All posts by Dan Sumption

Happier

Last year, I read the book 59 Seconds, by Professor Richard Wiseman. It’s wonderful – ostensibly the first “self-help” book underpinned by science. It’s packed full of tips on all sorts of topics – improving your self-confidence sorting out your love life, reducing stress, getting things done… in fact, it’s so full of handy hints that I did what I usually do: read them all with glee and then promptly forgot about all but a few.

One which sticks in my mind is the art of giving gratitude. This is a little like the “positive affirmations” beloved of other self-help books, but unlike vague and even counterproductive affirmations (“every day in every way, you are getting better and better and better”) it’s a specific and proven way of making oneself happier. The trick (established via a study by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCulloch) is to regularly list things that you are grateful for. Not necessarily big things, just… anything: a beautiful sunset, the taste of pale ale, the love of a partner or parent. The reasoning is that we become habituated to the constants in our life (in the same way that, if you work in a bakery, you will come to blank out the smell of freshly-baked bread). By bringing these small positives to the front of mind, we see them afresh and learn to appreciate them more.

Similarly, bringing to mind recent positive experiences (even if they’re as small as finding a parking space or managing to drag oneself out of bed on time) has the effect of reinforcing those experiences. (Other writing exercises which lead to significantly improved mood include writing out your perfect future – something realistic, but in which all of your choices produce a successful outcome – and writing affectionately about somebody you love or care about)

So, for a short while after reading the book I practiced writing things down, but, as already mentioned, I rarely manage to keep something like this going. It slipped back onto the list of “things I really ought to do if I had the time”. Then, just recently, I had a revelation. And here’s how it came about…

I had started using the web service OhLife to keep a diary (OhLife is a little like a standard blog, but entirely private; it emails you once per day to ask “How did your day go?”; you reply with an email saying what you’ve been up to; a building archive of your responses is kept on the web for you to read back through whenever you feel like it). OhLife has got me keeping a diary for the first time in years. But sometimes I can’t be bothered to write anything, or don’t feel like it, or there aren’t enough hours in a day. It was on one such occasion that I was reminded of the diary schedule recommended in 59Seconds. And while I didn’t have time to write, in any kind of detail, how my day had been, plucking out three vaguely positive things from the previous day and sticking them in bullet-points hardly seemed like a chore.

Since then, I have continued using OhLife, sometimes as a diary, other times just as a brief list of positives, however small (“smiled at the postman; heard a bird singing; enjoyed a TV programme”). And it’s early days yet but it seems to be working: I haven’t had any real black moods since I started doing it, and it seems as though my up-times are swinging even higher up. It takes up so little of my time (perhaps two minutes per day) that even the most time-poor person could easily squeeze it in. And I even get some little joy from knowing that, five years hence, I will be able to look back and know on which day the postman’s smile made a difference to my mood.

Buy 59 Seconds from Amazon UK

Trash

In 1996, I was responsible for the “kiosk” in Diesel’s Covent Garden flagship store (a Mac running the Diesel website). I had to go into the store once a month to “fix” it.

On the website were two video ads and a handful of audio files. Netscape (1.2, I think) treated these links as “downloads” to be opened with a helper application. Every time somebody using the kiosk clicked on a video or audio link, a new copy of the file was “downloaded” (from the copy of the website stored on the Mac’s hard disk), and placed on the desktop. When I came for my monthly visit, the hard disk would be full, and the desktop would be stacked 6 or 7 deep with icons of the same few files.

My job then was to delete these files. Macs then (OS5 or 6 – or was it 4?) were a lot simpler than they are now, and I myself was no Apple genius. So I had to drag all 9-gazillion of the files into the Trash. Which was a problem. Because the Trash (and, indeed, the hard drive) was an icon on the desktop. And the Desktop was geological-layers-deep in icons. (And, because the Mac wasn’t totally locked down, the Trash icon itself could be anywhere on the Desktop).

And so I began an elaborate game of Towers of Hanoi. Before I could delete the files, I had to find the Trash. So I would painfully drag the files, one at a time, until I unearthed that little waste mpeg basket. After an hour or so of this, I would unearth the Trash icon. And then the work would begin all over again, dragging the files into the Trash and, finally, emptying it.

I’ve a sneaking suspicion that this may be what first triggered my RSI; and my hatred of drag-and-drop as an interaction mechanism; and, quite possibly, a lasting suspicion of all Apple products.

You Shouldn’t Do That

“My name’s Dan, and I’m a progaholic”

Ever since the launch of Playlist Club, I’ve been dead excited about getting my weekly hit of curated sounds, and even more excited at the prospect of contributing a playlist myself. So much so, in fact, that ever since the club launched I’ve been filing away ideas for submission (currently 12 playlists-in-waiting, and growing).

