Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Idea: Collaborative Jukebox

I owe this idea to Emma, who mentioned last night having listened to a lot of Stereophonics recently, and had then heard it in 3 consecutive pubs she'd been to in the last week. I think I might've also heard the idea somewhere else before, though I'm not sure.

The idea is for everyone to store on their mobile phone a list of their favourite bands or songs. Obviously space is an issue but there's far too many obstacles to this idea at the moment for it to work yet. Give it a few years!

So, everyone in a pub has their favourite songs listed on their phone, and the pub's jukebox is able to discover devices (eg. through bluetooth) and retrieve these lists. It then builds a profile of the audience from this, and uses this information and some general genre info supplied by the bar (ie. the type of music they normally play) to choose what songs to play.

Whatever gets played is almost guaranteed to please someone in the bar, and it could be a great ice-breaker: when Britney Spears starts playing in the local biker bar, the secret pop fans can be singled out and chucked out. Everyone wins!

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Nine Miles High

I spent the last two days taking yet another break from work to watch Nine Inch Nails play their last UK date on the current tour. I'm quite glad I took two full days off for this because travelling from Heathrow to my friend's house in Greenwich took 3 hours, then another hour to get to Brixton from there for the gig, with similar times needed for return journeys.

Notable highlights: getting to see Julie again, although very briefly and after making her wait for an hour on her own in Brixton because I had her ticket. Sorry once again!

Tavelling across a large portion of London City without seeing any of it, by using the tubes. I did get to see some of the docklands area but not much, and it was far too hot to do any real tourism.

The concert itself. Some choice song selections like Hurt and Dead Souls. I was half-expecting Trent to be a bit introvert, and not really willing to interact with the audience, but he was very energetic and open.

A lady in the queue in front of us using a self check-in machine at Heathrow on the way home. I'd love to be able to slate the poor user interface design, but it was reasonably usable. Some points:

A screen appears asking if I'm travelling alone or in a party. Select "party". A list of all people I've paid for tickets for then appears, each with a tick icon beside it to allow you to checki the person in. On my first use of the machine I tried to hit 2 ticks, but the second press wasn't registered - I had to check in one person before doing the rest. That wasn't obvious, especially since the name list remained on screen long enough for me to hit two ticks.

The woman at Heathrow mentioned above was asked to enter her destination or flight number. On the given touch-screen keyboard she carefully typed "Edinburgh", but the last two characters were dropped (a rather arbitrary choice of a 7 letter limit on destination names). When "Edinbur" wasn't found, the woman checked her flights itenary for what I assumed would be her flight number, then typed "Glasgow". Keith and I struggled to keep straight faces. Perhaps the system knows that all of its desinations have 7 or less letters, but it might be nice to let the user know when the limit is reached and what's wrong with what they're doing.

The same woman's next job was to pick her seat on the plan. The screen displays a floor plan of the plane, with taken seats shaded red, free seats in green. The woman tried to select a couple of red seats, gave a two finger salute to the machine, then chose a green seat. A wee message saying "Red means you can't sit there" might have helped her out.

Idea: Music Listening History

I am still addicted to Audioscrobbler, or as addicted as someone can be to a page of statistics. Just about every time I listen to music on my laptop I go there to see my recent listening habits. I was chuffed when I hit 2000 song plays, and when all 50 of my Top Artists had been played at least 10 times. I visit the page so much I actually donated to it. All very sad, I know!

Anyway, you can download the data for everyone's past listening stats from the site, and I'm toying with the idea of yet another graphics-related project. This one would use SVG (a nice graphics format) to display the relative popularity of an artist for a given user over time. It would show, for example, how I listened to Nine Inch Nails a lot more when their new album came out, and again in the days around the concert in London on Thursday (I'll write up about that soon, I'm sure).

You could select 10 artists from your history and get a comparative line graph of when you listened to them. And since everyone's data is open to the public, you could combine this with a comparison against general trends. Using SVG would allow you to update the graphs really quickly.

Just to clarify, I'm still working on my Masters (honest). These ideas are just floating around my brain, so I may as well write them down in case I forget them.

Idea: Open Source Image Suite

I've been thinking over an idea in my mind for a few days now for a project that is probably beyond what I could do, due to having done very little work with graphics before, but which I still think would be a great benefit to the world of computing. I'll go slowly so that non-geeks can hopefully follow this.

