November 2005 Archives
November 26, 2005
This has been linked from everywhere ad nauseam, doubtless, but since I'm frighteningly busy I'm somewhat behind with the blogosphere again. Plus, I have something to add: Sony have a new advert out for their latest Bravia LCD TV (which I saw on Tottenham Court Road the other week, and is indeed quite lovely in a 'why would I conceivably want something that large in my lounge?' sort of way). The ad involves a quarter of a million bouncy balls being released down a street in San Francisco, all filmed in glorious superslowmo and almost certainly hi-def too. There were lots of Flickr posts about the event at the time (surprisingly hard to find now -- interesting) and a post on BoingBoing, and now the secret is revealed. It's a lovely ad, and is probably being hailed as the best thing in ad breaks since that Honda spot a couple of years ago where one thing knocked another thing, and so on.
I don't personally think it's that good an ad - certainly not in the Honda league. But that's a personal thing. The longer version is distinctly better than the shorter one, fair enough, but even then... it just doesn't quite hang together for me.
This is partly because it has something else in common with the Honda ad, apart from being 'event' advertising -- it's not an original idea. The Honda ad was, famously, inspired by an old German art film called 'The Way Things Go,' which has its flaws but is basically magnificent. This Sony ad was clearly inspired by a whole genre of experiments done by avalanche researchers, who have a penchant for saving vast amounts of computer time by... er... chucking ping-pong balls down dry ski slopes. Here's a paper from 1997, and a whole bunch of other articles. And yes, that last one is on BoingBoing, from January 2004.
What I find a tad frustrating is that Sony's repetition of the experiment replaces the ping-pong balls with latex superballs, and to my mind the result is less photogenic. The effect is to spread the balls further apart -- in model terms, they behave more like a gas than a liquid -- and I just don't think it's as pretty. I can see why they'd have thought it would be better, but really, I believe it was a bad move. There's nothing like the complexity of flow front and detail that the ping pong balls produced -- it's just a bunch of balls bouncing down a street. Sure, it's a lot of balls bouncing down a street, but the beauty of the ping pong balls lies in the unexpected complexity and subtlety, all of which is lost in Sony's ad.
Sure, it's beautifully shot, but... nah, I'm sorry, I've been wanting to do that for two years, and (a.) they've ruined it for me now, and (b.) I'd have done a better job of it than they did, dammit!
Meanwhile, the Christmas Lectures continue apace. We've been frighteningly busy this week with one thing and another, and my script editing hasn't been going as quickly as any of us would have liked. I really should have bundled up one of the scripts and handed it to somebody else a fortnight back, but heigh-ho.
Last Monday, however, we had a rehearsal day with audiences, performing a very early version of the first lecture. We'd been skeptical beforehand about how valuable it was likely to be, but as is usually the case the teenage mob turned into a fantastic, constructively critical bunch who almost willed us to make the thing better. An extremely useful day.
However, we've only a few weeks to go. Eek!
If anyone reading this is within striking distance of London, by the way, tickets are available via the Royal Institution's website. 11-14s particularly welcome.
A project I'd very much like to see succeed; science.tv, an online television channel dedicated to science content.
I met Matt Thurling, one of the chaps behind it, the other week, and he's an interesting guy. There are all sorts of problems with what he's trying to do, but sometimes you have to just assume it'll all work out and press ahead anyway. And while I've a vested interest in it coming off, in that I'd like to make shows for them, I'm also sufficiently idealistic about science media to just plain hope it works too.
Go and have a look, folks, and join in the discussions too -- I know several readers here are involved in the more popular end of science TV production. You'll be pleased to know that the sorts of budgets Matt's talking about are actually rather reasonable by terrestrial standards. Certainly enough to be worth your time, I'd have thought. Just leave your preconceptions at the door -- with a web channel, there's no need for formats to fill 30 or 60 minute slots, each show can run at whatever length suits it. And that's a huge benefit.
