March 2006 Archives
March 29, 2006
Is March always this busy? Having read the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988 and then jumped feet-first into Creative Commons licensing, last week (crumbs, was it only last week?) I ended up at a school in Dingwall doing a day-and-a-half video workshop. The students (a.) were terrific, (b.) were patient with my patently inept workshop planning, and (c.) worked like stink to get their films presentable. They slaved over hot iBooks right up until the deadline, bless 'em. Huge fun, very silly, and four inches of snow overnight merely added to the entirely surreal quality of the trip.
This week I did not-really-the-same stuff with a group of staff at the Glasgow Science Centre -- who were, frankly, embarrassingly good at filming things and probably didn't need me in the first place. But like all rookie teachers, I'll claim their success was down to my instructional talent. Obviously. Then today I finally held a running camera again, shooting a couple of pieces with the award-winning Ben.
So now I have nine films hot for the editing, and it's going to be another busy week. Meanwhile, it looks like I might be going to Bangalore in the next month or so, in a this-must-be-a-wind-up-surely? sort of way. For work, I'll have you know. All very strange.
So: busy, happy, all a bit weird and unsettling but (mostly) in a good way. And I haven't even mentioned the wolves in the walls yet. Nor my attempts to convince James to have business cards printed reading 'James Gordon, Vaudeville Producer and Shark-Hunter.' It would actually be true, you see.
Anyway, I'll try to catch up with posts soon. I know you've missed me. Even if you didn't send me cards and flowers for my birthday. Ingrates, tsk.
March 27, 2006
This is a year old, but I was reminded of it recently: cute Flikr group of people who've set the desktop picture of their Macs to replicate the physical background behind them. You... well, you pretty much have to see it for yourself.
Now if somebody could do this in real-time with a TrackIR headset...
March 21, 2006
One morning a couple of years ago, I awoke to find a small snake curled up beside my bed. Since I did not then, and do not now, own a snake, this was something of a surprise.
As of today, however, I'd be ready for it. How so? Because now, I'm insured. Today (well... yesterday) I took out performing artist's public liability and employer's liability insurance. Activities covered are principally video and film production, workshop/training, science experiments and demonstrations, and so on. But a range of other activities are also included... including 'snake charming.'
I don't think I realised previously how important it would be to me to be insured for injuries incurred by members of the public as a result of my snake charming act going badly wrong. But now that I am covered, I find myself inescapably drawn to the 'reptiles' section of eBay.
Tragically, there are specific exclusions for knife throwing acts and high trapeze. Drat.
March 20, 2006
Brief notes, in no particular order: Somebody has sent me a large case of extremely obscure beers. I don't know who, but I'm extremely grateful. I've only heard of three of them, and the rest look wonderfully obscure and marvelous. How lovely, if not a little unexpected.
Meanwhile: oh bother. Guess where I'm going on Wednesday. At least I'm on the train...
Busy busy busy. More later.
March 19, 2006
March 18, 2006
An update on what I've been up to of late. A week ago, I had a meeting with some NESTA folks about this project we're trying to do (that's the one I haven't explained here -- I will, promise). We met in York, in -- of all places -- Betty's tea room, and discussed some of the fine detail over fat rascals. It was a useful reality check for me: it's all well and good my coming up with a scheme, writing a large budget, and saying 'We should do this! It'll be great!', but does it really stand any chance of happening?
Well, yes and no, but mostly 'yes.' It's clearly the sort of thing they might go for, and they're extremely enthusiastic and supportive. However, NESTA itself is going through some changes at the moment, and there's some uncertainty about how their self-perceived rôle might change in the short term. So the timing is a bit iffy. However, the project scales rather well. That is, we could go huge... or quite small. So, given the enthusiasm, I'm reasonably confident that something will happen. Fingers crossed because it's still on a bit of a knife-edge, but I'm optimistic.
So it's been full steam ahead since then. The first product of the pilot project is finished, more-or-less, and next week I'm heading up to a school in Dingwall to run a workshop for a day or so. It's also looking hopeful that something will happen with the Glasgow Science Centre, and with Ben.
This week has mostly been planning, including getting seriously stuck into copyright law and Creative Commons licenses. A slightly unexpected twist of the project is that I'm going to be introducing 13 year-olds to intellectual property issues, which is surprisingly fun. If I had to make a prediction, I'd say that they'll find it straightforward, but their teachers will flounder. We'll see. It's at least provoked some interesting discussions with and within NESTA about open licensing, and there's already some lasting value in what we've done there.
