This is the blog of Ant Miller, senior research manager and dilettante geek at large at the BBC.
I wail moan and cuss about the challenges and fun to be found here.
These are my personal opinions, and not those of my employer. Or anyone else here for that matter.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Breakfast is Best

I'm not a morning person. I owe many thousands of apologies for the growling sneering grumbling snarls I have inflicted on family and friends in the hours around dawn- and those soon after. I am however a tremendous fan of breakfast, probably becuase it's the only thing that can retrieve me from the slough of despond that leaving sleep thrusts upon me.

However, it was only last night, when attending a dinner in honour of an excellent friend (who gave us all a scare earlier this year, and whose birthday is especially precious) it struck me that evening meals are in fact less good than breakfasts. That is to say, a truly great breakfast can be much better than a great dinner. And further, that when I look back on my favourite meals, I can very easily produce a cracking top five breakfasts and still need to make a few explicit special mentions. Breakfasts are great!

The theory is thus: a great dinner, with superb service, excellent ingredients, exquisite presentation and all the rest, is really only ever going to leave me with one sort of feeling- a generally impressed, slightly smug, overstuffed tired indulgence. There just isn't the wiggle room, the option, for it to do anything else. A dinner is, at the end of the day, at the end of the day. You eat, then slump.

A breakfast on the other hand, has a FAR larger canvas to play with; it can set the stage for the whole day, for life itself. If the setting is good, with views and a bit of a breeze, it can be a springboard to adventure. If the service is sprightly, enthusiastic and attentive, your faith in human kind is essentially restored and all the people you meet for the rest of the day benefit, not just you. It goes on- energy, balance, excitment, engagement, all of these can spring from a good breakfast, not to mention the benefits of a goodly helping of fibre.

So, what are the five best breakfasts I've had?

#5 Bacon and Maple Syrup and Pancakes, Angel Inn, Windermere
Not perhaps where you'd expect me to say the best of this sort of dish is to be found, but it is brilliant here. To be honest I've had bacon and pancakes in the US, and usually, they over do it, leaving one reeling into the morning with rather more ballast than is useful. This was spot on though. Setting is a gem too, looking down along the lake.
As a dish I'd long steered clear- bacon + sweet = wrong. But no, it's ace. Especially with a banana milkshake and a coffee.

#4 Masala Omelette, Goa
A simple curried omelette on the beach in Goa, with the salt of the spray just blowing on off the dunes and the morning sun dappling through the palms is a proper start to the day, washed down with a spicy chai.

#3 Eggs Benedict at either the Real Eating Company in Hove or at Bill's in Brighton
Both these places take an almost perverse pleasure in doing simple food incredibly well, and there is nothing to choose between their eggs benedicts- both have the eggs done to perfection, the hollandaise fresh and lush, the muffins lightly toasted just so, and the ham sourced from some valhalla for heroically tasty piggies. Pricey, but devine.

#2 Huevos Rancheros, Argyle Steakhouse, Fourseasons Aviara, Carlasbad CA
Weird venue. Wouldn't really recommend it normally, but it was part of some massive, Cloud City Bespin like complex north of San Diego where I was speaking at a conference, and the main hotel restaurant (which did a superb crab benedict (I know!)) was a bit too full of children to be tollerable. So I wandered down to the golf course for a walk in the morning and found the bar there serving breakfast. So there I sat- only customer there, with a glorious view over the greens being waited on hand and foot and provided with the greatest mexican peasant breakfast imaginable was a delightfully mind boggling way to ease into a day of California corporate excess. And a golf course without golfers is just a nice garden really.


#1 Boogaloo Diner, 22nd & Valencia, San Francisco
This one saved my life- the perfect example of all a breakfast can be- simple, served with genuine care, and beuatifully made. I entered Boogaloo with a hangover a that would have felled a Wildebeast, and left with a spring in my step and a passion for life.


And five honourable mentions:
Hard Mans Breakfast, Hicadua, Sri Lanka
Double espresso and a Rothmans cigarette in a beach bar (sadly later flattended by a tsunami)
Gut Buster, Market Diner, Brighton
Enough saturated fat to run a small powerstation, on a plate bigger than Belgium- Sausages, burger, beans, tomatoes, eggs, hash browns, fried bread, black pudding, the list goes on and on. They have tea on draft too. Fabulous. However, I've never had it for breakfast, only as a stupidly late supper.
nebulous potato thing, St Francis Fountain, 24th & York, San Francisco CA
Very very nearly as good as boogaloo, but a bit busier and more popular. Had a couple of great breakfasts here, thanks to the PWN Depot crew.
An Eagle's Breakfast
Look it up.
Rowan's Welsh Rarebit
Actually better than any of the above, but I thought I'd limit the list the breakfasts that other people might actually be able to get, but I'm afraid unless she embarks on a dramatic and unexpected career change, I and only I have been given the world's best ever breakfast. Lucky me!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Me and My Mo


And so Movember draws to it's long awaited, and yet precipitous close. For four straight weeks I've been growing the most absurd facial hair I have ever considered diplaying, and done so against all manner of insult and accusation. This tache has endured allegations of 'thiness', 'fatness', victorianism, 'Fred Dibnerism' and even, in the end, of making me look like an over fed hamster. It has iched and bothered, strained soup, and tickled, and on occasion, I must admit, has picked up a vaguely cheesy aroma, if not very vigorously and thoroughly washed. I now wash it vigorously and thoroughly. Lots.

And yet, here we are, three days and a couple of public speaking engagements away from being once more clean shaven, and I am beginning to wonder if I won't miss it. The 'Flashman' comparisons are well recieved, and I'll miss the subtle double takes of the general public. 'Yes madam' I inwardly respond, 'this is indeed the finest tache you've seen today!'.

There's still opportunity to go to the Movember page and show your appreciation, or sympathy, by making a contribution to the very decent cause of prostate cancer awareness and research.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Blogging for Auntie

This is by way of an apology and an explanation of why this blog has tended not to get many posts just lately, and yet were you to ask me to my face, I'd tell you I've been blogging like mad. And the reason is- I've launched a new BBC R&D Blog!



Last Wednesday we went live, starting off with a great post from Matthew Postgate, controller of R&D, and since then we have posted on our recent triumphs at the RTS Innovation awards, the Distribution Application Layer research team, and the Ingex project in some detail. We're busly producing loads more posts and the plan is to have at the very least two a week appearing, but ideally rather more than that.

This does take a fair bit of coordination, cajouling and general whip cracking. As I've probably mentioned ad nauseam, the R&D team at Kingswood Warren is relocating early next year, and we're now counting the days (I've lost count, 91 today I think) till we go. That move will be pretty scarey- we have a two week window when both the new base and the old are open! Submitting blog posts is often a fair way down staff members priority list, and fair play to them for that.

Getting posts out at the same time as rebuilding the complete R&D website is proving very time consuming. Hey, it's near enough 1500 pages, it takes a while! Right now our plan is to have a big public hoo har and synch that with the move to Centre House (Feb 15th 2010) but we expect a soft launch some weeks ahead of that. May even let you know here.

Next week I'm up to MCR for BeeBCamp 3 which will be great I'm sure. maybe see a few good friends up there too!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Guardian Triumphant over Carter-Ruck

RT @arusbridger Victory! #CarterRuck caves-in. No #Guardian court hearing. Media can now report Paul Farrelly's PQ about #Trafigura.

It's a good day to tweet.

Guardian vs Carter-Ruck and Trafigura Over Parliamentary Questions

Very very quickly posting this in order to join in with the mass bypassing of what appears to be a vile and heinous miss application of legal restraints over parliamentary reporting. I sincerely hope that Rusbridger and co crucify the shits of Carter-Ruck on appeal (and that the judge involved takes a goodly chunk of gardening leave too, ideally slopping around in this mess).

