Rob O'Connor

Academic/Geek/Musician/DJ/Eejit

The Alien Overlords

Throughout 2023, I somehow became involved with a bunch of green-skinned extra-terrestrial musicians*. ‘The Alien Overlords’ claim to be one of the most successful musical acts in the galaxy and they approached me on “how to break into the lucrative music market on Earth” (their words). Despite my surprise at being spoken to by visitors from another world, I calmly explained there wasn’t much money in music on this planet. But they persisted … I have no idea why aliens would want human money – your guess is as good as mine. They threatened to melt my brain if I didn’t help. I’m quite fond of my brain, so did as I was told.

Zargon threatened to melt my brain

The aliens performed a couple of shows over the year, starting off with their leader Zargon featuring in the Dublin St, Patrick’s Day parade in March. After that, they disappeared for a while (probably conducting anal probes or something) but returned for the Spraoi festival in Waterford over the August Bank Holiday weekend.

He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands

The Overlords played a few shows on the streets and Zargon once again joined in the parade as it meandered through Waterford. After some more threats from the aliens, I helped get their song ‘Zorbareeno’ onto Earth’s music streaming platforms. They insist it’s been a huge hit across several star systems, but I don’t believe them. Truth be told, the song seems rather silly. The lyrics just sound like alien gibberish to me. Zargon says my puny human mind is too primitive to understand the fractal beauty of alien poetry, but I think he’s just bullshitting me. However, I don’t want him to melt my brain so I’m not getting in a big argument with him (or her, I don’t understand the gender identities of these aliens)

Zorbareeno – The Alien Overlords

After the summer, the Alien Overlords flew off in their spaceship again – the stars their destination. One of them (the “brass” alien) took a load of cats with him as he says they’re a delicacy on his planet. Aliens – what can you do?!

Should the Alien Overlords return, I hope they bother someone else and leave me alone. However, Zargon left a strange looking device with me and said he would get in contact if the need arises.

If you’re feeling somewhat masochistic, you can listen to ‘Zorbareeno’ on Spotify, Apple Music or any of the other music platforms.

* this entire piece may be a pack of lies

In Praise of Free Spaces

I began writing this piece at Schiphol airport in The Netherlands, having spent a week in the city of Groningen and its surroundings. I’ve only visited the country once before (summer 2019) and after two trips I’ve arrived at the conclusion that there’s something the Dutch do very well – free public spaces. This is on top of sustainable transport, an integrated canal network and a mastery of languages. In The Netherlands, it seems they’re quite content for you to loiter, with no intent.

During this week-long trip with the family, there were plenty of beautiful places where we rocked up and felt no pressure to buy anything. Just enjoy the physical space at our leisure. On one cycling trip, we arrived at a campsite, with a picnic in our backpacks. The people running the campsite seemed very happy to direct us to a picnic area, overlooking the lake. There was no issue using the toilets in the bar, even though we didn’t purchase a thing.

The city centre of Groningen is full of free public spaces. The main town square (Grote Markt) is a large civic amenity that seemed to be used by a variety of groups (including students) during our visit. However, it’s The Forum cultural centre that really stands out! The Forum in Groningen is an amazing and unusual building in itself – lots of angles and lines. I know almost nothing about architecture, but it’s pretty cool to look at and I’m sure architecture-enthusiasts could tell me why.

Spread over ten floors, it houses a library, museum, cinema and exhibition space, as well as cafés, restaurant and a few shops. I first visited it one day that my wife and elder daughters were wandering round the boutiques of Groningen. Browsing around clothes stores is one of my least favourite activities. Our youngest also hates this, with the honest passion only an 8 year old can articulate. To let the girls off, Stella (8) and I walked over to the Forum and hung around for TWO hours without spending a penny. She tried out their stop-motion animation station, while I plonked myself on one of their many comfortable seats and read my book.

Stella at The Forum. Shot with Dutch angle

Two days later, something similar happened, but I had two children with me. This time, we rode the escalator to the fifth (or sixth?) floor. The girls sat at another animation station and watched some classic shorts, while again I appreciated reading my book. There are things to buy and exhibitions you can purchase a ticket for in the Forum – but there’s plenty that carry no charge. After a while, I bought a coffee (a very nice one for €3) though I felt no pressure to do so. I just fancied a coffee. What an amazing amenity to enjoy without having to spend money. To cap it all off (literally), the top floor of the Forum contains a rooftop terrace where anyone can experience a spectacular view of the whole city. For free.

