A high-speed train – technological wonder or white elephant?

Lord Adonis proposes a superfast, 250mph rail link, from the South to Scotland, that will do away with the need for internal flights in the UK. This is because Lord Adonis is an idiot, and just out to make a name for himself (I’ve got one – begins with f and ends in wit – can you see what it is yet?).

Such grandiose plans are out of place in a world running short of fossil fuels and, currently, money. Trains, not planes, is a solution to a problem that doesn’t actually exist. And air travel pulls in a huge amount of revenue via taxes, while the proposed rail route will, inevitably, require massive subsidies both to build and to operate. Has Adonis Continue reading

Amazon’s Kindle – what’s the point…

It’s getting hard to avoid reviews of Amazon’s Kindle, their updated electronic book thingy. Utterly pointless, though, as there’s no indication when it will be available here in the UK – It’s like a yachting magazine reviewing the QE2.

No idea what Continue reading

The greening of mobile phones…

In Barcelona this week, at the Barcelona Mobile World Congress, improving the green credentials of mobile phones seems to be high on the agenda.

To this end, the next big thing in mobile phones, apparently, will be built-in solar panels, as on the upcoming Samsung Blue Earth touchscreen phone, which is made from recycled water bottles, has a solar panel on the back, and a built-in pedometer, so you can see Continue reading

Wonders of Science (a very occasional series)…

I was in the chemist’s (drugstore if you’re of the American persuasion), idling away the time waiting for my meds to be dispensed, and I found myself standing by the baby food.

Gazing at these serried ranks of jars of glop, I was forced to wonder just how much thought, and maybe dedicated research, had gone into making a product that was the same colour and texture at both ends of the baby…

Age discrimination?

When I got my first computer (Windows 3.1, 4MB RAM and a 40MB hard drive), I bought a copy of Windows 3.1 For Dummies and never looked back. Over the years I’ve bought others, for software, and I’m convinced they’re the best how-to books available for computer users. I was baffled the other day, then, to see a new title – Computers for Seniors For Dummies…

For seniors? What’s that about then? Do computers somehow function differently for old codgers than they do for youngsters or, perhaps, does the advice – like this concept – have to be more patronising? This is the opening paragraph for the old fart’s book:-

“If you’ve never owned a computer and now face purchasing one for the first time, deciding what to get can be a somewhat daunting experience. There are lots of technical terms to figure out, and various pieces of hardware (the physical pieces of the computer like the monitor and keyboard) and software (the brains of the computer that help you create documents and play games, for example), that you need to understand.”

We’ll disregard the fact that the brains of a PC is the CPU, not the sodding software, and look at the same para from the standard book, PCs For Dummies:-

“Just because you can buy a complete computer straight off the shelf, right down the aisle form the diapers, canned peas and frozen burritos, doesn’t imply that using a computer will be any easier today than it was 20 years ago. Don’t believe the hype.”

See the difference? Why is it, then, that because one is getting older (I’m 63, so no accusations of ageism, please!), one is considered, apparently, too dim to understand the more casual style of the second example? Though, actually, computers are much easier to use than they were 20 years ago!

As far as I am concerned, if someone has the intelligence to operate a computer, then they don’t need to be patronised by some numpty leading them by the hand and patting them on the head – this book is entirely unnecessary. If you’re getting on a bit, and thinking of buying your first computer, my advice would be to do so, and buy yourself a copy of PCs for Dummies, 11th Edition (for Windows Vista), or 10th Edition (for Windows XP). You won’t be patronised, but you will be very well informed and, quite possibly, entertained along the way, For me, Andy Rathbone is (or was – I don’t know if he’s still around), one of For Dummies best writers, though Dan Gookin, who wrote PCs For Dummies, is pretty good too. And the For Dummies books start by assuming complete ignorance on the part of the reader – always a good thing. I would, though, like to offer you one piece of advice – if you don’t know what a button, or an icon, does, DON’T press or click it just to see what happens! Computers aren’t wildly difficult to master, but random button-pressing or mouse-clicking has probably caused more grief, for more people, than anything else.

