Writing is Rewriting

October 22, 2012

I went back over my favorite scene this morning. The one where they’re running around with torches in the dark grounds of the rehab.

Not that it’s a good idea to have favorite scenes. The other scenes get jealous. But this one just was.

The rehab started out as this vague old mansion house, but then with subsequent rewrites began to take on a character of its own. Taller stone walls. Razor wire on top. Security guards. A huge wrought iron gate. Much, much harder for the villains to get in and the goodies to get out.

Great stuff. Strengthen the conflict.

And then last night, lying in bed thinking about it, worrying at a few minor details (I wasn’t quite sure, for example, why our heroine was wandering out into the grounds at night in the first place: the line “lovely moon” was sitting there as a place holder. Not, as it might seem, a major plot hole, but certainly a loose connection.) suddenly I realised the scene was now all screwed up. Just made no sense at all.

Because at the first suggestion of an intruder in the grounds of an outfit this security conscious a relay would snap on and the whole damn place would be FLOODLIT!

There was no getting away from it. The running around with torches I’d become so fond of, the shadowy tingles I’d spent so much rewrite time shaping, tightening and sharpening – gone.

So waddya do?

This morning I turned on the floods. And of course the whole painstakingly constructed scene just dissolved to white. But then something truly strange happened.

Everything snapped into focus. All I had to do was write it down. That rush of megawatts, suddenly lighting up the French windows like day, turned out to be exactly the trigger to make our heroine get up from the dinner table and venture out onto the balcony.

And down onto the terrace, territory we knew quite well from earlier sunlit scenes, moderately more interesting in my first draft moonlight, but now weird and stark under the electric glare.

A villain out there in the dark – yes, ok. But a villain somewhere among the few shadows of that over-exposed landscape… I was shivering at the thought.

The guards don’t find him, of course. They decide it’s a false alarm. The lights go out one by one. Out there in the dark we relax, and…

Somewhere among the shrubs a twig snaps…

The scenes we write are putty in our hands. That’s great for a first draft. But they need to come out hard and sharp. You can often do that, I find, with an import from the real world, even if — especially if – it’s something that wrecks your careful construction and makes you rebuild it brick by brick afresh.

ChB  10-22-2012, 06:36 pm


Kingston DataTraveler microDuo

March 7, 2014

Not all Android phones with a microUSB charger socket can do it. And if you’re a Dropbox or Box user (or a user of any of the other myriad Cloud storage services) you may not even need it. But it’s a handy get-you-home, quick-and-dirty solution to data transfer, particularly if you’re not Internet connected at the time.

I’m talking about Android On-The-Go, or OTG as we’ve taken to calling it. This treats any USB flash drive connected to your Android phone’s microUSB socket as an external drive, enabling you to shift data in and out of the phone with the same sort of ease as copying data on your conventional computer.

The immediate challenge is that USB flash drives don’t come with microUSB plugs. The solution I’ve been using for the past three years is a short adaptor cable: USB type A socket at one end, microUSB plug at the other. I’ve seen branded versions of these advertised for eight quid, but I picked up mine on eBay for 99p including p&p. With this and an appropriate OTG-enabled phone like my Galaxy Note 3 I can view or copy the data from, typically, the sort of USB flash drives that are handed out after press events, allowing me use my phone to revisit a presentation or set of product spec sheets while travelling home on the Tube.

Kingston’s take on OTG is a little different from this. It’s a USB flash drive no bigger than the tiny nano flash drives that stick out less than half an inch from a conventional USB type A socket. But the small plastic case that you would expect to be housing the flash memory is actually a hingeable cover over a second connector – a microUSB plug.


This cunning design allows me to plug the device into, say, my MacBook Air’s USB 2 port, copy data off my SSD into it, unplug it, open up the hinge to reveal the microUSB plug and with that do the full OTG thing with my phone.


Kingston sells these MicroDuo devices with capacities up to 64GB. Mine’s the 16GB version, which you can pick up on Amazon for around £8. Now all I’ve got to figure out is how to make sure I don’t lose this handy little device.

The Damson Twist

December 7, 2012

It sounds like a great idea: a truly pocketable loudspeaker that will Bluetooth to your phone and give you great music wherever you go.

