Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Advent Calendar 17 Dec: Carollers Ftaghn!

Today's amusement is a set of sanity-lowering Christmas Carols, courtesy the H P Lovecraft Historical Society, via someone or another at MIT.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

For those of you who are not following my Facebook feed, I have a tablet now. Jazmin and I decided to rummage through the front closet, which isn't so much of a closet as it is an oversized junk drawer of things abandoned by previous deadbeat roommates when they skipped out. Aside from a giant pile of clothes, we found a wireless keyboard and mouse set, some brake shoes, another pull-up bar, a television, and a boxed-up BlackBerry PlayBook. It's several years old, and a few minutes of investigation suggested that it got boxed back up and thrown in the pile because the battery was run all the way down, and it wouldn't charge over a USB cable hooked to a computer. 

Thirty seconds on Google told me that this was a common problem with PlayBooks, and could be overcome by using a BlackBerry rapid charger plugged straight into the wall. By sheer stupid coincidence, I happened to have one -- I bought my droidphone secondhand, and the first wall wart the shop guy disentangled from the bucket full of them was a BlackBerry wall charger. (You can in fact use those for anything whose manual doesn't specifically say not to. It gets along quite happily with my phone, a Motorola Cliq, a Sansa Clip+ MP3 player, and my second-gen Kindle Keyboard.) Plugged it into the wall, it started flashing the green charging light instead of the help-me red one, and a few hours later I had it on the wifi and updating its little brains out.

I'll be honest with you: If I'd gone out and shopped for a tablet, I probably would have gotten an Android/Chrome one. Electronic widgets are one of the few places where I have really blatant brand loyalties. I couldn't care less what shampoo I use or what the label on my jeans says, but my hard drives are Western Digital, my SD cards are SanDisk, and my gadgets are Amazon and Google. Speaking strictly as a private citizen acting as a consumer, Google has never done me wrong. Business-wise I've grown to hate the way they refuse to hand out G+ APIs, but other than that, their stuff generally works how it's supposed to, it's cheap or free, and they don't exactly put a lot of effort into keeping you from modding your own legal possessions. An Android tablet would have access to the same Android Marketplace apps I already use on the phone, and a stripped-down version of the same browser I use on all the computers.

The last time I took a serious look at anything by RIM was back when I was buying PDAs. For those of you who were still gestating at the time, a personal digital assistant was the thing you kept your entire life on before your phone was smart enough to handle it. You plugged them into a computer to sync files and charge, and some of the later ones had things like touchscreens and cameras and bridge connections to your cell phone so it could use a cellular modem (i.e., just like your current data plan), and MP3 players and voice recorders and all that other stuff your basic smartphone does now. BlackBerry, in fact, produced one of the first, if not the first smartphones, a sort of cell phone-email-pager thing, which they called a BlackBerry because it had a tiny keyboard arranged in a roundish fashion for thumb-smashing that made it look a bit like the gathered drupelets of an actual blackberry, the descendants of which can still be seen on more recent models, like the one Sherlock carries in the eponymous BBC series.

I eventually went with Palm handhelds over BlackBerry, partly because at the time they were much better at what we hilariously thought of as multimedia (i.e., I had a Palm Tungsten T3 that could play music and video from an SD card, and before that I had a Palm IIIc that played a shockingly arcade-perfect port of Pac-Man), and partly because Palm supported handwritten input (which was basically the written version of OCR, and worked about as well as you'd guess; I broke down and bought a folding QWERTY keyboard), but mostly because at the time, everything RIM made was horrendously proprietary. 

Now you get cornered into "Mac" or "Windows", both of which are really enormous markets with tons of options, but back in the day, you could get away with making widgets that were hardware-locked into only working with one or two models of computer in the entire world, no exceptions. If you're in a particularly cruel mood, go find an old-timer who was working helpdesk twenty years ago, and say, "Could you give me a hand? I think my Compaq laptop is broken," and watch the PTSD flashbacks start. The BlackBerry network was its own little thing at the time, and you had to sign up for a BlackBerry email address and BlackBerry service on your BlackBerry PDA-phone to make it all work right, because a lot of it was handled directly on the phone and through RIM's servers. The Palms, on the other hand, handled most of the syncing service through the computer you plugged it into. You had to jump through hoops to get your email sent to you anywhere, like a BlackBerry could do, but on the other hand, you could stick the Palm in its cradle and hit the button, and sync whatever random crap you wanted from the computer, email to read offline, AvantGo (think Instapaper, only set up through Wii-like "channels"), ebooks, etc.

