May 2006 Archives
May 31, 2006
It's easy to be cynical about other peoples' work, especially when it's from those notably treacherous TV types. But still, what do we think of this: the Brainiac bunch dropping alkali metals into water, including Rubidium and Caesium?
OK, it's a heap of fun. But my guess? Fake. It doesn't 'feel' right.
...or am I just snarky because it's not my show?
See, I read this headline and immediately thought, "They're doing live link-ups with the Comedy Store? Cool!" Sadly, the truth is a whole lot less amusing.
Giles Turnbull may not, in fact, be suggesting what I'm about to attribute to him, but I'm wearing a Helm of Immense Lummoxness +3 so I'm going to pretend he is.
Go and read this post, then Giles' comments about a 'British Boing Boing,' then come back here.
Now, I know that 'British Boing Boing' is a rubbish phrase. But, tell me, honestly -- aren't you a little sick of Boing Boing? Yeah, me too. It's hard to put my finger on exactly why, but I've noticed it's dropping down my feeds list in NetNewsWire.
But anyway, forget all that. I'm going to pretend that Giles is suggesting we start this. Yes, really.
So... him, me: who else? Gia? Dave, are you still ranting about blogs being pointless, or have you come to accept that they're only as pointless as everything else in life, and therefore worth doing anyway? Gia, would you like to invite Tom R? Damien, want to resurrect the spirit (and possibly domain name) of ItLikesYou?
No, I haven't thought this through. Sometimes that's the best way.
(oh, and... post 1000, baby. Technically it's serialed a little higher, but the excess must have been unpublished drafts. Woohoo! One thousand posts! Where's the cake?)
May 27, 2006
If you're going to post a video of an ant wandering around inside your monitor, do what Matt Thomas does here: post it with a choice of music that makes me laugh. Some of the comments are worth reading, too.
Meanwhile, I'm off to mid-Wales for the weekend. There's going to be rain hurtling down out of the sky, I'm camping halfway up a hill somewhere, and I really, really don't care. I so need a couple of days off. Oh, and if anyone happens to be in the Sheffield Apple Store on Monday morning, say hi as my Dad buys a Mac mini. I'll let you know how that goes.
May 26, 2006
Ya got me. I was Googling myself again. Yeah, well, we all do it -- why pretend?
Anyway, I have absolutely zero recollection of doing this interview. Which quite likely means that I didn't. Weird, but it would explain the rather blatant lack of factual accuracy. Around that time I did talk to a chap from some Scottish newspaper or other, but AAAS Science Careers? Not that I know of.
Odd odd odd. Not bad, just odd. And maybe, just maybe, I did do an interview with 'Hilary Marshall.' Who can tell?
May 25, 2006
I may as well explain why I'm being so curmudgeonly about TV this week. Last Friday, Scottish Television officially closed their studio in Glasgow; in two months' time they move to a new building on the South side of the river here, leaving their Cowcaddens site after 49 years. I've worked in that studio for almost ten years, and it carries lots of memories -- some happier than others. The tragic part is that it's not being replaced -- STV will, as of August, be a broadcaster without their own studio space. Since much of my work has been unfashionably studio-based, I find this rather depressing.
But the party... the party was weird. For starters, I wasn't invited. Only current staff were, and since there's recently been a huge bunch of layoffs, most of the people who made significant contributions over the years were... er... not on the guest list. However, as it happened I was working in the building on Friday, so I managed to sneak in. It may have helped that I've known Dixon the security chief for a decade.
Getting inside was merely the start of my troubled mindset, however. The attendees split rather too neatly into two groups -- the old hands who I know, have worked with, and have deep respect for; and the youngsters, who to all appearances had never been in a studio before. I'm all for fresh blood in the industry, but... who are these people, what do they do, and how can they not know what a studio represents? It's the heart of the company, the essence of television, the... see, I'm officially one of the 'old fogies.' Right there, I've joined them.
At one point I found myself surrounded by a plethora of the bright young flittering things, which I've noticed tends to happen once they get wind that one's a Producer. It's a sort of inverse pulling contest, as the lovely girls (mostly female, the Bright Young Things) vie for the attention of what might be the source of their next job. Poor deluded fools. Anyway, once it transpired that this bunch of newcomers had only been in the studio for staff meetings, I found myself pointing upwards.
