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.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflections on 2011

I'm really looking forward to 2012.  This last year has been tough, full of really difficult times and some crushing disappointments.  On the other hand friends and family, especially my ever patient and caring wife, have carried me through these tough episodes with good grace and tender love.  I can only thank them, and hope that I shan't make such demands upon their better natures in future.

In some ways this year gone has laid the foundations for what I hope will be some changes to come.  It's cleared up some ideas I had about things like work life balance, and given me the space to read a lot, and think a lot, about where we can go, what we can do, and who we really are.  I hope dearly that I can share this with lot's of friends, old and new in the year to come.  I have missed you, dearly, and we've so much fun to have ahead of us.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Domesday Reloaded, and Another "Reload" in the Offing?

Wednesday last week was an important anniversary for the BBC Micro project- it was 25 years since the publication of that platform's most famous application- the BBC Domesday Project.  Produced 900 years after the original Norman tome, it used then cutting edge technology to record a mixed media record of the nation as it was in 1981.  The techniques used were ingenious, pushing the very limits of tech for a very specific application.  Predictably perhaps few other uses for this blend of analogue video and digital text and graphics were forthcoming at that time, and the project has long been held up as a classic case of the difficulties of digital preservation.  It should be noted that at no time has it ever been impossible to access its content, and that today it has been ported to numerous platforms, including the world wide web, but the reputation persists.

At Bletchley Park on Wednesday though the latest porting was presented- a beautifully designed and executed multitouch table top application allowing access to at least half the content of the project, with zoomable maps and the original video footage.  Larger even that the biggest MS Surface tables, this is one of a pair of devices (the other in the BBC's Media City base in Salford) that are the physical world instantiations of the Domesday Reloaded Project.  I snuck along to the event at the behest of a couple of friends- David Allen, one of the original BBC reports authors and producer of many of the BBC's Micro associated programmes of the time, and Alex Mansfield who has been leading the Domesday Reloaded project inside BBC Learning over the last year or so.

Such events draw together an illustrious crowd (your author excepted).  I actually managed to tag along with the great Ian McNaught-Davis, mountaineer, broadcaster and digital pioneer, as we were shown around the National  Museum of Computing's exhibits, and it was a real pleasure to see him exploring the machines he's known- from Colossus to the ICL beast (ok, so he's not been around since Colossus, but still).

It was good to catch up with John Bevan too- he's working on a huge range of brilliant projects with ReWired State, and it looks like the next iteration of this outstanding group will be better than ever.

Intriguingly, as part of the speeches on the day, Howard Baker of the BBC Learning team, and inheritor of the mantle so ably worn buy George Auckland, make an impassioned plea for the ethos of the Micro to be taken up once again.  He highlighted the parallels between the late 1970s and today, times when advancing technology was threatening to sideline British industry and innovation, and when business itself was clamouring more better skills from the workforce emerging from schools and colleges.  He brought to mind that you can easily argue that the efforts and the impact of the Micro 25 plus years ago have been allowed to wane, that successive educational ministers and policy makers have been swayed by purveyors of 'educational software' into turning our classrooms into nothing more than training centres for obsolescent applications, feeding the juggernaut of passive technology consumption.

I've seen this too- it's why I looked at teaching IT in schools and decided that I couldn't waste my time on such a hopelessly empty exercise.  IT teaching in secondary schools in the UK is a shocking waste of the valueable time and energy of teachers and kids.  There's no point teaching people how to use applications that will be out of date by the time they leave the classroom.  No point either in giving them half hearted 'real world' context that teaches them nothing of design principles, user testing, iterative development.  We teach them to use poor tools badly, and wonder why we have the highest youth unemployment ever.  Teachers themselves are railing against this wanton waste- Alan O'Donohoe is perhaps the most vocal and imaginative of many teachers in this field who have had enough of the pointlessness of the centrally mandated curricula, and he and others are now striking out running fantastically creative and useful education efforts off the beaten track.

