January 2005 Archives
January 22, 2005
In an almost certainly vain attempt to prove to Daniel that I'm not an irredeemable left-winger: How to draw the Union Jack. And, yes, it can be called the 'Union Jack,' even though a jack is traditionally a slightly different size of flag flown from the prow of a ship. It turns out that's not a very old tradition, the use of the term has been sanctioned by both the Royal Navy and parliament anyway, and... read the site. It's quite interesting.
January 20, 2005
Ever wondered what might have happened in your life if you'd gone the other way at some critical juncture? Craig Robinson has, and he's illustrated it. Lovely.
Now, for what else did I use 'Candude' as the title? I could have sworn it was a blog entry, but there are no results from a search. Curious...
January 19, 2005
Pay attention at the back! My colleague Simon worked on Driven with Debs, who used to work on How2 in the first couple of years I did it. Debs, as it happens, is also working at IWC in Glasgow; a year ago, however, she was in Morocco filming a series with Sim, who made the second series of Science Shack with Jem, who I know through the first series of that show. Jem, of course, knows James, one of the prospective on/off-screen engineering consultants for Mechannibals. Simon's girlfriend, meanwhile, is Melissa, coincidentally the solicitor who acted for me on my flat purchase; another of Melissa's clients is Adrian, my boss on How2, through whom Simon ended up working at SMG roughly the week after I left, a year ago. Debs, Simon, and my current boss, Hamish, incidentally, once directed Gavin (then wearing his 'actor' hat) in an ident; Gavin and I are, by-the-by and through his current employers, trying to sell a series featuring Jack as presenter. Now, before Jack worked for me on The Big Bang, he made a Tomorrow's World spin-off that used Kursty as a presenter; Kursty may be our presenter on Mechannibals.
I hope that's perfectly clear. Oh no, hang on, I missed somebody...
January 18, 2005
Uh... yeah. Looks like I forgot to mention that here. Must have slipped my mind, or something.
On Monday, I started work at IWC Media, up here in snowy Glasgow, on a new series for BBC2. Titled 'Mechannibals,' it's to consist of family teams competing to make the most
ridiculous successful machines... by tearing apart their own houses. Yes, it's evil. Yes, you should look away if you don't wish to see unpleasant surgery on bread makers. Yes, it's going to be a hoot. And yes, it's a proper grown-up family programme, not a teatime children's show. So yes, it'll be harder for you lot to explain away why you missed it.
It's all a bit of a shock to be honest; the job advert was posted a couple of weeks ago, I toddled in for interview last week, and yesterday I was chuckling at the pilot tape, wading through seemingly three years-worth of development notes, and lobbing ideas around with the engineering consultants. Today one of the APs flew in from north Africa (he's just driven from Plymouth to Dakar in a knackered old Porsche, which is even more barking than it sounds); fairly soon we were mis-quoting Sun Tzu to each other. I think we'll get along fine.
It is, however, going to be quite a ride. We start filming in around seven weeks, then it's... moderately mad. The results should be on BBC2 in the summer -- but if you really want an inside view, read the (not-quite-right-but-close-enough) blurb here, and think about volunteering. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Meanwhile, I'm delighted that my [cough] 'dry spell' appears to have at least temporarily abated. IWC are, by reputation, Good People, and indeed my boss appears to be a jolly sort. It is, of course, hugely good news to be extending my CV towards adult stuff again, too.
January 14, 2005
Glorious, utterly glorious screed against bunk in the Guardian. By way of example:
"What star sign are you?"
"I'm whatever sign whose prediction this week read, 'On Sunday, a friend who has masqueraded as a rational human being for the 15 years of your acquaintance will stand revealed before you as just another cack-brained, gibbering fool swirling in a festering cesspit of stupidity'."
[Update: Daniel has pointed out that I've known him for almost fifteen years.]
January 12, 2005
In a shocking revelation, Germaine Greer has discovered that Big Brother is more than a little unpleasant. Press coverage of her miraculous (re)conversion; summary of the critics' line on her participation.