"That," I proclaimed loudly, proudly, and possibly a little drunkenly, "Is a lighting grid. It's a magnificent toy, one of the finest pieces of equipment you'll ever get the chance to play with. It can make your sets and shots come alive. And you'll probably never anything like it again." Sad, really.
The best/worst part of the night, however, was the clipsreel, shown on a not-especially-large projection screen. Notably, it had been made by the news crew and hence was linked from their piddly little studio and not, er, the main one. A few old archive clips, the odd modestly-amusing story from a staffer, some admittedly rather good mugging from the news team. But since most of the old hands have been laid off, there really wasn't much history. The tradition, the ambience, the... well, for me, the magic of TV, it just wasn't there. I'm sorry, but I love this business, I take entertaining people and making them laugh extremely seriously, and I still feel slightly giddy and deeply privileged that I make programmes watched by hundreds of thousands, even millions of people. Deep down most of us feel that way, but that sense of occasion, of Speaking To The Nation, was entirely lacking. Tragic, tragic, tragic.
There's worse, too, for the whole clipsreel was shown with lipsync way off. The dubbing boys and I reckoned it was three frames out, all the way through. And then there were the dropouts -- it looked like a dodgy digitize onto DVD, with block errors, but could have been a tape dropout or even dirty heads.
Mark this carefully -- this was a national broadcaster, the absolute definition of professionalism, in their own studio. From the room up the stairs you can flip a switch and go out live to the whole UK. In that space, that group of people, showcasing the best of their talent and output over the last 50 years... cocked up.
I've a sneaking suspicion that even when I started, that would have been a sackable offence. As it was, we fogies merely stood and looked on, slack-jawed. Then we turned away and muttered into our beers.
The BBC Creative Desktop. Anyone want to clue me in? It's extremely hard to get a handle on what they're up to. I would add 'because I'm not within the BBC,' but I suspect much the same is true internally, too. But so far as I can tell, it goes like this:
- Declaring DigiBeta essentially dead, and forcing production to use DV, presumably shot as DVCAM on DSRs. This is darkly ironic, given the tech review nightmares independents have faced over the last five years working with exactly this workflow. Bastards.
- Declaring DV a 'stop-gap,' en route to a fully tapeless system. Two questions there: What's the tapeless format? What's the archiving strategy?
- Bunging 80 Final Cut stations into White City, and charging them out at something bonkersly-low like £200/week... but without an editor. So if you're doing more than six weeks of edit you might as well just buy an iMac and tell 'em to stick it.
- Telling producers and directors that yes, they can edit, honest, and getting them to do the rough-cuts.
- Bringing in a 'Craft Editor' (ie. proper editor) to paper over the cracks as best they can when they've never seen the material before and have only two days to fix the producer's screwed-up nonsense cut.
- Doing everything at full quality, so we finally dispense with the ridiculous offline/online distinction.
- "Dub? I'm sorry, what's that? I don't understand what you're talking about."
There's supposedly some sort of standard desktop system that's going to be rolled out into production offices, but I know even less about that. I'm guessing it's some ruddy awful Outlook-based scheduling system, stuff that ties into SAP or whatever for budgetry wibbling, and ScreenWriter -- or whatever it's called -- the BBC's Word-based script diddling system (Windows-only, which is why I've never used it).
The only other thing I know is that the new Glasgow facility will be entirely open-plan and hot-desking for production staff. There's a lot of fretting about this within the Beeb, but a large part of me wants to say 'grow up.' I've always been freelance, so I've always 'hot-desked,' and yes, it ruddy sucks. See how you like it for a change.
However, I'd love to see what happens when they first try a children's make & do show in an open-plan office. We attempted that once with How2, and the Politics department across the gangway moved. Boy, are they in for a shock.
Anyway -- anyone know any more about how this brave new world of production is supposed to work?
Peter Serafinowicz was one of the chaps behind Look Around You, a pastiche of 70s science education shows that was (a.) brilliant, (b.) skewered some of the stuff I still do, ouch, and (c.) oddly managed to overstay its welcome anyway. He's also the voice of Darth Maul, apparently, which I didn't know until today. Anyway, he's been making funny shorts and shoving them up on YouTube.
I think -- hope? -- there's going to be an interesting culture shift in TV development soon. See, current TV models are predicated on the assumption that making TV is expensive. Which is still true -- mostly, it's £100,000/hour and up. One practical upshot of this is that the single most difficult thing to do from within most TV companies -- the thing that requires one to jump through the most hoops, file the most paperwork, and generally prat around for days and weeks -- is getting stuff on tape.
