Archive for April, 2008

Star Wars: the road movie

April 29, 2008

Every self-respecting computer geek of my generation can tell you precisely where they were at the moment it happened. Sitting in the dark, blinking at the screen, when suddenly the enormous bulk of a Galactic Empire battle ship thunders across the empty night sky of a galaxy far, far away…

It’s the opening scene of the original Star Wars film of 1977 of course, and I was 13 and sitting in the long-gone Odeon cinema, Birmingham. The scene quite literally took my breath away.

It’s a pleasant memory of a time when a film fired the imagination of my teenage mind, but my interest pales into some kind of interstellar insignificance compared to that of one Ernie Cline of Austin, Texas. A self-confessed complete Star Wars nut, he has written and directed “Fanboys”, a comedy, road-movie-meets-geek film in which a group of hard-core Star Wars fans travel across America in a pizza van, converted to look like the Millennium Falcon, on a mission to break into George Lucas’s famous SkyWalker Range in order to steal early rushes of the next Star Wars film.

Initially begun as a labour-of-love amateur film project it’s been picked up by Kevin Spacey and given the full Hollywood support complete with walk-on parts featuring William Shatner and Carrie Fisher. The full story is told in this month’s Wired and there’s more detail at Movie Insider and a trailer on YouTube.

I predict an inter-galactic smash hit.

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Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!

April 25, 2008

This week, a successful trip to Glasgow for the Open Group’s Enterprise Architecture conference was topped off by some fine culinary experiences. The formal conference dinner was held at the city’s Kelvingrove art gallery and included the traditional piping in of the haggis and reading of Robert Burns’ poem “Address to a haggis”. I was delighted to find that the chefs had bowed to the modern world and prepared a vegetarian version and I was able to tuck into the national dish of haggis, neeps and tatties (twice).

Fine as this was, the meal of the week award has to go to the City Merchant restaurant which is based in the merchant’s quarter in the heart of the old city. The restaurant prides itself on its wide selection of seafood sourced from the coastal waters of Scotland. However, my vote goes to its Clootie Dumpling pudding⎯a traditional Scottish steamed dessert made from a rich combination of spices, black treacle, fruit, breadcrumbs and flour which is boiled in a cloth bag (the ‘cloot’ or ‘clout’).

I’ve managed to find a recipe for anyone who fancies having a go: http://www.scotlandforvisitors.com/dumpling.php

The preaSOAic era

April 18, 2008

I came across a new computer-related term the other day: the “preaSOAic” era. SOA stands for Service Oriented Architecture and – together with Enterprise Architecture (EA) – form the two hottest buzz-words in the business computing world.

The SOA ideology envisages recasting a company or public sector institution’s myriad software applications into a series of services that are open to each other via the Web and have formalised methods for exchanging messages and data. By turning software applications into services all the different business processes and databases of an institution should be able to co-operate merrily with each other. It is hoped that this will avoid the usual situation that most companies find themselves in, where there are many applications spread across dozens of departments, all with their own databases, most of which are extremely reluctant to talk to each other or use each other’s data. In this “preaSOAic” era there is the potential for massive amounts of data duplication (referred to as ‘data silos’) and general muddle. It is generally portrayed as a period when large amounts of staff time are spent simply taking data from one computer application and [manually] entering it into another.

SOA is potentially a huge paradigm shift for an organisation, not only for the computer development team, but also for the business processes that link departments and functions. The recognition of the potential for large scale ‘reordering’ of the way information is handled within an organisation has led to increasing interest in the second concept: Enterprise Architecture. This involves a formal process of analysing and articulating a company’s fundamental organising business logic (i.e. what it actually does on a day-to-day basis) and activities, and tries to work out how the ICT infrastructure should go about modelling this. Frankly, it’s big brain stuff, but research by Harvard Business School seems to suggest that organisations that get it right can lower their ICT costs and be more effective and efficient in their day-to-day activities.

The commercial world has been pretty heavily engaged with this in the last few years and the education community is now starting to take notice. JISC is starting to articulate the ideas of SOA and EA to its community of higher and further education institutions and has started to fund a series of pilots. As part of this work, I’ve been commissioned to help out by providing technical reporting and editorial support for these activities and I’m off to Glasgow next week to learn more at the OpenGroup’s annual Enterprise Architecture Practitioners conference. As you’ve probably gathered by now, this is all ‘adult material’ and so I’ll probably require some light relief: I’ll be on the hunt for a vegeterian haggis or two and perhaps a wee dram.