In case you’re thinking that this chap is a miser – I’m quite happy to spend money! We visited The Forum again as a whole family and paid for the “Disney – Telling Timeless Stories” and “Storyworld: comics, animation and games” exhibitions. I’m lucky enough that we can afford luxuries like this. However, I’m mindful that’s not the situation for all people and everyone should be able to appreciate nice spaces, regardless of how much someone earns.

Two-Face model from Batman The Animated Series (on display at The Forum)

There were plenty of other “free” Dutch spaces, but The Forum is the best example we encountered on this trip. Of course, we have places like this in Ireland. Many of the national museums are free to visit, but it’s the public libraries that really come to mind. Libraries in the 2020s are vastly different places from the ones I remember from 1980s Ireland. They’re welcoming, inclusive spaces, filled with a wide selection of reading materials: books, newspapers, graphics novels, magazines, audiobooks and more. The excellent library service in Waterford also has other facilities, such as a podcast studio, 3D printer and of course, a study area. In my experience, the libraries are one of the few places in city centres that have toilet facilities. I found this to be particularly valuable when my children were small. Libraries in Ireland are also free! They also have electronic services such as eBooks and audiobook downloads via the BorrowBox app. If you’re not a member, you’re missing out.

Hanging around shouldn’t always be a commercial activity. It turns basic existence into a transactional prospect. I’m not suggesting that every pub, café, etc should open their facilities for all-and-sundry to use without buying anything. They’re private businesses and I understand that they have to make money. I’m writing about “public” spaces that are open for everyone. These are often funded via the central government. I am 100% in favour of this. Spend collective money on places that all can enjoy. Everyone’s a winner.

I’m finishing up this piece while tapping on my iPad in John Robert’s Square, in the heart of City Centre Waterford. I’m surrounded by shoppers, delivery drivers, street vendors, buskers, beggars and there’s even a few god-botherers. Mostly, it’s people walking from one place to another. As I sit on a black marble bench, I have a clear view of a handsome old tree, with cartoon eyes placed within its branches. It’s almost as if it’s looking back at me. There’s a coffee kiosk about 100m away. I might buy a cup and sit another while; but I don’t have to – that’s the beauty.

Using an iPad for Work Travel: Replacing My Laptop For Ten Days 

Questions like “can an iPad replace my laptop?” are often asked. iPads are pretty powerful machines and the availability of a huge selection of apps makes them an attractive option. While some believe it’s definitely possible, others think tablets aren’t quite there yet.

My everyday machine is a 2019 MacBook Pro. It’s a proper workhorse for my daily tasks – audio recording/editing, coding, preparing presentations, documents, spreadsheets, etc, as well as the usual work communications stuff. Recently, an iPad Air (5th Generation M1 chip – review) became part of my technological arsenal. In May, I had a work trip coming up which would involve three flights and numerous bus and train journeys. Travelling as light as possible was a priority. While abroad, it would be mostly Office and communications applications I’d use – did I need to bring the MacBook? Perhaps the iPad could replace the laptop for a limited time? 

My trip involved travelling from Ireland to Toronto, attending and presenting at an academic conference. After that, I’d be heading south to cross the Canadian/US border at Niagara Falls to join an Erasmus+ meeting in New York State. I’d have a weekend to myself in New York City afterwards, before flying home early the following week. I was pretty certain I could do all this on the iPad, so why not put it to the test?

Crossing at Niagara Falls. I swear Superman just flew by …

The most striking thing about the iPad (with the Magic keyboard) is just how light it weighs and how little space it takes up. I’ve read some criticisms of the device with respect to portability, but those just don’t resonate with me. The Magic Keyboard itself is very comfortable for typing and greatly increases the usability of the machine. I didn’t really use the trackpad much, but I could imagine plenty of situations where it’d be handy (e.g. Photoshop). The USB-C interface was brilliant, and in my opinion, Apple should retire the Lightning port across its entire device lineup. Via a dongle, I was easily able to connect a bog-standard USB memory stick for copying files. I didn’t use it to connect to an external HDMI monitor, but it’s not difficulty to see how that would extremely useful.

