December 2007 Archives
December 29, 2007
It seems churlish not to blog something about the ongoing saga of Flossie’s shopping for a specific type of under-frock bra, given that the adventure has thus far caused an exploration of West Yorkshire car parks, multiple discussions about the nature of scaffolding, and the purchase of at least one internet domain name. However, I fear the process may be too stressful for all concerned to be treated so flippantly.
I hope you’re all having a lovely Christmas, anyway. I’m standing outside the changing rooms at M&S, in what the ad-hoc group here is calling ‘texters corner.’
December 24, 2007
I might have finally sorted the export of Markdown text in the feeds for this site, let’s see:
There was a link up there; here’s a bit of a quote
Which leads us to a heading
After which there may as well be some text before:
- A bullet point
- And another one
Merry Christmas, by the way.
December 22, 2007
I don’t get out much. Recently this has been due to the familiar homeworkers’ burden of having to wait in for Amazon deliveries, which always seem to end up split into more parcels than items. Or perhaps I’m just a stop-at-home.
When I do get out, then, and find myself around town and of a lunchish mind, I rather enjoy discovering new haunts. What invariably happens, however, is that shortly after I order, I work out that I’ve been to the establishment before. I know this because I always end up sitting in the same chair.
December 20, 2007
Four minutes is a long time. This is why SciCast films are limited to 2:30: filling four minutes requires far more material than people expect. What they guess will take four minutes can invariably be done in 2:30, and if you think maybe 10,000 might see a film, that’s two hundred and fifty person hours right there that the world isn’t going to get back.
So keep it short.
In fact, four minutes is so long, you can cram an overview history of Saudi Arabia into it. Wow.
Mind you, it helps if you have seriously good graphic designers, mad skillz with 3D compositing, lots of time, and a vast archive budget.
[Update: See? Told you.]
Y’all know I’m a wannabe font geek anyway, so I’ll just link to this and be done with it.
December 17, 2007
Further to this and this; a report on a storytelling panel at a video games developers’ conference. It’s worth reading that, and then skimming this remarkably circumspect review of Mass Effect, Bioware’s latest and greatest RPG. It’s been getting rave reviews, but PCWorld are refreshingly arms-length about it.
I’m currently playing Bioware’s previous effort, Jade Empire (yes, I know, I’m late to the party). It’s one of the first games since Ico to make me stop and stare at the scenery — oooh, pretty! — and the clickfest combat isn’t annoying me half as much as I expected. Probably because I have it set to ‘stupidly easy’ mode, come to think of it, and I do enjoy feeling like an unstoppable hero. Well, don’t we all?
However, I’m slightly disappointed by the storytelling. It’s a decent enough yarn, but I’m about a third of the way in and I don’t get the feeling that the main story branches at all. That is, I don’t feel as if my choices are having an effect on how the game plays out — there’s one story, and you’re funneled down it.
There’s sound reasoning for this, of course, but it’s still not very satisfying. I’m unsure, however, if my principle complaint is that I lack control over the narrative… or that I lack the illusion of such control.
December 15, 2007
Cross-posted from the Planet SciCast blog:
There are several reasons we’re not using YouTube to publish SciCast. Chiefly that it’s blocked in many schools, which would rather limit the utility of our films, but there are issues surrounding quality too.
Quality of video playback, for one thing — we want these films to be projected on a classroom wall, and that’s hard with grainy YouTube quality. The downloads we’ll make available will be high-resolution, high-quality, and in our tests have looked terrific on big screens.
Quality of discussion is another worry. We all know the web is full of knee-jerk, intemperate comment, but even given that, does anyone else think YouTube comments are still below average?
The third issue is quality of content. We can’t rigorously vet SciCast films, and they’re not all textbook-accurate. But they’re rarely complete rubbish, and we haven’t any yet that I’d describe as ‘anti-science.’ We want SciCast to be a source you can trust to be frequently entertaining and at least mostly accurate — and with current web video, that’s unusual.
The first piece of work I’ve seen on this issue was published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and it makes for alarming reading; there’s an excellent summary at Ars Technica.
There are good reasons why scientists need to be capable and effective communicators; part of SciCast’s ambition is to raise standards, and disseminate skills and best practice.
