May 09, 2008

Flash shopping video

Writing about web page

If you’re interested in creative uses of Flash video, you might want to take a look at this shopping site . Try mousing over any one of the models, or click on “Night” or “Weekend” or “View women’s outfits”. It’s very clever, and beautifully art directed, but at the same time isn’t it just a little bit… weird?

May 08, 2008

Most annoyed cat ever

Writing about web page

By some margin, the world’s most annoyed cat:-

May 07, 2008

Online discussion privacy

Writing about web page

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.

May 06, 2008

Children cycling

Writing about web page

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?

May 03, 2008

Brad Bird on morale

Writing about web page

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.

April 18, 2008

Paxman on user generated content

High security area

Ungrammatical signage

Good to know.

April 16, 2008

Number discoveries

Things I didn’t know about numbers until very recently:-

  • Primes of the form 4n + 3 are never the sum of two squares.
  • Primes of the form 4n + 1 have one and only one way of being the sum of two squares.
  • 8 and 144 (and 1, but that doesn’t really count) are the only cube and square (or any other exact power) in the Fibonacci sequence. But while it is easy to demonstrate this empirically for very large numbers of values in the sequence, the proof has turned out to be surprisingly tricky. In fact, it was only after Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s Last Theorem that it became possible, ten years later, to exploit some of his techniques to prove that there are no perfect-power numbers in the F sequence other than 8 and 144.

April 15, 2008

Three letter words

Bands with three letter acronyms as their name:-

  • ABC
  • ELO
  • KLF
  • OMD
  • REM
  • UFO
  • XTC

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?

April 09, 2008

Do students' lecture notes infringe academics' copyright?

Writing about web page

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?

February 26, 2008

Ashes to Ashes

Writing about web page

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:-

  • The ambiguity of LoM is necessarily gone; there, the writers could play with the question of whether Sam Tyler really was in a coma, or back in time, or really from 1973 and just delusionally convinced he was from the future. But since the premise of AtA is that Alex Drake meets the same characters that Sam Tyler did because she read his case file, there’s no room for doubt; she knows, and we know, that this is all in her mind and that she’s lying unconscious in 2008 having just been shot. This makes it harder to accept her engagement with the world and people around her; if she knows it’s all just in her mind, why bother conforming?
  • Life on Mars was an homage not just to a particular time, but to a particular show, The Sweeney, with Gene Hunt as Jack Regan. That gives Ashes to Ashes a couple of problems; (1) What show is it an homage to? What was the iconic cop show of the early eighties? (Minder and The Professionals were late seventies; Dempsey and Makepeace was 1985. I can’t think of a well known cop show that’s early eighties.) (2) Whatever the show(s) that’re being referenced (and the writers have name-checked Moonlighting as an inspiration, which makes sense), does Gene Hunt / Jack Regan really belong in them?
  • John Simm’s brilliant performance as Sam Tyler, and his inspired rapport with Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt, lifted the first series from engaging to gripping. I’m enjoying Keeley Hawes’ work too (though she’s either being directed, or has decided, to play too many of her scenes at near-hysteria levels) and it’s probably a good idea for them to shoot for Moonlighting-style sexual tension rather than try to recreate the chemistry of the first show. But it’s not the same.
  • Alex Drake has a child in 2008 to whom she is understandably desperate to return. This means that the ending isn’t in doubt – she will get back – unless there are some very big twists or revelations about what’s real and what’s not ahead. So another part of the fun of LoM – how will it end? – is diminished in AtA.
  • As with LoM, the art direction and soundtrack are a lot of fun, but AtA is clearly and self-consciously playing both of these up much more than LoM did, with hairstyles, clothes and a soundtrack which border on caricature. I liked the subtler approach of LoM more.

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.

February 16, 2008


Writing about web page

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.