The iPad fit neatly onto the tray of the Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Toronto. It was effortless to carry around in my backpack once I landed and very easy to whip out for a bit of work at any desk or table at a café. It didn’t look out of place on a bar top either! The battery life was excellent and simple to charge via mains electricity, USB ports or a battery pack.

A neat little machine

In terms of applications, I was mainly using: 

  • Outlook for emails 
  • the various applications in the Microsoft Office365 suite 
  • Keynote for my presentation at the conference
  • Slack/Teams for communications
  • WordPress for some minor website editing 

Since all my files are saved on either OneDrive or Dropbox, I didn’t face any storage issues. For browsing, Safari is my go-to app, and the likes of YouTube, Disney+, etc were handy for a bit of entertainment. On the flight over, I started playing the addictive strategy game Into The Breach. I know the game is years old, but I never had time to play it before. Into The Breach has become my new just-one-more-turn obsession and I’ll be damned if I don’t condemn The Vek to oblivion!

At the conference, the iPad was perfect for taking notes, editing my presentation and keeping in touch with colleagues in SETU. Once I travelled to New York, it handled the Erasmus+ meeting easily (again taking notes, writing documents, etc). One morning in New York, I had to attend an online exam meeting from SETU. The session was at 6.30am New York time. This was too early for the office I could access, but I found a beautiful spot on the grounds of Columbia University, connected to the global Eduroam network and easily joined the Teams session. The split-screen feature on iPadOS was perfect for this situation, with Teams on one half of the screen and the ability to mark up PDFs with the Apple Pencil on the other. My backdrop was the Columbia library – famous among nerds like me as the location from the start of Ghostbusters.

I ain’t afraid of no ghost …

Nearly 20 years ago, I travelled quite extensively around continental Europe as I worked on EU-funded research projects. Back then, a ridiculously large Dell laptop was my everyday machine. It was quite powerful in terms of processing – but absolutely USELESS in terms of portability. It was too large for an airplane seat tray, barely fit in my backpack and weighed a tonne (^ not an actual tonne). To say that devices have become more portable in the intervening period would be an understatement! Back then, WiFi connectivity was still a novelty and battery life was rubbish. There’s a Grand Canyon of a difference between using an iPad Air in 2023 and that Dell machine in the mid noughties. (not ragging on Dell – their newer machines are obviously much more portable, but that’s my point of reference.)

Circling back around to find out if the initial question – could the iPad permanently replace my laptop? Well, not entirely – for audio recording/editing*, I can’t see my workflows transferring easily to the iPad. Applications like Xcode, VSCode and Android Studio aren’t available for the iPad. However, when it comes to “light” work, the iPad was an absolute joy. Unless specific software is necessary, I can’t imagine myself ever travelling with a laptop again. I hate to be overly gushing about a piece of technology, but Apple have really hit a sweet spot with this machine. If you have the budget and the need, the iPad Air (5th Gen) with the Magic Keyboard is a smashing bit of kit.

Now, I’ll just have another quick round of Into The Breach …

* Apple have recently announced an iPadOS version of Logic X and the initial reviews are quite positive, so what do I know?! I haven’t tried it yet.

Creating a Deaf-accessible Podcast

This week I’ll be travelling to Toronto to attend and present at the ICA 2023 Preconference 20 Years of Podcasting: Mapping the Contours of Podcast Studies. I’m very much looking forward to this as it’s the first in-person conference I’ll have been at in years.

At the conference, I’ll be talking about a special episode of 9plus, which we attempted to make as accessible as possible for a Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing (DHH) audience. This came from a conversation with SETU researcher Una Kealy and Kate McCarthy, who really initiated the push towards accessibility.

