December 2004 Archives
December 24, 2004
Returning to torture us all, the magnificently obscure King William's College Quiz, once more care of the Guardian. On a first reading, I think I can get three, which from the sounds of the accompanying colour piece is downright dreadful. I am, however, particularly taken with the entire section on poisoners.
December 21, 2004
At various points in the past, I've followed some of the car forums on the web, and/or bought the magazines. I've mostly enjoyed them, but eventually I've found them all winding me up intensely. Why? Speed cameras.
Unless you're exposed to the steaming screeds, it's hard to understand just how much vitriol speed cameras engender in the motoring enthusiast. The merest mention, and correspondents will immediately turn bright red in the face as they go way off the deep end, leading to a corresponding backlash from people adopting the infuriatingly pious moral high-ground, followed by sniping and snapping and... eventually, somebody trots out some minor variation on the line:
"Speed doesn't kill. Bad driving kills."
And this, dear reader, is what drives me up the wall. It's one of those delightfully terse phrases that people appear willing to accept without question, and yet the argument it presents seems to me entirely fallacious.
Speed doesn't kill. Bad driving doesn't kill. What kills is hitting people with a car.
Both excessive speed and bad driving will increase the risk of hitting somebody, and excessive speed will also increase the risk of death following an impact. Risk does not imply causality, sure, but it's a good predictor.
I wonder if it's time to introduce a new subject in schools, that combines rhetoric with elementary logic and -- now here's radical -- basic statistics. Surely it would serve society if a greater proportion of it could identify fallacious arguments, construct valid statements, and understand the concepts of supporting evidence and proof of falsehood. There's a lot being said about how Science should be 'the fourth R', but I'm starting to think that it should be Argument. For most people, the scientific method is more useful than science itself.
December 20, 2004
Much as I love this, I fear I must moan: Honda have posted a delightful video of their ASIMO robot 'running.' (Streaming, probably Windows Media). As Jason Kottke notes, the walk/run transition is curiously charming, but I have a nit to pick. Surely, 'running' is a locomotion mode in which, for a substantial portion of the cycle, both feet are clear of the ground?
Unless I'm wrong -- and it's hard to be certain since I can't frame-step the movie -- ASIMO is not 'running' in this clip, it's merely walking more quickly. Still impressive, but not running. Not yet.
December 19, 2004
What happened today? Lunch with Martin, Kevin and Matt chez North Star, a charming little cafe near the BBC which appears to have over-ordered chorizo. At least, it seemed to be in everything on the menu with the possible (but unverified) exception of the lemon drizzle cake. Then back home to fiddle with Colin's weblog, now (a.) running MT3 rather than WordPress (big thanks to PapaScott for the export script), and (b.) really ugly again. Hmm. More fiddling ahead, I fear. Along with training the poor chap to export scaled-down piccies from iPhoto.
This evening, back over to Matt's for very fine chow (from Chow, natch) and Y Tu Mamá También. I'd love to know from a native Spanish-speaker if the ensemble cast really are as bravura as they appear; the camerawork most certainly is; story a tad trite but charming nevertheless; "Sex/Nudity: some, strong" may well be the BBFC's idea of a joke. Thoroughly enjoyable; can't believe it I missed it at the cinema; not a film to show one's mother.
Finally, back home to scour the streets in search of The Last Parking Space in Shawlands (Mike Leigh, 1998). Happy days.
December 17, 2004
Amongst several things I've been pondering for -- seemingly -- ever; how might one go about turning explicitly bad science into a TV show? I have a growing collection of books detailing statistical abuses and misconceptions, I've been reading Bob Park for years, and I find Ben Goldacre's stuff in the Guardian absolutely hilarious -- see especially his Bad Science Awards, which has all the makings of a book deal and so on. But I can't, for the life of me, work out how to make this into TV. And I bet I'm not the only one who's trying.
Comedy drama, perhaps? Following the fortunes of leading tech-transfer startup, "Bandwagon, Ltd."?
Actually, that's not a bad idea. Hmm...
While I'm on the subject: anyone else who'd like deletetheweb.com hosting, now would be a good time to contact me. The rules are:
- It's free.
- I only host people I know, or to whom I have been personally introduced.
- No porn, warez, defamation, incitement to riot or racial or religious hatred, and no Garfield fan sites.
- The editor's decision is final
- All rules are flexible, apart from the Garfield thing.
Drop me a line if you're interested, and meet the above criteria.
December 16, 2004
A note to hostees -- I've been out of the loop with the whole digerati nerdsville thing for a while, but it looks like there's a major global crisis looming about comment spam. Which is to say that the server load from comment spam is getting so large, web hosts (Dreamhost included) are actively looking for ways to combat it. One such method is MT3.x with MT-Blacklist, which I'm running on Quernstone. Alan's site and John's site were upgraded with minimal hassle, but that might not be true for more customised sites (Mark, Mija). I don't think any of us are genuinely causing problems, in that even my fifty junk comments/day is fairly low, but nevertheless I plan to move us all to MT3 over Christmas. Hopefully, to a new revision that's being talked about by Six Apart.
