Posts Tagged ‘ Technology ’

#ranthill: expectations – stuff: lower; people: higher

i have some thoughts to share friends.

you see, i think we have got to the point where we have got two types of expectations seriously out of kilter. i was on a train last week from Exeter to Bristol and in my carriage were newly installed TV screens attached to the back of every chair (yes, except the rearmost ones, ah…..).

a message on the screen read something to the tune of “You are now journeying in the first train carriage in the world to be fitted with the latest in pay-per-view entertainment technology – press here for more details.”

looking at the screens sent me into a fleet of reminiscences: i remember when i had a black and white TV that you had to tune to the correct frequency with a dial. in fact, i still remember the frequencies: BBC 1 was C51 (714MHz), BBC2 was C44(658MHz), ITV was C41 (643MHz) and Channel 4 was C47(682MHz).

then there was my grandparents’ TV, which was colour, freaking massive (front to back) and had a panel of buttons for controlling the channels, conveniently situated on the sitting room wall – slightly further away from the sofa and armchairs than the actual set itself. my grandad often confused it with the thermostat and used to explode into fits of rage as Emmerdale Farm refused to yield to This Is Your Life, and instead the room just got hotter and hotter.

moreover, there was how crap the reception generally was, especially if there was any ‘weather’ around (and what a stupid phrase that is incidentally), which, in Cornwall, there always was. i remember being satisfied if i could consistently see the ball, whilst watching football (Division 1, live, on a Saturday afternoon, on BBC1). then there was the fact that after a while the picture on colour sets would intermittently turn all yellow or red (sorry magenta) and would require a firm bash on the top to correct this. the gap between the required bashes would then shorten, until you’d give up and then eventually forget that the other two primary colours ever existed.

all of these were perfectly normal parts of the TV watching experiences of my childhood and adolescence – and i’m really not even THAT old, nor  did i grow up THAT poor. we had mid-level electronic equipment and thoroughly mid-level expectations regarding its performance. unless The Godfather II was showing, there wasn’t really any notion that you would be able to sit down and watch TV all evening, without moving – and given how unlikely that scenario was and the unmitigated crap that was mostly on, you basically wouldn’t have ever wanted to do so anyway.

so, there i was, sat on a train with a thin, crystal-clear touch-screen LCD TV staring back at me from the rear of the seat in front, loaded with hours of premium TV programmes available for everyone in the carriage to watch for a fairly modest fee, and i couldn’t help thinking how far things had come in the few, yes few, years since i was 9 and TV was hard work.

then, the screen of a guy sitting opposite me flickered and stopped working for about 30 secs before starting back up where it had left off. the guy, who must have been in his 50s, turned to the woman who was with him and said simply “pile of crap”.

how short our memories and how high our expectations have become.

i was on a flight from London to New Jersey last year when, shortly after we’d boarded and taken our seats, an announcement came over the address system explaining that ‘they’ were very sorry, but there was an error with some of the plane’s equipment and therefore … none of the in-flight movies would be available to view during this flight. the various TV shows, music albums and games would be accessible, but the movie database, not.

given the tone of the announcement and the fact that the words ‘error’ and ‘plane’ had been connected by the words ‘with the’, i couldn’t believe not only the extent of the groan that went up from those around me, but the near riotous reactions of some of my section’s more expressive (i’m going to say American) passengers.

i still think of flying as something of a terrifying, inexplicable miracle. yes, it’s an expensive way to travel, but it gets you to the other side of the sodding world and it kills the planet a bit in so doing – two good reasons for a high price tag as far as i’m concerned. on that occasion, as long as i arrived in New York on the day i was supposed to and in one basic piece, i was going to be happy. to be fair, i probably wouldn’t have enjoyed my flight if Continental had provided a hot tub each and plenty of heroin, but while my expectations were perhaps a little low, i couldn’t help feeling those of the over-animated people sitting around me were just a tad inflated.

what if we compare the apparently high expectations we have learned to have for things (especially technology) and services, with the pretty low expectations we seem to have of people – not celebrities, you understand, just people.

i have several friends who seem to think it’s probably their fault when prospective partners cheat on them or generally treat them with contempt, and it seems, when probed, that at least part of that response is to do with feeling stupid for thinking that the person concerned might have been civil and considerate and honest.

i love to hate that infuriating programme on TV with the page-three girl, fat magician and other one, who go round ripping people off, ruining their day/holiday and making them cry, for fun and in order to teach us all that if we get conned or plain mugged, it’s at least partly our own stupid fault.

