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.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

5 things I'm thinking about

Alice, Matt , Ian and many other super lovely clever people have done this, so just to prove to myself I qualify as the same species, I'm going to try too:

1. The Broadcast/ IP distribution thing is coming to a head in terms of the legal underpinnings of the business models people assume will support their day to day life. After years of denial, it's as if the crew of the Titanic have decided their best bet is to leap onto the iceberg and try and charge a ticket price to the passengers scrambling after them. It's not clear if it's gong to work- some might argue that it's worked in music, but I doubt that's the case. If the last defender of the music industry is the scarily wizzened aging punk you last saw on Cheggers Plays Pop 30 years ago in a grubby parka, I'd suggest the gig is up. Apple are the new music behemoths, and in case anyone has missed it, they're not paying the record industry much.
In broadcast the sticks on hills will soon be the second fiddle in video distribution. They'll be filling homes with the mass market low margin filler, and, true, the live events will be best delivered over that route, but all this will come via an experience defined in the main by interfaces entirely divorced from any concept of 'schedule'.
In this media experience, the way we pay for content (and we all do, directly or otherwise) will need a whole new approach. I just hope the license fee stays as part of it.

2. (Hope this one is shorter!) Getting fast broadband (50Mbps upwards) into homes, all homes, and for that matter all businesses, is tricky. Not a 'scientifically hard problem' to be sure. In fact it's technically trivial. However, getting the mishmash of commercial interests, co-ops and public efforts large and small to pull together the way the ConDem coalition want it to, even with their really rather feeble USC targets, is a decidedly non-trivial thing. The last few years of the Labour governments attempts at this were pretty poor, and it seems the new bunch are picking up where that lot left off, and I do worry that this represents a real missed opportunity to start this effort afresh.
I've heard various worrying rumours and skuttlebutt about different parties involved- some genuinely worrying, some probably irrelevant. There are real problems with the 'incumbents' and their historical practices (most probably not even their fault). Getting it to work, and work well, and affordably for a Britain that seems likely to be in for a protracted belt tightening period will need proper visionary leadership, the like of which we have yet to see.

3. I hope the BBC doesn't leave the developer community behind. Shouldn't say too much on this, as it's not yet set in stone, but if changes to the way we talk to developers come about I truly hope they represent a growth and an improvement.

4. Is it possible to design very long period predictable orbits for artificial comets of the solar system, and in particular the inner planets? The last year or so has shown some fascinating papers published looking at very long term stability in orbital dynamics of the inner solar system, and there's a real possibility that focused research in this area could turn up some excellent results, of real use to one of the projects I'm working on.

5. Will the iPad make tablets cool? Generally I mean. I am so not a fan boy, but I have to acknowledge that battery life, screen resolution, apps availability, non-multitasking, dammit even the heft of the bloody thing make, altogether, for an exceptionally pleasant experience. My worry is that nobody else will have the guts to go for quality the way that Jobs has, and without that dedication to the pleasure of the haptic experience, other tablets will just seem flat (oops haha). If nobody else makes tablets work then Apple win. Big.
If Android phones are the model Google are looking at as the way they're gonna do Chrome on tablets they are lost- I have the HTC HD2 (I know win6.5 borkage all the way- had to reboot by taking the battery out TWICE today) and that's about as nice a piece of hardware as HTC can make. As hardware it is ace, but HTC only made it as nice as they wanted to. OK so MS made them stick a Win button on it (oh the fucking irony- it's the damned opposite of win), but how may 'driod phones have you played with where the hardware wasn't quite perfectly matched to the OS, in terms of interface feel and affordance. It'll be pretty much all of them by the way, 'cept maybe the G1, the Droid, and the Nexus. Maybe.
My point, and I do have one, is that Apple have been betting on quality. These are big bets, and with a few wobbles they have paid off, but they are narrow bets. Everyone else is spreading, and they may, on balance, do ok, but I honestly think that with the iPad, Apple have upped the ante to the point where everyone else has folded. Arse.

Ok, that's it. Wasn't too hard. Should blog more often.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A message for Ian

A message for Ian
Originally uploaded by adactio
Around the world messages of love an support are pouring in for Ian Forrester- AKA Cubicgarden, who fell ill a couple of weeks ago, and is in intensive care in Salford. Herb Kim paid tribute to Ian at Thinking Digital today too.

