Narwhal Circus

…Will be resumed as soon as possible. I’m in bed with a bad cold.

Well I say bed, it’s more the couch, in front of the TV. Sipping a hot drink. I’m recording TV and updating my phone. In the oven, a whole chicken is roasting for dinner. It doesn’t sound much like hardship, and I have to admit it’s not. I’d probably enjoy doing this little – if I was doing it of my own free will.

But I’m cooking the chicken now because on Sunday I was too fuzz-headed to figure out how, and I haven’t written this blog – or done anything much else even remotely constructive – in days. I think the closest I got to creativity was a couple of rounds of the Game of Liff over on my friend Susan’s blog, and even then I faded out almost immediately.

That’s typical in fact. I don’t feel so bad – my inner ears are little diving bells, but there’s no other real discomfort – I just can’t concentrate. Not that I’m a paragon of laserlike focus when I’m well, it might be admitted, but now I’m all, you know, kind of

That was going to be a sentence that trailed off aimlessly, but while I was writing I honestly fell asleep. Weirdly, my attempt to describe reality became the reality. But I feel a bit better for it at least. Maybe today I can write something coherent.

Hoping you’re well.

Cosmography Humour Technology

My First Failed Career

Still not quite finished with that attic, would you believe. Right now I’m cleaning and repacking my old darkroom equipment. Not sure why. Did anything ever become so suddenly and so profoundly obsolete?

Maybe one day it’ll be retro-chic to take analogue pictures. After all, it had so many aspects you just don’t get with digital processing. Like handling poisonous chemicals in the dark. The gear seems OK, mostly. A few negatives chewn¹ by rats who apparently thought film was still made out of cellulose. No harm really, they were of a band I’d covered for a magazine in about 1984. Goth, but with lingering traces of New Romantic. Robert Smith Hair and Simon Le Bon pants. What I’m saying here basically is that the tooth-marks of rats have improved these images.

I wanted to be a photographer for several years. Right up until the day in fact that I finally understood it was real work. You’re running around with a box that has about fifteen knobs on it, trying to capture the moment. Set one wrong, and you lose. This is stressful.

And the costs! The film costs money, the developing costs more money. The printing costs really fantastic amounts of money. Eventually I did my own developing and printing, but it didn’t save much and it was even more hard work – especially as I’d had to settle for the cheapest, crappiest equipment going. This LPL 3301D enlarger didn’t even cast an even light, which is really the least you should expect. Possibly the worst thing ever made in Japan.

I don’t think of myself as a photographer any more, yet ironically I take far more pictures these days. Because I can. Since my camera turned into a phone the cost has become too small even to quantify – plus I actually have it when I see something worth photographing. And whether doing it more has improved my eye or just the odds, I think I get better results. Take that one up at the top there, from last April. That’s closer to being a good photograph than anything I ever took with a proper roll film SLR.

This is a new golden age of photography. And it happened so fast. Imagine if I’d appeared in my darkroom and said to my younger self “Some day soon you’ll take better pictures with a telephone.”

Actually I did, but at the time I just put it down to the chemicals.

  1. I’m quite convinced it’s a word.

What The Hell Is IPv6?

IPv4 exhaustion
The Red Line Shows Remaining Available Internet Addresses

So did you enjoy World IPv6 Day?

All right, there’s a fairly large chance that you have no freaking idea what I’m talking about. To put it as briefly as possible, the Internet is running out of addresses. The old system (IPv4) could only handle four billion of them. And as every computer, phone, tablet and other device connected to the Internet needs one, we were going to break the four billion mark sometime very soon. So, much like when your local telephone system adds an extra digit to its numbers to make room for new subscribers, the Internet is making its addresses longer. The new system is called IPv6.

We do not talk about IPv5.

But adding one digit to a phone number lets you create only ten times as many. The switch to IPv6 is more expansive than that. Seriously more. It will allow for 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as many Internet addresses as now. This is what mathematicians call a “silly number”.