Which is, of course, crazy. Oh, sure, those processes made sense back when cameras cost £50k (without a lens), when a minimum crew was three people, and when editing was something that required another £100k's-worth of kit. But that was -- woah! -- eight years ago. Today, if you have a half-decent idea you might as well just grab a couple of Z1s, busk the piece, fix the bits that don't work, and lash it all together in Final Cut on any nearby laptop. The result won't be properly broadcast-quality, but there are enough of us who are good enough at the different stages that it'll be at least presentable. Heck, we made all of Scrap It! that way, and it pretty much worked out.
There's another stage missing, another assumption. Since shooting stuff is expensive, pilots are funded -- and hence owned -- by the broadcaster. So pilot tapes are only ever seen by very, very small audiences. But if pilots cost basically nothing to produce, where's the advantage in that? Just make the thing, already.
I'm waiting to see which production company is going to be first to say 'sod it,' and start video blogging their taster tapes. While everyone else is focussed on trying to make money from the net, by selling tens of thousand of copies for pence each, you'll be building an audience for a show before you've even sold it.
Picture the scene:
'I'm not interested,' says the commissioner.
'We've had twelve thousand views on YouTube,' you counter.
(Oh, and if anyone reading this happens to be interested -- yes, I can help you do this).
Recent Apple PowerBooks and MacBooks feature a 'sudden motion sensor,' that's designed to detect when the laptop is in freefall and park the hard drive heads. It turns out that the thing is a pretty nifty accelerometer, and there are several unexpected uses for it. One is the Carpenter's Level dashboard widget, which... er... turns your extremely expensive laptop into a duff spirit level. Huh.
Unexpectedly, there may be a practical use for all this nonsense: desktop switching. Huh? SmackBook Pro, a patch for a Mac multiple desktop manager doohickie, allows you to switch views by... er... slapping the side of your laptop. Watch the video and tell me that doesn't look cool.
May 24, 2006
Apologies to hostees -- you may be experiencing email troubles, either for sending or receiving, or even both. My own inbound mail was down yesterday; today it's back up, but outgoing mail is borked.
Dreamhost assure me they're fixing the problem. Honest.
May 23, 2006
Most of the time, the half terabyte or so of drives hanging off my Power Mac are solidly reliable. Every so often something slightly screwy will force me to quit lots of applications, unplug the chain, power it down, then reverse the process -- but by and large it all 'just works.'
This afternoon, then, I became rather concerned when 'Media 0' failed to mount. On closer inspection, it failed to spin up, instead making a rather alarming clicking noise. I flipped the case open, noting with resignation that the contents -- an 80Gb IBM Deskstar -- were dated 'November 2002.' In the world of hard drives, that's quite old. Nothing looked amiss, however, so I sealed it all back up again and tried bunging in the power cable once more. Nothing.
So I bashed it. Hard.
Result: the satisfying sound of a hard drive spinning up and calibrating the heads, followed by a cheery orange/yellow icon appearing on the Power Mac's desktop. Disk Utility tells me there's nothing amiss in the least, and I should stop worrying.
Hmm. I may have to try the same technique on the even older Lacie 60Gb drive that 'failed' on me a few weeks back. Could be that it's just stuck, and a good slap around the chops will force it to pay attention again.
Lest we all get carried away by the appeal of a tapeless workflow, chuck our Z1s in a skip, and run screaming to the nearest Apple Store to buy a MacBook, Final Cut Studio 5.1, and a Panasonic HVX-200... a cautionary tale about how the P2 system may, in fact, be a total disaster zone. Though it does read to me like the author just didn't prepare properly. Certainly, assuming everything would work with a version of Final Cut that's older than the recording format was a... curious move.
Tomorrow, my registration for the domain itlikesyou.com expires. The question is: should I renew it?
Ilya was, had I but known, the first blog I ran. It started in 2001, scant months after the then-unknown Boing Boing, and had Alan, Martin, Damien and myself actually bothered posting much it could, perhaps, have been Boing Boing. Maybe we'd have needed whackier names, like 'Cory' or 'Xeni' or something. And being American might have helped, rather than, you know, in Leeds. The other difference was that, while Boing Boing is primarily about stuff found online, ItLikesYou was always intended to be primarily offline stuff. It wasn't, but that was the intention.
However, six months in we'd still not got around to doing anything like a site design, and then finally the Geeklog back-end broke in some non-trivial way. By that time Movable Type was out of beta (!), and I'd started blogging personally at quernstone.com.