In discussion with Vinay, on the natural lifecycle of institutions and what happens when each generation runs into the limitations of the existing structures, we mentioned that the open-source software world feels like it’s institutionalised. I wrote:
I hear the bazaar has a roof now.
Quite proud of that.
December 14, 2007
A friend and colleague is mentoring a science engagement project today. Since it involves video, he asked me:
Do you have 3 key “producer” questions that I can use inside my head to help me review their film on the spot?
Well, gosh. Here’s what I wrote, somewhat stream-of-consciousness:
- Does the story make sense?
- Can you hear and understand what people are saying?
- Are there moments when you find yourself saying ‘What was… oh, right, I see’? Fix those.
- What’s the ‘take-home’?
- what, specifically, are you expecting a viewer to remember/think about/learn/be impressed by/etc?
- Where do you get bored?
- The first time you watched the film, when did you first glance away? When did your internal voice first say ‘Oh crap, there’s six more minutes of this’? Why?
- Is there something that could be left out that, by omission, would improve the film? (note that ‘shorter’ is almost always ‘better’ with video. While there’s a lower bound to that, it’s far lower than anyone expects).
- The other way of looking at this; does each element of the film earn its place? Does it advance the story, add information, provide breathing room, entertain, set the scene? Or is it padding?
- Is it sticky?
- What makes me want to share the experience of watching the film with other people? Is the idea so cool and exciting I have to tug someone’s sleeve? Do I have burning questions I need to discuss with someone? Do I immediately want to see it again?
- ‘What will they talk about in the playground’ is a mantra of kids’ TV. It’s one of the few bits of dogma to which I subscribe, though my interpretation may differ from that of others.
- The producer is the viewer’s proxy. The viewer is - for TV, at least - a very large number of disparate individuals. The producer’s job, then, is to smooth the film’s acceptance to as broad a range of people as possible; you’re trying to reach into the tails of the distribution, to broaden the appeal. So you’re looking for big stuff, but also really finicky little bits of annoyance, because every tiny niggle you spot will be a deal-breaker for someone else. And you want each of those people to watch.
Can’t believe I’ve boiled down ten years’ experience to that, and then given it away. I’m an idiot.
I’d expected more of our gear to get trashed during SciCast workshops, but it seems old Sony DVCAMs are made of sterner stuff. One PD100 has a dodgy focus switch, the PD150 menu dial is skipping, and the tripods are a bit more dodgy than when they fell off that particular lorry, but everything’s basically intact. I’ve had cables fray on a couple of battery chargers and we’ve lost microphone clips: which leaves the main casualty as my headphones. Which got sat on.
Which is fine, really, because they were rubbish — Sennheiser 210s. Closed-back, which was occasionally useful for noise rejection, but they were uncomfortable to wear and their sound quality was pretty rubbish. It’s now very rubbish, in that there’s a knackered-connection crackle superimposed. Nice. Fixable, but only to return to ‘pretty rubbish,’ and did I mention they got sat on? Right.
They were £50. I’m also using £30 Sennheiser PX100 which are flimsy and have too short a cable, but sound great — however, I’d like another closed-back set to replace the 210s. I’m leaning towards the Sennheiser HD25SP at about £90 — they’re the cheapskate version of the already-bottom-of-the-range HD25 ENG headphones, but cheapskate sounds about right for the likes of me.
Anyone have any thoughts?
December 13, 2007
Vexing me for some time: working out what to say about series 2 of Heroes without ruining it for those of you who won’t see if for months. While I’ve been meandering my way around to the position of ‘honestly not caring,’ I find that Mark Pursey has found the right words:
The writers of second season of Heroes are so incompetent that they have managed to make me retrospectively hate the first season, which I had originally quite enjoyed.
I still think the detail script editing has been brilliant, but really — did nobody look at the end-point of volume 2 and notice how close they’d come to resetting the whole continuity? Didn’t they care? Worse: did they think they were being clever?
Years ago, I had a concept of a constriction through which one forced ‘stuff’ — matter, geometry, organisational planning, screenplays, etc. Doing so required effort, but at the conclusion of the process all the ‘stuff’ was right back where it started. I dubbed this constriction a ‘Klein Bottleneck.’
