September 19, 2008

Standoff: XBox 360 advert

Writing about web page

I’m fascinated by this advert for the XBox 360:-

It was never aired, and it’s easy to see why (though it’s had a phenomenal afterlife on Youtube, with millions of views). It’s odd to watch, because it’s at once funny and clever, yet slightly disturbing. Was there ever a time when it could have been shown on TV? Perhaps in the early eighties, when the fashion for violent cop shows on TV was at its height?

September 18, 2008

Trainers with lights

Most of the shoes which my children wear have flashing lights in them, activated by pressure when they walk and run. Sometimes it’s just a single LED, sometimes they’re dotted all over the shoe, and there’s a miniature Christmas tree effect with every step.

What I’m puzzled by, though, is why this feature is found only in children’s shoes, not in adult’s. It seems like such an obvious and desirable safety feature for anyone who runs outside at night, yet as far as I know, it remains the exclusive preserve of children’s shoes. Strange.

September 12, 2008

Gates & Seinfeld: Together at last again

Follow-up to Gates & Seinfeld: Together at last! from Autology: John Dale's blog

It’s not really about anything, nor is it overtly trying to sell anything. I can’t decide whether it’s brilliantly clever or pointlessly stupid.

September 07, 2008

On certification

I went to see The Dark Knight a few weeks ago. As well as seeing it for my own enjoyment, I had half an eye out to try and decide if it would be suitable for my (seven year old) son. As it happens, I didn’t need half an eye, or even a quarter or a tenth; it is hugely, wildly, inappropriate for seven year olds. So much so, in fact that the BBFC received more than 80 complaints about the 12A certificate that the film had been granted, and they felt obliged to defend the decision:-

The film regulator’s spokeswoman Sue Clark said the sequel was a fantasy movie with only implied violence. But she admitted that the British Board of Film Classification had carefully considered giving it a 15 rating. The 12A rating states that a film should not “dwell on violence” and “does not emphasise injury or blood”.

And she also explained that the next rating up, a 15 certificate, would have stopped some people who wanted to see the film doing so:-

She added that a 15 certificate would have denied an important part of the superhero’s fan base the chance to see the film. “Younger teenagers would not have been able to see it, and they are the very people who are going to love it. “We would have ended up with far more complaints from people who wanted to see the film and couldn’t,” said Ms Clark.

The BBFC’s actual decision can be found here.

(Interestingly, the BBC also looked at how other countries had certified the film – only one country, Finland, had specifically barred some children (those under 13) from seeing it; every other country had allowed it to be viewable by all, either explicitly, or implicitly by using discretionary rather than mandatory ratings.)

I see two problems here. The first is the range of certificates which the BBFC uses. In order, they are:-

  • U Suitable for all
  • PG May contain scenes unsuitable for young children, but children of all ages may still attend unaccompanied.
  • 12A May contain scenes unsuitable for young children, and children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult
  • 15 No one under the age of 15 may see this film in a cinema
  • 18 No one under the age of 18 may see this film in a cinema

I had thought, before I went and checked the BBFC web site, that there was also a 12 certificate which barred children from under 12 from seeing the film in the cinema at all, accompanied by an adult or not. But there is not. There is a 12 certificate, but it applies only to renting or buying movies on DVD. Typically, films which are 12A in the cinema will end up as 12 certificate when they’re released on DVD.

And that’s the problem. The earliest age at which the BBFC can actually stop children seeing a film in the cinema is 15. There is no certificate which absolutely bars children of any younger age. This makes the BBFC’s comment about not wanting to stop young teenagers from seeing Dark Knight slightly more defensible, but what it gives with one hand it takes away with the other, since it also makes the BBFC look like idiots for not having a mandatory 12 certificate for films in the cinema.

The inevitable consequence of this gap is that film-makers will always aim for a 12A or PG certificate, since a big part of their audience is indeed young teenagers, and a 15 certificate would ruin that. So films as diverse in tone as The House Bunny, The Dark Knight, The Duchess, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (a holocaust film), Get Smart, Indiana Jones 4 and the last two Harry Potter films have all been 12A certificate. But the difference between a broad comedy like Get Smart or an action movie like Indiana Jones 4 and Dark Knight is substantial, and that brings me to the second problem.

