This blog is essentially for sidebars of stuff on my regular blog. If I think something is a little esoteric for the narrative of that blog, it goes here
What I'm presently reading:
The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury
Tea from an Empty Cup by Pat Cadigan
The Seduction of Place by Joseph Rykwert
Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling
The Character of Cats by Stephen Budiansky
The Confusion by Neal Stephenson
Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich
The Zenith Angle by Bruce Sterling
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
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Sunday, July 26, 2009
In this post I am going to use the Latinised form of Russian rather than Ukrainian spellings of place names -for instance Chernobyl and Kiev - as these were the forms in use at the time of the Chernobyl disaster and these remain the names most commonly used outside the Ukraine and are likely to be most familiar to my readers. Since the Chernobyl disaster, Ukraine has become an independent nation and has adopted Ukrainian rather than Russian as its official language, and this change has included encouragement of foreigners to use Latin transliterations of Ukrainian rather than Russian spellings of local place names. When a Latin script is used locally, one now sees Chornobyl and Kyiv.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005
This is a test

Friday, June 03, 2005
This is a test.

This is another test and I will be jumping for joy when it runs.

Sunday, July 25, 2004
All about Firewire

As I have mentioned on this blog, I recently built a PC for my landlady. As it happened, my landlady recently bought a digital video camera. This was not quite the latest model, which mean that it could only be connected to a PC using a Firewire (IEEE 1394) port. As she saw it, this presented a problem, as the computer I had built did not have a Firewire port.

Now the history of the Firewire bus is essentially as follows. In the mid 1990s two standards were invented for multi-purpose serial buses that were more versatile and allowed higher speed connections than the various ports on the backs of older computers. Microsoft and Intel invented the USB Port, and Apple invented the Firewire port. The USB port could handle connection speeds of up to 12Mbps. However, the Firewire port was designed for much higher speeds, up to 400Mbps. Since then, there has only really been one application for which speeds of higher than 12Mbps are needed, which is for transmitting digital video. (It may well be that this application is what encouraged Apple to develop a higher speed bus when they did, because people who do video editing mostly use Macs). As probably the leading manufacturer of both consumer and professional video cameras, Sony followed soon afterwards, although they confusingly use the very Apple sounding name "iLink" to refer to the same standard.

The USB standard took off for most applications, and it is what we use today for connecting printers, scanners, digital still cameras and the like to our PCs. Many of us use it to connect keyboards, mice, and even microphones and speakers. Within a couple of years most computers will not have the RS-232 Serial, Centronics Parallel, and PS-2 mouse and keyboard ports that computers have had for a very long time, and they will instead have even more USB ports than they do today. (Modern laptops have pretty much reached this point already. The reason for this is that the design of most laptop motherboards is entirely up to the manufacturer, whereas manufacturers of desktop motherboards comply with the ATX standard in order to make sure they are compatible with the hardware of everybody else, and the ATX standard requires all the old ports. However, the transition to the BTX standard (which does not require all the old ports) has begun, and once it gets going the ports will go as this will mean simpler chipsets and motherboard design.

However, the 12Mbps USB standard was not adequate for digital video, and therefore people who bought digital video cameras had to have Firewire ports, even in the PC world. Some motherboard manufacturers put Firewire on the motherboard, but this did not become universal, and it still has not become universal.

For a mixture of intellectual property reasons and costs, Firewire did not get integrated into standard PC chipsets (as USB did) so people wanting to put Firewire on a motherboard had to put a separate controller on the motherboard and pay a royalty to Apple. And some did, but most didn't. Firewire became less crucial a couple of years ago when version 2.0 of USB became standard on PCs. USB 2.0 can provide speeds of up to 480Mbps, and many modern digital video cameras thus support USB 2.0 as well as or instead of Firewire. So for that reason, the need for Firewire is perhaps less pressing than it was. On the other hand, the simple number of people streaming digital video in or out of their computers has increased, meaning more demand for Firewire, and one of the most successful PC peripherals to have been invented in recent years is the Apple iPod, and being an Apple invention, it works better with Firewire than USB. Also, there is a new version of Firewire (IEEE 1394b) which provides a faster speed of 800Mbps, and even newer versions that provide speeds up to as much as 3200Mbps will be around shortly, although some of these will need optical cables). So Firewire probably isn't going away, but it is not universal either, and pressure for it to be universal isn't overwhelming.

