Infuriating Windows

The iPod Shuffle may be a fine product, but iTunes for Windows certainly isn’t. I use iTunes on my PowerBook for all of my music and like the vast majority of users, I love it. When I was still studying at Oxford, I spent many hours listening to other students’ Shared Music and when I finally moved out to my own house I had grand designs of putting my neglected PC to use as a music server running iTunes. The idea was that I could simply stream music from my laptop over the network, avoiding the hassle of network shares or suchlike.

As usual, the technology didn’t co-operate. Specifically, iTunes refused to install on my Windows PC. My PC has been through a lot and been upgraded several times, but it’s spyware and virus free and at the time had all relevant Windows patches, including SP2, so I wasn’t expecting any problems. As it happened, the iTunes installer – InstallShield – kept on throwing up the same incomprehensible problem no matter what I did. No amount of fiddling with settings or patiently complying with all numbers of esoteric instructions from InstallShield’s website helped – it just wouldn’t install. In the end I gave up and consoled myself with the knowledge that there were plenty of other people out there with the same problem.

A year later and I find myself facing the same problem with my girlfriend’s computer. I’d noticed that her Windows laptop was lacking some security updates and, like any good geek boyfriend, proceeded to install them (not SP2 though – I didn’t want to try my luck). All went well, and this made me confident enough to download an update for iTunes. I’ll be honest – it wasn’t a critical update and it added no new features, so I really didn’t have any good reason to install it, but I’d been on an update-installing spree at work that week and was still on a high. ‘What could go wrong?’ I asked myself. ‘If iTunes is already installed and working, surely updating it can’t be a problem?’

Such is the hubris of man.

Oh, it installed fine and the progress bar rapidly zipped up to 100% – and stayed there, stuck on ‘Publishing Product Information’, for ten minutes. Clearly it had crashed. I force-quit the installer and tried again: same problem. I restarted the computer and tried again. No luck. At this point I was starting to get worried – it’s one thing to break your own computer, but breaking someone else’s is a much more serious affair, and let’s not get on to breaking your girlfriend’s computer.

Google turned up a few interesting leads that seemed vaguely promising, the most ingenious of which was renaming the iTunes directory while the install was in progress. Unlike the other leads, this actually seemed like it might work but in the end resulted in breaking it even more and littering the registry with a bunch of crap. In fact, the installer refused to even load up any more, let alone reach 100%, and combined with having to work on Windows’ infuriating lack of Expose, I was on the verge of throwing the computer against the wall. I didn’t, because it would’ve been a mess to clean up, but it did cross my mind. Anyway, a few pancakes, a few minutes work with regedit and a restart saw the results of my abortive all-too-clever attempt cleaned up.

By this point, I’d calmed down a bit and was beginning to come to terms with the possibility that iTunes would never work on her laptop again. Sure, it would be an inconvenience hiding out in the Utah desert for a few months until she gave up trying to kill me, but you have to live with the consequences of your actions. Just as I was about to do a final Ctrl-Alt-Delete and kill the installer process for the last time, I noticed that iTunes and iTuneshelper processes were also running – despite the fact that I had manually deleted them and stopped their processes. I shrugged my shoulders in the special way that only Mac users can when confronted with a Windows problem and killed those two processes. And then the installation completed a second later.

I remember standing in front of the laptop astounded. Yes, I could understand why those two processes might have caused a problem, but I didn’t seriously entertain the notion that Windows and/or the installer was so damn stupid enough not to kill them before installing. As I later remarked, I’d almost have rather it not work instead of having my mental model of the universe shattered, once again, by the entirely unpredictable and avowedly non-Lapacian Windows. Almost.

The iPod Shuffle, in use

A few weeks ago, I finally received the iPod Shuffle that I ordered from Apple. I’ve already written about why I bought it, but in short I felt that it would complement my 20GB iPod well, with its tiny size and respectable 512MB capacity being more than enough for walks and runs.

I’ve used my Shuffle enough in those weeks to have given it a good appraisal. At risk of rendering the rest of this review superfluous, I can say that I’m glad I bought it. It’s not perfect, but it is worth £69.