no. it’s not. at least not to any extent that’s worth seriously considering. yes, in practical terms it’s good to know what to look out for and to be aware of some simple measures to take to decrease the chances of your being caught up in something like that, but if you are, then the part of the blame that’s worth thinking and talking about lies wholly on the selfish bastarding thieves who did it. it’s basically the same argument as the one that says women who wear short skirts should really have expected to have been groped, or worse.

people can and should be good. we are capable of truly amazing things. no matter how bad things may seem, history strongly and repeatedly suggests that the momentum created by people acting together for good is an almost unstoppable and all-conquering force. the reason it doesn’t happen that often is probably something to do with how lazy we all are about learning the lessons of history and not listening to people who want to swap their promise of good news highlighted against a background of general despair, for our money, and how intent we all seem to be on expecting very little more than the worse of each other.

regardless of what the advertising industry constantly tells us, we really aren’t entitled to all that much when it comes to luxuries, goods and services. it’s no-one’s moral duty to make sure my journey or stay or day is completely perfect. the world is not a terrible place filled with bad people because my steak is a little over-cooked, or there was a long queue, or you’re somehow not going to get everything you’d expected.

however, it IS our moral duty to regard each other ethically and justly. we don’t do it, because if we did Capitalism wouldn’t work – and that’s what gives all us rich people with blogs all the good stuff we like – but we should. it IS proper for us to have concern for each other, to try not to hurt each other, to be compassionate and also to expect that of others in return.

so, my proposal is this: why don’t we all try to lower our expectations and deflate our sense of entitlement when it comes to stuff, and do the opposite with regard to people. instead of throwing our energies into letters to First Capital Connect about that overcrowded train, or Costa about that tepid flat white, let’s remind the people around us and in the media spotlight that we expect more from them in terms of the effort they put into being a good human being, and also that we would like them to do the same for us.

this way, maybe we can all help each other to be better people, and while some flights will still happen without the soothing ability to watch Knight and Day, Final Destination or United 93, and some of the near-miraculous TVs on trains might sometimes malfunction, we might actually regain a little of our dignity, humanity and hope.

#getyourgeekon: cutting the corners

with last week’s release of Apple’s new Magic Trackpad – the predictably overpriced, but awesome looking, freestanding version of the glass trackpads on Mac portables – came an OS X update which has brought both inertia scrolling and the new three finger dragging gesture to my MacBook Pro.

inertia scrolling is a brilliant thing, and until it landed, it i hadn’t really dawned on me just how much the Macbook needed it. i can now move from the top of my iTunes library to its bottom (c.4500 songs) in about five downward swipes. much better.

i tried the three finger drag gesture – which allows you to highlight text (within a window) or move a window around (from the window’s top bar) – for about five minutes before turning it off. the main problem with the new scheme is that if you switch to it (in the trackpad section of System Preferences) then you lose the three finger swipe for forwards and backwards, and that’s one of my favourite of all the gestures. as a result, i’ve stuck with my existing trackpad setup with tap to click and one finger dragging/highlighting (double tap, hold and move).

the trackpad gestures are great for making the most common actions quickly/easily accessible – i particularly love the four fingers swipe for exposé (up to clear the screen, down to show all open windows), the two finger twist and the pinch zoom.

however, while these cover the bases of most of the most frequently needed operations, for the most efficient use of time, you cannot dispose of the keyboard.

keyboard shortcuts are awesome. regardless of your computer setup if you type the majority of the time but don’t use them, then you’re massively losing out. since becoming a Mac user, however, i’ve found that while many shortcuts are obvious/well known …

command +q (quit), +w (close), +opt+w (close all), +o (open), +n (new window), +shift+n (new folder), +t (new tab in safari) +a (select all), +c (copy), +x (cut), +v (paste), +z (undo),+delete (send to trash), +tab (toggle switcher), +direction arrows (move cursor to word/paragraph beginning/end), +shift+delete (empty trash), +opt+shift+delete (force empty trash), +opt+esc (force quit), +opt+eject (sleep), +ctrl+eject (restart), +ctrl+power (force restart)

… some really useful ones are fairly hidden.

given that i’m sure i can’t be the only person to take some time to figure some of these out, i though i’d share a list of some of the less obvious ones that i’ve discovered (and hope you will help me out by sharing one that you know that i’ve missed):