As an end-user you’re not going to notice any difference. The process started years ago, and will take more years to complete. Yesterday’s “World IPv6 Day” was more or less a publicity stunt organised by some of the Net’s bigger names, Google and Facebook among them, to alert the industry to the necessity of upgrading. IPv6 was tested on a bigger scale than ever before and, well if you’re reading this then I guess nothing broke too badly.

So, a good thing then. We needed more addresses for the Internet to keep on expanding. But… this many? It will mean we could all have a few trillion to call our own. My toes can have a Skype account each. You could Internet-enable every leaf on every tree. It’s hard to imagine how you could ever use that many.

And there may be a downside to that. More anon!


Dial C for Panic

A 1999 Ford Transit Ice Cream Van at Heath Vil...
The Chimes of Nemesis

Should you be worried by the WHO’s warning on mobile phones? Well don’t let me stop you. On current evidence you’re more likely to be run over by a taxi – hell, you’re more likely to be run over by an ice cream van playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. But the World Health Organization has decided that they are a ‘possible cause’ of cancer. So if worrying is your thing, knock yourself out.

I know what you’re going to say. All this ‘putting things in perspective’ stuff is well and good, but getting cancer in your brain is f***ing scary. I am forced to agree. But if we take precautions in proportion not to how likely a threat is but to how frightening, we’ll all go around with crash helmets over our crotches in case we ever meet that Amazonian fish that swims up you. That’s the scariest thing in the world.

So how can we properly calibrate our fear with only ‘possible cause’ to go on – are phones extremely deadly, or only slightly deadly? With billions using mobiles, the prospect of them all getting cancer would make any previous threat to human life seem laughable. Perhaps everyone has a time bomb in their head right now. It could be. Many years may pass before cellular genetic damage manifests itself detectably. With little more than ten years’ real-world evidence, how can we know?

Well of course they have been around longer, it was just that they were rare until prices plummeted at the turn of the century. Indeed in the form of carphones and briefcase-sized portables, mobiles of a sort have been with us since the 70s at least. These were different from ours though. They were on different frequencies, they were analogue rather than digital, they didn’t use a cellular system. Most saliently of all perhaps, they created far stronger electromagnetic fields. So it is entirely possible that while the phones used by the red-suspendered bond traders of the 80s were deadly, the modern kind is not.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

The question for the rest of us is, should this extremely vague pronouncement change our lives? Well speaking for myself I suspect that, pursuant of very many poor lifestyle choices, I am already too raddled with incipient tumours for this to make any measurable difference. But while the jury is still out I think it would be wrong to let kids use phones unnecessarily.

Which is to say, at all. Let the pristine little buggers text.


Your Phone Can Replace Your PC

Tux, the Linux penguin
The Penguin Cometh

My big tech news: I have a desktop computer on my phone now.

It’s running Linux, the free alternative to Windows or Mac. With it I can edit Word documents and spreadsheets, create PDFs, do Photoshop-class image editing. The screen is pretty tiny for that kind of thing of course, but it’s doable. In essence, I don’t need a computer anymore. It even runs Firefox. Not the new mobile version you can get for Android, but the full-scale desktop one.

Oh, and it still makes phone calls.

I’d tell you more, but I’ve been messing with this stuff half the night and I take on an even bigger project tomorrow. More of both these things anon.


Thumbs Up

QWERTY keyboard layout - homes keys - Start po...

So let’s see can I do this and cross the street at the same time… OK, no collisions thus far. Bicycles are the worst. Silent and deadly. Like woodlice.

Yes I’m blogging while walking again, using my phone’s thumboard – that is, a keyboard the right size for typing with your thumbs. This time though I’m in an urban environment, which is even more stupid. (Please do not try this at home. Richard is a trained stuntgeek.) Of course we’ve all entered text while walking, on our phones. Some of us have also tried it using the handwriting recognition on a tablet PC, which works pretty well. In terms of speed though the thumboard beats both hollow. It takes two hands, but if you’re texting on an ordinary phone the other hand is idle anyway. Or should be.

