Monday, 21 March 2011

Budgie - Never Turn Your Back On A Friend (1973)

When the conversation turns to early 70's rock (as it frequently does with me, sad old git that I've become) the usual suspects like Led Zep, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple etc etc always crop up.

Budgie, from Cardiff, on the other hand, have been largely forgotten except amongst their few loyal fans. Mention Budgie to the (middle aged) man or woman on the street and they'll either think of their ageing grandmother's pet bird or they might, just might, remember the sole mainstream success the band ever had, Breadfan. On the other hand, if you were to mention Breadfan first, most people would probably think of Metallica's cover rather than the original!

Which is a pity, because Budgie are a great, underrated band, still gigging today, who deserve greater recognition. Any of their early albums, except maybe the first, Budgie [1971], which is a bit monotonous, would be a good introduction to them. I haven't heard their late 70's and 80's output because I'm not keen on rock from this era with a few notable exceptions. Never Turn Your Back... is their third offering and, in my opinion, one of their best.

First track Breadfan would be a fairly "cooking" early heavy metal number if it weren't for the delicious, typically Budgie, quiet bit in the middle, a song within a song, featuring Burke Shelley's haunting high pitched singing, before the song suddenly lurches back to being heavy metal again.

Next up, Baby Please Don't Go, obviously a cover, is a fast paced rock'n'roll number featuring all the band's skills.

You Know I'll Always Love You is a slow number. Budgie do "slow and evocative" like no other rock band of the time that I, at least, have heard, with very simple singing and sublime guitar backing.

You're the Biggest Thing Since Powdered Milk (a typical Budgie tongue-in-cheek name) starts with Ray Phillips on drums (fed through a flanging effect box) doing an enjoyable solo before the rest of the band comes in for a catchy straightforward rock bash.

In the Grip of a Tyrefitter's Hand, another classic Budgie title, features a simple but very catchy double guitar riff which keeps re-appearing throughout the track. This is followed by Riding My Nightmare.

The final track is Parents, the stand-out track on the album to my mind. It features Shelley's haunting voice and some very cool guitar playing to match. The lyrics are interesting, being recollections of early childhood, though perhaps sounding a bit "twee" in these cynical times. As the track progresses, the elegant laid back guitar licks change to powerful full-on rock guitar accompanied by wierd electronic seagull-like noises, before returning again to where it started with Shelley's quiet singing followed finally by a crashing rocky ending with soaring guitar and "seagulls"! A superb 11 minute journey which I never tire of listening to.

If you're into super slick sophisticated rock, or early prog, forget Budgie, it won't be for you. If you like your metal continuously loud and thrashy, again, it won't be for you, though you could try the first album. But, if you, like me, prefer melodic rock with big, simple, riffs and hooks, and appreciate gentle bits between the loud bits, Budgie might be right up your street! No harm giving it a go, even nearly 40 years after the event!

Oh, and I haven't even touched on the fantastic Budgie album covers...

Friday, 14 January 2011

Could you rewind that please?

The BBC iPlayer is an amazing resource, probably the envy of broadcasters the world over. It is funded in a manner, the licence fee, which is again the envy of other broadcasters. If you use Windows, Apple, an iPhone or Nokia mobile phone, you'll have no trouble using it at all. However, users of some platforms, most notably Linux and Android, might as well not exist as far as the Beeb is concerned. I can understand the BBC's reluctance to open up iPlayer to all and sundry because of their programme licensing restrictions - they have to restrict viewing to the UK, and regulate the length of time viewers are able to watch specific features for. But, both of these platforms, particularly Android, have become widely used, and to go on denying certain licence fee payers the ability to use iPlayer is, er, reprehensible.

What the Beeb really doesn't want you to know, is there is another way for Windows and Linux users to access their iPlayer facility and download programmes for later watching on any platform completely without restrictions. The get_iplayer project originated almost three years ago, developed by disgruntled Linux users hacked off (pardon the pun) by their inability to use the official iPlayer facility, even though they had paid the licence fee like everyone else.