If you find some of the terminology baffling, there are plenty of glossaries online – check out Webopedia for starters.

And finally, when I first saw the words Computers for Seniors, I thought to myself, That’s not a bad swap…

MInd you, my local hairdresser has a sign saying “Pensioners half-price on Thursdays” but they won’t sell me one.

Photography update…

I’ve just treated myself – by means of borrowed money – to a digital SLR, an Olympus E500; an excellent camera.

Olymous E500

Browsing the Web, looking for information and opinion, I had a long-standing prejudice reinforced in no uncertain terms – with occasional exceptions, digital photographers seem to know bugger all about the basics of photography, and no matter how many bells and whistles your camera has, ignorance of the fundamentals will always give crap results.

This is a fairly typical example. A guy on a forum was wanting to know why his pics were blurred and his camera giving him mysterious messages (RTFM, pal!). His lens, he said, was set to infinity. How far away is your subject, asked a helpful reader (just before losing the will to live, I suspect). Oh, 8 to 10 feet.

OK – think about that; this pillock was snapping something within spitting distance, with a focus setting he could have used to photograph the moon! I mean, how stupid do you have to be not to know what “infinity” means, and how inappropriate it is to something 10 feet away?

Luckily, I started in photography, in my teens, with just a camera and the instruction sheet that you got with rolls of film for setting the exposure, which was remarkably accurate. I then graduated to using a lightmeter and, eventually, via a series of SLRs and compacts of varying degrees of sophistication, to my first digital camera six years ago (this represents a period of 40 years or so), so it presented no photography-related problems at all – I just needed to learn the technology.

These days, apparently, people are happy to buy an often vastly expensive digital and, starting from a position of total photographic ignorance, proceed to take terrible photos and to blame their camera when they don’t get the desired results. These numpties should be prevented, by law, from buying anything more complex than a Box Brownie – and they’d probably cock that up!!

By the way, RTFM = Read The Fucking Manual! Something almost no-one does and almost everyone should. Why? Well film cameras have three basic controls – focus, lens aperture and shutter speed (with maybe zoom as well. OK, many had a lot more settings, but they were just variations on the theme of the basic 3 or 4. Digital cameras have many more controls – sometimes hundreds more – my auto-focus Minolta 35mm SLR has a 44-page manual, in comparison, the manual for my new digital SLR runs to 216 pages, so while such a tome may be daunting, it is essential that you familiarise yourself with it (the first thing I did, even before my camera arrives, was to download a copy). Before taking any pic that actually matter, I’m going to play with it for a while, photographing anything and everything, to get the feel of it and familiarise myself with at least some of its controls. This, of course, is much easier than with film, as even the crappiest photos cost money to develop and print, but with digital you can just delete the rubbish, but not, I would suggest, before uploading them to your computer, to see what you did wrong. And don’t blame the camera for your errors – they don’t make mistakes, any more than computers do (assuming neither has a fault). People do.

TV – do I really need one?

A decade ago, when there were a mere 5 terrestrial channels, I’d watch TV for about 6 hours a night, or more (basically, from the BBC1 6 o’clock news until I went to bed) – never during the day, though, I value my brain cells too much – and could usually manage to remain reasonably entertained and/or informed.

Ten years on and if I watch 10 hours a week it’s an exception. There’s CSI – though it and its various clones are rapidly losing the plot, and sinking into absurdity; NCIS, which has the wit CSI thinks it has (and the babes, too – have you noticed how old the CSI women have got; even those who aren’t chronologically old have aged dramatically – why?), and never takes itself too seriously; House, a format which shouldn’t work but does, repeatedly and brilliantly; Top Gear; plus F1 in season, quali and race. Except for a nightly excursion to BBC’s News 24, to play catch-up before going to bed, that’s it.

Every afternoon I sit in front of my laptop and wade through acres of dross in the online Radio Times, searching mostly in vain for something worth watching (I have Outlook reminders set for my regulars). Some months ago I was offered the beta of BBC’s iPlayer, for which I’d registered an interest some time earlier, but I thought, no point – there’s pretty much nothing on BBC I want to watch once, never mind twice!

