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, November 02, 2013

Leaving Auntie, Joining Clearleft

As of the 16th of November I shall be an ex-employee of the BBC.  After 11 and a half really rather fun years I'll be back out in the wild, doing 'commercial' things, and a member of the excellent Clearleft team.

I'm going to a team with a fantastic track record and reputation in delivering brilliant products and services to their clients, and also in sharing brilliant ideas with their peers in the local, national and international industry. With a new home on Middle Street in Brighton and room to grow the opportunity to take my experience back into the sector where I started out is a brilliant one- I've got very comfortable at the BBC (maybe too comfortable) but this feels a bit like coming home too.

Tracks. CC BY 2.0 Tobias Mandt

My time at the BBC has been incredible, full of interesting projects, challenges that really stretched me, and most of all it's been full of the most amazing and wonderful people.  However, it is now the right time for me to get out of this weird bubble and get back to the real world, or as real as a digital agency life can be.

I want to be pretty honest about this transition- I haven't blogged for a while, and part of the reason for that has been that this desire for a major change has been behind much of what I've been up to for the last year and a half.  Events like the Brighton Mini Maker Faire and our trip to Denmark probably deserved a post of their own, but it always felt like there was a bigger context, and this change is a part of it. I should be clear- it is only one part.  There is a very broad life context, and if you know me well I will tell you about it face to face, but it doesn't digitise well, so I'll leave that for analogue interfaces.

So, honestly, how do I feel about the BBC?  Grateful mostly. It's insane, divorced from reality in a profound way, mindbogglingly wasteful, and has a deeply ingrained institutional cynicism that has grown toxic in the last 9 years, but it is also the place were more amazing people do more amazing things than anywhere else I have ever hear of, let alone visited.  It's given me a very very long rope, and only occasionally let me hang myself with it, and just about everyone I have met here is motivated with a genuine passion for the best of Reithian principles.

And Clearleft?  I've known of Andy, Jeremy and Rich for years now- when I was at Victoria Real they were considered the 'cool guys' across town, always doing slightly more worthy, slightly cleverer projects. At the BBC they have continued to be on the edge of the radar, consistently setting the agenda and delivering outstanding work. It's been interesting to see them plough a very individual furrow too- so much of the very innovative work I have been close to in the UK has been displayed in the fierce cauldron the hackday scene, and Andy and team stand apart from that. They deliver based on an intimate engagement with clients, and the driveby randomness of the hackday environment is definitely a less enmeshed delivery framework.

I've very high hopes for the next few months. I'll be joining at a time of interesting change, as the team move into new purpose built offices and exhibition space right in the centre of Brighton. I've some ideas for markets and segments to explore, and ways to build on existing strengths for Clearleft, and by jumping straight in with the company for an intense week long retreat I doubt I'll be 'new boy' for very long.

And then after Christmas... well that's one to talk about over a beer....

Friday, April 20, 2012

A few good men: Why too small a PR team is worse than no PR team (but a proper sized one is best)

Just a very quick note to articulate a thought that has weighed heavily on me and others I work with lately.  In the field of corporate communications, a small team and be worse than no team at all, and that's no reflection on the people on that team.  A too small team for corporate comms can never get to grips with the whole brief- all the activities and actions buzz along below the radar, and only crises that rise above a threshold can be dealt with.  Note that crossing the threshold doesn't mean anything has gone wrong- just that the situation has become big enough to demand attention.  However, at that stage the team will have no background, and probably only the blast of the last crisis ringing in their ears, so they immediately pounce in a negative controlling but woefully under-informed manner upon the situation.  The reaction of first resort is to clamp down, to stifle and to kill any story.
Naturally enough the reaction from the footsloggers in the trenches who've been working on this for weeks if not months is to be upset, in fact downright pissed off.  Months of planning, weeks of effort, good relationships built without the support of 'professional PR' are dashed.  It may well be that the message has been passed up to PR over the preceding weeks, possibly in some detail, but they have been to busy to read or even note it, and actually, that's perfectly reasonable of them.
The upshot- PR deliver nightmare drivebys of negativity, broken relationships and trashed plans, and the rest of the organisation tells them less and less in the hope to keep their size nine party pooping boots at bay.  This is a situation where nobody is doing anything less than their professional best, but the organisation is built to fail.
If you work in a place where things have got to this state take a moment to recognise that the people in PR (or vice versa who work in the org where you do PR) are actually trying hard to do their jobs well.

