Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Category: technology (page 1 of 6)

Countoured Cruzing and Waves

SanDisk Cruzer Contour

It’s been quite a while since I last raved about tech devices here but I’ve recently picked up two reasonably cheap products that have instantly won my heart. Firstly I’ve somehow been surviving with a USB flash drive that holds a laughable 64MB, though admittedly I tend to use some of the spare memory in my 1GB flash mp3 player which can act as a USB drive.

Deciding to remedy the situation I did some research and picked out the 4GB SanDisk Cruzer Counter. The drive is spectacularly sleek with its curved brushed metal housing and a sliding mechanism that completely hides the connector (not just retracting with a hole). The “cruzer” lettering is illuminated in blue to signify activity. And in line with SanDisk’s reputation for fast thumb drives, the speed is fantastic for both reading and writing.

The Contour supports the U3 system for portable applications but my personal preference is to strip that out and use PortableApps which can be run on any flash drive (and even some better MP3 players). This lets you take around your favourite software wherever you go. Much of it is overkill for the average user, but having Firefox with your personal selection of add-ons is one of those things you swiftly wonder how you lived without. And carting OpenOffice and VLC around isn’t a bad idea either.

Logitech Wave

There is a lot less to say about the second purchase, except to say that I finally got round to buying my favourite keyboard. Logitech’s Wave is the sort of thing you might ignore for its simplicity but its functionality is perfect while remaining uncluttered: quality keys with exactly the right level of resistance, buttons specifically designed for Vista navigation, and a comfortable wrist-rest. I thought it might take me some time to acclimatise to the board’s subtly curved shape (ergonomic but not “split” like some other designs) but it strangely seems almost to guide your fingers to the correct keys. The “downside” is that to buy it standalone it is only available wired (the wireless version comes with a fairly average logitech mouse) but for a desktop machine there is little reason for the keyboard not to be wired.

Online the SanDisk Cruzer Contour retails for just under £20 and the Logitech Wave (corded) is available for around £35. Neither is the cheapest option, but nor are they outrageously priced, and the combination of excellent functionality and build quality coupled with pleasing design is exactly what I like to see in my tech gear.

Iron Mania

Grand Theft Auto IV

Since its release last Tuesday I’ve been playing rather a lot of Grand Theft Auto IV, but I still don’t feel quite equipped to discuss it. The scope of the game is unlike anything you’ve played before with the incredible detail of the living Liberty City, and the sheer volume of things to do. Several hours in it feels like I’ve only scratched the surface. So far I’d say it’s easily one of the best games I have played in some time, but falls shy of the perfect tens with which critics have been lauding it. I’m told things happen further in that suddenly make those scores make sense…

Meanwhile this evening Kirsten and I headed out to see Iron Man. She needed some cajoling despite Robert Downey, Jr.’s presence. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this based on the charisma he exhibited in the trailers, coupled with some smart scriptwriting. What I was not prepared for was the best comicbook superhero film since Spider-man 2.

Iron Man

Maturely written but incredibly fun, it is utter fan service to those who love comicbook stories, while retaining an easy accessibility for the average moviegoer. Largely this is due to the disarming billionaire playboy attitude of Tony Stark, from which we see him emerge as he realises the damage caused by his company’s weapons manufacture. While the story is anti-war, the film avoids excessive preaching (nor will it change attitudes), focusing instead on a single man changing the course of his own life.

The flight sequences are exhilarating, the comedy is ingrained into the story and never feels tacked on. The only downside is that as an origins story the character development provides its own arc, leaving one to wonder about the quality of the inevitable sequel. Stay until the end of the credits and a short scene with a surprising cameo quells any fears about about a sloppy second outing — bring it on!

Grindhouse and Funny Games

A few busy weeks led to almost a month without posts so here’s one I wrote around the middle of last week but didn’t get round to editing down. Things are a bit quieter now so normal service should follow:

Funny Games

Last week was pretty hectic workwise and I spent the weekend doing virtually nothing to recover. This meant I didn’t get around to discussing the previous weekend’s excursions to see Grindhouse and Funny Games. The latter was actually while killing time before going out on Friday evening, overcome suddenly by a desire for weird cinema. Funny Games is the first film I’ve seen for some time where I find myself apologetically defending it, a film which I almost invariably had to see alone as until I judged it myself I feared the premise may leave any friends accompanying me wondering just what manner of creature it was that invited them to such an experience.

