About Gareth J M Saunders

Hi, I'm Gareth J M Saunders, 41 years old, 6' 4", married to Jane, father to twins Reuben and Joshua, and their younger brother Isaac. I'm a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church and have a passion for Mah Jong, Psion PDAs and web design (particularly HTML, CSS (including frameworks), jQuery, and Agile development). I am employed as the Web Architect at the University of St Andrews.

The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

For all these years that I’ve been a fan of the rock band Queen, and Queen II (1974) is one of my favourite albums of theirs, I had no idea that the song “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke” was actually describing a painting by English artist Richard Dadd.

The painting took Dadd nine years to complete, from 1855–1864, and is only 54 x 39.5 cm in size. You can read more about the history of The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke on Wikipedia.

This video shows us Freddie Mercury’s guided tour through the painting.

The next time I’m in London I must go look for it in the Tate Britain collection.

I’ve found my perfect music player: MusicBee

Screenshot of MusicBee, playing Opeth "In my time of need" from Damnation (2003).

Screenshot of MusicBee, playing Opeth “In my time of need” from Damnation (2003). Click for full-size screenshot.

For as long as I can remember that I’ve had an internet-enabled PC (I got a Windows 98 machine in late 1999) I’ve been using WinAmp for listening to music. Last week I moved to the lesser-known MusicBee and it is perfect for my requirements. I can’t believe just how good MusicBee is.

Your mileage may vary

I had a long conversation with a friend of mine on Facebook the other day about how everybody’s music player requirements are different. A lot of factors influence your decision about a digital music player, e.g.

  • How much music you have.
  • How/if you tag your music.
  • When you listen.
  • Where you listen.
  • On which device(s) you listen.
  • Whether you need to share your collection with other devices on the network.
  • Whether you prefer visuals (e.g. album art) or text-based interfaces.
  • etc.

How I used WinAmp

I used WinAmp primarily for two things:

  1. Listen to music.
  2. Rip CDs to MP3 format.

I used WinAmp like a CD player (I’d load one album and listen to it) or a radio (I’d load it all 23,000+ files and listen to them on shuffle). I used very few other features to be honest.

A while ago WinAmp switched off its access to the Gracenote database. That’s a service that allows you to query the names of the album title and tracks of a CD you are ripping to MP3 (other formats are available). For my 195 metal CDs project that’s pretty important to me.

It was time to try to find something else that might let me make the most of my music collection: find stuff that I’d not listened to in a long time, better make use of my tagging of albums (I use the excellent mp3tag).

The contenders

Despite how popular it is to listen to music on a computer, there are surprisingly few mainstream players:

I opened Windows Media Player… and promptly shut it down again. I then reached for foobar2000, which a number of friends had warmly recommended to me. “I think you’ll love it,” said one. I didn’t last much more than an hour with it.

Tomahawk was installed, and then uninstalled within an hour too. I liked the idea but I don’t share music playlists with friends, I don’t need to find out what other artists sound like the one I’m listening to. I didn’t need all the connected stuff, I just wanted to better manage what I had.

I then tried Apple iTunes for a few days. I’d used iTunes as my main player at work for a while but I found it too bloated and quite unintuitive in places and so returned to WinAmp. What I liked about iTunes this time was the albums view.

Grid of album covers. Selected album shows a list of tracks beneath it.

I like how iTunes lists albums in a very visual way.

But what I found frustrating was how it handled metadata and artwork.

MusicBee

Which was when I found MusicBee and it is perfect for me. Within an hour I had customised the user interface to just the way I would like it:

  • I’m using the beautifully clean DarkGREEN Metro skin, which I find highlights the artwork.
  • I have lists of genre, artist and album on the left-hand side.
  • In the middle I have a grid of album artwork (very similar to how iTunes handles it).
  • On the right I have playlist and other metadata displayed.

Having pulled in my entire music collection, I discovered errors in the way that I had tagged some of the music, and how few tracks had album artwork embedded.

A few hours later, staying within MusicBee, I had a lot of the tagging sorted out, and MusicBee even pulled in the missing album artwork for the rest of my collection.

This would have taken me weeks to sort out using WinAmp and mp3tag, or iTunes on its own.

Android remote

My last PC had an infrared remote control for my Creative soundcard; I’ve kind of missed that with this PC. I discovered that some kind chap has written MusicBee Remote for Android which is also clean and simple.

MusicBee Remote for Android.

MusicBee Remote for Android. (Click for full size)

Conclusion

This hasn’t been a full review, just an immediate ‘gush’ about how wonderful this music player is.

I really couldn’t imagine going back to WinAmp now. Already this has helped me discover a number of CD box sets that I ripped to MP3 and then completely forgot to listen to all the way through.

If you fancy a rediscovering your music collection and are a Windows user then I wholeheartedly recommend MusicBee.