Many so-called “pocket speakers” have crossed my desk over the years, and some have even been good enough to be worth taking on trips. Not exactly audiophile quality, you understand, but just the job if you’re in a bath in a Munich hotel and fancy listening to the Archers over the Internet.

But I don’t bother with that any more. The astounding volume and quality of the tiny speakers built into today’s smartphones means that you don’t see much of an improvement unless you invest in a much bigger Bluetooth audio delivery device like the Gear4 Streetparty Wireless. It’ll take up no more room than a pair of shoes in your suitcase, but pocketable it certainly isn’t.


Samson Twist (left) with the Gear4 Streetparty

But now along comes the Damson Twist to confound me. The aim of the device (and in a moment I’ll come to how successfully it fulfills that aim) is to deliver the quality and volume of a Streetparty class speaker, but in a form-factor that can be packed inside a shoe, along with a pair of socks.

The small cylinder that makes up the Twist is in two articulated sections: rotate the top to the left to switch on Bluetooth and to the right if you’re going to connect the Twist to the music source through the audio cable provided. There’s also an arrangement that I didn’t check out for wiring two Twists together as a stereo pair. Charging is through a standard micro-USB socket.

The design trick that UK start-up Damson has come up with to get a big sound from this tiny unit isn’t exactly new. Just build the transducer, the part that turns changes in electrical current into vibrations, and leave out the bulky speaker cone and the structure needed to contain it.

The resulting device is effectively a pocket vibrator that is more-or-less inaudible. Until – and here’s the trick – you put it on top of a resonating surface like your hotel bedside table. The transducer drives the table surface as if it were the missing speaker cone, and if you turn your phone up to full volume (the Twist has no volume control of its own) you may soon have the guy in the next room banging on the wall and shouting at you to turn it down.

Yes, the tiny Damson Twist is astonishingly effective, truly one of those toys that will, as they say in the ads, “amaze your friends”. (And confound your enemies – when the guy next door bangs on the wall, nip out into the corridor and hold the Twist against his hotel room door. A door makes a really efficient resonator. It’s just a pity that Damson doesn’t supply a means of fixing the device to a vertical surface).

So much for the decibels, but how good is the audio quality? Here’s the rub. A well-designed speaker has a cone carefully engineered to be efficient and free of unpleasant harmonic resonances. Your average hotel bedside table was designed with no such considerations in mind. So you’ll probably find yourself wandering round the room trying out the Twist on every available flat surface questing for audio purity.

The good news is that provided your expectations aren’t set too high, it shouldn’t be  hard to find an acceptable compromise. You’ll want to clear the surface of objects like keys near the Twist, and you might have to experiment by inching the device around to find the sweet spot on a particular surface.

My experiments suggest that you’ll never attain the sort of full bass you get from a speaker like the Streetparty, but considering its size the Twist can do a remarkably good job.

However, the fly in the ointment is the price. Damson’s currently asking a penny under 80 quid for the Twist. You can pick up the Gear4 Streetparty for around half that.


Mon 29-Oct-2012 Livescribe, Deadscribe?

October 29, 2012

Unveiled to the press a couple of weeks ago under conditions of strictest secrecy was the Sky Pen, the latest addition to Livescribe’s stable of recording writing implements. The lid comes off the product today, so now I’m free to tell you about it.

Just as well I wasn’t allowed to talk last week. Because as a keen user of the earlier Livescribe offerings I was disappointed to the point where I saw this as the beginning of the end for the company. Yes, it was that bad. Livescribe, Deadscribe.


The new Sky pen is the same form-factor as the earlier Echo

I didn’t start out with such negative thoughts. The launch demo showed us that the new Sky pen – in shape and size identical to the earlier Echo, even down to the ridiculously loseable pill-sized pen cap – ticks a feature box we Livescribe users had been missing ever since we first picked up the original Pulse pen nearly five years ago. Instead of a clunky USB cable to upload the audio and ink data the pen has collected, the Sky uses WiFi. You still need a cable to charge the pen’s internal battery about once a day with normal use. But other than that, the pen’s a free agent, syncing automatically over the air to your personal central repository.