The subject of this podcast episode was their project Lyrical Bodies, which is all to do with Waterford playwright and author Teresa Deevy. Important point – Deevy was deaf. The project includes a collaboration with the Dublin Theatre of the Deaf and Una and Kate wanted to ensure any materials produced as part of the project would be accessible to their stakeholders. The podcast involved a conversation between me, Una, Kate and another project partner Jenny O’Connor [full disclosure – Jenny and I are married]

I would love to say that this arose from some sort of altruistic intention on my part to adhere to UDL guidelines with the podcast, but the attempt came from a suggestion by Una and Kate. I’ll be 100% honest – DHH accessibility was not something I had considered before this, much to my own shame. I researched the subject as best I could and fudged together an attempt at making the podcast more inclusive.

At the conference next week, I’ll be talking about what we did and how we did it. I will refer to a number of artefacts that are linked here:

The regular audio version of the podcast is available on all the usual podcast platforms. Here’s a podfollow link to the specific episode.

A text transcription of the conversation is available here

Finally, there are two video versions of the podcast (both hosted on YouTube). The first contains a video with captions:

The second version is a video of the podcast with Irish Sign Language (ISL) translation, provided by Caoimhe Coburn-Grey:

I plan on recording a version of the presentation after the event (being selfish – it’s so I don’t forget what I said!) If you’re interested in some of the background research, I’ll have a full bibliography in the presentation, but I recommend reading these to get going:

Five Podcasts to Help You Learn About Computing & Technology

I learn a lot from listening. There’s nothing profound in that short sentence – it’s a pretty obvious statement actually. Whether through real-life conversations, radio programmes or podcasts, I’ve always found audio to be a fantastic medium through which information can be absorbed. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a new student, a seasoned professional or somewhere in between – everyone can learn something new every day.

Staying on top of technology and computing news can be daunting. Things change constantly and new developments are always on the horizon. The life-cycle of new technologies can be incredibly short – sometimes things can go from being novel and exciting to discontinued incredibly quickly (here’s looking at you Quibi)

With that in mind, here are five recommendations of technology podcasts you can digest in your own time to help you navigate the technology currents and stay afloat. Hopefully you might enjoy these while out for a walk, cleaning up the kitchen, sitting on a bus or wherever you listen to audio. There’s no shortage of tech podcasts available, but these are one I regularly listen to, so can personally vouch for their high quality.

The VergeCast

The flagship tech podcast from the Vox media group (their words!). Hosted by Nilay Patel and Dieter Bohn (with a revolving cast of side characters), this weekly podcast takes a wry and irreverent look at computing and gadget news. Episodes typically last 1hr 15mins in duration, though they often go past the 1hr 30 mark. It’s always divided up into chunks though, so if you just want to hear them review the latest phone or tech gadget, you can usually skip the first 30 minutes.

ReplyAll

A beast in the world of technology podcasts. Produced by Gimlet Media, ReplyAll has been going since 2014. They mostly cover internet technologies, but always from a human angle. Hosts Alex Goldman and Emmanuel Dzotsi are total pros and are always easy to listen to. Since they have such a huge archive, the producers have created a handy “New Listeners” guide, highlighting some of the best jumping off points. Episode 79 (Boy in the Photo) is particularly good. There’s an element of mystery to that one, so I’ll say nothing and let you experience it spoiler-free.

Upgrade/Clockwise

OK, this is two podcasts rather than one, but they’re from the same gene pool, both produced by Relay FM. If you want to get a handle on the latest gadgets, apps and services, these are well worth a listen. Clockwise’s format is where the 4 person panel discuss 4 tech topics in 30 minutes. It definitely has a very American feel and they tend to focus on the Apple ecosystem a lot. If you’re busy, this is definitely the one to check out (I usually catch Clockwise each week).

Upgrade is a deeper dive covering similar topics and episodes can last up to 90 minutes. They’re both well produced and easy to listen to, whatever your own level of technical knowledge. 

If I was to make a criticism, it’d be that there’s a lot of faffing about at the start of episodes – the radio producer part of my brain wants them to cut the waffle and get to the good stuff earlier. However, this seems to be a feature of many podcasts and Relay FM aren’t alone here.

The Digital Human

The Digital Human is a BBC Radio 4 production that discusses social aspects of techno-culture. Aleks Krotoski (PhD) and the production team usually take an abstract topic and explore how it is impacted by technology. For example, one memorable episode explored the concept of “getting lost” and how mapping technology has removed the random factors of wandering around a new city, trying to find a place of interest. If you’re following a line on a screen, you’re not looking around you and perhaps missing some unexpected gems. I absolutely ADORE this series as it prompts me to question technology from different perspectives.