It tapped in to the, then new, iPlayer streams intended for the iPhone, which are nice quality H264/AAC streams of a resolution perfectly suited to an iPhone screen. These are also DRM free, they have no expiry. Of course, an iPhone can only stream them, so when they disappear from the iPlayer site, they expire. But, get_iplayer, pretending to be an iPhone (clever, huh?), converted these streaming only feeds into a stand-alone file which could be played on almost any desktop or mobile device and didn't expire.

After a surprisingly long time (two years) and after many twists and turns in authentication procedure to try to shake off get_iplayer users, always matched by upgrades which defeated them, the BBC finally got "heavy" with the developer and presumably threatened him. The project was discontinued and, more recently, the BBC finally put into place a secure authentication scheme for iPhones, preventing future "misuse" of their streams.

And that seemed the end of the story. Except, as is so often the case with determined, slightly anarchic, open source developers, get_iplayer has risen from the ashes again, taken over by a new development team. It's predominantly a Linux program, but there is a Windows version, and, I believe, Apple too. It's command line based, but very simple, anyone should be able to grasp it with practice, just don't expect a nice interface with bells and whistles. It now downloads the DRM-free flash streams, the standard ones most people view, and cunningly converts them afterwards to high quality mp4 videos, playable on any platform including Android and Linux.

I am not recommending get_iplayer, or telling you where to find it, heaven forbid, I wouldn't engage in dubious activity like that, this is a clean, upstanding family blog, and as a licence fee payer myself, I am bound to defend the rules and regulations of the dear 'ol Beeb. I'm merely relating what I think is an interesting tale for you to make of what you will...

Friday, 7 January 2011

Life with a small mammal

I've always loved cats. I like dogs too, but most people seem to come down one way or the other, probably reflecting their own personalities in ways I wouldn't even begin to suggest. I've never, though, kept a pet before. Like babies, I've been happy enough to lavish affection on other peoples without feeling the desire to live with one full time.

That all changed recently when my partner Sandra's mum sadly died. She had acquired Lucy, a middle aged "rescue" cat, about a year before. The baton passed to us, and we unwittingly became the proud "owners" of Lucy. I say "owners" because as any cat lover knows you never really "own" anything as free spirited as a cat.

So I accepted we had a bit more responsibility, a concept I'd successfully avoided up till now, and that days out and the like would be tricky, having to be worked around feeding times, and holidays virtually impossible in the absence of a trusted person to look after her. Then came the bombshell. As a result of a test following a minor infection, we discovered Lucy was diabetic.

My carefree world collapsed. Suddenly we were tied to caring for poor Lucy's condition. Insulin injections twice a day, a special low carbohydrate diet, monthly "glucose curve" tests (a gruelling day long series of hourly blood tests to assess the effectiveness of the insulin) and frequent visits to the vet for fresh (costly) supplies. I don't know whether I felt more sorry for Lucy or myself.

In all fairness, I don't actually have to do much, for which I am very grateful. Sandra, being "between jobs", has taken on all aspects of Lucy's welfare leaving me to perform the odd jab of insulin when she's busy, a completely novel experience but actually very easy to do. You don't have to search for a catty blood vessel and worry about injecting air bubbles, like you would with a human. No, you grab the scruff of the neck and inject into the cavity you've created just below the skin. Easy Peasy. Lucy's got so used to this she sometimes even comes and offers herself up for the jab! A masochistic cat indeed!

It's been a few months now and things have settled down. Lucy's settled into what is her third, or possibly even fourth, home. I'm not feeling sorry for myself any more. Sandra's, er, working hard. Lucy's become "part of the family" in a way only a pet owner would understand. She's very food obsessed, signalling her hunger by a peculiar "now" sound, her version of the classic "miaow" cats are supposed to make. She starts this long in advance of mealtimes, we think it's something to do with the diabetes, or perhaps it's just a bad habit. We wind her up, imitating it!

She's always there, morning, noon, and night, loves a cuddle, struts around like she owns the place, having a catnap with an eye half open just in case food's in the offing, or rolling around with one of her many toy mice. She has changed our lives and I'd be very sad if she wasn't there any more.

Friday, 30 July 2010

MILFs are great!

