1. My review of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

    Posted February 22, 2011 in books  |  No Comments so far

    (This review also appears on the library page for Don Quixote)

    This was my first encounter with Cervantes and his deluded knight, Don Quixote. Previously discouraged by its sheer heft (this is a long book – basically two novels in one volume), my new e-reader allowed me to take it on holiday without risk of hernia. I’m glad I did.

    I found myself especially surprised at its sophistication, especially given that it’s nearly four hundred years old (the second volume was published in 1615). There’s a notion floating about that most of the interesting innovation in the novel form took place from the 19th century onwards, and I suppose I bought into that notion. My expectation – that Don Quixote would seem dated and quaint but historical and “worthy” – turned out to be very wide of the mark. This is pretty far from Balzac.

    In the course of these two volumes, Cervantes seems to invent almost every structural innovation that has been used in the modern novel, and then some. These innovations range from obvious ones like story-within-a-story to intricate crossovers between novel and reality and stylistic parodies of then-popular genres.

    To concentrate on this aspect of Don Quixote, however, is to unfairly portray it as a parade of gimmicks. The innovations aren’t distracting or clunky, and they’re balanced out by a rich vein of gritty historical detail that probably comes from Cervantes’ own history. I actually got a bit of a science-fiction buzz from the accounts of naval campaigns in the Mediterranean, which Cervantes actually fought in (he was captured and enslaved for several years). And this particular translation meticulously avoids introducing any olde-worlde mannerisms into Cervantes’ English, lending his voice a contemporary character that’s appropriate to the sophistication and “modernity” of the novel itself.

    What about Don Quixote himself, and his quest? I found him more insane, more dangerous, more misguided than popular conceptions of the character led me to expect. The word “quixotic” means hopelessly idealistic, impractical and unrealistic. Quixote is all of these things but he’s insane too, and highly dangerous, even though he usually finds himself on the receiving end of severe violence after conflicts he initiates. It’s only towards the end that I started to feel sympathy with Quixote, with this reaching something of an extreme when he and Panza are separated by the deceptive aristocratic pranksters. All in all though Don Quixote is actually a pretty dangerous character and the novel is quite violent both physically and psychologically.

    If you’re thinking about tackling Don Quixote I’d recommend you try to read it in electronic form, as the weight of the physical book would be discouraging. You’ll also benefit from the ability to follow footnotes and look up dictionary definitions. But be prepared for a long journey at the sides of these two unfortunate characters.

  2. Why you should use Evernote

    Posted September 22, 2010 in software, webapps  |  No Comments so far

    Evernote is a free service that allows you store text, images, audio files and (if you’re a premium subscriber like me) any other type of document on the web.

    Evernote logo

    OK, so that sounds useful, but hardly unique. There are lots of tools that do the the same sort of thing: SugarSync and DropBox are two that come to mind. The difference with Evernote is that it’s optimised for a particular purpose, online note-taking. And when I say optimised, I mean optimised.

    For note-taking to work it has to be as immediate and accessible as a notebook and pen in your pocket. And for the online aspect to work, it has to take advantage of the medium. Evernote succeeds on both these points, and here’s how.


    Evernote have produced desktop applications for Windows and Mac OS X. There’s a fully featured web client. Mobile apps exist for iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry, Palm’s Web OS and even ,Windows Mobile. You can add notes via the automated Twitter account, @myEN. There are various browser extensions and third party apps. So there’s no shortage of ways to get hold of, and add to, your notes.


    The various Evernote apps are all designed to help you get information into Evernote quickly, including images and audio as well as text notes. On mobiles, you can use Evernote to launch the camera and take a photo – that photo, once tagged, will be added to your notes, and will then be accessible from anywhere. Here’s the Android app’s start screen:

    Evernote Android app

    On the desktop apps, there’s an option to have Evernote take control of the Print Screen key. Pressing it will bring up some crosshairs, which you then use to select an area of the screen to send straight to Evernote. Right-clicking a file gives you a “send to Evernote” option. And anything you add can be tagged, making it easy to retrieve in future.


    It’s one thing to be able to add lots of notes and have them available on almost any network-enabled device you own. But one advantage of having those notes online is the ability to share them.