Then find the fucktard that thought this was a sustainable way to do business and string them up by piano wire from the nearest lamp post.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Apostropocalypse

Or the final nail in the coffin of the bibliophile driven bookshop.

I used to be a bookseller.  It's a lovely job- selling books and buying books is an activity that really does tend to bring out the best in people.  It's an activity that we engage in when we feel a little bit noble, a tad worthy, and maybe just a tiny bit pleased with ourselves.  It represents an exchange that is clearly a part of a long tradition, of the constant interplay of literature and economics, and we hope when we buy a book that the cash handed over will be repaid manifold in a wealth of intangible riches.

To be more prosaic, as a job at university it was easy to do with a stinking hangover, had flexible hours, the customers tended not to be too awful (though never without their elements of occasionally parabolic eccentricity), and you could meet girls.  Pace my wonderful wife.

The shop I originally worked in was the little branch of Waterstone's on North Street Brighton.  It's not there now, but that funny little horseshoe shaped leaky shop was a fantastically concentrated example of the old school Waterstone's ethic.  Every member of the staff planted their extraordinary personality on the section they ran, which with our bunch meant we had a fairly esoteric stock, and thus a similarly peculiar clientèle.  We would routinely purposefully 'flood damage' books that got scaled out from HQ- whole crates of Princes Diana schlock was dunked in buckets of dirty drainwater.

Our events were occasionally riotous- trying to wrangle 200 surprisingly boisterous stoners in to see Howard Marks for one of his Mr Nice talks was quite a struggle, and I had to feel for my colleague who was 'volunteered' to look after him.  We used the staff room (with it's glorious south facing rooftop suntrap) as a green room for visiting authors, and on this occasion it reeked of skunk for weeks after- my colleague who shall remain nameless staggered downstairs looking like he'd been hit by a bus before mumbling through a heartfelt but largely incoherent introduction to Howard.  Ah happy days.

We did our own window displays- mine were rubbish, but many were extraordinarily beautiful examples of temporary urban art.  I think we even had a transexual stripper in the window one year.

The point I am trying to make is that at one time, not so long ago, the UK was spattered with a chain of bookshops which each had a vibrant and creative ethos and community of engaged customers and which thoroughly and without any constraint reflected the most radical and literary of their local communities hopes and aspirations.  And this from a shop!  A profitable one too!

Now what do we have- anonymous, repetitive centrally managed battery farms of literary ubiquity.  A stultifying published pap box shifter.  I used to pop into a Waterstone's to get a mediated flavour of a town, to see what they read, what they were into, what events would draw them out- you could catch half of that from the locally designed and lovingly created window displays.  No more- those windows are prime high street real estate- auctioned off as generic advert space to be identically dolloped without care or attention in hundreds of shops nationwide.

If this total collapse of passion and imagination had happened to one chain, one shop amongst may, this would be a tragedy, but it isn't.  This bland monster has swallowed up two of the UK's other biggest bookshop chains leaving them too bereft of their signature quirks and sensibilities; Dillon's and Ottakar's (which had previously swallowed up Hammicks).  Today on any given British high street you will probably only see one major bookshop, and it will be identical to the one you would see on any other high street.  Its stock, displays and overall character will be utterly indistinguishable from any other Waterstone's on any other high street.

So they're dropping the apostrophe? Good.  As a symbol of lost sense of any ownership by individuals it is salient.  As a symbol for a collapse in any respect for literature, it is salient.  As a symbol of a shift toward an all encompassing, ever spreading miasma of conformity and corporate anonymity, it is salient.

Local independent bookshops are the best.

Only got around to watching this at the weekend, but I think it illustrates the sort of beautiful crazy that used to be possible in Waterstone's and all the other little chains that it swallowed up, but now lies so far beyond the petty imagination of that corporate behemoth that it breaks one's heart.

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.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mending Up: New Perspective

It's about four weeks now since I went under the knife for my spinal surgery, and I'm very very relived to say it's gone really well.  Most importantly of all the nerve pressure is gone- I can sit stand walk and do everything I want to without causing crushing damage to the nerves to my arm. No pain, no tingles, no nuthin.

It's clearly a long journey I need to take to be back to how I want to be, and that's probably not the same thing as being back to how I was.  I need to be fitter, healthier and I think in a 'better place' generally- my lifestyle before was self evidently unsustainable.  That change will take some time.  It may involve changing what I do and how I do it.