So what is that the Guradian have been gagged from saying?

(292409) 61 N Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.

With thanks to Nevali, Bill Thompson, and slightly grudgingly to Guido Fawkes.

And hoping like hell that every news channel in the country, online and otherwise, covers this like a virulent rash!

EDIT- After having this up live for two years I am now blocking comments on this post.  This is due to concerted attacks by Chinese spammers, either in an effort to counter any allegations against Trafigura or just homing in on a post for commercial ends.  I figure the former.  Well screw you, and screw your paymansters.  You're grubbing away at a pointless effort, and the people paying you are abject fucking scum.  One day you'll get democracy, a free press, the liberties to see the people screwing the worlds people and environment to make a yuan out of your desire to have the shiny toys you think make me and the rest of the west happy.  You can no longer comment on this post.  It's mine.  I've decided that I'll close it.  Don't like that?  Don't like the denial of liberty I'm imposing?  Sorry, perhaps you should vote or protest or something about that.  Perhaps even overthrow the government.  Trust me, it's about time.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

IBC Conference and Exhibition Reflections


I may have given a bit of a false start to my IBC coverage this year. Sadly, after the enthusiasm of the first day I found the week long event a rather draining, and truth be told, demoralising experience. It wasn't without highlights though, and I think it's only fair I give a potted account of the best and the worst of the conference and the exhibition.

OK, so, highlights: Eric Huggers keynote was really good- in fact the session was excellent with great insights from IBMs Saul Berman and the hugely entertaining Rory Sutherland of Ogilvey- Rory's speech was a master class in erudite education disguised as a joyful ramble, and the image of a McDonald's drive-through full of half naked gluttons will be with me forever! However, these three luminaries, and their able interlocutor Raymond Snoddy, were among the very few in the exhibition who appeared to be prepared down the barrel of the gun of IP delivered content.

Quick sidebar here- The Canvas demonstrations shown (just a mocked up UI in fact, but ratjer a nice one) by Erik seem to have lit a fire under those in the broadcast market who had hitherto let such ideas slide them by. Now at last, some 3 years after the BBC rolled its sleeves up and started to see how a fully joined up IPTV platform could work, the great and good of european broadcast have started the HBB-TV project. This work is good, but it's late, and though the BBC are facing fair criticism for relying on proprietary components (especially from Adobe) it's perhaps salutary to recognise that this lumbering industrial standards approach from the old guard of european broadcast technology is years behind the reinvigourated BBC approach. Having said all that OFCOM and the BBC Trust may yet mandate that an open standards based approach be taken- who knows how that would turn out!?

Across the conference the best attended sessions tended to be those with the most 'conventional' view of broadcast. This is not to say that 'conventional' is bad- I'm thinking here of the excellent in depth DVB-T2 review gave possibly one of the best insights to the incredible engineering work that's gone into developing the next generation of Freeview in High Definition- that's to say FreeviewHD- and slot it into the Digital Switch Over in UK broadcasting. (For more good introductory guides the EBU stand at IBC was excellent). For all this excellent work though, it is worth considering for a moment what wasn't at IBC....

There was a very modest mobile presence- Qualcom had a big stand, which I thought looked very quiet. Nokia had a modest stand, but Apple weren't there at all. Does that matter? It does when you think of the massive impact the iPhone has had on the way we think of people buying content. App Stores were an unseen buzz all over the show, and to think I actually heard someone, a well respected senior engineer from a major broadcaster, say without a flicker of irony that 'There are no new business models'. That sounded a lot like denial to me. (Not to his fellow panelists, who nodded sagely at this mantra.)

What clearly does matter is that this year Sony saw fit to skip the show entirely- usually they'd have had a stand covering several thousand square metres, showing off displays, cameras, broadcast and domestic kit. Their absence left a gaping hole. I think it also matters that there was no Google, no Twitter, no Yahoo, no Nintendo, no Electronic Arts, no Facebook, no computer games publishers at all. The way I see it IBC is a wake for the dominance of linear broadcast- I'll accept that most living rooms have TVs still, and that most people watch most of their TV linearly, but the days when this was the big picture, and all other forms of electronic media were fringe niches, has finally passed.

I'll go next year, briefly, and I really hope there's more of a realisation evident that TV in it's "lean-back" form is a niche in a bigger world of mobile, internet entertainment, social media, games, online movies. And what's more, that TV is better when it does recognise this- better for its engineers, better for its creatives and most importantly better for its audiences. Signs are not good though- a year ago, my esteemed collegue late of this parish, John Ousby, wrote a similar piece for the BBC internet blog, and I doubt he'd have noticed a great improvement.

Still, Amsterdam was nice.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

IBC Conference highlights- day one

Thursday at RAI for IBC, and the programme starts way too early for me to get to see. Shame, session one looked good. Then came the keynote with Roger Mosey looking at advanced ways to present sport. Would have loved to see that too, but at just that moment I got a call for help from a colleague setting up his project on the EBU stand. God project, good chap- had to go help.

What I did get to see included:
  • Thomson Grass Valley analysis of noise in HD video- very interesting because it specifically looked at High Frame Rate which the BBC has explored as an alternative to 3D for high fidelity video.
  • A presentation from NHK on a new Java based distributed home network model for interactive video based on Broadcast Markup Language (rather looking forward to digging around their stand later in the week).
  • A really interesting juxtaposision of the Sony/Sky and BBC approaches to adding 3D graphics into football and rugby coverage (rugby is harder, and only the BBC are doing that right now). The philosophy of the approaches was different, but complementary, and both presentations included great video examples.
  • A great map of the mobile marketplace and revenue streams- in such a complex business these sorts of graphical analysis are invaluable! Good work from First Partner!
Right, time I went and mingled- I want to try and get the ball rolling on an IBC UnConference/ barcamp next year. This event so needs it!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

To Amsterdam for IBC

OK, just a quicky this one- for the next week or so I'm in Amsterdam attending the largest broadcast technology show in Europe, IBC. I'll be attending as many conference sessions as I humanly can, visiting as much of the show as I can (it's colossal!) and also supporting the Avatar-M stand in Hall 7, stand A08e. This trip marks a sort of a transition- unlike NAB my responsibilities this time are not just to the one project, but to the whole of R&D in the BBC, and I'm going to try my best to find the most interesting, most transformational technologies and companies there to take the knowledge back to colleagues in the UK.

The number of BBC personnel at IBC is a sensitive subject, and I'm not going to state numbers here. However I can say that this year everyone who is going has had to fully justify their attendance, and many, like me, are doing several jobs out there. Plus, most of us are still doing the day job via the internets (I'm typing this on the train from Brussels to Amsterdam!).

Each day as and when I find cool stuff I'll be posting a few links, and hopefully images, on this blog. I'll also tweet from the various conference sessions- possibly as Meeware, or potentially as a new Twitter account I may be setting up for this sort of job- "Ant Miller BBC R&D" or "BBCResearch&Development"- tbc. All part of the KM job you see.

Through this marathon geekout I shall do my best to avoid dwelling on the fact that I am missing out on probably the best festival of the summer- The End of the Road. Terrific line up, perfect size, and it looks like the weather will be spot on too! At least Rowan's going- look out for her updates as @Rowstar and for a full review on Breakfast in Bed.

P.S. If you too are in Amsterdam for IBC (or even just chilling out in what is a superb city), direct message me on twitter or drop me an email, or even comment here, and I'd be glad to catch up.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Summer of Gnnnnr

I'm not taking much of a break this summer- the US jollies Rowan and I went on back in April were our big hols of the year, so the summer has been nose to the grindstone time. The trouble is though that is dashed difficult to get a huge amount done when everyone else is off on their jollies.

