Flare: Visualization on the Web

Came across Flare today and am thinking it might be very useful for some data visualisation work I’m doing, here’s the blurb:

Flare is a collection of ActionScript 3 classes for building a wide variety of interactive visualizations. For example, flare can be used to build basic charts, complex animations, network diagrams, treemaps, and more. Flare is written in the ActionScript 3 programming language and can be used to build visualizations that run on the web in the Adobe Flash Player. Flare applications can be built using the free Adobe Flex SDK or Adobe’s Flex Builder IDE. Flare is based on prefuse, a full-featured visualization toolkit written in Java. Flare is open source software licensed under the terms of the BSD license, and can be freely used for both commercial and non-commercial purposes.

Try out the online demo here.

Why I wont use www.play.com ever again …

I’ve been using www.play.com for a number of years, up till about six months ago I can’t say i ever really had a problem with them. In the past six months though, I’ve noticed a marked increase in the number of orders I place with them that are dispatched but never arrive. Forcing me to then have to wait 21 days before they can send out replacements.

Up until a month ago this wouldn’t have really bothered me … hey shit happens right? I mean as long as you know the they’re doing something about it and a replacement is on the way, it’s not the end of the world, right?

Several months ago I pre-ordered Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, a game I’ve been looking forward to playing for several reasons – the fact that I’m part of a global gaming team that is supposed to be competing against other teams is only one of the reason’s I made sure I got my pre-order in pretty early! trusting that Play would send it out on time and I’d be amongst the first to get it installed and my rig set up. I knew something was wrong when the game was finally released at the end of September and not only had I not received it but I’d not received an email telling me it had been dispatched. So I logged onto my Play.com account and went to have a look at my order history to find that the item was marked as “Posted”.

This felt odd … I’d never had play send me something without me being sent  a dispatch notification, so I figured I’d call them up to see what was going on and when I was likely to receive it. The customer services representative that I spoke to informed me that I had to wait 21 days before they could send out a replacement, he didn’t offer me any other details at the time, and simply told me the item had been posted and there wasn’t anything they could do until the 21 days had elapsed. I informed him that I had not received a dispatch notification email which didn’t seem to bother him, and in fact he was quite dismissive ( apparently emails do get lost ;-) ). I hung up feeling a bit cheesed off. Later that day I spoke to a colleague of mine who is also an avid FPS gamer and he asked me how I was getting on with QuakeWars, when I told him I hadn’t received it he basically filled me in on how he had given up using Play.com long ago because he felt they were dishonest in how they represent what has actually gone wrong when an order goes missing.

This all piqued my interest so several hours later on the same day I called Play.com up again and spoke to a different customer services representative and basically told her that my order hadn’t arrived, I hadn’t received a dispatch notification and the item was marked as POSTED in my account history. She apologised profusely and told me the item was never sent out, she told me she had just checked on the system, and although my account shows it as POSTED it was never dispatched, there was some kind of glitch at the warehouse. To her credit she was very polite and and very apologetic however she was confused as to why I hadn’t been told this earlier in the day when I had spoken to one of her colleagues. She told me the best thing to do was to cancel that order, and place it again, and they would see to it that it was dispatched straight away. So I said ok, and went ahead and did that. I should point out that this was on the 3rd of October.

Anyway’s I re-placed the order and ordered an additional item at the same time, and I figured these items would arrive pretty soon after that. Sadly the postal strike struck, and being the reasonable guy I am … I figured any delay this time was probably a result of the strike. I hadn’t really received any post in about ten days, so I didn’t feel the need to chase Play up.

