Yearly Archives of: 2007

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Awaiting Photographic Inspiration

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I haven’t really taken many photographs over the last six months and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I’ve taken plenty of snapshots of random things but I’m talking about getting my SLR out, maybe with the tripod, and taking photographs. If you’ve had a look through my Flickr stream (particularly the My Favourites set) you’ll see that I have some pretty strong photos in there and when I put my mind to it can capture something pretty good. Here’s one of my favourites – arguably one of the best natural photographs I’ve taken:

I spent quite a while going on shoots with my friend Ade on a near weekly basis but eventually I just had to stop and take a break from it. He loves taking photos – and is far better at it than me – but I just can’t keep up his relentless enthusiasm for trawling around Yorkshire taking so many pictures.

I recently watched a series on BBC4 called ‘The Genius Of Photography‘ and that’s where I really understood the power of photography to change the world and shape people’s view of it. The series charted the history of photography and how it was at first a novelty, then used for propaganda, war reporting, art and a host of other purposes – but underpinning everything was how photography has charted the history of humans over the last 170 years – from our greatest achievements to our greatest atrocities. Some of the most important pictures ever taken were shown and discussed and only by closely looking at some of them did the true genius of the photographers who took them come through.

If I ever get any ideas that I’m a good photographer I just need to look at some of the photographs featured in the series and realise that I have a very great deal to learn indeed. Knowing how to compose and expose a photograph properly is only the beginning – it’s what you take the photograph of, when and how you choose to do it that’s the key.

I guess that’s the thing I’ve been struggling with. I’ve found over the years that if I’m ever to stick at anything I need to have an underlying reason and sense of direction. I need a purpose. One of my character strengths and weaknesses is that I can be remarkably single-minded about things, but if I don’t have a goal in mind then I tend to drift aimlessly. And I think that’s been my problem with photography – I really enjoy it, but I’ve only been going out to take photographs. I haven’t been going out to take photographs of ‘something in particular’.

So my challenge is to think of a photography assignment to set myself and then go about fulfilling it. I’ll do my best to document the process and keep you updated on how I get on.

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Something You Should Know About My Black Leather Gentleman’s Gloves

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One of the things I like to do every Winter is dig out my beloved black leather gentleman’s gloves (as I like to call them). Whenever I picture a pair of the aforementioned gloves I always see some hitman in a movie wearing them while carefully screwing a silencer onto a pistol before pointing it at some poor unfortunate good guy and squeezing the trigger (unless it’s a Steven Seagal film in which case he’ll jump in just in the nick of time).

As a non-hitman who spends his days writing software instead of cleaning his gun, I thought I’d show in pictorial fashion what I love about them and why you might want to get yourself a pair:

Why I Love My Black Leather Gentleman’s Gloves

So you see – they’re not intimidating or evil at all. They’re just a nice, warm pair of gloves that you can use to get change out of your pocket without ever having to remove them. Practical as well as fashionable! 🙂

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A Christmas At Home For A Change

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Putting the finishing touches to the treeI seem to have spent the past few Christmases suffering from jetlag. Last year I flew back from Australia on Christmas Eve and my brother had just come back from San Francisco which meant that all of us were knackered. A couple of years before that we were in New Zealand. Other years we’d be spending a few days in Yorkshire then trailing up to Scotland to visit my dad which meant driving through snow blizzards praying we didn’t spin off the road and coming back down doing the same thing. Stress stress stress.

So it’s with great pleasure that when asked what I’m doing this Christmas and New Year I can reply that I’m “staying at home”. My dad and brother are coming to visit us, then they’re going back and leaving us to relax and actually enjoy a peaceful holiday at home! As you can see (pictured above) I’m getting in the spirit already by putting the star on the tree. My good lady finished the job but at least I did something! 🙂

I’m not hugely into Christmas myself – I always say that Christmas is for kids. The wonder and anticipation I felt as a child waiting for Santa to come around followed by the delight and joy of opening presents isn’t the same when you’re an adult and you already have all the things you want (except underwear – you can never have enough). Better to use Christmas to pass on that wonder, anticipation, delight and joy to them instead. God help the poor things if I ever have kids!