The premise is simple: an all-American family’s holiday turns into a nightmare after two boys of about twenty years old take them hostage and start toying with, and eventually threatening to kill, them. More interesting however is it’s purpose. The film exists as a reaction to the recent glut of what can best be described as torture porn, an oeuvre encompassing Hostel, Captivity and the later Saw films.

European director Haneke is known for challenging cinema conventions, making a name for himself with Hidden. Rather than deriving enjoyment from the family’s torturous experience, the audience is made to feel intentionally uncomfortable right from the jarring death metal track that bursts through the soothing classical music of the opening credits. At one point as a member of the family breaks down and begs them to stop, one of the boys asks them, “do you think you’ve had enough?”. He pauses a beat before staring directly at camera and repeating the question, challenging the audience. And that is the point. So now in hindsight I feel it is safe to recommend, at least for those who can stomach it.


I nearly went alone to the Grindhouse showing which would have been a serious mistake. Fortunately Kirsten reminded me that Jehan was still around and he was keen. I had concerns about this project from the start since Rodriguez and Tarantino were intentionally creating a homage to the old low-budget exploitation films in their double-bill (a concept which is a throwback in itself). Their movies have always been influenced by their nostalgic love of these, and this is fine, but to actively recreate what are, essentially, bad films, can only at best result in another bad film.

My fears turned out to be half founded. Rodriguez’s instalment, Planet Terror, is simply hilarious and very very silly fun. The dialogue, action and everything else is cheesy, but all thrown together with such style that (at least with a friend) one cannot help but enjoy the carnage that ensues. The plot is essentially irrelevant and the main character development occurs in a “missing reel”, a jarring break which dumps the audience back in the middle of an action sequence with no idea what has transpired. This was followed by several fake trailers by a clutch of interested directors. The real treat was undoubtedly Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS, which Jehan and I would both be happy to see made. Nicolas Cage’s cameo as a maniacally laughing Fu Manchu gives you some idea of the intended vibe…

By contrast Tarantino’s Death Proof is a disappointment. Fun at first it never quite gels. For a start it is filled with the usual sharp Tarantino dialogue yet this feels totally out of place, with long chatty scenes that might work in his other films but not here. He seems to be attempting to modernise the exploitation concept, but decidedly fails to do so. Jehan said he enjoyed the full (standalone) cut of Death Proof so I may reconsider after viewing that. The real irony to me is that Kill Bill was unceremoniously slice in two (to its detriment) for being too long for audiences to sit through at around four hours of film, which is exactly how long we spent in the cinema watching Grindhouse!

Aurea: There Is Only One Sun

The Is Only One SunI am aware that, when I posted a link to the Philips Aurea mini-site before, it was down for maintenance. It’s now up again so you can all bask in its truly beautiful glow. Only unveiled recently, I had chance to see one in person at John Lewis recently and it really is stunning. When it’s on, at least. Unfortunately for the light effects to filter through the front of the panel (rather than side/rear projection with their earlier Ambilight screens) it has to be white. So when it’s switched off you have a gigantic glossy white monstrosity sat in your living room. If your life is Apple-styled then it’s probably not an issue, but if you have taste then it may be difficult to fit comfortably into your living room.

Such foibles aside (why would you leave such a gorgeous device off after all?) the link is worth checking out just to see There Is Only One Sun, the stunning film directed by Wong Kar Wei as a demonstration. Make sure to click the link for the entire film (around eight minutes) rather than the shorter version. Part film, part study in light and colour, it’s easily as good as any of the recent Bravia ads minus the gimmick. It’s light on content, of course, but oh so pretty. Apparently these days TV ads for TVs are where it’s at.

Amazon Throws Down The Gauntlet

For all its many faults there is no denying that iTunes currently has the downloadable music market stitched up. However if there’s one company that might be in a position to challenge the status quo it’s the go-to online retailer Amazon. Rumours have been circulating for some time that they have been eyeing up the digital music landscape and now they have officially announced exactly what people have been hoping for: high bitrate (256kbps) MP3 free of DRM (or whatever euphemism the industry currently wish to use). Naturally this means the majority of the music will be coming from EMI, the only one of the big labels to release their iron grip on DRM’d music, but Amazon will also be providing music from hordes of independent labels too. Launch could be as little as a month away, so all that remains is for the price point to be announced. This will be the clincher, of course. If they can release this music at the same price as iTunes then it’s easily a superior service — if they can undercut Apple then they’re on to a winner that could drive down prices for consumers. And yes, if it’s offering DRM free mp3 albums at a similar price I’ll be forced to honour my promise and download an album myself when the store launches.