Where, now, are programmes of the calibre of Frazier, The West Wing, Seinfeld, Friends, the ER of five years ago, ditto NYPD Blue, The Sopranos (except towards the end, when they seriously lost their grip on it), early Six Feet Under (went on long past its sell-by date, sadly)?

Factual programming has gone down the pan, too – I’ll just give you the horrible example of Panorama. Since the egregious Jeremy Vine took over presenting it, it’s been little but sensationalism, misrepresentation and plain, old-fashioned lies (just as his Radio 2 show has been dragged remorselessly downmarket in the same way, and moved a hell of a long way from honesty and truth). I am, frankly, at a loss to know who, at the BBC, takes responsibility for these two crapulous shows, and I’ve been unable to find out.

I had thought, with digital TV, things would improve. I have Freeview (can’t afford Sky, there seems no way NOT to have football as part of the package if I could, and anyway, I’d not willingly give a penny to Murdoch), but that sucks as it only works in dry weather, except for one or two channels I’ve no desire to watch (and what the hell happens after the digital roll-out – are they going to fix the Freeview problem or are us poor folks going to be left with a severely second-rate service?). Anyway, what I end up with, even when the weather is fine is, in the words of The Boss, 57 channels and nuthin’ on!

And what the hell is wrong with 5US, where they show repeats of the “best” stuff from Five, all bloody jumbled up – there are so many incarnations of CSI running, all at the same time, it’s quite impossible to keep track of. For pity’s sake, in the listings, tell us which episodes of which bloody series they are – would that be so hard? Oh yes, and when Channel 4 moved the West Wing to E4, they did the 5US trick, so you couldn’t sort the new stuff from the old, repeated stuff. Fair enough, even repeated, the West Wing was better than almost anything else, but NOT when it stops you finding the new episodes! Mind you, the screening of the series Ice Road Truckers on Five is an absolute shambles – god knows what 5US will do to it if it makes it there.

So there you have it, I’m pissed off with television, and very often I have to ask myself, do I really need a TV? To be honest, probably not, and once the stuff I am watching fizzles out, or my TV expires, I’m through. I probably won’t replace my TV (affordable TVs are going to be very hard to find before long, as CRT sets are falling from favour, and flat-screen sets are out of my reach, as they will be for a large percentage of the country). The answer, since I watch to little, may be a plug-in USB-TV gizmo for my laptop. We’ll see, but unless television programming improves dramatically it may not be worth the effort, and I can see my book bill going through the roof. Still, at least then I’ll get exactly what I want, know exactly where to find it, and repeat (readings) won’t piss me off!

Update:  I have lost all interest in Formula 1. The problem, for me, has always been the FIA’s bias in favour of Ferrari, never more obvious than last year. Bear in mind, though, the affair of the mass damper. Renault devised this device, and made it work very well indeed. Ferrari, for all their technical expertise, couldn’t make it work well at all. What did they do? They went to the FIA, bitching and whining about it, and the FIA – mid season – banned the mass damper, and came close to trashing Renault’s title bid which was, of course, their sole aim. That’s just the most recent pro-Ferrari episode – the history of F1 is riddled with them, not least in the last decade.

Then there was the McLaren farce (there has always been a level of spying in F1, and had it NOT been McLaren, I seriously doubt Ferrari would have bothered). They did bother, though, and ruined McLaren’s season big time. And now they have their private police force still hassling McLaren (the Italian people  actually think it’s their police force – they’re wrong).

Do you remember the change in the tyre rules when, barring punctures or rain, one set had to last the entire race? Ferrari couldn’t make that work, either. So, despite that it made for  better racing – more races won on the track, not in the pit lane – the FIA, for which read Max Moseley – binned the system and reverted to one with which Ferrari could cope. And then there was the introduction of traction control (now gone again), because one team was “suspected” (for which read “every other team, and the FIA knew”), of illegally hiding traction control in its engine management software. Can you guess who?

