November 2003 Archives
November 29, 2003
Bit of a git, this: some bizarre/wonderful/baffling/amusing/etc things have happened this week, about which I want to blog, but I'm too deeply enmeshed in How2 scrips to do them justice. They'll have to wait, but meanwhile here's a bit of a taster:
This week, I've been sent pictures of hedges, and a mysterious/anonymous postcard of a camel, attached to which is a newspaper headline about assault with fish. One of the correspondents may be miffed at being out-weirded by the other, though I'm not sure which way round that works.
Today, I built a large lifting gantry with multiple pulley blocks. It nearly worked. Then a chap from Glasgow Science Centre and I fired potatoes into a bucket of flour. This was fun. Yesterday, we were mostly carving 'amusing' animals out of hot dogs. My correspondents (see above) have some way to go.
One friend/colleague has been offered a terrific job: I'm delighted for him. However, this drops me in the schtuck for my next job, since the terrific job isn't the one I'd offered him. Said friend/colleague (henceforth called 'Gavin,' for shorthand. And also because that's his name) is, unfortunately, rather difficult to replace. Imagine my surprise, then, when a chap I very vaguely know of rang me to see if I had any work going: it transpires he's exactly the person I'm looking for, and this is exactly the job he's looking for. Bonus.
Digital cameras are not only fun, they're terrific tools. I should have bought one years ago. I still should.
The gradual manner in which John is revealing his latest endeavour is particularly pleasing: in the morass of information immediacy that is the web, the measured pace is refreshing. I want to see how the story ends, but I want the steady lifting of veils to continue.
Scripts. Tomorrow: rehearsal. Tuesday: Studio.
November 28, 2003
Time to configure Netgear DG834G wireless firewalling ADSL router: three minutes. Required information: username and password for Pipex - everything else autodiscovered. Setting changes made: temporarily disabled WiFi.
Time to configure Mac: thirty seconds.
Time to configure WinXP PC: about twenty minutes, struggling to work out what the heck it wanted me to do in the control panel until discovering that yanking the cable out of the network card and shoving it back in again suddenly made the DHCP thingy pick up the information the router was merrily throwing at it. [sigh]
Anyway, happy now. I no longer have to rely on the (noisy, unreliable, badly-firewalled) PC for broadband routing - it's all going through a nice shiny silver box instead.
Er... categories, Jonathan. Must add categories... then a version of the front page without the 'geek' entries...
USB Christmas Tree, here. Mercifully, I'm saved from embarrassing myself by the phrase 'no international customers.'
November 24, 2003
When I see a headline like this: "Red sea urchin 'almost immortal'", I assume it's another case of a duff journo being sloppy with his language. 'Almost immortal' being an oxymoron, and all.
But no, it turns out that the line is a sub-edited quote from one of the scientists involved in studying the 'practically immortal' red sea urchin. Gee, I've real faith in that research.
November 23, 2003
Wow. Terragen may not have the glossy interface of Bryce, but the output is [cough] pretty good.
November 22, 2003
The Sydney Morning Herald is so excited about the World Cup, they've posted the same story three times. On the same page.
November 21, 2003
Some of those who know me know also a friend/colleague of mine who used to work in Leeds, and is now in Glasgow. Yes, that's exactly who I'm talking about.
If I say the words 'Pudsey Bear' and 'costume'... yup, you're already on the floor laughing.
Yes, he is. Friday night. BBC Scotland.
Good luck, mate.
A couple of days ago, somebody gave me an organisational problem without an obvious solution. This morning I had a thought that may give me a way around it; tonight I found myself saying 'I haven't solved the problem yet, but I may have a way of recasting it such that it's more readily solvable.'
I don't recall using that particular turn of phrase since I was an undergrad. 'Non-trivial' I use... actually, I over-use. And there are several other Cambridge-induced phrasings that still wheedle their way into, if not daily, perhaps monthly life. But this is one I've not called on for many a moon.
Welcome back, old friend.
November 19, 2003
Cripes. I'm writing a script about using the X-Plane flight simulator to explore Mars from the comfort of your bedroom. Yes, it has a full terrain map - cool, huh?