*Anyone who's landed up here after googling for MILF - leave now, this blog will be of no interest to you whatsoever*

The new breed of digital camera typified by the Sony NEX (above), the Olympus Pen range, the Samsung NX10, and the Panasonic GF-1 has spawned a whole range of new acronyms of which MILF (Mirror-less Interchangeable Lens Format) is the least serious but definitely the funniest! Popular choices are EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) and MSC (Micro System Camera) and I've seen a few more besides. Almost every photography publication and website seems to have concocted their own name for a concept which really doesn't need a new name. I even noted an Apple user magazine we get monthly calling them Mirrorless DSLRs. What nonsense. By definition, an SLR has to have a mirror! This mag's actual camera reviews are just as suspect, in my opinion. Incidentally, have you noticed how just about every computer mag has become a camera reviewing expert these days? I reckon what some of them know about cameras could fit on a postage stamp.

Whatever you want to call it, this new format is what a lot of photographers have been waiting a long time for - basically a very compact but high quality camera. Putting a large imaging sensor in a small camera is something I've personally been banging on about for years, almost since the start of digital photography. That, and the possibility of swapping the lens, is all the new fangled breed amounts to. Why would you want a large sensor in the first place? Because large sensors have large pixels, and the larger the pixels, the less light that is necessary to produce a clean image. In other words, you can take quality pictures indoors without flash. Anyone who has tried to do this with a normal compact will appreciate the speckly smudgy mess that normally results. There are other advantages to large sensors too, such as taking pictures with a limited depth of field (subject sharp, background blurred) and being able to use very small apertures, because lens diffraction is less of an issue. But, to most users, it'll be the increase in sensitivity (higher useable ISO rating) which will be most appreciated.

The diagram above shows we're not talking small differences in sensor size either.

Red: Typical compact camera
Yellow: Enthusiast compact camera
Green: "Four Thirds" - Olympus and Panasonic DSLRs and MSCs
Blue: "APS-C" - Sony NEX and most DSLRs
Mauve: 35mm film and some very expensive "full frame" DSLRs

It's quite an eye-opener to learn just how small the sensor in most cheap digital cameras is, and a miracle of modern low cost lens design that they produce reasonable pictures.

There are, of course, limitations to putting a large, grown-up, sensor in a compact camera - there's no such thing as "a free lunch", as it were. I'm talking about the lens. A large sensor requires a large lens, pretty much the same size of lens you see on big DSLRs, and these lenses need a reasonable distance from the sensor in order to form a focussed image. Bang goes the idea of a large sensor compact camera.

However, advances in lens design have enabled both Sony and Olympus/Panasonic to specify a much shorter distance between the back of the lens and the sensor, and they call this new standard "E-Mount" and "Micro Four Thirds" respectively. The lenses are similar in size to their normal counterparts, but they sit much nearer the sensor, reducing the thickness of the camera. Even with modern computer design, this isn't without drawbacks, and the image quality isn't quite as good as with normal lenses, but it's not far off.

The actual length of the lens also needs to be reduced as much as possible to make these cameras genuinely small, and this is where the wide-angle "pancake" lens comes in. So called "pancake" lenses aren't new, but with modern design they are affordable and flatter than ever without too much compromise in image quality. You are, of course, limited to fixed wide-angle. The moment you put a telephoto or zoom lens on any of these new cameras, the size advantage disappears!

The Sony 16mm F2.8 pancake (above) is the choice for the NEX to make it a "pocket" camera (in fact, at the time of writing, there is only one other lens for the NEX). It's not bad for a cheap "kit" lens. Very wide angle lenses have their problems, pancake lenses more so, and "reduced lens to sensor distance" lenses even more so. If you use it "wide open", at maximum aperture, it's plainly sub-standard, but go to F8 or F11 and the problems largely disappear.

As to the NEX itself. Yes, I have purchased one, the NEX-3. I knew I was going to the moment I first saw a pre-release picture of it. It screamed "You want me" and I answered "Yes I do". I chose the cheaper NEX-3 because I didn't need the 1080i video mode or the remote control of the better known NEX-5, and preferred the handling and appearance of the NEX-3 as well. The NEX-5 is, in my opinion, an expensive trinket for the fashion conscious photographer. Don't get angry, I'm only joking. Ha ha.

