Next Year

Looking back is never usually a good thing. Last year’s resolutions surrounded two main targets – lose more weight and getting more hands on with programming. Well, one out of two ain’t bad.

A picture saves a thousand words:

Weight Loss 2008

After my last weight update I wanted to lose five stones in total. Unfortunately I didn’t make that target. Since Sep 07 I’ve lost four stones and 13 pounds. One lousy pound short of my target. Grrrrrrr. Never mind, I’m pretty pleased with the weight I’ve lost and I’ve done better than I thought I would when I started back in 07. I’ve not done the same amount of exercise in the later half of 08 as I did in the first six months but something that’s obvious to me (and everyone else!) is that without further diet changes I will put the weight back on slowly but surely which is obviously not what I want to do.

So the year ahead will see some more work on the weight and another target – get another stone off. That will take me down to around 13 and a half stones which I think is good for my height/frame and make a total loss of six stones from when I started in Sept 07. BMI will still be higher than recommended but that’s a guide only and not something I’m going to treat as a hard and fast target.

I’m also taking up hill walking. Got most of the gear now (waterproofs to buy – maybe I don’t need them for hill walking in Scotland ;-)) and first proper walk should be in the next four weeks or so with one taking place each month. Should also help with another thing I need to work on – taking more photographs. I know what I need to do but like most peoples resolutions that’s not the issue – it’s getting my ass in gear – that’s the issue.

Last year also had a ‘must get into programming more’ statement. That worked, not! Don’t know how yet but I want to set aside some time, regular time at that, to program for the iPhone.

Written down it all looks pretty simple. Happy new year folks! Hope you have a good 2009.

Blog Updates

With work finished for the year (and by that I mean I’m not dialling in to work again as I would end up doing ‘stuff’) it’s given me time to make a few tweaks to the blog. So, in no particular order:

  • On the hosting side moved from PHP 4 to PHP 5. No noticeable improvements or issues except that I can now run a few extra plugins that were PHP 5 only.
  • New WordPress, new theme. I’ve moved to using Depo Clean which I’ve always liked. Hardly any tweaks – made it slightly wider and gave the sidebar slightly more room and that’s it. Still need to think of a catchy tagline.
  • Dropped the number of plugins I was using which has speeded things up a bit.
  • Added Lifestream plugin which I really like. Seems to work quickly and so far without errors.
  • WordPress 2.7 back end is very different. I actually like this over 2.6 except it still feels sluggish. So I’ve removed some dashboard entries which has helped and also moved to turbo mode using Google Gears. This install, for me, was really messy and I constantly had to enable/disable gears and refresh the install page. Now that it’s complete there is a small but worthwhile performance increase.

That’s about it really. Now onto the important matter – content. I’ve got a handful of draft posts that I either need to finish, but they might not exactly be relevant now, or ditch and move on. Finding time to blog has been difficult. Even knowing what to blog has been difficult, especially as Twitter works so well for firing off quick one liners and links. Still, I’ve a few posts that I do need to get completed over the next couple of weeks so we’ll see how it goes after that. I can never see me shutting the site down but I would like to post more so it doesn’t feel so stale. Ahh, so fuck- who cares if it’s stale. It’s my site, I’ll blog when i want to! Mmmm – there’s a tagline in there methinks.

BBC's HD Test Card

Calibrating your HD TV is never straightforward. Lot’s more settings than a standard SD set and if you use an amp for your surround sound you will potentially get lip-sync issues too. You can pick up a calibration disk – Digital Video Essentials on Blu Ray for example which will step you through calibrating your TV. You can also use any THX DVD’s as they will include a THX Calibration tool that helps you tweak your setting (Wall-E also has a nice calibration tool as well). Another way of calibrating is to use the newly added BBC HD Test Card which broadcasts a number of times per day on the BBC HD channel.

Andy Quested has posted up a great tutorial on the BBC Internet blog that takes you through how to use test card to not only calibrate your screen settings but also adjust audio settings to fix any sync issues. It looks like the trickiest part of the process is recording the 2 tests. Directly from Andy’s blog post – the HD test card is just over 1 hour into the promo and the AV sync signal is 50 minutes later. To record both signals, check the time the last programme finishes and add 1 hour. So if the last programme ends at 01:30 set your PVR to record from 02:25 to 02:45 for the test card and 03:15 to 03:35 for the AV sync signal. The promo referred to is the rolling HD promo that is broadcast on BBC HD when there is no actual programming being broadcast. It would be far easier if these two tests were broadcast as individual programmes with actual time slots – would make recording far easier. However that’s a small niggle as these two tests are a nice addition from the BBC. I know I’ll be using them to set-up a new TV over Christmas.

Best Left Unanswered

I love The Italian Job. Not the 2003 remake but the original filmed in the 60’s with Michael Caine. In a documentary celebrating his 70th birthday he’s revealed the ending that was filmed and then scrapped.

“I crawl up, switch on the engine and stay there for four hours until all the petrol runs out,” he said.

“The van bounces back up so we can all get out, but then the gold goes over.”