This is just a general observation- I've no idea how it gets fixed unless we return to the Victorian era practice of entire towns taking a break for the same week over the summer- Blackpool grew up on this practice, and to this day the town has a distinct atmosphere in the Liverpool week and Glasgow week.

Getting an organisation like the BBC to lock in to this sort of practice hasn't a snowball in hell's chance. Would be nice if just once a week, or even a fortnight, back in 'term time' we had 'office days', where for just one day everyone would be doing their jobs, at their desks, answering phones and emails, not doing any training courses or on team 'away days' or at conferences or on holiday and if at all possible avoiding being ill. I can imagine the productivity would be startling- we could get a months work done in a day.

Meanwhile though I feel like I have spent the summer dragging boulders uphill on my own. Gnnnnr

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My laptop is driving me insane

I'm not a designer- I have had the very great pleasure to work with designers, and engineers and scientists, and all are capable of really great things. When a designer gets it wrong though, like an architect, it is a rather more insidious outcome than either an engineer or scientist cocking up. Those last two, when their stuff doesn't work, it just doesn't happen- things, usually just don't get built. (Granted occasionally they do and people die horribly, but that fact doesn't illustrate my point well so I shall arbitrarily ignore it).

On the other hand, when a designer cocks up, they just spread misery. I have recently taken delivery of a new work laptop (another one! yes damnit, I have several laptops, but the aim with this one was to get something small and powerful enough to avoid carting two around (as I have been for months)). So I got what Siemens (don't ask) currently issue to us here at the BBC, and it is this-

The HP Elitebook 2530p.




Sweet looking thing isn't it? I got 3gig of ram and a bigger battery too, and in essential regards it has all the chops I need- good battery life, tough, lightweight, grunty and can draw pictures (driving large monitors is something it gets asked to do a lot, and transcoding video too).

It is however a cluster of niggles. As my darling wife is all too weary of hearing- 'it does annoy'.




Annoyance 1. The little light.
This was, initially, a delight. A little design touch that really pleased.? When one presses the little button next to the webcam, a tiny light pops out and illuminates the keyboard to enable hunt&peck fun in the dark. How sweet! How useful! What an utterly bloody stupid way to solve that problem, and a wasted opportunity at that!


I have big hands. Approximately how many keys are visible when I am poised to hunt and peck? Eleven- rtyu, ghj, and vbnm. Why?- BECAUSE I DON'T HAVE GLASS HANDS! There is an excellent reason why backlit keyboards are considered 'really good ideas'- they light the keys, not the fat fivesomes of sausages that waft above the keys. I don't much care to see the back of my hands at night; I do want to see the keys, SO LIGHT THE BLOODY KEYS!
Then, they take this tiny but remarkably bright light, that routinely proves its worth in illuminating human flesh, and don't think to give the hinge it's on another 70 degrees of rotation so that it could also serve to light the face of the user when using the web cam. Because that's never a problem!?!?! Why why why!? This is so obviously an element that has had some design thought go into it- how on earth could it have ended up producing such a powerfully unfulfilling experience I HATE THE LITTLE LIGHT! It promised so much, it does so little, and what it does is rubbish. But because it's such a cute idea, I always use it and it always drives me up the bloody wall! Argh! Driving me mad!

Annoyance 2. The scratch resistant lid.
Mmm, shiny metal, mmm, brushed alloy, nice. I might hold off stickering you cos your so purdy. Oh damn, Siemens have already stickered you (philistines!).



Ah well , I'll keep you safe and purdy, slip into my bag and then... WHAT THE?!*&&?>


This is by no means a scratch resistant- it is rather a foil soft canvas, a field upon which to pirouette creatively, and leave ones mark. For you see these scratches were made by laying the powerbrick upon the surface- THE POWER BRICK- as if that would never go near the casing!?!

Annoyance 3. The power brick.
Which is just shit. Not bad, not wrong, not lethal. In it's defence it's small, unassuming subtle, but quite clearly nobody at HP has so much as looked at this non-entity since forever- and the result is undesign. The result is annoying tangles of wire, scratched lappy lids (see above, about which I AM STILL FUMING!), and a good three minutes of grief every time one unpacks to set up. Why HP? Why do you not realise what a tedious ball ache you are foisting on us? I unpack the laptop twice a day, maybe six days a week. For five minutes a day, half an hour a week, one whole solid day a year I faff with your utterly apathetic approach to power supplies. It's a thing I buy from you- BLOODY DESIGN IT YOU LAZY SODS! Oh, I'm sorry, was this feeble flap of Velcro your idea of a design for managing cables? Hmm? WRONG!

Annoyance 4. The nipple.
Why?? I mean really, the nipple is rubbish- always was. As soon as the track pad came along we all breathed a huge sigh of relief, uncramped our hands and got on with life. And this isn't even a good one. So why? It's just pathetic. Drop it.


Annoyance 5. The trackpad.
Oh, maybe this is why: You can't design track pads can you? You've properly stuffed this one up. Those buttons need a bar between them and the pad, especially if you dome their backs otherwise.... oh, yes this happens. Hard to explain in text, but basically whenever you touch a trackpad button, the pointer jumps 2 inches up or down, because your thumb brushes the pad, creating a second contact and stuffing up the pointer. So now it takes twice as long to move anything, and I routinely misfile emails and folders. You pillocks- it's not like this is the first laptop with a pad- did you not SEE that every other pad has a safety bar? DID YOU NOT TEST!?!



Annoyance 6. the '1' key.
Ok just a little one this, but it's smaller than all the other keys. Why? I know the number is smaller- I don't need to be reminded. Did you just run out of space? What? It doesn't actually matter- it doesn't affect the usage of the keyboard (which is, in all honesty, very mediocre- the Dell XPS m1330 I'm moving off has a far nicer keyboard) but it does look shit. I mean really really compromised and nasty and shit. And like you don't care.



Annoyance 7. The lid latch.
Is this really the best you can do- after decades of designing laptops- a round peg?? With an all around latch grove?? Which only latches on one side?? That sticks out of the lid ALL the time?? and doesn't even latch shut properly 1 time in 5?? It fits the pattern, I'll give you that- the half-baked awfulness of it. It's actually quite well made too- just a really really rubbish idea that doesn't work.

Annoyance 8. The volume control.
Ok, you're not the only ones to get this wrong- touch sensitive buttons for specific functions on a laptop are a pet hate of mine, and everybody does it. The only laptop I have with a decent volume control is the Alienware Aurora M9700 (an incredible beast- I can't actually carry it any distance without damaging myself though) which has a little dial- a physical rheostat or some such, actually controlling the volume of the output amp. It's brilliant. I can turn it down before I turn it on, and it works with any and all software and isn't slowed by software multithreading. HP, your solution sucks.



Your slider thing has an AWFUL mode of interaction- it took me ages to figure out I have to slide my finger along, and no two slides have the same effect. Volume control is trial and error- deafening error- every time. For the record- the Dell also has shitty touch sensitive volume buttons and the Alienware had some other functions with the same type of button, which I had to deactivate. People- touch sensitive is rubbish. And we all know you put them on because they are cheap. Stop being so obviously cheap. It's nasty. And that is HP's shtick.



In conclusion then, this is a good laptop wrapped in a shell of unfeasibly annoying design disasters, and drags down HP's reputation every time I look at it. I'll soldier on with it- I have to, and if truth be told it is good enough in many many ways, but it will gnaw at my soul every day. If I go postal, you'll all know why!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

And the Future Coalesces

For quite a while now the future home of BBC R&D has been in the balance. Kingswood Warren has rung to the sound of jolly and not so jolly engineers for 60 years, but the decision was made to sell it off some years ago, and the ink dried on that deal in 2008- we have to leave by March 2010 at the latest.