The first thing that struck me when I saw the Shuffle was its size. Being something of an Apple follower, I knew very well that it was ‘no larger than a stick of gum’ and lighter than one to boot. However, on actually seeing and holding the Shuffle in person, my first thought was, ‘Is that it?’. Not only is it tiny, but it has practically no controls apart from the standard play/rewind/fast-forward and volume controls. On the back is a slider that lets you select between normal play and shuffled play, but that’s it. No screen, no equalizer, no radio.

After mucking about with the lanyard that comes with the Shuffle and mulling over exactly how stupid I would look wearing it around my neck outside (verdict: not as stupid as you might think, but still far from cool) I got around to putting some music on it. As I’ve said before, the Shuffle is basically a very well designed USB memory stick that plays music, so to load music, you just plug it into a USB port.

Unfortunately, due to the physical dimensions of the Shuffle, I had to unplug some other cables to get it in. This is not particularly convenient but the same problems exist for all other similar players and memory sticks. Loading up music is typically easy using iTunes, although unusually you have to manually click a button called ‘Autofill’ on iTunes every time you want to wipe your current songs stored on the Shuffle with a new set.

Listening to music is when you realise exactly how small the Shuffle is. While people, including myself, were initially impressed by Apple’s idea to push the Shuffle as something you wear around your neck with a lanyard, I think it ultimately detracts from its main asset – its size. One way to put it is that there is no pocket too full for the Shuffle. Even if your jeans are weighed down with wallets, phones, PDAs and keys and you have resigned yourself to either listening to no music or wearing a belt clip, there will still be room for the Shuffle.

Another way to put it is that it’s so light and small, you don’t notice it’s there. This is particularly important when exercising. On my runs in Oxford and London, I’ve seen many people who are perfectly happy to run around holding iPods, CD players and even CD wallets in their hands. For my own part, I can’t stand any kind of excess mass on me as I run; I did try running with my 20GB iPod once, clipped onto my shorts, but it upset my rhythm and I rapidly became annoyed. I’ve now gotten to the point where I’ve stopped wearing my watch because it was too distracting, so I wasn’t optimistic about the Shuffle making the cut.

Of course, it did. The Shuffle weighs less than the key I take with me when running, and if I stick it in my pocket and run the headphones inside my T-shirt, the only impact it makes is to generate music.

When I first took Shuffle running, I’d filled it with a random high-rated selection of songs. This turned out to be a really awful idea, since I ended up with a mishmash of good but entirely unsuitable songs. Without any proper screen or navigation on the Shuffle, the only thing I could do was to repeatedly fast-forward in the hope that I would eventually stumble across an appropriate song. This almost put me off taking the Shuffle running, but I decided to give it another try. This time, I manually loaded it up with appropriate (and approriately-arranged) songs and I was rewarded with a more enjoyable and noticeably faster run. Specifically, I normally run 10k in about 45 minutes when exercising, but this time I managed it in 43 minutes. The third time, 42 minutes. Clearly a big improvement for my motivation.

As for the 512MB storage, it’s more than enough for my purposes. In these times of multiple-gigabyte mp3 players that can hold thousands of songs, the Shuffle 512MB with its 125 song capacity looks positively crippled. Then again, 125 songs will last for over six hours – in other words, long enough to keep even the slowest marathon-runner entertained, and that’s just if you don’t repeat any songs. The essential thing to remember, however, is that this really only works if you select your songs intelligently. You can do this manually or by setting up a playlist of high-rated genre-specific songs that you Autofill the Shuffle from, but if you don’t, you may find yourself fast-forwarding through a bunch of songs you don’t want to listen to.

This doesn’t matter quite as much if you just want to listen to some music on a walk to the shops, another task which the Shuffle is eminently suitable for, and probably one that more people care about than running. Still, the single thing that’s impressed me about the Shuffle is how it’s sped my running up by 7% and made it more enjoyable, and I’m perfectly happy to spend £69 for that.

Normal service will be resumed

I know what you’re thinking. “What the hell is this article about coach services in Oxford doing on a weblog that is supposed to be about massively multiuser online entertainment, biology and space, in that order?” Well, what can I say – I take the coaches a lot, and along with the Indian Visa article, I think some people will find it very useful.

