January 2008 Archives
January 29, 2008
Having ended up keeping the aforementioned iPod touch, I’m now letting myself admit that a tiny web tablet is a remarkably useful thing. Plus, I’m sitting in the airport watching TED talks, which is like Horizon 2.0.
One niggle: I’m now so used to gesture scrolling on the thing, the trackpad scroll on my MacBook Pro feels like it goes the wrong way. Anybody else finding that?
January 27, 2008
“It takes 365 days for the Earth to orbit the sun, but 366 days in a leap year.”
Well, no. Not as such. But since you’re only, like, eight years old, I’m going to say: “Aw, bless! That’s so sweet!”
January 26, 2008
Aw, bless! If you spot a visit from Evil Mad Scientist Labs in your site referrer logs, clicking it takes you to a page wherein the text reads:
Greetings fellow blogger!
This is our (private) referrer log location. Since you are here, you must have noticed us in your referrer logs, after we saw your site in our referrer logs. (All very incestuous, isn’t it?).
Anyway, there isn’t much to see here, but there is lots to see on the main site. If there is something that you want to talk to us about, that’s cool too— use the “Contact” button up above. Cheers!
Fascinating comments from Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian today, about Obama and Clinton:
“Fate has played a cruel trick against Barack Obama. It has made him the most exciting newcomer in US politics for a very long time — then pitted him against the man who held that title first.”
I still worry that Clinton might inspire the old guard of the Democratic party but fail to repeat that trick with the voters beyond, whereas Obama appears to have the opposite problem. Who would the Republicans rather run against?
For years, I’ve idly wanted to name a production company ‘Media Offline.’ It’s a joke, see — when you’re editing on an Avid, and the blasted thing can’t find your clips, it flashes up a dour grey screen with block capitals reading ‘MEDIA OFFLINE.’ This can happen at any stage of the edit process, and it’s one of the reasons one watches through the final layback to the edit master. You want to know that the tape you send the broadcaster has your show on it, and not 30 minutes of ‘MEDIA OFFLINE’ card.
So I desperately wanted to use a facsimile of that Avid card as the production company’s credit caption at the end of a show. Anyone from the industry catching it out of a corner of their eye would immediately panic, wondering if it was their show which had screwed up. Fun times.
Sadly, it seems this dream will never be realised. Partly because any production company I might form is more likely to be doing web video than TV, and ‘media offline’ is a lousy name for an online media agency. But also because the domain is registered… by somebody apparently pulling the same gag.
One of my indulgences at Christmas was to give all the adults in the family the best-packaged chocolate I’ve ever seen — from impossible-to-pronounce Kshocolat, based here in Glasgow.
It turns out the packaging was designed by Third Eye Design, also in Glasgow, and has won a ridiculous range of awards. If you stumble across it in Harvey Nicks or Liberty (or… er… Peckhams, which is where I found it), you’ll notice how dashing it is.
As for the chocolate itself: now, I’m a little snobby about chocolate. I like small amounts of the dark, smooth, and nutty stuff. For me, therefore, Kshocolat rocked. Sadly, I can’t report on the ‘white chocolate with lemon and pepper,’ since dad had that bar and he guarded it jealously. Perhaps he’ll leave some notes in the comments.
Anyway, I note all this because there’s a bit of a hoo-hah going on in the blogosphere about Tcho chocolate, currently ‘in beta’ (oh, for heaven’s sake…). They might have a Wired co-founder on their side, but I’d like to make it clear that for once, Glasgow got there first. M’kay?
January 24, 2008
It’s well worth watching Tufte’s video on the iPhone right to the end. I don’t agree with quite everything he says along the way, but his closing thoughts are gloriously subtle. Including:
“To clarify, add detail. Imagine that. … Clutter and overload are not an attribute of information, they are failures of design.”
January 21, 2008
Lovely set of films from my chum Alom, of scientists showcasing their work: Labreporter.com.
One of my ambitions for SciCast this year is to intersperse films of this nature with ones from schools. Crossover films like this one are particularly interesting, too. My gut feeling is that the 2:30 duration is still the right way to go, but I need to refine a template format for undergrads and academics — and that means making a bunch of films myself.