Sad though it will be to leave behind the acres of fields, the woods, the deer and the delightful architecture, the greatest stress has been getting to grips with the real practicalities of getting a new base of opperations sorted out. Facilities of the type needed to support a 21st century research lab don't come cheap, or quick, so a future home needed sorting out and urgently.

All this is happining against the background of shifting a significant proportion of research to the north west of course. In that area there has been greater reason to be optimistic- Media City development is continuing apace (I was up there last month, and the buildings are hurtling up). Even before we occupy the brand new space on Salford Quays, the R&D dept has secured an excellent interim lab space on the current Oxford Road campus, current home of BBC Manchester. In fact it looks like there's going to be sufficient staff relocating to that new lab to form a good core- a 'critical mass'- for the future of the team there. Rowan De Pomerai is doing an excellent series of posts as he works on the spec for the interim and long term establishments up there (plus occasional diversions explaining how he comes to be slightly the worse for ware- it's not all work work work up there!), and of course Ian Forrester is blogging on that work from the BBC Backstage and his own personal points of view.

Now at last we have reason to be optimistic in the South too, as last week the deal was signed off to give us a new lab in London. Various options have been explored- green field sites near Kingswood, industrial units near Gatwick, and BBC locations across London and the south east were assessed. The final choice is Centre House, in the White City area(just behind the tube in fact- and from where you get this stunning view of Television centre (which interestingly, and slightly alarmingly, has just been awarded graded 2 listing status)).

Granted, Centre House is not the most delightful architectural gem of these fair isles. Nor it is nestled charmingly in the twee woods of some arboral vale. On the other hand it is smack bang in the middle of the corporation we are here to serve and from which we have for too long been a distant and slightly detatched peripheral, and it's all ours.

That last point is crucial- R&D does things differently to the rest of the BBC- we try and break stuff, we try stuff that hasn't been done before, that can't be done right now. In our current buildings we regularly completely repurpose huge rooms. We build temprary data centres, transmission suites and edit facilities- in the standard central support BBC this would lead to an impossible train wreck of corporate bureacracy, policy conflicts and the costs would be appaling. In our gaff, we do what we need to do to get the job done.

So, as of Thursday, Centre House is a hard hat zone- before the builders get to work though we're off on a quick recce- if I get good shots I'll flickr them!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Disgusted of Kemptown

I do sometimes indulge in a little bit of political letter writing- it's good for the spleen I believe. There was a post on the local tory blog that I picked up via twitter, and it pissed me right off, so I've written to the local tories. And this is what I said....

Dear Sir or Madam,

It has come to my attention that the Brighton Tory web site is currently publishing a story casting aspertions upon the probity of the Green MEP for the south east region, Ms Caroline Lucas. The article (http://www.brightonandhoveconservatives.com/news/61/) seeks to equate the high costs of administration that Ms Lucas's office runs is in some way analogous to the indiscriminate largess indulged in by MPs of all parties at Westminster, and seeks further to imply that her assertion of honesty and of being distinct from the rampant "troughing" of Westminster representatives is in some way "disingenuous".

It's my belief as an independent and non-aligned voter, that you are being rather "disingenuous" yourselves. Ms Lucas's expnses seem to me to be well justified in her role as a representative for a large swathe of England, and one of the few representatives the many thousands of British Green voters have in Europe. I understand that she is an active member of many committees, is right at the core of the European coalition of Green parties, and I can personally testify to her excellent communication with constituents like myself. In fact, in this last regard, she and her staff are streets ahead of your own parties incapability to so much as respond to directly submitted requests and comments by email to representatives. In short, she works very hard, and does a damn site better job that your sorry lot.

At a time when the Tories in Europe are sidling up to the worryingly reactionary fringe parties, instead of being at the heart of European centre right parties, I think it's high time you took a long hard look at your own policies, process and responsibilities to your constituents. As a party you are thoroughly tarred with the Westminster expenses scandal- you are in fact corrupt, and recognised as such. Simply spitting false allegations against your opponents does nothing for you or for the level of political debate.

I have take the opportunity to copy this letter in to the Tory representatives in the European Parliament- my hope is that you'll all take this opportunity to reconsider this approach to the politics of muck spreading.

Yours in some considerable disgust,

Ant Miller


This is going to:
carolinelucas@greenmeps.org.uk, daniel.hannan@europarl.europa.eu, office@nirjdeva.com, richardjames.ashworth@europarl.europa.eu

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Update in the Pro stuff

A quick update on the last post- the process of setting up the blog and getting editorial sign off is underway, but not by any means completed. This also means of course that there remains plenty of opportunity for you gentle readers- yes, both of you- to let me know what sort of thing you'd like us to put on the blog.

So, point us at great other blogs, give us leading topics to explore, pose us perculiar and intriguing questions, or just ask us straight forward questions. I cannot promise that the new blog will be able to address everything, but your queries will help us set the right tone. And if I can't answer there, I might be able to here.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Taking Things Pro

This is almost one of those blog posts one shouldn't write- as in, one that you write because you haven't written one for ages. Kind of a 'contractual obligation' blog post. Except it isn't really, I have no obligation to post. Not yet. Will soon.

Yes, that’s right, I might soon be blogging professionally, and at that point this whole lovely friendly process of punting my thoughts out to be ignored by the world will become a proper millstone. Or a more disciplined and hence efficient process.

The blog we’re talking about is a proposed BBC R&D one, to sit alongside the excellent efforts of the BBC RAD blog, the Radio Labs, Journalism Labs and the Internet blog itself, not to mention the Backstage blog. All this public relaying of information can seem a little overwhelming, but on the other hand, there’s a lot of BBC and even more public, so a profusion of communication is to be expected, and perhaps encouraged.

NOTA BENE: Extensive internal BBC review and approval is required before this goes ahead, so it's far from a done deal.

Right now we are plotting out the first few months of posting and trying to ensure we get a good spread of coverage and aim at the right level for our interested parties. Some people will be generally interested in what we’re up to, but not particularly technically minded, others will be fellow engineers and broadcast specialists fascinated by our work’s most technical elements- pitching at the right level for all will be a challenge. And that’s before we get into the confidentiality/ patent protection/ intellectual property management tangles of what we can and can’t talk about.

The R&D blog will initially sit on its own page like other blogs, but before too long it will form a core element of a refreshed public web presence for the department. We’re finishing up the initial requirements at the moment, with help from the lovely people at Howell Wong Costello, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Rain Ashford for her tremendous efforts to get this up and running. Rain will soon be heading back to BBC Learning after a year on Backstage and in R&D and we’re sorry to be loosing her- Cheers mi dear! Rain also produced much of the R&D TV output, including the whole of the Maker Faire segment in the latest edition, for which we're very grateful.

AAaaaand finally, just because I think a blog post is better with a picture, here’s something I knocked up tonight to stick on our office door, because I was bored with the usual office layout diagrams. Created in Lego Digital Designer. Go play


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Trying Prezi at Thinking Digital


Whilst Alex was polishing off what turned out to be an excellent presentation for the afternoon session at Thinking Digital, I struggled on with Prezi . This is a fascinating tool for creating flash based presentations, but I think I need a good deal more practice with it, and a lot more design nous, in order to do presentations that actually look good rather than just weird. It's also quite easy to accidentally get things in the wrong order, and it's ironically quite hard to get an over view of the whole presentation and be sure you've included all you want to (I left out my flickr CC attributions! Web Crime!). And of course like any new toy it's an utter time sink- eating up perhaps eight hours to rehash a presentation I mostly had already got prepared and written an up and have already given a dozen times or more. Still, I will probably persist for a little while longer, and may even splurge on the stand alone version.


