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.

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 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 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 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...