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The Science Of The Little Things (And The Big Things Too)

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I went to see a band called Eels a year or so ago and really liked them. I knew of their most successful single ‘Novocaine For The Soul’ which I’d really liked although I hadn’t followed their subsequent work. A friend of mine had a spare ticket so I tagged along and I really enjoyed what I heard – not full of pop tunes but much more soulful, heartfelt material and I became a fan.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the man behind Eels – Mark Everett – was in fact the son of none other than Hugh Everett III! What, you’ve never heard of him? Maybe you haven’t, but you’ve most likely heard of the theory he came up with – namely what has now come to be referred to as parallel universes. In a parallel universe every possible outcome can and does exist. Many science fiction books, TV shows and films have used parallel universes within their plots and it’s become widely accepted in both the scientific community and popular culture. However this wasn’t always so.

I watched an interesting documentary where Mark went on a voyage of discovery to find out about his father. He knew nothing of his father’s genius as a child as his father was distant and they barely had any conversations as he grew up. Since his father died over 25 years ago he wanted to find out about his theories and about the man himself. It was fascinating. Hugh was perhaps 40 years ahead of his time and came up with a theory that shook quantum physics to its core and was completely dismissed by his peers when he published his findings in the 1950s. Turning his back on the academic community he worked for the government then his own company, only really starting to get the recognition he deserved a few years before his untimely death.

I’m lucky that I’ve always been close to my father but for Mark to ask his father’s former colleagues and friends what he was like to try to get to know the man must have been tough from him. But in the end he started to understand and know the man his father was and having been told that his theory of parallel universes was as ground breaking and perhaps more so than Einstein’s theory of Relativity showed him that in the academic world his father was as much a rock star as he himself actually is in the rock star world.

Quantum physics is a strange thing. To say the least. I tried to explain to my good lady how things like photons (effectively the particles that make up light) exist in a state of quantum flux meaning that they don’t exist in any given place until you look at them, whereby they start behaving in a more predictable way. I then used the example in the documentary to explain how strange quantum physics is. You shine a laser through a metal plate with two very fine slits in it and measure where the photons hit a screen on the other side, like so:

A quantum physics experiment - this is what you’d expect

You’d expect to see two groups of places on the photon detector that line up with the slits. If you scale the experiment up to shoot tennis balls though a somewhat larger plate with two slits in it, then some of the tennis balls would go through one slit, some would go through the other and many more wouldn’t get through at all. You’d expect that if you looked at all the places the tennis balls impacted the detector (perhaps a wall) you’d get two groupings that line up with the two slits. But when you scale it down to use photons – which are very small – this isn’t what happens at all. You actually get three groupings, one on either side and one in between the two, which should be impossible since the centre of the plate is in the way.

The explanation is that some of the photons go through the top slit, some go through the bottom, but some photons actually go through both slits at the same time – therefore existing in two places at once – and strike the plate as one photon on the other side in between the two slits. I told you it was strange:

The photon passes through two points at the same time

Until Hugh Everett III came along the thinking was that small things behaved in this way as defined by quantum mechanics but large things behaved differently and different rules applied. We’re made up of molecules which are made up of atoms and these atoms can exist in two places at once (as defined by quantum physics), but we don’t – there’s only one of me (lucky for you). So two sets of conditions, two sets of rules. You can’t tell where an electron (or something similarly small) is – and it can exist in multiple places at once remember – until you measure it and then it stops behaving so strangely and exists in exactly one place.

But what if big things behaved the same way and it’s only our perception that makes us see them as we do? If every possible outcome of an event occurs simultaneously but we can only perceive one of them – the rest existing in some parallel but invisible universe – then we can use the same laws of mechanics on big things and small things too. Hugh challenged the existing thinking of the time which firmly believed that quantum mechanics only acted on small things. He wasn’t alone though. A clever man named Erwin Schrödinger came up with a novel way to demonstrate that the classical thinking was flawed.

It’s a thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s cat (you’ve likely heard of it before). The idea is you put a cat in a box along with some radioactive material (in your imagination of course – otherwise it would be extremely cruel). Next to that is a Geiger counter that, when it detects an atom decaying from the radioactive material (which may or may not happen within the duration of the experiment), fires a hammer at a bottle of poison that, when exposed to the air inside the box will kill the cat. So the cat dies when an atom decays. Except the atom obeys quantum physics so at any given time it does and doesn’t exist which means that the cat is both dead and alive at the same time. Until, that is, you open the box and look at the cat to see if it’s alive or dead. Just like tiny particles, the cat is in an indeterminate state until you observe it. Bizarre.

I’m only scratching the surface here of course. I covered some quantum theory at university and what I learned was that the more you dig into it the more complex it gets – the more you know the less you know. But it was a fascinating program and shows that it’s a small world – who’d have thought the father of a rock star would be the man who came up with the theory that’s been used in countless episodes of Stargate SG-1? Bizarre indeed!