Current evidence points to the Heroes storyline as being in a tight orbit through one. Ugh.
December 12, 2007
Perhaps that line wasn’t so much about Sith — who, after all, have the disadvantage of being fictional — but about English-language online geek humourists.
Now, in late 2006, Ze has moved on to a higher plane of existence (or ‘Los Angeles’ as we like to call it), and xkcd has risen to become the undisputed honesty mirror of the new geek republic.
So… who is the new apprentice?
Waiting for Leopard was bad enough — oh, the six-month delay: the horror, the horror — but now we have all these whizzy new developer features one has to ask: where are the whizzy applications? Hmm?
There’s Anxiety, an ultra-simple front-end to the new system-wide Tasks store. Great. Anything else? Not so much.
I get the distinct impression that across the planet, thousands of Cocoa developers are staring at their monitors, lost in the awesome majesty of CoreAnimation. “It’s so pretty! Ooooooh!” they intone, as they cycle in and out of TimeMachine like moths flickering around a particularly beautiful streetlight.
December 11, 2007
Absolutely amazing story at the LA Times analysing the budget of Sahara, one of the most costly flops in Hollywood history. Reasonable success at the box office has been swamped by production costs around the $160m mark.
The LA Times’ story is confusingly laid out, but there are some real eye-openers in there. Movies are big business, but some of this spend seems astonishing. And the culprit for the doubling of budgeted cost? Blamed on ‘failure to lock down a script,’ it seems. Ah, that old chestnut. It seems the entire industry is mired in the inability to actually make decisions.
And yes, I realise I wasn’t exactly a paragon of producorial decision-making. It’s simply impossible, even on a small production, to make every decision that someone believes is necessary — I sometimes think that the judgmental skill lies not in making correct decisions, but rather in choosing the right things on which to decide.
And hey, my productions came in on budget, so I wasn’t that bad.
Stupendous vIdeo of Run Lola Run being projected onto a huge video wall as a sort of film strip… oh, just watch the clip. There’s other stuff from the NYU course behind this, here.
December 7, 2007
Comments are working again. I’d tweaked the server to talk to quernstone.com rather than www.quernstone.com, which was upsetting one of Movable Type’s scripts. Fixed. Of course, you might still get a 500 server error — if so, go back and post again after a couple of minutes. This is related to an application timeout with FastCGI on Dreamhost, for anyone who really cares.
Oh, and feeds are still serving raw Markdown, sorry. Will sort shortly.
….aaaaaaan archives are still one huge mess. Darn.
December 6, 2007
According to one of my entertaining conversations this evening (with a lady I last met at the BA in about 1993), the venerable British Association for the Advancement of Science (founded 1831) is changing its name. ‘BA’ is evidently synonymous with British Airways, so they’re changing to ‘BSA.’
…which is synonymous with motorbikes, via British Small Arms, obviously.
On my way back from the Richmond schools’ science film festival, a fantastic event opened by the Mayor with awards presented by none other than Sir David Attenborough. Loads of massively excited kids, some terrific films, and a night’s celebration of creativity in a science context. Excellent.
The whole thing started only a few weeks ago with an Institute of Physics SciCast poster, and a chap from the National Physical Laboratory running with the idea. Result: 9 schools took part, entering 25 films, and I spent the evening with teachers and education authority staff telling me how wonderful the whole thing was.
A terrific effort by all involved (particularly Andrew Hanson of the NPL), and for me, an excellent vindication of the ideas behind SciCast: the rules and licensing stuff were directly lifted, which was exactly the sort of thing I’d hoped might happen.
You know, this might all just work.
The short version (since I’m mobbloging): parents are very concerned about factual programmes, but in truth there is no future. It’s clear that even if one gave broadcasters something like How2 for free, they wouldn’t put it out.
No, the future of factual children’s media looks less like tv, and more like the thing I’m off to now: a showing of a couple of dozen SciCast-type films, made by children and facilitated by the National Physical Laboratory.
Science is in a unique position to make this happen more widely. I’m quite excited.
At the Westminster Media Forum seminar on the future of children’s tv. It’s odd to be talking about it when, day to day, I feel like I’m doing it. But this is Big, and Future, and Long Term talk.
