Monday, 17 March 2008

just how long is that?

File this one under ridiculous packaging and promises.

I just went into my local Woolworths to buy a few blank DVDs. Fair play to them, they sell packs of 4 for just 99p (that's about $2 to you Amereekans). I didn't want many, and at 25p each that's about the same price as a cigarette.

Which makes them nicely disposable in my book. Not the best for the environment, but they get scratched and ruined so quickly.

Except, it appears, for these ones. These value, WorthIt!, twenty five pence each DVDs comes complete with a lifetime guarantee. HOWEVER - nowhere on the packaging does it say what this lifetime guarantee really is. Here's some options for me.

As long as I live.

As long as the person I give the disk to lives.

As long as the DVD+R format exists (or at least, is relevant)

Until each DVD no longer works, and has reached End Of Life.


I suspect that the truth is the last of those options - in other words - each of these DVDs is good for as long as it's good for. Not really much of a promise, is it?

Sunday, 16 March 2008


Listen here

Yesterday I went to my daughters end of term performance at her Saturday afternoon drama club. She had a solo singing spot, and performed great. I'm a proud father.

They changed the format this time; normally they invite the parents to come an hour before the end of the three hour session for the show. This time parents and other associated family arrived at the very start, and, after the kids had done all their performing, classes started - children and parents. At the end, we performed in front of each other.

I got to play Billy Elliot! As I'm about 12 or so years over being embarrassed about performing in front of others, even if I make a complete tit of myself, I had such fun! We did the scene where Billy stays after the boxing class, and the girls come in for ballet. He joins in and dances. You have no idea how much I enjoyed saying "I feel like a complete sissy" in a totally camped up faux northern accent. I'd jump at the chance to do it again. Wish my life was stable enough for amateur dramatics, but I'm just away too much for that.

I got home and felt happily theatrical. Which led to this mix

Let me share a guilty secret with you. I love musicals. I love musical theatre. I grew up on a steady diet of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Andrew Lloyd Webber etc, which was pretty much the closest I got to music, outside of church and school, until about 1981, when I was about 9 or 10. My dad got given a a portable AM/FM radio cassette recorder when he changed jobs. Joy Of Joys! I promptly discovered the top 40. Not long after, John Peel. The rest is emerging history.
I guess my parents weren't really that into the music of the seventies, and certainly didn't have the money to buy much music, nor the inclination to borrow-and-tape, even on to the Philips reel to reel thing we had. (I loved that machine, it was the one thing in the house I would've saved in a fire)

7th June 1977, I remember being nearly 4 years old, at the Queens Silver Jubilee. There was a pig on a spit getting roasted. Some country dancing, with a caller and everything. I got my photo on the cover of the local paper, wrecking the hay bales that had been put out in place of seats; I guess someone thought I was cute (hmm). Before we went to this do, we watched The Sound of Music on the telly. This must have been in the brief interval after the first TV I remember turned up in the house and I pushed it over and broke it. Made me very unpopular.

I'd hardly seen any TV at my tender age, and I was amazed by this movie. I couldn't believe it. I probably couldn't understand it very well, all the political drama centred around the Nazi invasion of Austria. But the songs! The dancing! The lonely goatherds! It remains to this day one of my favourite movies, and anyone who thinks they're too hip or cool to watch it should just get over themselves. It's a fantastic movie, right from the opening scene - such great cinematography - which is filmed in one take from a helicopter flying over the Alps, and zooming into Julie Andrews twirling around on the greenest grass you ever did see and singing the title track. And the moment when The Captain gets back with the Baroness Schraeder from Vienna, has a massive fight with Maria, then hears the children singing, and (thanks to a little soft focus) you see his heart first breaking and then righting itself as he realises what a crap father he's been since the death of his wife. Oh, and that he loves the children's governess of course. My eyes water every time. Sorry if this factoid makes you grimace, I cry at movies sometimes, okay?