One of my all time favourite episodes of The Digital Human was ‘Devotion’ about TempleOS which unexpectedly turned into a mini-thesis on operating systems, religion and the divine elegance of good design: 

“When a homeless man was killed by a train on 11/08/18 in The Dalles, Oregon, no-one realised how many people it would effect. He was Terry Davis, and he was on a mission from God.”

The Digital Human is produced in series batches and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. However, most listeners outside the UK (such as me!) will enjoy it as a podcast on BBC Sounds or their preferred podcast app.

The Machine

Naturally, when recommending tech podcasts, I’d include our own one, geared specifically towards computer science education! The Machine is produced internally in WIT, where a bunch of faculty members (hosted by yours truly) discuss topics related to computing and technology, such as programming, AI, Big Data, etc. The conversations are targeted at tech novices, so we don’t assume a huge amount of prior knowledge before listening. That said, we also seem to have a decent audience amongst technology professionals, so hopefully that means the conversations are both accessible and reasonably deep. 

The Machine is a bit sporadic in its output as everyone contributes to this in their spare time. We aim to release six episodes per semester, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Last year, more episodes than expected were produced, whereas we’re behind this year. Can I still blame the global pandemic??? 😜

The Machine is available on pretty much every podcast platform. It probably the best tech podcast produced at 3rd Level in Ireland (I may be biased in my pronouncement)

Pop In Those Earbuds

All of these are pretty much general purpose computing podcasts. If you need something that’s a bit more focussed or specific to a technology, there’s probably a podcast for that too. For example, when I was first learning Kotlin a few years back, I found JetBrain’s Talking Kotlin podcast very useful, but you’re really getting into niche listening there. 

Obviously, these podcasts are not meant as a substitute for real-life conversations, but we don’t always have fellow geeks around to talk tech in person. Next time you’re alone and seeking some brain food of the technology variety, pop in those earbuds and give one of these podcasts a whirl. If you find any of these worthwhile or have any recommendations yourself, I’d love to hear about it – drop me a line on Twitter @roboconnor_irl

Updates

I haven’t posted in a while as I’ve been busy – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

I have been keep the MixCloud updated each week with every Irish Beats radio show, so if you want to have a listen to some of the latest and greatest in homegrown music, fill yer ears! The shows from the last two weeks are particularly interesting as they spotlight 18 acts from the South East whom I think are worth checking out. There’s a short feature on each on and one of their latest tracks.

Beyond that, I’m conducting some research in podcasting and trying to get another music project finished, whilst also experiencing home renovations. First world problems …

Irish Beats 23rd May 2021

Your weekly helping of fresh Irish music! All Tvvins, Saige, Amerik, James Vincent McMorrow, Moxie and more! My guests in the virtual studio were Steve Wall and Simon O’Reilly, chatting about their new track ‘Rise With The Sun.’ It was mighty craic talking with the lads, learning how they created their track using WhatsApp and Dropbox. Full playlist after the jump.

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Falling Down a Pi-hole

As part of a 4th year module, some students and I performed some test on Pi-hole, a network level ad blocker for your LAN. We wrote a short article about the experience and published it on Medium.

You’ll find the original piece here, but I’ll copy it after the jump to keep things handy for myself on the blog! Written by Andrew Brennan, Gianluca Zuccarelli and myself (they did most of the work BTW!)

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Irish Beats 2nd May 2021

For the Bank Holiday weekend, I decided to host a mini music festival on Irish Beats, playing an hour of live performances from stages big and small. The line-up included The Academic, when young, The Frames, Cathy Davey, Alex Gough, Wallis Bird, U2 and more! Of course, that was after a collection of fresh bangers from Anim, Wild Youth, The X Collective, Bantum and Soda Blonde. Lots to wrap your ears around!

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Irish Beats 25th April 2021

Plenty of new sounds to get your ears around on Irish Beats this week. Played stuff from Imelda May’s chart-topping album, Villagers’ new one and many more. Lots of guitars on the show this evening for some reason. Perhaps it’s the influence of my guest Dara Quilty from the band Apella. Who knows?!

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