Tag Archives: tech


As is customary amongst our people, I am going to tell you what it is I think about stuff that’s been going on.

On Wednesday, Apple announced, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, that they were going to release a new tablet computer, monikered the iPad.

Gallons of ink and… what the fuck is the collective noun for pixels? I mean, you have a murder of crows, a parliament of rooks, a school of fish, a clutch of eggs… regardless, a lot of pixels have gone into describing every nook and cranny of the thing, so there’s no need to re-hash it; I always find that Engadget does a good job of coverage.

The real question is: is the iPad a Good Thing, or a Bad Thing?

I must confess that my initial thought process was, “Oh, it’s a giant iPod Touch. Who cares?” The iPhone OS is limited in a whole bunch of ways that are annoying if you’re used to desktop computers: there’s no filesystem, no multitasking, you have to get all your applications through the App Store, etc. and I felt that was just too limiting for a device that size. I also had ergonomic concerns, is it good for typing, for instance?

Then I sat down and watched the keynote video, watched the thing in action.

And I just can’t be cynical. I’ve wanted a device like this for probably more than a decade. And it’s better than the dream could ever be.

The iWork apps on there were, oddly, what finally convinced me. If you pair it with a USB keyboard, this becomes a practical work machine. It’s not a toy, it’s not a joke, it’s a perfectly-crafted touch device in a way you could never get by retrofitting multitouch into an existing OS, because every aspect of the experience is geared towards interacting with it with your hands. It’s utterly marvellous.

People say that it’s just a bigger iPod Touch. And it is, they’re not wrong. But then a Blu-Ray is just a DVD with more pixels. A Core 2 Quad is just a Duo with 2 extra cores. Heck, it’s really just a faster 486! The step up in experience that the simple doubling of the dimensions provides for is just going to be an order-of-magnitude better. Saying it’s “just” a bigger iPod Touch is like saying a Microsoft Surface table is just a bigger iPod Touch. The very nature of the form-factor makes it different.

So yeh, I’m very excited to head down to the Apple Store in 2 months and have a go at holding one in my hands. I might even go crazy and buy one, like a big sucker buying a 1st gen product.

There are niggles; it should be able to run at least one app in the background. Honestly, that’s all I need, or want. One background app for something like Spotify, and one foreground app to actually work in. The second thing is, they need to loosen App Store approval guidelines. There’s only one route to get software onto it, so it needs to not suck.

As far as Flash goes, I really don’t care. HTML5 Video and Canvas are going to wash it away, and the lack of support for Flash in the iPhone ecosystem is going to hurt Flash, not anybody else. Adobe looks pretty scared.

Still probably not ever going to get a Mac, though.

Why Ubuntu / Linux isn’t Really Ready for Consumers… Yet.

Update: Hey Reddit! This post has much nastier things to say about Ubuntu than the one below, so I think you’ll like it more. No, I’m not a Microsoft astroturfer. Wish I was though, I wouldn’t mind the money. Honestly, I want to like Ubuntu / Linux in general. This is why I tried Ubuntu again after it sucking the first time, and why I bought an Eee PC running a Xandros variant without even considering putting XP on it. But you guys don’t make it easy.

As anyone who follows my Twitter feed will know, I’ve recently been trying to install Ubuntu on my desktop.

On the whole it’s not that painful, the LiveCD lets you get a feel for the system, the installation is mostly painless even if you want to dual-boot etc, the interface is clean and easy to use, almost everything you’d ever want is already installed and almost anything else is available from the package manager. It’s great when it works. Really great.

The trouble is, often it doesn’t. For example the wireless card on this machine seems to have issues. Sometimes it won’t connect to a wireless network, sometimes it totally hangs the machine. The solution to this seems to be to dive in head-first into config files and the command-line, rip out the provided open source driver, and whack in a layer that will let me use a Windows driver.

My first attempt to do this just disabled wireless on the machine entirely, which wasn’t a forward step. I was honestly quite lucky to get it back to where I started from.

Software support can also sometimes be iffy. Stuff that should be simple like Adobe Air seemingly requires a trip through the terminal to convince to work. Another rather significant downside is that a lot of applications you’re used to using don’t have versions for Linux. You can use WINE to get Windows applications working, mostly, but it’s not an ideal state of affairs. And you can forget about playing games; support is even more dire than Mac gaming. That is unless you once again want to press WINE into service; frankly though it feels slightly iffy running Spotify, let alone TF2.