For now it will be a gentle process of building up the strength in my back and neck until I can start to do sensible exercise, perhaps Pilates or yoga, and longer walks for stamina.  As well as the surgery I'm getting over two and a half months of sedentary stasis.  I'm going to be more engaged, more active and more communicative online too- coming back into the world with an eye for the really interesting, and with a profound sense of gratitude for this second chance.

I owe a great deal to the clinicians and surgery staff to helped me to here and are continuing to support my recovery.  To my colleagues who have been deeply understanding and supporting.  To friends across the world who have encouraged me.  And to my family, near and far, especially my beautiful, brilliant, wonderful wife Rowan.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Books read whilst lying on my bum waiting

I'm a terrible reader.  A disgustingly lackadaisical consumer of the written word- I skim, skip and subliminally abbreviate and summarise reams of text day in day out.  Yet I actually read, I mean properly read, wallow in words, slather my brain in sentences, very very rarely.  I honestly can't remember the last novel, or any long form book for that matter, that I read through, cover to cover, before July.  I have had excuses- too busy, books are heavy and I try and keep the weight of my backpack down, too tired, but there's been no such defence of late.  So I have read, and I have loved it.

The State We're In by Will Hutton (1996 edition)
I've long been a fan of Hutton, and caught him at a fascinating book signing in Cambridge perhaps nine years ago, when touring The World We're In.  Brilliant and engaging speaker and lucid writer though he may be, I have to confess I didn't have the stomach to dive into this book, an in depth analysis of Britain's social and economic structural malaise written in the dog days of the Major government.  It really was one those I thought I'd get around to eventually, and I'm glad I did, because at the dawn of another Tory fiasco it's salutary to be reminder just how wrong this bunch can get it, and to have the failed promises of the New Labour dream held up for review.
I hope the opposition front bench have taken the time to re-appraise this seminal work's impact- so many of them helped the author in the preparation of the work. Now is the perfect time to look back and see how this piercing insight and careful prescription for the way ahead was squandered, and how next time they'll need to do so much better.  He predicts the banking crisis perfectly by the way, and also warns against exactly the policy line taken by Brown with the bankers.  Reading this reminds me that Britain could have had a Jed Bartlett, instead of the lightweight Blair and belligerent Brown.

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks on Kindle
I do love a decent Culture book, and this is a decent culture book.  Not perhaps the shocking apogee of the genre ( Phlebas?), but better than the Algebraist (that somehow just didn't click) but with nicely rounded characters human and AI this had enough of a bouncing plot to keep me happy.  Part of me doesn't want to review in too much detail, because it did feel light in all honesty, in spite of the subject matter (hell itself, or rather the construction of artificial hells) and there have been more artfully crafted moral and philosophical dilemmas in this sequence of works.  What I will mention is the experience of reading on a Kindle- I bought one as a thank you to Rowan for all the help and support she has given me these past few months.  Somehow the fates conspired such that she had no time to use it, so I availed myself of its e-ink charms.
I found the experience to be mixed to be honest.  On the positive side it is very convenient.  Although the browsing experience is a bit clunky and somehow the online catalogue available feels limited compared to Amazon's own website, it is quick and easy to find stuff you want.  Getting books onto the device is very easy too. The screen is clear and easy on the eye, the navigation within the book is fine.  It's light, lasts forever on battery, and very convenient.
However, it's not perfect, and it certainly not 'delightful', which certainly some device manufacturers and online experience designers aim for.  It's a grim dark matte grey colour of the device body for one thing, with a gritty plasticy texture and some snaggy edges.  The buttons feel cheap and plasticy and stiff, the design of the 'forward' and 'back' controls feels compromised and cludged and un-natural, and on screen navigation is awkward. And though the screen itself is clear, and sharp and usable, the shades of dark charcoal text on dreary light grey background are very cold to the eye. Functional, effective and usable, but in no way delightful.
Worst of all though I don't now have a copy of the book on a shelf, well thumbed and creased at the best bits, to remind me of reading it and to colour the space around me.  Oh,and I couldn't read it in the bath because it's not waterproof and ok, books aren't either, but a book is cheaper than a Kindle.