Anyway this weekend I checked my account and once again noticed that the QuakeWars was marked as Posted, I went and checked my email account and found there wasn’t a dispatch notification for it, but there was one for the other item I had ordered. Mmmm de-ja-vu? at this point I called them up again and asked what was going on, I was immediately informed that for some reason the item had not been sent out. At this point I got a bit irate and asked, as one might, then why is it marked as Posted ( which means I can’t cancel the order ). He said he couldn’t explain that but that he would send an email to the warehouse to have the item sent out immediately. I hung up the phone in disgust, and then interestingly … I was still on the view my account page on Play.com … suddenly the last two items I had ordered changed status from Posted to Missing, It wasn’t fucking missing!!! They had never sent it out! So picked up the phone and called them up again … I was put through to the same guy I had spoken to moments earlier and he said he had changed the status of the item so that the warehouse would send out a replacement but the way the system works is it marks that item and any subsequent orders with the same state … I told him that made no sense whatsoever. He assured me I would get a dispatch notification soon and that the item would be sent out … as it stands I still can’t cancel my order, they have still charged me for the item … and guess what the item is once again marked as Posted … and I have not received a dispatch notification.

What troubles me the most about this whole situation is the total disconnect between their order placing/billing system and their dispatch/fulfillment system, it seems apparent that they bill individuals at the point at which the warehouse is sent the order but they never confirm whether or not the item has actually been sent out. What upsets me the most is after three attempts they still have failed to send out the item I ordered. They’re very quick to bill people, but they don’t check to see if they have actually sent out the items.

The cynic in me suspects that what’s actually happening is that due to the sheer volume of orders they receive, they mark items as in stock, or dispatched within 24 hours, when the reality is the items are not in stock, but customers think that they’ve posted off, when they don’t arrive we call up and are told to wait 21 days and then a replacement will be sent out – when in actual fact the item was never actually sent out until they got it in stock again.

So either Play.com is suffering from a spate of neolithic incompetence, or they’re just plain dishonest, in either case I wont ever use them again!

 This morning I tried once again to call their customer support number again  …. only to get the message “This service is temporarily unavailable” … No Shit!

I’m going to try to get the order canceled again today and get my money back off them, at which point I’ll place an order with www.amazon.co.uk, and I strongly urge people who have had problems receiving items from Play.com to delve a little deeper and if you find your being treated as I have, switch to a more competent vendor or one that has more integrity – whichever way you prefer to look at it.

Mongols, Mandolins and the CBSO Youth Orchestra

As far as days go today was about as surreal as they come. Got up early this morning to try to get to a re-enactment fayre in Leamington Spa. Richard’s brother Cliff picked us up at around 9 and we drove to the fayre which was at the  Warwickshire Exhibition Center. You can find out more about the fayre at their website: http://www.livinghistoryfayres.com/.

I have never been to one of these events before so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. All I can say is that it was wonderful! Everyone there seemed very friendly and willing to talk to us about our interests and why we were there. Whilst none of us went there with the intention of buying anything we did come away with a number of items. As I mentioned in a previous post Richard has been teaching me archery and one of the reasons he likes attending these events is that many bow makers from around the country and from Europe will attend the event to sell their products. What struck me the most about all the equipment ( bows, swords, costumes, armor, musical instruments etc. ) was the quality and beauty of the products, the level of workmanship was exquisite… it was remarkable. I took a few snaps below ( click on each image on this page for a link through to a larger version of the picture)



 Anyway, as I was saying, Richard loves his bows and as we walked from stall to stall we came across a couple of Dutch bowyers who run a company called http://www.fairbow.nl/  they were selling a number of different kinds of bow. The ones that interested Richard and Cliff were several different kinds of Horse Bow ( the picture above ). We discovered from the bowyers that whilst these bows are smaller than the English longbow they can shoot an arrow further than a longbow at a lower poundage. The gentleman was kind enough to give us a short history lesson on the types of Horse Bow he makes (which I found on his website here ). We all  tried the Mongolian Horse Bows and a variation of it ,a 51lb Krim Tartar, bow and were amazed at how light it was and even I didn’t struggle to draw it, what we found fascinating was that furthest an english longbow will shoot is around 380 yards, and yet these small bows can easily reach over 700 yards.

Richard loved the bow and, rather impulsively, went ahead and ordered a custom made Krim Tartar which should arrive in the next 6 weeks. Richard asked for it to be made to a 70lb draw at 28″ . Were looking forward to when it arrives, especially if it is capable of shooting up to 90 yards flat! As good as some compound bows!