There’s more detail on the BBC site and also some info on a competition to come up with an ending next year to mark 40 years since the Italian Job was made. I’m so glad the film cut the ending as it sounds terrible. I also wish the ending had always remained a mystery – so much better to leave it to everyone’s imagination.

BBC Radio on the iPhone

Following on from a tweet on Friday from @gav_richardson I found that you can install an app on the iPhone and stream some of the BBC radio stations. The app you need to grab is FStream. It doesn’t have the best interface but it does work well. Full setup instructions can be found here.

A full list of the BBC radio stations I’ve got to work are:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio1/wm_asx/aod/radio1.asx
http://www.bbc.co.uk/1xtra/realmedia/1xtra_hi.asx
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/wm_asx/aod/radio2.asx
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/wm_asx/aod/radio3.asx
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/wm_asx/aod/radio4.asx
http://www.bbc.co.uk/6music/ram/6music_hi.asx
http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbc7/realplayer/bbc7.asx
http://www.bbc.co.uk/asiannetwork/rams/asiannet.asx

Unfortunately Five Live doesn’t work which is allegedly due to broadcasting rights of sporting events outside the UK. Another solution is to try the Flycast app which again is free and search for BBC which should return radio station’s 1-4 which you can then select and listen to. At least there is a solution until iPlayer supports radio stations on the iPhone.

New Xbox Experience

On November 19th (just three short days away) all Xbox 360 owners will get a new dashboard delivered to them – the strangely titled New Xbox Experience. I was selected in the latest round of previews so I’ve had the dash since Friday. So what can you expect later this week?

The dash does a quick install followed by a reboot. You then download the new dashboard which took me under two minutes. You then watch a swanky video before your presented with the avatar creation screen. Microsoft are chasing the Wii market so everyone has to create an avatar. The creation options are pretty varied – a lot more than I remember on the Wii but I found it harder to get a character that was a look alike despite the greater options. It’s no surprise that an avatar specific store is also on it’s way which would explain why the clothing options were underwhelming. They had lots of options but you couldn’t change the colour of any of your choices. Cha-ching! The avatars can be used within games but I’d expect to see that in Arcade titles only. With the avatar creation out of the way your dropped into the new dashboard.

Dash

Instead of blades and moving right to left through options you move through a vertical list. The animations are very quick and it’s easy to get around. It’s a lot more visual than the previous dash so it’s good to see the speed is there with all the extra gloss. The first, erm, folder (not sure what the proper name is) is Welcome which introduces the new dashboard – this menu can be disabled – as far as I can see that’s the only one that can be removed or customised in any way. These folders look as if they are based on Coverflow as seen in OS X. The other menu’s are as follows:

My Xbox – For me the hub of the system and will become the most used menu. Access the current game, access other games installed on your hard drive, media libraries and your 360 settings.

Friends – Shows your friend list. This is really well animated and highlights the avatars well. However it is slower to see who is online as you can only see a few friends at any one time. However it display friends parties really well and it looks easy to join parties from here (based on the Microsoft video detailing the party feature as I don’t know anyone else with the new dash).

Party

Inside Xbox – shows you stuff from Microsoft – behind the scenes videos and other stuff like that

Game and Video Marketplace – A really nicely animated menu for the marketplace content but you can also browse via a three screen system which makes finding content in these large folders a lot easier. At the dashboards official launch you can also browse the marketplace content from the xbox.com website and seemingly tell your Xbox to download any content you select.

Browse

Events – For special one off type events and more social gaming

Spotlight – Combines bits from other menu’s and shows you the game in the disc drive, lets you access your gamercard, see achievements – all standard stuff. You also get to see adverts and not just for games – anything could appear like the Subway advert in the above screen.

There’s also a couple of missing menu’s for Europeans. We don’t have Netflix here so don’t get any of those features and also Primetime is missing, rumoured to be delivered next Spring. Primetime is where Microsoft hope to provide more social gaming akin to the Wii with games like 1vs100. Not a big miss for me and something to look forward to next year.

I had reservations before getting the dash but I really like the new system for everything apart from the friends list which feels slower to access the same information as before. However the blades haven’t gone away entirely. Hit the guide button from the dash or in a game and you access a blade based menu that gives you quick access to…well, everything. Friends lists, messages, party setup, media playback, marketplace and system settings. So the best of both worlds.

Guide

This menu is called the Quick Launch Bar and is really snappy to use. However a couple of times I’ve had issues getting back out of the QLB. Pressing B should take you back a page but I’ve had it hang for 5-10 seconds a couple of times. Not sure if that was due to the game running in the background or not but it was a bit annoying.

This update doesn’t just change navigation options – there’s a few new features that should have a big impact on how I game. The first is Parties. You and up to seven other friends can create a party. The party can then move from game to game as a group or just chat privately while each group member does there own thing – play different games, watch movies etc.

Party Options

You can set the party up so that you need to invite friends or just allow friends to join without invites. The party feature is a godsend as the amount of swearing, screaming, shouting and singing on Live can be intolerable. Certain games seem to attract a higher amount – Fifa for example. It will be great to setup a party and then play Fifa as our club without constant interruption. This is another feature I couldn’t test as no one I know has the dash.

