Unwrapping the iPod

I’ve had my iPod (4G, 20GB) for a year now, and it has proved to be a fabulous purchase. I love music, and the combination of iPod and AllOfMP3.com has had me listening to more music than ever. It has got me listening to podcasts, too, although I haven’t found many that I like, and that have stayed enjoyable over time. (I mostly tune in to diggnation, Ebert & Roeper’s movie reviews, and The Movie Blog (although their move to a near-daily schedule has–curiously–meant that I listen to it less often).

Via podcasts I’ve checked out a few video podcasts, and it’s these little slices of video that have convinced me that mobile video is actually pretty cool. I never used to think that I’d enjoy–or even use–a mobile video device, mostly because I had only been thinking about watching films on a portable device. For me, a film is something that I take time out for to sit down and watch, either at home or at the cinema. But video podcasts (vodcasts, vlogs, whatever) and TV shows are things that I am happy squeezing into whatever niche my day provides–usually in the background while I’m doing other stuff in the evening.

So when the video iPod appeared last month, I was rather excited. They’re gorgeous things, and I would easily choose one over the PSP, which, despite having a better and large screen, suffers from a lack of storage, and doesn’t have the small and sexy form factor of the iPod.

Seeing the new iPods, and drooling over their clean lines and smooth surfaces, made me think about the iPod that I have right now. Although its tactile nature was one of the reasons I bought it, I had actually been carring it in a bulky protective plastic case for most of the year. The case did a great job of protecting the iPod from the bumps and grinds of daily life, but it also took away the sensual pleasure of just holding the thing. I had been so concerned about keeping it pristine that I had lost sight of why I had bought an iPod instead of any other MP3 player: because I simply loved its design.

iPod naked
With case

iPod in its case
Without case

I’ve been using it without the case for a month or so now, and although it has gathered a bunch of scuff marks, it still looks great. And it feels great. I’ve rediscovered the sheer joy of picking it up and twirling my thumb around the clickwheel to change the track or playlist.

The other effect that unwrapping my iPod has had, is that my craving for one of the new 5G video iPods has (mostly) disappeared. I wouldn’t kick it out of bed for eating crackers, but I don’t need one. The extra capacity of a 60GB model would be nice, but now that I’ve got a strategy for managing my playlists, I’m managing fine with 20GB. Photos and video would both be fun, but the main reason I have and use an iPod is for listening to music, and even with a new model, I don’t think that would change. Basically, I’m happy now with the one I have.

(That doesn’t mean I’m taking it off my wish list, any more than I’m scrapping the idea of buying a Porsche…just that it remains in the “wish” category instead of “need to buy this next time I’m down the shops.” If we win the lottery, you’ll know where to find me.)

What are they showing these kids at nursery?

As I arrived home one evening this week…

Alex: (Running grinning down the stairs with a piece of plastic tube in his hands.) Dad! Dad! This is my boomstick!

This is my boomstick

Me: Your boomstick?

Alex: (Brandishing the plastic tube proudly) Yeah!

Me: Your boomstick. Um…..

Abi: (Calling through from the living room) It’s his broomstick. He’s Harry Potter.

This is my broomstick

Me: Ohhhkay.

(For the uninitiated, here is the full quote from Army Of Darkness: “Now listen up, you primitive screwheads. See this? This… is my boomstick! The 12-gauge double-barreled Remington. S-Mart’s top of the line. You can find this in the sporting goods department. That’s right, this sweet baby was made in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Retails for about $109.95. It’s got a walnut stock, cobalt blue steel, and a hair trigger. That’s right. Shop smart. Shop S-Mart. You got that?”)

Using virtual machines for development

Although I’m still enjoying my Mac, I’m spending most of my time on my Windows machine at the moment, because that’s where I’m doing most of my current development work. And after having merely dabbled with virtualization technology for a while, I’ve now made the full and complete move into the world of virtual machines (for development purposes, at least).

I did a clean reinstall of Windows back in August, and I had every intention of keeping it nice and clean and shiny…for at least a few months. Well, that didn’t quite work out. Download fever hit, and the normally slow accumulation of cruft turned into an avalanche of demos and betas. Then last week the PC said “forget it”, and refused to start up properly. It would get me into Windows, but without sound, network connectivity, or a clutch of other essential services.

Rather than wiping the hard disk and doing another reinstall, I tried doing a Windows “Repair”, i.e. sticking the Windows installation disk in the drive, and just letting the setup process smear itself all over the existing installation; and that did the trick. Incidentally, this is also where I first noticed that if you have a Google account (e.g. through Gmail), Google is now tracking links you have visited, and tells you if you how often you have visited a link before, and when the last time was you went there (via Google’s search results). Fortunately, I’ve given up on finding Google’s tracking behaviours creepy and intrusive.