    Evernote allows you to create additional notebooks, which can then be shared with the world or with specified individuals. If you want someone else to see a note, just move it to one of your shared notebooks, and others can see it.

    There’s a WordPress extension called Everpress that will automatically post items from a shared notebook to your blog, but I haven’t tried that yet.


    This is the best bit, and the feature that really got my attention when I first found it.

    One day, when I was still quite new to Evernote, I was testing its search feature. I searched for a word that I knew wasn’t stored in plain text (I didn’t have many notes then). Evernote said “1 result returned”, so I thought the search system must have a bug. Then I looked at the result, and it was a photo I’d taken of a whiteboard. The word I’d searched for was written on the board, and Evernote had highlighted it in yellow.

    Evernote search

    Searching for the word 'confirm' - the highlighting is from Evernote

    Up until then I didn’t know Evernote had that feature, and it was a bit of an “encountering the future” moment. Whenever I tell people about this they have an “encountering the future” moment too.

    I’ve since found out that Evernote scans any images you upload and uses OCR to extract text from them. That text then becomes searchable, which is extremely useful, and is becoming more so over time.

    So yeah, I think you should try Evernote. If, like me, you collect & create a lot of information which you then need to get hold of further down the line, you might come to find it indispensable.

  3. Skyfire – a browser for Windows Mobile

    Posted September 25, 2008 in mobile, software  |  No Comments so far

    Yep, I’m a Windows Mobile user—although I may not be one for too much longer. It looks like there’s going to be a long wait for Windows Mobile 7 (I’m on version 6) and the new HTC/Google Android device has piqued my interest. But for the time being I’m stuck in WinMo world.

    I was therefore glad to read that Skyfire, a Windows Mobile browser that’s been in private beta for several months, has now been released to the public. And although it’s still in beta, it’s pretty much complete.

    Skyfire aims to provide a “real” web experience on a mobile handset. Rather than viewing (at best) mobile versions of sites or (at worst) the mangled results of mobile devices trying to display bad HTML/CSS code, Skyfire seeks to render sites in the same way as your desktop/laptop computer might. And from what I’ve been able to tell so far, it does this pretty well.

    How does this work? Well, the rendering engine for Skyfire doesn’t actually reside on your mobile device itself – that would put way too much strain its CPU. Instead, your device only connects to one of Skyfire’s servers. That server then loads the web pages you request, renders them in full, and streams the rendered output down to your phone.

    The server, of course, doesn’t have the same CPU limitations as your phone, and is therefore able to fully render web pages containing Flash and video. Even bad HTML & CSS code doesn’t cause it problems. It’s quite an interesting experience, seeing Flash and video run so well on a phone.

    There is a downside, however. Server-side rendering takes a horrible strain on a phone’s battery life, and my HTC TyTN II is already struggling to last a whole day without charge. Also, if you’re not on an unlimited data plan, this could be a more expensive way to browse the web than simply using pocket IE.

    So, although I’m pretty impressed by Skyfire, I think I’ll be restricting my use of it to when I’m on a wireless LAN and have my phone on charge.

  4. Love letters and live wires

    Posted September 23, 2008 in media  |  No Comments so far

    On Sunday my girlfriend and I were attempting to make it to BFI in time to watch Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, but as a result of some Boris Johnson/Sky Sports-related event we became ensnarled in traffic and arrived ten minutes too late.

    The BFI don’t show advertisements and don’t allow people in once a feature has started, so this put the kibosh on our plans. However, we took a look through the programme and noticed Love Letters and High Wires: Highlights from the GPO Film Unit.

    Telecoms geeks will know what the GPO is—but not everyone is a telecoms geek. The GPO, or General Post Office, used to run both post and telecommunications in Britain, up until the creation of British Telecom in 1980. In the mid-1930s, the GPO set up its own film unit, and produced a series of public information films intended to educate the British population about its services.

    This was a period when communications were being transformed in Britain – telephones were becoming near-ubiquitous and the postal service increasingly mechanised. A lot of people felt confused and uncertain about a lot of these technological advances and so there was a compelling motive for films of this nature to be produced.

    The surprising thing about these public information films, though, isn’t the fact that they were made at all, but that they were of outstanding quality and originality. Among the eight short films we saw were examples of surrealist animation (Norman McLaren’s Love on the Wing), abstract use of found footage (Len Lye’s Trade Tattoo) and a fairy-tale approach to marketing Post Office savings accounts (Lotte Reiniger’s The Tocher).