Sometime in the intervening decade, the BlackBerry people have given up on that. You do still need a BlackBerry ID for the device, but it's set up more or less like the MOTOBlur service for my Cliq phone. Sign up is free, and it really only serves as a centralized registration so you can sync stuff over any wifi connection, rather than specifically having to be in range of the managing computer. BlackBerry apps seem to be vetted to the same level ("not actively destructive to the device") as Android apps are -- which is not surprising, since apparently BlackBerry has made an Android runtime available to save you the trouble of porting anything over -- which means that while on the one hand, the listings definitely follow Sturgeon's Law, on the other hand, a lot of them are free, and not all the free ones are useless crashy junk. There's even a one-switch option in the settings to put it into 'development mode', which lets you do all kinds of neat things that will probably require a factory reset if you mung them up. 

The only snag I've run into is that there is apparently a Kindle reader for BlackBerry, but for some reason the PlayBook refuses to load all the elements in the page I'm supposed to download it from, and it's not in the BlackBerry World store, so I can't figure out how to get it on the tablet. I'm not really that broken up over it; a lot of rather annoyed reviews indicate that it's just the Android reader smacked atop the aforementioned runtime and deployed, so I could put it together myself if I really wanted. Or I could spend a whole dollar getting an app that purports to handle epub, mobi, and a bunch of other formats, which is what I actually did. BlackBerry lets you link your purchase to a PayPal account; conveniently, PayPal is where I keep my small 'too lazy to do it right' slush fund. Usually it's used to order pizza via Eat24, but this is more or less the same thing.

I've not yet done much prodding of the media players. It is my fervent hope that they are stone fucking stupid. I hate it when my media players get uppity and try to do a hundred fancy things I haven't asked for. It just breaks things. The last Android OS update on the Cliq came with a very perky ├╝ber-helpful music player that wanted to go fetch lyrics and album art and related downloads for every bloody single bloody track I bloody tried to bloody play, and not having any 3G data service just broke its wee genki little mind to the point where it was chugging, locking up, and crashing. It had mind-bogglingly bad controls; I spent an hour rummaging through it one day before concluding that it just didn't have a repeat-one option, and that it was impossible to turn shuffle on and off without going all the way back to the root menu and navigating back to the playlist to select either a song (which would play straight through) or 'shuffle these songs' (which did not let you pick which song to start on). I'll go hunt down VLC for BlackBerry if I have to -- there is probably a version of VLC that will work on our toaster oven, if I look around diligently enough -- but I'd really rather the native app just not be brain-damaged.

On the whole, though, I do now understand why they call these things CrackBerries. The battery life is not stellar, but it beats unplugging the laptop and propping it up in the kitchen whenever I want to watch TV or read TV Tropes while doing dishes.

Advent Calendar 16 Dec: "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1944)



The very first animated version of Rudolph. The story is not terribly old; it was penned in 1938 for a children's book used as an advertising gimmick at Montgomery Ward department stores. This piece was directed by animation legend Max Fleischer, whose studios were responsible for inventing about half of the fancy equipment animators used right up until the point where computers took over. This is actually the 1951 reissue of the theatrical short; the famous song performed by Gene Autry, was not written until 1949.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advent Calendar 11 Dec: QI Christmas Special, Series G

QI, if you have not seen it before, is a "panel quiz", i.e, a show where they get a bunch of witty people together and ask them questions mainly designed to prompt wiseass answers. This one is hosted by Stephen Fry, World's Smartest Comedian. They do a Christmas special every year, as many British programmes do, and for Series G, they decided to invite David Tennant as their special guest. They had not, to this point, had anything even resembling a sane Scotsman on the show -- they ask Ross Noble back a lot -- and so far as I know, they still haven't.