Cell by Stephen King

What an amazing book. Despite the inevitable of label “Horror”, I’d classify this as more of a psychological thriller. Yes there are many gory scenes, but the meat of this book is not in the action sequences, but in the constant feeling of fear, fear of the unknown experienced by a group of people who find themselves unaffected by the “Pulse” sent out through the mobile phone network, a pulse that resets the human brain to its most primitive form and eventually takes those affected by it (most people) the “phone crazies” on a different evolutional path.

A couple of months back I finished reading Cell by Stephen King.

The hardback original cover

What can I say? What an amazing book. Despite the inevitable of label “Horror”, I’d classify this as more of a psychological thriller. Yes there are many gory scenes, but the meat of this book is not in the action sequences, but in the constant feeling of fear, fear of the unknown experienced by a group of people who find themselves unaffected by the “Pulse” sent out through the mobile phone network, a pulse that resets the human brain to its most primitive form and eventually takes those affected by it (most people), know as  the “phone crazies” on a different evolutional path. What could have been?

The book could be described as a zombie apocalyptic story, but rather than the usual approach of “virus hits earth, chaos ensues, lead character finds a big gun, shoots zombies, makes their way to safety” the author gives the zombies original abilities and strange behaviours that just  cry out to be explained and will keep you reading.  All of the characters feel well written and believable, meaning you as the reader care about them, making the goodbyes sad and the dangerous moments tense.

Much has been said about the ending of this book, with many readers disappointed that it didn’t answer all their questions. While I won’t give anything away, all I will say is I liked the ending, it suited the tone of the book. If anyone has ever seen the original cut of Blade Runner, and then the Director’s Cut you’ll know what I mean – sometimes what is not said can be so much more powerful, in the same way the ending to the first Matrix film was ruined by the two subsequent sequels.

So I highly recommend this book, don’t be put off if “horror” isn’t usually your thing.

The West Wing

I’ve been watching a lot of The West Wing lately – a truly great TV show. I’m only on season 4 so far, but the quality of the acting and sophistication of the writing is truly amazing.
Sometimes nicknamed “The Left Wing” for its political leanings, the show portrays what goes on behind the scenes at the Whitehouse and the people whose job it is to win elections, pass laws, write speeches and order military strikes, and who are, after all, human beings like you and me.
On first thoughts, one might be tempted to dismiss The West Wing as a show just for politics geeks, but it’s far from that. Consider a TV show about a hospital or a police station – they manage to stay interesting to those not interested in the procedural nature of how a hospital works – only in The West Wing you can be abruptly taken from a light-hearted discussion regarding a potential PR disaster to a life and death terrorist situation. It really iis must see TV (or DVD, since it finished in 2006!)
So if you’ve ever enjoyed other top US shows like 24 or The X-Files, give The West Wing a try.

Podcasts: 8 of the best

Podcasts are a great way to keep up with the latest goings on in whatever subjects interest you. For me this means mainly tech news. I even wrote an application to help me organise all them all! I thought I’d list a few of the podcasts I listen to regularly.

This Week In Tech
Or TWiT, as it’s known is a general technology news ‘netcast’.
The flagship podcast of the TWiT Network, it consists of regular guests discussing the latest tech stories. Being American, it is heavily focused on US consumer issues, but that doesn’t matter since what happens in the US inevitably follows here in the UK, and they do sometimes have British guests. I find a lot of the people are too easily drawn into the latest crazes such as Twitter and Facebook but thankfully regular contributor John C Dvorak is there to bring them down to earth! Overall a top show, highly recommended.

A slightly odd name, until you realise it’s named after the show’s creator, Paul Boag. This podcast focuses on web design, and it aimed at those who work as designers, and to a lesser extent developers. It is light hearted, the guys don’t take themselves too seriously, so while you’re learning new facts and keeping up with what’s going on in the world of web design, you’re also enjoying it. Worth subscribing to if you have aspirations to become a designer, or are a web designer, or if like me, you’re a developer who has to do some designing. Top podcast indeed.

Security Now!
This podcast, from TWiT, is all about the latest news in the world of computer security. The show alternates each week between a listener Q&A session and a chosen topic that the show’s creator, Steve Gibson will talk about. This could be how SSL works, how a particular worm works or sometimes a non-security related topic. All episodes include the latest security news, which is essential if you’re an IT administrator, or care about the security if your own home network. Sometimes the topics can be very complex, then other weeks bizarrely simple – the show has a huge range but never fails to hold my interest. Anchorman Leo Laporte does a good job of representing the average listener, and asking Steve the questions we’re all thinking. Highly recommended.

PC Pro
A discussion of the latest tech news with a refreshing UK focus. The folks are very knowledgeable and raise some good points. They don’t seem to be as obsessed with the latest crazes like Twitter and FaceBook as other podcasts, which is so refreshing. Recommended for anyone who is at all interested in the computer industry.