This was my introduction to the world of musicals. I haven't looked back. I watch them on the TV, occasionally at the theatre. I listen to the music, I play the piano and sing. I share them with my little girl. Good family entertainment - even the potential atrocity that is High School Musical is partly saved by a good show tune or two - I just about see past cheesy, squeaky clean American teenagers with a song or two in the mix

So this mix covers a bunch of musicals. I've added to the mix some other music from the movies and TV that I like too. You'll know a whole bunch of these tunes, they're stuck in our collective musical memory. Don't feel shy about singing along.

You can grab it from here (90 Mb). Enjoy the guilty pleasure.

00:00OvertureRodgers and HammersteinSouth Pacific
03:00Numa no Soko no le (The House at Swamp Bottom)Joe HisaishiSpirited Away
04:24Part of Your WorldAlan Menken and Howard AshmanThe Little Mermaid
07:35BarbarellaBob Crewe & Charles FoxBarbarella
10:20Enjoy ItThe Sherman BrothersIn Search of the Castaways
12:27With a Little Bit of LuckFrederick Lowe and Alan Jay LernerMy Fair Lady
16:16Cry BabyMorgan C. Robinson and Lawrence RobinsonCry Baby
19:24Pure ImaginationLeslie Bricusse and Anthony NewleyWilly Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
23:24Who Will Buy?Lionel BartOliver!
30:26White HorsesMichael carrWhite Horses
32:41The Fairy Godmother Song

Adamson, Barton, Dohrn, Gregson-Williams, Smith & Warner

Shrek 2
34:24Bad GuysPaul WilliamsBugsy Malone
36:28Everybody Wants to be a CatFloyd Huddleston and Al RinkerThe Aristocats
38:27Florence's Sad Song (covered by Stuart Staples and Dave Boucher)Joss Baselli and Eric ThompsonDougal and the Blue Cat
41:03It's Not the End of the World (If He's Married)Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Don BlackTell Me On A Sunday
43:14There are Worse Things I Could DoJim Jacobs and Warren CaseyGrease
45:27Theme TuneLaurie JohnsonThe Avengers
47:43Good Night and Thank YouAndrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim RiceEvita
51:59I Have ConfidenceRichard Rodgers (no Hammerstein on this one!)The Sound of Music
55:19Are We Dancing?The Sherman BrothersThe Happiest Millionaire
58:41Hushabye MountainThe Sherman BrothersChitty Chitty Bang Bang
60:32La Valse d'Amelie (version piano)Yann TiersenLe Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain
63:05All the Animals come out at NightBernard HerrmanTaxi Driver

Saturday, 15 March 2008

please sir, can i write some code?

It's really been one of those weeks.

I am a developer by heart. Let's get that straight. I'm not a world class software engineer, I'm too lazy, and my attention span too short, but ultimately I like to get my hands dirty with code and pretend I'm smart. Sometimes people even politely suspend their disbelief.

So what it is it I do? Let's look at a few of the activities for the past week.

I've been at home (which accounts for a mere 50% of my life), and that does colour the week that I've had. I got to spend more time with my daughter, which is what it's all about really, isn't it.

I did some technical due diligence and analysis for a bunch of stuff around partners, competitors etc. This is quite interesting. I get to reverse engineer technical architectures and stuff. Sometimes I get to see the guts closely, sometimes I just search for blogs from the target companies employees. Often a lot of clues to be found there.
Some vague, back-of-a-napkin design work required sometimes with this too. I like that very much.

I tried to get my opinion across with respect to how we identify and "upskill" some of the developer types in the company. Finding myself largely ignored. Getting increasingly frustrated, and showing it, emails becoming much more terse by today. Not fun. Not part of the day job, officially, but I do it because someone has to try, and I got suckered into it. I have some collaborators, who I think are equally frustrated. Rinse and Repeat. Some stains don't want to come out.

Some unwanted "out of the blue" work, trying to justify a renewal for a bunch of developer tools from a very large vendor. There is a fair amount of money involved if the numbers are right. There is a fair amount of money involved if the numbers are wrong. This is hard work, and frustrating too. It's not fun either, nor is it part of what I'm paid - or bonused -to do.

