2008 Gadgets Review – #3 – Dots gloves

This one wasn’t going to get a mention originally, but after how cold it is here in NYC this morning I changed my mind.

I love my iPhone. 18 months in and I still think it’s a device from the future. The problem comes this time of year when it’s cold outside, I’m wearing my gloves, and I get a call – the touchscreen doesn’t work and the call ends up going to voicemail.

Enter Dots gloves – gloves with little, well, dots, on the tips of the thumbs and index fingers that play nice with the iPhone screen. Simple and effective. And only $20 for the thicker wool gloves.

2008 Gadgets Review – #2 – Logitech Harmony 880 Universal Remote Control

For part 2 of my 2008 gadget round-up I’m going to talk about Logitech’s Harmony 880 universal remote control.

Being a geek, my lounge is full of stuff with remote controls, all hooked to each other. At last count, my media setup included:

  • A TV
  • Mini system (used for sound and playing CDs)
  • 2 game / media consoles (XBox 360 & Playstation 3)
  • DVD player
  • Squeezebox Music player
  • Cable TV DVR
  • HDMI switch
  • Mac Mini

This equals a lot of remote controls, confusing the heck out of my girlfriend (and me early on a Saturday morning) and it’s a big mess on my coffee table. A couple of my friends had been bugging me about getting a universal remote control, a remote which could control all of my devices, but I was sceptical about them after bad experiences in the past.

Eventually though I decided to do some research and looked into the options. Logitech seemed to have the best reviewed range for non-ludicrous prices, and of their selection the Harmony 880 model seemed a good middle-ground option for a reasonable price and it had many decent reviews. I decided to go for it and a few days later found myself unpacking my remote.

The first step to setting up the remote was to install software on my Mac, and plug the remote in to a USB socket. Setting up the remote is done solely through the computer, which is useful since there are a whole range of options available. The next step was to tell the software what devices I had, and how they connected to each other (e.g. through which inputs to the TV.) Much to my surprise the software knew about both my UK Pioneer mini system system and my fairly obscure HDMI switch.

After the device and connections setup, I needed to decide which ‘activities’ I wanted the remote to know about. Most of the time when using the remote your usage is activity-based (‘watch DVD’) rather than device-based (‘turn on DVD player’). This is a wonderful scheme, it brings the concept of remote control macros (controlling multiple devices in one user action) to a level anyone can use and setup.

After programming the remote, it was time to try it out. Tentatively I pointed at my Stack Of Stuff and chose to ‘Watch TV’. The cable box turned on, the TV turned on and switched to the correct HDMI input, my HDMI switch moved to the correct input, and my mini system turned on switching to the right input also. I was shocked – it worked!

I wanted to watch a recent episode of the Daily Show, for which I needed the DVR controls of my cable box. As if by magic, a ‘list’ option had appeared on the screen of my remote, which I could select by using the general purpose button next to it. The menu buttons on the remote controlled the selection, and play, pause etc. all did the right. Even better, the volume control on the remote automatically changed the volume on my mini system, since during the setup process the software has asked me what device I used for controlling volume when watching TV.

Anyone who has used universal remotes knows that sometimes things don’t quite work. Many devices have power toggles (‘change the power setting’) rather than absolute commands (‘turn power off’) and so workflow-based remotes are sometimes out-of-sync with the current state of your devices. The Harmony remote’s approach to problems like this is a ‘help’ button at the top of the remote, which launches a very simple step-by-step process guided through the remote’s screen to get everything going properly.

The other concern I had was what happened for the occasional use of something that wasn’t in an activity (e.g. changing the surround setup of my mini system.) For this the remote allows you to switch to a ‘device’ mode rather than ‘activity’ mode, giving you full control of your devices. For buttons which aren’t represented directly on the remote, the screen on the remote, and associated general purpose buttons, can have multiple pages offering pretty much everything available on my actual remotes.

