5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Me

Kev tagged me with the “5 things you don’t know about me” meme last week. I considered doing an “Amazing…But False!” selection (as the set of things that people don’t know about me encompasses more than just true facts), but I eventually decided on a David Cronenberg body horror version.

1. My thumb bends back at an abnormally large angle

My thumb bends back too far

I used to think that everyone’s thumbs did this. Apparently they don’t.

2. I can make freaky zombie hands by bending just the top joints of my fingers

Freaky zombie fingers

Many people find the sight of this to be the visual equivalent of nails scratching down a blackboard.

3. I can manipulate my eyebrows to an unusual extent.

I can do left and right independently, and an extreme innner raise. This is not too uncommon, but can you raise the outer edges of both eyebrows together? I can.

Raising both eyebrows at the outer edges

(Note: eyebrows + sneer = rather sinister!)

4. I can turn my left and right eyeballs inwards independently.

Left eye looking inwards Right eye looking inwards

Last year Liza showed me a trick for making the eyeballs look outwards rather than inwards, but I haven’t put in the necessary practice to pull this off yet. (What, you think maybe this kind of thing comes naturally?)

5. I can do a respectable impression of a Cardassian without any make-up or prosthetics.

Cardassian neck

Okay, that’s enough flesh for the moment. Out of spite, I shall now tag:

2006 in review: Music

Although I may have been slacking off on books and films in 2006, it was an excellent year for new music coming my way. I’ve already posted a selection of my favourite tracks of the year as Radio Sunpig, so now it’s time to talk about artists and albums. I’m not going do this in a “Top 10” format, because trying to come up with some kind of ranking made my brain hurt.

Instead I’m just going to take a meander through the year. Because I’m a bit anal about tagging my iTunes library with stuff like the date on which I ripped/downloaded songs, I can actually come up with a timeline of what I’ve been listening to over the year–working on the rough assumption that I spend most of my time listening to an album fairly soon after I get it.

(In case you’re wondering, the trick to this is to use the “Comments” field in the iTunes’ song info. This is a free text field, so you can write whatever you like there, but I prefer to stick to a fixed format: “sunpig:acquired=YYYYMMDD;sunpig:source=ACBDEF“. By making sure the date is always the first piece of information in the field, and written as YYYYMMDD, I can sort my library by the comments field, and have everything nicely ordered. I can also create a Smart Playlist that includes everything I got this year by making a selection based on comments that contain the string “sunpig:acquired=2006”.)

Smart playlist selection

Arcade Fire - FuneralOne of the first notable albums I came across this year was Funeral by Arcade Fire. My cousin Cameron recommended them to me, and Kev told me not to give up when it didn’t resonate with me straight away. It’s a slow burner, though, and I’m glad I stuck with it.

January was also the month for Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli), Eye To The Telescope by KT Tunstall, the fabulously energetic Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not by the Arctic Monkeys, and Hypnotize by System Of A Down. Hypnotize is the second part of their Mezmerize/Hypnotize diptych, but the weaker of the two, I feel. It rocks hard, but has fewer easy hooks than its predecessor. (And goodness knows I’m a sucker for easy hooks.)

Frou Frou - DetailsImogen Heap appeared on my radar in 2005 with the song “Hide And Seek” and the album Speak For Yourself. In January I bought tickets to see her on tour later in the year, and also stocked up on her back catalogue: I, Megaphone, her debut album, and Details under the guise of Frou Frou, which was a collaboration between her and producer Guy Sigsworth. I, Megaphone is quirky, spiky, and full of melancholy romanticism. With Details, the quirkiness remains, but the spikes are polished down to a perfect blend of electronic beats and Heap’s clear and airy voice.

Skipping ahead to the end of April (because it took me quite some time to digest everything I bought and downloaded in January), the Imogen Heap concert was a very stange affair. The venue was The Arches in Glasgow, and the crowd was raucous, rowdy, and unafraid to whoop and holler in a half-drunken West Coast way. Zoe Keating was the opening act, and we could hardly hear her fabulous cello work. When Imogen Heap came on, she looked tentative, genteel, and completely out of place. She nonetheless managed to shut the crowd up with a solo a capella rendition of “Just For Now”.