So my point here is three-fold:

  1. Hardware support is patchy.
  2. Proprietary software can be hard to get working / unavailable.
  3. If something goes wrong, it requires a lot of scary stuff (command-line, etc.) to fix.

See, I’m sure that if I had a working machine and a few months I’d start to learn the Linux-fu necessary to deal with this, but it’s just a pain if something as essential as Wi-Fi doesn’t just work, or if you can’t play your favourite games.

They’ve got a long way to go with hardware support, and it’s going to be an uphill battle every step of the way. There’s a lot of hardware manufacturers who aren’t going to provide Linux drivers, and there’s a dogmatic craziness in the Linux world that THOU SHALT NOT distribute non-free drivers with your distribution, which means that nobody just provides Windows drivers, or makes it easy to get Windows drivers. It’s totally daft, and it’s not helped by nutjobs like Richard Stallman. I guess you can put me into the camp who doesn’t like the GPL. Give me the BSD license any day.

The software difficulties are as equally hard to overcome; you’d have to deal with the horrible Balkanisation of the Linux distros for one thing so that people would have something simple to compile binaries against. Idealism isn’t going to get people to give away the source code to everything.

However, there’s certainly a market for Ubuntu / Linux systems where you can be sure of the hardware configuration and fix all the problems in advance. This means that something like eeebuntu works really rather well, and is supported rather better than Asus managed to support the Eee themselves. It’s a pleasure to use, and makes me see myself using my Eee a lot more in the future.

Similarly, if all the software you could ever want, literally, is encompassed by the repositories of your chosen distro, then it’s also a very comfortable experience where you can be reasonably sure that everything will just work, which is literally the ideal consumer experience.

So, if you lie within some narrow definition of “consumer” then Ubuntu is going to be perfect for you. If you lie just a little to the edges, it’s going to suck. There’s really no middle ground between “idealised consumer” and “pretty hardcore techie”. I guess that’s why they’re going to carry on working with it. If they can expand that consumer window, this could be heading somewhere.

Distributed Version Control: A Review

This post is all about stuff that’s only interesting if you’re into programming. Read at your own risk!

Next year as part of my degree I’m working with a partner to create some software that’ll simulate cold, dense plasmas (the physics kind, not the blood-is-made-from kind) and the thought of working on this by emailing files to each other and the like just seems utterly beyond tedious, so I’ve started investigating various types of source control, which will make it a lot easier to work together and keep in sync without getting rapidly into a horrible mess.

Continue reading Distributed Version Control: A Review

Tethering in iPhone OS 3.0

For the non-cognoscenti, one of the upcoming features of the next version of the iPhone operating system is that, with the approval of the phone network, you’ll be able to use your iPhone as an Internet connection for a computer.

The worrying part of all that is the “approval of the phone network” part, as it’s quite possible that O2 will decide not to offer this feature to UK iPhone users. Which would suck rather a lot, really.

I’m hoping they will allow it, and here’s why:

1) Your SIM card that gives you access to the service is already portable. There’s nothing stopping you putting it into some other device that maybe does support tethering, and using the unlimited data from that device.

2) Lots of people jailbreak their iPhones. You can bet those lot will hack it up to allow tethering, and it would be pretty bad if the legit people got stuffed quite so badly.

3) There’s already an acceptable use policy. Use for web, email etc. is fine, and that’s pretty much what people want tethering for, so that they can use those things from the slightly more comfortable environs of a full-size computer. They could already easily cut off people who used it for BitTorrent or the like with that existing policy.

Honestly though, for me it’s just not that big a feature. Unless you count my Asus EEE, I don’t really have a laptop. My iPhone has rather neatly filled the portable computer niche for me – the only things I would feel uncomfortable using it for would be typing out a lot of text, so long emails and blog posts have to wait for a proper computer.

Short emails and Twitter though – very much iPhone territory.

I have to confess, I’ll be interested to see if Apple announces a hardware refresh, and if O2 will offer any sort of upgrade deal. If the terms are reasonable, I can easily imagine myself taking it up, especially if it fixes some of the slight hardware complaints with the existing phone (poor battery life, no camera flash, no camera video!)

Even with those defects, and the many others, the iPhone is still quite possibly the best gadget I’ve ever owned. You can tell the quality of the product by the number of imitators it’s spawned; the iPhone and the EEE both fit into this commendable category.


So I bought an iPhone, and mostly I’m enjoying the heck out of the thing. It’s a wonderfully designed device, and Apple’s hardware guys need some kinda pay rise and general public adulation. The software guys… well, they’ve done some stuff that’s pretty sweet – finally allowing native apps is a godsend, some of the stuff that’s being done is brilliant; my current favourite is an app that listens to a song being played using the iPhone’s microphone, and then tells you what song it is. Fantastic! Some stuff on there is pretty dire though, like apps that turn your screen white to act as a torch costing £0.60. Good value for money, guys.

