May 2005 Archives
May 31, 2005
As I've already indicated, I'm a huge fan of this new Doctor Who series. It's just disturbing enough to freak out about the right proportion of viewers, and the local kids here in Glasgow are walking to school in the morning playing Daleks. Which is cool. But I've been most impressed by the production sensibilities, in that they're not trying to pull off too much. Visual effects are used only where necessary, and they even seem to be underplaying them a little -- it's mostly done by the power of suggestion, which is much cleverer and, indeed, more like the Doctor Who way of doing things. Just when one might have worried that the BBC had lost it with family entertainment on a Saturday night, they go and pull this on us. Bravo!
Anyway, one thing that's completely passed me by is the whole 'Bad Wolf' thing. It turns out, every episode includes at least one reference, and even the supporting websites (there are several -- unit.org.uk, whoisthedoctor.co.uk) mention it. Heck, mouse over the TARDIS on the BBC's Doctor Who page. There's an episode in a couple of weeks' time that's titled 'Bad Wolf,' so doubtless all will be revealed. The gossip appears to be assuming that the Master is involved somehow, but we shall see.
Excited, me? Heck, yeah. I can't tell you how happy I am to have the Doctor back. Especially since I saw the finale of Enterprise over the weekend, and... well, I can't tell you how happy I am to have the Doctor back. Ahem.
May 26, 2005
According to Google, this site is the top hit for the search "ugly wedding dress". That's... er... unexpected.
May 25, 2005
Today was my dad's seventieth birthday. We bought him an iPod Shuffle. Tonight, he emailed me:
My dad is cool.
Mac-head tools for your delectation: I've long been a fan of MacRabbit's CSSEdit, which puts a smooth OS X interface on the tricky voodoo that is writing stylesheets. Another tool I suspect I'll add to the arsenal, however, is Cultured Code's Xylescope, which does some terribly clever stuff with outlining and DOM selection and... well, you sort of have to see for yourself. It's also uncommonly beautiful in the way it presents itself. Highly recommended.
...all of which is a curious introduction to noting that I've more-or-less finished Mechannibals, and more-or-less started the next job, which consists of finally finally finally doing the How2 website correctly. Hurrah.
May 23, 2005
May 22, 2005
Favourite band of the last couple of months -- The Go! Team. I stumbled across them through the iTunes Music Store, where one of their singles was a free download of the week back in February or somesuch. Their album, Thunder, Lightning Strike!, I picked up as soon as I could find it. Three months later, I still absolutely love them.
They played on Later... with Jules Holland the other night -- always a sure sign of a future hit -- and they're touring right now, in some weird places but notably the John Peel stage at Glastonbury. The album's hard to characterise. It's been likened to a blend of sunshine funk mixed with early hip-hop, but that description fails to capture its fundamental joyousness. It's also been compared to the theme songs of early-mid-80s American pulp TV, which I find more of a stretch to recognise until I realise that pretty much every track I want to use as backing or title music.
They're worth a listen; available on the iTunes Store, or via Amazon UK and US. Meanwhile, a previous favourite band of mine, The Baker Brothers, have their second album out next week -- In With the Out Crowd. Well, it's a live cut mostly of material from the first album, but it still counts. And I still want to use all their stuff in shows, too.
An unexpected feature of television -- one suspects, any project-based work -- is the curious ennui one feels following completion of the last gig.
Yes, we've wrapped on Mechannibals, the final show being recorded in Rugby over the last few days. Not my favourite, actually, mostly because we were all knackered and it was consequently more difficult than it strictly needed to be. But the machines were massively different, amusing in their performances, and basically worked -- which puts the series average at some ridiculous percentage that's pretty much unprecedented for this sort of thing. Job done, basically.
Nevertheless, a curious feeling. The usual wrap euphoria seems to exactly balance the inevitable relief at having survived a shoot which has been, at times... shall we say 'difficult'? It's a somewhat familiar situation, to be honest, though either I'm getting less thick-skinned as the years go on, or the series was genuinely more like hard work than is common.
What usually happens -- and doubtless will in this case -- is that the memory of the angst fades more quickly than that of the joy, with the slightly bizarre result that television is, for the most part, something one enjoys doing predominantly in retrospect. I've remarked on this previously, but as some of you have been aware, Mechannibals has been somewhat starker than most. But hey, we survived; nobody was seriously injured; we had moments and even extended periods of considerable fun; and the results coming out of the edit suites are really rather good.