Consider two software packages: Firefox and Eclipse. Firefox is an open source web browser that if you have not tried, you really should. It's far ahead of Microsoft's Internet Explorer with security, and allows for adding extensions written by anyone to give you far more power and more features than you can imagine. Seriously, you need to go and try it out. It's really lightweight (it doesn't use lots of memory) and is just so nice.

Eclipse may be less familiar, especially if you're not a coder. It's an IDE (Integrated Development Environment), which means it lets you write code, run it, debug it, and lots more from within a single program. Eclipse is quite special because it's open source too and so is free to download, and it's designed to allow anyone to write plug-ins for it, similar to Firefox's extensions.

Open source software is becoming more and more common in IT, and there's good reason for this beyond penny-pinching. If more people can see the code behind the scenes, there's more chance of bugs being spotted and fixed. This makes the software more robust and secure. This is all very good, and there's far more to be said for OS software that I won't go into, but it fails to address the financial side of things: how do the people who wrote and maintain Eclipse get paid?

One source of revenue for the Eclipse team comes from the plug-ins written for the system. If someone wants to charge people to use their plug-in, Eclipse get a cut of whatever they charge. Using this model, everyone can use Eclipse for free, and if you want extra functionality, you can get that too, and you might have to pay for it, but you only pay for the plug-ins you want.

As a counter example, consider Microsoft Word. Around the 2000 version Microsoft added Auto-complete (suggesting how to finish a half-typed word) to Word. The cost of coding and testing that feature would be included in the price of every copy of Word 2000 sold. Auto-complete was probably a feature requested by some of Word's previous users, but not all of them. A lot of people would be happy to pay a little less for Word if it came without Auto-complete, but that isn't an option. So with Eclipse's model, users pay for exactly the features they want, and plug-ins are only made for features there is a demand for, not for pointless additions like a talking paperclip that no-one would pay money for (unless you have a passion for living stationery and want to let others share your passion, in which case you'd make the "Talking Staple" plug-in open source too).

So where is all this going? Well I've always wanted a fairly powerful Image/Photo editing suite, but don't want to pay hundreds of pounds for it. I'm not asking for much functionality: something above MS Paint (which I don't think has changed significantly since Windows 95), but not with all the fancy filters and effects available with Photoshop.

I started looking for an open source image suite but only found Gimp (for Linux). I've used Gimp before and found it to be a very different style of interaction to most other image editors, and with a steep learning curve. What the world needs is an open source image editor that has a base level similar to Paint, and with the option to add plug-ins/extensions that give you all the extra flair that the likes of Photoshop offer.

As I stated earlier, I doubt I could create such a system, or even the architecture behind it, without some serious research into plug-in frameworks and the inner workings of image editors. Until then, it will simply be an idea. Still, I think it would be quite fun to try to get a business loan for this project: I can imagine giving a bank manager a guided tour of Firefox, then Paint and Photoshop, and letting him join the dots.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Park Life

Work on my project has been put on pause for the last few days while I took in the sights and sounds at T In The Park. Getting back into my work is proving difficult, not least because I'm still quite tired from the weekend.

Here's a list of things to remember if you go to a festival. I personally would do well to remember these:

1. If you pitch your tent beside a perimeter fence, you might benefit from a quieter neighbourhood, but expect every guy within a mile to use the fence as a urinal. Also expect little sleep due to what seems like hundreds of people either jumping the fence or breaking through it, and the fence being replaced on an hourly basis.

2. Expect anything: on Sunday night, after watching Green Day, Fiona and I went back to our tent to find the front door's zip slightly open.
Me: "We didn't leave the tent like that."

I'd been really paranoid for most of last week about thieving, but had calmed down by Friday night, so this was a bit of a surprise. We opened the door fully, to find the inner door fully open.
Me: "We definitely didn't leave it like that."
Fiona: "That's because there's someone in our tent."

Some random guy was passed out in the tent. A shout of "Oi!" didn't get any response, so I started prodding his back. He stirred, looked around a bit, but still didn't seem to have all his wheels turning. I was pretty angry, shouting at him to get out of the tent, while still unsure if he would sooner attack us than give up his new-found bed, though the longer he took to move, the less likely a beating seemed.