Add to that Max Mosely’s persistent and rabid bad-mouthing of McLaren (not to mention his constant buggering about with the rules), and fuck it, I’ve had a belly full of F1, until the day comes when it stops being run for the sole benefit of Ferrari. Oh, and of Bernie Ecclestone, who simply has way too much power. Between them, Ecclestone and Moseley effectively run F1 as their own private fiefdom.

The day Moseley stands down, or dies (either will cheer me up), and the avaricious Bernie Ecclestone retires, or pops his clogs (ditto), will be a very good day for the future of F1.

Though I may be tempted back – possibly briefly – when TV coverage returns to BBC next year, because for ITV it’s never been even slightly important. They’d happily rearrange their schedules – including the sacred Coronation Street – for bloody football, but not for F1. Unlike the BBC, who always gave it the coverage it deserved, and no doubt will again.

WMP10 Forced Upgrade to 11…

If you are happy with Windows Media Player (WMP) Version 10, and don’t want to upgrade to Version 11, then be warned – Microsoft are now forcing this upgrade upon unsuspecting users.

I got a “Media Player wants to access the Internet” warning from my firewall – this usually indicates an update, so I gave it permission. As has so often happened lately, the download froze, or so I thought – it was actually glacially slow. I got fed up and cancelled it, then tried to go back to what I was doing with Media Player. It gave me a message, refusing to open until I had restarted my computer, to install WMP11!

Now, I didn’t want that, and there’d been no indication that what I’d been offered wasn’t just a WMP10 update, not an upgrade! The only way to go, then, was to use System Restore to go back to the last Restore Point before the update, which was yesterday evening.

So be warned, if you’re offered an update for WMP, and you can’t see exactly what it is, cancel it immediately. If you have Windows Automatic Updates set to update your computer automatically, then you could suddenly find yourself with WMP11 installed against your will. If you do, go here you’ll find instructions on how to revert to Version 10. It’s not hard, but it is tedious – read the instructions through first, then follow them to the letter and you’ll get your old Media Player back.

Kindle desire…

Yes, I know it’s a terrible pun – what I don’t know is why Amazon came up with such an odd name for their electronic “book”. I can’t see a lot of point, either. However, despite being widely rubbished, and costing $399 dollars, it’s sold out way before Christmas, so obviously a lot of people like it. So what does it seem like (because it’s not available in the UK)?

Well, the screen is small for a start, with a 6″ diagonal, which is a tad more than half the diagonal of an A5 page (60%, in fact), which is 2″ smaller than a standard paperback, and a whole lot smaller than “modern” paperbacks, and hardbacks. The size of the whole thing is 7.5″ x 5.3″, a little bigger than a standard paperback, and 0.7″ thick.

It holds “hundreds of titles”, whatever that means in real terms, and is expandable using SD cards, and you can access newspapers (by subscription), and blogs. All these are bought, wirelessly, from the Kindle Store, the implication of which is that you’ll be charged to access the blogs you can get for free online – not exactly a sharp marketing strategy if true, but maybe they just provide a link for free…

Logically the price should be about £200 when it arrives in the UK, but it never works out like that, and it’s likely that the $ sign will simply be replaced with a £ sign, or something very close to that. The idea of hundreds of books in one place is attractive (though there’s a downside). I have about 1,500 books in three overflowing bookcases, with more coming all the time, and I’m running out of space, so having hundreds of electronic books has its attractions – trouble is to replace all my paper books would cost at least £7,500, plus an indeterminate amount in SD cards, so this thing is only good for new purchases that I don’t already have.

Now, consider the battery. With Wi-Fi turned off, you can read your stored material for a week, which is pretty good (with Wi-Fi turned on you get a max of 2 days before recharging – a lot less if you use the Wi-Fi connection much). I worry about claimed battery life, as I’ve learned from hard-won experience (electric wheelchairs, mobiles, mp3 players, satnav etc.) that battery life is always exaggerated. Always. So I’d realistically be looking for perhaps 3-4 days reading time – more would be a bonus. And, of course, use in cold conditions would trash battery life, so forget taking it outdoors in winter. Even carrying it in a bag would reduce battery life in cold weather – for commuting /travelling, it needs to live in a car. And Amazon don’t even mention what sort of battery it has, which sort of suggests it’s a proprietary model – always bad news in terms of cost.

