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Posts in Category: Technology

Breaking Windows

Thursday 7th June 2012

Sometime this year (I think), Microsoft will release Windows 8. I’ve just been reading an article from the Windows 8 development blog, about how the design team has changed the user interface for the new release. It’s interesting reading; mostly because the design for the Windows 8 UI currently seems to be a complete mess, so it’s interesting to see the justification.

Here is basically what they’re doing. They’ve noticed that touchscreen tablets and phones are quite popular, so they’re trying to build more touch capability into Windows. Except they’ve done more than that; they’ve designed this new interface – Metro UI – specifically for touchscreen devices. And to be fair, it basically looks great; a tablet with that UI could easily be as good as the iPad, if it had the right hardware. But they’ve made Metro the default UI, for everything. If you have a desktop PC with one (or more) big non-touchscreen monitor, then if you upgrade to Windows 8 you’ll be presented with the same interface as if you’re using a Win8 touchscreen tablet. You’ll have to click an icon to get back to the desktop, and even then the new UI replaces the start menu. So if you want to launch a program, you’ll press the start button and the new interface will open in fullscreen.

I’ve not used the latest version of Windows 8, so it might be better now. But when they released the first beta version to the public a few months ago, I installed it onto a non-touch laptop. My thought was that it’s pretty much unusable. It’s perfectly stable, don’t get me wrong. But they’ve moved everything around, hidden basic stuff (e.g. turning the computer off), and basically messed it up. I think that if I bought a new computer that came with Win 8, it wouldn’t take me long before I gave up and “downgraded” to Win 7 (quotes because it just isn’t a downgrade; Windows 7 is a great OS, much better than 8).

I genuinely don’t understand why Microsoft are going down this route. No-one needs or wants a tablet that can do everything a desktop can, and using an interface developed for touchscreens on a non-touch PC is inherently annoying. And also, touch isn’t always useful; do you really want to be reaching across your desk to touch your display?

I can understand an argument for there being a degree of interoperability; for the two types of system to be able to talk to each other, and easily share files. That’s pretty much a given. But different types of machines – touch versus non-touch, mobile vs non-mobile – really place different requirements for the UI.

Microsoft seem to think touch is the future. I think they’re right, for some cases. I think tablet computers like the iPad (although actually, at the moment it’s just the iPad) could work really well as main computers for a large number of people. I use my iPad a lot (right now, for instance!), and there are really only specific instances where I actually need to use a proper computer. I think Microsoft think that too, hence why they’ve put so much emphasis on Metro.

But, if that’s the case, then people will be using devices that look very different to the computer they use today. And as I’ve mentioned, those devices are designed to be used in very different ways, so the UIs need to be designed differently to cater for that. The backend of a tablet and PC OS might look similar, but there’s no need to require the same interface on both. That is, Microsoft could design one version of Windows, but with two very different interfaces, depending on the device it’s installed on; the difference being that you only install and use one type of interface, rather than having both and flitting between the two. That’d be a bit messy (they should start their tablet/mobile OS afresh, like Apple did with iOS… and like Microsoft have already done with Windows Phone), but it’d possibly be a cost-effective way to provide software to various classes of device, and maintain interoperability between the two.

As it is, Windows 8 is basically a complete mess. If they release it like this, I reckon it’ll get a terrible reception, even worse than Vista got (Vista was actually a pretty decent OS, the problems were mostly not Microsoft’s fault). If that happens, I can only guess as to what’ll happen to Microsoft. Bad things, probably.

Posted In: GeekTechnology Tagged: | No Comments

“Foolproof, and incapable of error”

Saturday 21st January 2012

Whilst I was thinking about and writing the previous post, a couple of extra things came to mind which I couldn’t really fit into the post. So I thought I might as well do a follow-up with a couple of extra observations. I did intend to write this earlier, but partly I was busy (more on that in a following post) and mostly I just didn’t get around to it.

1) The previous post was not so much about aeroplanes, but more about interfaces in general. Be that with machinery like a plane, or a device like a phone, or even infrastructure or services. And it struck me that one of the few organisations that consistently manages to create things with great interfaces is Apple. Not so much with their computers (I’m really not a big fan of MacOS, probably because I’m more used to Windows), but their iOS devices (iPhones and iPads) are really good examples of things which simplify tasks through good interface design.

