August 2006 Archives
August 31, 2006
My sporadic claim to be a Yorkshireman is usually viewed as being mildly tenuous, on the grounds that Kingston-upon-Hull is only historically a Yorkshire city. I counter by explaining that when I was born, it really was in the East Riding, the nonsense that was Humberside only staggering along a good while later, but frankly all that's by the by: I'm a Yorkshireman, and there's now't you can do about it.
It's with some pleasure, therefore, that I discover -- via a circuitous route commencing at the erudite Mr. Coates' blog -- that one famous son of the city was John Venn, of the Diagram. Most excellent. I have to wonder, however, why we never covered him on Local Heroes. He invented a cricket bowling machine? I feel a demo coming on...
Say the BBC, further relating due deference to that whole 'nobody told us it was impossible, so we bally did it' British wartime zeal. But of course, what we really want to know is how he's going to deal with the tricky issue of Guy Gibson's labrador. Oh, and will it still feature that orchestral theme?
Nice little video here chatting to the people behind Technorati -- well worth a watch if you're interested in that sort of thing. I don't use it anything like as much as I reckon I should, in part because it still feels like the UK blog world is rather small and closed. But I can see that changing sooner rather than later.
It's also worth watching to see what Kevin Marks, erstwhile of this parish's comments, looks and sounds like. Tee-hee.
Following-up to my musings yesterday on Vista and a MacBook: The short version: it dun' work.
Longer version: Boot Camp is wonderful. Vista installation is fairly smooth and simple. But installing drivers in Vista... ugh ugh ugh. It doesn't like one of the drivers on Apple's CD, but the 'yes, I know it's unsigned, please do it anyway' dialogues don't tell you which driver they're for! Seriously. So when it craps out after a few, displays a meaningless error code dialogue, rolls back the install, and then (five minutes later) bluescreens, there's not a lot I can do.
Unfortunately, Apple's driver disc is all rolled up into one nice big InstallShield package, with which there's no interaction. While it does extract the individual drivers, the 'it's all gone wrong, rolling back' exit deletes most of them again. Though, curiously, it leaves behind the drivers for the hardware I haven't got (Nvidia and ATI graphics cards, for example).
So at the moment I have Vista in 800x600 (stretched), with no graphics acceleration. Ugh. Oh, and for all the moaning we Mac-heads do about bouncing ruddy dock icons, at least there's some indication that something is happening. Driver disc autorun takes about seven minutes before opening a window (!), during which time there is no sign that anything's going on. Nor is there any visual indication that the system has registered an application icon double-click (cf. Mac OS's zooming rectangle, and OS X's translucent flying icon thing). So it's very easy to end up with three install processes on the go, which doubtless doesn't help.
Somehow -- and despite Vista claiming to roll back the installs -- I now do have wireless networking enabled. So I may be able to find drivers online somewhere -- it's all standard PC hardware, after all. But I'm not sure I can be bothered. Oh, and those infamous User Access Control dialogues? They're hilariously bad, giving little indication of what's about to be done. Click the 'tell me more' button, and you're presented with a few lines of config.wibble\serial number\blah gibberish. Hopeless, frankly. I've seen more civilised spyware.
On the one hand, I'm not too discouraged by all this; it's a test release, and I know that the driver disc is intended for XP SP2. However, hardware heterogeneity has clearly led to a driver nightmare situation for Windows users, and it's not getting any simpler. Drivers have been an ongoing disaster zone on my Windows XP box, and I suppose I was hoping that Vista could somehow wave a magic wand and solve all the problems. That's crazy talk, obviously.
But... see what happened here? By defining a strict subset of PC hardware, Apple have been able to at least start addressing one of the fundamental problems of Windows. Which is that it simply doesn't work 'out of the box.' That's bizarre, but actually rather clever. If I bought a Dell, Toshiba, Sony, whatever now, would I have any assurance that it will run well with Vista? Where will I get suitable drivers -- by scrabbling around online and trying to work out if I have a C-Media 5650 or 5650pi or...? I don't think so.
Or I can spend about the same amount of money on a Mac, and cross my fingers that Apple will roll everything up neatly for me, by around the time Vista ships. Which seems plausible, given that this current driver disc allegedly does work just fine with XP SP2.
I'm slightly gobsmacked by this. The MacBook, right now, doesn't work with Vista. But I have bizarrely greater confidence that it will, eventually, than I do that my bona-fide, currently-running-XP PC will ever stand a chance. That's... oh, my brain hurts.
