Saturday, December 03, 2005

My Favourite Podcasts

By now you probably have an portable MP3 player of your own, and if not then you at least can listen to them on the computer you're using to read this. In addition to the great convenience of having acres of music at your fingertips, there's something else you can do with it: listen to podcasts. Podcasts are like short radio shows that are downloaded to your computer at regular intervals. I've tried a few and wanted to recommend a couple.

The best one so far is NPR's "Story of the Day" (, which is on that page near the bottom under the "People and Places" group. It has the best story broadcast that day on National Public Radio in the USA and is always interesting. There are lots of other programs listed there that you might want to try too, but Story of the Day is the best, I think. Deanne and I actually lay down on the couch together and listened to about ten of them in a row. A story from Nov 29, 2005 about a band called "Clap Your Hands Say Yeah" is what inspired this blog posting, actually. It's an excellent story about how Internet exposure took an indie band from nowhere to "choose your record label" in a matter of weeks.

Quirks and Quarks is a science program broadcast on Canadian radio - they take the extra step of dividing each weeks podcast into seperate mp3 files, so you can listen to them one at a time, instead of having to fast-forward through the file each time you have a chance to listen to it. Kudos to them for thinking of that - so far they're the only one I've seen that does that. Look for the "XML Podcast" logo on the right side of the main screen.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporations' "Radio National" offer a lot of their programs as podcasts too; I used to enjoy the Science Show when I was able to catch it, and now I never miss it :)

You can download iPodder, a software program that will help you manage your podcast subscriptions, automatically downloading the programs and deleting the files when you're done with them. Don't be tempted to keep everything you've downloaded; well, I suppose you could burn it to a CD if you really wanted to, but I think its best to treat it like radio: listen to it, then delete it.

It's nice to be able to pop the headphones on, or hook up the mp3 player to the car stereo and hear the best programs from all around the world, in perfect clarity, whenever I'm ready to do so -give it a try :)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A George Carlin Moment
I just finished watching George Carlin's latest show (?) "Life is worth living", and jeez, it's terrific. His barrage of ideas and framing of our lives seemed to spark a thought in my head, so here goes.

Two major genres of TV shows are filled with content that is opposite to their description. Reality-TV is full of completely artificial situations. In real life nobody is going to be trapped on a desert island with 11 committee-selected individuals with attitude problems, nobody has to eat worms and roaches and nobody has a team of talented homosexuals descend upon their houses to pick out new clothes for them. Reality TV is entirely fictional.

Most of the popular fictional drama shows, however are based on (and this came as quite a shock when I thought about it) REAL FACTS! The murderer is caught by using DNA evidence, the suspect tried by our real courts using real laws. The medical show has more real medical terminology in one hour than I'd hope to encounter in a year, and every week I learn about three new conditions I might have.

If I was actually George Carlin I could think of a witty retort with which to end this little observation, but I'm not and I can't.

Monday, November 07, 2005

I took a lot of pictures with our new camera, a Digital Rebel XT, over the weekend and the techniques I used got me thinking about the way the very definition of photography has least for me.

I've always been fascinated by cameras - a Canon EOS 100 was my first major purchase after I started working as a programmer. When I was 14 or 15 I used to get all the free brochures from our camera shop when we lived in Saudi Arabia and read them over and over again, comparing the features on each model. I also read a lot of photography books and I knew all the basics of apertures, film speed and shutter speed before I owned a camera.

The one thing I rarely did was actually take pictures. Film was expensive, developing even more so and there wasn't much scope for experimentation with weird pictures on a budget. So I just kept reading about it, about how to get the image you wanted directly onto the film with the right camera, lens, composition, settings and filters. There was some information about darkroom techniques: basic cropping and composition...changing the image after you'd taken it, but that seemed unlikely to be something I'd get into. Like most keen amateurs I'd be working hard to get good pictures straight onto the film and not worry about modification after the fact.

But the digital camera revolution changed things for me. I can remember the first time I used one. I was at a birthday party (Hi Anestis!) and a friend of his brought a small digital camera along. I was asked to take a couple of pictures, and I got such a rush when I snapped a picture, looked at the little screen...and there it was! No guessing, no hoping the light was took the guesswork out of it, and best of all, every picture was FREE! You could take as many as you wanted, weird ones, stupid ones, or whatever and not feel $0.20 leave your pocket with every click.