The rest of her performance was a mixture of the refined and the uncomfortable. She was at her best when she was alone with her laptop and keyboard, looping her voice and showing off the fact that she is a classically trained pianist. But for some of the livelier tracks from the album such as “Daylight Robbery”, she let a background recording take care of the guitar-laden music while she danced around the stage with just a microphone, trying hard to work the crowd. Unfortunately, she just looked awkward, gangly, and somewhat embarrassed at the lack of a full-size backing band. I’d like to go and see her again, but only at a more intimate venue, with a quieter and more attentive audience.

Zoe Keating - One Cello x 16: NatomaI had never heard of Zoe Keating before seeing her name on the bill. Because I like having a sense of who I’m going to see, I bought her album One Cello x 16: Natoma beforehand, and loved it. It’s cello music, but not like you’ve heard before. She builds up the songs by recording and playing back multiple loops, so that it sounds like there’s a stage full of artists playing the song, when in fact it’s just one person. And she does this live. If you get the chance to go and see her in concert, take it.

It was around this time that I started listening to the stack of Tragically Hip albums that Woody had given me, and I think there was about a month where I listened to nothing else. They rock. In amongst awesome albums like In Violet Light and Day For Night were a couple of live performances, too. This is a band I must get to see.

Ghostface Killah - FishscaleI bagged another large batch of tunes in late May, including Fishscale by Ghostface Killah, At War With The Mystics by the Flaming Lips, and How We Operate by Gomez. Fishscale is a fantastic example of modern gangsta rap: it’s full of guns, drugs, and misogyny, but also features clever storytelling, sly pastiche and odd moments of thoughtul nostalgia. The beats are fat, and the rhymes are slick. At War With The Mystics is a worthy follow-up to Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and was the soundtrack to my trip to the @Media conference in London in June. Every time I listen to it, I get flashbacks to walking the streets from Victoria to the QEII conference centre. The Gomez album is full of great songs and great melodies that you find yourself humming along to by the time the second chorus rolls around.

July saw me listening to a lot of Muse. Black Holes And Revelations hits the sweet spot between ridiculously overblown prog rock and radio-friendly tunes. August brought The Misery Index: Notes From The Plague Years by Boysetsfire, which is also magnificently loud and energetic, but in a much more straightforward way.

In September new album Barenaked Ladies album was released: Barenaked Ladies Are Me. Selected download locations allowed you to grab the “deluxe” edition, which had 27 tracks on it rather than the 13 on the standard version. (I believe the extra tracks are being released on a follow-up album, Barenaked Ladies Are Men some time this year.) Although I liked some of the tracks on their previous effort Everything To Everyone, it was a weak album compared to their earlier work. BLAM, however, sees them back at full strength. The lyrics are everything I expect from the BNL– playful, insightful, sad, and political–while the melodies are strong, singable, and delightful. Now if only I could get to see them in concert again! I’m holding out a slim hope that they’ll do some a few more dates in Europe later in 2007.

The New Pornographers - Twin CinemaFinally, in the week before I started to compile Radio Sunpig, I stumbled across the album Twin Cinemas by The New Pornographers. Now, taken on its own this would probably stand up as my favourite album for the year: it’s pure perfect pop. But this album was also my introduction to Neko Case, whom I am now declaring as my favourite artist of 2006.

Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings The FloodAfter falling in love with her voice on Twin Cinemas, I downloaded her 2002 album Blacklisted, followed by Fox Confessor Brings The Flood from 2006, and more recently Furnace Room Lullaby (from 2000). Now, I don’t listen to a lot of country/alt-country/folk music, but Neko Case could change all that. Her most recent work (Fox Confessor) is the least traditional of the three I’ve listened to, but Furnace Room Lullaby is unmistakably country. And I like it. Hell, I love it. It’s sweet, melancholy, and soul-wipingly emotional. I’m disappointed that I missed her UK tour in November, but at the time I’d never even heard of her. She’s doing some touring around the West Coast of the US and Canada in February, and just like with the BNL, I’m hoping that maybe she’ll add some dates I could make (like in March/April, when we’ll be in California).

So there you have it–my year in music. You’ve got alt-classical, hardcore rock, gangsta rap, lots of alt-pop-rock, and a healthy portion of alt-country to top it all off. At the risk of sounding smug, sometimes I love the way I love music. 2006 was a damn fine year for tunes.