So while I do sometimes wonder if Ilya could have been a contender, in some warped and twisted parallel world, it's also blatantly obvious that it was nothing more than 'yet another dung-heap website that nobody read.' Still, it's at least partially preserved for the historians, in the Wayback machine. I'm intrigued that my writing was pithier and, most likely, better there than here.
Anyway, the question remains: should I retain the domain? Will I think of anything else to do with it? Hmm...
May 18, 2006
Reading back over the last few weeks' posts here... my, it's been a weird time. I'm still not quite convinced this blog is 'interesting' per se, but maybe I can see why at least a small handful of you bother with these blatherings. By way of thanks for your continued patronage, here's a delightful picture I've just taken of some charming broad beans I bought this afternoon. Enjoy.
What? You expected it to get less weird?
Unsurprisingly, people can be rather gung-ho about intellectual property and licensing, until it comes to discussing contracts. At which point they usually get terribly worried, and demand everything they think they can get away with. Which in some cases is fair enough -- companies in particular have an obligation to their shareholders to avoid being goofy if they can, and accidentally letting competitors use stuff that you could have owned usually counts as 'goofy.'
But there's another way of looking at it all, particularly when the product of the project is less tangible than hard cash: that one should assess the IP requirements and objectives of the project. Then, rather than issuing the usual contractual boilerplate, one can write a contract that best meets those goals.
In TV I most often encountered IP absurdities thus:
- We're discussing whether to use an idea we've seen in a book or on a website in a show. Somebody senior (usually the Executive Producer) asserts that 'there's no copyright on ideas' and that we really shouldn't worry. Indeed, it is the execution of the idea that's copyrighted, not the idea itself. But then:
- Subsequently, said idea appears in another TV show or in a book or on a website. At which point somebody senior (usually said Executive Producer) froths at the mouth about how we should nail them for copying our stuff.
Most recently, I copped some flack because one of the series I made last year, Scrap It!, uses several item ideas from How2 and particularly from The Big Bang. None are direct copies, but it's certainly recycling, and somebody involved in my earlier shows clearly didn't like me... er... plagiarising myself. Well, tough. I've done it before and I'll do it again. Cheerfully.
And right now, my concern for 'appropriate' (rather than 'blanket') rights is causing problems with another contract. But you see... I've already written hundreds of experiments for TV shows, often more than once, and I have to be careful not to look at my own scripts while I'm doing so to avoid infringing copyright from earlier versions of the same experiment. If I'm going to rewrite it all again for a website, I really really want to do it a bit more cleverly this time around. So I don't have to do it yet again.
Is that so wrong?
I've been in London for a couple of days moving stuff on with SciCast -- which really is the project title, in that we've bought the domain names and everything. It's been knackering, productive, interesting. A meeting with the website technical partners at the ETB was extremely positive: while part of me would prefer to lash the site together myself in Movable Type, the sane part of me is utterly delighted that somebody else -- ie. somebody who actually knows what they're doing -- is going to build it for me. And, crucially, support it.
Best of all, the ETB seem happy to work on a fairly ad-hoc basis. That is, to lash something together and then iterate as appropriate, and as necessity, experience, and time permit. So we spent the rest of the day at NESTA drafting wire-frame mockups of the site, and arguing over functionality. So the first lash-together should reflect our 'best guess,' and we can also make considered judgments about which bits are crucial, which 'would be nice,' and which are just clutter.
One interesting aspect of the project is that I'm going to rediscover some of the things about TV that I like, but have come to overlook. For example, in TV there's no real distinction between 'creatives' and 'project managers.' This often causes utter mayhem, nightmarish schedules, appalling decision-making processes, and a complete lack of budgetary prudence.
But when it works it's glorious, because there's nobody in the way. On some of my projects it's been common practice for the accountant to sit with the production department, which the business types tend to hate. They're worried the accountant might 'go native,' and cede oversight to the producer (who should, of course, never be trusted). But with the right people it works beautifully, in that the accountant can see what's going on and start shuffling money around before you've even made the decision that yes, you really really really want that piece of set, and it's worth the sacrifice to repaint it blue.
There's also a prevailing attitude of 'I don't care if you can do this, I need to know if you're going to do it by Friday. Otherwise this discussion is a waste of time.' Mostly this is plain rude -- but again, when it works it's a gloriously productive approach. Likewise the 'throw it at the wall and see if it sticks' technique -- lash something together as quickly as possible, bat it around, see if you like the way it's going. If you do, spend the time you have left making it good. If you don't, bin it and try something else.
