RIP Steve Jobs

Today the world lost a great man with the sad passing of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers.

I’m no Apple fanboy – in fact over the past few years I’ve increasingly stopped using their products as they’ve become more and more locked into their own ecosystem. I prefer something more open in nature.

But there’s no denying that their products are things of beauty. That they have pushed the boundaries of manufacturing and user experience to new levels. Much of this is due to the drive and vision of Steve Jobs.

It always amazes me that no other PC manufacturer has realised that there is a market for well designed, aesthetically beautiful products. Instead they produce wave after wave of machines covered in stickers and logos, and filled to the brim with crapware. Apple, under Steve Jobs’ leadership, has thrown down a design gauntlet. Unfortunately the rest of the computer world has chosen to walk away from it.

There will be obituaries, reminiscences and retrospectives about Steve Jobs tenure at Apple, but for me the thing that best sums up his influence is this parody video:

I still wish he hadn’t killed off the Newton, though. I wonder just how much more advanced the new iPhone would be if Apple hadn’t wandered away from the portable PDA-like device market for a few years.

I’m sure his influence will be felt within Apple for many years to come — but I can only hope that influence will spread. The computer industry needs people like Steve who understand that technology isn’t just about specifications, it’s about people.

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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.

An idle thought…

With all the Kinect hacks out there, why hasn’t anyone created a real-time Max Headroom implementation?

Why Firefox’s new numbering is a problem

Mozilla recently released Firefox 5, (quietly) announcing that this represented the end of life (EOL) for Firefox 4. The problem is that Firefox 4 was released less than a two months ago.

This has led to an ongoing discussion about the effects that the new release schedule is having on corporate users – first from Daniel Glazman then from Mike Kaply. The storm of comments that has arisen resulted in both of them writing several follow-up posts, so if you’re interested in this topic do continue further into their blogs and comments (especially Mike’s site, as that seems to have been the target of more comments).

One of the most common responses I’ve seen is that Firefox 5 only adds a few relatively minor features, so it’s just like a 4.1 update really. But it’s the fact that it only contains minor changes which is a big part of the problem.

With a 4.1, 4.2 numbering system it’s usually a fair bet that the changes between versions are small. Jump to 5.0 and you would expect some more major changes, possibly affecting the UI in a way that will need you to retrain your staff. But when every version bump might only contain small changes, or might have massive changes it’s very difficult to plan ahead. And when there’s no distinction between a security release and one that adds significant UI changes, corporations have to treat every release as a major one.

If Mozilla really want to carry on with six-weekly releases then that’s up to them – but at least provide occasional islands of stability that will see security updates for (say) 18 months. Not everyone wants to live in the constant churn of the upgrade cycle – and that includes some ordinary users as well as corporations. For these people an annual “blessed” release would be a blessed relief!

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Extremely Petty Thieves

We went to the new Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury last night. Despite having seats in the stalls, the throng of people at the bar led us to make our way upstairs to order our interval drinks at the circle bar instead.

The interval arrived and a combination of constrained vomitoria, and excessive politeness as each row waited on the one behind, led to us doing that slow zombie shuffle that is typical of a crowd of people trying to exit an auditorium. By the time we got out into the foyer and made our way upstairs to the circle bar, everyone had already taken their interval drinks from the designated table.

In fact not only had everyone taken their drinks, but some malefactor had taken our interval drinks!

So what had this thief made off with? A refreshing beer? A large glass of wine? An expensive liqueur? No, some damned criminal genius had made off with… two cups of coffee! Really, if you’re going to steal someone’s interval drinks, at least go for the interesting ones.

Our receipt was still in place, next to the sugar bowl and now-empty milk jug, but then we had the fun of trying to get the attention of the bar staff to sort it out while everyone glared at us with the sort of look that suggested violence could erupt – or at least a few fruity words would pass – if it turned out we were pushing in. Luckily the staff heard our (deliberately loud) discussion about what had happened, and everything was sorted with no words, or blows, exchanged.

So, what sort of event had we been to that attracted people who are low enough to steal two coffees from the interval drinks table? Some grungy rock concert? Well, they’re not typically known for their intervals. Some ageing rocker then, whose fans still have a little of the punk spirit, but whose lavatorial urges require an interval? Not even that.