Speaking of results -- those of you in the UK should be able to see the series on BBC2 later in the year. Most likely 7:30pm, midweek, perhaps from August. I will, of course, post here when I know for sure. My current best guess is that it'll be a heap of fun to watch, so look out for it.
May 9, 2005
O2 finally deigned to provide me with a porting code so I can liberate my mobile number from them and whisk it away to another provider. Any other provider, frankly, my experience with O2 over the last year having been less than stellar. The final straw should have been them tripling GPRS data charges last year, but in fact it was them once again failing to itemise my bill properly last week. That makes... 12 months in a row. Anyway, this afternoon I tried to buy a new phone, a Sony Ericsson V800.
"Oooh no," said the ned in the Vodaphone shop. "You don't want to go there." I didn't? "No no no. Lovely phone, really nice bit of kit, but 3G is bollocks."
This was news to me. And, most likely, to whatever genius at Vodaphone paid £22bn or whatever it's cost them. What, I wondered, was the problem?
"Coverage. It's rubbish, unless you're standing in a city centre."
But surely the phone falls back to GSM?
"In theory, yes. Doesn't work very well. Most people bring 'em back. Shame, they're great phones."
Somewhat disarmed by this rampant display of honesty from a mobile phone salesman, I beat a hasty retreat, pausing only to consider the S700. I considered it gigantic and ugly. Nice try, but some designs are clearly destined for greatness (clamshells), whilst others are clearly evolutionary dead-ends (twist things, which haven't even penetrated the popular psyche enough to receive a decent name, despite there having been quite a few over the years).
On to Orange, who greet me with a beautifully-designed shop, neatly-displayed products, an ambience of modern professionalism, and a wildly smarmy salesman. Close, Orange, but no cigar. So, let's have a look-see:
Motorola Razr v3: Beautiful object, crap camera, lousy memory, and the phone book allegedly can't handle contacts with more than one number. Idiots.
Nokia 6170: Fab little Nokia clamshell. No Bluetooth: no sync, no Salling Clicker. Game over.
Nokia 3230: Terribly stylish new 1.2megapixel cameraphone, really rather handy thing. Still doesn't sync properly with Macs. May be hackable, but dig around a little and there are some very negative reviews out there. It's a low-end phone with lots of corners cut, like... it doesn't have enough memory to actually work. Nope, not falling for that one.
Sony Ericsson K700: Cute thing, crap keypad, good software, fair camera... and the K750 is just around the corner. With a much better autofocus camera, but still a crap keypad. So... no, not just now.
Oh, why is it so hard? All I want is a phone that plays nicely with my Mac (ie. standards-based address syncing) and has a half-decent camera. Arrrghhhh!
(and to top it all, the realisation that I'm going to go through exactly this, every year)
May 7, 2005
A couple of years ago, Gavin Smith did a couple of series for me as a Researcher. Which in the hierarchy of production teams is barely a rung above 'serf' -- you get to boss around the runners, but that's about it, and even some runners feel sufficiently sure of themselves to bite back.
Now, the self-same Mr. Smith not only has a slick business card, but also fawning articles in the Evening Times all about him. Every time I call, he seems to be at an airport en route to some exciting conference destination like New York or Cannes. And increasingly, my calls are about my working for him, and not the other way around.
Lesson number one of business: never be rude to the doorman, for today's doorman is tomorrow's managing director.
Richard Noble is an interesting character. Known mostly for driving Thrust2 to the world land speed record, and managing the ThrustSSC project that broke the sound barrier, he's also had a few side projects that have left him seriously jaded about the state of engineering and business innovation in the UK. His most recent attempt was the Farnborough F1 aircraft, designed around the concept of quick-turnaround charter 'air taxi' services. It's apparently a dead project, even their web presence being defunct.
However, as with several of Noble's ventures, it turns out that he may have been right after all. Or perhaps almost right. DayJet.com is a new American venture to offer charter services, built around a large fleet of the new Eclipse 500 twin-turbofan aircraft. But as Robert Cringley points out -- and one wonders if this is what Noble missed -- it's not the aircraft that's important. It's the scheduling software.
