Friday, February 29, 2008

Voting in Texas

The latest news from the Lone Star State is that Hillary Clinton looks like she's going to be a sore loser.  And she's also started pointing again!

Of course, what she needs to realize is that voting in Texas has never been straightforward.  Legend has it that LBJ got elected with the help of votes from dead people while the expression "vote early, vote often" is also attributed to Texas.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Big City Plan - The Video

Yesterday I wrote about the Big City Plan for Birmingham and linked to the download-able brochure.  Today, via Stef Lewandowski, I offer the video.  I really like the simplicity of this presentation.  Do you?

What's the point? (Network Rail)

In British railway parlance, a point is a point at which a train can be sent one way or another.  That's not the kind of point I'm thinking about.  On the day that Network Rail's boss is knighted, the Government has slapped a £14 million fine on the company for failing to re-open the West Coast Main Line after work over the winter holidays.

My point is this:  Network Rail is a government run entity.  It receives funding from the Treasury.  The fine is going to be paid to the Treasury.  So it's funny money that doesn't really exist.  But it will look good in the newspapers for all those frustrated train travelers to read on their way home tonight.  Yet in reality the fine means that there is £14 million less to spend on the railways, £14 million that will disappear into general funds.

Our next trip to London, incidentally, won't be by train.  We're going to drive.  It will be interesting to do a time and cost comparison and report back.  I have to admit there is one inducement to using the car - we will have free parking in London - so the comparison can't be entirely fair.  Even so we won't be paying for parking at the local railway station!  Stay tuned for my report in a couple of week's time.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Flickr on AppleTV - Take 2

My earlier post simply described what Apple TV allows you to do with Flickr.  After further use I have the following suggestions:

1.  Give us the option to see the title of the image - we can have titles of songs, why not Flickr image titles?

2.  When viewing a contact's favorites, show the owner of each favorite as well as the title.

3.  Rather than have us type in a contact's name, why not give us the list of our contacts direct from Flickr?

4.  This may be asking too much but it would be nice to know if there are comments on an image and, if so, how many.

Birmingham Big City Plan

I'm posting on this for two reasons.  Today the City Council published an on line Charter for the next stage of the city's development.  The document is a beautifully designed, simple piece of work that inspires you to turn the page, read more, get excited, etc. etc.  You can download the entire 2 megabyte document as a pdf file.  It is an excellent exercise in good communications.
The first level of excitement is that the process to get to this stage has involved ordinary people.  Not simple questionnaires that encourage people to complain.  No.  Real involvement.  One example is in this Stef Lewandowski post and the ensuing comments, more of which in a moment.
Stef introduced me to the concept of crowd-sourcing in this post and this is proving to be a powerful tool.  It would be so easy to think of crowd-sourcing as lip service by highly paid consultants, but even the consultants seem to understand their vulnerability these days, so lip service hasn't been the case as a quick perusal of the charter document will demonstrate.
Which brings me to the second level of excitement.  As pointed out in Stef's latest post on the subject, the document draws on several comments from the original post, including this one:

(Page 44)  You could knock me down with a 1/2 ounce feather!

Market Rasen Earthquake

The BGS press release as linked to by the Daily Telegraph (bravo for linking to a source).

Earthquakes can happen pretty much anywhere though there are some areas of the planet where they are much more common, particularly along plate boundaries. The English earthquakes generally seem to be related to a counter-clockwise rotation of Scandinavia (the Baltic Shield) being accommodated by relatively weak areas of the crust such as under the North Sea. I feel sure that this earthquake is related and the distribution of places affected by the quake is roughly oriented NNW-SSE, parallel with the axis of the Southern North Sea rift.

Will it happen again? Yes!

Where? Almost anywhere except the same place!

Why is that? Because earthquakes release pent up stress. The area below Market Rasen is now adjusted and should be stable for the foreseeable future. The next earthquake will simply be located where there is the greatest build up of stress.

Can we predict where that will be? No, not with our present capabilities.