August 30, 2006
What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a quandary. To the right, a MacBook that's not doing very much at the moment (odd but true -- and no, you can't have it). On the left, a DVD of Microsoft's Windows Vista pre-RC1 release, since inexplicably it seems that 100,000 people haven't downloaded it from this page. But I did, just now, and burned that disc. In the background, on my Power Mac, Apple's BootCamp beta1.1; for the unfamiliar, this allows one to put the thing on the left into the thing on the right, and for something moderately sensible to happen.
The quandary is this: now I'm in a position to do this, can I actually be arsed? It's not like I really have the free time, but... gee, you know. It's like the future, and everything.
What do you think? Should I? Really?
Five years ago, I made a series called Science Shack. It was fronted by Adam Hart-Davis, but what really happened is that a gang of us made ridiculous contraptions and pointed cameras at them. What took place in the workshop and behind the scenes was often frustratingly better than what we managed to shove on telly. I wasn't involved in the second series, and the 'engineering posse' approach did expand a bit, but I always maintained that the BBC made a big mistake in seeing the show as a vehicle for Adam.
A shame, really. We could have made something rather similar to Mythbusters, only we'd have got the science less wrong and been three years earlier. In fact, there were many attempts to get just such a show off the ground, often involving Science Shack engineer Jem Stansfield (and, in at least one case, Alom, Gia, and I think Daily Grind comments frequenter Patrick too). Sadly, none of them amounted to anything more than untransmitted pilots.
Until now. Men In White is Tiger Aspect's take on the idea, for Channel 4. And it stars... er... Jem. Huh. Fancy that. But hey, I'm just pleased that the show has finally been made. Jem -- who's usually self-critical to the point of openly dissing his own shows (you should have heard him talk about Zero to Hero...) -- speaks very highly of it, and indeed the YouTube-driven pump-priming trailer is quite amusing. Even if they have ballsed up the widescreen thing, durr.
Jem himself, meanwhile, was a tad worried about over-exposure when I spoke to him yesterday. Men In White is on C4 on Sunday afternoons, in the Scrapheap teatime slot, for six weeks. Then he's Bill Bailey's sidekick in a new using-engineering-to-put-eco-stuff-right show... in the same slot. For another twelve weeks. Then Scrapheap starts again, with the guest judge in the first episode being... Jem Stansfield.
The thing that amazes me about this list of 'TV shows only available on the web' is that it's so short. I remember lists like this of 'all the websites', circa early 1994, when Gopher was still much more useful than this new-fangled www malarky. You know, before WebCrawler, when Veronica ruled. And there were dinosaurs on every street corner, hawking knock-off Boyle air pumps.
While I don't think we're going to see quite the same sort of explosion with video -- it takes so much more time than simply bunging up text -- I'm amazed that even a modestly comprehensive list can still fit on a single page. Savour the moment, because it's not going to last.
In some ways, right now is a bad bad bad time for me to get immersed in a broadcast TV production. On the other hand, I don't have any real choice in the matter -- I've been setting wheels in motion all year, and it's time to plain earn some dosh. It's just that it's going to be frustrating to watch the world move on while I'm doing the old-fashioned stuff. Heh.
Meanwhile -- hint for somebody keen to get into TV presenting: start doing a weekly 'what's on' guide. Be rude, witty, charming... and above all brief.
There ought to be a word to describe the mood engendered by the particular set of circumstances thus:
- Working from home.
- Thus, spending much time staring out of the office window, watching the world go by on the street below.
- Awaiting a delivery from Amazon (or 7dayshop, Firebox, Interfauna, etc.)
- Delivery van pulls up, and...
- ...makes delivery to neighbour.
- Repeat #4-5 until fed up.
- Make tea.
- Watch another delivery van pull up.
- Watch delivery chappie buzz another neighbour's door.
August 29, 2006
So... assuming I wind up working in Dublin in the near, I'll likely be in the market for cheap phone calls between Ireland and the UK, in both directions. One option is, of course, Skype -- the SkypeOut and SkypeIn possibilities both look like they may be useful (the former allows PC-to-landline calls, the latter the reverse).
Or... there's Gizmo. Anyone have any experience with doing these? I mean, really doing these? Well, obviously, millions of people have, and I've used PC-to-PC Skype briefly myself (great sound quality -- rubbish echo cancellation, both compared to iChat AV).
How well do they really integrate with old-fashioned telephones? Voice chat tends to have rather poor latency by modern phone standards -- how distracting is it? And do people 'get it'? Or do you end up spending so long explaining the concept to your family, you might as well just give them your mobile number and be done with it?
Somewhere in the process of reading the Wikipedia article on the RIM Blackberry, I managed to spawn a browser tab for Who Wants to be a Superhero?, a current (US) SciFi Channel show hosted by Marvel's Stan Lee. It is, quite possibly, the silliest TV format of which I've ever heard. It starts silly... then gets progressively funnier.