Then there’s the major selling points of the device – it’s portable and it’s electronic – these two features don’t always work well together. There’s no indication that the case is made of anything robust, like polycarbonate, or that the electronic guts are hardened, so probably a very good idea not to drop it. And don’t spill beer on it in the pub either, or get it caught in the rain. There are no moving parts inside – it operates on flash memory – so that adds a degree of robustness, and it’ll probably survive being dropped better than, say, an iPod, but I still wouldn’t want to risk it.

But, how portable is it? It’s a little too big to slip comfortably into a pocket (especially in its book-like case – how ironic is that, disguising it as a book?), which means you need to carry a bag of some sort. That’s a bummer. It’s eminently stealable, too, so hey, don’t leave it on the table if you read it in the pub and need a pee! You can slip a book in your pocket (mostly), or you can leave one while you toddle off to the Gents, without risk – usually, anyway, and if it is nicked, you’re out a few pounds – not a few hundred. You’re going to have the Kindle tucked under your arm, with the attendant risks…

Flash memory has a finite lifespan, too, and after a certain number of read-write cycles, it will quietly expire (all flash memory, not just the Kindle), for which almost no manufacturer will provide figures (which probably means it’s not too impressive), so your books aren’t going to be safe for ever.

Then there the cost of feeding it – this is what Amazon says:-

*More than 90,000 books available, including more than 95 of 112 current New York Times® Best Sellers.

*New York Times® Best Sellers and all New Releases $9.99, unless marked otherwise.

How many will be “marked otherwise”, and whether they’re likely to be marked up or down, isn’t mentioned.

Don’t get me wrong, I sort of like the thing, and I’d like one, even though it’s utterly pointless. The thing is, for a real bibliophile, it’s a mere frippery, an indulgence that adds little to the reading experience – it may even detract from it – it’s a geek’s, or a flash git’s, toy. It’s sole advantage (other than its pose value!), is that it puts a lot of books and other literary stuff all in one (small), place, and that, for me, just isn’t enough, because like all electronic devices, sooner or later it’ll just stop working, or get dropped, or wet, and you may well lose everything. Likewise if it gets stolen. In either case, the only way to recover your stuff is to invest in another Kindle.

Amazon, apparently, tacitly acknowledges the risks inherent in owning this device, because everything you buy is backed up online, so you can re-download it whenever you need to, as often as you need to.

My biggest fear, though, is that once the novelty has worn off, it’s likely to be consigned to life’s fringes, along with forgotten mp3 players. It’s an excellent concept, but, I feel, one which is destined to be a niche product, because there’s no real need for it; after all, no one really needs to carry around hundreds of books – not ever. For sheer convenience (no batteries required), portability, durability (I have some books approaching their centenary – there’s no way a Kindle, or a similar device, will ever match that), and all-round sheer pleasure – you don’t get cover art on a Kindle – you simply can’t beat paper for books. Not yet, anyway, and I’ll be very surprised if a viable alternative appears in my lifetime. After all, in science-fiction, how many times have writers “invented” hi-tech alternatives to the humble book, and how many of these were as 100% self-contained and as efficient to use as an actual book is? In my experience, that would be none of them.

Luddites all…

Almost unbelievably, 41,000 black and white TV licences were sold in the past year. So, that’s 41,000 people for whom the words “digital” and “switchover” are just meaningless noise. Don’t you just love that?

I can just see the infuriated letters to the Telegraph when their TV picture disappears for ever in a couple of years time. Letters, of course, and probably in green ink, for if these people are still in the fifties televisually, they surely won’t have email – probably view it as a passing fad, no doubt – and if they actually do have computers, they’re probably still running DOS.

On the other hand, we may have 41,000 people happily watching their 42″ widescreen plasma TVs, while paying buttons for their licences. I wonder if anybody checks to see?