So: advance warning to have backups to hand, and to make sure I still have a login on your installation. Please check.
Those of you on WordPress, please let me know how the spam load is. If it's bad, we should consider moving you to MT, though I will investigate anti-spam measures for WordPress. I'm not sure what constitutes 'bad,' however. How2 gets about 50/day even though it's offline, which I suspect is fairly serious for WordPress.
Just a heads-up, anyway. If you have any things you'd like to sort during an upgrade, now would be a good time to tell me about them. For example: Mark, do you want to move to a dedicated domain?
December 14, 2004
Fun party in Cambridge; useful meetings in London; now back in Glasgow. Oddly, 350 miles doesn't seem like all that far any more. 'Only' six hours on the road. And now... tea, bed, sleep. Ugh.
Sorry I didn't look you up, Richard -- I wasn't actually in Cambridge all that much.
December 12, 2004
Following my aside about the difficulties of signing up to one's local video store, Alan quite rightly points out that the card should be perfectly adequate for security vetting purposes (he works for a defence contractor). Wait a second. Proving one's residency to Blockbuster is intensely onerous, and the card is evidence that you've passed their stringent checks and are indeed who you say you are.
Call David Blunkett -- he can save £3.5bn by subcontracting the national ID card scheme to Blockbuster, and people will actually have a reason to support the card, if they can hire videos with the damned thing. Genius!
Meanwhile, I'm in Cambridge for a day or two. Of which more, later.
December 10, 2004
Somewhere out there is an alternative reality in which I ended up working at Techniquest in 1994, rather than falling accidentally into television. I mention this as mildly relevant background, given that last week I really was working at Techniquest.
With the University of Glamorgan, they run a new(ish) MSc course in Science Communication, quite different in character to the better-known Imperial version. The latter is heavy on the philosophy and journalism, while Techniquest's focusses on performance, interactives, demonstration lectures, outreach... the practical side of the industry. In my (defunct?) rôle as a producer of children's science TV, this makes the Techniquest course potentially a rather good source of recruits. Indeed, I've already met one such graduate, and she's working happily at Screenhouse. Back around the time of the BIG Event I'd been trying to work out how to wheedle my way into some sort of involvement, so I was delighted when the course organiser invited me down to bend her students' ears about writing and performing for TV.
What eventually occurred was a day-long workshop, last week, and... well, I had fun. A heap of it, in fact. As the first such thing I've done, I was paranoid about running out of material, the entirely predictable result of which was that it all became rather bludgeoning midway through the afternoon. In retrospect, I'd have focussed solely on the writing aspects, and either not done the presenting end of the process, or spun it into a second day. But I think it went OK.
There were some lovely 'penny dropping' moments, principally around the notion that, in some circumstances, four seconds of dialogue one way or another can make a significant difference. Also about how easy can be to take something that runs twenty-five seconds, and make it run for twelve. But the impression I came away with was of a bunch of students who really know what they're doing with props. I've seen three-year veterans of make&do shows lay out the stages of a make less proficiently. Very, very impressive. I only wish I had work for a bunch of them.
Some of them were at least competent presenters too, but I was most impressed with the prop-wrangling. It's hard to teach mechanical sympathy, principally because it's rather hard to describe it. But this lot were already excellent at it. Bravo!
I moved to Glasgow a year ago, and it's amazing how long it takes to sort out all the little details. The National Trust, for example, appear to have no concept of people changing address -- I suppose ancestral homes didn't tend to move around much. Those of you who've been paying attention will also have realised that I spent six months of this year living back in Leeds, which didn't help much in the 'sorting stuff out' stakes, particularly when it came to British Gas believing that I am, in fact, resident in Glasgow. No wonder they've lost a million customers this year, -- it took me all year to persuade them that I really should be settling the bill, thanks. I'll be moving to something sensible just as soon as I can stomach the inevitable farce.
Anyway, since I didn't have any utility bills until very recently, one of the things I've not yet got around to is signing up at the local video store. It appears to be a universal truth, of course, that whereas one's passport will secure entry to pretty much any country on the planet, the local video shop requires a signed affidavit from the head of state, in addition to the current month's bills from at least four different utility companies, references from your bank manager and current employer, and the rights to your first-born as collateral in the event of your failing to return, say, a VHS of Crocodile Dundee II.
I now may not bother signing up at all, since Amazon UK have started doing postal DVD hire, with no fixed rental period, for similar sorts of prices. It's not quite video-on-demand-streaming-download, but given the relatively small latency of first class post it's not that much different in practice.
 So far as I can tell, this is power generated by shoveling avocets into massive furnaces. I'm surprised that this is particularly eco-friendly, but apparently the European Avocet Mountain is vast, and avocets are low in heavy metals and sulphur emissions.