Friday saw a welcome change of pace, as I joined SMG again for a day working as a camera operator. It didn't occur to me until we started that I've never done this before -- I've always been in production, setting everything up, gathering props and writing scripts. I've never just turned up on the day and pointed a camera at stuff. And you know what? It's a hoot. I'm not a half-bad cameraman, either.
It's easy to become bogged down in all the nonsense and politics and bullshit of TV, and to forget the central truth: larking about with a camera, making films, is a blast. I think I'd started to forget how much I enjoy it. On some levels, this year is about my rediscovering that sense of fun, by opting out of some of the conventional politics.
So while it's all feeling terribly precarious at the moment, if it comes together I think it's going to be a wonderful year. Scary, challenging, and doubtless there'll be moment of appalling awfulness -- but emotions more raw than 'frustration' are what it's all about.
March 16, 2006
Waaaay back in the day (1998, apparently), an amusing little website popped up called 'Eric Emotes.' In which: a chap called Eric would attempt to convey an emotion of his readers' choice, via captured video stills. It was silly. It was -- usually -- pretty bad. It made everyone laugh, rather a lot. It's also still going, in the form of 'Eric Conveys an Emotion.'
Best of all, it's still making me laugh. Scroll down the list on the left, and tell me that 'Magic trick gone horribly wrong,' 'Unemployed,' 'Computer just ate my 20 page research project,' 'Lucy pulls the football away' and 'Eric as a chick magnet' aren't comic genius.
But now, there's a new game in town. It is: Ask a Ninja. It has as way to go yet before it covers the sheer scope of Eric's oeuvre, but these early stages are promising. I'm particularly fond of the explanation of 'podcasting' that concludes 'we are a factory for feeding apple pies to whales.'
March 15, 2006
Such is the usual defence of people angling to commit serious liberty infringements, against the journalists and 'lilly-livered liberals' who have the temerity to question their intentions.
It's an excellent defence mostly because it's a thinly-veiled attack, and also because counter-arguments tend to involve phrases like 'ad hominem' and 'specious,' that aren't as snappily memorable. With the result that people don't know what they mean, either.
Which is why, of course, we've reached the stage of having an ostensibly left-wing government on the verge of invoking the parliament act to push through legislation that would force (OK, compel us to receive with our passports) identification cards that are, on the face of it, of stuff all use to anyone beyond whichever IT company wins the (lucrative) contract to implement the darned things.
We've reached this point because nobody understands the argument against, except -- it seems -- the Lords. You can read up on the whole mess care of the Guardian's Special Report on ID Cards, but if you just want the core of the argument against, here's my version:
I don't like this sort of legislation precisely because I might, at some point in the future, have something to hide. Whatever that might be could, in principle, be of sufficient weight to bring down the government. This, ladies and gentlemen, is critical: we have to be able to collect information damaging to our political leaders, because otherwise, we'll never get them out if they go off the rails in a big way.
It is the job of the people to watch the government, not the other way around. That isn't terrorism, it's democracy.
March 13, 2006
In 1970 British Rail patented a design for a flying saucer. However, this fact is not 'recently uncovered,' as the lax journos at BBC News Online would have you believe. Tsk.
The document was perfectly well known back in the mid-90s, when Patent Office staff showed me a copy. Until about three months ago, I even hosted the text and illustrations online, at my old Demon space. I'd even be able to prove this, if the Internet Archive was talking to me right now.
What I've never managed to track down is the fabled patent for a cat-powered anti-ballistic missile defense system. The Patent Office's new search system is good, but not that good.
March 8, 2006
Walking through the park this afternoon, I saw this little fella. And about ten of his pals. And about three of their girlfriends, who were looking a little harassed, poor souls. What I don't know is:
- How they were finding their way over a large hill and down to the lake, &
- How amphibians cope with nearly-frozen water. Fish I understand -- only the top surface is frozen, and that insulates the deeper water -- but air-breathers? Won't they freeze?
March 6, 2006
Parked outside my flat is this road roller. I mention this because: (a.) to drive a road roller one needs only a standard car license, (b.) it's the most ludicrous form of transport covered by said license, (c.) consequently, I've always wanted to drive one, and (d.) this one is parked right across the road. The picture is the view from my desk, where I'm typing this post.
Oh, the temptation.
March 5, 2006
Five years. That's how long I've been blogging, and that's how long it's taken me to get around to writing an 'About...' blurb for this site. This is more than a little ridiculous, and probably a tad counter-productive given that some really rather interesting people have cropped up in the comments here on occasion, and they're quite likely to have thought 'who the heck is this oik and why am I reading his ramblings?' Well, now they can find out.