Howard made a call to arms, an impassioned plea for partners and visionaries in determining how as a society we can address this urgent challenge, and hinted perhaps at some very exciting news to come from his own team.  It's amazing to think that anything with the ambition and impact of the BBC Micro could be attempted again. But then, why not?  If ever "watch this space" was said with more anticipatory relish, I know not where!

Quite why I have never been to Bletchley before I can't really fathom- it is an extraordinarily wonderful place, full of amazing machines from an intense period of our technical history.  And better yet, it is staffed by the most wonderful, sharing and friendly people imaginable.  TNMOC is a true national treasure, and deserves a huge amount of support in it's stirling work.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Looking After the Neck

Spinal disk arthroscopy, disc replacement, neck stretching, whatever you want to call it, is a brilliant technique and one that has basically given me my life back, but it's not something I'd recommend if you're bored on a rainy Tuesday.  I'd like if possible, to avoid stuffing my core structural musculo-skeletal system up any more than I already have, so returning to work has posed something of a challenge.

I live an appreciable distance from my employers main location of operation- it's about two and half hours as the train limps, each way.  On reflection it seemed obvious that this regular long distance schlep was responsible for the rapid decline in my health over the period before the neck properly conked out, so a new arrangement has been devised.  

I am up in London for two or three days a week, staying with a lovely hospitable friend, and  I work at home for a day or two a week (or will be once I'm back up to full full-time shortly) so need to tote a laptop with me, and that includes about 40 minutes of walking.  Up until recently I have used a succession of excellent back packs.  I used messenger bags for perhaps a year or two, but I never found their asymmetric loading comfortable.  Now though, I found the shoulder based loading of the backpacks unbearable.

I therefore launched myself upon a small research project- to identify ways of carrying a laptop and enough gubbins to see me through a day or two away from home in a back that placed no strain at all on my delicate shoulder/ neck region.

I quite quickly homed in on the idea of a big bum bag, or fanny pack as linguisticly challenged colonial types might refer to it.  The type is surprisingly rare in general retail and to date I have yet to fine one that is specifically designed with the transport of laptops in mind.  With few exceptions they seem to be universally focused on the hunting market, and more specifically stalking deer in woodland with high powered rifles.  I shit you not. 

I've actually ended up with such a device (that I have modified slightly) but before I get to that, here are some interesting 'runners up':

Snugpak make the best and best value sleeping bags in the world, and they make them in the UK, so I'm sold on that kit, and the response pak is a very interesting little bag aimed squarely at the modern day man at arms- the military market.  I didn't go for this in the end, as I wasn't sure at all if it was big enough, but it is a very clever little bit of kit, probably ideal for hill walking, and would make an excellent alternative to a backpack design daysack. It also has a shoulder harness to help keep it stable and spreading the load.  Nice kit.

Boblbee are perhaps at the other end of the spectrum from Snugpak- their bags tend toward the extraordinary, pretty expensive, and occasionally evincing a delight in gimmick over practicality.  Cool though, dead cool.  Charly's Angels wear them.  Quite.  However this pack did interest me in that it was very much focussed on the modern traveler and his or her needs to cart around a decent amount of kit.  And it had cool side pockets, and I think, somewhere, I saw it had a shoulder harness too.  On the downside.... HOW MUCH!?

Ok, here we are, the serious huntin' shootin' fishin' stuff.  Apparently the idea is that with a low down waist mounted bag one is freer to shoulder a decent sized rifle and pop off a harmless ruminant.  And then, once one has said fluffy woodland creature reduced to a lifeless corpse, you can drape it across the top of your little bag, and slope home.  Or stride home.  Depending on how you feel about the relative merit of defeating a small creature using a high powered rifle.  I might stride truth be told, but that's just one of many ways in which I may be counted a 'wrongun'.  Anyway the little bag is a good size, has a big wide padded hip belt, a few decent pockets, and weirdly lovely suedey deep forest green fabric.  The shoulder straps proved a little short at the front, but a quick trip to a local camping shop furnished me with the necessary to lengthem them, and it is now currently serving me very well on my commute.  
I still fancy fettling up some internal straps to hold a laptop a little steadier.  Still 'n all, the nice people at Bush Wear sorted me out with a really lovely bag- thanks chaps.