For the benefit of anyone Googling this in the months and years to come, and since The Court Service don't appear to understand the situation themselves; the Scottish legal system is operated independently of that in England and Wales. Thus, if you're called for Jury Service in the Crown Court in, say, Bradford, but you're currently resident in -- hypothetically -- Glasgow, the Service is not able to transfer your duty to a nearer court. Because -- durr -- Scotland has Sheriff Courts, not Crown Courts, and juries here are called by the Scottish Court Service.
...which is to say, I got excused.
December 9, 2004
Strange how the connections drift by; from Slashdot to ComingSoon about Babylon 5, to Shrek 3 being moved to May 2007, to the first details I've seen about the forthcoming Wallace & Gromit feature, Tale of the Were Rabbit. Including this delicious brief:
It's 'vege-mania' in Wallace and Gromit's neighborhood, and our two enterprising chums are cashing in with their humane pest-control outfit, "Anti-Pesto." With only days to go before the annual Giant Vegetable Competition, business is booming, but Wallace & Gromit are finding out that running a "humane" pest control outfit has its drawbacks as their West Wallaby Street home fills to the brim with captive rabbits.
Note, however, that the next paragraph rather gives the entire plot away, at least apparently. You have been warned.
December 7, 2004
Outliners have always left me feeling a bit so-so, frankly. They're fantastic for conceptualising long documents or narrative structures, but most of the rest of the time I'd prefer something two-dimensional (or more...). Unfortunately, the only application that really fits the bill in the latter category, TinderBox, I've found clumsy enough that I've never quite got my head around it. It's also a bit too costly for me to want to invest the time learning its ways.
So by and large I've stuck with outliners. The one I liked most, back in the System 7 days, was the late lamented InControl. I can't honestly remember why I liked it so much, excpet it allowed one to attach documents to lines, and have them open with a click. I found this terrifically useful for a couple of projects, not least working on LaTeX documents, but since I haven't run Classic for... um... about four years, I can't have used InControl for about as long.
There are, of course, plenty of outliners for Mac OS X. And by 'plenty,' I think I mean 'dozens.' Some are hugely innovative, attempting to emulate research notebooks and scrapbooks stuffed with clippings and photos and so on. I've never got on with them; all I want is a simple outliner that looks nice, has decent search, and allows file linking. So for the last few years I've been using OmniOutliner, which was cheap, clean, and unfortunately didn't do very much. But I like Omni's approach to their apps -- and to user support -- so I was reasonably content to give up features. While I'll usually adopt Vinays 'If it's worth doing, it's worth doing badly' maxim, in some situations a feature badly implemented is simply an annoying feature, and I'd rather it wasn't there at all.
I've recently been looking at Process, which seems rather dashing and is aimed less at taking research notes and more at ultralight project management. That has its appeal, but... well... it's just not quite right, somehow. I think because it's not really aimed at entries longer than one line of text, which isn't how I usually use outliners. Though I could be wrong -- the seven-day demo timeout is a tad onerous, and I can no longer find out.
All hail, therefore, OmniOutliner's latest incarnation: OmniOutliner 3, and OmniOutliner 3 Pro. I'm hoping this plays out much like the OmniGraffle 3 Pro transition did; that is, I fall instantly head-over-heels for the thing, buy without a second thought, then delight as the subtle problems, lapses and oversights are gradually patched out. A year later I'm still loving the application but hoping against hope that a new version arrives before too long with just a few extra bells and whistles, specifically... you get the idea.
It's hard to say just what's so right about Omni's stuff, but theirs really are the best applications I've used. OK, so Final Cut Pro and Photoshop are pretty darned good too, but Omni's apps... I think it's that they marry apparent simplicity and approachability with very subtly hidden power scratching along just beneath the surface. This is why they're often regarded as the quintessential Mac OS X apps -- they're a perfect fit for the design philosophy of the Mac.
So, anyway, yes: OmniOutliner 3 public beta is out. Have a play.
Curious. One would expect the word 'moustache' to crop up slightly more frequently than once in four years, but apparently not: today I typed it in an email, and my Mac dutifully and sternly wiggled a red underline at me. Evidently the American spelling omits the 'o,' and I'd not previously had cause to correct Quern's dictionary. But this does rather beg the question: how is it that I have not written the word for so long? Perhaps I should grow one, to provide ample excuse?
On second thoughts: bad idea.
My apologies for banging on about this all the time, but if the following opening line from The New Yorker's review of Closer and House of Flying Daggers doesn't make you at least giggle, then I rest my case:
"The new Mike Nichols film, “Closer,” starts with a man falling in love with Natalie Portman. From this we may assume that the movie is concerned with universal, a-priori truths, although there is a scene in a lap-dancing club when the a-posteriori version comes in handy"