Could England expect the "big one" like California? Highly unlikely, the San Andreas Fault is a much bigger and more active fault system than anything we have in Western Europe.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Buzzard and the Barney

A couple of photographic projects for 2008

1.  The Buzzard

We have a neighbor - a beautiful brown buzzard that hunts all manner of creatures.  A couple of months ago I saw it with a full grown pigeon grasped in its claws.  Often seen in the valley, I went looking this morning for signs of where it might be found and:
Evidence of Raptors
As explained in the caption for this photograph I intend to apply the experience of studying brown pelicans along the Texas Gulf Coast.  Only when I really understood their flight patterns was I able to take good shots, such as this one, taken lying on my back on top of a sand dune at Padre Island National Seashore:
Brown Pelican

2.  The Barney

No, not the purple dinosaur!  This is the long gone Taunton-Barnstaple branch line of the Great Western Railway.  This railway line was built and opened in 1873 and closed as part of the Beeching Axe in 1966.  Not much remains but what does needs to be chronicled, so I have been researching the eastern part of the line with modern and ancient maps, Google Earth and Shank's Pony.  The photographic results will be found in this set, and eventually there will be a feature on the main site.  Here is a shot of the partly dissembled Tone Viaduct:
Tone Viaduct


It's early on Sunday morning and the subject is colour - note with a "u" because these are UK colours!  I have always been fascinated by the names given to colours, particularly those used by the great railways companies of the past (heaven forbid that such colors might be used today by the modern train operating companies!)

Following the rationalization of the railways in 1922, I believe it was called an amalgamation, the London Midland and Scottish Railway selected Crimson Lake as its primary livery colour. What a wonderful colour this was.  And still is!  It exists on many of the maroon coaches seen on steam preservation lines.  Crimson Lake came from the Midland Railway, that which steamed north out of St. Pancras to serve the backbone of England.  The Midland Railway was a fastidious company that kept their trains spotless.
The Railway from Arley Church
Another amalgamation saw the introduction of Malachite Green on the Southern Railway system.  Malachite is one of my favorite minerals - I occasionally buy a piece when in Africa - and the once ubiquitous green carriages and steam locos on the southern always looked good in that colour.
35051 leaving Ropley for Alton
In 1948 the four companies that were formed in 1922 were nationalized.  Worn out after WWII and needing far more important investment than a pot of paint, they got a new livery for passenger coaches.  I suppose Maroon and Cream would have been the correct terminology but I only ever knew the colour scheme as "blood and custard"!

One steam locomotive we see regularly is the SDJR 7F Class 2-8-0 number 88.  This has been painted in the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway's original Prussian Blue scheme and it looks great.  But ironically I understand that this colour was never applied to No. 88 when it was built and operated by the SDJR!
SDJR No. 88
God's Wonderful Railway (also Goes When Ready), the Great Western Railway of I K Brunel, had distinctive colour schemes that live on today on several steam preservation lines. Locomotives that were used for passenger trains were painted in Middle Chrome Green (close to Brunswick Green) while the carriages came in two-tone Chocolate and Cream.  These gentle colours suited the GWR and its territory.  Something that cannot be said for the garish colours employed by the modern First Great Western TOC.
South Devon Railway

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Macworld Apple TV Review

Four Mice  Bottom line: if you didn't think much of 1.0, have a stern rethink of 2.0!  Stern?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How AppleTV stacks up

Well I don't think this is a particularly in depth article but it's a start.  Nothing is perfect, apparently, though AppleTV is OK (and at least it can be improved upon with changes to firmware, software and licensing agreements).

Monday, February 18, 2008

400,000 iPhones in China

A continuing saga, simply confirming what most people already know!

From one newspaper to another

It doesn't happen very often, it seems, but I just stumbled across a link from one British newspaper, the Telegraph, to another, the Sun.  Opposite ends of the spectrum, you would think, yet coupled by a simple html link!

The newsreader headline from the Telegraph "Paul Burrell 'lied to the Princess Diana inquest'" wouldn't normally get a second glance from me but this morning I clicked through (the Telegraph, like most commercial sites wants you to do that by limiting the size of their RSS files).  And there on the Telegraph article is a direct link to the Sun.