    Alongside these innovative pieces of work were some more traditional, but still fascinating, documentary films. Night Mail, the short film for which WH Auden’s poem was written, follows the Mail Special as it travels north from London to Glasgow. We see how nets sticking out from the side of the train are used to snatch up mailbags along the route without the train having to slow down (we were wondering, do they still do that? I hope so), and how the on-board sorters continually re-label the 48 pigeonholes they use with a different list of towns as they pass from region to region.

    My two favourites, though, were both films with a more educational purpose. N or NW, a film by Len Lye, is the story of how a lovers’ tiff is nearly exacerbated by the incorrect application of a postcode (the guy thinks that Upper Street is in NW1 – shocking!) but ultimately resolved by the efficiency of the GPO. The Fairy of the Phone sees a spectral phone operator with crystal-clear diction provide advice and guidance on telephone usage to a number of confused characters. We are instructed on how to answer the phone, why it’s a bad idea to use outdated directories, how to dial ‘our friends on the continent’ and how long we should give someone else to answer our call. It’s not just informative, however, it’s extremely humorous, and I strongly recommend trying to track down a copy of it online.

    That film got me thinking about how a modern equivalent might look. How would you personify the internet? What sort of advice would the personification would dish out? This made me think of AOL’s Connie (right), who would appear in television ads to sort out the (numerous) problems of AOL subscribers. She was the closest thing I could think of to the “Fairy of the Internet”, but to be honest she doesn’t really measure up to her predecessor.

  5. My Google Chrome experiment

    Posted September 4, 2008 in software  |  No Comments so far

    Late yesterday afternoon I joined the rest of the internet and downloaded Google’s new browser, Chrome.

    I’d initially thought that I’d play around with it for a while, eventually forming an opinion which I’d then broadcast to all and sundry. But while I was doing this it struck me that this was pretty futile. Internet browsers are applications that most of us use so heavily, they’re the software equivalent of a second skin. It’s not really possible to have an informed opinion on one unless you’ve used it fairly extensively (or gone through the hell of optimising a fairly complex website on one – but that’s another story!).

    So, I’ve decided to put Firefox 3 to one side and use Google Chrome exclusively for a few days. Then I’ll write up my thoughts on how I feel it measures up.

    But one thing I can say about it now is, what’s up with the browser crashing when you type “:%” into the address bar? I’m amazed they didn’t pick that up in QA…

    Edit, January 2010: So, a while after writing this post, I went back to Firefox. I just missed add-ons too much. But without really noticing it, I gravitated back to Chrome to the point that it was my sole browser by around October 2009. It was mainly to do with speed; when feeling impatient I’d open Chrome while waiting for Firefox to load, and after a while I’d just open Chrome. When Google launched extensions for Chrome recently, I became even happier with it. I haven’t even installed Firefox on my new PC at home. It’s a shame though as I want Mozilla to succeed; I just think that Firefox has crossed the line into bloatware.

  6. RocketDock – Close but no cigar

    Posted August 28, 2008 in software  |  No Comments so far

    RocketDock is a nice idea. Billed as a “peace offering” from the Mac community to Windows users, it’s a recreation of the OS X dock – the customisable ribbon of icons allowing quick access to files, folders, applications and URLs.

    Rocketdock screenshot

    I’ve just installed it on my Windows XP machine and for the first five minutes or so I found myself warming to it. You might think it’s a needless duplication of the Quick Launch section of the Windows taskbar, but it’s not. There’s a lot of scope for customisation of icons and actions, and the ability to position it anywhere you’d like on the screen is a useful one.

    However, once I’d removed most of the default icons and added several of my own, I encountered some strange behaviours. Dragging shortcuts to the dock, which had earlier on resulted in their appearing as icons, no longer worked. However, after a failed drag, a blank space appeared on the ribbon which did nothing and made the interface harder to use.

    Mucking about with RocketDock’s settings, removing some more icons and even restarting the application didn’t help matters. It seems to have decided that the set of icons in there is definitive, and is no longer willing to countenance even the idea of change. Bit of a prima donna if you ask me. Fail!