Posted by Shell at 4:45 pm

I don’t know anything about cars. There, I said it. It just wasn’t something that ever did it for me. I mean, I admire the technology, but I don’t ever pretend to have the first clue about how car-things work, so long as it gets me from A to B. Cars were for me  just really small, temperamental buses. Then, in 2008, I inherited dad’s beat-up old Citroen. 130,000 miles on the clock, green, mean and growly, and sprouting moss like old-man whiskers. This car was a tank to drive, but made out of something similar to tin foil when it came to safety. Don’t get me wrong, this was a good car, it worked, mostly, and while it lacked any finesse at all, it was our first car.

Sadly, our mean-green-machine was starting to develop other old-man symptoms. It didn’t like the cold, hacking up noxious clouds of stuff if you dared suggest venturing out when it was wet, or a little bit chilly. Frankly, I was scared stiff if that if we ever had an accident it’d be game over – pretty much no safety features. The radio, well that never worked.

In 2009, the government scrappage scheme kicked in. Even old beasts like or Citroen were suddenly worth something more than the £200 scrap metal fee. I think the car knew what was coming. Even on the day I had to drive it to the Alfa garage to part-ex for a whopping £2000 (car was worth a 10th of that, if lucky), it refused to start, draining the battery and kicking out the most awful black clouds. Eventually I did get it to limp to the garage, and I drove home with a beatiful Alfa MiTo 95 Veloce.

It’s funny, from not caring about cars at all, the MiTo made me love them – not particularly in a “petrol head” sort of way, but an admiration for the workmanship, and the fun that they can introduce into simply getting around the shops. The MiTos are really fun to drive. Two years on, the 2011 range of MiTos have just hit the marget with upgraded engines and lots of other mod-cons that make the techie in me coo with delight. There’s also no denying that the MiTo is a beautiful machine from a design perspective too.

The warrantee agreement on our black MiTo was about to run out, and facing a £320 2-year service fee, it was a good time to look at the newest model. We took the new 135 multiair model for a spin in Edinburghs bypass and it was just amazing. Unlike our first MiTo, these engines have a turbo, as well as ~40% more power and 10% fuel saving.

Yesterday we popped down to the Alfa showroom again, and there she was, our MiTo freshly delivered from Italy (erm… via Perth).

Cannot wait until we get to pick her up!

Posted by Shell at 10:22 pm

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a chance to play with an Android-based Advent Vega tablet. These little devices are surprisingly powerful, but also hamstrung with a couple of horrible issues.

The first thing that struck me powering up the Vega for the first time is how indescribably crappy the displays is. A flash back to the days of DSTN displays – remember those first generation flat screens? I’ll agree to cut the Vega a little slack, after all you’re still getting a fair bit of tablet without having to sacrifice your credit card on an Apple altar. Although it makes me wonder just how drunk their testers must’ve been (seriously, this screen is *bad*).

The second issue was a bit of a surprise. Now, anyone who knows me probably thinks I’m a die-hard i-device fan. If it has an Apple logo on it Sheru will love it. This isn’t fair. What I’m a fan of is ease of use, the ‘tactile’ user experience when using mobile devices. The default (and official) version of Android installed on the Vega is truly awful. Think a bastardised and magnified Android phone screen with almost everything that makes using a tablet sexy well and truly nixed. Don’t even compare with an iOS based device. Clunky, ugly (okay, perhaps that one is in the eye of the beholder), unresponsive, hard to navigate and lacking basic features that I wouldn’t even think about. It’s not all doom and gloom though. Thanks to the dedication of a brave collegue, I soon had the Vega up and running on VegaComb, a custom repackaging of the latest version of Android. Happily I can report that it’s a night-and-day difference when it comes to the Vega. The device rocks along on its dual core Tegra chip, slick and smooth.

That’s not the end of the story though. Being a UI fan-boy, I was then able to have a good play with the latest Android offering and, frankly I’m disappointed. Isn’t Android supposed to be the flagship of the Open Source mobile world, standing tall against the Evil Apple? Android misses a few tricks, while at the same time managing to raise some interesting questions of Apple’s IOS too.


Back in the early days of iOS, one of the biggest points of criticism seemed to centred around the lack of any real multitasking. Apple fixed this in later versions with the double-tap task bar to access the switching and closing of apps. Perhaps this is a matter of taste (or possibly the retraining of my own muscle memory), but Androids equivalent via an on-screen task button feels clunky.


I really don’t understand this continued desktop metaphor on Android devices. We’re talking mobile devices here. Screen space is an issue, people. So why is so much space wasted with window chromes and ‘desktops’. Apps soon crowd the tiny screens with their widgets, desktop style icons and Androids own UI elements. It makes little sense to me. I really believe full-screen is the way to go – or tiling. I actually like (don’t shoot me) Microsofts proposed solution to this in the Windows 8 prototypes recently on show. Tiles work well, letting you see ‘into’ functionality without wasted screen space. This is definitely one up from iOS where screen after screen of tiny icons can be frustrating.

The problem

When I’m mobile, ease of use is a must. Imagine cold hands that are all thumbs. Some stuff I want to see quickly and clearly, at a glance. If I’m actively interacting with something, I want an uncluttered interface. I want that interface to work the same and look the same across all apps, because then I don’t have to think about the app itself. My focus should be on the task in hand, not trying to find my way around a seldom used app. Reading instructions is for people with too much time on their hands (take up golf, man!), not web sites to maintain and novels to finish writing.

