Archive for March, 2006

My eyes! My eyes!

Tuesday, March 28th, 2006

So I’ve been trying to prepare a long-planned end-of-term lecture on optical illusions with lots of fun things.
Only trouble is, every time I look at the examples I’ve got, I get a blinding headache. So now I’m going to have to improvise tomorrow because I don’t want to risk what might happen when these things are projected 20ft across in a darkened room.

If you want to risk your own health, there’s a great collection of illusions like the one above (along with explanations of how they work) at Micahel Bach’s site. But be warned – I really am suffering 😉


Sunday, March 26th, 2006

Hello, yes, I'm the agent for the penguins round here and I'm afraid we're not going to appear in your documentary unless we can negotiate a fee

Do you reckon the follow-up to ‘March of the Penguins’ will be ‘March of the Wildlife Film Crews’? Maybe that’s what the animal kingdom watches when they’re bored. I’d be pretty annoyed if I were a penguin. You get no peace these days if you’re an animal, that’s for sure.

The Antarctic isn’t melting because of global warming – it’s the bloody catering vans!

On a similar note, do you think the Queen’s household is entirely staffed by undercover tabloid reporters? Judging from all the programmes on TV at the moment with undercover flight attendants, undercover estate agents, undercover university lecturers and undercover nurses, you have to ask yourself if anyone is actually qualified to do anything these days other than film things secretly through their buttonhole?

Which reminds me of the time I had to have a colonoscopy and the doctor showed me the tiny camera in a tube. “We can see everything with this little bugger” he said (a rather unfortunate choice of words, I thought at the time). “Mind you,” he continued, “wait till the lighting crew gets in there!” I think they undergo years of training just in telling that joke…

One Giant Leap for Advertising

Sunday, March 26th, 2006

This has to be an April Fool’s joke (and a pretty good one at that). If not, well…

“Today I learned from a trusted source that Apple is poised to make history next Saturday when it unveils the worlds first advertisement that can be seen from space.

Apple had hoped to keep their creation secret until the grand unveiling, however, after I was tipped off, and with just a little bit of lateral digging, I was able to uncover enough background information to get a clue of the location.”


You can see it via this Google Maps link or in Google Earth

Mac Monkey

Thursday, March 23rd, 2006

You see, they do exist…

Closed minds to online learning

Thursday, March 23rd, 2006

One of the reasons online learning hasn’t taken off is made clear every time I sit in a meeting about it, or have a discussion with reluctant colleagues: intellectual property. People fear that putting their course notes online will in some way diminish them, or lead to people stealing their thoughts.

To me, that’s a little like believing that a photograph steals a little bit of your soul (though I think some supermodels are quite good evidence that this particular myth has some element of truth). I wonder how this argument holds up when applied to books and articles? What is it about computer screens that makes them different?
I also get suspicious of any academic who thinks that sharing knowledge is a bad thing. I have visions of these people giving students handouts that fade after 24 hours so they can’t be peddled on the internet, or make them sign a non-disclosure agreement. Why not just tie a bit of elastic to them and have done?

Another issue that arises in art and design in particular is the claim that these subjects cannot be taught online. So again, how do you account for the massive section in Borders that’s full of books showing people how to print, produce layouts, prime canvases and so on? It demonstrates not only a lack of imagination (ironic considering the subject we’re talking about) but a bizarre laziness in a refusal to put students’ (and society’s) needs before our own.

A couple of years ago I wrote an article for the Times Higher Educational Supplement and asked some students what they’d like to see online. Apart from wondering why their tutors were so far behind the times as not to even offer timetables and briefs online, or to use email to tell them of cancelled sessions instead of putting a notice on a locked door (great if you’ve just travelled for an hour on the train), several ideas were immediately offered that would be a doddle to set up: information on placements, experiences of past students and a way of keeping in touch with tutors and friends while away from uni for a few weeks.
I checked up again recently and found that their successors were still asking for, and still not being offered, exactly the same things.

In that article I focussed on a third reason why art and design in particular is slow to utilise new technology – every single discussion gets bogged down on what things should look like rather than what they should do. Without fail, people start talking about 3D animations, Flash intros and interactivity, but never about content. Yet look at the sites that students use day in day out and you’ll notice they are content-rich and visually unappealing. That’s because the internet is a socially-based medium, not a visually-based one. We just don’t get it.