Luckily, Katie (who's the NESTA end of SciCast) is extremely amenable to just making things happen. She used to be a stand-up and impro comedian, which might have something to do with it, but her approach is mildly unexpected at NESTA. You see, they're in the business of supporting creativity, but as I'm slowly learning that's not the same as being a creative environment. Indeed, we slightly freaked people out by being wildly productive, and I was somewhat baffled that we couldn't do that in an open office.
Television production offices tend to be cluttered, messy, dreadfully-designed, even a bit smelly. They're usually full of expansive discussions and not very many people having them. I was once on the phone, talking to a contributor, watching a fist-fight at the far end of the office. This is normal, it's inspiring -- it's part of the fast-turnaround, creative world of TV. NESTA is... an office. With people writing considered reports and filing things. Being enthusiastic and expressive in such a space is distracting, so we ended up sitting in the foyer.
And yes, as the day finished we had an unresolved and fairly fundamental creative disagreement. About the front page of the site, no less. I'm so proud of us.
Theoretically, I'm rewriting last year's Christmas Lectures today... in practice I'm trying to clear some of the blog posts that have backed up in NetNewsWire. So, in no particular order:
- WorldMapper. This is genius, fascinating, and from Sheffield: an altogether too-rare combination, Medlo excepted.
- Cars -- second trailer. So... best guess, folks: is this where Pixar jumps the shark, or will Lasseter manage to pull a charmingly folksy tale out of the bag that has 'over-familiar cliché and environmentally unsound' stamped on it?
- Aventis prize for science books winner. This is where I was on Monday night. Er... no, not winning. Good bash, and the children's books are particularly good: Royal Society's pages (thanks to a corporate merger and name change, the main Prize site is... er... offline. Oops). It's True! Squids Suck rocks.
- Lee Siegel rants about Malcolm Gladwell at the New Republic Online. I read Blink while I was traveling to and from India, pretty much hated it, and scrawled a bit of a diatribe in a notebook that I haven't yet had chance to post here. My criticisms are different to Siegel's, but I'm still relieved that I'm not going to be the only nay-sayer.
May 15, 2006
Before anyone picks holes in the previous post -- we had huge (huge, I tell you) arguments about what colour the Sun is. Lots of really very very senior astronomers were arguing that it's 'obviously' yellow, which made it rather hard for the likes of me to pursue a line of inquiry centred on the 'but... it has to be white, by definition' angle. Black-body radiation curves were calculated, with precise RGB mixing via colour-calibrated monitors. Counter-arguments were raised involving infinite fields of non-specular waveband-agnostic reflector -- ie. 'snow'...
There may even have been punches thrown.
Matt Webb is an interesting chap. Which is to be expected from the author of the charmingly bonkers Mind Hacks. Reading his rambling slides about sci-fi he likes (well worth a look -- early on there's a slide about the aviary at London Zoo, which should probably clue you in that this isn't a cyberpunk-or-nothing SF talk), I find he did this several years ago. I genuinely can't believe I've not seen it. It's a script that generates an RSS feed for you, which lets you know when your personal light cone has passed stars within 50 light-years. Hence, My own personal universe is about two months away from Iota Persei.
Back when I first worked at the Royal Institution, one of the things I built for Malcolm Longair's Christmas Lectures was a scale model of the 50 nearest stars. They hung from gossamer-fine fishing line in a 3x3x3 metre cube, filling the space in front of the demonstration bench. When I'd finished measuring and cutting and tying and painting, we let the frame hang while we walked around. A visiting astronomer, passing through to wish Longair the best of luck, stuck his nose in the hallowed theatre, saw the model, and became instantly enraptured. He wove his way through the dangling mess, testing his knowledge trying to guess what each star was.
In the centre, an unassuming little yellow-painted polystyrene ball. Home.
Would you, dear reader, kindly do me a favour? Pull up a new browser window, type 'quernstone' in the address bar, and hit return. Then leave a comment here to tell me what happens.
For me, in Safari, on both my Macs, I reach this page. Which seems reasonable -- browsers usually guess a '.com' ending if none is specified, so here seems like as good a place to end up as any.
Internet Explorer on my Windows XP box, to be different, has a bit of a ponder before returning an MSN search page for 'quernstone.' Which is fair enough, I suppose.