November 21, 2005
Those terribly terribly clever MySociety chaps have been drinking their fortifyingly strong tea again. They've cogitated and coded, and come up with HearFromYourMP.com. Read the page -- it's so simple, one wonders how it can possibly be a new thing.
Dashed clever. Bravo!
November 20, 2005
November 19, 2005
You may have noticed that I've not posted about the Christmas Lectures for a while. Mostly that's because I've been somewhat busy, but there are also a couple of contractual issues. They're probably ignorable, but I'll have to be even more careful than I usually am about work-related postings.
However, you can read the authorised version of what we've been up to as a weekly column in the Planet Science newsletter. At least, that's the intention. This week there's a moderately dreadful picture of me, which should be incentive enough to take something better during Monday's performances.
Performances? Oh, yes. We have two test audiences in on Monday, for the lecturer to practice on. James was doing a sterling job last week sorting out props for it, and in the process trying to find a system for managing props on the day. It's a hard job (I know, I did it fifteen years ago...), but he's rising to the challenge like a champ.
I'll let you know how it goes.
As Alan mentions, back in our school days he and I used to write and perform what even then we called 'sketch comedy.' Even looking back it's hard to tell if we were any good or not; one sketch in particular I know was rubbish, but a couple seemed to go down well and I suspect Alan was a rather charming performer. I've always reckoned I'm a bit stiff for comedy, and I'm not sure we'd really grasped the straight guy/funny guy thing back then, so it might have been dire.
I carried on writing through university, but Footlights was a curious thing. Like most Cambridge societies it was rather overburdened with people who were deadly serious about their involvement, which didn't leave much room for interested dabblers like myself. Cambridge can be a tricky place to be a generalist, since it's rather assumed that one has an over-riding passion or ambition, and the scaffolding is in place to support nascent careers. If you're merely interested nobody really knows what to do with you. One is supposed to be bold, not tentative. Oops.
So I wrote some stuff of variable quality, and performed some stuff of mostly terrible standing, and that was that. While I loved the feeling of holding an audience's attention, I was never sufficiently good at it to make it a career, at least in the comedy context. While the writing continued -- and these days I'm mostly a writer, professionally -- the performing dropped off.
A few years later, when I was asked to stand in front of an audience of disinterested teachers and talk some nonsense about irrelevant media stuff for the British Association, I was surprised to find myself shaking like a leaf and muttering utter gibberish. Had I not dried and died in front of rabid student audiences already? Had I not survived? Didn't I know what I was doing? How had I forgotten so much?
Since then I've done a few other presentations of various sorts -- careers talks, lectures, teaching workshops -- and gradually I've got back to the stage where I genuinely enjoy it, and would love to do more. I'm not sure I'm explicitly good at it, but the workshop day in particular seemed to be a complete blast and all the right noises have been made about doing it again.
What I find odd about the whole palaver is that performing live doesn't quite feel like a learned skill in the conventional sense. Sure, you can train yourself or be coached to be better at it, but a significant proportion of the supposed 'skill' is sheer bloody-minded self-confidence. Which is why successful TV presenters tend to the irritatingly cocky, since they're asked to talk at a moment's notice on a subject they know nothing about. Which by rights should freeze the stomach of a rhino. If you actually know whereof you speak, everything gets somewhat simpler.
So: Alan: it's going to be weird. You'll recognise the scene as peoples' gaze swivels to you, and there'll be a moment of 'I remember this! Cool!' before the dawning realisation hits that you haven't done it for nigh-on half your life. The trick, I think, is recognising the difference between then and now. Back in school, we had no clue. But now, you really are an expert in your subject. Some people in the room may know more about specific aspects than you, but nobody knows more about what you've done. And why wouldn't the audience hang on every word of the world expert?
It'll be fun.