It doesn’t seem to me that the BBFC is very good at assessing the tone of a film. Dark Knight and Spiderman 1/2/3 are both superhero films and summer blockbusters, but they’re worlds apart tonally; Spiderman is a bright, breezy cartoon, whereas Dark Knight is a brooding, morbid sort of film, devoid of anything you might call a happy ending, where bad things happen to good people for no particular reason. It’s a nihilistic and morally repugnant film (and that’s not necessarily a criticism; it’s a well made and powerful film of a certain tone, that’s all) and the BBFC don’t classify for nihilism. Sure, if you watch the scenes of violence carefully, the film’s editors are careful not to show blood or dwell on the corpses, and much of the violence you might think you saw is actually cut away from before the act itself. But the questions of who’s committing violence on whom and why are a level above the portrayal of the act itself, and the BBFC seem oblivious to that level. They have guidelines about “mature themes”, but they’re really about specific acts – drug taking, sex, cruelty – disguised as themes. There ought to be a mandatory 12 certificate, and Dark Knight ought to have been certified so, not for “contains moderate violence”, but for “tonally dark and therefore unsuitable for young children”.

(In the interests of balance, here’s a well argued take in the other direction, though it’s arguing specifically that Dark Knight ought not to be a 15 certificate. I wonder if the author would feel differently about a mandatory 12 certificate, were it possible to award one.)

September 05, 2008

Flashpaper discontinued

I was interested to read this article about the fact that Adobe are discontinuing development of their Flashpaper product, and the problems that this is going to cause for other companies which use Flashpaper as part of their own product or service.

In one sense, of course, you could argue that companies who failed to read the writing on the wall when Adobe acquired Macromedia deserve everything they get for failing to spot the obvious problem with one company now owning both Acrobat and Flashpaper. The only real surprise is that it’s taken this long. But even so, it’s an interesting and somewhat salutatory lesson about picking the technologies that you choose to rely on for your own products or services carefully; what if Moxiecode decide one day that they don’t want to maintain or develop tinyMCE, our WYSIWYG editor, any more?

The other thing that puzzles me slightly is that I thought I remembered from the Flash conference I went to last year, that Adobe have a slightly evolved version of Flashpaper baked into their file sharing application, the name of which I’ve now forgotten. But the idea was that whatever sort of file you uploaded to their site, you’d be able to get a Flash-based preview of its contents, and that preview looked very much like Flashpaper. Perhaps it was always a separate product; it would seem particularly mean to discontinue development of the product for your customers, whilst continuing to develop it internally to use in your own products. Adobe wouldn’t do that, surely?

Gates & Seinfeld: Together at last!

Writing about web page

September 01, 2008

The ungreening of halogen

Has anyone else noticed that halogen lights have become significantly more power-hungry in recent years? A few years ago, the default halogen bulb was a 20W 12V affair with a transformer to step the voltage down. So if you had, say, four of them in your kitchen or bathroom ceiling, or a three bulb plate, you were consuming 60 or 80 watts, and a table lamp with a single bulb would be drawing 20 watts. Not super economical compared with low energy fluorescent bulbs, but perhaps not unacceptably far off, given the vastly superior quality of the light they produced.

But now the transformers are largely gone, and the commonest halogen bulb is the GU10 which consumes 50W at 240V. But the way the bulbs are used, with plates or tracks having three or four or even six bulbs in them hasn’t changed, meaning that what would previously have been 60W is now 150W, a rather less green figure. We have a long thin kitchen, and so we have a round plate with three bulbs in it at one end, and a long track at the other with four bulbs in it. That’s seven bulbs at 50W each: 350W to light one room. That pricks at my conscience a lot more than the previous 140W would have done.

You can replace the 50W bulbs with 35W ones which have the same fitting, but nobody sells light fittings with the 35W bulbs included in the package; it’s always the 50W ones. So you have to wait until the original bulb fails before you can drop down to a smaller figure, and of course the light you then get seems dingy by comparison. The good news, I guess, is that you can still get low voltage 20W fittings and bulbs; they’re just not to be found in the big home furnishing places like Ikea or B&Q any more. But perhaps it’s worth going to the trouble of seeking them out if, like me, you’re a die hard fan of the quality of halogen light, but would prefer to maintain at least a little bit of green credibility.

