It’s not over ’til the fat Chumby sings

I’ve written about my Chumby on this blog in the past (and this one, too). Alas! Chumby Indistries is effectively no more, the staff having moved on and any worthwhile intellectual property in the hands of a corporate trustee.

Fortunately the servers are still serving, so my Chumby is still working as well as ever. There will come a day when they’re switched off, but one advantage of the Chumby’s open source nature is that a couple of the users over at the Chumby forum have been able to create ‘untethered’ versions of the firmware which don’t rely on the Chumby Industries servers. I’m sure I’ll lose some functionality when the servers go dark, but at least my squishy little friend won’t turn into a brick.

Make Magazine has a long and interesting interview with Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang talking about his time a Chumby Industries, and more. It should be required reading for all those Kickstarter projects hoping to create the next big thing in hardware…

There’s a certain irony to Chumby Industries closing down, right at a time when other people have raised millions of dollars with a similar idea. Yes, the Pebble Watch may be more portable than a Chumby and fill a slightly different niche, but the idea of a clock/watch that can switch between various single-purpose applications and feed you with information from the internet makes them more similar than different. There’s clearly a demand for such “third screen” devices and I think the Chumby was simply an idea ahead of its time.

So while my Chumby still works as Bunnie intended, I’ll continue to enjoy the eclectic delights it offers up. With luck an untethered firmware will extend its life even further. Chumby Industries may be gone, but Chumbys live on.

Open Educational Resources for Typography

Typography is an art form all of its own. It combines aesthetic and stylistic concerns with elements of ergonomics, cultural history and science. While most of us happily plod along with a few basic fonts in our arsenal, the right typography can transform words significantly. The letter forms in a font can carry meaning and evoke feelings which can reinforce or even subvert the words themselves.

I find typography to be a fascinating part of the graphic design process. Which is why I have thrown a few dollars in to support the Open Educational Resources for Typography project on Kickstarter. Although it’s now been fully funded, there’s still a week to run so it’s not too late to make a contribution to help them out. I’m looking forward to receiving my PDF next year, and hopefully learning more about this hugely difficult subject that we all take for granted each time we turn on a computer, read a book or notice a sign.

A Decade of Free Museums

There’s an article running on the Guardian’s website written by former Culture Secretary Chris Smith to celebrate 10 years since he put the necessary motions in place to remove the entry fee from many of Britain’s museums and galleries. For me the most important part is from the very first paragraph:

…free admission is all about giving everyone, no matter what their means, the chance to see the greatest works of art, science and history that our nation has.

I’m a firm believer that culture and education should be accessible to all, regardless of their financial status. It’s also why I love The Proms and Shakespeare’s Globe – although they’re not free, they both offer the chance to see world-class performances for as little as £5.

But I don’t think it’s enough to see great works of art; it’s important that people have access to the tools they need to produce their own creations – whether artistic or otherwise – and the opportunity to learn how. It’s why I’m excited about the possibilities offered by the Raspberry Pi – a real computer for as little as $25. It’s why I’m a huge advocate of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). And it’s the reason that my webcomic is created entirely using the FOSS program Inkscape, and why I make the Inkscape source files available for download in the hope that people can learn something from them.

Free museums and galleries, or cheap theatres and concerts are wonderful, but a raft of cheap or free (and Free) software and hardware will mean that some of those visitors will become more than just consumers of culture. They’ll become creators.

Good News for Bletchley Park

It was great to hear today that Google are financially backing some of the restoration work taking place at Bletchley Park.

It’s a site with an incredible history and is well worth a trip. Much of the commentary about it online focuses on the World War II code breaking efforts, the works of Alan Turing, or the world’s first programmable computer, Colossus. But there’s much more to the site than that. The very human stories of the people who worked there so many years ago offer a fascinating insight into one of the war’s best kept secrets – and if you’re lucky you might get shown round by one of the guides who actually worked there during those crucial years.

Google’s input is a great step forward. But the thing that will really keep Bletchley Park, and its history, alive is for people to visit it. If you’ve never been, you should definitely add it to your list of things to do. And if you have been, you should add it to your list of things to do again.

A Great Sound for a Great Gig

Last week I saw Belle & Sebastian at The Roundhouse in London. I can honestly say that it was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. First of all it had the factors that all great gigs seem to share:

  • It contained a good mixture of songs from the whole of their career – singles, album tracks, old and new (unlike some people)
  • The band seemed to really be enjoying themselves
  • So did the audience

There were also a couple of surprises thrown in, from audience participation to a rendition of the Ski Sunday theme tune (!), which just added to the fun.

