Showing a little restraint

Like many games players, I’ve got a pile of half-finished games. Sometimes I’ve just got bored with them, but more often I’ve just been tempted by the latest new game, and ended up getting distracted. Often I stop playing while fully intending to resume at some point in future. It’s rare that I ever do pick them up again, though, so they just get added to that ever-growing pile of half-finished games, stretching back across several generations of consoles and computers.

The first game that I consciously remember thinking, “I’ll just have a few goes of the new game, then I’ll finish this one off” was Xenon 2 on my Atari ST – and I’ve been suffering from this affliction ever since.

A couple of years ago I decided that enough was enough, and I would stop this bad habit once and for all. Since then I’ve made sure to complete one game, before starting another. “Complete” could mean any number of things, largely depending on how much I’m enjoying the game, and what is sitting in the “to be played” pile, tempting me. Generally it means finishing the main story mode, but not worrying about every single little collectable item – though I enjoyed Super Mario Galaxy enough to go for all 120 stars, even though it meant dealing with Luigi’s Bastard Purple Bloomin’ Coins. I also plan to go back through SMG again as Luigi in preparation for the release of SMG2 next year.

As well as setting my own definition of “complete”, I also have a couple of other loosly-applied caveats to my “finish one game before starting another” rule. Games without a clear plot to them don’t fall under this rule – so I can play a few games of Pac-Man just for fun, without having to get all the way to level 256. I also apply this rule separately for consoles and handheld systems – so I can be playing one epic game on the Wii, and another on the DS. This works because time spend playing handheld games tends not to overlap with time spent playing console games too much – so progress on one doesn’t suffer at the expense of progress on the other. Finally, I tend not to play games from similar genres at the same time – so The Legend Of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass on the DS had to wait until I’d finished Okami on the Wii.

Taking this approach has its pros and cons. On the plus side, I do feel more of a sense of achievement due to finishing a game, rather than just moving on to the next release that takes my fancy. It also works out cheaper as I’m spending more time with each game, so have less time left to indulge in impulse buys. It does mean, however, that I just don’t have the time to play all the games I would like to, so I’m sure I’m missing out on a few classics. Even those that I’m certain I want to play tend to get bought then added to the list of games to play after the current one.

That last point, in particular, makes it a real lesson in self-restraint. All the while as I make my way through an epic masterpiece, I can hear those little cartridges and silver discs begging to be let out of the drawer…

Go on, just take a little break. Hyrule will still be there when you get back. You know you want to play us. We’re so shiny and new. Go on, just open the drawer and break the seal – think of the fun to be had.

Must…ignore…the…voices.

Chumby: An art gallery on my desktop

I love wandering round art galleries – but I don’t really like the way most of them are organised. Most galleries take the “museum” approach of labelling and categorising. All the Old Masters are over in that wing, separated into rooms by country and year. The modern pieces are over here, cubist that way, surrealist this way.

Categorising art like that is great if what you want is to go and look at the Dutch Old Masters without the distraction of those nasty modern pieces getting in the way. Or if you want to look at a pile of bricks and an unmade bed, without those staid old portraits and bowls of fruit trying to drag you off into the world of the mundane.

But I don’t really like my art categorised. I like it spontaneous. I like it unexpected. I like to be surprised. I like to stumble across a melting clock right next to a stalking tiger, or an epic sea battle alongside Oberon, Titania and the bloke with the nut. Give me different artists’ views of the same scene, or interpretations of the same event, even though they’re separated by time or culture. Give me soft blurred impressionism right alongside ultra-realism, and pointillism alongside cubism.

I suppose what I want from art is no different to what I want from music. An art gallery’s works can be cut and dissected in a myriad of ways, just how I see collections as freeing us from the historical constraints of the music album. I love the serendipitous pairings of tracks that can come from playing your music in random mode; I guess I want a big “shuffle” button at the entrance to a gallery.