Vikings predicted our renewable future

April 16, 2008

There was an interesting piece in the FT yesterday about the potential for sea tidal power to be used to generate renewable energy in the Orkney islands. Scientists estimate that the Pentland Firth, that strip of ocean which separates the islands from the mainland, could generate a whopping 10% of the energy needs of the whole of the UK.

As a technologist, with a deep interest in environmental issues, it has always seemed plain daft that sea-bound UK is not storming ahead with wave and tidal power systems. Although it’s good to see that there are trials going on around Orkney and that £15m in grants have been ploughed into exploring the practical realities, it seems peanuts compared to to what’s being invested in other energy sources.

It seems to me that the ancient Vikings actually had the right idea for where the future of the islands lay – according to the article in the FT, the Icelandic meaning of Orkney is “energy islands”!

The Future of Libraries

April 11, 2008

The Web is having a profound impact on the role and function of libraries. This goes way beyond ‘the demise of the book’, which is, quite frankly, a very simplistic way of looking at things. It’s actually more about having a vision for the future and how you realise that vision. For example, one of the problems facing librarians is how to create high quality ‘digital objects’, as they are called. If you think about a book, you might judge its quality in terms of the jacket design or the type of paper used or whether or not you can see guillotine marks on the edge of the pages. You probably wouldn’t think about some of the very obvious quality factors unless they were missing. If you opened a book and, say, the pictures were missing or all the pages were in the wrong order, you’d probably want your money back.

The problem for librarians is that when you are creating things like e-books, you have to think about a different set of ‘quality’ criteria because these digital objects will not be used in the same way that physical books are. They will need to designed so that they can be searched, for example, or delivered as separate pages. For the average library user, accessing information that spans multiple digital sources is increasingly a messy process and for those who are used to search tools such as Google and Yahoo this new and highly fluid environment can be a considerable barrier to accessing information from digital libraries and online collections. What is concerning about this is, unless we are careful, people will increasingly see the search results thrown up by Google, Yahoo etc. as the be-all and end-all of a particular area of interest or subject. There is no doubt that the library and information community recognises this problem.

One of the ways of helping to ease these problems is covered in a technical report just published by JISC Technology and Standards Watch, for which I am the technical editor. The report is by Richard Gartner, the man who brought the Internet into Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, who argues that rectifying this problem requires the acceptance of the importance (and standardization) of what’s called metadata.

Metadata is information about the information contained within the digital object, and can be as simple as a tag which says who the author is, ranging to a complex layer of additional information about digital rights (who’s allowed to access it or how much you might have to pay). There are different ways of approaching this problem – the more sober Digital Library is being usurped a little at the moment by the ‘hipper’ Library 2.0 – but it’s a hot topic, and even though it’s a technical subject, the report should be quite readable for a tech-curious audience.

This is part of an ongoing debate about the future of libraries, and will be one of the key themes of JISC’s annual conference in Birmingham, next week, which I’ll be attending for TechWatch.

World’s first computer animation?

April 10, 2008

I was at a computer conference the other day where this YouTube clip was shown. It shows “The Kitte”, a 1967 animation by the Russian, Niklaevich Konstantinov, and is described as the “first animated sequence using a computer”.

What’s interesting is that it is not quite clear how this animation was generated. It was posted by UnFathomable42 who says that as far as he is aware it was entirely generated by computer. However, if you read the comments that follow the video, there are several people who argue that what actually happened is that the computer printed out a series of pictures of the cat onto paper and these were then animated in traditional fashion by taking a film camera shot of each picture to form each frame.

See what you think. It’s not quite Rhubarb and Custard, but the cat walking along is fairly impressive. But is it genuine? I’d love to know more about this clip’s history if anyone has other historical information.

Letting the train take the strain

April 1, 2008

Comment to me by a member of the booking hall staff at a central European railway ticket office the other day:

“It would be cheaper for you to fly, you know.”

I have to confess, I was a bit taken aback. You don’t normally expect staff from one company to recommend the products of a competitor, but, more importantly, what hope have we of getting people out of ‘planes and onto high-speed rail if this is the attitude of the railway’s own staff?

For me, it’s not an option. My company has a ‘green’ travel policy and we go by train wherever possible, including Europe. It may take slightly longer (although this is not always as clear cut as some make out, when you consider the delays getting through airport check-in and baggage handling fiascos), but we use the time productively for work-based reading and just plain, old fashioned thinking. We also create far less CO2 into the bargain.

Planning these journeys is made much easier by a website that I’ve used for years and can wholeheartedly recommend: Mark Smith’s The Man in Seat Sixty-One. The site details what is required to travel, without flying, from the UK to any one of forty-odd European countries and many others further field.