James Holloway

Founded upon the observation of trifles

Aug 25, 2012

Exciting announcement

Actually, this probably isn't very exciting news to anyone but me, but I thought it was a good idea to timestamp this event. I'm very pleased to be helping out at Scriptogram. I begin today. And though, really, I'm only chipping in, it does potentially raise conflict of interest questions (what with me being someone that also writes about technology for money.) So, I'm mentioning it now so that it's at least on record in a vaguely timely way.

I hope it goes without saying that when I wrote about Scriptogram for Gizmag back in January, that was purely in my capacity as a technology reporter. From this point on, obviously I won't be writing about Scriptogram except for Scriptogram, and perhaps here, on my weblog. I don't make a habit of writing about other blog platforms, but will try to avoid doing so. But, if I feel like I am in a good position to report on something, I'll make a point of disclosing my interests.

I'm feeling my way with all this, but this feels like the way forward. If you think I've got it wrong, do shout.

Aug 23, 2012

Mou haiku

This haiku
Is to test Mou: a
Markdown tool

(Some prescribe a 5-7-5-syllable structure for haiku. They are not to be trusted. And yes, I realize, thematically, this doesn't qualify.)

Aug 23, 2012

(What was supposed to be a post about) iPhonelessness

I've been meaning to get this down for weeks, but for some reason I've still not broken down the mental barriers that prevent me from opening my editor, and simply clacking out a blog post (which, by the way, I am pleased to see others note should still be called a blog post and not a blog). Since last November, work has involved writing on an almost-daily basis. Doing this has instilled a number of habits: some to be embraced, others to be resisted. Unfortunately none of the good habits have spread to the blogging part of my brain, which, apparently, is not the same as the writing part of my brain. I don't know why they're different. I wish they weren't. But for now, at least, they are.

Having started, this isn't anywhere near as painful as I thought it was going to be. In fact, I'm rather enjoying it. Except, of course, this all makes an awful awful introduction to a post about four weeks of iPhonelessness, so I think I'll let it be its own thing about blogging, writing, and what's a bit like (but isn't) writer's block. (I think to be writer's block, you at least have to have an empty page in front of you.)

Jun 30, 2012

Obstructive PR

I want to briefly report a frustrating chain of events that occurred when writing a brief news story on a building concept.

I'm not going to link to the story in question, simply because I don't want to pick on the company involved, because I think this is a wider issue. It's an issue I'm acutely aware of in the UK construction industry, and particularly engineering firms which, with the notable exception of Arup, seem to be terrified of letting engineers talk to the press.

Anyhow – how's this for suboptimal experience for me, the people I'm writing about and, worst of all, the reader?

  1. I track down a press release and a few images to kick off a story.
  2. I send an email to the company involved, asking if there are more images, and asking a few technical questions.
  3. I receive images, and the message that someone will get back to me about my questions.
  4. No one gets back to me with answers to my questions, despite my chasing up.
  5. I write the story based solely on a press release (never ideal, but sometimes necessary).
  6. Two months later, the designer of the project comments at length on the piece, highlighting "inaccuracies" in the story.

Actually, I was slightly annoyed by the choice of the word inaccuracies on a two month-old story about a design concept. Design concepts are apt to change, frequently and extensively. "Updates" would have been my preferred term, but really, that's not the point.

In fairness, I suspect the story may have been out of date from the minute it was published, due to the then-current status of the design superseding the press release. But the release was all I had and the company didn't want to talk. On this occasion, I didn't have contact information for the designers directly involved with project. Judging by the designer's eagerness to speak later, it must have been the PR people standing in the way. The result? A much less useless informative story than it might have been.

This isn't an isolated incident. When writing a much longer story on a different building I was given a flat "no" from a large engineering firm's PR people in response to my interview request. That time I did have the info and went directly to the engineer involved, who was very eager to speak. If that sounds ethically dubious I would add he is a big cheese, so the likelihood of his getting a smack on the wrists struck me as extremely slim.

Also, this is all consistent with my rather different view when working for a large engineering firm. It annoyed me then, and it's annoying me now.