The second new feature is game installs. You can now install a game fully to the Xbox hard drive and play from there rather than the disk drive. This allegedly makes the game quicker to run but without a stopwatch I couldn’t tell. The biggest impact is on noise – the disk drive on the 360 is noisy as hell and not having that spin makes the 360 a lot quieter and allegedly less hot too. This is such a big deal for me, so much so that I bought the 120GB hard drive so I can take full advantage of installing. So far it’s been excellent. I’ve installed Fifa, Gear of War 2 and CoD:World At War and all work well. The installs take anything from 5 to 15 mins depending on game size. While installing though you can still access the guide menu which is nice.

I noticed a few other things in the last couple of days. Launch a game and you’ll get a pop-up telling you that friends are also playing the same title. I also turned off auto playing of games when inserted so that I could play the game from the hard drive – even though the game in installed you still need the disk to verify that you own the game. One other issue is with NAT settings. After installing I had some issues getting into Fifa games. Only a couple worked out of 20 or so attempts. On checking my NAT settings, which were previously Open, they had moved to Strict. The advice was to reboot my router which I thought strange but that worked so I’d advise you to reboot your router after upgrading or at the very least check your NAT settings. The check was also a lot faster than on the old dash. Thankfully video and music playback from the Mac still works as does selecting custom soundtracks in game.

So overall a very nice upgrade. The dash looks a lot nicer than the old one and if your put off by it’s looks you’ve still got the old blades available via the guide button. In fact the guide button is a lot more useful than it is today. I would have liked to see some more new features like the ability to take pictures in game rather than each game providing it’s own functionality, take video’s in game and upload to Youtube or a Microsoft site.

What’s surprising is that we are getting this new look and extra features without having to buy a new console. Usually this type of upgrade would only come with new hardware so it’s nice to see Microsoft not resting on it’s laurels and trying to innovate and improve the dashboard further. On improving the dashboard it also widens the lead that it already had on the PS3. Sony really need to take a long hard look at it’s own dashboard system and hopefully learn from the 360’s better features. Here’s hoping that the upgrade goes well for all on Wednesday and we don’t experience any Live issues which would be a real shame.

Intense Debate

IntenseDebate is a service for improving and managing your blog comments, not only on your own blog but across any blog supporting their service. I’ve always been frustrated that the comments on the blog are:

  • Basic with no threading support
  • Ask for a lot of details when people visit
  • No way of keeping track of my comments in one central place – i.e. posting elsewhere – you can’t see when those posts are updated

I tried CoComment a couple of years ago but was never satisfied with the service. Disqus and IntenseDebate looked to be better options but I never liked that the comments were stored elsewhere and not on my site. For me to commit to a service I wanted to be more in control of comments and be in a position to move them to where I wanted at and time. However there’s been a couple of changes recently which has made me move to installing IntenseDebate on the site.

Firstly IntenseDebate have been bought by Automattic, the people behind WordPress and a few other services. This gives me a lot more reassurance that the service will be around to stay and that it will be enabled on a lot more blogs in the near future. This should make it easier to track conversations across the many sites I read. Secondly, both Disqus and IntenseDebate now support syncing of comments so that the comment exists not only on a remote server but on your local blog installation.

There are many features within the IntenseDebate pluging – threading, comment moderation, commenter profiles including reputation points and many more that are covered on their website. There is also an excellent dashboard that pulls together comments on your own posts and comments you have made elsewhere, but only on those sites that have also signed up to IntenseDebate.

I’m hoping that with WordPress 2.7 coming out soon which starts to include some of the functionality of IntenseDebate and also the availability of the new plugin will lead to an increase in the services support across many more sites. However please do let me know if you hit any snags when commenting – at the slightest wiff on any problems I’ll move back to the old system. However there are no issues so far for me so here’s hoping for plain sailing.

GrooveShield Form

New CaseThe iPhone is a lovely device and I didn’t want to use it without some form of case. The day after purchasing the phone I picked up a Griffin Wave from the Apple store as there really wasn’t much else available on day one for the 3G iPhone. It did it’s job and protected the iPhone well but it was pretty ugly and also as the edge covered part of the screen it made cleaning the screen quite awkward. Shakeel was up last week and as soon as I saw his case I knew I had to change to it – the GrooveShield Form.

This clips over the back of the iPhone protecting the area which is prone to scratching and also gives slightly more grip than a naked iPhone. What I like the most is that it’s a hard case but also thin, so the iPhone doesn’t lose it’s looks which it did with the previous case. It’s also light and you hardly notice that a case is being used. The silver edging around the front of the phone is also still visible as is the whole front surface which makes cleaning the screen very easy. All the controls are easily accessible with the case on although the iPhone won’t fit in a dock unless the case is removed.

SmashedBest thing is that the case only cost £12 which is a real bargain. However it won’t protect the iPhone fully. One of my friends at work dropped his phone last week…onto a small stone. The result can be seen here – very nasty. He hopes to fix it himself – good luck! I don’t think it will be that straightforward.