As for bullying... twelve years ago, following a somewhat turgidly ranting public lecture, I enquired of a Cambridge academic if they'd seen the cover story in that week's Nature, which somewhat comprehensively demolished the central thrust of their evening's tirade (sadly, I forget the subject). I suppose I expected either a rebuttal, or an indication that no, they hadn't seen the paper. What I got was a vitriolic stream of invective, questioning my right to raise any questions at all on the grounds of my youth, degree subject choice, and gender. It was as shocking an example of academic bullying as I've seen, the authority figure tearing into the naïve student, who had no right (nor stomach) for reply. The academic? Why, Germaine Greer, of course.
She's occasionally funny and very occasionally incisive. She probably wrote some significant stuff some time ago. But enough, already.
January 11, 2005
The new Mac Mini is indeed $500 (£340). For the money, it's downright superb, and it's only a tuner box and some software away from being being a seriously cool video hub at some point later in the year. The only gotchas I can spot are that WiFi and Bluetooth are extra; it's +£30 for the 80Gb drive rather than the stingy 40Gb standard; more RAM is pretty much essential; and a keyboard and mouse cost extra. Then again, the latter may be a good thing; sell previously-PC-users two-button mice from the start, and their main moan disappears. Oh -- one more whine -- my PowerMac desktop's second-hand value just collapsed. But I can live with that. :-) The Mac Mini looks like a seriously good bit of kit, at a ludicrously low price. I'm hoping they sell them in the hundreds of thousands. Dad -- this would plug into your giant monitor very nicely, then Mum could have the knackered PowerBook and all we need is a new flat-panel monitor, which could be only around £150 now.
The iPod Shuffle is also quite neat. A sensible solution to the whole problem of building an interface for cheap music players -- don't bother. And in so doing, make the price cheap enough that nobody much cares. Clever.
But I'm most impressed with Pages. Which is [modest cough] exactly what I speculated it would be, apart from the table/spreadsheet thing, and -- apparently -- it does do bibliographies. Page layout and beautiful templates for $79: rock on. Aside from basking in the apparent fact that what you read here was, evidently, closer to the truth than any of the rumour sites; I'll be buying a copy.
Of particular note: it does widow and orphan control. Applescript permitting, this, with Tiger's Automater, may be the workflow solution XML has been looking for. Which might, possibly, be Very Big Indeed.
January 9, 2005
I'm never been a big one for keeping a diary, but nevertheless, one of the things I enjoy about blogging is the ability to look back and find out what I was up to. Apparently, a year ago I had some friends round for a meal and a film, as a way of starting the year and welcoming us all back to Glasgow. I'm amused by my own consistency.
January 8, 2005
Since the PC is still doing... actually, I no longer know nor care what it's doing, but there are progress bars involved -- some comments about last week's TV:
The latest CITV factual series (and, to some extent, Big Bang-replacement) Prove It! went out on Tuesday. I was expecting to hate it, mostly on point of principle, but frankly it was quite good fun. Joe Challands I already knew was a startlingly good presenter -- the revelation is Jamie Rickers, who riffs with Joe in an entirely unexpected way. They're an exceptionally watchable duo, and as a result the show zips along at a merry old lick. Even the content wasn't too bad, with some reasonable scriptwriting, though the giant blow-out experiment to close the show simply wasn't as dramatic as the standard 'cannonball on your head' version of the same idea (full explanation available at my usual consulting rates).
But there's still a niggling problem, which is that it's sort-of a science show, and they're supposed to be sort-of proving things everybody knows. Which, of course, ain't how science works. I hate to have a philosophical objection to a children's series, but really -- this is pish. Very, very, very off-message, in terms of what public-service broadcasting of children's science should be about. It doesn't even work on a practical level, with the title holding the show hostage at every turn -- the very first item was the familiar 'racing raisins' kitchen trick, and even having watched it I have no idea what the 'proof' was supposed to be about. The first item. Think about that. And don't even get me started on the distinction between 'not proven' and 'proved wrong.'
Aside from the Hutton Enquiry, the last show with a similar problem was The Scoop, which delivered good audiences, some fantastic items (Vietnamese pop was one of the best bits of children's TV I've ever seen, right up there with John Noakes' Cresta Run accident), and a BAFTA award. But, ultimately, it failed to deliver on its own title, and lasted only three series. Prove It! will, I predict, do similarly. The ratings were apparently good. So we shall see.
