Writing about web page http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SWApWkEiIc
By some margin, the world’s most annoyed cat:-
Writing about web page http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/index.php?id=2966
Interesting observation from David Escalante, director of computer policy and security at Boston College, made at the Educause conference on campus security last week:-
If online discussions had been around when today’s presidential candidates were in college, he suggested, their words might be dredged up and used against them now by political enemies. “Can you make a statement in an online forum and not worry that someone’s going to whack you with it later?” asked Mr. Escalante. He said that many class discussions take place using course-management systems, and that the discussions are usually archived — and sometimes even made public online. Making discussions public that have traditionally happened behind closed classroom doors could hamper freewheeling debate, he said. He suggested that colleges make sure that online discussions can only be seen by students taking the course. Or that if discussions are made public, that students be allowed to remain anonymous (except to the professor). Even so, however, there’s nothing stopping students in a course from saving all class discussion to their own drives and making it public later.
When NAGTY closed up shop, we were asked not just to archive all the messages which had been posted by its students on our discussion forums system, but to delete them completely and put them beyond the reach of recovery. But we certainly see cases of students asking us after they’ve left the university whether it’s possible to go back and remove their messages in discussion forums, or their comments on Warwick Blogs. Both institutions and students need to think carefully about the long-term implications of student comments being digitally preserved.
Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7380691.stm
This report on the BBC news web site says that parents are scared to let their children cycle except in or very near to their own street:-
Parents’ fears about road safety are turning children into a lost generation of cyclists, says a government-backed agency that promotes cycling. Four out of five children are banned from cycling to school by their parents, a poll of 1,079 parents for Cycling England suggests. This compares with the 35% of parents who were allowed to bike to school when they were children themselves.
It’s another symptom of the way our society has become more risk averse, and like other examples (unsupervised play, fear of kidnap, etc.) it’s not supported by the statistics; in 2006 there were 10 times more accidents involving cars than there were accidents involving bicycles, and long-term, cycling accidents, especially those which involve serious injury or death, are in decline. But will I put my money where my mouth is when the time comes, and my own children are old enough to cycle to school, crossing the A45 as they go?
Writing about web page http://gigaom.com/2008/04/17/pixars-brad-bird-on-fostering-innovation/
Brad Bird directed two of my favourite movies, Iron Giant and The Incredibles. I enjoyed this interview with him, and I was particularly struck by this quote:-
In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie’s budget – but never shows up in a budget – is morale. If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale.
Things I didn’t know about numbers until very recently:-
Bands with three letter acronyms as their name:-
But what’s puzzling me is that I have albums by all of them (except UFO, obviously. That’d be stupid.) Why are three letter bands massively over-represented in my record collection?
Writing about web page http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2008/04/prof-sues-note.html
A fascinating article in Wired reports that Professor Michael Moulton at the University of Florida is suing a company which has repackaged and put on sale the notes which Professor Moulton’s students took at his lectures. The assertion is that the study packs are illegal because they’re a derivative work of Professor Moulton’s lectures, which are protected by copyright.
The obvious question that this raises is, Doesn’t that make all student notes taken during a lecture de facto illegal? The lawyers involved say that yes, they are, but they’re protected as fair use. It’s an interesting and subtle distinction, and it’s not hard to think of cases which fall in between the two examples; the reason that reselling the notes seems wrong is because it’s generating an income for someone based on the work of the academic concerned – we feel that the company doing the reselling is free-riding in some sense. But what if the notes were made freely available? What if the company wasn’t charging anything to let others download the repackaged materials? Where would our sympathies lie then? I suspect that I would still feel that the professor concerned would be entitled to some protection, but it’s less clear cut. The slope from one student sharing notes with another, to a student sharing notes with everyone else on the course, or everyone else at the university, or the whole world, to a company supporting that activity on a not-for-profit basis, to a company generating revenue from it, is a slippery one. Where’s the right place to draw the line?
Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/drama/ashestoashes/
I loved Life on Mars last year, and so I’ve been awaiting the follow-up, Ashes to Ashes with some interest. And now that we’re a few episodes in, it’s… okay. I’ve enjoyed it, but I’m not gripped by as I was with its predecessor, and I’ve been trying to work out why that should be. What I think is this:-
So it’s by no means a disaster and they haven’t tarnished the memory. But unless they have startling stuff ahead, it’s really just a retread, keeping the nostalgia factor which makes it fun to watch, but losing the drama and ambiguity which made LoM fun to think about.
Writing about web page http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MiHsxQJ9ZOo
So, Michael Bay. Not renowned for his cerebral approach to film-making, nor necessarily for being a sweet and charming person. But in this advert for some American internet thing or other, he does at least manage to poke a little bit of fun at himself. And his barbecue. And his pool.
In October 2006 I wrote about trying to find a replacement for my Tivo which bit the dust after five years of faithful service. The whole DVR (Digital Video Recorder) category has come on a fair way since then, with hard disk based video recorders or PC-based media centres being fairly common-place now.
