May 2007 Archives
May 31, 2007
800 people who run science centres and museums, in one conference venue, in Lisbon, for three days. Weird, but fun.
I've been hovering around the periphery of the science communication world for years, and it's rather fun to stand in the middle of this group and watch them as if from outside. I've never worked at a centre, and I don't really understand them, and that's quite interesting. I'm a storyteller, and while some installations tell stories, they're using very different techniques. Most of the time I've no idea what they're talking about.
Highlights today were Stephen Foulger of "The Science Of...", a joint venture between the Science Museum and an investment bank. Stephen described the somewhat radical multidisciplinary approach they take, and I'm impressed that it works. Not because it's inherently risky, but because creative management is rarely straightforward, and they seem to have a firm grip on what sorts of groups work. 'Pragmatic' was a key word.
Also Andrea Bandelli, a freelancer/academic from the Netherlands, who completely pulled the rug out from under my 'dare I say this?' talk for Saturday by... er... saying essentially the same thing in the first session this morning. Nobody died. Which gives me something of a problem to solve before my presentation.
Aside from that, I was particularly impressed that his brief discussion of my much-hated phrase 'user-generated content' noted that our approach to such stuff should be 'humble.' Good word, 'humble' -- and well-used in the this context.
This afternoon I found myself writing a couple of neat lines about SciCast, spurred by things people said in different contexts, then not learning much about Framework 7, a European Union projects initiative, beyond:
- It exists.
- There's a shedload of money sloshing around.
- Working with the EU can be frustrating, but it lets one dream of projects on a scale that might otherwise be impossible.
- Meeting of Minds was a really really cool idea, and deeply impressive to have pulled off.
- There seems to be a requirement that all pan-European projects shall suffer under the burden of tragically dreadful graphic design.
I'm actually quite serious about that last one. It's a worry.
Meanwhile: good to catch up with some chums, and make embarrassing small talk with people I don't know. In the latter category: the charming woman from Paris who was obviously horrified to think I might be trying to chat her up, when in fact I was trying to ascertain if the jug she held bore coffee or tea. But hey, misunderstandings happen at the European level.
I'm off to the Gala Dinner, probably for some sardines.
Airports exist in some odd netherworld, trapped between where you were and where you're going, oscillating gently between ground and sky. They can be interminably souless places, devoid of character or locale -- Glasgow after 9pm on a Sunday night springs to mind, when the bar shuts and any trace of distinctiveness flickers out along with the light over the Tennant's pump.
Sometimes that atmosphere is freeing, like staying in an empty room remote from one's possessions, when the mere act of entry lifts an unsuspected burden of materialism. But sometimes it's plain bleak. Glasgow, of a Sunday night, is usually bleak.
Other airports take on entirely different characters. I write from Schiphol, for example: a vast and heaving cathedral to travel, piled high with people from all places, going to all places. Perhaps if we all wrote our destinations on a pin-board we'd be able to trade, and all go home instead.
It's an odd place, Schiphol. Not least that it feels vastly larger than should be warranted by a few canals and a thriving sex industry. Perhaps not. All around, the hubbub of a hundred tongues, punctuated by the gutteral rasp of Dutch... and yet all the signage is in English.
For a time, I sat and watched the ways in and out of the airport. As countless peoples walked this way and that, only a tiny percentage passed in or out. Did they mean to? Perhaps they took the wrong door? Maybe they were heading elsewhere entirely, but recognised their folly and elected instead to stop here?
Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, en route from Glasgow to Lisbon. As Flossie noted, a Netherlands Nether Land.
May 30, 2007
I'm off. See you next week.
Unless there's, you know, wireless. And stuff.
May 29, 2007
Last summer, as I was queuing to get into some random gig in Edinburgh, I took a call from a producer at the BBC. He was making a new science/engineering show for Children's BBC; might I be interested in helping out? Well, yes. Durr. But -- ooh! ooh! -- what they really wanted was someone to lead some ideas workshops with teenagers, and Rick Hall was just the man for that. Given that he'd been running NESTA's Ignite! programme for a while, which was all about fostering creativity and all that.
By the time I got out of the gig, Rick had signed the deal and there was no room for me on the show. Bastard. (it's OK, he's bought me beer since so we're square).