Of course, the real test was would my not-quite-as-nerdy-as-me girlfriend be able to use this remote. The answer was an emphatic yes, even being able to navigate the ‘help’ workflow.

I have almost nothing bad to say about the Harmony 880. Higher end models allow for more devices, and allow for ‘out-of-sight’ control, but that’s beyond what I need. My Playstation 3 can’t be controlled with the remote, but that’s Sony’s fault for not providing an infra red sensor. There are 3rd party IR-to-bluetooth adapters available for this purpose but I’ve been having trouble getting hold of one.

In summary, the 880 has been an absolutely superb purchase, and I thoroughly recommend it.

2008 Gadgets Review – #1 – Mobile Me

2008 was a good year for gadgets for me. It was probably something to do with making up for not coding for most of it. I’m including in gadgets software and services nothing to do with computer programming.

First up on my list is Apple’s Mobile Me. Mobile Me is nominally a replacement and upgrade of Apple’s .Mac internet application service, offering web-based and IMAP email, a calendar and address book syncing service for Mac’s running OS X, internet based file storage, etc.

The biggest update I was interested in of Mobile Me over .Mac however was it’s iPhone integration, and more specifically the over-the-cellphone-network syncing of address book, calendar and ‘push’ IMAP email. Before Mobile Me I used to hook up my iPhone to my home iMac every day to make sure any contact or calendar changes were backed from my iPhone, and any changes I’d made elsewhere were synced to my iPhone. I also used Plaxo to sync address books between various computers and Spanning Sync with Google calendar to sync calendars across computers.

This setup worked, but has now been completely replaced by a totally automatic process in Mobile Me. Without using any other services, calendars and address books are now kept in sync across all my work and personal Macs, and my iPhone, without any work on my part apart from the initial setup. These days I plug my iPhone into the computer every few weeks rather than every day.

This setup does everything important that I wanted 6 years ago.

Mobile Me has not all been smooth sailing, however.  The launch in July for some very strange reason was consecutive with the launch of the major iPhone version 2 software update, and the cutover from .Mac to Mobile Me was a hard-change, rather than gradual crossover. Unsurprisingly this didn’t go so well, with services being inaccessible to some extent for a few weeks. Luckily I wasn’t already dependent on .Mac, but if I had been and thus not had email access for several days I would have been most definitely cheesed off.

Also, the Mobile Me web applications (allowing you to access your mail, contacts, calendar from a browser) aren’t all that great. They look lovely and shiny, trying their best to look like their desktop counterparts, however they just end up being slower than Google-style equivalents, and don’t work on some browsers (e.g. Internet Explorer 6 on my dad’s home computer when I visited in September.) This isn’t a particularly big deal since I only need to use this feature when abroad, but even so I think Apple have something to learn about running web application services.

Griping aside, Mobile Me is a real time and brain saver for me. Well worth the subscription cost.

Super Furry Animals @ Bowery Ballroom, Beth Orton @ Hiro Ballroom, Hot Chip @ The Music Hall of Williamsburg

Since I got to New York 2 years ago (is it 2 years already? Yikes) I’ve been managing to get to a lot more gigs than I ever used to do in the UK. Last year I  went to 10 or so shows, including my personal highlight of the year of seeing The Police at the Virgin Festival (a special ‘between album’ show by Franz Ferdinand at the intimate Bowery Ballroom was a close second.)

This year is kicking off similarly as concert season gets up and running.

The first show of the year was Super Furry Animals (SFA) at the Bowery Ballroom, a quick 5 minute walk from my apartment. I’ve never been a fan enough to buy any of their CDs but I heard they were a decent live act. The show was definitely worth going to, the one disappointing part was the crowd who had pretty much halved in size by the time the band played ‘The Man Don’t Give a Fuck’ (pretty much the only song I know from hearing the band in other people’s college rooms in 1996(ish) .)