Writing, and reviewing the written word. Some PR, some academic papers, some wiki material. Lots of email of course. This part of life I quite like. Mostly this is the day job. Plus, words are fun. Words are powerful. When I write, people don't realise I am a scruffy zippy with (ahem) fairly eclectic taste in music. (Or a blog named after a saying attributed to the founder of the Hashashin).
What was it they say about the pen and the sword? Most of you probably haven't read the whole quote, so here it is

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself a nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!

Writing rocks. It shocks me how often otherwise smart people fail with basic spelling and grammar, but I've learnt to see past that in them.

Anyway, I've had one of those weeks, where I've jumped from pillar to post, never had the chance to concentrate on anything deeply for long

I did manage to write some code this week - well, I've written it, just need to tidy it a bit, and deploy it. Hopefully you see the results on here next week. The code needs to be cleaned and refactored and commented for that. As you can imagine, it involves the phone. You'll see. It's not that clever, but the code base is not that big either.

I also worked out the code I need to write for an upcoming presentation I'm doing at TechEd Israel (site in Hebrew). It's gonna be fun.

I'd like to code more often. Please sir, can I write some code?

broken windows

Got caught over the weekend with a broken Vista installation. The Cyclic Redundancy check on my hard drive seemed to fail (boot stuck at crcdisk.sys).

Attempted to boot into to safe mode, no better. Sticks at the same place.

Booted with a Vista Installation disk, and did the Shift+F10 trick to fire up a command prompt at the "choose your drive" screen. Ran chkdsk, with all repair options switched on, still no bootee. I can read the files off the disk from the command window, but Vista doesn't like the drive really.

Booted from the Vista install disk again, Shift+F10, attempted to do a System Restore. No luck.

Did the same again, Booted from a Knoppix Live CD, ran ntfsfix. More errors discovered on the disk, but still no joy.

Thanks so much for protecting

I will never - repeat never - spend more than 90 minutes attempting to fix broken Windows. it's faster to rebuild from the tin. Fortunately, I expect Windows to break (normally it's me wot breaks it), every so often so I have reasonably good data backup strategies, starting with separate partitions on a hard drive for "temporary things" like operating systems and "things to keep", like all the stuff in my TrueCrypt files

I did a full format, and zero filled the partition a couple of times at the same time. I have no idea what detritus may be lurking.

Didn't have a slipstreamed Vista SP1 disk handy. So I'll be rebuilding again soon, I keep promising I'll make myself a disk image for rapid reinstalling. You know, one file with Vista SP1, all the drivers for my machine, Office 2007, user account control turned off and various other tweaks that make it actually an O/S that I like to use (go on, flame me), and one that will work with my companies various security tools too.

Anyone else feels like doing a similar thing, making your own custom Vista installation is pretty easy. Start from instructions here.

So I think I end up doing another build this weekend. But at least this will get me a clean machine..

Saturday, 8 March 2008


It's been a few weeks since I last provided my few dear readers with some music to bemuse and delight.And I hope this new offering won't disappoint.

Girls that Glitch.

Glitch Music, for those who haven't come across it, is a genre all it's own. Here's what wikipedia has to say on the matter:

"The origins of glitch music are derived from the failure of digital technology. The effects of failure in technology, such as bugs, crashes, system errors, hardware noise, skipping and audio distortion, can be captured on computers and provide the basic building blocks of Glitch music"

I like the definition. Suits a good amount of this music, but I'm sure a glitch purist, should any exist, would say I'm stretching the genre with this selection. Fair enough, some tracks have real drums. I never really stick with one thing long anyway, I like to twist and shake, and maybe surprise a little once in a while. My favourite time to play music to people is after a party, when everyone's knackered, maybe too wasted one way or another to get a conversation together, and happy to be taken to strange and unexpected musical places.

I've included female voices on every single track. I reckon that glitch music is something which it's obvious for geeks to make, male geeks at that. With this selection I try to show that when you add a girl's voice to glitchy music, it can provide the opportunity to create tunes that are fragile, delicate, and feel like they are just on the verge of breaking.

I think that's what you get here. Cracked, digital rhythms, combined with melancholy melodies, and strange haunting electronic noises. All brought afloat with different touches of femininity. And the occasional wander to slightly safer pastures.

