Tribute before the fact

All the media hysteria about Michael Jackson dying reminded me of a little know freely available hip hop album made by Rhymefest a couple of years ago as a tribute to Jackson (albeit a quite tongue in cheek one). It’s still available from the artist’s website to stream or to download, and is certainly a lot more interesting than anything the man himself made in the last 20 years.

Not so much dropping the ball as kicking it away

I’ve been testing out Windows 7 at work for a couple of weeks now, largely because I need to keep abreast of developments in new operating systems (and then identify issues with supporting them).

I actually like it more than either XP or Vista, and might even consider using it for some basic tasks. However, what I’m testing is the Ultimate Edition. What I’d be getting as a UK buyer of the software is something quite different.

Now, I’m a big believer in freedom of choice. I believe that every computer user should be given a choice as to what hardware, operating system and software they use to carry out their daily work. I believe that a computer should be fit for purpose, and that what suits me might not suit the person across the street. And because of that I’m generally a fan of an operating system that gives you one of each type of software (browser, email client, chat client etc.) but then tells you what the alternatives are and where you can get them (ideally for free and with full integration into the OS). That way all tastes get catered for, and those people who really don’t care have one of each type of package and can start being productive straight away.

I’m also a big fan of an upgrade path that doesn’t involve reformatting, data loss, and paying lots of money for something that is newer but not necessarily better.

Windows 7 fails me on all of the above. It will not ship with a web browser in Europe but will instead offer a link to download Internet Explorer. Now, if they really care about giving people a choice I’d expect a link to download IE, one for Firefox, one for Chrome, one for Safari and one to give a list of the other 20 or so browsers that work on Windows with a bit of blurb on the pros and cons of each one. I don’t expect this move to lose IE many users, or to push users to one of the other browsers, I just expect it to annoy and confuse non-technical users.

Also, I learn today that there will be no upgrade version of Windows 7, again due to competition regulations. This suggests that users wanting to upgrade will need to do a clean install and migrate all their data. Again, not great for a non technical user and a pain for people who provide unofficial tech support to families and friends.

So yes, I’m increasingly convinced that these changes don’t go along with the spirit of competition regulations. All they do is make the competition seem all the more attractive. If you’re going to have to reinstall anyway, it might be worth looking at all the alternatives before choosing Windows 7. And when people start doing that, then I think it might be that the take up of non-Windows operating systems increases.

Which might not be what anyone involved intended, but would be a victory for freedom of choice.

Review : Lots of free music

I may get round to reviewing The Mars Volta, Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth and Placebo, but as you can read about all of these in a fair few other places I thought I’d concentrate on a couple of months worth of free music (all licensed under Creative Commons so download away).

The Sound of Music by Pinkle

I like this a lot. It’s lazy, charming and creative indie music, and fits the mood of a summer week off work perfectly. I’ve just downloaded two more albums in the hope that they are at least half as good (see http://www.jamendo.com/en/artist/Pinkle for a full catalogue of releases). I’d buy “The Sounds of Music” and will certainly be trying to find out more about the artist (EDIT: I’ve now found a website at http://www.pinklemusic.com which explains more).

Dinner for One by Amity in Fame

Quite heavy, in a largely acoustic way (in the same was the new Mars Volta album is). I like this, and have found that it has got better with each listen. The only downside is that I’ve not wanted to play it from end to end for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. Certainly a burn it, although the title track in particular I’d pay for.

Animals are People Too by The Wind Whistles

A record I waited over a year for, and one which has not disappointed. The songs are shorter than the last album, but there are more of them and they have a more indie rock feel to them. None of these are a bad thing, and I would gladly file it next to “Window Sills”, which has been played a very large number of times over the last year.

So High by Le Galago

A British melodic indie group who come from Birkenhead, and sound a lot like Muse to my ears. This is not a bad thing as such, and they certainly have a sound (and in particular a singer) that could take them places. I like this, but it doesn’t tell me anything new about the world or myself, but I’m more than happy to listen to their songs when they appear on my playlist.

2 Days a Night by The Liquid Kitchen

I downloaded this a while ago, and listened to it a fair bit on my way to and from work. To my ears they sound a lot like Neil Young fronting a bar band, and I really have to remind myself on occasions that I’m not actually listening to Neil Young. Great if that is what you are after, but it seems like this really is their only trick and I’m not sure it would stretch to a second album without an input of new ideas. Worth a download though.

Born in the USB by William Doyle

I downloaded this for the title alone, but the music itself is rather fine too. It’s indie with a slight psychedelic edge, and opening track “Beneath the Soil” is possibly my favourite song of the last few weeks. It tails off a bit towards the end, but still warrants a good few listens.

Project media server

As I’ve often said, “Ubuntu on the desktop, Debian on the server” is the way to go. That said, I’ve mixed and matched the two a fair bit over the past couple of years, and would now say that as Ubuntu is ready for the server, so Debian is a damn fine desktop distro which is also surprisingly easy to set up to play every possible kind of media file I can throw at it.

So yes, I went with Debian (stable) because the computer I’m using was already running it. I’ve set the machine up, copied all the music, movies and TV shows across, and now have a very pretty and totally functional media machine. So far I’ve played some music, watched a documentary about T.S. Eliot (who still to this day inspires me more to write than any other person living or dead), and have some live footage of Leonard Cohen to look forward to at some point this week. I’ve also got it on our wireless network, so I can dump media onto it from anywhere (anywhere being largely my main laptop which lives upstairs).

