Blu-Ray Is Dead (At Least For Me)

Christopher Nolan’s Inception is out to own this week, on good ol’ DVD and brandspanking new sexy eye-meltingly gorgeous Blu-Ray. Oh, you must buy it on Blu-Ray. Otherwise you’re missing out. The detail. The clarity. Oh, the colours. It’s almost an insult to everyone who worked on the film not to buy it in it’s purest, most perfect form.

Yes, alright, I’m taking the piss. I lived through the whole VHS-Beta thing, the whole vinyl-CD handover, so excuse me if I’m a little less than whelmed by the urgent push by the movie companies to have me rebuy films I already own. Or worse, pay a premium to watch new material, which would include an investment in new kit that I don’t need or particularly want. I have a halfway decent telly and an upscaling DVD player which delivers lovely results. We watched UP last week (yes, I know, right up on the moment here at X&HTowers) and the pictures were gorgeous.

But a lot of the supposed benefits are down to the way the end user (that’s you, Readership) has set up their telly and player. Are you going in HDMI? A lot of people still use the Scart connection, apparently. And have you calibrated your telly? If you’re now asking what calibrated means, then no, you haven’t. Which means that your lovely pricy digital telly is running with the factory presets. These won’t be right for your room, and in most cases will be waaaay too bright and saturated. Or, if you set up a TV the way my dad does, not bright and saturated enough. He doesn’t own a 3DTV. You just need sunglasses to watch the telly in Mum and Dad’s place. (sorry, pater.)

How do you calibrate a HDTV? Funny you should ask.

My major problem with Blu-Ray is that it is a transitional format. It’s high-density, high-capacity storage, and that’s all. It’s a carrier for content, and it’s the way that content is formatted in the first place that is important. A recent re-issue of Gladiator used exactly the same video files as were on an earlier, carelessly encoded DVD, with predictably horrible results. But very few people either noticed or cared, and as a result that disc is still on the shelves. You have to wonder how many reissues that people are paying a premium for have been put together the same way, with the odd “special feature” whopped on to make it seem bright, shiny and new.

The thing is that a lot of movie content sits on servers and hard drives in high definition quality and has done for quite a while. For DVD, that content has been compressed and down-converted to allow it to fit on a disc. There was a push a few years ago to “cinephile” editions (of such cinematic masterpieces as “I, Robot”) that had the highest resolution version of the movie that could be crammed onto a single disc, with extras either on a separate coaster or excised completely. Then Blu-Ray and HD-DVD appeared, and it seemed that we could have it all. Full, high-quality transfers and hours and hours of supplementary features that no one ever watches. But the fact remains that the content has not changed. It’s the same 1080p file that was originally created.

Which of course makes me look at iTunes, Netflix and the like and start to wonder why we need the disc in the first place. Up until a couple of years ago, a wall of our house was dedicated to our CD collection. In some places, the shelving was beginning to double-stack. At the same time, the books in the back room were making an attempt to break through the wall. We were swimming in content, much of which had been listened to or read once, if at all. I bought a big external hard drive, digitised the CDs, backed up that hard drive at least twice, and stored all the discs in the loft. We now have a lot more room for books we don’t read. But that process changed the relationship we have to music. It’s much less album based. We pick and choose, shuffle, build playlists. A cheap subscription to Spotify means that I rarely ever buy music anymore. I don’t need to.

It would be a more time-intensive job, but I could do exactly the same thing for the DVD collection that now takes up the wall where the CDs used to live. Dump everything onto a cheap media server and a back-up drive, and who knows, I might even start watching the discs that are shelved and still in their wrapping. Build playlists and mood reels with them. As someone in love with the on-demand services that the plusboxes offer, I love that flexibility. As with music, I’d then look at ways to buy my content in a form that doesn’t come in a box.

To my mind, the film companies are missing a trick. I’m usually a bit behind the curve on this kind of stuff. This means there are already hundreds and thousands of people who are not only thinking the same as me, but have done something about it. iTunes is a good first step, but I see no reason why the studios don’t have their own portals, or club together to create something that could do the job as well. I’d love to see something like Netflix’s streaming service in the UK. As a huge advocate of Lovefilm’s disc-on-demand service, this has to be the logical next step, doesn’t it? (I’d note that while Sky Movies and Virgin’s Front Row deliver something similar, they’re still not providing the depth of service and the ability to source esoterica that Lovefilm can. Plus, they’re both crippled by embargoes on when they can start showing movies – usually well after the coasters have hit the shops).

