expert but do occasionally get paid for design work. I know lots of students and struggling artists, and am often surprised that they are not aware of the free software that is out there and can make their lives easier.

Inkscape x o is the canonical vector drawing application. If you wish to create diagram like flowcharts, charts, etc. then Dia x o may be more appropriate.

The GIMP x o is a popular bitmap graphics programme that competes with PhotoShop. If you work in a demanding domain, say film, you will want to investigate CinePaint x o. It's a 32-bit paint program that was forked from GIMP code. It has "been used on many feature films, including The Last Samurai where it was used to add flying arrows." I have yet to try this out, since it seems too much for my modest needs. Looks fantastic, however!

A further bitmap programme is PhotoFiltre w, which is free for private use, noncommercial or educational use. It is optimised for image retouching, but I haven't spent much time coming to terms with it. The forum is in French and documentation is minimal.

I don't do any video or animation work, but have used Wax w, a flexible video compositing and special effects package.

When it comes to utilities I sing the praises of ColorCop w, a brilliant eyeglass / magnifier and pixel colour grabber, essential for matching colours in graphics, screen shot manipulation, and so on.

Exifer w helps you manage the metadata (EXIF/IPTC) of digital camera pix. It's postcardware. Exif Image Viewer w lists EXIF photo information, presenting thumbnails and histograms.

IrfanView w is predominantly an image viewer, but I find it invaluable for two tasks: converting images to icon format and grabbing screen captures.

Last, but not least, I must encourage you to spend money on one single product. Noise Ninja is an almost magical tool which removes noise from images, particularly those from digital cameras. The cheapest version is $35, and will make you think your camera is far more expensive than it really is!

If you think I've saved you hundreds of [insert your monetary unit here] then make a donation using the PayPal link. Thanks!

o Open Source
w win32 only
x cross-platform