September 2008 Archives
September 29, 2008
Regarding today’s xkcd, Flossie just emailed:
Did you see the note that said ‘interestingly, on a true vertical log plot I think the Eiffel tower has straight sides’?
If I didn’t already love you, I think I’d be mildly in love with him.
‖ ulp ‖
Iron. Taken at Blist’s Hill open-air museum. I’m using the large version of this (click the picture to find it at Flickr) as a desktop picture at the moment: it’s rather nice.
I’ve never managed to make it to The Tuttle Club, which is a crying shame since they’ve outgrown their first home and are about to move to the ICA. There’s lots of excitement about this, and quite right too.
However, I can’t quite get past my initial impression of the ICA, which is relevant in the context.
See, back in 1994, shortly after the first ‘cybercafé’ (remember those?) Cyberia opened, the ICA held a new media/art/technology crossover event called ‘Terminal Futures.’ It was, frankly, a thoroughly ghastly event surrounded by people who thought the internet’s sole purpose was to serve as a canvas for their own egos.
I do hope Tuttle avoids the same fate.
I find the implications troubling, so I’m going to indulge in a bit of an essay. The non-web-geeks amongst you should probably skip this post.
Movable Type has a very fresh and pleasant back-end interface, but futzing around with upgrades is a clunky process. There are lots of files to move — even a minor upgrade involves a complete reinstall — and when something goes wrong it’s not always obvious where to look for diagnostics, nor where to turn for help. There are all kinds of problems:
- The documentation is written to describe the system, not to explain its use. Where explanatory pages exist — and they often do, it seems — they’re usually not linked to each other. I think this is mostly because the docs have been in a state of considerable flux of late, making it hard to weave them together in the subtle ways which turn out to be useful.
- The docs are still incomplete, and there are areas where it’s not clear if the docs — and particularly the comments, where much of the solid advice lies — are current, or dating back to MT3.x.
- The footer of MovableType.org pushes one towards these forums… yet the ‘current’ forums, per my understanding, are here instead… and often the most helpful responses are on the MT consultant’s mailing list ProNet. Don’t get me started on the wiki.
- Baffling website plurality: MT’s schizophrenic nature as open-source code on the one hand, and a platform for corporate consulting services on the other, leaves one baffled. Recent reorganisations have helped, but it’s still a right mess.
- Not only is it a mess, but bits of the various MT websites keep falling apart. This weekend, it was search at the Documentation site (still broken as I write this), but at least logins and posting were working at the forum.
To be fair, these are all areas of current work for Six Apart, the company behind MT. And the pace of change has been ferocious recently, with lots of good stuff happening in the last few months, from the Mid-Century templates I’m using here, to Action Streams, to the startling performance improvements of MT4.2. It’s OK, though not ideal, that the docs should be catching up; that the structure of the websites is still confused is more concerning.
However, it’s remarkable that I’ve been using MT here for six years. Database upgrades have been, that I recall, seamless, and template backward-compatability is exemplary. There’s lots about MT to like.
So my complaint is that it’s merely ‘good’, and still, after all this time, has some way to go before it’s ‘great.’ Recent rewrites may have improved publishing performance, but the application itself stills ‘feels’ slow, and I’ve no clear idea of why using it under fastcgi on my server is unstable. I tried, briefly, at the weekend, and while it’s dramatically faster, it still throws 500 errors at seemingly-random intervals. I might try again.
I’m left enticed by some of MT’s promise, impressed by the flexibility and relative ease of hacking its templates (and not having to deal with database gubbins in the process), but suspicious that life could, nevertheless, be better.
The standard answer to ‘I need a website’ is, it seems, ‘WordPress.’ It’s a terrific package. So what are my beefs with it?
- Updates. Updates updates updates. Sure, it’s highly visible for hackers, and an obvious target for attack. Hence, lots of security patches. Fine. But such fatalism hides two issues: first, the nagging suspicion that having database access in the page templates is plain bad application architecture, and that can’t help. Second, that frequent updates are a pain in the arse for users. They may be the price one pays for ‘free,’ but it’s too high a price.