Now I haven't looked at the Sun in years, so I decided to read the article, which looked like it might be front page and center in the print edition.  The words "tabloid" and "gutter press" did come to mind. . . .

But what I also remembered was a Readability Index study I was introduced to 38 years ago.  It was the beginning of my career and my new employer (BP) wanted to be sure twenty new recruits were properly inducted into the company.  For 6 weeks we were infused with the BP culture (very different from today's, I might add) and one morning we had a writing expert demonstrate how to write readable English.  He asked each of us to buy a different newspaper and then apply a simple readability index formula to the leader article.  One paper didn't even have a leader page but what came across was that the quality dailies scored almost identically with very "readable" indices.  The tabloids didn't fair any where near as well.


Sadly, this piece doesn't seem to be getting the headlines it deserves outside the US.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

British Rock

So, they've nationalized Northern Rock.  £110 billion, or £3,500 for every taxpayer.  And what assets does the taxpayer get in return?  That's a very good question.

Whatever the political rhetoric over the next few days, I can't help wondering why the UK can nationalize a bank but could not rescue a manufacturing kingpin that provided thousands of jobs to honest hard working people.  In fact there are some who claim that the government actually helped to hammer the nails into the coffin of "the Rover".

The End of HD-DVD

Downloads the ultimate victor, not Blu-Ray

Friday, February 15, 2008

Apple and the Analysts

Recently there seems to have been a major disconnect between Apple Inc. (AAPL) and Wall Street.  It's not just that investors have sold down about 1/3 of the value of the company in a correction that mirrors sentiment about the economy across the board.  No, it would appear that a lot of analysts simply don't understand Apple and its products.  That could just be because they don't actually use or own Apple products or it may be that they are taking an industry wide look at technology and assuming that what is happening elsewhere is going to happen to Apple as well.

One aspect of this disconnect has already been discussed here, the missing 1 million iPhones.  Wall Street finally cottoned on to the truth about two weeks later but even then they worry too much about Apple's lost revenue from the Telcos.  What they don't seem to understand is that a grey market iPhone in another country cannot add to Apple's revenue stream once it's sold and no grey market would mean no sale at all.  Apple isn't going to talk about this as it will only upset their partnering position with present and future Telco partners.  But do the math:

4 million iPhones + 3 million contracts >>> 3 million iPhones + 3 million contracts

This article believes that if Apple was more open with investors its stock would be higher.  Hmm.  I'm not so sure about that.  Apple thrives on secrecy, much of the value of iPhone was built in to the stock before anyone actually saw the device.  Fortunately the product delivered and the stock went from strength to strength.  iPhone is now the smart phone yardstick.

This January Steve Jobs announced a number of near-blockbusters (if the iPhone is a blockbuster, MacBook Air is only a near-blockbuster IMO).  After last year's iPhone announcement this was seen to be disappointing.  Yet Jobs also said they would be announcing new products with regularity during the rest of 2008.  In other words, the pipeline is full!

AppleTV Take 2 is now out and has delivered all that was promised in January.  The number of movies on offer for rental can only grow, the number of AppleTVs will also grow as word gets out.  I don't think there are any ads for AppleTV yet but iTunes software is pushing the device in not so subtle ways.  Yet Wall Street analysts are already suggesting that Apple gives up on AppleTV just to prove that they listen to outsiders (i.e. to them)!  Give me a break.

The whole Enterprise market thing is something else the analysts love to debate.  Apple is quite correct to distance itself from Enterprise in that too much control could be lost - control that makes Apple what it is, a tightly integrated hardware-software relationship.  The last thing the rest of us Apple users want is to have our computing lives influenced by Windows-experienced IT specialists.  Besides, if present day Enterprise solutions are so good why is it that all these Government databases have been lost?

The more important question the Wall Street analysts should be asking right now is "what will Apple be like one year, two years, five years from now?"  A difficult question, no doubt, but the only one that will provide an indication of the future value of the company.  And there are plenty of websites out there that have their opinions for all the analysts to read!