A week ago I saw Beth Orton on her first live tour for a couple of years. I remember first hearing Beth Orton on a Glastonbury show on the BBC in the summer of 96. Her first album, Trailer Park, came out later than year and has been a regular in my listening ever since, but I’ve never seen her perform. These days she’s dropped the electronica leanings she had back then (partly from her work with William Orbit and The Chemical Brothers) and her style is a very pleasing folk / indie crossover. Her live voice was a lot better than I thought it might be, she had a fun stage presence and I definitely hope to see her again in a few years time.

Finally for now I saw Hot Chip last night at the newly refurbished and renamed Music Hall of Williamsburg. Hot Chip’s ‘The Warning’ was the driving-force of the UK’s electro renaissance of a year or 2 ago. I liked it, but wasn’t overwhelmed, but this was another band I wanted to see because of the promise of their live act. Again, no disappointments here – they were energetic, unpretentious, producing a very tight show full of opportunities for the crowd to stretch their dancing legs. I think that seeing these guys in a couple of years with a little more experience under their belt at a bigger venue would be a fantastic experience.

All 3 of these venues are relatively small and it was nice to be able to get reasonably close to the artists at all of them. The Hiro Ballroom probably wins ‘best gig venue I’ve ever been to’ though – the sound was fabulous (especially for an acoustic show like Beth’s was) and the interior was lovely too, more than making up for the strange practice of keeping the crowd waiting outside for ages and only letting people in in small groups.

I already have several more shows lined up – the highlight of the summer so far is looking like the triple bill of REM, Modest Mouse and The National at Madison Square Garden, but it’s the unexpected surprises that I’m really looking forward to.

Facebook & Work

I’ve really enjoyed using Facebook for the last year or so. Of all the social networking apps out there I  think it’s been one that has actually added to my overall happiness.

That said, with any new social medium, we still need to figure out what the ‘rules’ are to what we as individuals are happy with. A good case in point for me has been what to do with Facebook and colleagues at work.

Facebook has work ‘networks’ which are interesting ways of seeing what your co-workers are up to if you’re friendly with them in an extra-curricular way, but this situation can start getting complicated if your work relationship gets strained in any way. For instance, I recently saw a Facebook status update of a ‘facebook friend’ who I work with that made an already tricky situation more frustrating for me.

As such, I’m introducing a new policy for myself to limit my Facebook / work overlap somewhat – I’m not going to have any ‘facebook friends’ that are within my reporting hierarchy (i.e. if they report to me to any level, or if I report to them from any depth). For now, I’m happy to be linked to people outside of that, but even that is questionable for the long term.

Has anyone else thought about this at all?

HD-DVD going Beta, Blu-ray to follow relatively soon

The high definition disc war is pretty much a done deal now – Blu-ray is the victor. I knew it was happening, but when I got an email from Netflix today telling me I wouldn’t be getting HD-DVDs from them for much longer it confirmed my suspicions.

I did pick the wrong team – I bought an HD-DVD add-on for my XBox 360 only a few months ago. In fact the speed at which the tide has shifted is the one thing that has surprised me.

One good thing is I didn’t waste too much money – most of the HD-DVDs I’ve watched have been rented from Netflix (Heroes Season 1, Letters from Iwo Jima, etc.), so I’ll just buy a Playstation 3 in a couple of months and switch to rented Blu-ray discs instead.

That said, I don’t think Blu-ray will even last – Apple’s new HD movie rental is the sign of things to come, and I predict before too long on-demand, internet streamed, HD content will dwarf any Blu-ray sales or rentals. So my PS3 will likely be the last physical medium video entertainment device I buy.

Summer '07 music

This entry is a little late coming, however I have a whole new batch of CDs arriving in the next week or so I need to clear this out!

Following my Spring music purchases, I collected some more over the summer – some bought, some given.

Summer 07 Albums

Jose Gonzalez is a Swedish spanish/folk/indie guitarist singer/songwriter of Argentinian descent. Confused? Don’t be. Just buy Veneer, turn the lights down, and let your ears tell you how much they love you.