Google's tracking information

Anyway, where this is all going is here: no more installing development tools or random crap on my main machine. It all goes into Virtual PCs now. I’ve created a couple of “base” VPC builds:

  • Vanilla Windows XP build (XP with all service packs and hotfixes, and Firefox.
  • Vanilla Visual Studio 2003 build (as above, but with VS2003, IIS, SQL Server, MSDN Library, FileZilla, and a few other basic widgets)

I’ll create more base builds when they become necessary (a Visual Studio 2005 build will happen very soon). Each project I’m working on now has its own virtual machine, cloned from one of these base builds. No more worrying about software I’ve installed for one project interfering with another, because they each have a whole machine for themselves. The virtual machines are portable, so I can bring them with me on my laptop; and if I need to reinstall Windows on my main machine, I no longer have to worry about all the pain and hassle of getting my development environment up and running again, because it’s as simple as grabbing a copy from my backup disk.

It’s very, very cool, and I should have done this a long time ago.

The only downside is that my Windows PC is a couple of years old now (Athlon 2500+, 1GB RAM), and using Visual Studio in the virtual machines is definitely slower than working on the host hardware. Not intolerably slow, but slow enough to make me wish for a multi-processor or dual core workstation upgrade, with another Gig of memory, so I could have more than one VM open at the same time. But this would also mean getting a new motherboard, which then means a new video card, and it all starts to get expensive rather quickly.

Never mind. It’s good enough for now, and it is more than worth it to avoid the hassle of software interference.

Some games played

I finally finished playing Half-Life 2 last week, a year after I first bought it. When I started playing it last year, I got about two chapters into the game, and lost interest, or never really had the time to take it any further. In the two week break from work I’ve just had, one of my goals (despite setting out to achieve as little as possible in this time) was to play the game through. And it was good. Excellent, in fact. It’s tremendously atmospheric, mixing dystopian science fiction with zombie horror, with gameplay ranging from mindless all-guns-blazing assaults to physics-based puzzles. Beautiful graphics and (relatively) lifelike animated characters contribute to a feeling of total immersion throughout the game. I was glad I had long stretches of time to devote to it completely, because it tended to suck me in for hours.

I think that Half-Life 2 will probably one of the last games I will ever play on the PC, though. The PC is the platform of choice for first-person shooters, strategy games, which I don’t tend to like any more; and on-line role-playing games, for which I don’t have the time. Most of the games I really enjoy, like Star Wars Lego, the Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank series, are console games. We have four consoles sitting under our TV, and I much prefer switching on one of those than firing up something on my PC. It’s partly the games, but partly also the experience: I can sit on a comfortable sofa rather than on my desk chair, and even though it may be a single-player game, it’s more pleasant for Abi or the kids to sit and watch.

The console game that is stirring up my interest at the moment is SSX On Tour, which Julian brought up with him while he was staying with us this weekend. SSX Tricky was one of the first games I bought for the PS2, and I must have spent well over a hundred hours playing it–it’s one of my all-time favourite games. SSX 3, the follow-up, wasn’t nearly so enjoyable. I felt that it lacked character, the very thing that made Tricky so entertaining.

In SSX On Tour, though, a lot of that character is back. It’s interface is streamlined, which makes it easier to flip from event to event. It has lots of little challenges, ranging from amusing to seriously tough, that kept me coming back for more. And even though you can’t choose pre-defined personalities to play with and build up over time, the tour ranking table looked like it would provide me with a challenging long term goal to aim towards.

Jules and I played it a lot over the weekend, and I’m kinda missing it now that he’s taken it back home with him. Good thing my birthday’s on the way 🙂

Revenge of the Sith – a second look

I just watched Revenge Of The Sith for the second time (we got the DVD yesterday). And you know what? I think it improves with a repeat viewing. Away from the hype and the suspense surrounding the big question of how Lucas was going to wrap up the decades-spanning epic, I found that I was able to absorb the film more easily. Now that I know what’s going to happen, things make more sense when they do happen. The film’s structure and plot feel a lot more solid, and the emotional moments resonated more strongly–in particular the Order 66 sequence.

Of course, the dialogue is still atrocious, and the actors’ delivery of it is poor. But I think now that if you were to rewrite the script on a line-by-line level, while leaving the scenes in place and in the same order, it might very well rock. No doubt Lucas will be more interested in tweaking the special effects in future years, though.

When I reviewed it earlier this year, I gave it two and a half stars. I’d be happy to give it three and a half now.