It strikes me that if the computing business ever starts to go slack (!), Apple could do a good business out of consultancy; imagine if they applied their UI design skills to things other than making iPhones and iPads. This isn’t as daft as it sounds; some ex-Apple employees recently set up a business to make a better thermostat. That’s a specific example of someone applying the Apple approach to interfaces to a different type of product, and I’m sure there are other things which would benefit from the same approach.

2) For some reason, I also started thinking about 2001: A Space Odyssey (spoilers follow. Although, it’s a 40-odd year old book/film, so I guess most people at least vaguely know the plot. If you don’t, then go read the book and watch the film. They’re classics). The first – obvious – point is that a lot of the interfaces in that film do appear to tend towards simplicity. There’s loads of little things: the video phone booth that Dr Floyd uses near the start of the film, the tablets that Bowman and Poole use on Discovery, all the spaceship status screens look like they’re intended to be simple, and of course there’s HAL9000

On the topic of HAL, it occurred that his demise is pretty relevant too. HAL was programmed to help the crew, to convey information to them about Discovery and about the status of the mission. But before the crew left Earth the parameters of the mission were changed; this was secret, and the crew were not to be told until Discovery reached Jupiter. As the central computer, HAL knew the real purpose of the mission, but was not allowed to tell the crew. He was being asked to hide information, to lie. This ran counter to HAL’s programming – he was designed to give information, not to hide it – and because of that conflict he perceived there to be a problem. Which he then set out to rectify…

The point is, HAL failed because the people who defined his tasks for the mission did so incorrectly. The computer carried out its tasks as it saw best, but those tasks were in conflict with each other. And so the failure of the mission was the result of misuse of the computer. Now obviously the details in this and in the example in the previous post are very different, but in general, it’s the same fault: the computers behaved exactly as they were asked, the error arose from the way people were trying to use them.

And, really, how clever is that? That 40 years ago, people were thinking about how we’ll be using these ultra-sophisticated computers, and were (in a very broad sense) predicting some of the problems that we’re starting to see. Just makes me realise how great a job Clarke (and Kubrick, I think) did in writing that story, and how many ideas they’ve managed to pack into it. I’ve read the book many times already, but I really need to re-watch the film.

Posted In: GeekMoviesTechnology Tagged: | No Comments

iLog

Thursday 28th April 2011

I’m a little late to the party on this, but there’s been lots of coverage lately about iPhones “tracking” people. The original script that was released to look at this data was Mac-only, and at the time I couldn’t be bothered to hack it to work with Windows machines, so I couldn’t look at my own records. Happily though, other people have done it instead, so I’ve been able to have a look at the data from my own iPhone.

The above image shows every data point in the database, since I first got my iPhone last year. And from that, it looks like there’s some quite detailed data there. Certainly, from memory, the above map doesn’t seem to be lacking anything (although even at that level, I can see some anomalies, places I haven’t visited).

There are obvious concerns that arise from the concept of your phone logging everywhere you go. Clearly, from the data you can get a rough idea of someone’s movements. Each of those data points has a date and time associated with it, so from that you could build up a rough idea of where in the country I was on a given date. But can you tell more than that?

This all seems to come from WiFi and phone masts, so I assume that the most accurate information (in terms of location and time) would be in places with the most WiFi hotspots and phone masts. You can see from the image above that I’ve visited London in the last year. I went there for a day last August, so I thought I’d look to see how accurate the log is.

Now, London probably has the highest concentration of phone masts and hotspots in the country, so I assumed that the “tracking” data would be pretty accurate. In fact, it’s quite mixed. Right off the bat, there are two clumps of data points in areas that I didn’t visit (around South Kensington, and around Shoreditch). Additionally, there’s quite a spread of data points on the top-left of the map. If you look closely, they vaguely (very vaguely) track the train line that I used to travel in and out of London; and in fact the timings do coincide with those journeys.

The stuff in the middle seems to be more accurate. I had an interview that day at the Royal Academy of Engineering office, which is near to St James’ Park; there are a clump of points around that area, because I got there early and so walked around the park for a little while. I also walked upto the British Museum from there, and as you can see there’s a big trail in that general direction. During the day, I also spent some time in Hyde Park (time to kill…), so I find it quite interesting that there’s very little in that general area.

Now, looking at the data, I think it’d be pretty hard to work out exactly where I went, without already knowing it beforehand. Many of the data points have the same timestamp (I assume the phone fetches a bunch at the same time), and as you can see there are more than a few in places that I didn’t actually visit.

To expand on this, here’s a similar map showing a visit to Cardiff, last month.

