Archive for March, 2005

New Doctor Who thoughts

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

So the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who aired on Saturday, but I thought I’d wait a bit before saying what I thought, which is good because what I thought is not what I think now…

Let me explain. A year or so ago I took my then girlfriend to see Paul McCartney play in London. I was 33, she was 23 so for me he was a rock hero with a massive catalogue of great songs, while for her he was potentially an ageing rocker who only did Mull of Kintyre and the frog thing. So I spent the whole concert wondering if she was enjoying it. By the end I thought it hadn’t been a particularly great evening, while she thought it was excellent. Listening to a CD of the tour or watching the DVD I realise I had been at one hell of a show but I was so bothered what other people were thinking, I missed it!
It was the same when I went to see Simon Rattle conduct his first Mahler 8 at the Proms in 2002, and his last Mahler 2 as head of the CBSO in Birmingham in 1998(?). So aware was I that I was present at events that people would talk about in the future that I completely forgot to enjoy them!

So this is how it was with Doctor Who. I’d been getting quite excited by all the publicity, and some of the clips I’d seen made me think it was gonna be good. But then the moment came…
It started off well but the BBC managed to cock up the first few minutes with a live broadcast by Graham Norton overlapping the soundtrack during the initial minutes, completely ruining the tension that was building up.
My first thoughts as the episode aired was that it was far too fast, with very little in the way of character development and an over-the-top perfprmance from Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. I don’t buy into the argument that today’s audiences have no attention span and will just switch over if things slow down – that’s rubbish as far as I’m concerned, and that audience, if they exist, are adequately served by the juvenile reality TV that is available on the other channel. Part of the BBC’s aim in bringing back Doctor Who was to reintroduce family drama to early evening schedules.

So I woke up the next day feeling a bit depressed. The best way I can describe it is the feeling after a first kiss. You know you’re never going to get that sense of anticipation again, the sense of excitement, and it doesn’t matter if the kiss was good or bad, or if the future is rosy – that special moment has passed. But in this case, it was like the kiss wasn’t that good and you’ve just woken up next to someone you are going to have to be polite to because you haven’t got the guts to be honest.

Am I taking this too seriously? Maybe I am…

Anyway, it wasn’t until last night, four days later, that I finally plucked up the courage to rewatch the episode and, you know what? I loved it. The criticisms are still valid: Eccleston is over the top, the incidental music is intrusive, the direction isn’t great (quite surprising as Keith Boak did a fine job on ‘NY:LON’ earlier this year), the acting from one of the central characters, Mickey, was dire and the character development was missing. BUT… it was funny, tense, exciting and, more than anything else, completely different to anything else British television (or any television for that matter) is doing at the moment. What I’d done during the first watching was I’d spotted the problems, but failed to see the good points which far outweighed them.

But let’s take the characterisation for a minute. The episode is quite brave in that it starts halfway through the story; the Doctor has, it transpires, been tracing alien activity and come up with a way of defeating them, but he needs to find their lair. This is where Rose, played rather well (surprisingly to most people) by Billie Piper, comes in. There’s no real introduction to the Doctor, we learn about him at the same time as she does. Now for someone who can remember Jon Pertwee’s Doctor from the early 70s, this grated with me but thinking again I can see how a new generation of viewers would appreciate the sense of mystery, and relate to Rose’s situation.
But the big probem is that Rose’s situation is depicted from the start as being comfortable and happy, if a little unambitious. She works in a department store, lives with her mum on a council estate, and has a boyfriend, Mickey, with whom she seems content.
At the end she ditches Mickey who turns into a snivelling coward and leaves with the Doctor. There’s no sense of a journey on her part – the idea that she’s unhappy and yearning for more isn’t made clear enough, and Mickey’s attitude to her isn’t foreshadowed. His sudden change from loving if not exciting boyfriend to selfish imbecile is too sudden and, given what his character actually goes through, almost understandable. That’s a script problem and, probably, a script editing problem more precisely. But the director should have seen it, and it isn’t helped by Noel Clarke’s acting.