Jun 19, 2012

Dog person / cat person

The next time you hear someone ask someone else whether they are a dog person or a cat person, ask them if they're a cake person or a yoghurt person. In either example, one can be either, neither, or both, surely. I admire any species that thinks they're better than us on the grounds that they're almost certainly right. Therefore I'm a cat person. I also begrudgingly admire absolute faith in the face of contrary reason or abuse. So, I am a dog person. (At least, those are just the reasons I came up with when I asked myself why I like dogs and cats. They're probably not the real reasons. They're nice to stroke and don't (often) maul you or infect you with rabies if you try. That's probably nearer the mark, if I'm brutally honest.)

Jun 8, 2012

Three articles

A quick catch-up to point out three recent Ars articles that may be of interest. If you're into New York cycle hire schemes, OLED lighting, or nuclear strategy, that is.

May 29, 2012

Virgin board gaming

Notational Velocity settings to write Markdown files

We visited some friends for the weekend. Ostensibly the reason for all this was to play Puerto Rico. There were four of us, and none had played it before. If you're not familiar with Puerto Rico, it's a strategy board game rather like Dominion (okay, that's a card game, but it's comparable) or Settlers of Catan. If you had a game shop, you'd put them on the same shelf. Or perhaps on different shelves, but vertically aligned. Anyway. If you're not familiar with any of those games, you're missing out on a renaissance of boardgames: a golden era of strategic, table-top gaming in which luck has been put firmly in its proper place (not eliminated, but far from predominant). Also these games are typically lovely collector's items. If you haven't played any of those mentioned, you should.

But the main point I want to make centres around those words "and none had played it before." Puerto Rico is a highly strategic game, and all of us were in virgin territory. I'm not sure I ever really appreciated how rich a gaming experience those circumstances foster: total beginners, learning together, honing inevitably imperfect strategies. In a sense, it's strategy at its purest. Nelson couldn't have ten or even two goes at the Battle of Trafalgar. He had to get it right first time. Or at least more right than the other guy. Crummy example, but you get my point.

Compare those circumstances to the alternatives. With a set of seasoned Puerto Ricans (if you'll permit that use of the word) you have honed strategy versus honed strategy. That's satisfying, to be sure. But by that stage players are going through the motions. Actually, that's a criticism that applies less to Puerto Rico than other board games, when your strategy must adapt to circumstance, and the strategies of other players, but even so, I can see veterans selecting one of perhaps three or four tried and tested approaches. In a sense, it's a test of who has best honed their strategies. That's interesting, but less dynamic, and probably allows luck rather more say in the outcome.

Even worse is the master against the novice. With a game like chess, which, thanks to it being both ubiquitous and two-player, having your rectum served to you on a velvet cushion is a great experience. All the better to learn, and take on the next opponent. But how many opportunities am I likely to have to play Puerto Rico? I know one couple who own a set. Had they played it a dozen times before, it's not that I wouldn't have enjoyed the inevitable and total annihilation (or worse, patronising concessions), it's just that it wouldn't have been quite as satisfying, and the opportunity to put those learnings to future use would be limited.

I suppose the point I am making is this. If at some point in the future you're tempted to buy a high quality strategic board game, find some fellow beginners to play with for your first go. In fact, make an evening or a weekend of it. Play two, three, four or more games. That's what we did. And it was excellent. It's not that strategic board gaming under other circumstances is deficient. It's that this way it's even more fun. I just hope those guys don't play Puerto Rico before our next visit. I have theories to test.

May 25, 2012

c.f.

Writing a short Gizmag post about an idea from Pensa architects, something slightly peculiar happened. There's nothing particularly notable about the post, but writing it brought to mind an old phrase coined by Dan at City of Sound in 2008. The phrase was "the street as platform." I don't know if or how Pensa's idea, which is basically to adapt sign posts to turn them into mobile phone charging stations, ties into that concept, but I thought it was interesting that I thought of it. This is no insightful connecting of dots on my part, but I realized I'm really glad that something written on a blog in 2008 planted a seed in my head deep enough for me to think "oh yeah" more than four years later.

I nearly posted an atypical c.f. link to Dan's post at the end of the Gizmag article, but I had a nightmarish vision of a couple of Gizmag's slightly more cynical commenters (who I am happy to say are in a tiny minority) might see fit to unleash the snark on a personal blog. And that would have kept me up nights.