2006 in review: Computers

I can trace the lineage of my PC, Frankenstein, back to 1995. He was originally built as a Pentium 100 with 8MB of RAM and a 1GB hard disk, and has been upgraded piece by piece ever since. Earlier this year he received one of his largest single upgrades in the form of a shiny new case (Arctic Cooling Silentium T1), new motherboard (Abit AT8, with silent cooling), new CPU (Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core 3800+), new graphics card (Gigabyte Radeon X800 XL with silent cooling), and a chunky new 320GB SATA hard disk. Whenever I make a large change like this I expect to have some teething troubles (driver issues and the like), but nothing quite like this.

Arctic Cooling Silentium T1 caseFirst of all, although the Silentium T1 is a gorgeous case with fantastic quiet cooling features, it is mostly incompatible with the AT8 motherboard. The AT8 has its IDE connectors mounted face out on the edge of the board, rather than facing outwards. Because the T1 is such a snug fit for an ATX-sized motherboard, this means that it’s almost impossible to actually plug in the IDE cables. In order to get the cables to fit I had to remove the primary internal hard drive enclosure (a sleeve of solid aluminium, mounted on heavy-duty rubber bands to dampen vibrations) and shave a few millimeters off the IDE cable connectors with a knife before I could get them to fit. And then I found that after having pried the drive enclosure out of its moorings, I couldn’t strap it back in again.

Secondly, the T1 uses some bizarre plastic brackets for fitting secondary internal drives (DVD drives et al.) and provides no instructions for their use. Through trial and error and judicious use of extreme force, I got the DVD and floppy drives fitted, but I’ve got a strong suspicion that they’re actually just wedged in solidly but at random.

(A floppy drive? In 2006? How quaint. It’s all because Windows XP is blissfully unaware of SATA, and requires drivers to be loaded up from a floppy disk when you install it. Actually, that’s not entirely true. If you have the knowledge and time, you can create a slipstream XP install disk which has them built in. Also, the Abit motherboard provides an “emulated PATA” mode for SATA drives, which fools XP into believing that it’s using an IDE drive, so you don’t need the drivers in the first place, but that somehow feels like cheating.)

In all the years I’ve been building PCs, this was the most frustrating set of components I’ve put together. If you’re thinking about buying a T1 case, I strongly suggest making sure that your motherboard does not have side-mounted connectors.

Anyway, with my hands bandaged up from the cuts and scrapes, the software install should have been easy, right? Well, sort of. XP went on, and the Radeon graphics drivers (normally a pain in the neck) came up without a hitch, and my apps installed smoothly. In moving up from a single core Athlon 2500+ to a dual-core 3800+ CPU I noticed very little speed difference in everyday tasks, but there did seem to be a decent performance increase when running my virtual machines under VPC 2004. But there were a lot of crashes and freeze-ups.

This was not comforting. I am used to XP being rock-solid stable, but I was finding myself rebooting on a regular basis. Reinstalling XP didn’t help, the problem was getting worse, so naturally I turned to the hardware. And that’s when IT HAPPENED. Memory check: OK. Hard disk check: chucka-chucka-chucka… Crap. Scandisk showed bad sector after bad sector, followed by a complete failure to come back to life. Hard disk failure again.

Okay, I could deal with that. After previous data loss terrors, I now have a good nightly backup routine going with Backup4All, and as I hadn’t been placing enormous amounts of trust in the rebuilt Frankenstein anyway, I was confident that I’d be able to recover everything from the external backup drive. Oh, poor naive me.

You see, I had noticed–but not paid much attention to–the external drive’s habit to occasionally disappear from Frank’s drive list, and not to reappear until after I rebooted–so long as it wasn’t switched on at boot time, because then it would stop Frank from booting up at all.

Note to self: pay attention to odd hard drive behaviour, not matter how innocuous it may seem. As it turned out, the external drive was also junk.

Deep breath. Perhaps it was just a faulty drive controller in the disk’s enclosure? I removed the drive and tried mounting it directly on an IDE channel, but no. It was gone, gone, gone. I could get the BIOS to recognize it, but that was as far as it went. Both my primary disk and backup disk had gone down the tubes at exactly the same time. What are the chances?

Skip to the end–by using an Ubuntu live CD and a (veeeerrrrryyyy slllooooowww) copy of HDClone, I managed to recover almost all of my data from the primary disk. All of my MP3s and photos were on the secondary internal drive, which was unaffected. The external drive turned out to be a paperweight.

All’s well that ends well, right? Well, no. The following month, the 400GB external drive attached to my Mac Mini also died. At least all it took down with it was about 150GB of ripped DVDs for which I own the original media. Sigh. At least two of the three drives were still under warranty, and the manufacturers (Maxtor and Hitachi) replaced them quickly and efficiently.