I hope you enjoy it. Grab it from here (106 Mb mp3)

Let me know what you think, so I can completely ignore your feedback when thinking of what to do next


00:00Susanna and the Magical Orchestra -
Hello List of Lights and Buoys
03:51PsappHiThe Only Thing I Ever Wanted
07:37Brisa RochéAt The ShoreThe Chase
10:42Piano MagicWrong FrenchPopular Mechanics
16:01Justine ElectraPresidentSoft Rock
21:01Dntel featuring Jenny WilsonRoll OnDumb Luck
24:33Venus HumDo You Want to Fight meThe Colors In the Wheel
27:46LambThe Night has a Thousand EyesAll in Your Hands
33:25Sophie RimhedinStrangeHi-Fi
38:16His Name Is AliveMarriedHome is in the Head
40:57Björk In the MusicalsSelmasongs
45:28EstheroMelancholy MelodyWikkid Lil' Grrrls
50:01Múm & SjonShe Begins Her EducationMotorlab #2
53:40CocorosieNoah's ArkNoah's Ark
57:36Regina SpektorEditBegin to Hope
62:09Sigur Rós Njosnavelin()
69:02Lali PunaTogether in Electric DreamsI Thought I Was Over That
73:17Lady and BirdBlue SkiesLady and Bird

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Zimbabwe - not getting any better

Just received this open letter from a family friend in Zimbabwe. Thought I'd share. I was there a few years ago, just before hyper inflation and the troubles really kicked off again, and the family I stayed with have left the country, and their lovely home flattened. They were trying to make a difference with equitable employment policies on their farm, and really the anti-thesis of the racism often associated with white Zimbabweans.


I reckon that these are the last days of TKM and ZPF. The darkest hour is always before dawn. We are all terrified at what they are going to destroy next........I mean they are actually ploughing down brick and mortar houses and one white family with twin boys of 10 had no chance of salvaging anything when 100 riot police came in with AK47's and bulldozers and demolished their beautiful house - 5 bedrooms and pine ceilings - because it was "too close to the airport", so we are feeling extremely insecure right now. You know - I am aware that this does not help you sleep at night, but if you do not know - how can you help?

You can't just be in denial and pretend it's not going on. To be frank with you, its genocide in the making and if you do not believe me, read the Genocide Report by Amnesty International which says we are IN level seven (level 8 is after it's happened and everyone is in denial). If you don't want me to tell you these things then it means you have not dealt with your own fear, but it does not help me to think you are turning your back on our situation.

We need you to get the news OUT that we are all in a fearfully dangerous situation here. Too many people turn their backs and say - oh well, that's what happens in Africa. This government has GONE MAD and you need to publicize our plight or how can we be rescued? You can't just say "oh you attract your own reality". The petrol queues are a reality, the pall of smoke all around our city is a reality, the thousands of homeless people sleeping outside in 0 Celsius with no food water, shelter and bedding are a reality. Today a family approached me, brother of the gardener's wife with two small children. Their home was trashed and they will have to sleep outside. We already support 8 people and a child on this property and electricity is going up next month by 250% as is water. How can I take another family of 4 and yet how can I turn them away to sleep out in the open?

I know we chose to stay here and so we deserve what's coming to us. For now, we ourselves have food, shelter, a little fuel and a bit of money for the next meal - but what is going to happen next? Will they start on our houses? All property is going to belong to the State now. I want to send out my Title Deeds to one of you because if they get a hold of those I can't fight for my rights. We no longer have SW radio which told us everything that was happening because the government jammed it out of existence - we don't have any reporters, and no one is allowed to photograph. If we had reporters here they would have an absolute field day. Even the pro government Herald has written that people are shocked, stunned, bewildered and blown mindless by the wanton destruction of everyone's homes which are supposed to be 'illegal' but which a huge percentage of them actually do have licenses for. Please - have some compassion and HELP by sending out the articles and personal reports so that something can be done.


"I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do. What I can do, I should do. And what I should do, by the grace of God, I will do." - Edward Everett Hale

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Converting CCIT μ-law to MP3 using SOX and Lame

This is a problem that has been bugging me for some time, and today I found my solution. Huzzah!