What really cracks me up, though, is the section about 'controversy and criticism.' There are, it seems, dark mutterings that the show may not be a bone fide 'reality' format after all. Oooooh! Noooo! Really? D'ya think?
Shocking, I'd say. Damned funny concept, though.
Trouble is, now I really wish I'd managed to make somebody listen to my punters-as-crew-in-Star-Trek idea...
I'm guessing here, but it seems reasonable to suppose that Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child initiative is no longer naming its initial product 'CM1' because there's an existing computing trademark with that name: the original Connection Machine. Ironically, the two systems are about as diverse in approach as one could imagine. Just imagine the faces if the shipping company screwed up.
Mind you, I do rather like the idea of a tiny village in deepest Africa accidentally developing strong AI, on the grounds that (a.) they didn't know such efforts were doomed to failure, and (b.) what the hell else are you going to do with a 1980s-vintage massively parallel supercomputer?
Oh, and the new name for the OLPC? '2B1.' Which... umm... wasn't that used in Star Wars?
August 28, 2006
As car nuts go, I'm a bit unusual. I deliberately bought a slow sports car, and like it mostly for its relatively clean emissions and surprisingly large boot space. Well... and that it goes round corners like stink.
But 'relatively clean emissions' is just a nice way of saying 'screws the planet a bit less.' It's like calling a Toyota Prius 'good for the environment' -- er, no. Not unless pickled herring is good with rhubarb crumble. A few random Romans might disagree, but we have an otherwise clear consensus on that one.
I basically hate cars. I think they're a nonsense indulgence and I kind of resent myself for owning one, since I could pretty much do without. But at the same time, I find automotive design absolutely fascinating, and there's more than enough engineering geek in me to adore the sound of a well-tuned internal combustion engine. Such are the emotional dilemmas of our crazy modern world. Oh, the angst and hypocrisy.
So, I only sometimes watch Top Gear (will you stop banging on about speed cameras, you idiots? Oh, and I also think it's going to disappear up its own contrivance soon, though the last series did a decent job of recognising that and reigning it in a little). I can't really be bothered with F1 any more... mostly. But I enjoy Sniff Petrol with the best of them.
So, I might not listen to the related podcast 'Gareth Jones on Speed' if it wasn't (a.) done by a mate, and (b.) hosted on my server. But that would be a shame, because, twelve months in, it's really rather good. The current episode includes Gareth and co-host Zog (no, really) talking about the London motor show, and how to tell one Aston Martin from another (almost as difficult as remembering the current line-up from TVR, in any given week); gags from Sniff Petrol; and a bizarre mix of Formula 1 driver karaoke impressions.
As you'd expect from media professionals, it's extremely well put together. I could have used a little less of the karaoke -- I've a hunch that 20 minutes is something like a sweet spot for podcasts -- but in a field of self-indulgent ego-pamper-fests, it's remarkably well-judged. This month's video is, incidentally, brilliant too. Beautifully shot and cut.
The Volvo C30 gag is priceless, anyway. That one went all pear-shaped when they did away with the trellised A-pillars, in my book...
August 25, 2006
Another genius image on Maopost, celebrating communist whaling techniques. Remember -- for all your daily vintage Chinese propaganda poster needs, Maopost has you covered, including via a stylish Dashboard widget for OS X. You can even have your own portrait painted into a wide choice of socialist posters. Even better than a cuddly trout.
August 23, 2006
As I mentioned a couple of posts back, I was in Plymouth last week -- not entirely at random, since I was there over the two nights of the British Fireworks Championships. I'd never heard of such a thing, but it's easy enough to imagine; four displays a night, for two nights, with strict rules about budget, duration, the poundage of ordnance that can be fired, and requirements for both low- and high-level aerial kaboomitude.
Ten years on since they started doing this, the result is a quarter of a million people (or so...) standing on the Hoe, and hours of percussive fun, followed by said people exclaiming 'ooooh! ahhhh!' in unison. It's rather good fun, and awfully pretty -- fireworks being, of course, the one thing that blokes can say are 'pretty' without losing their macho street cred.
This year, the second night featured an additional curtain-raiser, with an attempt on the world record for simultaneous rocket launches. Which consisted of blowing the hell out of the headland launching more than 55,000 little rockets in less than five seconds. Which is less spectacular than it sounds, since it was essentially over before we'd all managed to turn and look. On the other hand, while the endeavour sounds barking mad, the true depth of lunacy required to do such a thing only really comes home once the smoke has cleared. Gloriously batty.
In a move surely intended to spread word-of-mouth via blog postings, online 'boys' stuff' retailers Firebox have this morning sent out a marketing email gushing about the Evel Knievel stunt cycle, back in stock after... oooh... about twenty-five years.
That worked, then.
