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Downloading artwork at iTunes

27 May 2007


When I get a new CD, I study the cover and read the inlay. The artwork is part of the creative product, as I see it, and I like to know (or at least read) who arranged the strings and so on.

My iTunes experience has been sterile by comparison: a list of albums and artists, much like a spreadsheet. So this weekend, I decided to use the feature to automatically download artwork for all my albums from the iTunes shop.

It's a good job I did. I didn't realise how out of touch I had become with the acts I love.

Prince is like a chameleon, reinventing himself for each project with a new haircut and a style transformation. You can hardly keep up with his constant image changes. I certainly don't recall this one, from the Batdance single:

Jagatee by Prince Max, who looks like a white man in a beer stein

I love 'Let me entertain you' (when the trumpet comes in over the fade at the end, it's one of the greatest moments in pop music ever) and 'Angels' is a great singalong. I'm not as struck by some of Robbie Williams' other songs, but I'm prepared to give him a lot more slack now I know that he recorded 'Millennium' as a ten-year old boy. It's damn fine, considering:

Album sleeve of 10 year old boy that comes up as Robbie Williams

Memo to self: if I ever meet Robbie and want to thank him for 'Entertain' and 'Angels', don't give him a banana. He doesn't like them.

It's a long time since I saw my CD single of 'Chocolate Salty Balls', a 90s Christmas chart hit for Chef from the cartoon series South Park. I don't remember this sleeve, so I guess it must have been repackaged. I think the one in the middle is Chef. He's lost a bit of weight, but he looks like he's getting into the spirit by chewing a couple of salty balls:

Chocolate: very serious-looking soundtrack album

We've all got treasured memories of the 80s. But how to sum up the decade that gave us Spandau Ballet, The Jam, Simple Minds and The Art of Noise? How about with a picture of German punk theatre outfit Antiteater? 'This is the 80s', apparently:

Picture of 1970s style German cardboard cutout record sleeve for band Anteater

I realise now how newspapers cheat us when they give us free CDs in flimsy cardboard wallets. Yeah, they claim they're paying the artists but they're definitely ripping us off! My sleeve for 'The 20 sexiest songs ever!' was just text, without any pictures. It should, it seems, have looked like this:

Caribbean female artist in shimmering dress in 1970s Top of the Pops record sleeve pose

When I need to rock out, I like to play 'The best rock album in the world ever!', which kicks off with Kiss blasting out 'Crazy Nights' and takes us through Stiltskin's 'Inside' and Alice Cooper's 'School's Out'. It's a serious business playing the 'best rock in the world'. You can almost hear Meat Loaf's scowl. At least I can now turn to the sleeve for a bit of light relief:

Sleeve for 'The funniest las vegas album ever'

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Nintendo Browser to support Flash?

22 May 2007


Nintendo browser boxSpeculation has been mounting for some time that the US release of the Nintendo DS Opera Browser will support Flash. Now the promo guff on the Nintendo website [link no longer available] advertises Flash support, which has been taken by many as official confirmation.

Those who have tried the European or Japanese releases of the browser find it hard to believe. The frame rate grinds to a crawl if you have a couple of animated GIFs on the page. It's certainly a far cry from the 'lightning fast' performance the Nintendo site claims Opera delivers. Perhaps the US release comes with an enhanced memory pack to help the browser render more quickly. Even so, that would be unlikely to have an impact on download times, which would be limited by the hardware's bandwidth. Pages that feature Flash tend to have a large total file size.

How much use would Flash be in the Nintendo DS browser? Not much, I suspect. The small screen rendering mode (which is the easier of the two modes to use) will not be able to strip anything meaningful from most Flash files. The overview mode involves a lot of scrolling around, which is likely to make it impossible to play most existing Flash games. I can live without all the Flash adverts and splash pages. And Youtube wouldn't be much fun without the sound.

Opera did a smart job of designing the original browser, though, so it might have some new tricks to solve these problems. Being able to magnify/shrink and centre Flash movies might be all it takes to make them usable, although obviously detail would be lost on the small screen. Sound would be a welcome addition, and would seem to be a prerequisite for meaningful Flash interaction.

I don't miss Flash on the current browser, but there is reason to be excited. If the US browser does support Flash, it will for the first time make it easy for people to develop games for the Nintendo DS. There is a thriving homebrew community, but getting unofficial software working involves quite a bit of hacking and some extra hardware. If people can just visit a website to play, that will make it much easier. Flash is a well understood development tool, with many game-writing tutorials available. The incorporation of Flash into a DS browser could be the catalyst the platform needs for homebrew to go mainstream.

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Gentlemen. Let's broaden our minds... Laurence?

10 May 2007


Prince: 21 dates in London. Visit official site for infoIf you're a Prince fan, you're probably buzzing already at the man's plans to play 21 gigs at the Millennium Dome in August. In fact, if you're a real hard core fan, you might be at Koko tonight where he's following the press conference with an intimate gig. This post isn't for you, though.

This post is for the others: those who don't go to gigs often, or maybe have only been to one or two gigs ever; those who don't consider themselves Prince fans, but like a few of his songs; those who haven't even heard a Prince album, perhaps; those who have lost touch with him after liking his early stuff.