So yes. Blogging. It still surprises me.

May 21, 2012

An antidote

I think this blog should be more:

  • Expressive
  • Playful
  • Confident
  • Challenging
  • Personal
  • Wrong

I think this blog should be less:

  • Dry
  • Considered
  • Verbose
  • Infrequently updated
  • Like other things I write

I have no idea how I'm going to go about these things, but I'm going to try. Starting from... about three minutes ago.

May 14, 2012

Getting reacquainted with my music collection

I signed up for iTunes match at the weekend. Ever since I've been merrily ripping my music collection: several hundred unboxed CD filed in a flight case. It's been a joyful experience, getting to know my old , physical music again. I'm only a third of the way through, but there have been some lovely surprises.

Music that sounds better than I remember

  • Plaid - Double Figure (I knew Eyen was sublime, but has more going on than I recall. Assault on Precinct Zero was never a favourite. It is now.)
  • Aphex Twin - Come to Daddy EP (Forgot all about the off-kilter weirdness of Little Lord Faulteroy Mix. It sounds like the soundtrack to an early Ian McEwan short story. But in a good way.)
  • Tortoise - Standards (Just wow. Benway, particularly.)
  • Prefuse 73 - Vocal Studies & Uprock Narratives (this still sounds _incredibly fresh to my ears)

Music I forgot I had, that I've forgotten the sound of, and need to spend time with

  • Autechre - Garbage
  • Cake - Comfort Eagle (except for Long Line of Cars, but then that song is unforgettable.)
  • Elixir - Music, Mathematics, Magic (I recall this sounding dark, but can't put my finger on the sound, which is exciting)
  • A bunch of albums that are either recorded by Aphex Twin under an alias other than AFX, or by people like him/friends of his (and I've forgotten which)

Now that I've binned my Spotify sub, I'm looking forward to being a proper consumer of music again. I'm not going to go nuts. The price of my sub on considered purchases seems like a good place to start. The obsessive in me wants to plug gaps I've identified. I'm lacking Plaid's most recent releases. I don't have nearly enough Amon Tobin. And relistening to Prefuse 73, I really should set about investigating everything he did after VS&UN.

Another part of me wants to fill in my collection with some of my favorites from my web-consuming years. Much of this is in more of an electro-pop area, though in recent years I think there's been some really good indie rock type stuff (I refuse to get more specific with genres, because I'll balls it up and sound like an arse.) Here's where the internet has been a good thing. I used to buy the odd guitar album because I liked a song or two I'd heard, or because of word of mouth, or a glowing review–and then I'd listen and it was like my ears weren't cut out for it. But I think if you compare music of recent years by the likes of Villagers and Foals to what was passing for indie in the 90s ... well, I think the genre's come on. But mainly, I need to buy some Ladytron.

I should probably note at this stage I haven't started on my hip hop collection yet. I'm wondering if, at this point, 90s hip hop (Dad-rap, basically) is my thing. Nothing used to wind me up more than people declaring all hip hop shit because they couldn't be bothered to find the good stuff. I wouldn't dare declare all hip hop shit. But it may be that I can no longer be bothered to find the good stuff.

The iTunes Match element of all this is going nicely, I should add. I'm using a spare Win-box I don't use much with a biggish hard drive to do the actual ripping. I've elected to rip to Apple lossless format. If I buy downloads they'll be FLAC, and I'll use free tools to covert to Apple Lossless. If you're not familiar with iTunes match, it basically makes digital copies of my music collection available on all of my devices. Where my CDs match iTunes store content, it just uses that. But neatly, where it can't find a match, it'll upload my music and then make 256 kbps rips available for streaming and download on my other devices (at least, that's my understanding). This is the technology I've been keeping my CD collection for, I think. This makes more sense to me than running a Spotify subscription. The gaps in subscription services' catalogues are their most frustrating shortcoming. I'll use the free version–but only to investigate music I've heard is good, just to find out if I agree. The final piece of the puzzle is Last.fm, which I'm re-embracing for random discovery and radio-type consumption. It's changed a lot since I used it last, but it's still really good.