The character of Clive, the conspiracy theory nutter, showed promise but – well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but let’s just say his character was wasted. But while Rose was talking to him, Mickey was being, quite literally, wasted in a wheelie-bin incident that lightened the mood a little too much, but was a great idea on paper. The problem is, the replica Mickey that then drives Rose off for pizza is so hammily made up and played that you have to wonder what was going through the director’s mind.

What really depressed me about the episode was the reaction to it from a hard core group of fans on various forums, who gave it 5 out of 5 and slagged off anyone who said anything remotely critical about it. To me they were more annoying than the other minority who slagged it off relentlessly. No critical ability – and the idea that it was perfect in every way is plainly nonsense; but seeing faults doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.

The coming episodes look a lot better, and the production team and cast have said from the start that episode one was the curtain raiser. Next week’s episode, ‘The End of the World’ looks rather cool and, according to Heat magazine’s TV reviewer who has just seen the preview tape for episode three, ‘The Unquiet Dead’ (written by mark ‘The League of Gentlemen’ Gatiss), that one raises the bar – even he was scared, he claims, and the clips I’ve seen suggest it could be a reminder of how scary the programme could be. Clips of other episodes, particularly the Dalek one, promise great things to come.

So, second thoughts are that it was a good episode. All but a few press reviews have been excellent, and 10 million people watched it, trouncing the opposition and making it likely to be the highest rated non-soap of the week. The kids forum on the BBC web site was full of praise, and it seems that the BBC succeeded in producing a programme that brought families together to watch it – something to be applauded in the current age. Some of the stories I’ve heard from parents have been great – children climbing in to their beds because they were scared, for example. But this programme has always been aimed at a larger audience (adults just make up excuses about why they watch it – the British have always dismissed sci-fi in that way, consigning Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Stargate to Sunday afternoon while in the USA they’re prime time programmes) and the new series has been mentioned in quite a few overheard conversations recently. So it’s no longer a geeky thing, or the preserve of experts and afficionados or, indeed, the costume-wearing weirdos who are always wheeled out for the cameras at times like this as representative of fans (annoyingly).

That’s also part of the depression, that now we’ve got to give the programme back to the masses. After so long, it’s going to be hard to let go…

User experience versus designerwank

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

I’m (quite happily, though not without some bitterness) walking away from a web design project that’s taken up much of my life in the past couple of years. After producing what I thought was a clean, uncluttered site, the new site manager has demanded that it look ‘arty’ and ‘sexy’ – the references he showed me were what I can only describe as ‘designerwank’, if you forgive the terminology (did I just invent that? I don’t know… Cool if I did, I quite like it). The discussion ended up in a plain old shouting match as I tried to make the point that web sites need to be usable and accessible.

Coincidentally, for the redesign I had been eyeing up Jeffrey Zeldman’s personal site The Daily Report as a model – I think it’s clean and is pure standards-based XHTML and CSS. For an information-led site, like the one I was working on, it’s ideal and (importantly) means it can be redesigned simply by changing the CSS file. I say coincidentally, because there’s an article by Zeldman that’s just appeared on his site that chimes 100% with my own thoughts about web design. Like many, I went through the ‘let’s show them what can be done with Flash and dynamic HTML etc etc’ and now I’ve put away childish things and moved on to thinking about ‘user experience’.

I think it’s essential for a designer (print/web/whatever) to consider the user first, the client second, and themselves… never, maybe? I mean, sure, think of yourself when deciding whether to take a job on or not, but don’t take on a supermarket’s frozen food packaging job if your sole intention is to produce something that’s alien to the store’s clientele but ensures you can deny having ‘sold out’ to your designer friends.
So with this web redesign my initial pique at being argued with (it’s not quite a client/designer relationship, more a collegiate one so I was justified in my passionate response!) has vanished in favour of simply saying ‘well on your own head be it’ and moving on. The problem is the site isn’t getting visitors; but it’s got nothing to do with the design – it’s all about the content – there isn’t any. And content is number one in the whole ‘user experience’ thing… making the site whizzy and hiding buttons is certainly an experience, but it’s not really the kind that is appropriate to a news-based and resource site.

