It would be terribly easy to write a whine this afternoon. Days like this make it terribly hard to think positive thoughts of any kind, let alone write anything cheerful. That would be a terrible watse of time: everyone has bad days at work, it’s not news, and generally nobody needs to hear about anyone else’s day. I will save it up for the after work mutual rant session with E tonight. 🙂

Instead, I want to write about a nitfy TV series which I mentioned once a long time ago on this blog: Ultraviolet. That’s this TV series, by the way, not this (aparrently mediocre) movie.

I first heard about UV from Polly and Damien. I will attempt to do justice here to the eloquent wind-up that Damien gave it when he described it to me:

There’s this british cop whose friend goes missing just before his wedding. The cop does his best to find his friend, but is hampered by this wierd secret branch of the police who are also lookng fo his friend and won’t say why. They seem to be very odd secret police; they have these weird guns with a mirror on them and they use these odd graphite bullets. The kinds of people they’re interested in are odd too: they only come out at night, and they seem to be very long-lived.

The plot moves quickly, but not clumsily, handled with the deftness and class we’ve come to expect from good BBC dramas. The ‘V’ word is never mentioned, throughout the entire series.

The tone is bleak in the extreme, but the series holds ones hope and interest through depth of characterization and a gritty british-crimefighting motif that somehow resembles The Bill.

It helps that the core cast are mesmerisingly good: The cop is played by the most excellently laconic Jack Davenport who you might know better as Norrington from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. There’s also the icy Susannah Harker, who I knew best as Mattie Storin from the House of Cards series, and the awesome Philip Quast, disconcertingly memorable either as Javert in Les Miserables or as himself in Play School (1981-1996).

There’s a catch though: Only six episodes of this series were ever made. It sems quite likely that this is all that will ever be made. The plot is not abruptly cut short, but it aches for a second season…

Discussing it after watching the sixth episode, E suggested that they might have failed to convince their producers that there was enough material in the, uh, leach-slaying genre. After all, Buffy the … Slayer took a heroic crack at it, but even with the introduction of inumerable demons, witches, cyborg monsters, mad scientists and even a god, the series was dogged by repetition.

BBC worshipping fanboy that I am, I would like to imagine that Joe Ahearne, the series creator might have overcome this kind of thing, but I can’t really make myself believe. In the end I have to suspect that E is right. Ultraviolet ended with the flame of creativity still brilliantly alight. Better that than tiredly exhausting every last drop, ending when the flame guttered out.

iPhone lust

I thought I was far too cynical and tired of the whole PDA/Phone/PIMP/gadget thing to get enthused anymore, but I was wrong.

The Apple iPhoneI don’t want to sound like an IRC-borne twelve-year-old tech-kiddie, but OMFG, I must MUST have one of these!!!
It’s a PDA that appears to be useable without a stylus (must find out how hard it is to enter text) and it’s a wifi web-browsing appliance backed by Apple. Either item alone would get my attention, without the phone, the camera, the promise of portable MacOSX, the ipod-ness and so on.

I even signed up to the ‘Oh Apple, please spam me about the iPhone’ thing on their terrible tease of a site.

On reflection, it’s a little amusing that this comes so hot on the heels of my last post all about PDAs. After all, the iPhone doesn’t actually meet a lot of my criteria, does it?

  • Fits in my pocket. – Check.
  • Uses a stylus. – Nope. You use your fingers. 🙂
  • Runs PalmOS apps. – Nope, or at least probably not.
  • Runs Pocket PC apps. – Nope, or at least probably not.
  • Talks bluetooth to my other gadgets. – Semi-check. Bluetooth is there, but third-party interoperability may be a little on the thin side.
  • Is stable as hell. – Who knows? It’s a new port of MacOSX to an unknown CPU!
  • Will be properly supported by the manufacturer for the next three years. – This at least seems very likely.

Despite all of this, it still looks like a very close match to my ideal PDA/phone. I really, badly want to know when this is going to hit shelves in Australia.

Checklist for the ideal PDA

This post is geeky, and it’s all about PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) such as the Palm Pilot, the Zaurus, or the Pocket PC. This will be geeky: non-geeks may get bored.

Right now, PDAs are in a terrible slump.