One of the joys of How2 is that one started each item with a single question, and the job of the film was to answer it. Things went off the rails when films grew to include loads of other stuff — while it might have been interesting, if it didn’t contribute to answering the question, it shouldn’t have been there. One idea per film.
That’s hard enough to hold professional film-makers to, let alone professional scientists holding a camera for the first time.
Alom’s films are delightful, but they’re also very professional. I want to find a happy medium, where the bar is set high enough that people have something to shoot for — but not so high they assume they’ll miss. Tricky.
January 18, 2008
What sort of people do we want in the future?
This is how children’s media intersects with formal education. But the latter is bogged down in ‘What do we want people to know?’, while public service media has never had that constraint. So it’s been about style, and vision, and passion, and inspiration.
Right to the end, this question is what informed and guided children’s television. It was rarely vocalised, because it didn’t need to be. It was in the atmosphere, in the walls, in the blood of the departments and the people who made the programmes.
I’ve seen nothing in web media which reassures me that people are thinking on this sort of level.
That worries me.
Last week, I bought an iPod touch, with the intention of using it to test video formats for SciCast. I’m trying to produce ‘one download to rule them all’ — a file that will play on an iPod, but will also project up onto a classroom wall and still look pretty good, and can be converted to a DVD and work OK. Ambitious.
The touch is an amazing piece of kit. It’s an iPhone without the phone; you get the gorgeous touchscreen, the media player functions, and web browsing over WiFi (Mobile Safari rocks — quick enough, sharp text, works well). Unfortunately, in my testing I managed to produce files that looked great on the touch, but didn’t play on a chum’s video iPod. Apple’s specs say they’ll play the same formats, but… that’s not what we saw. Merde.
So I booked a ‘personal shopping’ hour at the local Apple Store, Buchanan Street in Glasgow, and left a note to the effect that I wanted to assemble a bunch of iPods and throw a range of files at them, because the published specs don’t seem right.
That’s what we did today. Credit where it’s due, the Glasgow store staff were terrific. Informed, interested, patient — an absolutely first-class experience that fell somewhere between ‘personal shopping,’ technical support, and web media business consultancy.
It’s hard for me to do justice to them, actually. They were great, to the point where I’ve ended up keeping the Touch and not even minding that I’ll be shelling out another £12 for the latest software for it. It was, I think, the best ‘shop’ experience I’ve had since the days of family-run bicycle shops, which of course have all gone bust now. They’ve saved me a day of farting around, basically.
Remind me — Apple kit is expensive because… ?
(For the geekily interested, the bottom line is:
- Apple’s published specs for iPod video support are wildly conservative. The current models will handle bitrates far beyond the quoted limit.
- The exception is the older 5G iPod, which won’t play some files that appear within spec.
- The Classic and Nano allegedly share a hardware platform, including video decoder chip. The touch and iPhone are different again, however — though I’ve yet to see a difference in practice.
- I’m now working with tech support for my chosen video compressor, trying to resolve a couple of issues I’m seeing with it. )
January 17, 2008
- Tax Demand.
- Server Outage.
- Backup Failure.
- Reached End of Moleskine Notebook.
- Dirty Lenscloth.
- Smacked Self in Face With Juggling Club.
- Royal Mail Special Delivery Failure.
- Accidental Television Series Commission.
- Surplus-to-Requirements iPod.
- Returning Home to Find Burglary in Progress.
(For the avoidance of doubt: one of these is hypothetical, and another turned out to be somebody else’s. The rest happened, mostly but not necessarily recently.)
January 16, 2008
Why is Masterchef over-exposed? It looks like it’s been shot on a Z1 and graded with no awareness that the food’s all on white plates. We can’t see any of it. Crazy.
January 15, 2008
My chum Vinay points me towards this article, which scores a selection of science fiction stories against the prototypical hero’s journey.
Personally, I think the genuinely informative parts of that post are the first few comments. It’s more that the Hero’s Journey is an abstraction of a satisfying story structure, vis: there’s a protagonist who advances the story and serves as our proxy; shit happens to him, by definition; some form of conflict occurs; conflict is resolved, leaving the world in a different state.
I’m slowly wading my way through Christopher Booker’s “Seven Basic Plots”, which is terrific. There’s a lovely section where, in two pages, he compares Gilgamesh — the oldest known story, we have a written version from something insane like 5,000 years ago — and Dr. No. Basically the same story. Genius.