The free version is fully functional but you have to be online to use it. In Newcastle free street wifi is currently very widely available (though I'm not sure that'll last forever) and every venue we hung out in was similarly endowed, but on the train up the onboard wifi did flake out from time to time. Side note on the wifi, I shouldn't be churlish, especially not on the free wifi in standard on national express, but its one of those things that quickly evolves from delighting by it's very existence into annoying by it's imperfection (and I suspect I am peculiarly quick in moving things across these categories myself).

Being able to work offline would be a bonus with my commuting needs, but I'm not sure the branding freedom you also pay to get is actually worth it. OK, I get annoyed with D.O.G.s as much as the next person, but actually, using something this new and different it's helpful right now to have a little flag in the corner of the screen so people can see what I'm using- half the questions after my presentation were along the lines 'how did you do that- what software was it?' and I'm sure it would have been more if I hadn't pointed out the Prezi logo on screen.

This brings me in a round about way to the question of whether it worked, as in, did people get the message? In essence, I think it did work ok. My audience seemed attentive if not exactly enraptured, and I got a laugh and a couple of chuckles from three of the five humour points in the talk. It was a 15 minute slot at the end of a long (and late running) session- I was sixth of six presentations, and I was about two hours into the program as it ran. That’s not to say it was a hard crowd at all- they were switched on, all paying, and very intelligent and engaged, and all the other presenters had been excellent, entertaining and often profoundly motivational. So in all this, my tale of a BBC Micro for the 21st Century, as told through a spinny flash animation with a few pictures and a short film clip, worked well.

Another quick sidebar- in the end I didn't embed the video. This is because I only wanted to play a short part of the overall file, and I didn't have the kit handy to edit it down. Putting the whole clip into Prezi, online, would have turned it into a huge file and radically slowed down the whole save and download process. I think, if you're going to embed video, you need proper edit (and transcode) handy, and it's going to be easier to use the stand alone version of the software.

On stage I found it a very different experience to 'drive' compared with the way I usually use PowerPoint. In spite of it being a graphical 'look', the labourious online upload, especially on a flakey web link, meant that I ended up with a predominantly 'texty' rather than picturey presentation. All those text elements, instead of sitting in big chunks per slide, had their own, individual triggers and screens, so the talk bounced along with a new movement (and me clicking it) every 30 seconds or so. And then, when I did 'pop out' into one of my 3 minute rants, that seems a bit less organic to the whole piece (at least to me). I guess I'm just very used to (and bored with) powerpoint- anything else is going to take time to learn, and until I crack it, it's going to be intrucive into the presentations, and the creative process.

Love it though!

Blinking Digital

To my great shame I only spent a half day at this year's Thinking Digital conference, Herb Kim's intellectual gymkhana on the banks of the Tyne. I am profoundly grateful to have been able to join his role call of luminaries for the one afternoon and for the dinner too though.

I actually turned up a little early for the event so spent the morning trying to polish off my presentation at the cafe at Baltic in the sparkling company of Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, co-founder and CEO of Tinker.it. Alex is a profoundly cool and intelligent person, and she's probably forgotten more about the people and places around the digital culture in the UK, US and Canada than I will ever know, and with Tinker.it I think she and her colleagues are making a real positive difference to the world today. I think, hope, this is being recognised- keep a look out for more about Tinker.it on the BBC's technology web site. Whilst Alex was polishing off what turned out to be an excellent presentation for the afternoon session, I struggled on with Prezi (a quick overview in another blog post).

Thence to the Live Theatre to register, and meet our fellow presenters for the afternoon session. The first session was streamed, with Social Media in the main theatre, Practical Wisdom back over at Baltic, and The DIY Gadget session upstairs in the Live Theatre, hosted by the BBC's own Ian Forrester, and with yours truly one of the six presenters.

My fellow presenters are an excellent bunch:

  • Alex I've already mentioned- she gave a great overview of Arduino, and her company's role in it, and ran through a load of the coolest projects they're working on, plus giving an excellent socio-philosophical grounding to the importance of the technology.
  • Adrian McEwen of MCQN ran through more of the hacker projects he's been working on, including a live demonstration of the bubbleduino, which was reacting live to tweets of the event by spattering our guest of honour with detergent (he took that very well).
  • Richard, Stuart and Dave of Jam Jar Collective- aka the Friispray crew- then gave a brilliantly energetic three hander presentation of their project, giving a massive tip 'o the hat to Johnny Cheung Lee, the previously mentioned guest of honour- I think they were a little nervous that their hero was sat front and centre in the audience (slightly spattered with detergent). I've seen friispray a few months ago, and it's great to see not only how they're developing the technology, but also using it in really important and original contexts; club nights are fun, sure, but in education environments for kids with learning difficulties their tech can be a transformative and important step forward, making a very real difference.
  • Andy Huntingdon then followed with a spectacular and pretty wonderfully noisy demonstration of his projects that use low power embedded computing to turn everyday objects into rhythm sequencers. His tappity boxes have a great sense of the dramatic built in- the three second lag makes every use an act of knife edge anticipation.
  • Ken Banks then presented his revolutionary SMS hub software, FrontlineSMS- I mean revolutionary very specifically. Ken's software allows anyone with a phone and a pc to set up a powerfull SMS communications hub, and it's being used around the globe to dramatic, life changing, culturally and politically significant ends. It is the engine of revolution in many areas, and saves lives because it allows communication and peaceful activism to be more powerful than riot and violence. He's such a sweet guy too- genuinely moved by the way that people worldwide have run with the tools he's made and crafted a better future for themselves and others.
  • Me- I did the usual schtick about a BBC Micro for the 21st century- reviewing the old micro, how and why it had come about, and then exploring what the modern, equivalent challenges are, and then exploring the whole culture of makery hackery, the culture my co-speakers had been propounding, to see how today, the best way to acheive analogous goals would probably be to aly ourselves closely with all these guys, to support them, help them and foster a wider cultural uptake of their ethos. (One day I'll do a post about that!)
After our presentations Ian interviewed Johnny and they explored the role of the 4 minute video clip, properly, but not 'over' produced, as a great tool for sharing ideas. I'm looking forward to the video from that chat, and Thursday's presentation, as I think there's stuff for us in R&D to learn there.

Anyway, all in all a great session- thanks so much to Herb, the theatre staff, and all the Thinking Digital crew. That night's dinner was mind blowing too- but that's for another post!

Friday, May 08, 2009

On Having Finished Anathem




I very rarely post about books- largely because I read such a shamefully small number of them. For some reason about three years ago I put down a book about half way through, and found everything difficult to get into since. For the next year I only read newspapers, magazines and the occasional graphic novel (best one's I read then, and they were great, were Red Son, Wanted (not bothered with the film, it was blatantly miss cast) and Top10 (which was genius in the Steve Bochco mould)). This Christmas past though I got a few books, and amongst them was Anathem, the staggeringly long tome from Neal Stephenson- a Sci Fi author who appears to be accruing 'importance'.

To limber up as it were, I had a read of Greg Egan's Diaspora- a terrifically exciting and heavily intelligent book, packed full of complex ideas of the fundamental nature of humanity, the self, and the mathematical wonders of this and other universes. Now, Egan’s work has been recommended to me by a few people over the years- all of whom I have recognised as being significantly cleverer than me, and wall of whom have raved not just about his eminently readable prose and nicely rounded characters, but also about the truly challenging intellectual leaps he invited his readers to attempt.