It was a recording of “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue“.

It’s a sorry state of affairs when you can’t even trust Radio 4 listeners not to steal your drinks!

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.

Government Reviewing UK Copyright Laws

It seems that there’s another review of UK copyright laws taking place. Let’s hope it leads to some actual legal reform this time. While Apple – and countless others – encourage us to rip our CDs, there’s little understanding in the British public that this is, technically, still an illegal act of copyright infringement.

Legal protection for parody and satire is long overdue, too. My own webcomic is fairly tame as far as parodies go – but the threat of legal action always looms overhead. Yes, it’s unlikely that I’ll get sued for the kind of comics I produce, but the fact remains that I’m on shaky ground, legally speaking. However unlikely it is, the possibility is still there. For the sake of free speech that’s one legal loophole that really does need to be closed.

It’s about time our outdated laws were brought into line with the modern world. But while the average man on the street might see legal ripping of CDs as the most important part of this review, I think that protecting parody and satire will be more beneficial, in the long run. So please, let’s get the reviewing done quickly, and start legislating as soon as possible.

UPDATE: Ars Technica’s coverage of this review – which provided this link to the report itself – it well worth reading.
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XDMCP to return to Ubuntu?

I’ve posted several articles about XDMCP in the past, and the most popular ones by far have concerned its removal from Ubuntu, and alternatives and workarounds to get the functionality back. I have to admit that I didn’t see much hope for its return to any future Ubuntu release, and have moved on to other solutions (in particular I now use Linux as my main work environment with Windows in a virtual machine, so I no longer have a need for the XMing solution I used in the past to let my Windows box access my Linux box).

But today this article on Phoronix caught my eye which claims that the next release of Ubuntu will replace GDM with LightDM. Full of skepticism – especially given its name – I assumed that LightDM would have even less functionality than GDM, but I went off to find out some more details nevertheless.

Fortunately it seems that although LightDM is a cut down display manager, it’s also planned to be a modular one. Furthermore the LightDM design document specifically mentions XDMCP more than once, so it’s clearly not been forgotten by the LightDM developers.

Now this doesn’t mean that XDMCP support will definitely return to Ubuntu. Before that can happen the XDMCP code will have to be written for LightDM (if anyone wants to give that a go, it sounds like there’s a developer willing to provide some support, according to this Launchpad entry). Once that code is available – presumably as a module or extension of some sort – it will also need to be packaged for Ubuntu. And even then, I don’t hold out much hope for the module making it into the default Ubuntu configuration and hence it’s not likely to make it onto the CD.

But this is perhaps the most promising sign of a return from the wilderness for XDMCP. It may be old and insecure, but it still has a few tricks up its sleeve that other systems lack. I will be keeping my fingers crossed – and based on the number of visits to my XDMCP posts, I won’t be the only one.

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Nintendo 3DS hands-on, Part II

Previous Part: Trying to get to, and find, the event

After finally arriving at, and being let into, the Nintendo 3DS preview event in London, I made my way into the first of two rooms containing 3DS units and software to try first-hand.

The first room was blacked out, and illuminated by the combined glow of dozens of 3DS screens, and the flourescent stands they were attached to. Being near the end of the crowd, I found all the immediate devices in use, and headed for the far end. I hopped onto the first free machine I could find, regardless of what game was on it, and found myself faced with Kid Icarus: Uprising.

The first thing I did, of course, was to check out the 3D screen. It’s the kind of 3D that drops back into the screen, rather than popping out of it. That makes sense for a gaming system, as 3D that pops out can suffer from clipping problems when the object reaches the edge of the screen. I don’t know if the system is capable of making things pop out, but I didn’t see any evidence of that during my time there.

I have to admit that I had trouble with the 3D screen in Kid Icarus; most of the time the 3D was fine, but every now and then I would lose the effect and see two overlapping images instead. I think the most likely reason was that I was playing with the 3DS on its stand rather than in my hands, as it looked like it was bolted down. By the time I’d moved onto another game, it was clear that it was simply tethered using a metal frame – the rest of the games were played with the 3DS in my hands, and I never experienced the problem again. It’s also possible, but less likely, that there was a problem with that particular DS, the software, or just that my eyes hadn’t yet “clicked” into the 3D effect properly.