I was very happy with this whole arrangement for many years, happily using fully automatic cameras that seemed to do the job of taking basic pictures of people, places and things. And all the pictures were well lit, cropped nicely, thanks to free software like Picasa (which I'm even using now to write this post!) As the mega-pixels increased I found that I didn't need to zoom in as far - I could just crop a generously wide image down to the interesting bit and still have enough detail to make it look good. The software made it easy to take a competently taken picture and make it look terrific. Final images that would have taken a lot of training and darkroom skills were a mouse-click away.

It seemed a shame all that stuff I'd learned about manual control of photography wasn't being used...but this weekend I found a good use for it! The Rebel XT has several manual modes and, while you can use it in "point 'n' shoot" mode you'd better stay in good light and not try anything too fancy. If you want to take pictures under a range of conditions though, you'll need to understand how a camera works, because the rules are the same as they were a hundred years ago. The XT will tell you if areas of the pictures are overexposed - they've gone "flat white", containing no information, and if you try to darken the image or process it in some way, that area of the picture will immediately reveal it was a bad source image. You need to make sure the source image is just right if you want to have the software produce a beautiful final image. I think that's a lovely synthesis of the skills I learned as a kid with his camera brochures and "How To Take Pictures" library book, and the adult I've become who loves what software (and some money!) lets us do.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

I had a really nice day today, waking up late after the lovely night out with Rob, Harper, his brother Daniel and sister Lisa. We went out for drinks, air hockey, music and pool. I found a South Park pinball table with a game ready to go, something I used to REALLY hope I'd found when I was a youngster with only one 10p piece to spend, and this machine was very good to me: I got a multiball and a replay on the very first ball. Second ball disappeared in mere seconds, and the third was so-so. I gave the replay to Lisa, to make up for playing air-hockey like a maniac :)

I had a little drive around Wilmington this afternoon, then drove down to the beach to take some pictures. You can see them at my Flickr account. I'd passed a restaurant called the Portland Grill earlier, on my way to the beach, that looked good so I returned there for an incredibly good meal: a "Shepherd's Pie of Duck", which used mashed vegetables instead of mashed potatoes, and duck instead of ground beef. I followed that with, rather unusual, roast antelope (it came from here) with veggies, sausage and sliced pear on a pumpkin compote. Sounds weird, I know, but it was unbelievably tasty. Some ice cream to finish and I was done. I'm flying back home tomorrow; it'll be good to be home, but I've really enjoyed my trip up here, especially glad to have met Robert and his family.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Wilmington, North Carolina
I'm visiting my friend Robert Lurie for the first time, on the occasion of the first public reading from his biography of Steve Kilbey, the lead singer of The Church. I've run Shadow Cabinet, a fan site for the band, since 1995 and been a fan for many more years. During all that time there hasn't been a single book about the band or its members, so fans who wanted to know the band better (whether the band wanted it or not!) had to rely on collections of interviews, such as the hundreds I collected for the Shadow Cabinet website.

But many of those interviews cover the same ground over and over again and leave one hoping for a more in-depth work. Then Robert Lurie comes along and just does it! The project was done for his Masters degree, and will also be sold to the public, with the possibility of more books to come. He interviewed Steve many, many times and let me be among the first to thank Steve for participating in a project that will make a lot of people very happy.

So I flew in to Wilmington last night and will spend this afternoon typing up some relevant items for Robert to look at. I love hotels with free wireless Internet access!

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Spring Water

Spring Water
Originally uploaded by sirenbrian.
I took this photo in Saratoga at one of the many natural springs there. This one actually tasted OK, but another one we tried was really awful :) !
I've switched my picture hosting from Buzznet to Flickr, simply because flickr seems to have won the battle. Buzznet was nice, but flickr has so much more traffic; using I've set up RSS feeds which get new pictures of "great dane", "melbourne" and "malta" every day from buzznet and from flickr. The buzznet stream hardly ever has pictures, while flickr can have a couple of hundred!

I've imported all my old pictures and posted some new ones, mostly taken during the recent hurricane. Look on the right side of this page and click on the link to see what other photos I've taken.