Windows Weekly
Another TWiT podcast – if you’re interested in Windows, Xbox or Zune then a must-listen. Paul Thurrott has contacts within Microsoft that often mean you will find out things before anyone else. I sometimes wish it could cover more technical stuff for us developers, but we’re not really the show’s primary audience (there’s Channel 9 for that). Overall highly recommended if you have an interest in Microsoft technologies.

I occasionally listen to this one. It’s a roundup of the top stories submitted on Digg. Alex Albrecht is a very funny guy, and so too is Kevin Rose (the founder of Digg.com) A great laugh and good way to keep up with the less serious goings on in the world, also available in video, in fact it’s best viewed in video although personally I’m not so keen on video podcasts since I can’t do anything else at the same time (although watching Diggnation especially is a great Sunday morning remedy to a hangover). Overall I highly recommend.

Geek News Central

I’ve been listening to this podcast on and off for over a year now. It’s a show about technology news, but it’s not one bit dry and boring as one might first expect, this is thanks to the great host Todd Cochrane who has such a great passion for what he’s doing. With two shows a week, keeping up with this podcast requires dedication – and when you first listen you might wonder why Todd spends the first 15 minutes just having a general chit-chat about what’s going on in his world – but as you listen each week you realise that is part of the charm, and what differentiates this tech podcast from the myriad of others out there. This is the cream of the podcasting world, highly recommended!

Mark Kermode’s Film Reviews
This podcast is a repeat of Mark Kermode’s regular Friday afternoon section on BBC Radio Five Live. Kermode, along with host Simon May do an excellent job of providing information and reviews on the new releases each week. If Mark recommends a film, it’s a good sign that it’s worth seeing. Nice way to start the weekend.

Goodbye Nokia N95, Hello iPhone

For 2 years now I’ve been using the Nokia N95. At the time of release it was revolutionary. Even today it holds its weight when compared to the majority of phones on the market. From a top quality camera with a flash and autofocus, a GPS receiver and built in sat-nav, DVD quality video recording, to the more gimmicky 2-way slider, the N95 really is the bee’s knees.
So it was time for an upgrade. I was seriously contemplating sticking with T-Mobile and the N95 and just getting a cheaper tariff. But the N95’s biggest flaw, let me down. Build quality. My first N95 had a loose keypad, and the volume-up button broke. After about 20 months, the volume-up button broke on my second handset. Google it, it’s a common fault. Whereas once a Nokia would have been virtually indestructible (think 3310), the N95 was a fragile ornament. Other aspects of the N95 started to bug me also. The upper keypad is too cramped. It’s too easy to accidently cancel out of an application when trying to hit the ‘C’ key. Application start-up times are also slow, nothing seems seamless. I decided I needed to get a new phone.
I was torn between the iPhone and the N97. After the shocking build quality of the N95, I’d sworn never to go back to Nokia, which is a big thing for me. I’ve owned the 3330, 3510i, 6630, 6100, and 6230i – oh and the N95 of course, since 2001…. I had a play on the N97 and it looks amazing. The camera is top notch, and it feels a lot more solid than the N95. The touch screen however is very poor. A bit like the 5800, it’s resistive, and so works on pressure making it a real chore to use. The UI isn’t designed for touch, rather than adapted, and poorly adapted in my opinion. But the slide-out keyboard, and integrated flash in the browser were still enough to keep my interested.  I decided to stick to my guns, and not risk another N95. I went for the iPhone.
I’ve had many iPods before. I hate iTunes – it’s a true example of bloatware. I have used iTunes since 2001 when it was version 1, and came with Mac OS 9 – so I have a lot of experience with using it. From about version 6 onwards, it just got really slow. On Windows it has an annoying bug where it will steal focus every couple of minutes, this can be fixed by setting Windows Live Messenger not to display your song information. I’m sure Apple make iTunes on Windows run a slow as possible to make Microsoft look bad. I mean, why the hell does QuickTime, a crappy media player that no one ever runs (except as a plug-in) need a notification icon? What is it notifying me of exactly? Anyway we all know iTunes sucks, but it for syncing music and downloading podcasts, it does the job OK.
The iPhone, like the N97, looks great. Unlike the N97 it’s not at all obvious where the SIM card goes, so be sure to read the manual, or Google it as I did. The screen in capacitive, which works by conducting electricity from your figure. It’s a lot smoother and more enjoyable to use. The browser and email are great, but I do miss a few things about my N95

  • The calendar. An iPhone will only let you set a reminder for 2 days before an event. No good for a car service, or a big birthday present where you might like to be reminded a week or so before. Seems like a pointless limit, or oversight to me.
  • Bluetooth. The iPhone might as well not have Bluetooth, since you can’t send photos or contacts using it. I can understand Apple restricting music, but photos, contacts, and calendar entries? These are basics Apple and you’ve got them wrong.
  • Apple are in bed with the network operators. You can’t download podcasts over 10MB or use the iPhone has a modem, the N95 could do all of this. It was a phone not a marketing tool for 02.
  • 3G reception seems to be bad – when compared to other phones on the same network in the same room.
  • The camera is bad. The newer 3GS that I have still is poor and doesn’t have a flash.