I found the 3D effect itself to be a little underwhelming. It was certainly visible, but didn’t add a huge amount to the gameplay, in my opinion. Unfortunately that was my view of most of the games I played – the 3D was okay, but didn’t transform them into anything extra special – so I would suggest that you think of the 3D as the icing on the cake, rather than the fundamental reason for owning a 3DS. More importantly I would suggest a try before you buy approach if 3D is your main reason for being interested in it.

I did play with the 3D depth slider, but found that I had it set to the max on every game. That led me to wonder if perhaps it just didn’t go far enough for my tastes.

My other point of contention with Kid Icarus is the controls. It required the use of the “circle pad” (the analogue nub) for movement, the stylus to aim, and button presses to fire. Being a southpaw I automatically used the stylus in my left hand, but that meant that I couldn’t move and aim at the same time. I would guess that this will be a common problem with circle pad+stylus games, and that us lefties will just have to get used to having the stylus in our right hands.

Between losing the 3D effect and struggling with the controls, I didn’t get the most out of Kid Icarus, so it would be unfair to talk any further about the game itself.

From there I moved to a game in which you control a submarine and attempt to sink passing naval vessels without getting sunk yourself. From the list of upcoming 3DS games I would guess it was “Steel Diver”, but the screenshots I’ve found of that don’t match the first-person game I was playing. It reminded me a lot of the Submarine arcade game that I played in my youth (and had forgotten until now). Movement left and right was via the touch screen (it desperately needs gyro support, if it hasn’t got it), and the game consisted solely of timing torpedo launches based on the speed of your targets in order to sink them. It was fairly easy, and fairly dull. If it’s just a small part of a larger game, it might be okay, but if that was the main part of the game then it probably needs a rethink. I didn’t find that the 3D either helped or hindered with aiming the torpedoes – but then all the ships were roughly the same distance from the sub. Perhaps more variety in ship placement would have led to the 3D being more useful in judging when to fire.

I moved on, nearly getting onto the only free Zelda console but beaten to it by someone else. I settled for Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars. If you’ve played a Lego Star Wars game – or, indeed, one of the other Lego themed games – then you know what to expect. The 3D again neither helped nor hindered, but didn’t really add anything to the gameplay. Other than using the circle pad to move, I didn’t see any other use of the 3DS technology. The “force throws” were triggered with button presses, whereas they would probably make a great candidate for the using the gyros to control them.

Then we were asked to move onto the next room. We’d been in there about 15 minutes, and I hadn’t had a chance to try Pilotwings or Zelda (or PES or Street Fighter, though I was less interested in them). Never mind, I’d probably be able to play them in the next room…

Note to Nintendo: If you’re going to limit people’s time in a room, tell them that when they go in. If I’d known I only had 15 minutes, I wouldn’t have wasted five of them shooting submarines.

The next room was much lighter, decorated in white and lit with soft pastel shades. From the game selection it was obvious that this was the “casual” game room, and the previous dark room had been the “serious” game room. That also meant that I’d missed my chance for Zelda, as it wasn’t present in the casual room.

Note to Nintendo: It would have been nice to have at least one of each “serious” game also in the casual room for players that missed their chance before being moved on.

Taking pity on my girlfriend being stuck babysitting my niece, the first game I tried in the casual room was Nintendogs+Cats, on her behalf. Again the 3D was okay, but nothing special. If anything the use of 3D detracted from the game somewhat: in the original Nintendogs you interact with the dogs on the touch screen – so your stylus directly presses against the image of the animal. Because Nintendogs+Cats keeps its animals firmly locked to the top screen, your stylus movements (on the lower screen) are abstracted from the animal itself. It’s easy to get used to, but doesn’t feel quite as personal as the older game.