This desire to be surprised by randomness is perhaps one of the reasons why I like my Chumby so much. In amongst the clocks and calendars I’ve added plenty of widgets which either display pictures from the internet, or which are small works of algorithmic art in their own right. When one of these widgets randomly appears on the screen, it can be an amusing, intriguing or fascinating distraction for a few seconds. Some of the images can be so random that they serve as a great reminder of the sheer amount of variety present in the human race.

I’ve pulled together a few of my favourite widgets into one virtual Chumby below. I don’t view them all in succession like this – on my real Chumby they’re interspersed with a large number of other channels – but it does give you an idea of the kind of random things that appear on my screen throughout the day:

The particular selection of widgets there pull data from these websites:

I have two particular favourites: The first is “Doodles – Diary of a Chumby” which actually makes some sense of the inane witterings of that part of the Twitter crowd who think we really want to hear their every internal thought tweeted. The second is the “COLOURlovers Pallettes” widget – it’s amazing how evocative and interesting just a collection of four or five colour bars can be.

Edit, 1 May 2012: Ironically of the two widgets that I called out for particular praise, the first is no longer available and the second doesn’t seem to work anymore.

Apple: No longer the masters of packaging

Anyone who has purchased an Apple product in the past few years – particularly a computer, iPod or iPhone – might have noticed that they have a certain knack for packaging. The boxes are sleek and sparsely labelled. The sub-boxes which contain the various component parts all fit together smoothly. The actual parts are individually wrapped in protective plastic film.

Then the devices themselves are pared down to their simplest form. A single button graces the front of an iPhone. A Mac Mini doesn’t even get that – just a slot and a light, with the power button hidden away at the back: convenience traded in for elegance. The iPod has moved from four buttons and a wheel down to just the wheel, the buttons being subsumed beneath it.

Not for Apple the clunky front-facing power, reset and eject buttons of a typical PC. Not for Apple the vulgarity of a slide-out phone keyboard, or a separate second mouse button. And not for Apple the hideous lines at the back of a device that allow the proles to actually replace the battery in their phone or MP3 player.

Apple strives for elegance and simplicity. It’s a modernist’s dream made real. Sure, it might mean a little inconvenience in some areas, but what is beauty without suffering?

But I’m getting carried away. This post is about the packaging, not the packaged. For a long time I’ve held Apple to be the kings of packaging. Their bare matt-laminated boxes scream quality, whilst the sharp edges and clean lines evoke a feeling of precision. Just what you want for the packaging of a high-tech product.

I’ve observed over the years that not everybody notices the packaging. For some it’s just an obstacle between them and their new toy. Others perhaps realise it’s different on a subconscious level, but don’t actively acknowledge it. For anyone who doesn’t really understand why not putting a load of text on your box is sometimes the best option, I offer this oldie-but-goodie: What if Microsoft designed the iPod…

But now I’ve found a new master of packaging: Chumby Industries. In my previous post I mentioned that I’d purchased a secondhand Chumby, in its original packaging. The Chumby is soft and squashable, using flexible plastic fittings and fine Italian leather to produce a highly tactile device. It eschews Apple’s hard, clean lines in favour of flexible, lumpy edges. Whilst Apple’s devices feel like the pinnacle of machine construction, the Chumby feels like a barnacle of human construction – and I mean that in a good way.

So the Chumby itself is a squashable, mashable, squeezable, bashable lump of tech in cow’s clothing. But those people at Chumby Industries didn’t stop there. Not only does their product feel distinctly humane and friendly in its construction, but that humanity extends to its packaging.

Apple’s collection of quadrilateral boxes gets replaced in the Chumby world with a nested set of cloth bags. Apple’s minimal documentation gets bested by an even simpler pamphlet with rounded corners printed on obviously recycled stock. The Apple logo sticker included with some products gets well and truly trumped by the inclusion of three soft foam characters on loops of string, to be attached to the rivet on the right of the Chumby so that the new owner can personalise their device.

Have a look at this unboxing (or rather, unbagging) video, and just consider how completely different this is to any other piece of high-tech equipment you might have bought in the past:

Everything about the Chumby package is designed to encourage you to imbue your Chumby with a personality – to treat it more like a cuddly toy than a piece of technology. It’s an approach that works well for a device like this – and probably wouldn’t work for many others. But it is nice to see someone doing something different in the tech world.