Meanwhile, Desperate Housewives started. As ever with an introductory episode, it's too early to tell, but at first glance there was enough exquisitely-judged writing and performance to give me considerable hope. True, many of the characters are overly-familiar clichés, but I don't mind a cliché if it's done well. And Teri Hatcher's 'single-mother-with-smart-mouthed-teenager' was utter brilliance. Yes, the woman they tried desperately to cut out of Goldeneye can actually act. How times change, eh?
And Germaine Greer on Celebrity Big Brother. I'm sorry -- what?
In happier news, I spent most of last night pushing little bits of wood and cardboard around on my not-quite-adequately-lit-for-the-job dining table. Three new board games to add to the 'collection' (in quotes because it now totals five): Vinci, Princes of Florence, and Sucking Vacuum.
The first looks extremely good -- it's a territorial conquest game akin to Risk, but without the random dice-rolling element of that which annoys me so much (combat is very similar to that in Diplomacy -- ie. extremely simple). There's a delicious twist in that, on any given move, you can put your entire empire into 'decline,' and start a new one instead. The result is a surprisingly simple mechanic that has all the makings of being an astonishingly deep game. I'm very much looking forward to playing it.
The Princes of Florence may be less successful. The concept is lovely -- each player runs a province, building up an idyllic court within which the artists and scholars they recruit will complete great Works, and through those works the Prince (player) gains prestige. Different scholars prefer different combinations of buildings, recreation facilities, and freedoms, a selection of which must thus be purchased to maximise the prestige generated by the scholars' works. Competitive philanthropy is a lovely theme, but on my first solo stagger I worry that there's simply too much arithmetic involved. 'Too much' as in 'too much to be fun, except for Martin.' we shall see.
Finally, Sucking Vacuum is plain stupid. Tagline: "Six astronauts. One escape pod. Two seats. You get the picture." Run around the (tile-based) board, gather the bits of a spacesuit, hit each other with anything to hand (spanners, books, the ship's cat) to steal stuff, and eventually sprint to the escape pod while holding your breath. Very simple, very silly, could be rather amusing.
Unfortunately, all these arrived a day too late for my notional 'games evening' on Thursday, so we had to sit around, scoff chilli, and yack instead. Which was pretty much the idea all along, come to think of it.
Turned my PC on. Logged in. Different desktop picture, missing desktop shortcuts, user preferences mostly absent, 'Tour WindowsXP' nonsense in my face, SP2 Security Centre bleating at me simultaneously (about, as it turns out, my having disabled the automatic installation of updates. Because that's a really good idea, huh).
Time to run spyware removers (Ad-Aware, Spybot S&D), remove DSO exploit dubiousness, run anti-virus (NOD32), check intrusion detection settings (WinPatrol), check Windows Firewall settings, check ADSL router firewall settings, reconfigure desktop, reset Firefox as the default browser, return things vaguely to normal, recover from a spontaneous reboot, do it all again, run Windows Update, reboot deliberately, do all that again, and double-check that things are vaguely sane: a little over an hour and counting. I've lost all my documents and web bookmarks, but there's nothing of any real value on the PC anyway because I'm not stupid.
Why the hell do people use this crap? I mean, really? I don't use email on the PC (Outlook Express or whatever -- look, I don't even know what it's called, let alone have it configured), I run more countermeasures than I consider common, there are at least two layers of firewall between me and the world, I have all the Microsoft updates, and this is still the second such event I've had this year. It's January 8th, for heaven's sake!
Update: And then, on the second reboot, for no discernible reason, it's reverted to the previous desktop picture, returned all my desktop shortcuts to their previous homes, and restored my Firefox bookmarks. Umm... what the hell? Oh, and now it's crashed again. And my antivirus software is mysteriously disabled. And it crashes every time I try to visit the Lavasoft site, and now my video card is in a crash-loop, and my mouse pointer has gone back to snapping to the default dialog button which drives me mad and is, from previous experience, impossible to turn off, and ... two hours and counting.
Seriously, if anyone reading this thinks this sort of nonsense is normal, or -- shudder -- acceptable, you really should use Mac OS X for a while. Like, three months or so. It's simply not reasonable that we should still have to contend with this rubbish. Most of the readers of this page I know about are already Mac users: to you lot, party on. The grass is most certainly not greener on the other side.