Firefox, however, does something altogether weird. Typing 'quernstone' sends one to... quernstoneknits.co.uk, a knitwear company on Orkney. Hnnnngh? Firefox does this on both Windows and Mac OS X, for me, using the current release versions.
Can anyone verify this? Better, can anyone explain?
Gia -- not so much the A-list as the one-woman A-Team of the blogging world -- has a new gig, in addition to her work on the recently-revamped Sunshine: she's writing for a new blog from the Institute of Physics. The goal? To instigate, encourage, and inform a public conversation about the desirability of building new nuclear power stations.
Head over to Potential Energy to ponder power, regard radioisotopes, or fulminate on fission. Or just wonder what they were thinking of with the pale-rose-on-beige colour scheme.
May 14, 2006
How can I not have discovered RightFields until now? Woohoo! This is like having FileMaker-circa-1990 integrated with Movable Type, only without the draggable front-end! I'm not exactly in heaven, but there are considerably fewer clouds where I'm standing right now and that smudge in the distance just might be gates of some kind.
Better a month late than never: NASA and ESA have released a remarkable video of the Huygens probe descending to Titan. Overlayed on the pretty picture are lateral and detail graphics and charts for signal strength to the Cassini orbiter. Best of all is the audio, synthesised from the rotational speed of the probe and the tilt of the parachute, with chimes and beeps for imaging exposures.
It's a remarkable video, and not just for the wonder that it's possible to collect this sort of data from a Saturnian moon: the superposition of data is glorious. I only wish the Quicktime was higher-resolution.
Note to self: really really really buy a copy of Tufte soon.
May 13, 2006
You know, I'd dearly love fusion power to be a commercial reality. Partly because it could solve an awful lot of problems, but mostly because it's just plain cool. And it'd be a last hurrah for our technological mastery over nature driving our future, before we really had to buckle down and accept that we can't do things that way any more.
So I'm pleased to see that Japan's JT-60 tokamac has sustained plasma for over 28 seconds. That's impressive, and it bodes well for Iter, the forthcoming international reactor that's due to be operational near Aix-en-Provence by -- da-da-daaaaa! -- 2016.
This, note, is exactly the same project that I first heard about in lectures in 1989. Note also that Iter is not intended to produce any actual power -- that's for the next stage.
There used to be a joke about fusion power: 'commercial nuclear fusion is thirty years away. Always has been, always will be.' I wonder sometimes if that timescale is stretching. I also wonder if their construction planning includes provision for the oil running out.
Now there's a thought -- is it possible for humanity to reach a position where we know how to build a tokamac power station, but we don't have the means to do so because we've run out of precursor energy sources? So we have to wait for reforestation, then reinvent the traction engine, and only then can we build the shiny new fusion plant.
Firstly, there's a robust defence of television (viewing hours are up -- though it's not clear if this includes time watching DVDs -- as are, apparently, advert impressions), and the obligatory knocking of the BBC vision of the creative future, "which appears to focus on virtually everything but making television."
But the main thrust of his speech is about ITV's approach. He wants to "win audiences and plaudits by being bold and adventurous," to be a "channel that aims high, that does take risks, and is less predictable."
There are a few lines that bring out the cynic in me, but the one that really sticks in my throat goes like this:
In Childrens we have launched a new channel which includes in its line-up more UK original content than all of our commercial competitors put together.
I'm sure somebody here will correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that the CITV channel currently includes no new commissions. That is, all the 'UK original content' is repeats.
But my central criticism is this -- Shaps says nothing that producers don't hear every week from commissioners. 'We want more innovation,' they say, 'radical ideas,' 'we're willing to take risks,' 'we want TV that people will talk about.' Well... of course they do. But the plain fact of the matter is that, by definition, you can't take risks without having a few failures. If you only take the sure-fire hits then, well, you're not risking anything at all.
So, ultimately, I'm left scratching my head and wondering just what Shaps' strategy really is. Because from where I'm sitting, it looks exactly the same as everyone else's.
May 12, 2006
I have an aging, bashed-about Sony DV camera. It's one of the domestic single-chip models, but it was carefully chosen, and I have a small selection of accessories for it -- a half-decent wide-angle adaptor, a couple of microphones, mounts and clamps. If you've seen my shows, you'll likely have seen shots from it -- it's not at all broadcast quality, but it's 'good enough' for minicamera and point-of-view shots, so I've tended to clamp it in dramatic positions and not worry too much about it. It's a handy thing to have, anyway -- I've some lovely footage of my nephew, and having it to hand allowed me to do the pilot project which spawned this NESTA gig we're now gearing up for.