It's worth watching the video, if only to see just how high the thing doesn't jump. This is in stark contrast to one's memory of how it behaved -- which is clearly filtered through a layer of childhood excitement and imagination. I've a certain sense of ennui about that.
August 22, 2006
As you may have noticed, I've been away. Plymouth, South Wales, Leeds and Edinburgh, taking in along the way fireworks, an exploding hillside, a lighthouse, innumerable thunderstorms, and a 75% hit rate for a day traipsing around the Fringe.
I believe the technical term for this sort of thing is 'a holiday,' but that's not a word with which I'm familiar. So don't quote me.
There was, just, time in the middle there to give Gavin some pies for his birthday, and if you're all very good indeed I might just let you know when a new side-project of his/ours is ready to breathe a little joy into your miserable lives. Maybe next weekend, if you're lucky.
Meanwhile, I have lunch booked with a charming chappie on Wednesday, hopefully a meeting about a little unexpected work for the BBC, and a day in Dublin on Thursday to discuss a project there (thank you Patrick, Charlie and Adrian for the references, which I'm assuming were either excellent or sufficiently entertaining, since they're still talking to me).
In short, it's been a wonderful week. All sorts of stuff I'll doubtless rattle on about in due course, and a few things you don't get to know because... well, really, you could be anybody. I mean, I know you're all friends and all -- every single one of you -- but pffff! We might be overheard.
August 15, 2006
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has, somewhat improbably, started a weblog. It's rather hard to get into -- oddly enough, the server falls over when you request the english translation -- but according to the BBC the first post consists not of the traditional 'First post!' or 'is this thing on?', but a 2000-word autobiography.
The post apparently concludes with an apology for verbosity, thus:
With hope in God, I intend to wholeheartedly complete my talk in future with allotted 15 minutes
Now, those of you who've been favoured with personal correspondence from myself will have seen my sign-off line:
'If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.' (Pascal)
...which is something of a mis-attribution, since that particular version is a significant rewording of Pascal's original. Significant enough that I once had a complaint from the Sorbonne, which at the time I rather mocked, but on reflection they may have had a point; 'my' version is now showing up in Google, which it certainly didn't when I started using it. Ironically, it's being attributed to Cicero and Wilde in addition to Pascal, but that's by the by.
Anyway, it's clear to me that President Ahmadinejad has heard this phrase -- most likely via a couple of additional layers of translation -- and realised it fits his prose style at least as well as it fits mine.
But hey, I'm not precious. Welcome to the world of blogging, Mr. President. Remember -- you build an audience in the blogosphere by writing stuff people find interesting, but what really works is being transparently open and honest. Good luck.
August 14, 2006
Reports today that the Confederation of British Industry is worried about the numbers of students taking science and engineering degrees: BBC, Guardian, Telegraph, nothing at The Times or Independent, Financial Times, Scotsman; the CBI's press release on which all these are based.
Let me remind you, dear reader: SciCast is a project intended to make science fun, to engage students in practical science and engineering, and to provide resources for teachers to enliven lessons through practical demonstrations and experiments. We need match funding to get the thing properly underway.
At the moment, one of the project partners is running the funding hunt. Which makes me nervous. If it turns out to be hard to raise the cash, I'm going to be ruddy furious -- with the CBI, amongst others.
Since I'm quick to criticise the sometimes-dodgy explanations on Mythbusters, I guess I should be equally quick to say: their explanation of the Diet Coke/Mentos thing looks pretty good to me.
I'd be interested to know how much of that survives the transition to television.
August 11, 2006
Take an unreasonably large collection of James Earl Jones samples, Star Wars Episode IV, considerable finesse with audio editing, and a seriously warped sense of humour, and what do you get? The Vader Sessions.
I'm back in bonnie Scotland, following an enjoyable couple of days in London. Remind me to tell you how much I like my friends, particularly the ones who enthuse hugely about my work, make brilliantly insightful comments, and/or buy me utterly tremendous steaks and entertain me with tales of gallant daring-do on the stormy seas of international finance.
I should probably avoid dwelling, however, on the implications of a seven-hour journey on a standing-room-only train. While there was a charming Dunkirk spirit amongst the displaced air travelers, rather amusingly those of us who'd had rail tickets all along were merely in their way, and most certainly not in their club.
Prior to all that, however, an aside. A report today on the downward spiral of physics education in the UK, from the University of Buckingham (report itself here). I'm particularly interested in the apparent lack of impact of combined science GCSEs on both A-level entries and gender imbalance.
There is evidence of a significant difference in communications usage patterns between young adults and the general population: for example, 16-24 year olds spend on average 21 minutes more time online per week, send 42 more SMS text messages, but spend over seven hours less time watching television.