In this case, I’d driven down to Cardiff to pick up my younger brother, and was there for about half an hour. The exact journey I took was West along Eastern Avenue (near the top of the map), south-east down Whitchurch Road and Crwys Road, and then onto the street my brother lives on; and then the same route in reverse about half an hour later. Looking at the data from my iPhone, it’s pretty much impossible to tell precisely where I went.

I’m not saying this data couldn’t be useful. It can paint a broad picture of where someone has been, and if that formed part of a larger investigation into the person then that information could be invaluable. But to gain access to this requires access to the phone, or the computer it syncs with, which isn’t always possible. And, as I say, it’s only a very broad picture. Looking at all of the data from my phone, there is no way that you could even work out where I live, for instance. If someone got hold of my phone and took this information from it, then it’d be fairly useless to them.

When details about this first surfaced, I was a little unnerved about it. However, having looked at it and seen the level of inaccuracy, I think that much of the negative publicity that Apple has received has been a little over egged. It’s a minor concern, especially given that mobile phone networks already record locational information as part of their service (and I’d bet it’s a fair deal more accurate than what’s stored on the iPhone). It’s a minor (and interesting!) mistake, which Apple are now fixing.

Posted In: Technology Tagged: | 2 Comments

iPhone 4

Wednesday 14th July 2010

To be honest, I was fairly sure that I probably wouldn’t get an iPhone 4 on release day. I know that stock was really scarce (and indeed still is), and I really couldn’t be bothered with getting up uber-early in order to go queue outside a shop for one. But I thought it was still worth going to the shops at 9 o’clock, just to see. It’s not as if I had anything better to do!

Sure enough, the first couple of shops I visited had about 5 each, and they were sold by the time I got to them. But one of the sales assistants tipped me off that the local Best Buy (!) had a decent number in stock, so I went down there. There were about 20 people queueing outside the entrance, so I thought “why not? Can’t take too long” and joined the line. And about 5 minutes later, an employee walked the queue to ask us what version we wanted, and to put our names on the list to allocate us phones. Yay!

I was somewhat wrong about it not taking long though. It was taking an age for the sales people to process each order, so I still had an age to wait. I really didn’t think I’d be there for more than an hour, but in fact I ended up spending 2 or so hours in the queue, then another three quarters of an hour with the sales assistant actually buying the damn thing. Because of course, there were 4 assistants dealing with iPhone sales, and each sale was taking ages because O2 was initially taking ages to sort out upgrades and the like.

Anyway, 3 and a half hours after I set out to get one, I returned home with a shiny new iPhone. I’ve had it a few weeks now, so I’ve had a decent amount of time now to get used to it.

The phone I traded in to get this was an iPhone 3G. I’d had that for a while and I really liked it, but this is definitely a massive step ahead. The software is obviously mostly similar because it uses the same OS. That said, there are obviously new features to iOS 4 and some of those aren’t available to the 3G. Multitasking is the most obvious thing, and it works really well on the iPhone 4. I know it’s taken ages to come to the iPhone in comparison to other platforms, but one of the things I like about the iPhone platform is that once Apple implement a new feature, it works really well. The implementation on the iPhone may not be “real” multitasking, but it works well for the way most people use their phones, and that’s the main thing. For instance the new version of Spotify for iOS 4 is excellent, and runs really well in the background without noticeably slowing things down.

Also, this iPhone is much quicker than my 3G. For instance, I always found that the Spotify app would take forever to load on the 3G, and is pretty clunky to use too. On the new iPhone it opens pretty much immediately, and is extremely responsive when you navigate around the app. The camera is also much better. The 3G camera was ok, it was usable for most things (indeed, the picture in the header of this page was taken with my old iPhone), but it was always a bit hit and miss as to whether the pictures would be any good. The new camera is much better in this respect; even low-light pictures are pretty good. Oh, and it records 720p video, which looks pretty snazzy.

I’ve not tried FaceTime yet because I don’t know anyone else with one of these phones, but I’m pretty keen to give it a go.

This is all pretty much peripheral though, because in my opinion there is one thing which really sets this phone apart from anything else: the screen. It wouldn’t be exaggeration to say that it’s pretty much the best screen I’ve seen in any device. I can’t see the individual pixels unless I hold the phone about a 20mm from my face, so everything is incredibly smooth. Reading on the old phone used to tire my eyes after a while, but this is much more readable because the text is so much smoother. Oh, and it’s brilliant for watching videos on. HD videos from YouTube look really, really nice. In fact the other day I did a comparison with a 3GS, both showing the same video from YouTube, and it was surprising how much clearer the new phone is. Honestly, this thing has to be seen to be believed.