What I think is interesting isn’t that many sf stories are basically similar, but that:
- There are so few fundamental narratives.
- None of these appear to be ‘new’ — ie. enabled by technological advance.
- Despite these limits and repetition, we still find stories satisfying.
I think one is gently pushed towards a position where stories are less about individual expression and creativity, and more about discerning how one relates to the world, and judging oneself against others.
January 14, 2008
Bob Ainsworth, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, (mis?)quoted in Hansard for saying something entirely unparliamentary last week.
It’s apparently possible that the official record may be corrected, since Ainsworth refutes this version of the debate. The story is developing as I type; it was squeezed in towards the end of PM tonight, moments ago.
[update, 15th Jan: Hansard has been amended, and TheyWorkForYou.com along with it. Boo!]
I love Amazon’s customer proximity scan system, where they tell you that other people who’ve bought that have also bought this. Genius. But then sometimes:
Greetings from Amazon.co.uk,
We’ve noticed that customers who have purchased or rated music by Blue Man Group have also purchased Billy the Hits by Billy Joel. For this reason, you might like to know that Billy the Hits is now available. You can order yours for just £19.99 by following the link below.
(Blue Man Group) ∩ (Billy Joel)? Really?
January 11, 2008
Right now, I own four iPods. This is curious, since I don’t actually like listening to music on the move. But then, I didn’t intend to own any of these things. Here’s the litany:
iPod 1: 15Gb ‘3G’ iPod
The ugly one with the separate buttons. Bought in lieu of rent for a chum, only he didn’t like it so I ended up buying him a telly instead. This beasty has actually been quite useful, in that it’s full of music and when plugged into a Tivoli PAL it’s been a perfectly good portable sound system when I’m working away from home (London, Dublin). The battery has always lied about its charge, but since I only ever use it hooked up to the speaker that doesn’t matter.
iPod 2: 2Gb ‘1G’ nano
The svelte black plastic one. At one point Apple were flogging these off as refurbs for a crazy low price. I bought one for Flossie and mis-clicked; couldn’t be bothered to send one back when two turned up. When I was commuting to Dublin this was set up to hold podcasts (mostly Melvyn Bragg, geek that I am), and I loved it… but I haven’t used it since. I’d intended it to be plugged into a car stereo, but then I gave up the car.
iPod 3: Touch
Bought very quickly last week, while trying to debug podcast video formats. It’s a brilliant piece of kit — amazing screen, and Mobile Safari is just lovely — but it skips too many of the useful bits of an iPhone for me to really love it. Worst of all, it exhibits different video format quirks to the iPod Classic and (3G) Nano, so it’s more-or-less useless to me for its intended purpose.
iPod 4: ‘2G’ nano
The tall silver metal one, not the new squat video one. I’ve just found out that I’ve won one of these for filling in a science careers project brand consultation exercise. The poor project manager has been trying to get rid of them for months but so many people have failed to respond to her emails, she’s worked her way down the list to… er… me. By complete coincidence, we met each other at the ASE conference last week. So it’s completely legit, even if it feels dodgy as heck. “Give it to the next person on the list,” I suggested. “Oh, please take it,” the poor lass groaned, “You’re the first person in ages to respond.”
So: four iPods, none of which are used for listening to music on the move, and I can’t use any of them to test… er… iPod video. Next Wednesday I have an appointment with the local Apple Store to try to debug my compression settings. I’ll be taking the Touch, and most likely returning it for a video-capable 3G nano.
Except… Tuesday is Jobs’ keynote at MacWorld, so…
I’m going to end up with five iPods, aren’t I?
Windows Movie Maker’s speckle dissolve: what were they thinking?
It’s a completely pathological case for video compression. Heck, the official Mac WMV playback component throws a CPU spike on playback and drops to 5fps. It’s that bad.
Madness. And you should see what it looks like after going DV->WMV->MPEG2->DV->H264, too. Yowch.
January 10, 2008
I’ve bought a bunch of domains in my time, including a few that currently aren’t doing anything but maybe just maybe we might do that thing we thought of when we were a bit giddy that made us laugh so much we bought the domain. I’ve even been accused of domain squatting on one occasion, by someone with a weird surname who thought I was going after just him when in fact I’d bought the domain as a wedding pressie to somebody else I knew of the same name. The people involved were, in fact, related. Oh, how we laughed.