This does not, however, explain why, this morning, I loaned it out... to BBC Scotland. A chum there rang me last night and explained that they've run out of cameras -- could he borrow mine?
Now, it's not quite what you think, in that it's not being used for a show. Nor even by the TV arm of the BBC. But still...
What do you mean 'the BBC have run out of cameras'?
May 11, 2006
Magnificent catch by Cass Sunstein in the Washington Post: best guesstimates suggest that the total cost to the US of the conflict in Iraq is now $300bn and counting, which is basically the same amount of money as U.S. compliance with the Kyoto Protocol would have cost. In the latter case, of course, it's a large enough sum of money to cause "serious harm to the U.S. economy" (President Bush).
Doubtless one can drive either figure in either direction, so the comparison will never be uncontroversial. And as Sunstein points out, the return is at least as difficult to assess as the expenditure (is the world safer following the removal of Saddam?). But still -- are we reaching the point where even a fairly modest war is unaffordable? Or are we reaching a point where significant changes in the interests of reducing climate change are demonstrably cost-effective?
Retro as I am, I had to take my films into the lab to get them developed. I'm mildly surprised that's still possible. Anyway, I have my piccies back from India. They're all from the same morning -- a terribly dusty day in Delhi -- and they're... well, meh. They're OK.
See, the thing is, I hate my lens so much (it vignettes rather badly) that I just haven't used the camera very much. And one really does get out of practice, it seems. In particular, my old Minolta is old enough that the viewfinder eyepoint isn't quite large enough to work with my glasses, so I never see all of the frame. I used to be able to adjust for that, but for some reason with these films I've clipped too much off the foot of frame. I'll have to check the negs and see if I really have, or if it's dubious printing.
The real disappointment, however, is in the grab shots down the back streets of Old Delhi. Difficult circumstances, and the shutter speed just isn't high enough (no great surprise -- I was mostly shooting blind). It's gutting because at least one of the shots is sufficiently clear to reveal that it would have been magnificent... had it not been shaky.
May 10, 2006
Before a bunch of you wade in with howls of protest -- no, I'm not seriously looking for a job at the BBC. I was merely idly passing time browsing their jobs pages. And you know, they're rather interesting.
Specifically, you can search jobs by area. Here are spot results from right now:
- Programme making: 11 vacancies
- New Media: 12 vacancies
- Journalism: 13 vacancies
- Business support and management: 41 vacancies
- Traineeship: 0 vacancies
Did I say 'interesting'? My mistake. I meant 'disturbing'.
Or maybe 'cheap shot.'
May 5, 2006
If you're trying to get a handle on the post immediately below, here's the overview pitch:
In the 1970s and 80s, Johnny Ball and his team at the BBC did a terrific job of inspiring British children towards mathematics, science and engineering.
That was then. But now, it's 2006. Suppose you want to provide similar sorts of inspiration for children today: how do you do it?
Well, I made science TV for children for almost ten years (I actually made more series than Johnny Ball did), and this project is my first big stab at answering that question. I want to take all that video experience, mix it up with my general web geekery, and make something wonderful for the next generation of technically-minded children.
I now have half the funding I need. Who else wants in?
Yay! News from the lovely folks at NESTA this morning: they're willing to half-fund my project and help me find an industrial partner to cough up the remainder (which looks like it's going to be the new NESTA way). So... that's 50% of a really massive cheer from me.
Thus far I've avoided describing the project here, but on the off-chance that anyone reading this might be interested in being that industrial partner (heck, I think two of you were quoted in the Guardian yesterday, you must be big fish [cough]): there's a big hole in the UK for seeking to inspire children towards science via entertainment, specifically video entertainment. I'm of the generation that was inspired by Johnny Ball, and more recently I've been trying to continue that tradition via my own shows on ITV.
However, in 2004 the BBC cancelled all their children's science programmes, and ITV cancelled one of theirs (/mine). In itself that was fine, however they've not been replaced. Now, in 2006, there's very very little of that sort of inspirational material for children on what's still the biggest single medium -- TV.
I can't solve the TV issue. But I can provide the same sort of material, far more cost-effectively, so at least it's out there for kids to find.