Anyway, I wrote a wrap-up line, in standard hyperbole style:
So that’s how you can explore Mars in your bedroom – and if you ever go there in person, you’ll know what to expect.
Only after I'd written it did I realise that some of the viewers of this show actually might go to Mars. You've got to consider it at least somewhat possible within the next thirty years, and seven year-olds now - well, they'd be bang in the right demographic.
Now there's a thought. Sometimes I forget that I grew up watching Johnny Ball and How, and owe a considerable fraction of my enthusiasm for science and engineering to them. Kids today have got... er... the shows I make. Sure, there are lots of hands-on centres and all that - but in terms of reach, well... blimey, that's sobering.
Perhaps it's better that I don't quite grasp this. I kinda wish I hadn't heard Jamelia on the Radio 1 Chart Show the other week saying how much she liked the show, you know?
November 17, 2003
As if Exposé hadn't already convinced us that a system-wide hardware accelerated GUI is a Seriously Good Thing, The IconFactory's latest gizmo xScope hammers home the point that systemwide transparency support is Oh So Ludicrously Cool. We've seen on-screen rulers before, but this is ridiculous.
Mac users: download, play, join me in wishing you had a big web design project to do just so you could use this stuff in anger. Windows users: sorry, you'll have to wait for Longhorn in 2006 or so before you get things like this.
Was that smug? That sounded a little smug. Sorry.
November 16, 2003
Police Squad: the Zucker Brothers' seminal early TV series that introduced Leslie Neilson's comic masterpiece Lt. Frank Drebbin. Everyone remembers it, despite there only having been six episodes (yes, really), and despite it having bombed massively when first shown.
Strangely, pretty much nobody remembers Sledge Hammer, despite it having been a considerable success in its day. Essentially a Dirty Harry pastiche, the series presented a terrific counterbalance to Miami Vice and all the other tacky 80s cop shows, in a way that nothing else did until McG's Fastlane. Which, ironically, appears to have failed because people thought it was trying to be serious.
Apple get the little things right so often, it's rather a shock when they mess up. Like, for example, the occasion I recently had to have my .mac account password sent to my email address, and this happened:
The trouble with desktop video is this: one hour of DV footage is a little over 13Gb of data. Compounding this peril is that, in my experience, captured video sits around for a few weeks or months before one has the time and inclination to do something with it. Which adds up to a curious repeating computing experience: whereas, ten years ago, one could never find a floppy disk with a spare 50 Kb on it, today one can never find a hard drive with a spare 50Gb.
Last night I ripped apart my chum Mike's stricken iMac and tore out the brand-new 80Gb drive I'd fitted in a last-ditch effort to make it believe it actually had a boot device. Said Seagate is now crammed into a cheap and cheerful (and surprisingly elegant) case from the local bucket PC shop, who seemed mildly offended that they had Mac-compatible FireWire peripherals on their shelves. It's been on all night copying files from my PC (which seems to run more and more slowly each day), and astonishingly hasn't burst into flames yet, which round these part constitutes 'production-ready.'
So now my Mac has 140Gb storage internally, and up to about another 170Gb externally, if I turn everything on. So, of course, I've filled another 30Gb by capturing footage from Steve and Amanda's wedding, and now all my drives are full again.
November 15, 2003
Ms Bsag writes of a phenomenon that reflects not so much the poor standard of service in British shops, as the complete lack of service in, in particular, electrical retailers.
I have, on occasion, found myself standing in Comet/Currys/Dixons/PowerHouse/wherever, waving a product above my head in a vain attempt to attract attention. Only three weeks ago I found myself shouting down a store 'Would anybody be interested in selling me a fridge?' Because obviously, standing in the fridge section staring at the assistants wasn't good enough: neither was standing on one of the fridges, apparently.
One tactic I've not yet tried, but to which I may resort, is to walk out slowly brandishing the display item, saying loudly and clearly 'I'm going to walk out of the shop now, with this. If anybody would like to stop me I'd be delighted, because then I might be able to pay for it. Otherwise I'm just going to assume you can't be bothered to take my money, and I'll consider this a gift. No? I'm at the exit now, about to walk out with something I'd like to pay for, but apparently can't. Good day to you then.'