But equally, most of you know full well who I am, what I do, and all that (and yet still you're reading... maniacs). In the interests of helping both audiences, the actual 'About' bit is after the break:
Here's a link. I'd like you to follow it so much, I'm going to write it out in full: http://www.apple.com/macintosh.
Would anybody -- anybody -- like to explain why that goes to 'Page Not Found'?
"The Chopper Squad fly the Heli-Gimble into the heart of the swampy delta."
Yeah, OK, get past the occasionally ridiculous commentary script, and... ruddy 'eck, Planet Earth is magnificent. And to think people say the BBC isn't worth the license fee -- for heaven's sake, this stuff is priceless.
Somewhere in a parallel universe, there's a Jonathan that can be bothered to follow the argument about MashupCamp and BarCamp. That Jonathan would point out that, in the very early 90s, a similar sort of concept was held by the student section of the British Association. He knows, because he helped organise it. A fairly random group and number of people met up in a spare field near a museum of buildings (yes, there really is one), and spent a weekend doing random stuff that people turned up with. Including, but not limited to:
- Building a fabulously beautiful 9-metre-high paper sculpture. OK, so this bit was sort-of planned in advance, and it accounted for most of the weekend.
- Building a wireframe computer model of said sculpture, that moved in a spookily similar way (using a PowerBook Duo, some 3D object modeling code left over from an attendee's surgical training simulator project, some nasty polar maths, and a guy who's now tech head of EA Europe).
- Fire walking, sans any of the ritual claptrap
- Giant bubble blowing
- Boomerang throwing
- Extreme campfire cookery
- Geodesic structure construction
We'd probably have done more computery stuff, except that this was only about a year or two after the PowerBook was invented, and the Web was still something only TBL knew about. We still managed an impromptu peer-to-peer campfire network, but I can't for the life of me remember what we did with it. Bolo, probably.
Anyway, this parallel-universe-gives-a-fig Jonathan isn't trying to suggest that he invented the (Mashup|Bar)Camp model. Rather, he's suggesting that there's nothing remotely original in such (lack of) organisation. People getting together to do things they find mutually interesting isn't new now, and it wasn't new then. It's simply what people do.
Structuring such endeavours in the form of a conference, industries, and 'work': that's new, and it's taken a few thousand years for us all to feel comfortable with those social structures. But coming together to 'do stuff' was where we differentiated ourselves from the chimpanzees.
Mark linked to this a few days ago, but somehow I missed it: tremendously skillful three-ball juggling with a bit of a twist. Most jugglers pride themselves on smooth performance, on it being a technical form -- this is quite the opposite, and all the better for it. Gob-smacking to watch, and you don't need to be a juggler to realise just how clever it is.
As for the juggling snobs who think anything less than five balls is trivial: get over yourselves.
Playlist magazine (which I think is part of the MacWorld family) have an excellent review of Apple's new 'audiophile quality' (sic) iPod HiFi speaker set. It's an interesting read, in part because it explicitly avoids the rabid audiophile rantings -- '53Hz! That's not a bass floor!' etc -- but does a proper listening test against similar products from Bose, Monitor Audio, Tivoli et al. There are several features noted that are classic Apple, like the volume ramping up smoothly when you drop an already-playing iPod in the HiFi's dock, and the comparative test is useful. The HiFi is said to offer excellent bass and volume, but to lack a smidge of treble detail. Which to my mind is probably the correct compromise for people who listen to more rock/pop/hip-hop/etc than piano concertos. Plus, let's face it, smoothing the high end should help disguise compression artifacts a little -- better to blur it all a bit than reveal the flaws?
What I find really interesting is comparing today's 'iPod + HiFi' model to the 'cheap separates from Richer Sounds' approach we all took back when we were students. You can't beat the convenience of the iPod set-up, and while I'm sure you can beat the sound quality for similar money -- particularly if you factor in the iPod itself -- the real question is whether the HiFi and similar products are 'good enough.' My guess: absolutely. Which would explain why the audio shop in which Matt and I were listening to amps costing more than a Mac also sells iPod-specific Tivoli and Bose kit.
If I was doing it all again, I'm not quite certain I'd bother with separates. Lugging them around between all the places I've lived has been a pain, and I'm now stuck with a stack of aging kit that sounds only 'OK.' Swapping out the speakers would help enormously, but I've not done that partly because my amp will only drive two of the things... and of course I'd really like to do surround-sound for movies. Which is an entirely different kettle of fish.
And that, I think, is the only real weakness of the Apple ecosystem. In picking their targets and tailoring their products oh-so-smoothly, they rather prevent the mix-and-match approach that works for people like me. It's a conscious decision on their part, of course -- hit 85% of the market with something that's utterly wonderful for them, the remainder aren't worth the hassle of chasing -- and I rather applaud them for it.