Diaspora delivered on all these counts, and many more, and left me vaguely euphoric, as if the hard thinking had burned a few extra calories- I’m not a hard core exercise junkie AT ALL, but if a marathon runner feels something akin to this buzz after a long jog, then I can kind of see the point.

So there we are, I’ve got my head around parallel universes, complex multidimensional visualisations, and virtual manifolds of indeterminate dimensionality.Now to Anathem.Well, soon to Anathem.

I have already read one Stephenson book by the way- I read Snow Crash, one of his early works perhaps a decade ago.I recall some really striking scenes from that one, some great ideas, and overall that it was a rollicking good read, if a little rough around the edges (did it really have a main character called ‘Hero Protagonist’ or did I dream that?).Did it blow my mind? Not really- it was good, but Vurt, which I think appeared at about the same time was in many ways a more startling book, with a better story and characterisation driving it along below the surface.

So at last, I decide to pick up the 937 pages of Anathem, and dive into the world(s) of Arbre, as seen through the eyes of young Raz. And what a delightful world it is- full of idealised conceptions of what academia might be, ought to be, with beautiful concepts of what science (or praxis, which isn’t quite science) could carefully, frugally, deliver in terms of advanced physics and biology (and something else!) over the fullness of time, if left apart from the vicitudes of the mundane, banal considerations of commerce, government, politics and other such base concerns. In fact Stephenson manages to conjure up a world almost completely devoid of the lesser aspects of human nature.

He suggests gently over the course of the novel that this might in fact be the ‘best of all possible worlds’, and indeed the revelation of the Panglosian mechanism is perhaps the most crucial element of the tale being told. Sadly I must report that the essentially nebulous way that Stephenson treats this core idea means that the book is essentially unfulfilling. Though many wonderfully complex ideas from across a wide range of science, mathematics and philosophy are brilliantly expounded, this core idea, this mysterious ‘praxis’ remains both utterly essential for the book to make any sense at all, and utterly undefined. In fact the idea itself almost unravels the very idea that there is any story to tell at all.

Now, it’s only fair to point out that my reading of the book came in distinct chunks, all of which had their own ‘flavour’ to me. I got through the first 670 pages or so in a week and a bit, and loved every minute- I strongly recall enjoying this part of the book so much that I felt that I’d quite happily read another thousand pages or more. The adventures were so wild, the ideas so delightful, the personalities given such space to roam, to expand and find their own character, that I felt that this was the sort of reading I could day in, day out without end. However, the words then ran out. Literally.

There was a printing error, and every other pair of pages between page 650 to 720 was blank- I did try and see if the was some sort of pattern to the error (a Fibonacci sequence perhaps?) but no; apparently the UK hardbacks were prone to printing errors, so I took it into Waterston’s, who ordered a replacement. So, a hiatus, and what to fill it with?

Luckily a colleague at work (the estimable Mr Mat Hammond) lent me the Greg Egan collection of stories, Axiomatic. That was a profoundly unsettling and eye opening collection, just the ticket to keep me in mental flux and keen enough for more Anathem- perhaps in fact, it rather raised the bar.

When I finally received my replacement copy of Anathem I actually found the pace of the Stephenson book to be somewhat sluggish, compared to how I remembered it. Perhaps it’s the short story/ novel switch – if often feels like a bad gear change, but I did feel that I’d picked up a book that after 650 pages had lost a bit of impetus. So anyway I ploughed on, generally enjoying the tale being told (though harbouring some growing concerns over the concepts, and even some of the science behind the ideas) until around about page 815.

By that point the pace had picked up very nicely, and some of the more esoteric ideas about the nature of reality and cognition (including a clever interjection on the nature of spam, information and noise) were being integrated well into the plot. Then I went on a work holiday trip for a couple of weeks, to Vegas and San Francisco- that was great- blogged about elsewhere. I didn’t take the book, as a kilo of paper for 55 pages of story seemed excessive on a trip with at least four different changes of base. Those 55 pages were in the back of my mind for quite a bit of those two weeks- how would the ends tie up? Would anyone survive? What were the XXXs actually doing? Could XXXs really XXX XXX? I got back, read 55 pages, and felt utterly let down.

No spoilers here- it’s a great book for 815 of 870 pages, and for all I know, if you don’t take a break, you can rattle through to the end with no sense of aching hollowness or crushing disappointment. I just can’t help feeling that he was really enjoying writing this, and the editors lent on him to get it finished. My problem is that just at the point in the story when clarrity and good storytelling could go hand in hand to make crystal clear the outcome and the fates of all the characters I'd grown close too, he uses the most oblique of conceptual slights of hand to leave much of the tale untold. Or rather, over told.

The final scenes were perhaps an attempt to round things out nicely, to give a happily ever after to the grand epic, but again this seemed hollow and frankly fruitless. If this is truely the best of all possible worlds, then the best of all possible stories lies elsewhere in the multiverse.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

After Vegas

Just a quick post to recap on where I've been for the last week or so- since leaving Vegas (oh blessed wings of escape!) I've been on the west coast, San Francisco and Marin County north of there. it's been brilliant- Rowan flew out to join me and we spent a fabulous week enjoying the people and places of this amazing area.

SF is a tremendously welcoming and endlessly fascinating city, and my first night there was at 4600 Square Foot of RAD a.k.a. the Pwndepot- a converted car body shop on 15th street where you can, for a modest fee, rent a spare bed and join their world of downtown cool. Guys thank you for a tremendous welcome and a hugely entertaining evening and brunch. There really is very little in this world as fabulous as being introduced to a new town by people who live there and love it- a great start! Brendan, Lisa, Preston, Laura, Steve, Mike, Matthew everyone- thanks (especially for sharing the birthday cake- what WAS that made of?).

After one night in the world of PWN, I went to pick up our car, and the very nice lady at the AVIS desk at SFO did me a sweet deal- initially I'd just booked (at a really low price) an intermediate car. For some reason booking Avis in the UK is much cheaper than using a US site, so it was really cheap. Then she says that for $15 I can have a Nissan 350 ZX convertible! A bonafide sports car- a cheap porsche! Damn was that amazing, and for fifteen minutes while I tried to fit in my luggage it looked great. However, the boot is a bit smaller than a paperback book, so with broken heart I went back to the desk. Ended up with an Altima 2.5 s coupe which was ace (but no V6 rear wheel drive soft top glory, ah well).

I collected Rowan after quickly getting used to driving a wrong hand drive automatic sports car on the wrong side of the road (fun on those cliff top routes!) and we headed into town for a quick meal at Walzwerk, San Francisco's premier East German restaurant, and then sped (at a responsible 55mph) over the now dark Golden Gate Bridge to start our Marin break together...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Meanwhile, Back at the BBC...

Vegas is behind me (best place for it) and I'm writing this from the most wonderfully hospitable coop project cum hostel in San Francisco, but that's not what this is about! While I swan about on jollies my esteemed colleagues Rowena Goldman and Brendan Crowther are putting together a fantastic showcase of research for tomorrow.

The BBC and the AHRC have been co funding a swathe of research projects looking at all manner of areas: community, learning journeys, accessibility, fan behaviour, user generated content and virtual worlds. Mondays event is being promoted on their blog here. There may even be a couple of tickets left so take a look if you're interested (you should be!).

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Blah Vegas

Perhaps it's because I've spent most of the last week in a trade show in a collosal exhibition hall, and only really seen that and the hotel I'm staying in (the perfectly civilised and quiet Marriott Fairfield Inn) but I am very underwhelmed by Vegas. Today, rather than take the excellent advice of many good friends, I decided to explore 'the Strip'- not a good idea.