I don’t want to be all negative – the iPhone is a worthy upgrade from the N95. Email is much quicker, and supports HTML (although Apple limit you to sending 5 photos as attachments), as well as syncing emails and calendars with exchange. The N95 would take about 30 seconds to ‘think about’ my emails after receiving them, which was just plain annoying. Direct upload the YouTube, along with some great games, and applications put the iPhone ahead of Nokia. Facebook, Twitter, even Windows Live Messenger via push (although the application author writes that the program is under review by Apple, no doubt because it might eat into network revenues) all work seamlessly. The interface is a pleasure to use.
So I’m glad I upgraded – just missing a few key bits of functionality!

Visual Studio has clipboard history!

Just discovered that by repeatedly pressing CTRL SHIFT + V you can cycle through your clipboard history. Really handy, I am always copying something, then I hit CTRL + C by accident and end up copying a blank line.

This will save me time.

Podcast Tool: Updated

A quick note to let you know that I’ve updated Podcast Tool (someone please suggest a more imaginative name!)

  1. The new version fixes some bugs, and also provides some convenient options. There is now a gray RSS icon when a podcast hasn’t been downloaded, and a blue one when it has, allowing you to see from the list quickly what you’ve already got.
  2. When you update podcasts the status bar now tells you how many were added, and when.  I found myself wondering if there were any new shows or not. I plan to expand this is and have a separate view for ‘recently added’ shows.
  3. The options dialog now has two extra options. The first is to automatically check for new shows when the program runs, the second is to automatically download new shows after checking.
Screenshot of the Podcast Tool application.
Screenshot of the Podcast Tool application.

Again, feedback and suggestions are welcome, so please send me an email if you use the application.

Bing! And the work is done

Microsoft’s new search engine isn’t half bad. I’ve noticed it ranks Wikipedia,Windows Live and FaceBook profiles more prominatly than Google. There is no automatic spell-checker, or search suggestions like Google has, which is dissapointing.  I’ve also not noticed the ability to search synonyms like Google can. The lack of a decent News agregstor is also a let down. However on search results alone, Bing is just as good, and certainly more visually attractive as Google.

Where Google really comes in handy is tring to find an answer to an error message or programming query. I’ll be giving Bing a test over the next few weeks.

Blast from the past: Netscape 6

While digging throgh the archives, I found a review I wrote of Netscape 6 back in 2000. I rememeber it being printed in the letter pages of .net magazine. By the way,I was 15 when I wrote this..

I started off by downloading the installer, and after about 1 hour, it crashed and failed to resume. So I waited for it to appear on the .net cover disc, and to my excitement, on the 22nd of December 2000 I received issue 80 of .net and installed Netscape 6.

First impressions were OK, at least the installer had worked. The only thing I use communicator for really is to browse newsgroups, and so the first thing I tried was to connect the password protected server I use. Now NS4 didn’t remember my password every session, that was livable, NS6 however can’t even remember it within 1 session, every time I changed group or composed a message I was asked to re-enter my password. Maybe fiddling around in the settings could solve this, but at the speed which NS6 functions, looking around the settings dialogue is a chore. Browsing the web in NS6 was slow and many sites didn’t appear correctly, and please Netscape, for the last time – I DON’T want to join Netcenter!!

So overall, I’m completely unhappy with Netscape 6, it may look nice, but it’s slow and bug-ridden.

Compare it to Internet Explorer and there’s no competition. Internet Explorer works, it works fast, and doesn’t have (as many) annoying bugs. People mock Microsoft for the occasional bug and security hitch, but don’t seem to act the same way with companies like Netscape release a program like this. Netscape is a tacky,  poor quality, below standard web browser suit,  even if it was bundled with Windows sixty times over, I would never use it. Internet Explore works, and I’ll be sticking with my current set of applications: IE5 for web browsing, Eudora for email and Netscape 4 for newsgroups.

That review seems so dated now. “What’s Eudora?” I hear you saying. How times have changed. Now it is IE that is dog-slow and most likely to render your site incorrectly. Microsoft really need to up their game. IE8 might be opening up a new process for each tab, but that’s no excuse for it taking 2 seconds. Chrome manages to do the same and not keep the user waiting. Just as they have done with Windows 7, they need to listen to users. The success of Firefox I believe is not because of its speed or ease of use, they are average, but because if its extentions. It’s a lot more difficult to built an extenion for IE than it is for Firefox.