To finish, here’s my summary of packaging in the tech world:

  • Most companies: Do not buy this unless you understand what all these tech specs actually mean. Are you certain you’ve got an AMD Pentium 3.5 Gigglyflops processor?
  • Apple: Our tech is so simple that you don’t need to know all the techie details.
  • Chumby Industries: Come here, gizza hug 🙂

Chumby

A couple of weeks ago I bought a Chumby – I bought it secondhand, but it had all the original packaging.

A Chumby is essentially a small internet-connected touchscreen and speakers. Yes, there’s more to it than that, but that’s what really matters. It displays little applications (“channels” in Chumby terms) and cycles through them. Some you can interact with via the touchscreen or by physically moving the Chumby. Others are just non-interactive and used to display information – weather, news headlines, or just the current time. Below is a “Virtual Chumby” which gives you an idea of what it looks like:

The electronics are housed in a soft plastic and leather exterior which is stuffed with padding to create a rounded, tactile, squishable device. It’s the antithesis of most modern electronic devices: the designers have gone out of their way not to create yet another hard, unfriendly lump of gadgetry, but instead to make an electronic device that is cute and cuddly – well, as cute and cuddly as anything with a flat, rectangular screen can be.

In use I’ve found the Chumby to be a real delight. I’ve got it on my desk at work, with an extensive collection of channels installed. It lets me keep track of recent headlines, view a variety of random images, and keep an eye on the time, all in the background without requiring a significant “context switch” (as would be needed if I wanted to track these things using a web browser on my PC).

A lot of people don’t “get it”. Comments range from “so it’s a fancy clock then” to “what’s the point?”. Unfortunately those people seem to be in the majority – which might explain the failure of the Audrey, a similar device launched a few years ago by 3Com. Chumby is likely to succeed where Audrey failed at least in part because the smaller size of Chumby Industries compared with 3Com means that they can get a way with less profit and a smaller market for the device.

If you’re the sort that does appreciate the niche that Chumby fills, however, I can thoroughly recommend it. I’m seriously considering whether I can justify buying a second one, and I know at least two other people who are also seriously considering buying one. If there was a UK distributor then the decision would be easy, but the vagaries of importing something into the UK make it a bit more of a financial gamble, which is enough to put people off.

Okami

I finished playing Okami on my Wii last night. Beautiful graphics, great gameplay (even if the Wii controller made it a little hard to consistently draw the brush strokes), and thoroughly recommended if you like that sort of game. I’ve seen it described as “The best Zelda game than Nintendo never made”, and I think that description sums it up prefectly.

It’s a shame that the end credits were cut from the Wii version, but it’s even more of a shame that there’s unlikely to ever be a sequel. I’ll miss you, furball.

Robert, ask Damon how it’s done

A while back I posted about my disappointment after going to see a gig by The Cure in which they played hardly any of their hits.

Yesterday I went to see Blur in Hyde Park, in a concert that really showed what a great gig can be like. They played a full two hour set, including almost all of their major hits – and still managed to fit in a healthy collection of fan favourites and other album tracks.

They also started earlier than most acts do, finishing at about 10:20pm. That made for a very pleasant change from the usual rush to catch the last train that I have to go through when going to gigs in London. I still didn’t get home until nearly 1am though, so I’m quite glad that I booked today off work 😉

Firefox 3.5

Firefox 3.5 was officially released yesterday. If you’re already running Firefox 3 you should get prompted to upgrade in the next few days – but if you want to expedite matters you can choose “Check for Updates…” from the Help menu.

As there are quite a few Linux users who find this site, I’ll point you in the direction of this post about how to install Firefox 3.5 on Ubuntu. Alternatively you could just make do with Firefox 3 until the release of Ubuntu 9.10 in October. Users of other distros will have to search for instructions themselves, I’m afraid.