Work finally has their power back so we'll be back in the office on Monday.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The house is in good condition and our power is back on! The back gate got blown off its hinges, a few roof tiles slid off and some of our trees are looking a bit sorry for themselves, but otherwise we're unscathed.

Actually this storm gave us a soft landing, because the temperature after the hurricane passed was a very pleasant 70 degrees fahrenheit, which is the coldest its been since last winter! While the power was off we read, listened to music on Deanne's iPod and battery-powered travel speakers, I played games on my Nintendo DS in a room lit by about 30 candles. Around 10pm Deanne called me outside to see the sky; it was a spectacularly clear and starry night, so we went for a little walk with Patch and looked for satellites. During the night the power came back on and things are very close to what passes for normal :)

Pictures later on, after we've cleared out the fridge and freezer.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Hurricane Part Two
It's about 9:30am and the wind has really whipped up. We were woken up about an hour ago by the peaks in the wind; you know how you can ignore wind up to a certain speed and pitch, but something in your brain says "worry" when the speed peaks. I kept opening one eye to see if the bedroom fan was still spinning, indicating our power was still on. So far its flickered once or twice, but it's still here. The TV is out but the good ol' Internet is hanging on!

No damage or leaks in the house yet, which is great news. We'll have some breakfast and keep an eye on things. I read the *real* hurricane will pass over West Palm Beach from 10am till about 2pm, so things may crank up a little more, and I may yet get to see a hurricane eye.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Hurricane Diary Part One
If any of my family and friends are reading this to see how we cope with the storm, I suppose I'd better write something or they'll think I've been washed out to sea! Deanne and I are urgently ('pass the wine') attending to the important business of securing ('and the cheetos') our house. A trip to Home Depot and ('how about a foot rub?') the supermarket for sensible, solid supplies ('Where's my copy of "20 More Things to do in an Inflatable Raft"?') mean that we're ready for the storm.

Seriously though, it's a tiddler compared with the Category 3 storms that hit us last year. It'll probably come ashore as a Cat 2 and weaken as it crosses the state. I don't know anyone that is evacuating the area, and we get two days off work, so we're going to catch up on paperwork, footrubs etc.

In other news, we hired a public insurance adjuster to represent us when dealing with our insurance company. We're still waiting for a decision on LAST year's storm damage, and it seems that being patient and believing their representatives when they say "We'll take care of it this week" over and over again...well, it gets you nowhere. I hate being a noisy, angry customer, especially when I don't think it actually accomplishes anything...shouldn't being a nice person get you better treatment? Apparently not. So our guy is a Paperwork Judo afficionado and says things will move along smoothly from now on, which is a great relief.

There's a good breeze outside, but the main event is about 24 hours away. I'll keep posting as long as the power stays on.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

My stack of home video tapes are up to almost eleven years old, so I figured I should try and digitize them before they become unusable, and that precious footage of times past is gone forever. Of course I'd forgotten that I was in a Mad Beard phase when I started filming this and that, so there's some cringe-worthy moments to be seen. This stuff hasn't really been watched for a very long time, so it's a real pleasure, unfortunate facial hair aside, to see it again. This is me in October 1994 on Rye Beach, near Melbourne, where my parents, myself and girlfriend Kate went for an afternoon picnic. It's also the place where I filmed the end of my mum's nose moving when she talks, just to prove to her that it does, in fact, do so. The word "seven" got the biggest proboscal deflection :)

The other picture is of Simon Borda and myself - he used to be married to my cousin Marthese. Its nice to see I trimmed the beard for the party :) I had a beard for many years, though I can see why my wife very insistently says NO when I suggest growing it back again - firstly it doesn't grow evenly enough, and secondly I'd be terrible at maintaining it and soon look like a hermit again.

The process of getting these tapes saved is, as usual, a friggin' nightmare of incompatible cables, dodgy hardware and dying appliances. The video capture card was unseated in its PCI slot and thus refused to even show up as being installed in the PC. Opening up the PC to fix this led to a half-day crusade of wire untangling, USB hub replacing (three stops to find what I wanted, a seven port one), a VCR with a dodgy loading mechanism that now refuses to eject the tape. My 8mm tapes will play in my camcorder, but since I can't connect it directly to the PC I need to go via the VCR's line in, but it is so paralyzed with fear about the stuck tape, I can't even get it to change channels.

