It Ought To Be Simple. Why Is It Complicated?

Posted Tuesday, April 27, 2010, 12:36 PM


I am finishing up the last touches on a website. In the same way that the most dangerous time to be on a return journey is a few miles from home, the most fiddly time to be finishing a website is in the last few steps. It's when things that you had anticipated to be the simplest and quickest end up taking the longest and are the most maddeningly convoluted.

Why are some methods to do things so absurdly complicated? Why can't everything be elegant and simple and just work straight out of the box?

Early on in my computer career, when the only access to a computer of any significance that I had was to my flatmate's Commodore Amiga 500, I marvelled at the wonderful GUI of its Operating System. Things worked really smoothly, were arranged logically, and were simple for beginners to grasp. It was leaps ahead of what Windows users were battling with, in Win3.1, and was somewhat more advanced than what I had seen in Apple Macintoshes of the time.

But all of that elegance was marred by its disk drive, that constantly whirred and clicked whenever it was empty. It was intended to be an elegant system to recognise when a disk was inside, and it could instantly activate. But the method was clunky at best, with it endlessly circling, waiting, and checking, a soft but everpresent "clunk" every ten seconds. The solution was to always have a disk in, blank if necessary.

A stupid design fault on an otherwise excellent computer. I can only imagine that the Amiga's death was due to more dumb decision-making of that ilk.

After Windows 95 came along, competing more directly with Apple's newer OS, things started to happen, as now using a computer was tangibly logical, instead of mind bendingly complicated. Except a few of my friends at that time didn't want to travel the evil Microsoft or expensive Apple route, and instead clung to the free and kludged together Linux avenue.

Linux, at that time, (not so long ago) was for Nerds only. And I don't mean afficionados and geeks, I mean full on 200% NERDS who obsess over minuscule ephemera as if they actually mattered to the world at large, instead of the easily dismissed nonsense it is.

The Linux Nerds like to use software that they have to "compile" rather than install. That is, they have to add each small part of the program, in pieces, with text commands to get them to work together. They come with no instructions on how to do that, or documentation on how to use the application after it's ready, and no help files should it fail, or any assistance at all. You have to nut everything out yourself, on your own, and if there is a single ounce of incompatibility with any of your other apps or hardware, then it will refuse to work at all, with no explanation.

Compare that with an application with an installer and drivers and a documentation PDF, pretty much the standard for current software on Windows and Macs.

Needlessly complicated, versus sweetly elegant. For some reason, there has to be years of absurd complication and mystifying messiness before someone swoops in and tidies it all up to work effectively and smoothly at long last.

The point of this post is that, on this website I am finishing up, I am trying to find a way to add audio files to the posts so that they come readily setup with a player, requiring no extra work for my client than "choose file, choose place it appears in post, save". I am happy to deal with complications to get a file on my blog (and what a ridiculously messy business it is to add images to Blogger), but for the average user those kinds of steps are needlessly complicated. The method I have employed to achieve this elegant solution involves four third-party plugins; two paragraphs of careful step by step instruction; and two additional text editing steps nobody ought to have to do, and which can easily go wrong, messing up the whole procedure.

It's utter madness that it is so needlessly complicated.

This is coupled with no way for her to upload a gallery of images in one click, no way for her to add a video clip without six lines of javascript or DHTML embed code that she would have to edit by hand each time, and no way to add searchable tag clouds without an expensive separate plugin I will have to purchase.

These kinds of standard, simple, default features are instead unavailable or overly complicated.

Whatever happened to elegance?

You Can Dance If You Want To

Posted Sunday, April 25, 2010, 1:16 AM





I was having a quiet evening in (just like 99.9% of all my other evenings) randomly leaping through YouTube, when I stumbled across the music video for the 80s one hit wonder Safety Dance by "Men Without Hats". Famous for its incomprehensible nonsense, coupled with a weirdly catchy tune, it was the band's only success, and is still popular amongst the nostalgic. And to match up the weirdness, the video is equally incomprehensible.

It begins with a man, Ivan Doroschuk, in pseudo-peasant dress skipping through a field, with a diminutive court jester (played by actor Mike Edmonds, who is great in the TV show Maid Marian and her Merry Men) when they spot a landmark and head off towards it. They meet up with an enthusiastic girl who is skipping along in her own way, where they reach a crossroads, and randomly choose a direction.

It takes them into a village, where they wait by a gate while continuing to dance, and are soon joined by locals and Morris Dancers in a parade down the main street, over a bridge, until they reach a farmyard where they have a May Day festival.

The end.

Pointless, but infectious, fun.