The super cool NEX-5 with pancake lens, left, and right with the 18-55 kit zoom, nicely illustrating how anything other than the pancake lens is folly if you want to pocket your camera!

So, what do I really think of the NEX? I think it took all of Sony's well known balls imagination and resources to produce the smallest and most desirable of this new class of camera. Sony are like Apple, they don't do things by halves, they go for the kill, and I think they succeeded with the NEX. I also own the recent Olympus Pen E-PL1, and although it's compact, it's nowhere near as small and desirable as the NEX, and, it has to be said, nowhere near as as much fun, or as fast, to use either. The NEX can be whipped out of the pocket, in any light, indoors or out, and instantly take (mostly) stunning pictures. It's capability at high ISOs is amazing, better than most DSLRs. It has Sony's own "backlit" EXMOR sensor inside, a newer version even than most of their own DSLRs, and it shows. Pictures taken even at ISO3200 are great. It is the compact for indoor events without flash.

Downsides? The user interface is OK, but try doing anything other than "point and shoot" and you find yourself struggling with the simplistic amateur-orientated menu system. It's a powerful camera with lots of options, but actually changing even basic options like ISO and white balance can be problematic. Making the pancake lens available as a "kit" lens (sold as a package with the body) was an inspiration on Sony's part, but the lens needs improving, or alternatives made available from independent lens manufacturers. I think Sony aimed the NEX at novices, but at the price it sells for and given its performance, it's attracted mainly seasoned enthusiasts, who are prone to nit-pick!

The NEX-3 (centre) vs Olympus E-PL1 (right) and Samsung NX10 (left)
Image courtesy of, my favourite photographic site.

The alternatives? The Olympus E-PL1 is bulkier and has a smaller last-generation sensor, a less versatile LCD screen, and can't match the stellar high ISO performance of the NEX, but it is more of a flexible photographer's tool, with a greater number of better performing lenses. In reality, 90% of the time it can keep up with and sometimes better the tiny NEX. I don't know the Panasonics well enough, but I'm sure the same applies to them too, from what I gather from the forums. And the Sigma DP1 and 2? In good light, for landscapes, they more than match up. But they are seriously slow cameras to use and don't have the sensor sensitivity, despite the sensor's size, of any of the other cameras here, so no good for use indoors.

The NEX is the first of a breed of very small system cameras. It's a remarkable and brave product, both in concept and performance. There's undoubtably room for operational improvements when Sony realise exactly who's buying it. I'm convinced it will come to be regarded as a classic, the first of its kind.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Stone Temple Pilots (self titled) (2010)

Stone Temple Pilots 2010

The STP have had five albums before this one, stretching right back to 1992, and I haven't experienced any of them, such is my ignorance of "recent" rock. I've tried to rectify this ignorance with some success in the last year or two, but there are still times I realise what a lot of catching up there is to do! The positive side is I can review an album like this without preconception about the band or their previous output - I am an STP virgin, as it were.

I wondered about their name. Sounds like it was lifted from a sci-fi novel. I then learned that they started life as Shirley Temple's Pussy until the record label suggested they change it. Heh heh. Their recording history seems to have been punctuated by main man Scott Weiland's liking of mind altering substances and the consequent problems arising from it, but, hey, this goes with the territory of rock'n'roll, no?

This album's been a "slow burner" for me. I knew I liked it from first listen, but nothing stood out saying "play me again immediately". Gradually, though, it's become an important album which gets played when I'm in need of uplifting (like on a Monday morning). It's a "feel good" album that you find yourself humming tunes from and repeating out loud snatches of lyrics, all the while tapping your foot to the beat.

It's classic rock'n'roll, no more, no less. I've seen STP described as hard rock, but I wouldn't describe this album as such. It gets heavy at times, but not in the mindless way a lot of hard rock does. There are strong influences at work, from the 1960s and 70s, and the album does have a "retro" feel to it, but it's also fresh and "modern" too. If you want comparisons, the sheer quality of the melodies, particularly on the excellent Dare if you dare (my favourite track) hark back to the Beatles. At other times there's a sleaziness which reminds me of the Stereophonics. Some tracks are quite old style '70s "glam rock" influenced. The final track before the "extras", Samba Nova, is an unexpected surprise, a delicious very 1960's latin rhythmed slow number that could have been lifted straight from an old Bond movie.