The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester
I actually started on this one a few years ago and somehow put it down and then didn't pick it up.  Not bored with it, just lost track.  Lanchester's work has great variety- Mr Phillips and Fragrant Harbour are both great novels very different in style and subject, but this book is probably a standout.  I'm being very unfair, but it's rather like a crime caper featuring the arch offspring of Brian Sewell and the galloping gourmet.  A very upsettingly funny book.

Our Cosmic Habitat by Sir Martin Rees
I think Rowan bought this for me after we saw Sir Martin speak at Hay on Wye some years ago.  That was an interesting if necessarily light discussion of the challenges and insights of cosmology and astronomy, but in this work he introduces some truely mind bending ideas about the incredible circumstances of our place in the known universe.  I'm generally comfortable with a materialist atheistic view of us as fortunate pond scum on an unremarkable ball of rock in a quite corner of a thoroughly average galaxy in a completely ordinary corner of the universe, but Rees here makes clear how extraordinarily peculiar the substance of that universe really is.  This isn't to at all challenge the idea that nature is what it is, and we're just plopped down into it at all- there's certainly no logical train that goes from an unexpectedly anthropocentric universe to a universal conscious design or intelligent creator, because it's not anthopocentric.  However, it is profoundly unsettling to grapple with the undeniable conclusions of rigorous observations that make clear that you, me and everyone we know, and the whole world, the sun, the moon the planets and every star in the sky, are made of stuff, matter, that is on the great scheme of things, just fluff in the gearbox of the great forces that make the universe the way it is, was, and shall be.  The charm of this book is that Sir Martin makes this all crystal clear in such an overwhelmingly civilised and urbane way.  I shall be reading more of his stuff, I recommend you do too.

The Man Who Changed Everything by Basil Mahon
Maxwell has facinated me for years, ever since I saw the Maxwell building at the University of Salford.  "Why name a building after a brand of vile coffee?" I asked my grandfather.  This was long before I heard of Captain Bob you understand.  "Maxwell" I was told by my radar engineer Grandfather "was one of the cleverest men that ever lived, and he discovered how radio, electric and magnetic forces were related".  Electric principles always pushed the very limit of my intellect at school, not helped by a sequence of maths and physics teachers who were unable or unwilling to help me find my own mental model of what was occuring, so I continued to see Maxwell in awe, reinforced when reading such bon mots as Feynman's statement that From a long view of the history of mankind — seen from, say, ten thousand years from now, there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.
I like science biographies, and Mahon's book promised something else besides the biographical- as an engineer himself, Mahon would hopefully be able to give some sensible context to Maxwell's life and work, showing how the ideas related to earlier concepts, and fitted into an age of burgeoning scientific advance.  This isn't always the case- too often I find that historical biographies of great thinkers will tell a cracking story of their life, and even go into facinating detail about their relationships with other thinkers, but will leave one rather wondering what all the fuss was about and having no clear idea what the person did.  Lisa Jardine being a particularly strident example of this sort of work.  It's ok for architects and artists and politicians, but a scientist engineer or philosopher must be described in terms of their work by somebody prepared to grapple with the barest elements of that work.
In Mahon's work the fecundity and brilliance of Maxwell is made clear, as is his dependence upon and influence over a vast army of scientists and engineers across the world.  And even better, by exploring the development of Maxwell's ideas step by step, one is introduced to that most incredible of intellectual leaps, the full abstraction to mathematics of electrodynamics.  It's a desperately hard leap to take, and I can only assume some people are so equipped intellectually to 'take flight' into it naturally without a second though, but most will be left behind- floundering with the essential questions "but why? how? what does it mean?".  Mahon shows how Maxwell thought through to this eventual, stunning, powerful and revolutionary idea in difficult, but traceable steps.  This is like reading a great book with maps of how an unassailable peak was conquered, and has al the exhilaration attendant with such feats of exploration and adventure.  Another cracker.

Tomorrow I go under the knife, and rather than killing time, I shall be from then on striving to return to a level of health and fitness I have not attained for a decade or more.  Reading will once again have to be 'fitted in'.  Recommendations welcome.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review of "Medal of Honor" PS3 Game: Gameplay and Historiography

This is an edited verion of my review of the Medal of Honor game on

MoH is a great game for the PS3- not without it's shortcomings, but none the less a superbly playable and engaging entertainment.  It's also an interesting object lesson in the way that popular entertainment and history are renegotiating their relationship in the early years of the 21st century.