Most of these will never see the light of day, and it could be months yet before I’m assigned a slot, so in the meantime I thought I’d toss something out for shits & giggles. You Shouldn’t Do That [Spotify] follows the rules of the club; almost. Admittedly, there are 30 minute tracks, but they were not sneaked in so much as paraded slowly in on a juggernaut covered with bells. Thing is, this playlist is so irredeemably self-indulgent that I wouldn’t have the balls to unleash it under anyone else’s banner, much less expect someone to bother listening to it the whole way through.

I love proggy, choppy, changey, lenthy, self-indulgent twaddle. I spent way too much time listening to this sort of stuff in my teens, then became a bit too self-conscious and swept-it all under the carpet; but in the comfort of middle-age, I’m ready to out myself as a fan of excess. I think the turning point came when Karlheinz Stockhausen died, and I played 25 minutes of his “Sirius” on my Sheffield Live radio show. I cringed a bit while doing it; I fully expected to be shot down in flames. But something surprising happened: I started getting emails & messages of thanks, in fact I got more positive feedback about that one track than anything else I ever played on the show. And it made me realise: sometimes I self-censor far too much for the benefit of an imagined everyman. There’s nothing wrong with following one’s own peculiar urges once in a while, in fact, it’s healthy. And so I produced a laughably decadent, egotistically baroque Spotify playlist, and am putting it out there for the world to hear ignore. Enjoy it. I, at least, will.

Postscript: there is a big hole at the centre of this playlist where some Cardiacs ought to be. Sadly, none of their tracks are on Spotify (there’s some amazing videos on Youtube though). Originally, I made a nod towards this by including William D Drake’s Stone Carnation [Spotify] as the first track, but last night I heard Proper Rock by The Chap and — although it’s a bit, you know, poppy — it’s a gorgeous tune, with a slight Cardiacs feel to it, and the lyrics make a wry commentary on the rest of the playlist.

Listen to You Shouldn’t Do That on Spotify

Proper Rock – The Chap

My Favourite Things – John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones

Elders – Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society

You Shouldn’t Do That – Hawkwind

Yours Is No Disgrace – Yes

Down In The Sewer – The Stranglers

Spillane – John Zorn

You Never Blow Your Trip Forever – Gong

From Banners to Apps

Last week I gave a presentation to the Midlands Flash Platform User Group. This was the result of some thoughts & conversations which started to fizzle around my brain during last year’s Flash on the Beach conference. The talk “From Banners to Apps” was a brief (ish) distillation of my 15 years’ in the Internet industry – what I have done and what I have learned. I was quite pleased with how it went (although it was far from perfect – if I were to do it again then I would try to encourage a bit more two-way communication with the audience).

Here is a PDF copy of my presentation, complete with vaguely-cryptic presenter notes.

Am I Completely Insane Or What

Another ActionScript-related memory-usage post. I’ve been doing some experiments with flash.display.Loader (a class which has always seemed out to get me). Today I discovered something which is just so weird it makes me doubt my own sanity. I’d be grateful if any Flash/Tamarin experts out there could help me verify my sanity/insanity.

Here is the test script I’ve been running:

public static const NUM_LOADERS:int = 500;

public function TestMultipleLoaders()
{
init();
}

private function init():void
{
for (var i:int=0; i < NUM_LOADERS; i++)
{
createAndDestroyLoader();
}
}

private function createAndDestroyLoader():void
{
var loader:Loader = new Loader();
loader = null;
}
}

Compile this in Flash Builder and test it under the Profiler. Change the filter to include objects in the flash.* package. Observe how many Loader instances are in memory. Hit the garbage collector. Observe again.

If your system is running anything like mine, you will see 500. Which, in itself, is crazy. loader is just a local variable which, anyway, is set to null. But bear with me, this is going to get crazier…

Now try playing with the value of NUM_LOADERS. Again all things being equal, you will see this crazy behaviours (NUM_LOADERS Loaders persisting in memory) for any number between 1 and about 600. Somewhere around that figure, perhaps a little higher (it doesn’t seem to be predictable) you will see the number of Loaders persisting drop to either 1 or 0.

Now what the hell is going on here? My guess is that the Loader class is somewhat resource-intensive to create, and so Adobe are maintaining a pool of them somewhere, although the strategy for doing it seems a bit random.

Please can somebody, anybody, enlighten me?

Embed types in ActionScript and memory usage

I’ve spent the last few days doing lots of fascinating ActionScript memory-tests – and hopefully I’ll post some of the results here if I get time – but while I have a quick moment I thought I’d share this finding which (while obvious now I think about it) caught me out.