So the VCR will be taken to the repair shop on Monday, I'll buy an adapter so I can handle the 8mm tapes, then I'm buying a bloody digital video camera! Goodbye analog!

Friday, September 09, 2005

My friend Daniel, in a successful attempt to get me back on the web, challenged me to do the "Five Favourite Tracks" thing; so here's my choices:

Kings - The Church: This one is from the Priest=Aura album, from 1992. Its got a combination of what I love most about the Church: poetic lyrics ("And kings will come/and years will pass/stars burn cold/beneath the glass/and days will glow in distant time/in distorted haze/the zebras graze"), a measured heaviness in the rhythm section, and their trademark jangly guitars.

Othertime - Steve Kilbey: From his Unearthed album (1987), this is my favourite of Steve's "little songs", a short, descriptive, melodic and very singable song.

The Sun and the Rain - Madness: They were my favourite band until I found The Church, but I still love hearing their music: it's very English, a culture I was immersed in for a while as a child. It's an uplifting song that I finding myself quietly singing whenever I get caught in the rain.

2nd half of Before and After Science - Brian Eno: I can't choose just one song from these masterpieces of restraint. "Julie With", "By This River" and "Spider and I" have not one wasted syllable, and Eno's mastery of ambience doesn't need repeating.

Amarok - Mike Oldfield: OK, it's 60 minutes long, but it's still only one track! It's a pain in the ass to fast forward through, but why would you want to? It's a rhythmic, insanely melodic collection of tunes and guitar choppery. Oldfield's best, IMHO.

By the way, Daniel has become a great spokesman for public transport users in Melbourne - I'm proud of you, mate! As many of you know, the USA is not known as a country that values public transport: I hope Melbourne keeps investing in their system, which is (was?) a big part in making Melbourne one of the worlds most liveable cities.
I'm not sure why I stopped blogging so suddenly, but I think it's time to get back on board. We've just come out of a stressful few months, which sees us still waiting for settlement from the insurance company on damage to our house from last year's hurricanes. Also Deanne's car was in an accident and sat for about 6 weeks at the body shop before they even started work on it. After some yelling they agreed to rent a car for us, and it should be finished "any day now." We'll probably sell it right away, I think.

On a more positive note I've taken up archery as a hobby. It's a lot of fun and has put a bit of muscle on me! When I got started I had trouble pulling the bow back after just a few shots, but I can now get through a set of 50 arrows fairly easily. We meet at an indoor range called "Gators 'n Guns" every Monday night and shoot over a twenty yard range. I'm the only one there who doesn't also hunt for real; I'm just there for the exercise and trying to improve my aim. I'll take some pictures and post them here.

Work is going well - we just installed a new version of our Release of Information software at three hospitals, the highlight of which was spending a weekend in Las Vegas before the L.A install. I did something I'd always wanted to do: play craps in a Vegas casino! I gave myself a budget, which I stuck to, and though I ended up losing it all, I had a couple of streaks where I doubled my stake in short order. It's a good game to play once or twice, but, like all casino games, the odds are against you. I'll stick with playing it on my Nintendo DS from now on.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Hey there! Long time no see - I've been quiet for a while, but its been an eventful couple of months. We sold our house back in Australia, we're still talking with the insurance company here in Florida about the damage to our house from the hurricanes in September and my main computer just refused to boot up - I think its because of all the dust inside. So it's time to buy a new case and transfer the guts into a nice new dust-free and SEALED home.

For some reason I felt like buying some original art. We have some posters on the wall, but its not the same as having something unique, something original, so I got onto eBay and took a look at drawings and paintings. It's been great so far! My favourites are ink drawings by a guy called Kenneth Eccles, who makes exquisite line drawings. I've bought lots (more than a dozen!) of small ones and two large ones, and I was so pleased with them that I rushed out and got four of them framed. I really like seeing art that is clear (as in "I can see every line he's drawn) but still produces a nice image with different textures and "feels". It's hard to describe why you like something, isn't it?