The "safety" dance, incidentally, is when you make an "S" shape with your arms, which they do a few times through the video. S for Safety, presumably.

Anyway, it occurred to me that I could probably find most of those locations in Google Maps.

Luckily Wikipedia solved half my initial obstacles by mentioning the exact village where it was filmed, called West Kington, in Wiltshire, in the UK. And amazingly it's barely changed in the intervening 25 years or so since it was filmed. There seems to be a commitment to preserve the old-timey feel of a lot of country villages in the UK, maintaining their chocolate box appeal for tourists and historians.

I present to you now a few comparison shots of the location, the map of which you can find in Google Maps here.

The sequence was filmed in two separate locations, so there's a subtle break in continuity, but that's not unusual in any kind of filming. In this case, the two locations are barely a mile apart from each other.





The field is still there, but they filmed it away from the roadside, so the Street View camera doesn't get the same angle. But after much searching (see next shot) I know this is the exact field, and the stone wall in the foreground of the video is that seen at upper left in the lower streetview pic. It is now overgrown with bracken.

You can see on this map the wall that leads away from the road, from the north to the south, towards the path. This matches the continuity of the video, where the characters walk through the field, to the corner of the wall, and then run down to the path.



I struggled to find this location, as the road is not a main one, and could have been private, where Street View rarely goes. I searched for the distinctive building on the hilltop. After matching up fields, pylons, buildings, and road divisions, I found the exact spot. And as you can see, it has barely changed at all.

And even more amazing, you see the log on the patch of grass in the music video? Well, it's still there! It's just been rolled a few metres away.

Then the sequence leaps to the village, and continuity is tight here. They start by skipping down the lane, west to east, past a house, up to a gate at the junction where the villagers cross a bridge, and straight into a farmyard.



This lane was a challenge, as there are three that radiate out from the village, and more beyond, so I had to look at each of them before determining which one it was. You can see the house behind them is the same, and the power pole to the left of shot also matches (a new pole, but in the same spot), with the shed behind the girl.



The girl then dances effusively in front of a couple of houses, which are distinctively recognisable by the fence palings and a red letterbox at the gate. Both remain unchanged.



The gate is just off the centre of the village, at the junction of three roads, a lot closer than the video implies. Though there are some considerable differences, and a mismatch due to the lenses used, you can recognise the same power poles in the field behind the gate.

Note the girl and Ivan (the lead singer) are each doing the "Safety Dance" "S" move.



The wide shot of the village bridge is deceptive. It's filmed in the middle of the field quite a distance behind the gate, and not as a POV from the gate. I couldn't find a matching angle in Street View, but you can see that there are vines on the main building just right of centre in the video shot, and also left of centre in the Street View angle, which are barely unchanged after 25 years. What's up with that?

In case you are confused by the different angles, if you look at the video frame, they are dancing on the bridge, marching from right to left. Whereas in the Street View shot, they would be coming towards us, with the bridge in the midground.





And finally a few metres down the road is a farm, with a large open courtyard, where they set up the fairground for the big dance finale. You can recognise the tractor shed and the long building as the most obvious matching features, though there are some minor alterations like new roof tiles and different paint jobs.

It was quite fun to go through it and confirm the locations, especially as it's such a beautiful, charming area. Whenever I found a match I got a thrill of recognition.

I am such a nerd.
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Sieze The Day! Tomorrow. Or maybe next week sometime. July at the latest.

Posted Thursday, April 22, 2010, 9:37 PM


I suck.

Action - Reaction

Posted Friday, April 16, 2010, 12:53 PM


I have been on the internet for a long time. I started way back in 1995, and before that a friend of mine had a BBS Bulletin Board of his own that he had been running for around three or four years, so I have been aware of the social side of the net for nearly two decades.

The biggest problem with posting your comments online is the lack of the context that shows your intent. It's very hard to tell the difference between sarcasm, jokes, dismissive comments, and serious argument. The creation of emoticons help to a degree, but they aren't used as often as they used to be, and tend to be misused. They're easy to forget to use, and easy to overlook.

I have recently joined Twitter. I hadn't planned to, I tend to resist most fads that appear for their own sake and don't have a useful purpose. In this case I thought maybe I could improve my chances of finding some casual work, but it turns out Twitter probably isn't the place for that. However, I've been suckered into its charming simplicity, and will probably hang around on it for a while.

The other day I signed up for Facebook. Even though that has a far more likely chance of garnering me some work, so far it's been a horrible experience, an onslaught of crap that has to be filtered through by hand. I would be surprised if I stay around on that monstrosity for too much longer.