Cover art for Medal of Honor EU release.
Copyright  Electronic Arts
As a game I'm going to focus on the single player campaign mode. MoH has 3 main game modes- campaign, onslaught (a variation on campaign where there are no 'saves' and your performance is ranked online) and multiplayer.  This last was actually developed seperately to the campaign, and falls somewhere between the Battlefield approach of highly tactical cooperation, and the CoD 'kill/die/spawn' twitch fest (not my cup of tea).

The campaign is basically a fictionalised account of 3 days of activities by US special forces in southern Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.  The history I shall come too, but in essence the developers have taken a few 'set piece' battles and events, and woven them into a compelling and nail biting sequence of missions.  The pace is delightfully varied, from stealthy creeping work, to desperate all guns blazing last stands, and the added variety of some lovely vehicle levels.  I never really got the hand of the quad bikes, but they're just for transport between levels.  On the other hand, the Apache gunship level is simply delightful- in spite of being a pretty standard 'on rails' shooter level there's almost no feeling of being constrained.  All the levels have a real feeling of challenge- the few I made it through without respawning to a save felt like I'd scraped in by the skin of my teeth, and in most I had to retry tactics and approaches.  There's certainly more than one way to skin a cat in this game, but an almost infinite number of ways for the cat to skin you!

On the down side- I finished this in an afternoon- maybe 5 hours of play, 3.5 hours of actual game time (restarts etc).  Some levels could perhaps have been eeked out a little more (the taking of Bagram airfield felt abbreviated somehow) but then again, perhaps that's where the difficulty comes in (I played through on the medium level).  The multiplayer has some great maps but as a noob you really are chum to the sharks when you join.  And the lack of a squad mechanic feels peculiar, when the single player is carried through in a totally squad level story.

In fact this lack of any squad mechanic in the game is the single biggest weakness overall.  The characters you play are all mid to low level ranks on the field, there's always a sergeant, a CPO or someone else to give the orders.  Sure, that's a nice way to get hints into the game, keep is relatively simple, but it does set a 'headroom' for what you can do, how much charge one can take, and leaves one feeling ever so slightly that one is 'along for the ride'.

But it is quite a ride- a fictionalised account of the very real, crucial, controversial and harrowing experiences of US special forces in the early days of the latest Afghan War.  In these early days of the conflict US, UK, Australian and other coalition special forces worked alongside the 'Nothern Alliance' of tribes to oust the Taliban  government of Afghanistan, and then put the pressure on al Qaeda's forces in the south east, along the Pakistan border.  this game opens with a couple of mission looking at the initial fight against the Taliban, including the taking of Bagram airbase.  Slightly annoying to a British game player and reviewer this operation was historically conducted by a UK SBS team, not US Seals as the game portrays.  And here the fictionalisation begins!

We then move forward a few months, into Operation Anaconda- or more specifically the brief mountain top Battle of Takur Ghar- the infamous assault on the Taliban in the Shahi-Kot valley.  Here the developers have taken known elements- special forces teams being dropped into hot LZs, teams being split up, downed transport helicopters, and spritzed the whole up with an archetypal 'idiot boss' general back in the the US (though not in uniform, and not in Washington apparently).  This is probably the account of the operation that most people will have seen- 5 million copies of this game have been sold.  Many more than would have read an in depth report of the battle, or watched in full any of the news reports (which at the time omitted many of the details for operational security reasons, and probably more than a little embarrassment on the part of the Nato forces).  So, when we see US forces subduing a goat-herd by rendering him unconscious, it is in contrast to the reports that US forces criticised German special forces for not killing such by standers.  The developers have civilised the US forces.  And when the Apaches level a village (a LOT of fun it has to be said) we are told there are no civilians there at all, again in contrast to reported actuality.

An infographic from the Washington Post describing the core actual events upon which the game's story is based.

This is bowlderised Hollywood historical revisionism of a peculiarly insidious kind.  Perhaps.  The US is seen as being the sole protagonist nation (UK, Australian, Norwegian, & German forces who are a critical part of the historical event are completely airbrushed out).  US forces are shown to treat civilians dubiously, but not murderously as the historical record suggests.  Mistakes in planning and deployment are scapegoated onto a single distant general, rather than being the result of complex institutional failures.  And the tragedy of lone soldiers and operators being abandoned on mountainsides to be killed alone is replaced by a heroic, if ultimately [SPOILERS!] tale of teams sticking together through thick and thin.