However, I know that’s not what a lot of people come here for. Recently I was reading through my old mmoe articles from way back, and two things struck me. The first was that they were really badly edited and the early ones don’t read particularly well. The second was that they’re still interesting (at least to me) and I now have many new thoughts on the genre. Part of the reason for my silence on the mmoe/ARG front has been simply pragmatic – I can’t talk about my talk. However, that should mostly cease to be a problem fairly soon, so I’m looking forward to writing a new series of articles looking at the current and future state of massively multiuser online entertainment and alternate reality games.

How to get from Oxford to London

or more accurately, COACH WARS: Oxford Espress vs. Oxford Tube

For the past half year, I’ve been commuting back and forth from Oxford to London every week (not every day, though). In that time I’ve been able to make a thorough appraisal of the best way to make the journey.

Oxford is approximately 56 miles from London and according to my roadmap, it should take about 1:15 to make the journey by car. On the other hand, a train takes about 55 minutes and, in theory, is less variable. Both of these times are rather optimistic estimates. The car time assumes that you encounter little to no traffic, while the train time doesn’t factor in commuting times to the station or the not infrequent delays on the rail service.

It wouldn’t really be worth me writing about the value of taking a car instead of the train or vice versa because firstly, I don’t drive, and secondly, they’re such different forms of transport that I don’t think anything I say would really matter to anyone. Some people are rail travellers and some are drivers; the two groups are separated more by ideology than reason, much like Apple and Windows users.

However, Oxford is an anomaly among cities near London in that it has not one but two highly frequent coach services that run 24 hours a day. These coaches offer a real alternative to both car and train by virtue of being right in the middle of the two; they are reasonably quick, cheap, regular and make multiple stops in the centre of both cities. The only problem is that the two services are, on the surface, almost identical. Or are they? Frequent commuters will know how important it is to pick a good service early on in order to get season ticket savings, so here’s a guide to which service is best.

The Basics

Oxford is an anomaly for another reason. The two coaches are run by two bus companies – the Oxford Bus Company and Stagecoach. Both companies operate full and near identical local services in Oxford, with near identical pricing. The advantage of this is that Oxford has a very pervasive and frequent public transport system for such a small city. The disadvantage is that the two companies obviously do not take each others tickets and their route numbers are different, meaning customers often become confused. I don’t use local buses much but I haven’t been able to discern any real difference between the two companies.

The Oxford Espress, aside from having a horrible name, is run by the Oxford Bus Company. The coaches are normal single-deckers, whereas Stagecoach’s Oxford Tube service uses custom-made double-decker coaches.

Cost

You can find out the fare prices for both services from the links above. At the time of writing, on both services a single from Oxford to London (and vice versa) costs £10, while a return costs £12. There are discounts for concessions and students, and unsurprisingly, these are identically priced as well.

In fact, all the prices are identical. Occasionally one service might introduce a new fare, as the Oxford Tube did with its cut-price ‘Nightrider’ which offers discount return travel after 3pm, but within weeks the other service will copy the entire idea, right down to the name; the Oxford Espress isn’t fooling anybody with its ‘Night Owl’ service.

Result: Draw

Route

Both services start at Gloucester Green bus station in Oxford and end at Victoria. They make near identical stops in Oxford and they also stop at Hillingdon (a tube station 30 minutes out from Victoria) but the similarities end there.

The Oxford Tube tends to make more stops in general. About 30 minutes out from Oxford, it stops at a place in the middle of nowhere called Lewknor Turn. It’s a dark little lay-by that presumably serves people living in nearby villages. In London, the coach stops at Shepherd’s Bush, Notting Hill Gate, Marble Arch before getting to Victoria. The more perceptive of you will realise this can involve an awful lot of traffic in rush hour.

The Oxford Espress shuns Lewknor Turn and instead of diving straight into London, it takes the flyover and goes directly to Baker Street. This saves a little on the traffic.

Clearly there’s not much to distinguish the services in terms of routes, and your choice will no doubt be influenced by the stops in London and how close they are to where you want to go. For my part, I always go to Victoria so it makes no difference to me.