The Embed meta-tag allows you to embed and access external files directly within your SWF, e.g.

[Embed(source = 'myImage.png')]
public static const MyImage:Class;

Flash seems to automagically detect the MIME-type of your embedded content (in this case, image/png), so that when you call new MyImage() the resulting object can be cast to a Bitmap.

You can, however, explicitly set a MIME-type for the embedded asset. If you’re crazy enough, you can do this:

[Embed(source = 'myImage.png',mimeType='application/octet-stream')]
public static const MyImage:Class;

This time calling new MyImage() will return an object of type ByteArray; in order to convert it into a bitmap, you will need to load the ByteArray into a Loader object.

Now, what caught me by surprise is the way in which the Flash compiler embeds the file myImage.png; I had foolishly assumed that the binary file would be embedded as-is, and then handled appropriately at run-time, but the compiler is a little smarter than that, and tries to handle the binary data according to its MIME-type. This is probably best demonstrated by example. In my test case, I embedded a large uncompressed PNG – the file was 1280×720 and came out at approx. 2.7MB.

With the first style of Embed (the “regular”), my compiled SWF was approx. 1.7MB or so in size, and when I ran it it decompressed to a similar size.

With the first style of Embed (the “byteArray”), my compiled SWF was a much smaller 800kB in size, but when I ran it it decompressed all the way back to 2.7MB.

I’m still trying to get my head around the implications of this (with a lot of help from Tish!) – it seems counter intuitive to me that the decompressed file sizes are so different, when presumably the “regular” version will have to be decompressed to a full 1280x720x4 (ARGB) bitmap data object. Any thoughts?

Some iPlayer Performance Tips

Yesterday, Amy posted this on Facebook:

Amy Dutronc wishes that iPlayer worked properly. It’s like listening to the radio and watching a really boring slideshow.

It soon turned out that lots of other people were having the same problem. They all have good Internet connections, so that wasn’t the issue- actually, even when bandwidth is low, iPlayer has some amazing built-in logic for detecting this and respondng accordingly. The issue is that some of the high-quality video now available on iPlayer requires lot of decoding power, and some computers – especially older ones and Apple Macs – aren’t up to the job. (NB. I believe there are improvements in the pipeline which will help iPlayer to improve playback even on slow machines – but if you’re still unable to get decent quality playback, the tips below may help).

The first thing to check is that you have the most up-to-date version of the Flash Player plugin. Adobe have done a lot to improve video performance (and performance in general) in recent releases. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can install the beta version of Flash Player 10.1 which has even more performance improvements. This will especially benefit Mac users, as the new “Gala” preview release is the first one featuring hardware video decoding for Macs. NB if you do install the Gala preview, you will sometimes see a white square in the corner of your video – so you may want to wait instead for the public release.

If, despite having the latest Flash Player, video still runs jerkily, here are some tips. Try them in the order shown below until you reach a level of quality which your computer can play back without stuttering.

  • Don’t play the HD version of programmes. Obviously, HD is amazing; if your machine will play it then you should definitely choose the HD option. But if your machine is a bit old, or does not have a good video card, then HD can slow it down to a crawl. On each HD programme page is a link underneath the video saying “Also in normal quality”. Click that link for a version less likely to hammer your machine.
  • Play the smaller version of the video. On “normal” programme pages, the video has an icon in the top right-hand corner showing two arrows (Update: on the new beta version of iPlayer, the size-toggle icon has moved. It is at the bottom of the media player, in between the volume and fullscreen buttons.). If you click on this, it will toggle between a big and a small version of the video. If you have problems playing the big version, click on the arrow to shrink the window down. The two actually use different video files (encoded at 1500kbps and 800kbps) – you can tell which version of the video is playing by right-clicking in the video window: a menu will pop up, and the second line will say something like “1500kbps | h264 | AK 3.5 (1) | 832×468“. The first part of that line tells you the bitrate.
  • Play the low-bandwidth version. If your machine is so clunky that it struggles even with the 800kbps video, then there is one more option: the low bandwidth version. Normally you would only see this version if your Internet connection is very poor – but you can force iPlayer to play it by clicking on the “Use lower bandwidth version” hidden near the bottom of the page. Once you’ve done this, right-clicking on the video will tell you that you’re looking at a 480kbps version. If you want to swap back up to the higher-quality version, the link at the bottom of the page will now read “Use normal version” – just click it.
  • Hopefully by following one or more of these suggestions, you’ll be able to find the best performance level for your computer.

    Disclaimer: this is not an official post from the BBC: although I worked on iPlayer and am familiar with most of the technologies used in the Embedded Media Player, I am no longer affiliated with the BBC in any way. Also, iPlayer technology can and does change rapidly: I cannot guarantee that all of the above information will still apply.

