Daily Archives: Tuesday, 18th Mar 2008

Sir Arthur C Clarke, 1917-2008

Arthur C Clarke has died at the age of 90.

While this wasn’t exactly unexpected – it’s been known that he was in poor health, it still feels like a big chunk of my childhood just disappeared. Clarke was the first SF writer I discovered at a suitably early age, and I’ve read many of his books many times.

He’ll probably be best remembered for 2001: A Space Odyssey and for his paper which proposed the idea of geosynchronous communication satellites, but he wrote many more books and short stories. A personal favourite was Profiles of the Future, a collection of essays, which included Clarke’s First Law:

Any sufficiently developed technology will be indistinguishable from Magic

I can’t say any more at the moment. Maybe after a day or two.

BBC NEWS | UK | Writer Arthur C Clarke dies at 90

BBC News Obituary

Weight Report – 18 March 2008

Well, that’s a wee bit better, I suppose. I’m back down to where I was on Saturday. I did have a very inactive day yesterday – I seem to have spent most of it typing posts for Losing it[1], as you may have noticed.

Today hasn’t been much better, though I did have a walk to the Post Office to collect a parcel. I had been hoping to get some time out with the camera, but the light’s been poor, and it’s been windy enough to make the trip I’d planned a bad idea. Ah well, maybe tomorrow.

Safari 3.1

Only yesterday, I said something about web browsers all coming along at once, and as if to confirm that, here’s another one. Only unlike the other two, this one isn’t a beta.

Apple have released Safari 3.1 for both Mac and Windows. For Mac OS X users, this is available from Software Update. Windows users can download it in the usual way. This is, I believe the first non-beta Windows version.

The update promises more speed and support for emerging web standards, including some HTML5 and CSS3 stuff that not a lot of people will be using yet. For more information, see the release notes.

I’m still using Firefox as my primary browser, but I think I’ll give Safari another try and see how I get on with it…

The Day The Earth Caught Fire

While watching The Time Meddler with the production subtitles on, I saw a reference to this classic movie. It’s one I saw on TV once many years ago, and while I’d never exactly forgotten it, I hadn’t thought about it for a while. But having been reminded, I had a look on Amazon, saw it was moderately cheap, and ordered it. Going back to things you haven’t seen in ages is always a hit-or-miss thing. Some things seem just as good as they ever did, while others make you wonder what the heck you can have been thinking of all those years ago. Fortunately, this turned out to be in the former category.

The movie opens with a countdown running. It’s obviously blazing hot, civilisation is on the brink of collapse, and the (black and white) film is seen through a red haze (a cheap but quite effective trick). A journalist makes his way to the newspaper office (a lovely bit of history, this – all typewriters and hand set type…) and begins to type the story of what has happened. And so we flash back….

Made in 1961, the movie is an obvious product of the Cold War era – the trouble is started when the US and the USSR both test their biggest nuclear weapons ever in widely spaced locations at exactly the same time. The force is such that the Earth’s orbit is disturbed, and the planet is heading towards the sun. After much confusion, panic and secrecy, a plan is hatched to set off yet another big bomb in an effort to put the planet back where it belongs. Does it work? We never find out, which is an oddly satisfying end.

The movie stars Leo McKern (best known for Rumpole of the Bailey) as Bill Maguire, science correspondent who works it all out, Edward Judd as Peter Stenning, the only slightly stereotypical reporter with a drink problem who reports it, and Janet Munro as Jeannie Craig, who manages to get into a lot of trouble when she finds out what’s going on. The newsroom scenes were filmed in the actual offices of the Daily Express, and the editor was played by Arthur Christiansen, who was in fact the actual editor of the Express. It shows – he comes across as a real person doing a job, so appears less like an editor than an actor playing an editor would have done, but it works….

For a budget release, this DVD has a reasonable selection of extras – a commentary by director Val Guest, production notes and biographies, trailers and an archive interview with Leo McKern. Good fun, and recommended.