If anybody tries this technique, please do keep us informed of the results.
November 11, 2003
Well that's a relief. deletetheweb.com expires in four days, and I just remembered to renew it - which is just as well, since about seven or eight people are now using it as a blog & stuff hosting service. Which is fun. But they might not have liked me if I'd accidentally nuked all their sites.
While I'm on the subject of housekeeping - John Coombes has a new blog to chronicle his latest project: The Unstuck Diaries. A couple of other people have also joined the deletetheweb 'community' (sic), but they don't yet seem quite ready to go public.
John Gruber notices something I was wondering about too, only he notices in more detail: text rendering really is better in Mac OS X 10.3 Panther. Distinctly sharper, but just as smooth. Which ought to be impossible, but isn't, apparently.
November 10, 2003
Jonathan Sanderson - Municipal Waste Disposal Site Tour 2003:
- Nov 8th - Polmadie Civic Amenity Site, Glasgow
- Nov 9th - Meanwood Road Waste Sorting Centre, Leeds
November 7, 2003
When the brave new future of intelligent machines and smart materials finally dawns, one of the things I'd like to see early on is this: a Swiss Army knife that works out what tool you're most likely to be reaching for, and re-arranges its own internals so it's that way around by the time you pick it up.
I mention this because of a curious situation with a Leatherman tool in my possession. It's a pretty thing, with useful pliers, a moderately large blade, and - crucially - a corkscrew. But somehow, every time I pick it up to use one of these things, I instead proceed to open up the scissors.
I've had it two years. You'd have thought I'd have learned its various orientations by now, but apparently not. Scissors. Every time. If I throw it in the air so it tumbles, catch it, and open the thing to hand - scissors. Statistically, this doesn't seem possible. Perhaps smart materials are already with us, only they're a bit stroppy.
Speaking from recent but intense experience: supposing you, gentle reader, were to have a burglar alarm fitted. I would urge you not to place it on the same mains circuit as a mains/battery-backed smoke detector. Particularly if said detector is so massively over-sensitive as to mistake the merest whiff of the word 'grill' for a major incident requiring the attention of five appliances, thus rendering it imperative to disable said detector when preparing, say, a bowl of cornflakes. And especially if said burglar alarm is of a type that crashes and resets itself when in a low-power state, refusing all attempts to communicate with it via the keypad.
My neighbours must hate me. And the only phone number on the (dreadfully-written and incomplete) alarm manual is now 'not recognised.'
November 4, 2003
- Turn the toaster off.
- Turn the kitchen fan on, and close the door behind you as you leave.
- Move the boxes away from the hall cupboard door. This may take some time.
- Enter the hall cupboard backwards, turning on the light, then reach above you and open the cover over the electricity breaker switch box.
- Turn the 'smoke alarm' breaker off.
- Return to the kitchen and butter the only very slightly-charred toast.
- Notice the secondary alarm.
- Attempt to locate secondary alarm.
- Notice that the normally-flashing light on the alarm panel is no longer flashing. Become suspicious.
- Open hall cupboard again. By tactile inspection, locate the specific box that's making horrid noises.
- Inspect that box for an 'off' switch. There is none, but check anyway.
- Return to kitchen. Move around bottles etc on counter to allow access to the 'I'll never need this stuff' drawer. Leaf through for alarm booklet.
- Catch the little slip of paper bearing the alarm code, preferably before it falls on the buttered toast.
- Enter code into alarm panel. This may require additional movement of boxes.
- Complete toast/marmalade connection: begin to enjoy toast and tea.
- Notice secondary alarm has restarted.
- [optional: in the event of insufficient toast smoke clearance (impossible to judge, since this level of toast smoke is discernible only to the smoke detector), the only option is to decide which of the alarm 'low battery' and smoke detector 'major conflagration' alarms is least objectionable.]
- [optional: in the even of sufficient toast smoke clearance, turn the smoke detector back on, then reset the alarm panel again.]