I would love an iPad with this screen… (but that’s probably quite a way away)

I also think that the phone looks absolutely gorgeous. Photos don’t do this thing justice, I reckon. It’s pretty understated, but quite classy. That said, it’s also pretty badly designed.

Mobile phones are portable. In the real world, they get exposed to a pretty hard life, and in fact it’s more than likely that the typical phone will be dropped several times over its lifetime. So good phone design would look good in 12 months time as it does when it’s new. It should be able to weather the inevitable scrapes and knocks. Glass screens are pretty unavoidable on phones like this, but this has a glass back too. You don’t need me to tell you that glass shatters, so this phone is pretty damn fragile. That’s bad design.

But there’s another problem, and this one is amazing. The aerials for the iPhone have been placed on the outside edge, in order to save space and move them outside the case. Good thinking? No. There’s a point on the bottom-left corner of the phone, which if touched causes the network signal to be severely attenuated. You can literally place your finger on this spot and watch the phone signal decrease. If you hold the phone naturally, it’s easy to inadvertently touch this part of the aerial and have this effect. There’s no excuse for this, it’s just really poor design, and could have been easily sidestepped by applying a transparent coating to the aerial.

Steve Jobs’ response of “just don’t hold it like that” is really unhelpful as well…

Anyway. These problems are mostly solved by a case, which is something I would get anyway (and that doesn’t in any way excuse Apple for shockingly poor design, it just means that it doesn’t affect me massively). So I really like the new iPhone. Unless you’re still tied into a contract for a while, I think it’s an absolute no-brainer for current iPhone users to upgrade. Especially if you’re still using a 3G (or earlier)… Obviously if you don’t like the general iPhone model then this isn’t going to do anything for you, but lots of people just want a smartphone that’s powerful yet really easy to use, and the iPhone 4 does that brilliantly.

As long as you don’t hold it wrong.

Posted In: Technology Tagged: | 24 Comments

An Amazing Display of Intelligence

Tuesday 30th March 2010

Actually two displays of intelligence, but both of them are linked to each other and both lead to a single result.

One of my lecturers at university likes telling us to “think from first principles”. That is, to look at a problem and to work out what is really causing the issue, and therefore come up with an engineering solution which solves that. An example he used was the bridge at Boscastle. In the aftermath of the 2004 flood, a problem was that cars got washed into the river and crashed into the bridge, which ended up blocking the flow of the river thus causing more flooding. A bunch of people looked at this and decided that the solution was to build a new bridge with a larger gap underneath so cars won’t get stuck there.

My lecturer’s suggestion was to put fencing of some sort along the sides of the river, to stop the cars going into the water in the first place. You don’t need much of an engineering background to realise that this is cheaper than building a new bridge! A much better solution.

One of the things I love about F1 is that the engineering is absolutely brilliant. And McLaren are one of the best teams in F1, so their engineers are pretty damn good. And they came up with something on their new car which I find amazingly impressive.

F1 cars run wings to create downforce. Downforce pushes the cars onto the track, which means they generate more grip and so can go quicker in corners. This also induces drag though, but in corners this isn’t as much of an issue because the extra grip makes up for the extra drag. On straights though, grip is less important than the drag of the car so the downforce is sort of “wasted”. The cars are therefore set up as a compromise, to give the best amount of grip in the corners without lowering the top speed of the car too much on straights.

But something F1 designers have looked at for years is trying to stall the wings on straights. This means stop them making downforce when it isnt needed, so there is less unnecessary drag. One way to do this is to have manually operated wings where you can change the angle of attack (like on aircraft). This is banned, for safety reasons. Another way is to have the wings deform under a certain load, so they bend into a shape which produces less downforce. Again, it’s been banned for safety reasons. But McLaren have come up with a new way to stall the rear wing, and it’s brilliant.

