26 Jun 2008

Complexity in Creation

Filed under: Fledermaus, IT, Music, Travel, TV — Tags: , , — maguffyn @ 23:19 UTC

Creating something, anything, that can be admired, enjoyed or simply used involves things that the admirer or user is frequently entirely unaware of. I remember sitting in a meeting with all the bright IT people at a mid-sized oil company and ideas, problems and solutions were being thrown out at a dizzying rate. By the way, I do mean all the bright people- in three years of working there it was the one and only time I saw everyone in the same room working to solve a single problem. What intensely complex problem was all this brainpower trying to solve? Simply to stop the need for a user to type in a password twice- yup that was all, but it took all of us to work out how to do this. Now this is also a reflection on the complexity of systems and the fact that unlike 300 years when an intelligent man (and unfortunately it was all too often only a man) could know the entire sum of human knowledge, no-one knows everything today. But as the solution began to develop I passed a note to the Chief Technical Architect that said “Nola has no idea what we are going through to solve her problem”

Well, it is the same in all forms of life: I listen to music and buy what I like, look at art (and even manage to buy the occasional painting) and watch movies and television (though I prefer to wait and watch them on DVD without any adverts). But really, I have no idea what goes into painting a masterpiece, composing a piece of music lift you out of you seat or directing a scene in a show that works so perfectly that you smile to yourself afterwards. Fortunately, though this lack of understanding does not stop me from appreciating them: the Rijksmuseum has a small (very secure) extension at Amsterdam Schiphol airport that is currently exhibiting 8 pictures by Vincent van Gogh. Having more than $10 million of painting in front of you is something that I could get used to, even if I don’t understand all the complexities of how the pictures were created. And the fact that entrance to the Rijksmuseum is free simply is the icing on the cake.

I get more opportunity to watch television than gaze at impressionist masterpieces; and still following through with my resolution to only watch ‘worthwhile’ television I recently watched the last 2 seasons (6 & 7) of the West Wing. When it first arrived on TV in 1998 the West Wing set the bar for smart, well written, well acted and fantastically produced television. And though most critics felt that is suffered a drop in form during the middle of its run, by the end it was completely back to its excellent best. I think that part of the reason that the ratings did not recover was the the plot lines were so complex, the dialogue so fast (and intelligent) and the advert breaks such low quality compared to the actual program that people gave up watching the broadcast show and simply waited for the DVD to come out (apparently this also happened with Alias). So although the show was broadcast in 2005 and I only watched it in 2008, and to use a line from the West Wing- let’s not knock me for coming late to the party and celebrate the fact that I came at all (courtesy of Sam Seaborn as he attempted to explain the budget to CJ in series 2 I think).

The final strain of this thought before the denouement (bet you weren’t expecting a word like that in this blog!) concerns music and in particular jazz: Although many of my friends are firm blues fans, I have always been more of a jazz guy. I tend to take it in small quantities, but there have been times when music has had such a profound effect on me that the fact that I don’t understand the intricacies of what I am listening too are entirely irrelevant. I spent several months on the Yemen/ Saudi Arabia border in the Empty Quarter. This was before the Internet or satellite TV: the only regular contact we had with the outside world was via the BBC World Service of the Voice of America; and the conditions were not pleasant on so many levels. The fashion these days is to talk about Health, Safety, Security and the Environment (HSSE)- well given that we were exploring for oil I can safely say that the Environment was taking a hit. As for the H, S and S; let’s just say that none of them were being met- raw sewage was being dumped close to the camp, dynamite was being used to blow things up and men who were barely more than boys were walking around with AK47’s and no fear of death. In this environment music and the escape it can bring from what surrounds you is almost essential. Where the music takes you depends on what you listen to and I discovered two bands that took me in opposite directions: I had never understood the attraction of the Doors; not that is, until I was in situation with guns, explosions and living far from home. Suddenly LA Woman (the full version) could transport me far, far from where I was. Which would typically be a good thing, except that where it took me, in my mind, was to a war zone in South East Asia where the Doors were heard for the first time. And that was not a good thing.