Which is why the motherboard I used to build a PC for my landlady did not have Firewire onboard. And of course it doesn't greatly matter that many PC motherboards and PCs do not come with Firewire as standard, as it is easy enough to buy a Firewire PCI card and add Firewire ports later. As the motherboard in question had six PCI slots, there was plenty of room on which to add such a card. If I knew she was getting a digital video camera I would have either suggested getting a USB 2.0 capable camera, or I would have simply put a PCI Firewire card in the machine when I built it.

But, as it happened, I didn't do any of this, and it was thus necessary for me to add a Firewire card last week. No trouble. A quick check on online stores allowed me to buy a Firewire PCI card with a Firewire cable for £13.95 including postage and handling. It came in the mail a couple of days later, I plugged it in, and bingo, the computer and camera could talk to one another.

Which was great.

Sunday, February 29, 2004
In 1982, Tron was made, the first film incorporating large amounts of computer graphics. (Actually it only included about 15 minutes of actual graphics. The rest of the film was drawn art designed to look like computer graphics, whereas the reverse would probably be done today). The film was not successful at the box office, but it was mind blowing and it was a tremendous influence on many people working in computer animation and special effects today. However, the film did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects. The reason was that the people who nominated films in this category were traditional special effects artists, and that meant mattes (ie drawn artwork) and models. Using computer graphics was seen as "cheating", and thus Tron was overlooked. This is why it was ironic that when I suggested to another blogger a couple of weeks ago, he said that Master and Commander was mostly "not special effects", because it was done with models in a tank in Mexico (the same tank that James Cameron had built for Titanic) rather than with computer graphics. (That said, the film does use some computer graphics, just not as intensively as, say, The Lord of the Rings). However, as far as I am concerned Master and Commander does use special effects, computer based or not, and in fact it uses them dazzlingly, as I felt that a 19th century ship in the Royal Navy was really like that. Getting this kind of thing right is breathtakingly hard, which is why the film deserves the Oscar. But it probably won't get it.
Best Animated Film. Easy. Finding Nemo is a shoo in. Some people like Bellezvois Rendez-vous (released in the US as The Triplets of Bellevois). These people are heartened by the fact that a film from the non-English speaking world, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away won last year, and think that it could happen again. No way. That’s not to criticise the film – it is indeed excellent. However, in American animation Pixar have been the most financially and critically successful company of the last decade. Their run of five huge hits in a row (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo) is utterly extraordinary in Hollwood terms. It’s probably an even bigger thing to have pulled off than what Peter Jackson did. (Pixar have invented an entire new way of making films (computer animation) as they have done it, too). Nobody manages five hits that big in a row, and they are also wonderful films. This is the third year that the oscar for “Best Animated Feature” has existed, and Pixar are yet to win it. This is anomalous, and a little bit embarrassing also, and they will want to fix it. Two years ago Shrek won ahead of Monsters Inc. and in retrospect that looks like a bad decision. Not a terrible decision – Shrek is also a good film – but the fact is that the Academy gave the award to a slightly crude film full of cheap shots at Disney CEO Michael Eisner rather than a sweet and beautiful film from Pixar. Last year Pixar had no eligible film. Spirited Away won because there were four other nominees, and there was no standout film from there. That and it was a wonderful film. This year, Pixar is eligible, there are only two other nominations to split votes, and their film was a critical and audience triumph. Finding Nemo is the surest of sure things.