If you’re not running Firefox at all – or you’ve got a really old version – you can download the whole thing from firefox.com

So what’s new in Firefox 3.5? In short, loads! I think that this is one of the most exciting browser releases from any vendor in quite some time. For years the web has stagnated due to old standards, but recently browser vendors have started to add new features which will really drive the web forward, not just as a content delivery platform, but also as an application platform. With more and more services becoming web based, additional browser functionality translates into more powerful applications.

Apple, Opera and Mozilla have been pushing the web forward with new technologies for a while now, but there wasn’t much integration between the disparate features. You could use SVG for vector diagrams, or draw to a bitmap using the Canvas element. But each technology was separate – a stand-alone rectangle in an HTML page.

With Firefox 3.5 there is much more integration between these new technologies. The native video playback has been fairly widely publicised – but some of the best demos include pulling video frames into a canvas element for further processing, playing a video within SVG content to allow it to be stretched and scaled, or using SVG filters and masks to alter the display of your HTML content. SVG and canvas move from being self-contained mechanisms for drawing to the screen, and instead become another tool that HTML authors can wield in order to produce interesting results.

So with that fawning out of the way, here are some links to a few technical demos which show off some of the new features of Firefox 3.5:

One of the most impressive new additions is the Video element – which allows for native playback of video files within the browser. This means no Flash plugin is needed, and the content is more accessible to scripting. Unsurprisingly there have been a number of demos showing the kind of things you can do with video as a native object:

There’s some pretty cool stuff going on there – and these are just the technical demos. Now that 3.5 has been released, I’m sure we’ll start to see some very interesting uses for these new technologies.

One final thing – it’s not a new feature, as such, but an improvement to an old one that didn’t quite make it into Firefox 3. You may have noticed the appallingly named “Awesome Bar” in Firefox. Yes, to you and me it’s just an address bar that also searches your bookmarks and history – but to a marketing department that’s “awesome”. Anyway, in Firefox 3 it usually presented you with pretty good results in the drop-down list, but there was no way of controlling those results – to only show bookmarked pages, for example. Well, now there is.

Dell discontinues the Mini 9

Typical. Just as I’ve finished writing a few entries espousing the benefits of the Dell Mini 9, Dell decide to discontinue it 🙁

Dell’s closest replacement is the Mini 10v. This has a lower price point than the Mini 9 for the Ubuntu/1GB RAM/8GB SSD configuration, bringing it down below the magic £200 mark. It has a 1.3MP webcam (the Mini 9’s was 0.3MP in the base spec), and if you really want to pretend it’s a full notebook you can pay a bit extra for a hard drive (120GB or 160GB) instead of the SSD. The wireless card can be upgraded to 802.11n, and there’s the option of a 6-cell battery.

So the 10v is cheaper, more configurable, and the larger size brings with it a much better keyboard. So this sounds like an improvement, right?

For many people, yes it is an improvement. However there is one notable bit of the spec where the Mini 10v is actually inferior to the Mini 9: the screen resolution. This may seem a bit strange, given that the Mini 10v has a 10.1″ screen compared with the Mini 9’s 8.9″ screen, but you actually lose over 24,000 pixels with the larger screen. It sounds a lot, but is actually “only” a reduction of 24 pixels in vertical height (1024×576 compared with the 9’s 1024×600). That said, vertical resolution is one area where netbooks are already compromised, so losing pixels there is especially annoying.

The other notable difference between the Mini 9 and the Mini 10v is the physical size of the machine. The 10v is still a small, cute machine – but it’s not as small as the Mini 9. If you want to use the machine as a notebook replacement then the better keyboard more than makes up for a little extra size, but if you just want the machine to be a netbook – a very portable way to browse the web, without the limitations of a mobile phone screen – the smaller size wins out over improvements to a keyboard that you rarely use.

Dell also sells the Mini 10 (note the absence of the “v”). This is the same physical size as the 10v, but has the option of a 1366×768 pixel screen. This is a great resolution in a machine of this size – but the Mini 10 starts at £100 more, is only available with Windows, and has no SSD option.