The conjunction of these two is, of course, why we're trying to make SciCast happen. It's all very well trying to save children's TV but, you know, the plain fact is that we've had a long-term problem with the audience buggering off elsewhere. Carrying on making TV doesn't solve that problem; moving the distribution medium towards the audience... doesn't either, but it has to be a better approach.
SciCast is about science factual 'programmes' in particular, but my train of thought with it is much more general. There's no point continuing to think in terms of television-based 'programme formats,' there simply isn't an audience for them. SciCast has the same goals -- heck, the same content -- as The Big Bang, but the approach leaves TV behind and plays to the strengths of the web.
For children's TV to survive, I think they have to ditch the 'TV' part.
(In the unlikely event that any TV production company wants me to come and rant at them for being dinosaurs -- despite my being 'one of them' -- I am, of course, available for consultancy.)
August 9, 2006
"Whaiiiiiiwhurrrrr? Could you tell me?"
My fellow train traveller was worried. I could tell this easily from the way he rather frantically stared out of the window, flapping scraps of paper and looking lost. Canny about such things as I am, I could also discern that he was Japanese, and -- with the exception of 'Could you tell me?', with varying inflections -- that his English consisted of the increasingly emphatic "Whaiiiwhurrrr!".
This was, however, a marked advance on my Japanese, which goes beyond 'moshi moshi' and 'sayonara' only so far as (the doubtless mis-remembered, but bear with me) 'watasi no ie no kinzyo ne ooky na syok ubutuen gu arimusu,' meaning roughly 'there is a large botanical garden near my house.' Handy, though sadly no longer technically correct. Otherwise, I must admit with some embarrassment to speaking more Klingon than Japanese. There's a story there for another time; Bill Shatner was involved, improbably. Well, nearly. Anyway:
As 'Whaiiiiiwhurrrr?' becomes 'Whaiiiiwhurrrrrrrr!!!' -- and as I become increasingly distracted by his bizarre white-with-black-polka-dots tailored jacket -- I strive for anything resembling common ground. "Sprechen sie Deutsch?" Nein? Well, that's a relief, for mine is rubbish. "Parlez-vous Français?"
This elicits an unexpected response from the next table of passengers. An amiable young couple festooned with angelic (yet screaming, at 8am) children, they turn out to be of a French persuasion. I proceed to attempt to explain that, no, I'm not French. They, having made the initial mistake, of course cannot admit that yes, my French is genuinely awful and perhaps, just possibly, and for the sanity of all concerned, we should revert to English. Thus I must gaimly struggle on, our mutual embarrassment mounting: such is the nature of European diplomacy. I further attempt to describe that I'm trying to understand the Japanese gentleman, an explanation somewhat impeded by my complete lack of French vocabulary concerning any Pacific Rim countries at all.
The French couple try Spanish and what may have been Portuguese, but by this time the poor chap is become quite upset. "Whaiiiiwhurrr! Whaiiiwhurrr! Can you tell me? Whaiiiiwhurrr!" I begin to estimate the likelihood of his being a Trekkie, but my already strained credibility with my fellow Europeans would likely not survive either outcome of that train of thought.
In the end all I can do is examine his ticket, and discern that he must change at Preston. With the aid of sketch maps and many hand gestures, I contrive to reassure him that yes, I will let him know when we arrive, and will point him towards the Manchester train. Which may, I suspect, be pronounced 'Whaiiiwhurrr.' I'm not sure either of us are clear what that means any more.
Subsequently, an opportunity to practice my schoolboy French is presented in the form of a French schoolboy, who bursts into the toilet cubicle as soon as -- but thankfully not before -- I unlock the door. He stands transfixed, baffled that I should be between him and the toilet bowl. I tell him that he's standing in the door, and must leave so that I can get out. Or, possibly, I tell him cauliflower shines pendant, wobbly tractor penguin balloon. My French isn't what it was. And it was awful, but nevertheless the boy gets the gist of my advice -- or, perhaps, is terrified of the crazy man -- and steps aside.
Throughout, the young woman who boarded at Carlisle sleeps peacefully, curled up on the seat, sucking her thumb. In the darkly comic film version of my life, she turns out to speak Japanese.
It's 09:00, on the Euston Express out of Glasgow. When one is tired of the West Coast Main Line, one is tired of life, for all of humanity is here.
August 8, 2006
Apple's new 'MacOSXForge' site, home to the newly-released Intel xnu kernel sources (bang goes that conspiracy theory...), Webkit, etc etc, is also hosting their CalDAV server project. On the (Trac-based) wiki, instructions for configuring clients, including the Leopard preview version of iCal, and 'Apple's Teams'.
Oh, and anyone recognise the wiki package that's being bundled with Leopard Server?