Once upon a time, a company called 3com came up with this thing called a Palm Pilot (let us not go so far back as the Newton, for I am ignorant of its glory, knowing it only for its failure). The Palm Pilot was cool: it was a tiny little computer you held in the palm of one hand, and you interacted with it by ‘writing’ on it with a stylus. It was intended to be deliberately low-featured and simple, providing the tools you needed to keep track of your schedule, your memos and your address book, plus maybe a few other simple things. This made it (relatively) cheap.

Later, Microsoft, the company we love to hate, came up with their own competing hardware model and operating system for PDAs, fostering the breed of devices now known as Pocket PCs, among many other names.

This, along with the ongoing need for 3com (later Palm inc.) to make money by selling new gadgets, caused a bit of an arms race (pun intentional). These stylus-based PDAs began acquiring new (expensive) features at a terrible rate. Microsoft coped with this by throwing armies of programmers at the new problems arising from these new devices. The scrawny beast that was PalmOS, however, grew shaky in the extreme at the prospect of things like wireless networking, web-browsing, playing back MP3s while doing everything else, and so forth. Such was the pressure caused by this shakiness that Palm inc. has undergone a long series of personality crises in recent years. These days it is unclear if anyone is really at the helm of the Palm pilot empire anymore, but the fact remains: Palm was cool, and Palm was first. A lot of very cool applications got written for the Palm, and they’re still out there.

Enough history, I miss my point. The point is that this is all fixable. It would not take rocket science to build an ideal PDA today. Here’s how I believe it could be done:

1. Build a new PDA starting with the umpc idea as a template, i.e. use the existing i386-based architecture. Lots of stuff runs on that, and the problems of making it power-efficient like a PDA are already well understood, and largely solved.

2. Put linux on it. Why? Why not? It’s free, and it can be squeezed into embedded platforms just nicely. It has already been done.

3. Give it emulators. This is where I would concentrate the effort if I were a PDA-development firm today: Usefulness is a function of how many good apps there are for your platform. This too, is a wheel that does not require re-invention. If your PDA can run Palm apps, it has a vast library of free tools straight away. Your PDA can do this easily: Palms were slow beasties, and new hardware is very fast. Emulate the PocketPC while you’re at it. If this means embedding a Windows Mobile license, in that particular emulator, so be it. The Pocket PC is a hideous frankenstein’s monster, but the vast majority of modern commercial PDA-apps are being written for it.

4. Don’t be stupid. Right now, at the outset of 2007, the IT industry contains some of the finest minds and the most cunning strategists in the world. Computer hardware and software represent the leading edge in the science of marketing, so why are PDA manufacturers so stupid?

– You need a brand. Palm knew this of old: 95% of the people I know who have ever heard of a PDA refer to all PDAs as “Palms”. Your hardware needs to be in every business magazine on earth, on posters on the side of trams. It needs to have apple-style quirky marketing. It needs to be viral.

– You need a range. The HP/Compaq iPaq range of pocket-PCs might be an example of this, if they weren’t such a higgledy piggledy line-up of nameless one-offs. There is no sequentiality. There is no modularity. Palm today are far worse at this: Seriously guys, three models? One new model every six months or so? And what about back-support? How quickly did the Tungsten T5 become persona non-grata? Why? Oh, and Sharp, wake up and smell the coffee: PDAs do exist in the world outside Japan. If you or someone just siezed the reins, you could expand the existing PDA market by an order of magnitude, and it would all be yours.

– You need a roadmap. Does anyone know? What is the future of PDAs from HP? How about PDAs from Palm? Sharp? It’s not an all-fired mystery: the functionality of a good PDA hasn’t changed all that radically since the Palm 3. Add-ons are how you get your range of similar devices with modular extra features. PC manufacturers can do this in a cyclone with both hands tied behind their backs while whistling dixie. Don’t give me that crap about size being an issue: Mobile phone manufacturers seem to cope, and have you looked at Lenovo‘s line up of laptops lately?