They have a vent in the front of the car, which carries air in a duct along the length of the car and onto the rear wing. This flow of air is positioned in a way that upsets the air flowing over the wing and so stalls it, so that the wing stops producing downforce and so produces less drag. Now, if you do this you need a way to turn it on and off, so that the vent only blows onto the rear wing on the straights. Otherwise the car will lose downforce in the corners and won’t go as quickly. They aren’t allowed to use some sort of mechanical system becuase it would count as a moveable aerodynamic device, which is banned. The solution they’ve ued is ridiculously simple. The duct runs through the cockpit, and has a hole in it. This means that when the hole is uncovered the air simply vents into the cockpit, keeps the driver a bit cooler and doesn’t upset the flow around the rear wing. When the driver covers the hole up though, the air flows to the back of the car and stalls the wing.

This is a stupidly simple solution, and completely beyond the scope of the rules. The thing which moves is the driver’s leg, and you can hardly ban drivers legs from F1! It’s a wonderful bit of engineering.

The second display of intelligence concerns one of McLaren’s drivers, Jenson Button. He won the race on Sunday with a decision to change tyres before anyone else, and with some brilliant driving. Everyone started on wet tyres because it rained at the start, but after a few laps it stopped raining and a dry line started to appear. Button realised this before anyone else and then changed to dry tyres, which moved him up from about 6th to 2nd place. He then kept those tyres till the end of the race, but not just that he managed to do consistently quick laps. The other people who were on the same tyres for that amount of time just couldn’t keep up with him.

On the other hand Button’s teammate, Lewis Hamilton, seemed to completely lose his head during the race. He really lost his composure, which quite surprised me. Before this season, most people sort of wrote Button off because the consensus is that Hamilton is quicker. And he probably is. But the thing is that the difference is probably only a few tenths of a second, and Button is possibly overall a more intelligent driver. Like in the race on Sunday; he knew when to change tyres. He knew not to push too hard on them, which meant that even at the end of the race – when drivers like Hamilton and Webber were on much newer tyres – his tyres werent too worn to stop him going quickly enough to win. I was watching the race with live timing, and his laptimes were amazingly consistent all the way through. Honestly, his drive on Sunday was one of the best I’ve seen – from anyone – for ages.

Motorsport at this level is not just about outright pace. Clever strategy can count for a lot, and it means that the battle between the McLaren drivers this year is gonna be a fascinating one.

If you havent already, watch the race on iPlayer. Well worth it because it was awesomely entertaining.

Posted In: EngineeringMotorsportTechnology Tagged: | 2 Comments

HTPC – Up and Running (projectlog part 4)

Thursday 25th February 2010

I actually wrote this back in November, but I didn’t publish it at the time because I wanted to get some better photos. I never did, and I can’t be bothered to tidy up the living room and scrounge some batteries to take some now. I realise that the last post about this – in September! – said “part 4 tomorrow”, but well, oops…

Just as a refresher, I’ve been putting together a home theatre PC for the living room at uni-house. This is basically a normal pc with a TV card in the back, that’s hooked up to a normal TV rather than a computer monitor. You then use the PC to watch TV, the advantage being that you can then record stuff or timeshift, as well as stream media from other c0mputers, use iPlayer/4od/YouTube on the TV, and also play video files on the TV.

This started as a way to re-use an old PC, and I started off using my old computer from like 5 or 6 years ago. That plan died off though, because I bought myself a new desktop when I came back to Uni, so I used the computer that replaced for the htpc. Important specs:

  • Core2Duo E6300 (dual core, 1.8GHz)
  • 2GB Ram
  • 500GB Hard Disk (I added this, because I used the old hard drives in my new PC)
  • Leadtek Geforce 7300 graphics card (I also added this, because it’s fanless)

I did a few things to keep it fairly quiet. Firstly that graphics card. I did have a Radeon X1950pro when this was my “main” pc, but it was pretty loud so I swapped it for the 7300. I also pinched a quieter power supply from another pc, and disconnected one of the smaller case fans. So it’s pretty quiet now, which is good.

Because it’s a fairly powerful computer, I went with Windows 7. I’ve ran 7 on all my computers since the Beta was out in January, and it’s pretty bloody good. Everything works really well, and really easily. By way of example, when I was setting up the htpc, I needed to connect it to the internet, but only had one Wi-Fi dongle, which I use on my main pc. So I connected the two computers with an ethernet cable, shared the wireless connection on the main pc, and had the internet running on both PCs in minutes.