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Thank You Sparkie

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My dad has had a cat named Sparkie for the last five years, since just after my mother died. Sparkie’s been his constant companion and given him purpose, routine and been someone to talk to who never talks back (only meowing back which is much nicer) for all that time.

We’ve had a few cats over the years but Sparkie was originally brought up on a farm before my dad got him from the cat protection league so was a bit of a wildie, fighting off the local cats, bringing in mice from time to time and jumping up on every surface in the house. Whereas my dad’s getting on a bit Sparkie’s always been full of youthful exuberance in the way that only a young cat is, which I’m sure has been good for my dad. I took the following picture of him a couple of weeks ago when I was home and he was just his usual lovely, entertaining self and being very friendly:

My Dad’s cat Sparkie

Unfortunately a few days ago little Sparkie died. Cut down in the prime of his life at the age of around 8 it all happened very quickly in the end. It’s such a shame as he was a wonderful cat with a fantastic personality and he did my dad no end of good – I don’t know how my dad would have coped over that last few years without him. But the real shame is that I could never thank him for being there for my dad when he needed him because he was a cat and wouldn’t have understood the positive impact he had – he was just being himself. So thank you Sparkie, you will be sorely missed.

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Something Tasty You Probably Don’t Know About Me

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Some spices ready for cookingIt tends to surprise most people but actually – and I’m only saying this because I’ve been told, not because I have a sky-high ego – I’m not a bad cook.

This isn’t the result of any form of training or any skill that’s been passed down from generation to generation in my family and it’s definitely not as a result of me spending years trying to perfect the art. No, I have a tried and tested technique that pretty much never fails. It goes something like this:

  1. Always follow the recipe exactly.
  2. Never deviate from the recipe.
  3. Stick to the simple stuff John, you’re not a chef and you never will be.

I don’t cook that often (my good lady does most of that since I’m too lazy) but when I do I try to do a decent job of it. For example, we had some friends round on Saturday night and this was the menu:

Starter

Seared scallops with black pudding served with
sweet red onion sauce and pesto

Main Course

My mother’s classic prawn pathia served with
long grain and wild rice

Dessert

Home made apple crumble (made by my good
lady who didn’t want to feel left out)

Followed by coffee from El Salvador (mmmm, nice)

Our guests agreed that the whole meal was delicious. I was genuinely thrilled to see everyone clear their plates and go on about how delicious it was. But frankly I don’t take any credit for things like that – it’s the person who wrote the recipe that did the work, I just followed it to the letter and didn’t get imaginative. If the recipe demands 100g of dessicated coconut, that’s exactly what I’ll add. If it says to sear the scallops for a minute or so until it’s golden on each side, that’s exactly what I’ll do. Any time that I deviate from a recipe with thoughts like “I’m sure another dash of cinnamon will make it better” or “ach, that’s way too much sugar, I’m not putting all that in there” or “yeah, this meringue’s fluffy enough – I don’t need to do all that whisking” then I’m always proven to have been wrong.

While my friend Stuart was beating me at squash for the umpteenth time a few years ago he told me the key was to “play the percentages”. I never did learn to do that with squash but with cooking that’s exactly what I do. Pick something pretty simple, follow the recipe, don’t get creative and while I’ll never create a masterpiece, I can knock a pretty decent meal together. So when I hear people say that they can’t cook – I know they’re just not trying hard enough and they’re not doing what the recipe says. If I can cook then anybody can!

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John’s Background Switcher 3.2 Goes Live!

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John’s Background SwitcherAs my good lady will tell you, most of my evenings and weekends over the past couple of months have been taken up working on the next version of John’s Background Switcher and at long last I’ve drawn a line under it and released it. You can download it at the usual place.

I’ve really enjoyed working on this version for several reasons. Firstly – as I mentioned before – I’ve been using FogBugz to its full potential to manage the development process, the specifications, every piece of work I’ve done, emails to and from users with suggestions or problems, and the discussion forum functionality to manage beta testing. FogBugz is a joy to work with, has made my life infinitely easier and the quality of this version of JBS has been helped greatly by it.

I also took the opportunity to redesign the program icon (you can see the full sized Vista version at the start of this article) which was rather fun. I used a program called RealWorld Icon Editor which made it easy to create a full 3D model of the icon and export it to the various formats I needed. If I had more time I’d have designed all the menu icons using it too but since I didn’t I opted to use some of the graphics created by Mark James in his superb silk icon set. And they’re free too! 🙂

I’ve fixed loads of bugs and added a host of new features along with as many requests as I could do without compromising the simplicity of JBS. I wrote about my favourite new feature – snapshot scrapbooks – the other day but there are plenty more things in there that make it a lot better. I also added two new photo sources in addition to Flickr and Phanfare – namely smugmug and Google Picasa web albums. As an aside, I particularly like smugmug and suspect I’ll start using it to manage my own photos instead of Flickr.