Anyway Richard’s impulse buying kind of rubbed off on me as well, whilst I didn’t buy a bow I did purchase a couple of items. The first a leather chess/draught board with some hand made pieces and a leather pouch …  which for some reason I really liked the feel of.

The second item I purchased, and this was the real impulse buy, was a beautiful little Mandolin, which I strummed for a little while and decided I had to have one, and it was only £59, it sounds wonderful though:

We wondered around for a bit and picked up a couple of other trinkets before leaving and making our way back to my place. I spent a few minutes trying to tune the Mandolin, whilst Richard fitted a new car stereo in his car. We then had to get dressed up for our night out at Symphony Hall to listen to our very talented friend, Alexandra Williams, play in the CBSO Youth Orchestra.

Alex plays the Violin and ever since I first heard her practicing I realised that she has a wonderful gift! She’s an extremely  talented musician and a member of a very gifted orchestra. Tonight’s performance  was a joy to watch, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see the Youth Orchestra perform. It almost embarrasses me to admit that, if it wasn’t for Alex’ involvement, and Richard dragging me along I would probably have not gone to see the performance … I guess the idea of seeing a youth orchestra wouldn’t have excited me, or I might have felt that my expectations would have been lower. However I now know that nothing could be further from the truth. They performed as well as any orchestra I have ever listened to … and believe me when I say that if these young men and women are the future then the CBSO is in very very good hands! They should all be very proud of tonight’s performance! I am certainly proud of Alex … well done babe!

Google revamp SearchMash with Flash

I’ve been using Google’s SearchMash for a while now. However it hasn’t been updated in a while … that is until now. A new Flash based version of SearchMash is now available for people to experiment with. I’m really enjoying using the new version, when you single click on a search result you get a preview pane with a thumbnail of the site along with other information. Whilst it might be argued that the Flash version is slower than the original AJAX based version, the new version is a big leap forward in terms of it’s aesthetics. I am curious as to whether releasing a Flash version of SearchMash was a tit-for-tat response to Microsoft’s SilverLight based Tafiti. I guess the difference between the two is that whilst the new Flash based version of SearchMash is more aesthetically pleasing than the original, it’s still very usable. The problem with Tafiti is that whilst it is gorgeous, I find myself falling back to Google or SearchMash because the results are presented more clearly and simply.

Try it out for yourself: http://www.searchmash.com/flash/search/

It requires Flash version 9.

La Traviata

Had a fab evening last night! Richard, Alex and me went to watch Verdi’s La Traviata at the NIA here in Birmingham. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen the opera and for the most part I was mesmerised by the performances. I couldn’t always make out what they were singing but someoneI loved once said that “you don’t listen to opera, you feel it”, and she was right! The costumes were all fairly contemporary, colorful and vibrant, the sets were lavish and stunning.

Talise Trevigne (pictured), who played the part of Violleta, was exceptional. She has the most amazing voice and even though it was a struggle at time to make out the words, her voice and performance carried such emotion you could actually feel what she was saying -particularly during the third act.

 

The  City of Birmingham Orchestra (CBSO) were also exceptional last night, and played a huge part in making this such a delightful production. I’m actually really looking forward to sunday night, Richard and I are going to watch Alex play in Symphony Hall, she’s part of the CBSO Youth Orchestra, and they’re putting on a performance so if your interested click here to find out a little more and book tickets.

Disguising ourselves…

Was speaking, briefly, this afternoon with several colleagues. I made a comment about how, several years ago, I had come to the realisation that I no longer knew who I was, I’d lost my own sense of self because I had tried to change to fit in with the people around me at the time.

I scares me sometimes how readily we, or I used to, feel the need to fit in with those around me even if over time once sense of self is somehow diminished. The problem is this isn’t a sudden transformation, but rather it’s slow, gradual the sort of thing that happens over a long period of time until your forced to confront who you are, who you were, who you think you are and who it is you want to be.

Anyway that little conversation I had earlier with Chris, Sarah and Lucy reminded me of something François de La Rochefoucauld once wrote:

We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.

Robin Hood … eat your heart out !