If you'd like to follow Ian's recovery his family are keeping up a Caring Bridge journal.

The BBC Backstage blog, which is Ian's usual stamping ground, is under my tender care for the moment, and we hope to post major updates on his condition there in future.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Arch Umbrella

Ok so this one is more by way of illustrating the antithesis of my ideal. Sort of. This is a top end brolly from Swaine Adeney Brigg- possibly the most archaeic purveyors of overpriced, underspecified and lovingly crafted flimflammery. All jolly lovely if your idea of quality is to have had someone employ medieval techniques for hundreds of man hours over a design that hasn't changed in generations.

And frankly, yes, that sometimes is good, but what I realy want is the high tech uber design approach.

Still in the mean time check out this absurdly expensive, moderate understated, well made, umbrella with a secret booze compartment!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Brolly update

This is a glorious addition to the catalogue of excellence in umbrellation. An evolution of the not so humble sword stick, this is agressively pushing the envelope of the collapsible rain cover- bravo!

Le Parapluie Uncassable pour Self-Défense

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How to fix an old alien

A few years back I wangled an Alienware M9700 to do tests on high end graphics and their impact in UI. This is an insane device- twin SLI video cards, raid0 striped hard drives, HD screen, 64bit processor. A very fetching metalic green too. Absurd, and at the time, for about 3 weeks I think, it was the fastest laptop money could buy.

Today it's still a very grunty machine- perhaps a little low on RAM to be considered truely top flight, and the video cards don't support the latest video formats. Never the less, when it started to cook itse;f and break down, it was well worth trying to fix. I spent weeks downloading various alittle bits of software to get into the temp sensors and see where the problem was- SpeedFan turned out to be a slightly patchy but useful tool, and showed that Elphaba was running hot enough to cook on, and that was why she was conking out after about ten minutes of doing anything complicated.

There is a coda to this inspection- at some point or other I downloaded an inspection tool that infected her with a really nasty 'windows security' virus. And at that point things went south fast. Anti virus software was working so hard and taking so long to hunt down the virus that it would conk out before finishing a scan! Heat, illness, all bad!

So, the first thig to do was to fix the hardware- cue a full heatsink stripdown, clean out and application of Arctic Silver, as described perfectly here! To be honest I was a bit nervous about this process- but the instructions are nice and clear, and after a dry run, the process went pretty well I think. Yesterday I just about managed to get Gimp running some pretty big transforms to push the processor and the temp topped out at 72 degrees, but was well handled by the fans and quickly drawn down again.

Now all that needs to be done is to completely rebuild the software layer, and I'm thinking of trying a 3way multiboot set up with win XP (for reliabilities sake) ubuntu 64bit (though possibly not with Grub2- found that very awkward in the past!) and Windows 7 x64. You know, for giggles! Might upgrade the RAM and disks too. One to ponder. Suggestions for OS's welcome too by the way- always up fro trying something new. Bear in mind though that just to turn on this beast really does need some pretty odd drivers!

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Phinding the Ferpect Phone Part 1

Android, Symbian, WinMob, Apple, what to put in your pocket? As I have whinged a few times before, I'm on the road a bit these days, not least on the two and half hour commute to the office, so it seems sensible to explore how I can get on with the day job away from the desk, either at home or in the office.

I do have a very deeply retro Nokia Communicator 9500 at the moment as my personal phone- I occasionaly get it out amongst geeks and it couldn't get a better reaction if it was a portable difference engine with a foolscap Ada Lovelace OS.

It's actually a pretty dreadful phone, and a borderline useless PDA more or less gaffer taped together - the screen is ace, but almost completely wasted by the truey grotty UI with mixed UI patterns, nasty menus, and useless implementation of the d-pad pointer controller (apart from the random old school opera lite instal).

In truth, I only use this machine as an SMS terminal and phone, and it has been the source of may tweets etc. Crucially, I've not really developed an understanding of smart phones at all.

Next Post- The New Work Phone!

Friday, March 19, 2010


Apologies for utter blogging slackness of late, but basically I'm either on the road, or doing DIY right now, so there's barely time for the day job, let alone random bloggings. In fact, that post that just went up ideas and stuff, that's about a month old.