It is just a game, and as I have said early, a pretty good one at that.  But this is 'popular history' now.  This is the 'Longest Day' of our age, the 'Bridge Over the River Kwai' of the Afghan War.  We're seeing a few books, but this, to US eyes at least, second division scrap isn't even getting the meager cultural sifting that that war received.  It's a dark and shadowed war, and if this is the only light cast on it, then I fear for history today.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Purdah/ Quarantine

In one week I shall be going under the knife for my long awaited, slightly scarey, very much needed neck operation.  In the run up I have decided to cut myself off from external contact as much as possible, because this is that time of year when viral loads go through the roof, populations of infections mingle and swarm, and children go back to school.  The phenomena are not unrelated.

Therefore, I'm not taking visitors until after the op, and if you're seeing someone who you think might be seeing me soon, please try not to give them a cold.  Ta.


My brother sneezing (sorry Eddie!)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mini Maker Faire Brighton from a Distance

A week and 25 miles, both sufficient to offer some perspective and scintillating parallax but not so far as to obscure utterly in a haze over the horizon. A week ago Brighton held its first fabulous Mini Maker Faire on the opening weekend of the Brighton Digital Festival. The Festival rolls on,right now the Brighton Bar Camp is in full swing- or more likely a mildly jaded gentle start to a Sunday, but there's already an opportunity for us to stand back and look at the effort, the impact of the Maker Faire, and begin to consider what we can do next year.

Setting up- by Barnoid

 So, I'll warrant you are pondering, how did it go? I wasn't there. Hence the 25 miles reference. I was in Eastbourne, for reasons and excuses I have outlined earlier. However, 5463 people did make it, an amazing number, far beyond what we'd hoped for. With the greatest thanks to our lovely hosts at the Brighton Dome, who provided the venue for free (I know!), we have to admit that we pushed the space and the aircon to the absolute limit and beyond. From feedback we know a lot of visitors had a hard time getting around to see everything, and that some of the exhibitors came close to melting in the heat- huge thanks to Simon Smith for last minute volunteering and running around quenching collosal thirsts!

Roo & Simon bearing with fab cool water
Simonsmithster on hydration duty: photo by Rainrabbit

So what did I miss, bar heat exhaustion?  About 30 exhibitors had come from all points of the compass; Nottingham & Manchester hack space teams made particularly excellent group contributions, but to be honest there was just too much to mention, especially from afar, and besides, Andy Piper has done a fantastic write up of the day that covers it all much better than I could.  Because I wasn't there.

The brilliant Tim trying out Project-a-Sketch by Hacman : Video by Elsmorian

One factor that I think is well worth pointing out is that although we were very much a part of the Digital Festival calendar, and the Maker community does have a strong strand of computing based creativity which was on display at the faire, the craft community made a key contribution to the vitality and atmosphere of the day. It's a peculiar point I'm tucking away here in the depths of the post, but this hands on making of beautiful things through traditional and non-traditional crafts is an open engaging and accessible activity- a sharing and non-exclusive thing in the norse sense.  I loved the Kinetica Art Fair, but it's undeniable that the conceptual framework of art as displayed there was a barrier to engagement in the physical fabrication of items and the intellectual engagement of the audience as fellow creators.  In comparison to the enagaging, teaching, sharing and energising power of craft, art in the formal institutional tradition is stultifying, pacifying, and oppressively exclusive, without in any way being a more creative or meaningful enterprise.  I'm putting this very badly, and I do appreciate good art history (I could watch Andrew Graham-Dixon talk about anything!) but art today has put a wall around itself that physically repels much of society, and that makes people, lots of people, feel that they are not creative.

Anyway Charlotte Young puts this a lot better than I can (maybe I go a wee bit further) and she did so at Ignite London where I was deeply privileged to share a platform with her and many other far cleverer people than I.

Art Bollocks (or Stupid Kunst) - by Charlotte Young from chichard41 on Vimeo.

Time to take a break.  I shall blog more shortly.  Adieu.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Brighton Mini Maker Faire Countdown: 2 weeks

Here we are - D-14- in just two short weeks we'll be hustling the last of dConstruct out of the Dome complex and piling in with all manner of crazy, exciting, inventive creativity.

Jane Bom-Bane and her mechanical hat from Larchmont Films on Vimeo.

