A good Powerbook memory

A few weeks ago I blogged about the continuing saga of memory upgrades for my 15″ Powerbook: to summarise, it’s really picky and third party memory doesn’t always work.

Touch wood, the problem seems to have been solved: the nice people at Kingston have replaced the last lot of chips with a new pair, and so far today the PB’s been running fine with nary a trace of Kernel Panics or other nasties. For what it’s worth, if you’re planning to upgrade your 15″ PB then the product number of the happy chips is KTA-PBG4333/512.

Update, 1 December

So far, so good. The PowerBook’s been churning away for 24 hours now – I’ve been really hammering it – and I’ve had one kernel panic, which may well be due to the ridiculous amount of beta software on the machine. Waking from sleep is working all right, and everything seems relatively hunky dory. The only worry I do have is that when I switch the PB on, before the Apple logo appears I see an icon of a spanner with a question mark. I’m assuming that’s some kind of system message, but I haven’t encountered it before. Does anyone more knowledgeable than me know what it is? Do I need to reset PRAM and VRAM, and other things with lots of initials? Any advice appreciated…

Online shopping explained

In the run-up to Christmas, more and more of us will do some or all of our present shopping online. Unfortunately, many online shops use a secret language that can be hard for the unitiated to follow. In the spirit of helping my fellow man (and woman), here’s a handy guide to the most common phrases.

In stock.
Out of stock.

Out of stock. Due in 5 days.
We didn’t say which days, did we? They’re the 15th December, 4th January, 22nd September, 5th October and 1st November. 2009.

We despatch most orders on the same day.
By “most”, we mean “other people’s”.

This special offer expires on Thursday.
It’ll be cheaper on Friday.

We have a no-quibble returns policy.
Assuming you can find our returns address, which is hidden in a secret page on a completely different web site. And even if you do find it, sending stuff back will cost a fortune and will take forever. And then you’ll find that we have to order the replacement from Guatemala, and it will be delivered by carrier pigeon. A slow and easily confused carrier pigeon.

We accept all major credit cards.
Except yours.

Track the status of your order!
The page will say “awaiting processing” on the day you place the order, and won’t be updated until you die.

Choose your delivery slot.
Go on, choose one. We don’t have the slightest intention of delivering at that time, on that day or even in the same century.

Price promise.
We promise that if you find the product cheaper anywhere else, we’ll magically discover a hitherto invisible clause in the terms and conditions that specifically excludes any shops that are cheaper than ours.

State of the art.
In 1932.

Email customer service.
You honestly believe we read those messages? Sucker!

Compatible with everything except the specific hardware or software that you have.

Free delivery.
Assuming you don’t need it for this Christmas.

This week’s hot deal.
Our warehouse is full of crap that nobody wants. Please buy our crap. Please.

We have recommendations for you.
You ordered Boy George’s autobiography three years ago, so we think you’ll be interested in lots of gay porn.

People who bought this item also bought…
Other people are idiots.

DVD price crash!
You too can own “Toys”, “Universal Soldier” and “Flubber”!

The perfect gift.
For someone you hate.

If you require any assistance feel free to call our Customer Support Hotline
Which costs £400 per second and will keep you on hold for six weeks before “accidentally” disconnecting you after you’ve said two syllables.

Welcome to eBay.
You’re gonna get screwed.

If anyone else has their own translations of online shopping jargon, feel free to add them in the comments section…

The price isn’t right.

This is the new Eminem album on iTunes, 20 songs (well, if you include skits) for a pretty reasonable £7.99.

And this is the Deluxe Edition, which boasts a further three songs. £15.99.

And this is the same edition in physical form, with two CDs, all the packaging and uncompressed audio that you can rip into any format you want. £12.99. Yet if you want exactly the same record in digital format, you’ll pay £3 more than Amazon and £8 more than the standard album download.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible to buy the standard album and then buy the three additional tracks from the deluxe edition, bringing the total to £10.36 – but the point is that you shouldn’t have to. Somebody – presumably Eminem’s record label – is having a laugh at iTunes users’ expense.