Eventually he emerged, wearing only shorts and socks, with one trainer lying nearby and the other missing. By this time we were starting to feel sorry for the guy, since he hadn't touched anything in the tent (except my sleeping bag which he was lying under), and he was so wasted he's probably still today in that campsite, yet to be discovered by his "friends". So I try to work out where his friends might be:
Me: "Where do you stay?"
Random: "Coatbridge"
Me: "No, I mean where is your tent pitched?"

3. When you park your car, try to remember where you've parked it. Look for obvious cars parked nearby, or count rows, or something. We spent 30 minutes walking around a field of cars on Sunday morning. It's just as well we packed up that morning rather than at night, or we'd never have found the car.

Now for a quick review of the bands I saw:

Death From Above 1979: I missed their first song due to the huge queues from getting into the festival area. I could just make out the tunes I know from within what they played - the bass was too loud for and not really geared for an open stage, especially for a band whose sound relies so heavily on bass riffs. Not impressed was I.

Joss Stone: As expected, fairly entertaining, though she did swear a fair bit - I didn't think that was a good idea for someone I'd expect to have a lot of very young fans in the audience.

Audioslave: The best act of the weekend, by quite a distance. They played their own tracks with a lot of enthusiasum, and the covers were well done too. I would never have expected to hear "Spoonman" played, since it wasn't one Soundgarden's biggest hits, but it sounded really good with the Rage backing. They also played "Black Hole Sun" (Chris on his own with an acoustic guitar), a short instrumental version of "Bulls on Parade" followed by "Sleep Now In The Fire" in full, and "Killing In The Name".

The Killers: Seen from a distance but still within a really packed crowd. Basically, the annoying idiots around us made The Killers difficult to enjoy. All main stage acts watched after that were seen from further back to avoid the same happening again.

Foo Fighters: Still on form, thankfully. Dave was on fire for the first two songs especially, and played far more from the first two albums than expected.

Nine Black Alps: Added to the list of those I wanted to see late on, after pointed me in their direction. Their album "Everything Is" is really good, and they can pull off their material on stage with ease.

Eagles Of Death Metal: Just plain fun. They got the whole crowd going with "Stuck In The Metal (Middle) With You". And they had Dave Catching on guitar, though I doubt anyone else cares about that.

QOTSA: A very good show, but not quite of the quality I've seen them produce before. Perhaps suffering from Nick Oliveri's absence onstage, or from Josh singing songs originally recorded with Mark Lanegan on vocals, though Natasha Shneider did a good job on backing vocals and keyboard.

Green Day: Very much a stadium-style show - lots of crowd participation. They only managed about 10 songs in two hours onstage. Still very entertaining, and made some of their recent songs seem less annoying.

Also seen: Jimmy Eat World, The Streets (briefly), The Bravery

Monday, July 04, 2005

Tonight the BMI Shines

I'm just off the phone with BMI, who have surprised me by having decent customer care.

I booked flights for to and from London for the Nine Inch Nails concert at the end of next week. Iain Wood's been kind enough to give my 3 friends and me some floor space for the night of the concert, and I gave him details of the flights so he could help us get around. He pointed out that our return flight was far too early (8:55am), and we'd be hard pushed to make it.

Very true - I'd obviously forgotten about 1 hour advanced check in at airports, the sheer size of London, and that I might like some sleep after the concert. So I went about changing the return flight time.

BMI's website: select a new time, get a bit shocked by their hidden costs at every turn, enter credit card details, get confirm... No, technical difficulties, come back later or tech support

BMI's tech support: "We can make the booking for you." Great, but the price quoted is more than what's on the website. "You should call the booking line."

BMI's booking line: "Tech support gave you the right price. If you want the website price, use the website(!). Wait a day or two then try again."

BMI's website: select the same time, get a bit shocked by the jump in price by over £100. Panic a bit.

BMI's customer care: I phoned to explain the situation and sweet-talk a discount from them, but the phone's battery died while on hold!

Email customer care: "All the above has happened, can I still get the original price? I have screenshots as evidence(!)"

And after all that, a phone call to say that they will only charge me the standard change of flight charge, so I'm quite well off for that. Commendable practice by BMI.