So if you want a netbook from Dell you have the choice between a cheaper SSD-based Ubuntu machine with an inferior screen resolution, or an expensive hard-drive-based Windows machine with the option of a much better screen.

I’m glad I bought a Mini 9 when I did. If I was buying now, I’d seriously consider the Mini 10v, but I’d also be tempted by the Acer Aspire One – it’s closer to the specs of the Mini 9, and the only thing that stopped me buying one in the past was my dislike of its touchpad buttons. With several vendors preparing ARM-based netbooks, however, it might be better just to wait and see how the market develops. If none of the new offerings appeals to you, I’m sure the Mini 10v will still be available in 6 months time – and perhaps by then Dell will have seen sense and let you configure it with the superior screen.

Thoughts on Ubuntu 9.04, Jaunty Jackalope

Having upgraded a few machines to Ubuntu 9.04 a few days ago, here are my thoughts on this latest version:

Things I Love

The speed of the system – both in booting and in general use – seems to be faster. There’s more of a delay after logging in before it draws my desktop, but when it does the system is immediately usable. Previously the desktop appeared quickly, but it would take a few seconds longer before the panel applets were drawn and the system could actually be used.

Things I Hate

The artistic direction of 9.04 leaves something to be desired. The primarily dark login screen is intimidating, rather than friendly and welcoming. Yes it can be changed easily, but it’s not the sort of thing that will encourage a novice user

Reasonably friendly login screen from 8.04

Reasonably friendly login screen from 8.04

Intimidating login screen from 9.10

Intimidating login screen from 9.10

Similarly the default desktop image is dull. It looks like someone took a blue wavy-line desktop image off an Apple machine, and converted it to brown. The best thing that can be said for it is that it’s inoffensive. The Hardy Heron desktop image was daring and imaginative – and beautiful enough as a work of art that I bought the T-shirt. The Intrepid Ibex image was a bit too abstract – with many comments that it looked like a coffee stain (rather than the Ibex it was supposed to be). But even that was more interesting and inspirational than a few wavy lines.

Good. Artistic. Original

Good. Artistic. Original

Coffee stain? But at least it's original and different.

Coffee stain? But at least it's original and different

Just like an Apple desktop image, only more dull

Just like an Apple wallpaper, only more dull

While I’m on the subject of desktop images, why does Jaunty have packages for “edgy-wallpapers”, “feisty-wallpapers” and “gutsy-wallpapers” but no sign of “hardy-wallpapers” or “intrepid-wallpapers”?

Things I Just Don’t Understand

Since the first version of Ubuntu, five years ago, the “Log Out” and “Shut Down” options have been available from the System menu. Now they’re gone. Sort of. Depending on whether or not you’re using the “User Switcher” applet.

That’s right – the presence, or absence of some key menu items, which muscle memory has trained me to look for in the same place over the past five years – is determined by whether or not you want to switch users from within a running session. In what universe does that make sense?

The logic seems to be this: the User Switcher applet offers Log Out and Shut Down options on its menu; therefore to avoid duplication/confusion, when the User Switcher applet is present those options should be removed from other parts of the user interface.

What I don’t understand is why I can’t have both. Why can’t I shut down from the System menu most of the time, as I’m used to doing, but still have the ability to switch to a different user from time to time? Why can’t I log out from the System menu if my mouse is close to it, or log out from the user switcher if my mouse is closer to that?

To make matters worse, the icon on the User Switcher applet tends to change. This is what it looks like with my normal settings (there’s also an option to show your name instead of the little person icon, but as I already know my name, I prefer it to take up less screen space instead):

user_switcher_1

See, a little red icon that contains a well known symbol denoting power controls. A new user might not spot it as a means to log out quite as quickly as a sweep through the menus, but at least when they do spot it they’re likely to remember that they need to click on the red power button to log out.

