Sunday, 28 April 2013

Life - another way to look at it (and death)

By Aaron Freeman

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you'd hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you'll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they'll be comforted to know your energy's still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly. Amen.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Life: Golden boys and girls...

...all must/As chimney sweeps come to dust.

That's Shakespeare that is. That's literature...

Seems he was talking about chimneys and architecture in general too, as the selection of photos that appears over at a list of 30 Abandoned Places That Look Truly Beautiful attests. A website that very much does exactly what it says on the tin...

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Life: online mindfulness

One of the things I've been increasingly puzzling about recently is the disconnect between our online lives and our real ones; the personas if you like that we present to people in the real world and the ones that we forge for ourselves online.

There's a tradition of this, of course. Back in the early days of the internet, it was possible to have an enormous amount of fun in the Usenet groups you frequented by pretending to be a 16 year old schoolgirl from Helsinki. Certainly fun when troll-baiting. But with the rise of social media and its interconnecting webs of likes and dislikes, follows and retweets, our online personalities are designed to be much more faithful extensions of ourselves. The problem is, we don't treat them that way.

Maybe it's because our online relationships are mediated via the keyboard, and even with the rich complexities of language - and the less subtle interventions of emoticons - we are always a step removed. But it seems that this is particularly the case when it comes to mindfulness. A quick quip, a sarcastic is all too easy for us to participate in conversations that we perhaps wouldn't chose to in real life. I've lost count of the times I've been within a button press of tweeting something or commenting on something on Facebook and then pulled back and run through the usual quick Buddhist mantra: is it kind? Is it necessary?

Often it's not, and at least online there is a delete button (depending on how Facebook is running its privacy policy that week). But, again in Buddhist parlance, right thinking and right speech should also lead to right typing and our online relationships - ephemeral sometimes though they may be - are poorer when this isn't so.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Work: The History of VFX Part Two - The Model Men

This next part of my History of VFX for Red Shark takes us from A Matter of Life & Death, and the problems that the VFX technicians of the day had with the introduction of colour, all the way up to 1977 and a certain couple of films that not only caught the public imagination but also showcased exactly how far you could push optical effects technology.

Read it here: The History of VFX Part Two: The Model Men

Work: Vegas musings - cloudy, with a chance of hype...

[Final part of this year's NAB preview for Harris]

Every year in the broadcast industry has its buzzwords, but few have been as persistent, potentially transformative and also frustratingly nebulous as the cloud. It doesn't make sense for every sector of the industry, and indeed is facing a certain amount of resistance from within it, but 2013 is the year where it finally looks to be becoming relevant in a real world context.

Cloud-based services have always promised to cut costs via the holy triumvirate of increased scalability, flexibility and collaboration, and increasingly there are areas within the broadcast industry where it makes sense. Given the definition of cloud computing as services that are delivered over a network - typically over the internet and typically via a browser - there are even areas of the industry where it is already firmly established, with news production at the vanguard.

Web-based, distributed production, editing, archive mining and the like has already enabled field-based teams and bureaux to collaborate across continents and time-zones, and this trend is only going to continue as cloud-services become culturally embedded in news organisations. Their sport colleagues are already ahead of the game, mining remote archives when on location - especially at the big events with established broadcast centres such as the major tennis championships - to create quick-turnaround packages based on topical events within a competition.

It's not hard to see this being replicated in other areas of the industry - promos and graphics departments would possibly equally benefit from cloud-based workflows - but it is post which has seen the main mushrooming of services to date to the extent that you could even set up a facility with no specific geographical location if you wanted to. Editing, VFX, compositing, client approvals, rendering, production notes and planning, even invoicing and expense tracking...all this can be achieved to a greater or lesser degree in the here and now with cloud-based services.

Currently, there are a few instances where there is currently only one service or manufacturer fulfilling these various niches, and so NAB will probably see a significant expansion of both the players in the market and also that market itself expand into other areas, with live and near live in particular fecund target areas for the cloud and all it brings with it.

Those providing cloud-based services reason that the the winds of technological progress are behind them and that the ascendancy of the cloud is almost assured. There is perhaps a certain amount of hubris to this, especially given broadcasters' intransigence in particular on some very valid issues such as reliability and security. That said though, the only real technological missteps in the industry recently have occurred largely as a result of either consumer indifference (stereo 3D) or misapplication within an overall trend. Add in the general progress to more reliable and faster communications technologies (4G networks being a prime example) and it's difficult not to see the cloud as part of the general convergence between the broadcast industry and IT. And that is not going to ease up at any time soon.

Work: Vegas musings - more connections more of the time

[Part two of my NAB preview for Harris...]

There is an underlying dichotomy in the broadcast industry at the moment as it chases two screens at two very different ends of the scale. On the one hand, you have the 50in + displays associated with Ultra HD, on the other the sub 10in screens of the tablet and mobile market. Happily though, while one - Ultra HD - requires serious infrastructure investment, the other is as much about a change of production culture than anything.

That's not to say it's without it's challenges though. Indeed, responding to the changes in the newly consumer-driven connected world might be more problematic for broadcasters than any mere format progression. After all, in all the transitions from SD to HD - and historically from monochrome to colour, digital widescreen, NICAM stereo etc etc - the way people watch television didn't change. With the new connected world, everything's up in the air.

The latest figures from the UK's TV Licensing Authority in its 2013 TeleScope report are rather instructive. Some things have changed massively - for example, the UK leads the world in PVR ownership, with 47% of households owning one and watching 20% of their television time-shifted as a result. Also, around one third of Internet users in the UK have used one of the main broadcasters' catch-up services and a fairly astonishing 40% of all tweets during peak-time hours are about TV programmes (we shall draw a hasty veil over the fact that the most tweeted programme is The Jeremy Kyle Show).

Interestingly though, for all the online efforts, it is debatable whether that convergent device, the Smart TV, is really getting anywhere. While sales are growing, only 5% of UK households possess one, and 35% of those have never connected it to the Internet.

Tablet penetration, however, has reached 11% and it is this, along with increasing use of smartphones, that is looking increasingly disruptive. As an example, Dave Price, Head of the market (and world-leading) BBC iPlayer, said in January: "BBC iPlayer had a record-breaking festive period, with performance driven by new mobiles and tablets unwrapped on Christmas Day, and it looks like these devices have yet to be put down. There were 272m requests for TV and radio programmes in iPlayer throughout January, with TV requests from mobiles and tablets rocketing - and up 32% in just one month."

These are impressive figures. But broadcasters know that if they want to truly engage with the audience via new conduits such as the second screen, they have to do more with it than simply offer video on it. While it may require less actual capital investment than a move to Ultra HD, it does require some investment in interactivity research and the development of a truly transmedia approach that reaches back to the beginning of the commissioning process.

Talk to people involved in this sector of the industry, and once you get past the snake oil salesmen, you'll find people very conversant with the Gartner Hype Cycle. This charts the introduction of new technology via distinct phases, with the first three being Technology Trigger, Peak of Inflated Expectations, and the wonderfully named Trough of Disillusionment. The feeling is that with the second screen we are now on the Slope of Enlightenment and heading towards the Plateau of Productivity, or, in other words, there is now the chance to properly monetise all this effort.

For those chasing the smaller screen end of the market, that will probably be most welcome.