Loathe as I am to promote something so clearly viral marketing, the new Symbian Boo-Hoo For You! campaign is so creatively bizarre as to be worth watching. The psychedelic video features a duo of Japanese-style characters showing off the benefits of Symbian phones in Japan that we Europeans just can’t have. Boo-hoo for us. Somewhat lacking in accuracy one assumes it is intended more for its oriental insanity than to be informative. In that it succeeds.

You may be hearing confusing things about Google’s new Universal Search which aims to integrate specialist search results into the general search interface. Fortunately I don’t have to try to explain it because Search Engine Land have put together a comprehensive article on what this actually entails.

And finally it’s the time of year once more when I link to 3D Pong in order to distract and frustrate you in equal measures.

Unique Scenarios: The Xbox 360 Elite

The updated Xbox 360 Elite console is now in the wild with photos flooding the internet as eager journalists get their paws on them. Engadget performed the most interesting test, however, which was comparing the image quality with the standard version. Their conclusion was, as I had predicted, that it is nigh impossible to distinguish between 1080p over HDMI and 1080i over component connections. To Microsoft’s credit they are not targeting this new release at existing Xbox owners, but rather for new-comers who want to move straight to the high-end large-drive version. I suspect the real reason is that they are well aware that their file transfer is still crippled if you move between machines.

Buying the standalone 120GB drive will cause you no problems but because licensed downloadable content is locked to both your Xbox Live ID and your console ID, it will only work on a new console if you are logged in at the time. In an explanatory video at Major Nelson’s site, Albert insultingly describes the “handful of people who might face a unique scenario” if they are not logged in. In essence he has just discounted anyone who does not keep their console internet connected 24/7 as lesser customers. Sorry, unique customers. I suspect that behind his nonchalant attitude he knows full well he was talking rubbish and that far more than “a handful” will be affected by this but is required to peddle the company line. The video has attracted a large number of disgruntled comments. Maybe Albert has very big hands, or maybe it’s based on the fact he did not seem to consider it a problem and appeared unhurried in developing a solution. While it may not be a huge issue yet, these consoles can and do break and many will need to replace theirs (and many of those who bought at launch already have). If Microsoft’s DRM is so short-sighted that it cannot handle this obvious eventuality it places a huge question mark over the quality of their downloads service. Whether it is by a process to “unlock” licensed content or something else, this one needs to be dealt with fast.

Yod'm 3DAnd now an exam term top tip (ET³) for those who have trouble with self-control while sitting in front of your computer: the distractionless desktop. The simplest way to do this is to create a new user account and strip out everything non-work related from the desktop and start menu so that it’s just plain difficult to distract yourself. A slightly sleeker solution that still allows you to switch back to other tasks with relative ease is the multiple desktop solution. Using a program like Dexpot you can create additional virtual desktops for you machine and easily move between them. Create a new, plain workspace desktop, with a vanilla wallpaper and free of clutter. You will likely find your productivity increasing fast without web browsers, chat windows and email distracting you. Alternatively Yod’m 3D (pictured) provides a similar feature with less customisation but a pretty animation as you rotate a cube to access additional desktops.

Have any tips you’d like to share with the class? Let me know and I may compile a list of the best.


iPod Shuffle 2GYesterday I picked up an iPod Shuffle 2G. Just to hold it, to see. The pictures don’t really prepare you for just how small the second generation device really is and despite my best intentions I bought it. For myself. The crazy part is that I love it. I’ve realised that the lack of a screen or ability to see and select what you listen to isn’t really a drawback. Unlike hard drive players, 1GB of music is so little that there’s really no need for the hassle of navigating menus and the simplicity of this player is just stunning. In some ways it almost gives you too much control — a single play/off button would have been enough. You see the Shuffle is not so much about playing the music as experiencing it, and that journey is imbued with greater significance outside of the user’s hands. Being unprepared for the next song makes it that much more powerful as a result. As you can see I went for the blue/turquoise model. I felt the silver one was a bit dull, and while colour coordinating turquoise might be problematic given my wardrobe, at least I won’t be losing it!

The clip is also inspired. I never realised how reliant I was on pockets before, but they are constantly stuffed with junk every time I leave the house. Now I can streamline my appearance by clipping my music on the outside, and of course bragging rights are far easier when your iPod is on full display rather than hidden away in some pocketed crevice. No jacket in the summer? No problem — clip it to your shirt. Want music while lounging around the house? Easy — clip it to your boxers!