I’ll report back.
December 5, 2007
I like arriving into Kings Cross. It was my first glimpse of London, and hence shall always be, to my mind, the correct place to start.
Damn, I’ve got a lot done on this train journey.
Well, that is to say, I’ve hit ‘k’ (“mark all as read”) in NetNewsWire a hell of a lot. But hey, I’ve also tweaked some Movable Type stuff over at the SciCast blog, with the help of the MT mailing list, and I’ve been fiddling with a few other bits locally. Yes, I have a copy of MT running on my MacBook. Woohoo.
As Vinay has pointed out (in the IM conversation burbling on behind all this), I’ve been having a deeply 21st Century day.
Oi! Blog writers! Yes, you Scoble!
How about you work out roughly how frequently your feed subscribers are snagging your feeds, and make your feeds long enough that there’s overlap? Like a good netizen, I have NetNewsWire set on four-hour refresh, and some blogs (Make, Boing Boing, Scoble. Particularly Scoble) post so much stuff that the feed has churned round completely in way less time than that. result: I miss stuff.
If it carries on like this we’ll start hearing ‘RSS is broken’ stories.
[I’m writing this on the train. Ah, the joys of GNER wifi, power sockets, and quiet carriages]
I’m about to jump on a train to London, to go to a big shindig about children’s TV. Which is odd, because to my mind that should read ‘children’s media,’ and I suspect there’ll be hissing and booing if I say that out loud.
Hence, I was rather hoping to print out a bunch of recent OFCOM documents so I could snuggle up with a good PDF on the train. Sadly, my printer exploded about three months ago, and I’d completely forgotten because I’ve not needed it since.
That’s about it, really. See, you’re not missing much.
Oh – that last post was sent directly from my N95. I managed to convince it it’s a generic European handset, and hence have the software updates Orange have been denying me. Six months’-worth of updates. Result: it’s waaaaay happier. I still think the UI is a bag of spanners, but at least it actually does stuff now. Like, makes phone calls without (so far) crashing.
Mind you, saying an N95 is useful and productive is like saying that DOS was useful and productive. It’s technically true, but remembering which button is ‘quit’, and when, isn’t something that should be inflicted on end users.
[not quite sure why this post has a 'continue reading' link. There isn't any more. Oh, how we long for MT4.1... coming soon to a download server near you...]
[oop! And now it doesn't have such a link. Durr.]
December 4, 2007
This is body text. Of course, it’d probably be easier to do all this with twitter.
December 1, 2007
I'm – probably, could all change – on the radio in a couple of hours' time. On Thursday morning I recorded an interview about SciCast for BBC Radio 4's iPM programme; the result should be on between 5:30 and 6 tonight.
Absolutely bricking it, I am.
Oh heck, look at that. They're gone and put a bunch of stuff on their blog about SciCast, too. Eek! Running order; Piece from the journalist who interviewed me. I see they've bounced me down the running order, which is probably fair enough, and a cautionary note.
Chairman Gruber tackles the issue of text antialiasing on the iPhone (yes, some people actually care about this sort of stuff. Turn outs, I may be one such person). The issue has been whether the iPhone does standard greyscale antialiasing, or colour-fringing subpixel antialiasing.
Gruber concludes that it's standard greyscale. This makes perfects sense, because subpixel shenanigans depends on the renderer knowing the arrangement of the display elements. While the iPhone renderer clearly could know this, it would also have to cope with the screen rotating. So… what does it do? Does it switch from horizontal-subpixel rendering to vertical? Surely that would mean the look of the type changed subtly between portrait and landscape modes? Which might be fairly ghastly.
If you run with standard antialiasing you don't have these problems; a pixel is just a pixel, and the problem doesn't arise. As long as the pixels are square, of course (that's a problem that's still causing problems with web video, incidentally).
Besides, is it just me who hates the colour fringing with subpixel antialiasing? I turn it off on my Macs – can't bear it. Perhaps I'm particularly sensitive to chromatic aberration effects or something, but that little outline of colour speckle makes my eyes crawl.
(Oh, and yes, I turn it off on my Windows boxes too. I know people speak very highly of ClearType, but I think it looks at least as dreadful as 'best for LCD' on OS X.)