February 12, 2008

DVR choices

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:-

  1. Season passes (the ability to record all episodes of a show without having to know when they’re on)
  2. No monthly subscription, ruling out a Sky Plus box for that reason
  3. A silent or near-silent box.

Since then, I’ve come up with two or three more features which I think are important:-

  1. The ability to copy video files on to the device and play back a wide range of formats. Could be video of the kids playing in the garden, could be a show you forgot to record and a friend gives you a file on a memory stick. Whichever, it’s become clear to me that only being able to play back content which was originally recorded on the device is a bit limiting.
  2. There’s something to be said for having everything in one box – a video recorder, a DVD player, a playback device for other videos. There’s only one UI, one remote, one input on the TV where everything lives. It’s almost certainly cheaper to buy three boxes; a cheap Freeview DVR, a cheap DVD player, and a cheap media streamer, but it’s a less elegant solution.
  3. As my children get older and we all have things we want to watch, I grow more attracted to the idea of having one big hard disk of content somewhere with the ability to call up any chunk of it on any TV in the house. You could buy two or three Freeview recorders for the price of a PC-based server-and-clients system, but you’d either have to go round them all telling each of them to record everything, or accept that they’d all have different content on them. Not as neat.

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.

February 07, 2008

Google Spreadsheet forms

Writing about web page

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.

February 01, 2008

Chain Factor

Writing about web page

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.

Chain Factor game

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.

January 31, 2008

Mario madness

Writing about web page

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.

January 21, 2008

Flattery. I has it.

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.

January 04, 2008

Cleverest game ever

Writing about web page

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.

January 03, 2008

Work resolutions 2008

Follow-up to More work resolutions from Autology: John Dale's blog

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:-

  • I’m increasingly interested in the question of finding ways to integrate with non-web applications that people use a lot. In particular, I’m thinking about email. Many people run their whole work life through their email application, and I wonder if we could do more to take advantage of that. Right now, we send quite a lot of emails to people from our applications – this SiteBuilder page has changed, that blog entry has a comment, this forum has a new message – but we don’t do very much in terms of letting people email to our applications. Given that people are generally very comfortable with email, might it be useful to let people create a blog entry, or modify a SiteBuilder page, or do other tasks, by sending email messages? Maybe.
  • We have two challenges which are to some extent dichotomous; firstly, we need to be careful about adding too many new applications to the set we currently offer. We run the risk that we make it hard for people to know what to choose when they want to do something on the web; a SiteBuilder page? a blog? a forum? a Files.Warwick space? If we added a stand-alone wiki application, say, or a document management application, we would make the challenge of deciding which platform to use even greater. But then the second challenge is that as we expand the range of features which SiteBuilder, in particular, offers, it starts to take on Microsoft Office-like levels of functional richness, and this can make it intimidating to get started with, and hard for even regular users to discover whether or how SiteBuilder could help with a particular task. I predict, therefore, that in 2008 we’ll look for ways to (a) extend our existing tools to do new things, rather than adding new platforms, and (b) we’ll look for ways to try and guide people as to how to do the tasks they’re interested in using our tools, as well as showing them the mechanics of how to “drive” the tools.
  • One particular area where I think we could do something which would help people a lot without increasing the number or complexity of our applications is that of desktop synchronisation. People spend a significant proportion of their time in SiteBuilder and Files.Warwick uploading and downloading files. If you want to edit a Word document that’s on your web site, then you have to save the file to your local hard disk if you don’t already have it there, open it, edit it, save it, then re-upload it. As much as we might want to persuade people that they could avoid this tedious process by abandoning their Word documents and just editing web pages directly, we have to accept that people are comfortable using Office and other desktop applications, and they don’t want to give them up. So, as with email in my first bullet point, perhaps we can find ways to fit better with the tools and ways of working that people already use and like, by making it quick and easy to get files created or edited on the desktop into (and out of) our systems.

Back in January ‘09 to see if I’m right.

December 11, 2007

Worst trademarks ever

Writing about web page

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.

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