TV Show Downloads onto AppleTV

My latest report on AppleTV Take 2 relates to logging on and purchasing (not renting) TV shows.  I selected a set of five Biography documentaries entitled "Great Inventors and Explorers".  $5.99 plus tax makes each one cost about $1.25 each.  And no commercials to interrupt the 45 minute long shows!

AppleTV then asked me to enter my Apple ID and password, which I did.  The downloads started immediately and continued overnight.  This morning I checked and the screen announced "Marco Polo ready to watch".  The other four shows were also downloaded.
Next I connected my iPod to my PowerBook and synchronized the purchased shows to the dedicated iTunes hard drive.  I also copied the files onto my iPod.  The Apple Extreme moved the data at around 2.6MB/sec which is impressive!  Here is a screen shot of the synchronization:

So, another step along the road to completely understanding what AppleTV can do.  There is some trial and error in all this because other than the Apple video I have not found any reference manuals for take 2.  The software is intuitive but I have to think that I am missing something along the way!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Microsoft and mediocrity

Last night I downloaded three large PowerPoint files, each between 40 and 50 MB.  They had been ftp'd to me.  No doubt created on a Windows machine, it was with no real surprise that two of the files crashed my Office Mac version of PowerPoint.  It happens more often than not.

So what to do?  The simple solution is to open the files in Apples' iWork Keynote.  With very few exceptions the import is flawless.  The exceptions don't crash the software, in fact it is then possible to save the .key file as a .ppt file which will then open in PowerPoint without crashing!!!

Microsoft has had years and years to bring out improvements to PowerPoint but it hasn't.  I suppose the people in Redmond believe they don't have to, what with their belief and trust in world domination.  Truth is, even companies like Apple (and I say even because Apple can be uppity at times) can run rings round Microsoft despite having a fraction of the user base.

Mediocrity is such a waste of talent.

Assuming Microsoft actually has talent.

Other than the talent to make pots of money.

OK, enough already.

We need to grow food, not fuel

Africa's cereal bill is going to rise this year due to greater demand and less supply driving up prices of grain.  Burgeoning demand in places like China is blamed but there is another cause the BBC fails to mention - biofuels.  For every acre devoted to cash energy crops that is one acre less available for food crops.  Actually it's not exactly a 1 for 1 swap in that some agricultural land dedicated to biofuels may be unproductive for cereals but I am sure you get the logic of my argument.  Let's save the planet by starving children in Africa?  I surely hope not.

Charles Goes to War

As always, you can trust the BBC to hype up anything said or written about climate change.  And of course the expert Prince Charles has plenty to contribute.  Maybe there is something about the divine right of kings that allows Charles to imagine that he can tilt his lance in favor of modern day windmills?

How much better it would be if he put his words and actions behind the need to eradicate malaria, and supported the provision of potable water and decent sanitation among all the world's poor.  Both are attainable targets, controlling climate change almost certainly isn't.

Flickr on AppleTV

It works!  Not only can you view your own sets, you can also view any set from your list of contacts.  Various settings are available - I disabled the default Ken Burns effect and have opted not to have music, both settings being easily modified.  The slideshow duration can be modified but my download speed is much slower than the 2 second minimum!

To add a contact you type in the name on the rather slow onscreen keyboard using the Apple Remote.  This is then saved so it doesn't need to be typed again.  Then up comes the contact's list of sets and away you go!  I added Pete Ashton (remembering to enter the space, it doesn't work otherwise, even though peteashton is in the URL) and was able to view a set of his New Zealand photos almost straight away.  Color and detail are excellent on the HD screen.

Of course, there are limitations - this is not interactive Flickr but a passive viewing capability.  It would be nice to be able to do more but I rather think the simplicity aspect of the Apple Remote is the problem.

But if you Google the words "Apple patent remote" you can surf through a few ideas that may turn up at the next Macworld expo.  Universal remotes and other wireless options will arrive sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Apple TV Upgrade

Earlier today I linked to Macworld's first experience with Apple TV Take 2.  This evening I upgraded my unit.  I won't go into too much detail since a few pictures are worth thousands of words.  But as an intro, the first comment I should make is that the process was easy and, wait for it, absolutely FREE!