I got a call from Keith, my brother, and we chatted about Tivo, Bittorrent, Java, Azureus, Firefox...jeez, what a couple of geeks :) Hopefully Deanne and I will be going up to Jersey for a visit some upcoming weekend.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Patch bounced around the park on Saturday afternoon. Keith got the dog's website working again and all is generally happy and good with the world. Deanne and I have decided to sell our house in Australia and after just a few days I think we have a sale! The paperwork wasn't quite ready for a buyer to arrive yet, but we've got a verbal agreement so it's pretty much a done deal. For the first time in 5 years we'll be without a financial tie to Australia.

In other, slightly geekier, news, I've been working on a mashup of Church songs. I've mixed together samples from 15 songs by The Church and I think the result is pretty cool. The band's singer, Steve Kilbey, just auctioned the original notebook in which he worked on the lyrics for their last album, Forget Yourself, and I joined a small group of Church fans who bid on it. We won! Steve gave permission for the book's contents to be scanned and made available on the Shadow Cabinet image gallery, where fans will be able to see the book freely, and perhaps be inspired to work on their own music.

Today I found a very interesting blog that has nothing to do with the usual topics of pet pictures, politics, science fiction or technology. EnglishCut is the blog of one of the famous tailors of London's Saville Row, where some of the world's finest men's suits are made. He talks about the culture of high-end tailors and the work that goes into the suits he makes. Very interesting reading!

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Time for an actual blog entry, I think, rather than picture of our ever-so-cute pets. That said, however, I posted 6 new pictures to my buzznet account...of pets! I took Garibaldi to the vet yesterday - he's developed fuzzy spots on his eyes that had us worried. It turned out they're called "Florida Spots", or "Florida Keratopathy" and luckily for us they are not a threat to his sight or health. The cause is still unknown but is suspected to be a virus and results in small "opacities" or "fuzzy spots" in one or both eyes. They reach a certain size (usually quite small) and just stop; I'm guessing they stop when the cats immune system kicks into gear. The vet told me the only case he saw where the spots continued to spread was in a cat with feline AIDS; he had a weakened immune system and couldn't protect his eyes from the spread of this virus. So if your cat has this condition, make sure its not some other condition, and if not then don't worry about it.

In Babylon 5 news, JMS has just revealed that the planned B5 movie "The Memory of Shadows" is not going into production. Sad, but seemingly inevitable for this brilliant show that just can't catch a break. Crusade was born on the wrong network and got shut down before the first episode aired, Legend of the Rangers' ratings were killed by a football game, the collectible card game got cancelled and the video game got screwed by Sierra-Online. It's weird - there's any number of Star Trek and Star Wars games, B5 makes a huge profit for WB and still it's beaten like a red-headed stepchild.

I've been recording more music over the last few days and learning how to use the software and hardware I bought. I wrote a song called "Civilized", which started out as a merry little ditty called "Tropical", but mutated. I still have more work to do on it, but it sounds quite nice at the moment, IMHO. The lyrics are a sort of paen to the future, urging people to think for themselves and not waste their lives being bound to the superstitions and beliefs of the past. I got a bit upset after watching a documentary on celibacy in the Catholic Church which talked about how in 1139 the church decided that all clergy, not just monks and nuns, had to be celibate? Why? Putting the theological "married to the Church" excuse aside, it was so that thousands upon thousands of clergy would have no heirs and so would pass all their money and land back to the Church when they died. Follow the money and there's your answer, all dressed up in sanctimonious mumbo-jumbo.

I got up earlier than usual for a Sunday morning, so I think it's going to be a very productive day :)

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Wonderdog gallumphs across the sands of Jupiter Beach. Posted by Hello

Patch bounding around Posted by Hello

I like this one - looks like a courtly ritual of some kind. Actually it was just the little one inviting Patch to chase her. Posted by Hello

When Patch gets in close, it can be a bit scary for a little dog to see! Posted by Hello

Patch played with this six month old Labrador puppy for a few minutes. Posted by Hello

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Mum, Dad and Harley the dog
Mum and Dad are fostering Harley for a year. She is being specially trained to work for the Australian Customs service, sniffing out drugs in the airport. They have a list of behaviour to encourage, like being comfortable around people, being able to go down slides because she'll be working on luggage ramps a lot and not being taught to sit on command, because she'll be trained later to sit when she smells food in a piece of luggage.