- In the even that not all alarms are now silenced, we recommend immediate evacuation, since in all likelihood the building is either burning down or being burgled.
Have a nice day.
November 3, 2003
...or, 'I've been to Asda, and now my store-cupboards are full.'
I've just found a slide. I've been looking for it for about, oh, I don't know, maybe three years.
It was taken in Malaysia in 1989, on a quick trip across the causeway from Singapore while en-route to Sydney for a summer school. It's a photograph of three kids, standing excitedly on the stilted walkways of Kukup, a little fishing/tourist village that to western eyes is unbelievably romantic. Two boys are gleefully waving scraps of paper into the lens, one bolder than the other: a girl hangs back, hiding a coy smile behind her hand.
The scraps of paper read 'Please will you send me some stamps OK Thankyou,' with an address. Stamp-collecting was, it seems, a huge craze at the time. I still have the scrap of paper, but the slide had gone missing. It's a little dark and the composition is borderline, but it's still the best picture I've taken: as soon as funds permit, I shall have it printed up.
I wonder what happened to the kids, when the parcel of obscure old stamps we sent them turned up, out of the blue, months later. Heh. Treasure!
Note to self: it's on the hall shelves, ya numbskull.
No, I'm far less worried about internet streaming video than I am by this sort of thing. If Star Wars Galaxies had actually been any good...
Incidentally, two or three years ago I (fairly) seriously suggested making a documentary on the development process of Star Wars Galaxies. Partly because, like everyone else, I guessed it might be when massively-multiplayer gaming 'crossed over' from geekdom into the mainstream (it wasn't, but not by much) - but also because, when something finally does, I think there's a market for in-game journalism. And being around during the dev process struck me as a likely way of putting oneself in the right place at the right time.
More recently I played Eve:Online for a while. It's stunning in many ways - not least the banging-head-against-wall feeling of 'how could they have released it in this state?' And in the patched evolution of now, of course, the barrier to entry is massively high, and you'd have to play full-time for about a month for it to get fun again. Thanks, but no.
Sometime, somebody's going to get this stuff right. In Korea, they already did.
November 2, 2003
Geeky notes on low-cost streaming video, linked here for my own future reference.
It's curious that streaming video to a desktop computer, despite tiny, grainy frames, compression artefacts, badly-synced video and all the other baggage, is a wholly miraculous viewing experience. Now compare broadcast television, which does the same thing only with much better pictures (yes, despite PAL and NTSC being horrible - SECAM too if you happen to be French), minimal latency, multi-channel sound and a rock-solid frame rate, wirelessly.
Every now and then the idea of doing simultaneous net streams crops up at work, in connection with some mooted project or other. Every time, I find myself asking the producer/development researcher/exec/marketing bod/technology guru/whoever why we, a television company, would want to pay hundreds to thousands of pounds to allow dozens to hundreds of viewers to watch our output. We measure audiences in tens of thousands, not hundreds!
Not that I think streaming media is a bad thing. Far from it, I think it's a terrific tool, and I greatly admire the sort of thing Clive James is doing with it (though that's off-air at the moment, sadly). Also, there are several projects on the horizon where I can see myself rigging streaming into the format. A year ago, giving a presenter or actor a handheld pad-type prop which showed live streaming video would have been a nasty post-production effects job. Now, it's quite cheap. In fact, the only link in the chain I don't already own is the TabletPC, which - if they continue to sell so badly they're dumped as clearance stock - wouldn't be expensive.
No, streaming media really is cool, both as tech and as a concept. The problem is, TV has been doing it for decades already, and another transmission system doesn't much help us at this point. There are two implications: for now, streaming is a fascinating little niche, and I expect to see all manner of clever projects taking advantage of it, but I don't expect them to be commercial projects. Secondly, when bandwidth costs fall by - oh, say two orders of magnitude - the above analysis becomes entirely void.
We've already seen this with non-streaming video: early QuickTime was miraculous but utter rubbish, we all said as much. Ten years on, we're emailing lashed-together iMovies of our loved ones.