August 31, 2008

Trainer befuddlement

I don’t generally lose any sleep over buying clothes. I can settle on things I like quickly and easily, and I know the shops and brands, colours and styles which I prefer, and which I think suit me. But for reasons which escape me, this process fails completely when it comes to buying trainers. I stand in front of a wall of shoes, and I just have no idea what I want or even what I like. Black, white, stripy, plain, bouncy sole, flat sole? Who knows?

Perhaps this is because choosing trainers implies not just an aesthetic choice but also a functional one. Most clothes aren’t functional except in the trivial sense of covering your body and being either thicker and warmer or thinner and cooler. But trainers are designed for running or tennis or whatever, and often not just for running in the general case, but a specific style of running, or a specific style of runner. So that makes the choice harder, I guess, than just “Do I like this colour?”.

But even if I drop the requirement that the shoes should be good for running or tennis or whatever, and just look for shoes to wear for playing in the garden, I still find it very hard to make a choice. In Chicago last year I went to the NikeTown store, since trainers were almost half price in the US when I was there. The only reason I was able to make a choice then was by reminding myself that buying shoes there and then would be 50% cheaper, and that since I was leaving the next day, there would be no second chance to go back and try again later. Even so, it was a wrench. Why are trainers so hard to buy?

August 28, 2008

Second–hand iPhones?

I’ve been trying out a few different phones recently, partly to try and figure out what kind of phone would be the best bet to offer people at Warwick who want mobile email and calendars. More on that topic another day, but what it’s left me feeling for myself personally is that the phone that would suit me best is an Apple iPhone.

Unfortunately for me, though, I’m also mean, and reluctant to shell out the thousand pounds-plus that an O2 contract would cost me. It would also be rather inefficient, because apart from my family, almost all my calls, texts and data usage are work related, so it makes sense for my phone to be a work phone, and for work to foot most of the bill, and for me to be on the same network as all my work colleagues. It also lets me take advantage of the fact that Warwick’s deal with Vodafone makes all my calls to any Vodafone number at all, not just to Warwick people, free.

But there’s the snag: Warwick’s network carrier is Vodafone, and you can’t buy an iPhone which will work on Voda. Or at least, not a brand new one. But what about a second-hand v1 iPhone? The only two significant hardware additions to the v2 iPhone were GPS, which I’m indifferent to, and 3G, which I concede is useful, but I consume data over the cellular network (as opposed to wifi) very infrequently – once or twice a month, perhaps – and when I do, it’s mostly email, which is not very data intensive. So maybe 3G wouldn’t matter that much to me. Everything else was a software change which can be pushed on to v1 phones just as well as v2 ones.

So can you get v1 iPhones which are SIM unlocked? There’s a place in the US which has them for about £260 which seems reasonable (apart from UK Customs, perhaps), though they don’t say explicitly whether the phone is SIM-unlocked or not. Anyone know any other good sources (within the EU, ideally) of v1 unlocked iPhones?

August 27, 2008

Back, back, back

My blog’s been withering on the vine for a few weeks now. I’ve been a bit busy at work acquiring scary new responsibilities – our email service, our training team and some other stuff – and I’ve also been on holiday in Italy, which looked rather different to the way Coventry looks right now:-

Cattolica, Aug 08

It was hot and sunny with blue skies, and just about 30 degrees every day, and while I’d find 30 uncomfortable in the UK, with our slightly rubbish, clammy feeling 65% humidity, 30 degrees combined with the delicious dryness of just 30% humidity, plus a breeze blowing in from the sea, is just about perfect. I think that what temperature counts as too hot for you is defined by humidity as much if not more than by the actual temperature.

And even though I’ve never thought I was bothered by the lack of sunshine in the UK, I found myself, slightly to my surprise, loving the climate in Italy and wanting to be somewhere like that more of the time. I wonder where a good place to retire to would be if you wanted as many sunny days per year as possible, but dry, not humid, 30 degrees rather than 40, and no droughts or flash floods. The north coast of Italy could be a good bet, I think. Ancona maybe?

Anyway, I’m back in the grey murk for now, and I’ve been thinking lots about email and other things, so I’m hoping to get back into a more regular blogging groove. But then I’ve hoped that before. We’ll see.

July 15, 2008

Ghost Town

Writing about web page

What if the Sixth Sense was a comedy?