There are some things which are considerably more retarded, like the total lack of copy & paste, or that when you’re setting up an email account, the setup wizard (for lack of better terminology) doesn’t have options for things like port numbers or SSL settings, so when the phone attempts to guess these details from what you’ve put in, it can spend a hell of a long time wildly guessing before it decides it can’t do it, allows you to save the settings, and then allow you to fiddle with the advanced settings in another menu. Another odd email-related niggle is that the error message for a mis-configured outgoing email server (SMTP) is to tell you that the email address you’re trying to send an email to is invalid. Thanks for making me have to do some psychic debugging, guys.

Never mind. What I really wanted to talk about was iTunes. I’ve finally had to install it after years of being a Windows Media Playing scumbag, and… really, what’s the fuss been about? It’s a total piece of crap! I mean, seriously, this is version 7? Version 1 must have been a car crash!

First thing that’s getting on my nerves is how the App Store has been jammed into iTunes in what looks to be about the shoddiest hatchet-job I’ve ever seen. What I especially like is if you right-click on an App and select "Get Info" the Info tab includes (albeit greyed-out) fields for such useful infomation as "Album Artist" and "Composer", the Options tab has settings for "Volume Adjustment" and the "Equalizer Preset". I wish I was making this up.

Second: Apple. I have a music folder already. You evidently know this, as you have created an "iTunes" folder inside it. And an "iTunes Music" folder inside that. You seem to have entirely missed the point of the Music folder. Here’s a tip: it’s to keep music in, not iTunes’s settings.

Third: The store. It’s dog slow, and nearly impossible to find what you’re looking for. Browsing for apps is horrific. It’s better for music, it seems, but it’s still horribly slow, and the layout just feels terribly cluttered and hard to use. It also lets me do stupid things like switch to the US store, find something I want, then try to purchase it, only to be told my account’s only good for the UK store. Great, but I was logged in all along, couldn’t you have told me before? Why even let me see the US store? Would there be any horrible DRM-related consequences to trying to create a US account? I really, really have no idea. Painful, miserable experience.

Fourth: How the hell do I drill into my library by artist, or by album?! All I have is the ability to look at a huge list of songs. Oh right, you have to click the little eye symbol by the Eject button in the lower corner. Of course! That’s incredibly obvious. How did I not think of that.

Fifth: When it imported my library, it didn’t actually ask which folders I wanted to import from – it just grabbed everything, including non-music auditory detritus lurking in my personal folders, and now I’m going to have to clean it all out of the library if I want my signal/noise ratio to not utterly suck.

Honestly, I can count on two fingers the iTunes features I actually like, which is shuffle by album, and randomly play songs by the same artist/album together in shuffle.

Are there any redeeming features? I’d really love to know.

Random Stuff: Coldplay And Live Mesh

Oh, apparently Coldplay will be playing a free show in Brixton on June 16th to promote their new album. I want to go, but I doubt anyone will come with me. Regardless, I will attempt to score tickets. If you do want to (try to) come with, please get in touch.

Also, have a look at the new announcement out of Microsoft, Live Mesh. It looks extremely interesting, and the hardest part about it is actually saying what it does. In a nutshell, it provides a platform that automatically pushes data around between endpoints, be they devices or some kind of service.

It sounds kinda dull said like that, but the implications are pretty huge. Basically, it’s a tool for keeping your data in sync. If you have a desktop computer and a Laptop, for instance, you can set up Live Mesh to share the folders. When you add a photo to the folder on the laptop, it’s automatically replicated to the computer. What makes it even more useful is that Microsoft provides a large (5 GB-ish, I think) glob of storage, so even if your desktop is turned off, the photo will replicate up to the service, then down to your desktop when you switch it on.

You can also access all the data stored on the service straight from a browser. And it’s not hard to create your own kinds of custom endpoints. One example is creating an interface to Facebook, so the moment you load photos onto your computer they could start replicating up to Facebook, automatically, in the background. And vice-versa, any pictures of you that appear on Facebook are automatically grabbed into your mesh.

Absolute tip of the iceberg. The platform is pretty much completely general. This is going to be huge. Sadly, it’s in private beta right now, so it’s not so much possible to use it unless you get invited, and then only with some difficulties (there’s a silly country lock) but I’m itching to get my hands on it.