Now look what happens when I do something that’s largely unrelated to logging out or shutting down: I’ll launch Pidgin, the instant messaging (IM) client shipped with Ubuntu:

user_switcher_2

The “power” icon has now been replaced with a green circle, indicating my IM status. If my IM status changes, so does the icon. So for any user who wants to have the User Switcher applet, and who also runs Pidgin, the options to Log Out or Shut Down are hidden behind an icon whose colour and shape changes based on instant messaging settings. That’s nice and user friendly, isn’t it. Whatever happened to the principle of least surprise?

If the Log Out and Shut Down options were also still present on the System menu, this wouldn’t be so much of an issue. Users who are thrown by the changing state of the User Switcher icon would soon learn to use these functions from the System menu instead. Those old Ubuntu hands whose muscle memory still sends them to the System menu wouldn’t be surprised by the absence of the Log Out and Shut Down options.

By all means expose common functionality like this in more than one place, but please don’t expose it in one place if you’ve got an applet installed, and another if you haven’t. And please don’t make the one place that it’s exposed also be an icon whose shape and colour can change frequently, depending on the state of yet another application. If you want to confuse new users that’s a good way to go about it.

Apple Newton 2100 (Pt. II)

The Newton 2100 had so many great features that it’s impossible to list them all in a simple blog post. Given that this is one of a series of posts about pen-based computers and PDAs, however, I’ll focus on a few points that individually seem relatively minor, but which between them show just how much care and attention the Apple engineers paid to the Newton platform.

The Newton was designed from the ground up to be used with a stylus, and to be used on the move. Unlike so many devices that have followed it, the Newton had no pretences at being a desktop machine. There was no attempt to shoehorn a desktop UI into a handheld device; instead the whole system was designed around the stylus, rather than simply trying to use it as a poor mouse replacement. Text and images were deleted by simply scribbling through them. Handwriting could be recognised on-the-fly, or deferred for recognition later (ideal for taking notes without the recognition slowing things up), and there was even a mode for recognising hand-drawn sketches which would transform my rough scribbles into perfect lines, squares, triangles and even circles.

Having created a modernist masterpiece (or more probably sketched a map) it was extremely simple to edit and change the design. Pressing the stylus to the screen for a couple of seconds elicited a small squeak from the speaker, and switched the Newton into selection mode. Drawing on the screen in this mode produced a thick line which could be used to circle multiple items for selection. Tracing over individual lines – or parts of lines – would also select them, so having drawn a square, for example, it was easy to select just one side of it for removal.

Once selected items could be moved by dragging, resized by dragging one corner, or deleted with a quick scribble. Dragging selected text or drawings to the side of the screen caused a smaller translucent representation to be docked there which could be dragged back into a different application – copy and paste using only the stylus. An extension for the 2100 allowed you to access a hidden OS preference to set the number of these docked items that could be held at once – up to a maximum of 20. This made it simple to copy and paste multiple different items without losing track of any of them. How I wish that this feature was implemented in a desktop system.

The attention to detail in this pen-based system even went as far as the hardware design. Not only did the 2100 have a full-sized and very comfortable stylus that clicked satisfyingly into a sprung chamber in the body of the device, but they also included a small pull-out stand to rest the stylus in when it wasn’t in use. Again, this is a small thing that’s sadly lacking from most modern pen-based systems.

Finally, still on the subject of hardware, it’s impossible to really consider any mobile device without giving some thought to its battery life. This is one area where the 2100 really did excel. Whilst its green-backlit greyscale screen might look primitive compared with more modern full-colour devices, it had one huge advantage: low power consumption. With just an hour’s charge the 2100 could nominally run for 24 hours with the backlight off. In practice the battery life was less than this, but the way in which a PDA is usually used – just a few minutes at a time – meant that a single charge could easily last a week, or even a month. Travelling overseas and worried that the charge might run out? No problem, just use the Newton’s international charger with simple slide-on adaptors for different power sockets. Or just take the battery tray along with you and rely on easy-to-obtain AA batteries instead.

What if the worst did happen, and your poor Newton ran out of power completely? Thanks to the early use of flash memory in the 2100 it wouldn’t lose any data. When you finally found another power source, your Newton would boot up with all your data intact. Which is something that definitely can’t be said of the Palm Pilot…