Managing a fleet of jets with constantly-changing departure and destination points, whilst trying to minimise costs to deliver both maximum occupancy (through customer take-up of the quoted price) and the largest possible margins... it's the traveling salesman problem writ large. Evidently, it's taken a couple of Russian PhDs two years to reach the stage where DayJet is willing to launch. Intriguingly, it seems they thought about selling the software to other providers, but in the end realised that the availability of suitable aircraft limits the growth rate of the industry, since there's a minimum number of aircraft in a given region below which the whole system falls apart. "Our greatest limiting factor turns out to be the rate at which Pratt & Whitney can make jet engines," says the founder.
Cringley's worth reading on this one, in part because he posits the obvious next question: what happens if you apply similar software to car pooling schemes? Oh, and he's quite interesting in the rest of the article, too, about the iTunes Movie Store we all assume is just around the corner, and licensing the iPod.
He kept his deposit, which is something of a landmark for the Scottish Green Party. At one point it was looking dicey, but somehow about six bundles of a hundred votes each must have escaped our notice, since he was well over the required 5% of the poll. Only 1% behind the Conservatives, too.
The count, meanwhile, was quite an experience. Glasgow turns out to be rather more modern in the way it presents itself than Leeds was -- heck, they use sans-serif type, which I don't think had even been invented when Leeds last updated its presses. Also, the count is held in the bland modernity of the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, so the result is disappointingly more professional than I'd expected. But it still consists of table after table of three nameless workers sifting through ballot papers and flattening them into piles. Later, they sort the piles by vote cast, at which point some triads reveal astonishing incompetence while others flow like choreographed dancers, their hands flashing across the table with nary a collision. Finally, the piles are counted, recounted, and checked.
...which all takes about four hours. If I omit to recall the lengthy 'standing around waiting for something to happen' parts, however, it was quite exciting. I'm glad, however, that I thought to take the long lens for my camera, since I got to snipe pictures of people with clipboards and interestingly earnest faces. Pictures to follow, since I'm still living in a world where polling stations are staffed by grannies, type has block serifs, and cameras shoot on real film.
May 4, 2005
...as the kids seem to be calling it these days. [shrug] Beats me. Anyway, yes, there's some sort of election going on tomorrow, thus far unremarked on this site. Which is odd, since not only do I get to meet some delightful old ladies at the local primary school, I can marvel at the joys of barely-post-war typography too. The machinery of democracy is a marvelous thing, and it's fueled by obsolete lithography and milky tea. This sort of thing pleases me greatly, hence my surprise at not having mentioned it until now.
Also because tomorrow, I shall get to look the faceless bureaucracy straight in the eye. For not only do I get to grasp the stubby pencil and mark a box on a scrap of flimsy paper, but I'll get to see lots of other marks on paper too. I'm going to the count in Glasgow.
Old chum Martin is, as it turns out, the Scottish Green Party's candidate for Glasgow North. It's all official and in the Guardian and everything. He's roped me into helping out at the count, which so far as I can tell involves wandering around with a clipboard whilst nodding sagely and muttering 'Ah yes, a pile of paper' rather a lot. Or something like that. I'm not quite sure how that gets spun out until two in the morning, but doubtless I'll find out.
My excitement is tempered only by the realisation that both the constituency Martin's contesting, and the one in which I vote, are absurdly safe Labour seats. Heigh-ho. Still, here's hoping it turns out better than the last time I was called to exercise my democratic right, which was frankly something of a farce.
Aside from wishing they'd come up with a better name than 'H264', first impressions of the new video codec introduced with Tiger are extremely positive. This page has excellent samples of clips compressed with Sorenson 3, the old MPEG4, and H264, with full information about the compression settings. Looks good to me.
Of course, compressing this stuff will bring my Macs to their knees. Darn.
May 3, 2005
Beta, of course, but still -- it's out. Link. Ooh, look at the shiny drop-shadow prettiness... now I just need to hook it up to Tiger's address book and Dashboard widgits...
Speaking of Tiger -- forget all the whizzy new stuff, just revel in the whizzy performance. Today's been my first day of really using it in anger, and it feels like I've bought a complete new PowerBook. Sure, Spotlight is brilliant, but the quicker text drawing is what's really making me grin. Even Word 2004 scrolls smoothly now.
Since there's a General Election at some point this week (most likely Thursday -- I never could get the hang of Thursdays), and because they asked me to, this seems an opportune moment to mention They Work For You.com. Marvelous site. Find out what your MP has been up to, so you can work out whether to vote them back in again or not. Go on, you know you want to.
Note, incidentally, that boundary changes may mean your previous MP is not your current candidate. This is the case for my bit of Glasgow.