So I thought I’d write again about the things I’d like in a DVR / media centre, and my understanding of what the options are. In Oct 06, I said I wanted:-
Since then, I’ve come up with two or three more features which I think are important:-
So what are the options now? Sadly Tivo still aren’t selling new hardware in the UK, so despite having the best UI by a margin, it’s not really a credible choice right now; having dual freeview tuners is so much better than having to control a separate set-top box and being restricted to a single recording at a time that a Tivo no longer looks competitive. There was an announcement a month or so ago that the Tivo software has been licenced to run on PCs, so if and when that appears it might be worth a look – but it would have to support dual freeview tuners and allow no-subscription-cost access to the Tivo guide data. We’ll see.
What else? The cheapest way in is still to buy a freeview DVR such as a Humax 9200 or a Topfield TF5800PVRt. They’re a couple of hundred quid, and they’re appliances rather than PCs, so they Just Work out of the box. The Humax 9200 recently had a firmware upgrade to allow it to do season passes, and these work pretty well, so it now does just about everything my original wishlist had (it’s a little noisy and the season passes aren’t perfect because not every channel provider publishes the required metadata to support them, though most do). So it’s only my latter-day wish for an all-in-one box that can play back video from other sources that stops it being perfect. I gather you can make the Topfield do that sort of thing by adding third party software to it, but I’m not hugely keen to get into that kind of fiddling.
There’s a device called the Babel TV recorder which looks interesting; it’s a pre-built Linux box with PVR software, dual tuners, DVD playback and (I presume) playback for other video files. It’s £300 which is a bit more than a Humax, but might be worth it for the extra functionality. The only problem is, since being announced last October, I haven’t seen a single review of it anywhere which makes me a little bit suspicious; their web site suggests that you can buy one right now, so why hasn’t anyone anywhere written anything about it after the initial flurry of interest when it was first announced?
Other choices revolve around putting a PC or a Mac under the TV. I’ve tried this with a Windows Media Centre box and it works pretty well, ticking my boxes for dual freeview, DVD playback, video file playback, etc. The problems are that it’s a relatively expensive option – PCs are cheap, but PCs which will fit under the TV and run near-silently are not. You’re more likely to spend £500-£1000 than £199 if you go this way. And while it does season passes and has a free and relatively data-rich EPG, it’s apparently incapable of spotting when there are repeat showings of the same episode of a show, choosing instead to record them all, even though the show name, episode name and episode description are identical. Tivo never had that problem. Another snag is that since it’s Windows underneath, it’s relatively fragile, and is likely to lock up every now and again, or present you with an inexplicable error message. If you try to install software on it, there may be unwanted side effects; when I tried to install a DivX codec to give me thumbnails for DivX files, I broke my Freeview tuner drivers for reasons I don’t pretend to understand.
There are other DVR software choices if you have a suitable PC, too; I looked briefly at Sage TV which is Java software and thus runs on a PC or a Mac or a Linux box. I quite liked it, but the fiddling around to get it set up factor was quite high; it wasn’t a very appliance-like experience. If you buy a PC with Windows Media Center (or Vista Home Premium, now, I guess) on it, then it is at least a fairly appliance-like experience, with the software starting up on first boot and asking you a series of questions which you can answer with the remote control. Sage TV, by contrast, required me to download it, unzip it, run a setup program and then do quite a lot of fiddling before I had something working well enough to sit on the sofa and play with. Sage do make cheap HD extender boxes, though, which is interesting.
Last time I wrote about this I also mentioned the possibility of using a Mac for the purpose. The Apple TV box won’t do on its own because it can’t record TV, only play back content acquired elsewhere. Same deal with Apple’s Front Row software – no recording. And when I looked around back in ‘06, I couldn’t find any Mac software which would do season passes. Now there are at least two choices; the afore-mentioned Sage TV, or possibly Elgato Eye TV v3 which looks very Mac-like, and might integrate quite well with Apple TV boxes as extenders. But I’m dubious about the need to combine a Mac with third party software and third party hardware (for the tuners and possibly the remote control) and have it all Just Work. I might at some stage buy the software and a USB tuner and try it on a MacBook just to see how it performs, though.
So there is still no perfect solution. On a tight budget, I’d buy a Humax and live without the fancy stuff. It’s a great PVR, it does season passes, and it works. All the time. If I had money to burn, I’d buy a silent PC (probably one of these ) and run Windows Media Centre, accepting its quirks with season passes and trying as hard as possible to treat it as if it were an appliance and not installing anything on it that isn’t essential for its running. I think there is still a gap in the market for something which is more than a Humax/Topfield but less than a fuill-on Windows or Mac computer; the gap which the Babel TV might fill if it really exists, I suppose.