August 7, 2006
Well, that was fun. I started wondering how I could keep up with five news sites and a group chat at the same time, then realised I have a bunch of MacBooks sitting in a bag at the moment. There's nothing like sitting in front of uncountable screens to make one feel like a day trader. Anyway -- some reactions and thought. After the fold, to spare the non-geeks, or people who are stuck with Windows, the poor mites.
Apple isn't offering a live QuickTime stream of the WWDC keynote, but there are text feeds from MacRumorsLive, MacNN, AppleInsider and Apple Matters. Note that, at this point, the MacNN and AppleInsider feeds are remarkably similar...
I'd also like to repeat the best line from my turgidly-long post below, because I expect to see it in headlines tomorrow and want to be able to claim it: "Apple's Leopard sets the big cat amongst the Vista pigeons."
Clumsy, but you can sort of see where it's going. Thank you.
...and the Apple store is still open. Ooooh!
No idea what I'm talking about? Apple's World-Wide Developer Conference starts today in San Francisco, and at 6pm BST Steve Jobs will strut his stuff and announce... umm... who knows what?
[Damn. I've accidentally sucked myself into writing a long Apple speculation post. I'll hide the remainder behind the fold, so it's easy to skip if you're not remotely interested. Or if you see this more than an hour after it's posted, by which time it'll be obsolete anyway.]
August 6, 2006
I think BBC News Online jumped the shark this week. For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the moment in Happy Days when the Fonz used a shark as a water-ski ramp, at which point the audience snapped instantaneously from 'this show is cool!' to 'this is lame!' Useful concept. Anyway...
I've been worried about BBC News Online for a while now. First it was the frankly bizarre editorial policy which appears to require every article to feature precisely one sentence per paragraph. Once you've spotted it, it's irritating as hell and patronising in the extreme. Then there were the continuous redesigns and refinements, most of which seemed contrived to place less news on the front page. After that, the 'most emailed/most read stories' widget, which may seem fairly harmless, but... er... isn't that what we pay editors for?
The final straw for me, though, is this week's partial redesign which has bunged audio and video clips front and centre on the page (further obscuring the, you know, news). It's not that I object to the concept -- the BBC is, after all, a video-rich organisation, and using that video online should be routine. The page design isn't bad, either, using a neat toggle-disclosure thing that takes up relatively little room (and handily illustrates a UI concept I want to use with SciCast, but that people are being thick about).
No, I'm hacked off because all the video and audio is still using RealPlayer. Which, in my experience, basically never works. Certainly, the success rate is low enough that I can't be arsed to even bother trying, and when it does stagger into showing me frames the quality is so poor as to be unwatchable and/or the frame rate is a stuttering mess and/or lip sync is borked and/or continuous jump-cutting for web video? Are they mad? Have they not heard of 'key frames'? Arrrrghh!
Come on, BBC. RealPlayer is arcane and, frankly, embarrassing. We know there are rights issues, we know you're really keen on your own oh-so-clever-if-only-it-was-finished Dirac thing (the bits of you that have heard of it, anyway). But this just doesn't work. As a result, bunging it so prominently on the news site is a waste of time. My time, actually, since now I have to scroll to see the headlines.
For now, I've remapped the 'news' keyword in my browser to take me to the Guardian's site -- yes, I really have dumped the BBC as my primary news source -- but I'm not all that much happier there, with all the Flash ads and the overly-narrow page layout also leading to excessive scrolling. At least there's some decent writing when you click through to the articles.
Anyone have a better idea, though?
If only there weren't so many words.
I have this working theory that there are only about eight genuinely different ideas in the world. Just as -- if memory serves -- there are basically eight jokes, thus:
- Malfortune befalling self
- Malfortune befalling other
- Unrequited love
...you get the idea. I seem to think there are also, in essence, eight stories, and that they're uncannily similar to the jokes (discuss, 20 marks). But hey, I'm a physicist, I don't know about this sort of thing. Just roll with it, and we'll move on.
So, right, my theory is: there are vastly fewer ideas in the world than anyone expects, and all that happens is we find new ways of expressing them. See, it's all about language. We're continuously inventing new descriptions, for most of which there are, of course, already perfectly workable forms. Several of them. Lots of them.
So when, for example, I find myself sitting in a conference session about project management (because I'm chairing it, say), and one of the panelists starts talking about project planning in a way I simply didn't follow, my assumption isn't that I don't understand the concept. No, it's that I don't understand the language. The individual words make sense, but the particular conjunction is new, alien, and plain weird. Until I can map this new terminology into some familiar linguistic framework, I'm lost. What's interesting is that those mappings sometimes throw up new insights.