I first heard Editors second album, An End Has a Start, at a July 4th party in Brooklyn. My immediate impression was that they had grown a long way, and that this was a really good album. Unfortunately after 2 or 3 listenings the impact was lost and ultimately I was disappointed. Birmingham’s answer to Interpol unfortunately they are not.

Belle & Sebastian’s The Boy With The Arab Strap has been one of the purchases this year that goes in the ‘buying the artists I listened to at college but never got around to buying’ bucket. Along with it (but unpictured in this list) go Echobelly’s On and Sleeper’s Smart. One interesting thing about Belle & Sebastian is that they sound a little like Nick Drake, but 25 years on. Both artists go in the category ‘music to wake up on a cold Sunday morning’ by.

Another British sophomore effort next – Arctic Monkeys Favourite Worst Nightmare. It doesn’t have the punch of the first album but still a worthwhile purchase. I’m looking forward to where these lads go next.

Hybrid are one of my favourite electronic music outfits. They play what I can only describe as orchestral, film soundtrack, trance. Wide Angle is one of their earlier efforts, but probably my favourite, I’d just never got around to getting it on CD. This version, Wider Angle, came with an enjoyable second disc which was a live show from around the time the album was made.

Mint Royale are another electronic group, and pop is.. is a fantastic ‘best of’ that I heard played very loudly while being driven back from Baltimore to Philadelphia from the Virgin Festival. Their music ranges from big beat (the remix of Terrorvision’s Tequila from ’99) through pop (Don’t Falter) to more Ibiza-friendly tracks (The Sexiest Man in Jamaica) As summer CDs go, this was a good’un.

Edan’s Beauty and the Beat came from the same car journey. Hip-hop using 70’s prog rock as the backing? Even a non hip-hop fan like me can’t argue with that.

Onto one of my most anticipated new albums of the year: Interpol’s Our Love to Admire. Unfortunately I felt about it the same way as I did when I saw them live – good, but not the jaw dropping feeling when I first heard their first 2 albums. My hope is that they’ll take this year as a stepping stone towards true greatness.

I enjoyed the Thea Gilmore album I bought in April, so in the summer I followed up with her earlier effort, Avalanche, my dad’s favourite. I don’t know why, but I did actually prefer Harpo’s Ghost. I think it maybe the higher production values actually worked out for her on the later album.

Talking of Dad, he bought me Ryan Adams’ latest (at the time) Easy Tiger for my birthday. I’ve only listened to this a couple of times and it didn’t grab me but I have an earlier Ryan CD coming soon and look forward to a comparison of a bunch of his albums.

Also a gift was Bruce Springsteen’s We shall overcome – The Seeger Sessions. This a very un-Bruce album, being covers of american folk songs. While I appreciated it, I didn’t necessarily enjoy it. I’m looking forward to getting Magic, his latest album of a more usual type.

Yikes, a third British sophomore (I really should have sorted the CDs out a little better) – this time Bloc Party’s A Weekend in the City. Some of the youthful enthusiasm seems lost (there’s no Helicopter on here) but I think it works better as a complete album. They were good live in September too, better than I expected.

I’ve never owned any Manic Street Preachers CDs and their latest record Send Away the Tigers got good reviews. They were valid – this is a great piece of energy-filled brit pop, harkening back to the summer of ’96. More to come on the Manics in my next list.

Closing up this summery collection is the ’07 release from the Chemical Brothers: We Are The Night. This was a big disappointment – there was nothing new here (including a bunch of re-used samples from previous albums), apart from the terrible totally random track The Salmon Dance. I’m a big Chemical’s fan, but this album and the disappointing show at the Hammerstein Ballroom makes me think their days may be over. I hope not.

So that’s an end to this list, but I have 15 new CDs winging their way to me from Amazon, plus a couple of CDs that I got for Christmas so there’ll be another one soon!