This is the final burn, so, friends and occasional readers of this oft neglected and seldom well written blog, now we put in the final burst. This is a call to arms, a request for help, a rallying cry, a stirring bullet pointed list of glory. If you can do any one of the things below you'll have my gratitude. Do a few and I owe you. Do them all and I'd seriously think about donating a body part (I have a spare disk soon to be removed... or perhaps not):

  • Invite all your Facebook friends to the Facebook event page and ask them to invite their friends
  • Tweet about the event, using the #bmmf hashtag and @MakerFaireBTN
  • Post a link to the web site on your LinkedIn profile feed:
  • Write about it on your blog/Tumblr/Facebook page etc. Don’t forget to link to
  • Display a PicBadge on your Facebook and/or Twitter profile pic
  • Bookmark on your Digg/Delicious/StumbleUpon profile
  • And the old school one – email all your friends and contacts to tell them about it
  • Ask any journalists/media contacts you have if they can write/broadcast about it (or pass contacts on to me if you prefer)

  • I know full well this probably counts as hectoring by now, but in all fairness I am laid up at home with a stuffed neck, and this is pretty much all I can do for an event that is a real passion of mine and any and all help you can give would be brilliant. Ta.

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    Borken, but will be fixed

    In which I wax lyrical upon the causes and circumstances medical of my inconvenience. Apologies if I overshare, but this isn't secret, it interests me, and I feel some value in collating and sharing my thoughts and feelings at this time.

    I have a prolapsed disk in my neck. This means that down toward the base of my neck, between the 6th and 7th bone counting down from my skull, the protective layer of cartilaginous gunk that lives between those bones, and allows them to smoothly pivot about each other, has come unstuck from its home and wandered, or been squirted under pressure, to where it ought not be. In my particular case, the place is the channel, also between vertebrae number 6 and vertebrae number 7, where the nerves looking after about half the muscles in my arm branch off that great and terrifying trunk line of all nerves, the spinal column.

    The initial noticeable impact of this incursion by my wayward disc was a crushing and excruciating pain all down my right arm on Saturday morning some five weeks ago. Only the night before I had returned, late tired and happy, from a three day visit to BBC Wales in Cardiff, meeting colleagues from production and introducing them to the work of the BBC R&D department. I was joined by lovely colleagues from my own department and from the great Blue Room team, but there was a lot of kit to lug about, some fairly late nights exploring the ideas and challenges thrown up when we introduce new tech to new program making areas, and I'd had a pretty intense week putting this and other events together. In short, I was shattered, and the chronic ache of a stiff neck had been bad.

    This chronic neck pain is worth a brief diversion- about eight years ago I got a terribly stiff neck after a flight back from Cyprus. It was terrible, stiff as a board any activities were extremely painful, and it was six weeks before I was back at work. In retrospect I should have demanded an MRI then and there, but I didn't- it was a one off, a newly found osteopath helped get it mobile again, and I made sure I fitted in some yoga where I could. Over the next five or six years I got occasional twinges- I could feel them coming on, so would apply hot and cold packs, rest a bit, pop to the bone cruncher, and see them off for a few months. Generally it nagged, and I'd get a knot in my shoulder, but it was ok. Manageable. A timebomb I didn't really hear ticking.

    Since Christmas just gone we've been living in Eastbourne, not Brighton. the commute is longer, and though my manager is understanding of a desire to work from home when possible, my role, as we both recognise, isn't amenable to such arrangements. I need to talk to people, face to face ideally, because what I have to do is grasp the impact and potential of new technology and understand how to relay that to colleagues in non-tech areas, and conversely understand their challenges in order to feed back to the engineers and scientists building the new tech. It's a translation role, all about getting inside concepts that the people who know most about them may not even understand themselves those concepts in terms in which I'll need to explain them. It's facinating, frustrating, exciting and challenging, and needs face to face discussion to work.

    So, day in day out I leave home around seven, board a train to Clapham junction which I'll reach around nine. I'll wait for a short while, then board another train to Shepherd's Bush, then after fifteen minutes I'll have a twenty minute walk to the office. I'll be in by ten, if all goes well, and I'll have done at least an hour, probably more, on the laptop already. Then at the end of a busy day, at five if I can, but more usually around six, I'll start the journey back. Being less able to tightly control that departure there will be a longer wait at Shepherd's Bush, and longer again at Clapham, where I'll get a seat if I'm lucky, and settle in to another hour and half of work on the laptop. If all goes well I'm home by nine, just in time to eat and sleep, then off I go again.