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it took me about two months of having my MBP to work out that while the sound and brightness keys at the top increase or decrease the sound/brightness level by a whole unit on the scale, by holding option+shift and then pressing those keys you can alter the levels by a quarter of a unit. very useful.

when it comes to hidden options, perhaps unsurprisingly, the option key (also now called ‘alt’) is where it’s at. holding down the option key and clicking pretty much anywhere will give you alternative ways of doing things. with most functions there is an option menu somewhere in System Preferences that allows you to choose between a couple of different options, for example when it comes to scrolling behaviour you can choose whether clicking the scroll bar moves you to that point, or just cycles the page up/down. in these instances, whatever one you have chosen (or is chosen by default), the other one happens when you option+click.

option clicking on the items in the menu bar will give you extra options in the drop-down menu – e.g. if you’re using wifi, when you click on airport you get detailed info about your connection that isn’t usually there. holding down option and secondary clicking likewise often reveals extra options – if you hold option and secondary click on the finder icon in the dock, for example, you get the option to relaunch finder (which is by far the easiest way to do it). finally, holding option and dragging a file to a new folder copies and pastes it, which is also a very useful time saver.

the command key also reveals certain hidden features. for example, upon holding cmd and secondary clicking on the trashcan icon in the dock, you get the option for the ‘Secure Empty Trash’ function, which can otherwise be something of a faff to get to.

most people know about cmd+tab to show the Application Switcher (or four finger swipe left/right), but fewer people seem to know that there are some quite useful functions within this little menu. not only can you switch to and from applications, but you can also quit them by cmd+tabbing across to the icon and then letting go of tab and pressing q instead (so cmd+q). the same is true with +h for hide. you can also maximise and switch to applications currently in the dock by letting go of tab and pressing option in the same way. what is more, if you currently have no finder windows open, doing the cmd+opt thing on the finder icon, which is always in the switcher, will open one – which i find very useful.

i should probably also mention the lesser known, bastard cousin of cmd+tab that is cmd+` (the key to the left of z) which will switch between/cycle through multiple windows of the same program.

something i’ve found very useful to know is that holding command and shift and 3 captures a screen shot and cmd+shift+4 brings up a cursor which you can use to drag out a box in order to grab a shot just of that area of the screen.

and finally, one shortcut that should really be in the list of obvious ones and would, were it not for the fact that i know/see so many OS X users not using it – cmd+spacebar to Spotlight (yes the search thing with the magnifying glass in the top right). this is a very useful way of quickly opening any file or application. basically for any application not in your dock – for this example let’s say Audacity – it’s usually quicker to press cmd+spacebar+Aud (which should be enough to bring Audacity up)+return to launch it, than it is to seek it out in either the applications folder or stack.

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anyway, i hope those were helpful – please let me know of any juicy shortcuts or OS X tips that you know of that i might not.

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what the blogosphere is saying:

a gesture too far?

replace your mouse/tablet?

a futile gesture

the missing feature

the magic trackpad

apple introduces…

#tarteauxpomme: the patience of jobs

the self-styled saviour of Apple Inc. (“Saving the company from the problems he caused?” Discuss) is rapidly becoming the company’s biggest liability – and that’s saying something given the recent problems with the 27″ iMac’s yellow screens, the MacBook’s ropey chargers and the scandals over the handling of the iPhone 4 ‘lost’ prototype and now its post-release signal problems.

when he’s not organising his polo neck sweaters into one pile of dark black and another of slightly darker black, it seems ‘big Stee’, as no-one but me yet calls him, likes to stay up late and personally answer emails from customers (and journalists) whilst high, or drunk, or stupid.

after the last embarrassing exchange with Gawker Media’s Ryan Tate in which Jobs waxed dictatorial about “freedom from porn”, it seems no-one has sat the chief down and recommended he spend his evenings doing something else like building models of giant $100 bills out of mulched $100 bills or repeatedly super-cleaning his crap white trainers with Cif and a toothbrush.

no, alas, another such conversation, this time with a disgruntled iPhone 4 customer, has hit the headlines, and Steve has once again emerged looking close-minded, out of touch and borderline insane. the guy told him that he is an avid Apple fan and has bought “just about every Apple product from the last 20 years” – exactly the kind of customer Jobs would want to keep sweet, right? – but is frustrated by the signal problems he is experiencing with his iPhone 4 and the lack of clarity over whether a fix is on its way.

Jobs’ response to this reasonable complaint from his core demographic?