I grew up just down the road from Blackpool, and though in terms of scale and expense, this place is an utterly different order of magnitude, they are essentially of a piece. The best of Vegas has fabulous design, lustrous materials, impeccable service and quality- but it's all product, and built to squeeze the marks just as much as the 'kiss me quick' hats on the Golden Mile. And believe me, they squeeze them hard- drinks are typically $10, shows run to $100 per seat, and everyone wants big tips and will tell you so(including the surly and frankly rubbish taxi drivers).

I'll come back if the opportunity arrises- the NAB show really is an excellent showcase for the broadcast industry and I wish I'd been able to get away from our busy stand to see more of the conference. Our trip out this time was focussed on the AVATAR-m project, the one I posted about a few weeks ago. We had two complete stacks running, demonstrating archive management linked into edit capability (getting that running was a close run thing!) and at the show we got a great response, with interest from a wide range of potential users and development partners.

Next time though, if I have any time away from the show at all, I'll head for the hills.

P.S. Rob is doing really well- we're all hoping for the very best, and signs so far are promising. I'm really looking forward to getting back and seeing how he's getting on to be honest.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A couple of requests

Tough one to write this, but I think it needs doing. Over a year ago Rowan, my wonderful wife, was in a bicycle accident and broke her jaw really badly- I feel woozy just thinking of the pain she endured so magnificently, and I'm so grateful to fate, the universe and everything, that she has made such a great recovery. Her cycle helmet saved her life, and for that I am grateful more than words can say.

Last week a very very good friend of mine took a tumble and wasn't wearing a helmet, and we're all now praying, hoping, making secret desperate deals with the fates in the profound wish that he makes it back to us from his current unconcious state. To be honest I didn't know how lucky we'd been until this weekend just gone. Rob's family, his partner, her family, all of Rob's friends and colleagues, we are just distraught with concern for our dear friend, and I know that if it hadn't been for Rowan's bike helmet I'd have been going through the same or worse eighteen months ago.

If you can spare a moment for Rob and Sarah in your thoughts I know they'd appreciate all the positivity you can spare- he's a strong guy, with a tremendous love for life and we're sure he'll make it back, but he's definately been up to the edge with this one.

And please, wear a helmet next time you're out on your bike, skateboard or blades or whatever. Please.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

My Perfect Moleskine

Thanks to @Nachojammers, my good friend of manchester and sussex uni days, I have been pointed at the Moleskine site, which is ace. And it turns out my dream format (Quadrille, psuedo A5 portrait) does in fact exist, in spite of me never having found it in Foyles or Pen to Paper(where I always seem to go Moleskine hunting).

Squared Notebook - Large

Yay! Whoot etc.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Refocusing on the Future

In the last week or so the R&D department has laid its plans for the future out in some detail, at least internally. The intention is that by the beginning of April we will have a solid 'workplan' for the next year or so, and will begin a new, regular cycle of quarterly review, and twice annual reassesment.

The first cycle of assesment of projects, and the general reorganisation that has followed, has been pretty radical. Overall we have decided to end 51 out of 90 current R&D projects. Over the next three to six months the research effort within the BBC will be wound down, and documentation, software hardware and other materials will be collated, archived and, where suitable, published to our colleagues and in some cases the wider world.

This doesn't mean that the projects come to a dead stop though- for instance the Dirac effort will go through a full certification process, and will continue to be developed for key applications, such as archival file formats, but it looks like the focus will shift away from formal research.

At the same time as some long running efforts have been marked to conclude (or transition into development), five more projects proposed by R&D staff have been given the green light, and another eight requested by the business are to begin- so it's not all about 'endings'. Plus, and for me most importantly, we are shaking up the structure. Now, instead of the traditional 'portfolios' we are having 'sections'- seven of them in four key areas. And one of those sections is explicitly focussed on archive work, and includes all the previously distributed (and slightly 'cinderalla') Archive R&D effort. Whoot!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Big Archive Project

Very very occasionaly i may have alluded to a 'day job' taking up some time, and being tricky to work around, and seeing as this role is rather 'peaking' at the moment in terms of its demands it warrants a little bit of visibility.

The project is called AVATAR-M, and it's a uk government part funded R&D project in which the BBC, and partners, are investigating large scale audio visual archival. There's a wide range of technology being explored- Dirac is being used as a platform for developing archival optimised video file formats, there's software to plan video storage needs over time, and we're building demonstrators of new sorts of disk storage systems.

All the effort is coming to a head at the moment as we prepare for a week of demonstrations at the NAB show in Las Vegas, from the 19th to the 24th of April. Umm, we have a web site on the way, and a stand all booked, with a stand number and everything, but here I am blogging from my garden and they're just not to hand, sorry. I'll update this inthe week.

Anyway, what's the current flurry of activity? Well, we're populating these humongous storage devices currently being constructed at a secret facility on the south coast with huge amounts of HD video- not in Dirac yet, that'll follow in a few months. A pair of these machines (jokingly refered to as portable storage devices- they weight 200KG+!) will sit on the stand happily munching several dozen terabytes of video all day. Excitingly for me, we're also going to demonstrate the kit hooked up to 'broadcast typical' edit facilities- so I get to be trained up in Final Cut Pro in a couple of weeks so we can show this capability on the stand. We've even got some very nice Mac kit to hook it all together.

At the same time, we're shooting a video to show on the stand and to distribute. We're working with Milo creative on this and they're doing some tremendously exciting and original stuff for us. All the principle photography has been done against chromakey backgrounds, and the concepts for the video are brilliant! We've also been lucky enogh to get Tony Ageh, the BBC's Controller of Archive Development to appear on screen to open the film- the picture here shows him in TC10 last week shooting with the guys from MILO, and Reece De Ville from our internal comms team.

So all in all this project has plenty to keep me busy. Upshot being that as soon as the Vegas demos are done and dusted, I'm taking a week off and driving to San Francisco, where Rowan and I shall chill out and destress- I can hardly wait!

Monday, March 16, 2009

We went, we saw, we made

Our team is making it back into work today a little fragile, but thoroughly elated that we were able to be a part of the spectacular inaugural Maker Faire UK. The new BBCWeatherbot (not to be confused with the IRC bot one ) made a couple of very well recieved appearances at the end of Sunday's show- exploring a Tony Hart style hand drawn giant map of the UK, and diplaying the weather at various locations. Video is being furiously logged and sorted for editing now, and I hope to have a few little bits online in the next few days.

I'd like to thank everyone who put their heart and soul into what was a fabulous event, for exhibitors and I hope the public. For us at the BBC R&D it was a rare opportunity to engage with a terrifically broad range of our audiences- if you were one of those who came and said hi, thanks! We hope to be able to come to more such events (we hope there are more such events) in future.

In the meantime, feast your eyes on the flickr pool for the event, and see the videos that are already popping up on Youtube.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

nixie_tubes


nixie_tubes, originally uploaded by meeware1.

I just love nixie tubes. And this guys sells single tube clock kits. I think I buy one today.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Makers in Brighton


circuskinetica1, originally uploaded by meeware1.

Today Row and I took a leisurely stroll across town for lunch at the Sanctuary (top little cafe and chill out space). Then we decided to check out a little art exhibition in the old boiler room of Embassy Court.

As we approached the gallery the way was crowded with glorious articulated geegaws, seemingly hewn from the sort of scrap that litters the dereliuct corners of town.

Inside the magical exhibition continued and there were some extraordinary musical sculptures too.

The guys behind the bizarre and magical windmill devices can be found at Circus Kinetica and I'm very keen to encourage them to come along to a Maker Faire at some stage.

Also very worthy of mention is the guy who is the main reason we ewent along at all- the very excellent and not at all short James Beasley- was doing live custom embroidery. Drawing quite a crowd too! James's work can be found at Alias Everything.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Archive Projects 'Flocking'- Timelines for All?