Yes, I know it would be a massive undertaking to get all that material onto servers that can reliably squirt it down the pipe and into your front room, but if it works, it’s a service I’d happily pay for, much in the way Spotify get money off me every month.

Certainly, I have no plans to buy a Blu-Ray player, which means I have no reason to buy coasters. Instead, if I want the absolute best quality image available, I do the right thing and go to the cinema. Project a Blu-Ray next to a 35mm print on the big screen, and you’ll soon see which one’s better. Even when, sadly, projection is done using big hard drives, the image quality of those files will still show that the disc is a massive compromise for the domestic market. Bear that in mind, and the argument that Blu-Ray is the ultimate viewing experience starts to look a bit thin.

And don’t get me started on bloody 3D…


Simon Aitken reminds me that while his most excellent horror Blood + Roses is currently available for rental, it will roll over to digital download and DVD purchase through Amazon in the new year. The metrics on who’s buying what should make for very interesting reading.

Life During Nano: Something for December, Perhaps

OK, this has nothing to do with anything apart from the fact that working on NanoWriMo tends to tune your brain into slightly different frequencies and you pick up on connections that you maybe wouldn’t normally notice.

Also, that you write in run-on sentences more. They normally get cut in half in the edit. But anyway.

Charlie Stross recently wrote a wonderful, curmudgeonly piece on steampunk (here it is). He made the point that the innovations of the early stories have devolved into mere set-dressing. If steampunk authors took the time to look at the worlds they were building, there would be very little glamour to be had, and a great deal of poverty and deprivation. He also cracked the joke that steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown, which made me snort tea back into my mug through my nose. He called out SF sites and i09 as being particularly to blame for the spike in interest in the genre.

This is pretty nicely timed, as Tor have just been running a Steampunk fortnight. A lot of the critical thought and articles have been on the reinvention of the genre. Amal El-Mohtar’s piece, Winding Down The House is especially good in this regard, and successfully makes the point that steampunk’s tropes and conventions really are holding things back. If steampunk is to grow and stay interesting, it needs to move away from the Victoriana/Old West/Ruritanian bit, and find new directions.

Amal points out her frustrations neatly here:

I wrote a story in what, to my mind, would be a steampunky Damascus: a Damascus that was part of a vibrant trading nation in its own right, that would not be colonised by European powers, where women displayed their trades by the patterns of braids and knots in their hair, and where some women were pioneering the art of crafting dream-provoking devices through new gem-cutting techniques.

Once I’d written it, though, I found myself uncertain whether or not it was steampunk. It didn’t look like anything called steampunk that I’d seen. Sure, there were goggles involved in gem-crafting, and sure, copper was a necessary component of the dream-device—but where was the steam? My editor asked the same question, and suggested my problem could be fixed by a liberal application of steamworks to the setting. Who could naysay me if my story had all the trappings of the subgenre?

Syria, you may be aware, is a fairly arid country. There are better things to do with water than make steam.

Both articles are worth a read, not just as criticisms of the subgenre, but as roadmaps to a new future past.

And I have an unfinished steampunk book that could use a little attention…


The End Of The Affair

I knew that I would not be able to resist as soon as he walked into the room. He was tall, handsome and very French. He had a Dell Mini 10V balanced on one hand, and a USB stick in  the other.

“Rob”, he said in a thick accent that made my name sound like “rub”. “I think you will like this.”

He booted the netbook. It whickered quietly to itself for a moment, then fired up. Within a minute, it was running. It was running OSX. Flawlessly.

Readership, I was lost. I nearly grabbed the USB stick out of his hand. Gently, honourably, he took me through the procedure. Tweak this. Put this file… here. Wait a while. Be patient. Let things drift into place.

An hour after The Frenchman walked into my room, my netbook was running Snow Leopard. A few command line tweaks for sleep and keyboard issues and … done. It was a heck of a lot easier than my last Ubuntu upgrade.