Taking me in the other direction- to calm, peace and a more mellow place, was Miles Davis and in particular a track called Bag’s Groove. I have said several times that The Doors came close to pushing me over the edge, but Miles Davis get pulling me back (well, him and Van Morrison). I am not sure why jazz has been able to play such a role in my life but the first jazz song that had impact in my mind was probably a track called Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I think that my father owned the 7” single and I played it a lot as a small boy. Being the contrary character that I am, I was probably attracted to it initially simply because it was in 5/4 time (and though I didn’t understand what that meant) and that sounded different. And cool. And isn’t jazz all about being cool? Sure it is.

Except that maybe I overdosed on Take Five, maybe the unusual time signature threw me off or maybe I just didn’t understand how to use rhythms, the off beat, strangeness of it all the best effect so it disappeared from my conciousness, even after the track appeared on a CD I bought. And then I saw a scene on ep. 19 of series 6 of the West Wing: Picture in your mind the scene- its a Democratic Party Gala ball in the White House. Everyone is dressed up, bright lights are creating a dazzling background and the camera is whirling around people in full party mode. The conversations are rapid, often at cross purposes but occasionally subtleties emerge that were never seen before. And in the background, in 5/4 time a clarinet, double bass, drum solo and piano are perfectly syncopating to the action evolving before our eyes.

In 4 minutes of television involving 7 separate conversations using lights, dialogue, a swirling camera, television acting of the highest level and the perfect background soundtrack I remembered why Take Five is still such groundbreaking jazz and I was completely overwhelmed by just how many components go into making a scene work the way it did. Never mind the 90 minute meeting involving a dozen or so IT geeks to work out how to pass a password to a new system, the number of people and amount of time that must have been involved in creating the West Wing is truly mind blowing. I don’t understand the complexity of 1 of the components that go together to make that scene so wonderful, and maybe if I did the beauty would be lost on me- but for right here, right now, I just love it.

20 Jun 2008

Hidden Beauty in Images

Filed under: Maguffyn — Tags: , , , — maguffyn @ 21:38 UTC

Once upon a time I used to be a geophysicist. Not a very good one, in fact I think I can lay claim to being the world’s most environmentally friendly oil explorer: I didn’t find any. I even got sent to look for oil in Saudi Arabia and managed to come up dry- now that, my friend, that takes some doing.

So, even though in the entirety of my exploration career I used more oil travelling to far flung parts of the world than I ever found when I got there, I still somehow manage to maintain accreditation with various professional geophysics organisations, including the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists, who send me a monthly magazine. Needless to say, most of the content goes far over my head (perhaps this is why I was so singularly unsuccessful at exploration?) but every now and then there is an article that makes sense, is at least half way well written (hey, I can recognise good writing, even if I find the act of creating a well written piece a little harder) and is worthy of a wider audience.

Well this article is just such a cool little piece. It shows how information can be hidden, how the traditional approaches of discovery can be effective, but sometimes you need to take an unusual tack to get significantly better results. And if you look very closely, the world can be a far, far more beautiful place than you ever imagined before.

16 Jun 2008

Hardware Profile

Filed under: Fledermaus, IT, Maguffyn — Tags: , , — maguffyn @ 18:10 UTC

I have not had time to post much (read anything) to the blog in a while- this is not because I have stopped having ideas of things, though they have slowed down- but because I have not had time to sit down and put electronic pen to paper. Additionally, now that I have plunged into the Twitter micro-blog pool it feels as though I am still updating my on-line life, even if the longer articles associated with a blog are less frequent.

So, why have I not had sufficient time? Well, as I posted before, occasionally real work gets in the way of doing the fun stuff, but a new toy has led to the inspiration to post.

The history of the computer can be traced back over 200 years to Charles Babbage and his Analytical machine, 50 years to the Bombe that helped to crack the Enigma codes, 35 years to the debut of Intel’s 8008 microprocessor or 17 years (at the time of writing) to the invention of the internet. If we look back through time the path to the ubiquity of computers seems clear, but looking forward from today there are clear differences in the vision of what computers will do and how we will use them: Tom’s Hardware is trying to decide whether or not to buy a laptop or desktop whilst MacUser has made the decision and recommends that if you only need a single computer, then that computer should probably be a laptop- but I simply reject their premise that a single computer can meet my needs. I have identified 3 use profiles for the tech aware, connected geek of today (and the hardware that I currently use to meet the profile):