I've a nagging doubt, however, which is this: to get the most out of the Apple way, one really needs to fit their profiles and market segments. Doesn't that rather clash with the whole 'think different', pirate flag, renegade Mac users spirit? As the iPod dominates all, can Apple maintain their customers' joyous free-spirit 'alternative' atmosphere? If Apple's new niche is 'all of us', what sets them apart from everybody else?
It's simplistic to say 'nothing -- they're just another business.' Of course they are, but they're more clever than most in choosing what not to do (tablet PCs spring to mind...). They leave features out -- even features their customers claim to want -- if including them compromises the product in other ways, like ease of use, which is an unusually bold/principled/enlightened/stupid approach (delete as you see fit).
What interests me is that we, their customers, have given them a license to be quirky because we fitted that profile of 'different.' That's fine, but it doesn't transfer to a situation where everybody is wearing white earbuds.
(for completeness: I'd probably plump for a Tivoli iSongBook over Apple's HiFi. Bass is less important to me than Radio 4. On the other hand, I already have a Tivoli PAL, and apart from the entire lack of stereo imaging -- it's a single speaker -- I absolutely love it).
March 4, 2006
ITV's F1 coverage is two minutes old, and already I have two observations:
- Girls dancing with snakes? What were they thinking? Have I slipped back to the eighties without realising?
- Steve Rider rather than Grim Rosenthal. Oh, thank heavens.
Will I actually watch the season this year? Doubtful.
When I finally get around to refreshing the template here on the The Daily Grind (noticed how the individual entry pages have weirdness? Yup, the bitrot has set in...), I must remember to use this new came-from-Firefox-now-used-by-Mozilla-and-licensed-by-Microsoft-for-IE7 icon to flag up my feeds. Hopefully some future version of Safari will swap this in for the blue RSS thingy that appears in the address bar, and then we'll all be reading off the same page.
Personally, I got bored with the whole RSS 0.9 / RSS 1.0 / RSS 2.0 / Atom thing months back, and would much rather call all of them 'feeds,' and let the user's software express a preference, if they really care.
March 3, 2006
A few linkbloggery things I couldn't resist passing on: Somebody's finally worked out what to do with the Nintendo DS's touch screen, with the forthcoming Trauma Center: Under the Knife (already out in the US). Meanwhile, I briefly feared for James on reading this post on Boing Boing, linking to this Reuters article about the discovery of a new species of shark. Luckily it's not James' shark, which remains stubbornly unknown to science. The vaudeville can go on.
Given the 'deluge' posting rate from Boing Boing of late, I can't imagine how crushing it would be to launch a new website without being linked from them. Robert Scoble, however, remains a little more circumspect, or at least less profligate. He has, however, finally linked to Gia. Isn't that the definition of 'A-list,' or something?
Next up, an American company selling home installations of secret passageways behind fireplaces and bookshelves, activated by moving books or turning candlesticks. Which would be genius, only... watch the video called 'Bookshelf,' and tell me that doesn't look suspiciously like an ordinary door with a bookshelf glued to the front.
Finally -- cowabduction.com, which should finally put to rest that absurd notion about Americans not having a sense of humour. Watch the video. Go on, it's priceless. And, apparently, a production of the California Milk Processor Board.
March 1, 2006
So, decisions have been made on sessions for the BIG Event this year. Muggins here has somehow roped himself into convening an hour's panel discussion (or somesuch) on project management, which is either going to be fun or (more likely) a bit of a nightmare. But at least I didn't go down on my own -- I took poor Ben with me. He's been volunteered (by me, mostly) to run a meet/greet/pub trick session. The idea is a combination of a show & tell and speed dating. Or something like that.
The trouble is, there are likely to be a sizable number of people present, and we'd like everyone to meet everyone else. Precisely once. In groups.
As a result, we've both spent hours failing to spot the pattern. I think you can do it for a population P and group size G which satisfies P = nG(G-1), where n is the number of meetings. Then you just need to permute n sets of G identifiers (red/orange/yellow/... , triangle/square/pentagon/... , biped/quadroped/arthropod/... etc), print out those sets as cards, and hand them over to people. The rounds of meetings are thus 'colours,' 'Number of sides,' 'number of legs,' and so on. Job done. Unfortunately, my brain dribbled out of my ears just as I formulated this hypothesis. These days I can write, but I'm very, very rusty at this sort of stuff. Pathetic, really.