Writing about web page http://googledocs.blogspot.com/2008/02/stop-sharing-spreadsheets-start.html
Here’s a clever idea: Google have extended their online spreadsheet application in an ingenious way: they’ve made it possible for spreadsheet authors to expose a form view of their spreadsheet. So if you have a spreadsheet to which you’d like lots of people to contribute a small snippet of data, instead of giving them all edit rights to the spreadsheet, you can create a form view and allow people to add their data to your spreadsheet just using the form. From the Google Blog
Create a form in a Google Docs spreadsheet and send it out to anyone with an email address. They won’t need to sign in, and they can respond directly from the email message or from an automatically generated web page. Creating the form is easy: start with a spreadsheet to get the form, or start by creating the form and you’ll get the spreadsheet automatically. Responses are automatically added to your spreadsheet. You can even keep a closer eye on them by adding the Google Docs forms gadget to your iGoogle home page.
If you have Firefox and you keep the underlying spreadsheet open in the browser, you can see it update live as people contribute data to it using your form.
This strikes me as a fantastically clever way to extend Google Docs; at a stroke, they’ve transformed the spreadsheets module from a tool which is essentially a simplified online version of Excel into a completely new tool which can do things like surveys, questionnaires and so on which desktop spreadsheets could never be used for. And rather than introduce a completely new application (“Google Surveys”), they’ve extended an existing application in a way which is intuitive and natural, making it easy for people to use a tool they’re already familiar with to do cool new stuff, instead of having to adopt and learn a new tool and ending up with yet another silo of data. Brilliant.
Writing about web page http://chainfactor.com/
Waiting for a momentary lull in the sleet to try and get home dry, I while away a few enjoyable Friday evening minutes on Chain Factor.
It’s a simple but fairly engrossing idea: you drop discs with a number on them into a grid. Whenever the number on a disc matches the number of discs in the row or column that disc is in, it will disappear. This is true not just for the disc you’re dropping, but the discs which are currently on the board as well. This makes it one of the more cerebral make-blocks-disappear games out there, since there’s no time limit, no need to find the right disc to match with, just the ability to think ahead and to count. Recommended, certainly until the snow stops.
Writing about web page http://www.snotr.com/video/774
This Mario game clone is remarkable for its breath-taking, capricious unfairness. Watch in awe as over the course of seven painful minutes, the player dies time and time and time again through completely unguessable, hilarious obstacles. Awesome.
Visiting my sister and her children is a mixed blessing for the ego. Last week, my nephew greeted me with an affectionate poke in the stomach and the sadly accurate observation, “Christmas belly, Uncle John?”. My niece then followed up with a subtle bait-and-switch by demanding to be lifted up for a hug (so far, so good) but once up in my arms pensively rubbed her hand on the top of my head and asked, “Why is there no hair in this big circle, Uncle John?”.
Reeling from this killer one-two combo, my self-respect was only regained when my nephew, who’s nine and like most boys his age has a supernatural affinity for video games, couldn’t complete a level of Super Mario Galaxy. Fortuitously, it was a level I’ve done before, so I was able to get him past the bit he was stuck on. His delighted observation that I rock at games was almost enough to restore ego equilibrium.
Writing about web page http://www.nekogames.jp/mt/2008/01/cursor10.html
This game (which you can play in your browser) is simple and brilliant. It works best if you know nothing about it before you try it out, because that way you’ll get a fantastic “Aha” moment when you suddenly realise how to do it. So I’ll say nothing except, enjoy.
For three years now (2005, 2006, 2007) I’ve written a little bit about what kind of work and process I predict for the coming year. Last year, my predictions were relatively modest; I predicted that we might do more stuff outside of Java – perhaps Flash, perhaps Ruby. This has turned out to be right on a small scale; we use Flash for video and audio playback, and soon, recording, and we use pre-bought Flash widgets for tasks such as slideshows, charting, and so on. Steve Carpenter has been seconded to the web team for a while to help integrate some Flash technology into our Java applications. So I’d say that prediction was broadly right. We’ve also done small bits and pieces in Ruby, but we’re still debating whether to take the plunge with a bigger application in 2008.
So what else might we be doing or trying in 2008? My predictions:-
Back in January ‘09 to see if I’m right.
Writing about web page http://www.trademork.com/worst-word-mashup-trademarks/
I love this: trademarking ordinary words in common use is difficult, so companies make new words for their trademarks by combining two existing words. So far, so reasonable, except that they often aren’t very good at it:-
Collaboneering – what you do if you’re an engineer who collaborates, presumably.
Blingkini – a bikini with gaudy, tasteless bits of metal glued to it.
And many more.
Writing about web page http://venturebeat.com/2007/12/03/facebook-education-app-gets-funding/
I was interested to read this report which notes that although there is a variety of tools designed to let students embed information about the courses they are studying into their Facebook page, none of those tools have been even a little bit successful. The most popular of them has only 3,300 or so active daily users, a drop in the ocean compared with more socially oriented tools for sharing and interacting with others. Does this mean that users would generally rather keep their Facebook and their study separate?