In this case, one of the things that was going on is that I think there are two different sorts of planning and even budgeting -- which I'm going to call 'strategic' and 'tactical', in a deliberate nod to the military uses of those terms.
Tactical weapons are things like tanks, strike aircraft, and missiles: things that you use routinely to blow shit up. Strategic weapons, on the other hand, come in two forms: firstly, stuff that turns hunks of steel into tactical weapons, like heavy-lift cargo aircraft which can move armoured vehicles from, say, storage in Arizona to the Gulf. Calling this use 'strategic' always struck me as a rare example of the military not inventing additional jargon where it would actually be appropriate, because the other use of 'strategic' is somewhat different: weapons that you plan explicitly never to use.
We're talking 'ruddy great nuclear missiles,' of course. Which in this context are things that position your entire organisation, clarify and direct its purpose, but are never intended for use.
Hence: strategic vs. tactical projects.
A tactical project is one that's actually going to work, where you're involved in the nitty-gritty of writing and running a budget that's useful day-to-day. A strategic project involves a whole lot more arm-waving, where simply floating the concept says much about your organisation and aspirations.
You run into problems when a strategic project gets deployed directly -- the Millennium Dome springs to mind as an excellent example. One could also portray the ongoing thrashing-around of TV as a result of commissioners becoming increasingly obsessed with the strategic aspects of programme ideas ('what does this show say about my channel?') at the expense of the tactical ('you can't seriously make this, can you?'). In this model, salesmanship is fundamentally a strategic skill, while engineering is broadly tactical. Spot the problem there.
There are people -- and I think the above-mentioned panelist was one -- who are good at implementing strategic projects; that is, of turning the strategic into the tactical. Or, perhaps, they're good at coating a tactical project in enough strategic gloss to make it fundable.
However, I fear that I myself am resolutely tactical. There's too much working-class Yorkshireman in me, and I care less about the flouncy stuff than I do about what happens next Tuesday. Even when there's a strong strategic component to my projects, I find it hard to enthuse -- for example, I feel faintly embarrassed describing SciCast as 'an attempt to revolutionise children's media,' even though [cough] it more-or-less is.
So, I'm finding this terminology surprisingly useful. One of the organisations with which I'm working, for example, is almost entirely strategic in outlook and approach... which is difficult, because we're actually doing a project, and they're not always thinking in the sorts of ways I want and need them to. But at least now I have a way of understanding where they're coming from, and why they behave as they do.
Anyway, there's doubtless other/more accepted/better terminology for this concept, and I'd love to hear it. Certainly, it's not a new idea. That would undermine my entire argument, no?
August 5, 2006
In between reading up on the Prandtl-Glauert singularity (the cause of the condensation cone you occasionally see around aircraft, usually attributed to them 'going supersonic,' though in fact that's neither necessary nor sufficient)... I've been playing with activeCollab, a (very) new lightweight, open-source project management web app in the manner of BaseCamp.
Very much in the manner of BaseCamp, actually. At this stage, it's more-or-less a clone, albeit one lacking some key features, notably RSS generation. On the other hand, it's a really, really really slick piece of work, and so far it's proving to be extremely well thought-through. Better, the developer seems extremely focussed on driving it in the direction of being light, simple, well-engineered, and extensible, rather than trying to be all things to all people.
It's no wonder that it's caught on rather quickly -- heck, installation has been added to my webhost's control panel already -- and I'm interested to see where it goes from here. It's not 'better' than BaseCamp yet, but that I'm having a hard time choosing between them bodes well.
August 4, 2006
One of the great mysteries of life is how it comes to pass that, despite one incorporating two substantial fillets of haddock (one fresh, one peat-smoked) yet only one modest-sized boiled egg into a fish pie, seemingly every forkful of the resulting delicacy involves boiled egg, with the fish nowhere to be found.
The Grand Slam bomb was a 22,000 lb monster, built to be about the largest thing the astonishing Avro Lancaster could possibly carry. By design, it would impact at supersonic speed, penetrate 40 feet into the ground, and only then explode, the intention being that the shockwave transmitted through the (incompressible, give or take) ground would cause more considerable structural damage over a larger radius than would simply blowing up a ruddy great bomb.
According to the Wikipedia article, the immensely strong casing was cast as a single piece, with the explosive being poured in hot. It subsequently took a month for the charge to cool and set. Accordingly, only 41 were dropped, on targets like bridges and submarine pens.
One used to be on display as the gate guardian of RAF Scampton, home of 617 Squadron. In the late 1950s initial attempts to move the thing by crane were confounded when it turned out to be heavier than expected.
It was live.
I'm cutting the multimedia extravaganza that was the British Interactive Group's annual Best Demo Competition. This year we filmed it, with two cameras, and I've just done a vision-mixing pass so the pictures work more-or-less as well as they're going to.