Whilst I’m on the subject of OSs, I was looking at laptops a few months ago and looked at MacBooks as well as proper computers (because whatever you want to say, Apple hardware looks really good). I wanted to see what MacOS is like, so I installed it on my desktop for a bit. I can now say that anyone who says that they actually like using MacOS is either a masochist or an idiot, because it’s one of the worst operating systems I’ve ever used. It’s amazingly unintuitive and confusing, and just a pain in the arse to get working properly. It felt half-finished; some bits were really polished but other parts of the UI felt like they’d been carried over from the dark ages. Going from 7 to that felt like such a retrograde step. I also didn’t like the fact that all the “working” bits were hidden from view. I didn’t have a clue where anything was saved, which was really unsettling. The fact that one of the selling points Apple use when selling their computers is that you can run Windows kinda says it all. I digress.

Anyhow, once I got it all up and running, I hooked it all up to the TV:

htpc hooked up to TV

I’ve written before about Media Center in Vista, and it’s pretty similar in 7 so there’s no point rehashing it (look at this video though if you want an idea of how it works), other than to say that it’s pretty damn good. The only problem I’ve had is that the software I wanted to use for remote access, WebGuide, doesn’t work with 7 yet. This isn’t a major problem though, and should be sorted eventually.

There’s some really nice touches in there though. Like in the guide, it fetches information off the internet for each show. So the other night we were browsing though the listings and when we saw whatever film was on Film4, someone said “oh, isn’t so-and-so in that?”. I could find out straight away by selecting the listing and going to the info, where there’s a synopsis and a cast list. It also fetches the info for DVDs, which is pretty cool.

I think I mentioned before that the TV card I bought came with a remote control. I wasn’t that impressed with it to be honest; it didn’t work that well with Media Center and occasionally stopped working all together. After a while I replaced it with this one, which works much better. All the buttons do what they’re meant to do, and it makes it really easy to navigate round everything whilst lying on the sofa.

I’ve got a decent library of videos and stuff on there now, and I’ve also set it up to access the music library on my desktop machine (and the music library in Media Center is really impressive by the way). I’ve installed Spotify on there as well. I wasn’t going to do that initially, but one of my housemates suggested it and I think it’s turned out to be a really good idea.

There’s a load of other stuff on there, other than Media Center. I’ve installed uTorrent and scheduled it to run unthrottled overnight, so it downloads stuff quickly. It’s set up to drop finished torrents in a certain folder, which Media Center monitors so that I can play stuff I’ve downloaded straight away through the Media Center interface, which is pretty handy (although some of my housemates don’t seem to understand this idea and keep turning the pc off at night, even though I’ve asked them not to).  I’ve also got a load of emulators (N64, Megadrive, SNES and NES) as well as some PC games on there. Worms Armageddon has quickly become a house favourite…

Also, streaming video on the TV is excellent. iPlayer, YouTube or whatever, are essentially the same quality as normal TV signals, because the resolution of the screen is comparatively low. The only inconvenience is that you have to swap from the remote control to the keyboard, and leave Media Center to use a web browser to get at it. Relatively minor problem though, to be honest.

Overall, it works really well, and everyone seems to be happy with it, which is good. If I were doing it again, using new components, I think I’d get a mATX motherboard and case, or perhaps even look at MiniITX or something like that. As it is, the next upgrade (when I have a lot more money than I do currently) is to go HD. I think that Formula 1 is going to be broadcast in HD next year and I’d love to be able to get that, but unfortunately it’d require a new TV as well as a new card for the PC. Definitely not on the cards any time soon, then.

So, if anyone else has an old pc lying around, I can definitely recommend it as a worthwhile project. A htpc makes a really good addition to a TV setup, and it’s relatively inexpensive to convert a PC for the purpose.

Posted In: GeekTechnologyTV Tagged: | 1 Comment

Storytelling

Friday 19th February 2010

A while back I commented on a post on Callan’s blog about Avatar. At the time I hadn’t seen the film, so I refrained from commenting on the film itself, but rather on 3D. I’ve seen the movie now and I stand by what I said there about 3D – I really don’t think its “the future” or anything like that. In fact I think that Avatar was a pretty bad vehicle with which to demonstrate 3D as a technology. I thought that the bits of the film where the 3D effect was most effective were the “live” bits, with real actors in real sets. It added to the “grittiness” of those scenes and I think the 3D effect looked brilliant then. I found myself noticing things like reflections in glass or creases and wrinkles on people’s clothes, and overall it made those scenes look pretty good. Not more immersive though, but I shall come back to this. In contrast, I thought that the CGI scenes looked more fake than they would if they were just in 2D. Everything was too smooth, too polished, too obviously rendered.