No. That’s not fair. Ubuntu 10.10 dropped on Sunday (10th October, natch) and it’s a worthy move towards a proper, grown-up, easy to use OS. It’s stable, clean and quick. And better looking than Windows, too.

The trouble is, after a year of working with it, there’s still a lot about the system that I found wrong-headed or impenetrable. It struggled to pick up wireless networks on occasion, and installation could be a pain. I could never figure out how to hook up a programme from source code, even after following careful instructions from the very helpful forums. But then, I kept telling myself, it cost you £250, and it does everything that you bought it for without problems. It performs above and beyond your expectations. Stop whining.

But when The Frenchman told me about how easy hackintoshing the Dell had become, I instantly pricked up my ears. I had, after all, bought this particular model with the intention of doing that very thing, only to find the process a little more scary than I had anticipated. Downgrading your BIOS is not a job to be undertaken lightly, and it was one that I decided was beyond me.

No longer. With a hacked USB and a neat little programme called NetbookInstaller, it’s a simple job that’s easily within the reach of phucknuckled goofs like your humble author. You have to be a bit careful about OS updates, but that caveat aside, Snow Leopard runs like a dream on my little netbook. It jumps onto wireless networks like a hungry weasel, and is quick and responsive. I have two finger scrolling active, and I even think battery life is a tiny bit improved. This is the machine I dreamt of last year, and to an extent I think I was kidding myself that I would ever prefer Ubuntu to the OS in which I feel most at home.

But I’ve learnt a lot in the last year, I’ve learnt not to be afraid of the command line. I am now more than ever a gleeful advocate of free, open-source software. And I have no problem in recommending Ubuntu to people who are sick of Windows but can’t afford a Mac. If you need a machine for simple web browsing and word stuff, then I think you should give it a try. Certainly, some of the silver surfers I’ve shown it to found Ubuntu easy to pick up and less intrusive and naggy than Windows. And because the OS is light on system resources, it’s a perfect way to give an old machine a new lease of life. My gripes and grumbles are purely down to my intrinsic need to poke and prod into the inner workings of my machines. You should not be put off by them.

So, au revoir, Ubuntu. You have been a good friend to me in a time of need, and you will always have a little place in my heart. I am certain that you and I will meet again, somewhere down the line. But for now, my needs are met by a glossy, shiny mistress with a great looking keister.

I know. I’m a bastard. But I’m a bastard with a Mac netbook, and try as I might I just can’t wipe this big-ass grin off my face.

If anyone fancies giving this a try, here’s the heads up. First, read this: All the way through, and carefully. It will tell you exactly what you’re letting yourself in for. If that doesn’t seem too scary, pick up a Dell Mini10V (you need the V – it’s chipset suits the hackintoshing process in a way that it’s younger bro, the Mini10 doesn’t) from eBay. Follow the instructions to the letter. You’ll also need keyboard mapping for a British Windows keyboard, and three lines of command line typing to fix a problem where your new mackintosh might not wake from sleep. These are all easily Googlable. Or do like I did, and get a grown-up to do it for you.

Merci beaucoup, Laurent!

How A Phone Changed My Life


to include link to Clive Thompson’s article in Wired on the death of the phone call.

This morning I downloaded the new Arcade Fire album, that I had pre ordered over the weekend (initial review – the sound of the autumn, you need this in your life), then checked my Twitter feed before heading off to the station. On the train, I began to write the post you’re now reading. I have a couple of photos of the cats that I took, cropped, post-processed and will drop onto Flickr at some point this morning.

I did all this on one device. You know the one I’m talking about. The one that was in all the papers a month ago. The one that was irreparably broken and was to be recalled at a cost of billions.

That didn’t happen, although my device is now snug and secure in a free case the manufacturers were good enough to offer to anyone that was having problems with phone reception.

That was not my experience. It has not been the experience of hundreds of thousands of users worldwide. This phone is rock solid. Although I can’t talk on behalf of the worldwide user base for this device, I want to go on record, and state that it is the best phone I’ve ever owned. It grabs and holds onto signal without a problem, and 3G reception is a dream. The only point at which it drops a call is on the train, in the signal-free zone somewhere in Southall which kills a conversation with every phone.