The second weird connection is that the series presenter is newcomer Greg Foot, whose previous major claim to fame was presenting a pilot of a How2 spinoff that had been shot by... er... me. (In a third connection, he's now working with ex-How2 researcher Amy, who herself used to work with Flossie at Techniquest and got into TV via Screenhouse after I didn't have room for her on The Big Bang one year, and... etc etc. It's all terribly incestuous, this science communication lark.)
Anyway, I finally saw the show -- Whizz Whizz Bang Bang. Verdict? Bloody hell! It's Scrap It!
Now, Scrap It! was a show I made for Discovery Kids a couple of years back. It was cheap -- and looked it -- but had a certain rustic charm. The studio bits of Whizz Whizz Bang Bang are ridiculously similar. Close enough to be a rip-off? Unlikely, to be honest -- much more plausible is that it's a case of convergent editorial decisions.
Did I like the show? Well, ish. As with Scrap It!, the studio elements look rather flat -- less excusable in their case, since I suspect they had more than a few angle-poise lamps to light the thing. But just as Will Andrews made Scrap It! work by filling the screen with his amiable lunacy, so Greg mostly carries the show. There are some editorial decisions I wouldn't have made -- notably the Einstein wig and specs, ugh! -- but they've made the right call about the science. That is, they're not afraid of having pretty decent explanations.
Where it starts to fall apart for me is, ironically, in the building of the invention. The show's premise is that a kid has come to them with an invention idea which they then build, with the build forming the backbone narrative for insert content. A 30 minute show is a lot for a single build, and despite Greg's best efforts it all feels a bit drawn out. But what really hacked me off with this episode specifically was the build itself. It was lazy.
The original idea was a rocket-powered bed, which evolved into a jet-propelled bed. Fine. We didn't see much of the final jet engine, which was a shame because little jets are rather lovely, even if turbocharger centrifugal compressors are rather different to large axial-flow units, but meh, whatever.
The problem was that the build wasn't a jet-propelled bed. It was a jet-propelled go-kart with a bunk bed welded on top. The driver sat in the go-kart, not the bed. Then, of course, with no roll cage or ... well, safety features, the kid himself wasn't allowed to drive the bed (which wasn't adequately explained) and they ended up with The Stig from Top Gear doing it.
Which is fine, but... they ended up with a mute guy in a racing outfit driving a sedate if noisy kart. Which is a long way from the original image of a kid in bed rocketing down a runway, a whole lot less appealing, and... I can't see why. I may be rubbish with a welding torch, but I know a thing or three about designing achievable bespoke engineering for television, so I say with both conviction and authority: this could and should have been better.
It's not a bad show, and for a first series is actually remarkably good, but... gaaaaah, it's annoying. All these mistakes have been made before, and it's frustrating that the show isn't better. I'll have to watch more episodes before I really lay into it, but at first glance -- so close, yet so avoidably limited.
(as far as I can tell, there's no CBBC website for the series. Which is bizarre, and possibly suggests it's not coming back. Wikipedia have a very brief entry.)
May 28, 2007
My N95 has crashed three times tonight. It also drops calls, or places calls without managing to route outgoing audio. Which is, you know, pretty sucky for a mobile phone.
Strange as it may sound, I'm starting to like the N95. It's taken me the best part of a week, but the whole 'everything bar the kitchen sink' aspect of it is quite compelling. What's less compelling is the execution. There are some remarkably awful bits of user interface, and the consistency and coherency one expects of a UI in the second half of the first decade of the twenty-first century is -- notably -- lacking. Take the following situation:
I just got cut off in the middle of a call, 'Connection error.' OK, fine. Redial, then. Umm... how do I do that?
On first try, it's eleven clicks. Seriously. Main menu->up->right->Log->Recent Calls->down->down->Dialled Numbers->Last number->Call->Voice Call.
A wild guess got me down to four; Green->last number->Call->Voice call. That's not too bad, but still...
What's really interesting is thinking about how many of these problems go away if you have a touchscreen, and only a touchscreen. Which, of course, is how the iPhone works. While I hadn't previously considered mobile phone UI to be sufficiently broken to allow room for the iPhone, I've only previously had simple phones. This one isn't, and it really isn't.