And it's to urge you to just go to the gig. Tickets are a very reasonable (and somewhat daft) £31.21 plus the usual booking fee and postage arm-twisting. You even get a free copy of his new, as yet untitled, album for that.

I've seen Prince four times before: Wembley (1990), Manchester (1992), Brixton (about 1998) and Hammersmith (2002). They were all great. Wembley was a stripped down greatest hits set, riding on the back of Batman. Brixton was a party all the way, with Chaka Khan and Larry Graham supporting. Prince joined in with his support acts (yelping "You playing my song, girl?" as he spun on stage with a guitar for 'I feel for you') and a human beatbox act blending all the night's acts seamlessly. Hammersmith was his difficult period, playing almost all new stuff, but was worth it for a jazzy rendition of Pop Life and a stunning solo acoustic set of mostly unreleased songs, as well as the highlights from The Rainbow Children.

So I know what I'm talking about when I say he puts on a great show. And it's not like I haven't seen a few other bands, either. Prince is one of the best live acts there is today.

The guy is a one-off. He claims to have rehearsed 150 songs for this tour and says he will be doing a different gig each night. He plays guitar, keyboards and (occasionally) drums as well as singing and he's damned good at all of them. In September last year, he reportedly did the splits at a show, which is not bad for a 48 year old. Word on the forums is that he's got his mojo back and the PR people claim he's playing his greatest hits for the last time.

This is your chance to see one of our finest living musicians, performers and songwriters doing his thing. If you're even curious, go along. You won't regret it. Tickets for the O2 gigs go on sale Friday 11 May at 9am here. Keep an eye on the official site and the unofficial forum for news of other gigs.

(Oh, and I don't get a kickback or anything for these links. I only want you to have some fun).

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Green marketing: a mainstream demographic?

03 May 2007


'People worried about climate change' has become a market segment. Yesterday's Independent carried two full-page adverts for organisations who want to reach that customer.

The first was from Together.com, and lists how eight UK companies can help us to cut our carbon emissions. M&S, which I do believe is taking carbon reduction seriously, says that it is encouraging customers to wash their clothes at 30°C when possible. British Gas claims to offer free home energy audits and O2 will give you £100 credit for keeping your old phone when you renew your contract. Sky is apparently introducing a sleep mode for its cable boxes.

Some of the other companies taking part didn't have much more than a sales pitch. Royal & Sun Alliance is offering a new eco-insurance product (whatever that might mean). B&Q is selling cheaper insulation and Tesco says it has halved the price of energy efficient light bulbs.

I was ready to have a go at Tesco, in particular, for a lack of imagination. As one of the UK's most influential businesses, you would think that they could come up with other ways to save the planet. I'm pleased to say (after a little digging) that they have also committed to halving emissions by 2020 and using energy efficient bulbs. There just wasn't room for that in the advert, I guess.

Barclays says it will donate half its profits from a new credit card to carbon reduction programmes. The cynical part of me wonders whether this means their own carbon reduction programmes, which they should be doing anyway. But they're also asking people to buy foreign currency from them and pay to offset the carbon of their flight at the same time. That's a clever way to make it easy for guilty greenies to settle their debt to the planet and bring in a bit of extra business.

Ten or twenty years ago affinity marketing became a big thing - basically aligning products with causes and charities. That's where Comic Relief gets a few pence from the sale of a box of soap powder, and the manufacturer gets to splash all over the place about how great it is because it does a lot of great work for charidee, and does like to talk about it. The charity makes more money than it otherwise would, the manufacturer sells more products, the customer gets a rosy glow from choosing the cuddly company to buy from. Everyone's a winner.

Climate change is a bit different. If people take it seriously, it could be a direct threat to the growth of many businesses. If people start buying from local suppliers, Tescos is screwed. If people start taking the waste problem seriously, they'll stop buying M&S's highly packaged lunches. Bully for Sky making its units go into standby mode, but aren't we supposed to be switching off properly? Can we not haul ourselves off the sofa that far to help save all life as we know it? In fact, we can probably do without telly altogether if it's going to be that much hassle. Why are we marketing carbon offset programmes? Is it because we've already accepted that we're not willing to cut our flights, and we think we can endlessly buy our way out of the problem?

While I'm sure many in these businesses are sincere about wanting to save the planet, the economic model we use won't let them do what they really should: Take out a full page advert that says 'STOP BUYING SO MUCH OF OUR STUFF!'

The moon photographed from space
A tiny reminder of what's at stake.
Image courtesy NASA Johnson Space Center. Used by permission.

The other advert in the Independent was for Spurt Airlines:

We hear a lot of guff about flying and global warming. The media mob say aviation is the fastest rising source of greenhouse emissions. 'Save Africa' whingers claim that 160,000 people a year are already dying from climate change. And 99% of climate science cronies babble on that emissions from aviation growth will scupper all other greenhouse gas reductions the UK might make. So what? Global warming isn't a good enough reason to miss out on some ridiculously cheap flights.