On the upside, I would like to say hi to everyone I've met for the first time at the Prototype sessions in Glasgow, or at Maker Faire in Newcastle, or anywhere else on the road since mid Feb, and say, yep, this is me, Ant Miller/ Meeware, and I would be delighted if you dropped me a line.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ideas 'n stuff

Having a weird few days of doing prototyping, brainstorming, experimenting and thinking and talking with cool people in Manchester and Glasgow, and today, though I am a little sore headed and tired, the hangover seems to be distilling some cracking ideas.

So, in an effort to estanblish 'prior art' ona few things, here are this mornings top ideas:

Arduino breakout sheild built into a notebook cover.

I've got this recycled pcb notebook, but wouldn't it be great if I could plug an arduino into it and use it as a giant breadboard, with LCD matrix and other stuff built in. Pages from the notebook could be used like the Oomlout breadboard overlays. This is a cracking idea, and we could just build it!

Wood Lathe app on the iPhone.
Use the accelerometer to drive the bit into the wood as is spins, the vibrator to give a feel for the bite. Choose woods, make designs, trade your turnings. Have the screen fill up with wood dust so you have to shake and blow it off. It's all nice, it's a delight. You can take it to a meeting and legitimately call it a workshop.

Other great things I have learned this week:
Only two tube stations contain no letters from the word Mackerel (AHA! No correction- there is no "Bow" station- so there's only ONE!)
The longest word you can make from the top row of a qwerty keyboard is 'typewriter'
The international space station runs on GMT

Monday, February 15, 2010

Last Day at KW

After 60 years my dept is quitting it's historical, hysterical head quarters- the much vaunted, dodgily vaulted Kingswood Warren. And today is my last day on site. There's a mix of emotions here- actually rather a strong mix due to some very sad news we heard this morning, which I shan't go into here. Relating to the move though, one can't help imagining one hears snatches of Elgar's "Nimrod" echoing down the halls.

As a place to work, KW (as it's known to it's denizens) has charms and quirks a plenty. Huge spaces purpose built to shoot and show films, and converted decades ago to demonstrate television. Grand meeting suites with oak panels, and bay windows opening onto the croquet lawn. Here too was, for many years, the core of the BBC's onlne presence, built out of the sheer bloodymindedness of our now Cheif Scientist, Brandon Butterworth.

[Edit- I've just had a walk around the old site- and a grumble about the past is not the right send off]

What I won't miss about KW:
  • Having no clue what's happening in the rest of the BBC ever.
  • Missing lunch by 5 minutes.
  • The lingering debilitating depression of the Varney/Highfield era.
  • Vile tea and coffee.
  • No mobile reception.
  • Baking in summer, baking in winter (the central heating pipes liquid magma direct from the earths core to every single room)
  • Long tedious deeply depressing conversations about previous senior management in the canteen.
  • Empty offices and corridors echoing with the rattle of dismantling equipment.
What I will miss.

  • The Ceiling in A-Block reception.
  • That there's almost always a secret short cut from one place to another (it's great fun to finish a presentation to a room full of invited guests and then disappear through a hidden door!)
  • Mullioned windows
  • Flying rockets on the feild
  • Deer and fauns in the morning mist.
  • Seeing colleagues knocking mud from the allotments off their boots in the hall
  • Long facinating deeply technical conversations about everything from linear induction motors to victorial optical intruments in the canteen.
  • Always finding new rooms I never knew existed.
  • Bowling googlies on the lawn.
  • Carols in the snow.
  • Yoga in the club hut.
  • The Canteen Staff- stars one and all.
I know I never made the most of this place. I don't know if I could have. It seemed it had been here for ever, and we would never leave, but in an hour, I'm off.

* I joined R&D around the time of this lowest ebb, so much of this is hearsay, and in the interests of legal boilerplating, it can be read as a largely fictionalised account of the past.

CC Attribution to Rainrabbit for the mullioned window pic- one of very many lovely shots of KW from Rain.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Brolly Brilliant

A few years ago I went for a walk, a biggish walk, which I do sometimes do. And I took with me a very excellent umbrella I'd been given by the delightful people at RTE when I did a workshop at the BISA event they hosted. That wooden handled brolly served me proud on my walk in Andalucia, keeping the worst of the sun off me as I tramped up through the Alpujarras, and making a very handy walking pole.