So though thumboards may be perceived as unfeasibly cramped they’re actually more useful than the larger keyboards you’ll find on things like netbooks, which are still too small for touch typing but too wide to be used like this. They’re a great invention and deserve a bit more respect.

But back to the local colour. I’m walking via the campus, site of my undistinguished but enjoyable academic career. Those four years seemed to go on forever, yet somehow I could still never find time to study. The place has expanded almost out of recognition since then, and hoardings up now promise that when complete it will be the largest school of engineering in Ireland. Shame, I preferred it as a university.

He may be a geek folks, but he’s still an arts grad.

Humour Politics Technology

No Banks, Thanks

What are banks for now, anyway? A while ago you would have said they were in the business of lending money, but now they’re so in debt themselves they can’t afford to.¹ When we were innocent we were told that they were for keeping our money safe, but there was a woman on the radio this morning whose bank – ‘Permanent’ TSB – allowed someone to set up a direct debit that withdrew the maximum amount from her account each day until it was emptied. Yet they had the audacity to tell her that policing the account was not their responsibility. In other words it is up to us to protect our savings. Apparently, now from the banks themselves.

I don’t want to have an account with any of these bastards, but I am forced to – and they are forced to make money from me. Money they can then blow on unfinished luxury gated communities in Romania. They are clearly useless overfed pigs of organisations, and rationalizing them into a duopoly is hardly going to improve the situation.

You know what is going to replace banks in this country? Not NAMA, not state-run ones, not foreign banks either. Phone companies. O2 now offer a service which is essentially a debit card you can use internationally; something the banks, with their rather half-arsed Laser system, failed to provide. I can go into one of O2’s shops – probably more numerous than banks these days – and put cash onto that card instantly. (You can transfer from a bank account too, but you don’t have to.)

Meanwhile, there are other systems that allow purchases made over your phone to be added to your phone bill, and are therefore new alternatives to credit cards. As phones are becoming all-purpose electronic devices, it is pretty obvious that they are going to be our wallets. And the lovely thing about this is that our fat, useless, greedy banks will be entirely bypassed.


  1. The government is actually talking about turning NAMA into a lender, on the (perhaps flawed…) logic that if it does one thing our commercial banks have disastrously failed to do – manage assets – it can do the others as well.

What Phone Is Right For You? 4 – The Business End

Let’s deal first with the fact that there are two kinds of Windows phone. Microsoft got into the smartphone business early on by adapting the OS they had created for PDAs to be phone-capable. This ran mobile versions of their Office applications, designed to integrate seamlessly with a workplace PC. Useful to some, but of little interest to the general public – especially as the intentionally desktop-like interface makes it the least finger-friendly OS available. The latest version of this is Windows Mobile 6.5, and you are not likely to want it unless you have specific business needs.

Appreciating that the iPhone had changed the game completely, Microsoft came out – surprisingly quickly – with a whole new OS. They started afresh, with one eye firmly set on a pleasant user experience, and the result is an interestingly different interface made up of ’tiles’ that both indicate the status of and act as shortcuts to services like e-mail, SMS, Facebook and calls. Argument will rage over whether it is aesthetically appealing, but it is clearly highly usable.

What else does Windows Phone 7 have? Pretty much everything the iPhone does actually, including an integrated market for music and video downloads. But though this may make it seem just an imitation of the Apple product, a Zune to their iPod, it does have some real advantages. Microsoft are better at games. Each Windows Phone 7 device is a little gaming console, connected to their Xbox Live service. And of course they have taken care to retain their key strength: mobile versions of the Office suite of apps.

So it’s like an iPhone but with some great advantages. Where’s the catch?

Well the big one: it’s not finished. Aside from the fact that there are far fewer apps yet than for iPhone or Android, it’s lacking features that fans of the old Windows Mobile or of Symbian take for granted, like full multitasking, video calling, VoIP (Skype, etc.), cut-and-paste, or tethering (using it as a broadband modem with a laptop).