I know I’ve given Apple a hard time in the past and I may not be changing my views entirely, but this experience has definitely opened my eyes. I doubt I’ll be subscribing to AppleTV any time soon, but I am eyeing up those Mac Minis. While they might be limited in components and upgradeability, I am realising that in the modern household form is more important than function. We have become so focused on specifications and technicalities that we fail to realise we already have what we need. Technology only adds to that, and so we should only embrace to the extent that it looks stylish enough to enhance our lives beyond those basic needs. Understanding that is Apple’s triumph and now I can’t wait to see what Steve Jobs is able to accomplish with the iPhone.

EDIT: As many of you realised this was indeed an April Fool’s joke. I have not bought an iPod Shuffle, which remains one of the most moronic technological devices on the market. The entire commentary is very tongue-in-cheek except for the problematic nature of colour coordinating a wardrobe with turquoise electronics. It’s hard and I don’t recommend trying it yourselves. The photo is by Daniel Morris via Flickr.

Ball(istic) Secrecy

I fail to understand the apparent secrecy surrounding Ball themes up until their launch parties at which the spilling of their respective beans occurs. Aside from particularly gimmicky choices the theme has relatively little impact upon the overall experience of the average Ball, merely being a well from which its aesthetics may draw inspiration. As such the level of secrecy seems somewhat defunct. Sure, in 2005 Emma’s Monopoly sponsorship came out of left field but you’re not actually going to surprise people into buying tickets. You have to ply prospective guests with alcohol at the launch party like every other self-respecting Ball Committee. All this secrecy really does is make it more difficult for people to plan their Balls in advance, since the websites inevitably remain content-free until “all is revealed” or “soon has come” or whatever. Obviously everyone here is going to Downing, that’s a given. A bunch of us are toying with the idea of dining tickets at the moment, but that requires enough interest — the food looks good so now it’s just the company we need.

the safest colour in the worldLuke has written a short (no, really) piece on the moral hazard created by Apple’s new ads. They are certainly creating a major risk for the future should their market share increase as they have educated users to believe that security-wise they are “safe” because, as he puts it, “they’re using a white computer”. I am also bemused by people who try to convince me to “switch” for this reason. On this reasonably locked down machine (NOD32, Norton Personal Firewall, Windows Defender) over the past 3 years I have experienced exactly zero virus infections and the one instance of spyware was firmly my own fault. I am sure it is a relevant consideration to some people but they are not me.

Danu site launches

With the successful launch party yesterday, the all new Downing Ball website is now live. Learn all about Danu and the Celtic seasonal theme of this year’s Ball. As always we aim to fully support all browsers and although the site is blessedly flash-free (Dave and I are on the same page there) it features our state-of-the-art MultiSeason™ and FourSkin™ technologies. You can now book tickets online or using the form on the back of the flyers that I am told will be doing the rounds, and as always Downing members can have their ticket(s) charged to their college bill. Below you can see how the four poster designs fit together as one.

Danu posters

While Apple’s Mac ads continue to push misleading stereotypes that are borderline lies (albeit more watchable with the help of the Peepshow guys), Dave showed me a great set of spoofs that highlight how pointless the entire debate really is.

The Event Calendar feature in the sidebar has been lying empty and unloved for a while now. I apologise for that, but will endeavour to get it filled up once more. If you are involved in any events that you would like to highlight then please let me know the details and I can add it to the calendar for all to see.

And that’s a wrap for the first month of 2007 — I figured you deserved a nice quick read after our self-indulgent retrospective last time!


I finally acquired a webcam two days ago. It was largely by chance really. I had only been looking for a headset since several people have been encouraging me to use Skype, which I’ve had installed for years but never really used. I had just realised that a half-decent headset was going to set me back about £18 when I stumbled across a combined Logitech Communicate STX package including a webcam for just £29.99. It even came with a nice back-of-the-head design headset so I could have both voice and hair at the same time.

PTVLogitech have cemented their reputation for being fantastic with hardware and awful with software. On first using the set I watched both Toby and Jane tear off their headsets and glare at me, apparently attacked by a loud, hissing feedback noise. The intermittent issue was clearly something at my end but I had no idea what could be causing it. Bizarrely it had nothing to do with the headset but was a problem with the camera’s driver. Replacing the boxed software with a newer version from the Logitech site solved things and I’ve had no complaints since.

I’ll be honest, I was expecting virtually nothing from the camera but was pleasantly surprised to find that in decent light it produces a pretty sharp 640×480 image. Good enough, in fact, to record videos. Ciao! are currently encouraging members to contribute video reviews by paying a substantial sum for each short clip. My first attempt garnered a tidy £7 so if I can manage the same again the webcam will actually have paid for itself within a couple of days! Not bad for a chance purchase.

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"Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

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