    This isn't the whole of the story- there is travel to Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff too, and to be honest that sometimes came as a relief. Though any journey from Eastbourne is necessarily a slog, having to go via London and usually requiring an overnight stay, the attitude and atmosphere in the more distant offices always lifted my spirits, and being able to flop back to a bed, even a hotel bed, relatively easily always helped.

    However, all in, this has done for me. I am now convinced that this exhausting schedule, and the dreadful posture I had to adopt whilst working on my laptop have combined to destroy the structural integrity of my neck. I'm writing this lying down, as I have been for most of the last five weeks. I am unable to stand for more than a few minutes as any more extending vertical deployment leads in rapid succession to a tingling in my right arm, cramps in my neck, a stabbing sensation in my shoulder, and then a slow building crushing searing agony down my whole arm. In addition to these terrifying symptoms of nerve damage my right arm now has no reflexes- tap my elbow, nothing, tickle my palm, nada. My triceps have lost much of it's muscle mass and most strength.

    Because I've been lain down for five weeks with no exercise I'm generally more feeble than I think I have ever been. Going upstairs I pant, I tire easily moving about much, and I feel like I'm lifting a wardrobe getting out of the bath.

    Next week, I hope, the ruined disc in my neck will be replaced. The process is simple, and low risk. Low risk in terms of chance, high impact if it did go wrong though. It won't. All the surgeon will do is create a small incision a few centimeters long in my neck, off to one side of my windpipe. He'll go in past my esophagus, taking care not to damage the nerves to my voicebox, and dig back to expose the front of the vertebrae. Then he'll separate the load bearing bodies of the 6th and 7th vertebrae a little, and remove (probably in little chunks) the cartilaginous material in there, and that which has been squeezed out behind. This will remove the pressure on my arm nerve, and that which was edging toward the spinal cord. All clear he'll then prepare the surfaces of the vertebral bodies to take the two parts of the replacement disc. This has, depending on the model he's chosen, a few metal and plastic parts, but in essence all share common features: two metal plates with spikey backs that bond into the bone of the spine, and a plastic surface in between to connect them, often with a shallow ball and socket type connection. When all the parts are in, he closes up and out he comes. I wake up, and after a single night in hospital I go home, well on the way to being mended. And I'll never look at the video below in trepidation...

    Recovery is quick usually, and within six weeks I should be fine. I'm going to work hard at that, not just recovering, but getting better, taking better care of myself and, I hope, the people who I care about and who have cared for me so tenderly and generously these last five weeks.

    I just don't know how I will fix my life, but I know how I'll fix my neck, and that's the first step.

    And Rowan, thank you. For more than everything.

    Friday, August 05, 2011

    Laid up

    For the last four weeks I've been laid up with a slipped disk in my neck, a painful and perhaps predictable result of a very long commute, and the ignoring of many years of very stiff necks. Now that I have access to a laptop again (thanks to my patient wife's discovery of 'bed tables') it's about time I used this enforced rest time to some good. So, over the next few weeks I shall blog a little, about the work I was doing, the ideas around it that I didn't have time to explore more deeply when I was more mobile, about the circumstances I find myself in, and of course about the tremendous upcoming Brighton Mini Maker Faire, which I'm still involved in, if in a slightly less vigorous way.

    I will probably have a good old moan about a few things too, so be braced. You see, i'm finding dealing with the NHS somewhat frustrating. Churlish of me no doubt, and I'll be the first to admit I am not at deaths door by any means and there may well be thousands more deserving and needful of their tender ministrations. However, the process of my diagnosis and treatment has been deeply flawed and dreadfully slow, to the point where 4 weeks on from initial presentation at A&E I still have no prognosis nor treatment plan. The local hospital appears to run in spite of it's management to be honest, with a few driven and diligent staff battling a morass of intransigent miss-understood processes and significant number of "spare wheels". Even the private sector in this neck of the woods is an incapable shower of halfwits from what I can tell, unable and unwilling to take the smallest steps to expedite treatment, and unable to offer solutions when problems present themselves.

    Anyway, now you know the whinges are coming you can avoid them when they pop up- they'll be tagged #nhsfail and #dghfail (the latter in reference to the local hospital).

    I shall sign off for now- apparently the Telegraph want to chat about Maker Faire and I need to be ready to take a call.