When I got up into the Sierra Nevada peaks proper, above the snow line the brolly kept on working- a decent walking pole now doubled as a stop gap ice axe, and a wind break on exposed ridges as I hunkered down with a few biscuits. It even stood up well as a photo monopod with the Gorilla pod grip for my compact camera.

My trusty brolly did me proud, and I actually rather liked sauntering around BBC facilities with another broadcaster's logo splashed about- it got looks, raised eyebrows. It was cool.

And I left it on a bus in Brighton, sigh.

Still, what this brolly led me to think it that there is a real gap out there. That the last piece of outdoor gear to get properly techno fetishised is the umbrella, and there's a hell of an opportunity there.

Firstly it's a stick. Shock absorbing, adaptable, strong, and extendable- so many options in terms of mechanisms and materials immediately spring to mind- carbon fibre being the obvious first choice.

It needs a handle, shock absorbing, comfortable, ergonomic, possibly including atachments for cameras, and small compartments for storage. And perhaps this handle can convert into an ice axe head?

Then it has a spike, or whatever ending is appropriate for the terrain, with a sleeve to cover the far end/ centre of the canopy and act as a temporary second handle.

And there's the canopy itself- this is already water and windproof, but we can go further, and ensure it's properly impermeable to UV, and perhaps radio waves too (see later) but just porous enough to act as a large area water filter.

The spokes, always the weak link of an umbrella design, could be so much better made- titanium is the obvious choice, light, strong, springy, it could be structured to give the perfect shape...

The shape- why not a perfect parabola? Imagine the potential benefits of having an accurate parabolic reflector surface on hand in the wilderness to boost mobile phone reception (radio waves!), or to boost the visibility of signalling lights!

I tell yah this has got to be a winner! The Gentlemans Adventure Umbrella! I'd call it 'The Penguin'!

Mean while, these really do float my boat....

Friday, January 01, 2010

New Year Quiz

We just played this- have a go and feel free to post answers in comments:

1. Arlene Philips was dumped as a Strictly Judge in favour of Alesha Dixon- what’s their age difference?
a. 25 years
b. 30 years
c. 35 years

2. Shudderingly odious toe rag Nick Griffin appeared on Question Time- how many complaints did the BBC get?
a. 110
b. 340
c. 1040

3. Gail Trimble won, but then was disqualified, from which show?
a. America’s Got Talent
b. University Challenge
c. I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here

1. Silvio Berlusconi was hit with what?
a. A fist
b. A tiny portable tv
c. A scale model souvenir of Milan Cathedral

2. Where was Roman Polanski arrested?
a. Rome
b. Switzerland
c. L.A.

3. Tony Blair wasn’t made president of Europe, but who was?
a. Angela Merkel
b. Herman Van Rompuy
c. Toad of Toad Hall

1. What was discovered about the sheep on the Scottish Island of Hirta?
a. They swam there from the mainland
b. They’re shrinking because of climate change
c. They have no fear of helicopters

2. There was a total eclipse of the sun over India, Nepal, China, and Japan in which month?
a. April
b. July
c. October

3. The rocket to replace the space shuttle was test launched- what’s it called?
a. Ares?
b. Saturn?
c. Roger?

1. Who said “She’s gotta have tit’s” ?
a. Tom Cruise
b. Mickey Rourke
c. James Cameron

2. What won the best picture Oscar?
a. Milk
b. Slumdog Millionaire
c. Curious Case of Benjamin Button

3. What was the biggest selling film in the UK in 2009?
a. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
b. Slumdog Millionaire
c. Up

1. What living artist sold the most recordings this year?
a. Lady Gaga
b. Beyonce
c. Kings of Leon

2. Who did Kanye West interrupt with his “Imma let you finish” brain fart?
a. Britney Spears
b. Rhianna
c. Taylor Swift

3. Who headlined Glastonbury (Saturday, mainstage, closing act)?
a. Neil Young
b. Blur
c. Bruce Springsteen

1. What was White Air 2009?
a. A climate change conference
b. An extreme sports event
c. An art installation on the south downs

2. Who was appointed to be the curator of the Brighton Festival 2010?
a. Simon Fanshaw
b. Anish Kapoor
c. Brian Eno

3. Brighton Rock is to be remade; who is not known to be in the new film’s cast?
a. Dickie Attenborough
b. Helen Mirren
c. Pete Postlethwaite