Anyway, there used to be a worry that if you looked up a domain to see it was available, somebody might notice you doing that, jump in, reserve the domain before you, then charge you to buy it off them. This was all soundly poo-poohed as implausible and paranoid.
My vote: 123-reg.co.uk, who are mostly nice people, especially now they’ve stopped splashing David Hasselhoff over their websites. Just be careful not to omit the dash and visit the .com — that’s a different company entirely, and they’re much more expensive.
January 9, 2008
Last night, I made something resembling this. And damn, it was good.
Mmm. Roasted butternut squash risotto. Mmmmmmmmmm.
Allow me to geek for a moment: There are new Mac Pro models. Nothing surprising, really — eight cores, faster front-side bus, and all that. The baseline price has gone up a hair to £1749, however, which coupled with the announcement a week before MacWorld has led some to start going all doo-lally about the possibility of an ‘xMac.’ The argument is that the Mac Pro is a workstation-class machine, and there should be a monitor-less ‘mainstream’ desktop between it and the iMac.
I think this is rot, for several reasons. Firstly, I think that ‘mainstream’ desktop is an iMac with a second monitor, if we’re being picky. But more specifically, the headline price increase in the Mac Pro masks a practical price drop.
See, you can spec a Pro with just four processor cores for £320 less than the baseline price. The resulting £1429 slots in neatly below the 2.8GHz 24” iMac at £1459, for a machine bursting with drive bays and RAM slots, packing twice as many processors, but having no monitor. Which… is what people wanted to see from an xMac, frankly. OK, so they wanted it for £1000, but tough, this is Apple, you don’t get that lucky.
The thing that really narks me in all this is that I’m betting the people clamouring for an xMac are the same individuals who clamoured for a ‘Pro’ Mac with lots of expansion slots. Which, of course, almost nobody ever actually uses. Durr.
One final observation: the Refurb Store is offering the previous-generation 4-core Mac Pro. This is a machine with slower CPUs (though possibly more per-core bandwidth, which might factor), less RAM, a cruddy graphics card, etc etc. The discounted price? £1419. Wow. A whole tenner less than the new equivalent.
See, I told you the price had come down really.
January 8, 2008
You know it’s been a busy day when you reach 5:30pm and wonder why your Mac is taking a while to switch between applications. So you check the virtual memory and notice that it’s paging six gigs. Then you spot that the icons in your dock (along the bottom of a 20” widescreen) are too small to recognise, and nearly all of them have little blue lights underneath.
How did I come to be running 27 applications in two different operating systems again?
Neeeeed … moooooore … raaaaaam …
January 7, 2008
I’m fairly bland in my choice of desktop picture, preferring something abstract and smooth that doesn’t get in the way nor prove too distracting. My dad, on the other hand, is a big fan of Astronomy Picture of the Day, to the extent that he has his desktop set to refresh from it.
So while I’m not using these myself, you, dear reader, might find some happy desktop joy in this collection from photographer Steve Paxton.
Christmas: done. New year: done. Meeting lots of family: done. Apologising to Flossie’s parents that dinner with them was the one family connection we didn’t manage to fit in: pending. Science teachers’ conference: done.
I’m back. Hope you all had a good one.
Every now and then I re-read my own blog, trying to work out what it’s for. It’s never going to be one of those sharply-focussed blogs that acquires a large, well-defined, and advertiser-friendly audience, but that’s never been the point of it anyway. I blog because I enjoy writing, and the restrictions of the format are interesting. The ideal blog post is an awkward length, and it’s a challenge to be correctly pithy.
So, my apologies to those of you for whom a third of this stuff is obscurely technical gibberish. My hope is that such an apology applies to basically everyone reading, but that the group of posts constituting the ‘third’ changes from individual to individual.
Musings aside: Chairman Gruber links to this delightful New York Times article on the joys of writing sans Microsoft Word. I only use Word for format conversions these days; I write mostly in TextMate, using Markdown.
In the unlikely event that I get around to writing the novel about my solution to the world’s energy problems, I might well do the legwork with Scrivener. We’ll see.