Intriguingly, similar features were also lacking in the first iPhone. So it’s expected that they will be added fairly quickly. But unless you are a business user with a pressing need for Microsoft Office, it might be better to wait and see what happens. Things should really get interesting when the first Windows Nokias come out next year.

But if you are a business user – or if you just fancy a touch of that urban professional chic – you’ll also be considering the BlackBerry. Manufacturer RIM first made it big with those two-way pagers that send and receive text messages. (Remember them?) This genetic inheritance shows in the fact that BlackBerries as a rule sport full qwerty keyboards and are designed to integrate with your corporate email system. They’re trying to escape the business ghetto too though; the number of apps available is shooting up, and they’re advertising on TV. But for the general user it’s hard to see any real reason to prefer it over its rivals.

Except one: BlackBerries can make an unbroken encrypted link all the way back to their home base, wherever in the world that is, preventing any possible interception of communication. Which is why some governments have banned them as being far too useful to spies and criminals – or to dissidents.

Which, you have to admit, is cooler than most.

Well that’s the businessy stuff. Tomorrow let’s look at phones we might really buy.

Windows Phone 7

What Phone Is Right For You? 2 – But First…

A brief note before we get into the details of the competing phone “ecosystems” – You don’t have to buy a phone that has downloadable apps of course, even now. Virtually every manufacturer still sells plenty low-end models that come as they are, and they are by no means lacking necessarily in features such as cameras and Web browsers – in fact they are often referred to as “feature phones”. They just don’t allow the installation of software, except perhaps some limited games and utilities using Java. Phones like this can represent great value.

But I assume you’re all here for the fun stuff.


What Phone Is Right For You? 1 – The Scene

Image via Wikipedia
It's really time for a new one

As I was saying, it’s never been as hard to choose a phone as it is now. This is far from a bad thing though; we’ve never had so many incredible choices. Phones have changed almost beyond recognition, from fairly straightforward communication devices into something we don’t even quite have a name for yet.

Certainly the term ‘smartphone’ no longer seems adequate. Though there were earlier experiments¹, the smartphone came into its own all of ten years ago now, when the mobile phone and the PDA were successfully merged by companies like Nokia and Microsoft. The magic ingredient: A proper operating system that allowed you to install software.

Since then, other functions have accrued continually. Cameras, Web browsers, e-mail, media players, Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi… Keypads became tiny to make room for Internet-friendly screens. Some – Microsoft in particular – introduced touch interfaces, but made them so crowded that they had to be navigated with a PDA-type stylus. The smartphone seemed full to the point of bursting.

Then Apple made the next great breakthrough, by introducing an interface that was not only sensitive to broad gestures, but which was utterly reconfigurable by whatever program was in use. At a stroke they solved the problem of the smartphone trying to be too many things, by reinventing it as an almost neutral object that could be reconfigured for an endless variety of tasks.

At the same time, they realised that what was essentially an Internet-connected iPod was a fantastic tool for selling things to people; music, video, the software “apps” it would run, and the services those apps could interface with. It was a goldmine. The other main players were slow to recognise this; Nokia and Microsoft so tardy that eventually they had to join forces. Only Google, the one with no previous involvement in phones, could see what was happening and knew what was to be done. They produced Android, now the leading rival to the iPhone.

But far from the only one; there are four or five competing systems, all with their strengths and weaknesses. So though we have great choices, they are real choices. Where once we might have chosen based on fairly trivial factors like appearance, buying a phone now means buying into a system – an ‘ecosystem’ as some call it – of software apps and services. It’s quite a commitment.

By weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of the various offerings however, it shouldn’t be too hard to tell which is the one that suits your needs. These we will look at in more detail tomorrow.

  1. The first real smartphone? Probably the Simon from quiet innovator IBM (pictured above). It may have been an ugly brick, but it was an ugly brick that was years ahead of its time.
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