Find your local postbox

Map showing locations of postboxes.

The blue marker indicates the centre of your postcode area; the red markers indicate postbox locations.

I’ve lived in Anstruther now for over eight years and I still don’t know where all our local postboxes are. Now I do, thanks to Find My Nearest Postbox from Matthew Somerville.

Find My Nearest Postbox ‘mashes-up’ postbox data from the Royal Mail with map data from the OpenStreetMap project, presenting an immediate and visual guide. All that is missing is a Google StreetView style view to let you see exactly where the postbox is.

Why doesn’t the Royal Mail website have this facility? Their site tells you how much stamps are for each size and weight. It enables you to print stamps on your own computer. But it doesn’t it tell you where you may post your letters. Surely that’s one of the key touch-points for using the Royal Mail services. That’s not very user-centred.

Anyway, Matthew Somerville’s service couldn’t be simpler. Enter the postcode you want to explore and hit Enter. I wish I’d found this earlier.

He also has a mash-up of cash machine locations.

The writing’s on the wall

Foam bath letters on the tiled wall.

I like Isaac’s categorisation by colour.

This afternoon after Isaac had been to the loo, like the good boy he is, he dutifully washed his hands.

About 20 minutes later I stood at the top of the stairs and noticed he was still standing at the sink in the downstairs loo. But now he had the plug in and had filled it with warm water and fetched a few of his Octonauts toys.

“Would you like a bath?” I asked.

“Yeah!” he said, quite enthusiastically and moved operations from the downstairs loo to the upstairs family bathroom. Isn’t it just as well we’re an upstairs family.

The bath was run and in jumped a very happy Isaac, two Captain Barnacles, one Lieutenant Kwazii, a GUP-B and a GUP-D, and they were off for a proper adventure. None of this paddling around in a sink nonsense!

About ten minutes later I noticed that the play had stopped and it was quiet in the bathroom, apart from the gentle lapping of water and the sound of Isaac doing… well something. So I went to investigate.

Isaac is taking a real interest in numbers and letters just now. At nursery he now has to literally sign in by writing his own name. So when I poked my head around the bathroom door I was delighted to see that he had tipped out both tubs of foam letters and was arranging them, by colour, on the tiled wall. That’s my boy! We’ll make an information architect out of him!

I can’t quite decide, though, if the two ducks (one has a knight’s helmet on, by the way) are watching what’s going on or being punished and told to look at the wall.

My Windows 8.1 start screen

Windows 8.1 start screen

Windows 8.1 start screen (click to view full size)

I was reading about the anticipated announcement of the next version of Microsoft Windows, which some are speculating may not even be called ‘Windows’.

In the Guardian article Microsoft event will reveal new revitalised Windows 9, Windows 8 got quite a bit of stick for the way it muddled its interface for desktop users.

I have to say that I really like Windows 8 and 8.1. I especially like the new start screen, particularly the way you can customize it to show only those applications you use most, grouped and named how you want them, in four sizes.

Above is a screenshot of my Windows 8.1 start screen. Setting it up like this has meant that I now have very few items pinned to the taskbar (Windows Explorer, eM Client, Todoist, Safe In Cloud, TED notepad, and Google Chrome)…

Windows 8.1 taskbar showing only seven icons.

My minimalist Windows 8.1 taskbar

…and absolutely nothing on the desktop.

My Windows 8.1 desktop showing no icons at all. (Click for full size)

My Windows 8.1 desktop showing no icons at all. (Click for full size)

To the right of that lot I’ve got games: first LEGO games for the children and then a few other things for me (Call of Duty, Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition, Four Winds Mah Jong).

How do you organise yours?

A week of much sleeping

Two red Lightning McQueen toy cars under Isaac's pillow.

Two Lightning McQueen toy cars under Isaac’s pillow.

This evening while I was getting Isaac ready for bed, I pulled back his pillow to retrieve his pyjamas and to my astonishment found two toy Lightning McQueen cars.

I know that the tooth fairy leaves money for collecting teeth. What body parts has Isaac been donating that explains why I found two toy cars under his pillow this evening?!

A minute or two later, once Isaac had changed for bed, Joshua came bounding in and revealed that he had been the one to place them there as a surprise. What a little japester!

Sleep

This is probably the right photograph to sum up my week: a bed. I have slept a lot this week. They say that sleep is the great healer, well it seems that’s exactly what my body has needed.

It is now nine weeks since the headache started, and eight since I was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with viral meningitis.

My energy levels are still very low and I’ve been taking my GP’s advice to the letter and pacing myself, going for sleeps during the afternoon when I’ve needed them. I’ve been sleeping anywhere between one hour and three and a half or more.

