BBC Backstage

Tim O’Reilly suggests that at least part of the reason for Amazon and Google’s success comes from their open API. This allows people to access their information in ways that fit people’s individual needs (“rip, mix, burn”), giving them a massive advantage over monolithic proprietary apps. He gives the example of their own use in O’Reilly – they monitor the ‘technology’ section of Amazon’s books for how well their books are doing, their prices vs. their competitor’s prices, what new books have been released and so on. With Google, we’re seeing this *as it happens* as people continue to extend to tie in with other services, such as Flickr, producing [Geotagging](

Well, the BBC must have been listening. Yesterday, they launched [BBC Backstage](, which is set to provide a one-stop-shop for all of the BBC’s web content, from their RSS feeds to their Search API (not available yet). Most interestingly for the casual user (read: *non-developer*), they’re also using this as a way to track the ways in which people are using the BBC website, such as providing a way for people to provide their own “external links” for stories, or giving stories []( tags.

I look forward to seeing what sorts of things people come up with.


Retrospective: THX-1138

There are, perhaps, a handful of ‘hard’ science fiction movies in the world. By this, I mean movies whose primary goal is to challenge the viewer rather than to entertain. Movies like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” ask more questions than they answer, and this is part of their appeal. Strange, then, that one of the finest examples of a ‘hard’ science fiction movie should come from the same man who defined the family-friendly summer sci-fi blockbuster extravaganza – George Lucas.

The history of THX-1138 is a fascinating one, but one which I’m not going to go into detail about here (for a concise history, check out the THX-1138 DVD or Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls“). But a quick summary: THX-1138 started life as a studen film, becomes the first finished piece of Francis Ford Coppola’s “American Zoetrope” hippy commune/production company – other films on their “to do” list included “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now”. Warners, the distributors took a look at it and balked, yanking all of American Zoetrope’s funding, re-editing THX-1138 to make it more audience-friendly (“Put the freaks up front” was their suggestion for improving this movie). Lucas bought the rights back and re-released it the way he wanted it.


I first saw THX-1138 when I was a teenager on a dodgy VHS copy that got passed around my nerd friends like a holy relic. And to be honest, I didn’t know what to make of it. I could understand the dystopian themes, but couldn’t understand why there wasn’t an actual story – where was the needless exposition? The convenient explanations for viewers? To tell the truth, I wasn’t all that impressed. Things like “Brazil” and, of course, “Nineteen Eighty-Four“, were much much more my cup of tea. Dystopian world-views with bleak endings. THX-1138’s ending was so vague as to be unintelligible.

So I completely forgot about THX-1138, except for spotting the references in other Lucas movies. To me, the film itself was more a curio for fans of Star Wars than an enjoyable movie in its own right.

When it was released on DVD last year, I decided to check it out again. This time, it was the version Lucas originally wanted to see, and more. Lucas, master of revisionism, had decided to add more bits to this movie. After killing a lot of what made Star Wars enjoyable, I wasn’t hopeful. But still, one Saturday morning, I decided to watch it.

And it started to make sense.

First of all, 99% of Lucas’ digital additions are worthwhile. They serve to enhance the movie, flawlessly working their way into the background, where you barely notice them, but help give the entire film a greater sense of scale. The major changes, for the most part, also work well. For example, they turn the completely underwhelming “corridor of people” into a truly terrifying “tsunami of people“. So, in terms of not completely ruining the film with his boner for extraneous CGI, I think Lucas deserves a little respect.

But as well as these cosmetic changes to the movie, something changed within me. I finally ‘got’ the movie. I remember a similar experience with ‘2001’; years of seeing it and thinking “What’s all the fuss about?” finally gave way to “Holy shit! This is amazing!” I could finally look at THX-1138 and see exactly why there’s no actual story. Why there is no needless exposition. I’m completely enamoured with this film. I love the look of the movie, the style of the movie. The sound design is incredible and unrelenting.

And now, the ending makes perfect sense to me. And it’s easily as sinister and bleak as Brazil or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Perhaps more so: he finally does escape, but to what?

It seems that THX-1138 will never really get out of Star Wars’ enormous shadow but for me, I’m glad I finally found that it is an enjoyable movie in its own right.


Manners for Men

Cleaning out some old books, I came across something I’d completely forgotten I’d bought. “*Manners for Men*” by *Mrs. Humphry*, published 1897.

From the chapter “In the Street”:

In meeting acquaintences a nod is sufficient for a male friend, unless his age or position is such as to render it advisable to raise the hat. Should a lady be with the acquaintance, any man meeting them must raise his hat. So must the individual walking with the lady. The etiquette of bowing is a simple one. Male acquaintances always wait for acknowledgement on the part of the female, as well as from those men who are their superiors in age or position. But this does not mean that they are shyly to look away from them and to ignore them. On the contrary, they must show clearly by their manner that they are on the look-out for some sign of recognition and are ready to reply to it. Shyness often interferes with this and makes a young man look away, and this is occasionally misconstrued as indifference and resented as such. The calm, quiet, collected expression of face that suits the occasion is not achieved at once. Sometimes the over-anxiety to make a good impression defeats itself, producing a blushing eagerness better suited to a girlish than a manly countenance. This, however, is a youthful fault that is not without its ingratiating side, though young men view it in themselves and each other with unbounded scorn. This sentiment of self-contempt is a frequent one in young people of both sexes. Their valuation of themselves varies as much as the barometer and is as much affected by outward causes. After a “snub”, real or fancied, it goes down to zero, but as a rule it speedily recovers itself and in most young men enjoys an agreeable thermometer of 85° or so in the shade!