Next, then, I have to sort the audio. Which is a bit tricky, because I had only one working shotgun mic (mostly too far from the performers), with the other camera deliberately using its built-in mic in an attempt to capture some audience atmosphere.
If I double-track both sources, the result isn't too bad. Thank you Final Cut for making it easy to run multiple audio tracks, and to slip tracks into sync. But of course, the levels of the performers vary greatly (not helped by auto gain control, ugh ugh ugh). So... prior to dropping down to bog-standard stereo, I need to mix what's now a four-track project.
With a mouse.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is why people have these things.
August 3, 2006
Given that I was wondering about where The Foundation would stand in the somewhat desolate new children's TV landscape, I should probably have worked this out -- they've been bought by RDF. This is probably extremely good news for Ged and Vanessa, the owners, who must have been staring into their crystal balls wondering just where to take their shows.
It's also a mostly-predictable development, given that RDF's new director of family entertainment is none other than Nigel Pickard. See, children's TV in the UK has been run, for more than a decade now, by the echoes of the old TVS children's department, a collection of people named by somebody (possibly me) 'The Maidstone Mafia.'
Ged, Vanessa and Nigel are all leading lights of that group, and all power to them -- they're 'the good guys,' with their heads screwed on right.
Meanwhile... where does this leave the independent children's sector? RDF is now immense, Media Merchants is part of the similarly-vast HIT, and... who's left?
August 1, 2006
I'm just going to stop linking to this site. Sometime. Maybe when they stop taking gloriously oblique photos. Bah!
(blimey, I'm being a curmudgeon today. Too much coffee?)
Ben is in Afghanistan, blogging for the Guardian, and sending his trademark utterly magnificent pictures to Flickr. This presumably in between running ultramarathons, doing things with Movable Type that require dataset rotations in more dimensions than even string theory postulates, and -- most likely -- writing touchingly elegant literature on the side.
For heaven's sake, man, stop auditioning for the rôle of Leonardo in Renaissance 2.0. You got the part, already. No need to rub it in.
This is nearly -- oh, so nearly -- my new favourite screensaver. I've been using an old thing called Technichron for years. It displays a map of the Earth, using those magnificent composite cloudless day/night images JPL produced some time ago (and for which I'm at least partly responsible for the original UK import, via Stanfords, but that's another story). Overlaid on the map is a moving mask demarcating day/twilight/night. It's peculiarly beautiful, and has been a feature of I think three PowerBooks of mine.
Sadly, the code is no longer being maintained. I think it officially failed under OS X 10.3, but it seems to work fine here on 10.4.whatever. But: it's not going to run on an Intel Mac, so at some stage I shall have to give it up.
Enter: Fenetres Volantes, which is simple, elegant, and beautiful. When sleep kicks in, it flies your windows around gently, setting them fluttering around above a plane, with oh-so-fashionable reflections and the like. It's very, very pretty -- particularly when you wake the machine up again, and all the windows come flying back into formation, once more eager for your interaction. I love it...
...with one caveat: it's doing all sorts of cunning 3D stuff to produce the effects, and that means it's running primarily on your Mac's graphics card. Which, in the case of my PowerBook, runs quite hot. Which means the fan kicks in after a few minutes.
Much as I love it, I'm not mad keen on a screensaver that makes my Mac burn way more juice than normal.
Phooey. It's really pretty. Harrumph.
(found via the quirky-but-starting-to-be-essential-reading osx.iusethis.com)
Drat. That's crept up on me.
In the UK, television has always been London-centric, barring perhaps a brief moment when Logie Baird was mucking around in Hastings. Somehow, I've managed to have a dozen-year career in the industry -- specialising in science productions, no less -- with only one job that's been London-based. This has never been 'normal,' nor 'expected,' but it has 'worked.' Which has been something of a surprise, frankly.
However, the writing's been on the wall for a while, and looking around at what's going on... hmm. Looks like I'll have to take London a whole lot more seriously. For TV work, at any rate.
Am I going to up and move to The Big Smoke? Well, no, not in a hurry. I'm going to have to do the rounds of the London companies far more seriously than I have before, though maybe I can get away with going to the World Congress of Science Producers in Manchester this autumn, if I can find something to tide me over until then. Alternatively, I still have something like four web media projects at various stages of musing/funding/under-wayness; if enough of them happen to come off, I'll probably stick with that for a while.
Lessons to learn, for me:
- Jonathan, get more serious about actually making money, you idiot.
Advice for the dear deluded reader who wishes to work in television:
- Be in London.
- Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, perhaps Bristol -- being keen to work in these places will probably help. But expect, plan, and base yourself to be working in London.
- Note that the above is a change from my previously-published advice.