Result: Draw

Speed

This is where it gets interesting. Since the Oxford Tube is a double-decker coach and generally attracts more passengers, it takes longer to load up and disembark at every stop. Furthermore, I find that its route, especially the Lewknor Turn stop, lengthens any given journey by approximately 10 to 20 minutes depending on the time of day.

The Oxford Espress’ route, with two fewer stops, combined with its smaller capacity, mean that it definitely wins on terms of speed. The quickest journey I’ve had from Oxford to London has been on the Espress and it took 1:15, while the Tube took slightly longer. In rush hour, both services can take up to 2:30.

Result: Espress wins

Frequency

Both services run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. From Monday to Saturday they both run approximately every 10-15 minutes during the daytime and every 20 minutes in the early morning and late evening.

However, it’s at night when the differences emerge. The Oxford Tube runs coaches every 30 minutes during the wee hours from 2am to 4am on most days, while the Oxford Espress only manages a coach every hour. Both services run every hour from 4am to 6am or so. For most people this difference is really not an issue but if you go for any nights out in London, then the difference between waiting 30 minutes and an hour is very significant.

Result: Tube wins

Reliability

In my experience, the Oxford Espress is slightly more reliable in terms of its coaches being spaced out evenly in time. This is probably due to the fact that it doesn’t take as long to load or have as many passengers. In terms of coaches breaking down, anecdotal reports indicate that the Tube suffers more, but that might be down to response bias. Still, I could well believe it since the Tube’s double-decker behemoths, though they may be brand new and well maintained, are inevitably more prone to breakdown than standard-issue single-deckers.

Result: Espress wins

Chances of getting a seat

Not the best of titles, but important nonetheless. Since the Espress, for some reason, has proportionately fewer passengers I find it easier to get a seat on board. I have never seen a full Espress coach while I often see full Tube coaches. This is very important for those people who place a high value on having two seats to themselves.

Result: Espress wins

Comfort

For a long time, the Espress won this competition hands down by offering air-condition and power sockets where the Tube didn’t. With its recent fleet upgrade, the Tube now also offers air conditioning and power sockets for every two seats. All seats on both services recline (not a good thing in my opinion, I hate getting seats in my face).

While I haven’t actually measured the seating space (although I may do in the future), I am pretty sure that the Espress has about one or two inches more legroom. It also has leather headrests and the general state of cleanliness is higher. This is no doubt due in part to the higher passenger numbers on the Tube.

Result: Espress wins

Other passengers

Closely related to comfort are the type of passengers that travel on the services. Now you may think I’m being ridiculously picky and offensive by even including this section but no-one would choose to sit on a coach for two hours surrounded by noisy teenagers when they want to get some sleep if they could sit on a quieter coach.

Put basically, the Oxford Tube has every type of passenger, from tourists to students to workers. Generally people are well behaved although I have found that the Tube is occasionally host to people blasting out music or talking very loudly – in the night – for the entire journey.

The Tube’s passengers also span the full range in terms of how often the use the Tube. Some of them use it regularly and so don’t have to ask the driver about stops or fares and can whiz past using their fare cards. Others are less experienced and take longer. This contributes to longer boarding times.

In contrast, the Oxford Espress attracts what I would call ‘professional passengers’. I don’t mean that they they’re all workers – indeed, while the Espress is skewed more towards workers it’s still frequented by students and some tourists – I mean that they tend to know what they are doing. Either they’re regular passengers and know the stops and the fares, or they’re savvy tourists and they’ve taken the time to find these things out beforehand. This results in a quicker boarding process and makes for a profoundly peaceful journey.

Result: Espress wins

TOTAL: ESPRESS 5, TUBE 1

The Oxford Espress is definitely better than the Tube, in terms of speed, comfort, reliability and general experience. That doesn’t mean that the Tube is particularly bad, it’s just not as good. The Tube may still be better for you in terms of its stops but for most I would recommend the Espress.