“You’re getting all worked up over a few rumors. Calm down.”

the guy replied to point out to King Steve that rumours were not the issue, but the really poor reception he was getting on his iPhone 4 and that, given the circumstances, “calm down” could be taken as a rather dismissive and patronising response. Steve’s ‘apology’ read:

“You are most likely in an area with very low signal strength.”

coming back to him a third time to point out that he lives in an area rated ‘Excellent to good’ by AT&T and that he has successfully used iPhones since they came out with at least three times more signal reliability than he is currently getting, this unreasonably patient individual got this nugget of practical and informative advice from the Jobster:

“Hold tight”

there are exactly zero companies on earth who would describe that conversation as a wise move for a CEO and one can only wonder what would happen to an Apple Genius or Store Assistant who told a customer to calm down and just ‘hold tight’ after they complained that their £500 phone doesn’t work. luckily, Apple is less a company and more a cult, whose products sell out even before they work properly, so I imagine they’ll get away with it. for all the worries I have about Apple’s vision for controlling the App Store and perceived commitment to dictating more and more of their users’ experience, it is Jobs himself that troubles me most. he is, at best, one of the most arrogant men in the world and also one of the most deluded. at worst he is a filthy-rich, power-mad, would-be dictator who seems to think he can dismiss his customers’ concerns with contempt worthy of a C16th European monarch.

the Old Testament’s Book of Job presents a tale about an ordinary man who falls victim to a torrent of ill fortune, seemingly at God’s hands. thinking it unfair that as a pious individual he should suffer such a fate, he takes his complaint to the top, and demands an audience with, and an answer of, the divine. the phrase ‘the patience of Job’ is often used in a way that implies that he suffered his trials with saintly grace and faith, but the story actually tells otherwise. Job is enraged and scandalised by what happens to him, curses the day he was born (which, given the norms of the culture that produced the myth, is essentially an act of blasphemy) and, more so, demands God to appear in court and provide him with an explanation.

the Hebrew text of the story is one of the most complex in the Christian or Jewish canon, and notoriously difficult to understand and translate. given what we can accurately decipher, there are two basic ways of interpreting God’s response to Job’s audacious challenge. the point is either that God appears in a whirlwind in order to terrify Job back into submission and roasts him for the impertinence of his whining about his trivial problems to the creator of all life, demonstrating that human experience is ultimately insignificant in comparison to the work of God… or… that Job’s courage, outrage and challenge is infinitely more upright and insightful than the advice of his ‘friends’ – who insist throughout that his misfortune must really be his own fault – and that while God is the creator and sustainer of the world, directing its every event (like exactly what happens to individuals) is not part of the remit.

as far as i’m concerned, one interpretation is disturbingly fascistic, and the other is instructively provocative. i know which i find inspiring, but i wonder which would strike Steve more meaningfully? it seems to me that Mr Jobs would like to think of himself as a radical and a challenger of norms. however, his character seems to have a totalitarian aspect which regularly bubbles up.

Apple built (and rebuilt) its reputation on the back of a strong design ethic, a meticulous attention to detail and user experience and a certain sense of providing a radical option – the hammer that breaks Big Brother’s all-controlling telescreen in Ridley Scott’s classic Apple advert. the problem is that while questions continue to be raised about their commitment to quality control, Jobs (and thus Apple) seems to be becoming more and more the Big Brother figure he/it used to want his/its customers to hate.

perhaps it is now time for Steve to step aside. after all, his fanaticism and ‘people skills’ took Apple from the verge of greatness to near collapse once before, or has he forced everyone in the company to forget that?

#tarteauxpomme: ten free mac apps worth having

i offered links to some cool free small background apps and addons as part of our #piecesofeight series but now i offer up some of my favourite free fully fledged apps and tools. obviously i’m not going to talk about stuff like Firefox or Thunderbird or OpenOffice because i’m assuming you know about them already…

Onyx: is a powerful system utility which runs several useful maintenance tasks and scripts (i find that regularly repairing system permissions helps to keep my macbook’s startups and shutdowns speedy) cleans various caches and can configure some hidden parameters of Finder Dock and some Apple apps (e.g. changing the default screen capture file type from the somewhat inflexible .PGN to .JPG .JPEG .GIF or several other types) [edit: you do know about cmd+shift+3 for full screen capture and cmd+shift+4 for drag-out-box capture right?].

Dragoman: is a super-handy drag-and-drop file converter than can handle multiple types of images music files archives and text files (see here for complete list of compatible formats). dragoman makes what can otherwise be an awkward and laborious job unbelievably easy.