Had a wonderful evening yesterday. A friend of mine, Richard, has been living with me for a couple of weeks. We’ve been friends for over 20 years … a fact we often laugh about. Richard is a wonderful person and possibly one of the few people who truly knows me – he’s family. He’s been going through a tough spell in his personal life and needed somewhere to get away to and sort things out so I told him to get his stuff and come stay with me for as long as he needed to.

I live in a house all by myself, so it’s been great having someone around that I know won’t get on my nerves, as well as put up with my idiosyncrasies ;-) The truth is that Rich and I are very similar in our temperament and personalities yet outwardly most people would probably think we had very little in common.

Anyway Richard is an avid Archer and extremely skilful – he’s been doing it for four years or so. He offered to teach me how to shoot so he arranged for a training session last night, his father and his older brother also came along, both of whom have been shooting for around 18 months. Richard handed me a small 28lb recurve bow that looks a bit like the one in the picture opposite. Richard also got me to put on an arm guard and some finger protectors and took me through some of the basics and how to ensure I didn’t hurt myself or anyone else – safety first!

I didn’t find drawing the bow too difficult although I could feel the tension in my shoulders and chest but after some directions from Rich, I found myself hitting the boss fairly comfortably. I kept making the mistake of squinting and trying to aim down the entire length of the arrow which Richard and the others told me not to do, and instead keep both eyes open and get a feel for where the arrow will go and then adjust my stance. At first it felt counter intuitive but I soon got the hang of it.

Richard himself shoots with a 60lb recurve as well as his preferred 60lb traditional longbow, when asked me to try with them, they all chuckled when it was apparent that I couldn’t draw the string on either bow more than a couple of inches! Watching  Richard shoot with either of those bows was a bit scary since the sound the arrow makes is eerie and seeing how deep each arrow penetrates the target is both impressive and a little frightening.

Anyway the guys decided they wanted to practice shooting at a single arrow. Richard told me if I wanted to I could join in with them or continue to carry on shooting at the big target. I decided to join in with them, just for the fun of it.

Each of us had six arrows, and we took turns shooting at the target that had this single arrow running down the middle. Anyway on my second shot I split the target arrow right down the middle! w00t! To which the three of them all exclaimed “jammy little git!” or “beginners luck” … mixed in with various other expletives.

Yeah it was blind luck … but it didn’t stop me laughing my head off. Richard’s father split the arrow next and then I did it again … and again … and again! I found that I could actually feel when I released the arrow whether it would hit the target or not .. when I said that to Richard I thought he might laugh but he said it’s about instinct and generally as you release you can get a sense of whether your going to hit or not. Anyway Richard, decided that he’d given us enough of a lead and with his 60lb bow split the target arrow six times in quick succession … like I said he’s really good!

At that point Richard’s father suggested we shoot at a different target, so he whipped out a $1 bill and stuck it on the boss. Again Richard didn’t seem to have much difficulty hitting it, nor did his father. I struggled at first but then managed to hit it a couple of times but Richard was impressed that my clusters were actually quite consistent.

I haven’t had so much fun in ages. Richard is taking me to a medieval fair this weekend, and possibly to a woodland shoot in December which I’m really looking forward to. Like anything else though, any activity is made all the more enjoyable by the people your with … and these guys are amongst the best … so thanks Rich! ;-)

Song: Follow Me

Music by J. Rodrigo, lyrics by H. Kretzmer/H. Shaper
Ediciones Joaquin Rodrigo, Madrid

Follow me to a land across the shining sea
Waiting beyond the world we have known
Beyond the world the dream could be
And the joy we have tasted.

Follow me along the road that only love can see
Rising above the fun years of the night
Into the light beyond the tears
And all the years we have wasted.

Follow me to a distant land this mountain high
Where all the music that we always kept inside will fill the sky
Singing in the silent swerve a heart is free
While the world goes on turning and turning
Turning and falling.

Follow me to a distant land this mountain high
Where all the music that we always kept inside will fill the sky
Singing in the silent swerve a heart is free
While the world goes on turning and turning
Turning and falling

Follow me...
Follow me...