I spent a lot of time speeding things up. For example the number of people using multiple monitors continues to grow, and if you’re using snapshot scrapbook mode you could end up with around 10 pictures on each screen, so 20 or 30 in total. If all these photos haven’t been downloaded already (and therefore cached) then that could take quite a while – so it goes without saying that they need to be downloaded asynchronously and now they are across all modes. High memory consumption was also an issue with the previous version and I’ve put a lot of work in reducing that problem.

I now digitally sign the application itself as well as the uninstaller (in addition to the installer which I signed in the previous version). This may not mean a lot to most people, but Windows Vista prefers digitally signed apps (for one thing) and it also means that you can be sure that when you install JBS it hasn’t been tampered with by evil forces.

I’d like to take the opportunity to thank the people who helped me by beta testing JBS and providing me with lots of bug reports and very useful feedback. I know you’ve got far more interesting things to do than find bugs in JBS but I really appreciate the help. So thanks guys! It’s made my task a hell of a lot easier knowing that a lot of issues I’d never have found are now fixed so everybody else gets the benefit.

Anyway, there’s a host of cool new features in the new version of JBS so go and give it a try. It’s completely free and if you don’t like it, just uninstall it and it’ll remove every trace of itself from your computer. You can’t lose! 🙂

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Why I Love Groundhog Day

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So I was at a birthday party at the weekend and I got talking to this girl about films. She listed a few of her favourites (like The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption and some others) and then I mentioned one of my all-time favourites Groundhog Day. She said she’d seen it but hadn’t really thought much about it which I took as an opportunity to spend the next 10 minutes telling her how great a film it is, why it’s such a great film and why it gets better the more times you see it. And now it’s your turn…

Goundhog DayThe basic premise of the film is a rather unsavoury weather man – Phil Connors played masterfully by Bill Murray – finds himself and a film crew in a town called Punxsutawney to report on the tradition that if a groundhog (we call them marmots in Europe) emerges from its lair and sees its shadow then the Winter will last a few weeks longer – otherwise it’s hello Spring! Phil is completely unenthused about the whole thing and is rude, inconsiderate, obnoxious, sexist and a real jerk. He then wakes up the next day to find that it is once again Groundhog day and he’s reliving it. Rather confused he goes through the motions, does his report again and goes to bed. But he wakes up once again on Groundhog day.

What I love about Groundhog Day is that as you watch him stuck living the same day over and over again you feel the same thoughts and feelings as him. First of all you’re wondering “what the hell is going on?”. Then he starts to use it to his advantage to chat up women and pull them. He realises he can do anything he likes without consequence and enjoys that for a while. He takes the time to learn to play the piano and carve ice sculptures, amongst other things. But then he starts to get sick of the whole thing and you feel his pain. Each morning he’s awoken by the song “I got you babe” by Sonny and Cher and after a while you start to hate hearing it yourself – he throws the radio against the wall, breaks it and you know you’d do the same yourself.

So he tries killing himself but just wakes up and the day starts over. He becomes desperate and just wants out – but he’s stuck living the same day over and over again. His producer Rita – played by Andie MacDowell – takes his fancy but while attempting to get her into bed in a single day (she hates him at the start of the day so it’s a tall order), he manages to fall in love with her. The night ends with her slapping him in the face but he can try it again and again and again – or so he thinks. No matter how he tries to perfect the day he just can’t reproduce the spark that made him fall for her and eventually he just gives up.

There’s a beautiful scene that you’d miss if you watched it for the first time (I know I did). While trying to woo Rita for the first time he gets in a snowball fight with some kids and they end up falling in the snow together in just such a way that they catch each other’s eye and that’s when he falls for her. In subsequent nights he tries to make that random moment happen again but he just doesn’t fall in the right position and it just never happens again. Phil starts to realise he can’t make things happen just because he wants them to to suit his own ends.

So eventually he resigns himself to being stuck on the same day by revelling in it. He gets to know everybody, manages to synchronise his day so that he can catch a kid who falls out of a tree, replace a flat tyre for some old ladies who break down, perform the Heimlich Maneuver on a man choking in a restaurant and by doing all that becomes a changed me. An old homeless man dies over and over again and Phil tries his best to save him but eventually realises he can’t – he’s not God. In the end Rita falls for the new Phil and he finds tomorrow finally comes.