'I hope you have backups?' asked a friend. 'Hell, no!' I replied. 'If this goes into full casters-up mode, why the hell would I want to put any of this crap back on?' Backups of my Macs -- well, that's a different matter.
January 7, 2005
Much discussion around the Mac web about what Chairman Jobs might be planning to release at a big shindig in San Francisco next week. Some of it's been picked up by the mainstream press, with the Telegraph ludicrously reporting a new Mac costing £260. While this might, possibly, turn out to be the case, such an eventuality wouldn't alter the fact that the story as and when published was nothing more than a badly-edited regurgitation of rabid fanboy musings of distinctly dubious authority from sources of at best questionable legitimacy and at worst outright fabrication. Bizarrely, the blogs are guilty of better journalism than the Telegraph, here. Tsk, tsk.
But anyway, fascinating as the concept of a genuinely cheap Mac may be, in some ways I'm more interested in the possibility of Apple-written office software. Keynote appeared a couple of years ago and has proven to be a limited but distinctly elegant replacement for the astonishingly mediocre PowerPoint. AppleWorks, however, has fallen a long way from the glory days of its earlier ClarisWorks incarnation of a dozen years ago, having only barely survived a dreadful migration to OS X. It's basically not been touched since -- maintenance updates only in, what, four years? Keynote has also been neglected, and then there's the reported presence at Apple of the folks behind the charmingly elegant GoBe Productive suite for the failed BeOS platform. All fuel to the rumour mill, of course.
And the rumour mill is dutifully reporting, as they have for at least two years now, Apple will next week release a full-on office suite in competition with Microsoft Office. Or something like that -- John Gruber, as ever, has one of the saner round-ups of the story. Personally, I think they're a bit off, in a way that's so blindingly obvious I can't quite believe nobody's picked up on it. But that appears to be the case, so I shall stick my neck out and speculate. Hey, this is a blog, I'm allowed. It's not like I'm a journalist.
It's rumoured that Keynote will be joined by a word-processing application called either Document or Pages. The former name is a throwback to the OpenDoc days and presents semantic problems ('Would you like to save this Document document?'); the latter seems to me more likely. What I raise an eyebrow at is the phrase 'word processing.' Everybody's very caught-up on this, quite reasonably banging on about how dreadful Word is, but I think they're missing the real gap in the market. Which is that, on the Mac -- the home of desktop publishing, no less -- the only DTP applications I can think of are Adobe InDesign and Quark XPress. For page layout and design, Word is an awful mess with unusable tools and laughably amateurish templates. Other word processors like Nisus Express and Mellel are more elegant, but still basically clumsy compared to proper frame-based layout apps. More significantly, they're focussed on the writing task, not on the preparation of good-looking output. And people genuinely want to do this sort of thing -- heck, on Windows they actually use Microsoft Publisher, which may be just about the least-elegant mainstream software in existence but (a.) it works, (b.) it's cheap and (c.) it's just about simple enough to do what you want with it. There is, to my knowledge, no Mac equivalent, even with Publisher's wince-inducingly horrid default template designs.
Indeed, the closest we have is still AppleWorks, which inherits the delightfully intuitive framed editing of ClarisWorks -- then screws it up by being generally rubbish. There's a real gap in the market here, for something that allows non-professionals to turn out beautiful printed documents. That gives them stylish and tasteful starting templates (see Keynote -- for comparison, cf. Publisher, PowerPoint, Word, et al), makes writing text content straightforward, and allows trivially simple insertion of images from iPhoto.
If Pages really does exist, this is what I expect it to be. I do not expect long document tools, networked revision control, nor automatic bibliography generation. Much as I'd love an alternative to Word for all of that, I just can't see it happening -- mostly because I think it's solving the wrong problem for the majority of iMac owners out there. The rumour is of 'iWork,' which by nominative implication would be a consumer-level package. We're not talking 'Layout Studio Pro' here.