If you’ve never used one of these things you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about.  Imagine you’re sitting in a lecture, or interviewing a celeb, or taking notes in a business meeting. You scribble away trying to keep up, and later when you try to untangle the sense of your scrawl you find yourself wishing you’d brought some kind of audio recorder with you. Next time you turn up with notepad and recorder and come away with a scrawl and a long audio recording with some useful sections in it if only you knew where to find them. What you want is some way of making your handwritten notes an index into the audio recording.

You could look at your watch and jot down a timestamp every now and again. Or you could slap down a hundred quid or so and get yourself a pen with a built in microphone, the ability to record not just audio but also every penstroke you make, and — here’s the killer feature — synchronise the two. That is Livescribe’s USP.


The ink image in the Livescribe Web app. Green ink indicates associated audio

Earlier versions of the pen connected to your PC or Mac by way of an application called Livescribe Desktop. This handled USB transfers between the pen and computer, and also offered a useful way of organising all your Livescribe data. You could pop up an image of a page of scribble, move the mouse cursor to some point on the page, and have the computer play back the audio recorded at that point in time.  A mouse and screen combination working more or less the same way as the Livescribe pen and its specially patterned paper.

The company later offered an extension in the form of a separate app, that could relay the data up to the Cloud – to Evernote or Google Drive, for instance. Another very valuable feature, added last year, was the ability to create Adobe PDF “pencasts” that would allow anybody with the latest version of Adobe Reader to play back combined audio/ink data in the same way as Livescribe Desktop.

This suite of capabilities around the Pulse and Echo versions of the pen was less than perfect, but it worked well enough, and rewarded the effort needed to master and tailor it. You might have expected – we did expect – any new version of the pen to build on this. A WiFi pen that connected into the Livescribe desktop without the need for a USB cable would have been a natural next step.

But it wasn’t to be.

Top to bottom: The new Sky; the Echo; the original Pulse. At the very top is what I’ve described as the “pill-sized” pen cap, which fits the Sky and the Echo.

I can only think that the same person who designed the utterly daft pen cap (two come in the box, so they must know you’re bound to lose them) was responsible for the change in the accompanying software suite. I say “change” – actually what they’ve done is get rid of it altogether. Now there’s no way of organising the pen’s data on your PC or laptop.  Connected directly to the Internet by WiFi, the data is swept straight up to Evernote, and you have to rely on Evernote’s features to manage it. Unfortunately Evernote can only display the ink page or play back the audio – it doesn’t implement the pen’s crucial function of being able to sync the two.

Livescribe kluges round this by getting Evernote to transfer the audio and ink data to a Web application. In Chrome it works well; in Firefox it struggles to maintain sync between audio and ink. In Internet Explorer it fails to work altogether.

I’m a Cloud fan — I’ve been using Google Docs and Evernote for several years now. But the Cloud has its limitations, as this new Livescribe implementation makes clear. If you want to transcribe a interview, for example, you need the audio and your handwritten notes on a local machine. The earlier Pulse and Echo pens put the data there, under the control of Livescribe Desktop. The new Sky pen sends it all straight up to the Cloud, where Evernote ponders on it for an indefinite length of time (doing clever stuff, admittedly, like create an ASCII index into however much it’s able to discern of your scrawl) before syncing it down again to your computer.

The WiFi symbol (below) animates when the pen is looking for a network, and stabilises when it’s able to attach to one. The question mark shows failure to connect. But behind the scenes the pen’s still trying.

The complete dependence on WiFi is a distinct Achilles heel. There’s no way at the moment (it’s a feature promised for next year) of transferring data across the USB cable that comes in the box. But WiFi can be dodgy, especially when a low-powered version is crammed into a small device. I found the Sky reluctant at times to hook up to my WiFi access points, while my laptops and tablets were having no problem at all. One limitation I found is that – in common with a lot of US products – the Sky pen only does 2.4GHz on channels 1 to 11.  A wireless access point on Channels 12 or 13 will be invisible to it. Worse still, if your access point is set to hop among channels looking for the best one, as many do by default, it could be mysteriously only intermittently visible.¹

Livescribe is working on these bugs and niggles, and a firmware update issued just a day before today’s official launch, has smoothed off some of the rougher edges. The pen is useable, and good to use. But in practical terms I’ll probably be sticking to the previous USB-tethered Echo pen until Livescribe’s software comes up to speed.

for official details, spec and UK prices see: http://www.livescribe.com/uk

¹ This was only true of the Sky pen in the UK running the English firmware, which made the assumption the device was being used in the US. A subsequent firmware update has fixed this for UK users.