- Updates that break things. Of all the WordPress installs I’ve done — about thirty or so, I guess — only one is now (a.) current and (b.) still running. I’ve lost count of the times my database has failed to update properly, or new stuff has broken old plugins in a catastrophic way, or something else funky has happened. WordPress, like Windows, appears to have a half-life of about 18 months. Perhaps less.
- Even the working install I have (which is less than two years old) has database issues, in that a few releases back the default text encoding was changed without, it seems, any note in the upgrade docs. This bit me at the weekend, when I tried to refresh the config file. While the fix was easy — back out the configuration changes — I’m now left with a non-standard database format. Updating the database looks painful and risky; but if I don’t, I’d give the install another six months before it craters.
While most of the WordPress installs I had that went really bad were a while back, and it certainly seems more stable than it used to be, the bottom line for me is that I just can’t be bothered with it. Keeping up-to-date is simply more effort than I’m willing to put in.
Again, I’m left with feeling like there should be something better.
My obvious recourse should probably be a hosted service, likely at WordPress.com or TypePad. Trouble is, keeping current with at least one web publishing system is pretty much essential for the work I do, where I may have to lob up a prototype or even deploy a site at short notice.
For example, just as we were convening the judges for SciCast last year our main server collapsed. I don’t have any control over that, but the problems were clearly serious: I built out a judging site in Movable Type more-or-less overnight.
I’m willing to invest a little time to be able to do that sort of thing… but perhaps not as much investment as currently.
Sandvox? RapidWeaver? I even own a copy of the latter, but I’ve never really used it — partly because I’ve a suspicion I prefer the former. I should play with these, though — they may be useful for quick lash-up jobs.
Expression Engine, perhaps?
The irregular reader may have noticed a few changes around here, including but not restricted to a rather extended period over the weekend where everything was broken.
So, I’ve brought my Movable Type install up-to-date, and switched to the Mid-Century template set, which is a dashed sight prettier than the defaults I was using before. There are serifs, and everything.
The sidebar is still acting a bit funky (‘Recent Comments’ should be more like ‘Random Comments,’ but hey, that’s interesting too), and submitting comments is still a little borked (it works, but the system might not give you much confidence in it having done so).
At some point I’ll try to integrate that stuff into the flow of the main blog. However, the instructions for doing that look a tad painful, and I should combine that with collating actions together so Twitter and Flickr stuff doesn’t spew all over the page. Eu.
That, however, looks far too much like hard work.
Aaaanyway: looks like we’re back. More-or-less.
Hmm. I need to get some green back in, somewhere.
September 27, 2008
Test post to see if things are still working around here. I have my doubts.
Update: things are indeed pretty broken. Gaaah.
September 26, 2008
If Americans actually vote for these idiots, can the rest of us bring a case in the international courts for them being criminally negligent as a nation?
September 25, 2008
Flossie and I were in North Yorkshire for a few days, earlier in the week. Heading down to the Mallyan Spout (a waterfall, which seems obvious once you know despite being mysterious when you first hear the name), I spotted these toadstools. Hopping the fence, Flossie delighted in her natural environment – vis. grubbing around in the mud – to snag this photo.
September 20, 2008
“Simon Laidlaw is doubtful his services will still be required at the Lehman Bros. vs. HBoS golf tournament.”
“Alan Bell is overwhelmed with workload forecasting.”
“Jo Brodie is transferring the contents of her bank account into a zero interest sock-delimited sub-mattress account for safety’s sake.”
“James Piercy has achieved resonance at 1018Hz.”
I do wish all these people were on Twitter instead, though. I hate having to go into Facebook to do anything with their bonnes mots.
I’ve been watching 30 Rock recently. Late to the party, I know, but what’s new?
It was a slow start for me — I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it past the first few episodes had they not been only 20 minutes long (my heavens, does American TV really have that many adverts in a half-hour show? Crumbs). But I’m glad I did give it the benefit of the doubt, since once it loosens up a little it’s a terrific show.
There’s nothing particularly innovative about it: dysfunctional, mildly neurotic, ‘kooky’ young professional woman struggles to maintain sanity/control/dignity in her all-consuming job while contriving narrowly to miss the American dream despite seemingly ‘having it all’ in New York. Gee, where have I heard that one before?