The hardcore gadget freak in me is quite entertained by the mental gymnastics involved. The Mac-using video producer/writer/blogger/getting stuff done guy in me is jaw-agape, knock-me-over-with-a-feather appalled that Nokia consider this shit shippable, let alone a flagship product.
I'm a big fan of computerised forms. In principle. In practice, designing them is hard. Things I hate about the expenses claim I'm filling in right now:
- The Excel file contains eighteen other forms in addition to the one I want. As a result, it's about half a megabyte in size, and takes 2 minutes to open while all the graphics files convert.
- The worksheet is protected, so I can't change that.
- There are ten lines in the entry table. I have upwards of 70 receipts.
- The worksheet is protected, so I can't add lines.
- The 'Description' box, despite being quite sizable, does not allow text to wrap. Thus, descriptions fall out of the box and are obscured.
- The worksheet is protected, so I can't set the text to wrap, or reduce the font size.
- The box into which I type my bank account number strips leading zeros. This is unfortunate, since they're an essential part of my bank account; without them, the payment will fail.
- The worksheet is protected, so I can't correct that.
- It would help for cost reporting at the recipients' end if I could categorise the receipts I'm filing. However, the form was designed for simple overnights and meal costs, not props, video equipment and consumables, workshop catering costs, ferry fees, and so on. So there's no place to note such additional information.
- The worksheet is protected, so I can't correct this.
- If I'd thought a little earlier, I could have opened the file in OpenOffice and fixed all this, since it appears to ignore Excel's sheet protection stuff. Gaaah!
Heigh-ho. So far, I'm up to £1019.78. Ouchie.
Dit-de-deee-dit-de-deee-dit... breaking news, coming in on the wires:
Jonathan was in Devon last week, running a couple of SciCast workshops. He had an unreasonably good time.
It is, however, a long way from Glasgow to Devon.
For reasons that aren't remotely clear, it's even further back from Cardiff to Glasgow.
The delightful Flossie toddled on down, whisking Jonathan to the Eden Project on Wednesday. That was fun.
Jonathan has a new phone! It's a Nokia N95 gadgetphone, of which there'll be a full review in due course, but in summary: man, the iPhone is going to rock.
Jonathan's off to Lisbon on Wednesday, for the Ecsite conference of European science centres. This is odd, since he's (a.) speaking, and (b.) not a science centre.
...and finally: Flossie revealed a previously-unknown talent for identifying six species of barnacle. I'm so in love.
You know, if there was a way of making this post skittle across the screen as a ticker-tape, I should probably have done that. Does <MARQUEE> still work? [shudder]
May 20, 2007
Add this to my dreadfully dull shopping list; an Elgato turbo.264. It's a USB2 stick carrying a media processor dedicated to hardware-accelerating H.264 video compression. For €100. I'm currently doing quite a lot of H.264 Quicktime compression on a 4 year-old 933MHz G4 Power Mac, hence my interest; this thing would be something like 20x faster, as a rough guess. Though ironically, the Power Mac is so old it predates USB2, so I'd need one of these as well.
...which leads to something of a dilemma. The turbo.264 is about 4x faster than a 2GHz Core2 Duo, which on the face of it is worthwhile -- I've always had a rule of three about processing speed. That is, anything that gives me a three-fold improvement is worth doing, because it transforms jobs that were in the hour or so 'too slow to bother with' bracket and shifts them into the 20-minute 'put the kettle on' space. 20 minutes is about the threshold for feeling 'interactive' -- it's thinking time, and short enough that you can do it during the day rather than overnight.
But 4x faster than a 2GHz Core2 Duo is... roughly as quick as a 4-core 3GHz Mac Pro. Ah. See, the turbo.264 is going to be overtaken by CPUs relatively soon, and doubtless we'll be running video compression jobs on our graphics cards' physics engines within a year too.
So: cute little device, worthwhile if you're doing lots of H.264 compression now. As with old supercomputer purchases, wait until the last possible minute to buy hardware -- waiting for newer processor technology can sometimes cause your job to finish sooner anyway.
One last caveat: it looks like the thing only works with iPod, Apple TV, and PSP presets. I see no suggestion that it's possible to tweak the export settings. For me, this is a deal-breaker, since the films I'm encoding for SciCast use a different frame size. Gaaaaaah!