The interesting question behind all of this is why, despite the Espress’ superiority, the Tube attracts more passengers. The simple answer is that the Tube has superior marketing and branding. It has a memorable name and colours and is generally more well known among the public. When people start using the Tube, it’s ‘good enough’ and so they don’t bother trying the Espress because they think it’s less frequent or more expensive (that’s what happened to me, anyway).

The reason the Espress hasn’t gone out of business is because it has built up a loyal following due to its quality. I have a few friends who won’t take the Tube any more and I suspect the same is true for many commuters. My advice to the Oxford Bus Company is to change the Espress’ name into something you can say aloud without feeling stupid, and to improve their branding and marketing. I don’t have any advice for the Tube aside from running more frequent coaches because it’s hard to see how they can change their demographic without changing their coach fleet again, and that’s not going to happen for some time now. I suppose they might want to consider missing off the Lewknor Turn stop.

Petals Around The Rose

In the About page on my weblog, it says that I am a puzzle designer. For various reasons this is not a great description but it works. In any case, when I tell people that I’m a puzzle designer, they invariably get very excited and start asking me about all sorts of stuff, like ‘What kind of puzzles?’ and ‘That must be really fun!’ and so on. This is fine although I’m always a little awkward because I can’t tell them exactly what I’m doing – for one thing, it’d take too long.

What I find amusing, and occasionally irritating, is that people assume that because I’m a puzzle designer, I must be amazing at solving puzzles. This has lead to me getting all number of encrypted emails from friends and strangers under the assumption that I like nothing better than running ROT decoders and letter frequency analysers in my evenings. Now, to be fair, sometimes I do find it interesting depending on the person and the puzzles, but generally with traditional puzzles I’m just not in the mood. I’m not into cryptic crosswords either – it’s not what I do, and I believe that puzzle designing and puzzle solving are two very different things (although of course you do need an understanding of one to be any good at the other).

A few months ago, I came across a puzzle called Petals around the Rose. I won’t explain it here – read the previous link for a great article about it – but it’s a very simple brainteaser that takes some people about ten seconds to work out, and other people months of years. Bill Gates himself only figured it out after some hours, and it’s said that the more intelligent you are, the longer it takes. I wouldn’t entirely agree with that assessment because I think it has more to do with your temperament and backround than raw intelligence, but I do understand the reasoning.

Anyway, due to my aversion to traditional puzzles, I stayed away from Petals around the Rose. I knew that it could take me ages to work it out and I didn’t want to subject myself to that kind of mental torture. Unfortunately today someone mentioned it, saying it’d taken her an hour to solve, and I duly was obliged to have a go myself. I used this simulator and it’s a good choice if you’re interested as well.

In the end, it only took me about one or two minutes to figure it out which I was of course very pleased with. I’m not going to reveal the answer here, but trust me – it’s not a cheat, and it is something you can figure out very quickly. Then again, it could well take much longer, so approach the puzzle at your own risk…

In other news, I finally received my iPod Shuffle today (initial impressions: small and cool) and I intend to write something about my iBook breaking down last week and how that, combined with reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle put me in a peculiar state of mind.

Dark City

About three or four years ago, I bought Dark City on DVD, after hearing that it was like The Matrix, but with a good story. Now, to be fair, The Matrix does have a good story, but I still maintain that it isn’t anything particularly original – it was just well told (I’m not going to deign to discuss the other two Matrix movies). Dark City, however, was supposed to have a truly original science fiction story with a great atmosphere and visuals.

Like the Matrix, Dark City plays around with the question of the nature of reality and its fluidity. From there, the two movies diverge. The Matrix is straightforward, slick and well produced, and of course it had stunning special effects. Dark City is fast, initially confusing but somehow more profound and affecting in its emotion. While it doesn’t have the jawdropping special effects of The Matrix, it’s still very respectable and what it does do fits into the story perfectly; when you see the city itself gradually writhe into a new configuration, buildings stretching and twisting into new styles, it looks both incredible and normal.

Unfortunately I managed to spoil practically the entire plot of Dark City before I watched it, so it didn’t seem confusing at all to me and the nature of the story lost quite a bit of its impact on me. Even so, I still thought it was an excellent movie (and so do many movie reviewers). For this reason, I suggest that you go and check out the DVD – and don’t read any spoilers.