Universities exist to share knowledge, and that includes going beyond the university population. Staggeringly few higher education institutions in the UK offer public lectures or tell the local community they’re welcome to come along and hear world-renowned experts talk about current issues. I listened to some of the Harvard podcasts on iTunes recently with a mixture of awe and envy. Why aren’t we doing that? Why do we moan about the dumbing down of society and do little to contribute to counter it?

I found a brief mention of MIT’s efforts in the area of online learning today. If you ever hear an academic tell you that putting what they know online will be the end of knowledge, point them to this:

How MIT’s Open CourseWare is growing:

We love to talk about the Massachusettes Institute of Technology’s Open CourseWare project because it’s a big idea meant to change the world. And change-the-world ideas inspire evangelism.

If you’re not familiar with Open Courseware, back in 2001 MIT decided to make its entire curriculum — 1,800 undergrad and graduate courses — freely available on the Internet. That’s a $104,000 value to a degreed student.

Why would one of the world’s top learning institutions give away its intellectual property?

Because an institute committee tasked with studying the impact of the Internet in 1999 decided that the best way to advance an MIT-style education would be to widen access to information. By making access free, the widening of access would spread exponentially via word of mouth through multiple networks. An education virus, if you will.

Anne Margulies, who is the project’s director, told an audience in Missouri last month that MIT has learned quite a lot by making its professors’ course work freely available. Andy Carvin recorded her presentation and uploaded it to his blog as an MP3 file; I have compiled notes from listening to Andy’s recording.

How it works

* MIT ‘publishes’ course materials twice per year, and 300 courses arrive in each publication; 1,265 courses are currently available.

* Each faculty member decides on the amount of content to share;
Margulies says her group finds it difficult to keep up with the growing
levels of content shared by faculty.

How it’s used

* 80% of courses contain professors’ lecture notes, which users say they value the most.

* The course materials have been voluntarily translated into 15 languages.

* More than one million people visit the Open Courseware site every month.

*’ Educators from other institutions report they are using MIT’s accessible courses as benchmarks and standards against which to measure their own courses.

* It’s brought faculty closer: Two, 30-year MIT faculty members had never
met nor were they aware they were teaching work that was similar until the Courseware project led them to discover one another.

How it’s valued

* MIT alumni hated the Open Courseware idea initially because they thought it would devalue their degree; that resistance changed because the project allows them free access to continuing education.

* Students who enroll formally at MIT are saying that Open Courseware was what first attracted them to the institution and gave them an idea of what to expect in intellectual rigor and homework. In other words, it turns out to be a great try-before-you-buy program.

One of the less-quantifiable aspects of MIT’s project is the unprecedented expressions of enthusiasm of its fans. Indeed, Margulies says ‘It’s truly overwhelming to receive the amount of fan mail we receive every day (over 10,000 emails so far). Some 90 percent of the email we receive is to thank us for sharing MIT’s content… and we respond to every single message.’

Anything of significant value, like MIT’s intellectual property, is certain to spread quickly, especially if given away freely. In a future post, I’ll explore ideas how businesses can apply the principles underlying Open Courseware as a marketing strategy.

(Via Church of the Customer Blog.)

Dudley has a cross to bear

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006

“A minister in Dudley wanted to erect a cross in the grounds of his new church building, and was told by the local council that this would cost £75 since, under legislation, a cross is categorised as an advertisement.

These sorts of stories come up quite often, and are usually followed, as soon as they reach the media, by a retraction, and the explanation that there has been a misunderstanding. But in an impressive display of bloody-mindedness, Dudley council is sticking to its guns, doggedly adhering to the letter of the Town and Country Planning Act, and ignoring the spirit. It is also trying to lay the blame at the deputy prime minister’s door, since his office sets the £75 fee. One can only imagine the splutter over the cornflakes when Prescott read that this damaging PR run-in between church and state was all his fault.”

Read the full article

(Via The Guardian.)

Quark Rebranding (again)

Monday, March 20th, 2006

Another day, another Quark logo…

“You might remember the Quark Logo Trouble a couple of months ago. It looks like they have decided to re-brand themselves once again. This time their logo looks similar to the Sony Ericcsson one. What is going on with Quark? It seems like they are having real difficulties with their image right now. They might as well go back to their original logo. What are your thoughts?”

