Too Clever?

English: A woman typing on a laptop Français :...

English: A woman typing on a laptop Français : Une femme travaillant sur un ordinateur (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some modern software annoys me because it tries to be too clever and as a result it ends up being slow, or a pain to use.  Take the software I use to quickly crop images or convert to mono – in order to get to the image I want to edit it insists on showing me the contents of the folder the image is in, and all the subfolders and the folders around it, all indexed, tagged, thumbnailed and so on.  If there’s a lot of images it can be a while before you can double-click the one you want, especially if it keeps moving around the screen as it arranges the other images it finds into date order like some overly nervous assistant who’s just dropped all your pictures on the floor.  The problem is that I haven’t found a way to change this behaviour yet.

Then there’s autocorrect in many programs which insists on changing two initial capitals into title-case, or inserts a capital where you’ve used lower case because it assumes you’re just a sloppy typist, which I might be, sometimes.  EXcept when I’m typing a POSTCODE.  (WordPress thankfully doesn’t have this yet.)  Oh, and the annoyance when you start typing a chapter and the first line contains the chapter number, after typing a few paragraphs you look up and find that they’ve all been turned into a numbered list.

I know this is all useful for beginners and it can all be turned off somehow but these things were all there in the past but they weren’t automatic, people read the manuals, we created lists on the fly as required, in the very old days we indented lists after typing them and proof-read what we’d we’d written.  Yes.

Often too software is locked down to prevent novice users changing settings that they’re not supposed to even know exists and for those of us who can and like to tinker with the settings that’s annoying too.  What we need is a little switch that says novice/experienced which switches on an old-fashioned, go find it yourself mode, put it behind a “here be dragons” warning like Firefox’s about:config page if necessary but at least give us something to turn off the pseudo-intelligence in one go.

In my own experience it’s more frustrating finding a way around the automatic stuff than finding out how to do these things as you go but as more software is designed for inexperienced users to use without needing to read instructions it can only get worse.

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Sign of The Times

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We have two sites, a glassworks with trade counter and a plastic window factory.  Outside the plastic window factory is a sign with our logo on it which contains the word “glass”.  Nowhere does it say “glass sales” or “get your quality cut glass here, guvner.”

It does have a phone number on it.

A few weeks ago our chap at the factory rang me to warn me about an irate individual who was upset that he couldn’t get glass from our plastic window factory.  “It says glass on the sign and you’re telling me I’ve got to go to the other side of town, it’s disgusting, your managing director needs to take that sign down immediately, it’s misleading!”  He’d said, unnecessarily angrily.

When the man arrived at my counter I was in the middle of taking an order.  I said “I’ll be with you in a moment” but it seems he didn’t hear me because when I turned my attention to him he began to shout “Don’t bother, I’m not being treat with such ignorance by you, all the staff of this company are rude and arrogant, obviously you don’t have any customer care training.”  I told him I had and he demanded to see my certificate, which is at home, I don’t tend to carry it around in my wallet.  This exchange continued for a while, he’d clearly arrived looking for a confrontation as he felt he’d been wronged by our sign.  He wrote a letter to complain about the sign.  He didn’t get his glass.

About half an hour later a woman rang asking for an appointment for a quote, she lived quite a way out-of-town but had been to the main post office and seen the sign for our company on the building next door, and as she hadn’t been aware of our existence up until that point she thought she’d get a price from us for her windows as well as the other firms she’d asked.

Can you guess where she’d seen the sign?

Satellites, Cows and Penguin Poop

English: King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus...

English: King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus patagonicus), West Falkland. Français : Un Manchot royal. Photo prise sur l’île de Falkland occidentale (ou Grande Malouine), dans les Malouines. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many people worry about all the satellites up there pointing cameras down here but for scientists as well as governments they can be invaluable – particularly if you need to p p p pick up a penguin, or 9,000.

In recent years wildlife researchers have used satellite and aerial imagery to watch animal movements and behaviour.  Dr Sabine Begall, from the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany who had been studying magnetic sensing in animals, initially mole rats, decided to see if larger animals might have the same.  Dr Begall and colleagues used Google Earth to examine how cows stand in fields across the world (to rule out weather effects) and found that the majority faced north or south only, the effect was also seen in deer in the Czech Republic.

In 2009 a group monitoring how penguins were coping with changing environmental conditions wanted to confirm the location of breeding grounds.  Using satellite images, which didn’t have sufficient resolution to see individual birds, they were able to identify colonies due to the staining of the ground by guano – the penguins stay at the colony for around eight months.  The work confirmed the location of 26 colonies and found 10 more.

Then in December last year a team of Belgian and Swiss explorers visited one of these colonies, finding around 9,000 birds.  The article at The Atlantic has the photos.

The Sweet Smell of USB

From the random multi-purpose accessories department.