It’s a brilliant film and has a great deal of subtle undertones that only become apparent the more you watch it. When he goes bowling with some of the locals and tells them that he’s living the same day over and over one of them replies with something like “I know exactly what you mean”. We all drift through the same day over and over again and feel like we’re in Groundhog Day, but Phil broke the cycle by stopping worrying about it and trying to make the best of each day and making those around him happy (even though he only actually had one of them). So if you haven’t seen it then I recommend you sit down and watch it. Laugh along and have Sonny and Cher too – but look beneath the surface and see if it makes you think.

Oh, and if you don’t and you’re ever unlucky enough to talk films with me you’ll get this whole lecture and I’ll keep going on at you until you promise me you’ll watch it. Or maybe you’ll promise me you’ll watch it and mentally cross me off your “speak to again” list – which is probably what that poor girl on Saturday night did!

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A Snapshot Scrapbook Of Your Photos

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I’m just putting the finishing touches to the new version of John’s Background Switcher (due out in a week or so) and I thought I’d write about one of the cool features I’ve come up with for this version. I’d seen the idea of a photo pile in screen-savers before and thought it would be pretty slick to add it as an option to the mosaic and montage modes the current version supports. A picture paints a thousand words so this is what I came up with:

A Snapshot Scrapbook

I’ll admit right now that I didn’t come up with the name ‘snapshot scrapbook’ – that honour goes to John Topley. I’m rubbish at coming up with catchy names (example: John’s Background Switcher) but luckily John isn’t! Anyway, what it does it use the photos you’ve chosen, creates a bunch of snapshots and throws them onto your desktop background in a sort of pseudo-random fashion. The cool thing is that you can choose these photos from your own computer or from a variety of web photo sharing sites including Flickr, Phanfare, smugmug and picasa web albums.

It’s one of these things that as soon as I got the code working and ran it for real the first thought in my head was “Wow!”. My friend Ian pointed it at a collection of photos of his newborn son and to see the pride on his face as an assortment of photos of his smiling son filled his screen warmed my heart. A snapshot scrapbook is cool, but when it’s of your own photos, photos of your loved ones or photos of your favourite animals (cats for example), it becomes something much more. You can judge for yourself in a week or so when it goes live.

From a coding perspective it was quite an interesting challenge actually creating the snapshot scrapbook. If you want it to look random then it’s no use actually laying them out truly randomly – more often than not you end up with half the photos directly on top of each other which looks rubbish. Then there’s the spacing. You want them to be pretty close to each other, sometimes overlapping, but not by too much – and you want them close to the edge of the screen, but not too close. Next you want them at different angles, but not too much of an angle (you don’t want half of them upside down) or all at the same angle. Then there’s how many photos to put on the screen – different people have different resolutions so it has to look right on every possible computer. It’s all a bit hand wavey really but I managed to create an algorithm that seems to do the job nicely. As is usually the case with algorithms, once it’s written it’s only a few lines of code and looks pretty simple – although it was rather tricky to write (you’ll have to trust me on that one)!

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Commercial Breakdown – The Sony Bravia Ads

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Since I got Sky+ I very rarely see adverts on TV (it records the entire series of any programs I actually watch and I skip all the breaks) but when I sit down to watch something live, like the rugby world cup match last night, I have to sit through the things. Like most people I tune them out and treat them as background noise. It takes something really special to get my attention.

Then my eye was caught by a scene of some buildings in a city and a couple of drops of clay that turned into rabbits and started bouncing around what could easily have been New York (turns out it was). And then some more appeared. And more and more, all to the sound of the Rolling Stones and all in a busy city full of people. It was incredible, and the more the advert went on the more incredible it became. Here, see for yourself:

While I have no intention of buying a Sony Bravia TV (I’ve happily got a Toshiba LCD TV thanks), I have to say that their three adverts are a cut above pretty much any other ads I can think of. The first was of quarter of a million rubber bouncy balls bouncing down a street in San Francisco and the second was of a fireworks display set on a council estate in Glasgow – except instead of fireworks it used exploding paint! Have a look at their website where you can see how they made these ads, as well as the ads themselves in full.

While the point of advertising is ultimately about making money, it’s really nice to see ads like these that show the creative talent of people out there (and particularly heartening to hear the high number of British accents on the ‘making of’ video). And to see an advert that actually brings a smile to my face and makes me gaze in wonder is a rare thing indeed. I’ll be interested to see how they manage to top this one!