Desert Island Disco

A few weeks ago, Cherry Red Promotions very kindly asked me to play my Desert Island Discs at their monthly Desert Island Disco at The Shakespeare in Sheffield. Here are the tracks I picked, in the order in which I played ‘em. Lizzie also produced a little booklet, handed out on the night, and the following descriptions appeared in it:

1: The Lake of Puppies – Largelife
I got married to this song! “To have and to hold, the stuff in my hands, and if my hands are small, all that I hold must be even smaller…. Be it a large or a small world, nothing is larger than life.”

2: Cardiacs – Manhoo
Cardiacs are the one constant in my life: I could have filled this entire list with their songs. Manhoo is perfect pop, something the Beatles would have written if they’d still been on-form in the mid-90s. I like to think of it as the final word on all the Blur/Oasis nonsense going on at the time.

3: Material – Disappearing
As a student bass player, I had four heroes: first Lemmy, then JJ Burnel, Chris Squire, and finally Bill Laswell. Laswell introduced me to a world of music I had no idea existed (after 20 consecutive listens to Last Exit’s Noise of Trouble, I suddenly “got” free noise). He made me realise I didn’t need heroes any more. This is one of his funkiest tracks, which also introduced me to the sax of Henry Threadgill and guitar of Sonny Sharrock, both of whom also deserve to be on my desert island.

4: The Fuzztones – 1-2-5
Makes me feel like a teenager again.

5: Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society – When We Return
A beautiful, mysterious beginning and ending, joined by the most insane-yet-somehow-logical magical manic middle mess. The world’s greatest drummer keeps time while Vernon Reid rocks his fucking socks off. If I could just keep one of the eight, it would be this.

6: Claude Debussy – Claire de Lune
It feels like these five minutes describe an entire lifetime: from the first tentative movements of a baby, through increasing confidence and experience, to a noble, wise and peaceful death. When you bury me, please do it to this piano piece.

7: Caspar Brötzmann Massaker – Tribe
…and when I come back as a zombie, I’d like to hear this pumping out at a few hundred decibels. Immense! Terrifying! German!

8: Ooberman – Blossoms Falling (accoustic version)
Sunday morning lie-ins. True love. Warm, fuzzy perfection. Love you Gill!

Book:Viriconium Nights by M John Harrison
Reading this, during a lost-weekend in Amsterdam, changed my life. Made me realise stories don’t need endings, fantasies aren’t real, and some people waste a lifetime trying to get to the other side of the looking-glass. I think I grew up that weekend. This book contains nothing but language and imagery; but I could lose myself forever in it.
Buy Viriconium by M John Harrison on Amazon

Luxury: an oojamaflip
One thing I’m forever searching for, so I probably ought to have one handy on my desert island.

Of course, eight records is never enough. I brought a few extra, in the hope that there’d be some spare time at the end, and indeed there was – I managed to slip in a whole side of the Cramps’ Off The Bone. But what really limited me was not being able to play many very long tracks. Here’s a couple which have just as much right to be included as the other eight:

9: Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus – Hope A Hope A
One of the most sublime orchestrations ever created – who else but Henry Threadgill would replace the bass with two tubas, and back up battling electric guitars with a trombone and a french horn. I saw this live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with my friend Ed: probably the best gig I’ve ever been to.

10: Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
When I was around 19, I decided to “get into” classical music. So I picked a CD at random from my Dad’s collection. Boy, was I surprised. It knocked me off my feet, punkier than the punkiest punk I’d ever heard. It was The Rite of Spring, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra (still the most violent version of this music I’ve ever heard – and I’ve heard many). However, for my desert island I think I’d pick Fazil Say’s four-handed piano version: surprisingly, just as rich and dischordant as the orchestral version, at times more so.

Finally, one of the other desert islanders picked a Blur track for his list, and explained that he’d listened almost exclusively to classical music until Blur awakened him to the possibilities of popular music. I hadn’t though about this beforehand, but Blur did something very similar for me: from around 1990 to 1995, I listened only to jazz, improvised music and other forms of avant-garde noiseism. I considered myself above crass pop songs. Then by chance I saw a Blur video, Sunday Sunday, on a late night TV show, and I was surprised by the intelligence and beauty of it. From then on, I never looked down on pop music, and my tasted expanded to include a bit of everything. So I really owe a place in this list to Blur, and of all their tracks I think the one I’d pick is the oh-so-beautiful Tender.

Postscript: I’m loving the SEO Smart Links WordPress plugin, if only because its automatically-generated links remind me of stuff I wrote ages ago and have forgotten. Case in point: Check out the “Henry Threadgill” and “When We Return” links above.