My first reaction to this was it has to be a joke. But it’s not April 1st so let’s go with it. My second reaction was, as above, I used to have a phone with this logo on it.

It used to be the case that a rebrand was meant to last for years. What with Abbey National’s short-lived rebrand a couple of years ago and now this, I’m beginning to wonder.

Some companies change their identities more frequently than I change my socks. No, seriously. My philosophy is, if you throw them against the wall and they don’t stick, you can carry on wearing them.

(Via Advertising/Design Goodness.)

New word of the day

Thursday, March 16th, 2006

I was just reading through a draft of a student essay which is rather good, but contains the following line:

Carroll powerphrases MacDonald when he says, “mass art is going to have to aim at the generic or common denominator in terms of taste, sensitivity, and intelligence in its potential audiences”

I pointed out the error (which is an understandable one when you think that we gain a lot of our vocabulary aurally) but I actually quite like the word.

Powerphrase, verb: to use a choice quotation in order to win an argument without bothering to provide any actual evidence beyond the idea that if that person believes something to be true, it must be.

5 places to avoid because of bird flu

Monday, March 6th, 2006

1. Germany

A large country that manages to border just about every other country on the planet and so a magnet to any sick bird looking for a bit of comfort and understanding.
The incidence of bird flu in Germany has resulted in a shock shortage of wool, as farmers nation-wide are busily knitting little scarves and bobbly hats for their flocks and mixing industrial bucket-loads of Beechams powders.

Fetid feather alert level: Yellow

2. France

Oddly, and this is a little known fact, France has no indigenous bird population of its own, but instead merely serves as a staging post for several migratory breeds. This means that although France appears relatively safe on paper, it is in fact a hotbed of infection. In the same way that entire plane-loads of passengers will all come down with something nasty at the same time, so flocks of birds will instantly infect others simply by sneezing over any other feathered friends they happen to encounter. And with birds being the second most sociable creature on earth (after slugs), this is a clear and present danger.

France is currently investing in a large elasticated net which will cover major areas of civilisation and bounce any migrating birds back to Germany where they probably came from.

Fetid feather alert level: Yellow

3. The Far East

It’s been the butt of jokes in the west for many years, and sensitive readers should look away now, but the rather disgusting habit of inhabitants of the Far East of actually eating dead birds is, some would argue, coming back to haunt them. Unlike the West, where we merely shape meat-based pink slurry into funny shapes and cover them in bread crumbs, your Chinese, Thais and Japanese like nothing more than to (and this is really gross) get real live birds, slaughter them, and then cook them thoroughly before serving up in a nice sauce or tasty and deceptively easy-to-prepare stir-fry.

Marco Polo was right. Other countries are nice places to visit, but you wouldn’t really want to eat there.

Fetid feather alert level: Orange

4. The House Next Door to Mine

The old woman who lives in the house next to me has a habit of throwing a bowl of bread pieces on to the pavement at about 5pm every day. This causes the entire pigeon population of Brighton to descend on a couple of square meters in one go.
They’re clever birds these – they start to congregate on neighbouring roofs about twenty minutes before-hand, sending my cat completely bonkers.

If she’s late, a couple of pigeons and a seagull (big bugger) land on her window sill and start pecking at the glass. I think she must be putting cocaine in with the bread.

The noise is tremendous, what with the flapping and the coo-ing (or whatever it is pigeons do). A few minutes later, they’re gone, leaving a pile of crumbs and a wide splatter of faeces. Oh it’s lovely.

So if there’s an outbreak of bird flu you can guarantee that it’ll start next door to me.

Fetid feather alert level: Orange

5. The Canary Islands

The clue’s in the name, folks!

Fetid feather alert level: Red

My life in diagrams part 1

Sunday, March 5th, 2006

I’ve been thinking about doing some sort of project mapping my life for a while now, trying to think of all the ways I can represent my experiences graphically.
I finally got round to taking the first step today: calculating how long I’ve lived in different parts of England. The resulting pie chart (courtesy of Apple’s Keynote) is a tad boring but it’s a place to start.
Now to get creative!

Don’t hold your breath…