(And, if you are into that kind of thing, voting for it is actually another way to have a shot at Michael Eisner. Pixar and Disney have recently announced that they have failed to renew their contract, and they will not be making movies together after their present contract expires after they have made two more movies. Apparently, negotiations between Pixar CEO Steve Jobs and Disney CEO Michael Eisner broke down acrimoniously. (This is hardly surprising. Between them they have two of the world’s largest egos). One of the issues behind this was that Michael Eisner saw an early cut of Finding Nemo a year ago, was of the opinion that it was not as good as Pixar’s other films, deliberately stalled negotiations with Eisner because he thought that Finding Nemo would be a disappointment at the box office and that he would have a stronger negotiating position afterwards. Idiotically, he also told this to financial analysts (check?). As it happened, Finding Nemo was the highest grossing animated film ever. (At least, it was in nominal terms. In inflation adjusted terms, The Lion King is still bigger). So instead of being weakened, Steve Jobs’ negotiating position was actually strengthened, and as he saw it he had been insulted publicly as well. Giving the Oscar to Pixar now would in a sense be another way of hammering the nails in. Of course, Comcast has recently launched a takeover bid for Disney. If this results in Eisner being ousted as Disney CEO (either because the bid is successful, or because Eisner is sacked by the Disney board as part of the effort to see off the takeover bid), it wouldn’t be too surprising if Disney and Pixar reopen negotiations. Anyway, Finding Nemo to win this one in a canter).
For Best Picture and best Director I think The Return of the King, simply because the magnitude of what Jackson pulled off. Once in a while Hollywood likes to honor a huge blockbuster. Someone who fought the studio system, got his way, made a hugely successful film, and made a huge sum of money for his studio. Jackson did that. The last time such a film got a pile of Academy Awards the film was James Cameron’s Titanic. The Lord of the Rings films have not individually made as much money as that film did (although they have well and truly done so in aggregate, and between them they didn’t cost much more to produce than that film did on its own), but they are better films, Jackson is a nicer guy than Cameron (not hard), and Cameron was an established director of big hits, whereas Cameron had never made a hit before in his life. If there is a weakness, it is that a substantial portion of the Academy consists of aging costume designers, make up artists, and that kind of thing. These people are not Tolkien fans, and are rather suspicious of fantasy in general. These sort of people found the three films rather solid endurance exercises, and it is conventional wisdom in Hollywood that The Return of the King is flawed by having an ending that is far too long, and that the film should have ended with the coronation of Aragorn. (Of course, this is the opposite of the reaction of Tolkien fans, who mostly believe that the ending is much too short and should also have included the scouring of the Shire. So Jackson had a delicate line to tread, although virtually everyone complained a little about the ending).

However, I think the strengths are too strong. I don’t believe that The Return of the King will be beaten for Best Picture. The three films are two immense an achievement. I do not believe that the film will be beaten for Best Director either, although this one is not quite as certain. I think there are two other possibilities: Clint Eastwood for Mystic River and Peter Weir for Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World. Sofia Coppola will not win for Lost in Translation as it is too small a film and she is too young and inexperienced. (She will likely win for Best Original Screenplay, however). The fifth nominee is Fernando Meirelles for City of God This is genuinely one of those "The reward was just to be nominated" situations.

As for the other two, Mystic River is a good film, one of Eastwood’s best. (I had one or two little issues with the plot, but it was a most enjoyable couple of hours in the cinema). It contains some fine performances (although I thought the best performances in it were from Kevin Bacon and Laura Linney, whereas Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden are the ones who received Oscar nominations). Eastwood is a fine director who doesn’t indulge in the usual Hollywood bullshit (he brings films in ahead of schedule and under budget – heaven forbid) and is immensely popular because he is apparently an extremely down to earth and nice guy who is an utter pleasure to work with. (Read William Goldman’s description of working with him on Absolute Power in either of these books). However, he has won before, for Unforgiven, in my mind a better film. If he had not won before, I think I might pick him to win, but he has.

Interestingly enough, Peter Weir is almost the exact opposite. Australia’s finest film director has now been nominated five times, but has never won. Master and Commander is considered by almost everyone to be a fine piece of work, but it did not really catch fire at the box office. Weir is perceived to have done a fine job, everyone thinks he deserves an Oscar, and Master and Commander is the sort of film that aging costume designers and make up artists are impressed by, perhaps partly because the costume design and make-up is so good in it. At the BAFTAs yesterday, Master and Commander won for Best Director, and did very well in technical categories (as it deserved to – it is technically a superb piece of film-making). If the feeling is that Peter Jackson is too out there for conservative voters, the combination of fine work and a sense that he deserves to win and hasn’t could mean Weir has a chance. I think I would actually rate him second favourite after Jackson. But I think Jackson will win.