Here’s an extract from the article in which Zeldman reports on a panel at this year’s South By South West (SXSW) gathering:

Jeffrey Zeldman Presents The Daily Report:
“Thinking like a user. It seems so obvious. But it is not.

When I think back to the many bleeding-edge CSS, DHTML, and Flash presentations I’ve seen or participated in over the years, the motivation was inevitably, ‘How hard can I push Flash?’ or ‘How many objects can I move on this page?’ or ‘What else can I show you in Firefox that won’t work in IE?’

It was never, ‘What would the user like?’

Yet in The Flash vs. HTML Game Show, designers with cutting edge skills were more interested in creating great user experiences than in manipulating their chosen technology for its own sake. Nobody on the panel and nobody in the audience thought twice about this user orientation. That is a profound change, and I hope it continues to spread.”

Using Skype as a Community Media Production Tool

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

After what seems like no time at all since this year’s third years submitted their dissertations (and I’ve still got to mark them!) the new term starts the whole process again with the second years. Once again, they will all head off for their summer holidays vowing to come back with at least the first draft done and, once again, things just won’t work out that way…

I actually like this stage of the process. Talking in-depth to five or six students for an hour or so, and then maybe continuing the conversations over coffee, are a great way of getting to know people who up until now have just been faces in the crowd, and with only a few exceptions it’s at this point that they really get turned on to the idea of investigating something in depth. In fact, I enjoy it so much I go way over the allotted (and paid-for) time but as I reason, if I weren’t doing that I’d just be sat at home watching daytime TV, so what the hell? (Of course, I’d rather get paid for the time it takes rather than the nominal time it’s allowed to take, which works out at about 10 minutes per student).

Anyway, I’m searching around for materials and ideas that could help them in either picking a subject (always tricky) or in carrying out their research. We call the dissertation a ‘research project’ and I encourage them to treat it more like a long article than an academic thesis. The last couple of years have produced some excellent results – I must post them as PDFs one day, or get them to.

Anyway, I thought this link might be of interest to anyone involved in this process, or in media production. It’s an idea about using Skype to conduct telephone interviews and record them to disk. Quite a lot of my students use minidiscs or (increasingly) iPods to record interviews (and good old tape recorders are still around) but they require direct, face to face, access. But what if the person you want to interview is in another country, or even in the same one but not exactly within easy travelling distance? This solution might just be worth trying.

Using Skype as a Community Media Production Tool: “Skype was created as a no-cost long-distance phone service. It does that very well. What it also allows you to do, if you’re just a little technically-minded and have a homebrew gene or two, is to record your Skype phone conversation, with the other person’s permission, to an audio file on a second computer. Once you’ve recorded the audio, you can edit out the uhms, ahs and pauses, compress the audio and then place it on the web for public consumption.” Full article

Brits hurt by melting pyjamas, alligators and centipedes

Tuesday, March 29th, 2005

My own ironing board-related accident (detailed elsewhere on this blog) fortunately didn’t end with me in hospital. If it had, I might have become another statistic, like these reported today in The Guardian: | Health | Brits hurt by melting pyjamas, alligators and centipedes: “Bizarre accidents including melting pyjamas, being attacked by an alligator and bitten by centipedes put almost 1 million Britons in hospital last year, it emerged today.Volcanic eruptions, lightning strikes, lizard bites and hornet stings caused some of the more unusual injuries listed by the Department of Health (DoH).Accidents cost the NHS about �1bn a year. The most common cause of injury was falling, which led to 119,203 admissions to casualty. Thousands suffered attacks from a wide variety of animals. These included 451 people stung by hornets, 46 bitten by venomous snakes and lizards, 24 bitten by rats, 15 injured in contact with a marine mammal, two people bitten by centipedes and one attacked by an alligator. But dogs accounted for most injuries with 3,508 people suffering bites.Hundreds more fell victims to natural hazards, with 54 people struck by lightning, 37 victims of ‘volcanic eruption’, 25 injured in ‘catacylsmic storms’, 12 suffered from avalanches and seven were victims of earthquakes. A further 107 were exposed to ‘unspecified forces of nature’.Other unusual injuries included four victims of noise exposure, four of vibration and 40 from contact with a high-pressure jet.There were 22 incidents involving the ‘ignition or melting of nightwear’, with stray cigarettes and faulty electric blankets likely to blame.But falls made up the bulk of the A&E admissions. With 119,203 suffering ‘unspecified’ falls and 24,475 falling from stairs and steps. Another 12,042 involved the bed, 7,114 fell from a chair and 4,533 from ice skates, roller skates, skis or skateboards.The definitions for the admissions were devised by the World Health Organisation, with some of the accidents taking place abroad which then led to hospital treatment back home.”