Next I tried a couple of augmented reality (AR) games. The first was specifically branded as an AR game, the second, Face Raiders, wasn’t branded as such – but by any reasonable definition it still counts. Nintendo’s branding of AR games covers those that use the supplied AR cards for their interface with the real world. In this case a card was placed on a table, and when the game was started and the 3DS’s cameras pointed at the card, it acted as an “anchor” for graphics overlaid onto video footage from the cameras.

First a box popped up out of the card, and you were invited to shoot the front of it. To do that you had to move the 3DS around to get the targetting reticule lined up, before pressing a button to fire. The box popped open into various arrangements of targets that you then had to shoot – again by physically moving the 3DS around in space. The most impressive part was the pit that seemed to appear in the solid table, with a target at the bottom of it, requiring you to lean over the top to hit it. That released a dragon writhing up out of the “hole” in the table which had to be shot several times. It was one of the best examples of AR that I’ve seen.

Face Raiders was similar but different. Whereas the AR game had the card as a fixed point, and you moved relative to that, Face Raiders has you as a roughly fixed point with targets (your face) appearing around you. Instead of moving around a card to aim, you tend to stay in place but move the 3DS around yourself. Missing a shot sent it past your face and onto the background where it appeared to blast a hole in reality to expose a dark universe behind. That effect was particularly well done – fairly subtle, but implemented well enough that it really looked like you were blowing a hole into another dimension.

I felt that the AR game and Face Raiders were the highlight of the event for me, though I’m not sure how much longevity they would have. They’re also both freebies with the system, so perhaps longevity isn’t so much of a concern if you’re not paying extra for them. They reminded me of the games with Wii Play – simple games intended to introduce you to the system’s capabilities, rather than full-on titles in their own right.

The next machine had a Mario Kart title screen, but appeared frozen. I pressed the usual buttons to try to get it started, but it dumped me to a developer page. I pointed this out to the girl who was guarding that batch of machines (and who had clearly spotted me pressing buttons) only to be sharply told that “it’s a demo, you can’t play it!” Demo or not, it wasn’t working – and the two other 3DSs on the block were sitting at the same developer screen.

I moved onto a 3DS with Super Monkey Ball on it. Burned by my Mario Kart experience, I skipped the normal mode and went straight for Super Monkey Race in order to see what a karting game looks like on the 3D screen. Again, I’m afraid, I was less than enthused by it; there was nothing wrong with it, but it also wasn’t a revolutionary leap foreward.

At that point I had run out of time – not because of Nintendo booting anyone out, but because I had to go and meet my girlfriend and niece at the arranged cafe. Unfortunately I’d missed Zelda, Pilotwings, the Mario Kart demo and probably more.

Note to Nintendo: You might want to label the groups of consoles more clearly so that people can easily find what they’re looking for, rather than wandering a little aimlessly from machine to machine and possibly missing out on things.

My final analysis is that the 3DS, for me at least, is not worth the £200 to £230 they’re asking for it. The 3D didn’t wow me enough to make my budget stretch that far, and whilst the AR games were fun, I’m not sure they’ve got the longevity to make it worth purchasing based on them alone. When the price drops, some must-have games come out, or the hinges on my DS Lite give up (which looks like it could be soon), I’ll probably buy one, but nothing I saw made me eager enough to pre-order for launch day.

That said, if you’re interested you really should try to play with one for yourself and not just take my word for it. I’m sure Nintendo will be ramping up their demo schedule as the launch approaches, so keep an eye out for an event near you and give it a try. 3D is a very subjective thing, and what failed to wow me might have a better impact on you.

Final Note to Nintendo: For a “family friendly” company supposedly trying to broaden the appeal of games, it seemed like a very male oriented event. Martial arts and zombies to start with, combined with a collection of young, atractive “booth babes” guarding the machines. They were friendly and helpful, but choosing a wider range of people (sex, race and age) might help to reinforce the message that there’s more to the 3DS than just games for men.

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Nintendo 3DS hands-on, Part I

Yesterday I went to a hands-on preview of the forthcoming Nintendo 3DS. First I’d like to mention a few things about the event itself; if you’re just interested in my views on the 3DS and games then you might want to skip to the next post.