Once more from London to Glasgow, where the streets are paved not so much with gold as with discarded chip wrappers and cans of Tennent's Super. It's also -- and I mean this quite seriously and literally -- ruddy freezing up here. I'd forgotten just how cold it gets.
Anyway, a swift weekend here sorting out the post, then down to London again on Monday, when we seem to be doing two performances with audiences of schoolkids. Which is, frankly, terrifying.
November 17, 2005
Attention, all Deletetheweb and other hostees! I've received notice that somehow, we're using a ridiculous proportion of the processor time of our server. It's likely that one of us is being hit by a security exploit again, and/or is doing something they shouldn't. This is most likely to be my fault, but it could be one of you lot.
Dreamhost will shortly provide me with more detailed statistics, and hopefully I'll be able to track down the errant process. Since I'm ferociously busy, the most likely control I'll implement will be simply nuking whichever script is causing the problem.
So it's possible that your site may either partially or entirely stop working at some point in the near future. If so, firstly my apologies, and secondly I'll try to get it going again as soon as I can.
Please note, incidentally, that several of you still aren't collecting your email from the server. It's quite likely that I'll have to get hard-nosed about that soon; I can't host you here without giving you an email address, and you must clear that out every so often or it fills up and causes problems. If you don't clear it yourself, I either have to spend hours clearing up after you (multiply by 24 -- this takes me hours), or I'll simply have to close your account.
November 13, 2005
For the one person reading this who cares: if you're looking for a laptop, check HP Compaq. Anyone who really cares (by definition, an audience <1) should read on:
My charming host Allan is in need of a new laptop. He currently sports a delightful little (and I do mean 'little') Toshiba libretto thing that's at least a couple of years old and is starting to get doddery. Worse, his needs are changing, and he could really do with a larger display for client demos and, particularly, development (JSP, SQL Server stuff, lots of things I don't understand). During yesterday's stroll through London town we prodded all manner of shiny things on Tottenham Court Road, and between us today we spent an unreasonable amount of time poking around on websites. Some observations:
- Almost without exception, hardware manufacturers' websites suck. Dell have three ranges of laptops, with no discernible difference between, say, anything in the D series, and for about two hours I wasn't even aware of the third range. Panasonic -- I gave up. Sony -- found the perfect thing in their PDF brochure, but couldn't track it down anywhere else, and the range on their online store doesn't tally with the range on their corporate information site (!).
- 12" subnotebooks are really rather lovely, but too small in many circumstances.
- Basically nobody makes a 13" or 14" widescreen laptop. There's a straight jump between 12" and 15".
- You can't take Bluetooth for granted. But -- to my surprise -- it sounds like nobody uses it on Windows anyway.
- Gigabit ethernet is almost unheard-of in PC laptops.
- It seems entirely random as to whether a specific model has integrated graphics (ugh!) or a kick-ass Vista-ready GeForce Go card.
- There's always a catch.
This last is what really annoyed us. Every single machine seems to have an achilles heel, be it a crap graphics card, or (quite often) being physically much larger than the screen might suggest. Prices are also all over the shop.
In the end Allan found an HP Compaq that looks remarkably good; 15" 1440x1000 widescreen, fair battery life, gigabit ethernet, bluetooth, decent graphics card: under £1000+VAT, which is genuinely excellent. Peering at the pictures, it may even look half-decent.
Interestingly, though, the 15" PowerBook is really quite a good buy at the moment. It's thinner and lighter than most, at least as quick, battery life is OK, it has a few twiddle bits that are curiously lacking elsewhere, and the price is surprisingly competitive. If it could be persuaded to run Windows I suspect Allan would have bought one -- but that's next year's trick. John Gruber has his usual extra-thorough review.
(FWIW -- my own 15" PowerBook is getting on for two years old now, and I still think it's wonderful. The only real pain is the hard drive size -- I really need 160Gb these days, but it's just not available. Boo!)