What holds the album together is the professionalism of the song writing, and the skill of execution. This is obviously an album from a mature group with complete confidence in themselves, and rightly so. Vocals and guitar work are particularly notable. I've seen it criticised for harking back to other genres, for lacking originality, for having too many styles on one album. The more I listen to it, though, it gels as a whole and makes perfect sense.

You suddenly understand the album cover, and the fact that it's a self titled album. It's a statement. You get the impression this is the STP saying "This is what we do, and we do it bloody well. It might sound derivative to some, but we don't care, it's our unique style, take it or leave it". Then again, I might be talking b****cks, without the benefit of having heard their earlier stuff. The only way you'll find out is if you try it for yourself.

If you want new-fangled "indie rock" full of synth bleeps and falsetto warbling, or dark serious "prog rock" with 10min tracks, look elsewhere, that's not what the STP are about. But if you like rock full of memorable melodies, intelligent lyrics sung by "real" men, strong riffs, and chunky guitar work, you won't go wrong with this album. And, like me, you might not be able to get the tunes out of your mind!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

WM Last Chance is Cut. RIP.

Way back when Palm still ruled the PDA scene and the iPhone was just a twinkle in Steve Job's eye, there was Windows Mobile 2003 SE. This was the successor to Pocket PC 2000, Pocket PC 2002, and Windows Mobile 2003. It was released on March 24, 2004 and was hugely popular, being available on a wide selection of portable devices.

WM 2003 SE was the last Microsoft mobile OS to run from RAM rather than flash ROM. So, if your main battery and backup battery went flat, you lost everything. Of course, users would regularly back up to a memory card, so it ultimately didn't matter too much. But, as a consequence, users, depending on how careless they were, often saw the WM new installation screen. Only once the OS had been reinstalled, could the backup be copied over it to get back to where you were before the "accident".

Part of the WM installation routine was an animated demonstration of how "Copy" and "Paste" worked, something you had to participate in whether you wanted or not. You had to go through the charade of copying a schedule entry from one place and pasting to another. There was no means to bypass this interactive demo, and it irritated the hell out of me when all you wanted was to restore your device to working order. It probably irritated most users, it was so typically Microsoft. It did, I suppose, constantly remind you that WM had Copy and Paste, something we took completely for granted back then.

Wind forward a few years to the release of the iPhone. Windows Mobile users were smirking at the lack of power available to Apple's mobile users. No multitasking and, crucially, no Copy and Paste. Both of these had been available for years in WM, and made it a powerful and flexible mobile OS. It was only with a fairly recent update that C and P finally became available to iPhone users, and I believe multitasking is coming shortly.

Windows Mobile development has been something of an embarrassment in recent years. Microsoft have badly neglected this little corner of their portfolio. The underlying OS has always been powerful and comprehensive, and allowed geeks to modify quite fundamental aspects of it via the registry. The very popular XDA-Developers site was built on this premise, and no other mobile operating system has a resource like it. Meanwhile, it has taken innovative device manufacturers like HTC to improve the looks and feel of WM via their Touch-Flo and Sense interfaces, making it possible to use with touchscreens, whilst Microsoft sat back and studied their navel.

And now, just when virtually everyone including HTC, who have pretty much gone over to Android, have given up on Windows Mobile, which now has a paltry 2% of the "smartphone" market, Microsoft have finally announced the forthcoming Windows Phone 7, the mobile OS which will, in the nick of time, save their mobile presence from complete oblivion. Previews indicate a total departure from what's gone before, a complete redesign from scratch, inside and out. The new interface mirrors the Microsoft Zune HD (a media player never made available in the UK) and is apparently minimal, novel and exciting, and very finger friendly.

At last, us Windows Mobile fanboys (and girls) can hold our heads up with pride. Microsoft strikes back! Apple, look out! I was getting quite excited (fairly unusual) about the prospect of a new device running the brand spanking new WP 7. All the power of old WM with a beautiful new touchy feely interface. Until the rumours started, rumours which have now crystallized into fact during interviews with Microsoft employees. Some of these might not be true, but from what I understand, the new WP7 will:

* not have multitasking with 3rd party apps
* not have Copy and Paste
* not have the capability to instal apps from anywhere except the MS App Store
* not have any backwards compatibility with previous apps
* not support removeable memory cards

In other words: Loyal Windows Mobile Supporters, P*ss Off, we don't care about you any more.