My, how time flies when you're having fun. I'm not posting much here at the moment, and I'm not entirely sure why. Why didn't I mention a lovely day with Flossie, milling around the Kelvingrove scoffing professionally at the label editing and having our breath taken away by a Lowry seascape? Why haven't I mentioned the Giant's Causeway? Why haven't I mentioned a certain cheese delivery?
Partly because my blogging has always gone in cycles, and partly because comments are still down. It seems I don't like my blog to be entirely one-directional; it's plain rude. Sadly, I don't think I'll have chance to fix it before I gad off to Devon tomorrow for more SciCast workshops.
So here's another little blurb, for your delectation. Today, my light cone passes HR9038. A star that doesn't have a Wikipedia entry let alone a 'proper' name, that's merely a catalogue entry, today joins those that, theoretically, could be aware of my existence. There's something magnificently egocentric yet simultaneously humbling about knowing this.
[I blogged about Matt Webb's your-light-cone-in-an-RSS-feed app before; seeing it update in my feed reader still makes me smile. Run it for yourself here.]
May 15, 2007
Reports are coming in that the tannoy announcer at Cardiff Airport has called for one 'Amanda Huggankiss' to make themselves known to airport staff.
First day on the job, do you think?
Last week I was gadding around Northern Ireland (first time there!), running SciCast workshops in schools and at W5. Right now I'm setting up next week's trip to Devon, and starting to work through the backlog of films. Which is easier said than done, since we're shooting faster than I can edit (particularly with all the prep). But there'll be new stuff going up on the site fairly regularly, and the pace should pick up a little as we work out the inevitable bugs and become more practiced with workflow stuff.
First up, this masterpiece from the launch event, at Swinton near Rotherham. Local MP John Healey came along, so we spent the morning turning 20 teenagers into two studio crews. When Healey arrived at 2pm he was fitted with a radio mic, told which cameras to talk to and which not to block, and talked through what was going to happen. Two takes were shot (with proper sync claps and countdowns), and the crews switched over to record a second experiment.
None of this involved me -- by the afternoon, the students knew exactly what they were doing, and they did it. They knew that not one of them was going to get everything right, but they knew to trust their colleagues to cover their backs. The atmosphere was remarkable; talk about collaborative work against tight time pressure, I think they might have grasped that part of the project. Great job all round, anyway.
This is the first of the 'use an MP as a stooge' films -- the second (and notes to support this one) will appear shortly. SciCast film page here, or click the piccy. Credit to Healey, by the way -- he was unhesitatingly up for a laugh, helped put some nervous kids at their ease, and I think managed to talk to everybody in the room personally, particularly the students. Sure, this is what one expects of modern politicians, but he didn't simply do the job -- he did it well. Respect due... and I'll be interested to see where he ends up in the coming reshuffle.
Interesting article at Ars Technica about storytelling in video games (part of a series). One of my 18 or so side-projects at the moment is a critique of the storytelling mechanic in online role-play games, which have their own specific problems. I think I have, if not a solution, at least an expansion to the current systems that would go some way towards addressing the more glaring issues.
One of these days, I'll have to write it up as a paper. Quite what I do with it then, I'm not sure. I may publish it here -- or I may send it directly to the developers of one game in particular, who I think could use it quite directly.
I'm always surprised by how many problems boil down to storytelling, when you look at them in a certain way. But just as many website problems boil down to 'a blog would be a good way of doing this,' one starts to wonder if the tools with which one is familiar dictate the shape of the solutions one spots.
From the new series 2 -- no daleks, but cybermen taking 'their' 'dog' for a walk in the park are a definite highlight.
May 7, 2007
Three days of frenzied editing later, I find my 'gear' shopping list reads thus:
- 8-port gigabit ethernet switch. 100-base doesn't cut it for transferring DV, and every system I have has the right ports. Constantly replugging FireWire drives is a royal pain, but at the moment the fastest route. Crazy, given the price of gigabit switches.
- Something more recent than my poor old Power Mac G4/933. It's a workhorse, but last night I was colour correcting on resized and laterally flipped shots, and the render times were unbelievably dull. A Mac Pro would do nicely; any Mac Pro, but a quad-3GHz with 4Gb RAM, a terabyte of drive, and a nice big screen would save me about an hour or so a day at this point. Ouchie.