There's an additional reason, too. By sticking to the low-end, Apple avoids a head-on confrontation with Microsoft Office. Indeed, all they're really doing in terms of product portfolio is giving AppleWorks the long-overdue whack-over-the-noggin and rolling out something less rubbish in its stead. But nevertheless, if Pages is well-architected it should give Apple the base on which they could, theoretically, build a world-class word processor. Rather quickly. Should any such requirement ever appear. To fit alongside DVD Studio Pro, Final Cut Pro, and Logic Pro. Strategically, that has to be a good move, since at the moment Microsoft effectively holds the entire Mac market by a thread called 'Office.'
So: my rampant speculation is that, next week, Apple will launch a consumer-level DTP app featuring good text processing, Word file import, and excellent integration with iPhoto. There'll be lots of glossily beautiful templates, an elegant table editor that (just like ClarisWorks, cough cough) happens to do basic spreadsheet-like stuff, and a graph-drawing component not entirely dissimilar to Keynote's. Like iTunes, iPhoto, GarageBand and iMovie, it'll be bundled with new Macs and available for the rest of us, with Keynote 2.0, as 'iWork', for -- guess -- £50. Blog pundits will be disappointed that it's a not a full-on Word replacement, but people who actually buy iBooks and iMacs will love it.
End of speculation. Of course, what I should now do is pretend I'm being sued by Apple and see if I can get the Telegraph to publish the above as news.
Catching up on reading, here's some linkbloggery. Mostly from Kottke.org, I should think, bless whatever flavour of socks he prefers:
- Interview with a guy who works for Pixar. I'm fascinated by how Pixar operates, since they're clearly better at what they do than anybody else, and what they do isn't as far away from what I do as one might expect. Organisationally, they seem to be an intriguing hybrid of film crew and... something else. Note that I'm not interested in where they get their ideas -- I know where they get them, and it's the same place as the rest of us. They make them up. In their heads. Durr. No, I'm interested in how they recognise the good ideas, and particularly in how they turn those into films. It's non-trivial.
- A commentary on the current state of Wikipedia by one of the project's founders. I basically agree; the editor's job is both much-maligned and often misunderstood, but critical -- Wikipedia doesn't have editors in the traditional sense, and 'everyone's an editor' isn't so much a replacement as missing the point. Why am I interested? Partly because I like the idea of a free encyclopaedia, and partly because I'm using their software for the Secret Project I'm Still Not Talking About. Thus, I'm facing some of the same problems, on a considerably smaller scale. My solution? Draconian dictatorship. Hey, sue me: my site, my rules.
- Musical representation of financial markets. Isn't that exactly what the late lamented Douglas Adams had one of the central characters writing in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency? He named it Symphony, as I recall
January 6, 2005
Dang. Sony's new low-end high-def DVCAM is almost available. Given how much impact the decidedly ropey-quality PD100/150/170 series has had, this thing is nothing short of a revolution. It's remarkably well-priced, too -- and if you can do without a couple of bells and whistles, the FX1E is £800 cheaper. But do you really want to do without XLR audio, hmm?
Thanks to Colin for the link.
January 4, 2005
To the GFT last night, for Zhang Yimou's latest epic. Everything you've heard about it being fabulously beautiful is true; unfortunately, so is everything you've heard about the story being utter pish. But I can happily spend two hours admiring cinematography, so it worked for me. The much-vaunted Echo Dance scene wasn't quite the landmark I'd been led to expect, but the fight in the bamboo forest really does go down in cinema history alongside the gutter dance in Singing in the Rain. Amazing. Implausible, but amazing. But then, the bamboo forest is such a beautiful, lush, verdant location, just standing in it looks gorgeous. As for the story -- well, it's a decent entry in the 'longest death in cinema history' competition, but who cares?
January 3, 2005
Oh, so much to catch up with, but all in good time. Having started with food poisoning, my Christmas rapidly improved. The improvement (and not the food poisoning) had a substantial amount to do with my sister's mushroom, port and cheesey polenta bake concoction, but probably rather more to do with my nephew Stanley.
New Year involved the Cheshire crowd again, with board games, a jolly walk, fine food, and superb wines. Company wasn't bad, either. And I even survived the drive up in the ice and fog.
So, 2005, eh? This is where I say something erudite and oh-so-witty about hopes, expectations, or somesuch.
I'm sure it'll come. Bound to. Any second now. Um...