The first I heard about the event was when an email arrived from Nintendo inviting me to apply for the chance to possibly get a single ticket to the event. Maybe. If I was lucky. Apparently I received this invite at least in part because I’ve registered one or more products with them in the past 12 months. That’s great, but it really was literally an invite to apply for a single ticket. No plus-one allowed. My girlfriend is just as much of a gamer as I am, and probably plays her DS more than I do mine, but because she hadn’t registered a game recently she wasn’t even eligible to apply for a ticket. The reason she hasn’t registered? Because we log all our games against a single account, to avoid splitting our loyalty points between us.

Note to Nintendo: Please consider allowing “ticket holder plus one” for future events.

We decided to head to London anyway; we’d promised my 7 year-old niece a trip to the Sylvanian Families shop, so took her along for the day. The plan was that they would have a wander round the shops for a while, and we’d meet in a cafe after I’d finished at the Nintendo event. The invite to the event didn’t specify where it was being held. I only found that bit of information out when my ticket became available for download last Wednesday. Suffice to say that it wasn’t in the centre of London, but rather in Brick Lane, in North East London. Had we realised that sooner, we might not have dragged my niece along with us, but by that point we’d already promised her a day out.

Note to Nintendo: Please give a bit more location information with the initial email. “London” isn’t really specific enough.

There are three underground lines that readily service the Brick Lane area. Unfortunately Nintendo had managed to pick a day when all three were closed for maintenance work. What should have been a fairly simple journey from Arsenal (the location of the Sylvanian shop) to Aldgate East (for Brick lane) turned into an excessive journey to Liverpool Street (the closest station we could get to). Working round the closed lines had delayed us, so I thought we’d take a taxi from Liverpool Street Station to make up some time (and because I wasn’t really sure of my route from there). Unfortunately, due to “the street market” (I think he meant Petticoat Lane market), the taxi driver claimed he couldn’t get us there. He advised walking, as it was “just through there and over the road – you can’t miss it”. We missed it.

After wandering for a little while, we stopped for some lunch and fresh directions, then made our way more successfully to Brick Lane. The address I had was “The Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane”. We joined Brick Lane at number 1, and proceeded up the street until a large set of buildings were in sight, bearing the brewery name. We walked up and down Brick Lane through this collection of buildings. Several times. No sign of Nintendo, and no sign of number 91.

We backtracked a little. Number 76 preceded the building. Number 97 succeeded it. We must be in the right area, so we asked one of the locals. “This lot is all number 90 to 95. There’s a helpdesk in that building there.”

The beleaguered sigh from the woman at the helpdesk as soon as I waved a Nintendo ticket indicated that I was far from the first person to have trouble finding it. “If you turn left out of here, there’s a small alley filled with food shops. Turn down there, go to the end, do a left and it’s on the left before you reach the cycle shop.” We followed her instructions and found the place. Suffice to say that the road we needed was too minor to have its own name, and would have been best described as “round the back of The Old Truman Brewery”.

Note to Nintendo: If the entrance to your event isn’t actually on the street you specify, at least provide a map of the locale to clarify it.

We finally found the place – with a footsore 7 year-old in tow – at about 14:25. My ticket was booked for 14:30, but we still hadn’t found a cafe or somewhere for my girlfriend and niece to meet me in afterwards. A bit more wandering got us to Spitalfields Market, where we found a suitable meeting point, and I dashed back to the Nintendo event. I got there at about 14:40.

“I’m afraid you’ve missed the two-thirty slot. I can fit you in at three.”

“In that case I’ll have to skip it.” It didn’t seem fair to make my niece wait any longer.

“Hmmm… Come up with me, and I’ll see if we can get you in. I’d hate for you to miss it.”

I have to hand it to the staff there, they were very friendly and understanding, and did, indeed, get me in. I’d missed a Street Fighter themed martial arts display (no great loss there), and joined the rest of the group just as they were about to be escorted through a Resident Evil themed invasion by a horde of two zombies. A few minutes watching a demo reel, and a few more minutes listening to Jonathon Ross espouse the glories of the 3DS, and we were finally allowed in to play with the machines themselves.

Next time: The 3DS and the games

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