- Final Cut Studio 2, on that Mac Pro. No explanation necessary, surely?
- More short ethernet cables. Why do I only have really nasty long ones? Oh, that's right -- they're spoils from wanted.com, a weird online swap-shop style show we did for CITV one Christmas a few years back, for which I had a dozen or more iMacs in a TV studio, all running a bespoke web-app trading system I wrote. All my networking gear came from that. Interestingly, the other half of it is now running the Scottish Green Party's Glasgow office. I wonder if that counts as a political donation?
- A new keyboard. I've never really liked the one I have now.
- A Mac Book Pro, also with Final Cut Studio. Then I could finish up films in the evenings, when I'm out on the road.
- A sensible data plan with my mobile phone company. Ditto.
- A mobile phone that works like a 3G modem. Is there a sensible option for this sort of thing beyond T-mobile, does anyone know?
- Some clue of how I can force iMovie to import audio in a sensible format, rather than in such a way that moving the clips into Final Cut forces an audio render. Bizarre, and unbelievably irritating for a mixed iMovie/Final Cut workflow.
- Time to have fixed comments here. They're still borked, sorry.
- A video camera that's at least half-decent. I shot some smoke rings with the SciCast PD150 the other week and the footage is absolutely lovely, if I do say so myself; you'll se the results hopefully later this week. However, the PD100s and PD150 I bought last year are all owned by NESTA, which means they're effectively government assets. Drat. Drat drat drat. I quite fancy a Sony V1 at the moment, but cameras are a tough call. I hear a lot of talk that the 720p JVCs are particularly lovely, but I've yet to meet anyone who's actually seen one, let alone used the things. Z1s are all well and good, but I've always thought they felt like a 'v1.0' product; the XL-H1 is allegedly wonderful but rather large for my purposes, particularly with the rear-mounted überbattery to balance it up; Panasonic's P2 system strikes me as hideously expensive still; which leaves the V1 and the little Canons. Hmm...
- A lottery win. Tot up the above and I don't reckon there's much change out of £15,000. Oops.
May 2, 2007
I'm a complete sucker for well-made Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson/Fischli & Weiss machines, even if they're made by marketing people. My favourites are still the elegant little mechanisms used on Japanese children's TV show Pitagora Suiichi, but this one is impressive for its length, ambition, and variety. Well worth a watch -- some ideas there I haven't seen before.
My chum Martin is standing in the Scottish Parliament elections tomorrow, in Glasgow Kelvin, for the Scottish Green Party. Here he is at a site that really should have been built by the MySociety folks.
Anyway: only 4.7? He's far better-looking than that, curse him.
May 1, 2007
My lovely funders NESTA have an interview about our new project Planet SciCast. It gives you a brief overview of what we're trying to do, and -- more importantly? -- some of the background as to why. In the grand scheme of things it's a relatively small-scale project, but there are some Big Ideas behind it, and around it. I'm pushing for it to be seen as a useful test case for some of the debate that's going on about public service publishing, for example.
The site itself is now live too. The ETB have done a cracking job of munging their content management system to deliver the design work that was done last year -- but you'll rapidly notice that it's a work in progress. In the short term you'll see mostly bug fixes and tweaks, but I'm hoping I can talk everyone round to understand the difference between what we have now, and the living community site we should have.
But hey -- SciCast is now officially happening. The competition will open for entries later this month, and we're already getting a terrific response from schools about the films, the site, the competition, and the project.
Children's TV 2.0.
[still no comments on Quernstone.com, sorry]
Ah, too much to do, too much to say, too little time. Fleetingly:
The Science Council are building (yet another?!) new science careers website, and they're taking the branding/design thing commendably seriously. How seriously? Well, I'm glad you asked, thank you dear reader. They're taking it seriously enough to have thrown up a stylish little examples-and-voting site; they're asking for opinions.
To my eye there's a direct correlation between the funkiness of the branding and the obscurity of the message, which is a bit of a shame, but you can't fault them for trying. One of the ideas in particular I'd love to see rolled out as a sort of 'kite mark' for science engagement work - it'd be a neat little bit of branding.
Anyway, take a look, cast your vote.
More from me later. Promise. Mostly because if I don't post lots this week, Patrick will get angsty in email again.
[comments are still down, by the way. Yes, yes, I know. Humph.]