Cassette recorder drive racing. No, really. Popular Science article, and the original site. Meanwhile, I just watched a rough cut of the second programme recorded for Mechannibals. It rocks. Seriously, it's great. Well-judged pacing, funny, impressive, and even the ending makes sense. What a relief.
No, I'm not serious enough about board games to buy the Settlers of Catan Tenth Anniversary 3D Edition. Martin and Lucy, perhaps?
May 2, 2005
Catching up on Doctor Who, I found myself entirely underwhelmed by the Slitheen and the last couple of episodes (I mean, how many shots of somebody unzipping their forehead are really necessary?). But Dalek... oh, boy. Finally, after all these years, we know why they were so scary. I guess we'd all assumed, as nine year-olds, that they could do pretty much anything. But it all happened off-camera. Now, finally, we've seen a Dalek kicking serious arse. And it rocks.
Nice bit of symmetry with the Doctor and the back-story of the Time War; unexpected twist; Christopher Eccleston saying 'Fantastic!' a little less than his usual quota. Corker of an episode, I thought. And there are more Daleks later in the series. Cooool.
Incidentally, one of the chaps I'm working with owns a Dalek. A real one. Not one of the first four (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo -- no, really), but I believe the fifth made, out of something like six. Plus, presumably, the Emperor Dalek for the movies, that bizarre Special Weapons Dalek from whatever the heck that episode was way back in the mists of time, and of course the new ones. Anyway, Ian's Dalek lurks beneath the stairs, looking a little worn but still with an air of 'ready to take over the world' about it.
Ho ho ho, what a witty post subject line. Ahem. However, there is cause for some excitement, in that a photograph of mine is, apparently, displayed in the house of some friends. Which is rather exciting, really. The picture in question is of one of those glorious chrome binocular telescopes, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. The original is in my gallery here, but the version hanging at the friends' house is in black and white, and hence looks more like the one alongside this post. I was tempted to add a little grain, actually -- silky smooth greyscale isn't always to my taste. When I've shot in black and white, I've usually gone for insanely fast film, liking the surprise of seeing the contrast the camera saw, rather than what was coming down the lens.
I'm a hung artist. Gosh, I feel so grown-up.
Those with a nervous or easily-bored disposition may choose to skip this post, but for the rest of you:
Tiger pretty much rocks. It's a little rough around the edges, something we've rather come not to expect from Apple of late, and one suspects there'll be a 10.4.1 update relatively soon. But mostly, it rocks. Big time.
There's the obvious stuff that's been marketed -- Spotlight, which is very nearly as good as I'd hoped and believe me, I first saw this demonstrated 11 years ago; Dashboard, which is a neater and less buggy implementation than the almost-fantastic-but-actually-not-quite-right-in-a-way-that's-hard-to-put-your-finger-on Konfabulator.
There's the less obvious stuff that's also delightful -- being able to call up dictionary definitions pretty much anywhere, and that they're really nicely typeset (no, I'm not joking); waaay faster window drawing, which makes application switching really fast; a QuickTime Player that finally feels like it belongs in X, rather than being a hold-over from the Mac OS 9 days.
Then there's the under-the-hood stuff that normal users won't notice -- CoreData; Quartz2D Extreme; CoreImage; ContentEditable in WebKit; see John Siracusa's excellent review for way more detail than you really want.
Finally there's the really weird stuff, like the button bar in Mail (what were they thinking?!), the weirdly unfathomable behaviour of Spotlight searches in the Finder, and my finally realising just how slow laptop hard drives are compared to decent desktop units.
But all in, it feels like a solid upgrade that's preparing the ground for things to come. Which is slightly unexpected, since Spotlight is such a big deal and Dashboard so whizzy I was half-expecting to see it as a 'feature' release. It is, and it's worth getting for the new stuff alone. Heck, it's worth getting for the performance improvements. But it's really worth jumping on the bandwagon for all the stuff you won't initially notice. There's some unfeasibly cool stuff going on in Tiger, just beneath the surface.
I'm just hoping people work out what to do with it all.
Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. So, the whole point of taking it in was to dry it out, replace the water-damaged bits, fit new seals, and make sure it didn't happen again. Imagine, dear reader, how dismayed I was to pick it up with the engine compartment full of water -- again -- and the cover soaked through and mouldy -- still.
I'm now waiting for the right staff to come back in on Tuesday, then we shall see what they have to say for themselves. But it's clearly a bit of a farce right now. Ugh.