Don’t believe the hardware hype

I’ve just ordered a new laptop. Is it another PowerBook? I hear you cry.


An iBook?


A top-of-the-range Alienware gaming laptop?


A state-of-the-art Pentium Mobile with massive screen?

Nay, nay and thrice nay.

I’ve ordered a bog-standard, not particularly exciting, Celeron-based Dell Inspiron with a 14″ screen. I didn’t buy it because it’s fast – it isn’t – and I didn’t buy it because it’s cutting-edge technology, because it isn’t that either. I bought it for one reason and one reason only: after the various “buy today and get x% off” offers, it cost a grand total of £457.

£457 for a brand new laptop – that’s cheaper than most refurbs, and safer than any second-hand buy.

Of course, it isn’t as expandable as higher-end machines, but the only expansion I intend to do is to stick a Wi-Fi card in it. The screen isn’t the biggest, but I do most of my work on the Powerbook and I’ve got a big flatscreen monitor I can hook up to it if 14 inches isn’t enough. Battery life is rubbish but most of the places I travel to, I run the laptop on AC power anyway. And it comes with a 1-year warranty, so if it breaks after that period I can smash it to bits with a hammer and order another one.

Most importantly of all, I’d be much less devastated if a £450 laptop was broken or nicked on my travels than I would be if my Powerbook suffered the same fate. All I need when I’m on the move is Word and Wi-Fi, music playback and possibly the odd bit of DVD watching – and a cheap and nasty Dell is just as capable of those things as the most expensive PowerBook you can buy.

One of the big myths about computing is that you need the latest, greatest technology – and in most cases that’s completely untrue. If all you need to do is run Office, manage your digital photos and music, browse the web and send emails then there’s absolutely no reason to shell out thousands of pounds on state-of-the-art kit when a second-hand PC or Mac will be more than adequate.

Of course, if you don’t have a reasonably recent PC then you won’t be able to use the latest applications, the system requirements for which are truly terrifying. Again though, do you really want to? The word processors of ten years ago weren’t much less useful than the word processors of today, and the latest versions of music software are often bloated pieces of crap with endless DRM “enhancements”. An old copy of WinAmp or iTunes is quite happy with MP3s, and there’s no shortage of shareware, freeware and open source programs that can do most of the things big-name programs can do – without the massive system requirements or the massive price tag.

The exception is games, where we’re repeatedly told to upgrade our kit to play Doom III, Half-Life 2 or whatever. And while there’s some truth to that argument – games are driving PC technology these days – I still think it’s flawed. Reviews suggest that Half-Life 2 gives you about 14 to 18 hours of playing time; it’s a similar story with Doom 3 and other big-ticket games. Is it really worth shelling out hundreds or even thousands of pounds for less than a day of gaming?

Put it another way: if you borrow £1,000 on the super-low-rate Halifax credit card and pay only the minimum balance each month, it’ll take you 12 years and 4 months to repay the money. 12 years of payments for 14 hours of gaming? Bargain!

iPod firmware update

Apple has posted an iPod firmware update, which you can get through Software Update. It adds the Shuffle feature to the iPod Mini’s main menu instead of burying it in a submenu, but there’s still no custom EQ – the one thing that I really miss since moving from a creative player to an iPod.

Here’s the full list of the changes to the Mini’s firmware:

Compatibility with iTunes 4.7 and iTunes Music Store
Shuffle and play song library with one click (using the Shuffle Songs item in the main menu)
Create multiple On-The-Go playlists
Delete songs from On-The-Go playlists
Select reading playback speed for audiobooks
Hear Click Wheel clicker through headphones
Sync and go with improved disconnect performance

A bunch of utter bankers

A few years ago there was a huge outcry when banks announced that they would start charging people for the use of cash machines. Critics pointed out – quite rightly – that such a move would penalise the poor, as most banks had closed their smaller, less profitable branches; as a result, the only way people who didn’t live on busy shopping streets could get their money was to use cash machines. Charging for cash machines after closing branches, some suggested, was akin to pissing down poor people’s backs and telling them that it’s raining. In the resulting storm of bad publicity, the banks changed their minds and withdrew their plans.