From time to time I realise that there is a tidal system at work behind the great institutions of this country and the wider world- it's not just economic cycles, though that's clearly a major factor, but also the social, the technical, and the political. At the moment this seems to be leading to a general resurgence in research into archives, and in particular, public access to them.

In the last week I've seen several completely unrelated demos and discussions of projects that seek to present harmonious, integrated and user friendly interfaces to a wide range of disparate archive assets, and what is striking is the congruence of 'vision' of the user proposition. Timelines! It's all about timelines!

As it goes the BBC has some pretty groovy timelines in service, but by and large these are exquisitly hand crafted pieces of digital interactive animation. The next generation of tools are going to have to give that same slick and accessible interface, but to widely heterogenous assets, sometimes from widely different sources! A timeline of the the next generation will need to provide access, meaningful access, to resources from across a broad federated archive, and include all manner of objects, including text, images, video and even 3d models for manipulation and exploration.

Within the BBC this is beginning to stretch beyond the relatively simple domain of linking web resources, into exploring how we can make the broad sweep of our online offering 'time taggable'. We are also contributing to JISC funded projects exploring how assets from us can be combined with others from archies, libraries and academic collections across the UK can be combined. This project is not universally welcomed- there have been objections to the threat of the BBC archive overwhelming other collections. We recognise these concerns and our current efforts in partnerships are very much focussed on bringing benefit to our fellow partners, and avoiding crowding out others. For one thing, we hope to help pioneer tools and technologies that will be then available to smaller archives for lower cost, because we and other 'big hitters' a
have made the initial research investment for the benefit of all.

For myself I do love a good timeline, but I do fear that the smoothness and accesibility of a graphical user interface is often at the expense of it's flexibility and power. Having said that- Gapminder demonstrates that power, flexibiliuty and beauty can be found together, if a clear idea of the user is maintained.

One last link: check out this Smashing magazine review of top graphical interface examples for Gapminder, BBC History and many more.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

beebcamp2


beebcamp2, originally uploaded by meeware1.

Last week saw the second Beebcamp held at Whitecity. Top kudos to Philip and all the organisers, and many thanks to all the invited contributors who came in and really added to the event.

For me one of the best things was bouncing the BBC Micro for the 21st Century ideas off a new crowd- there are at least two good leads now, outside of the BBC, for me to explore further, in addition to the existing ones.

And in other news, I got the promotion I was going for- Still not entirely sure of a start date (so much still to do on Avatar, including Vegas!), but I hope to soon in in the saddle so recently vacated by Matt Cashmore!

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Where Steam Punk was Born

Friday saw me in a facinating meeting with an EU technology research programme representative, and people from some of the most active research groups in the UK- that was great, but it's a topic for another day. Today's post is about the venue- the Institute of Mechanical Engineers- and their decorative stuff!

The I Mech E as it is usually called sits at the bottom southwest corner of St James Park, at 1, Birdcage Walk. A nice spot, tucked in behind the Foriegn and Commonwealth Office, very desirable. And our meeting was in the Whittle Room. The Frank Whittle room, Frank Whittle inventor of the jet engine and total engineering hero, and this room was absolutely stuffed with Whittle memorabilia- it was fantastic (and ever so slightly distracting when the gentleman from Brussels was explaining the finer points of the managment of conflicts of interest in proposal assesment schemes).

So that was completely brilliant, and then, on the way out, I notice that the hallway was lined (literally lined floor to cieling) with working model tractions engines. Working in as much as they could work if you fuelled them up etc- they were sitting in glass cases that day. All well and good you say, but this was to traction engines what the Natural History Museum is to bugs- this was the most incredible collection of the freaky, funky and downright weird traction engines that ever were. This then, in the heart of London, is clearly the true home of the Steam Punk ethic- the sanctum sanctorum of engineering mastery, the motherload of victorian gentle-person design and makery, and they know it!

Friday, February 06, 2009

Maker Faire Newcastle 2009- Update

The deadline for getting your Maker proposal in is the 8th of Feb, this coming Sunday, so if you're going do let Josette know as soon as poss! The BBC has now commited to being there, and we have a cunning plan.... robots, weather, RFID, etc etc.

More to follow (maybe even a URL to the project!)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Snow Day!


quentin the snowman, originally uploaded by meeware1.

Quite a few people have blogged about the BBC's central role for our audiences during the recent weather events,but you might like an insight into the way the corporation as a whole coped. Whilst you'd be absolutely right that our public facing infrastructure held up magnificently (offering travel info when so many train companies web sites gave up the ghost), some of our internal business support systems weren't so fortunate.

Perhaps it's obvious, since I made this spectacular snowman yesterday, but our ability to allow staff to work from home all came to a juddering halt around 9.15 yesterday when the majority of the staff in the south east tried to log in from home. I shan't go into the details of the whys and wherefores- it'll take a while to figure those out, and much of it will remain 'private' to the BBC, and rightly so. What's particularly interesting from my point of view is that there were so many other ways to get on with work. Twitter, Gmail and especially Yammer provided a vital channel for us to coordinate efforts and continue work.

Whilst it is critical that the BBC retains control of the excellent audience facing infrastructure that lets us continue with our Television, Radio, Web and other IP based services throughout the most trying of challenges, when it comes to the 'non-broadcast critical' bits and bobs that keep the office going, I'm wondering if we may look more to the cloud and to distributed and open systems to provide, if not the core functionality, then at least a managed backup.

The BBC does have to be careful about it's cyber security- we are, in the eyes of many, a 'valid target'. It's shocking the number of people who see us as an arm of the UK government, even in the UK! Sensitive data, critical communications, the whole of the broadcast chain is, and should remain a well protected central spine of the business. However, we've recently been debating the use of Yammer, and whether we'd be better to run our own Laconi.ca servers internally for the same function. I think we've just had one good illustration of why that might not be such a great idea.

After all, those Darpa guys did have resilience at the top of their wish list all those years ago,

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Planning for the Maker Faire

As in plans to do some 'making'. As in come March the 14th/15th, O'ReillyUK will be hosting the first Maker Faire in these islands *. The Backstage and BBC R&D (yes, it's an aging site, new one due soon!) teams have decided this would be a really fantastically interesting thing to get involved in, so we are putting together a team at the moment to go along and "Make Stuff".

We're not absolutely sure what we'll make just yet. Inspiration is coming from the excellent videos from previous Faires, our own experience with Mashed and other big events, and the fact that this is in National Science and Engineering Week, in the bicentennial of Darwin's birth, at the Life centre .

We want to keep it "open", so pretty much anyone can have a go at doing at least part of what we do. We think environmental science and exploration is a good element (the Darwin/ Life thing). We'd like to use loads of great BBC content, and we also need to be in the spirit of Make, and have lots of noisy, messy, smelly breaking and mending and making and hammering and gluing etc. and we'll also be filming it too. As plans develop I'll post them here, and you may even see tweets from me as the cunning scheme comes together, but for now, watch this space!

Oh, and do let me know if you're going too- should be a hoot!

* There is actually a simultaneous event a lot like a Maker Faire in Glasgow called McMADSAT (great name) but O'Reilly can really only do one at once. being the lazy sods we are, our team are doing the one nearest, but we're really keen to hear how they do in Glasgow.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bettr

Having a facinating time at Bettr- this unconference is a little small, and perhaps not as fluid as some, but the level of attendee engagement is excellent and the discussion is very wide ranging and eclectic. For instance, just at the moment the guy from tinker.it is leading a discuson on the best way to socialise innovation in teaching, unconferences and the ilk. headconference has been explored, but I think we're looking at lower level, grass roots stuff.

There's a brilliant twitter backchannel under the #bettr tag.