Doctor Who – The Time Meddler

Yes, I’m nearly up to date with my Doctor Who reviews. Now this one was a pleasure to receive. While it’s great to be able to get hold of old favourite episodes, there’s an extra thrill about getting a classic Doctor Who story that I’ve never seen before. This was first shown in July 1965, and was the final story in the second season. William Hartnell is the Doctor, accompanied by Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) and Steven (future Blue Peter presenter Peter Purves). Steven stowed away at the end of the last episode, and he’s a trifle sceptical about claims of time travel…

The story is significant, as it’s the first time that we meet another Time Lord (not that the name was mentioned at the time). Like most renegade Time Lords, this one is a wee bit bonkers[1]. He wants to change the history of Earth by making sure Harold wins the Battle of Hastings, and he’s not afraid of using a bit of high technology to assist. His plan (nicely written out for the Doctor to discover) involves using fancy weapons to see off the Norse invaders in Northumbria, leaving Harold free to see off the Normans. There’s lots of silliness with Saxons and Vikings, and what must have been a shocking moment when it was first shown:

The monk’s got a TARDIS!

Like most of the 60s stories, by current standards the pace is slow, but it’s still very watchable. Definitely recommended.

Special features include:

  • The usual commentary – this one is a bit special as one of the participants is the late Verity Lambert, Doctor Who’s first producer. It was recorded a few weeks before her death last year.
  • A short look at Verity Lambert’s career in TV.
  • Stripped for Action – The First Doctor – the first in a series of features looking at the Doctor’s comic strip adventures.
  • Restoration: A short feature showing before and after examples of the magic techniques used to restore the material for DVD release
  • And those ubiquitous production subtitles

[1] The Doctor is also bonkers, but generally in a good way…

NetNewsWire

I’ve muttered a few times about the RSS feeds for this site, and the fun I had making them behave. Well, all that (and the shiny new email update thingy, which is based on the RSS feeds, are working nicely, so everyone should be able to get the full Losing it[1] experience in their feed reader of choice.

But here’s the funny thing – until recently, I’ve never really made much use of feeds myself. I got the concept easily enough – bring together all the updates from frequently-visited sites so you can see when there’s something new to read. But the problem for me was that it took a little too much organisation to load a reader and keep an eye on it – I’m used to clicking bookmarks in my browser, and somehow never got into looking at a feed reader instead.

I tried a few, including the rather good FeedDemon, which I even paid for back when it wasn’t free. I even tried adding feeds into Outlook, but it didn’t work for me. I think the problem was that there didn’t seem to be an easy way of knowing when there was something to look at.

But moving right along. In the last few years, I’ve found more and more webcomics that I enjoy, and I’d got into the habit of checking them all daily. Which was OK, but some are updated more often than others, and some days I wouldn’t get round to clicking those bookmarks. And there are a few technical and news sites I visit regularly. All of which leads to a lot of random checking of sites, and occasionally forgetting to check a site and missing something.

So when I noticed that a highly-regarded RSS reader for the Mac, NetNewsWire had joined FeedDemon in being acquired by Newsgator and was now being given away, I decided it was time to give the old feeds thing another go.

NetNewsWire Dock Icon

NetNewsWire Dock Icon

The first thing I noticed was that the Dock icon, like the one for Mail, has that nifty little “badge” showing the number of unread items. Now that immediately makes it much more useful to me – I don’t have to remember to keep checking for new information, it will tell me when there’s something for me. As I keep half an eye out for unread mail whenever I’m using the computer, parking NetNewsWire next to Mail in the Dock means I’ll always know when there’s something to read. Cool.

Feed Example

Feed Example

So, what do you get when you look in NetNewsWire? Well, that depends on what the site provides. Some sites just give you an excerpt, which tells you that there’s a new article, in which case you can click the title to be taken to the web page. You can either browse from within NetNewsWire, or have the pages open in your preferred web browser, which is what I do. In this picture, you can see one of my favourite web comics, What The Duck, which provides the daily cartoon in the feed, which is great.

