Wednesday, March 23, 2005 DVD rental

Mail DVD
Originally uploaded by dan taylor.

I'd been put off signing up to the plethora of online DVD rental services up till now because of the commitment of a monthly fee (on top of mobile phone, broadband, Napster to Go, Empire subscription, etc.). Then along came everyone's favourite Greek entrepreneur and set up online DVD rentals (money clearly wouldn't stretch to a new TLD). Unsurprisingly, it's a no-frills service with a flat fee of £1.99 per rental, although it's not strictly speaking pay-as-you-go in that you have to buy a batch of credits (4, 7 or 10) which determines how many DVDs you can rent at a time (1, 2 and 3 respectively).

I received my first batch of 3 this week and so far so good. They arrived in natty orange (natch) envelopes which you have to open carefully as they double as the return packaging. The 25,000-strong catalogue seems to cover most mainstream titles and the selection process works well (you can rank titles according to how soon you'd like to receive them). On the down side, the recommendation algorithms clearly needs some fine tuning (I've told it 20 films I want to see and it recommends me bloody Ladies In Lavender!) and there's no A-Z, for when the Search engine lets you down.

Not sure whether I'll be still using it six months down the track but for the moment, anything which keeps me out of the soulless Blockbuster gets my vote...

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Flickr: A Day In The Life

Eat breakfast
Originally uploaded by dan taylor.

Partook of my first Flickr group posting yesterday under the heading 'a day in the life' whereby members were invited to post 5 photos from their day. Unfortunately 5 photos only got me as far as my train journey into work but it was good fun nevertheless. You can read more about it (and Flickr being bought by Yahoo!) on the Flickr blog.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Tortilla Curtain

Have just finished reading The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle, which was recommended by a friend who's just putting the finishing touches to her own first novel. First published in 1995, Boyle's narrative charts the parallel lives of a liberal humanist nature writer living in a gated community in the Santa Monica Mountains and an impoverished Mexican immigrant sleeping rough in a nearby canyon. That the novel feels so fresh is not only a credit to Boyle's writing but also a sobering reminder that the chasm between the rich and poor hasn't narrowed any in the last decade as a recent Guardian article on the Dainfern estate in South Africa attests. Both novel and article come highly recommended, as does J.G. Ballard's Super-Canes, which takes the possible consequences of gated communities to their frightening conclusion.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

FOR SALE: Pair of almost new frog slippers

Ariel, November 1960
Originally uploaded by dan taylor.

I picked up a copy of the BBC's staff magazine, Ariel, from November 1960 off eBay recently which was on my doormat when I got home today. A thoroughly absorbing read I have to admit. Scary how little things have changed really with the Director of Television Broadcasting reiterating "the BBC's function to make good things popular and popular things good".

The adverts were inevitably good value. Personal favourites include a quarter page ad for 'Bond', who "suggest hosiery for Xmas, and would be pleased to show you their selection of Men's Wear, including shorts, ties, knitwear, underwear, socks (which include Viennese pure lisle), and a variety of other accessories" and 'Stella hair fashions' who announce their new SPECIAL service which includes a Shampoo and Set, Coffee or Tea and a Sandwich, all for just 11/6.

The 'Mutual Aid' section (a feature "designed for the use of members of staff who have anything they wish to buy or sell") also proved a winner. A selection of the best:

"FOR SALE: Pair of almost new frog slippers, size 6-7. 15s. BH 2766"

"FOR SALE: beautiful mink marmot coat. Full swing back, generous collar and cuffs. Average size. Worn three times. Owner going overseas. £65 o.n.o. Also lady's ice skates, white, size 6, £2. Box 5/5/11."

"I am disposing of my small but choice collection of Georgian drinking glasses at reasonable prices. Seen London. Details from Box 13/5/11."

"Christmas presents? Give gaily coloured love-birds, budgerigars, parakeets, mostly bred outdoors. Phone PABX 2983"

However the real piece de resistance is to be found in the Letters to the Editor. Over to S.W. Budd...


My bathroom scales tell me that my weight is 9 st. 12lb. This worries me a lot because, screwed to the wall outside my office at the new Television Centre there is a small black plaque with white lettering. It reads:

The imposed load on this floor is
not to exceed 85 lb. per sq. ft.
Penalty for contravention £50.