Pundits & panjandrums

Tuesday, March 29th, 2005

A lovely article over at The New Criterion on the dangers of pundits – well worth a read as it rambles amiably around various topics. The last few paragraphs (copied below) caught my attention in particular, mostly because of the larger issues being discussed but also because (of less importance) they chime with my own views on our tendancy in design education to invite ‘experts’ in to talk, only to listen as they spout forth rubbish or even contradict everything you’ve been saying to students yourself. But because they are ‘experts’ you can guess who students are more likely to believe! (It doesn’t help that the trend is for guest speakers to come in and say something controversial like ‘don’t use sketchbooks’ or ‘everything you learn at university is pointless’). Brian Eno recently gave a speech on the ‘wisdom’ of letting artists teach art that I keep meaning to write about. Maybe later today.

Pundits & panjandrums by Anthony Daniels: “(Gunther) Grass predicted that the old and gracious buildings of Calcutta would disappear and yield to hovels as the city grew ever poorer, ever more desperate. (He also seemed to think this was a good thing, because hovels were authentic. “Once back in Germany,” he wrote, “[I] measure everything, myself included, by Calcutta.”)

Well, he was right about the disappearance of the gracious buildings, but quite wrong about the reasons for it. Next to the place I stayed in Calcutta was a wonderful old Indo-Palladian villa, literally falling into ruins before one’s eyes. To enter it was to risk death by stucco. There was one protected tenant still living in it – I could watch her at night through the dilapidated shutters moving about in the crumbling interior – but the owner wanted the building to collapse utterly so that he could avoid the city’s preservation regulations without having to pay too great a bribe to the regulators, and build a block of luxury apartments on the site instead. He would make a fortune, even if it meant the city became even uglier. Increasing wealth, not poverty, now threatens to destroy the city’s architectural heritage, a process that was started by demagogic pseudo-egalitarian regulation.

Of course, there is no gain without loss. You don%u2019t have to be an inveterate anti-globalist to have reservations, mainly of an aesthetic nature, about India’s headlong rush into modernity. Calcutta now has shopping malls, and its middle class can’t wait to consume western gewgaws (usually manufactured by the

cheap labor of the East) that are grossly inferior, aesthetically, to India’s own traditional productions. One of the great pleasures of India used to be its comparative immunity to the cultural hegemony – to coin a phrase – of Anglo-American pop music, but not only does its own popular music increasingly approximate that horrible and savage noise, but its shopping malls positively throb with it. Sensitive Indians themselves are alarmed by the process, though they know that it is unstoppable and that their country’s indefinable charms – as well as its more easily defined horrors – will inevitably yield to it.

It will take some time, and the old and new India will coexist for years to come. Emerging from a Calcutta shopping mall, where consumerism reigned in all its garish vulgarity, I noticed a large placard attached to the nearest lamppost: Female foeticide is illegal.

Once in India, I saw a holy cow grazing on a pile of computer printout. But there is no denying that globalization is lifting Indian cities from the most abject poverty (the countryside might be different, I don’t know), even if at the cost of a loss of aesthetic refinement.

The duty of intellectuals is to spell out proper distinctions as clearly and honestly as possible. The condition of being a pundit stands in the way of this, for it lends authority to a person rather than to evidence and argument. (Appropriately enough, ‘pundit’ is a word of Indian origin referring to a Brahmin who knows the Sanskrit prayers that accompany the arcane rituals of Hindu puja, or prayer. I once asked a highly educated Indian friend of mine to explain the prayers and ritual to me at a wedding, to which he replied, “I don’t know, it’s all Greek to me.”)”