But one of the best things about it was the quality of the sound: it was the second best sounding gig I’ve ever been to (and first place is taken by another Belle & Sebastian gig I went to a few years ago). It was loud, but not so loud that the audio was distorted. It was loud, but not so loud that I left with my ears ringing. It was loud, but not so loud that you couldn’t distinguish the sound of each and every one of the thirteen (!!) people on stage.

I really wish more bands and engineers would take the time and effort to turn it down a little. You may be the world’s greatest lyricist, or a wonderful guitarist, but if your sound is indistinguishable from the rest of the mushy, distorted audio being forced through speakers which have no headroom left, you’re doing both yourself and your audience an injustice.

But huge thanks to B&S for a great gig and great sound. I’ll definitely try to catch you on your next tour.


A few weeks ago I signed up to Graze, and so far I’ve been really impressed.

The idea behind the company is that they regularly send you a box containing four punnets of fruit, seeds, nuts and other healthy offerings. How regularly is up to you – I receive a box per week, but you can make it more frequently if you want to (and can afford to). At £2.99 per box it’s a little on the pricey side*, but they do have a tremendous choice of over 100 products.

Well, “choice” isn’t the right word, I suppose. You don’t choose your four punnets directly, but rather rate products as “bin” (never send), “try”, “like” and “love”. They rend four random punnets from your “try”, “like” and “love” choices, but you can weigh the selection to favour “love” or “try” if you want to. The fact that I can’t choose the punnets is part of the appeal for me, as it adds a little randomness and variety to my food each week. It’s surprising how exciting it is checking their website each week to see what selection is winging its way to me.

Their website is a work of beauty. It looks great and the user interface is absolutely spot-on – right down to little details like the button which lets you easily push back your box by a week with a single click. If they weren’t on the wrong side of London, I’d seriously be considering applying for a programming job there – it’s refreshing to see a company that really knows how to produce a great web-based UI.

If you don’t mind paying a little over the odds for a semi-random selection from a great range of healthy foods (and if you’re based in the UK), then you should give them a try. Use the link below to get your first box free, and your second one half-price (plus I get a pound off my next box if you do):

* £2.99 per box = 75p per punnet, with each punnet containing between 35g and 45g of produce. By comparison Marks and Spencer offer similar products (though a greatly reduced choice) for £1.00 for a pot weighing 70g. It would be nice if there was a six punnet option for £3.99, bringing the price-per-punnet down to a more reasonable 67p. The box would be longer, but the same width and depth, so would still fit through a letterbox – plus I find that four punnets isn’t quite enough for the week, but eight would be too many.

Foxy fonts of the future

Any web developer who’s ever tried to introduce an old-school graphic designer to the ins and outs of web design will know how easy it is to make their brain melt and trickle out of their ears. One of the killers for a typical designer is the lack of control over fonts. Well, things are getting a lot better. Most browsers now support downloadable fonts in one form or another, and it looks like the next-but-one release of Firefox will get some very tasty new font rendering features in the form of support for ligatures, stylistic alternatives, tabulated numbers and more.

Fonts on a Firefox development build

Fonts on a Firefox development build

If you’ve got an interest in fonts on the web you really do owe it to yourself to take a look at this page to get an idea of where things are heading. Although this is experimental work in Firefox, there’s a good chance that similar features will make their way into Safari, Chrome and Opera, before (hopefully) getting ratified into a proper standard.

It will be a long time yet before designers can assume support for these features in the majority of web browsers that are actually in use, but at least the future looks a little brighter for font fans and designers alike.

World of Goo – pay what you want

Or more specifically pay whatever you think it’s worth – for this week at least. I’ve got the WiiWare version, and have to say that it is a great game – well worth the full asking price. If you don’t fancy spending that much though, and have a Windows PC, a Mac or even a Linux box, you can go to their website and download it for whatever price you think it’s worth, until the 19th October.

Despite already owning the Wii version, I might take this opportunity to buy myself a cheap copy for my Linux box – if only to thank them for actually taking the time to produce a Linux version. If you want to see what the game it like, here’s the video they’ve got on their website:

Do you like Kipling?

The correct answer to this question is, of course, “I don’t know – I’ve never kippled.” But hoary old chestnuts aside, there are two Kiplings of note here in the UK. The first – Rudyard Kipling – was an author and poet, perhaps best known for writing The Jungle Book. His work has featured on this blog once before.

The second – the forenameless “Mr Kipling” – is a fictitious baker of “exceedingly good cakes”, used as a brand name for the biggest selling range of cakes in the UK. If you’re not from this part of the world, you might want to look at this Wikipedia page, and the Mr Kipling website.