Lessons learned:

  • Sometimes, even doing nightly backups isn’t enough. (Although the odds are pretty good most of the time.) A better strategy would be a mirrored disk (RAID1, or an external disk clone using something like CCC) to allow for continuous operation, combined with an off-site backup for those total panic situations. On-line backup services (such as Carbonite) are very affordable now, and even big (300GB+) external USB hard drives are cheap enough that you can buy a couple of them for a rotating off-site backup schedule.
  • I used to enjoy building my own PC exactly to my own specification, but the effort is now surpassing the pleasure. I hardly play games at all on Frank any more (it’s consoles all the way for me now), and so I don’t need to sweat the best mileage out of every component. So: my next computer is going to be pre-built.

In fact, my next computer is going to be a Mac. The Mac Mini I got in 2005 (the original G4 version) just wasn’t fast enough to take over as my main machine, but it gave me a taste for OS X. (Right now it’s acting as a combined development web server and DVD player.) Now that the whole Mac line-up is running on super-fast Intel Core processors, the performance penalty is gone. And with Parallels as a mature virtualization product for OS X, and VMWare’s Fusion just around the corner, I don’t see any problem with running all my Windows apps inside virtual machines.

I run all of my personal software development projects inside VMs already. At home, most of the time I’m running iTunes, a couple of browsers, a couple of text editors, and a handful of other bits and pieces. If I want to fire up Visual Studio, I spin up a VM. This suits me fine, because it keeps Frank lean and tidy, but it also means there’s no software binding me to Windows as my primary OS. If I have to run VM to do perform a specific task anyway, then I can just as easily do that from OS X as from XP (or Linux, for that matter, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s still ass-ugly).

iMac 24 inchI’m thinking that 2007 might be the year of the Mac. Not sure what flavour, though. MacWorld is just around the corner, and I’m curious to see what it will bring. I don’t think I’d go with another Mini (just a bit too limited). I don’t do much computing on the move, so I’m not sure if a MacBook Pro would be right for me (a plain MacBook again would probably be too limiting). A Mac Pro would be lovely, but may be too much for what I’d use it for. Surprisingly, I find myself musing about the 24″ iMac. I’ve finally come around to the whole dual-monitor setup thing, and I’m starting to find my current 20″ display (a Dell 2007FPW) a bit cramped, so a Mac with a large built-in monitor sounds rather nice…

2006 in review: Books

One of these years I’ll manage to average a book a week. By the half-way mark of 2006 it looked like I might make it in 2006, but then I started a contract where driving to work was more practical than taking the bus, and boom, there went my reading time. And with a final tally of 33, yes, that means I only read a book a month since July. Gah.

Cassandra French's Finishing School For BoysSo what have I been loving? Well, the stand-out title of the year for me was Eric Garcia’s Cassandra French’s Finishing School For Boys. From the cover, it looks like a sterotypical chick-lit novel. The first few pages read like the stereotype of a chick-lit novel. But once you get past that, it turns into a delightfully strange kidnapping caper set against a Hollywood movie studio background. The added knowledge that Eric Garcia is the author of the outlandish Rex dinosaur detective series and the inventive con novel Matchstick Men should be enough to tell you that this Cassandra French is anything but stereotypical.

Revelation SpaceI also tucked away Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series: Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap. It’s big, thick, meaty space opera that you can really sink your teeth into. I made a false start on Revelation Space a few years ago, but picked it up again at AlanR’s urging. It is a bit slow to start, but once you get in to the heart of the story, it’s a great feeling to realize that there are another three 600-page doorstops to carry on the story arc.

Make Love! The Bruce Campbell WayRobert Charles Wilson’s Spin is excellent, and a deserved winner of this year’s Hugo award for best novel. Christopher Brookmyre’s All Fun And Games Until Someone Loses An Eye is a fast-moving wise-cracking wish-fulfilment adventure yarn in which an ordinary woman is plucked out of her comfy Scottish life and plunged into a world of espionage and hi-tech mercenaries. And of course, Bruce Campbell’s Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way is a wickedly entertaining tale of his (fictional) attempts to prepare for a role in Mike Nichols’ (fictional) star-studded film Let’s Make Love!. Maybe it’s something best enjoyed by Bruce Campbell fans, but let’s face it, people, who isn’t?