However, Tina Fey is, I now understand, something of a genius. Her performance is smart — it’s tempting to write ‘sassy,’ but that’s curiously old-fashioned, right? — and her character stops just short of ‘cutesy,’ somewhere around the ‘adorable’ mark. The supporting cast is a mixed bag, but Alec Baldwin is wholly brilliant, and Fey cannily cedes the comic initiative to him whenever they share the screen. One gains the impression that she enjoys writing his character even more than she does her own, and her delight at his performance is palpable.
But there are two things that really set the show apart from the crowded middle ground of comedy. Actually, one thing, come to think: the show has a very clear idea of its own limitations. It’s not trying to be anything other than straightforward entertainment; it never forgets that it has to make you laugh.
So, the Tracy Jordan character is problematic. It’s a very broad stereotype, played equally broadly. But every time I think I’m about to throw something at the screen, some twist or nuance to the character is revealed that dissipates the tension. It’s brilliantly-judged.
Similarly, the show manages never to take itself too seriously. This was, of course, the problem with Aaron Sorkin’s superficially-similar Studio 60, which somehow got itself portrayed as comedy despite being fairly straight drama, and then disappeared up its own redraft in a horrid molasses of self-referential fermentation. I rather it enjoyed it, but then I work(ed) in TV.
In contrast, the worst judgement involved in 30 Rock is the title. Once the characters, setting, and dynamic are introduced, the show settles into a pleasingly genial attitude of mucking about with the format. One suspects the following exchange occurs frequently:
“You can’t do that! It breaks the rules.”
“It’s only a TV show. As long as it’s funny, who cares?”
For example: it’s become gratingly commonplace for shows like this to break the fourth wall — that is, for characters to turn to camera and address the audience directly. At times this can work rather well (Hustle), but usually it’s plain irritating (also Hustle). 30 Rock does it sparingly, and on at least one occasion I was willing them to do it, and was still surprised when they did.
That sort of willing conceit, where the audience is almost literally cheering the show on, waiting for the line or pay-off we know is coming, is desperately hard to pull off in practice. By the end of the first series, for me, 30 Rock is doing it in almost every episode.
Aware that they have the audience exactly where they should be — rooting for the show — gives the writers leeway to arse about. And they do. Gloriously. Gags, set-ups, locations, and even music sequences that ought to be appallingly indulgent are instead pulled off with such bravado that we’re left gasping for more. There aren’t many examples of productions with such a clear sense of joy, perhaps outside children’s TV.
We worked desperately hard with The Big Bang to buy ourselves the latitude with the viewer to do basically anything: we were cheeky, broke our own rules, played with the format. It was a joy, and the flexibility we granted ourselves was why I loved the show. But in practice it was a tremendously difficult thing to do, because that sort of flexibility requires that the audience indulge the show, and that sort of respect has to be earned. With The Big Bang we only really got it right after nine series.
30 Rock is there before the end of one. Terrific writing, exemplary attention to detail, and ruthless production discipline: it’s a brilliant example of television craft. I love it.
That was a bit gushing, wasn’t it?
September 19, 2008
If you’ve been trying to reach me by phone in the last few days, and your switchboard blocks your caller ID number, it might help if I made you aware that:
- My phone cuts off when I try to receive such calls. I don’t know why. Also
- It won’t connect to my voicemail either.
Yes, you’d be right to think that this is broken and ridiculous. Surprisingly, people wonder why I’m not entirely happy with my N95.
Anyway: email me as jonathan[ at ]quernstone.com.
Though… I’m going away for a few days. But at least I will receive your message eventually.
That’s now a clean sweep for the format — if Microsoft handle file formats in a sane way (and that’s a big ‘if’), we should be able to encode once and embed as Flash, Silverlight or Quicktime, stream through these or (gaak) Realplayer, and download via iTunes to iPods, Playstation Portable, and other portable devices. Another compression pass at higher bitrate gets you Blu-Ray.
Game over. Finally, we have one video codec for everything. Astonishingly, it’s a good one, too.
Now that the delivery part of the process is sorted, and AVCHD is happening for acquisition, attention is rather drawn to the edit suite. Come on, Apple, let’s have Final Cut Studio 3 with a workflow like that for HDV: edit raw but render, when necessary, to ProRes.
