elliot's blog

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gopher://gopher.floodgap.com/1/new (your browser, if it's not Firefox, might not know what to do with this)

I was there.

In a self-referential response to myself

Paul responded in a comment to this post. He pointed out that the small thing we may have lost (the ability to concentrate hard on "slow" pleasures) is more than compensated for by what we've gained: almost unlimited horizons, the wealth of the world at our fingertips, i.e. the internet. He's right. I was just being an old curmudgeon. Must have been a downer of a day.

Started using Twitter

I started using Twitter last week. Mainly peer pressure, but also as an experiment. Call me a member of "the early majority".

That's not the point of this blog entry though. Here's the point. Coming right up.

I use Google Reader, which is good; but it can't read Twitter feeds, as they require authentication. So I used FreeMyFeed, to which you give your Twitter username, password and friend feed URI. In return it creates an alternative, non-authenticated feed with the content of your original feed. Which you can get at with Google Reader.

There's the point. FreeMyFeed: useful.

Have we lost something?

Last night I watched The Rolf Harris Show (the link is to the episode on iPlayer), originally broadcast in 1969. I've always been a bit of a fan of Rolf (mainly because of his Cartoon Time series when I was growing up), but I hadn't seen his variety show before.

What was interesting to me about this show were its expectations about the audience's attention span. After Rolf's intro, we were treated to Ivan Rebroff's rendition of Kalinka. Ivan sang in Russian for 4 or 5 minutes (across 4.5 octaves), standing alone on stage, dressed like a cossack. There is no way you'd get something like this on prime time family television in 2008. There was also an over-long, godawful, but in its way charming, skit on Robin Hood (starring Rolf and Barbara Windsor); an overwrought (but quite entertaining) song by Vince Hill; Val Doonican incongruously singing The Answer (is Blowing in the Wind) and one other; plus The Young Generation doing a dance number called The Continental (here they are dancing to something else).

In some ways, it's a good thing that we no longer have to suffer some of this tedium. But when I found my own fingers itching and my attention drifting, it made me ask myself whether I (and people more generally) have lost something: the ability to enjoy simple pleasures, like a person singing alone onstage. I know that's what BBC 4 and Radio 4 are about, and I know there are plenty of people who appreciate culture in that way. But perhaps the difference is that it's no longer a general feature of the population. TV was much simpler, naive, and dull when I was growing up. Life was much more dull, to be honest. Partly because I grew up in a tiny market town, but largely because everyone was poorer, at least where I lived. By comparison, life today seems to be accelerating, getting bigger, brighter; we get more and more stuff; we endlessly throw things away, change things; and our attention spans narrow, flitting from the old to the new. (I know this isn't an original insight, but Rolf's show brought the issue vividly to my attention.)

My daughter has never had to wait until a particular time of day to watch children's TV; she's always had access to computers, where you can watch virtually any event on YouTube (bees making honey, the moon landing etc.); she's got her own CD player in her room (no TV, for as long as we can prevent it); she gets to go out to lots of parks, museums, the cinema etc.. Thankfully, she loves drawing and writing, and will spend hours making pictures for friends and family, so she can entertain herself. But she has endless opportunities and a wealth of "stuff" which just wasn't the norm when I was growing up in the 70s. Everything is just there, all the time. We try really hard to make sure she appreciates what she's got, and realises how lucky she is. (Though it's hard to instill those values when she earns two or three rewards of pencils, keyrings, stickers, badges etc. for good behaviour at school every week. When I was at school the reward was a book, once a year, for pupils who'd done really well.)

I also watched Survivors last night. Fairly bleak dystopian sf (perhaps the credit crunch is to blame), and I thought reasonably realistic. It made me think along similar lines to watching Rolf: as well as moving further and further into the unreal realm of the media (the hyperreal simulation of the media, even, as Monsieur Baudrillard would have it), we have also moved further and further from our hunter gatherer origins. I thought this show reflected that pretty accurately. The characters in Survivors, faced with a world decimated by a virus, react in a variety of ways: denial, bewilderment, displacement activity, land grabbing. Mostly, though, they hope it will all go away, carry on arguing with each other, blunder around blowing up petrol stations, and don't really know what to do without the infrastructure that modern society relies on. I think I'd be the same in their situation, without my computer and TV and electricity, which makes me a bit sad. Though I can grow vegetables.

One last thing: talking about dystopias always reminds me of what I consider the dystopia par excellence: The Genocides by Thomas Disch. I don't think you can get it in the UK at the moment, but you can probably get it second hand (here it is on Amazon US). The basic story is that aliens have planted crops on the whole of the earth, gradually killing off all the native life except for people. People end up living in the stalks and roots of their gigantic plants, like field mice. The characterisation is fantastic (as with all Disch's work), but what I liked in particular was how the impending extinction of humankind did nothing to dampen their bickering and infighting. I'm sure that's how the world would end.

The Home of Metal

The West Midlands is the Home of Metal. I hadn't really grasped this until I read this blog entry and had a browse around the Home of Metal site. I'm not particularly a fan of metal (except maybe some of the tracks by Scorn by ex Napalm Death chap Mick Harris, and despite the best efforts of Jono); but it would be good if the West Midlands and Birmingham got more recognition for the good stuff it's brought to the world. You can have a look at Famous Birmingham People for starters (though Arthur Conan Doyle is a bit of stretch: wasn't born here, he just lived here a while). Most notable for me:

  • George Cadbury (the chocolate man)
  • Tony Hancock
  • JRR Tolkein (not born here, but lived here when young; I've visited Sarehole Mill in Birmingham a couple of times, where he surely must have got some inspiration for The Lord of the Rings)
  • David Lodge (who taught English at University of Birmingham; I went to a talk he did in the Computer Science department while I was studying there, around the time he wrote Thinks...)