But enough talk about the technology, because it’s not really what I want to talk about. Avatar (like many contemporary Hollywood films) is a really awful film. The characters, plot, everything is just ridiculously cliched, shallow and pathetic. It’s way too long, and I found myself getting pissed off at everyone involved. I wanted the humans to piss off and die because they were obviously bastards. But I also wanted the na’vi to fuck right off just on general principals. Both sides were equally irritating so the big battle scenes at the end really didn’t move me. I think we were meant to feel some sort of empathy for Zoe and Jake, but honestly I just didn’t care.

And the less said about “Unobtainium”, the better. For fuck’s sake…

In contrast, last night I watched Das Boot for the first time. This is actually 40 minutes longer than Avatar, but you really don’t notice that. In contrast to Avatar, the story doesn’t feel like it drags at any point, and you definitely feel empathy for the characters. Whereas I didn’t give a toss about the characters in Avatar, it’s completely different with this. The way the tension is built and sustained is really amazing, and just goes to show that clever writing is a lot more successful  than any amount of flashy CGI bollocks. We are treated to the odd shot of depth charges exploding around the U-boat but it’s all very dark and murky, probably because it was made pre-CGI. I actually think it’s more successful like this. No doubt if the film were made now it’d be possible to have loads of cool CGI stuff, but I think it’s much better if the focus remains in the sub with the characters; if our only clues as to what’s happening are the same clues that the people on the boat have – the eerie, threatening sounds coming from the water outside.

The point I’m trying to make is that it was a wonderfully immersive film, with probably a more interesting and subtle message than Avatar. You don’t need 3D or any other clever technology to involve an audience, all you need is a bit of intelligence. All too often, gimmicks like CGI and 3D are used as a replacement for good film making (as further evidence, I give you Star Wars… speaking of which, if you have time watch this, well worth it), and it’s a real shame.

I suppose the polar opposite is something like The Road, and I’ve commented on this film before over on Jenny’s blog. In that case, there’s just… nothing. Again, I didn’t care for the characters and as far as I could tell, there’s no real story to speak of. Now I’m all for a story being subtle, but if it’s so subtle that it’s invisible then it all starts to become somewhat pointless!

Anyway, it’s getting late, so I’m gonna go watch an episode of Mad Men (and read for a bit… I got up very late today) before sleeping. In fact, if you want to see an example of really good storytelling (not to mention beautiful characterisation – I mean really, stunning), watch it. It’s worth doing so just for one particularly brilliant scene at the end of season 1, but I shall say no more so as not to spoil it for anyone.

Posted In: RantSleepTechnologyTV Tagged: | 3 Comments

Tweeting the Night Away

Thursday 11th February 2010

As you may have noticed from the new addition to the sidebar, I recently joined Twitter. I’d managed to hold off from joining for a while because I didn’t really get the point – my writing is quite verbose at the best of times, so what on earth is the use of 140 characters? What can anyone say in that tiny space that is of any worth to anyone? Well, a few people (well, 3) told me that it’s good and that I should join, and so I did, just to see what it’s like. Besides, when I joined it was exam period and at that time joining Twitter seemed a better use of my time than revising for the geotechnical engineering exam I had a day or so later…

Anyway, I quite like it. Turns out there’s a lot that can be said in 140 characters – generally stuff of the form of  “wow, this just happened!” or “ooh, look at this…”. There was a specific thing which made me realise just how powerful a tool Twitter is, and that was the first F1 test of the season, which took place last week. This was the first time that many of the teams showed their 2010 cars to the world and the first time that any of them had a chance to run their cars properly and see how good they actually are (or aren’t). For lots of reasons, people not intimately involved in the teams can’t really read too much from the times, so whilst this early testing isn’t really good for starting to map out the relative competetiveness of each car, it’s still pretty interesting and exciting – there’s not been any F1 since early November, and us F1 fans need our fix!

To me, Twitter really came into it’s element during that first test. There were a number of people at the test circuit (people from the F1 teams as well as journalists) who were tweeting away; keeping the hive mind informed as to who was on track, what laptimes they were doing, what the weather was like, pointing out different technical aspects of the cars, and all sorts of other interesting things which made it really easy and enjoyable to keep up with what was happening. In the past, the only coverage of pre-season testing would have been a short report at the end of the day, listing the times that each driver did and the number of laps, as well as some photos. Following the event on Twitter was really good because getting information throughout the day meant that it was easier to get an “overall” picture of each day of testing, and to try to work out what the times mean (if anything). It was also much more involving – getting an almost-constant stream of information made it seem like much more of an “event”.