June 25, 2008

Peggle brilliance

I love Peggle. But not this much:-

Aggressive parking

Writing about web page

Now I see the advantage of SUVs in the supermarket car park.

Car parking

June 09, 2008

Great advert

Writing about web page

If you’re a musician, or you like rollercoasters, or both, then you might like this:-

May 16, 2008

Font haikus

Writing about web page

Love these font haikus. They’re all good, but if I had to pick a favourite or two, it’d be:-

Arial, the clone
But not of helvetica.
Grotesque is its sire.


Trebuchet MS,
Web designers sick of want
use you, but still weep.

Gallardo trailer

Writing about web page

Who buys a Lamborghini Gallardo and then hitches a trailer up to it?

 Lamborghini Gallardo with trailer

Although, that said, if you really are going to haul a trailer around, matching the alloys of the Gallardo and having a matching paint job on the bike, is pretty cool.

Laptops in lectures

Doonesbury on the value of laptops in lecture theatres:-

But when you think about it, is he really saying that it’s a good thing or a bad thing? Googling to find the answer to a (lecture-related!) question is way more constructive than checking your Facebook page, and is just the sort of thing that advocates of laptops in lecture theatres would be enthusiastic about; there’s a good chance he’ll remember the answer later, having looked it up himself. But then, at the end, that positive impression is undone by the revelation that he’s just checking his email. Trudeau sees both sides of the coin, curse him.

May 14, 2008

Online maps feature idea

Writing about web page

A few weeks ago, Steve noted that the Google imagery for these parts had been updated, as has the Microsoft Live Maps imagery. This gave me an idea: if I were Google or Microsoft, I’d retain the older data, and add a new feature to their mapping services; look back in time. So for any given view of a town or city, you’d be able to click a rewind button and see as many earlier versions of the same view as the provider has got stored. It’d be expensive on disk space, of course, but disk space is getting cheaper faster than planes are flying around taking photos.

In the short-term, this would only be mildly interesting, allowing you to see the buildings and other changes that have arisen in the last year or so. But if you take a longer view, and think about collecting the imagery for decades, it would be fascinating. There’s an aerial photo of the Warwick campus in Scarman House taken in 1990 (it’s on the first floor at the start of the walkway to the bedrooms if you happen to be passing). The difference between that photo and today’s campus is remarkable, and collecting the data to do similar comparisons for any big conurbation in another ten or twenty years would be a hugely valuable and civically-minded thing to do. I’ll even waive my royalties on the idea.

May 13, 2008

NSS fakery

Writing about web page

According to this BBC news report, a member of staff at Kingston University has been caught on tape encouraging students to rank Kingston highly when they complete their National Student Survey forms. It’s pretty sad really, but the lecturer’s comments about the consequences of a poor ranking:-

If Kingston comes down the bottom, the bottom line is that nobody is going to want to employ you…

... and on what constitutes feedback at a university:-

Feedback, in terms of this questionnaire, means what happens in seminars. Every seminar you have you get some interactive feedback from the person giving it. So if I ask a question and no one answers, and I start banging my head on the table, that is feedback. If I’m smiling and going ‘yeah great’, you’re getting feedback. If you get a mark for a piece of work, that’s what we mean by feedback.

made me at least half smile. But the most telling part of the article is the comments left by other readers, who point out that Kingston is by no means the only institution which encourages its students to respond positively to the NSS, that this is exactly what you’d expect to happen in a league table, targets-driven culture, and that people often choose to do a survey precisely because they have some kind of axe to grind, skewing the results. So we’re caught in a weird kind of Catch-22 trap where everybody wants to come high up in whatever survey or league table is currently in the news, but nobody really believes that the surveys represent any kind of objective truth. Strange.

Edit, Wed 14th May: In a follow-up story the BBC states that hundreds of students emailed them after the first story was published, stating that similar pressure was applied at their institution. Interestingly, in the comments on this follow-up, the only two comments from students asserting that this practice does not happen at their institution were from Oxford (attention drawn to the survey but nothing more), and Cambridge (Students’ Union boycotts the survey because it doesn’t reflect life and work at Cambridge accurately).

Mac desktop music video

Writing about web page

Cute video using the Mac desktop to illustrate a song (“Again & Again” by The Bird & The Bee):

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