I've lived here since 1994 and feel very defensive of and proud of the region: great people, great places to go, great atmosphere. It's a fine place to live, and I'm glad my children are growing up here.

Wiisic - mp3 server with Wii UI

I got a Wii for my birthday a couple of months back. It's great: I love Zelda, got tennis elbow playing Wii Sports, and like playing Super Monkey Ball (Banana Blitz) with Nicola and Madeleine.

Tonight I have also been playing with the video playing stuff: copying videos off the camera onto another SD card, then browsing it using the Photo Channel. Nicola and I enjoyed watching videos of Joel and Madeleine (on the trampoline) on the big screen with the Wii's frankly marvellous interface. So far, I've discovered the Wii is OK with .avi files but not .mp4s or .mpgs.

I also bought the internet channel (basically Opera browser) for it. This means that sometimes you can watch stuff on the BBC iPlayer (but it's generally unwatchable due to long pauses on my internet connection), and YouTube works OK. Also discovered YouTube now has a specialised Wii interface, which is much nicer (though buggy).

But no Last.fm. I use Last.fm a lot, and it now has so much data about the music I like, I frequently use it as a personal radio station. So a bit of a blow it doesn't work on the Wii.

Instead, I went in search of a way to browse from my Wii to some kind of mp3 server on my laptop, so I can play my mp3 collection from my Wii. (Ideally, I'd have my mp3s out on the net somewhere, with a web app to play them, but maybe one day.) In the meantime, I discovered Wiisic, a little Java application to play mp3s out of folder on your computer and stream them over HTTP, to a Flash client in the Wii browser.

To get it working, I downloaded the jar, then did:

sudo java -jar wiisic.jar

A little GUI pops up so you configure a couple of options. I found that I had to run it as root on Linux so it could run on port 80: the Wii didn't seem to like port 9999. And had to turn off Apache as a consequence. The GUI also shows you the address you need to browse to on your Wii to get to the Wiisic server (10.0.5.3 in my case). So I fired up Opera, browsed there, and got the simple but functional Flash interface and started playing my mp3s, served off my laptop. Neat.

Here's what it looks like (on my paltry TV). I christened it with the epic The Anal Staircase by Coil.

Ideally, I'd like to see this as a PHP app. (perhaps) using S3 as its backend. Should be possible...

Gardening post-mortem

So, the main growing season is largely over. Obviously you can grow some winter salads, plant bulbs and the like, but the garden is less active than it was a few weeks back. It was a fairly decent season for first-time vegetable growers (me and Madeleine); here's a summary:

  • We started out with lettuce, rocket and spinach, sown into paper pots, then planted into the ground when big enough. All were a complete failure and totally ravaged by slugs and snails. No crops.
  • We also grew some miniature sweetcorn which got to about 4 feet. The plants were healthy, but the yield was pitiful (6 cobs off 6 plants - delicious, but not enough). Should have started them earlier, or maybe fed them more, or given them better ground to grow in. Small success.
  • We tried pumpkins, which were again completely demolished by snails and slugs. They stayed fairly small for a long time, then around the start of September went demented and grew about 6 feet over the next 8 weeks. A few pumpkins started, but got chewed. Failure.
  • Radishes: we planted these out directly in the ground, and managed to crop a few. Not many though. I think the squirrels had them or something. Moderate success.
  • Salads growing in troughs hanging from the fence: the major success of the year. The troughs are attached about half-way up the fence around the patio, so they're warm and out of the way of slugs. I also put some wire mesh over the top to stop the squirrels and birds digging in them, then sowed through the mesh (so the plants grew through it). We had plenty of delicious crops from this, including mustard, spicy salad mix (rocket, leaf radish, etc.), lettuce, spinach, and endive. Endive is a great crop, by the way: everyone says it's bitter, and it consequently seems less attractive to wildlife; and the young leaves are at least as good as lettuce (I'd say tastier). Big success.

For the rest of this year, I think I'll carry on planting salads, some in the greenhouse. Next year, I think we'll do sweetcorn again, plenty of salads, radishes and peas outside; then try squashes, courgettes, aubergines and tomatoes in the greenhouse. Just need to get my seed order sent off.

Translation error

I thought this blog entry was hilarious.

Most promising open source CMS

I was a judge this year on Packt Publishing's Most Promising Open Source CMS award: the results have just been announced. The winner was SilverStripe.

I was personally impressed by the slickness of the interface, and by the fact that it has been designed to scale well to large websites. The developers have obviously thought carefully about the architecture, and are aiming for the "CMS plus web platform" approach of Drupal. I was also personally impressed by the responsiveness of the development team, their willingness to work in the community, and the clarity of their vision for the product. Worthy winners. Give it a look.

Flight of the Conchords

I came late to the Conchords, and didn't realise what I'd been missing. (My sister's been a fan for a while, of course.)

I defy anyone not to find If You're Into It funny (not work safe):

And Business Time:

Currently their first series is being repeated on BBC Four on Tuesdays.

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