[Edit: There’s a catch, of course. At the moment, standard H.264 formats aren’t supported in Windows Media Player. So Windows users viewing a film in Silverlight in their browsers would need Quicktime or VLC or whatever to view the same file downloaded. I’m going to assume Microsoft will plug this ridiculous hole at some point in the near future.]
You know, I’d be sorry to see the likes of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley go under. Not because I have any particular vested interest in them — though I do hope a chum of mine who works at the latter is weathering this particular storm — but rather for their names.
See, ‘Goldman Sachs’, ‘Morgan Stanley’, ‘Lehman Brothers,’ ‘Merrill Lynch’ — these are names from a previous era. In my book, large companies should be named after small groups of people, who built the business out of a cowshed with their own hands, slaving late into the night with only a kerosene lamp and a dream.
Engineering companies used to be like this: Hawker Siddeley. Armstrong Whitworth. Vickers Supermarine (though I’m not sure who Mr. Supermarine was, it’s a cool name). The decline of interest in engineering careers can, I posit, be traced to the amalgamation of these proud institutions into the likes of the antiseptic ‘British Aircraft Corporation.’ Even ‘English Electric’ was better, barely.
If all financial institutions end up with names like ‘HBOS’ or, worse, ‘Lloyds TSB HBOS.’ it’ll be the end of Britain as a financial centre. The kids will simply lose interest. You mark my words.
September 17, 2008
- Burning dual-layer DVDs
- Printing, cropping, folding, and stuffing DVD slip cases
- Labeling DVDs
- Encoding MPEG2 from HDV/ProRes source material
- Encoding WMV9 from ProRes for DVD-ROM delivery
- Doing all of these at once
September 16, 2008
RED’s forthcoming Scarlet mini marvel is shaking up the video world somewhat. A 3k HD camera for circa. $3,000? Blimey. Two problems, and two reasons I’m not planning to wait for it:
- That $3k figure is for a pretty basic camcorder. By the time you add monitoring, storage, and some grips it’ll likely be comparable in price to more conventional camcorders.
- Post-production workflow. Ouch.
RED is doing amazing stuff, and it gives us a glimpse of what the future holds. But their cameras are designed for film production, and film production models.
I’m a television and video guy. In my world, colour grading is a luxury, not routine; audio post-sync is something we resent because it costs us extra; we don’t faff about with ‘dailies,’ we shoot, log (if we’re lucky), and cut. We use slates or claps to sync multiple cameras when we don’t have genlock. Audio is onboard.
So my camera dilemma at the moment is between hiring Sony Z1s and Z7s, buying a Panasonic HMC151, and waiting until the end of the year for a Sony Z5. This choice, it turns out, is about post-production workflow:
- Z1 & Z7 capture HDV to tape. I don’t actually have an HDV playback deck, so I’d probably end up having to buy a Canon HV30 anyway.
- HMC151 records AVCHD to SD cards, which means transcoding to Apple Intermediate or ProRes on import. I’ve been cutting HDV in ProRes, of late, and it rocks… but how slow are transcodes from 24Mbit AVCHD? Until the camera appears, we don’t know.
- Z5 records to HDV and — with an adaptor — simultaneously to Compact Flash (as does the Z7). This could be the best of both worlds… or the last gasp of MPEG2. How well does Final Cut handle .m2t files? (hint)
It’s all well and good gushing over a Scarlet, but handling any form of HD — even HDV — is non-trivial. And until you’ve got a reliable post-production workflow, you’ve got nothing.
This is true even of domestic gear, where you can shoot onto miniDVD-R only to find you have a slot-loading drive, or HDV to find you’ve no Firewire, or MPEG2 .mod only to find that Windows Movie Maker can’t handle it.
Don’t be seduced by glamorous bits of kit: the connections are just as important.
September 15, 2008
Another month, another minor bugfix update to OS X. I particularly like this line from the release notes for this one:
Addresses an issue in which some Macs could unexpectedly power on at the same time each day.
Woah. Last person working in the Mac lab late one night? That could seriously freak you out.
A rather fetching young lady — who shall remain nameless — just apologised in email for kissing me the other night.
News to me.
You’d think I’d notice something like that, wouldn’t you?