Over the last couple of weeks the headache seems to be loosening its grip on me. I’ve only had to take painkillers on a couple of occasions during the last seven days. While the headache once raged like an incessant storm inside my head, dulled only by 30/500 co-codamol that also played havoc with my stomach, I now only get visited by the occasional headache ‘thunderstorm’ that rumbles for a few minutes and then dissipates almost as quickly as it arrives.

My eyesight has been continuing to improve, which is a tremendous relief. My left eye is now just about 20/20, my right is not quite there yet. I can’t read yet with my right eye unless the text is very close to my face and I look at the line above the one I’m trying to read and rely on my peripheral vision to see the text.

I saw the ophthalmologist again at Victoria Hospital, Kirkcaldy on Wednesday. She was happy with my progress, and suggested there was no intervention that she could suggest that would sleep up the healing process. Nature seemed to be doing that on its own, so let it. I’ve to return in eight weeks.

I made a decision at the start of August, while I was in a hospital bed, that I should not feel anxious or frustrated about this. I am healing, slowly but surely. I’ll be ready when I am. It’s a strategy that, other than a few days where my optimism has dipped, is working for me.

Other than the occasional visit to hospitals, and a short walk with Reuben and Isaac last Saturday (about 2 miles, followed by a three-and-a-half hour sleep) I’ve been in the house (or garden) for nearly two months now.

I shall be compiling the next issue of Indoor Enthusiasts’ Monthly over the next few days. Subscription fees are now due so please send them in!

Here’s to a continuation of the progress I’ve seen over the last few weeks.

Everything is a Remix

Everything is a Remix by Kirby Ferguson, a New York-based filmmaker.

Everything is a Remix by Kirby Ferguson, a New York-based filmmaker.

Everything is a Remix is a series of four short documentaries by New York-based filmmaker Kirby Ferguson about how so many new things (music, technology, ideas) are actually inspired and influenced by what has happened before it.

I’ve had this on my “Must blog about this…” list for the last few years. I kept meaning to blog about it after part four was released and… well, I forgot. Sorry.

The Song Remains the Same

Part 1: The Song Remains the Same (7′ 17″) examines Led Zeppelin. Did they just rip off other people’s material, admittedly within legal bounds, and remix it to their own ends and success or was there more going on there? It’s a nice introduction, with plenty of examples, to the series.

Remix Inc.

Part 2: Remix Inc. (9′ 47″) looks at movies. In the last ten years of the 100 most popular films 74 are either sequels, remakes of earlier films or adaptations of comic books, novels, video games, etc. “Transforming the old into the new is Holywood’s greatest talent,” Ferguson notes. Standard elements are appropriated, transformed and subverted to create something new. And yes, Star Wars is in there. A lot.

“Creation requires influence. Everything we make is a remix of existing creations, our lives, and the lives of others”
—Kirby Ferguson

After the credits roll Ferguson goes on to briefly look at Quentin Tarantino, and in particular Kill Bill.

The Elements of Creativity

Part 3: The Elements of Creativity (11′ 16″) opens with the words, “the act of creation is surrounded with a fog of myths [...] but creativity isn’t magic.” Ferguson talks about copying and emulation. The greats, whether in music, literature or comedy, started by copying others and then slowly tinkering with them to create something new. The most creative leaps are when different ideas are combined.

“The basic elements of creativity are:
copy, transform, and combine
.”
—Kirby Ferguson

To explore this Ferguson looks at computers, begins with the kings of copying: Xerox and its role in bringing the Apple Macintosh to the mass market as a home appliance.

Following the credits Ferguson asks the question: if some of these great inventions, such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee creating the World Wide Web, hadn’t happened then would the world be a vastly different place today? He argues not. Often when something amazing is created there are often others working on something very similar at the same time.

System Failure

Part 4: System Failure (15′ 26″) is the final part of the series. It begins with Luca (the Last Universal Common Ancestor) which is a core element in understanding evolution’s work of copying, transforming and combining. Culture does something similar, not through genes but memes (ideas, behaviours, skills).

Ferguson looks at the legal aspect of ideas. The law seems to think that ideas can be protected, that the boundaries around them are tidy. But in reality they are tangled and interdependent. For most of our history ideas were free. They could be copied and built upon but the market economy changed that. Our ideas could be bought and sold.

When we copy we justify;
when others copy we vilify.”
—Kirby Ferguson

Having briefly looked at issues surrounding intellectual property and copyright laws he goes on to explore the fuzziness of software patents and litigation that has led to conflict rather than creativity and progress.

Ferguson ends with the challenge that to address the problems of today we (not corporations or governments) need to come up with the best ideas, we need them now and we need to spread them. Maybe this focus on over-protecting our ideas isn’t the best way forward, and given the evidence perhaps it’s not even accurate to say that anyone’s idea is unique and original: after all everything is a remix.

It’s an interesting idea. It certainly holds a lot of weight in my experience. Something to explore further I think, in many areas of life perhaps: web development, writing, politics, music…