Monthly Archives: October 2004

Wisdom

Billie Bowbrick's self-portrait, age 4 and three-quarters, October 2004Driving the kids home from an afternoon out – in the rain – we’re listening to Bob Dylan singing A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall… (“I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’. I saw a white ladder all covered with water. I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken. I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children…” and so on). After a nicely timed pause, Billie (4), says “What does he mean by all that, then?” (Of course, you’ll be wanting to click the little self-portrait for a bigger one).

Remembering Peel

When you were a kid, did you record the Peel show? I did. Dozens and dozens of cassettes, all made – at least to begin with – by Sellotaping the crappy microphone from my cassette recorder to the crappy speaker of my Sanyo transistor radio. Of course, those cassettes are long gone (this is 25 years ago) but I bet you kept yours. You should dig them out, encode them and stick them on your weblog – that would be a good way of remembering him, wouldn’t it?

To space…

Spaceship One in flight
Why is this video from SpaceShipOne’s Winning X Prize Mission so impressive (I mean, apart from the fact that this guy just flew an aeroplane about the size of a double bed to space and back)? Is it because of the team’s unlimited American self-confidence? Or because of the acres of competence and sophistication on show? Or because of the awe-inspiring ambition embodied in a mission like this? Or is it because, somewhere about half way through the return to earth, the pilot, Brian Binnie, apparently has to reboot the spaceship?

While you’re at it, compare this with the infinitely sadder NASA video from a few weeks ago.

Buy some old printers

Somebody out there needs five – count them! – five lovely Apple printers (4 Stylewriter inkjets and a twenty year-old Imagewriter dot-matrix). I think you should probably buy these just to make some sort of art installation (are you listening Ivan?). With these printers, an old Mac (or a new Mac and an adapter) and OS X.3 you’ve got yourself a nifty networked fax server (five nifty networked fax servers, in fact). You could write a script to print a grab from your webcam every five minutes or use them to print badges for your speed dating thing. Come on, you’ll think of something.

Book review: go on… build your own

Building the Perfect PC - front cover
You could build your own car or your own TV but it would be rubbish. I suppose you could build pretty much anything (an aeroplane, a house, a speedboat…) if you wanted to – people do, don’t they – but a routine cost-benefit analysis (can I be bothered?) probably keeps that kind of silliness to a minimum. Complex, information-age consumer products are best left to the experts – high-tech manufacturing is now a race-to-the-bottom business. It’s all about volume, just-in-time, vanishing margins, consolidation and fugitive economies of scale.

Of course, there’s an exception to this rule and – importantly – the exception is the pivotal device for the whole era: the PC. People build their own PCs all the time and the PCs they build are not rubbish. In fact, quite often, they’re better, faster (much faster) and cheaper than the off-the-shelf variety. A benign collision of standardisation, commodisation and the strange voodoo of Moore’s Law means that you can assemble your own PC from the best parts available for about $5 more than buying one from Dell or HPaq or Packard Bell (or Walmart or Tesco for that matter). Of course, you’ll need to belong to the hyper-evolved geek sub-species with tiny Phillips screwdrivers for fingers but you really won’t need to be Einstein or even a proper engineer.

The nice people at O’Reilly have identified a promising market in the self-build crowd – Building the Perfect PC is not their first DIY book and it won’t be their last. This one’s like a Haynes Manual or a particularly practical recipe book. Many terrifying, flash-lit photographs and a relentlessly practical, can-do tone of voice are going to keep this book out of the NY Times bestseller list indefinitely but those same factors might just spread the self-build habit beyond its natural Practical Electronics audience and that has to be a good thing. I think it’s probably important that, while the super-rich and super-crazy are building manned orbiters, the moderately technologically-engaged and the simply curious are building their own stupidly over-specced and over-clocked computers down here on the planet’s surface.

I really don’t think I’m ready to glue a heatsink to my CPU or to set up two hard drives for RAID 1 but I really like the fact that there are people out there ready and willing to do just that. 400 years ago a small band of geeks fixated on a new and more efficient way of reproducing ideas called printing. Problem by problem they figured out how to distribute written culture to an ever wider audience. The hardware geeks may not change the course of human culture but they’re in the same territory – in their sheds and back rooms they’re fearlessly re-engineering and improving upon the 21st Century’s most basic infrastructure. I’m really quite excited to see where they’ll take us.

(A Google search for “build your own” produces 4,140,000 results!)

Kids love stories more than they love toys

Eric Carle's Very Hungry Caterpillar
A copy of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is sold every 57 seconds. That makes it the best selling kids’ book of all time. Who knew? We like it round here, of course, especially the board book, which is indestructible as well as being a gentle, colourful and mesmerisingly-paced treat (Rosa, 18 months, is really enjoying it at the moment) I learnt this and loads more from a nice programme presented by John Hegley about the book on Radio 4 the other day.

Meanwhile, I learn from an article (which you’ll need a subscription to see) in The Economist that the retail toy trade is in big trouble, with major players (like Disney) getting out of the business all together and mega-specialists like Toys R Us shutting stores. This all fits my theory that kids are now looking less for the slightly circular thrill of a toy and more for the open and provocative experience of a narrative… Stories are big news, in half a dozen categories, from $1 Billion story-driven movie franchises (Star Wars, Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter, Spiderman…) to epic video games and – you know – those dead tree things kids seem happy to queue all night for when they come out…

Seeking smokers…

Sad TV crew looking for smokers in Carnaby Street
This sad-looking (and slightly out-of-focus) TV crew were standing in Carnaby Street lunchtime today and – I kid you not – as I passed them I heard the reporter say “Come on smokers”. Who knows how long they’d been standing there waiting for an indignant smoker to interview about the impending Liverpool smoking ban but since nobody in London smokes any more, they’d obviously be better off jumping on a train up to Liverpool where, I understand, they’re still smoking like chimneys.

Dandy lives

It definitely cheers me up to learn that The Dandy has not only survived for seven decades (longer than any other comic) but has now emerged confidently into the glossy covermount era. The old characters have been updated deftly and there are some pretty good new ones. Good covermounts too (a sticky rubber tomato this week. Can’t argue with that).