[edit: turns out she apologised to the wrong person. Having kissed someone else first, who was also the wrong person. Sounds like it wasn’t her best night ever…]
September 13, 2008
One of the things that amused me was mention of Space Camp Utah, the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Centre, which uses custom simulators to give kids experience of group-working while commanding a spaceship. The settings and scenarios are taken from Star Trek, mostly, so it’s live-action role-play gaming, but in a space science context.
I’d completely forgotten, until reading this, that one of my more ridiculous TV series ideas was to build a full-size spaceship onto a bus chassis, so it could be driven around a huge aircraft hangar. Situated around the hangar would be modular planet or space station sets, at which the ship could ‘dock’ or ‘land.’
In each show of the series we’d recruit and train a new crew, and set them off on a mission. From that point on we’re into live role-play gaming — along with the director we’d have had an off-screen game-master keeping the pressure on, and a team of actors sitting around waiting for the ship to arrive at their location.
The whole thing would, of course, be insanely expensive to do well, and tragically awful to do badly. But on the face of it, it could be awesome. Most kids’ game shows involve purely physical challenges — there have been occasional quizzes and the like, but not since The Adventure Game and Now Get Out Of That has there been a properly puzzle-based show. Which struck me at the time — and still strikes me now — as a significant failing.
Time Commanders was the closest we’ve come in recent years, and it always surprised me that it never felt quite ‘right’ somehow. Of course, none of these were exactly ‘children’s’ shows, but then it’s not clear that my space mission project should have been, either.
Anyway, the ‘willing conceit’ involved in my format was… er… large, and that proved something of a stumbling block. Everyone at CITV thought I was nuts, and CBBC’s commissioner thinks kids aren’t interested in space (seriously, she does). Since the idea was kicking around at the same time that Time Commanders wasn’t quite setting the world on fire, and it would have been more expensive, it’s not hard to see why my format was going nowhere at warp factor nothing.
In education, the closest I’d heard to the concept before today was an earth observation scenario run by — I thought — either the Starchaser folks or the British National Space Centre, but I’m stuffed if I can track it down this morning.
What’s really odd is the coincidence that yesterday I was talking to a development researcher at Tigress about another project I desperately wanted to do, that never really stood a chance. Again, it was clearly too complex to make happen.
Depends how big your ambition is, though, doesn’t it?
September 12, 2008
September 11, 2008
On the wall at Liverpool University Physics Department. Photo taken by Dr. Laura Grant. (sorry Laura, couldn’t resist linking to that story again. You know it’s going to haunt you)
It’s worth watching. Chris Morris has been quoted this morning as saying ‘Good face work from Brian last night,’ and he’s right. I’m not sure what function King had been to previously, but it may have dulled his senses rather. While I may be mildly sympathetic to his argument, I’m gobsmacked by the line he took and delighted Brian called him on it.
Watch it in iPlayer now: Starts about 41 minutes in.
[update: Gia’s posted the segment to YouTube.]
- Learn the difference between a spreadsheet and a database. Hint: Microsoft Excel isn’t the latter.
Ironically, since nobody these days owns a copy of Filemaker, the main utility of this rule lies in spotting problems that are too complex/more hassle than they’re worth to complete in Excel. It’s for this reason that I keep fondling the cover of the Ruby on Rails book.
September 10, 2008
Patrick — frequenter of the comments herein and previously an Executive Producer of some of my shows — was the guy who drilled the word ‘signposting’ into my head. Almost literally, at times, in that every script review meeting we had seemed to revolve around the word, its syllables spinning around the room and boring their way into my brain. It’s probably safe to admit now, a decade on, that I usually ‘escaped’ those meetings rather than ‘concluded’ them, and that frequently I had no idea what he was talking about.
Yet here I am, writing a screed about signposting in popular science shows.
Yesterday I was at a science visitor centre which shall remain nameless, watching one of their shows. It wasn’t bad, actually, in that I quite enjoyed it, and the rest of the audience seemed to be… well, ‘rapt’ might be taking it too far, but certainly ‘interested’ and ‘engaged,’ and occasionally ‘amused.’ It was an OK little show.
But the signposting was terrible.
What that means is slightly more difficult to explain than it is to assert.
At any stage in a story, the audience should know how they got there, and why they’re there specifically rather than, say, somewhere slightly different. Nothing can be arbitrary — or at least, it can’t appear arbitrary. The moment somebody asks ‘Wait — what’s this bit about?’, they’ve broken the flow, stepped out of the traffic, lost their place on the page, and sundry related metaphors.