I have realised something about Twitter's limited approach that is both in its favour and potentially its worst problem. Not only does it come with all the trappings of other online conversation, i.e. that it is public, and it invites reactionary responses; it also has the added limitation of only 140 characters per message.

This forces you to reduce your wording, which can be seen as a blessing, simplifying and clarifying your point to its most basic, as long as you don't write in "txt-spk". But it also means there's no room for context. Anything you write will look like a statement, because you miss out emoticons, and can't guarantee anybody has seen the wider context of your previous or next tweets.

As I follow a lot of celebrities I admire, many of whom are comedians, they will often post something that's obviously humour. Obvious to me, at least, but apparently not to some of their followers. This surprises me, as surely they realise that following a popular comedian will mean they'd get jokey posts from time to time.

So here's my advice to Twitter followers: when someone posts something sarcastic about a hot topic, like politics or a natural disaster or current gossip, do not post a negative reaction. It was almost certainly meant as a joke, but even if it's not: if you agree with it, post a response; but if you disagree, say nothing.

The last thing you want to do is a) look like an idiot for assuming a joke post is real opinion; b) say something you'll regret; or c) put that celebrity off Twitter entirely, to the point where they abandon it, so we all miss out.

I have been one of those people who react angrily to something before thinking. I've done some foolish ranting over things I don't understand and end up looking like an idiot. I even posted something just a few weeks ago about ADR that seemed to rile up a few people in that part of the industry, though I think they misinterpreted my point.

It's easy to make people angry, and it's easy to misinterpret. Think twice. Don't ever post in anger. It would save everyone a lot of grief if you take a few steps back, some deep breaths, and either abandon your plan, or write more thoughtfully.

Is There A Draft In Here?

Posted Friday, April 9, 2010, 3:52 PM


This won't be a long post. I don't want to talk too much about the new screenplay in case I jinx myself into not ever finishing it, just like so many attempts that have gone before.

But I have completed the storyline, to at least a level that I feel can now be attacked and shaped into a first draft script, so have begun the task of writing it.

Its current working title, after floating many different options, is "ShadowGlass".

Assembling the story elements was an interesting development. I had a few sequences in mind when I first came up with the story, and wanted to keep those intact as much as possible. There's often a risk of losing those initial elements after you throw in all the important sub-strata to flesh a story out to completion.

For example, the story may have been inspired by a scene where the protagonist has an argument with a character over something that has a really funny line in it, and you love that idea so much you build your entire plot around that. Then you see holes and gaps that need filling in, so as you flesh those out, other elements start to dominate, until finally after a lot of juggling it all falls into a decent script.

And then you realise there's no place for that initial scene that had the funny line; No matter how hard you try, you can't fit it in anymore.

Well I didn't want that to happen, so tried hard to keep the main elements as close to my initial idea as possible. I did need to find new motivations for some of the characters, but once I found those motivations, they actually added new threads that I could follow, which helped support and strengthen the story, including a whole new scene at the climax, so that was a particularly fortuitous idea.

The first draft is the most important, but also the least precious. The idea is to just write and write and write it all out, no matter how unwieldy or convoluted or boring any given scene may be to read. It will be dry, and perfunctory, and overrun with clich├ęs, and possibly be an absurd load of nonsense.

But then once you have that all on (virtual) paper you have something to edit. The second draft is where characters can develop. By the last scenes in the first draft, you know your characters pretty well, and understand what they are doing, so you can now go back to their earlier scenes and rewrite their dialogue and actions to be more consistent and fulfil their motivations.

The second draft is also where you can see where some scenes are unnecessary, or can be combined into one, or are being too heavy handed with their message, so need to be rearranged or cut or otherwise tweaked to flow. Structure and pace is as important as character.

Third drafts are where you play with the dialogue to make it sparkle, to tighten it so the pacing is right for each sequence, and make it readable. That can often be the draft that you would send around to get reactions or even sell, depending on your skills.

You'd likely get feedback to adjust some things, and they may be small, but they may be big, in which case a fourth or fifth draft may be on the cards. By then you know the story and characters so well, it's usually a simple job to make those adjustments without it negatively affecting what's already firmly in place.

Anyway... I'm not there yet, I'm on page 10 of what will be a 100 page script. Ask me how I'm going after a couple of weeks have passed.

Sounds Different

Posted Sunday, April 4, 2010, 2:01 PM


I posted a query on a messageboard about something, but after some discussion where they answered a question I wasn't asking, I have come to realise there may not actually be an answer.

I thought I would talk about it here, so I can clarify some things in my own head, and cover a little bit of technological development history at the same time.