  • Permanent Presence: Nokia e51

  • Portable Solution: Toshiba R500

  • Base Station: Twin screen desktop with serious sound system, top notch keyboard and bucket loads of RAM

The key thing about these profiles is that they need to work seamlessly together- information needs to by synchronised between all machines as well as needing to meet the particular profile. The synchronisation issue is why I am so interested in web apps and how they can also work offline. I want to be able to use a single storage location for all my files, have that sync whenever I need it, work off-line and not get in the way. I have worked at some large companies that have implemented this, but I get the impression that it is just hard. Too hard for me anyway, as my trials with Omnidrive, Meebo etc have proved. Anyway, getting on with the profiles:

Permanent Presence

This is the term I use for the computer that you have with you the whole time- for most people today this is a cell/mobile phone (be it ‘smart’ or not), though in the past this may have been a Personal Digital Assisstant (PDA) or even simply a filofax. I resisted carrying a mobile for several years, feeling that they were for posers, gits and tossers who liked to announce to the world that they were “Yuh, I’m on the train. I’ll be home in 20 minutes” to anyone in earshot (which would normally be the whole carriage). However, sometime this century mobile phones stopped being looked down upon and became all pervasive. Being good little computers, the phones followed Moore’s Law and increased their computing power each year, as did our ‘need’ to be connected. However, the prime use of the permanent presence machine is to read e-mail, text, basic news services and stay in contact through voice, text, brief e-mail and possibly video calls. For many people today this is a Blackberry or similar. Personally, I got stuck into Nokia many years ago, hence my preference for the e51. The ability to create content will vary by user, but for me that is where the next step up comes in…

Portable solution

This is where the situation starts to get interesting, as for many people this is the size of machine where they start to think of owning a computer. Now if you truly are set on owning a single solution then this will be a mid sized laptop, or even a large multimedia desktop replacement. But if you actually follow my advice (and the justification for it appears in the Base Station section) then the portable solution should be as portable as possible. By introducing the ability to take your compute power with you, you are already compromising on screen size, keyboard capability, mouse comfort and sound system quality. Buying a bigger laptop is not going to give you speakers as good as a set of Harman Kardons, nor is the keyboard going to be as good as a Logitech di Novo. So if the compromise has to be made and the system is not your one and only, I believe that the system should be as light and portable as possible.

Currently there are 4 real players in this sphere: 3 have been battling out for almost a year and one has come along more recently. The three old hands are Sony TZ series, Apple’s MacBook Air and Toshiba’s R500 and there was, in my mind, no clear winner; the MacBook Air is the thinnest, the R500 is the lightest and the Sony had the most capability built in- you just chose your favourite vendor of particular pose requirement (I am an old Tosh hand, and I like that lack of weight in the R500). Lenovo obviously learned from these three pretenders and came out with the X300 which is now clearly the best portable solution. So why isn’t everyone using these machines? Well, most obviously they are hideously expensive; every 50g or 1cm reduction costs more. Further these machines are only really usable when you have a 2nd machine- the advantage of a single machine is that there is no need to synchronise separate machines. If you have a docking station and simply plug the machine in, then you are using the same hard drive- hence the lack of need to sync. So the only people likely to be driving a truly portable machine are not constrained (too much) by budget, are tech aware to keep things in sync and probably like to pose a little bit with their new toy. Yup, sounds like I fit that bill 😦

Base Station

Now we get to the real justification for using multiple machines. I like twin (or more) screens. I know it is a little extravagant, but honestly once you get used to that much screen real estate, you will not be prepared to give it up. To paraphrase a quote “once you go black, you won’t go back”. I like to think that the quote was about coffee, but read into it what you will. I currently have two 21” screens giving me a desktop that is 3200*1200 pixels across; that equates to 1m * 36cm. Or as my brother put it: “That’s a piggin’ big screen!”. Now admittedly this requires a large desk, though not nearly as large as it used to be when the screens were CRTs! And there are arguments that can be made that a single 30” screen is a better solution, but not only were they not available when I bought my system, but they are even more expensive than the ultra-portable laptop. Somewhere budget has to come into it 🙂


So, if you can solve the synchronisation issues and can afford it, then using machines designed for each particular purpose is truly the best approach. And if you travel a lot and are able to justify not using the 7lb monster, your back will thank you too.

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