A few weeks ago I was trying to explain the concept of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) to a complete layperson. Often cars are used as an analogy in situations like this – with proprietary software being likened to a car with the bonnet welded shut, and FOSS being likened to a kit car that you can tinker with at will. For this conversation, however, I wanted to get away from the whole idea of software being something technical, and bring it down to a more basic level: cakes.

The analogy goes something like this…

Buying proprietary software from the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Adobe and so on is like buying a pack of Mr Kipling’s cakes. It might be exceedingly good, but you don’t get any say in the recipe. Do you want more nuts? Fewer nuts? A diabetic-friendly version? Unless Mr Kipling’s master bakers decide to produce something to your tastes you’re out of luck. Even if they do produce what you want, it might never see the light of day. And even if it does, you might have to wait for years before it makes it to market as a commercial product.

FOSS, on the other hand, is like buying home-made cakes from a stall at the local Scouts’ jumble sale, or like being given a cake by a neighbour or relative. It won’t come in the glitzy packaging of Mr Kipling’s offerings. It might not taste as good. But there’s a good chance you’ll be getting it directly from the baker – just the person to provide feedback to, if you think they should add more nuts.

Getting your cakes like this is how most people get their FOSS games and applications. Someone else has already done the hard work of getting all the ingredients together, measuring, mixing and baking. You just have to buy (or be given) the finished product.

What really separates commercial and home-made cakes, though, is the prospect that you can do it yourself. If you ask that nice baker at the jumble sale, or your friend or relative, they’ll probably be happy to give you the recipe. Then you can add more nuts. Or fewer. Or make that diabetic-friendly version. You can even bake some to sell at the local Girl Guides’ jumble sale – and you’ll happily pass on the recipe when someone else asks for it.

There’s a good chance that in your kitchen – or your mum’s kitchen – there’s a book or folder stuffed with recipes that you’ve acquired over the years. Some came from friends. Some from relatives. Some off the internet. Some clipped out of magazines. You can tweak and modify them to suit your own tastes. You can pass them on to other people (ignoring, for the sake of this analogy, the legalities of copyright on the magazine clippings). You can even sell the things you cook, if you want to. And it’s only polite that if you pass your cakes onto someone else, you should also give them the recipe if they ask, so that they can have the same opportunity to tweak it as you’ve had.

Mr Kipling doesn’t give you his recipes at all.

That’s the difference between FOSS and proprietary software: it’s the same as the difference between Mr Kipling, and your mother’s cake recipe. Because although the phrase “source code” might be gobbledegook to a non-programmer, the word “recipe” is perfectly understandable.

I’ve been thinking about writing this entry for some time now. Today I was inspired to do so by a post I saw on Planet Ubuntu: Melissa Draper has posted her recipe for Open Source Brownies. Take it, tweak it, bake it, eat it – it’s the FOSS way.

The Legend Of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

Yesterday’s post was just a precursor to this one, to explain why I’m so behind the times in writing about The Legend Of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. The reason goes something like this…

  • Phantom Hourglass was released in October 2007, and my girlfriend bought me a copy for Christmas that year
  • I decided to play The Wind Waker first, in order to get the continuity right.
  • After playing The Wind Waker (and Twilight Princess before it), I felt all Zelda’d out, so I took a break to play Super Mario Galaxy.
  • Then I bought Okami, which I finished in July.
  • Finally, about a month ago, I got round to playing Phantom Hourglass (largely in preparation for Spirit Tracks later in the year)

So although the game has been sitting on my “to play” pile for 18 months, that’s why I’ve only just finished it.

The game is great – nicely pitched in difficulty, with a few ingenious puzzles that make great use of the touchscreen. Drawing boomerang paths or steamboat routes was very intuitive and there was some nice (if limited) use of the microphone. I would have preferred the shoulder buttons to act as toggles rather than requiring a press-and-hold to activate the selected tool: too many times in the heat of battle I found myself releasing the shoulder button prematurely and losing the boomerang path I’d drawn.

The temple designs were inspired. In particular the little shortcuts which let you progress through the main temple faster with each new weapon gave you hope that this time you might have enough sand in your hourglass to make it through on the first attempt.

With the immediacy and convenience of a portable game, this has perhaps been the best Zelda I’ve played to date. I just wish it had been longer – but I suppose there is a trade-off to be made when you’re running from a cartridge.

My girlfriend played it as the same time as me, and also thoroughly enjoyed it. She found it a little more taxing than I did, but did manage to complete it. Usually she wouldn’t fancy a role-playing game like this, but the cute graphics and simple control mechanism made her an instant convert. We’re now both eagerly awaiting the release of Spirit Tracks.