The saying goes that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. The key word in that phrase is "better". Not to invent something out of whole cloth, but to improve what is already out there so it does it more efficiently, perhaps more humanely, and probably more cheaply, but gets better results.

When George Lucas looked at the way visual effects and film editing were done (which was optically, physically, in a linear, laborious way), he knew that it was time for improvement. Somehow he recognised that the technology was available, or coming very soon, to make considerable improvements to workflow, which would increase productivity, reduce frustration with limitations, and ultimately lead to a new way.

He, or rather technicians within the company he headed, invented EditDroid, a Non-Linear Digital Editing system that allowed editors to move clips and frames around the timeline in whichever combination they wanted, quickly, immediately, and without chopping up the physical film (with every cut of a strip of film, you lose at least two frames, one from each end of the splice). This system eventually evolved into what became Avid, the industry standard for editing. Few film editors still cut physical film anymore, and it's a rare one who doesn't use Avid as their NLE editor of choice. There are also low budget off-the-shelf amateur NLE applications, that borrow some of what Avid pioneered, though they have approached it from the digital video camera side, so have distinct variations in interface and methodology. But effectively, it was Lucas's needs to adjust the status quo that set a new standard and forever changed the way we edit film and TV.

James Cameron, in the same industry, is another pioneer who recognises when things are being done inefficiently and require fundamental improvements. He is excellent not only at motivating changes, but pinpointing the exact areas where it's failing, and even has insightful suggestions on how to fix them.

The reason why 3D worked so well for Avatar was because he knew where it was going wrong, and that he had the technical expertise to adjust it so it worked. And he saw where motion capture was consistently tripping up, and was familiar enough with visual effects and camera technology to provide solutions that would address a lot of its main problem areas. I'm sure he has many more planned improvements for his future films, especially as all of them undoubtedly will be 3D and use motion capture. He used the same uncanny skills in bringing forth the liquid metal T-1000 into Terminator 2, and the pioneering of motion capture characters for wide shots of the Titanic.

This kind of innovation has been rare, but effective. To fundamentally change how everyone does things is a huge undertaking, but it has to be done, or we will remain stagnant, and trapped in an ever-increasingly limited pocket as other technologies pass us by.

So if digital editing and digital visual effects can have such a transformation of technology, the next step has to be with digital audio.

I think there are flaws in the current standard of digital audio editing and manipulation that are being overlooked, overshadowed if you like by the visual, and it is time for them to be addressed.

Here's my problem. When filming takes place on location, the sound is always at risk of being interrupted by real world interference, such as traffic, wind and weather, creaky floorboards, aeroplanes, and a hundred thousand other things. I once was trying to film something so went hunting for a quiet spot out of the way where nobody was going to interfere, and as soon as I clicked "Record" a big truck pulled up, playing its radio really loud, tuned to Salsa music. It was absurd.

So the answer to that, often unavoidable, problem is to record the audio again later, and the most popular way is in a soundproof recording studio. This is called Looping, or ADR, which stands for Automatic Dialogue Replacement (or some think it's Additional Dialogue Recording; they're wrong, but whatever).

The problem with ADR is that in a real location, there's an open air quality that is distinct and unique. The sound bounces off nothing but the ground, or a wall that is a particular distance away, adjacent to another wall that is made of a specific wood of a particular thickness, and there's one (or five or two hundred) people nearby all wearing clothing giving a unique dampening quality, etc. It never ends what makes not only the location, but the way the sound reverberates and is recorded, unique. Even the brand of boom microphone can make a difference. So when they go back into the studio and record the ADR, it does not sound the same as the live location. It instead sounds like a carefully dampened soundproof booth.

Actors are getting increasingly adept at re-creating the exact phrasing and timing for matching their dialogue, so I cannot lay the blame on them. But the dialogue audio editing needs a serious shake-up, because there's no excuse for the shoddy mismatching of audio quality between location and ADR anymore.

We have recording equipment of astonishing quality, and unbelievable digital manipulation tools with unparalleled fine tuning controls. Surely they can analyse waveforms and re-create the effects. After hundreds of tests, they should be able to put together a thousand macros and new filters to make the ADR audio sound the same as the surrounding audio.

What is holding them back? Why are they stuck with such useless software that cannot achieve what, in my mind, is simply manoeuvring waveform peaks and troughs to be anything we want?

If we can have pixel control of the visual image, then surely we can have similar fine control of audio waveforms.

The technology is still stuck in an analogue mode of thinking, and it needs a kick up the arse to break free, a whole new approach, rebuilt from the ground up, to finally see the infinite possibility it has at its disposal.

No more limitations!