McDonald’s grabs a piece of the apple pie

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2005

There’s a fascinating article in today’s Guardian about McDonald’s and its growing effect on the US apple industry. What’s true of this is also true of other agricultural produce as well, and of companies like Wal-Mart.

It seems we are happy (and evermore demanding) to pay next to nothing for our food, with the end result being that what we get is so tasteless and lacking in nutritional value we have to pile flavouring on it, and eat lots more of it, negating any savings we may have made. And all the while we grow fatter and our general health declines (and farmers get poorer, and use cheap labour in unsanitary conditions to make ends meet).

In the UK the strain is taken by the National Health Service, in the US it shows up in health insurance premiums. (There was talk in the UK recently of tax incentives for people who join a gym, and the big topic of discussion at the moment is school dinners which seem to be linked to poor academic performance and behavioural problems, not to mention a growing problem of childhood obesity, asthma and food allergies – spending a few pennies more per child has been shown to improve their performance and their health, and it doesn’t take a mathematician to work out the returns on that particular investment. Add in the increased tax revenue from better paid agricultural workers and the lower unemployment benefits being paid out and you wonder why common sense appears just a little bit less common than it used to.)

Buying more expensive, but healthier, tastier food could save your life, but that message doesn’t seem to get through to people who happily fill an entire trolley with processed shit full of artificial (artificial!) flavouring and added salt. Perhaps explaining that it could also save you money is the only way to do it.

Click on the link to read the rest of the article – it’s well worth it.

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | McDonald’s grabs a piece of the apple pie: “Turn your back on the rack of leaflets, printed on acid-free recycled paper and entitled Taste, Choice and Balanced Eating, in the McDonald’s restaurant in Yakima, Washington state, and you can take your pick from the menu of items that cost a dollar or less. Right at the bottom, underneath the double cheeseburger, the sundae, three cookies and two pies, come the 99-cent Apple Dippers – around 10 cold, crisp and slightly watery peeled apple slices, packaged in plastic with a small carton of sickly-sweet caramel dip that contains twice as many calories from fat as the slices themselves, as well as disodium phosphate, potassium sorbate and caramel colour.

To the consumer, the difference between a packet of Apple Dippers and, say, the M&M McFlurry is little more than a few calories. As the picture of Ronald McDonald jogging on the packet suggests, it might also mark a subtle shift in the eating habits of an increasingly obese nation. But to the apple-growers of Yakima and elsewhere in Washington state – the most extensive apple-producing region in the US – it could mean a whole lot more. McDonald’s, which launched the Apple Dippers last year, now buys more apples than any other restaurant chain in the United States. And if the product, not to mention a forthcoming McDonald’s apple salad, takes off, it has the potential to transform an entire agricultural industry. The chain’s influence could alter for ever the method and scale of production, the varieties of apple produced, and the rights of the thousands of workers who pick them, and not necessarily for the better.”

‘Big cat’ attacks man in garden

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2005

Is it me, or am I the only one who reads this story and wonders ‘what happened to the kitten?!’

BBC NEWS | England | London | ‘Big cat’ attacks man in garden: “A man has been attacked by a large cat-like animal which jumped out from bushes in his garden during the night.

Anthony Holder said a 6ft-long black animal pounced, knocked him to the ground, then mauled him with its claws for about 30 seconds.

He said ‘I am 6ft and weigh 15 stone and it was considerably stronger and bigger than me. This thing was huge.’

Police were called to Sydenham Park in south east London and one officer saw a cat ‘about the size of a Labrador dog’.

‘Teeth out’

Armed officers arrived soon after and a search of the nearby railway line and allotments was carried out.

Mr Holder was looking for his kitten at the bottom of his garden, which backs onto woodland, when the powerful creature attacked him.

He described how a ‘big black figure pounced’ and he was ‘in its claws for about 30 seconds’.

‘Its teeth were out and I tried to defend myself and eventually I got the thing off my body.’