Marking, I think, the first time I've headed an entry with a line from Laurie Anderson. Anyway: yesterday, a jolly wander around Londinium. Failed to find any streets paved with gold (drat!), but did finally see the Great Court at the British Museum, which I found most stunning for the acoustics as much as the visuals. As you enter, the background flaffing of your fellow visitors curiously drops to a distant low burble. Somehow the high frequencies are attenuated, but the effect is one of the space opening audibly rather than merely visibly. Quite astonishing, not to mention beautiful.
Over the not-wobbly bridge to Tate Modern, and I regret to report not having had the prescribed 'woah that's huge!' response to the Turbine Hall. I think because I'm unexpectedly a connoisseur of large unobstructed covered spaces, having previously visited:
- The turbine hall of a hydro-electric power station in Scotland, the name of which currently escapes me.
- The DELPHI hall at CERN, which is roughly the size of a cathedral only 100m underground.
- The Millennium Dome central space.
- A submarine construction shed at Birkenhead.
- The R100/R101 airship hangers at Cardington, purported to be the largest unobstructed covered space in Europe.
These last two are, I believe, the only places in the country one can fly hot air balloons indoors. One might be able to at Tate Modern, but it looks a bit narrow to my eye.
However, the current installation in the Turbine Hall, Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment,' I rather liked. Mechanically, it's just 14,000 polypropylene boxes stacked up. But there's something rather charming about the arrangement, scale, and sheer lunacy of the endeavour. The majority of people exploring the space sported a dopey sort of half grin, which struck me as a result for the artist even if the audience is self-selecting.
Then there were fireworks care of the Lord Mayor, movies, and... ah, a day as a tourist in London. Champion.
November 11, 2005
Terrific spot by Jim: an empirical study into the effectiveness of aluminium foil hats. Conclusion: the idea -- that wearing such a hat guards you against government mind control -- was started by the government. Priceless.
November 10, 2005
A significant turning point in the production today: I discovered the local sushi and bento shop. Thus, lunch consisted of vegetable and mackerel nigiri, teriyaki chicken onigiri, and some odd red bean dumpling thing that I can only liken to sweet stewed fig wrapped in cold ground rice pudding, only that sounds disgusting and this thing wasn't. All this from a shop that's staffed by proper Japanese people who bow in a proper Japanese way when you walk in and return your change with both hands. Absolutely ruddy marvelous.
If you haven't gathered, I'm rather enjoying the whole 'being in London' thing. OK, so the public sauna that is the Tube is less than joyous, but I can't begin to say how exciting it is to have an antique toy shop three doors from the office, and five shops nearby selling only office chairs in the £500-to-don't-even-ask bracket (oooh! chairs!). Chuck in colleague James' trip today to a Covent Garden sweet shop, from which he returned with the most disgusting sweets ever (Swedish salt candy -- apparently a big hit over there). He also brought back a tin of peanut butter and ginger chews which I think basically everyone's getting for Christmas this year, since they're now officially my new Favourite Sweet. Oh, and James has just submitted a funding bid for an expedition he wants to do to Papua New Guinea with the intent of discovering a new species of shark. As one does.
Of course, the flip side of all my giddy excitement is that people in the office laugh at me for being a hick. But I don't, frankly, care. London rocks. The only downside is that I can't quite work out where all my cash is going.
An odd combination of events this week, besides the whole 'giddy about London' thing. On Monday I was in Glasgow; Tuesday I was on a plane before the sun arrived, then in the evening met up with chum Lex. This is, I should point out, something of an honour, since he works ridiculous hours for one of the big merchant banks and thus dinner with him tends to require a license from the Chancellor lest the time out should cause a collapse in GDP. Or something. He's on top form, anyway, clearly enjoying his terrifying lifestyle and paying careful attention to my detailed lessons in eccentricity. The difference between us, we worked out, is that he's a fountain pen aficionado while I'm a pencil geek. Which is pretty much a difference of three zeros on the price tag. An excellent meal and better company, anyway.