With the Apple TV connected to the internet (mine has a direct ethernet link  with no wireless) I simply asked if there was an upgrade and after a minute the screen said "yes, upgrade now or later?"  I selected now and my slow internet connection began to download the upgrade file(s).  It told me I would have to wait about 35 minutes so I had dinner (well, dinner was waiting so I had to eat it!).

Then I began the upgrade process and decided to snap a few "screen shots" along the way.  Here they are, direct from Flickr.  Click on the thumbnail for a larger version on my Flickr page.

Apple TV Upgrade - 1
This was taken during the first reboot.  I think it actually re-booted three times.

Apple TV Upgrade - 2
While I was waiting for the erratic progress bar to progress, I took a photo of the set up - 26" LCD Sony, Panasonic DVD/VCR Recorder (unlocked for all regions!) and the Apple TV on the right.

Apple TV Upgrade - 4
Then the flashy opening screen begins. . . .
Apple TV Upgrade - 5
and it gets quite impressive!
Apple TV Upgrade - 6
Until the pseudo-moirée effect really kicks in, reminding me of the Birmingham Bull Ring "Blob" a.k.a. Selfridges

Apple TV Upgrade - 8
Just a couple of seconds to go. . . .

Apple TV Upgrade - 9
And here's the main menu!

It really is simplicity itself.  Compared to the average TV menu system (ugh!) it is a joy to navigate with the ridiculously small Apple Remote.

As I get to play with this menu system I'll report some more, but I did try a couple of things, including accessing my Flickr account.  Now this would be really incredible if I had a decent internet connection!

Aperture 2

Another Apple post - Yesterday Aperture 2 was announced and the price is now $199, the second big price reduction from the initial $499!  If Apple had introduced this software at the present price it would be a market leader.  as it is I bought Adobe Lightroom when it first came out (at the $199 special introduction price, it will cost $299 today) and have no reason to change.

On the other hand, it is dubious as to whether or not such software would have been developed and refined if there had been no competition - what I believe is called the Microsoft Effect - and the price might still be $499.

Apple TV Take Two

Just about everything you need to know here. I've not downloaded the upgrade yet so cannot comment.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Change we can believe in. . . .

High Definition

So, Netflix is abandoning HD-DVD in favor of Blu-Ray.  This may be the defining moment for Hi-Def discs but it is interesting to note that of 90,000 titles Netflix only has 400 in Blu-Ray.

In reading comments about the use of DVD rentals I am reminded of the fact that the DVD in its usual form is far from dead in that there are a huge number of DVD players out there and consumers are not in a position to upgrade to Apple TVs and TiVos just like that.  So the DVD will continue to be important for some time.  The question remains, however, about the viability of the Hi-Def formats, given that the players are more expensive and likely to become outmoded by download rentals in the near future.

Of course, the bandwidth required to download Hi-Def files may put undue strain on the internet pipelines.  However, such things have been overcome before so why not again?

The attraction of Hi-Def is certainly there for the taking once you have seen a Beyoncé video on a 46 inch plasma screen TV.  Maybe is was Beyoncé herself that stunned but I think the quality of the video also played a part!  But such videos are made under controlled conditions with superb lighting and careful direction.  Outside broadcasts of a rugby game on a misty February afternoon might not be worth the additional technology.  Close ups of bloody cauliflower ears don't need to be shown in Hi-Def!

Telegraph Lifestyle TV

Am I getting old?  Am I getting too rural?  Why is that I can't stand Telegraph Lifestyle TV?  Is it the music?  Yes, probably.  Is it the presenters?  Not really.  Is it the location(s)?  Almost certainly.  The subject of this TV review is the new Apple MacBook Air and, to be honest, I didn't watch the show all the way to its conclusion.  Couldn't.  Then it dawned on me.  It's all so London-centric!

