Paradox of Choice

In his most recent article, John Gruber once again discusses¬†the difference in philosophy between the iPhone and Android. He talks about how Apple doesn’t include features without a compelling reason for them to exist. By way of example, he talks about the front-facing camera on the iPhone 4. Although Android devices have had this feature for a while, Android doesn’t provide a standard, non-trivial way to use it.

He quotes David Pogue’s experiences trying to get video-calling to work. Pogue says

To make video calling work, you have to install an app yourself: either Fring or Qik. But we never did get Fring to work, and Qik requires people you call to press a Talk button when they want to speak. The whole thing is confusing and, to use the technical term, iffy.

Ignoring the ‘iffy’ implementation, something that made me sigh was the “multiple apps” aspect. Essentially, Android users must choose between Fring and Qik for their video chats. Fring and Qik are also incompatible with each other, so if you’re using an Android phone and you want to video-call another Android user, you must first agree on which of these two appsAssuming there are, in fact, only two to choose from you are going to use. It’s not simply a matter of picking up your phone and video-calling the other person. You must first phone or text with them and say “Hey, let’s Fring!“if you’re okay with enverbening a proper noun before actually firing up the app (and hoping it actually works). Can you imagine if voice-calls worked the same way, that you both needed to be running the same app to make normal phone calls to one another?

This reminded me of a recent article by Cory Doctorow in which he summarised his experiences with the latest version of Ubuntu. He talks about how he needed to edit some sound.

When I need to do something new – edit audio, say – I go to the software center and look at what apps exist for that purpose, select some highly rated ones, download them, try them, keep the one I like (all the software is free, so this is easy).

While Cory lists this as a positive, this is precisely why I stopped using Linux on the desktop. Rather than focusing on making one particular app for a particular function and making it great, it seems as if every developer in the Linux/Open Source community has their own idea about how best to reinvent the wheel. And so, rather than having a standard piece of software for audio editing that comes as standard on each installation – as OSX gives us Garageband – it’s left up to the user to find out which one suits them best. Ubuntu currently gives 66 results for ‘apt-cache search audio edit’, each one a software package that scratches a different itch. And while there’s a certain pleasure in taking the time to install and evaluate each one of these 66 pieces of softwareWhich makes me think of JWZ’s terrifically curmudgeonly line, “Linux is only free if your time has no value”, I would say that few of us have that luxury, and we’d rather just edit the audio and be done. After all, the editing is the important thing, not the software you use.

I would much rather a well-curated walled garden instead, thankyouverymuch.

EffecTV - real-time visual effects

There’s a discussion on Thumped about the merits of ‘visuals’ at gigs/shows. Personally speaking, I’m all in favour of some sort of visual show to accompany the music, especially when the music of the particularly chin-stroking variety. Although I can see where many people’s complaints are coming from: it gets very tiring seeing the same handful of movies being chopped up to make a visual backdrop.

So that’s why I think something like EffecTV is such a good idea. Armed with a computer running Linux and a webcam, you can create some pretty interesting visuals in real-time, for a tiny, tiny budget. Installation (on Ubuntu, at least) was a snap. And it goes some way to providing a middle-ground for the people who don’t want to spend the night looking at a DJ nodding his head and people who don’t want to see the same old stock footage soaked in irony.

Here’s a shot of me playing with it earlier - not mind-blowing, but bear in mind that this was being displayed on my desktop in real time.

Side-note: Jesus, I really need to trim my beard.

Domestic Instiki

Since we’ve got broadband again, I’m finally getting to play with all the nifty things I’d had ideas about, but no way of executing. The first of these is a local Instiki server at home.

I use this all the time in work for note keeping and simple project management. At home, I’m finding a hundred different ways to use it.

Like keeping track of recipes.

I like to try out a whole bunch of different recipes. Nothing too fancy - I don’t make my own chicken stock or anything like that - but I do try to go beyond the simple food strategy of meat-and-a-tin-of-sauce. This doesn’t always go to plan. The most recent food-related disaster was my attempt at making a chicken maryland, which turned out squishy and odd-tasting. Live and learn.

Using instiki, I threw together a ‘web’ called “FoodWeLike”, where I’m keeping track of the ingredients of the recipes that work for us, as well as simple cooking instructions. This is mainly useful because we have a central repository of ingredients and recipes (instead of trying to remember which cookery book had what), but any web server (or file server) could do this. Instikis is particularly useful because as well as a way to easily edit these, it gives us the ability to easily categorise the recipes any way we like - for example, “We really like”, “We occasionally like”, and “We don’t like”. We’re also able to organise these into weekly meal plans. And, most usefully, plan our weekly shopping run using a page called “ShoppingList” where we can just paste the ingredients from other pages, or update as we run out of something.

And this is just one a hundred ways Instiki is useful in a domestic environment. Well, our domestic environment.

(By the way, I know this could probably be achieved using any wiki software, but I’m specifically choosing Instiki because of its simplicity of installation and also because, right now, I have a major boner for apps built with Ruby on Rails)

Ubuntu

Every couple of days, the hard drive of the G4 I use in work starts ‘clicking’. Well, more like ‘ke-CHUNK’ing. If I’m lucky, my computer freezes for a few minutes and comes back to life. If I’m not, I spend the next half hour or so rebooting until it goes away.

Finally, I’m facing up to the fact that my hard disk is dying and until I can get a replacement, I’m without a Mac to work on. So I’m giving Ubuntu a whirl.

One of the biggest complains thrown around about ‘free’ software is that it’s only free if your time is worthless. The hours wasted getting things configured just the way you like them do add up. It’s very easy to spend an entire day tweaking your desktop instead of just acccepting what you have and getting on with your job.

The guys in Ubuntu seem to understand this - they’ve packed Debian (the smart choice of a Linux distribution) in such a way that they take all the pain out of the installation and day-to-day administration.

My personal experience is that Ubuntu has detected almost everything I’ve thrown at it - sound and video were auto-configured (and in a nice way too, any previous attempt at auto-configuring my video in the past has left me with a headache-inducing 60hz refresh rate and no obvious way to change it). Bluetooth setup was relatively painless (gnome-bluetooth and gnome-phone-manager took care of this). Today, it even auto-detected my USB keyring and auto-mounted it, putting a link to it on my desktop.

But there are also some things I dislike about Ubuntu. For example, the default behaviour for nautilus (the file manager) is a variation on the new ‘spatial’ nautilus. When you go into a child directory, nautilus closes the parent window automatically. I love spatial nautilus, but hate this behaviour. After a little bit of playing around, I found that it could be changed with the following:

gconftool-2 --type bool --set /apps/nautilus/preferences/no_ubuntu-spatial true

Matthew Thomas recently provided a fantastic round-up of other outstanding issues with Ubuntu.

Other nice things:

  • evolution has some really nice new features aimed at increasing productivity, including an ability to create a task from a message with one click
  • liferea has a ‘condensed view’ option for feeds, a feature I’d previously praised in Pheeder. Even better, this is feed-configurable, so you can set only certain feeds to use the ‘condensed view’. Liferea is still my favourite RSS reader on any platform.
  • beagle is amazing - I know that something similar is going to be available in Tiger, but… wow.

But I still miss Quicksilver. Gnome Launch Box just doesn’t cut it.