Wednesday evening involved meeting a guy who is on the verge of setting up a web-based TV channel. It's not quite clear -- probably in a good way -- if he's a genius or plain naïve. 'In a good way' because it's not obvious which would be the most beneficial for what he has planned. Interesting chap, anyway, and I'd be excited to be involved if the project comes to life, though I'm a bit worried that the timing may not work out.
Then tomorrow evening I'm hoping to meet somebody else entirely; tonight, sadly, was a late one in the office while I tried to get my head around lecture four. Ah yes, work -- ach, it's a blast, in both the enjoyment and scary senses. Which is all good fun.
November 9, 2005
I actually prefer the one on the BBC News Online home page, which reads 'Drunk elks cause rumpus at Swedish old folks' home.'
November 7, 2005
OK, so I have 5000+ unread in NetNewsWire -- again -- and hence I'm waaaaay behind the curve on this one. But give me a break, pretty much nobody who reads this blog is going to understand it anyway:
The Odio.us Elevator Pitch Generator (implemented with Ajax via Prototype, 'for maximum irony'). It's hilarious. If you don't get it... trust me, it's hilarious.
The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures date from 1826 -- or at least, I thought they did. Wikipedia lists them as starting in 1825. Mind you, that same page suggests the 2002 lectures were given by Tony Ryan of Ryanair fame, rather than Prof. Anthony Ryan of Sheffield, so perhaps I won't take it as canonical.
I should probably confess that I haven't seen the last few series -- I pretty much gave up when they invited Kevin Warwick to deliver them -- but helpfully for those of us picking up the pieces, Channel 4's Science site still lists the last three years' lectures on their front page.
For more about this year's lectures, the RI have a page which is becoming a little out-of-date; doubtless we'll update it in due course.
November 6, 2005
I've been curiously out of touch this last week, I think due to a lack of Radio 4. The immediate fix is to take my mobile phone's headset, then I can listen to Today on the little blighter (Sony Ericsson K750i -- the only thing it's lacking is a corkscrew), but until then I've been trying to catch up online. To whit -- the best brief summary I've found of what's going on in Paris is this story in Time.
November 4, 2005
Yesterday we were in with the lecturer, Sir John Krebs, bashing our way through the scripts and mucking about with a few simple demonstrations. We're at that curious stage where, frankly, it can all feel a bit naff, like we're putting on a play in school. But being in the RI's theatre makes a huge difference, as does the energy and commitment of the team. We're all, including John, giddily excited about doing the Christmas Lectures, and the sense of being a team working towards a common goal was palpable and somewhat thrilling. Sorry to gush, but that's how it was.
In the photo, clockwise from the chap standing at the back -- that's Andy, the RI's lecture theatre technician; Tom the researcher; Richard the producer; Sir John (another Yorkshireman, incidentally -- I know that'll please some readers here); James the Associate Producer; and Emma the production manager.
November 2, 2005
The joy of draft scripts revolves, in part, around gems like this:
'Astronauts in space can't taste a thing, because there is no air.'
Frankly, that's the least of their problems.
Technically, this is day five, but I started writing this back on Monday, so... ach, whatever.
Up at stupid o'clock this morning to catch an early flight to London, to meet the gang and get cracking on the Christmas Lectures. 'The gang' are, it transpires, a small group of very lovely people and -- at least as important -- all damned clever. Having hoovered up as much of the scripts as I felt able to in a day, I joined researcher Tom and AP James heading over to Albemarle Street for my first visit to the Royal Institution for something like twelve years. It's both timeless, and unrecognisable - the lecture theatre and prep room lab are still there, but with notable changes. It's a curiously bitter-sweet feel -- I'm hugely excited to be back there, but what have they done to Faraday's study? And so on.
In the photo are Tom and James, fiddling around in the old prep room. Above them hangs a decrepit model of Saturn, which didn't look much better when I made it fifteen years ago.