The Facebook Douchebag Quotient

Facebook is my second, ok, third favourite new geekyness of the year (after my iPhone and lolcats). Despite the wonderous waste of time in hitting ‘ignore’ for the latest inane pirate / ninja / super-awesome-totally-better-than-the-last-super-wall oriented application I receive an invite for, it has actually provided the ability to contact people I haven’t talked to for ages, and allowed me to email people who change their real email address / lose their phone more often than I complain about tourists dawdling outside of my work building trying to get into Century 21.

But with all good things, must come the bad, and the great Karma Leveller of Facebook is the Facebook Douchebag. All of you who have used Facebook know them – they have a profile photo that makes them look way better than they do in normal life, it takes 10 minutes to scroll to the end of their profile page, they have 5 new brain-numbing applications everyday that you get spammed with notifications for, and that’s just for starters.

In my new found work-life as a manager (yes, I know that makes me a whole other class of douche, and yes I can deal with that, thankyouverymuch) I use metrics often to categorise problems. And as such, I look for a metric to qualify the douchebageriness of certain individuals on Facebook. I think the answer to my search is a simple formula:

Dq (Facebook Douchebag Quotient) = x / y, where x = number of photos of yourself you’ve added to your profile, and y = the number of facebook friends you have.

My suggestion is that Dq should always for any reasonable human being be less than 1. Frankly, anything more than about .5 is questionable. Mine is something around 0.01, but then again, I link to my Flickr page from my Facebook profile so that may be considered cheating. The biggest douche I’ve yet to come across has a Dq of 2.5 – undeniable by any standards, even before you hear that the latest applications on his profile are What kind of flirt are you and How classy are you?

The only question that remains is what to do when you identify a Facebook Douchebag – remove them from your friend list? Humiliate them on their ‘Wall’? Email all their friends? Or just passive-aggressively call them out on your own navel-gazing part of the information superhighway?

Virgin Festival 2007 in Baltimore

The PoliceLast night I got back very late (about 3am) from the Virgin music Festival in Baltimore. Here’s a write-up…

We arrived fairly late on Saturday afternoon. We missed Amy Winehouse (wasn’t worried about that) and Felix Da Housecat (which upset me more.) Our tardiness did mean that I got to see the Baltimore harbour, and meant we avoided the worst of the 100 degree heat.

On arrival Peter Bjorn and John were playing. I hadn’t heard them before, but they definitely went in my ‘meh’ bucket. From there we went (via the bar!) on our first of many visits to the dance tent. Danny Tenaglia was playing, mostly his traditional NYC house and less of the tribal stuff he (apparently) plays these days. It was crazily hot, but we were in the mood for a dance so duely joined the sweaty collective for half an hour or so.

The other trip to the dance tent for the day was for Sasha & John Digweed, 2 of my dance music heroes who I’ve never seen play before. Digweed started the set with an accessible but typically Digweed-esque prog mix-up. Sasha then took over the ropes after about 30 minutes and played some festival-friendly trance. Cue me dancing like a madman and glad that I’d drunk about 2 litres of water already that day. 🙂 No sign of Xpander (at least while I was there) but was still great fun, I hope one of these 2 comes to play at Studio B some time (hmm, I’m missing a blog entry somewhere.)

We also took brief trips to the south stage to see LCD Soundsystem (I need to check these guys out) and TV on the Radio (another meh.)

The real treat of the day (and the biggest draw for me to go at all) was The Police. I remember ‘permanently borrowing’ the Synchronicity album from my dad when I was about 8 (sorry Dad!) and it was huge part of my musical upbringing. I was surprised and thrilled earlier in the year to hear they were reforming for a tour. They did not disappoint. I know this tour has been pretty intense, but I was extremely impressed with how tight the 3 played considering they haven’t been together for over 20 years. Sting, Andy and Stuart are all fabulous instrumentalists and it was a pleasure to watch them belt out all the classics. The highlight was probably a slightly re-envisioned Wrapped Around Your Finger, but the whole set was thoroughly enjoyable. Hats off also to the concert organisers – considering this was an outdoor festival gig the sound was very good with punchy bass and clear vocals.