I can understand the lack of backwards compatibility if you're developing a new OS from the ground up. I can just about accept the lack of memory card support, with the increasing internal storage of modern devices, but the rest is utterly reprehensible and unneccesary. I would have thought with a 2% remaining market share, mostly "power users" encompassing both business people and the slightly geeky (me), Microsoft would have at least wanted to retain these loyal customers whilst slowly clawing back their "mainstream" market share. It could have been a "killer" business strategy. But, it seems, they are hell-bent on a direct attack on the mainstream market at the expense of existing users, most of whom will go over to Android, Blackberry, or even iPhone. Bearing in mind the time it takes to penetrate the mainstream without the aid of a killer hardware device like the iPhone or one of the new HTC android phones, I'd say Microsoft are trying to commit Mobile Suicide.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A Post About Nothing

Nothing, zero, zilch, nada, whatever you call it, has fascinated me in recent years. It's something we learn about at a very early age, and a concept we use every day. There doesn't seem on the surface to be anything strange, exotic, or profound about Nothing, in fact to most people it's one of the most banal things imaginable. It can be good as in "nothing troubles me" or bad as in "there's nothing in my bank account". What could possibly be odd about Nothing?

Yet Nothing, or Zero (they're not the same) as concepts have troubled a lot of very clever people down the ages, and will go on causing problems in the foreseeable future. It was in India, over a thousand years ago, that mathematicians started using zero as a number in calculations (can you imagine doing without it today?). It troubled the ancient Greeks before them - "How can nothing be something?" - and it troubles physicists today.

My first encounter with the concept was, strangely, back in 1996, during the tedious building of our Microsoft Access database we use at work. I had to "get my hands dirty" and learn a bit about Visual Basic for Applications, I think it was called. One of the aspects which actually interested me (OK, I'm a nerd sometimes) was how Nothing was dealt with in calculations. For example, a text field can contain a "Null value" or a "Zero length string", both different degrees of Nothing. A numeric field can contain a "Null value" or the number Zero. It's vitally important, if you intend to do calculations on several numeric fields, to convert Nulls to Zeros, else the whole calculation fails, returning "Null" instead of a meaningful answer. This made me realise for the first time that Nothing could be complicated.

My second encounter was a few years back with the popular book "The Book of Nothing" by John D. Barrow. This is an essential read for anyone wanting to learn more about Nothing. After a history of Nothing, it explains in everyday language what Nothing means to physicists, covering our current state of understanding of the universe, how it probably formed, and what it's probably made of. Incidentally, I've just noticed with interest and amusement that the same author has also written "The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless and Endless"! It seems likely to me that Nothing and Infinity are actually quite close relations. Mathematicians, for instance, certainly come across them side by side on the same graph, both sometimes a cause for headache.

It turns out, in cosmological terms, there is no such thing as Nothing. Even in outer space, where there is supposedly nothing at all (no matter of any kind, only a vacuum) there is still very much Something, though it's exact nature is a bit elusive to say the least. Only beyond the bounds of our universe would there be something which could maybe be described as Nothing. Nothing in the sense of no Space and no Time. Nothing that we, being part of the fabric of the universe ourselves, could ever comprehend. A bit like an ant, for example, somehow trapped inside a tennis ball would have no concept of what's outside its universe (ball). Maybe this defines the only true meaning of Nothing.

One of my favourite thoughts, one which I get great satisfaction from, is the theory that everything in our universe originated from Nothing, and that one day, at the end of the universe, all the matter and anti-matter will cancel out and it will return to Nothing again, a theory which effectively says Nothing and Infinite are the same. This supposedly already happens, according to The Book Of Nothing, on a very small scale, where pairs of particles are spontaneously created out of Nothing, exist for a very, very, short time, before merging and disappearing back to Nothing. If it happens at the very smallest scale, why not at the biggest, universal, scale too?