SAM_0064med

In a shop that sells a variety of items I saw a USB hub for 99p, now as I wanted a powered hub anyway I thought I’d get one.  On the box I noticed it had a disc on top marked with Open and Close.  Was this cable storage, batteries?

The cover was difficult to open but when it eventually gave in beneath it was a cotton pad in a holder screwed into the centre of the hub with no apparent means of removing it.

Stranger and stranger.

SAM_0062medThe box text was all in German, as were the instructions in the box.  So to find out what this strange device’s special feature was I turned to other technology.  I scanned the instruction sheet, used OCR software that came with the scanner to turn it into text for me then copied that into Google Translate.  Less than a second later I had my answer.

“USER GUIDE – USB Hub with Scented Oil Distribution”

I’ve seen USB drinks warmers, fans, reading lights, dancing flowers and Christmas trees but now I’d inadvertently found a USB hub that was also an air freshener.  Sweet.

Personalised News

English: A simplified version of the RSS feed ...

English: A simplified version of the RSS feed icon.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometime in the late nineties I wrote a sci-fi story and in one scene a man gets home, taps a touchscreen on the wall of his kitchen and instantly brings up a personalised news feed programmed to display things that interested him and also set up to specifically look for news items featuring certain keywords, to highlight any news about a specific ship in this case.

Now just a bit over a decade later I’m just getting to grips with this exact same thing on my own personal tablet computer, though without the spaceship captaining wife.

Websites, including these WordPress blogs, can provide what is called an RSS feed which summarises each article published and these can be picked up by reader apps.  These have been around a long time admittedly but these readers are now becoming more sophisticated and stylish.  On my Nexus 7 I have tried Google Reader, Flow Reader, Google Currents, Flipboard and Feedly.  Some apps actually access your Google Reader subscription list to find out which feeds you want to receive.  You can even view other RSS equipped sites in your WordPress reader.   The icon above signifies that a site has an RSS feed.

These apps are the solution to the at time overwhelming volume of information that can come at you from the internet.  This sheer volume of articles is one of the reasons why I sit down to write something for this blog and just decide to have a mug of tea and watch tv instead, I just don’t know where to start.  With an RSS reader on a phone or tablet I can skim through articles, share useful ones to Pocket for use later on my desktop PC and read anything that I can just enjoy in the moment – all while half-listening to the tv.

The nice thing about these modern readers is the way they present the content.  You can filter what you see so if you have a news website’s feed you could refuse to acknowledge the existence of articles about X-Factor winners or only view articles about the weather or Wills and Kate.  Then depending on which app you choose you can have a list of your incoming torrent of news, divided into subject if you so wish or displayed to you as a virtual, stylish, one of a kind digital magazine, or a mixture of both.  Of course as it’s tablet/smartphone based (although you can use PC RSS readers or websites too) you can have notifications.

The future of news, personalised and delivered to your sofa.

Fresh Thinking?

Fish and chips, a popular take-away food of th...

Fish and chips, a popular take-away food of the United Kingdom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like to cook but rarely have time to make a meal from scratch, it’s usually a case of assembling something from frozen or chilled components.  I do also sometimes indulge in fast food – usually chips, fish and chips, battered sausage and chips or a hot dog from a van in the market square on a Saturday morning.  It’s too far to go to McDonalds and I’ve never even ventured into Subway – in fact whenever I think “I must try Subway some time” I then remember that ours closed down sometime last year.

The fast food industry has been trying to reinvent itself recently, as the public called for more healthy, nutritious, “authentic” food, highlighting the quality of ingredients, how they’re reducing fat and sugar, introducing “healthy options” like salads, and most of all the “freshness” of everything.  In this country the claims by McDonalds and the like that the ingredients are sourced from local farmers and butchers are believable because of the size of our island, you could conceivably turn an Aberdeen Angus in the borders into a burger in Bristol in a couple of days but as an interesting article on Slate Magazine shows much of the use of the word fresh, particularly in America, is really just marketing – harnessing associations with openness, truth, wholesomeness and morality, while its true meaning quite often differs from the dictionary definition.

[slate.com]

The Fears of Street Photography

Asian Woman photographing with her digital cam...

Asian Woman photographing with her digital camera in the historic streets of Prague. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A good photo will often tell a story, convey a message, and to do that you need some kind of context whether it’s the weather, movement, light or people.  Street photographers are very good at images of the latter as by definition they are the subject and the context.  For many photographers, myself very much included people are a difficult subject because of a modern fear.

I stopped going out with my old film cameras around 1998 because I was getting more and more suspicious and almost angry looks from passers-by even when I had the Ricoh SLR on a tripod in an otherwise empty park shooting a landscape, there just seemed to be an atmosphere of people thinking there was something strange about photographers – this was shortly after the furore about the paparazzi in the late 90s.  Maybe it was just me but I felt uncomfortable being seen with my camera.