He was scratched all over his body and suffered swelling and bruising to his hand and the back of his head.”

New Who Trailers

Wednesday, March 16th, 2005

Here’s two long-ish trailers for the new series of Doctor Who.

Canadian Trailer (30Mb)

BBC Trailer (11Mb)

If you’re running Mac OS X and can’t view the Canadian trailer, try getting hold of VLC – it’s a programme that seems able to view files that Quicktime says it can’t handle.

Personally I prefer the Canadian trailer, but both are neat. My anorak comes back from the dry cleaners tomorrow and you know what? I don’t think it’s ever been cooler to be a sci-fi fan… 😉

Accidents will happen

Monday, March 14th, 2005

I remember reading a long time ago that a bizarre proportion of accidents happen in the home.
Well I had a real humdinger on Saturday. I’d got up early and was having a nice relaxing day reading and listening to the radio, thinking about going shopping or to the gym, or maybe even (shock horror) tidying up.

I decided I’d make one more cup of tea (I am Arthur Dent, it seems) after which, I promised, I would clear up and get rid of all the cables and things on the floor that seem to grow like weeds. Heaven knows where they come from, or where they lead (which is ironic, given their other name as ‘leads’ – the number of cables that don’t seem to have another end is quite frightening, like the mystery hand in The Last Supper.)

Anyway, on my way to the kitchen I passed the ironing board which had been up for over a week, completely unused except as a place to put things I couldn’t put anywhere else. ‘I must put that away’ I thought to myself. Off I went into the kitchen to boil the kettle but then realised I’d left my mug in the living room, so went back to get it.

Immediately, I stepped on an upturned electric plug. For those of you not in the UK, our plugs have three prongs and sit flat to the wall which makes them harder to pull out accidentally. That’s the good thing about them. The bad thing is it means they have a habit of lying prongs-up, ready for feet to land on them. As indeed mine did. I stumbled and fell, putting my arms out in front of me. My fall was broken by the ironing board – which snapped in two. So I carried on falling, this time without anything to support me, on to the bare (but trendy) wooden floor boards. My knees took the brunt of it, and my wrists got the rest. I landed on the floor and then, as the pain caught up with me, lay flat and rolled over to look at the ceiling. Then the rest of the ironing board fell on me.

I shouted, partly in pain, partly in anger, but mostly in relief because I’d fallen in probably the safest spot – to my right was the desk (which isn’t screwed to the base so would’ve either caught me a nasty blow, or tipped spectacularly launching my Mac into the air to land, knowing my luck, right on my head) and to my left were my book cases and several other mystery plugs so either I’d have brought one bookcase crashing down or impaled myself on a plug.

All this happened in a split second but seeemed to happen in slow motion.

I keep thinking that I could have been lying there with broken bones or worse. My ultimate fate would have been as inspiration for a minor plot in a future episode of CSI as a peripheral character spends an episode on an apparent break-in and murder only to realise the flat hadn’t been ransacked, it was just extremely untidy and I’d died as a result of not tidying up more often.

When the pain subsided I went out to buy a new ironing board – £20, thank you very much. It’s actually not very good, but it’s metal meaning it won’t snap if I do that again.

So let this be a lesson to you all. Tidy up now rather than later or you might not live to regret it…

Creative thinking on global warming

Saturday, March 5th, 2005

This is quite a cool idea and the sort of creative thinking we need to tackle pollution and poverty. Take a look at the full article as it details some of the projects this initiative will fund such as a cooking pot that uses solar rays focused by a dish that tracks the sun through the day.

Let’s hope other governments follow this example.

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | MP’s flights ‘pay for clean air’: “The UK is set to announce a scheme to promote clean energy in developing countries by paying into a fund every time a minister or civil servant takes a trip by air.

The idea is to offset the climate change impact of the carbon dioxide emissions from flying.

The scheme will begin next month in at least three departments – The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development (Dfid).

These are the major travellers and the fund from their flights could raise around £500,000 a year.

The proceeds will be invested in projects such as solar cookers in India, home insulation in the townships of South Africa and micro-hydro in Sri Lanka”