As part of the exhibition going on in the Digital Hub, there are a bunch of games set up in the old Medialab building – for example, Eyetoy hooked up to a large projector screen, World of Warcraft and Halo 2. But the star of the show, for me, was a mechanical version of Pong, which seems to be doing the rounds among the game festivals in Europe.



Talk Digital: Censorship in the Gaming Sector

The Digital Hub is once again throwing an elaborate, [extravagant exhibition](, and once again, they’re focusing on video games. Ordinarily, the Digital Hub’s exhibitions are of little interest to me. They remind me of the time during the the dot-com boom when the company I worked for threw large cocktail parties every week, inviting all their friends around to come and get drunk for free. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves as much as they can without drawing attention to the fact that the emperor is stark bollock naked.

However, their talk about censorship caught my eye for a number of reasons, not least of which the fact that I was invited along by one of the panelists. The first, and hopefully last time I’ll ever be on an email distribution list with Ryan Tubridy.

The talk was actually quite interesting, in spite of the fact that not a whole lot was actually *said*. Well, there were a lot of words thrown about, but not a lot of points were actually made. This is especially true of the speaker from Trinity College who spoke for ten minutes without saying anything that hadn’t already been said. There was a lot of roundabout talk about self-regulation and the importance of classification, but one of the key issues — the one of “what have we got to protect the children *from*” — seemed to get lost in the discussion.

Most astounding were the comparisons being made. [Karlin Lillington](, a fairly tech-savvy young lady, made the comparison between parents letting kids play violent video games and parents letting kids drink alcohol. Likewise, someone else made a comparison to physical/sexual abuse of children.

I mean, let’s not get carried away here, guys.

Although, in the case of alcohol, it seems like an obvious link (giving children access to something they’re not supposed to have), neither of these comparisons hold up to any kind of critical thinking, and only serve to further confuse an already-complicated and emotionally charged issue.

Another thing that came up was [America’s Army](, one of the most-quoted examples of the dangers of videogames because of its primary use as a ‘recruiting tool’ for the U.S. Army. Although it certainly is a recruiting tool, it is *not* used to help show people how much fun it is to kill things in the army – if you weren’t already inclined towards joining the army, this game would most certainly not persuade you. Instead, the U.S. Army hope that people who are already predisposed towards this kind of behaviour will play the game, and when they finally do sign up, the recruitment office can instantly call up the player’s stats, to see how well their potential recruit did.

Towards the end, I think everyone was in agreement that censorship was the wrong way to approach this issue, and that classification and education were the way to go. A particularly funny moment came when one of the organisers found out that GTA gives you the ability to have sex with prostitutes, then beat them up and get your money back. “My teenage boys play that game, and I never knew about that.” Cue many sheepish looks when it was pointed out that this game was rated “18”, and her boys shouldn’t have been playing it in the first place. But how does one classify a game like [Spore](, for example, which is so completely open-ended that virtually anything is possible?

The debate about regulation raised an interesting question, and one that I’ll be thinking about for quite a while… how exactly does one educate parents? Point of sale education isn’t good enough. Part of the problem comes from the perception that “games” are the same as “toys” and, as such, all acceptable for kids. How do we convince parents that there are games made explicitly for adults?


Domestic Instiki

Since we’ve got broadband again, I’m finally getting to play with all the nifty things I’d had ideas about, but no way of executing. The first of these is a local [Instiki]( server at home.

I use this all the time in work for note keeping and simple project management. At home, I’m finding a hundred different ways to use it.

Like keeping track of recipes.

I like to try out a whole bunch of different recipes. Nothing too fancy – I don’t make my own chicken stock or anything like that – but I do try to go beyond the simple food strategy of meat-and-a-tin-of-sauce. This doesn’t always go to plan. The most recent food-related disaster was my attempt at making a chicken maryland, which turned out squishy and odd-tasting. Live and learn.

Using instiki, I threw together a ‘web’ called “FoodWeLike”, where I’m keeping track of the ingredients of the recipes that work for us, as well as simple cooking instructions. This is mainly useful because we have a central repository of ingredients and recipes (instead of trying to remember which cookery book had what), but any web server (or file server) could do this. Instikis is particularly useful because as well as a way to easily edit these, it gives us the ability to easily categorise the recipes any way we like – for example, “We really like”, “We occasionally like”, and “We don’t like”. We’re also able to organise these into weekly meal plans. And, most usefully, plan our weekly shopping run using a page called “ShoppingList” where we can just paste the ingredients from other pages, or update as we run out of something.

And this is just one a hundred ways Instiki is useful in a domestic environment. Well, *our* domestic environment.

(By the way, I know this could probably be achieved using *any* wiki software, but I’m specifically choosing Instiki because of its simplicity of installation and also because, right now, I have a major boner for apps built with [Ruby on Rails](