The iPad: Walking Backwards for Christmas?

April 29, 2012

Apple reportedly sold more than 12 million new iPads  during the first quarter of this year. I’m told this means that Apple must be doing something right. But I’m wondering if the real message is that 12 million people are doing something wrong.

I’ve never been very sold on this numbers game. If there really were an equation between numbers and excellence we’d relish rats, and welcome World Wars and Windows. My upbringing as a columnist has taught me to take things as I find them rather than count the cheering crowds.

And I find the iPad unfit for purpose, if that purpose is anything other than as a sofa-side surfing tool. It’s too big, it’s too heavy and it’s too expensive.

The 10 inch screen makes this something you can’t stick in a pocket. In the 1980s “portable” meant the thing had a handle and you could lift it. Towards the end of the century the word came to mean something you could tote around in a bag. Today if it’s not pocketable like as not it’s going to get left at home.

I concede there are still people who travel around with briefcases and knapsacks. I always seem to be banging up against them on the Tube. But I believe they’re a dying race. If the dinosaurs have taught us nothing else, we’ve at least learnt from them that evolution favours those who travel light.

The iPad then is more of a lounge accessory. Apple suggests you might want to use it as an eBook reader. Have you actually tried this? I once had to give up reading the paperback edition of Roger Penrose’s gripping “The Road to Reality” because it made my arms ache. Far too much gripping was involved. The iPad weighs much the same.

Yes, you can cradle it on your arm, rest it on your lap or put it down on a table. This is what people do with the iPad. But in this case why restrict the screen to a measly 10 inches. You might as well throw in a keyboard and make it a 15 inch laptop.

This is where you remind me that the key feature of the iPad is its touch screen. Touch control gives you an intimate, immediate interaction with the device. This is why you keep wanting to pick it up, because it’s like your phone. But a lot heavier. Which is why you keep putting it down again.

I’ve come to the conclusion that a touch screen on a desktop computer is worse than useless unless you can lay the screen down flat. The arm quickly gets tired hovering around in space. Even so, the scope of touch control seems to be strictly limited, and for much of the time you’d really be a lot happier using a mouse (when probing fine detail), or, of course, a physical keyboard.

With a handheld device the advantage of these alternative methods of interacting evaporates. For the touch screen phone, your finger is king. There’s an immediacy about prodding something you’re actually holding in your hand that the more distant connection provided by physical keyboards – or even virtual keyboards displayed on a larger table- or lap-bound tablet – just can’t, er, touch.

The only kind of user-machine interaction that gets closer than this is text entry by dictation. iPad-sized devices aren’t designed for this at all, unless you’re going to fuss with wires or a Bluetooth headset. A seven inch tablet, on the other hand, can quite feasibly be taken in hand and given a talking to. Phones, of course, are even better for this purpose.

That explains, I hope, my “too big, too heavy” argument against the iPad. But why do I say “too expensive”? You might be inclined to point out that a decent 7 incher can cost as much as an iPad. And that the 5.3 inch Galaxy Note on which I’m knocking this blog together now retails at Carphone Warehouse for a sturdy £600 – a couple of tons more than Apple rushes you for with its own flagship product.

Yes, but… A pocketable device that travels with you from room to room, from home to work, and everywhere else, is effectively a multiple of itself. If I’m right in regarding the iPad as a lot less portable, more of a living room fixture, then the thing won’t make sense, at least to me, until there is one in every room where I need it. For this to happen the price of the iPad needs to come down. A lot.

It could eventually happen. Back in the late ’70s the boffins at Xerox PARC envisaged exactly this: slate-sized tablet devices cheap enough to be left lying around everywhere you happened to need them. With the advent of the first iPad arguably Apple was on the right track. But this latest arrival, heavier, hotter, and reportedly 30 percent more expensive to build, seems to me the nearest possible sign that Apple is, as the Goons so memorably phrased it, “walking backwards for Christmas”.

ChB 04-29-2012, 07:34 pm