But you can’t keep a bunch of bankers down for long, and the banks have managed to come up with a scheme that’s much worse than their original plan of charging £1 per transaction. They’ve been cheerfully flogging off their cash machines (except the ones in city centres, naturally), to private operators. As The Times notes:

There are an estimated 20,000 fee-charging cash machines around the country billing customers anything from £1.50 to £5 for each transaction.

The number of fee-charging cash machines has soared by 40 per cent in the six months to September 30.

Last year, 65 per cent of new cash machines were fee charging.

The spin on this is that such machines have to charge, because they would not otherwise be viable. That’s complete and utter bollocks, because in many cases the fee-charging machines are replacing existing machines that have been perfectly viable up till now. For example, the Bank of Scotland has sold its machines in garages and convenience stores to a fee-charging independent operator, and other banks are following suit.

And it’s not as if these operators are truly independent of the banks, either. As Channel 4 news points out:

Last year the Royal Bank of Scotland acquired the largest operator of profit-making cash machines in the country

That’s the same Royal Bank of Scotland whose profits hit £7 billion earlier this year.

Make no mistake, this is big business: ATM fees already generate £60 million per year in the UK, and that figure will soar as more and more free machines disappear.

So the fix is in. First, the banks close branches and replace them with ATMs; then, they replace the ATMs with ones that charge fees. If people don’t complain too much, the next step will be to charge for their remaining ATMs on the grounds that everyone else is doing it, so why can’t they?

Tone deaf

Back when I had a proper job, I used to work in the sunny Scottish seaside town of Ayr. I’d usually go for a wander around the town during my lunch break and without fail, I’d see the same busker every day. He was a blind chap who played classic oldies and the odd chart hit on a ridiculously large keyboard.

As much as I’d like to be politically correct here, I have to be honest: he was rubbish. Really rubbish. As in “no musical talent” rubbish. Even his guide dog looked pained as he slammed his meaty fists onto the keyboard, a technique that achieved a success rate of approximately 50% and which resulted in something that sounded like Stevie Wonder being hit with spanners.

Over the years I’ve occasionally wondered what he’s up to, and whether he’s still assaulting the ears of Ayr’s lunchtime shoppers. But it seems that he’s moved on to greater things: as I flicked through the various music channels on TV last night and saw advert after advert for mobile phone services, it’s become crystal clear that he’s moved into the polyphonic ringtone industry.

Have you *heard* those ads? You too can have a version of Destiny’s Child’s “Lose My Breath” played by a torso! Or you could have U2’s “Vertigo”, recorded by a small girl repeatedly smashing a Bontempi organ into her face! Or perhaps you prefer Eminem? Then why not get “Lose It”, as performed by a giraffe playing a Kazoo?

Perhaps it’s my age – I turn 32 on Friday – but as long as I live, I will never, ever understand the appeal of ringtones. Given that at 80p per track I reckon legal music downloads are overpriced, the fact that teenagers are willing to pay £3 for thirty seconds of music, played by someone who’s never heard the record and whose relationship to music is as close as my relationship to Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst and Kylie Minogue, can only mean one thing: young people are stupid.

Should businesses blog?

I’m putting together a story about blogging for UK businesses, and I’d be interested in people’s opinions on the subject. Do you think firms – such as online shops, small firms, whatever – should be blogging, or would their time be better spent concentrating on the basics such as price, decent customer service and so on? Have you ever chosen a product based on what bloggers have said about it – or decided against a product because of bad word of mouth among bloggers? Would you trust a firm’s own weblog, or would you assume that everything’s being written under the harsh glare of PR types and control-freak bosses?

Any opinions would be very, very welcome.

PS: as I’m soliciting opinions for a written feature, I’m assuming that anyone who leaves a comment or emails me about this is happy for me to quote them in print. If you’d rather I didn’t, please say so in your comment or email. Thanks.