My reading of this notice leaves me in no doubt at all that unless I am careful to distribute my 138 lb. on both feet splayed more than twelve inches apart I run the risk of prosecution under these 1952 bye-laws. This artificial stance I find difficult. Indeed, as the act of walking necessitates the whole of my 138 lb. being imposed alternatively on one foot and then the other (unless I shuffle along with an oscillating gait and thus make myself somewhat conspicuous), I would go so far as to say that it is impossible for me at all times to comply with the regulations covering this fragile edifice.

So where, Mr Editor, do I stand - figuratively as well as literally? I have no choice in the matter of accommodation. I would gladly return even to Woodstock Grove to avoid conflict with the law in this matter. But I am directed to work at the Television Centre, where, as I see it, I must contravene the provisions of the London Bye-laws 1952 every working day from the very moment that I enter the building.

Unless I misunderstand the implication of the notice it seems to me that advertisements for vacancies for jobs at the Television Centre ought, in all fairness, to be prefaced by the phrase 'Applicants of British nationality and weighing (clothed) not more than 6 st. 1 lb. are invited etc. etc.' In the meantime, and for those of us, including Richard Dimbleby, who may be unable to achieve by dieting or other means this necessary qualification, I hope that All.O. can be persuaded to accept as entirely reasonable claims for the reimbursement of any fines (not exceeding £50) imposed upon as under this particular by law.

Yours sincerely,

S. W. Budd"

Pure genius...

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Creative Zen Portable Media Center

I'm borrowing a Creative Zen Portable Media Center at the moment and thought I'd scribble down a few thoughts. The PMC is essentially a hybrid music/video player powered by Microsoft's operating system of the same name which aims to give you easy access to all your videos, music and photos whilst on the move. Kind of like a Zen Micro on steroids, which turns out to be a rather apt simile when you open the box and try to lift the device out. At a whopping 340g, the PMC is three times heavier than the Micro and will only fit into the most capacious of pockets. Although this is perhaps unsurprising when you bear in mind it's housing a 3.8 inch colour screen and a removable Li-Ion battery with a claimed playback time of 22 hours, it still feels slightly at odds with the 'portable' moniker.

Switching the device on, Windows users will feel immediately at home with the XP colour palette and a Start menu, mercifully consisting of just five options: 'my tv', 'my music', 'my pictures', 'my videos' and settings. Navigating through the sub menus proves fairly straightforward and a after a couple of minutes playing around you've exhausted most of the operating system's options. Unusually for Microsoft, the emphasis seems have been placed on a simple user interface rather than bells and whistles.

Populating the device with content using Windows Media Player 10 also proves a relatively painless process, although I'd recommend the manual transfer option if you have large amount of media on your PC as the automatic transfer will fill up the PMC's hard drive with content as fast as your USB cable can shift it. Which brings me to one of the PMC's most obvious shortcomings - its 20GB hard drive just doesn't go very far when it comes to storing digital media (and video in particular). The "up to 85 hours of movies" mentioned in the press release sounds like plenty, but assumes no audio or photos are also stored on the device. With a RRP of £399.99 the PMC is only likely to appeal to those who are serious about their digital media who are also likely to find 20GB of storage lacking.

Of course, the Zen PMC is only a first generation device and no doubt future generations will feature larger hard drives and improved compression. Likewise, the lack of a radio and the impossibility of recording direct from TV will no doubt be addressed in future iterations. A more fundamental issue for Creative and other manufacturers pushing PMC devices is the strength of the basic proposition and its here that I remain unconvinced. Whilst its iconic design and intuitive interface undoubtedly helped Apple's iPod secure its market dominance, it couldn't have shipped millions of units worldwide without a rock-solid underlying proposition (that people want to listen to their music collections on the move). Likewise, the BBC Radio Player has proved such a success because of the strength of the core offering (being able to listen to any BBC radio programme when you want for up to a week after broadcast). The $64,000 question for PMC manufacturers is whether enough people want to watch video on the go.

Whilst music and radio work so well as secondary media, video does not. A healthy fear of death by automobile means I'm not going to watch video whilst walking or driving (which is when most of my iPod listening takes place) and I wasn't remotely tempted to get the PMC out of my bag on the tube (I'm also scared of death by mugging). On first seeing the Zen PMC a colleague remarked that it bought to mind the mobile televisions so hyped in the '80s. Will the Portable Media Center go the same way? Only time will tell.