Monday, February 11, 2008

"Jailed for Life"

News today has it that three teenagers have been sentenced for the murder of Gary Newlove.  I was interested to see that the sentences are "for life".  What exactly does that mean?  Well, it all depends, but generally the law in the UK states that life is a minimum of 15 years after which parole may be considered.  But it's not that simple.  The judge can stipulate longer or shorter minimum times, as was the case here.  And the judge can also place an "indefinite" time span.

The truth is, I suppose, that few felons who go into jail as teenagers will stay in jail all their lives.  Even one of the Kray twins was released 6 weeks prior to his death on compassionate grounds, though he wasn't exactly a teenager went sent down.

Wikipedia gives a whole gamut of definitions - the UK section is here.

I assume that the sentences will be appealed.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

An insider's view

Reports of a bomb alert on an offshore platform in the North Sea has given rise to this brief insider's view. It's accurate enough but doesn't really sum up the life on an offshore platform. Of course, I haven't been offshore for a number of years, so things have undoubtedly changed, but the concept of working long hours in cramped conditions hasn't changed that much since the first time I went offshore in 1971. Well, that's not true. Back then the rigs and platforms were a lot less attractive to the worker. However, they were safe, mainly because common sense rather than health and safety still ruled the day. I feel less safe today knowing that politicians have decided to legislate on my safety!

The most interesting observation is the number of women who now work offshore. In the early 1970s there were no woman at all on any offshore drilling rig or production platform. The industry wasn't sexist as such, there simply weren't the facilities to accommodate both sexes on the early rigs and platforms. And there was a perception, possibly now proved wrong, that having both sexes in close confines would only lead to trouble.

My closest brush with the "28 on 28 off" crowd is on crew change flights between Pointe Noire and Paris. The color of the language always turns a few shades of blue when there's a drilling crew in line to pass through Congo security! Whether from Scotland, Texas or Tyneside (three accents I recognized a couple of weeks ago) the language and the humor is the same.

Speaking of which, I am currently downloading Armageddon, the incredibly corny Bruce Willis, Ben Afleck sci-fi movie that everyone in the oil business should watch on a regular basis. After all, you never know when we might be called upon to rocket off into space to drill into an asteroid! Mind you, when you read about a "deep core drilling team" here is one experienced oil industry hand who has to say "what the f**k are they talking about, I've never heard of such a thing!"

Biofuels not so green

I didn't need a couple of studies to tell me that biofuels are a bit of a political con trick, but now the evidence is mounting.

What many politicians simply don't understand is that biofuels are no different from fossil fuels except in the timing of their formation. With world hunger remaining a significant problem, it surprises me that so much land is being dedicated to growing energy when that land could be sustaining hungry mouths.

Tapping fossil (bio)fuels makes a lot more sense. Yes, Mr. Politician, crude oil is a biofuel!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A small irritation

I took this from the Telegraph website to illustrate a point.

Actually, the point.

Why is it that Hillary Clinton is always pointing at someone in the crowd? She does it all the time, particularly at photo op moments. I find it irritating, enough to put me off even thinking about supporting her. By contrast Barack Obama's photo suggests a very different, less frenetic and more confident posture.

My 2¢ after Super Tuesday.

Well, maybe not, an hour later here's another one!

I bet it's not the last, either!

No, it isn't, three in one day!!!

Monday, February 04, 2008

iPhone in use "worldwide"

Yes, it's true! As this article shows, the iPhone has been unlocked and used to access the internet in many many countries where there is no official service. Thus explaining where all those "unsold" iPhones really are! Asia and Africa appear to be the places where most unlocked iPhones have ended up.

Also telling in the report is that iPhone/iPod Touch internet usage has already surpassed the stagnant Windows Mobile market share - 0.17% compared to 0.06%.

Sunday, February 03, 2008


This is a scary movie. At least the first half is. The second half fizzles out into a rather trite conclusion. The link explains why the movie isn't as good as it should have been.

Friday, February 01, 2008

PowerPoint - Bite the Bullet

Stef has a really useful post on making an hour long presentation at short notice. Lot's of good advice on how to keep your audience interested. It inspired me to do better.