Onto Day 2. I was hoping to see Girl Talk but due to a lazy brunch we only made it to the Pimlico racecourse most of the way into Dieselboy & Andy C’s Sunday lunchtime drum ‘n’ bass set. This wasn’t really my thing (mostly because I’ve not been to many d ‘n’ b nights out) but there was no denying the crowd (and some of my friends!) were loving it.

I liked Panic! At the Disco but they didn’t have too much depth. They were followed up by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs who I really just don’t get. I know Karen O is a pretty extravagant frontwoman but I didn’t enjoy them. I think I need to borrow last year’s album off of someone to try them properly.

Infected MushroomThe biggest surprise of the weekend was probably yet another trip to the dance tent for Infected Mushroom. I’d never heard of them before but their guitar-led psy-trance was just what the mid-afternoon doctor ordered. Thankfully I’d drunk even more water on Sunday and the temperature had dipped because my inner raver had it’s way. Just to top it off Matisyahu lent a hand on vocals at one point – crazyness!

After visits to listen to the Wu Tang Clan (I still don’t get hip hop…) and a brief listen to The Crystal Method DJing (I was danced out by this point) the rain started coming down and we decided to call it a day. I missed Interpol (but I’ll probably go and see them in NYC anyway) and the Smashing Pumpkins but we’d already had a fantastic weekend.

Will I go back next year? Well it depends on the line-up I think. Someone like The Police playing would be a big draw, but I think I might do Austin City Limits next year as an excuse to see another US city.

Green Velvet @ Studio B (a.k.a. Mike finally has an enjoyable night out dancing in NYC)

As you may have figured out from my last post, I still have an inner raver. Yes, I know when you’re 29 the thing you’re supposed to be doing at midnight on Saturday is putting away the pipe and slippers and drinking a nice mug of warm cocoa before tucking in for the evening. But that’s not for me.

What I really enjoy every now and then is to listen to some good dance music, dance till my legs ache, with a whole bunch of friendly people around me doing exactly the same thing. It wasn’t hard to do when I lived in London. The End, Turnmills and Fabric when you picked the right nights were little pieces of electronic heaven.

New York City has proven to be more than a little disappointing on this front though, and it’s not just me. Several friends of mine who are NYC locals say ‘yeah, there’s no decent clubs here any more’. At the end of May I went to Cielo, supposedly one of the better clubs in the city, and was extremely disappointed. The venue was great, the music was so-so but the worst thing was the crowd – AWFUL! I like clubs where the people are there mostly to enjoy the music, and yes sure there’s always a bit of flirting on the side. But in NYC, in Manhattan at least (and concentrated in the Meatpacking district on the weekend), it’s all about ‘the scene’ – what you look like, how you’re dressed, whether you’ve got the greenbacks to spend on ‘bottle service’ (there’s a whole rant in me on that subject alone) and seemingly almost everyone is there for some kind of gratuitous mating ritual.

As you can tell, I’d pretty much assumed that my clubbing-life was over. That’s OK, there’s plenty of other things in my new home to keep me occupied. But little did I know that in a corner of Brooklyn a little spark of healthy rave-dom lived on…

I’d never come across Green Velvet before, but he’s a really rather good house / trance DJ. When one of my friends suggested an outing to Studio B to see him I was pretty convinced I was going to be as disappointed as ever by the New York party scene. But how wrong was I. Finally a good venue, GREAT DJing (when he dropped Blue Monday in the middle of an already wonderful sequence I thought I was going to cry) and *GASP* a crowd that actually wanted to be there for the music! An amazingly pleasant surprise and should I decide to keep the pipe & slippers waiting a little while longer, I’ll be making return trips.

The moral of the story? There are good parties left in New York, but you’re probably going to have to leave Manhattan for them.