The standard advice on giving a presentation goes:
- Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
- Tell them.
- Tell them what you’ve told them.
This is, frankly, terrible advice. It leads inexorably to interminable business presentations with heart-sinking introductions that simply scream ‘incipient repetition’ and, usually, ‘overloaded Powerpoint slides read out verbatim by some arse who thinks he’s $DEITY’s gift to marketing.’
The core idea, however, is sound, though it’s perhaps better phrased as something like:
- Set the scene: give context and background, define a mood and tone.
- Describe your argument / pitch / narrative : point-by-point.
- Reveal or reinforce the key points you want people to take away.
What’s often ignored is that this sort of model applies at every level of the presentation, and not merely to the overview.
Public science shows tend to be fairly loosely-linked progressions of demonstrations. Sometimes too loosely-linked to make any narrative sense, but that’s another issue. Structure is interesting because each demo — each section of the show — should fit a similar sort of scaffolding to that above. So a demo goes something like:
- Approach: set a context for the demo. What are we investigating? What’s the experimental test we’re making? What phenomenon are we introducing? What’s the problem we’re addressing?
- Demo: Make the point. Is it a reveal? Counter-intuitive? Confirmation? Validation?
What emotional response are you expecting from the audience? Should they be surprised, intrigued, smug, aghast, …? Having set up that expectation in the approach, you pay it off here.
- Outro: reinforce the key thought, then link to the next section. How does what we’ve just seen advance the overall narrative? Or are we making a clean break, parking this thought to one side ahead of the next section, before re-introducing it later as part of our finale?
Either way, make the progression clear to the audience.
I get the impression that, often, writing the script of a science show involves sweating over the demos, agonising about how to set them up, and perhaps — if the writer is unusually good — ensuring a key point is made. However, I haven’t seen many shows which pay much attention to the linking thought: the segue from one demo to the next.
Yet these are key moments. If the audience’s attention is going to wander, it’s here — they’ve just seen something impressive, or encountered a big thought on which they’d like to dwell. The script has to recognise their needs, allowing them time for reflection whilst simultaneously steering their attention to the next waypoint in the overall story.
Very few shows I’ve seen in centres do this well. It’s a level of production to which they don’t, usually, aspire. But astonishingly, the bail-out alternatives — the cheapskate all-purpose links one deploys in extremis — are so well-established they’re even self-parodying:
‘Another thing that…’
‘This is like…’
Anything with a pun.
For a cracking — deliberate — example, see Ben Craven’s intro to the kite aerial photography demo Flossie and I did at BIG this year. It’s right at the beginning of that film.
The fact that the audience — a large crowd of professional science communicators, many of whom write shows — laughed at the dreadful segue tells us that we recognise a cliché when we hear one.
Yet, we use equivalent structures — heck, precisely the same structure — routinely.
Not. Good. Enough.
If you want your audience to be amazed, you set them up for amazement; then you amaze them; then you let them be amazed; then you turn that amazement to the next point in your story. This isn’t manipulative, it’s what constructing a show is all about: leading the audience on a journey, with a clear destination, and a carefully-considered route for getting them there.
At least, this is what I’ve come to understand Patrick meant by ‘signposting.’ With a bit of luck, he’ll pop up in the comments and set me straight.
September 9, 2008
September 5, 2008
September 4, 2008
Ah, newspaper magazine articles, those delightfully fluffy confections that cleanse the palette while passing unnoticed through the mind. Here’s one that’s a little more solid and stolid than most — though more because it’s discussing haggis, Lancashire hotpot, pease pudding, and clotted cream than any particular finesse of the article: ten regional specialities, and where to scoff them.
Caution: contains strong language, graphic violence, flashing lights, and serious awesomeness.
Made by my chum Damien Wasylkiw and his brother Luke. I know, I know: somebody who used to work for me made something that’s actually good. I was surprised too. Tip o’ the hat to Gia for her tweet about this.
[update: I think that’s Damien saying ‘three… two… one… arrrgh!’. Sounds like his voice, anyway.]
[update 2: Unbelievably better than the style-free official trailer ]