Img2icns: takes the hassle out of creating mac icons from image files or vice-versa. it is drag-and-drop and supports most popular image formats (including adobe proprietaries).

Cyberduck: got a shout when i was testifying to all the tools that make this blog possible but it’s well worth a second and more detailed mention. it is a 100% guaranteed stress-free ftp client. given that ftp clients take us (further) into geeksville it’s no surprise that some clients seem to have been designed to be as complex as possible so only ‘righteous’ nerds can use them. cyberduck however cuts the insecure crap – everything is laid out simply and works completely intuitively. if you have need of a way of uploading to a website you need look no further.

HandBrake: is a brilliant and widely used free-source multi-platform media converter primarily for encoding DVD video to other popular formats. it is the perfect tool for converting your dvd collection into a format that can go into itunes and onto your ipod.

NameChanger: is – as its name suggests – a batch filename changer. it’s very useful.

VLC: is simply the most versatile and useful media player available for mac – you wouldn’t get better if you paid through the nose. if you haven’t got it – why on earth not?

WineBottler (beta): is a neat app that uses the wine platform to install windows programs on OS X in stand-alone ‘bottles’. as mentioned above i used it to install sopcast which works very well (through VLC).

The Unarchiver: is an open-source unpacking app which handles almost all the formats (.zip .rar .7z .tar .stuffit .cab .msi and many more) and unarchiving operations you will ever need and does a better job with .zip files than the native Archive Utility.

Transmission: is the best native bittorrent client for mac that i’ve found. it’s sleek and easy to use and as fast as anything i’ve used elsewhere.

#getyourgeekon: touch up

time to #getyourgeekon with my tried-and-testedly favourite ipod touch apps…

Stanza: it’s free it’s superb to use and if you’re strapped there are tons of free ebooks around to read with it (peep Project Gutenberg)

★ WeBe: turn your touch into a remote mouse over a network or by bluetooth. best of all if you’re not near a network it can create a remote one. well worth a splash

★ SoundHound: want to know what that song on the tv or radio is? it costs £3 but it is simply brilliant at recognising music – even a hum or whistle will usually work. (obviously owners of older models will need to get a mic for this app but there are plenty of good cheap options out there – i have this for SH and dictation and this for skype)

(nb. i do not condone the use of apple stock ‘phones yes it sucks that you pay a ton of cash for an ipod and get such crap to listen to it with but if you’re using the white wonders you need to man-up and splash for working-ears’ sake. try these these these or these)

Sleep Cycle: 59p for this probably equates to one of the top five bargains of my lifetime. it has little short of revolutionised my sleeping. you put your ipod/iphone in your bed and it uses the accelerometer to monitor your movement and chart the cycles of your sleep. it will then wake you up whenever you enter a light phase of sleep up to half an hour before a predetermined time. i feel about a billion times more rested when i wake this way. simply genius

OffMaps: offmaps is great for touch owners since the native maps app isn’t that useful unless you’ve got a MiFi or are in manhattan or some other widely wifi-ed place. the idea is that you download the maps of where you’re going before you head off (you can choose various levels of  detail). once downloaded they’re there for good and just a little forethought can leave you better off than smug iPhone/MiFi owners who might find themselves stuck if they can’t get a signal

Encyclopedia: another winner for touch users. it’s a dump of wikipedia which can be accessed offline, anywhere. it does cost £5 and it does swallow 2gb of space and it can take a while to download the dump (although it is set up so that downloads can be interrupted and resumed at will) but then it is access-anywhere wikipedia – which totally rules

#piecesofeight: eight free mac background apps/addons

★ StartupSound.prefPane: A preference pane which allows you to change the volume of or mute the annoying sound that Macs chirp when you turn them on.

★ Perian: A must-have open-source QuickTime component that fixes the lack of support for various video formats.

★ HotBox: A great background app that allows you to drag a box around anything and make it fullscreen (a useful companion to the native ctrl+scroll screen zoom).

★ Cursorcerer: A super simple background app that allows you to set a hotkey to hide the cursor until the mouse/trackpad is next touched.

★ CapSee: A tiny background app which displays a native style screen notification when the caps lock key is pressed.

★ Caffeine: A background app that sits on the menu bar and, when activated, stops your Mac from going to sleep, dimming the screen or activating the screensaver (particularly useful for MacBook battery calibration).

★ Jumpcut: A useful clipboard buffering app that sits on the menu bar and gives you easy access to the clipboard’s history.

★ DropBox: A genius online backup and file-sharing app.