My wish

I reckon there’s a sweet-spot in the middle. This can easily be demonstrated with Apple’s OSX Lion. Imagine full-screen apps for those primary tasks, and throw in screens of tiled widgets between.

Useful stuff

Got an Avent Vega? Upgrade to Android 3.2 here.

Posted by Shell at 5:32 pm

Spent my lunch today digging through old day-job projects. It amazing how quickly, and easily, projects that were hell-on-earth at the time are forgotten. I’ve updated the projects on this blog, but there are lots more to add.

Posted by Shell at 10:46 pm

This last week has been fairly manic. Over at Anime Picks I’ve been rolling out frequent updates, and I’m really happy with the way that site is coming together. There’s a clean-up rework on the homepage on the way. In a bit of a crazy rush I put together End Titles blog as well ready for the film festival (just 2 weeks!). Then, the uber-redesign of this blog – which is all fancy and sparkly and designer-ish now. I’m also writing, not just content for End Titles and the the conscious-stream-posts on Twitter. I’m trying to get the 3rd draft of ‘Falling‘ out of the way before the end of the year.

Posted by Shell at 1:09 pm

I have been a big ‘fan’ of FireFox since the early days, but things have changed over the last few months. At least on my Macs. FireFox 3.6 has been getting steadily more resource-hungry, to the extent that if left to its own devices it could chew through serveral gb of RAM after a day or so with just a few tabs open. Not so long ago FireFox 4 was released, and while a little snappier, it’s becoming clear that it’s lagging behind the new kid on the block, Google Chrome.

I’ve switched to using Chrome as my main browser (“casual browser”). I’ve not yet been able to replace FireFox for development as the excellant and somewhat essential FireBug addon is currently FireFox only. Chrome, though, is by far the most responsive of the browsers and seems to be updated weekly with minor features and improved security.

Today I was tempted to install the FireFox 5 beta, and it does feel snappier. However, I’ve only tried this on Windows 7. After a bit of huntin around I found a version of FireBug 1.7.1 that seems to work fine with this unreleased browser.

I can’t help feel though that Mozilla have lost their way a little. There’s little or no innovation in FireFox 5, and to be honest head-to-head Chrome 11 continues to out-perform in all respects. I do like the new ‘application pinning’ feature, but y’know, it’s all much of a muchness. I think I’ll stick with Chrome.

Posted by Shell at 2:26 pm

I love WordPress, lets be frank, if you are developing your own themes there are some wonderful gotchas just waiting to trip us up. Today’s little adventure revolves around how WordPress handles “slugs”, those little browser-safe representations of posts, categories and tags you see in your address bar.

Example slug:

The issue I found today is that slugs are actually shared across multiple types of content – so for example, if you have tagged a post as Edinburgh (with a slug of ‘edinburgh’), if you then try to create a category also called Edinburgh, WordPress will create a slug something along the lines of “edinburgh-1″. No big deal, right? But it looks nasty in the address bar:

Example bad slug:


If you try rename the edinburgh-2 to edinburgh slug in the WordPress admin, it won’t let you (however it won’t warn you that it hasn’t saved your change).

Given categories are more frequently exposed in the addressbar than tags, it makes sense to instead use the Admin to change the slug for the tag instead, and indeed this does work. Happy days.

There’s no doubt that the iPad is a superb delivery device for magazines, books, and browsing the net. Magazines in particular work really well in this new format. The large uncluttered screen allows for well designed magazine layouts, without limitation in typography or illustration, and introduces a whole new dimension of interactivity.

However, there is a downside to this. As yet, there is no common, more efficient delivery method. Unlike books, which can be purchased and downloaded through either Apples’ iBooks app or Amazons’ Kindle, each magazine packages their own downloader — and those downloads can be huge. There are only so many 500Mb issues of Wired that you can fit even on the largest iPad.

We’re almost there, and this is definitely the device to take us there!

  • Cost of the device – iPads are clearly prohibitively expensive for the majority of folks, limiting the market
  • Only a handful of truly interactive Magazines, such as Wired
  • Delivery format: current crop of interactive magazines are very large in size, filling up a lot of space on the iPad
Posted by Shell at 6:20 pm

Tonight is the second of my “twitter” excursions. Heading over to IllegalJacks on Lothian road for a South-West Grill then drinks after with a crowd of local tweeters.

It’s fascinating the community that has grown up around Twitter. I’ve met more interesting people in Edinburgh over the past month than I have in the past 10 years (however I’m not sure what that says about me other than ‘Get out more Shell!’). There is a thriving active community here of folks who meet up regularly: twice hooked up with twitter folks to see films at the Filmhouse cinema, not so long ago the grand scale charity even of EdTwestival.

It has also put me in contact with some of my heroes: I’ve tweeted with writers, artists, designers, even film stars, making me feel part of a strange virtual global community…

Posted by Shell at 1:29 pm

2010 is here, the year of flying cars, spaceships, alien worlds… or was that 2000? Anyway we saw the night in from the top of Calton Hill, Edinburgh, with a fantastic view of the castle and Princes Street. Really great atmosphere, and a brilliant way to see the new year in!