I had a busy, busy morning today, because Deanne is coming back home tonight and I've left most of the errands till the last day again :) I returned some clothes to a store, took our car in for an oil change, got a refund from the Post Office for getting our Xmas presents delivered late, vacuumed the whole house and put laundry away. Then I had some breakfast :) I also have to write an email to the good folks who run The Church's website because they want to make it better but they're not sure how. I'm going to tell them to make the front page be more functional and less "stylish" - a big brown splat is not the way to welcome fans and new listeners to your band's web page, IMHO.

My own Church site, Shadow Cabinet, is coming along nicely. I finally found out how to put a piece of content *before* the news items on the front page, so I can permanently lead with thumbnails of the most recent three (perhaps four ?) albums. I'm also scanning a lot of collectables from my collection into the Image Gallery - my old scanner died an I bought a new one. Just $50 shipped from Amazon and it's doing very nicely so far.

I signed up for photo printing service Shutterfly this morning after realizing that the Kodak camera dock and printer we bought is, you guessed it, extremely expensive to refill. The colour catridge costs $20 for a 40 photo "roll", and you can't "stretch" the use of the cartridge - it actually advances a spool with each print you make, and stops when it reaches 40 prints. That's fifty cents per photo - I can have prints made online for half that cost, so I'm going to try that out.

Lastly I've had a fairly steady nosebleed situation for the last couple of days. I'm not sure what brought it on but I'd better see a doctor about it. It clots fairly quickly, but when the clot comes out the bleeding starts right up again.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Lots of interesting things have been happening lately, but for some reason I kept putting off blogging about them. I wonder why that is ? I don't have a good answer, but I think it's because my boss at ScriptRX used this blog to make sure I was in Australia when I said I was. This put me off writing or even thinking about blogging for a few weeks. Pretty nasty, I think. Anyway things didn't work out over there and I'm back at DSS.

There's lots of good stuff happening though ! I'm recording more music for the guy at Frightmares, who is planning to put out a DVD of his work ! So my music will, hopefully, be on a DVD for the second time. The second time ? Yes, Curt Stewart is sending crew copies of the DVD of "The Wedge", which also used one of my pieces called "A Good Beginning". You can find it in the "Brian's Music" link on the right side of this page. And as a result of being included on The Wedge, I'm now in the IMDB !

I bought a Zen Touch 40GB which I really like, except for the touch sensitive "slider" on the front, which is too sensitive even at the lowest settings. Shame really, because the price is good (about $310), sound quality is excellent and the battery lasts 24 hours. Deanne got an iPod and some nice travel speakers and she really loves it too. I'm a consciencous objector to joining the iPod Cult who think $250 for a 5GB mp3 player is a good buy. "Ooh, but its got colours ! And white headphone cords !". Sorry, not for me. But the wheely slider on the iPod is easier to use than the vertical slider on the Touch.

And the iTunes software, though a little braindead in some areas, at least does a proper two-way synch with your player. The Creative Labs program is "additive" only, meaning it won't delete anything from your player. So if you, for example, change a filename, or update your ID3 tags, you'll send down a fresh copy of the song to your player, but it won't delete the old one ! I ended up finding an open source program called NomadSync which does the job properly.

I downloaded a pile of free music from Epitonic (especially enjoying The Clientele (Rose, you might really like these guys)) and LegalTorrents. I bought a Clientele CD too, so there's +1 for the value of giving away unencumbered MP3 files for promotional use.

Deanne is in Cleveland, Chicago and Tucson for the next two weeks, so I'm in charge of house maintainance and all that. I already ran a bunch of errands and will be contacting roofers (to fix hurricane damage), taking cars for their 3000 mile services etc. I still have very little patience for these things; I know, I know, they're important, they have to be done, but at least now I can be accompanied by my favourite music everywhere I go.

And watch for the pictures from Titan tomorrow ! If all goes well you can thank Boris Smeds, a man who single-handedly discovered a fault in the communication system between the Titan probe "Huygens" and the Cassini orbiter. If not for him, we'd have nothing from the Titan landing. Engineers rule !