This stuff never fails to astonish me. The PDA market is just so much vastly bigger than the laptop market: only people with desks need laptops. People without desks can still use a PDA just fine. People who have laptops already will spend mind boggling amounts of money to get smaller, lighter ones. Where is the capitalist feeding frenzy? Where is the supply rushing in to fill the demand? What kind of drugs are these people on? Aaaargh!
Manufacturers of the world take note: I am a prototypical english-speaking white male caucasian geek with a good income. My ideal PDA is as follows:

  • Fits in my pocket.
  • Uses a stylus.
  • Runs PalmOS apps.
  • Runs Pocket PC apps.
  • Talks bluetooth to my other gadgets.
  • Is stable as hell.
  • Will be properly supported by the manufacturer for the next three years.

That’s all. It’s not asking a lot, really. All that other stuff (massive storage, phone features, wifi, cameras, proper web browsers, mp3-playback, nice developer support, keyboards, barcode readers, ruggedness, etc.) would be nice, but I can live without it. I expect that if you have a brain, I should be able to buy these features from you as add-ons or upgrades, or even as more expensive models of the gadget I bought.

Why is it not already so?

The passage of time

Time in an office environment seems to pass in two distinct modes, each of them strangely unlike the manner in which time passes anywhere else:

A) Time screams past in great leaps and bounds. This can be exemplified by the deep-hack-mode effect where one gets so far into a task that the outside world disappears, just after lunch for example, and reappears only when the task is complete, in a dark, silent office at 8:00pm, for example.
This can also happen in an exponential way: the snowballing deadline-crisis, where seemingly brief, simple tasks swell to fill unaccountably large amounts of time, and the working day shrinks incrementally until a very slight lateness becomes a vast and insurmountable slippage.

B) Time opens out like ones sense of space when driving out of a deep canyon into the open desert. The space of time between the present and an hour hence seems like a desolate unending trek to rival Sam and Frodo marching into Mordor. Seemingly solid, satisfying tasks melt like butter on a hot day and slip through ones fingers, either because they are blocked, or because they suddenly become trivial, and are done before you can blink. Tedious, frustrating tasks with no clearly defined goal or conclusion are abundant, but they do not satisfy, nor fulfil. All your favourite time-wasting blogs are mysteriously bereft of new posts for what seems like eternity. RSS feeds trickle to a stop and run dry. Google suddenly only returns places you’ve been before. A feeling of temporal agoraphobia sets in, leaving you feeling stranded and exposed, far from cover and visible to high, wheeling predators. There is nowhere to hide, and 5:00pm is impossibly far away.

It’s times like the latter, much too early on a Friday afternoon, when there’s nothing else left to do but turn to your own blog and blather. 🙂

Then, just as you’re about to post your blatherings, for all the world to see, the screen goes blue. Not the familiar blue of the blue-screen-of-death, but an unnerving pale sky-blue. Your computer responds to keystrokes, mouse-clicks, and even jabs at the power button with indifferent beeps. Eventually you manage to shut it down, and then to restart it, cursing all the while at the lost work. Time seems narrow again for a little while: your computer is too slow! It takes too damn long to boot! But then it’s booted, and once again there’s nothing to do but finish that blather.

Someone is trying to tell me something. I just wish I knew what it was…

Five-minute political theory de-jour

Reflecting this morning on the war in Iraq and the recent hanging of Saddam Hussein, it strikes me that Bastard Dictators From Hell seem to show up most often in situations where there are plenty of pre-existing tensions, i.e. racial hatred, extremes of poverty and wealth, massive corruption or organized crime so vast and entrenched that it rivals the government in sheer size.

It struck me that this might be a simple extension of the idea put forward in Fahrenheit 911, namely that ever-present fear is a great way of making otherwise rational people elect (and re-elect) conservative assholes, warmongers, and fascists; i.e, whoever most convincingly beats their chest and screams like a silverback.

If your surrounds are filled with the actual threat of imminent war, and people really are doing their best to kill you, burn your homes, rape your daughters and take your land, this kind of stunt is going to be much easier to pull.

I don’t know enough about the background and rise to power of (for example) Saddam Hussein to really make a cogent wrap of this: Did he gain power, even in part, because he made a convincing claim to be able to Keep The Peace(tm)?

Or, as is entirely possible, have I just been over-reading the shiny V for Vendetta comics that E got me for Christmas? 🙂