Economist opinion

I’m not sure what surprises me more: the Economist endorsing a US presidential candidate (Obama), or their use of the phrase ‘cack-handed’ in doing so:

“…the cack-handed way in which George Bush has prosecuted his war on terror has left America less feared by its enemies and less admired by its friends than it once was.”

But of course, one forgets that the Economist is a journal of vigour and style, of pragmatism and plain-speaking. It’s a terrific magazine; I frequently ponder switching my New Scientist subscription to it.

Anyway, the article’s worth reading for a blunt assessment of the challenges facing the next president. Bang on the money, I’d say.

Great writing.

Adieu, Mars Phoenix!

The Mars Phoenix lander is shutting down for the Martian winter. Since it may not wake next summer, it’s saying farewell on its twitter page.

I’ve loved following the mission via its updates into a corner of my screen, and I’ll miss its other-wordly tweets. Good night, far-flung friend. Sleep well.



Belfast Awayday

A couple of months ago I tried to buy a Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 lens, and failed miserably. Well, I failed to find one anywhere, subsequently found out about the forthcoming Nikon ƒ/1.4G, decided to wait, but somewhere along the way ended up with a Sigma 10-20mm zoom. Oops.

It’s a fabulous toy. Mad distort-o-vision if you’re not careful where you put peoples’ heads near the corners, but huge fun for ridiculous over-emphasis. I love it. I’m probably using it too much. It rocks.

Yay for crazy wide-angle lenses.

H.264 on Windows

As I noted a month or so ago, Microsoft are including H.264 video support in their Flash-competitor Silverlight 2, which means the format has made a clean sweep of transports… with one exception: Windows Media Player.

That logic hole is now set to be plugged: the Windows 7 preview Microsoft is showing at their developer conference this week includes a new version of Windows Media Player, and it handles H.264. Hallelujah.

Now we just have to wait for WMP v12 (!) to be finally released, and to trickle its way down to a sizable proportion of desktops. Then, finally, we’ll have one codec to rule them all.

Mind you, given Vista’s adoption rates, that could take another five years, even if Windows 7 ships on time in the middle of next year.

Meanwhile, Apple have publicly announced – or rather, are reported to have announced, but can I find the link right now? Can I monkeys – full support for AVCHD and Panasonic’s AVCCAM metadata extensions in a forthcoming release of Final Cut. It’s unclear, however, whether this will be a point update, or the presumed-rewrite-to-64-bit-Cocoa-and-Grand-Central Final Cut Studio 3 we’re all expecting sometime next year.

Fingers crossed for ‘both.’ I want my HMC151 support!


I’ve been roped into a project being run by a chum of mine, Alom Shaha: he’s making a short film exploring one central question: “Why is science important?” There’ll be more about this as he goes through the process, doubtless, but right now he’s collecting contributions for a website we’re building.

I asked him to see if he could get photos of the contributors – words on a screen are one thing, but a nice little mugshot reminds us that the words were written by real people, not some faceless Google-bot. So far, every contributor – all working scientists or science media folks, note – has sent a stylish, terribly professional portrait. All high-res and moody and arresting and personable and…

What? Is this something one just does these days: gets a bunch of head-shots done by a professional photographer? I thought only actors bothered, are we all supposed to be doing it now? Is this a London thing, and the nations & regions haven’t had the memo yet?

I’m baffled. And feeling rather left out. Also: wondering if this is really a direction I want science to go, where what we look like matters in addition to what we say and how we say it.

Meanwhile, I’m going to search my address book for top-notch make-up artists in Glasgow. If this is the game we’re all playing, I’m going to need all the help I can get.

Professional envy

(Sorry, it’s another geek post. Feel free to skip. I’ll post you another pretty picture shortly.)

In January – if things have gone well with SciCast – I’ll be needing some more processors. Last year I munged 100 films through my dual-core MacBook Pro; this year we’re expecting (hoping for?) rather more films, and the poor little laptop isn’t going to cope. Mac Pro ahoy.

Trouble is… we’re also due new Mac Pros. “Don’t Buy – Updates soon” shouts MacRumors. In bold red, no less. Then there are mutterings about new Apple desktops next Tuesday… or perhaps the following Tuesday… no wait, that’s Veteren’s Day… maybe Tuesday 18th.

OK, so the thing is: the next Intel processors are out on 17th. They’re called ‘Core i7‘ (don’t blame me, I don’t make this rubbish up). And they’re shaping up to be extremely spiffing for things like, oh, I don’t know – compressing video. That sort of thing. The sort of thing I’m going to be doing a lot of, come January.

Jackpot, right?

Well… no. This first bunch of Core i7 chips are two- or four-core units, but as far as I can tell they’re built exclusively for single-socket systems. That is: a maximum of four cores. Compare and contrast with the current Mac Pro, which packs two four-core chips.

My guess, therefore, is that we’ll see new iMacs on 18th, and either a new Mac mini or no mini at all (ie. end of line). The Mac Pro replacement, however, I expect will wait until MacWorld in January. Uh-oh.

MacWorld runs January 5th-9th, and for the end of that I’ll be in Reading running a stand at the ASE conference. So there’s a slim chance that new Pros will be announced on Monday 5th, will be ‘immediately available’, and that I thus might be able to get my hands on one during the week of 12th. Cutting it awfully fine, but…

Not going to happen, is it? They’re going to be announced in January, to ship in February. Bet you.

Oh, drat.

Thoughts on watching Heroes


  • First series: absolute blast.
  • Second series: pants.
  • Third series: oh, for heaven’s sake.

Some random thoughts follow – pairing them with specific events from a specific episode is left as an exercise for those with too much time on their hands.

  • Oh look. Somebody else who isn’t going to stay dead.
  • Wait – have we seen this before, or just another plotline that’s exactly the same?
  • Is this a flashback, or dèja vu?
  • He… does what now? And the instant change in character motivations is due to what, exactly? Heck, at this point I’d settle for ‘vaguely.’
  • Are they playing musical characters? Do they shuffle the parts for each episode to see which actor ends up playing which rôle? That would make sense of the characterisations, at least.
  • Is she playing Gigi Edgley playing Chiana on Farscape? Who else moves their head like that? (damn, that’s a geeky observation…)
  • “Heroes and Villains,” as a season title, is presumably a reference to characters being more interesting if they’re neither squeaky clean nor unrelievedly dark, but a shade of grey. It doesn’t mean that characters should be stripy.
  • When do the dinosaurs come in? We haven’t had proper monsters yet. We want monsters, dammit. The annoying doctor doesn’t count. Monsters don’t do voiceover. There’s a union rule about it.
  • Are they going to do a musical episode? Or one with no dialogue? Or a live one?
  • Ooh! Oooh! Are they going to do an entirely improvised show? Oh, wait – how could we tell?
  • A plot of the average number of lines per character per episode must closely parallel the arctic ice shelf thickness, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Sometimes I wish correlation implied causality, life would be simpler.

I start to wonder if Heroes is an exercise in Zen broadcasting: if the last episode turns out to be utterly fantastic, but by then nobody at all is watching, can it still win an Emmy?

The really interesting question, and one that’s going to keep people talking for years to come is: what happened? When the first series was so well-crafted, how could the subsequent shows be so so bad? Having dropped the ball, are they incapable of picking it up again, or was the first series some sort of bizarre extended fluke?