I’m really looking forward to using it during the races this year. I can see that it’d be really cool then for much the same reason – taking in multiple sources of information all relating to the same event. That, in conjunction with the live timing app on the F1 website (which – although it sounds really geeky – is surprisingly useful for watching the races. Helps keep track of the strategies, because you see lots of things which aren’t ever picked up in the commentary and helps you to read the race better) should make watching the races even better.

I love technology for things like this. The way I can use different tools to change the way I do certain things, so that I get more out of them (as in this example) or to save time or make it more convenient.  Things like Google Reader and Calendar and the way they interact between all the devices I use to access the internet (phone included – calendar sync on the iPhone is one thing in particular which makes me want to shout “witchcraft!”). The way all my documents are stored in a Dropbox, so that I can work on the same thing on any computer – I love that I can work on a document on my laptop in the library, then come home and work on the same document on my desktop, and the whole transition being pretty much seamless. I don’t have to worry about syncing files between computers or making sure that they’ve all got the most up-to-date version – it’s all just done for me. Clever stuff. All relatively simple stuff too, but it’s amazing how much a difference they make.

Posted In: GeekMotorsportSleepTechnology Tagged: | 5 Comments

Silly Library

Thursday 1st October 2009

While I had my year out, the engineering library at uni was done up. It’s very nice, and one thing they’ve introduced is a self-service thing, for borrowing and returning books. All the books have RFID tags, so you put them on a shelf and it identifies them. You swipe your uni card to id yourself, and all is done. Snazzy.

The thing I don’t get though is that the thing reads a barcode on the card, and like all barcodes it can take a few attempts. Our uni id cards (which double as library cards) have RFID, so why use the barcode, especially as the thing has an RFID reader anyway? Seems daft.

But I’m nitpicking, it’s a fairly good use of technology.

Posted In: EngineeringRantTechnology Tagged: | 7 Comments

Crossroads

Monday 28th September 2009

I think this is an important time for mankind. We face a variety of really massive problems and the way we deal with these is, I think, going to shape the rest of human history in a way that very little has in the past.

Our lifestyles are a result of hundreds – no, thousands of years of development and progress. We constantly strive to go one better; to do the impossible thing, solve the unanswerable question. In my opinion it’s one of the fundamental characteristics of the human race and probably the most admirable one too. Especially in the last 100-odd years, we’ve developed ourselves and our environments at a dizzying rate, and things that we take for granted today would baffle our ancestors from the early 20th century, let alone anyone older than that.

The problem is that it’s not sustainable. We’re heavily reliant on various depletable resources, and we’re using them pretty damn quickly. What’s more, those energy sources are tremendously flawed and by using them we’re damaging not only the environment but also ourselves. We only get one shot at this; we have one life to live and (currently…) one planet on which to live. One planet for us and – with any luck – millennia of our descendants. To be so accepting of both of them being damaged in such a way just seems so insane.

I have to say that I don’t know much about climate change. We’re told that the evidence really does point towards man-made climate change being a fact, but when I’ve looked at it on my own (admittedly not in massive detail) it all seems so… inconclusive. So I don’t know whether it’s happening and really I don’t care, because it’s irrelevant (and not the point of this post so please don’t try to comment about it). As I see it, burning these things is really harmful even before we take into account any possible effect on climate change. And besides, we really need to find an alternative because the stuff is running out. While we’re at it, that replacement may as well be non-damaging because it makes sense and it’s possible.

We’re being told that the way we live our life is wrong. Our cars are too big, we fly around the world too much, we don’t recycle enough. But really, it isn’t. It’s imperfect, but I don’t subscribe to the view that we should effectively regress in order to reduce emissions by a tiny amount. Our parents got to fly around the world, experience being on the cutting edge of mankind. Who the hell are they to deny us the same priviledge? Yes we should change our lifestyles (for instance more people should use public transport – but first the public transport system should be less horrendously terrible), but there’s a balance to be struck. The big problems arent individuals, it’s big businesses. But I guess it’s bad politics to attack them…

My point is that the issue we’re facing is not climate change. Of course it’s something to be aware of and try to counter, but it’s not the really scary problem. That problem is that we’re going to run out of energy soon and as far as I can tell we’re doing very little about it. We need answers pretty soon, but we’re stuck asking the wrong questions.

Posted In: EngineeringRantSleepTechnology Tagged: | 7 Comments