Having started again I still feel the same.  In my camera kit holdall I have a card that outlines the current law in this country which was given away with a magazine last year because of the number of photographers who were being, sometimes angrily, confronted by members of the public telling them that they were actually breaking the law by photographing people or even buildings – in fact if you’re in a public place you can photograph most things and people, including the police or armed forces, as long as you’re not photographing someone inside a private building where they would have an expectation of privacy.  There are today many people who do fear the motives of people with cameras.

I bought my new high-res and well-travelled compact camera last month so I could carry that with me in case I saw a picture and didn’t have my DSLR.  Yesterday I saw a lovely view down a shopping street where I live, the late afternoon sun lighting buildings in the distance, ominous grey clouds on the horizon by contrast, people doing their shopping.  I didn’t take my shiny new camera out of my pocket, I chickened out, all because I was afraid that some of those shoppers would think I was some kind of weirdo and confront me about it.  Ten minutes later I saw a group of tourists taking photos round the corner and nobody seemed to be making anything of them.

The subjects of many street photos probably didn’t even notice they were being photographed, while photographers will often even ask permission to take shots, especially close-up, non-candid shots.

The thing is that I know I’m not alone in feeling uneasy, of being afraid of the public’s potential reactions to photographers, even though I’m sure that most people wouldn’t even think twice about a chap with a camera.

The New Age of Sail

"Tres Hombres"

“Tres Hombres” (Photo credit: Nolleos)

If you had visited Copenhagen recently you could have seen a 32-metre long twin-masted sailing ship, a brigantine, called the Tres Hombres arriving at the dock but this wasn’t some romantic recreation of a bygone age the ship carries up to 35 tonnes of cargo, and has been doing since 2009.

As reported by the BBC this week the business is one of many new projects underway to again use sail power to transport goods.  Most freight carriers only travel at about 15 knots today, to save fuel and reduce emissions whereas ships such as the Tres Hombres travels at 10 knots which is not really much slower.  Many companies who are concerned about their energy usage and the effects of their logistics on the environment welcome the low impact nature of sail – current cargo shipping equates to being the sixth largest emitter of greenhouse gasses on the planet.

The only problem however is the unpredictability of the wind but even this can be solved today by the use of engines when the wind isn’t cooperating.  One company, B9, is designing a large cargo ship which combines carbon-fibre high-efficiency sails with an engine that runs on bio-gas from food waste.  Modern technology even allows for the weather to be predicted so as to make the best use of the wind and engine throughout a voyage.  Models have already been tested at Southampton University and the results used to optimise routes.

Lastly Skysails, a German company, is looking at marketing systems of giant kites to provide assistance to large conventional cargo ships and in Japan the University of Tokyo is also looking at sails on cargo ships.

It is still a niche idea at the moment but as the BBCs report shows as fuel costs increase and world trade continues to increase the modernised technology may once more have its day.

[BBC News]

Ditching the Pills?

This image shows a whole and a cut lemon.

This image shows a whole and a cut lemon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we face more snow, it always seems to snow on my birthday these days, which is nice, and America is getting more than its fair share too, the folks at Gizmodo UK asked for the commenters’ DIY cold remedies.

The kind of cold and flu pills and powders you find in pharmacies seem to all be variations on the same drugs – pain killers, antiinflamatories, decongestants, lemon or blackcurrant flavourings – and many people are trying traditional methods instead, though many still use some medicines too.

Some, myself included, mix the powdered hot lemon drinks with honey – for its antibacterial properties; some make a honey and lemon drink using fresh fruit juice and take a paracetamol with it; others swear by whiskey.  Hot baths and wrapping up well are always popular, as is staying in bed although for many of us that’s not a viable option.

Finally a good hot curry was offered along with other drinks recipes.  I can agree with the curry option for one because you can at least taste it even if it doesn’t clear you out.

[Gizmodo UK]

Standard Issue

tape measure

tape measure (Photo credit: redjar)

In these days of flat-pack, off the shelf furniture whether it be from Ikea or Argos people seem to expect to get everything straight away, packaged, ready to go, as I’ve written about before.  Part of this expectation is the idea of things being “standard”.

People will ring up wanting a new double-glazed sealed unit and say “it’s just a standard one” without noticing that there’s often not two of the same size in the same house.  It’s the same with door locks and when you tell them they’ll have to measure sizes, thicknesses and so on they often seem most put-out by it – it’s just a standard lock, why don’t you stock them?  They assume that today everything must be a standard type or size and what they’ve got is, by definition, it.  As such we should be able to just pull a new sealed unit off the shelf.  We’d need a very, very big warehouse to do that, and a lot of time to fill it.

Admittedly there are many things that are to a standard specification in new-build houses but that doesn’t cover the last few hundred years of bricks and mortar.