However, one of the fundamental aspects of my training as a physicist that I do recall, was to utilise tools appropriate to the circumstances. In this case: a mathematician. Conor, you're up. I expect a neatly-argued and useful solution in the comments forthwith. Sadly, no LaTeX markup allowed.
Bonus marks to anyone who submits perl/ruby/PHP/python etc to generate the identifier patterns for me, and for alternative solutions. Particularly if they actually work, which mine probably doesn't.
[update 3rd March: In an entirely expected development, Conor has written code in a language of which nobody else has heard. Meanwhile, a bit of gentle Googling has revealed this page, which suggests that what we're looking at here is a form of Whist tournament. Which seems promising, until one stumbles over this page, which remarks on a failed brute force search for an 80-person solution.]
For the last few months, I've been writing a column for a newsletter called Planet Science, covering activities and demonstrations and the like. Yet another way of milking the old Big Bang and How2 back catalogue, basically.
This morning I was contacted, via Planet Science, by a production company in London. Now, I'm not terribly well connected, and such things don't happen very often, so I was mildly surprised that they'd track me down via that route. All became clearer, however, when they asked how much experience I had of live television. 'Not much,' I replied. 'Some of the Christmas Lectures were live, but by that time I was asleep under my desk in the production office, so to be honest I've no idea how they went.'
There was a pause.
'No,' said the terribly polite but now rapidly back-tracking AP, 'I meant... on the other side of the camera.'
Realisation dawned at both ends of the phone. Mis-reading 'producer' as 'presenter' is something we've all done, typically when one is trying to find the latter and can only find the former. Now, I've stumbled in front of the lens a few times, and not all of those hit the cutting-room floor. But really, I'm no presenter. And I'm certainly not up to the job of co-anchoring a live (NB. live) show based around a zero-anaesthetic operation. Not unless they're really desperate. Or mad.
My brother-in-law is staying with me for a couple of nights this week, as he's doing a part-time Masters course at Glasgow Uni. He's been up a couple of times before, and it's good to see him, but I'm starting to worry that I'm a poor host.
See, I don't really have a spare bedroom, since it's an office. And while I did recently tidy up considerably, there's still not quite enough room to put down the futon. So poor Matty has to sleep in the lounge, with its draughty bay window.
Then there's the futon itself. Which is... well, it's old. And somewhat compacted. It has, in fact, been compared to foldable concrete, though the 'foldable' part is moot.
It's so notorious that my dear brother-in-law last night confessed that he's booked a session with the osteopath for the day he returns to Leeds.
in the interests of fair and reasonable balance, after my little snigger the other day, this article from ExtremeTech detailing why Windows Vista won't suck. And you know, Mac fan-boy as I am, I'm inclined to agree with them. There's lots of stuff in Vista that we've had in OS X for years, but that doesn't make it any less welcome in Windows. And there is stuff in Vista that I could see myself using and appreciating.
Sure, there's other stuff that's a hideous mess (that blurring-translucent overlay thing for window titlebars? Neat trick, chaps, but there's a reason OS X toned down most of its original translucency effects -- it's just plain hard to read). Also, we really don't know what's going to be in Mac OS X 10.5, which should appear around the same time. But still, Vista could and should be a significant improvement over XP. And hey, my crash-prone PC just about meets the minimum specs.
So, the delightful little Mac mini has gone to Intel processors, with the following changes:
- It's a whole lot less anemic and should actually be able to encode video overnight, rather than over-the-weekend. I still haven't seen good benchmarks for MPEG4 compression performance with the Core Solo/Duo processors, however; my G4s absolutely thrash my AMD box for this.
- Gigabit ethernet is long, long overdue -- finally you can move video on and off it at sensible speeds. Albeit with a slow hard drive.
- Wirelessy stuff is no longer optional. Hurrah!
- The video chipset is integrated (boo!), but supposedly pretty good at hardware video scaling and H264 decoding (yay!).
- Stuffing it to the gills with RAM now means 2Gb, not 1. This is a Good Thing.
- It's more expensive to start with.
See, it's that last point that's rather the fly in the ointment. By the time you add a keyboard and mouse, you've not got a huge chunk of change sloshing around for a monitor before you might as well buy an iMac. Which is significantly quicker, if only in hard drive and video performance. Don't get me wrong, I think the mini is now a cracking little box (whereas previously it always struck me as a bit marginal, performance-wise), but it's mildly surprising to see just how much more Apple must be paying for the Intel processors over the G4.
However, if anyone's really pessimistic about Apple, just go back and read Thread 500 -- fanboys' initial reaction to the iPod, all those years ago. The mini is still a decent little box... but the old stripped-out base model was really really cheap.