Sunday, June 15, 2003
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Tuesday, March 11, 2003
I made some comments on my regular blog about not being entirely happy with the way in which the World Cup points system chooses between sides who score an equal number of points. I think this is the situation in which the complaints about the points system being "too complicated" do have a little justice. For the record, the playing regulations actually say the following.

Okay, now let us look at this in detail. Firstly, if two sides have the same number of points, then the side with the most wins goes through. This means that if side A has four wins, and side B has three wins and 2 no results or ties, then side A goes through. Now, the question to be asked is, does this actually prove that side A is better than B. I don't think it does. If side B has had 2 no results, all this means is that side B has been unlucky to have its matches rained off. It proves nothing at all about how good side B is. It may be that side B was clearly better than its opponents and would have won both matches and gone through ahead of A, or it may be that side B was clearly worse than its opponents and would have lost both matches. However, we just do not know. All we can do is split the points. The "number of wins" test says nothing about the relative quality of side B over side A, so I think it is wrong to use it.

However, if sides have the same number of wins, we next go to the result of the head to head match between them. If A beat B, then A goes through over B. This sounds fair, but I am not sure that it is. If A beat B then for the two sides to have the same number of points there is some other side C for which B beat but A lost to. So on the direct A beat B match, we conclude that A is better than B, but on the B beat C beat A basis we conclude that B is better than A. Again, I do not think using the head to head result proves anything conclusive.

Now this is still reasonably okay if we only have two sides on the same number of points. If we have 3, then often we have two possibilies. Either A beat B, A beat C, and B beat C, in which case A goes ahead of B which goes ahead of C. What to do in this case is straightforward, but I am still not sure it is fair, because to have the same number of points, C must have the best results against other sides, and why should this not be rewarded. If (as happens more often) A beat B beat C beat A then we cannot conclude anything. Usually we go through to net run rate. If there is only one side to go through out of the three, then we simply choose the one with the best runrate. However, if there are two teams to go through, then the first team to go through is the one with the best runrate. (Let this be A). For the second team to go through, however, do you choose the team with the second best runrate, or do you go back to the head to head result between B and C. The present rules say that you go to the second best runrate. However, the disadvantage of this is that the number of points scored by A can influence whether B comes ahead of C or behind C. If A scores the same number of points, B beat C, and C has a better runrate than B but not A, then in the case of a three way tie C goes through ahead of B but if A scores more or less points against other sides, then B goes through ahead of C. I do not think the performance of A against other sides should affect the positions of B and C relative to each other. However, in the present circumstances it can. (This anolmaly was responsible for the fact that at one point it looked like it was better for England to lose their last game than win it).

If we have four or more teams on the same number of points, these problems get worse, but are essentially the same. In this tournament, this looked like happening, and Sri Lanka tried to get a ruling from the ICC that in such a case, after the first qualifier was decided, the decision should go back to head to head, but the ICC ruled against them. Fortunately, it did not happen.

Basically, I don't think that the rule of choosing the winner of head to head games is useful either. I don't think it can conclusively say that A has played better than B, so I think it should also be abandoned.

After these methods for separating sides, we go to net run rates. A higher net run rate means that a side won its matches by greater margins, or lost them by smaller margins. As far as I can see, a higher net run rate genuinely does mean that a side has played better in the tournament so far. As such, I think it is a fair way of separating sides. If net runrate is the only means used for separating teams, there are no circumstances where a side can improve its chance of qualifying by losing or winning more slowly. (There are some circumstances where sides may want to bat more slowly in order that a preferred opponent may qualify, but this is the only problem I can see).

Plus, using net runrate only has the advantage of simplicity. It is always going to be able to separate teams, and having only one rule means that you are never going to get oddities caused by the interaction between multiple rules, as now.

This is all without bonus points, which are thankfully not being used in this tournament. If we introduce bonus points, things can sometimes get worse, and sometimes better, depending on how the bonus points are awarded. I wrote some comments on this on Usenet about a year ago, and I am glad to see that one of my suggestions has since been adopted.
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