But I didn’t really buy the device to be a phone. Along with the general trend of mobile users, I would much rather text than phone anyway, and the software keyboard on this phone is a joy. I’m up to about 30 wpm on it, both thumbs a blur on the surface.

I bought this device primarily as a street computer, and in that aspect it succeeds admirably. It’s an excellent music and video player, a more than adequate word processor, and an amazing camera. With a couple of application downloads it becomes a powerful image capture hub that does significantly more than the camera I dropped £200 on a few years ago. If I felt the urge, I could even edit video on it. In fact, people already have.

This sounds like a gush from someone blinking in the full glare of the Reality Distortion Field. Yes, I know there are plenty of devices out there that do all this and more, that are not proprietary and locked to one platform. Yes, fine, it was expensive. Yes, fine, I queued for almost six hours to get my mitts on one.

You know what? Don’t care. Completely worth it. If I need to check my email, look up something on Wikipedia, while away a dull ten minutes with a game, then this is the device I reach for. My Blackbook is currently on loan to a greater cause (more on that later) and with this and my little Linux netbook, I’ve hardly missed it. It gets used every day. It will get used every day. It’s the most 21st century thing I own. Until the next one.

Please, feel free to hit me up in the comments and tell me why your phone is better than mine. I’d love to know what I’ve been doing wrong!

Fandom – when obsession becomes passion

My post on fandom a couple of weeks ago was very much coloured by the fact that I’m not part of a fan community. I thought that this would give me an objective outside view of the world. All it really did was provide a barricade behind which I could lob brickbats and snarks without fear of blowback. That’s unfair to a lot of people, and nudges me dangerously close to the kind of snobbish commentary that drives me to fizzing spasms of rage when it’s directed at something I happen to like.

I’ve decided to offer a right to reply to a friend and writer who is deeply involved in fandom. WDW runs a very well respected blog on one of the more interesting A-listers on the scene, Jake Gyllenhaal. She knows the highs and lows of being a fan, and I’m delighted to offer her a slot on X&HT in order to set me straight.

Continue reading Fandom – when obsession becomes passion

Padded Out

the wonders of nature.jpg
Rampaging elephants couldn't tear me away from this article on how technology is disssociating us from the wonders of nature.

The time has finally arrived. This Friday, the 28th, the iPad will finally be on sale in the UK. I can already, with a sinking heart, report some of the things that will happen on that day.

There will be photos in all the papers of Steve Jobs holding up the iPad in his keynote at the Macworld conference back in January. You will recognise this photo, as it’s the only one the papers have been using to illustrate news about the device since its announcement.

There will be a sad and slightly droopy queue of obsessives outside the Apple Store in Regent Street, who just have to be there to pick up the iPads they preordered, rather then have the devices FedExed to their front door like a normal person.

There will be live-blogging. Dear gods, there will be live-blogging. Each and every one of these will include the phrase “The queue is starting to move. No, wait, false alarm.”

These people will be interviewed by BBC Breakfast. They will look slightly desperate, and a little crazy. They will be condescended at by an over-styled moron who has to get his eight-year-old daughter to sync his iPod. There will be an in-studio interview with an advocate like Rory Cellan-Jones, or Hugo Rifkind of the Times, who will gush like a perfumed faucet about the device. The phrase “game-changing” will be used to excess. This will be followed for balance by a spokesman from Sony, whining that it’s really just a big iPod Touch.

The queuers will be applauded by Apple staff when they finally pick up their iPads. They will feel the urge to hold their newly-purchased devices above their heads as if it’s the World Cup. They will look a little desperate, and slightly crazy.

Any coffee shops with wifi in the immediate area around Regent Street will be absolutely fucking unbearable until about 4PM, when purchasers get bored with the novelty of reading the Times or watching Star Trek on their new toys and go home to irritate their partners instead. There will be much discussion of the on-screen keyboard, and everyone will be insanely jealous of the smug git in the corner with the venti macchiato who splurged on the keyboard dock. He will merrily spend the afternoon whooping it up on Twitter instead of doing any actual writing.

Meanwhile, those of us in the know will be patiently waiting for June the 8th, and the moment at WWDC when Steve Jobs digs in his pocket.