An unexpected bonus of using a feed reader over a web browser is that you can see when pages have been edited. BBC News are a bit naughty about this – they don’t just do quite normal things like correcting typos and glaring factual errors, they actually update a news story after it’s been published. This wouldn’t be so bad if they added new information at the end, but when they change the nature of a story it can create confusion – and often has. Someone sees a story, sends the link to friends with a comment, and by the time the friends see it, it’s been changed and the comment is no longer relevant. Anyway, NetNewsWire has an option to show edits, as you can see in this example. The original wording appears to have been toned down substantially…

Edited

Edited

Anyway, I’ve been using NetNewsWire for a couple of weeks now, and I’m loving it – I’ve now taken to subscribing to interesting sites rather than bookmarking them. It’s convenient, and as the updates are automagically downloaded for me, it saves time, too. But there’s more! It’s possible to synchronise your feed subscriptions. You can either do this via a free account with Newsgator, or (on Macs, anyway) via a .Mac if you have one. Once you’ve done that, you can run feed readers on multiple computers, and get the same feeds on all of them. And if you mark something as read on one, it will update on the others. So I now have FeedDemon installed on my work computer, which means I can keep up to date wherever I am. And if you’re not on your own computer, you can read your feeds through Newsgator’s web interface.

This is all pretty cool stuff, and I really should have made the effort ages ago…

Now would be a good time for all the cool kids to say “what took you so long?” :rofl:

WordPress 2.5 is getting really close

The WordPress Development blog has a “Sneak Peek” of the new admin interface, which (finally) goes some way to explaining the reasoning behind the new design.

While some of what’s being said about deficiencies of the current version has some truth about it, I remain unconvinced that the solution is actually of any use. I’m not greatly bothered about the layout of the Dashboard, which I only glance at now and then anyway. While I think that splitting the menu into two with some allegedly less-used options hiding over to the right of the screen[1], but what I really can’t deal with is the destruction of the Write page, which, as the post says is the most frequently accessed part of WordPress. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not at all happy with what’s been done here, and like a few other people, I’ve been baffled about the removal of useful functionality, and an apparent love affair with scrolling. Well, here’s the reasoning:

…its myriad options can be overwhelming. The new write screen only displays the information that you’ll use most often. It displays the most common fields in a way that makes posting incredibly easy. Additional options are hidden away until you need them. The new Write screen anticipates the natural flow of the way you write, and is smart enough to remember the way you left it so that your preferred writing environment is always quickly available

Right. Previously, I got to decide which information I used most often. I could hide options I didn’t need. I could (through plugins) easily add extra options to the nicely configurable sidebar and put them in the order I liked. With 2.5, all that is gone. The change appears to have been made in the name of “making it easier”. Yup. For me, the new interface involves a lot more scrolling up and down, which is more effort, and I’m more likely to lose the thread of what I’m doing. This layout really doesn’t work for me (and yes, I’ve been testing it locally). In short, it’s bad.

Quite apart from disliking the change, I really don’t like being told that something I use without any effort at all needs to be broken improved to make it “easier to use”.

One other problem with the design can also be seen in the Development blog post – the vertical spacing of items in the management pages is huuuuuuge. So even if you have a high resolution screen, you’ll see less information at a time, which means yet more scrolling up and down to get things done.

There are also some minor issues with one of the colour schemes in the admin interface – but I’m sure that can be easily fixed, so it’s not a show-stopper for me. I’m not a fan of the new “fresher and lighter” look – for me, it lacks enough contrast to make information stand out, which the current colour scheme manages quite well.

Anyway, WordPress 2.5 is now at the RC1 stage. If you’re thinking of upgrading, I strongly recommend trying it on a test copy of your site first. You may love the changes, but for me it all seems like a step backward, and I won’t be upgrading Losing it[1] in a hurry. If someone with coding skills produces a plugin to revert the Write page to something more usable, I may change my mind, but for now I’ll be staying with version 2.3.3.

[1] And with the default fixed-width setting[2], they can be along way from the rest of the content if you have an even moderately high resolution
[2] Easily changed, thanks to this plugin