It currently looks something like this:

Default Debian desktop
Default Debian desktop

I’m using Rhythmbox for music, Totem for video, and have installed very little extra apart from the required media codecs (I seem to have a mix of pretty much every type of media file for some reason). I can’t say I really came across any problems, and Debian did a great job of being able to find and install whatever was needed to make each file type work (although I’m systematically converting everything to .ogv and .ogg so a lot of this won’t be required soon).

So far so good.

Concept albums for the 21st Century

I’ve always liked concept albums. From Genesis and Pink Floyd to the Mars Volta and the Decemberists, I’ve always loved collections of songs that tell a story. But the one band who are probably the most overlooked in this area are The Hold Steady. I think it’s largely because of the genre they work in. You don’t expect the band often refered to as the best bar band in the world to weave the sorts of stories that flow from song to song (and in their case from record to record). And while I think that the new Decemberists album is probably the best concept album of this year, I think “Stay Positive” by the Hold Steady is up there with it (albeit in a very different way). If you listen to all four Hold Steady albums one after the other it is possible to trace the stories of the main characters, but mainly what you get is a snapshot of a world full of dealers, pimps, hoodrats and voyeurs. It’s a fascinating world, but not one I would want to be a part of, and it is as far away from the traditional fantastical idea of a concept album as you can get. But in the end I keep coming back to their records, and keep wanting to piece together the underlying narrative behind the songs. And that is exactly how I’ve felt about every concept album I’ve ever loved, which suggests they are doing something very right.

If I had to list my concept albums of the 21st century, it would go something like (in no particular order):

  • Frances the Mute by the Mars Volta
  • Stay Positive by The Hold Steady
  • Separation Sunday by The Hold Steady
  • The Crane Wife by The Decemberists
  • The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists
  • The Raven by Lou Reed

So you want to buy a netbook?

One question I get asked a lot is some variation on “what computer should I buy?” My answer usually involves asking what it is going to be used for, what the budget is, and if the user has any preconceptions regarding the OS of the machine.

Increasingly I get asked about netbooks in particular. I dislike the term netbook, but I’ll use it because people know what I mean. And because I get asked about them, I try and stay up to speed with what is on the market, which in turn makes me carefully sum up the pros and cons of each one. The things I look at tend to be:

  • Physical size – small is good, but I totally see how something as small as my EeePC 701 is not to everyone’s taste. If I was buying one now, I’d want a screen size of at least nine inches, with a resolution of 1024 by 600. The larger EeePCs are good in this regard, but I think the Dell Mini beats them all with a 10″ screen pitching it between the EeePC 701 and my (once again) dead 12″ iBook.
  • Hard drive size – the hard drive can be anything from a 4gb solid state to a 160gb laptop hard drive. I use mine as my 3rd machine, with all my files living on my main laptop and the important ones synched via dropbox. But if you’re going to use it as a main (or even second) machine, then get a big hard drive. With all the major manufacturers you can now choose between a small solid state drive and a larger hard drive, so this shouldn’t influence choice too much.
  • Battery life – 3 hours does me fine, but if you are going to travel with it then this becomes important. I’m sure I’ve seen a couple with with 7 hours of battery life (although I might be thinking of the new Macbook Pro).
  • Price – You can get a first generation Acer Aspire One or EeePC for under £150 now, and even some of the slightly larger netbooks come in at well under £300 (which would be my personal price limit). Some of the mid range EeePCs (the 1000H for example) are quite reasonable, as are the Dell Minis (before you add too much customisation that is).
  • Operating System – Some come with really dire versions of Linux, some come with XP, the Dell Mini and Lenovo Ideapad actually ship with decent Linux distros (Ubuntu and Suse). I’m not too bothered, because I tend to reformat and reinstall everything I buy, but for non technical users this has to be a factor. Now, I love Linux. But I’d think twice before advising anyone to try and use the versions of Linux shipping with the EeePC and the Acer Aspire One. They are a bad advertisement for something that is great, and for that reason I’d say that if you want something with Linux on then choose something with one of the big distros (anything in the distrowatch top 10).

So yes, that’s what I tend to look at. If I was buying one today I’d probably go for a Dell Mini with a large hard drive, Ubuntu preinstalled, and as much Ram as I could fit in it. My second choice would probably be an EeePC 1000H, although I’m loathe to pay for a Windows licence when I have several I don’t use already. If price was more of a factor than it is, then I’d go with an Acer Aspire One (which I’ve just discovered I could get for £160 with a 120gb harddrive and 1gb Ram, which is actually really tempting if the noises my EeePC is making mean what I think they mean).

Albums of the year (so far)

Posted largely because I’m far too brain dead to finish any of the half-started posts about computers and/or music that I’ve started over the last few weeks.

  1. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
  2. Frank Turner – Love Ire & Song + The First Three Years
  3. Maxïmo Park – Quicken The Heart
  4. The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday
  5. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
  6. British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?
  7. And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – The Century of Self
  8. Manic Street Preachers – Journal For Plague Lovers
  9. Modern Skirts – All Of Us In Our Night
  10. Robyn Hitchcock – Goodnight Oslo

Ok, so some of these are not from 2009, but I think it’s a fair indication of what I’ve been listening to recently. Although Jarvis Cocker’s new album would be on the list in about 2 weeks I think (the stats come from last.fm and the album is very new).