Yes, I want to jump on the podcast video bandwagon. And you know, it's actually a better medium for science content than television is.
Our plan is to make short films inspired by practical science, and to back them up with step-by-step instructions, clear explanations, onward links, and the dreaded curriculum links for teachers. Then there's a whole film-making aspect to the project -- we'll head out into schools and science centres to run video workshops, and ultimately we want to run a national competition for science-inspired short films.
There are several other aspects -- notably that all material from the pilot is CC-licensed, which is why I was interested in the issues around getting under-16s to sign legal documents -- but that's the main thrust of it.
Anyone want a slice of that? It's up for grabs, and thanks to NESTA coughing up a wodge of cash it's really not very expensive. Unless you want it to be huge, in which case I can spend as much as you're willing to spend!
Drop me a line to jonathan[at]quernstone.com.
Follow me through this: back from India 06:05 local Monday. Back to Glasgow 15:15 Monday. First signs of trouble 05:30 Tuesday. And by 'trouble,' I mean the full, all-out, double-ender, repeating every hour precisely until early afternoon. Ugh.
But from the timings... that's more likely to be something I picked up here, isn't it? Which would be deeply ironic. Mind you, I did feel a bit jippy on the plane back, so maybe I was just-about-coping, then pushed myself over the edge with, I don't know, a Starbucks muffin or something.
Anyway, an odd week. Monday: knackered. Tuesday: ill. Wednesday: exhausted, frantically writing up report. Thursday: back on a plane to London (got bounced from my morning flight, grrrr) for meetings at the Ri, ironically not about India at all.
Now back in Glasgow, frantically trying to get a website out of the door by a 4pm deadline. Eek.
My other news deserves a post of its own.
May 3, 2006
File this under 'admirably loony': some chap has found that in-development (blank exposed) Polaroid film can be used to take X-Ray images, using a medical X-Ray machine he bought off eBay. Yes, you really can buy anything on eBay.
As if I needed any more justification for adding a TomTom Go navigation system to my 'You know, I really fancy one of those' list: you can get different voices for the things. Including an outrageously vampy woman, a New York cabbie, a Mafia Don, and... John Cleese?
My favourite, however? The American granny. Genius.
(But while I'm on the subject -- how come GPS isn't entirely ubiquitous already? Just why do so few digital cameras location-stamp each image, and why doesn't my PowerBook know where it is? It's not like it's particularly new technology.)
May 1, 2006
Saturday was something of a write-off. I managed to scribble some nonsense on postcards, and in the evening made it back to Delhi, where I found two drivers waiting for me. One from the hotel, the other from the High Commission waiting to take me to a different hotel for a meal, and then back to the airport for a flight. Since my flight wasn't for another 28 hours that was going to be a long meal. We surmised it was more likely that he'd simply not been told of the change of plan (which was, in itself, a misunderstanding based on multiple people not appearing to realise that the date changes at midnight). So I went with the first guy.
Sunday, then: Oooooh, that was fun. My 'car+driver', arranged through the travel office at the high commission, turned out to be a car+driver and government-registered tour guide. I thought it'd been a bit pricey for just a car, but it's hard to do the value conversion and I'd wondered if I was simply being charged a foreigners' rate. Besides, it still wasn't what you'd call pricey.
VK, my guide, turned out to be a dryly witty and full of all the knowledge you'd expect after ten years in the job. Being shown around a city by somebody who knows it backwards is a rare privilege. Perhaps it's normal for people who always stay in five-star hotels and are whisked around in chauffeured Mercedes, but for the likes of me it's a rare thing.
We rattled through Qutb, the Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Gandhi's cremation site at Raj Ghat, a precarious but astonishing rickshaw spin through Old Delhi, and quick trips to the imposing India Gate and the (also Lutyens-designed) government buildings of New Delhi. It could have been a bit breakneck, but VK's timely stories saved me the overhead of rifling through the guidebook, and I'm more than willing to trust his judgement on which bits were worth spending my limited time on.
I'll write more when my photos are back from the developer (yes, I'm still an old-fashioned film guy). In the meantime I should probably write something pithy and insightful about the relative merits of seeing a town like Delhi with a guide vs. discovering it by oneself. However, getting back to Glasgow took a heck of a long time and I'm utterly knackered, so you'll just have to imagine that part of this post.
Home. Mmm. I had beans on toast. Mmm.
Delhi already seems like a long time ago, and a long way away. One of these is true, which is curious because they seem equally real.