The advert goes on in a similar sarcastic vein about how everyone should vote Labour because that's a vote for the aviation industry. 'Why go green when you can have Brown?' it says.

It doesn't say who's placed the ad, and the spoof company's website is no more open. The press release mentions Enoughsenough, Planestupid and Greenpeace and this campaign reminds me of Greenpeace's previous anti-Apple website. But there's no clear claim for authorship.

The campaign is interesting because it's encouraging tactical voting against Labour purely on the grounds of aviation growth. That suggests that someone with money believes the environment is, or could be, a key voting issue. And it implies that Labour is much worse than the other two parties on aviation support. I'm not sure the Conservatives or LibDems would have been much different in their handling of aviation over the last ten years if they had been in power. At first I wondered whether the ad had been placed by the Conservatives, since they seem to be targeting green voters and they'll be the next government if they unseat enough Labour MPs (even if many go LibDem).

I'm not surprised to see both these ads in the Independent, which has positioned itself lately as a liberal and green paper.

We should expect to see a lot more of this kind of activity. We're a market segment now. Be prepared to be bombarded.

Related link: Climate change: An inconvenient truth.

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Blogging Against Disablism Day: making websites accessible

01 May 2007


Blogging against disablism logoThis October, the UK's Disability Rights Commission will be subsumed into the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. One body will bring together the work that has previously been carried out in the DRC, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

For me, there's a fundamental difference about the work the DRC does. While it's true that people with disabilities face prejudice (as do many people by virtue of their race, gender or sexuality), there are also many people with disabilities who are disadvantaged through technology.

The web is a good example of this. It's not difficult to eliminate the most common problems that people experience when using assistive devices. For example, you should provide alternative text for pictures so that screen readers can read a description out loud for blind people. You should make sure your site can be navigated using the keyboard, so that people who can't control a mouse can still get in. You should make sure that your fonts are legible and can be enlarged with the browser settings. You shouldn't use colour to convey meaning. There are extensive checklists published by the Web Accessibility Initiative. They can look daunting, but most are common sense and just fixing the top priorities would help a lot of people access your content.

The DRC has done some valuable work over the last few years investigating web accessibility. Although it has been supportive of the WAI guidelines, its own usability lab tests found that many of the problems encountered in usability tests weren't addressed by the WAI checkpoints. That helped to change the industry perception from one of 'ticking the boxes' to one of 'making sites useable for every audience'. The DRC also developed an accessible flash game and co-published a guide to commissioning accessible websites [link no longer available].

I very much hope that the integrated CEHR is able to dedicate the same resource and expertise to tackling the technical barriers that prevent people with disabilities from having equal opportunities.

There is still a long way to go in web accessibility. When using Blogger's image upload function for the first time today, I was shocked that it didn't prompt me for an ALT tag. The blogspot templates are mostly reasonably accessible, but the blogs stop being accessible as soon as anyone posts any images. Mad.

I also visited a website for work today which used two different colours to distinguish between content that did and did not require registration. This was a business that had probably paid handsomely for a website that some would argue contravenes disability discrimination law.

Most web 2.0 services present accessibility problems too. Shouldn't we be more worried that significant members of our society are being shut out of the conversation?

For most of us the internet is a luxury. We might depend on it, but we'd cope without. For some people with disabilities, the web has literally changed their lives. For the first time, some will have the opportunity to do their own shopping and banking. Deaf-blind people can receive the news the same time as the rest of us and join in the debate at the same time too. But only if sites are well designed.

There is a payback for the site owners too. Not only will they win the custom of people with disabilities, but they will also find their accessible sites index better in search engines and perform better on mobile devices. As I've been playing with the Nintendo DS browser lately, I've found accessible sites work like a dream.

So who is to blame for inaccessible sites? Many businesses will be unaware of their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act to ensure services are accessible, and others will shirk that responsibility. Ultimately, the site owner is responsible for the experience it provides, and is the party who reaps the rewards of making the site useable.

But I blame lazy designers. I worked on a major website project some years back where the bidders all promised they could build us an accessible site. When I questioned something our chosen provider had built which was inaccessible, they replied 'how many of your readers are blind, though?'.

It's 2007. We've been talking about accessibility for years and yet we still see broken sites launching. Anyone who sells website designs should understand the importance of accessibility and should fit it as standard. It's part of the design challenge, not an optional extra. All those people who are clever enough to invent web 2.0 services should be smart enough to make them work for everyone. All those people selling corporate websites owe it to their clients to make sure everyone can access them, and to explain what they're doing and why.

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Books by Sean McManus

Scratch Programming in Easy 

Steps

Scratch Programming in Easy Steps

Raspberry Pi For Dummies

Raspberry Pi For Dummies

Learn to program with the Scratch programming language, widely used in schools and colleges.

Set up your Pi, master Linux, learn Scratch and Python, and create your own electronics projects.

Super Skills: How to 

Code

Super Skills: How to Code

Web Design in Easy Steps

Web Design in Easy Steps

Learn how to code with this great new book, which guides you through 10 easy lessons to build up your coding skills.

Learn the layout, design and navigation techniques that make a great website. Then build your own using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

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