For my work I do a bunch of stuff with the phone network, and the standard that it uses for audio is CCIT μ-law, as described here. Basically this uses an 8khz bit rate, mono PCM (.wav) file. Not quite CD quality, but if you've ever spoken to anyone on the phone, you know that.

Now .wav files aren't really very useful for streaming over the internet, especially as flash doesn't have a great time handling them, especially this weird old-world format optimised for hardware routing. Seems Flash really wants mp3. Which is fair enough, I'm not gonna send a change request to Adobe - it may be that they'll put support in for Pacifica anyway

So, while spending a Sunday afternoon trying to get a demo ready for BlogTalk 2008 (it's last minute, it starts tomorrow!) this is an itch I very much needed to scratch, and preferably using open source tools, and definitely from a command line (which in turn, gets called from ASP.Net using System.Diagnostics.Process.Start)

The tools you'll need are SOX and LAME - you'll need an executable version of LAME, rather than a dll. If you're trying this on an operating system other than Windows this technique might not work in exactly the same way, but the tools are cross platform, so you should find a way.

But both sox.exe and lame.exe in the same folder. Then run this command line (thanks to this old O'Reilly post for pointing the way)

sox -t wav yourinputfile.wav -t wav -s -w -c 1 -r 8000 - rate | lame -b 80 - youroutputfile.mp3

Obviously you'll be changing filenames as you see fit, but the output should be just fine.

Apparently the "rate" switch is deprecated in the version of sox I've got hold of, but frankly, I don't care. This has given me the result I wanted, which is a low quality mp3 file from a CCIT μ-law message that's been left in a kinda voicemail system using the "record" function in CallFlow

Hope this is useful to someone out there! If you feel really brave sox can possibly do this in realtime (ie audio in, audio out, without hitting the file system!) If someone knows how this is done, I'd love them to share.

Now all I need to do is dump the MP3's in an RSS feed. But that should be the easy bit.

Catastrophe Comes to Those who Wait

I read this headline in the New Scientist today. (Sorry, the full article is behind a paywall). It was referring to fossil fuels, and the fact that the strategy of waiting to have better technology before trying to reduce CO2 output is probably gonna doom the planet.

And there's me just flying from Bristol to Cork, when I could've taken a ferry (and a lot longer!). That's my carbon allowance for the year eaten up. Again. Ho Hum.

On a more individual note, there's lots of things we procrastinate about, that could lead to more personal catastrophe, due to the common beliefs that we are superhuman, invincible and that "it won't happen to me"

Do you overeat, or otherwise neglect your nutrition? You might get diabetes or heart disease.

Do you smoke? Could die of lung cancer. Drinking too much booze? Liver disease waits.

Are you neglecting the loves of your life because of work (or worse, football)? They might leave you, or simply not include you in their lives when you need them.

Do you live off your credit card? You could end up sharing financial meltdown along with many others.

The ostrich sticks his head in the sand, and I assure you, that's a strategy that leads to catastrophic asphyxiation for the poor, stupid bird.

Do you write code with low (or pointless) test coverage? It will break - though in this case someone else may have to fix it.

There's so many potential catastrophes in store for us that it's hard to know which ones to ignore. Life's a gamble.

I've made a lot of mistakes in my time, and they nearly all tend to come from procrastination about things that really should be done sooner. I'm reminded of the Sufjan Stevens song, Chicago, that I included in this mix; here's a snippet of the lyrics

you came to take us
  all things go, all things go
to recreate us
  all things grow, all things grow
we had our mindset
  (I made a lot of mistakes)
all things know, all things know
  (I made a lot of mistakes)
you had to find it
  (I made a lot of mistakes) 
all things go, all things go
  (I made a lot of mistakes)

So watch it people. Don't procrastinate. Don't hide the fact that you're doing so, as while the secrets we keep from each other can be part of what makes life interesting, and too much honesty can be a bad thing, if you're hiding bad news from yourself, it will probably catch up with you sooner or later.

Tim Stevens

Tim Stevens
Be Silent